The first chapter was riveting. The iconic opera house in Venice, the Fenice, ablaze, and the flames threatening to engulf the entire city! AllegationThe first chapter was riveting. The iconic opera house in Venice, the Fenice, ablaze, and the flames threatening to engulf the entire city! Allegations of corruption, gross negligence, and mafia involvement! It seemed to set up the rest of the book for more awesomeness where the author investigates the events surrounding the fire and the key figures involved, but instead starts to get more gossipy into Venice social life. And while the book had enough colorful and interesting characters (I found the story of the rat man and the scandal with the Ezra Pound estate to be the most interesting), it doesn't compare to the potential story of the Fenice, which is what I thought the book was supposed to be about in the first place. Instead, it dramatically burns down, some politicians scream at each other, and the last chapter brings us back to the restored Fenice, which quietly gets rebuilt while the author was researching this book. I wish the book had pictures, the book vividly describes the Fenice as well as its landmarks and palaces, and it would have been nice to have pictures at hand as a point of reference. ...more
While reading the book, 10% of the time I was learning about the travel industry and its impact, both positive and negative, on the economy, environmeWhile reading the book, 10% of the time I was learning about the travel industry and its impact, both positive and negative, on the economy, environment and labor, but the other 90% of the time, I was just jealous that the author could go to all these cool places to research the book. Makes me want to go travel - with the exception of a Caribbean cruise - especially to the good places that are environmentally conscious and pay the local labor a fair wage, but the bad places still seem like fun....more
The author, an LA Times reporter covering the Middle East, offers a unique view of the impact that the post-9/11 events have had on people living in tThe author, an LA Times reporter covering the Middle East, offers a unique view of the impact that the post-9/11 events have had on people living in the area. The story of Nora, her pro-Western translator in Jordan, and her disillusionment after the Abu Ghraib scandal was haunting:
“It’s pretty bad, huh, Megan.” “Yeah, it’s bad,” I said. “But are you really surprised?” Her eyes flickered. “Of course!” But Nora, it’s war. These soldiers are kids. What do you think happens?” “But Megan,” her habit of repeating my name sounded, now. Like an accusation. “This is the Americans.” … “But Nora…” That sentence fell off in a sigh. All the questions were piled up in my throat: Did you really believe in us? Did you think we came to Iraq to fight a noble war, did you honestly think that? Don’t you see what we have done? … “But Megan,” she said slowly, “that’s the point. We don’t expect anything from the Arab governments. We expect something better from the Americans. That is the idea of America.” (pp 120-222)
It reminded me of the quote from the movie first knight, when King Arthur (played by Sean Connery in full-on awesome mode) explains Camelot: "There are laws that enslave men. And laws that set them free. Either what we hold to be right and good and true is right and good and true for all mankind under God, or we're just another robber tribe." This book really brings home the fact (to the people in the Middle East as well as to me) that especially post 9/11, the United States is acting like just another robber tribe.
This book seemed to be more of an application of Bayes Theorem and other statistical techniques in various fields rather than some overarching techniqThis book seemed to be more of an application of Bayes Theorem and other statistical techniques in various fields rather than some overarching technique of how to apply these techniques, so it felt more like a collection of anecdotes than a unified thesis. One thing I thought was interesting is that the author drew a distinction between between 'foxes' and 'hedgehogs,' with foxes knowing many things and able to draw different fields who to solve a problems, and hedgehogs knowing few things and draw upon a few governing principles to solve a problem, and Silver favors the 'fox' way of thinking to make predictions. The fox and the hedgehog comparison was made in Jim Collin's book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't, and it's interesting to see how he applies the fox and hedgehog story
Picture two animals: a fox and a hedgehog. Which are you? An ancient Greek parable distinguishes between foxes, which know many small things, and hedgehogs, which know one big thing. All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions. That’s not to say hedgehogs are simplistic. Like great thinkers, who take complexities and boil them down into simple, yet profound, ideas (Adam Smith and the invisible hand, Darwin and evolution), leaders of good-to-great companies develop a Hedgehog Concept that is simple but that reflects penetrating insight and deep understanding.
