Reviews of Books Read in 2014
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Reviewed December 22, by Jon. Drop City is a fictional commune along the Russian River near Guerneville in Sonoma County, CA in the late 60s (loosely based on the real Drop City commune in Colorado). It is about a bunch of hippies living in Drop City with a lot of sex, drugs, and general hippiness. In many ways it is a satire of the hippy commune movement. I remember a lot of the language and attitudes. They seem kind of quaint today. The first part of the book is about the Sonoma County Drop City. When the county authorities try to condemn the property, the benefactor moves the commune to Alaska to a site his uncle left him. The book is not so much about the physical commune, but about the people and relationships. It was definitely a throwback to the sixties. I found myself not wanting it to end - which is the mark of a good book. Worth reading - will be a trip down memory lane for some.
Basics: Essential Tips and Shortcuts
(that no one bothers to tell you) for simplifying the technology in your
Reviewed December 20, by Jon. David Pogue is the Yahoo Tech writer. He has been a technology correspondent for many years and wrote this book of tips and tricks for using technology – mobile devices, computers, cameras, google and facebook, … The tips are all of the hidden little tricks that may or may not be documented. This is a great little book, very readable. I knew many of the tricks but not all of them. It is a great reminder of about how to use our technology more effectively.
Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming
Energy, Economy, and The World
Reviewed December 20, by Jon. This is a big sprawling book about changes in society and our economy that Rifkin things will be brought about by moving from centralized power production (with a centralized plan and distribution), to decentralized production (think solar) and lateral distribution. He postulates a fundamental shift in the economy – and corresponding shifts in culture, society, business, and politics. The book is provocative but too long. He could have been more succinct and focused more on the ideas and less on the process and political maneuvering he has been doing to make the third industrial revolution come about. The book is worth reading but parts are best skimmed.
Her: A Novel
Reviewed December 14, by Jon. After Her is a novel about two sister living in Mill Valley, California during the series of murders by the trailside strangler. The sisters are the daughters of the detective looking for the strangler. This novel is based on real-life events. It was particularly interesting to read about a lot of Marin County places and ambiance. It was an entertaining book, easy to read, but not a great book.
Reviewed November 30, by Jon. This is yet another Harry Bosch novel. It is classic Bosch - he is working cold cases and finds a couple of intertwined cold cases. The story is entertaining although the book is somewhat formulaic. Not surprising as this is Connelly's 19th Bosch novel. Formulaic but I still keep coming back. Nice light entertainment.
Arts and the Creation of Mind
Reviewed November 30, by Jon. Roger Martin recommended this book as a counterargument to the super-rational, STEM, view of education. It is a book about art education. Many of the arguments were well crafted and Eisner does a credible job describing the role of art in building a form of intellect. Much of the book, though, about the pedagogy of teaching art – interesting but not useful for me. The book is easy to read but I’d suggest skimming parts that are relevant to your interests. Unless, of course, you are an art teacher.
Most Wanted Man
Reviewed November 19, by Jon. This is the book that led to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's last movie. I saw the movie first so the book was kind of anticlimactic. The movie pretty faithfully represented the book. It was a typical LeCarre - spy novel as a psychological thriller.
Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
Reviewed October 31, by Jon. Harris is known for his views on religion. Waking up is about just what it says - spirituality without religion. Harris discusses the nature of consciousness and how to look at and think about consciousness without the supernatural view of religion. He focuses most on Buddhist thought and meditation and it is clear that he is a deep practitioner of meditation. He does suggest that even parts of Buddhism rely on supernatural and superstitious thought. Harris echos many of my views that organized religion has high jacked spirituality - often to satisfy the power needs or political agenda of its leaders. Harris offers and alternative to organized religion and superstition while still acknowledging the nature of consciousness and the mystery of the self.
Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories
Reviewed October 30, by Jon. Suicide Run is a collection of three LA detective stories about Harry Bosch - Connelley's canonic character. The stories all started out like typical Harry Bosch stories - but then ended abruptly. It was as if each story was a "pilot" for a book. Entertaining but unsatisfying.
Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Reviewed October 24, by Jon. Gawande is a surgeon and wrote this book based upon his observation about people dying. Of course we are all going to die. Gawande thinks that we, including the medical profession, are too focused on extending life without paying attention to qualify of life. Specifically, he asks whether we think about what the dying person wants. I read this shortly after my father died and Gawande puts a lot of perspective on the issue. I don't know if I would have done anything different relative to my father. Gawande does ask us to accept that death is inevitable and, rather than focus on extending life at all costs - often with expensive and ineffective measures - to focus on what kind of qualify of life the dying person wants and what they are willing to tradeoff to get it. Give the state of our healthcare system and the graying of the baby boomers, this book is just the beginning of a much larger discussion. Gawande does us a service by starting the discussion.
Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice
Reviewed October 22, by Jon. Knife fights is about John Nagl’s memoir. Nagl is one of the officers influenced by the West Point sociology program (sosh) who developed the approach and manual on counterinsurgency used effectively by General Petraeus in reversing the tide in the second Iraq war. Nagl was trained as a traditional military officer – commanding a tank unit. He fought in the first gulf war. He later became interested in and a leading force in developing counterinsurgency. His diagnosis of the situation is that the U.S. army was so traumatized by its experience in Vietnam that its leadership vowed never to fight another counterinsurgency. Thus is prepared for conventional war. The army successfully prosecuted the first Gulf War and thought that validated its approach. In the second gulf war the U.S. soundly defeated the Iraqi army but had no plan for what happened after the successful invasion. Knife fights covers all of this. Much of it was familiar to me from The Insurgents and other books I have read on the topic of counterinsurgency. The book offers yet another lens on this subject – not one that is terribly different from other sources I have read – yet consistent with and reinforcing them.
Quest: A Novel
Reviewed October 12, by Jon. This is a remake of a book Demille wrote in 1975. It is an adventure novel about three people - 2 guys and a woman looking for the Holy Grail (literally) in 1970s Ethiopia. Much of it is about a love triangle between the three protagonists. I'm not sure how historically accurate it is about Ethiopia but it was an interesting read. Good summer reading - adventure but not much mental effort required. Candy.
to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
Reviewed September 21, by Jon. I had a somewhat dim view of Peter Thiel before I read this book. I viewed him as an egotistical libertarian with somewhat extreme opinions. That view might still hold, but I have to say I really liked this book. While he purports to offer advice to startups (which he does), the book is a really a lucid articulation of a philosophy around business strategy – which really resonated with me. Thiel very clearly says that success comes not from emulating others (which he calls 1 to n) but from creating something new and valuable (which he calls 0 to 1). He celebrates differences, not just conformity. He says that success comes from insight, not from process. This is what I teach in my strategy courses and Thiel has very lucidly given voice and structure to many of the arguments I make. I highly recommend this book as a lucid and clear-eyed view on what creates success in business and life. I’ll look at Thiel in a whole new light now.
Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Reviewed September 19 by Jon. Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants. Those simple six words have made Michael Pollan famous and summarize his advice. In Defense of Food is a manifesto against what Pollan calls "nutritionism" - industrial agriculture and nutrition that breaks food down into its components. Pollan claims that many of our challenges with food, malnutrition, and obesity come from an industrial agricultural system based on reductionist science that very effectively delivers cheap calories. He asserts that we have moved away from natural whole, foods to industrialized food. This type of food has unintended consequences. I felt like most of the book is common sense - probably because I have read or heard these arguments before. Pollan makes the arguments in a very straightforward, compelling way. Very readable and informative. I recommend it.
Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
Reviewed September 8 by Jon. Ellenberg is a mathematician and the book tries to make mathematics relevant. He succeeds reasonably well by illustrating a number of real world challenges and problems that math can address. I liked the book but read it over a period of time. He shows the power of math as a framework or a way to think about various problems. It dragged a bit in the middle. I think he could have made his point more succinctly. It might have been more powerful if he had done so.
the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity
Reviewed September 8, by Jon. How The West Won is basically a history of Western Civilization book. Stark's thesis was that modernity comes from Western civilization. That is what used to be taught in western civ courses but those were changed to comparative history because the idea that western civilization was predominant in developing modernity was deemed politically incorrect. Stark challenges that and says that Christianity and European culture created the conditions for modernity that Asian and Muslim cultures did not. His thesis is that Christianity implies a logical order to the world that led scientists to try to uncover the laws that govern the world - kind of "intelligent design" if you will. The book is a large and sprawling history of western civilization including the rise of science and the industrial revolution - but it is an interesting book to read and, even though long, held my attention.. Much of what Stark says is counter to conventional wisdom - and politically incorrect. I really enjoyed the book and he convinced me that he might actually be right.
Sleep: A Novel
Reviewed September 8, by Jon. Doctor Sleep is a sequal to The Shining. I normally don't read these kinds of Stephen King novels but heard an interview with King and thought I'd try it. It was OK but a bit hard to follow. It made lots of references to The Shining which I had not read so it was a bit hard to understand. As the book neared the end, it made more sense. It was about a guy from the hotel in the Shining and a teenage girl who were trying to track down a cult-like group of paranormals. Not really my kind of novel but it was a bit entertaining.
the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
Reviewed August 22, by Jon. As he was dying, Mohammed, refused to name a successor. He felt was intent on uniting the middle east under Islam and did not want to cause a rift. However in not naming a successor, he opened the door to intrigue as his favorite wife Aisha and son-in-law, Ali, battled for supremacy. Aisha's branch of the family led to Sunni Islam and Ali's led to Shia Islam. The book covers the evolution of the two and the battling back and forth of the two camps for supremacy. It shows how the rift happened and deepened and the causes of the deep divisions in Islam today. It is ironic that the root cause of this was Mohammed's desire to bring together the middle east peacefully but his descendants have turned it into a dysfunctional place beset by religious differences.
