Category: Books

June Book Reviews

I took the last few days to catch up on some reading.  I read Another Hill to Climb, by Bo Ryan, Wisconsin’s successful basketball coach, Rome 1960 by David Maraniss, about the 1960 Olympics and how they changed the world and In Defense of Food, a critique of the Western Diet, by Michael Pollan.

Another Hill to Climb is the story of how Bo Ryan became a successful Big Ten basketball coach.  Its not particularly well written, but its an interesting, quick read nonetheless.  Ryan is an interesting character in the college basketball world because he comes from a very humble background and still is quite humble today.  He is willing to speak his mind when he thinks that something is unfair and has lots of funny stories about growing up in Chester, PA and moving up through the coaching ranks.   He shows the amount of dedication necessary to be successful in college coaching and believes that his lessons can be used in other professions.  I think he is right.  If you are a basketball fan, check out this book.

Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World is David Maraniss’ newest book and is just as interesting as his previous works.  He tells the story of the 1960 Olympics, set against the backdrop of the cold war, the civil rights movement and weaves individual stories about athletes, organizers and politicians.  1960 was the first televised Olympics and the last olympics where athletes were supposed to be completely nonprofessionals.  The 1960 Olympics had the world’s first doping scandal and the first sub sarahan-African to win  a gold medal.  I never thought a history book could be a page turner until I read Maraniss’ They Walked Into Sunlight, but his books are.  I found myself reading an extra chapter when I was about to go to bed because I wanted to know who won the 1960 100m gold medal.  If you enjoy history, check out this book.  If you have never read any of Maraniss, check out They Walked into Sunlight, Clemente or his Vince Lombardi biography.  I highly recommend any of them.

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is the following to his first book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which narrowly missed out on being one of my favorite books of 2008.  In Defense of Food is interesting because Pollan attacks the idea that we can eat food based on nutrition, instead of being just food.  He traces the origin of the Western Diet, high in dairy, meat and refined carbohydrates, and why it is bad for you.  Its amazing that an apple today has 33% the nutrients that an apple did in 1950.  There are plenty of other examples in the book.

He also talks about how we got to where we are and how we can fix our diet moving forward.  Its not a dull as it seems, as Pollan is a journalist by trade and includes lots of amusing anecdotes in his writing.  If you enjoy food or want to learn more about why Americans’ diet, check this book out.

Enron Documentary is Incredibly Interesting

I just watched The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentary about the rise and fall of Enron.  I have a special interest in Enron, as I margined my entire stock portfolio and shorted it in my 10th grade mock stock competition for a few days, but relented to my partners advice that it couldn’t fall any more and went long Enron, only to finish dead last.  If we would have stayed with the original trade, we would have had a free trip to New York!  But enough of that.

The documentary has interviews with the journalist who first started to question Enron’s meteoric rise, former employees and executives and plenty of video from the companies many meetings and pep talks.  It is really well done and very interesting, notching an Academy Award Nomination in 2006.  If you are at all interested in the Enron story, or corporate fraud in general, check out this documentary.

The most interesting part of the documentary centered on Enron’s role in the blackouts that plagued California in winter 2001 and summer 2002.  I was always skeptical about claims of meddling and corporate scandal in the blackouts, but the documentary painted a very explicit case that showed overt meddling that caused up to $30b of losses in the California economy, the recall and end to the political career of Gray Davis and ultimately the election of The Governator to California’s highest office.

The documentary showed audio of Enron traders telling power plants to shut down, which caused rolling blackouts.  The traders also were taped diverting power from California power plants to other areas to try to drive up the price.  It worked.  Power was $40 per unit before they started their shenanigans and spiked to $1000 per unit at their peak and Enron made billions.  This part of the business was pretty much the only successful part, but was clearly unethical, if not illegal.

The rolling blackouts caused huge economic damage to California’s economy, ended a political career, caused traffic accidents and many other consequences so that Enron could make money.  Add this business practice to their cooking the books, it was pretty clear that Enron was very corrupt.  It was also interesting to see how complicit investment banks, ratings agencies, the Bush Administration, accountants and journalists were in allowing Enron to get away with fraud for so long.

There are many parallels to the current financial crisis in that so many people were blinded by greed, derelicting their moral and fiduciary duties.  They turned a blind eye to poor business practices and extreme risk taking.  Its interesting to see history repeat itself so quickly.  Check out the documentary.  Its playing for free on Mark Cuban’s HDnet channel for the next few weeks.

Always Running is Excellent

I just finished reading Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Life in LA by Luis Rodriguez.  It is a memoir that Rodriguez started when he was 16 and is  about his life growing up as a member in one of the most vicious gangs in LA.  It is a window into a life that I am very glad that I never had to experience.  His feelings of neglect, isolation and rejection come tearing off the pages as his life spirals downward and he decides to leave school to join a gang full time.

His battles with drugs, alcohol, inhalants, violence, abusive police, racism, rival gangs and most of all, his family, are constant reminders about the life Rodriguez once lived and eventually escaped.

At first, his decision to join a gang baffled me.  It is evident from the beginning of the book that Rodriguez is smart kid.  It is also clear that he wants to be successful and will work hard to improve his chances at success, but for a long time, he does not.  He falls into gangs, drugs, crime and depression.

Its scary to think how easy it was for someone as brilliant and talented as Rodriguez to succumb to the gang lifestyle, even when he was smarter than most of his peers.  He was talented enough to do well in school, but did not. What does this example say about kids with lower intelligence or talent levels from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds?  If the smartest kid falls into gangs, the outlook must be even more dismal for the other, less talented kids.

Rodriguez’s thesis is that all kids, even smart kids, who feel isolated will try to carve out an existence for themselves.  In many cases in poor communities, the only niche available is gang life.  Rodriguez argues that the solution is creating opportunities and bringing disadvantaged kids in from isolation.  After reading the book, I think that I gained a new perspective on how many people in this country continue to feel on a daily basis.

I would highly recommend reading Always Running.

How Much Does A Hustler Make?

Sudhir Venkatesh’s book Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor will tell you the answer.

I just finished reading it this week and while it wasn’t as engaging as his previous Gang Leader for a Day, it was informative. It profiles how “hustling” is a necessary part of life for many in the urban poor. He spent over 10 years “hanging out” on the South side of Chicago and got to know many of the people who lived there. He takes the experiences of prostitutes, drug dealers, ministers, auto mechanics, the homeless and petty thieves and weaves an interesting tale of how marginalized people use their entrepreneurial skill to survive.

While it can be dry and times, and Venkatesh seems to repeat himself in some of the chapters, the book is worth reading. If you haven’t read Gang Leader for a Day, I would suggest reading it first, as its a much better intro into Venkatesh’s work than Off the Books.

You have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit that many of people in the book display. The traits that many of the “hustlers” have are the exact traits that many startups are looking for: innovation, willingness to change business models quickly and operating without significant cash. It would be great if there were a way to harness their willingness to take risks and come up with solutions on the fly in other, more productive ways that would allow the marginalized hustlers to live a better life.