Hilarious and thoughtful and full of the wonder of science. xkcd's "What If?" takes ridiculous questions, like "Is it possible to build a jetpack usinHilarious and thoughtful and full of the wonder of science. xkcd's "What If?" takes ridiculous questions, like "Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?". and addresses them as best as possible with scientific explanations. The printed book includes a number of the questions and answers online plus many new ones, with illustrations throughout. The easiest way for you to see if you'll like this book is to flip through a few of the online questions.
Reading this, I was reminded of David Macaulay's The Way Things Work, a similarly lighthearted book I owned growing up that explains engineering and science with the aid of cartoons and silly stories. I think this would be a great read for an intellectually curious, well-adjusted teen or preteen. (This age/"well-adjusted" caveat applies because a few of the questions are gruesome.) And I don't think personal inclination towards the STEM fields is a prerequisite; there's enough here to entertain readers of all stripes. Highly recommended. ...more
An event that was surely thrilling, terrifying, and heart-pounding in the first person gets served into a poorly written memoir. There is no depth toAn event that was surely thrilling, terrifying, and heart-pounding in the first person gets served into a poorly written memoir. There is no depth to the writing, partly because of the authorial decision to heavily emphasize personal emotion and grit, and partly because of the relentlessly Manichean attitude that permeates the narration. Maybe I'm being too cerebral, but when I read a book it is almost always with the goal of learning something or making me think about an idea presented. For me, this book accomplished neither. Marcus Luttrell is a professional soldier, not a writer, so the guy I'm really going to blame is his collaborator Patrick Robinson, who should have done better.
The book is roughly split into two halves, the first covering SEAL training, and the second covering the disaster in Afghanistan which cost the lives of several SEALs and from which Luttrell emerged the titular "lone survivor." The first half is better, but still disappointed. I know that SEALs are not only physically strong, but tactically skilled and resourceful, and I would have greatly preferred that to be emphasized. Instead we're mostly given a series of trials in which the victorious trainees make it by giving "110%," with emphasis on just how much the recruits endured. I'd rather learn about the finer differences between firearms, or how to find hiding spots in different forms of terrain, or how to treat different wounds in a pinch on a battlefield (Luttrell, as a medic, should have been able to talk a lot about this). We get some of this, but much more about pain and gain and "do you have what it takes?!" It's boring after a while.
The second half is a firsthand account of the disaster. It is exciting but whenever it's not recounting events, it falls back into repetition: praising his teammates, describing the agonies of his injuries, thinking about the courage of his friends and family back home, the occasional mildly amusing wisecrack. There is only a mild amount of factual detail, much less than can be learned through other books and articles about our involvement in Afghanistan. And there is editorializing, which gets more severe in the second half and which there is no way of getting around. Luttrell sees the world in black and white, with only heroes and villains and nothing in between. He regularly criticizes those who criticize the war effort back at home, which as far as I can see stems from an inability to imagine that the heroes could be doing the wrong thing. He bears particular venom for the Geneva Convention. As he is someone who gets shot at as a result of wartime laws and conventions, I have a lot of personal sympathy, but he never nuances his views by thinking at a higher scope than his immediate mission (what is the importance of Ben Sharmak?), or by establishing why he thinks the cost of innocent lives are worth the mission at hand, or anything further other than, we're the heroes, and these guys that higher command have pointed out to us are the villains. Maybe the ability to narrow your mind is necessary to carry out these kinds of operations. If that's so, all fine and well and continued respect to them as they risk their lives, but I won't read books written by them in the future.
I personally have no affiliation with anything military and in many ways fit the stereotype of the liberal elitist that Luttrell disparages. I hope readers of this review will not presume that my personal biases dictated my attitude towards the book - in fact, I do respect the military (some of our problems in the Middle East seem to have come from American civilian leaders incorrectly overruling its military leaders), and I think it's really great to read things written from different viewpoints. I tried to come into this with as neutral a stance as possible. It's still one star. ...more
Excellent, haunting, unflinching look at the US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (mostly the former) in the years after 9/11. These are personal essaExcellent, haunting, unflinching look at the US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (mostly the former) in the years after 9/11. These are personal essays, loosely organized correspondences from the battlefields seen through Filkins's eyes. He spends time with all sorts of people: American soldiers, Iraqi and Afghani civilians, local warlords, international politicians. His writing is crisp and direct, with short and forceful sentences that cut straight to the point. Everything is focused on describing, recounting, telling; there are no asides and no editorials or judgments other than in what he brings to the reader's attention.
Many great chapters, but the standouts were:
"Proteus," about Ahmad Chalabi. This is the first thing I remember read about Chalabi that didn't make him out to be a villainous rascal (some fault him for leading the US astray about WMDs). He is here portrayed as shrewd, hardworking, and practical - still rascally, and maybe a touch of the villain, but a much deeper and more nuanced character than I'd realized. The chapter-ending anecdote about Chagall is amazing.
"The Man Within," about an American commander, Col. Nathan Sassaman, that is terrible and soul-crushing and sums up all of the problems with the Iraq War in a single story arc.
"Jang," set during the US's routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but focuses on the complicated, shifting alliances and relationships between factions and how it impacted ordinary people. Great stories about some double-crossing and side-switching, some amusing episodes of how civilians reacted to the fall of the Taliban, a sad story about a young Taliban captive. I was impressed to learn that the warlord Dostum, portrayed as a no-nonsense battle-hardened tough guy, is alive and well and is the current vice president of Afghanistan. If you didn't already know how complicated Afghanistan is, this chapter will enlighten you. ...more
This is somewhere between a textbook and an encyclopedia entry. If that does not sound appealing to you, don't read this, because its quality in thatThis is somewhere between a textbook and an encyclopedia entry. If that does not sound appealing to you, don't read this, because its quality in that respect is really 100% of what it has going for it. If it does, you'll find this to be a great overview about an industry that has a very large influence on our day to day lives. I was referred to this book by a Quora user (Ryan Carlyle) who works in the oil industry and often has many interesting insights to share about it.
