May 2016 Reading Recommendations

I got a fair amount of reading polished off this month despite spending a considerable amount of time spent dealing with issues described in Poorly Made in China, one of last month’s selections.  Sadly, it’s almost a full time job trying to get a factory in China do what it’s supposed to do.

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram  I’m adding a book this month that I read years ago, but I picked back up and reread parts of this month, so it qualifies.  Plus, it’s a book everyone ought to read.

John Boyd is probably the most important military strategist you’ve never heard of.  But that’s far from all.  He enlisted in the Army toward the end of WWII and tried to get into pilot training.  He was rejected due to “low aptitude.”  But the war was almost over, so he slogged along as an enlisted man until finally mustered out.  He used the GI Bill to go to the University of Iowa, but his dream of becoming a pilot didn’t die.  As soon as he graduated, he joined up again, this time as an officer and was accepted into flight school.

He whizzed through training and ended up as a fighter pilot instructor at the Nellis Air Force base in Nevada.  While there, he perfected his technique and put out a challenge to any fighter pilot in any branch of the service.  Come get on my tail and get me in your gunsights, he said, and if you’re not in my sights within forty seconds, I lose.  He never lost.  And it almost never took him longer than twenty seconds to reverse the situation.  When his opponents got on his tail, he would “flat plate” his plane (you’ll have to read the book to see what this means), the opponents would sail by, and Boyd would drop down on their tails and lock on.  As his legend spread throughout the fighter pilot forces in the military, he became known as “40-second Boyd.”

Boyd’s real fame came as a result of his intellect, not his fighter pilot skills.  He was forever thinking…about all kinds of things.  For instance, he thought about how his fighter jet would respond if he put it to the limits of its capabilities.  He read every word in the ‘owner’s manual’ provided by the the maker of the jet.  He put it through some extreme paces and ended up with a failure that resulted in his bailing out while the jet crashed.  Faced with a court martial for (a not uncommon occurrence  throughout his career) for destroying a multimillion dollar airplane, Boyd demonstrated that the owners manual was incorrect and that he had operated within the manufacturers specifications.

Boyd became obsessed with determining the limits of a plane’s performance by evaluating its design.  He badgered the Air Force to send him to engineering school, which he ended up attending at Georgia Tech. After studying thermodynamics, he came up with his E-M charts that could plot the performance of an airplane.  Using these charts, he could determine whether an airplane was worth a flip or not as a fighter jet.  He delighted in calling bullshit on generals who didn’t know squat – but who, in working with contractors, came up with planes unfit to fly.  And he never minced words.  Which, as you might imagine, didn’t endear him to his superiors, as he publicly made them look like the morons they were.  As a consequence, the Air Force kind of disowned him.  Later in his life, he was adopted by the Marine Corps, where he became famous all over again.

Developing the E-M charts would have been enough of a triumph for most people, but Boyd was just getting started.  I was going to post some quotes from the book, but decided that if I started, I could never quit.  Boyd was such a larger than life guy who did and said so many memorable things, that it’s tough to pick and choose the most representative.

This is a must read book irrespective of if you’re a neocon or antiwar.  Characters like Boyd don’t come along very often, and reading about him is enormously entertaining.  This book is the definition of compulsively readable.  Plus, you learn a ton of information about a wide range of subjects.

Boyd was enormously creative and, I suspect, verged on being bi-polar.  But what a mind he had.

I’ve recommended this book to so many different people both male and female, and everyone (and I really do mean everyone) who read it thanked me profusely.  It’s just that good.

I was so taken with it that I ended up making somewhat of a study on Boyd.  Along with all the information out there about him there is another book on his life.

The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Hammond is not nearly as riveting as the Coram book is, but it deals in more detail with Boyd’s theories on warfare in general and competition.  During one of his manic deep-thinking episodes, Boyd came up with the OODA loop, which is how the modern American military is trained to fight.  But the OODA Loop has many business and other non-military applications.   If you go to Amazon and search Boyd, you’ll find a number of books on Boyd’s theories applied to various enterprises.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.  Deep Work is a nice follow up to the Boyd book because God knows Boyd was able to generate laser-like focus on any issue that interested him.  Though not a famous fighter pilot, Cal Newport has the same ability.  While carrying a full teaching load at Georgetown University (Newport is a computer science professor), he managed to publish 20 peer-reviewed papers and write books, including this one, and publish a popular blog and get home to his wife and kids every day by 5:30.

Like Boyd, Cal Newport realized he had to make time for what he calls deep work.  If you don’t make the time, you’ll never get the work done.  Today’s life provides way too many distractions, and distractions take away from the time required for serious work.  Serious, deep thinking takes a while to get into.  You can’t just turn it on and turn it off.

