“The New New Thing” by Michael Lewis


I really do think, and not just because I happen to be writing a book about it, that the business of creating and foisting new technology upon others that goes on in Silicon Valley is near the core of the American experience. The United States obviously occupies a strange place in the world. It is the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy, of certain kinds of freedom, and of transience. Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world. It is one of those places, unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but like Las Vegas, that are unimaginable anywhere but in the United States. It is distinctively us.

This snapshot of late-1990s Silicon Valley is interesting because it’s so far removed from today. Think about what has changed: Google wasn’t started until 1998, Apple was floundering, and Microsoft ruled software; all while cell phones were novelties that could barely even function as phones.The ‘new new thing’ has since been fawned over and discarded a hundred times.

The main character here is Jim Clark, a name the public has forgotten who made billions from taking the Netscape browser public on the stock market. From reading this, I’m certain than he did a lot to push technologies from Netflix to GPS navigation from fanciful to commonplace. His gusto prompted gigantic tech companies to pour billions of dollars into these innovations that were terrible failures for their first dozen iterations.

Michael Lewis’ musings on untrammeled ambition and the ceaseless desire for New and More that technologists foist upon the world are not to be missed.

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“Napoleon” by Paul Johnson


The Louisiana Purchase must rate as Bonaparte’s greatest single failure of imagination. “Louisiana” compromised 828,000 square miles, subsequently becoming thirteen states. France was paid $15 million, or four cents an acre. If Bonaparte had used France’s legitimate rights to its American territory to explore and create an enormous dominion across the Atlantic, instead of trying to carve out an illegitimate empire in Europe, he would have enriched France instead of impoverishing her, provided scope for countless adventurous young Frenchmen instead of killing them in futile battles, and incidentally inflicted more damage on his British opponents than all his efforts in Europe. He would also have changed the globe permanently, something his career failed to achieve in the end.

This is a departure from the short biographies I’ve read by Paul Johnson because it’s obvious that he doesn’t like Napoleon. I’ve read his biographies on Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill, and each were intoxicating because of the author’s passion for his subject. His breathless enthusiasm is like that of a passionate teacher lecturing on something that excites him. But with Napoleon, Johnson’s usual enthusiasm is tempered by the tyrant’s pivotal failures.

Johnson sees Napoleon as a monumental but ultimately tragic figure, dragged down by his overwhelming aggression and ambition, a force of destruction and upheaval rather than creation. An opportunist for opportunity’s sake.

Perhaps that is the central lesson of Napoleon’s life, who was a brilliant battlefield strategist but miserable politician and statesmen. In fact, this point was made best by Johnson himself, in the final paragraph of this book:

The great evils of Bonapartism–the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power–came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century, which will go down in history as the Age of Infamy. It is well to remember the truth about the man whose example gave rise to all, to strip away the myth and reveal the reality. We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing–indeed are perilous in the extreme–without a humble and contrite heart.

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“Columbine” by David Cullen



National polls taken shortly after the attack would identify all sorts of culprits contributing to the tragedy: violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan. Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.

The frightening part of this book is that it offers no scapegoat, no easy answer. The closest thing it offers is in the psychological profiles of the two perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: that Eric was a psychopathic and Dylan was majorly depressed. And “an angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair.”

Insanity was marked by mental confusion. Eric Harris expressed cold, rational calculation. Fuselier ticked off Eric’s personality traits: charming callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose, and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy. It was like reciting the Psychopathy Checklist.

The closest thing I came to any sort of conclusion while reading this was when I was watching a documentary of the JFK assassination and some perceptive videographer captured this image from the movie poster of the film Lee Harvey Oswald was watching at the Texas Theatre when he was captured, War is Hell:


“There are some things that only the people that do them understand.”

As chilling as that sentiment is, this book is a well-crafted snapshot of the late 90s. David Cullen approaches this delicate subject with nuance and respect. Along with 9/11, I consider this travesty to be one of the defining mass events of my adolescence. Harrowing, but necessary, reading.

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“The End of Power” by Moisés Naím


The three revolutionary changes that define our time are as follows: the More revolution, which is characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates, and quantity of products on the market; the Mobility revolution, which has set people, goods, money, ideas, and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates toward every corner of the planet (including those that were once remote and inaccessible); and the Mentality revolution, which reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.


Moisés Naím is convinced that being in charge is more difficult, less rewarding, and easier to fall out of than ever before in history. While technology is an obvious scapegoat for this, Naím proves that at its core this phenomena is rooted in the fact that “we are far more numerous on the planet; we live longer; we are in better health; we are more literate and educated; an unprecedented number of us are less desperate for food and have more time and money for other pursuits; and when we are not satisfied with our present location, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to move and try somewhere else.”

This book is an exploration of why people in power are having a more difficult time than ever exercising their authority. His anecdotes and quotes are convincing, and he makes his point from an exhaustive number of angles. Just take it from Bill Clinton’s quote on the cover: “The End of Power will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.”

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Crazy Lives

The crazies

The Wikipedia pages for these guys make for enthralling reading:

Randal Tye Thomas (August 23, 1978 – January 13, 2014)—This guy is the youngest mayor in Texas history. In college, he started newspapers, owned vending machines, was a member of the Electoral College during the 2000 election, and was elected mayor of Gun Barrel City, Texas at age 21. From there, his life spiraled out of control. Within a year, he was indicted by a Grand Jury for “misusing city equipment for personal gain and perjury”–he’d lied about how long he’d actually lived in the city he was now mayor of. Later that week, he downed some Xanax and got really drunk at home and called 911 on himself. The police arrived and tried to calm him down, but he insisted they arrest him, so they did. (Listen to ‘This American Life’ segment for additional details). The rest of his life is pure Greek tragedy, involving his resignation, leaving down, and winding up dead from drugs and alcohol a decade later.

