We began compiling our annual reading list in 2000, and it is a continuing work; these are books we ran across during our research or were called to our attention. On the 2016 Highlands Reading List we are featuring twenty-three books; there are twenty works of non-fiction, two novels, and one volume of poetry. Some of our titles are current and address timely topics; others are timeless classics worth discovering for the first time. They have been selected for their themes; for their capacity to broaden our understanding of emerging issues; and for their ability to inform the way we think about things.
Each year we are joined by a small group of distinguished guest reviewers who share with us a book that they read during the year and found compelling. This year's panel of guest reviewers provided six of the twenty-three books on our list. Our reviewers include John Markoff, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of the New York Times; Jonathan Mostow, screenwriter, director and producer of films such as Terminator 3, U-571, and The Game; Ory Okolloh, director of investments for Omidyar Network's Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative in Africa; Andrew Parker, Oxford University zoologist and author of the groundbreaking book, In the Blink of an Eye; Audrey Plonk, global security and Internet policy specialist at Intel; and Philip Tetlock, Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the classic work Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know?
John Markoff is a best selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the New York Times. Technology publisher and convener Tim O'Reilly wrote: "John Markoff is one of the most respected technology journalists in the world. He has had a particular interest in AI and robotics, and his latest book, Machines of Loving Grace, explores how humans and machines can best complement each other in the economy of the future". In 2007 Markoff became a member of the International Media Council at the World Economic Forum. Also in 2007, he was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists, the organization's highest honor. In June of 2010 the New York Times presented him with the Nathaniel Nash Award, which is given annually for foreign and business reporting. Markoff is also the author of What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture shaped the Personal Computer Industry; and the co-author of Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier with Katie Hafner; and Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw with Tsutomu Shimomura.
John's selection for us is Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez. "What is it like to be in Silicon Valley today? In Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a would be physicist and investment banker who ended up in the startup world and then at Facebook, does an admirable job of capturing the Valley at this very moment. At the top of the bubble the Valley really does feel like Las Vegas. Obscene fortunes are being made, but there often seems to be no rhyme or reason. Garcia-Martinez is a deft and cynical writer and the book comes across like eating yummy snacks. You are in on joke, one of the hipsters. Where it fails is that the author, like many in Silicon Valley, knows nothing of history. Whenever he looks backwards he gets things wrong and his fatal error is that Silicon Valley is ultimately neither Wall Street nor Hollywood. The Valley has always only been half about the money. Garcia-Martinez, at the end of the day, knows nothing about hacking and moreover, those who ignore history really are condemned to repeat it".
Jonathan Mostow is a director, screenwriter and producer. His film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of the top 50 worldwide box office hits of all time. Previously, Jonathan co-wrote and directed the World War II submarine thriller U-571, starring Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel. The film garnered two Academy Award nominations. He also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 1997 thriller Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan. The same year, he executive produced a psychological thriller, The Game, starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. In television, he directed Tom Hanks in La Voyage Dans La Lune, the final episode of the 1998 Emmy Award-winning HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. He also directed the Showtime television thriller Flight of Black Angel, which earned him a Cable ACE nomination for Best International Movie or Special. All of Jonathan's films have opened #1 at the box office. In May 2004, the World Stunt Association named him "Action Director of the Year". Jonathan is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, where he serves as Co-Chairman of the Creative Rights Committee. He received his B.A. from Harvard University and also trained at the American Repertory Company and NYC's Lee Strasburg Institute.
Jonathan's recommendation for us is a classic from 1972, a fascinating look inside Hollywood, Memo from David O. Selznick: The Creation of "Gone with the Wind" and Other Motion Picture Classics, as Revealed in the Producer's Private Letters, Telegrams, Memorandums, and Autobiographical Remarks. Jonathan tells us: "Although far from a new book, Memo from David O'Selznick provides a one-of-a-kind insight into the management of the creative process. Selznick was one of the most accomplished producers during the golden age of Hollywood and operated on the belief that his powers of persuasion were best deployed in writing, particularly when dealing with strong-willed, highly opinionated and often egotistical actors and directors. He preferred communicating by memo not only because it afforded him the opportunity to carefully lay out his arguments, but because it guaranteed him the opportunity to present his case without interruption. Selznick's memos would have been lost to history, were it not for a researcher who discovered 2000 boxes of them in storage and curated the best ones into this fascinating book. Selznick locked horns with countless Hollywood greats - Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine to name a few - but the centerpiece of the book reveals how he steered Gone With the Wind from a manuscript, through a discordant production process and into a finished classic. Browse the business section of any bookstore and you'll find a plethora of titles about organizational leadership. I'd argue that Memo from David O'Selznick, although located on a different shelf, might be the best of the bunch".
