Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review – Airstream: America’s World Traveler

Thanks to Maria for the guest book review!

Airstream: America’s World Traveler
by Patrick Foster, 2016

This coffee-table-sized book is a quick read and full of pictures from the Airstream archives. I didn’t know much about Airstream before reading this book, except that I associate the travel trailer company with outdoor adventure and road trips. The book is a history of the company from its founding in the 1930s, through what happened to it in WWII (the signature aluminum was needed for airplanes – not luxury trailers), and subsequent decades to the present. The history stops about 2015. We learned a little bit about the founder, Wally Byam, and other management executives involved throughout the years, but not as much as I expected.

Although it was a fun, interesting read for me, the book could have used an editor; there are several obvious typos throughout, the parts that were most interesting to me were not elaborated on, and there is potentially inaccurate information. For instance, at one point the book casually mentions that an Airstream was used for atomic bomb testing and was undamaged aside from a broken window. This seems like it would make a good story, but one sentence is all the book gave. So I looked it up on my own and discovered that, for testing purposes, a fake mini town was built in Nevada and included an Airstream and other travel trailer brands stationed 10,500 ft from Ground Zero of the bomb; the Airstream was undamaged aside from two broken windows and a small dent in the back. So, take the book with possibly a grain of salt. The author did use current Airstream employees and the Airstream archives to write the book, so I am sure most of it is fine. It does read a little bit like a love story to the brand, with statements accompanying photos along the likes of, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”, but it was still a fun book to read and to look at the photos of Airstreams all over the world and while under construction.

Book Review – Smart Baseball

Smart Baseball: The story behind the old stats that are ruining the game, the new ones that are running it, and the right way to think about baseball
by Keith Law, 2017

The sabermetric revolution in baseball has already happened. There are no longer any holdouts among MLB front offices; by the start of 2017, all thirty organizations had established analytics departments, employing multiple people, often with Ph.D.s in computer science specialties, charged with gathering data and using them to answer questions from the GM or the coaching staff, or to look for previously undiscovered value in the market for players. If your local writer is still talking about players in terms of pitcher wins, saves, or RBI, he’s discussing the role of the homunculus in human reproduction. The battle is over, whether the losers realize it or not.

If you are familiar with wRC, FIP, and fWAR/bWAR in baseball, you probably don’t need this book. It spends a long time explaining why old stats (RBI, ERA, pitcher wins) are not as useful as previously imagined and how new stats are better. The last few chapters include interesting discussions on why certain players should be in the hall-of-fame and on the role of scouts in a modern organization.

Book Review – The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job
by Karen Kelsky, 2015

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who plans to be on the academic job market in the next 3-5 years. You’ll want to read it early in your academic career to understand the difference between “good lines” on your CV and less valuable ones. You’ll want to re-visit it before applying to understand how to craft excellent job documents and how to prep for interviews.

This book is well-written and very practical. It is from the perspective of a former department chair who now runs her own consulting business to fill in the information gap between what tenured academics know and what grad students don’t.

I would offer one warning to students in business fields: the book is written from the perspective of humanities majors. In those fields, you are often expected to be publishing books and your prospects for academic employment are terrible. Books are not valued in business fields like A-journal publications are. With that in mind, however, the book is still very useful. I will be sharing it with fellow IU Ph.D. students.

Book Review – Little Book of Lykke

Thanks to Maria for the guest book review, a follow-up to her earlier review.

Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People
by Meik Wiking, 2017

From the same author who brought us The Little Book of Hygge (reviewed here), the Little Book of Lykke looks analytically at the six factors that the Happiness Research Institute thinks are at the basis of a society’s happiness level: togetherness, money, health, freedom, trust, and kindness. It is worth reading the physical book since there are graphs and data (and some pretty pictures). It does not turn into a glorification of Denmark nor an attack on the US or other nations, and in fact highlights what various people around the world are doing to increase their society’s happiness, but it does give context for why the Danes and other Scandinavian countries tend to have such high levels of happiness. Hint: it has a lot to do with the fact that quality time with friends and family is more important than working 70+ hours a week, among other work-life balance aspects, plus not having to worry about health care or child care costs, naturally building mood uplifters into the day (in Denmark, a huge percentage of the population bikes to work, which is exercise that lets you start and end the workday in a good mood), and having a feeling of belonging in a society. It is a quick read (only took me a couple of hours) and offers some ideas and perspectives on happiness I hadn’t considered before (and I read a lot of books about happiness). Recommended.

Book Review – Lights Out

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
by Ted Koppel, 2015

The first thing that interested me about the electric grid was the question of its resiliency and protecting it from attack. While my academic research has mostly focused on economic questions, the topic of resiliency is still interesting to me. Koppel’s book discusses the possibility of losing control of the electric grid due to a cyberattack and urban areas having to cope with a loss of power for weeks or months.

Generally speaking, the US seems unprepared for a cyberattack. Assuming the government was not protecting a classified plan, they did not have a plan to share with Koppel for how to deal with a prolonged grid outage. It is unlikely that the government will provide food, water, and basic supplies if an outage exceeds a few days. The alarming part is how unprepared for this outcome most city dwellers seem to be.

About half of the book discusses the disaster preparation plans of more prepared people. While this was, by itself, interesting, it was a little far from discussing the resiliency of the grid. I would have preferred this section to be shorter. Few, if any, of the preppers were focused on an extended grid outage.

It is interesting (ironic?) that we are more connected than ever due to the internet, but in the event of an electric outage, we will be less connected than ever. There needs to be operational plans in place for how to handle an extended outage, and these plans should be communicated BEFORE the outage, as there will be little ability to communicate them after the outage. Seems like a good outlet for operations management and risk management.

