Facebook

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It’s been about 5 years since Jim Cramer and Bob Lang coined the acronym “FANG” for mega-cap high growth stocks Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet Google.

And while it just happens to lead a handy acronym, Facebook is quite possibly the most controversial tech company of all time.

For most, this is due to one person, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. It has been almost a decade since the movie about Facebook and its founder, The Social Network, hit with such force.

We remain fascinated by Facebook and Zuckerberg. We want to learn more, but we want something different. That’s why I was drawn in by a book review for “Zucked.” Here’s how it begins:

The dystopia George Orwell conjured up in “1984” wasn’t a prediction. It was, instead, a reflection. Newspeak, the Ministry of Truth, the Inner Party, the Outer Party — that novel sampled and remixed a reality that Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism had already made apparent. Scary stuff, certainly, but maybe the more frightening dystopia is the one no one warned you about, the one you wake up one morning to realize you’re living inside.

Roger McNamee, an esteemed venture capitalist, would appear to agree. “A dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready,” he writes in “Zucked.” Think that sounds like overstatement? Let’s examine the evidence. At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself “a platform.”

Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labor; on the contrary, users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and consequently strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the company’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform. Want more? You can read the full article here

Go Greek!

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Can you stand one more “self-help” book? Most of us can’t, so I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical when I read a review of, “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.

The review was great. The book was better. This blog would be pages long if I told you all about the book, so please enjoy a few paragraphs from the review. Here’s how it begins:

Three years ago, New Year’s came and I promised to eat only organic. I lasted two weeks. A year ago, I resolved to run before dawn and take a cold shower every morning. That lasted two days. This year, I don’t have a resolution. Instead I read Edith Hall’s “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life,” and concluded I probably didn’t have to undergo some painful — and therefore temporary — transformation to remake my life. I just had to put some sustained effort into being properly happy.

There is a pernicious, but widely held, belief that turning over a new leaf always involves turning our worlds upside down, that living a happy, well-adjusted life entails acts of monkish discipline or heroic strength. The genre of self-help lives and dies on this fanaticism: We should eat like cave men, scale distant mountains, ingest live charcoal, walk across scalding stones, lift oversize tires, do yoga in a hothouse, run a marathon, run another. In our culture, virtuous moderation and prudence rarely sell but, taking her cues from Aristotle, Hall offers a set of reasons to explain why they should.

Hall’s new book clears a rare middle way for her reader to pursue happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, usually translated as well-being or prosperity. This prosperity has nothing to do with the modern obsession with material success but rather “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” It sounds platitudinous enough, but it isn’t, thanks to Hall’s tight yet modest prose.

“Aristotle’s Way” carefully charts the arc of a virtuous life that springs from youthful talent, grows by way of responsible decisions and self-reflection, finds expression in mature relationships, and comes to rest in joyful retirement and a quietly reverent death. Easier said than done, but Aristotle, Hall explains, is there to help. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Better Prose

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Whether you write at work, at home, as a hobby, whatever, you likely welcome tips on how to improve what you write. It’s human nature.

That’s why I was struck by a recent review of a book, “Dreyer’s English.” The review had the intriguing title, “Flossing Your Prose.” Here’s how it began:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.) Want more? You can read it here

For Duty and Honor: Reviewed in Wings of Gold Magazine

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THERE IS DUTY. THERE IS JUSTICE. AND THEN THERE IS VENGEANCE…

A vicious terrorist attack leaves nearly seventy U.S. sailors dead, and the entire United States Navy looking for answers.

In the volatile waters of the Arabian Gulf, the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group – under the command of Admiral Heater Robinson – stands ready to unleash the full fury of a nuclear aircraft carrier against America’s enemies. When it becomes clear that the government has no intention of punishing the murderers, Robinson decides to take justice into his own hands, no matter what the cost.

As a storm of terror descends upon the United States, CIA operative and U.S. Navy SEAL Rick Holden faces a moral dilemma of his own. The military elite in Washington have chosen Holden to halt the cycle of madness.

His orders: assassinate the strike group’s commander, Admiral Heater Robinson.

One of the Greats!

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For people who love books, 2018 was a year of mixed blessings – many great new books arrived, but it was also a year when we lost one of the greats, V.S. Naipaul.