Ory Okolloh is director of investments for Omidyar Network's Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative in Africa, where she invests in for-profit and non-profit organizations that foster civic participation and increase transparency and accountability in government. Prior to joining Omidyar Network, Ory was Google's policy manager for sub-Saharan Africa. She was at the forefront of developing technology innovation as a founding member of Ushahidi. Ory is also the co-founder of Mzalendo, a website that tracks the performance of Kenyan Members of Parliament. She is a member of the World Bank's Council of Eminent Persons, an advisory board member of Code for All, and a member of the World Bank Service Delivery Indicator Committee. Ory earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Pittsburgh. She was previously a Chayes Fellow at the World Bank's Department of Institutional Integrity. In 2011 Ory was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Ory's selection is Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Ory writes: "I am not the pep-talk book type person, but I bought the Year of Yes because I was going through a bit of a rut... overwhelmed by all the things I think needed to be fixed. And I was surprised to learn that Shonda Rhimes, the queen of prime time TV drama is shy, introverted and deathly afraid of many, many things. That she's none of those fierce, take charge women that she portrays in her hugely popular shows. The book is funny, honest in a 'nod-your-head-I've-been-there' way. Feels more like a session with a life coach, over a glass of wine, rather than self-help. Exactly what I needed, a reminder to give myself permission to be. Year of Yes would make a great gift or a nice way to kick off the New Year, when everything seems possible".
Andrew Parker is one of the world's leading experts in biomimetics. He spent ten years as a marine biologist in Australia, where he came face-to-face with the weaponry of mantis shrimps and sharks, and completed a PhD at Macquarie University. In 1999 he moved to Oxford University to study these natural technologies further, even placing them into the designs of our own products (biomimetics) and became selected as one of the top eight scientists in the UK by The Times and The Royal Institution of London. He wrote the popular science books In the Blink of an Eye and Seven Deadly Colours based on his discovery of the cause of biology's Big Bang, an event long before the dinosaurs and where animal technologies first appeared. Today he continues to search the world's extreme environments for novel innovations that could improve our industries and help to save our planet. Andrew spent a further ten years as Research Leader at The Natural History Museum in London, and today is CEO and Founder of the biomimetics company Lifescaped, based at Somerset House. He also works at Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, and serves as science advisor to HRH The Prince of Wales.
Andrew's recommendation for us is Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. "Originally published in 1979, then republished 20 years later, the central thesis of this book remains relevant and thought provoking: that if a system becomes sufficiently complex to be self referential and self replicating or at least self editing, then intelligence follows from that. It argues that if life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. The author introduces a series of comedic dialogues in which characters created by Lewis Carrol engage in friendly battles of wit and skill, or just conversations, each dialogue being modeled after music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Hofstadter uses many examples of complexity to illustrate his point, from number theory to DNA and proteins, from an ant colony to the human brain, and ultimately artificial intelligence. Admittedly, the chapters are heavy going, but arguably unpretentious, almost certainly written to be as accessible as its subject matter will allow. Hofstadter himself encourages one to just open the book at random, read a few pages, skip around, look at the pictures, listen to some Bach, etc., which is certainly one way to gain a foothold".
Audrey Plonk represents that rare blend of technology expertise and understanding of policy that is so vital in today's cyber security discussions. Audrey has deep experience in this area, and is currently the Director of Global Cybersecurity and Internet Governance Policy at Intel Corporation where she leads a global team of policy experts focused on Internet policy issues and governance, cybersecurity, and privacy. She also works with business units across Intel as the company creates technology across the breadth of the global digital infrastructure (PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, servers, networking equipment, internet of things sensors and software). Prior to joining Intel in 2008, Audrey led the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) security policy work on critical information infrastructure protection and malware. In that role, she served as liaison to the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation Telecommunications and Information Working Group, the International Telecommunication Union and the Internet Governance Forum. From 2003 to 2006, she worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division, focusing on security policy issues in the International Affairs Division.