Start-to-finish, methodical descriptions of each stage of production: exploration, drilling, refining, transportation, and trading on the global markets. Covers actual companies (ExxonMobil, etc.) and the history of the oil industry only very lightly - go read The Prize for more on the latter. Overall chock full of insights, and readable even for a layman like myself, although the author sometimes presents seemingly unimportant details in very dry fashion. I know it's intended as a reference, but it doesn't excuse bland writing. Industry and process details are better written than chemistry details (the author is a commodities trader, and while that doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't have a background in the sciences, it does make that more likely). Also sometimes uses terms before defining them clearly (i.e. octane rating), and I think in general it would have benefited from some more editorial working-over. Nevertheless great for people like me who like reading Wikipedia, and liked reading traditional encyclopedia articles in times gone by. ...more
A really eye-opening book about the history of genocide in the 20th century. I tend to be a dispassionate, cold logician when it comes to policy argumA really eye-opening book about the history of genocide in the 20th century. I tend to be a dispassionate, cold logician when it comes to policy arguments, and this book tends to go more of the righteous-anger route, but it was so well written that it won me over. I think it is particularly important for people to read now, in the wake of the disastrous wars in the first decade of the 21st century, to remind us that the US is still capable of doing great deeds and that pure isolationism is far too easy, lazy, and morally weak of a stance to take.
Samatha Power reviews (in the following chronological order): the Armenians in Turkey, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the Kurds in Iraq, and Muslims in the Balkans twice, with the initial Serbian conflict and Srebrenica sandwiched around the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. The focus is on the modern (post-WWII) genocides - the Armenian and the Holocaust sections are primarily to lay background about Raphael Lemkin and the invention of the word and the legal idea of "genocide." (It's not a book you would pick to get a broad overview of the Holocaust, though it is useful as a broad overview of the other genocides it covers.)
The structure of the coverage of each genocide is similar: historical backdrop and reporting on the events leading to the killings, detailed description of Western responses, and eventual resolution. The second of these three is what makes this book different from other history/geopolitics books. Power repeatedly highlights patterns in Western responses (nicely drawn through with the "futility, perversity, jeopardy" motif) that explain how diplomats turn the other way or convince themselves that it is not yet time for aggressive countermeasures. Although this book is about Western responses and some of its arguments are predicated on the US's position as reigning world superpower, I think the historical patterns Power observes are valuable for anyone to learn. The reactions of people when confronted with genocide are not uniquely Western, but universally human, and in fact one thing I've gotten out of this book is that simply to recognize the severity of the problem is a good part of the way to behaving heroically.
The one complaint I have here, putting my logician hat back on, is that there is insufficient attention to decision-making protocol. Suppose you are a government official confronted with the possibility of genocide. How do you decide when is enough evidence that you must act? Where do you make the call to push for military action instead of diplomacy? Despite some warning signals (which I think may have been picked out after-the-fact, as they always can be), it does seem to me that the transition from a civil state with an undercurrent of ethnic distrust/hatred to an outright genocidal state can be quite rapid and discontinuous. How do you deal with this?
Nevertheless, a great book overall, and well worth your time. ...more
Should have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority dShould have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority did wrong in Iraq. It's a valuable exposé, but after 20% of the book I'd already digested the fact that incompetence and unpreparedness were rampant, and yet the book continued to tell me the same story for the remaining 80%.
Real value comes not from merely reciting the facts, but from illustrating ideas from which we can learn:
- Should we never have been here to begin with? If so, the focus of the book ought to be how that happened, with the Green Zone failures mere symptoms of the greater problems set in motion beforehand.
- A common problem is that people with inadequate experience or skills (few Arabic speakers, for instance) were put in charge in Iraq. How did this happen? Was it an overly idealistic adherence to a neocon dream that blinded Washington leaders to reality? Was it corruption that allowed politicians to sneak in unqualified favorites? Did Washington underestimate the importance of the occupation? How exactly was it that Iraq could simultaneously have been so important to our government and so carelessly treated?
- Was the problem too much centralization, or not enough? The book portrays Bremer as imperious and somewhat foolhardy, suggesting it was an error to put so much control in one person's hands. But another common issue was conflict between different American groups (i.e. civilian vs. military, or policymakers in different spheres). So maybe the problem wasn't enough? Or if it was sometimes too much and sometimes not enough, how do we tell this stuff so we can do better in the future?
The book mostly stops at illustrating the problems, not at showing the root causes. And it does so in somewhat unmemorable fashion (it's honestly hard for me to remember exactly what happened just days after reading, other than that it was all sorts of bad). ...more
A very good book; not quite up to the incredibly high bar set by Ghost Wars, but that's hardly a condemnation of any sort. A biography of the Bin LadeA very good book; not quite up to the incredibly high bar set by Ghost Wars, but that's hardly a condemnation of any sort. A biography of the Bin Laden family, with particular attention paid to Mohamed, the creator of the family fortunes as a construction magnate in Saudi Arabia, Salem, Mohamed's oldest son who guided the company from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, and Osama, who begins life as a shy, almost nondescript middle child in a very large family and gradually turns against the Saudis, the West, and the rest of his family.
I think Steve Coll is a better reporter than chronicler. The best parts of the book are when he describes concrete events or delineates the numerous interested parties and factions across the Middle East and their relationships with each other. (The latter is something Coll is especially good at, given the incredible complexities of the region. I've always felt that whoever said that your enemy's enemy is your friend never studied Middle Eastern affairs.) The biographical color is all right but sometimes tends towards blandness. Mohamed, Salem, and the other bin Ladens exhibit fairly minor change over time, at least in Coll's depiction (we understand, Salem was a playboy). Osama is the only major player where we get to see a real shift in personality, and consequently his personality sketch is far and away the best.
