Some Recent Reads (December 2018)

For this blog post I figured I tie in one of my hobbies, reading.  So, I want to give my brief review to a few books I have read recently: Energy, Capitalism in America, and Facts and Fears and my thoughts on why I chose to read these books, what my opinion of the book is, and who I recommend the book for.

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Energy by Richard Rhodes

From the book flap:

“People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges tells the story of humanity itself.

Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes explains how wood gave way to coal and coal made room for oil, as we now turn to natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable energy. Rhodes looks back on five centuries of progress, through such influential figures as Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, Benjamin Franklin, Herman Melville, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford.

In Energy, Rhodes highlights the successes and failures that led to each breakthrough in energy production; from animal and waterpower to the steam engine, from internal-combustion to the electric motor. He addresses how we learned from such challenges, mastered their transitions, and capitalized on their opportunities. Rhodes also looks at the current energy landscape, with a focus on how wind energy is competing for dominance with cast supplies of coal and natural gas. He also addresses the specter of global warming, and a population hurtling towards ten billion by 2100.

Human beings have confronted the problem of how to draw life from raw material since the beginning of time. Each invention, each discovery, each adaptation brought further challenges, and through such transformations, we arrived at where we are today. In Rhodes’s singular style, Energy details how this knowledge of our history can inform our way tomorrow.”

Richard Rhodes is a brilliant author that has a way of cramming in as many pages of sources as text to read.  The depth and quality of detail is astonishing and at times rather overwhelming, but each detail builds to a peak and each peak makes a clear statement based on evidence, thought, and perspective to deliver a walloping punch of pure knowledge.  His book, Energy, is his most recent addition to his growing bibliography of top-notch literature including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a Pulitzer Prize winner in nonfiction.  On a fundamental level he examines a complete history of the topic he researches and writes a book that allows a reader who needs that depth to chase down leads in the sources section, but at the same time allows a reader who is bored looking for a new book to learn something new.

Why did I read this book?

I picked Energy up a few days after it went to stores with the intention of reading it the next time I was traveling through an airport.  I was intrigued by the cover art, the brief description of what the book was about, and I recognized the name from reviews I had read on The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a book that people have informed me is stellar – one I hope to read soon enough.  I bought the book to expand my knowledge in the history of energy, understand why energy has progressed, and where it is taking us.  Unfortunately, history is a subject I often struggle with due to the dryness most literature seems to have – I usually stick to specific historical events like a single battle fought, a single piece of military technology, or a specific person’s choices in a career.

Not long after acquiring the book I found myself departing for the airport, but right before I left, I got caught up on recent news of problems with food quality which led to bacteria and ended up abandoning this book in favor of a book on the history of the Food and Drug Administration.  A few months after I arrived back from that trip, I got into a rather high-energy conversation (excuse the pun) about renewable energy and current U.S. policy on energy.  I had a few details and numbers I could remember, but I realized I needed to understand the history of energy over the last 300-500 years or so to understand how the future will begin to shape now and thus deliver a quod erat demonstrandum for my fellow conversationalists.  Luckily, my past-self purchased a book that supplied the knowledge for this exact problem I was facing and that is how I came to read Energy.

So…What’s my opinion?

As I said before, Rhodes is an astounding author and the depth of detail this book displays is reference-book quality.  At times I struggled to read line by line as I was drowned in facts that sometimes appeared rather pointless, but often were there to supply additional history to supply a scene in which a form of energy production/generation/etc. came about.  The pictures, charts, and sketches provided in the book help supplement the technical discussion.  At times the book was dry and hard to read, the book gave lots of detailed snippets in history, and I felt the section on modern energy was a bit empty.  Rating: 3/5

Who do I recommend this book for?

I probably would recommend this book to either people who enjoy consuming knowledge or people who are doing research in an energy related field.  My guess is most people would find the book incredibly dry and boring, overwhelmed by the endless stream of details and facts, and wondering what they hoped to gain by reading the book.