Audrey's selection is Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich. She tells us: "This book should be required reading for every American. Saving Capitalism is an accessible and data driven account of the redefining of American capitalism the past thirty years. Reich's underlying thesis seeks to debunk the mainstream notion that Americans have a binary choice between a 'free market' on one side and 'big government' on the other. He argues that government is part of any system; the choice is merely what rules are set and how they are enforced. The data presented demonstrate how the power to set the rules is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. To examine the past thirty years, Reich helpfully breaks the American economy into five "building blocks": 1) property; 2) monopolies; 3) contracts; 4) bankruptcy, and 5) enforcement. In each of these areas, Reich explores the failures and successes of the current systems and how they have changed the past three decades. He examines other moments in American history where similar challenges have arisen and course corrections made. While Reich's ideas are progressive and familiar to the liberal audience, they are not inherently partisan--he criticizes policies under both Democratic and Republican administrations. While often filled with proclamations and redundancies, the language is plain and clear and therefore readily accessible to a reader without a degree in economics, law or political science. Saving Capitalism is a thought provoking read with the potential to support a national dialogue about what kind of political economy best supports the version of capitalism that provides wealth and opportunity broadly across society".
Philip E. Tetlock is the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with appointments in Wharton, psychology and political science. He is co-leader of the Good Judgment Project, a multi-year forecasting study. Phil presented his research at Highlands XLI, The Frontier of Prediction. He is the author of three books: Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?; (with Aaron Belkin); Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics; and (with Dan Gardner) Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction. In Superforecasting, Phil offers a master class on prediction, drawing on decades of research and the results of a massive, government-funded forecasting tournament. His classic work, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, describes a twenty-year study in which 284 experts in many fields, including government officials, professors, journalists, and other, and with many opinions, from Marxists to free-marketeers, were asked to make 28,000 predictions about the future. The findings were that the experts were only slightly more accurate than chance, and worse than basic computer algorithms; the book was the recipient of the 2008 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.
His selection is The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age by Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin. Phil writes: "Enrico Fermi was, of course, a brilliant physicist--and a pivotal figure in the development of the atomic bomb. But he has come for many to personify a certain cognitive style, a thinking style that blends extreme open-mindedness with rigor, fox-terrier tenacity and a complete lack of fear about having one's guess-timates revealed to be wrong. That is why I named one of the key superforecasting heuristics after him: 'Fermi-izing'. Pick a seemingly intractable problem, the kind that makes you initially throw up your arms and say 'I have no idea!' How many piano tuners in Chicago? How many advanced ET civilizations elsewhere in the universe?...Break it into parts, usually starting with the biggest and working down. The population of Chicago; the number of pianos per household...? The number of galaxies in the known universe; the number of stars per galaxy...? Flush your ignorance into the open at each step. Fine-tune estimates. Look for evidence--and non-evidence. Fermi famously asked of ETs: well, where are they? Fermi was in great demand as an all-purpose troubleshooter at Los Alamos--and his talent for Fermi-izing is a key reason why".
by Ronald C. White
The desire for instant analysis of events and the people who shape and are shaped by them is one of the perils of not just our age, but of every age. So it is true for Ulysses Grant, general and president during perhaps the most turbulent period in United States history. Grant has long suffered from that quickly formed reputation as a drunk and a corrupt politician, hardened and widely accepted after a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him several decades ago. In recent years, however, after access to new material, several authors have come forward with reinterpretations of Grant, particularly in his presidency. Historian Ronald C. White, author of the widely acclaimed biography A. Lincoln, has produced American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, the most personal (thanks to the intimate correspondence between Grant and his wife) and informed biography yet, a stunning achievement that rights many wrongdoings of Grant's early biographers regarding his character and his actions as president. Grant, "the silent one", was neither outwardly personable nor brilliant, but his quietude enabled him to learn from others and continually grow, particularly in his early military years. Lincoln, searching for a leader anywhere after so many generals had failed him, turned to Grant to root out the Confederate army in Virginia, and he succeeded. Grant was a great general, and the nation turned to him to lead the country as its president (1869-1877). Even here he surprises us: White demonstrates convincingly that Grant fought for black and Indian rights, and against the KKK. White also tackles the image of Grant as a drunk (he did drink, often when separated for long duration from his wife and soul mate, yet fought it and overcame alcoholism with a turn toward temperance) and a corrupt politician (his failing was actually in appointing and failing to have oversight of several men in his cabinet, who took advantage of their positions and became embroiled in scandals that tainted the good work that Grant was doing). A magnificent story of the life of a complex and important figure in our history, American Ulysses is well worth the time spent getting to know "U.S." Grant.
by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thomas, and Ella Morton
by Judith Schalansky and Translated from the German by Christine Lo
Maps tell us a great deal about the world, the mapmakers themselves, and the culture and history that they include. They have also constituted a key theme over the course of our annual reading lists, including Steven Johnson's Ghost Map; Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations; Edward Huth's The Lost Art of Finding Our Way; and a most timely recounting of the creation of the maps of the modern Middle East, Georgina Howell's biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. This year we call your attention to two short, fascinating atlases: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, and Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.
