“The Big Switch” by Nicholas Carr

This book was written in 2008. Although that was an eternity ago in digital years, the question this book begs is still pertinent: namely, how will our world be transformed as computing power increases and gets cheaper? To answer this, Carr first turns to the history of electricity, and it’s shift from an energy source generated on demand to a widely-available utility.

Computing is similar to electricity in that once it is freely available it can be used to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. Alternating between historical narrative and speculation, Nicholas Carr proves as adept at recreating the past as he is at envisioning the future.


Quotes and Anecdotes: The 19th Century Ice Trade, Digital Sharecropping, and The Great Unbundling.
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“The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations” by Larry Tye

Edward Bernays is hailed by many to be the founder of Public Relations as a discipline. Whether or not that is true, he certainly was it’s first major intellectual and figurehead. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and applied his psychology to the masses in order to drive them to buy things. His approach was to influence people to adopt a lifestyle that would necessitate them buying the product he was pitching, rather than appealing to common sense. Among other things, he figured out how to popularize cigarettes, even though he himself never smoked, made bacon and eggs breakfast food, and was the brain behind dozen of other advertising campaigns that still to this day define ‘normal’.

Larry Tye is a critical biographer who manages to maintain a respect for his subject even while pointing out his many personal flaws and inconsistencies. For instance, he was a social butterfly without close friends. He didn’t spend time with his children. He adored hos wife but neglected and suppressed her, even while advocation women’s liberation. The book leaves you unsure of who this man was and why he did what he did, but no doubt that he continues to have a profound influence on American life.

Also check out the fantastic documentary, “The Century Of The Self”

Quotes and Anecdotes:  The Wisdom of Edward Bernays
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“The Next America” by Paul Taylor

Meet the Millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident, and broke.

Everybody has an opinion about Millennials, mostly informed by media bloviators. According to this book, we’re (those born between 1980 and 2000) inexplicably overconfident in our prospects for the future. The author’s explanation is that our parents coddled us, but I think an unmentioned source of that confidence is the gilded age we live in. Credit is easily obtainable, meaning we can pay for extravagant lifestyles  and educations later. Shiny, sleek technology distracts our attention from the crumbling infrastructure, the pot holed inner city streets and sidewalks. Uneven expectations are a given when everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket and the entire world is easily accessible with the touch of a button (24% of Millennials say that ‘Technology use’ is the number one unique distinction of their generation).

That said, the point of the book is to explore generational differences in America. There’s not enough money to go around. Nobody has made a decision on how to keep promises to the elderly without bankrupting the youth.

Among the topics discussed: Older people are working longer which means there’s less room for younger people in the workforce. Marriage is getting rarer, especially among poorer populations. College tuition is at all all-time high, and will continue to get more expensive. People are living long than ever. Fewer babies are being born. And either the young will have to accept a tax increase to pay for the retirement of the old, or the old will have to take a benefits cut. At this rate, were robbing from the future to pay for the present.

Quotes and Anecdotes: Marriage As A Status Symbol and The Basics of American Demography.
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“Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari

Finding someone today is probably more complicated and stressful than it was for previous generations—but you’re also more likely to end up with someone you are really excited about.

This is a book that only Aziz Ansari could write and he does so brilliantly. Teaming up with an academic sociologist (Eric Klinenberg), and using focus groups from reddit and his comedy shows, he explores how dating works in modern times. Specifically, how do we go about looking for love when we are able to live virtually anywhere, and communicate with anyone at any time? This book is more a meditation than a how-to guide, and Aziz is insightful, compelling, and hilarious throughout.

Further Links:
Check out Aziz’s hysterical Madison Square Garden special on Netflix (a couple YouTube bits relevant to this book: Making Plans With Flaky People and Creepy Dudes Are Everywhere).
The Freakonomics podcast that sold me on reading this book.
What the professionals are saying: Vanity Fair’s review.
Quotes and Anecdotes: Stop going on Boring Ass Dates
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“Darwin: Portrait of a Genius” by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is a superb biographer. He has written a series of short, accessible biographies on people like Socrates, Jesus, Mozart, and Napoleon that are effective at engaging the reader, and placing the figure in a historical context that elucidates why they story is still relevant.He does just this with Charles Darwin, the eminent Victorian naturalist.

The biggest surprise to me was how old an idea evolution was even 150 years ago. Darwin was simply the best traveled scientist of his day and so was the first to notate the surprising varieties of species in the world. He didn’t invent the ideas of evolution or natural selection, he was the scientist famous for popularizing the theories and had gathered the most evidence for them. The climate of Victorianism is completely antithetical to the zeitgeist of today, and the places his ideas were carried in the absence of knowledge of Mendelian genetics are disturbing. From natural selection comes Social Darwinism, eugenics, and forced sterilization.

The history of these ideas are still relevant, and being fought over, and so this portrait of a Victorian genius and his ideas is still vitally relevant today.

Vocabulary and Anecdotes
exponent—a person or thing that expounds, explains, or interprets.
panjandrum—a person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence.
saponaceous—of, like, or containing soap; soapy.
polymath—a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
Quotes and Anecdotes: The Ancient Theory of Evolution and The Power of Ideas (For Good and Evil).