What does it take to come up with a Hedgehog Concept for your company? Start by confronting the brutal facts. One good-to-great CEO began by asking, “Why have we sucked for 100 years?” That's brutal—and it's precisely the type of disciplined question necessary to ignite a transformation. The management climate during a leap from good to great is like a searing scientific debate—with smart, tough-minded people examining hard facts and debating what those facts mean. The point isn’t to win the debate, but rather to come up with the best answers—and, ultimately, to lock onto a Hedgehog Concept that works.
Maybe they're unrelated concepts: be a fox to generate a vision and be a hedgehog to distill that concept into a simple and clear idea, but I don't know how many people have the capacity to perform the mental gymnastics to seamlessly switch between the two. In any case, Silver is very hedgehog-like to take a lot of small ideas in areas like baseball, weather forecasting, and chess to see how they can be improved with these data-driven techniques, but other than saying, "Bayes Theorem...it's great!" wasn't very fox-like in connecting the dots. ...more
I remember asking a friend if he read The Da Vinci Code and he said the writing was so terrible he couldn't finish it. I understand that I can't expecI remember asking a friend if he read The Da Vinci Code and he said the writing was so terrible he couldn't finish it. I understand that I can't expect amazing literature for this sort of book, but this book was borderline unreadable. Sentence fragments, ellipses, and exclamation points are acceptable in gchat, but I don't really expect to see them when reading a book. Add in the exact same elements as every other books (Langdon, tweed, girl, museum, sinister cabal, traitor, puzzles), only not executed as well, and it wasn't that good....more
The book is presented in chronological order, and the money just rises exponentially to a point where eventually my brain can't summon any outrage anyThe book is presented in chronological order, and the money just rises exponentially to a point where eventually my brain can't summon any outrage anymore. Tens of millions of dollars in arms sales to ex-Nazis? That's a lot of money! A £10 bilion aircraft deal from BAE to the Saudis in which providing a $100 million personal jet to a Saudi prince is part of the cost of doing business? Terrible! Viktor Bout (the inspiration for Nicolas Cage in Lord of War) making millions off all the suffering in Africa and the blood diamond trade? Well, at least it was a good movie. A rigged $40 billion deal for refueling tankers for the US Air Force? Oh well. Spending $1+ trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Meh. It really exposes the disconnect of the Republicans advocating free markets and small government while supporting high defense spending when using private contractors can be even more wasteful than if the government programs, and when it leads to stuff like this. Eisenhower originally coined the term military-industrial-congressional complex (the "congressional" part was dropped at the risk of sounding too inflammatory to the legislative branch), and sadly, we don't have presidents like Ike anymore.
“Eisenhower knew the defense budget,” recalled his aide, William Ewald. “He knew where the fat was. He knew were the people were trying to load extras on . . . things you didn’t need. Eisenhower was, in effect, his own secretary of defense. . . . He would periodically sigh to Andy Goodpastor, “God help the nation when it has a President who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.” Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World p. 314
Before reading this book, my only impression of Zelda Fitzgerald is that she was F Scott's crazy wife, and I thought it's because there is something aBefore reading this book, my only impression of Zelda Fitzgerald is that she was F Scott's crazy wife, and I thought it's because there is something about creative genius that is all-consuming, like in The Moon And Sixpence, plus all the alcohol and partying. I was expecting some narrative descent into madness, where the walls close in and Zelda starts losing touch with reality (I was kind of hoping for some The Black Swan craziness), but the way it was depicted it just kind of... happened. The wikipedia article on Zelda Fitzgerald makes her relationship with F Scott to be a lot more toxic than the way it was portrayed in the book, I feel that has more to do with her breakdown than being a progressive woman trapped in a traditional gender role. The author, in the afterward addressing the problem of trying to bridge the "Team Scott" narrative that Zelda prevented F Scott from reaching his full creative potential and the "Team Zelda" narrative that F Scott's alcohol problems were what caused their relationship, and Zelda's sanity to come undone, and the author did a good job of finding a middle ground....more
It was a thin book with large-ish type so I thought it might be a good book to read on the Metro, but it's pretty deep so I don't think I gave the booIt was a thin book with large-ish type so I thought it might be a good book to read on the Metro, but it's pretty deep so I don't think I gave the book all the consideration it required. Some of his arguments seemed anachronistic - his chapter on Friendship, in particular, with its chummy old-boy networks and a man trying to introduce his less cultured wife to the finer things - and it was hard to apply his reasoning to these timeless principles of these different loves. I really like CS Lewis and have really high expectations, so in that regard, I was disappointed. ...more
