I've been wrong twice about Iraq. Supported the invasion. Opposed the Surge. (I also tend to think a military solution to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb might be necessary - so it is a good thing that nobody listens to my thinking on the military). Ricks', "The Gamble" follows up on his masterfully depressing "Fiasco" - detailing everything that went wrong in Iraq before General Petraeus took over. What I had not realized about the Petraeus strategy was the force in which the rest of the armed forces opposed this plan, or the degree to which Petraeus was a marginal figure within the military establishment. In order to move to a strategy where the Iraqi people were "the prize" rather then the "playing field", Petraeus had to reverse many of the Army's (one of our largest and most conservative institutions) culture and doctrine on war fighting. As I was reading "The Gamble" I kept thinking of how we need someone like Petraeus in other institutions....education, car building, maybe newspapers? Ricks' conclusion is that while the Surge was the right thing to do, a tactical success, it does not represent a strategic victory. We are in for the "long war" in Iraq, with the most salient events of the war still ahead of us.
Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World by Tom Zoellner
America's cold war nuclear program cost us $10 trillion over the 50 years that this war was waged. Growing up I remember watching the TV movie "The Day After" - nuclear war did not seem like an abstract possibility. Today we worry about Pakistan having (and selling) nuclear capabilities. North Korea conducts another underground test (and fires rockets the same day), threatening to go to war if any efforts are made to halt their program. And Iran continues to develop their nuclear capabilities, an eventuality that will most likely not be acceptable to Israel. Zoellner brings all these events and developments down to their source, to the rock that when processed (on an industrial scale) is capable of releasing enormous amounts of energy. We learn about the physics of a nuclear reaction, how these physics were harnessed by the scientists in the Manhattan Project to create the terrible weapons that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War 2 We learn the extreme steps that the Soviet Union took to mine uranium and start their own crash nuclear program. And we follow uranium speculators and get-rich quick dreamers as they rode the uranium mining bubble. An excellent work of both reporting and history.
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman
This month Bryan Alexander has a terrific article out " Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality" in Educause Review Alexander writes about the various methods that we try to understand the future, where Friedman is about scenarios rather then methods. 100 years may seem too far to look ahead, the but the exercise of looking towards the future is one of the best ways we have to understand where we are today. I'd like to see the 100 year lens applied to education and technology. Friedman is all about looking at the next 100 years of geopolitics, of war, and somewhat of the economy. I have some agreement with Friedman in terms of a coming labor shortage and the massive consequences of a rapidly aging society. I'm not sure if Poland will become the major power that Friedman predicts (but I do agree about Turkey). A fun book to get lost in, a good read for any of us who enjoy predicting the future in our own little worlds.
Charm City: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman
The 2nd book in Lipmman's Tess Monoghan Baltimore mystery series. After reading the first book, Baltimore Blues, at the beach in April I went and purchased the whole series (used from Amazon). The plan is to read a book a month. In Charm City we see Tess finally getting "somewhat" of a real job, working as an investigator for a local lawyer. The mystery is less fun then seeing Tess navigate the politics of the Baltimore newspaper world (where the mystery takes her again) and the various Baltimore social classes. Throw in a musician boyfriend, an ambitious best friend, and a murdered wanna-be NBA owner and you have all the fixins for another great Baltimore mystery.
This year I'm turning 40, so I thought it made sense to spend some time reading and thinking about this next stage in life. Viorst's Necessary Losses is all about how adulthood involves letting go of our illusions about romantic love, marriage, relationships and work. The part of the book that resonated most strongly with me was Viorst's ideas about the degree of ambiguity in even the best relationships. I've read so much about evolutionary psychology and brain science that it comes as somewhat of a shock to me that the basics of personal psychology remain unknown territory.
Check out the video for Michael Connelly's new book, The Scarecrow.
*for some reason Amazon does not give the embed code for the video....seems like a mistake.
I can get this book in paper, as a Kindle book, or as an audio book. The book is platform independent. Yes, I have arguments that Amazon owns the platforms and locks down (DRMs) the content (in audio and Kindle format), and I think this is ultimately short-sighted.
By also including short (and I assume pretty cheap) original video to accompany the books Amazon is being smart again. I bet the publishers pay for the videos.
What can we learn? How do we move so quick videos or screencasts of professors can be linked to the Web next to the syllabi for students shopping for courses? (Or better yet, student videos or screencasts about the course?) And yes.....curriculum available in multiple formats for multiple platforms whenever possible.
Oh, and by the way, Michael Connelly's writes really excellent books, I hope Amazon's innovative work helps him reach many more readers.
This month included a week at the beach, so the list is heavier then usual with beach fiction.
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) by Gregory Clark
If quantitative economic history is your thing (I'm a fan) then this is your book. It's important in our current recession to remember how much wealthier we are then at almost any other time in history, and that up until about 200 years ago almost no economic progress had been made since the dawn of agriculture. Prior to 1800 societies lives in a Malthusian trap, where disease and limits on food insured that any increase in wealth translated solely into more people rather then better living standards. From 1800 to the present the demographic transition coupled with the industrial revolution has provided the underpinnings for a radical transformation in everyday living standards and supported an ever growing population. This book looks deeply inside these trends, seeking to explain why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in England and the West, and why some nations remain poor while the gap in income between nations continues to widen.
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
A must read for any of us folks who see themselves as techno geeks with a paranoid streak. Suarez is a member of our tribe, a real life system architect and IT person who originally self-published this book - only to see it take off and be picked up by a major publisher. The plot involves a dead game developer who creates a program designed to insure that his brain lives on to control the world. The book is actually scarily convincing about the vulnerabilities of our networked world and the ability of a collective artificial intelligence to subvert our existing order. Suarez gets the technology right, and keeps the plot moving along. This book will quickly turn into a movie franchise (the prose is cinematic), I hope that whoever turns Deamon into a movie gets it right.
Runner (Jane Whitefield) by Thomas Perry
Jane Whitefield is one of my all time favorite protagonists, and I've been missing her for the past 10 years as Perry has moved on to other books. For my money, the 6th book was worth the wait. The premise of this series is that Jane Whitefield is a guide to people on the run who need to be taken out of the world to evade people who wish to do them harm. In "Runner", the runner is a young pregnant girl who needs to escape from an abusive rich boyfriend and the "the six" hunters he has hired to find her and bring her back. I highly recommend starting at book one of this series (Vanishing Act - 1995), as Jane's character has grown in complexity and the methods necessary to escape capture have changed over the years.
Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains--The Science
Behind Sex, Love, and Attraction by Jena Pincott
Bad title but pretty good book. Pincott, and her book, are smarter then her title - and you can learn some pretty good science from this slim, well-written and enjoyable volume.
Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan
China books tend to fall into two categories: those books that see China the future (positives) and those books that see China has corrupt and fragile (negatives). Pan, a Pulitizer winning journalist for the Washington Post, is clearly in the latter camp. Rather then falling in love with China, Pan is cleared eyed enough to see the devastation and continuing scars inflected by the authoritarian Communist government, including the starvation of the Great Leap Forward, the repression of the Cultural Revolution, the harshness of the One Child Policy, and the violence of the Tiananmen Square crackdowns. His method is to spend a great deal of time telling the stories of the individuals who have struggled under the authoritarian system, and then to extrapolate to problems in the larger society. Pan is not hopeful that China will be able to reform its political system, nor does he think economic growth will be rapid or widespread enough to avoid violence. I appreciated the authors willingness to spend so much time with a few emblematic characters, but I found that his main thesis need to be supported with a wider lens and great analysis of economic, social, technical and democratic trends.
Baltimore Blues: A Tess Monaghan Novel (Tess Monaghan Mysteries) by Laura Lippman
I liked this book so much that as soon as I put it down I went to Amazon and ordered all 9 books in the series (used copies from Amazon...and amazing cheap and easy way to buy books). If there are any fellow fans of Baltimore and crime novels (particularly crime stories set in the Charm City) you should come and see me, as I'd love to pass on the series. Lippman is married to David Simon, creator of my favorite TV show of all time (The Wire), this family has Baltimore low-life, cops and reporters in the blood. Tess Monaghan is a great character. Tess (like me) is half-Jewish - although she is much tougher then I'll ever be. The story is intricately plotted and somewhat satisfying, but the real joy are the characters - with Baltimore looming as the most colorful character of them all. I didn't guess the killer, and I look forward to reading forward (this is the first book in the series) to see where life (and death) takes Tess.
Last Harvest: From Cornfield to New Town: Real Estate Development from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway by Witold Rybczynski
The story of the neo-traditional (new urbanist) development New Daleville in rural Pennsylvania.
The architect and writer Rybczynski takes us from cornfield to the first few homes in the development. Along the way we learn about what exactly a developer does, how new homes are permitted and built, how developers and builders work together, and how new homes are marketed and sold.
The challenges faced by the developers of New Daleville are placed in the context the home building industry in the U.S., and in the ways housing development varies by region and has changed over the past 75 years. My father is a housing demographer, and I immediately called him upon finishing Last Harvest to recommend this book (I've actually been recommending it to everyone). We think we are experts in housing since we all have strong opinions, but I had not really understood or appreciated the actual process involved in the creation of new housing. This book is also fascinating because the developers and architects were trying to address the social and economic costs of our traditional way of building houses with their new urbanist development. Rather then have large houses on large lots with the houses dominated by garages and driveways, the builders tried to create a development with smaller houses on smaller lots, with sidewalks, open/public spaces, and the ability to walk to amenities. The fact that they did so in a rural PA county made this project more difficult to market, coupled with the fact that the development started in the housing boom but was not in the building stage until the housing bust.
I'm putting these books together, as they both reside in the category of translating scientific (both life and social) research on behavior to a general audience. Lehrer is a terrific writer. Author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer knows his way around a sentence as well as the frontal cortex. This book fits perfectly, and significantly contributes, to a growing genre of books that popularize and make accessible the current research on the cognitive and evolutionary basis for our behavior and thinking. Lehrer knows the science and can translate the mechanisms and processes into behaviors. From other reading in evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics we know what poor decision makers we can be. This book grounds the work on behaviors firmly within our biology. Lehrer does not neglect culture or social structure, instead skillfully drawing connections between the realms of the mind and society.
Hallinan's background is in journalism, and his book suffers from a lack of a central thesis or participation on the front-lines of research. Where Lehrer connected anecdote to neurology, Hallinan is limited to synthesizing the scientific research. Where Hallinan is handicapped is that he does not have deep expertise in any one area, so his explanations never seem to leave the surface of a problem or get to the roots of a behavior. Despite its shortcomings in substance and style, Why We Make Mistakes is still a useful part of the puzzle to appreciating our own flawed brain and poor track record of decision making. While much of the research covered in this book will not be new to enthusiasts of this field, the act of going over this ground helps bring this work into our long term memories. It feels as if we are at a time where the black box of behavior is being illuminated by advances in both our scientific method and theory to interpret the results.
How We Decide: Grade A-
Why We Make Mistakes: Grade B
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George
When I was courting Julie on a cross Europe trip after our 2nd year of graduate school I took her on a tour of the Pairs sewer system. On our honeymoon we toured Baltimore's Waste Water Treatment facility. Sanitation is the key to civilization. Without the ability to deal with human waste then cities would have been limited in size by disease epidemics such as cholera. So the The Big Necessity is my kind of book. George takes us to places on the planet where the people do not have toilets, where human waste is untreated, and where preventable diseases are unchecked. Clean water gets all the press (and a great deal of the development money), where toilets and proper sewage disposal remain "unmentionable". Where is Angelina Jolie hanging out at a model public toilet, telling the world how important it is to provide clean and effective sanitation to the world's poor. Rose travels the developed to the developing world, giving us a first person account how the rich and the poor world deal with our excrement. She squats the squat, and her first person accounts are invigorating and insightful. We all crap, but by luck of our birth we do so in very different ways. A book that should be read in any development economics program or comparative development course.
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson
Like many I was first exposed to Ken Robinson from this TED talk. The Element is another book that should be read by leaders and passed around to work groups. It covers much of the same ground as Tribes, or Marcus Buckingham's work on Finding Your Strengths (which I use extensively in my graduate consulting course), but Robinson superior style and engaging personality make his work both enjoyable and always edifying. Where Robinson is at his best is where he makes connections with how our education system impedes students from finding their passions. At the same time, I wished for a deeper dive into our education system (particularly post-secondary education), and for a specific critique (grounded in history and political economy) for how our schools can hinder creativity. You will come away from this book even more depressed about our manic focus on testing, and even more committed to enabling the passions in your colleagues and children.
Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik
Darwin and LIncoln were both born on February 12, 1809. Gopnik takes this historical coincidence as a starting place to explore the lives and ideas of the two men who did more to shape modern society then perhaps any other pair, with one giving us the foundations for representative democracy supported by military power and the other providing a framework to understand the origins of and development of species. We can be Darwinist because we are the beneficiaries of the fruits of a wealthy liberal democracy, one that Lincoln cemented with his refusal to let the American experiment disintegrate through secession. Gopnik is an essayist, not a historian, which if well and good for a short and personal book where the lives and ideas of the Great Men are explored in the context of contemporary ideas and struggles. Gopnik's thesis is that what ties Lincoln and Darwin together is their power over language, Lincoln in his speeches and Darwin in his books. This allows Gopnik to narrow his focus and play to his own strengths as a crafter of phrases. If you read Angels and Ages expecting a biography of Darwin or LIncoln or a social history of their times you will be disappointed. However, if you approach the book as a long thought piece on the literary, scientific and cultural legacy of Lincoln and Darwin then you will spend a few hours delighting in words well strung together recounting some of the the phrases that define (and undergird) our modern world.
This is part of the thread Josh initiated with the mention of the Kindle. Today Inside Higher Ed has a post that details the plans of the University of Michigan Press to phase out the printed monograph in favor of the digital monograph.
So the question of the digital reader becomes more acute as the shift to digital accelerates. I was curious about Anthony's answer to Josh's thought about getting a Kindle (Anthony replied "resist the temptation.")
Thoughtful argument on the dangers of the Kindle.
After my wildly positive post about how digital books will increase readership and expand the circle of readers this is perhaps a good corrective.
The basic point is that digital books stop us from sharing. Local cultures are built and sustained on the passed-along book.
I think these are issues we need to grapple with and overcome, given the compelling reasons to explore digital books (audio and ebooks) in our little communities.
This morning I got received this e-mail from Audible.com:
It's like winning the lottery twice, on selection and price, in our sale featuring 200 outstanding audiobooks—all unabridged, all $4.95 each.
Shop now for incredible value, but please hurry! This 48-hour sale, available exclusively to AudibleListener® members, ends Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 4 PM EDT.
Turns out that some of the books were on my "maybe" list - and at $4.95 the price was low enough to pull the trigger.
These are books that I probably would not have purchased if I were required to burn an audible credit (although I had used credits for some books on the list), so therefore this was additional revenue for Audible. In other words, I will still use my credits, and re-purchase my platinum listening plan when the credits run out.
The beauty of digital delivery is that the marginal cost for Audible (and Amazon which owns Audible) for each additional audiobook sold is zero. They can run promotions such as this to best match the price their customers are willing to pay. The perfect price for an electronic copy is exactly what the user is willing to pay.
This is why Starbucks has so many different varieties of coffee to choose from. The soy venti mochachino is not actually that much more expensive for Starbuck's then the plain cup of coffee (as most costs are fixed - labor, rent, etc.) - the actual raw materials for the coffee are just pennies. Starbucks wants to offer enough prices that allow their customers to sort themselves, and pay the amount that matches the preferences of each coffee buyer. Some folks are made happy with a $5 drink, others with a $2 drink.
Audiobook and electronic books (Amazon's Kindle) have exactly this potential. Variable pricing and promotions can find that sweet spot, where an additional sale is made that would not normally have been transacted. Since the marginal cost of the item is essential zero, this additional sale means additional revenues for writers, publishers, and yes Amazon. Further, Amazon can collect, sort and analyze enough data to find that sweet spot.
Amazon can offer personalized sales to each of their customers. A different price for everyone. Once Amazon integrates their clickstream data from Audible.com with their regular site (if they have not already done so - I think not as the Audible site is still very poor compared to the Amazon site), then they will have an enormous amount of data to set correct prices. Of course, they need to be careful, as they could also charge customers higher prices for things they know little price sensitivity will exist, but Amazon will be discouraged from doing so given the PR backlash and user anger that would result (much like the trouble Netflix got into for "throttling" DVD delivery to heavy use customers).
Why is this important beyond Amazon's bottom line? On the book side, digital copies have the potential for increasing the market, increasing the number of readers and increasing the range and numbers of books read. This is a good thing. Amazon should be able to get the price right to bring readers to books that would have never met in the past. Again, more money for authors - and more authors selling more books. The world a better place.
So what audiobooks did I purchase for $4.95:
So I'm in the middle of reading Sir Ken Robinson's latest book - The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.
I'm finding the book to be wonderfully inspiring. Speaks to us folks in education, and helps put our work (I think) in a larger context. We hope to spend our days with people who are "in their element" when teaching, working on developing courses and curriculum, and working on technology to promote active learning.
I found Sir Ken on TED (talk below) - one of the best TED talks I've watched. The book, so far, is even better.
So I hope you will watch the video, and take me up on my offer to come borrow the book. I'll buy the coffee.
Terrific book. Sherwood sets out to understand who survives and who dies in trauma, and why. He makes the point that sooner or later most of us will face a test, often a life threatening test, and who enters the survivors club is not random. Certainly people have skills, instincts, and resources that allow them to survive (and even thrive) where others are killed or destroyed. I had no idea that most plane crashes are survivable, but only survivable if you know what you are doing and have a plan. Same goes for car accidents, fires, violent attacks and those other events that could kill us. Sherwood is a journalist with a varied resume (former TV news producer, magazine writer), and he brings all his reporting skills to the question of who survives. The interviews with people who survived horrible accidents are gripping. My favorite is the pilot who survived ejecting from his airplane at faster then Mach 1! Highly recommended.