In the preface to Atlas of Remote Islands, author Judith Schalansky writes, "I grew up with an atlas. And as a child of the atlas, I had never traveled." Understandable, after all, as Schalansky was born and raised in the German Democratic Republic, and East Germans were not allowed to travel-"only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders". She notes with some irony that her country doesn't even exist on maps any longer. In this fascinating and small book to get lost in, Schalansky takes the reader to fifty remote islands of the world, with beautiful hand drawn maps and accompanying stories for each island that are mysterious, whimsical, and strange. Take, for example Lonely Island, claimed by Russia, in the Arctic.
"Loneliness lies in the centre of the Kara Sea in the northern Arctic Ocean. This island is worthy of its name: it is cold and barren, trapped in ice pack all winter, with an average temperature of -16 degrees; at the height of summer the temperature sometimes rises to just over freezing. No one lives here... a prehistoric dragon's skeleton was found here. Firing at Lonely Island was the one of the final acts of the German navy's 'Operation Wunderland' in the Second World War."
Sad for Schalansky that she will never set foot there, or on any of the other 49 curious islands in this Atlas. Even if you, like Schalansky, don't get to Lonely Island, or Robinson Crusoe Island or Iwo Jima or Deception Island, find time to spend with this charming island tour book. It will be a trip worth taking.
Now, as the Monty Python players would say, "for something completely different": the Atlas Obscura.
"In an age where everything seems to have been explored and there is nothing new to be found, we celebrate a different way of looking at the world. If you're searching for miniature cities, glass flowers, books bound in human skin, gigantic flaming holes in the ground, bone churches, balancing pagodas, or homes built entirely out of paper, the Atlas Obscura is where you'll find them".
The Atlas Obscura is a collaborative online project as much as a book. These are the most unique and amazing places in the world, and if you have a bucket list, add some of these places to it. Stay with me here a minute—how about Tash Rabat, a six-hour drive south of Bishkek on the Silk Road. "During the 15th century, the stone structure of Tash Rabat was a caravansary—a travelers' inn providing refuge for those journeying along the Silk Road." The editors advise: "For a fleeting insight into the Silk Road experience, camp in a yurt overnight." Or instead of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, you might try The Hanging Coffins of Sagada in the Philippine Islands. "For 2,000 years, the people of Igorot Sagada have laid their dead to rest by jamming their bodies into compact wooden coffins and hoisting them up onto brackets driven into the side of a cliff...Rows of pine caskets, some hundreds of years old, hang from the high bluffs of Echo Valley in Sagada". There is a world of wonder out there, and the Atlas Obscura curates it. This is a great gift and perhaps even the guide to help plan your next adventure.
by Joby Warrick
This examination of the roots of ISIS by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Yet, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS reads more like a page-turning work of fiction, shocking and thrilling throughout. At the center of Black Flags is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an "evil genius", rising from a life of low-level crime through circumstance, religious fervor, and sheer luck to become a charismatic and ruthless Islamic executioner and leader. Warrick's narrative skills are on display throughout, following Zarqawi's trail and the confluence of events that created an almost unintentional larger-than-life jihadi leader. In addition to the beheadings that garnered him headlines and an international reputation, Zarqawi is credited with the strategy to instigate discord between Shiites and Sunnis. His reputation was only enhanced and enlarged as the most powerful nation on earth failed repeatedly in strikes targeting him. Warrick details the downward spiral of ISIS after Zarqawi's death in a drone strike, and its re-emergence with a new leader in the person of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, following Zarqawi's pursuit of a self-proclaimed caliphate. Taken together with Lawrence Wright's new book The Terror Years (reviewed here as well), the reader will better understand the terror of the past two decades.
