Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review – Ice Ghosts

Thanks to Maria for the guest book review!

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
by Paul Watson, 2017

In May 1845, Sir John Franklin of Great Britain’s Royal Navy set sail with a crew of 128 men to find the last missing link in the Northwest Passage. It was the best outfitted Arctic exploration mission to date, and Franklin was an experienced Arctic explorer. Despite this, the whole expedition was lost. The mystery of what actually happened to the Franklin expedition has captivated a significant amount of people for over 170 years.

The well-written book takes the reader from pre-1845 up to present day, describing the Arctic voyage, the various known crew members (mostly officers), Lady Jane Franklin’s personal funding of rescue operations (and fighting with the Royal Navy) and her grief and denial of losing her husband, and the multitude of efforts throughout the years to try to find the lost ships and any lost artifacts that could help solve the mystery of what actually happened — the best equipped Arctic voyage should have returned with most of its crew, not disappeared into the vast white north.

The evolution of technology, climate change, and a deep dive into various politics — including Canada’s handling of its Inuit population and how much prejudice affected the search for both any survivors and later the ships — play a major role in the book as well, and give it even richer meaning. The mystery of the Franklin expedition is well worth a read, but tying in all the other parts made this book nearly impossible to put down. It was a fascinating look at aspects of Great Britain, Canada, and later the United States and Russia.

I listened to this book as an audio book (10 discs) and it was exceptionally well read.

Book Review – Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are
by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017

The premise of the book is that people lie on surveys, but their behavior online (when they think no one is watching) reveals their true beliefs and actions. By analyzing Google search data, the author uncovers insights into racist behavior, differences in the way sons and daughters are treated, and how many people finish the books they buy. Disparate data sources, including first-person observations of markets in poor countries, Twitter Tweets, and even Pornhub data round out the book.

As a sports fan, one of the most interesting topics the book touched on was the origin of lifetime fandom. Using Facebook “likes” of baseball teams, the author finds that boys are much more likely to become lifetime fans of their hometown team if the team was very successful when the boy was about 8 years old. (Side note: the Reds were really good, but not World Series champs, in ’94 and ’95, for me). For girls, the formative age is more like 22.

I listened to the book on tape, which was well-read. I found the section on abortions to be particularly disturbing, and I skipped it. The book does not “pull any punches” with respect to language use or topic choice.

Book Review – Machines of Loving Grace

Thanks to Professor Kyle Cattani for the guest book review!

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots
By John Markoff, 2015

A couple of years back, Eric reviewed The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014) and asked the (rhetorical) question of whether computers/robots are coming for your job. John Markoff, in “Machines of Loving Grace,” seems less interested in “whether” they will, but rather how they will behave once they get there. In particular, will we humans control these systems, or will they control us?

The Computer Science community has apparently had two long-standing approaches towards automation and robotics that not only were different but passionately opposed in a way seemingly possible only in academics. The first approach, called Artificial Intelligence (or AI), assumed that humans were superfluous and desired to create systems that operated independent of human overlords. A self-driving car with no steering wheel or brake pedals (that could show up at work to pick you up) exemplifies an ultimate application of this approach. The contrarian idea, deemed “intelligence augmentation” (or IA) sought to work with humans to amplify their abilities. A computer mouse makes it easier for a human to interact and use a computer and thus qualifies as IA. Most automobile technologies such as cruise control (and now adaptable cruise), lane assist, and emergency braking, fall into IA.

For years (decades even) the IA approach seemed to make more progress, but the two approaches now appear to be converging. Markoff argues that we are closing in on a “singularity” where robots become more powerful than humans and this raises the concern of whether they will remain well behaved—or whether they will ultimately rule us.

Markoff has been a technology and science reporter at the New York Times since 1988 but appears to have a (literally) Silicon-Valley-Centric view of the world focusing on the Stanford community and Silicon Valley companies. Perhaps that is because so many advances in the field come from this community, but it felt a bit provincial in a way that made me suspicious (even though I am a Stanford grad). Machines of Loving Grace talks lovingly about self-driving cars, robots, and Siri (and its ilk) and I liked those chapters the most. Perhaps it is just me, but the rest of the book felt like a litany of dozens of people I couldn’t keep track of.

Book Review – The Zookeeper’s Wife

Thanks to Telesilla Kotsi for the guest book review!

The Zookeeper’s Wife
by Diane Ackerman, 2007

The Zookeeper’s wife is another book about WWII by Diane Ackerman. The difference between this and other books concerning the Holocaust is that it is given from the perspective of a Polish person that helped Jews escape from the Nazis. Moreover, although Jan, the zookeeper, is the one who decides to hide and help Jews, eventually all the responsibility to make sure they don’t get arrested falls on the shoulders of his wife, Antonina. In this sense, the book depicts Antonina as a woman who has a gift to communicate and connect with animals. This gift was the reason why Antonina escaped arrest many times; an interesting parallelism between Germans and beasts that the author makes obvious in various parts of the book. However, it is also clear that Antonina is not a heroine who takes her life and the life of her guests in her own hands. She is a wife who always tried her best to please her husband instead.

My feelings are really mixed about the book. I think it had the potential to say a great story, a story that almost any country under the German occupation can connect with. But, the plot falls short in describing some of the main characters, i.e. Jan who leaves every day and we only get to know him through his interactions with Antonina, and Rys, the son of the couple, whose main task is to take food to their guests and play with a chicken and a bunny that remain in the zoo. Even the life and actions of Antonina seem hidden in parts where the attention is drawn to the destruction of Warsaw and the general devastation of Poland. I believe that this is a very good first novel for a teenager who knows no historical details about the WWII and needs to be introduced to the topic smoothly.