As I have discovered, it is difficult when bombarded by the distractions of daily living in the digital age to get yourself away from it and find quiet time to truly study and contemplate.  But that’s what’s required to develop ideas and learn new subjects in depth.  Most people can’t really do it while bouncing from Twitter to Facebook to checking emails, then back to Facebook for one last check before getting down to the deep work.  Oh, wait, an email just ghosted up, so I need to read that before I get to work.  Then it’s recheck Twitter.  And Facebook. And one last look to make sure some important email didn’t come in.  And on and on and on.  That’s the ‘studious’ life many of us lead.

Deep Work provides the rules and the motivation to help us escape.  This one is a book I’m going to read again.

I read two biochemistry books this month.  I was looking something up in one of my standard go-to biochem texts (Lehninger and Stryer are my faves) and I realized how old my books are.  Both are over 15 years old.  So I decided to pull up Amazon and order the newest editions of both.  When I got there, I found that both of these books were selling in the $230-$275 range.  Not wanting to drop $500 on a couple of biochemistry text books, I decided to wait till I went to Dallas where my favorite scientific bookstore resides to actually thumb through the two books to see which on would suit my needs best.  When I got to Dallas last week (Gotta brag.  I went because our two grandsons were both getting their Eagle Scout awards on the same day), I discovered that my favorite medical bookstore had fallen victim to Amazon and had closed.

So, I still don’t have an updated biochem textbook.  But while looking in Amazon, I found two that I did purchase.  One was a book I had long known of, but had never read.

The Chemistry of Life by Steve Rose.  This is a new edition of a book that has been around for many years and has helped many a student through biochemistry at all different levels.  Unlike most biochem books, it isn’t filled with equations and pathways, though there are a few. It is mainly a prose description of how biochemistry works.  And it is very, very good.

I flipped through to the section on metabolic pathways and started reading with the intent to read just those parts of biochemistry that interested me and had relevance to what I think about every day.  What I read was so good, and I learned a lot I had forgotten, so I went back and started at the beginning and read the whole thing.  I’ve never, ever done that with a biochemistry book – I’ve aways picked and chosen what I wanted to read or what I needed to read to pass a test.

Dr. Rose is such an engaging writer that it’s hard not to be drawn along.  He makes a difficult subject (for most) easily understandable.  My only quibble with the book is that it is not quite up-to-date with the various metabolic pathways, especially where carbs vs proteins vs fat are concerned.  The author is still a bit stuck in the you’ve-got-to-have-carbs-for-energy way of thinking.  He does have a nice discussion of ketosis, but only in the context of protecting against starvation.  But don’t let this put you off reading if you want to learn the fundamentals of biochemistry – they’re all there.  Just not quite how I would have written them from a nutritional perspective.  Despite its minimal shortcomings, I would recommend this book to anyone.

Biochemistry: Free & Easy by Kevin Ahern and Indira Rajagopal has that best of all things going for it:  It’s free.  And sort of easy, if biochemistry can be considered easy.  The book is available only on Kindle and is more of an overview of biochemistry rather than an in-depth coverage.  But did I mention it was FREE?  So, grab a copy while you can.  Given the title, I suspect it will always be free but who knows.

I was able to read it digital cover to digital cover in a several hour plane trip.  Along with the broad brush stroke coverage of most of biochemistry, the book has multiple links to YouTube lectures on the various subjects by the authors, but I was never able to make the links work.  I tried to make the work on an iPad and on my Macbook Pro, but was unsuccessful.  Maybe many of you are more digitally adept than I.  If you do get this FREE book and figure out how to make the links work, please email me and let me know.  Even without the expansion of the info available, one assumes, through the links I couldn’t make work, the book is worthwhile.  If you’ve got a hankering to learn biochemistry.

I guess this was the month for reading about enormously smart people that no one has ever heard of.  First John Boyd, and now, Claude Shannon.

Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street by William Poundstone.  I’ve been intrigued with beating the casinos since my high school calculus teacher told our class about a trip to Las Vegas he took with friends, one of whom had a system.  He told us how the system worked for them, helping them win enough to completely pay for their Vegas trip and come home with extra money in their pockets.  He explained it and wrote it all out on the blackboard.  At the time, I was dazzled by the brilliance of the system and made immediate plans to make my fortune in Las Vegas.  I didn’t realize then that my teacher’s friends system was nothing more than a progressive betting system that has led to the ruin of many gamblers.  Including myself.  Once.  After reading more sophisticated books on the subject, I realized why a progressive betting system is ultimately doomed.  And I realized my calculus teacher and his friends were lucky and not smart.  Which made me wondered how my calculus teacher didn’t have sense enough to figure that out himself.