232: A Story of Disaster and Survival
Reviewed August 8, by Jon. United Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago, on July 19, 1989 was a DC-10 that suffered a catastrophic engine failure. The failure severed the hydraulic lines, thus disabling the control surfaces, Captain Al Hayes and his crew maneuvered the plane to a landing at Sioux City, Iowa. The plane crashed at Sioux City, with 185 survivors and 111 dead. Flight 232 is about the accident and the aftermath. It is very thorough, covering the flight itself, the crash, and the aftermath -- include recovering the bodies and, the NTSB investigation, and the GE search for the cause. Laurence Gonzales, who also wrote Deep Survival, describes the lives of the people on board - both survivors and victims. The book sometimes was a little choppy. Gonzales would take us, for example, right up to the crash, with one person, then jump back a couple hours in time with another. It was disconcerting and sometimes hard to follow. He also had a habit of talking about someone and then saying something like - "that was the last thing she ever saw" - as a way of describing someone as a victim. The books is worth reading. I have seen Al Hayes speak about his experience and the book was a little light on the actual flying - it was more focused on the passengers and cabin crew. It did do a great job of describing the events leading up to and following the crash. Very thorough. It was a sobering read.
Physics: How Good Ideas Spread - The Lessons from a New Science
Reviewed July 24, by Jon. Penland, an MIT Media Lab Professor, believes - as many do - that innovation comes from idea flow - the flow of ideas in an organization, a country, or a culture. He has found ways to track idea flow through sensors and big data and argues fora "physics" of idea flow that show how ideas spread. Penland crystallizes thinking that has been forming around these ideas for some time. He provides some structure and method to tracking and quanitifying what we have previously only known intuitively.
Passage: A Novel
Reviewed July 15, by Jon. Istanbul Passsage is a post WWII spy novel set in Istanbul. Turkey was neutral during WWII so there were a lot of spies and intrique. It was recommendation from a friend. It was similar to a LeCarre novel - a bit hard to follow but was good to see a view of Istanbul in a particularly interesting time period.
Qaeda Declares War: The African Embassy Bombings and America’s Search for
Reviewed July 15, by Jon. We were in Kenya during the 1998 Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) bombings. I was curious as to why so little has been written about them so I was eager to read this book. It covers maze of interlocking people and events all orchestrated by Al Qaeda and all connected to the first World Trade Center bombing, Cole attack, and 9/11 – not to mention a variety of other bombings. The book is mostly about the trials of the perpetrators. It got a bit tedious but it was fascinating to see how interrelated the events and the perpetrators are. It is clear that these are not just isolated incidents but a purposefully orchestrated set of terrorist acts on the U.S.
Reviewed July 4, by Jon. This is a typical Wilbur Smith novel, with manly men and comely women. It is sequal to Those in Peril, about Hector Cross and Hazel Bannock. Typical formulaic Smith African adventure. Entertaining but not deep, and a setup for an ongoing series of adventures by Hector Cross related to the Bannock dynasty.
Reviewed June 29, by Jon. Peter Rowe is an architectural theorist who wrote the original book on design thinking for architecture before design thinking was trendy. Rowe tries, with only partial success to outline the thinking process behind architectural design. Basically he is trying to come up with a meta-theory of architectural design. The fundamental argument or distinction is between functionalists or pragmatists (as exemplified in the international style) and formalists - who think in terms of inherent form. He also covers historicists (post-modernism) and populists (vernacular). Design thinking is an OK book but not a great book. It puts architectural design in context but does not put the current "design thinking" movement/religion into context.
Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Reviewed June 22, by Jon. This is another book by Michael Lewis exposing the corruption of the US financial system. Lewis describes a group of young Wall Street guys who figure out that the large banks and exchanges are creating "dark pools" within their exchanges that allow and facilitate high frequency trading. Basically, high frequency trading allows insiders to profit from trading knowledge and skim tiny amounts off each transaction. The protagonists in the book build a new exchange that prevents high frequency trading. High frequency trading seems to have no social value whatsoever and is solely used to profit from transactions. Lewis tells a good story but the lesson is that financial markets need to be regulated to ensure they are fair. Financial markets need to function for the good of society, not the traders that use them. Kudos to Michael Lewis for exposing High Frequency Trading and Dark Pools.