While there have been many wonderful obituaries of this wonderful writer, one in particular is most memorable to me. Here is how it begins:

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate had so many gifts as a writer — suppleness, wit, an unsparing eye for detail — that he could seemingly do whatever he wanted. What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself. The world’s readers flocked to his many novels and books of reportage for “his fastidious scorn,” as the critic Clive James wrote, “not for his large heart.” In his obvious greatness, in the hard truths he dealt, Naipaul attracted and repelled.

He was a walking sack of contradictions, in some ways the archetypal writer of the shifting and migratory 20th century. His life was a series of journeys between old world and new. He was a cool and sometimes snappish mediator between continents. Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, Naipaul attended Oxford and lived in London, where he came to wear elegant suits and move in elite social circles. “When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he said. “I’m speaking literally.”

It is a mistake to compress any gifted writer, perhaps especially Naipaul, down to his politics. His gifts as an observer are simply too large. But political themes came fully into view. His instinctive defense of the locals who led restricted lives under colonialism came into crushing conflict with his bleak view of their societies. Not for him the upbeat, pastel-colored Caribbean novel of uplift. He was pessimistic about the idea of radical political change.

A touchy sense of shame cut through his fiction. “My most difficult thing to overcome was being born in Trinidad,” he said. “That crazy resort place! How on earth can you have serious writing from a crazy resort place?” He may have won the Nobel Prize in 2001 but, from the start, he was a laureate of humiliation. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Timefulness

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Like an increasing number of people, I find mindfulness meditation is a great way to live in the moment, stop reliving the past and stop being anxious about the future.

That’s why I was taken by a book review of a new book, “Timefulness,” which has as its central argument that,

With mindfulness, the goal is to focus on the present. With timefulness, it’s to see the present as a tiny detail in a complex grand sum. Here is how the piece begins:

At midnight, the glittering crystal ball will drop in Times Square. Revelers around the world will straggle home, nod off, and greet the new year with a dullness caused by sleep deprivation, overstimulation and inebriation. This behavior suggests that we give higher priority to the final few hours of the past than the first few hours of the future—perhaps because endings are more concrete than beginnings, and regrets sharper than resolutions.

Geologists don’t think this way, particularly Marcia Bjornerud, author of “Timefulness,” a profound meditation on the richness, depth and entanglements of geologic time. Her brief book on a big subject puts the ball drop in proper perspective by reminding us that the Gregorian calendar is anachronistic and by elegantly condensing the landmark tomes of geology, from James Hutton’s “Theory of the Earth” (1788) to John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World” (1998).

Want more? You can read the full article here.

A New World Order

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With tens of thousands of new books on the market, deciding what to read is getting more and more challenging. Friends recommend books and we get inputs from multiple sources.

That’s why I gravitate to the New York Times best-seller lists in the Sunday Book Review section, as well as their periodic lists of critics’ top choices.

Here is how the latest list of top books begins:

If we had to use a single word to describe the past year in books, it might be eclectic. Novels were told from the perspective of a woman imprisoned for murder, a woman who suddenly inherits a Great Dane and a woman having an affair with a writer who strongly resembles Philip Roth. We also got an esteemed literary biographer turning her lens on herself, a sprawling, fresh look at New York’s postwar art world and clear-eyed advice about how to die. As in 2017, some of the year’s best nonfiction addressed global tumult — but a bit more subtly, in several cases, by casting an eye back to distant but still-resonant history, like the decades of deferral and denial that led to the Civil War. Below, The New York Times’s three daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — share their thoughts about their favorites among the books they reviewed this year, each list alphabetical by author.

Want more? You can read it here

World’s Policeman?

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Most Americans feel somewhere deep in their gut that it is futile for the United States to try to be world’s policeman – but many of us have trouble articulating why that is a bad thing.

A review of Stephan Walt’s new book, “The Hell of Good Intentions” helped me understand just how badly we stumble when we try to be everything to everybody. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Edmund Burke, who warned, “I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded,” Walt views America’s recurrent bouts of missionary zeal with consternation. Others, like the foreign policy writer Robert Kagan, may fret about an encroaching jungle invading the gardens of the West; Walt’s attitude is to forget about trying to trim it back. As a longstanding member of the realist school of foreign policy, which has traditionally subordinated considerations about human rights and morality to a balance of power, Walt might be expected to wax enthusiastic about Donald Trump, who has espoused a “principled realism” and condemned the foreign policy establishment. Walt, however, exhibits as much disdain for Trump’s bellicosity as he does for the liberal internationalists that he indicts here. Walt’s book offers a valuable contribution to the mounting debate about America’s purpose. But his diagnosis of America’s debilities is more persuasive than his prescriptions to remedy them.

