Should have been an article or maybe a series of articles. A somewhat repetitive account of the many things that the Coalition Provisional Authority d...moreShould 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). (less)
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 Lade...moreA 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. (less)
A coffee-table book about typeface design. Very introductory and light in content, but there are nice visuals and some interesting tidbits in the side...moreA 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. (less)
(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...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 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. (less)
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 some...moreOne 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. (less)
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 reminiscing...moreI 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. (less)
A really thought-provoking collection of essays and short stories about sentience. Each essay or story is followed by a short discussion by Hofstadter...moreA 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. (less)
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 a...moreNot 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. (less)
An interesting idea for a popular book about genetics - 23 chapters, one for each pair of chromosomes - that is realized into a not particularly good...moreAn 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. (less)
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 w...moreA 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. (less)
A pretty good collection of David Foster Wallace essays, but it suffers by comparison to Consider the Lobster, which was in my opinion consistently be...moreA 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. (less)
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 proper...moreI 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. (less)
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 have...moreThis 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. (less)
An important, well-written book by two young stars of the economics profession about global poverty, an issue that everyone should care about. As deta...moreAn 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. (less)
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 (The...moreLike 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. (less)
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 bo...moreThis 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. (less)
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 involv...moreWow - 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. (less)
A pretty coffee table book covering the history of Penguin Books' cover designs. Penguin has a strong artistic tradition regarding its covers. The ora...moreA 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. (less)
A great, poignant autobiographical comic about author Marjane Satrapi's experience growing up halfway between Iran and Europe. The drawings are flat,...moreA 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. (less)
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 Yorker...moreI 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. (less)
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 Eur...moreSomething 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, befor...moreI 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. (less)
This edition of Machiavelli, published by Barnes & Noble, includes The Prince in its entirety, two letters to friends, and excerpts from The Disco...moreThis 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. (less)
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 subtl...moreThis 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. (less)
This book popularized the idea of paradigms and paradigm shift. Its central idea is that science is not a homogeneous accretion of knowledge. Instead,...moreThis book popularized the idea of paradigms and paradigm shift. Its central idea is that science is not a homogeneous accretion of knowledge. Instead, scientists believe in models effectively as fact and do mostly "detail" work at its boundaries, verifying, refining, and improving the model, with occasional historical exceptions where a model is overthrown by a newer and better one in revolutionary fashion.
Author Thomas Kuhn is a bit bland and repetitive when philosophizing about scientific history, but is much more interesting when adducing historical examples. I really enjoyed his discussion on Joseph Priestly, Antoine Lavoisier, and the discovery of oxygen and subsequent rejection of the phlogiston theory. You see a completely new theory and an old theory that to be honest had explained a lot to that point, and you see experimental design itself being dictated by acceptance of the paradigm, and the difficulty of thinkers ingrained in the old ways to ever accept the new.
Unfortunately the theory that the historical interludes support is presented somewhat dryly, and the book probably could have been a quarter shorter with superfluously repetitive segments condensed. I actually found the whole argument to be a bit of a straw man, even, but maybe this is because I've grown up in the present day and age where Kuhn's ideas have already permeated our thinking about science. Still, decent read, and educational for the examples. (less)
Offers a lot of food for thought, although sometimes a bit dry. Thaler is better known now as the co-author of Nudge, but back in 1992 he compiled thi...moreOffers a lot of food for thought, although sometimes a bit dry. Thaler is better known now as the co-author of Nudge, but back in 1992 he compiled this book reviewing the current (at the time) economic literature regarding consistently reproducible examples of non-rational human behavior. It's not quite a popular economics book, as there are many passages where he simply details the findings of various economics papers, but it's also much more engagingly written than your standard academic treatise.
And the anomalies are for the most part very interesting. I think the ultimatum game is the simplest, most succinct example of the type of irrationality that Thaler is looking at. To give away a small bit of the book, the ultimatum game is a two player game where one offers the other some fraction of a dollar (or $100, $1000, whatever). If the other person agrees they both get their respective fractions, but if the other person refuses then no one gets anything. A mechanically rational second player will take any offer, as it's better than nothing, but that's not what people do in reality, nor do real human first players usually offer the lowest possible amount.