On a more personal level, first, I hoped when I bought this book that I would learn some history on energy and second, while reading the book I hoped I would have an epiphany on energy.  I successfully satisfied that first hope, the second hope came up a bit empty which just proves the need to keep reading.  Overall Energy is a detailed book that gives a comprehensive history of energy development and the critical moments in time when human life changed dramatically.  We are at a crossroads where we as a society need to think about the next step in energy to dramatically change our lives once again.

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Capitalism in America by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge

From the book Flap:

“From even the start of his fabled career, Alan Greenspan was duly famous for his deep understanding of even the most arcane corners of the American economy, and his restless curiosity to know even more. To the extent possible, he has made a science of understanding how the US economy works almost as a living organism–how it grows and changes, surges and stalls. He has made a particular study of the question of productivity growth, at the heart of which is the riddle of innovation. Where does innovation come from, and how does it spread through a society? And why do some eras see the fruits of innovation spread more democratically, and others, including our own, see the opposite?

In Capitalism in America, Greenspan distills a lifetime of grappling with these questions into a thrilling and profound master reckoning with the decisive drivers of the US economy over the course of its history. In partnership with the celebrated Economist journalist and historian Adrian Wooldridge, he unfolds a tale involving vast landscapes, titanic figures, triumphant breakthroughs, enlightenment ideals as well as terrible moral failings. Every crucial debate is here–from the role of slavery in the antebellum Southern economy to the real impact of FDR’s New Deal to America’s violent mood swings in its openness to global trade and its impact. But to read Capitalism in America is above all to be stirred deeply by the extraordinary productive energies unleashed by millions of ordinary Americans that have driven this country to unprecedented heights of power and prosperity.

At heart, the authors argue, America’s genius has been its unique tolerance for the effects of creative destruction, the ceaseless churn of the old giving way to the new, driven by new people and new ideas. Often messy and painful, creative destruction has also lifted almost all Americans to standards of living unimaginable to even the wealthiest citizens of the world a few generations past. A sense of justice and human decency demands that those who bear the brunt of the pain of change be protected, but America has always accepted more pain for more gain, and its vaunted rise cannot otherwise be understood, or its challenges faced, without recognizing this legacy. For now, in our time, productivity growth has stalled again, stirring up the populist furies. There’s no better moment to apply the lessons of history to the most pressing question we face, that of whether the United States will preserve its preeminence, or see its leadership pass to other, inevitably less democratic powers.”

Both Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge are brilliant people with an outstanding capacity to grasp economics, each in their own way.  In this book that came out in 2018, they address the history of capitalism in the United States and how it came to be.  The dabble in the politics and emotions of people throughout time and couple that with their intimate knowledge of modern economics.

Why did I read this book?

I came across this book while I was in search of my next business-genre book and was immediately drawn to the questions the authors ask in the brief blurb about the book.  Two questions in particular sold me on buying the book:  Where does innovation come from, and how does it spread through a society? And why do some eras see the fruits of innovation spread more democratically, and others, including our own, see the opposite?  I liked these questions because it ties history in with today, what we experience in modern politics about our economy and the lessons we can learn from the past.

Economic policy in the United States is a hotly debated topic usually discussed in the moment by people only looking at now and the future, while economists choose to look towards the past as well.  Like sports, economics is one of those topics that you will find yourself discussing pretty much in every conversation you have at a dinner party or an evening out with friends.  Knowing this coupled with the questions I read in the book flap, I could not resist purchasing this book.  The two big topics I was in search of was learning about the basic history of capitalism in the United States and understanding how economic basic policy is formed.

So…What’s my opinion?

It is a general economic policy in the United States overview.  The history in the United States is rather complex and there is absolutely no way to include an in-depth dive into it within a few hundred pages – thousands is more like it.  The authors add some flare to the tales of early entrepreneurs becoming the richest men in the world, how companies abused situations and created vast monopolies, and the woefully boring data.  I was looking for a general history and this book is excellent for that.  It was a bit dry at times, but overall a relatively smooth and fast read.  Rating: 4/5

Who do I recommend this book for?

