Department of Computer and Information Science
University of Pennsylvania
email: amir (you can figure out the domain name from the url)
office: 603 Levine
hours: by appointment
What is This?
This is a log with critiques of books that I have read starting January 1, 2005. This is both to remind myself to read non-technical matter (my goal is 1 or 2 per month) and to give those of you who know me and think you have the same views that I do some pointers to things you might enjoy or anti-pointers to things you might not. This thing is sorely out of date. I will update it. But not right now. Just so I don't forget, here are the books I have read since....
"The Book of Basketball", Bill Simmons.
"What the Dog Saw", Malcolm Gladwell.
"Sonic Boom", Gregg Easterbrook.
"Plan B", Lester Brown.
"The World Without Us", Alan Weisman.
"Database Nation", Simson Garfinkel.
"Code 2.0", Lawrence Lessig.
"Omnivore's Dilemma", Michael Pollan.
"Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell.
"Portnoy's Complaint", Philip Roth.
"Cat's Cradle", Kurt Vonnegut.
"The World Is Flat", Thomas Friedman. A few others I am forgetting but will hopefully come back to me.
"Stumbling on Happiness", Dan Gilbert. Sanjay Patel recommended this book to me and I am passing that recommendation on. Whereas "Progress Paradox" is not quite the next "Tipping Point", this book may be. My favorite quote from this book is: "If you are like most people, then like most people you don't realize that you are like most people." Just a really insightful look at the key psychological forces that make most people mis-estimate (often grossly) how happy something will make them. For instance, do you why it feels worse to lose a $20 concert ticket than it does to lose a $20 bill? Because when you lose $20, you feel like you lost $20, but when you lose the ticket and have to buy another one you feel like you spent $40 on a ticket. Just stuff like that. Stuff that if you stopped for two seconds to think about rationally you would immediately reverse field. But that's the point. You don't think about these things. The processes that convert these events to feelings are subconcious. Anyway, you should read this book. If not because I say so, then because Sanjay Patel does. (Jan. 2007)
"The Progress Paradox: How Things Get Better While People Feel Worse", Gregg Easterbrook. Did you know that a hundred years ago, average life expectancy in the US was 41 and that today it is 66 in the entire world and 77 in the US? Did you know that everything today except for healthcare and a college education is significantly cheaper than it was fifty years ago? And health care and education, although more expensive, are much more accessible? Did you know that wars and armed conflict are down around the globe while democracy is up and that global warming aside, the environment today is healthier and cleaner than it was fifty years ago? Did you also know that incidence of depression is up around the globe? Significantly? And that overall self-assessments of happiness are down? Gregg Easterbrook writes a hilarious column for ESPN.com called "Tuesday Morning Quarterback". A typical TMQ is a 10,000 word piece that covers all sweet and not-so-sweet, strategic and not-so-strategic moves from the past weekend, and sprinkles in social commentary, updates from the far reaches of the universe, and a good rant or two. This book is not quite as funny as TMQ, and not quite as good as the Tipping Point (the back jacket says that "Progress Paradox" is the new "Tipping Point"), but it's a good read. (Sept. 2007).
"Collapse: Why Societies Choose To Succeed or Fail", Jared Diamond. Ever heard of Easter Island? That creepy place with giant statues of human heads and pretty much nothing else? Who put those heads there? Aliens? Not quite. A thousand years ago, Easter Island was a vibrant pacific island society made up of a 12,000 people in dozen competitive tribes. The giant heads were built as a form of religious one-up-manship. Just keeping up with the Jones'es. The Easter Islanders spent so much time on these statues, however, that they didn't realize they were de-foresting their island. About four hundred years ago, they cut down the last tree. So what? Well, trees provided the islanders with most of their food, building materials, and fuel. Without trees, they couldn't build boats to go fishing or to trade with other islands, the nearest one of which was a thousand miles away. They became trapped on an island whose environment they destroyed. Their already competitive society imploded in a spiral of violence. Survivors chose between starvation and cannibalism. By the time Europeans arrived in the 1800's, only 40 islanders were left. Why is this relevant? Well, we are inexorably destroying our own environment. An environment in which we are trapped in much the same way the Eastern Islanders were in theirs. This is a much more compelling and timely book than Guns, Germs, and Steel. Do yourself a favor and read it. (July 2007).
"Born on a Blue Day", Daniel Tammet. There are only 20 or so "prodigious savants" in the world. Daniel Tammet is one of them. Kim Peek (the guy who inspired the movie RainMan) is another. So Daniel is certainly special relative to the general population---he memorized the first 22,514 digits of pi in three weeks and learned Icelandic in a week. But he is also special relative to the savant population in that he is relatively high-functioning on the autistic spectrum. He lives independently (well, with his partner Neil) and runs his own business out of his home. Kim Peek is RainMan; from a self-sufficiency standpoint he's basically a four-year old. And because he is so high-functioning he was able to write this book. This is a sad, touching book (it is awfully lonely being autistic) but also an inspiring book. There is a documentary about Daniel "BrainMan" which I plan to get a hold of. In the meantime, I watched some clips on YouTube. (Apr. 2007).