Many of the anomalies run along this line: mechanically rational model predicts one thing, experiments and empirical data predict another, what kind of model of human deviation from rationality would produce such a result? The book is split into several chapters, each of which explores a different anomaly. Some of the chapters are co-authored, and between them and the papers cited, you'll find a lot of famous names in this book, some of whom have grown in fame since this book's publication (to name a few: Larry Summers, Janet Yellen, Brad DeLong, and now-Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and George Akerlof). The chapters I enjoyed the most covered intertemporal choice (people discount the value of having or losing something in the future in inconsistent ways) and status quo bias (people tend to prefer the status quo and will show an irrational preference for maintaining it).
I think this stuff is pretty fascinating. The main drawback of the book is that this fascinating stuff is sometimes presented dryly, at times reading like a laundry list of economic papers. I suppose this was sometimes deliberate because neither he nor the field of economics at large had a good answer to explain the irrationalities being discusses, and so he simply tried to present as much about it as possible. But deliberate or not, the book suffers a bit for these tendencies.
When Thaler breaks out of academician mode and writes "for" the reader he becomes much more enjoyable, but there is a bit of legwork to do when reading this book. If you're willing to do this legwork you'll be rewarded with a nice, if slightly dated (surely there have been many advances since 1992?) survey of economic modeling of human behavior beyond simple rationality. (less)
Bobby Fischer was an unpleasant person. Petulant and demanding even before he unraveled in older age, self-centered, ungrateful to his friends, parano...moreBobby Fischer was an unpleasant person. Petulant and demanding even before he unraveled in older age, self-centered, ungrateful to his friends, paranoid, anti-Semitic, and notoriously vitriolic, one might wonder why anyone would have anything to do with this man. The answer, of course, was his prodigious talent at the chessboard. My understanding is that chess masters consider Fischer one of the top three players of all time, with some ranking him number one.
And herein lies the problem with this book. If you are already a player and student of chess, you have probably already seen Fischer's games and marveled at his brilliance and his contributions to theory. If you are not, I don't think there is anything in this book that will convince you that he is a man whose life was worth learning about. Fischer is not best learned and digested through stories and anecdotes but through scoresheets and analysis. As a human being he had worth as a chess player, tremendous worth, but in precious few other walks of life.
Author Frank Brady, a personal friend of Fischer's, clearly has his sympathies with Fischer, as do countless other people in the book who played with, taught, and helped Fischer both at and away from the chessboard. (One-time World Champion Boris Spassky comes off particularly well, and really almost everyone looks like a nice person next to Fischer.) But I remain of the belief that Fischer's friends were so gravitated to the genius of his play and his obsession with the game that they were able to overlook his numerous other flaws.
The book is certainly not bad; well-paced, enthusiastic, at times given to over-speculation (Brady sort of admits some disposition towards this in his introduction). But the problem is its subject. Fischer was not a great man away from the chessboard, and as this book is a regular biography with no chess analysis whatsoever, it doesn't hit the next gear and compel the reader forth. I suggest reading about Fischer's games instead.
On that note, I'm little more than a chess dilettante but I find Fischer's games quite enjoyable. 17. ...Be6!! in the "Game of the Century" when Fischer was only 13 years old. Hard to beat that with some stories about a grumpy, petty man, huh? (less)
A terrific "biography" of cancer that is comprehensive, exciting, and understandable to readers with little scientific background. My strongest compli...moreA terrific "biography" of cancer that is comprehensive, exciting, and understandable to readers with little scientific background. My strongest compliment to author Siddhartha Mukherjee is that he really makes history into a story.
Although the book does proceed in more or less chronological fashion (with some personal interludes by Mukherjee), you as the reader never feel that you're simply going through event after event; instead, you get coherent narrative threads regarding the different approaches and schools of thought that doctors, scientists, and patients have taken towards the disease. You meet those who favor radical surgery, those who support extensive and intense bouts of chemotherapy, those who focus on the problem of prevention rather than treatment, and so on. Against this you have the ever-present battles for fundraising and awareness and the conflicts between the medical industry and its patients. While reading, I always felt like I was learning something new.
