Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

Read this book!

On rare occasion I come across a book that makes such a positive impression on me that I go actively out of my way to recommend it to family and friends.   Recent examples include the novels "The Orphan Master's Son" and "The Good Son," and one year all my kids got a copy of "The Gift of Fear" (and they still tease me about it.)   Well this year everyone's getting a copy of Ms. Sandberg's book.

Okay, so what's it about:  in most of the US, we don't think about women's rights as an unsolved problem.  (Although in states like Texas, where a woman's right to make her own unimpeded decisions about her reproductive system is constantly challenged, this is less the case.)   Ms. Sandberg's focus is women in the workplace.   She notes that even though a generation has passed since women made up 50% of college graduates each year, men are still the overwhelming majority in leadership positions.

Ms. Sandberg discusses these issues with a light but piercing tone, using her own experiences and anecdotes to motivate key points.   Her suggestions ring true to me as a (former) business executive and as a spouse and parent.

Her experiences give credibility to her voice:  she's the COO of Facebook, had been a senior executive at Google, worked in government, and is both married and a mother.

Men, don't imagine this is a book for women only; it is just as important for you.  It might make you think differently about everything from your own relationships to how you interact with others in the workforce.

I have a single critique:  Ms. Sandberg's point of view on the issues facing working mothers in particular, are based on her experiences and the experiences of her social set:  relatives and friends who are highly educated, well compensated professionals.   The Walmart employee (for example) reading her advice might wonder if it is even a little bit applicable to her situation.  Those parents are just as important a population, but perhaps they'll have to wait another generation before equal opportunity and compensation are normative concepts.   Similarly, childcare notions for someone in her position (of wealth) are not the same as they are for folks who face real day-to-day tradeoffs in order to cover the costs of pre-school for their kids.   To someone in a dual-income-but-no-wealth situation, her advice might seem a bit fanciful.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

This is a fast paced, sci-fi'ish suspense and action novel.   The premise is really nothing new to fans of X-men or TV shows like "The Tomorrow People."   About 1% of Americans turn out to have extraordinary abilities.  A government agency tasked with finding and eliminating those "abnorms" who are deemed dangerous includes hero Nick Cooper, himself an abnorm.

Mr. Sakey did a terrific job.  The concept may be nothing extraordinary but the writing certainly is: don't start reading this novel in the evening unless you're willing to stay up late at night; I couldn't put it down.

Based on this experience, I plan to read Mr. Sakey's other books.


Hunter: A Thriller, by Robert Bidinotto

The heroes of this action novel are Annie Woods, a CIA investigator chasing potential traitors in the USA, and Dylan Hunter, a journalist.   There are lots of assassinations of bad guys (without, of course, any thought of due process).  Things move quickly and it is a decent novel.

HUNTER: A Thriller (A Dylan Hunter Thriller)

Hidden Order, by Brad Thor

This novel continues Mr. Thor's novels featuring main character Scot Harvath as a good guy spy who saves the nation.   The premise is that the short list of candidates to run the Federal Reserve are being assassinated, and Harvath needs to figure out how to stop this and why it is happening.

There was a bit less of Mr. Thor's political posturing than usual in this novel, which is to say there was still plenty of Tea Party rhetoric.   The topic of this book was ripe for the plucking, as so many people argue against the continued existence of the Fed if not its part in a massive conspiracy that violates the average American.   Maybe they're right, but as far as this novel goes, if you can excuse the rants and focus on the action, Mr. Thor's books aren't bad.

Hidden Order: A Thriller

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

This is the third, final volume in the "his dark materials" trilogy ("The Golden Compass" and "The Subtle Knife" were the first two volumes).   All the key characters of the prior volumes come together, the story comes to closure, and the two heroes, Lyra and Will, achieve a breakthrough in self awareness and  understanding of their role in the universe.

This felt like the best written of the books, but I was pretty down on the first volume and my subsequent enthusiasm may be as much a reflection of my getting into the story and genre as a reflection of Mr. Pullman's writing improving.   Especially since his first novel in the series won substantial recognition, e.g., the Carnegie Medal (for "Northern Lights ," the UK title of "The Golden Compass").   Okay, so it is probably me then...