Fortune’s Formula is primarily about how some very smart people figured out how to beat the market using sophisticated techniques.  And how other very smart people – the famous economist Paul Samuelson, being one – were convinced that no one could beat the market over the long run.  Why? Because Samuelson believed strongly in the Efficient Market Hypothesis, which posits that the market is made up of enough people with enough information that stock prices reflect the cumulative knowledge of all these people.  A given individual can’t be smarter than the combined intelligence of all the investors in the market, so there is no edge to be had over the long run.  Though some people can make money here and there mainly through luck, no one can make money consistently over the long haul.  Just like a progressive betting system will ultimately crush anyone using it long enough, so will the market crush investors that play it over the long term.

Fortune’s Formula is also about a cast of very smart characters who proved that smart investors could gain an edge and beat the market.  We’re talking some extremely smart people here.  One, the aforementioned Claude Shannon, whose brilliance was ranked right up there with Einstein’s.  In fact, Einstein, himself, called Shannon a “brilliant, brilliant man.”  Strange that some one as smart as Shannon is so universally unknown.  Take a look at his Wikipedia entry to see all the things he came up with. (While you’re on Shannon’s wiki entry, go to the box on the far right and click the button that says Known for.)

Shannon and John Kelly and Edward Thorpe all knew one another and worked together.  Thorpe figured out how to count cards in Blackjack to give the card counter the edge.  He wrote a book about it called Beat the Dealer, which was a huge bestseller 50 years ago and started the card counting trend that changed the way casinos deal Blackjack.  Kelly came up with a betting formula based on a percentage of one’s total bankroll to maximize long-term gain while protecting against going broke.  His formula is called the Kelly criterion and is used, mainly incorrectly, by many gamblers today.

Fortune’s Formula describes how all these characters came together and figured out how to apply their unique insights into a system to beat the market.  You are in good hands with the author William Poundstone.  He keeps the plot moving, and despite some fairly in-depth discussions of the intricacies of the math behind these systems, he never let’s the pace slow.  This book will teach you a lot about history and gambling and finance.  A wonderful, wonderful read.

Now for a little fiction…

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst.  I almost didn’t include this book because I don’t like to badmouth books in my reviews.  I’ve written a bunch of books myself and know first hand how much works goes into the process, so I would rather not say anything at all than say something bad about someone’s hard, hard work.  But this book made it in because it ultimately passed the test that I think most important: I couldn’t quit thinking about it.

The book sort of starts in media res with a Polish officer being asked to join the intelligence service of the Polish underground to try to spirit his country’s gold reserves away from the Nazis, who have just invaded.  Captain de Milja then gets sucked into drifting throughout Europe trying to carry out his mission while clandestinely meeting with other members of the Polish underground in a dozen different places.  The book is basically a slice of the WWII life of a peripatetic spy from a country being divided by two barbaric regimes.  You get a real feeling of the despair and gloom that settled over folks from that place and time.  The countless furtive meetings with strangers, any of whom could kill you, and the unsettled affairs with spies of the opposite sex, some of whom you know are headed for their deaths.  The book ends much as it started, and you realize it is just a chapter in the author’s oeuvre of Europe under Nazi domination.  Just writing all this is making me want to go back and reread.

The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr.  This is another circa WWII novel featuring Bernie Gunther, erstwhile police detective for the Kripo, the Berlin police service.  In this latest volume, Bernie is working as the concierge at a hotel in Cap Ferrat du Saint-Jean in Cap Ferrat, located on the French Mediterranean coast between Nice and Monaco.  He notices a man checking in to the hotel whom he knows has a sordid past as an SS officer and a Nazi of the deepest dye.  The man had blackmailed Bernie during the war, and, as it turns out, is in Cap Ferrat to involve him in blackmail again.  This time the victim is to be none other than the writer Somerset Maugham, who lives in a villa in Cap Ferrat.

Bernie ends up getting an invite to Maugham’s villa to play bridge.  When Maugham is threatened with blackmail over a scandalous photograph he appeared in, he turns to Bernie for help.  And the plot takes off from there.

I’ve never read anything Somerset Maugham wrote, but I’m going to after reading this novel.  I always thought Maugham was a literary writer, but he was actually a pop writer who pulled down huge advances, which allowed him to live the heady life he did.

I’ve read every one of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels and eagerly await each new one.  I read my first one a few into the series, then went back and read the entire series from the beginning till I caught up.  In thinking back about it, I believe the best way to start would be the way I did.  The one I just happened to read, A Quiet Flame, is, in my view, the best place to start, so if you think you would like Bernie Gunther, give that one a go.

As always, I hope you found a book or two in the list that is to your liking.  I’m always looking for recommendations myself, so if you have any, please send them my way.

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