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“Social Media is Bullshit” by B.J. Mendelson

B.J. Mendelson is a former online marketer who is fed up with the lies and the all-encompassing positivism surrounding the promise of social media. Some of his attempts to be funny are grating, but his honesty is refreshing and is what makes reading this book worthwhile.

This book’s main point is that social media is bullshit for small businesses (“like us on Facebook!”) that don’t have the massive financial backing of giant corporations to launch a Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/Yelp!/Instagram marketing campaign. The lie that these avenues for getting customers is a lie propagated by marketers who stand to gain from running these small businesses’ social media presence. The most effective advice the author has for these companies is a quickly-loading, uncluttered webpage and focusing on personal relationships with their real-life customers.

This book also has a practical lesson for everyone, even though it’s only a peripheral argument. Social media is bullshit for regular people because companies like Facebook gather all the value their users produce without giving anything back. Facebook owns all the content you create, as well as the advertising dollars your eyeballs generate. And that, my friends, IS bullshit!

Further Links
Samuel Brannan—Morman businessman who became a millionaire publicizing the California Gold Rush of the 1840s.
Adbusters Kalle Lasn—Baby Boomer journalist who incited the Occupy Wall Street campaign
New Yorker article: “Lessons from Late Night” by Tina Fey
Telecommunications Act of 1996
Cisco’s “Ted from Accounting”—Cisco’s abysmal failure to replicate Old Spice Man’s advertising success (I could find tons of commentary on this but not the actual video.)
Chewbacca defense—a joke from South Park that has become legal terminology to describe a legal strategy in which the aim of the argument seems to be to deliberately confuse the jury rather than actually refute the case of the other side.

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“Cracked: Putting Broken Lives Together Again” by Dr. Drew Pinsky

I’ve always been a fan of Dr. Drew as a radio personality but didn’t know much about his everyday personal and professional life. It feels like he he left nothing out in this book. His busy professional life is covered in great detail (he runs a private practice as a general care physician, a drug treatment facility, and at night answers calls on the long-running radio show Loveline), but he also opens up about his own fears and neuroses.

However, the book is mostly about drug addiction and treatment. No matter what anyone says about drug addiction (is it a disease? a failure of impulse control? Poor parenting?) what is readily apparent from this book is that opiate withdrawal is brutal. If nothing else, read this book to scare yourself about and find out about prescription drug use, which is killing about 44 Americans per day.

Further Links:
The Dr. Drew Podcast—specifically my favorite ones pertaining to addiction/treatment:
David Sheff (wrote a couple books and this article recounting his son’s drug problems)
Chris Kennedy Lawford (ex-addict who’s interviewed hundreds of treatment experts for a book)
Bob Forrest (huuuuge ex-junkie and now a rehab counselor)
What the professionals are saying: The Publisher’s Weekly review
Vicodin addiction is linked to profound hearing loss and TV medical dramas give misleading medical information (which should be no surprise!)
Buy on Amazon: Cracked: Life on the Edge in a Rehab Clinic

Vocabulary and Stuff of Interest:
somatically—of the body; bodily; physical. ‘…somatically preoccupied heroin addicts.’
labile—liable to change; easily altered. Easily broken down or displaced.
turgor—a sign used by health care workers to assess fluid loss or dehydration.

Quotes and Anecdotes: Dr. Drew on the Emptiness of Entertainment and In Drug Rehab With Dr. Drew.

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“The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt

This book is amazing, it’s the rare book that has something to offer everyone. I say that because who doesn’t want to live a ‘happy life’?

The final paragraph summed up the book better than I ever could:

What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life? What is the answer to the question of the purpose within life? I believe the answer can be found only by understanding the kind of creature that we are, divided in the many ways we are divided. We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige. and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures who needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the others’ strengths. I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of the purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of these conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get right the relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose will emerge.

Further Links:
www.happinesshypothesis.com: the author’s website, filled with supplemental information.
Quotes and Anecdotes: Theories of Mind Throughout the AgesThe First Division: Mind vs. BodyThe Second Division: Left vs. Right ; The Third Division of the Mind: New vs. Old ; The Fourth Division of the Mind: Controlled vs. Automatic Thinking ; and A Brilliant Study of Moral Hypocrisy.
Buy on Amazon: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

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“And the Sea Will Tell” by Vincent Bugliosi

“An ocean is forever asking questions,
And writing them aloud along the shore.”
—Edwin Arlington Robinson

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf since Christmas 2011, and it was author/attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s (August 18, 1934 – June 6, 2015) death that encouraged me to finally read it. And I’m glad I did. Much like his earlier book, Helter Skelter, this book details murders that took place under mysterious circumstances, the specifics of which Bugliosi had to piece together in order to bring the case to trial. The first part of the book reads like adventure/mystery fiction, with the later parts covering the ensuing legal proceedings. Bugliosi interjects the narrative of the investigation and trial with his own legal theories and observations; and manages to keep the writing compelling throughout the book’s 729 pages.