A couple of people mentioned to me that this series had come under criticism from some Christian groups.  There are many situations in which the church is seen as malevolent; there's the particular quest of some of the key characters (which I will not spoil here), and finally, the ending of this volume makes clear the importance of individuals doing good works in life in order to build their personal heavens (e.g., as opposed to relying on grace alone).

Great book; great series, highly recommended.

The Amber Spyglass: His Dark Materials

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Famous and the Dead, by T. Jefferson Parker

When I saw this book on the shelf of my local library I thought it would be an interesting mystery or police procedural.  The book jacket description led me on:  the main character is LA County deputy Charlie Hood, on loan to the ATF to work on cross border arms trade with Mexico.  Another main character is deputy Bradley Jones who is apparently corrupt; an employee of a Mexican cartel.

What I didn't know was that this is one in a series of Mr. Parker's books featuring these characters.  Although there were enough character development gaps in the book to indicate this fact within the first  quarter of the novel.   That was annoying, but not fatal.

Another thing I didn't know, and I'll put it here even though it may be a spoiler because it adds a fundamentally different texture to what I had thought was a straight forward mystery, is that a significant supporting character is in the employ of - well, the devil1, for lack of a better explanation.  And no, I wasn't expecting that at all.

All in all the book was interesting enough to read, but not enough to compel me to read whatever previous volumes are in the series.

The Famous and the Dead (Charlie Hood)

1 It surprised me to read in the Wikipedia entry on the devil that, "Judaism contains no overt concept of a devil, Christianity and Islam have variously regarded the Devil as a rebellious fallen angel that tempts humans to sin, if not commit evil deeds himself."  After all, it seems as though the devil is quite present in the book of Job in both the Christian and Jewish Old Testament (aka Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) versions.  In Christian interpretations of Job, the word Satan is used.  But in the Hebrew version (Iyov), the translation is Adversary.  So what's up; is the Adversary the devil?  

A couple of things come out of this investigation.  First, the Hebrew word satan (שָׂטָן) translates to adversary. The idea is that satan is a metaphor for mankind's inclination towards evil, or yetzer hara, which tempts us to do the wrong thing.  (The equivalent inclination towards good is yetzer hatov.)  Sounds like the devil?  Well no; it seems that Judaism is to maniacal in its devotion to monotheism that the notion of a figure other than God having substantial power is abhorrent. 

One view is to think of satan as an angel of God whose job is to add challenges to man's choice of good over evil; this makes the choice (of good) all the more meaningful.  Another view is that angels lack free will because they are angels, not people, and so they can't be disobedient or fallen.

It turns out that either of the Christian or Jewish interpretations of satan work identically in Mr. Parker's book.  But I thought that the research was interesting.  And this is an example of how reading just one simple crime novel can distract me for a day!

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

Whatever concerns I'd had in the first volume of Mr. Pullman's trilogy were gone within a few pages of this, his second book. The setting, at least initially, is a more recognizable, modern world, the writing feels crisper, the plot moves faster.

A new hero comes into play with his own quest, Will Parry. Will, like Lyra of "The Golden Compass " is also a child of 12, and he joins up with Lyra as their quests and plot lines intertwine.

This book was far more interesting and fast moving to me than the first, and I'm eager to read the next volume.

The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

This book series was recommended to me by some friends.  If it weren't for that, I'd not have made it past the first chapter or two, because this novel did not start out to my taste: it is full of invented words, set in a Victorian-ish era, and each human has an accompanying familiar, a daemon.

My unease continued for two thirds of the novel at which point I'd gotten accustomed to the jargon and was swept up in the adventure.  This first book of the series introduces the hero, Lyra Belacqua, a young child about to embark upon a quest.

I won't say more so as to not spoil the story.   If you can make it past the barriers the genre naturally puts forth, then the exciting story should take you the rest of the way.

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

This novel serves as a reminder to me that just because a book shows up on a recommended list, it doesn't mean I should read it.   And since I typically finish a book I start even when I'm not crazy about it, I could save myself quite a bit of time if I learned to be choosier.

With that as an introduction, you'll imagine I didn't like Mr. Palahniuk's novel.  That's almost the case: I didn't like many aspects of it, but it was inventive and interesting enough to keep me going to the end.