According to Walt, the dominant narrative after the conclusion of the Cold War was that history was on America’s side, even, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a famous 1989 essay in The National Interest, that so-called history had ended and all that remained was economic materialism. Globalization would lead to what Karl Marx had called in the Communist Manifesto a “universal interdependence” among nations; warfare would become a thing of the past. America’s mission was to push other states to protect human rights and to help them transition to democracy.

In Walt’s view, “despite minor differences, both liberal and neoconservative proponents of liberal hegemony assumed that the United States could pursue this ambitious global strategy without triggering serious opposition.” But the very steps that America took to enhance its security, Walt suggests, ended up undermining it. He reminds us, for instance, that George F. Kennan warned in 1999 that NATO expansion eastward was a “tragic mistake” that would, sooner or later, ignite Russian nationalism. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia became a revanchist power that launched cyber-attacks on the Baltic States, seized Crimea, invaded Ukraine and interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. In Walt’s telling, “the energetic pursuit of liberal hegemony was mostly a failure. … By 2017, in fact, democracy was in retreat in many places and under considerable strain in the United States itself.”

Want more? You can read more here

Decision Time!

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We make decisions every day – dozens, scores, or even hundreds. Our brains are constantly juggling a dizzying array of choices. Somehow we do this with ease.

 

But it’s the big decisions that often trip us up and leave us befuddled. That’s why Steven Johnson’s book: “How we Make the Decisions that Matter the Most” is being wildly hailed as a breakthrough in helping us cope with the act of deciding (see the review of his book here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/02/books/review/steven-johnson-farsighted.html).

Johnson shared the highlights of his suggestions in a recent piece in the New York Times. Here’s how he began:

In July 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, sat down to make a decision that would alter the course of his life. The decision he was wrestling with was not related to scientific questions about the origins of species. It was a different kind of decision — existential as well, but of a more personal nature: Should he get married?

Darwin’s method for making this decision would be recognizable to many of us today: He made a list of pros and cons. Under the heading “not marry” he noted the benefits of remaining a bachelor, including “conversation of clever men at clubs”; under “marry” he included “children (if it please God)” and “charms of music and female chitchat.”

Even if some of Darwin’s values seem dated, the journal entry is remarkable for how familiar it otherwise feels. Almost two centuries later, even as everything else in the world has changed, the pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the only regularly used technique for adjudicating a complex decision. Why hasn’t the science of making hard choices evolved?

In fact, it has, but its insights have been underappreciated. Over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — has given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices. When you face a complex decision that requires a long period of deliberation, a decision whose consequences might last for years or even decades, you are no longer limited to Darwin’s simple list.

Want more? You can read the full article here

War Without End

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As I mentioned in a post this summer, a decade ago, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkens wrote, “The Forever War.” The book was a best-seller.

Filkens explained why we were mired in the Mideast. A few years later, President Obama announced America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”

Why we are still fighting is a question that continues to bedevil all of us. That’s why I was drawn to a book review of C.J. Chivers, “The Fighters.” Here’s how Robert Kaplan began his review:

  1. J. Chivers, a senior writer for The New York Times and a former Marine infantry officer, begins his new book with a description of an American weapon, equipped with GPS sensors and a guidance system, hitting “precisely the wrong place” and killing and mutilating a family of women and children on the Afghan steppe as a consequence. But Chivers’s narrative has only begun to slam you in the gut; later on, the author captures the psychological effect the errant bomb has on the Marines at the scene. Indeed, because of the way the stories and characters spool into one another with mathematical intensity, and the second-by-second in-your-face descriptions of prolonged battles from a sergeant’s eye view, “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq” could be the most powerful indictment yet of America’s recent Middle East wars.

Chivers is interested in the chemistry between platoons and companies, not that between battalions and brigades: In other words, this is a book about the lower ranks who experience the thing itself, the gut-wrenching violence and confusion of war — history from the ground up, not from the top down, precisely what Washington elites miss. “The Fighters” constitutes an illusion-free zone, where the concrete triumphs over the abstract, where the best and most indelible of those profiled, from that vast working-class heart of the country, begin their military service in a blaze of patriotism following 9/11, and end up confused, cynical, betrayed and often disfigured or dead.

Want more? You can read the full review here