Animals Make us Human by Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin is a national treasure. I have this fantasy that President Obama will invite her to the White House and give her some big award for helping all of us to understand animals. He will then direct his Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak to follow Grandin's guidelines for the ethical treatment of farm animals. President Obama will talk about how Grandin is an inspiration on how we can all play to our strengths, as Grandin has turned her autism into an asset in understanding animals. Grandin's thesis is that animals are primarily driven by their (our emotions). Proper care of animals means attending to their emotional needs. Understanding how animals perceive the world can help us set up environments where they feel safe, and where their seeking and companion needs are met. Of course I loved the chapter about dogs - and I've been very nice to my dog after Grandin got in my head. Where I was surprised was how much I enjoyed the chapters on cows, pigs, and chickens. It is good to have some idea how our industrial food system works. An excellent complement to Pollan's writing. A truly original work.
Johnson is the author of one of my favorite books of 2007 - The Ghost Map - as well as a bunch of other great science books. This is another one of those books that make me question my formal education, as despite being a U.S. history major and life-long Ben Franklin read I had not known (or remembered) anything much about Joseph Priestley. The role that Priestly played in the 18th century scientific enlightenment is a crucial one. He was a (younger) contemporary of Ben Franklin, a popularizer (like Johnson) of the work of Franklin and the other "electricians", and the discoverer of oxygen. Priestley seems to pop up at all the key scientific and political events of the 18th century, making friends (and creating enemies) with our founding fathers. Johnson makes the point that today we are missing scientists who both take the lead in politics and religion. A religious political progressive in the form of a scientist appears to be a contradiction in our world. The Invention of Air helped me understand both the early origins of the scientific revolution and some about our early history as a country. An accessible and enjoyable read. Johnson at the top of his game.
Weinberger is a classically trained philosopher who has turned his insights to our digital world. A big picture book of ideas, with the common thread that the new digital order subverts and extinguishes the rationales for traditional classification and organization schemes. An important book for anyone who thinks about information architecture, or is in the business of matching content (curriculum) with folks who would want to find and add value to that content.
I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
Hilarious. This book was recommended by Amazon for people who like Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta, and I'd recommend it as well. Part of my effort to keep one work of fiction going at all times, this book cannot be called "serious" fiction. Pure fun and escapism, with some wonderful turns of phrase and dialogue. Doyle is a writer for the Simpsons, and if you appreciate references to pop culture, teen angst, and geeks, cheerleaders, and crazed army boyfriends then this book may be worth your time.
Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety by Dalton Conley
This book may have well been special ordered to help my family understand our lives and struggles. Conley and I seem to share more then a few things, born in 1969, degrees in sociology, 2 school age children, and married to high achieving professional women. We also seem to share a love for our work and a wonder about how the line between work and family has blurred (as I sit here Sunday evening with my laptop pecking out book reviews while my girls dance around me). The premise of Elsewhere USA is that highly educated professionals (particularly those of us raising kids or taking care of dependents) are defined by gifts and obligations inherent in the tension between nurturing careers and nurturing our families. We love our work, but since we deal in concepts, knowledge and persuasion it is not always clear if produce anything solid. Therefore, we are spurned to work more, in order to justify to others our value and to accrue the knowledge and social capital necessary to insure mobility in the knowledge economy. Nights and weekends are spent one eye on the laptop, one-eye on the kids, never quite being totally focussed on either but keeping both going. Separating work and family is increasingly unrealistic, as both spheres demand time and energy in bursts or at unpredictable times, and neither can be "put aside" to focus on any single demand. Conley's recommendation is to give up worrying about role conflict, and embrace the duality and dynamism of a hybrid work/family life. Once the laptop has been opened it cannot be shut (and really - who would want to as it brings such interesting information and networks). Besides, this is the world our kids will live in as well....and it is through watching how we handle the juggle that they will learn to be flexible and hopefully find work that is their passion (as they will do so much of it in their lives).
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
The largest migration in the history of the world is unfolding in China, as the rural young from agricultural villages make their way to way to factories in the cities. Chang, a Chinese-American reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spends three years following the lives of two young women as they struggle to make a new life (and invent a new China) in the factory city of Dongguan. In the process of learning about migration and urbanization in China, we also follow Chang on her own journey to understand her families past, with her relatives participating, victimization and triumph through revolution, migration, the cultural revolution, assimilation, and authoritarian capitalism. The experience of the "factory girls" that Chang follows stands in for the experiences of millions of Chinese, as well as the larger global story of the move from the country to the city. The young ladies that Chang profiles are forced to re-invent themselves at each step, while struggling to maintain links to the village families that they have left behind. This migration, and the changes that this flow of labor brings to China (and global capitalism) one of the most important stories of our time, is beautifully and sensitively told in this heart-breaking, hopeful and important book.
The White Tiger: A Novel by Aravind Adiga
We can read all the books we can find on the rise of India as the worlds largest democracy tries to leapfrog past the industrial revolution to participation in the global knowledge economy. Somehow, however, we understand that we can never grasp what these changes mean to the vast majority (800 million?) of Indians who are not part of this new elite middle class - but who serve the new elites as cooks, maids, nannies, or drivers. In this novel we learn the story of Balram Halwai (aka the White Tiger) and his move from poor villager to servant and driver for a wealth family in New Delhi. This is a perspective (that of the servant) that we seldom ever hear from as we marvel at India's transformation, a perspective that helps us understand the costs and dislocations as India messily rushes into its new reality. As India goes so will the world. The youngest country with a passion for education and a population ready to do the same jobs we do at much lower wages, we tend to see India through our eyes as threat, opportunity, and economic partner. It is good to spend some time seeing India through another vision.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
In terms of pure craftsmanship and bang or the buck in learning about the U.S. it is hard to beat Toobin's "The Nine". Simply put, Toobin is a great writer. He infuses drama and erudition into his narrative of the Supreme Court under Rhenquist (and then Roberts). We learn that the Court was really the O'Connor Court, as for two decades she held the center ground and therefore the deciding vote. We see the Court at it's best, as it tacked to moderation on social and commercial issues, and at its worst as it short-circuited the Florida recount in 2008 and installed Bush to the Presidency. The Supreme Court is the least well understood of the 3 branches of the Federal Government, but often the most important. Toobin takes us behind the closed doors of the Court, giving the reader a sense of how opinions are crafted and how the personalities of the Justices (and their relationships to each other) determines the law of the land. "The Nine" should become a standard text for undergraduate departments of Government and Political Science.
Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper
We should always pay attention when whole industries implode before our eyes. In my lifetime I've seen the rise of the the big corporate music industry (music industry complex?) as multinational music companies rode the ridiculous profits of the star system and the CD and then rapidly eroded into irrelevancy as technology changed the game. The RIAA's strategy to deal with the MP3, file-sharing, iTunes and the iPod has been to sue their own customers, helping the rest of us to fully understand that the music industry is the enemy of artists and great music. How many great artists were left out a pure hit-making strategy (with massive promotions), and how many musicians made pennies on the dollar for each CD they managed to sell? Knopper, a reporter for Rolling Stone, traces the excesses of the rise of the music industry and its subsequent fall as we all started to get our music from Napster and later one song at a time from iTunes and Amazon. While the book has way too much (for me irrelevant) detail about the personalities of music industry executives, the basic story of Shakespearean egos and unmatched executive stupidity makes for an enjoyable diversion. Imagine if the record industry had figured out how to license a subscription music service early on during the rise of digital music and Internet distribution? The technology could have brought new markets and new customers, and billions of dollars to artists. But by fighting the technology (and suing it's customers) the record industry insured its irrelevancy and demise. What can we learn from this story for us in the "educational industrial complex?".
After a relaxing 8 days off and some nice family visiting we are all excited to get back into our routines (although Julie has been working with only 4 days vacation). Before I get into my Winter Break books, some quick thoughts as we begin 2009:
Facebook: These lazy days have convinced me that we should try to implement the Facebook/Blackboard Sync Application. Learning is social. And I enjoyed sort of loosely keeping up with colleagues and friends throughout the vacation via Facebook. The next course that I teach I plan to ask the students to all get Facebook accounts and update their status every time they do something in Blackboard (blog, post a discussion post etc.) - should be a good experiment.
Another quick plug for the Facebook App Visual Bookshelf. This app lets me see what my folks are reading, what they want to read, and what they think about what they have read. I hope this application gets better - and I hope more folks take the time to use it - as the most important book reviewers are friends. Visual Bookshelf could also be used nicely in a class context, requiring students to review course books.
Winter Break Reading: Before jumping into my Winter break criminal reading spree some thoughts on reading. A couple of Facebook friends (Dave, Michael) have asked about my reading habits, commenting on the Facebook feeds that pop-up when I finish a book. I burned through a bunch of beach (or couch) paper books this break, part of my 2009 resolution to read more fiction (actually the resolution was "quality" fiction - but you know how resolutions go). Turns out the conditions were right for some reading - which for me include:
- Not having cable/satellite TV: We get plenty of screen time with our 6 at a gulp Netflix subscription (watched American Teen with the girls and Julie last night - fascinating to hear pre-teens talk about teen life) What I miss in lacking normal TV is watching sports. At age 39 I've maybe watched, say, 80,000 hours of sports on TV. Maybe that is enough. Growing up watching the Celtics win championships in the mid-1980s it is hard to miss the current great team, and I sorely long for Sunday football, but all those hours that used to be taken up with TV sports are not mostly reading hours.
- Not blogging: I took the vacation off from blogging, which meant taking the vacation off from reading RSS feeds on education, technology and their intersection. I tend to catch-up on my Web professional reading at night, and then blog what I find most interesting. so without RSS reading and blogging I had more time.
- Multi-taksing: The non-fiction I read (reviewed below) was consumed via audio - read at Dartmouth hockey and basketball games, on the treadmill, or doing dishes. True happiness is bringing the girls to hockey game, having them disappear with their friends (returning every 40 minutes or so for more money for the snack bar), letting me relax to hockey and an audiobook in peace.
Back to the Books:
First the fun (beach/couch) fiction. All these books are courtesy of Steven King's list of best books of 2008 (the ones now in Paperback). Some of these books were just too scary and/or violent for my tastes (which I should have expected in taking a list from Steven King) - but they were all well written and distracting.
The best of these, and the one author I will get all his books, is Joseph Wambaugh. I loved Hollywood Station. Character driven police procedural from an insider (he is an alumni of the LAPD) - a great find.
My quest now is to find some good quality fiction that I can convince Julie to read with me - so we can book club. My favorite fiction writers include Ford, Russo, McEwan, Chabon, Roth, McCarthy, Price, Perrotta, Powers, Hornby and Wolfe. I'll buy whatever these guys write (and I realize with some concern that they are all guys). I'm hoping for recommendations to expand my circle of regular authors.
Some quality fiction that has worked well for book-clubbing with Julie are novels like The Emperors Children (Messud), Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl), and Intuition (Goodman). Any suggestions? To follow-up on my 2009 quality fiction resolution I ordered some paperback books from Amazon that I hope fit the bill. These include: Theft by Peter Carey, The Bad Girl by by Mario Vargas Llosa, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle. Reviews to come.
This winter break was all about crime and money - maybe because my real life has so little of either. For family, friends and colleagues - fair warning that I'll be trying to talk to all of you about the sordid details and political economy of organized crime (and maybe the history of the bond market). My apologies in advance - but these were some great books:
McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny
Did you know that organized crime is responsible for an estimated 15 to 20% of the world GDP (counting tax evasion)? Or that narcotics accounts for about 70% of criminal profits, with energy, guns, prostitution, and gambling making up the bulk of the rest? I didn't know any of this - and I'm not sure I'll be able to think about "the economy" ever again in the same way. Written by a journalist, but with an insiders perspective and a novelists sense of character and pacing, McMafia is one of the best books I read in 2008.
Six seasons of The Sopranos, plus three Godfather movies and a bunch of organized crime books have pretty much formed my views of the mafia. Organized crime as entertainment. Gomorrah tells what happens when organized crime infiltrates every aspect of the economy and social life, as it has done in Southern Italy. Saviano, a native son of Naples, provides an insider personal account of the social and human costs of living in a mafia dominated culture. The incredible levels of violence and corruption spawned by mafia control are shocking and eye opening, even more so given this story is playing out in the heart of Western Europe. Not a hopeful book, not an entertaining book, but a fascinating exposition of a world both unknown and hidden to outsiders. An excellent companion to McMafia, filling in the details to Glenny's broad outlines. This book was apparently a sensation when published in Italy, although the author has had to go into hiding because of death threats. Are there places in the U.S. where organized crime continues exert significant control in aspects of the economy?