Well, imagine you are in my shoes.  You arrived home for the holidays, family and friends arrive by the day, and everything is going splendidly until politics gets involved and suddenly the conversation veers over towards economics.  Two sides quickly form up and blow after blow is sent across the table and you are wondering what the truth is because both sides seem to be stating some outrageous facts that cannot possibly be accurate.  This book provides you with the information understand policy in the United States, to see how corporations have abused power, how individuals have taken advantage of lax laws, and how often times it is the people that suffer first and not the wealthy.  It also gives you the benefits that capitalism has had on both the United States and the world, how it effects your life on a daily basis, and how it is a changing beast that needs to be changed once again.

Overall, it is a book that gives you the history on capitalism without there being overwhelming amounts of numbers and math that goes along with modern day quantitative economics.  It is without a doubt a subject matter and history book, but it is also a perspective book.  I hoped to learn about the basic history of capitalism in the United States, check, and I hoped that while reading it I would understand the details on how basic policy formed, check.

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Facts and Fears by James R. Clapper with Trey Brown

From the book flap:

“When he stepped down in January 2017 as the fourth United States Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper had been President Obama’s senior intelligence advisor for six and a half years, a period that included such critical events as the discovery of Osama bin Laden, the leaks of Edward Snowden, the Benghazi attack, and Russia’s influence on the 2016 U.S election. In Facts and Fears Clapper traces his career through his rise in ranks of the military, the history of several decades of national intelligence operations, the growing threat of cyberattacks, his relationships with presidents and Congress, and the truth about Russia’s role in the presidential election. He describes, in the wake of Snowden and WikiLeaks, his efforts to make intelligence more transparent and to push back against the suspicion that Americans’ private lives are subject to surveillance.

Clapper considers such difficult questions as, is intelligence ethical? Is it moral to use human sources to learn secrets, to intercept communications, to take pictures of closed societies from orbit? What are the limits of what we should be allowed to do? What protections should we give to the private citizens of the world, not to mention our fellow Americans? Is there a time that intelligence officers can lose credibility as unbiased reporters of hard truths by asserting themselves into policy decisions?”

James Clapper’s story is an excellent one because it is a long tale of a successful career with mistakes and successes that has led to a so-far role model life.  His book dives into his career in great detail and shows the reader what it means to work in the intelligence business – the moments when you relax in your chair after successfully stopping the next terrorist plot and the moments when you lean forward in your chair terrified of what will happen next.  The intelligence game is a made up of a bunch of long hard hours spent digging for the smallest detail and a whole bunch of flukes that people got lucky with.

Why did I read this book?

I picked this book up in the hopes of learning a bit more about how a career in intelligence plays out.  The second reason I grabbed this book is that the position Clapper held the last few years of career is a relatively new one and I wanted to see how he approached running an agile force that combats threats in an ever-changing world.  I hoped when I grabbed this book to enjoy learning a bit about the intelligence field and I hoped I would understand another perspective on decisions made (regarding spying, surveillance, etc.)

So…What’s my opinion?

This book opens the door into the world of covert intelligence and the many problems that go along with it.  He pulls at the reader’s heart with his stories of forcing his family to move all over the world with him, moments when someone with authority makes the incorrect decision because of politics, and the moments when the United States has a successful mission to help people of the world.  The book is no Pulitzer prize winner nor is it a bad book.  It is a relatively quick read that keeps you on your toes and lets you settle back down after a crowning moment in the intelligence business.  It also speaks volumes to how the United States operates and provides and inside perspective on tough decisions that the media, citizens, and other governments scrutinize. Rating: 5/5

Who do I recommend this book for?

It really depends on your interest in the intelligence field.  Many of the lessons Clapper has learned in life are applicable to many other areas, but you may find a certain dryness to the book that prevents you from really loving the book (due to the subject of the book).  From the perspective of being a United States citizen, yes you should read it to see why your vote matters each time you go to the polls.  From the perspective of others, it provides insight into the United States and a few controversial decisions the covert world made and how those decisions effects everyone daily.  I enjoyed the book due to my interest and background in the intelligence world.  Overall, I satisfied both of my hopes.

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