A fairly nondescript and dull history of the Second Punic War, with some extra focus given to the Battle of Cannae. This was the war between Rome and...moreA fairly nondescript and dull history of the Second Punic War, with some extra focus given to the Battle of Cannae. This was the war between Rome and Carthage made famous by Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and subsequent ravaging of the Roman countryside for over a decade. Although author Robert O'Connell sounds excited about the topic, his writing style is mediocre, at times turning into a historical laundry list, and he leaves the one most interesting theme of the book woefully underdeveloped.
After starting with some backdrop of Rome and Carthage at the time of the wars that is very informative and one of the high points of the book, O'Connell plods along the course set by Hannibal, from North Africa to Spain to the Alps to Cannae. For the sequence of events, he cites Polybius's The Histories and Livy's History of Rome a lot, to the point where I feel like I might have just read those two instead (O'Connell repeatedly says that Livy was more given to over-dramatization, but that is the only historian's "value-add" that I think I got with respect to this.) It is at times exciting, but O'Connell sometimes tries to pump the prose with unnecessary and somewhat juvenile phrases of speech more suited for literature than history. For example, at the battle of Cannae: "If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir of Cannae must have been the equal of any hell that history in all its perversity has managed to concoct." Yeah.
The chapters after Cannae are a real slog, as this is where the book starts just throwing name after name and event after event at you: and then this happened, and then this person led this army, etc. It would have been much better if O'Connell sacrificed some of the descriptive detail in favor of trying to construct a historical narrative. History presented this way leaves me indifferent, as I don't end up grasping any width of scope on the events' importance, and consequently end up not caring about any of it.
There is one very interesting idea presented, which is that Hannibal's prominence in the minds of Romans led them to seek its own military heroes, and that this shift in attitudes marked the start of the downfall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Whether accurate or not, this is a great thesis and I would love to have heard more about it. Perhaps a more interesting book would start with Cannae as an introductory chapter and cover the ascension of Rome's military over its senate. Unfortunately that is not what this book is. (less)
Some very good ideas, but fairly dry presentation. Portfolios of the Poor describes the findings of four researchers who studied how extremely poor ho...moreSome very good ideas, but fairly dry presentation. Portfolios of the Poor describes the findings of four researchers who studied how extremely poor households in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa manage their household finances. Their approach was to select 20-30 case study households per region and study their finances from a longitudinal perspective by tracking their cash flows and household balance sheets over a long period of time. If I were to reduce their findings to a single bullet point, it would be that the world's poor could greatly benefit from institutional financial services offering flexible payments and cash flows to meet their variable and uncertain needs.
I respect researchers who get knee-deep into field research, focusing on obtaining data first and worrying about theories later, and these authors certainly have done that. The book gets into the actual decision-making and thought processes of the poor, how they choose from whom to borrow and with whom to deposit savings, what kind of features in investment instruments they value, etc. which I found very interesting. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was actually the second appendix, where several sample households were described in detail and their year over year balance sheets presented in tables, much like a corporation's regulatory filings.
The authors draw attention to the fact that the very poor often earn unsteady income that arrives in lumps of uncertain size, and that the size of their household cash flows often greatly dwarfs their balance sheets. A lot of their suggestions as to how to improve microfinancial services refer to one of these two facts. Because the poor do need to transact frequently but do not have the luxury of saved assets on which to draw down to smooth expenditure over time, it is important for microfinancial services to provide this for them in the context of loans and savings - the findings imply that the poor would rather pay high interest rates but have flexible and reliable cash flows than pay low or zero rates but get trapped into cash flow structures that they cannot change or negotiate.
So some really good color on our world's impoverished, and some similarly good ideas about how to help them through financial services, but unfortunately the book is written in a painfully boring and bland manner. Imagine a high school science student, churning out a lab report, introduction, data, discussion, data, discussion, conclusion, print it, staple it, hand it in. I couldn't help but get that feeling when reading, even though it seems from their hard work that the authors are much more enthusiastic than that about this subject. Maybe they should have hired a fifth person to focus solely on the writing and presentation. I recommend this book, but keep in mind that it's not going to do you any favors if you're not already interested in the subject. (less)