The Signal and the Noise
- Summary: Nate Silver explores why “experts” in everything from weather forecasting to political handicapping are so often wrong. His conclusion: forecasting, at least as it is most often done, is marred by personal bias and hot air. The first chapter, “A Catastrophic Failure of Prediction,” dissects the 2008 mortgage crisis. If you liked books like Freaknomics or Outliers that have made social science theory appealing for mass consumption, you should enjoy The Signal and the Noise.
- About the Author: Coming on the heels of the 2012 election, Nate Silver’s become America’s leading popular intellectual. He recently announced that he would be leaving The New York Times for ESPN, where he will bring with him his popular blog FiveThrityEight. The new site will be rebranded to focus on sports instead of politics, but will feature the same statistical analysis that has made Silver famous. The Signal and the Noise is his first book.
- Quotable: “Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
- Summary: Michael Lewis recalls his experience as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers up to and through the 1987 financial crash. There is frequent mention of the similarities between Liar’s Poker, a card game popular among those at Salomon Brothers, and the actual work being conducted in the office. Lewis’ memories of the Salomon Brothers training program, one that included the “front-row people,” “the back-row people,” and “the Japanese,” is especially funny.
- About the Author: Liar’s Poker marked Lewis’ transition from finance to journalism. Since then he has written, among others, the popular sports books-turned-movies Moneyball and The Blindside. Lewis graduated from Princeton with a degree in Art History.
- Quotable: “I mean, few people would claim they actually liked studying economics; there was not a trace of self-indulgence in the act. Studying economics was more a ritual sacrifice…It got people jobs. And it did this because it demonstrated that they were among the most fervent believers in the primacy of economic life.”
- Summary: Despite being panned by the late-night comedy circuit (hyperlink Daily Show), it turns out that the late Senator Ted Stevens’ description, that the Internet is a “series of tubes,” isn’t too far from the truth. In his debut book, Andrew Blum explores the physical infrastructure behind the Internet. His travels take him everywhere from the Iberian peninsula, where he witnesses the maintenance of a ten-thousand mile underwater cable, to central Oregon, the site of one of Facebook’s data center and its 180,000 servers.
- About the Author: Andrew Blum is a writer for Newsweek. Tubes is his first book.
- Quotable: “For all the talk of the placelessness of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was. In basest terms, it is made of pulses of light…produced by powerful lasers contained in steel boxes housed in unmarked buildings. The lasers exist. The boxes exist. The buildings exist.”
Too Big to Fail
- Summary: Too Big to Fail is the authoritative book on 2008’s financial crisis, one that describes the “too big to fail” phenomenon and details how the federal government and big banks orchestrated the bailout as a consequence. Main actors include Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, and Timothy Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
- About the Author: Andrew Ross Sorkin (no relation to Aaron) is the founder of DealBook, the financial deal wire for The New York Times, and is a co-anchor of CNBC’s Squawk Box. He also gets a shout out in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.
- Quotable: “I don’t think I can take another day of this,” (Goldman Chief of Staff Russell) Horowitz said wearily. (Lloyd, Goldman CEO) Blankenfein laughed. “You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve—you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach! Keep things in perspective.”
Barbarians at the Gate
- Summary: Barbarians at the Gate chronicles the corporate history of RJR Nabisco, a food and tobacco conglomerate that was shepherded through a leveraged buyout (LBO) in 1988 by CEO Ross Johnson. The 1980s and early 1990s were characterized by an LBO boom and an eventual bust; the process of buying an existing company on borrowed money and generating a return through corporate restructuring is now frequently referred to by its broader name, private equity.
- About the Authors: Barbarians at the Gate was written by Bryan Burrough and John Helya and is based on a series of article written by the two for The Wall Street Journal. Sorkin (author of Too Big to Fail) cites Barbarians at the Gate as his inspiration for entering business reporting.
- Quotable: “They could devise a new charter for their new company, Johnson said. Call it PIK Associates. And it would include what Johnson dubbed the three rules of Wall Street: ‘Never play by the rules. Never pay in cash. And never tell the truth.’”
The Black Swan
- Summary: The Black Swan is an examination of the purportedly impossible occurrences that, because of their unexpected nature, are responsible for massive consequences. Examples of “Black Swans” include the fall of the USSR, the emergence of the Internet, and the September 11th terrorist attacks.
- About the Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb built his fortune and reputation betting against the market as a hedge fund manager and derivatives trader. In 2006, a year before publishing The Black Swan, he became a university professor. Taleb was born in Lebanon and grew up in the midst of the country’s civil war.
- Quotable: “When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.”
- Summary: On China is Henry Kissinger’s part memoir, part historical narrative concerning China. He traces the country’s long and proud history, from the Middle Kingdom to the present, in the context of its complicated relationship with the West. While most of the attention is given to the years Kissinger spent engaged in formal diplomatic relations (from the 1968 until 1977), he also explores how China figures to play a role in the 21st century.
- About the Author: Henry Kissinger served as Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in establishing a ceasefire between the U.S. and Vietnam.
- Quotable: “The ‘rise’ of China is not primarily the result of its military strength. It reflects importantly a declining American competitive position, expressed by obsolescent infrastructure, inadequate attention to research and development and a seemingly dysfunctional governmental process. How the United States addresses these issues is a matter for American ingenuity and determination; these will be more decisive for the future than blaming a stipulated adversary.”