Reviewed June 22, by Jon. Another in DeMille's series about John Corey (retired NYPD) and Kate Mayfield (FBI), members of the Antiterroist Task Force. They are sent to Yemen as "bait" for a the terrorist responsible for the Cole attack, named the Panther. Much of the book is about getting to Yemen and, once their working with the State Department (including Diplomatic Security Service), CIA, and FBI. They move through Yemen and discover it is a very insecure place. Their mission seems a bit compromised and they cannot fully trust all of their team members. This is a real page turner. DeMille has the ability to construct a book that keeps you on the edge of your set. I really enjoyed the book and it gave a real feeling of what it must be like to fight Al Queda in Yemen. The only criticism is that DeMille builds up a huge amount of dramatic tension and then resolves it in the last few pages - somewhat implausibly. I have seen him do this before. DeMille's books are great. I wish he would learn to write good endings.
The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Reviewed June 11, by Jon. Zealot is a historical account of Jesus life. The author makes a distinction between what we know historically vs. the biblical stories. His premise was the Jesus was a Jewish religious figure who focused on helping the poor and fighting the rich. He contrasted that against the "Jesus as Lord" version that a lot of modern-day religions promote. What was interesting to me is how much of Jesus life I knew from early childhood religious education. The book puts his life into a historical context - what was going on in society - and does raise a bunch of questions about some of the biblical teachings. The book was interesting but I found it a big difficult to follow.
Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard the USS George W. Bush
Reviewed June 6, by Jon. The subject was interesting - what life is like aboard a modern U.S. aircraft carrier. Unfortunately the writing was not so good. The author seemed unsystematic and self-indulgent. I did read the book cover to cover because he did give a sense of what life is like aboard the carrier. But I felt that I was looking at the story through a patchwork of holes rather than getting a cohesive view. The writer seems an unlikely sort for such an assignment. He could have done better.
Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Innovation
Reviewed May 25, by Jon. Ed Catmull is the CEO and founder of Pixar. Creativity, Inc. is a combination of history of Pixar and Ed's lessons for running a creative company. He describes many aspects of the Pixar creative process and culture, including a culture that embraces failure as a learning mode, constructive criticism, and starting with an idea and refining it relentlessly until it works. Catmull has a nice appendix which distills the lessons. One thing I liked about the book is that it also covers the history of Pixar - which is a history of entertainment computer graphics - with some parallels to my career. There are a few people I know in the book and many that I know b reputation. Ed has a nice coda tribute to Steve Jobs. While Jobs is most known for Apple, he also owned and was Chairman of Pixar (and sold it to Disney). Ed says that many remember the bad aspects of Jobs personality but there were many good aspects and he was a great steward for Pixar. Creativity, Inc. won't provide a magic recipe for creativity and innovation but will provide insight into how Pixar does it.
The New Psychology of Success
Reviewed May 18, by Jon. Dweck is a Stanford psychologist who believes that our mindset determines our success. She describes two different mindsets - fixed and growth. In the fixed mindset, one believes that they have innate qualities such as creativity or intelligence - that we are born with and we cannot change. In contrast, in the growth mindset one believes they can change and grow such qualities thorough effort and learning. Those with a fixed mindset don't believe they can change much or learn and grow through effort. They are sensitive to criticism because it is expected that they have natural ability. If their performance is not up to that natural ability, they feel that they have failed and often blame external factors such as others or the environment. They don't much grow or develop. They see themselves (and perhaps the world) as immutable.
In contrast, those with a growth mindset see themselves as changeable with effort. If they have a setback, they assess what went wrong and apply more effort. They take responsibility for their development and feel that they can change the world. They are optimists.
Mindset is a self-help book and feels a bit like pop-psychology, but Dweck seems to have a strong basis for her theory. Her work is the foundation for Jeanne Liedtka's work in The catalyst. Jeanne studied successful entrepreneurs and found that they have a growth mindset - in contrast to those less successful who are more likely to have a fixed mindset.
Reviewed May 7, by Jon. This is the second book in the Nexus series by Naam. It extends the idea of the Nexus operating system to more of a distributed intelligence between groups of people. I found the book hard to read, though. It was very chopped up. I found it hard to stick with it - which made it even harder to read.
in the Twenty-First Century
Reviewed May 7, by Jon. This is the most talked about economics book of 2014. The fundamental thesis of Piketty, a French economist who has studied massive amounts of tax data is r > g, return on capital is greater than economic growth. This leads to accumulation of capital thus concentrating wealth and leading to a rentier class. In the spirit of Vaclev Smil, the book is chock full of data and analysis. He has some pretty leftish policy prescriptions (progressive tax on accumulated capital) which, in theory, might work but - as someone who has saved a nest egg for retirement - I'd be a bit concerned. Nevertheless it is a fascinating book - but very long and detailed. I'm glad I read it as the debate over it has been absolutely fascinating.
Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution
Reviewed April 24, by Jon. Written by retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, this book proposes six constitutional amendments that Stevens asserts will clarify the constitution and address a number of contentious issues:
What I liked about the book is that Stevens explained how the constitution (and its amendments) came about. Contrary to strict fundamentalist interpretations, he shows that the constitution was constructed by people in a process of debate - and often was the result of compromise. For example, the stipulation that 3/5 of each slave could be counted for representation was a concession to southern states to effectively give them more representation - thus getting them to agree to ratify the constitution. When slavery was abolished, the southern states through voter registration restrictions and the Ku Klux Klan supressed black voting to the same effect. That is one reason why the southern states have more power than might be reasonably expected given their population. I also liked that Stevens provided specific language with very narrow amendments that clarified intent and federal power without prescribing solutions. I agreed with most of his arguments. He showed that the way many of the issues were addressed in the constitution were the result of the times in which it was constructed - and now revisions are needed for current times. The writing was sometimes a bit legalistic - as to be expected, but it was clear and lucid. This was pretty amazing for a 95 year old author. I have to give him huge credit for taking a stand and expressing his views so well. This is an important book that sheds light onto the constitution. I hope it is widely read and its prescriptions followed.
Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't
Reviewed April 6, by Jon. The thesis of this book, by the author of Start With Why, is that the role of the leader is to create a safe environment for members of the team. The title is taken from the US Marine Corps practice that the team members eat first and the leader eats last. Sinek describes why - from a neurocience standpoint - this is the essence of good leadership. He describes our evolution into a tribal nature where the team has to protect its members. Sinek also describes some bad example of leaders that do not follow this. Leaders Eat Last is a good book that describes the essence of what good leadership should be but, too often, is not.
Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heros of
Seal Team 10
Reviewed April 5, by Jon. This is Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's story of an operation in Afghanistan where he was on an operation with 3 other seals who were killed by the Taliban - and the rescue operation which killed even more aviators and special operators. Like many such books, there is a substantial amount of filler covering SEAL training - interesting but stuff I have read before. The depiction of the operation and Luttrell's hiding out with Afghan villagers is well done and the meat of the book. One thing that marred the book was Lutrell several times expressing political opinions about the rules of engagement. It is understandable that he would have such feelings - but his comments bordered on partisan rants that really detracted from his message and the heroism that he portrayed.
Designing For Growth Field Book: A
Step-by-step project guide
Reviewed March 30, by Jon. This field book is a companion to Designing for Growth and contains instructions, templates, and resources It is very much a how-to book and I would likely use it as a resource if I were still teaching business students about design. It is a well-done workbook extending a well-done design methods book.
Reviewed March 30, by Jon. I was reluctant to read this book because I thought it might be just another superficial screed on design thinking. My perspective was somewhat shaped by IDEA Couture’s magazine. Which is slickly produced but full of short, somewhat vacuous articles. A friend loaned me the book and after purusing it, I decided to buy and read it. I’m glad I did. Like the magazine, it is slickly produced and a beautiful book. It is more thoughtful than the magazine and makes the case for melding design as synthesis and planning as analysis. Mootee makes the case that business schools and design schools are each only teaching half of the skills needed for success. While not perfect, the book makes a case for design thinking in business strategy. It is worth reading and a good addition to the design thinking body of literature.
Zen of Steve Jobs
Reviewed March 29 by Jon. This is a comic book about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Buddhist monk Kobun. It is short and pretty funny. Knowing quite a bit about Jobs life, there are some humorous jokes. At the end is a bit of serious discussion about Kobun and with the author. Even though this is a candy book – it does have a serious side. Worth a gander – it is pretty short and does yield a few insights and the humor is worthwhile.
Engineering: What Engineers See
Reviewed March 29, by Jon. Everyday Engineering is designed just like Thoughtless Acts, a little illustrated book about engineering. It covered a variety of topics broken into two categories – Creation: craftsmanship, unseen, Illusions, Interfaces, Elegance, Function follows Form, Sequences, Challenges. Degradation: Corners, Ugliness, Materials, Repetition, Consequences, Nature, Time. Like Thoughtless Acts, it had a good index to describe what each picture is intended to depict. Unlike Thoughtless Acts, there was a brief one-page essay about each topic. I thought that worked better to convey the ideas. I felt that Everyday Engineering captures the essence of engineering and was a nice book to read.