A look at three people who were minor characters in their day, but provided the intellectual underpinnings for the formulation of an Asian identity anA look at three people who were minor characters in their day, but provided the intellectual underpinnings for the formulation of an Asian identity and development of Asian nation-states in the 20th century. The stories of al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Tagore don't really intersect, so without a broader context to place their ideas (besides 'smart Asian guys') the book felt a little incomplete. It's interesting to see how Japan, as the first modern Asian power, played such a large role in incubating these ideas, and yet when it came time for Japan to develop its own vision of Asia, it became just another imperialistic power in World War II. ...more
My previous impression of Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn and his court are mainly shaped by A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas Cromwell and Thomas CranmerMy previous impression of Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn and his court are mainly shaped by A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer are portrayed as Henry VIII’s opportunistic lackeys who scheme to tear apart the Church for Henry’s romantic convenience, and Thomas More as the man of principle who defies the king and ultimately pays for it with his life. This book shows an alternative, more complex characterization of Thomas Cromwell, and it’s really interesting to see how the author uses the same historical context to totally reverse the preconceptions I had about Cromwell, More, and the other characters. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus was “the noblest of Romans” who sided with the conspirators because he was concerned only for the good of the people, but in Dante’s Inferno, Brutus was a traitor cast down to the lowest circle of hell suffering the worst torment for all eternity. Which characterization is closer to the actual historical figure? I have no idea, but it’s interesting to see both sides.
Reading the book I could never figure out Cromwell’s motives for doing what he does, he plays the game masterfully but I don’t know to what end. He is loyal to Wolsey, even after Wolsey falls out of favor and he has nothing to gain; he seems to care greatly of his household of random characters; he seems to do everything to serve the King, even though it was the King who sacked Wolsey in the first place; he doesn’t really show any great desire for greater power or wealth even though both are given to him in abundance. For all of Cromwell’s interaction with all the court women, I only found two lines that go to his feelings towards his deceased wife and why he managed to remain faithful (a minor miracle, considering all the dalliances that went on in Henry’s court), and what is in his heart:
Liz, he thinks, take your dead hand off me. Do you grudge me this one little girl, so small, so thin, so plain? He turns. “Jane-” (p 490)
And Cromwell seems to be doing his utmost to persuade Thomas More to swear the oath and save his life, but when More ultimately refused, these are the thoughts that are revealed:
He thinks, I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn’t remember me. You never even saw me coming. (p 524)
Since People Who Know Better Than Me gave this book a Man Booker Prize, I’m assuming that this mystery is what makes this book so great to read instead of some egregious oversight on the author’s part. It took a long time to read (one reason is that there are so many Thomas’s to keep track of and the author has this annoying tendency to refer to Cromwell by pronoun, the other reason is that whenever Call-Me-Risley was mentioned, this song got stuck in my head), and it was a little disappointing that after reading so many pages of such a dense book, I still have no idea about what Cromwell’s all about, but hopefully, that’s what parts 2 and 3 are for.. ...more
Great look at the self-help and actualization movement (SHAM) and how it does not live up to its lofty promises. It's really interesting how the movemGreat look at the self-help and actualization movement (SHAM) and how it does not live up to its lofty promises. It's really interesting how the movement affected not only the people who try these programs, but how its principles negatively affect our education and justice system and ultimately our cultural values. In spite of this, even if the methods the SHAM experts espouse are bunk, I do believe that the human mind is an amazing thing and capable of doing a lot. The placebo effect - unlike some of other SHAM alternative medicine theories - is clinically documented, and even one of the author's stories show what is possible when people are pushed into excellence:
In the film, Stand and Deliver, the work of Jaime Escalante is honoured. He pushed his class of inner-city academic discards to remarkable performances - in calculus, no less. There is also another similar story about achievement where expectations were raised, rather than dumbing down to the lowest achievers level of acceptable self-esteem. A Chicago public-school teacher, Mary Daugherty found herself confronted by a class of sixth-graders who were so clueless and intractable that she suspected many of them had learning disabilities. So one day, while the principal was off the premises she broke a hard and fast rule and snuck a look in the file where student details, IQ scores and other relevant data was kept. She was amazed... most of her students had IQs in the high 120s and 130s - near genius level. One of the worst offenders had an IQ of 145.