The Zookeper’s Wife became a movie this year (2017). Although the movie doesn’t do justice to all the historical research and the verbose writing of Ackerman, it is highly recommended for anyone who wants to spend an hour to understand how a couple succeeded in hiding 300 Jews in 6 years under the nose of Nazis.

Book Review – Elon Musk

Thanks to Brian Bergman for the guest book review!

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
by Ashlee Vance, 2015

After watching Elon Musk’s conversation with Chris Anderson at TED2017 in April, Ashlee Vance’s timestamp book on him and his various pursuits rocketed (yes, I just did that) to the top of my “To Read” list. This quick read – about 300 pages – chronicles Elon’s personal life, his involvement and success with PayPal, and his work to launch Tesla Motors and SpaceX (with greater emphasis on the latter). Through interviews with Musk, his family, close friends, colleagues, and enemies he’s made along the way, Vance does a nice job of blending these perspectives and narratives with the technical details of what Musk and his companies are trying to accomplish. The book is full of entertaining and thought-provoking stories – Musk’s anger and response when learning another US automaker took the rights for “Model E,” how the Tesla team dismantled a Lotus and Mercedes CLS to design their cars, the modular design of SpaceX rockets, the list goes on.

Elon certainly gets his fair share of praise from the press and his cult of followers. Upon reading Vance’s book, it is hard for one not to appreciate Musk, not only for his ambition, but for the very sophisticated scientific/technical command he has over what his companies are trying to do. A bit dated now, this book is still a great window into the life of a unique person building some of the most disruptive companies of the early 21st century.

Book Review – Micromotives and Macrobehavior

Thanks to Crisson Jno-Charles for the guest book review!

Micromotives and Macrobehavior
by Thomas Schelling, 1978

Micromotivates is a proto-pop economics book by the Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas C. Schelling. The book was first published in 1978, and it expanded on research Schelling conducted on how self-segregation can arise as a long-run consequence of moderate preference for neighbors of a similar race.

The friend who first introduced me to the book mentioned that it predates our modern expectations of popular social-science books. Their assessment is mostly correct. Schelling’s writing comes off as accessible, but not to the point of diluting his underlying economics or game theory lesson. It doesn’t entice the reader with “here’s this not-obvious-thing that we think is incredibly important, that once you’ve learned it, will make you feel super smart” — a feature common to modern day pop social science books (and TED talks, which I enjoy by the way). It reads more like a Summer elective lecture on Game Theory. You’ll learn a thing or two and possibly perceive human organizational a little different, at least for a little while.

But it also plods along, sometimes belaboring a concept and I mostly skimmed the latter quarter of the book. But you should read it anyway and especially so the first half.

Book Review – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F___

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*#$
by Mark Manson, 2016

I don’t normally go for books with intentionally catchy or provocative titles, but I had read some decent expositions on Mark Manson’s website. The main point of the book is that you can care about a small number of things in life, so don’t go wasting your effort on unworthy ends. Mark also hates entitled people. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the book, it’s certainly not a “must read”. I listened to the book on tape, which was well-read (by someone other than the author!).

Interesting side note: The book mentions the story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education. About a week after hearing this, Maria told me that Malala was giving a large lecture at DePauw. Interesting coincidence, since I didn’t know about her before.

Book Review – The New Product Bet (Pre-Release?)

The New Product Bet
by Nils Rudi and Serguei Netessine

This book is a multimedia approach to teaching how to choose order quantities for new, high margin products with long leadtimes. The book is supposed to accompany an app that has videos and other multimedia to reinforce the lessons. My review is only about the book part of the package. The writeup and accompanying illustrations of the newsvendor problem, along with suggested efforts to gather demand information and/or shorten leadtimes, were very good. It would be a great introduction to the topic for a new student or product manager. The length (about 140 pages with lots of illustrations, maybe the equivalent of 50 pages of normal text) was also short enough to be easily digested by its target audience.

I am not sure what stage this book is in. Serguei brought a bunch of unfinished versions to one of his presentations at INFORMS 2016 and left them for the audience. There are still some passages/charts unfinished in my version, and I did not have a password to try out the multimedia sections of the book. In googling, the book does not seem to be for sale yet, and the picture above is my own. I hope it gets published soon.

Book Review – Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives
by Gretchen Rubin, 2015

Listened to this book on tape with Maria. I think of this book as a more colloquial/conversational version of the book The Power of Habit. Some of the examples were engaging and I liked some of the emphasis on personality differences. We found out that Maria is a mix of habit personality types, with a strong emphasis on Rebel, which makes getting her to adopt a habit or conform to expectations difficult. I am a Questioner, meaning that I will only adopt a habit or conform to expectations if I think the habit/expectation is useful. It’s why I think New Year’s Resolutions are silly.

However, the book was just too long, and I ended up finding the author’s voice and writing style annoying. Authors, please do not do the audio for your own recorded books! Might be better in writing.

Book Review – The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living
by Meik Wiking, 2016

Review by Maria:

How do people who spend more than half the year in dark, cold, wet weather consistently rank among the top countries for “happiest citizens”? The Little Book of Hygge took us through steps the Danes take to keep their sanity all year around: spend lots of quality time with close friends and family, treat yourself frequently (whether with a chocolate, bath, picnic, barbeque – anything works), and create cozy, warm, safe spaces into which to retreat (think candles, blankets, soft lighting, and nooks to curl up in). The author, a researcher for the Happiness Research Institute (headquartered in Denmark, of course), boils it down to creating “everyday happiness”. We listened to this on audiobook on the last part of our drive home from New Mexico (the author, who narrates it, has a very hygge-ly voice); when we got home I immediately lit candles and we lowered the lights. It’s a short, quick read and worth picking up, especially for anyone who endures winter.