The book is narrated by its hero, Madison, the recently deceased thirteen year old daughter of a billionaire couple who finds herself in hell.  Madison chronicles her adventures and her job -- yes a job; she does unsolicited telephone calls to people as their about to eat dinner, targeting in particular those who have signed up for the no-call list.

The ending is kind of pfffft though...


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Inferno, by Dan Brown

I picked this book up at the library with a bit of hesitation, because I wasn't sure it would be worth the read.  Hence the library, as opposed to a purchase.  Mr. Brown's writing style can be tedious and repetitious, and his plot liberties are legion.

But I did read it, and it was alright.  Yes, it was repetitious, and yes it read like a travel guide to Florence and other locales.   Perhaps if I'd ever been to Florence I'd have enjoyed it a bit more.   Or if I were a big fan of Dante's.

As an action adventure it moved along as well as possible given the speed bumps mentioned above. And it had a few unexpected plot twists.  So I'd say this is a great book to read when you don't have a great book nearby and need to blow a few hours.


Monday, October 7, 2013

The Gift of Rest, by Joe Lieberman

The subtitle of this interesting little book by former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is, "rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath."   Senator Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew but he wrote this book to appeal to Christians as well.  The book jacket even boasts blurbs from folks like the Catholic Church's Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who notes, "As Pope John Paul II taught: we cannot work with God all week, if we do not rest with God on His Sabbath! Senator Lieberman’s reflections help each of us to remember just how to rest in God’s presence on His day.”

And from perhaps the opposite end of Christianity in Richard Land, who runs the Southern Evangelical Seminary, who wrote, "The Gift of Rest has certainly convicted this too-busy Baptist to mend his ways and once again embrace a weekly ‘day of rest.’”

I start by pointing out this broad based appeal because it is so unusual, especially in times of fractious political behavior, to see agreement from folks, particularly those whose religious beliefs are so different - yet rooted in the Bible's first five books.

The direction to honor a sabbath day comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 20, lines seven through ten:
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."
What Senator Lieberman does, as do others of varied religious doctrine who also follow this directive, is to take the words extremely literally.  He won't turn lights on or off, for example (but he might leave a light on prior to the Sabbath); he won't drive in a car (or be driven); no television, radio, computers or phone calls.    And while the Senator does this out of his sense of obligation to follow all the commandments his religious beliefs identify (613 of them), this particular one is clearly identifiable in what most folks call the Ten Commandments, but which is perhaps more correctly referred to as the Ten Directives, or Aseret ha-D'varim, in the Jewish belief. 1

The punch line is that Senator Lieberman doesn't view this requirement as a take-away; rather he views it as a wonderful gift.  One aspect of the gift is that he is forced to spend time with his family, friends and community without the distractions of work, television, internet, or phone calls.  He finds this a particularly powerful weekly practice as it not only refreshes his relationships but also his energy and attitude towards the work week.   He also says it puts the work week in perspective, remembering that the same Genesis line enjoins us to labor for six days out of seven, so the commandment to work is as strong as the commandment to rest.   For non-Jewish readers, the Senator suggests making a Sunday sabbath a day of rest at this level of engagement (with others) and disengagement (from technology and worldly pursuits).

The rest of the book is a tour of a typical Sabbath for the Senator, which runs from slightly before dusk on Friday afternoon until one can see stars in the sky on Saturday evening. I found this book to be both interesting and thought provoking, well written and quick moving.  I recommend it.

The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath

1The concept is that there are 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible.2  If there are 613 requirements, then it is inconsistent to think of 10 of them as commandments; worse, it might lead one to imagine that the remaining 603 commandments are less important.  Which they aren't, at least not to religious Jews.   This is rather confusing, because Exodus 38, lines 27-28 says: "The Lord said to Moses: 'Inscribe these words for yourself, for according to these words I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel'... He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments."  The Orthodox reasoning seems to be that if you take all of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) as the word of God, then where it says in that text to do (or not do) something, it must be a commandment from God, and that must be followed just as devoutly as a commandment captured on Moses' tablets.   For example, the commandment to not embarrass another person comes from Leviticus 17, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart."  This is no doubt why you never see Jews going door to door for converts; 613 rules make for a tough sell.3

2 Of those 613 commandments, 248 of them are positive (do this) and 365 are negative (don't do that).  Since nothing is easy in religion, there is of course no definitive list of the 613 in the bible; you have to look around.  The work was done for believers by a physician named Mosheh ben Malmon, but more typically called Moses Maimonides, compiled the Mishneh Torah (repetition of the Torah) as a code of religious law, while in Egypt in the late 1100s.

