Nella Last’s War by Nella Last
Nella Last recorded her time during World War II as part of project by the U.K. government. The book records her feelings, including the idea that praying for peace or Hitler’s death was pointless. Her argument was that she did not believe God needed convincing by her on what to do. Hard to argue.
The life in the U.K. during World War II is fascinating to me. So is the time in Germany prior to the war. It would also be interesting in the U.S. but the war was more distant for most people. There was a time when the U.K. expected to be invaded and there was proof.
Last writes about food shortages, here two boys, how she managed to keep up her spirit and contribute to the war through thrift shops and other means. She found talents and strengths during the war that she did not realize she had before the war. It really was an enjoyable book and I learned more about the lives of the families and people who lived with the uncertainty and fear of that war.
Code Breakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park edited by F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp — A collection of memories by people who worked at Bletchley Park. Some of the stories are very technical, but it gives an good day-to-day idea of what it was like to work there. There were many codes needing breaking many from Gernmany and from other countries too. Not all the codes were transmitted through Enigma either. In World War I, the British used the Playfair Cipher, which the German’s broke. So codes are used with the realization that they will be broken. It’s just a question of when and how soon the next code is adopted. Also the code from Enigma machines was used for at least 15 years before World War II. Much of the initial breaking of the code was done by the Poles. Britain developed methods and technologies to quickly break the codes and respond with that intelligence. Some of the biggest advantages were in fighting Rommel in North Africa.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — This was published in 2001 before he became popular with The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. I agree that much of what is predictable and measurable as signs for success might really be random luck. It doesn’t mean that factors such as education, careful and reflective aren’t important, but just be aware that there are many more factors that are random. From this book, I went to to his latest book.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — This one felt long on preaching and less on actionable items. He also branched into lots of areas from medicine to U.S. foreign policy to modern professionals, especially economists. He also is no fan of journalists and stock analysts. I liked the story that the less popular journalists, such as radio journalists compared with TV, the more likely they were to have read and tried to understand his books and message. His books remind us to be more skeptical and remember there’s always a lot more noise than important information. I really wonder if he’s able to stay away from the news media as much as professes. He may need those frequent injections of anger the way some need their morning cup of coffee.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller — I’m a fan of apocalypse novels. While I was reading this, I also saw World War Z. Apocalypse novels do make us realize how thin the threads of civilization are and make me wonder if I would even have the chance to be a survivor. This story is told in the first person and it can take a little to get the flow of the narrative, but it is a good story. The story takes place nine years after a pandemic infection. I wonder if the conditions described in the book would take nine years to reach. From One Second After, I don’t know how long modern society could really last. Gasoline goes bad, which is acknowledged in the book, but so many other things would break and fail and little way to keep them going. Would the knowledge be really lost or would there be just enough to let us, or them, survive? That’s the trickiest balance of all. These books have to believe there is hope, and I guess I read them with that same hope.
Traveling and vacation created the free time to finish all these books this month. These were a combination of physical books and electronic editions.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles — I chose this book because this biography won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. The challenge for this biography is the story of the man and the story of the man in the times. Vanderbilt lived during the dramatic change in America as the country moved from small owner businesses to large corporations. Vanderbilt created monopolies in business, but initially he was breaking up the legally sanctioned monopolies of government created monopolies in transportation — ferries, short-haul and passenger ships and later railroads. At times, he angered the established power base by charging less, which in the end ran the competitors out. He also operated during the growth of the corporation as a legal person. Also how wealthy was Vanderbilt? Stiles writes that if Vanderbilt had liquidated his estate in 1876, his last full year of life, he would have received $1 for every $9 in existence. At the time the book was written, Bill Gates III was the richest man in the world. If his holding had been liquidated, he would have received $1 for every $20 in existence. I also feel that even though Gates is worth so much more than most, we all live so much better than those at the time of Vanderbilt. We all have gained from better nutrition, medicine and our lives feel richer thanks to computers, music, books, planes, trains and cars, etc. Vanderbilt had trains, but that’s not the same as a car.
The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen — His story of how new technologies lead to the undoing of some companies and success for others is fascinating. It’s a challenge many technology companies face, and I’ve seen how daily newspapers have struggled. Christensen lays out reasons how companies can try to weather these changes, but in the end few do. But that change is necessary, it’s better than trying to stop the innovation.
