Discover more from Kaoboy Musings
(Alphabetical by Title)
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
My biggest takeaway from this book was how “history may not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” to paraphrase Mark Twain. The inexorable march of technological progress has consistently exerted deflationary pressure on wages and forced labor to become more educated/skilled in order to adapt. Another recurring theme that is topical to today’s world is how the capitalistic engine of the Industrial Era in the U.S. both laid the groundwork for tremendous economic growth as well as some of the social issues that go with that growth (wealth inequality, labor rights, etc). Finally, germane my own investments in commodity industries, it outlined the importance of being the lowest-cost producer when one has no control over commodity prices as was the case with Carnegie and the steel industry.
On the one hand, this “rags-to-riches” tale extols the virtues of the “American Dream” made possible by capitalism: how a poor immigrant boy from Scotland began his career as a “bobbin boy” in a cotton factory and stair-stepped his way from industry to industry, eventually becoming one of the most prominent industrialists and philanthropists of America.
On the other hand, it also paints a dark side to the fully unregulated capitalism of the day, showing how a complete lack of government protections against trusts/price-fixing led to rampant crony capitalism and a very uneven playing field, often causing violent clashes between corporations and unions.
Most interesting, however, was the fact that throughout Carnegie’s lifetime, technological innovation was the one constant that kept exerting a deflationary force on the economy. The widespread adoption of the power loom cost Carnegie’s father (a handloom weaver) his job and forced the family to emigrate to America. Throughout Carnegie’s steel career, inexorable advances in steel-making technology like the Bessemer process constantly created efficiencies that increased productivity but exerted downward pressure on wages. If this happened over 100 years ago, imagine what is happening today in a global, cloud-connected society with AI/machine learning advances every other day.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Incredible true account of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expedition to Antarctica in 1914 and the amazing story of grit, leadership and the will to survive against seemingly impossible odds. Very engrossing and quick read.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch
Although I’m not yet 50, I guess I’m already prepping for it! This is somewhat of a dense read, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. In short, the author cites clear statistical evidence that happiness follows a U-shaped curve, starting off high during youth when “the world is your oyster,” declining into middle-age ostensibly due to unrealistic expectations gaps as well as biological reasons, and then rounding the corner and going back into the highs thereafter – surprisingly even in infirm old-age situations. Apparently, this pattern generally holds true across geographies, ethnicities – and even in other primates. To my middle-aged friends – we all have something to look forward to!
The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Greg Zuckerman
This was a quick, fun read but as an investor I was selfishly hoping for something a little more market-insightful, but I guess it’s not surprising to me given the iron-clad NDA’s required of all of Simons’ employees. After reading this, I don’t know whether to be inspired or depressed as a fundamental investor, because it seems like the Renaissance team has truly carved out an almost unassailable edge through the successful harnessing of complex mathematical algorithms and machine learning. I used to require my hedge fund employees to read Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre, which was about a legendary speculator named Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) and his incredible ups and downs in the markets during the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, because I always said that, “Markets and technologies may change, but the two market constants are investor greed and investor fear.” While I still largely hold this thesis, this book was sobering to me in that it shows that technology can even disrupt a highly uncertain and dynamic field like investing, so as in Carnegie’s/Livermore’s era, we need to keep learning new things to adapt.
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein
I found this book to be very provocative and eye-opening in many ways. Alex Epstein, the author, very convincingly debunks a lot of myths regarding fossil fuel use and makes the case (with a lot of supporting evidence) that:
Fossil fuel use has greatly improved human quality of life for billions.
The Earth has been on a consistent warming trend since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution – long before significant carbon emissions could have possibly been an influence.
Most climate models have been grossly inaccurate (i.e. not even close) in their predictions.
Outside of nuclear, fossil fuels remain as the most efficient generator of energy for humankind.
There is much to-do about developing battery technologies (forget about the environmental impact of this) to enable widespread use of intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar – nature has already produced the most efficient battery, and it is called the hydrocarbon.
In short, he is not arguing against global warming nor is he denying that carbon emissions contribute to global climate change; rather, he makes the case that 1) the mainstream discussion regarding whether or not to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy diet largely revolves around inadequate theories that fossil fuels are the primary determinant of climate change (as opposed to long geologic eras of climate change that are inexorable), and 2) that it is not fair to single out the shortcomings of fossil fuels without simultaneously considering the positive contributions (cheap, abundant energy for billions).
The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Was a bit disappointing vs. Frankopan’s first book, The Silk Roads. The first third of the book gave some interesting insights on how China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative is influencing development in the Central Asian countries (the “-stans”: Kazahkstan, Turkemistan, Kyrgyszstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Unfortunately, the next two-thirds of the book devolved into a highly partisan tirade, which is a turn-off to me in any book.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change by Marc Morano
My intent was to get educated on this subject, because it has become such a political hot potato when it seems to me that it should be a discussion that is fact-based. This book, although partisan at times, was very revelatory on several fronts and at least gave me an overview of the main points of controversy in this debate. I believe it is an important topic that affects everyone on Planet Earth and that there are extremists on both sides of the argument that obfuscate the issues in the name of politics and policy objectives. At the minimum, it has led me to purchase several more books on the topic and led me to create a chat group on WhatsApp to discuss this topic intelligently. Please feel free to join if you are interested: https://chat.whatsapp.com/DT2bQrLyb5AJxhZuN2I8EI
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
Continuing down this theme of the importance of geography, I found this gem of a book which takes you around the globe and frames age-old conflicts and modern geopolitics in geographical terms. Fascinating to see how geography plays a huge role in a lot of current world conflicts like Russia/Ukraine, India/Pakistan, the instability in the Middle East, etc.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
I read this earlier this summer en route to the heart of Turkey for our family summer trip. I generally like to read something topical to where we visit, and this was a phenomenal book about the importance of geography. Of particular interest to me (due to my trip) was how and why Constantinople held such an important role in world history due to its geographic position straddling Europe and Asia.
The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State by Elizabeth Economy
I thought this was a very, no-nonsense depiction of Xi Jinping’s rise to power, how his worldview was heavily influenced by Mao vs. Deng and explains why perhaps there is rare bi-partisan support for trade policies that stand up to China – when the “carrot” strategy doesn’t work, sometimes you have to use the “stick.” Fascinating to see the motivations behind China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative as well as some of the consequences.