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
We are all self-appointed experts when it comes to money (or at least real estate), but none of us really knows much history. For if we knew the history of booms and busts, bonds and equities, risk and insurance then we may all be a little less likely to jump into the latest bubble, and a little more likely to question our own "expertise". I admire Ferguson for taking on a big topic, and for his willingness to provide a grand sweep of history that reflects and helps us understand our current recession. The book was apparently written to accompany a documentary series, and it certainly reads that way. This is good and bad...and the narrative moves along quickly and big lessons are drawn - while at times leaving the reader wanting more analysis. One question that the author poses keeps coming back to me - have we been living through a "super bubble" from the 1950s to today, which will see a slow deflation in our lifetimes as property values stagnate and China is no longer willing to fund our consumption through their savings?
With my new vow to read more fiction (substituting some magazine reading) I've been giving more thought to a Kindle. It's not just that I think that e-books are set to grow dramatically as delivery mechanisms for curriculum - I just see e-books as another way to reduce clutter.
Apparently I'm not alone...as the NYTimes reports today on "E-Books Starting to Take Hold"
Prediction: By 2011 the majority of curriculum will be in digital form - ebooks, smart phones, audio etc. By the time my girls are in college (starting 2017) this trend will extend to all curriculum plus library holdings.
My vacation reading came in legacy paper format - costing me all of $24 bucks with Amazon's 4 for 3 deal and free shipping (thanks to the lovely but dangerous Prime). (One note: buying the Kindle content would have been more expensive...as the 4 books for the price of 3 does not seem to apply to Kindle purchases from what I can tell....never mind the $359 for the reader).
My vacation list came courtesy of Stephen King, from his Entertainment Weekly column on pop culture (I love this column - although it seems to exist only in the magazine format - which I will not renew again due to my fiction resolution).
Not sure what I'll do with all these mysteries once I'm done with them....any takers?
No...I wouldn't pull the trigger on a Kindle until Kindle 2.0 (as I'm thinking the ugliness and kinks have to get at least somewhat worked out by then)....but for the first time a Kindle is on my serious list.
Why Kindle (2.0)?
I'm also betting that Amazon will start bundling audio and e-books together, integrating the experience, but that is for another post.
A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz
For people like me who spend our days continually amazed at our sheer ignorance, Horowitz's new book is perfect. My major in college was history, U.S. history, but the time between Columbus washing up in Hispaniola (todays D.R. and Haiti) in 1492 and the Pilgrims landing in 1620 was basically a complete blank. Horowitz seeks to fill that gap in his knowledge (and my own), by tracing the routes and landing spots of the early Viking, Spanish, and French explorers and colonizers. Historical travel writing at its best, filled with weirdo American's and laid-back Domican's, A Voyage Long and Strange is one worthwhile journey. Grade: A-
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Fatsis is one of my favorite sports journalists. His writing for the WSJ and his commentaries for NPR about the industry of sports are always smart and informative. I loved his last book, Word Freak, which even got me to play scrabble again. In his latest book Fatsis tells the story of joining the Denver Broncos as "rookie" field goal kicker during training camp. We get an insider account of the often brutal business of the NFL, a sub-culture largely closed to outsiders despite the fact that teams play in front of millions each Sunday. Grade: B+
Buyology by Martin Lindstrom
Give this book a chance. Lindstrom might be beyond arrogant - but much can be learned about how we behave as consumers and how companies market to us in this book. Lindstrom is a marketer, not an academic, which might explain the books fast pace and reasonably cogent writing. He builds on academic studies, as well as his own work combining marketing studies with brain scans, to knock-down some of the truisms of why we buy. I tend to think that understanding ourselves as consumers is exceedingly important, or at least interesting, and this book fits well with books by Paco Underhill (who wrote the introduction, Rob Walker (Buying In), and Silverstein (Treasure Hunt). Grade: B
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel by Michael Chabon
Chabon is one of those authors that will get my business each time they publish a new book. Chabon combines the best elements of a hard-boiled murder mystery with a history that may have unfolded if my people would have been helped to flee to Alaska in the 1930s. At one point Yiddish was spoken quite a bit by relations I never new, in New York City apartments I never saw, but reading this novel made me feel close to my kin. Grade: A
Matrimony: A Novel by Joshua Henkin
Upper-middle class striving, from college to 15th year re-union, among characters who are my age and may have been my classmates. Uneven, and fascinating mostly to me for hitting so close to home, I'd recommend it other 39 year olds who went to expensive colleges in the Northeast, live in College towns, have creative professional jobs, and married into our neurotic sub-group. Grade: B
The University in the Networked Economy and Society: Challenges and Opportunities by Yochai Benkler
I'm slowly making my way through Katz's edited Tower and the Cloud book.
Yochai Benkler contributes a wonderful chapter entitled: The University in the Networked Economy and Society: Challenges and Opportunities
Benkler makes the case that those of us situated in higher education have an opportunity to engage and experiment with collaborative practices and technologies. Our medieval guild routes of a community built around shared understandings, including the value we place on argument, transparency, learning and knowledge production, offers distinct advantages as compared to other institutions tied to purely market based norms. The "University" is something special - something different - and is therefore well positioned to prosper as we move from the industrial information economy to the networked information economy.
What I liked best about this short chapter is how Benkler is able to describe the political economy of the University and then relate this organization and history to larger trends in collaboration and knowledge production. I learned a great deal about both sides of the equation.
I think that this article would support and spur us to think about how we can lower barriers to collaboration and production - be it in making materials available for students to create by mashing up or in protecting our community from copyright assaults from organizations that do not share our educational mission.
My unread books remain so because they only exist as atoms, I need them in bits.
The list below represents the books I'd read now if I could, if only they were available as audio on audible.com.
Book reading has moved from unitasking to multitasking. I "consume" books while doing other things: running on the treadmill, driving, sitting at a basketball game, doing the dishes, walking the dog etc. With too many things to get done in the my book reading would be minimal without the ability to read while doing other things. Perhaps I'd trade magazines for books, or watching Netflix for books, but I can usually find a solid hour per day while doing something else that I can listen to a book - and rarely a solid hour with enough attention or energy to read a book.
The realization that my books are now part of a multitasked day leads me to wonder if book books (atoms) are will disappear from our student's days as well.....as our students can only multitask. If we don't provide a multitasked option then I'm afraid reading will remain largely undone. Are we providing audio versions of the curriculum we are assigning? Or are we wishing that our students will read books like we used to - by doing one thing at a time?