There's a lot here that the average person does not know but should know about current affairs, and it's written in a very straightforward, clear style, so I recommend this book for most people. ...more
A coffee-table book about typeface design. Very introductory and light in content, but there are nice visuals and some interesting tidbits in the sideA coffee-table book about typeface design. Very introductory and light in content, but there are nice visuals and some interesting tidbits in the sidebars. I enjoyed the comparisons of typefaces and their histories, particularly those that were applied to specific purposes - industrial signage, newspapers, etc. Sometimes terms are used before they are defined (such as "x-height") or are not defined at all ("tracking" is spacing between letters), which is a problem. There are some good observations about what criteria should guide font choice. I particularly liked the procedure of making a backlit sign readable and the observation that typefaces for heavy reading should have milder, understated ascenders and descenders.
But on the whole, I'd prefer to have had more concrete analyses of what makes a typeface good or not good - in general I wish this book were written more systematically. What exactly makes Helvetica blander than Frutiger, in the opinion of the authors? For what applications are slab serifs better than normal serifs? Typeface design sits at an interesting juncture between artistry and practicality; perhaps it's pointless to be so systematic about the paintings in the Met, but because typefaces are often created with specific intended applications, it's quite possible to be quantitative and hard-headed. What's the right ratio of ascenders to x-height for literature? What about our highway signs is good for visibility, and how could we improve on it? What's the best way to space lines in instruction manuals? The pure artistry element of typeface design may still be an unquantifiable je ne sais quoi, but the value added in practical application is certainly measurable and optimizable. Presumably experts in the field have done studies analyzing this; these are the kinds of insights I want to know.
The edition I read was published in 2003; doubtless this book needs (already has?) a revision with a mind to phones, tablets, and e-readers. ...more
(Disclaimer: I worked in derivatives on Wall Street for several years, though this book is more focused on stat arb, not my area.)
This book reminded(Disclaimer: I worked in derivatives on Wall Street for several years, though this book is more focused on stat arb, not my area.)
This book reminded me of When Genius Failed, not only in content matter but in style. This isn't a great thing, as I thought both books were hampered by some corny dramatics. In both cases the authors picked an inherently exciting topic; let the excitement tell itself and spend your energy telling us things we don't know rather than trying to inject more adrenaline into it. I'd rather the author kill every silly poker anecdote, every reference to the megalomania of Griffin and Asness, and instead talk some more about the basic principles of stat arb or convert arb, basic quant formulas and relative pricing approaches, I'm not expecting a textbook but when I read something I want it to walk away with as many new insights as possible.
The weirdest thing is the author's insistence on returning to the contrived theme of "The Truth," which far as I can tell simply refers to the ability to consistently beat the market, making it sound like Street quants were strange acolytes who thought of their work in reverent, near-religious terms. I've never met anyone who actually thinks like this; most quants or quantitative thinkers tended to think about their work with some scientific dispassion. Arguably that was actually the problem, because they were either too inflexible about violations of their assumptions (or failed to communicate the importance of flexibility to others), but I guess that didn't make as exciting of a story?
Style over substance, occasional insights clumsily wiped out by an unnecessary compulsion towards excitement. ...more
One of my pet peeves is the belief that "creative" people are those who study the humanities and that "analytical" types (as if "analytical" must someOne of my pet peeves is the belief that "creative" people are those who study the humanities and that "analytical" types (as if "analytical" must somehow stand in opposition to creativity) are those who study sciences and mathematics. Perhaps this belief stems from a mathematics education grounded in rote, memorization, and dull exercises. The Mathematical Experience is about mathematics, but takes a much more philosophical tone, exploring the concept of proof and truth, the history of math, and the process of discovery/invention of new ideas and theorems. I enjoyed it very much.
The book takes the form of several essays, averaging a few pages long each. I particularly enjoyed:
- "Unorthodoxies," about crank ideas but also the possibility of valuable ideas appearing to be cranks at first. "The doors of the mathematical past are often rusted. If an inner chamber is difficult of access, it does not necessarily mean there is treasure to be found therein."
- The chapter on the Chinese Remainder Theorem, a really fantastic survey of the same idea as seen through different mathematical lenses over history.
- "Nonstandard Analysis" was a thought-provoking essay about the history of the infinitesimal dx - like most present-day people I had learned it as expressed in terms of limits (the Weierstrassian "reformation," as it were) but had no idea of the infinitesimal's controversial use in other proofs. Challenges the concept of rigor, as practically useful results were "proved" in non-rigorous ways; of what use, and how much use, is rigor, and what is the role of intuition? (This was a far better exploration of the topic than the chapter devoted explicitly to intuition.)
- The essays towards the end hammer a little over-long on the distinctions between Platonism (mathematics is universal, immutable truth "out there" that we discover), constructivism (we invent mathematics, and objects must be constructed for their existence to be proved), and formalism (math is just a set of rule manipulations that does not encompass philosophical questions). But I did find the initial discussion of it to be very interesting.
- The two computer-oriented essays, "Mathematical Models, Computers, and Platonism," and "Why Should I Believe a Computer?" I think it would be wonderful if a mathematician with writing talents would update this book with more about how computers have influenced the development of mathematics. ...more
I bought this book effectively as a ticket to hearing Hook and Sasha Frere-Jones talk at the Strand. It reads like a transcription of Hook reminiscingI bought this book effectively as a ticket to hearing Hook and Sasha Frere-Jones talk at the Strand. It reads like a transcription of Hook reminiscing and rambling, beer in hand, about his Joy Division days. It's really for fans only; if you aren't already familiar with the band's history you might find yourself getting easily lost amongst the sea of names and places. There is no pretense to objective reporting; the book opens with the quote "This book is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth... as I remember it!"