3Just as an aside, another reason Jews don't bother acting like young LDS members on a mission to convert is that in Jewish belief, non-Jews need only adhere to the seven Noahic commandments in order to find their place in Heaven.  They come from Genesis Chapter 9 and are believed to be binding on all people (since all are descended from Noah and his family, post flood).  (But the 613 commandments are binding only on the descendants of those at Sinai - the Jews.)  Hard sell indeed: you can go to heaven following seven rules if you don't join, or join and be bound to 613 rules.  Okay, I know you're curious; these rules are:  1) establish courts of justice; 2) not blaspheme; 3) not commit idolatry; 4) not commit incest or adultery; 5) not commit bloodshed; 6) not commit robbery; 7) not eat flesh cut from a living animal.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Most Important Thing Illuminated, by Howard Marks

This is a book about investing.   It is a version of an earlier book by Mr. Marks, titled simply, "The most important thing" (i.e., not "illuminated), the difference being that this version is annotated by four well thought of investment gurus:  Christopher Davis, Joel Greenblatt, Paul Johnson, and Seth Klarman.   As for those annotations, I could take them or leave them.  But the text itself, now that's worth something.

The book cover includes the tag line, "uncommon sense for the thoughtful investor."  In fact my son pointed out that while everything he read made sense to him, it was really just common sense.  Ah, but as Voltaire pointed out, common sense is not so common!  And that is especially true in the stock market, where emotions outweigh analytical decision making.

The author is not just an armchair observer of the market; as the chair and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management (with $75B under management), he presumably puts his money where his mouth is.

It is important to note that Mr. Marks follows a value investment model.  In his words:
"Value investors buy stocks (even those whose intrinsic value may show little growth in the future) out of conviction that the current value is high relative to the current price.
"Growth investors buy stocks (even those whose current value is low relative to their current price) because they believe the value will grow fast enough in the future to produce substantial appreciation."  [pages 22-23]
Restated, value investors hope to make their profit by buying a bargain today, and growth investors buy stocks hoping their performance will cause future profits.

One of my favorite sections of the book is about risk, and these two graphs made quite an impression on me. [pages 73-74]

In this first graph, a good portfolio manager achieves higher returns compared to a benchmark, and at a given level of risk.

In this second graph, the skilled manager achieves benchmark returns while subjecting the portfolio to less risk.  "Here the manager's value added comes not through higher return at a given risk, but through reduced risk at a given return.  This, too, is a good job -- maybe even a better one."

Sure, this might be semantics, but so much of investing relies on the way one looks at things.  This is an excellent book for value investors who seek ideas for improvement -- or confirmation of their sanity (because the lot of a value investor is to be a contrarian; this demands both think skin and good bourbon).

The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (Columbia Business School Publishing)

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust & Skyler White

When I leafed through this book, having found it on the new releases shelf at my local public library, I was not sure I wanted to check it out to read.  So I sat down in a chair next to the stacks to read the first chapter as a way to decide.  After I finished the book I realized that some time had passed... and that there was now no need to check it out.

I share this to indicate that Brust and White's book is interesting enough to capture my interest for far longer than I'd intended.  And this is even though the reason I thought I might not want to read it is an issue that permeated the novel:  the story line itself is.... let's say, weird.

The concept is that there are folks who can pass their memories from person to person so as to generate a continuous sense of self over thousands of years.  And that there is a shared psychic virtual cloud where these memories can be stored.   They call themselves incrementalists, and their mission is to make the world better in very (extremely) small bits.   The hero is Phil, a poker player in Vegas.  It is a bit of a love story (vis Phil's relationship to Celeste) which is complicated by the arrival of Ren as Celeste's next incarnation.

The premise is interesting, albeit odd, and in addition, the book is well written and compelling reading - more than enough to get someone who might not like this genre through the unusual premise.

So all in all, this is a winner.

The Incrementalists