Acts: Observations on Intuitive Design
Reviewed March 29, by Jon. This is a little illustrated book that tries to hone our powers of observation, Thoughtless Acts are just what they sound like – things we do without thinking. Siri tries to show us these acts and queries the meaning behind them. The book is mostly pictures but Siri does outline a framework for observation at the end of the book. The index also shows what each picture is intended to depict. This was a novel approach to get us thinking about observation.
Evolution: The Story of Life on
Reviewed March 29, by Jon. Evolution is a comic book, similar to The Stuff of Life, about how evolution works. It is told as a story of Squinches who are trying to understand Earth. Like The Story of Life, it is entertaining and gave a good overview of evolution. Reading the second, the style got a little tedious, but I did get good picture of evolution.
Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Reviewed March 28, by Jon. I was having a conversation with my designer friend, Jake, in Hong Kong, about education and the need for design perspective and skills. He recommended How Children Succeed and said it was about education for character rather than pouring content knowledge into childrens’ heads. Tough describes character skills such as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. He provides a grounding in neuroscience as to why these skills are important and has numerous examples thorough KIPP and other educational programs. Tough gave voice to my belief that there is something else important in learning that we need to foster. I believe many of these are developed in design education – although that is not the only way to foster them. One fascinating thing Tough discusses at the end of the book is the way that conservatives and liberals view character in education. He says that conservatives relate to the idea of character but don’t propose anything to develop it whereas liberals believe in learning but are uncomfortable with the idea of character. He reconciles both viewpoints by describing (through most of the book) how we can teach character.
the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization
Reviewed March 17, by Jon. Like Made in the USA, Making the Modern World is a detailed analysis crammed with facts and figures. Vaclev Smil examines our use of materials in society - used for construction, manufacturing, and any other use imaginable. He further examines the energy embodied in those materials. He determines that - on a relative basis - we are dematerializing - that is using less material per captia for each given result. However - on an absolute basis - due to population growth, we are using more material. Smil does not believe we are about to run out of material - but there will be many challenges. He demonstrates that there is ample room for further dematerialization and substitution though better design and new technologies.
That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. My Dad, who is pretty conservative (or at least watches Fox News all day) suggested that I read this book, Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist and conservative pundit. The book is a collection of his columns and speeches. In general, I found his writing to be fairly logical and well reasoned – without the hyperventilation that often accompanies conservative commentary these days. While he caricatured the left a little bit, it was not nearly as extreme as some of his fellow conservatives. I disagree with many of his positions but thought they were well written and well argued. Specifically, he is a strong advocate for American “exceptionalism” and a muscular foreign policy – backed up by a strong defense and military force. He decries spending on domestic issues – health, education, infrastructure, at the expense of defense spending. This is a bit hard to take seriously when we outspend everybody else on defense. Some of his pieces are a bit dated – since they span 30 years – and some of the his positions in retrospect (a.g. a clean sweep in Afghanistan) are just plain wrong. I did enjoy hearing the conservative perspective, but I cannot say that he swayed many of my views.
American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve our Terribly
Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. Emanuel is one of the three prominent brothers – Rahm (Mayor of Chicago), Ari (Hollywood agent) and Ezekial (physician and architect of Obamacare). This book is an unabashed defense of the Affordable Care Act. Emanuel starts by describing the present healthcare system and what is wrong with it. He goes through the history of healthcare – physicians, hospitals, insurance – and demonstrates how we got where we are. This was particularly illuminating because it showed that our system evolved and is not cast in stone. Many of the challenges are path dependent – a result of how the system evolved. Emanuel then goes thorough the problems with the current system – spiraling costs, fragmented care, focus on fixng rather than preventing. He then moves to policy. He covers the entire history of politics around healthcare with fascinating jockeying and switching of positions between liberals and conservatives. He then goes through a detailed explanation of the affordable care act - its various features and design considerations. He acknowledges that implementation has been poor but does make the case that the act ill ultimately lead to better healthcare for all Americans. Finally, Emanuel makes some predications as to how the healthcare system will evolve. Clearly Emanuel, as the architect of the Affordable Care Act, has a strong position. I did find, that his arguments were logical (although sometimes a bit wonky) and compelling. Something had to be done and you have to give him credit for trying.
Long, Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in An
Age of Increased Longevity.
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. I heard Carstensen, a Stanford psychologist, on the radio and found her argument provocative enough to buy her book. The fundamental premise is that those of us who are relatively well off in western society will live longer – and with a higher quality of life – than ever before – or we had anticipated. She asserts that the old model of breaking life into learning, working, retirement is outmoded. Specifically she asserts we should have a more blended older life with some work, some play, and some learning. She suggests a rebalancing of life to delay traditional retirement. Her arguments are financial, cognitive, social, and simply that we will have a long time to live and should not give up productive capacity, Her argument is compelling. Many have suggested that we work longer and not retire as early as our parents did. I’m not sure how that squares with the specter of ageism in the workplace – perhaps it will spawn a new generation of entrepreneurs. I liked Carstensen’s bringing a fresh perspective to the debate. I thought some of her ideas were a bit naïve but welcome her casting longevity and its implications in a new light.