Reading Vanderbilt’s disruption of his economy and the challenges existing companies have from new technologies were an interesting paradox.
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl has come back into awareness thanks to a Ken Burns documentary. This book was one of the sources of the documentary. It’s the story of families hoping for a new start, folks hoping to catch a dream before it was too late and folks who always lived there.
We know now that the over cultivation of the area and the denial of the natural characteristics of that terrain led to the disaster. What’s most interesting is that the conditions may be returning again.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Had higher hopes on this book, but it would help parents and some bosses with tips on dealing with more introverted, but very capable people. It reminded me of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnema.
The Last Kingdom: The Saxon Stories #1 by Bernard Cornwell — I enjoy Cornwell’s stories about the middle ages. This one is the story of a Saxon who is adopted by the Danes and then returns. It’s a great way to appreciate just what life was like 1,000 years ago. This can be the value of historically accurate fiction.
Georg F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
I chose this book because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner. I almost stopped reading this book, but gave it the “50 pages test and decided to keep going. After the first 100 pages, I knew I wanted to finish the book. George F. Kennan was a key drafter of the containment policy again the Soviet Union in the years after World War II. He was often ahead of his time in his recommendations.
It was a fascinating historical discussion, but I found several connections with his life, which made the biography even more interesting. The book made me want to read Chekov and more history. In the end, I hated for the book to end. The book took us deeper into the story of U.S. foreign policy and the different ways people arrived at their policy suggestions.
The book reminded me of the inside story of the Lincoln cabinet in “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I read several years ago. Kearns was also closely worked with Robert Oppenheimer, whose biography was written in “American Prometheus”
Homeland by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow’s latest book was written for a Young Adult audience, but anyone with a tech interest could enjoy this book. It’s very timely, and helped boost my awareness of technical issues — I learned as much as I enjoyed.
The challenge with such a story is that wanting to learn more becomes the jump into the deep end of the pool. There’s not always a good intermediate step. He does provide some “next step” places to go, which I appreciate. I was always glad when Michael Crichton did that in his novels — I wish more authors would do that.
The distribution of this book is different, but it seems to work. Doctorow is giving away copies of the book through his Craphound web site. He asks that if you like the book you give a copy to a library that has requested it. That’s how my local library got a copy of the book.
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. I had high hopes for this book hoping for some of that jaw-dropping insight from earlier books such as Freakonomics and Moneyball, but it didn’t meet my expectations. I still recommend the book, especially if you haven’t read these earlier books. Goods books that give us greater insight into how we let our selves be fooled, helps us separate the signal from the noise, and increase our skepticism is worth picking up. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is another alternative, but it is a denser book than the other three titles.
The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block. I’ve ready many of Block’s books. They’re enjoyable and meet “the job I hired them to do” (borrowing from a concept in Christen’s book How will you mearsure you life. I can read the book when I have a few minutes spread over long periods of time and can quickly pick back up the thread of the story. They’re also interesting to imagine how a person like Matthew Scudder can spend so much of his life drinking booze, coffee and sometimes both.
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clay Christesen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon. Even as I read this book I was more temped by an earlier book by Chrestesen The Innovator’s Dilemma, which I now also want to read. How Will Your Measure Your Life is from Christensen’s lectures at Harvard and tries to explain why many high-income achievers often find themselves in a path the did not imagine or intend. It was a quick read, and easily re-readable.
The most interesting concept I found in the book was the idea of hiring a product to do a job. The example of why people bought milkshakes in the morning (to stem hunger and improve the quality of a commute compared) with the afternoon, should cause anyone selling a product to wonder the various reasons why their product is hired. It’s hired for a purpose.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
This was a intriguing story of both the Lacks family and the contribution the HeLa cells in medical research that came from those cells. The story also raises the question of is there ownership of our cells or should there be. It’s not a clear area, even now. But we have also benefited from the open nature of science. That idealism has changed in recent decades as science has begun to patent cells and other biotechnologies. But that isn’t the book’s primary focus — the story of the Lacks and HeLa is enough as it is.
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen , James Allworth. This was a book recommended by many, but it’s not a book to speed read. Take the time to read and absorb the details. This is a book I want to re-read.
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone through a basic econ text. Re-read to pick up other details. Good stuff, but it will be a thick read for non-economists.
Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger by Dick Couch. Re-read to pick up other details. I recommended it to my son.