In any case, fun, good-spirited, some very funny bits, not many deep insights but enjoyable overall. I liked reading about producer Martin Hannett the most, and I generally preferred the humorous anecdotes to the serious ones. My picture of Ian Curtis isn't changed, and despite Hook's statements to the contrary he still looms over the band as an ethereal, otherworldly spirit. But after digesting a lot of funny stories about Hook and Bernard Sumner and Sumner's sleeping bag, I have a much more human mental picture of both of them. (Sumner and Hook don't get along.) If you're a really devoted fan maybe you already have such a picture, and as mentioned if you don't know the band you might not enjoy this book. But if you do fall into the range in between, as I do, you might get a kick out of this. ...more
A really thought-provoking collection of essays and short stories about sentience. Each essay or story is followed by a short discussion by HofstadterA really thought-provoking collection of essays and short stories about sentience. Each essay or story is followed by a short discussion by Hofstadter and/or Dennett. I enjoyed most of them, and even the ones I didn't particularly enjoy still added fresh perspective that I appreciated. Some great mind-benders in here.
The two stories by Stanislaw Lem, "The Seventh Sally" and "Non Serviam," are superb; I'd never read Lem before but I'm certainly going to be putting him on my reading lists. "The Seventh Sally" was an inspiration for SimCity. Harold Morowitz's "Rediscovering the Mind" is a great comparison of the role of an "observer" in quantum physics with the increasing reductionism in biology that leaves no place for consciousness. Jorge Luis Borges and Richard Dawkins are two of my favorite authors and this book includes two stories by Borges and a selection from Dawkins's excellent The Selfish Gene. John Searle's famous "Minds, Brains, and Programs" describes his famous "Chinese room" thought experiment and offers a lot to think and argue about. The introduction, written by Dennett, is also very good. ...more
Not too bad, despite my strong misgivings over the breathless subtitle. This book is a short, casual history of the CDS and CDO market, particularly aNot too bad, despite my strong misgivings over the breathless subtitle. This book is a short, casual history of the CDS and CDO market, particularly as seen through the eyes of the employees of JP Morgan. It reads like a piece of journalism; author Gillian Tett is a Financial Times columnist. In the play-by-play aspects is very good. Although she is sometimes given to over-dramatization, she definitely keeps things exciting and reports events like a seasoned pro. If you get a kick out of "adrenaline" business books (the excellent Barbarians at the Gate being the quintessential example), you'll probably like this.
There are two main flaws to the book. The first one is that there really aren't enough explanations of financial terms. If I hadn't worked in the financial industry I might be lost at points. You don't have to have equations, but you have to explain the basics a little better. Take an aside and spend a few pages describing the structure of loans, collateralization, seniority/waterfalls, and default events. Give some very layman explanations of Basel. There is no rule against having diagrams in your book and Tett really should have included some.
The other is that by choosing to tell the story solely from the vantage of JPM, Tett cuts the scope of the book drastically. One of the major lessons of the 2000s financial crisis is that the interconnectedness of the banking system was only a strength if properly managed and regulated, and if not would make a crash all the more drastic and explosive. In fact it is a lesson discussed and played out in the pages of the book. So how can you possibly tell an effective story about the financial crisis, even acknowledging a desire to limit your scope to one particular facet of the crisis, if you spend the whole time through the eyes of one bank? You get somewhat tangential pictures of what the other banks were doing during the boom years, and AIG, which played a really major role in the CDS/CDO aspect of the crisis, gets surprisingly few pages at the very end. This book is narrow, almost parochial, and as such represents a missed opportunity to really explore what happened. ...more
An interesting idea for a popular book about genetics - 23 chapters, one for each pair of chromosomes - that is realized into a not particularly goodAn interesting idea for a popular book about genetics - 23 chapters, one for each pair of chromosomes - that is realized into a not particularly good book. I appreciate that it's trying to be generalist, but it's generalist to the point of failing to convey ideas. Ridley moves from topic to topic like a student who has been told that he must include a long list of them in his paper. And I'm afraid the writing is just not good enough for any of the briefly discussed ideas to stick in your brain, unless this book is literally your first exposure to the field of genetics at all (like, you didn't even learn about it at a high school level).
Part of the problem is the numerous minor details that are brought up and then discarded as we move on to the next subject. So for example in chapter 9, "Disease," we have a discussion of blood types. Good at first, but then we're told that the blood type gene is 1,062 letters of a section of 18,000, that it creates an enzyme called galactosyl transferase, and that type As have a sequence CGCG where Bs have a sequence called GAAC. In chapter 12, "Self-Assembly," the writing leaps around from a 1970s study on geometry of genes in fruit flies, to cross-species homologies in some of these genes, to a dizzying laundry list of genes within the space of a few pages: "Otx (1 and 2)", "Emx (1 and 2)", "decapentaplegic", "short gastrulation", "BMP4", "chordin", "Hox" and its alleles, "hedgehog" and its alleles.
This level of detail may add some texture, but as a generalist I think you only want as much detail as makes the topic fun to learn about, and then to focus on getting the big ideas across. As it was, I think I would have been better off reading anything in the book's bibliography than this book itself. ...more
A really useful review of this book might come from someone who was genuinely on the fence about religion, looking for arguments to sway himself one wA really useful review of this book might come from someone who was genuinely on the fence about religion, looking for arguments to sway himself one way or the other. I am not that person. Dawkins was preaching to the choir; I agree with some of his arguments to the point of self-evidence; I am glad to have an eloquent and passionate thinker on my side of this issue. So unfortunately all I can really say is that I enjoyed it casually, and nodded my head, but I was not left with any life-changing thoughts about the matter.
The dismantling of the popular proofs of God's existence were thorough and I'm not sure how people can continue to give them credence (the reasonable religious people I know basically accept that their religion is a faith that is not going to be proved by scientific fact). I found the discussion of evolution to be a bit boondoggle-y, but I suppose it is necessary because some people view the existence of humanity as evidence of a God. For a better discussion of that topic, see The Blind Watchmaker, or even better (but less specific to that particular subject), The Selfish Gene.