by Parag Khanna
Five years ago we held Highlands Forum XLIV at the Santa Fe Institute on the topic of "Failure and Collapse in Complex Systems", exploring biological systems, cultures, nations, and financial networks. Among our presenters was Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, who posited a new version of increasing globalization. His recent book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization expands of those themes and features a new Silk Road of highway, rail, and sea connections between Second World and rising Third World powers, especially connecting Asia to Russia and Europe and Asia to Africa. Khanna envisions a new world of regions rather than nations, such as the North American Union, the East Asian Community and the Arab League. Khanna's book is provocative and timely—the themes he examines are under assault around the world: new parties have come to power in many countries and they espouse nationalism and a rejection of globalization. Khanna's thoughtful book challenges these actions and one comes away with questions of both the benefits and the limits of globalization; whether the actions of countries trying to reverse course can be successful, or whether policies of tariffs and protectionism could lead to something worse. Whether Khanna is right or wrong is not the question. He raises essential points that should make us pause and consider the impact of the pursuit or rejection of interconnectedness. His call for infrastructure spending to build out transport networks is echoed in election platforms in the United States; his belief that climate change would lead to Arctic melting and hence, the opening of new maritime trade routes, is being reported now as likely in news articles. He is onto something fundamental to our individual and collective lives, and our decisions on how to act politically and economically do matter.
by Adam Segal
Adam Segal is the Ira A. Lipman chair in emerging technologies and national security and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. His 2006 book, Digital Dragon: High Technology Enterprises in China, was reviewed on our annual reading list. Segal offers us his latest insights in his new book, The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age. This is among the best of many books published on networks and cyber security since the earliest works of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. Segal takes us to 1947, to the beginning of the Cold War, as a clearly demarked point in time that changed the security dynamics of the global order; he then moves us ahead to the year "2012 that nation-states around the world visibly reasserted their control over the flow of data and information in search of power, wealth, and influence, finally laying to rest the already battered myth of cyberspace as a digital utopia, free of conventional geopolitics." Between 2012-2013 we witnessed: the Stuxnet attacks on Iranian centrifuges; the Shamoon attacks on Aramco and Saudi Arabia; the revelations of Edward Snowden; the declaration by the Director, NSA, that American companies had lost $250 billion in information and $114 billion in related expenses through digital economic espionage, the "greatest transfer of wealth in history". Segal cites 2012 as the year the "hacked world order was in full public view"; with the many incidents discussed in these pages, and current discussion over fake news and influence on elections, Segal's concerns for policy makers are well founded.
by Rosa Brooks
We found How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, written by Rosa Brooks, a Highlands alumna and former counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to be one of the most thoughtful and provocative books of the year. The New York Times, in selecting it as one of its 100 notable books of 2016, called it "A disturbing exploration of the erosion of boundaries between war and peace". This is a powerful book, yet is easily accessible because of her insider storytelling style. Brooks describes in great detail how the continuous state of war on terror for fifteen years has shaped our view of the world and the use of the military. Brooks is concerned that when the military is readily available and can act quickly to almost any situation, they become the tool of choice, whether in war ("on terror", "on drugs") or peacebuilding or humanitarian assistance. She warns us:
"Don't imagine that our world can't collapse: there is nothing inevitable about progress or peace, and the global and national social and political order we inhabit today is no more immune from catastrophe than the pre-World War II order. And perhaps it will take another catastrophe to jolt us into designing new rules and institutions better suited to twenty-first century challenges. But maybe—if we're honest enough to acknowledge the growing incoherence of the all-too-human rules and institutions we have created, and brave enough to imagine new ones—we can find a path that will lead us, if not toward 'peace,' then at least toward something kinder than perpetual war."
Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, you should read this timely and challenging book. Highly recommended.
by Ed Yong
LEvery now and then we come across an amazing book about science written for the general reader, one that is compelling and insists that we commend it to you. Among those on our previous reading lists was In the Blink of an Eye by Andrew Parker (see Andrew above in our section of guest editors). This year that one great science book is I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. Yong describes the human body in terms of what is human and what is not... wait a minute-what is not? It turns out that there are about 37 trillion human cells in the human body, about the same number as there are non-human microbes, all doing their jobs together to keep us going, and we are just now beginning to realize their power. Yong explains:
"We exist in symbiosis—a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonized by microbes while they are still unfertilized eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. As an example, take mother's milk. Human breast milk contains lactose, fat and more than 200 complex sugars called oligosaccharides. Human infants, however, can digest none of these. One single-celled creature called Bifidobacterium longum infantis gobbles up the lot".