Reviewed March 16, by Jon. This is one of Connelley's Lincoln Lawyer novels. It is a reasonably entertaining read about defense attorney Mickey Haller defending someone is accused of murdering a prostitute. Like many of Connelly's recent novels, this one was formulaic. Light reading but nothing profound.
Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Reviewed March 9, by Jon. Duty is Robert Gates memoir of his days as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was a well-written book and covered the inside story of the military leadership during those years. Gates inherited two wars - Iraq and Afganhistan - from his predecessor - Donald Rumsfeld. Gates comes across as balanced, sober, and very devoted to the troops he leads. When the book came out there was a lot of conservative commentary about how Gates portrayed Obama as weak and indecisive. The book did not come across that way at all. It actually painted Obama in a flattering light. Even the supposed disses of Joe Biden were pretty muted. Gates did struggle with the White House National Security Staff - who he felt were micromanagers and he had very little positive to say about Congress (join the crowd). Overall it was remarkable how balanced he was in describing working under two presidents with very different political philosophies. Gates himself comes across very well - but I suppose that is to be expected since this is his memoir. Everything I have heard about Gates supports this view, though.
Reviewed February 27, by Jon. Shantaram is an epic novel about an Australian who breaks out of prison and makes his way to Bombay. He lives there for many years as a member of the Bombay Mafia and a slum medic. The book is about his life there - including a brief foray into Pakistan and Afganhistan. It is full of characters through the course of his life. It very much describes the fabric of life in India and is probably semi-autobiographical . It is a long, entertaining book. Worth the read - but it will be a commitment in time.
Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA
Reviewed February 22, by Jon. The Stuff of Life was recommended by a geneticist I saw speak at the Singularity University Innovation Partners Program. It is a comic book - or maybe an illustrated guide -- to genetics and DNA. It tries to explain, in an entertaining form, a fairly complex and murky subject. The format works to some extent. I did learn more about genetics and DNA than I previously knew. It still got a bit dense. I get the feeling I need to study from a variety of angles and perhaps re-read to truly understand. The book is a good way to get me interested but - particularly as it got further in - was a bit difficult to parse. A fun book to read, though and I learned something - so that in itself is worthwhile.
Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built
Fox News -- And Divided A Country
Reviewed February 9, by Jon. Roger Ailes is, of course, a very conservative TV producer who build FOX News into a mouthpiece for the radical right. This book chronicles his rise from the small town of Warren, Ohio to broadcasting - and political media consulting for the likes of Richard Nixon, to the founding of FOX News. One question which I had in reading the book was whether the bombastic conservatism is a ploy to drive ratings or whether it is Ailes true belief. The answer is both. AIles is very conservative and also a shrewd businessman who knows that yellow journalism drives populist ratings. The book probes deeply into Ailes life - both business and personal. The picture is of a very narcissistic, almost tragic figure - who yearns for an America past. The book describes how AIles hoovering up all of the conservative talent made media even more polarized because other media could not hire conservative commentators - they all worked for FOX. Ailes arch-rival was CNN - and he did make a phenomenal business success by pandering to the country's most paranoid and conservative faction. FOX became the voice of old, conservative, white men - ultimately a dying breed in the U.S. The book raises interesting questions about Ailes and the future of FOX.
Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity
in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Reviewed January 22, by Jon. The Second Machine Age is a great book – that is very timely. The authors are MIT economists who have been at the forefront of the debate about the structural changes to our economy and our world caused by technological progress. The fundamental thesis of the book is that we are at the beginning of a second machine age that will affect us as profoundly as the first machine age. Quality of life and GDP did not really change all that much for tens of thousands of years until the first industrial age – defined by the steam engine. Then society’s wealth dramatically increased as did our standard of living. The authors believe that we are in a second machine age – propelled by digital technology. They assert that exponential technologies, the digitization of everything and recombinant innovation are creating machine intelligence that will substitute for human mental labor as machinery did for physical labor. Basically, work that is routine or algorithmic in nature will be automated away by digital technologies – robotic or otherwise. The only forms of human labor that will remain – in the limit – are those requiring emotion – child care, care of the elderly, personal services such as personal training, coaching, hairdressing, etc. – or those that require the kind of intelligence that machines cannot (at least in the immediate future) replicate – design, innovation, etc.