The ungentle treatment of religion will nettle some people, though I agree with Dawkins that it is important to banish our tendency to hold these beliefs (literally) sacred and to treat them with the same rigor that we would with anything else we think we know, and to his credit he lays out this point right at the beginning so that readers understand this before he pulls out his claws.
I think the most important segments for religious believers to read are the ones of morality in the absence of religion and the later chapters that answer the question, "Why fight religion, is it really so bad to have around?" The former is good for anyone who hasn't seriously thought about morality in the absence of their religious upbringing and their parents, and the latter makes clear that there are plenty of evils done in the name of religion.
I do think after reading this book that Dawkins is a little better off writing about science. In his other books I enjoyed his incorporation of fascinating biological studies and curiosities of the natural world into his prose. These are not present in great quantities here, except for the evolutionary discussions that I thought were somewhat clumsily integrated into the main anti-God argument. Nevertheless I think Dawkins is a very good writer, one of my favorites, and it is always a pleasure to read his books. ...more
Fantastic history of something you wouldn't realize deserves a history. Traces the introduction of standardized containers into the modern shipping inFantastic history of something you wouldn't realize deserves a history. Traces the introduction of standardized containers into the modern shipping industry and examines its impact on the shipping industry itself (obviously), other transportation industries, manufacturing, labor unions, and social dynamics of waterfront cities. Enthusiastic without being too preachy, very insightful and thought-provoking, and the one accusation that could be leveled is that occasionally (just occasionally) it is a little dry.
I found the social impact of containerization particularly interesting - I live in NYC and it is fascinating to imagine standing on the piers along the Hudson and rolling the clock backwards and seeing it turn into a bustling old-style waterfront. (This book also made me want to head out to Elizabeth to see the docks there, where all the shipping went.) I'd love to read more about what cities that lost out on shipping business did with their waterfronts. Examples of these mentioned in the book include Manhattan and Brooklyn, San Francisco, Boston, and London - all of which are considered very desirable places to live, probably with valuable office and residential buildings occupying old pier space, and it's unclear that they really lost in the long run by no longer being major ports of call.
Aside from great stories and details about the shipping industry specifically, this book is a great case study in the impact of a disruptive technology (sorry to use that now-badly-overused word, but that's what it is). Containerization illustrated many lessons about such technologies:
- It's never obvious that it's going to work at first - The benefits are not always reaped by the first entrants - True benefits can take many years to emerge, while other parts of the economy reshape themselves to fit the disruption - There is not much use in fighting technological developments OR, less obviously, the repercussions they will have on society - the best we can do is smooth the way a little bit for people who are hurt to adapt - It's not easy to predict who will benefit and who will be hurt by technological changes, and over what time frames these benefits and hurts will accumulate - any prognostication really needs to acknowledge its own limits and uncertainties
At 31, I'm too young to have experienced a world where the fruits of containerized shipping weren't at my fingertips, but I imagine that this book might be especially enjoyable for older generations of readers who might be able to trace the rise of containerization with changes in the economy they remember seeing in their lives. ...more
A pretty good collection of David Foster Wallace essays, but it suffers by comparison to Consider the Lobster, which was in my opinion consistently beA pretty good collection of David Foster Wallace essays, but it suffers by comparison to Consider the Lobster, which was in my opinion consistently better. The best parts are sublime, hilarious, cutting, and Wallace has the ability of great writing talents to cast in words a thought, an idea, a feeling that you've had but have never consciously bubbled into the forefront of your mind. But the essays here tend to be a little more repetitive and desultory, and one of them I considered to be a fairly unreadable stinker.
The essays on Michael Joyce/the pro tennis circuit ("Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry...") and David Lynch ("David Lynch Keeps His Head') were my two favorites. (Unfortunately by comparison for the former, Wallace has two better essays on tennis: the wonderful "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," from Consider the Lobster, and "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," which you can find on the NYT's website.) "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" and the eponymous essay are similar explorations of weird American cultural experiences and are funny but spend a bit too much time hammering the same nails. The one essay I found truly dislikable, probably the first instance of Wallace's writing that I've found so, was "E Unibus Pluram," an incoherent, bullshitty blather about the role of TV in pomo literature. ...more
I really enjoy Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, but I found this book to be a hand-waving, unsystematic mishmash of ideas that were sometimes properI really enjoy Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, but I found this book to be a hand-waving, unsystematic mishmash of ideas that were sometimes properly baked and sometimes not. It's a book about autistics and an "autistic" way of thinking that Cowen argues is very useful to have in modern society, where the ability to process large amounts of data is at a premium. The book cover tells me that it "[w]ill change the way [I] think about thinking" but this was not the case for me. There were no "oh that's an interesting idea" ideas but only a bunch of "oh that's an... interesting idea" ideas.
There's some stuff in here about non-autistic versus autistic styles of thinking, musings on the way we consume culture, and even literary wanderings (Sherlock Holmes, and the Glass Bead Game, the latter of which I have not read and was annoyed at having had partially spoiled). From time to time you're fed standard-issue pop-economics and pop-science anecdotes. The overarching point that I get from the book is that I should try to think like an autist from time to time, with emphasis on systematic organization, detachment from bias, and parallel processing as much input as I can. I guess that's what the book is suggesting I do? So... I guess I'll just go out and do that then? To whatever extent I can? After reading this book I don't know how to do that better or worse than I already do. ...more
This is primarily a human interest story. There is interesting science here and it is discussed, but it receives much less focus than I'd like to haveThis is primarily a human interest story. There is interesting science here and it is discussed, but it receives much less focus than I'd like to have had. There is a complicated debate about the ownership of one's cells and genetic material and the ethical boundary defining where consent is necessary, but it is not explored enough for my liking either. The book spends a lot of time focusing on the personal history of the Lacks family, and ethical questions are primarily confined to empathy, putting a human face on the cell line, emphasizing the undereducated and under-informed state of the Lackses.
