The Best Books I Read in 2014

These were my favorite books that I read in 2014, although many of them were published before last year. (Shakes fist at massive book pile.)

Rise of the Warriot Cop by Radley Balko

Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko, notable for being published a year before Ferguson put police militarization in the headlines.

For a fascinating look at what the near future holds in terms of business, technology and lifestyle, there’s Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.

Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, a book about failure, will probably lead many of its readers to fail better and succeed.

I think every young person entering the workforce should read The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, by Charles Murray.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a thoughtful philosophical dive into the folly of prediction.

Set in the future, Nexus, by Ramez Naam envisions the pleasures and perils of a truly connected world.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read, but I very much enjoyed Fletch by Gregory McDonald.

tgaanIt came out at the tail end of 2013, but I will put it on this list. The Great Anti-American Novel by my brother Daniel Donatelli was incredibly riveting and relevant. And I am not just saying that to make our mom happy. It’s a pretty terrific book.

Mark Cuban is insightful and entertaining in How to Win at the Sport of Business.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis took me into the world of finance and somewhat horrified me.

Zero to One, by Peter Thiel, is a flawed book that nonetheless contains enough wisdom to merit mention on this list.

 Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


A Few Words about ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’

black-swanThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a few years old, but I just found out it existed, as I’ve now entered the phase of life where I find nonfiction more fascinating than fiction. (Or maybe it’s not me that’s changed. Maybe nonfiction writing is getting better and fiction is declining. I’d definitely read a non-fiction book about that.) Anyways, as someone who has a mild case of prepper-ism, it was inevitable that I would read this book, and I’m glad I did.

I agree with the premise, which is that humans are terrible at forecasting the future and are completely unaware of just how poorly we do so. A “black swan” is an unforeseen event, like 9/11 or the stock market crash.

Writes Taleb:

What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it. This is all the more worrisome when we engage in deadly conflicts: wars are fundamentally unpredictable (and we do not know it). Owing to this misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance—like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

Shorter version – we should not be shocked that shocking things happen, especially when we cause those shocking things to happen.

If you want to know why the world is as screwed up as it is, Taleb provides a detailed map of human ignorance in The Black Swan. Clearly the best bet for humanity, over the long term, is to become aware of our deadly ignorance, which is why this is a valuable book.


Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build for the Future: Review

zero-to-onePeter Thiel’s new business book “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” offers an unintentionally grim view of the future. This sounds like I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s not the case.

“Zero to One” is packed with insight. Thiel, who founded PayPal, shares truths that have an audience beyond the entrepreneurs for which the book is intended. It works as a guide to starting a company and to getting ahead in the workplace. Its lessons can be applied by individuals who will never work in Silicon Valley or seek VC funding.

For example:

You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.

Which is a thing nobody I knew did in college.

While I enjoyed Thiel’s nuggets of wisdom and the contrarian nature of the book, I could not bring myself around to acknowledging the validity of its central theme.

All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

Do all “happy” companies earn a monopoly? I think it’s clear the answer is no. There are many happy companies that don’t have the market dominance of Google.

A happy company, according to Thiel, is narrowly defined as one that has escaped competition: a monopoly. Here we arrive at the reason this book has received so much attention. A capitalist is arguing that market competition is bad for business. Most capitalists will tell you that engaging in such competition is business.

According to “Zero to One,” businesses that cannot escape competition are doomed to some type of rapid or drawn-out failure unless they ascend as monopolies. Thiel assumes that monopolies occupy a higher state of being. But monopolies—like ancient Gods—have a way of feeling eternal until they no longer exist, and it’s the book’s largest failing that Thiel does not adequately address the shelf-life of the monopoly.

Monopolies—think of cable companies, for example—tend to provide maddening customer experiences in only a way that a company with no real competition can. They don’t innovate—think newspapers. They don’t anticipate change—think railroads. When profit margins are healthy, the incentive is to protect profit margins, not to defy the status quo and take risks. Lack of competition makes them flabby, and their dominance wanes over time.

Yet here is how Thiel describes monopolies:

Monopolies keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Let’s rewrite that sentence and insert the monopoly with which my career was once associated.

Newspapers kept innovating because profits enabled them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Let’s try another:

Eastman Kodak kept innovating because profits enabled them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

An another:

Xerox kept innovating because profits enabled them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Obviously, none of them did so at a level that ensured their long-term dominance or even survival. Those three weren’t the only ones.

Thiel also does not address the fact that the federal government tends to bring the hammer down on monopolies, be they real or imagined. Antitrust lawsuits can drain a company of its market share and resources. Historically speaking, a monopoly is a company that’s waiting its turn to be sued by the federal government.

A company will either fail in the short-run, according to Thiel, or as a monopoly it will fail in the long-run, according to history. A more appropriate title: “Zero to One and Then Back to Zero Again, But Hey We Had a Good Run.”

Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles. Facebook: joedonatelli1.


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