Monday, June 28, 2021

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2021

 Reading Period: June 23 - August 3

1. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis


    Surprisingly, this was my first Michael Lewis book. I would say that I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but I was a bit disappointed with the execution. The book starts out really strong, with a short detour into the story of a man's ambitious project to lay a straight line of fiber optic cable from Chicago to New Jersey. The financial markets are all about speed, and shaving off a few milliseconds of travel time between two exchanges is worth billions. This fiber optic story is portrayed well in the movie The Hummingbird Project. However, Lewis then moves on to the meat of the book, a story of some RBC trades who learn that the stock market is unfair, due to front-running and other manipulative practices by High Frequency Traders, and set off to create their own stock exchange. 

    I learned a lot, but it seems that Michael's viewpoint through the book is far from unbiased. Even the story of Sergey Aleynikov, the Goldman Sachs programmer jailed for stealing code, is a bit frustrating to read. On one hand, it seems ridiculous that he was given such a lengthy prison sentence. On the other, Michael defends him to no end, and willfully speeds over less flattering aspects of the story. Sergey sent proprietary code by mail while he was in prison? Also, Michael criticizes Goldman from taking code from open source and then not contributing back to it. Isn't this true of every company? Why would you contribute specialized code in such a competitive industry directly to your competitors? Overall, I was expecting a bit more of an unbiased viewpoint. Still, this was a very interesting book to read, and parts of it certainly made my blood boil. Worth the read, I'm adding a few more of Michael's books to my reading list.

2. Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis


    I loved this book. Endlessly quotable, memorable characters, and ridiculous sums of money. Probably the perfect guilty pleasure of anyone involved in the world of finance. It struck me that the plans of undergraduates have not changed since 1982: 

"Use your economics degree to get an analyst job on Wall Street; use your analyst job to get into the Harvard or Stanford Business School; and worry about the rest of your life later."

    Other memorable quotes:

"Knowing about markets is knowing about other people's weaknesses"

"Fear and, to a lesser extend, greed are what make money move"

3. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis


    This was a perfect follow up to Liar's Poker. The Big Short follows a handful of people that made crazy amounts of money betting against the subprime mortgage market that ultimately collapsed in 2008. Most people have probably seen the movie, but I actually liked the book a bit better. It was less whiny, more detailed, and easier to understand. It is astounding and depressing how unprepared and oblivious financial institutions were to some pretty glaring risks. On the bright side, this book shows that you can lose your company 9 billion dollars and still walk away a millionaire. Welcome to Wall Street. 

    The characters are great, the story is infuriating, and the lessons are obvious. Classic Michael Lewis. Also, right at home is the clear bias of the story. I understand downplaying the role individual home owners played in the financial crisis. However, it seems Michael missed any mention of the government and Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie having even a sliver of blame? Nevertheless, an interesting story and an easy read.

4. Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir


    10/10. Such a solid, fun read. I crushed this book, reading cover to cover within a day. From the writer of The Martian, comes a story about a man with amnesia who wakes up alone on a spaceship. Yeah some parts are corny, but this will probably be my #1 book recommendation going forward. It's just so fun and accessible. 

5. Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel


    I really don't "get" Zen Buddhism.

6. Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch


    The first mind-bending book I've read in quite a while. I am confident this is kicking off a trend, and I already have some more slated to read next. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This book is one part Enemy (one of my favorite movies) and one part Meanwhile (a choose your own adventure comic I had in middle school). The initial half of the book was predictable, but the second half really let loose with the twists and turns. Also, the underlying commentary on the decisions we make and the lives we lead was perfect and really made the narrative seem deeper than it would have otherwise.

"We're all just wandering through the tundra of our existence, assigning value to worthlessness, when all that we love and hate, all we believe in and fight for and kill for and die for is as meaningless as images projected onto Plexiglas."

7. Replay, by Ken Grimwood


    I delivered on my promise, to read more fascinating, mind bending books. This story follows Jeff Winston, who is stuck in a time loop between ages 18 to 43. I loved this book. I don't know what it is about this sort of narrative that speaks to me so much. I think reading about a man who constantly repeats life forces you to confront the horrific fact that you have only one life, you have no idea why you are here, and you can't re-do any of it. This was a beautiful, engrossing novel that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

"We're here, and we don't know why. We can philosophize all we want, pursue the key to that secret along a thousand different paths, and we'll never be any closer to unlocking it."

"For all that they had struggled, all they'd once achieved, the end result was null. Even the happiness they had managed to find together had been frustratingly brief; a few years stolen here and there, transient moments of love and contentment like vanishing specks of foam in a sea of lonely, needless separation."

8. Practical Vim, Edit Text at the Speed of Thought, by Drew Neil


Yes, I read books about text editors in my free time. I would be embarrassed, but I’m too busy flying through code at the speed of sound to have time to care. Over the course of three weeks, I read this book, set Vim as my default text editor, and set up Vim plugins for all of my IDEs. I would guess this style of editing has increased my speed and productivity by about 15%. However, it has increased my sense of superiority by at least 50%. This was a fun detour, :q!

9. Animal Farm, by George Orwell


    My first audiobook, ever? I've always looked down my nose at people who claim to have "read" books when they mean "vaguely listened to while distracted and doing something else." Maybe it is the elitist in me, who scoffs at those without the patience to sit in a chair and read hundreds of pages of software engineering books in a week. I was wrong. This was an enjoyable experience that I can see continuing for the rest of my life. In the shower, on my way to work, working out, and more, I can be reading books! It's funny, reading is one of my favorite things to do, and now I can do it 24/7. Animal Farm was a great satire, and something I would not have been interested in reading on paper. I've started a collection on Audible, and I am planning on "reading" many more classics like this in the future.

10. Circe, by Madeline Miller


    Beautiful book, really. This book chronicles the story of Circe, a Greek goddess, nymph, and witch. Great story, compelling characters, and just a joy to listen to. This was another audiobook, but I'm sort of wishing I read it in print so that I could keep a list of quotes. Some have stuck with me, such as: "a golden cage is still a cage." This is an empowering, female-driven tale. I can't think of any way the book could have been improved. For the story told, and the perspective given, this was pretty much a  perfect book.

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