There's no problem spending some time on humanizing. But there are really great questions that are just begging to be thought about in greater depth, and the book attempts to answer them by just bleeding empathy all over the place. I'd preferred to have scaled back on the subplot of Deborah finding out what happened to her sister, which is of great importance to her personally but somewhat tangential, I thought, to HeLa itself. And I'd definitely can that ridiculous "faith healing" chapter at the end. Swap that out with some increased detail about the science and the ethics. There's more interesting things to do than to make the reader friends with the Lackses. ...more
An important, well-written book by two young stars of the economics profession about global poverty, an issue that everyone should care about. As detaAn important, well-written book by two young stars of the economics profession about global poverty, an issue that everyone should care about. As detailed by the book, there are conflicts among policymakers about the correct approach towards helping the world's poorest. One end of the opinion spectrum, personified by Jeffrey Sachs, favors aggressive intervention and debt forgiveness to break "poverty traps," vicious cycles where low income reinforces further poverty. The other end, personified by William Easterly, argues that wealthy interventionists often waste money to no positive effect and often unwittingly inflict harm. Before reading this book, I had intended to read both Sachs and Easterly to get a taste of both opinions (I did read The White Man's Burden, but haven't gotten around to Sachs). I may still do this but I have now de-prioritized it behind other reading.
It's tempting but incorrect to view Banerjee and Duflo as a "third way" between these two perspectives. The important takeaway from their book is that the best way to answer questions about fighting poverty is to ask ourselves specific, almost narrow questions about whether a given policy is effective or not and to answer those questions with randomized experiments. Socioeconomic experiments can be challenging to organize in a rigorous and ethical manner and can sometimes take many years to bear fruit. But when carefully designed and carried out, they yield concrete, actionable answers that ensure that future antipoverty efforts and money are spent more efficiently. Although sometimes they come down in favor of intervention and sometimes against it, Banerjee and Duflo are not trying to deliberately reconcile two opposing opinions; they are giving a review of their own experimental work and that of others and answering specific questions with data from the field.
This approach can be seen in some of the names of the sub-chapters, such as "Why do the poor eat so little?", "Does microcredit work?", and "Do the poor control their fertility decisions?" Looking at this last sub-chapter as an example, Banerjee and Duflo offer three studies that compare fertility rates and availability of fertility clinics in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Colombia. One study finds mixed support and two studies find no conclusive impact. (The studies take place over many years, further emphasizing that it can take a long time to answer seemingly narrow questions conclusively.) Thus the authors come down against interventionism, additionally noting that the fertility program that had mixed support was also very expensive. That's all there is - it's a short section. This is not to say that it's the final word on the subject, and further studies may reinforce or weaken this stance. But it's an example where the question of "How do we fix poverty?" is broken down into one small component and answered scientifically.
In case this sounds dry to you, rest assured that it's not. This book is written with popular consumption in mind (I have a hard time imagining an academic paper referring to Sachs as a "supply wallah"), and you don't have to be a policy wonk to enjoy reading it. In fact, I think one of the authors' major goals was to raise awareness about rigorous field work being done on the subject and educate the public about what has and has not been shown to be effective. And I genuinely think the question of helping the world's poorest people is an important issue that everyone should know more about. So please read this book and come off the wiser for having done so. ...more
Like all of Dawkins, this is good, although this is the fifth book of his that I've read, and having moved roughly from greatest to least renown (TheLike all of Dawkins, this is good, although this is the fifth book of his that I've read, and having moved roughly from greatest to least renown (The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion, and now this), I may be at the point where I'd gain more by re-reading what I've already read than tackling his other writing. This is a decent book for people new to Dawkins, and it's gentler on scientific detail than usual, for those worried about getting lost in the material. It is expressly targeted at a non-scientific audience and has the stated goal of communicating the wonder and beauty of scientific discovery.
Consequently it's the lowest-content book of his that I've read; many of the ideas and examples from nature can be found in his other books. Towards the end I thought there was a bit of a loss of focus as well; Dawkins starts writing about a subject that interests him (memes, cognition, the reflection of environment in our genes and brains, and parallels between the gene pool and the brain) without specific concern to beauty as revealed by the scientific method. The prose is clean and elegant as his prose always is, and reading this book was a pleasant way to spend time, but I'd point most readers to his other stuff. ...more
This reminded me of Lives of a Cell but set in space, and unfortunately I don't consider that a compliment, although if you liked the style of that boThis reminded me of Lives of a Cell but set in space, and unfortunately I don't consider that a compliment, although if you liked the style of that book you may enjoy this as well. Carl Sagan explores the history of astronomy and physics, the solar system, and the heavenly bodies beyond. It is written in an affable, enthusiastic style and I think its intent is to try to communicate the magic and wonder of astronomical discoveries to the everyday reader, emphasis on magic and wonder.
For me it's overdone. Maybe I'm a grumpy and unimaginative rationalist, but I'd rather just enjoy the beauty of the facts and not have my reading interspersed with speculative "I wonder"s and forced attempts at generating said magic-and-wonder aura around the subject (which frankly is wonderful enough without embellishment, I mean we're talking about outer space here). The absolute low point is a risible four-page tangent in the middle of the book in which Sagan imagines himself as a prehistoric man pondering science and the stars. ("If you run fast with a small flame, it dies. Their children are weak. We did not run. We walked, shouting good wishes. 'Do not die,' we said to the flame. The other hunterfolk looked with wide eyes.")