The authors offer two policy suggestions – one short term – to use education to create those skills that cannot easily be automated. A daunting task, since much of the educational infrastructure and mindset is oriented toward the memorization and mastery of bodies of knowledge and procedures. We don’t do so well in helping people develop judgment and critical thinking. Nevertheless that is the prescription.
The longer term policy suggestion has to do with how we distribute wealth and reward labor. Here the suggestions are around changes to taxation and even a guaranteed annual income.
The book very clearly articulates the ideas Brynjolfsson and McAfee have been discussing for several years. It crystallizes their core argument and is a very provocative book that ties together technology, education, and policy in an economics context. It is clearly a book that is written by technology optimists – they believe that technology will address many of the world’s problems – but also point out the challenges that powerful technologies that amplify the human mind pose. This is a must-read.
Reviewed January 13, by Jon. Wired for War was written in 2009 so it is a bit dated (for example, we were still fighting in Iraq). Of course things may have moved much further - and are still classified. This is a fascinating treatise on robots in war. First, Singer goes through the technical aspects of robots and then describes a myriad of robots for land, sea, and air war. Drones, of course - both in the air and under sea - are robots. Singer is very knowledgeable about warfare and covers issues such as human/robot interaction, ethics and law, changes in the force. It is well-written and a fascinating read. I got the sense that there are more robots doing warfare now than I had imagined - and in the 5 years since the book was written, I'd imagine lots of progress has been made. Although the book is about warfare - many of the topics are very relevant to civil deployment of robots.
Reviewed January 12, by Jon. This book is a sprawling history of strategy from early times to modern day covering a variety of domains. Freedman first covers the origins of strategy from ancient times, then covers military strategy from Sun Tsu and Clausewitz all the way through the cold war and Iraq/Afghanistan. He then moves on to “strategy from below” – various movements from Marx, Lenin and Trostsky through the SDS and Black Panthers – ways of achieving power for the working classes. Finally, Freedman does and extensive survey of business strategy or “strategy from above”. His coverage of business strategy is complementary to but more extensive than Walter Keichel's The Lords of Strategy. I found the interweaving of the various forms of strategy quite informative and Freedman shows how they influence each other and how scientific, political, and social thought all affect strategy. Strategy is a well researched, exhaustive, and comprehensive history of strategy and does a good job of contextualizing the field, various schools of thought, and their influences.
Short Guide to a Long Life
Reviewed January 11, by Jon. Angus is one of the world’s preeminent cancer physicians who believes much of what we believe and practice about health is wrong. His book is basically a checklists of behaviors for wellness. The fundamental thesis is that prevention is the best cure. He goes through three sections – what to do, what not to do, and a checklist for wellness at various ages. The book is very digestible and easy to read. The advice is practical and well explained. Angus does not go into the science but really makes this a how to book. Most is common sense and I was please to find that I follow most (but not all) of it. For someone who is knowledgeable and health-conscious, it is a refresher. For someone who is not, it might be revelatory. A Short Guide to a Long life is worth reading and a small investment in an important topic.
are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
Reviewed January 11, by Jon. Lanier is a contrarian and iconoclast in the computing world and this book describes his view. He contrasts “computationalism” – the view that technological and computational solutions can be found to any problem – with a more humanistic view. He views technology as something that should exist in service of humans – as opposed to independent existence in its own right. Lanier criticizes proponents of the singularity, the notion that all information should be free, and the idea that we are all going to become part of one large computational infrastructure called the noosphere. In some ways Lanier’s views are refreshing. The writing is a bit rambling and not as coherent as it could be. Like many books of this genre, the ideas could have been expressed far more succinctly. It is refreshing to see someone so steeped in computer science take a critical view of the assumptions underlying a lot of naïve techno-utopian thinking.
to be Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps)
Reviewed January 5, by Jon. This is a little self help book which I read because Jessica Hagy does a little doodle for each suggestion. The suggestions are pretty straightforward:
Pretty mainstream stuff (although I have to say, the advice is good and worth reiterating. What is nice about the book is that the author illustrates each point with a diagram. Many are the same but it does show how we can use visual cues effectively to help reinforce a point.
Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age
Reviewed January 3, by Jon. I had been meaning to read Future Perfect for a while but was prompted to move it to the top of my stack when my friend Hugh recommended it. In Future Perfect, Johnson reconciles the progressive view that markets cannot solve every problem - particularly those which require concerted action of large groups of people - with the Hayekian view that knowledge is distributed and that top-down, centralized action does not often work. Of course, the book describes networks as the way to reconcile these two point of view. The book is easy to read and it does provide a provocative middle way between what are often presented in a polemic fashion as two completely irreconcilable world views. Johnson's approach has some similarities to those proposed by Gavin Newsom in Citizenville.
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