At some point we will need to make the medium accommodate our learners, rather then continually argue and complain that our learners are not accommodating our cherished beliefs and methods. Educators, authors, and publishers need to understand that if a book is not multitaskable (is this a word?) then it may no longer be relevant.
Social Sciences and Education
The Race between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin
Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World by Don Tapscott
Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey
The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop
Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida
X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking
Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr
Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales
Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things by Laurence Gonzales
Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright
Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge by John Seely Brown
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America by Sean Wilsey
India: The Rise of an Asian Giant by Dietmar Rothermund
Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion by Hal Abelson
Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping by the Author of Why We Buy by Paco Underhill
Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte
American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent
Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies: And Other Pricing Puzzles by Richard B. McKenzie
The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives by Michael Heller
Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul
Not Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class by Nan Mooney
High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families by Peter Gosselin
The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse
The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Katherine S. Newman
Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District by Peter Moskos
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier
The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman
The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn by Pip Coburn
Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change by Bob Seidensticker
The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny
First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century by David Lida
The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
What's Next: The Experts' Guide: Predictions from 50 of America's Most Compelling People by Jane Buckingham
The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Conniff
More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg
Poor People by William T. Vollmann
The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism by Matt Mason
Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain
In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce
The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World by Phillip F. Schewe
Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee by Alex Frankel
Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built by David A. Kaplan
One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville by Witold Rybczynski
The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters by Diane Coyle
My Secret Life on the McJob: Lessons from Behind the Counter Guaranteed to Supersize Any Management Style by Jerry Newman
The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences by Louis Uchitelle
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer
Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis---and the People Who Pay the Price by Jonathan Cohn
Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline by Lisa Margonelli
Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are by Henry Petroski
Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy
The Sky's the Limit : Passion and Property in Manhattan by Steven Gaines
740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building by Michael Gross
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
A People's History of Poverty in America by Stephen Pimpare
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately
I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage
Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire by Roy Moxham
The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen
Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices by Andrew Dalby
Vanilla : The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance by Patricia Rain
Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately
Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky
Newton: Ackroyd's Brief Lives by Peter Ackroyd
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World by Gregory Clark
The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton
A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz
And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel
Beans: A History by Ken Albala
The Toothpick: Technology and Culture by Henry Petroski
Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon by James Sullivan
Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation by Marc Fisher
Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery by David Warsh
The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly
The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski
The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell
One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski
War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today by Max Boot
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz
A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen
The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress by Joel Mokyr
Understanding the Process of Economic Change (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) by Douglass C. NorthGutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman
Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese
Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets by John McMillan
Science and Technology:
Your Brain: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald
Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things by Madeleine L. Van Hecke
The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner
The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat by Eric Roston
Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (Popular Science) by Nick Lane
Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God by David J. Linden
One in Three: A Son's Journey into the History and Science of Cancer by Adam Wishart
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell's best book. One of my favorite books of 2008. Outliers is my favorite sort of book in that Gladwell is a masterful popularizer or academic research. The subject of outliers is relevant to my work in educational technology - as we are constantly looking for the most advanced, progressive and innovative teaching faculty. We tend to assume that these innovators are by nature early adopters - but perhaps we should pay closer attention to the context and conditions that have encouraged the innovation. It could be that there are many more faculty who would want to do the work to create student-centered, active learning classrooms - it is just that the context has not facilitated this transition. We need more Gladwell's. Writers that can absorb the avalanche of research results, synthesize the findings and relate everything through stories that we can grasp, remember, and re-tell. Grade A
Tribes by Seth Godin
Godin's manifesto (and I use that description in the best sense of the word) convincing makes the case that the most dangerous thing we can do at work and in our careers is play it safe. Suspend your critical eye and realist orientation for just long enough to be swept into Godin's passion. Allow yourself to be inspired. Read, share, and decide to lead your tribe. We will be discussing this book together at work - so more to come on if inspiration can be translated on the ground. Grade A-
Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff
I read this book mostly with an eye towards assigning it in the e-commerce and Web 2.0 classes I teach. An excellent primer on social technologies and their impact on marketing, research, customer relations and corporate culture. I wish the authors had license to take a more critical stance...as they are consultants for Forrester Research (Li has since left) and therefore appear sensitive against offending. This is not the book to learn about Web 2.0 technologies if you are already immersed - but perhaps one to give (or assign) to those folks who need to understand the basics of the trends and tools - and begin to see Web 2 can impact cultures. Grade B
The Impulse Factor by Nick Tasler
Some good ideas are not enough to overcome the poor writing and sometimes fuzzy logic of the Impulse Factor. Some thing I took away from the book are that 1 in 4 of us seem to carry the "novelty gene" - and that impulsive behavior can be extremely functional if harnessed in the right direction. Impulsive people can go far at work and have a significant impact on culture and business, where risk managing folks (like myself) are likely to act impulsively out of fear. I liked the connections to the social psychology and behavioral economics research (two of the main themes in my reading), although the tedious prose made this book work to get through. Grade C
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
Mayflower is straight ahead historical narrative in the old-fashioned style. This is the books strength and weakness. Strength because the story of the Pilgrims is both essential and compelling. I grew up in Boston and was a history major in college, and yet my understanding of the facts, dates, names, of the Pilgrims is all too hazy. This book helps. The weakness is that I felt often overloaded by the narrative, with Philbrick unwilling to draw broad conclusions or themes from the Pilgrim's experience. Still, I'm pretty excited to bring the girls to Plymouth Plantation. Grade B+
The Numerati by Stephen Baker
Highly recommended. Baker's The Numerati reports on how the growth of large-scale databases and sophisticated analytical techniques are remaking politics, business, health care and government. An excellent companion piece to Ian Ayres book " Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart. Ayers is a member of the Numerati (and come to think of it - sort of surprising that he is not profiled in Baker's book) where Baker is a journalist. The books taken together help round out the picture on rapid growth of data and evidence based decision making.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt
"Traffic" freaked me out. I knew that 40,000 people died each year on our roads. And I knew that a car accident was the most likely way that trauma would encroach into my world. Vanderbilt gives me lots more things to worry about (like Dr's have the 2nd highest accident rate, pick-up trucks are dangerous to everyone else, new cars have higher accident rates then older cars, and intersections are bad news for bikers, runners, and drivers.