This is perhaps the most important microbe in the baby's body, and as it digests the sugars, it releases short-chain fatty acids, which then feed the infant gut cells. So "the nursing mother feeds the microbe which then feeds the baby". Yong dispels notions, for example, that microbes (bacteria) are either good or bad, and he does so with the deft and often humorous hand of a master storyteller. This is a terrific book, and while it may be about a subject difficult to digest (sorry!), it is well worth the trip. If you pick up one science book this year, I Contain Multitudes would be a great choice.
by Michael Doran
Michael Doran, a Highlands alumnus, Middle East expert and former NSC official as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Diplomacy, has written an exceptional account of the Suez Crisis of 1956 which brought the Middle East and world powers to the brink of war. With the United States at the zenith of its power, and the colonial powers England and France receding, the region was in a tender transition, with nationalism rising. President Nasser of Egypt proved to be a wily leader, playing the powers against each other in order to gain what he hoped would be Egyptian hegemony over the region. His move to take over the Suez Canal brought Egypt, France, and Israel together to retake the canal. But "Ike" Eisenhower made a bet that he could manage the complex situation, and that in stopping the allied plan he would gain friendship across the Middle East. Doran says, however, "When he saved Nasser in 1956, he did not do so out of love for the Egyptian leader; he was, rather, placing a straightforward bet, wagering that stopping the war would be less damaging to the West than supporting America's traditional allies. That bet came up craps. By 1958, it was already a spectacular loser; by 1967, it was a political embarrassment. Like all politicians, Eisenhower was loath to admit publicly that he had blundered, but the brutal truth hung before his eyes like a corpse on a rope." A well-written analysis of an American president's calculus and decision-making in the Middle East, Ike's Gamble: America's Rise to Dominance in the Middle East is a valuable addition to your own reading list.
by John le Carre
Among our favorite authors of fiction, John Le Carre stands out as consistently delivering enjoyment and insight with each installment: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley's People; The Honourable Schoolboy; and The Night Manager, among many other wonderfully engaging and thrilling spy stories. His latest book is a valedictory of sorts, a memoir of short reminisces that add backstory and texture to his celebrated books that explain more about the characters he created, and about the man himself. Le Carre, aka David Cornwell, was a spy in the British Secret Intelligence Services who later turned to writing. He belongs to a distinguished group of British agents that were also eminent twentieth century authors like Somerset Maugham (Ashenden: Or The British Agent) and Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana). He explains his introduction to The Pigeon Tunnel: "These are true stories told from memory—to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?" Le Carre's vignettes revolve around spies he has known on both sides of the Iron Curtain; world leaders and leading actors; and painfully drawn memories of his family: "It took me a long while to get on writing terms with Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father... It was only when he was safely dead and I took up the novel (A Perfect Spy) again that I did what I should have done at the beginning, and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father." Le Carre ends the book on a sardonic note in a chapter titled "The Last Official Secret". Quite the opposite of contemporary intelligence headquarters, "The Chief's private office was an attic room with layers of grimy netting over the windows and the unsettling quality of seeming to be underground... the green safe was always somewhere in your eyeline, staring at you inscrutably across the room". But what was in the old green safe; as the old headquarters building on 54 Broadway is being vacated, the ceremonial cracking of the safe to reveal its contents after never having been opened during the Chief's tenure would reveal—? The mystery of its contents serves as a coda to the memories of man of two worlds, to his life as a spy and his gift as a writer.
by John Seely Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian
John Seely Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian have each had books featured on our annual reading list individually (Brown: Seeing Differently; The Social Life of Information; The Power of Pull; Pendleton-Jullian: Four (+1) Studios) that have been at the forefront of understanding the impact of information, the pathway to creativity, and the importance of design thinking. Now they join forces in a small and powerful book, Pragmatic Imagination, which presents a framework for unpacking the imagination as a wide range of mental activity that can be put to purpose in this world. "PragImag" is designed as a unique concept—a 138-page book in its own right that is also a long chapter of a forthcoming book, Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. Co-author Pendleton-Jullian explains:
"Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in -a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it - much more so than ever before. We characterize this as a white water world in reference to white water river kayaking, where navigation - often survival, even - depends upon understanding how to skill up for dynamic contexts in which things change and emerge without respite".