After some soul searching, Mrs Daugherty concluded that it was her fault that these brilliant minds had resorted to unruly behaviour... she blamed herself for boring them into misbehaviour. She began bringing in difficult assignments. She upped the amount of homework and inflicted stern punishments for misbehaviour. By the end of the semester, her class was one of the best behaved and the most accomplished in the entire sixth grade.
Impressed, and stunned, her principal asked her how she had achieved this amazing turn around. Haltingly, she confessed that she had looked at the IQ files and she had changed her approach to teaching the class. The principal pursed his lips, smiled, and told her not to worry about it. All's well that ends well, he told her.
"Oh, by the way," he whispered as she turned to retreat to her classroom, "I think you should know: those numbers next to the kids names? It's not their IQ scores. It's their locker numbers." (p 192-193)*
So I think that we all are capable of leading awesome, empowered lives, but also that the power of positive thinking and quick fixes advocated by these SHAM experts are not enough to do so, especially when they talk about universal solutions that are supposed to apply equally well to people with very different backgrounds, values and ambitions. I'm hoping that the next book I'm reading (Mastery) may shed some light on light on it, but it sounds HARD. And I think that's the way it's supposed to be.
* This story is pretty awesome, but sounds really fantastical, and the notes of the book do not document the source of this story. I couldn't find any attribution for this story doing a quick google search so I don't know exaggerated this story is or whether this is an urban legend....more
I loved Paul Kennedy's book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and agreed with his premise that in World War II, the Axis overextended itself, andI loved Paul Kennedy's book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and agreed with his premise that in World War II, the Axis overextended itself, and, given the resource superiority of the Allies, the defeat of Germany and Japan were ultimately inevitable. So it was pretty surprising to see him write a book that zooms in from the big picture to really get into the nuts and bolts of how victory was achieved. Even though the house always wins in the long run in a casino, players are still capable of winning fantastical sums of money, and this is a story how how the Allies used some clever engineering to further stack the deck in their favor, so even if victory was at hand, it doesn't mean that the war would have ended when it did or there couldn't have been millions more casualties. Seems like the lessons learned would be applicable to large companies and VCs to find methods that can bring good ideas to the forefront and develop and scale them to really make a critical difference in their field of endeavor.
Since I was a chemical engineering major, even though it didn't make a direct impact on the battlefield, I would have liked to see a chapter on the synthetic rubber program, but I'm an engineer, I like World War II history, so it was an interesting read. ...more
I like food. I like fun trivia facts. A book filled with fun trivia facts about food sounds like a winner to me. Couple caveats: some of the facts seeI like food. I like fun trivia facts. A book filled with fun trivia facts about food sounds like a winner to me. Couple caveats: some of the facts seem a little tangential (a story about how linoleum was invented? really!?) and it got annoying when a lot of the origin stories can't be fully verified (I really wanted to know whether Philippe's really originated the french dip sandwich and the Buena Vista the Irish coffee, as they claimed). But still, good book to read on the Metro for my commute....more