This is a book I'd like my girls to read as a prerequisite to getting their license (and I'll install the driver cam that Vanderbilt writes about being effective in teaching young drivers defensive skills).
Read the book. Slow down on the roads.
The Shadow Factory by James Bamford
The Shadow Factory takes us on a behind the scenes tour of the NSA and the development of what Bamford calls "The Surveillance Industrial Complex" following 9/11.
I read this book less from a perspective of worry about government intrusion or even national security - but more from a desire to understand the technology that the NSA utilizes to manage such large volumes of data.
What the NSA does in terms of data storage, analysis, capture etc. is truly next generation. After 9/11 - the NSA became an IT organization with a blank check to throw as much hardware, software and folks at a technical problem as it needed. Can you imagine if we had those resources to throw technology at education.
Sure...the story of the Bush's administrations warrant-less wiretapping is scary. I'm grateful that he tells this story and exposes this dirty side of our history.
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is a national treasure. Who is the last person that made understanding the Puritans both cool and fascinating. Reading the Wordy Shipmates helped me connect the dots between our current military adventures and our earliest colonial history. Growing up in Boston you'd think the I'd know more about the Boston Puritans, but somehow teaching this sort of history went out of style during my school years. This funny, smart, and wise book is a great demonstration as to why understanding the Boston Puritans is important for us all. I'm trying to figure out a way to assign this book in the classes I teach (out of a business school!).
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
I just read Vowell's new book, The Wordy Shipmates, and loved it so much I immediately picked up the The Partly Cloudy Patriot. If Assassination Vacation was available unabridged at Audible I read that next.
Partly Cloudy Patriot is good fun....but nowhere near as smart or well developed as her latest book. You can see her maturity as a writer between the books, as Vowell is finding her voice in Patriot. In Shipmates, Vowell moves from a humorist (or essayist) to a historian.
Still....I enjoyed spending a few hours with Vowell - and came away feeling better about my own geek, history loving cred.
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
Shubin connects our deep evolutionary history with our current anatomy and structure. I really enjoyed learning about paleontology, how fossil research works (and why it is so important) and the emerging integration of genetic with fossil research.
In his next book I hope Shubin spends more time drawing larger connections between his field and the larger project of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. It would be great to bring his deep evolution story about our earliest development into the world of behavior.
Shubin is a good writer and an accomplished scientist. Highly recommended.
A better way to do textbooks.....
First....a plug for the Facebook App Visual Bookshelf. While the app still has huge room for improvement (why can't Amazon do something like this and do it right), even the rudimentary ability to see what my signed-up friends are reading and look at their comments is a huge advance. Can't quite figure out why virtual book-clubbing has eluded me so far, but I'm hopeful.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman
First the quibbles. Yes, Friedman needs an editor with the cojones to force the master be be more concise. Second, as with the World is Flat, this book would benefit from a longer view of economic history integrated into the central arguments. My only other complaint is with the "crowded" - as I think Friedman should have spent more time thinking about the impact of an aging population on rich economies.
None of these complaints matter too much, as "Hot, Flat and Crowded" should represent the new middle ground of thinking about the relationship between the environment and economic development. Friedman's work should be the touchstone of reality for both policy makers and voters, that we can no longer pass the costs of our oil/coal economy to future generations. That our dependence on oil is dangerous and expensive geopolitically and militarily. That the argument that global warming is both man made and dangerous to our long term security and prosperity is a scientific fact and not an opinion. That creating a clean energy economy represents an amazing opportunity to regain a competitive edge, create millions of high-paying knowledge jobs, and reduce our dependency on the military to keep oil lanes flowing.
Friedman gets it right that the government needs to set-up market mechanisms to achieve these changes. One way to do this is to use the tax system to insure the people pay the true costs for oil and coal consumption, such as setting a price floor for oil and gasoline and taxing coal (which makes most of our electricity) to account for the true environmental costs. To many readers, Friedman's points will seem obvious - nothing new. What we want is for Friedman's central thesis to become the conventional wisdom across the political spectrum.
Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries) by Jared Bernstein
My Dad and I have been having this running debate about the direction the world is going. I say better, he says worse, and we never seem to come to any consensus. Crunch, by that rare bird a progressive economist, could be exhibit #1 in the evidence Dad presents to support his case. Bernstein makes the (valid) point that while our country has gotten much richer on the whole over the past two-decades, most folks feel economically "crunched" due to stagnating wages and significant increases in costs for housing, health care, and education.
While some things have gotten cheaper due to globalization (like computers), this has not made up for the rise in expenses for the most important things we need, and just to keep up families have had to work longer hours in jobs that are increasingly less secure. Bernstein is an excellent writer, a clear minded economist (one of the first to recognize the growth in low-wage workers and a big source for my dissertation), as well as a player on the Washington policy scene.
So is Dad right? I think that Bernstein's time horizons are simply too short, and the growth in living standards, health and longevity over the long run due to increases in technology and the spread of market economics are the really big stories. Sure, we should fight for a progressive agenda (and elect Obama), but Bernstein's observations and policies ideas are not in conflict with recognizing that on a macro sense we would not want to trade life in 2008 for life in 1958.
The Way We'll Be by John Zogby
Very disappointing. Zogby never goes beyond all his data to draw the insightful connections or provide the penetrating analysis that I was looking for. Yes, his central theme that American's are now living within an age of limits is a strong observation (and backed up with data) - but I was left wondering what are the larger forces that have caused this shift. Mark Penn's book Microtrends is a much better book - as by slicing the world in smaller segments he is able to tell a deeper and more satisfying story.
The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom
Academic technology organizations are "starfishes" - in that authority and knowledge are distributed - and that we are mission driven. Recommended to anyone who thinks about organizational effectiveness. This book fits beautifully within the genre of short works that communicate serious academic research by telling interesting stories and providing fascinating examples. We don't assign enough books like this in our college courses - thinking that since is a "popularizing" book it must therefore be "inferior". I'm starting to think that we've been too snobby....and that in privileging good writing and storytelling over total academic rigor we may be inhibiting our students from absorbing the central points.
As always, would love to lend out any of these books (or others on my list) and discuss.