Monday, January 12, 2015

Books I Enjoyed In 2014

Regular readers of this blog will know that many of my posts are sparked by books or articles I've read. I thought it might be helpful to put together a short list of things I particularly enjoyed in 2014. While I've restricted the list to things I read for the first time in 2014, it must be said that I vastly prefer reading old classics to newer but less memorable tomes. I recently decided to pack up roughly 1/3 of the books that I own since I saw very little likelihood I would re-read them in the next 24 months. Of the remaining 2/3, I estimate I have yet to read 40% of the titles - but I'll get there! Still, there's no way to discover new favourites without breaking some new ground, so here's the 2014 list.

Business, Finance & Economics

Creativity, Inc: Pixar's Ed Catmull recounts how the company was built. An enjoyable look at the origins of this path-breaking company, and also very informative in thinking about how creative organizations can be nurtured. I wrote about it here

Salt Sugar Fat: Part history of the food industry, part expose of its unseemly practices to hook us on unhealthy foods. Like Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals", it truly changed how I view food and how I eat. It also made me think hard about equally unethical practices in the financial services industry.

The Second Machine Age: MIT professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee follow on from their previous work describing how technology is changing our economy, and how it will affect us as consumers, producers and workers. One of the greatest challenges is avoiding "this time is different" thinking while appreciating when genuine secular change is in the works. 2MA raises as many questions as it provides answers. 

Conspiracy of Fools: The story of Enron's rise and fall is well-known, but this account reads just like a thriller. The combination of greed, corruption, stupidity and fear of standing out is breathtaking, as is the juicy array of characters.

The Rotten Heart of Europe: Regular readers will know I'm often bearish and sometimes just plain confused about the future of the Eurozone. Connolly's book talks mainly about the cracks that were visible in the European project well before the European Exchange Rate Mechanism came to pass (predating the ongoing Euro crisis). Remarkably prescient about the crisis, and skillful in describing the politics and economics behind the flawed idea. I wrote about it here

And The Money Kept Rolling In (And Out): I'm a huge fan of Paul Blustein's work, and this work on the collapse of Argentina in the early 2000s is as good as I'd expect from him. It was particularly pertinent in 2014 as Argentina's sovereign debt woes continued, a legacy of the era Blustein recounts so skillfully.

The Life You Can Save & The Great Escape: It may surprise some to see Singer's "The Life You Can Save" under the Business, Finance & Economics heading but dealing with poverty is obviously an economic issue as much as a moral one. Singer's book will appeal to those who want to think clearly about how to do the most good with limited time and resources, and resonated deeply as I considered my long-term financial and life priorities. However, I disagreed with Singer's mechanical view of the economy where simple redistributions from rich to poor would create the best outcomes. This is a theme Princeton professor Angus Deaton takes up in "The Great Escape", which is a superb account of global trends in health and material well-being. Despite what appears to be a left-leaning bias, he is tepid on foreign aid and external intervention. Empathy has to be tempered with the fact that a true "Great Escape" can only occur when countries have strong organic institutions to engender postive health and economic outcomes.

Pioneering Portfolio Management: David Swensen's shepherding of the Yale endowment is the gold standard in institutional investing. Here, he describes how Yale does what it does (and doesn't shy away from attacking foolish and unethical practices in the financial industry). Of course, it must be taken with a grain of salt since not all institutions have Yale's resources and clout.

Measuring The Moat: Not a full-length book, but I loved the way Maubossin and Callahan combined a deep understanding of strategy and finance in this piece to explain how companies produce returns. This should be required reading for management and investment professionals alike.


Make It Stick: I'm always trying to learn about learning, and this book is absolutely terrific. I gained so much from the authors' explanations of the science of learning, which is conveyed in an accessible and memorable manner. Keeping this blog going is, in part, a reflection of some of the lessons learned from this book.

The Great Agnostic: Susan Jacoby does a superb job in bringing Robert G. Ingersoll back to the forefront of American intellectual history. Ingersoll's writing and speeches are magnificent to behold, but what's most impressive is how a contrarian streak and devotion to truth led him to the right side of many issues before his contemporaries.

Naked Statistics: If you're like me and have forgotten quite a bit of what you learned in high school/college statistics courses, Whelan's book, focusing on the intuition behind statistical thinking, is for you. We live in a world inundated with data and "statistics", so this is helpful in trying to separate fact from fiction. Whelan's humourous and accessible style had me laughing throughout - no mean feat for a book on statistics.

Hunting Eichmann: Fascinated by WWII? Of course you are. My interest was reignited after a trip to Auschwitz this year, and the story of Adolf Eichmann was particularly compelling. One of the central figures in conducting the Holocaust, Eichmann eluded capture for 15 years before being kidnapped by the Mossad in Buenos Aires. I learned a lot about the history of modern Israel, as well as Argentina's status as a Nazi haven post-WWII.

Marked: I have long been interested in the issue of returning formerly incarcerated people to the workforce, but Devah Pager's superb and creative sociological study reveals the challenges this group faces. Prepare to be shocked at the magnitude of this problem.

On China: I had this book on my shelf for 2 years before finally getting to it, and truth be told, may never read this massive tome again. But Kissinger's history of China, with a focus on foreign policy, is quite fascinating. Today, we take China's rise as a given but it's always worth remembering the domestic and international political environment necessary to allow those far-reaching economic reforms to unfold. 

In the Buddha's Words: "Mindfulness" is all the rage in the West these days, but this anthology compiles the Buddha's original teachings from the Pali Canon in a thematic fashion. It seems only right that we should seek truth wherever it may be found, and the power of these teachings resonated deeply with me as a secular humanist (as opposed to a "religious" Buddhist). Naturally, I managed to connect these ideas to investing here.

Honourable Mention

The Euro Crisis and Its Aftermath: If you need a primer on the Euro crisis, Jean Pisani-Ferry has done a terrific job here.

Beyond Debt: Similarly, Nikos Tsafos has done a good job bringing together the various strands of the Greek crisis in a single volume.

Risk Savvy: I'm a big fan of Gigerenzer's work. I'd heard much of this in prior books and speeches, but he always challenges me to go against some of the biases I hold, and to try and think more clearly about risks.

The Masters of Private Equity and Venture Capital: I read this in preparation for doing some consulting work to the PE industry, and enjoyed the easy style of the interviews, along with a good introduction to how some of the industry's top minds think. I wrote about it here

There's Always Something to Do: This is a short and enjoyable biography of the Canadian value investor Peter Cundill. While short on the nitty-gritty of specific investments, there is enough here to entertain students of the value investing niche. I wrote about it here.

The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: I'm sure you've figured out by now that I'm fascinated by financial & economic booms and busts. Ireland's particular foray into this genre is explained well by Donovan and Murphy. I wrote about it here.

The Accidental President of Brazil: I really enjoyed these memoirs of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who should be credited with Brazil's recent rise to prominence (a legacy his successors seem intent on squandering, unfortunately). The only reason this didn't make it to the main list is that I only read selected bits on Brazil's defeat of hyperinflation. I'm sure I'll read the whole thing at some point. I wrote about it here, here and here.

Man's Search For Meaning: This is partially a memoir of psychologist Viktor Frankl's time in Nazi concentration camps, and partially a discourse on his system of logotherapy, which proposes that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning. I read this just before visiting Auschwitz and was deeply moved.

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