(spoilers ahead) 

In the summer of 1974, two couples took a long-term getaway to the remote 4.6 sq. mi. island Palmyra, which is positioned in the Pacific between the Hawaii and Australia. They both were hoping to be the only people on this otherwise deserted island. The two couples couldn’t be more different: Mac and Muff Graham are seasoned sailors who went around the world on their honeymoon. The other couple, Buck Walker and Jennifer Jenkins, are rootless ‘hippies’ who are out of their element so far from civilization. They are out on the open seas for the thrill, without having the knowledge to survive. They barely make it to the island in their rundown boat and don’t have the provisions that Mac and Muff have with them.

I should probably mention that Walker is a convicted felon running from the law. Jennifer is aware of this and has conflicted feelings about it, but sees him as a fundamentally good person.

Long story short, after a couple months on the island Mac and Muff disappear and Buck and Jennifer are spotted in a Hawaii harbor in the missing couple’s boat.

No one will ever know for sure what exactly transpired far out on this Pacific atoll, but Vincent Bugliosi takes on the case to defend Jennifer from the murder charges. Buck Walker’s conviction is a slam dunk, and he ended up in prison until 2007. Of the two, only Muff’s body was ever found, and that was six years after the couple disappeared. In the end, Bugliosi makes a convincing argument that Buck Walker acted alone in the murders of Mac and Muff Graham, and Jennifer is acquitted of the charges.

“Mac Graham, we can speculate with a degree of certainty, lies inside that last missing container. But are his remains still in their watery grave in the Palmyra lagoon, where at any time, like Muff’s, they could surface and wash ashore? Or has his makeshift coffin washed out through the channel into the murky depths of the sea that Mac so loved?

Someday, perhaps the sea will tell.”

Further Links:
Vincent Bugliosi’s New York Times obituary
Buck Walker’s death notice in the Honolulu Advertiser, 2010
Jerome Kern ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’
Quotes and Anecdotes: Consciousness of Innocence, On Judges, Trial Preparation, and Jury Selection Prejudice.
Buy on Amazon: And the Sea Will Tell

Vocabulary and Stuff of Interest:
Caryl Chessman, the ‘Red Light Bandit’
Palmyra, the scene of the crime
Allard Lowenstein
Massie Trial, Hawaii
peroration–the concluding part of a speech, typically intended to inspire enthusiasm in the audience.
redound– contribute greatly to (a person’s credit or honor). ‘This confusion could only redound to her detriment.’
avuncular–like an uncle ‘despite his easygoing manner and avuncular looks, he could be tough and direct when necessary.’
splenetic–bad-tempered; spiteful. ‘his splenetic repertoire.’
sybaritic–fond of sensuous luxury or pleasure; self-indulgent. ‘Kool-Aid was a sybaritic luxury on a deserted island in the tropics.’
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“Dying Every Day: Seneca At The Court of Nero” by James Romm

Is life on a battlefield, or on death row, worth living? Seneca seems to be of two minds. At one point, he extols the beauty of the world, the joys that outweigh all suffering. At another, he reckons up the pains of mortal life and claims that, were we offered it as a gift instead of being thrust into it, we would decline. In either case, life, properly regarded, is only a journey toward death. We wrongly say that the old and sick are ‘dying,’ when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly.

James Romm’s book ‘Dying Every Day’ brings to life the turbulent times of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who lived from 4 BC to AD 65. He was tutor and close confidant of Emperor Nero, probably the most incompetent and vain ruler in annals of Roman history. Strangely, Seneca’s lofty moral writing makes no mention of the turmoil of the age. Seneca the writer embraces Stoicism and a quiet, well-examined life, while his city literally burned to the ground under his pupil’s impotent rule.

The question that burns at the heart of this book is how should Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic be read? Was he a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue who, when he found himself at the center of Roman politics, did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot? Or was he a clever manipulator who connived his way into power for power’s sake, and his moral treatises are merely a distraction from his true intentions. There is no clear answer to that, but his ideas are nonetheless still relevant.

Further Links:
School of Life’s YouTube video on Stoicism
What the professionals are saying: The New York Times review
Quotes and Anecdotes: Seneca–Man, Sage, and Politician
Buy on Amazon: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero ; Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

abstemious–not self-indulgent, especially when eating and drinking.
cursus honorum–the “sequence of offices” in the career of a Roman politician.
modus vivendi–an arrangement or agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist peacefully, either indefinitely or until a final settlement is reached.
cri di coeur— a passionate outcry (as of appeal or protest)
ex nihilo–Latin for “out of nothing.”
maladroit–ineffective or bungling; clumsy.
sinecure–a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit.
obsequies–funeral rites.
troika–a committee consisting of three members.
concomitant–naturally accompanying or associated.
plangent–loud, reverberating, and often melancholy.
apotheosis–the highest point in the development of something; culmination or climax.
nonpareil–French for “without equal.”
victuals–food or provisions, typically as prepared for consumption.
diptych–is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge.
noisome–disagreeable; unpleasant. Especially having an extremely offensive smell.

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