The science contained in the book is a nice summary though I imagine you can get more detailed, up-to-date knowledge by just browsing around the Internet; it is written at a very general level, such as that which you might find in a high school textbook or an encyclopedia. I do in particular appreciate the way Sagan wraps the science around history, especially when referencing the ideas and philosophies of the ancient Greeks, which gives a nice context that you might not encounter in a book focused on teaching just the science. ...more
Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvWow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more literary style about less well-recognized events, you might be excused for thinking it was some kind of spy novel.
The biggest lesson of all is that the Middle East never was and never will be an "us against them" story. There were and are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan communists, Massoud's Northern Alliance, Saudi royals, Iranians, the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department, Soviets, countless mujahedin warlords, etc. At various points many of the parties involve either change their allegiances outright or shift their focus from one enemy to another. And embedded in every friendship was some difference of motive, to the point where one's friend's friend could easily be one's enemy.
In any case, the book was really amazing, a touch on the wordy side in its efforts to be comprehensive but that's all. Through exhaustive research, Steve Coll gives you an omniscient, bird's eye perspective, giving a steady authorial guide through the geopolitics by sprinkling a little history with a careful recounting of the events and quotes from people on all sides. You can really see the clashing motives, the decisions made and left unmade, and a steady unfolding of events towards the crushing ending.
The book stops short a day short of 9/11 but sadly provides a hard finish that is all the worse because everyone knows what is to come next. The quote on the cover, from the NYT, is spot on: "...makes the reader want to rip the page and yell at the American counterterrorism officials... and tell them to watch out." If your knowledge of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia is murky and vague like mine was, this book will have your eyes about a million times wider when you finish. ...more
A pretty coffee table book covering the history of Penguin Books' cover designs. Penguin has a strong artistic tradition regarding its covers. The oraA pretty coffee table book covering the history of Penguin Books' cover designs. Penguin has a strong artistic tradition regarding its covers. The orange spines that adorn the covers of this book are readily recognizable to any reader. Over the years Penguin produced many gorgeous covers and a few clunkers, and author Phil Baines curates a collection that includes both.
The original three-panel Penguin covers and the subsequent minor variations are beautiful examples of design. Everything looks clean, crisp, and aesthetically pleasing, and even decades later many of them do not appear dated. My favorite designs besides the originals are the Tschihold classics designs from the 1940s (the two pages of roundels are gorgeous), the physical sciences covers of the 1970s, the Games covers of the 1950s, the 2005 Reference relaunch (a tremendous homage to the original design), and the Modern Classics look from the 2000s that I think you can still find in bookstores today.
The text is satisfactory but falls short in two areas. For one, it does not always explain typography and design decisions in a way that laymen like me can appreciate. I'm not saying that the text is abstruse, but that when you are talking about letter spacing, halftone printing, etc. to non-designers, you have to take some time to illustrate clearly the effects of a design decision and its pros and cons to make us really and truly get what it is that you have to say. I also think that this collection could have been improved by showing some covers of the same book evolve over the years. For example, multiple covers of A Clockwork Orange appear in the pages; it would be cool to see them side by side, changing over the years, reflecting different selling approaches, popular reactions to the books, and so on.
In what I can only describe as a great irony, my copy of the book was very poorly bound, and the cover came unglued from the spine halfway through reading. ...more
A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat,A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat, relatively simple and sparse, like a child's, and thereby reminding you at all times that you are seeing complicated, emotional, sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful things through the eyes of a youth. (The story extends from Satrapi's childhood through her early 20s.) The simplicity is the joy and the book speaks to you with its heart on its sleeve.
I don't have a lot more to say, as there's really no point in recapping Satrapi's life story; the life story is the point of the book, it's about growing up. That she does half of it during a revolution in her home country and half of it adapting to a strange new Western country makes her story more unique and exciting than most. But the book relates experiences that everyone can understand as well; thus a story about her parents' friends tortured in prison is juxtaposed with Satrapi trying to outdo her friends, and Iran's crackdown on women's attire is mixed with details of how women let bits of their personality show through what they could wear.
I'm sure part of my enjoyment of Persepolis was simply hearing any life story told from such a different perspective than my own. Nothing I can do about that; in the end, the reader is who he is, and maybe someone else from a less fortunate background might not find it so interesting. But I think on top of that that the story is told very well, honestly and poignantly and kindheartedly, and that much should make it worthy of anyone. Read and enjoy. ...more
I enjoyed this thoroughly despite not knowing much about boxing at all. A collection of boxing essays from A.J. Liebling, a writer for the New YorkerI enjoyed this thoroughly despite not knowing much about boxing at all. A collection of boxing essays from A.J. Liebling, a writer for the New Yorker from the first half of the 20th century, that are similar but enjoyable. Somewhat cantankerously narrated and dryly observed, Liebling spends time not only watching fights but visiting training camps, sitting at bars with old-timers, chatting about fighters with the man-on-the-street, and periodically referring to the pugilist culture of 19th century Britain as depicted in Boxiana, a British writer of those times whom Liebling admires. (A running joke in his essays is to lob a bombastic line of praise for Boxiana at some point near the beginning.)
While Liebling clearly loves the sport of boxing, he avoids over-reverence, a trap that has snared thousands of mediocre sportswriters. His love is instead communicated through nitty-gritty detail, countless little things that catch his eye and that he then relates to you. This is, for me, the best way to write about sports - don't make it bigger than it is (it's entertainment), don't make mythologies out of the athletes (they're just people), basically don't try too hard. If you love the sport, just write about the sport, and it'll come through. ...more
Something of a cross between a textbook and a well-organized collection of essays on post-WWII European history. If you want to learn basic modern EurSomething of a cross between a textbook and a well-organized collection of essays on post-WWII European history. If you want to learn basic modern European history, this book definitely gets the job done. Its target audience is part academics and part general audience, and while you shouldn't expect a spy novel, the prose is really very readable for the casual but intellectually curious reader (and occasionally sarcastically dry in a totally British manner). You may need to look up some terms and proper nouns, but you don't need to come pre-equipped with an infrastructure of knowledge about social theory and historical knowledge.