Ah, but how to use the imagination to make sense of the white water world is the key. Spend some time with Pendleton-Jullian and Seely Brown in this little book as they take us through the worlds of neuroscience, jazz, art, philosophy, architecture, and film to help us sense, see anew, understand, and take action in a fast-paced, interconnected, and complex set of environments.
by Peter Frankopan
"History is an important tool. It not only shows mankind at its best, with the multitude of contributions in the fields of art, culture, science, it showcases the worst of human nature as well, the genocides, the wars, the unspeakable horrors that people are capable of perpetuating on other people", says Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, author of the dazzling and sweeping history The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Frankopan's amazing book deals mainly with the manner in which ideas spread, the manner in which they were transmitted and the impact they had on human society. His stories cover a period almost two thousand years until 1500 AD, and the goods and ideas that were transmitted over an ancient network of overland and maritime trade routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of Asia.
"The route of the ancient silk roads saw new religions being born, spanned the greatest empires the world has ever seen, and saw assimilation of culture and ideas. The desire to learn and discover new ideas is something that unites our species. Globalisation happened centuries ago when caravans made their way from China to the Arabian Peninsula."
Frankopan injects anecdotes for us to chew on along his path, e.g., the name "Silk Road" was first coined in the late 19th century by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, a cousin of the First World War flying ace, the Red Baron. Frankopan tells fascinating tales and places them in a sweep of history that gives greater meaning for today's reader. His focal idea frames the territory between China and Constantinople "for much of history the centre of the world, and a place from which we drew so much of what has come to be regarded as 'Western civilisation'". Frankopan does not shy away from controversy, and in his reading of Silk Road history, the reason for the end of the Arab advance into Europe in the eighth century was not military defeat but rather that "in the West in that era prizes were few and far between: wealth and rewards lay elsewhere - the East". Frankopan also raises interest with his view that Muslim scholars investigating the science of the heavens and earth during the Middle Ages were baffled by the lack of intellectual curiosity in Christendom. While much of the Silk Roads disappeared after 1450 with the wars that took place along the routes and the rise of new trade routes spreading from Europe, there is a contemporary effort to re-introduce the influence of trade from East to West and reestablish Chinese dominance. In September 2013, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced a plan for creating a New Silk Road from China to Europe called One Belt, One Road. What is that quote often attributed to Mark Twain that "history doesn't repeat itself, it just rhymes"? Frankopan's history is a jewel. You will be fascinated.
by Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright, journalist, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, recently gave us an informative and often chilling history of the past fifteen years with The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, a compendium of unifying articles on terrorism for the New Yorker magazine. Several of the articles formed the basis of The Looming Tower, while others have been written since, accounting for the rise of ISIS. Wright is a sharp-eyed researcher and brilliant story-teller: he takes us back to the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, making clear the influences on, and motivations of, the founding fathers of these organizations. Most fascinating and enlightening is the people we meet through his unique portraits of primary actors: the hunters and the hunted; the strategists; the spies and spymasters. The Terror Years reaches a climax with a shattering chapter that tells the story of the capture and murder by ISIS of four American journalists and aid workers, and the failed efforts to find and free them by both government and private groups. In his powerful Epilogue, Wright works through a model (created by George Mason University Professor Audrey Cronin) on how terrorism ends: Cronin's research found that most terror organizations simply end in failure. However in considering responses to terror, "Repression is the way that governments routinely attempt to stamp out terror organizations, but it requires a rapacity and persistence that democratic countries find difficult to justify or sustain." The consequences of civil war in Syria; terror by ISIS in Syria and Iraq; and military response are staggering: Wright concludes, "At this writing, nearly five million Syrians have fled their country. They join refugees from other areas of conflict...who make up the masses trying to enter Europe every day...if the world does little, and fails to deal with this historic tide of refugees, there will be woeful consequences for decades to come".
by Cathy O'Neil
First off, this is not a promotion of a book by a family member. This is an O'Neil with only one "L". No relation. Butâ€¦this is a book about relationships, about finding patterns, about the data and the mathematical algorithms that underlie the process. Most importantly, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy is a cautionary tale about what happens when the outcomes of algorithmic determinations have negative impacts on people. O'Neil writes with passion about the opacity of algorithmic decisions and their characterizations of people punished by either a mistaken output, a "glitch", or a biased coding. A simple example of this is lowered credit scores because of the stores someone shopped in. And racism can be a major concern:
"A person who scores as 'high risk' is likely to be unemployed and to come from a neighborhood where many of his friends and family have had run-ins with the law. Thanks in part to the resulting high score on the evaluation, he gets a longer sentence, locking him away for more years in a prison where he's surrounded by fellow criminals—which raises the likelihood that he'll return to prison. He is finally released into the same poor neighborhood, this time with a criminal record, which makes it that much harder to find a job. If he commits another crime, the recidivism model can claim another success. But in fact the model itself contributes to a toxic cycle and helps to sustain it".