I listened to this book on tape.

Book Review – Still Life

Thanks to Telesilla Kotsi for the guest book review!

Still Life
by Louise Penny, 2005

A woman is found dead in the morning of Thanksgiving Day in Three Pines, a small village not far from Montreal. This is how “Still Life”, a mystery novel, begins followed by an elaborate description of the nature in Quebec and all the characters involved.

Highly recommended, although I do not prefer mysteries lately. It is not because I do not like them, quite the contrary. When I start one that I really like I cannot stop reading until I discover the solution to the mystery. This one was very well written, with wonderful setting and characters: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec who comes to Three Pines to decide if the death was a hunting accident or a murder; Jean Guy Beauvoir who is the right hand of Inspector Gamache; Clara and Peter Morrow, both of whom are local artists, closely related to Jane Neal, who was the one found dead in the woods. What I liked the most was that all people in this small village where related to the crime but their motive was not obvious since they all seem to like Jane in the first place. Coming from a small place – fortunately not as small as Three Pines – I could relate to all these odd, tangled, interpersonal relationships. The plot is engaging and there was a point towards the middle of the book that I would change opinion every five minutes about who killed Jane. If you enjoy autumn colors and you want an easy read in front of your fireplace, you would definitely agree with me when you read “Still Life”.

Book Review – The Complacent Class

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
by Tyler Cowen, 2017

Follows in the same stream as The Great Stagnation and Average is Over. Shows how America has become more complacent, in many forms, in recent decades. We have fewer startups and fewer people work at young businesses. We use matching algorithms to find romantic partners, books, movies, news, music, and more that we know we will like and are unlikely to expand our horizons much. We have a government that is ~80% on auto-pilot due to entitlements and inflexible spending, with very little left for discretionary spending. We limit how many houses can be built in dynamic areas and end up with more class segregation in our cities than ever. Basically, we are not a very dynamic country right now.

Cowen discusses the implications of complacency and postulates on whether this is a permanent condition or a passing trend in a cyclical cycle. Recommended.

Book Review – Crossing the Energy Divide

Crossing the Energy Divide
by Robert Ayres and Edward Ayres, 2010

This book is really relevant for some of my energy research, which focuses on short- to medium-term energy solutions for a world seeking to transition from a dirty fossil-fuel past to a clean renewable-energy future. I actually use a quote from this book in my talks on combined heat and power (or cogeneration): “If our goal is to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale as quickly as possible, the most effective way is to invest in cogeneration.”

I particularly like the sections on combined heat and power and the water-energy connection. Suggested for individuals concerned with effective energy policy.

Quotes I liked from the book:
1. “If our goal is to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale as quickly as possible, the most effective way is to invest in ‘cogeneration.'” (pg 34)
2. “Recycling waste-energy streams from industrial uses of fossil fuels is still far cheaper than energy from solar-photovoltaic generation or wind turbines, and far cleaner than energy from biomass. The day will come when the renewables will be competitive without subsidies, and civilization will be on safer ground.” (pg 34)
3. “Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to cite current examples of decentralized CHP (DCHP) used for a shopping mall or office park in the United States because DCHP is, for most purposes, illegal in every one of the 50 states. You can generate electricity for your own use or sell it back to your utility monopoly (at a price it decides), but you can’t sell it to your neighbors. It is actually illegal in every state to send electricity through a private wire across a public street.” (pg 37)
4. “Most irrigation is now done by drilling wells. Some aquifers are naturally replenished by rainfall and runoff, but most are not. Well-feeding rotary sprayers now thickly dot the U.S. grain belt west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains. From above, the land looks like green polka dots on a brown background. Electric pumps extract the water, mostly from the giant Ogallala Aquifer-a long underground lake of ‘fossil’ water left over from the melting of the last glaciers of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. The annual runoff from winter snows and summer rains in the Rocky Mountains provides some replenishment, but not nearly enough. The Ogallala is being depleted at an estimated 12 cubic kilometers per year-more than the annual flow of the Colorado River. This rate of depletion cannot continue much longer. In parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, water tables are dropping by as much as 100 feet per year, and much of the Ogallala could run dry in as little as 25 years. As the water level, drops, the energy required for pumping from ever-deeper levels increases. But without irrigation, grain cultivation in the southern Great Plains becomes impossible and the land will revert to native grasses or mesquite. If we don’t undertake water-conservation measures soon, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s could return in spades.” (pg 149)
5. “If we could change the incentive system so that energy companies aren’t selling a tangible commodity, such as oil or gas, but a final service (heating, cooling, or-better still-physical comfort), their behavior would change. Responsible executives would still ask, how can our company operate most profitably? But the answer would change: by producing the most service for the least cost-by using the least possible fuel energy. Instead of the consumer having the difficult job of figuring out how to reduce ownership costs of highly complex products, the people who have expertise in making those products would assume that responsibility. Shifting corporate roles from selling energy-intensive products to selling the services those products provide also shifts the incentives from using more energy to using less.” (pg 159)

Book Review – The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle
by Philip Dick, 1962

I enjoyed seasons 1 and 2 of The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime, though there really aren’t any “likeable” characters. I think the TV adaptation of the book is the much better than the book itself. The premise of the book/show is that Germany and Japan won WWII and now jointly occupy the United States, though there is a alternate history book (in the book) or film (in the show) that shows the Allies winning the war. PKD writes with halting sentence fragments in a way that obstructed flow instead of sped it up. The character of Joe is much better in the TV series than the book. While PKD is a master of science fiction, I suggest skipping the book and watching the show.

With the job search, I haven’t been able to finish many books lately. This one, in book on tape form, sustained me on my drives to/from the airport.