Liev Schreiber  (October 4, 1967 – present)—This famous actor had a strange upbringing because of his mother. Wikipedia describes her as a “far-out Socialist Labor Party hippie bohemian freak who hung out with William Burroughs” and a “highly cultured eccentric who supported them by splitting her time between driving a cab and creating papier-mâché puppets.” She bought him a motorcycle on his 16th birthday to ‘promote fearlessness.’ She also briefly made him take a Hindu name, wear yoga shirts, and forbade him to see color movies. As a result, his favorite actors growing up (in the 1970s) were Charlie Chaplin and Basil Rathbone. Other eccentricities documented in his early life include his grandmother being lobotomized, nobody in his family knowing why they named him Liev, and that his father kidnapped him from his mother after she freaked out on LSD and went to live in a commune. It makes you wonder how Liev Schreiber feels about all this.

Lawrence Richard Walters (April 19, 1949 – October 6, 1993)—’Lawnchair Larry’ was a truck driver who one day decided to float 15,000 feet in the air sitting in a lawn chair tied to 45 helium-filled balloons. He brought along a pellet gun (to shoot down the balloons when he wanted to come down), a CB radio, sandwiches, beer, and a camera. After 45 minutes in the sky, he shot some balloons before dropping his gun. During his descent, the balloons got tangled in some power lines and caused a 20 minute blackout in the Long Beach, CA neighborhood where he landed. When asked by the press why he did it, he responded by saying, “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.”

Emanuel Bronner (February 1, 1908 – March 7, 1997)—You might know this man as the maker of Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap, the brand of soap products with insane ramblings on the label that are available in health food stores the world over. What you might not know is that Bronner was a German Jew who left Nazi Germany in 1929 when he saw the way politics were moving. He was unable to convince the rest of his family that was a good idea. Tragically, his last contact with his parents was in the form of a censored postcard saying, “You were right. —Your loving father.”

His Wikipedia entry is surprisingly dismissive about one episode in his life, saying that “he was arrested for giving a speech at the University of Chicago because he had no permit authorizing him to do so and was committed to the Elgin Mental Health Center a mental hospital in Elgin, Illinois, from which he escaped after shock treatments. Bronner believed those shock treatments caused him to go blind.” The full story, gleaned from the source material, is that Bronner “began spending more of his time trying to save mankind, sending letters to world leaders and speaking against Communism and fluoridation and for one God. He was proselytizing his message of peace in his heavy German accent and organizing students at the University of Chicago in 1946 when he refused to leave the dean’s office and was arrested. Bronner began spending more of his time trying to save mankind, sending letters to world leaders and speaking against Communism and fluoridation and for one God. He was proselytizing his message of peace in his heavy German accent and organizing students at the University of Chicago in 1946 when he refused to leave the dean’s office and was arrested. He was taken to a mental hospital in Elgin, Ill., placed in straitjackets and given shock treatments, which he later claimed caused his blindness. After six months, he stole $20 from a purse, escaped from the grounds and bought a newspaper to search the classifieds for someone looking to share a ride. Bronner picked Los Angeles because no one knew him there. On the way, the driver stopped in Las Vegas to do a little gambling, and Bronner decided they had become good enough friends for him to confide he had escaped from a mental hospital. They weren’t that good a friends, it turned out, and the driver dumped Bronner in Las Vegas.” A crazy life indeed.

John Harvey Kellogg (February 26, 1852 – December 14, 1943)—This is the man that Kellogg’s cereals came from. In life, he ran a sanitarium using holistic methods, with a particular focus on nutrition, enemas, and exercise. “Kellogg made sure that the bowel of each and every patient was plied with water, from above and below. His favorite device was an enema machine that could rapidly instill several gallons of water in a series of enemas. Every water enema was followed by a pint of yogurt — half was eaten, the other half was administered by enema, ‘thus planting the protective germs where they are most needed and may render most effective service.’ Obviously, he was a freak but considering he lived to be 91 when the life expectancy was about 50 he might’ve been on to something.

What is the cheapest grocery store to shop at, anyway?


There are five major grocery stores within walking distance from my house: Safeway, King Soopers (Denver’s Kroger), Natural Grocers, Sprouts, and Walmart. I’m always torn at which one would be the best to shop at. Shopping for food, not shopping for wives.

Sprouts is unquestionably my favorite; the staff is the most friendly, and the shelves are neatly stocked with a plethora of interesting products, and the women are the prettiest. But is it the cheapest? Do these auxiliary amenities fool me into thinking I’m getting a better deal than I am? In other words, am I paying for the experience of shopping there and paying a Whole Foods-like premium for the privilege?

The way I went about answering this question was to compare the prices of ten items I regularly buy across these five stores.The items compared were a pound of grassfed ground beef, a dozen free-range omega-3 enriched eggs, Talenti ice cream, avocados, Tazo tea, coffee, raw almonds and cashews, spinach, and couscous.

Price Per Store

Best prices in each category are in bold; Walmart didn’t carry a few things.

There are a few intangibles that don’t show up in this data. For instance, King Soopers has the best price for tea but the worst selection. Walmart is quick to run out of a lot of things. Sprouts doesn’t have the best price on avocados, but they offer the largest and healthiest cheaply, essentially offering large ones for the price other stores offer small ones.

My brain is screaming for reasons to defend Sprouts, but the numbers don’t lie: Walmart is the best place to shop for proteins, and Natural Grocers is the best place to go for nuts, while King Soopers has the cheapest prices on average. Apparently, my beloved Sprouts is only a bargain if I need ice cream.