There is no central thesis; even 800-odd pages cannot help but be generalist when covering such a wide range of people, places, and points in time. The chapters do have themes and there are many small arguments made here and there, such that sometimes you feel like you're reading a burst of mini-essays, each no more than a handful of paragraphs in length. I quite approve of the lack of central thesis - I think writers often try too hard to have one and underrate the value of simply stating the facts as you see them - but I still think at the mini-essay level, the book falls a bit prey to the compulsion towards arguments.
For me the best sections were "The Impossible Settlement" and "The Coming of the Cold War," illustrating how the Allies transitioned into opposing Cold War powers, and "The Reckoning," about the 1990s civil wars in Yugoslavia. In general I preferred the reporting of events and did not enjoy the sections on cultural theory and intellectual movements as much, perhaps because I am not an academic. But on the balance a really educational read, overflowing with topics.
I picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, beforI picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, before he was toppled and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ryszard Kapuscinski is an openly literary writer of nonfiction; the back cover says that he "brings a mythographer's perspective and a novelist's virtuosity" to his subject; his Wikipedia article mentions Adam Hochschild describing his work as "magic journalism," in comparison to fictional magic realism. So you have to take that into account when you pick him up - don't expect a dispassionate retelling of the facts. But if you accept this then you have a pretty decent book o your hands.
The story is told through a series of vignettes, like peeling through a memory, or seeing paintings at a museum. Some are extremely vivid. The one that sticks with me most is when Kapuscinski meets a man who was tortured by the Shah's secret police in cruelly creative fashion: he is strapped to a chair that gradually moves towards a white-hot iron wall until he admits wrongdoing. While retelling his story he breaks down crying and pleads, "God... why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking? Why have you taught me to think, instead of teaching me the humility of cattle!"
The vignettes are excellent but Kapuscinski sometimes oversteps the bounds of his abilities. He is a great storyteller but not a great analyst. For example, when he directly describes what he believes to be the Shah's vision of a Great Civilization, the writing is weak and a bit outlandish. But when he gives a concrete instance of the Shah's ambitions, describing the Shah's splurge on infrastructure and subsequent massive waste from horribly inadequate planning, it is a memorable and funny story.
A very short book that you could read in a day. ...more
This edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The DiscoThis edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The Discourses. The Prince, naturally, takes center stage. I think of Sun Tzu's The Art of War as the stereotypical businessman's nod to the classics, but I found this to be more enjoyable and relevant. It feels provokingly sensible even today, almost 500 years after it was originally written, to anyone whose job involves managing people and vying with rivals for superiority.
Some describe Machiavelli's philosophy as "the end justifies the means," which is accurate at times. But I think a fairer assessment of him is that he is a realist with a dim view of human nature. The term realpolitik comes to mind. The Prince is not about justifying whatever goal you want to achieve, but specifically about gaining and maintaining power and sovereignty and acknowledging that this can involve deception and suspensions of traditional morality.
I particularly recommend the sections on avoiding contempt and hatred, which Machiavelli says, and I agree, is a fatal flaw for a prince. (And wherever you see "prince" or a similar term you can read "manager" for our modern workplace.) A ruler has to show strength but in a balanced way, as too little or too much will make him despised by his people. I also recommend the first few chapters, regarding hereditary princes versus princes who obtain power by conquest; while this sounds on first glance like it would have aged poorly, I found that it analogized well to workplaces where a manager is promoted from within versus where she is hired from elsewhere.
The first of Machiavelli's letters, "The Life of Castruccio," espouses a similar philosophy to The Prince but isn't as well written. The second letter, to Francesco Vettori, is very short and is more of a historical supplement. The excerpts from The Discourses also are similar in nature to The Prince but are better than "Castruccio" and provide some sharp observations on the role of religion and traditions. (Make a show of obeying them even if you don't believe them, as they instill order and confidence.)
The introduction and endnotes, supplied by Prof. Wayne Rebhorn at UT, are clear and offer the reader the depth of understanding that you'd want to see out of all ancillary material. Rebhorn emphasizes historical context, describing the wars and politics and rulers of Europe in the 1400s and 1500s and how they shaped Machiavelli's life and thoughts. ...more
This is a book about the value of snap judgments. I think it starts off very well, with the stories about Greek statues and speed dating and the subtlThis is a book about the value of snap judgments. I think it starts off very well, with the stories about Greek statues and speed dating and the subtle expressive and conversational cues people give each other when talking to each other. I liked these because they get you thinking about how you can possibly make effective decisions with a potentially very large data set but only a small amount of time to decide which data items are most important. What are people good at seeing, what do they look for, and why? Are some people better than others at this?
Those are the kind of things I'd hoped the rest of the book would also be about, but after the first few chapters the book loses its way. A lot of the later anecdotes are not very revelatory. For example, the chapter of Paul Van Riper didn't tell me anything about snap judgments. It just told me that if you plan heavily on bad assumptions you are doomed to failure, and if there are too many variables to consider it may be better to play things by ear rather than to spend lots of time on elaborate plans. I consider this common sense, not a fresh insight into human behavior. Much of the Bronx chapter just told me that people don't always make great decisions under pressure. The Kenna chapter gave examples of how snap judgments can be better than carefully researched ones but I didn't think it offered many good explanations of why.
There are memorable anecdotes and descriptions of psychological studies scattered throughout. I did like the point that consumer experiences cannot necessarily be disentangled from their context; seeing the packaging is part of eating a snack, as in most real-world scenarios you will see it when you eat. I also thought the Cook County hospital story was great, a terrific example where someone analyzed what data is genuinely valuable to make an effective decision and enforced this judgment pattern in practice to positive results. Sadly neither of these were made the focus of their respective chapters. ...more