O'Neil is a math-lover, and her blog mathbabe.org regularly attests to that: mathematics is supposed to be neutral. But in practice, mathematical algorithms can be formulated and tweaked based on powerful interests. She should know; she worked on Wall Street for four years, two of them for a hedge fund. It was at this moment of epiphany that she knew that "algorithms that are important, secret and destructive" are, in her terms, weapons of math destruction, the algorithms that were a major cause of the financial crisis. She leaves us in her final chapter, "The Targeted Citizen," with a concern regarding political polls as often being wrong and influential at the same time.
by Bruce Sterling
We held our fourth Forum in 1996 in Santa Fe, and we were dazzled first by University of Chicago Professor Emeritus William McNeill, with his story telling covering two thousand years of history, and then by speculations on the distant future by futurist Paul Saffo, and authors David Brin, Kevin Kelly, and Bruce Sterling. Talk about intellectual whiplash! We raise this because a colleague recently referred us to Sterling's stunning Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning science fiction novel in 2000, Distraction. The novel advances, in far greater depth, several themes on Sterling's mind at the Forum: coming economic and information warfare; demographics as the number one driver of change; and doing a more serious job of guarding the Mexican border. Distraction is the story of an America on the skids in 2044: economy in tatters, unemployment highâ€¦and a newly elected president. The Chinese have bankrupted America; political parties no longer number just two, but fragment into over a dozen. Local politicians have seized power from the Federal Government. And a political spin-doctor at the center of it all. Sterling has a great eye for the details of this dystopian future world, and his sense of the people and their fears are all too real: "They don't have jobs, man! You don't care about 'em! You don't have any use for 'em! You can't make any use for them! They're just not necessary to you. You think the government cares?" Check out Distraction to see how this world came to exist, as well as what they did about it.
by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu
Continuing a theme we have explored in past book lists, first contact, this year we proudly present the Hugo Award-winner and largest selling science fiction book in Chinese publishing history, The Three Body Problem. Written by Chinese author Cixin Liu, and beautifully translated by Chinese-American author (and Harvard educated lawyer and coder) Ken Liu, this fascinating and compelling story balances hard science with parallel plots that keep the reader engaged and wondering. A three-body problem in physics states that "three masses in space will never fall into a predictable or stable orbit around each other", and one can't predict what is going to happen to them. A perfect metaphor for this story. The dual narratives ping pong back and forth from the Cultural Revolution to the present day: secret government research, physicists committing suicide and leaving cryptic notes. It reads sometimes like a political thriller, sometimes a scientific thriller, and at other times like a cautionary tale for humanity. And in that critical part of the story comes first contact--If there are others, are they like us? What is their concept of otherness and their relationship to us? Do they mean us harm? Read this amazing book and find the answers to these and other questions that Liu raises—and then answers to questions that you will ponder.
Our annual reading lists often veer to the unusual, offering a book that might tell us something about ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It might be through the translation of a foreign novel; a remarkable work of science fiction; or even by a sixteenth century Islamic text of illuminations to help divine dreams. This year we found something much closer to home. Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins writes easily accessible verse about what is seemingly ordinary, yet transports us. In a small anthology of some of his "greatest hits", Sailing Alone Around the Room, Collins reaches into our memories and makes the mundane magical, often bringing us a wry smile or a restful "aha" or understanding. Poems such as "First Reader" recalling, for students of a certain era (the booming 1950's), their first texts in Reading Class, filled with characters like Dick and Jane, and what we gained and lost in the transition from observing the world to leaning to read about it. Or "The History Teacher", who could not bring himself to explain the harsh nature of history's events:
Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters...
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"
And after several more verses of examples, the history teacher gathered up his notes and walked home, past flowerbeds and white picket fences, and wondered to himself:
if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.
Spend an afternoon with Billy Collins—you'll be the happier for it.