"Fast Food Nation", Eric Schlosser. I haven't been to a McDonald's or any similar fast-food joint in some number of years. And after reading this book, I will never go again. Except for to In-N-Out burger. Why don't they have those in the northeast? But back to this book. You would think that the evils of fast food are restricted to degrading the health of its consumers. But fast food also degrades the health and socio-economic status of people who work in its industrial/agricultural pyramid. From those who man the grills and the drive-thru window to the meatpackers and farmers, etc. Fast food would be a frightening micro-cosm of America except that it's much bigger than a micro-cosm (Jan. 2007).
"Eye of the Albatross", Carl Safina. This book is out of the "beak of the finch" mold but it focuses less on scientific theory (evolution) and more on environmentalism (especially ocean conservation) and is auto-biographical rather than biographical. Not a surprise given that Safina is the founder of Blue Ocean Conservancy. Every other chapter traces the life and travels of an Albatross called Amelia as reconstructed from its GPS co-ordinates. This part got kind of silly after a while. (Oct. 2006).
"Blink", Malcolm Gladwell. Another super book by Malcolm Gladwell. This one reads even faster than "Tipping Point". The topic here is "thin-slicing", or the process of making unconcious snap decisions based on first impressions. And some of the case studies are absolutely creepy. The most important thing I learned from this book is that you can train your unconcious: both to be less judgemental of people based on stereotype and to be more judgemental of situtations. OK, I have to go practice now. (Mar. 2006).
"The Tipping Point", Malcolm Gladwell. Like "Beak", a must read for anyone with a quasi-scientific mind. Except unlike "Beak", maybe even more widely appealing because it's about social science rather than natural science. The thesis of "Tipping Point" is that ideas spread like viruses and that a successful idea like a successful virus is both "contagious" (i.e., it passes quickly from one person to another) and "sticky" (i.e., once you get it, it stays with you and affects your behavior). Some really fascinating case studies in this book too, like NYC crime, Sesame Street, and teenage smoking. Maybe the best thing about this book is its economy. Some people have great ideas, but feel like they have to pound them into you over the course of 500, 10-point font, large format pages. Why? Fortunately, Malcolm Gladwell is not one of these people. You can read this book in the evenings over the course of a week. And you should. (Mar. 2006).
"American Pastoral", Philip Roth. Do you get the feeling that I like Philip Roth? I do. And it's not just because his last name is Roth (I'm not a fan of David Lee Roth). Anyway, this is another book about the incredible difference between the facade you show everyone else and your inner world. The hero is a man who is living the American dream. And then one fine day, his world explodes. He spends the rest of his life trying to take care of the people around him while keeping his facade glued together. (Oct. 2005)
"The Beak of the Finch", Jonathan Weiner. Was this Penn's "reading project" book a couple of years ago? I can see why. If you are a scientist (any scientist, not necessarily a biologist) you must read it. If you are not a scientist, you must read it. If you are creationist/Intelligent-Design'ist ... ah forget it. I found this book, especially the last third, absolutely riveting. (Aug. 2005)
"The Plot Against America", Philip Roth. What if Charles Lindbergh, a known anti-Semite and Nazi-sympathizer, had defeated FDR in the 1940 election by promising to keep the US out of WWII? And what if he slowly started turning America into a fascist state in the mold of the third reich? This is an account of the fictional 1940-1942 Lindbergh presidency as seen through the eyes of a 9 year old Jewish boy from Newark. At times touching, but mostly frightening, I thought this book ended too abruptly. (Feb. 2005)
"The Human Stain", Philip Roth (no relation). A sad, touching book about individualism, denial, the struggle to find a comfortable spot for ourselves in the web of human relationships that most closely reconciles our self-image with our public image, and the lengths people go to when such reconciliation is impossible. I came away from this book thinking that people are lonely and that they spend their lives learning that they can hardly control themselves much less anyone else. (Jan. 2005)
"Exit Ghost", Philip Roth. The most recent in Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman "series", which I've been reading somewhat out of order. Maybe I was just not in the right mindset to read this book, but it just depressed the hell out of me. (Jan. 2008)
"Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families", Pamela Paul. I picked up this book when I went to get "Stumbling on Happiness". The title caught my eye. As did one of the reviews on the back jacket (it called this book is the "Fast Food Nation" of porn). And the author's forward seemed interesting when I read it at the store. But the book itself was a little disappointing. Or maybe only because what I expected was "Fast Food". The material was sort of interesting, but the treatement was mostly anecdotal, and the facts and stats somehow didn't seem as shocking or as sinister as those associated with fast food and its myriad aspects. Maybe that will change though. Evidently porn use is on a sharp rise. I thought the most interesting observation/argument that this book makes (and pretty convincingly) is that porn and the internet are the best things that ever happened to each other. That the internet is the best thing that ever happened to porn is obvious, but vice versa? (Dec. 2007).
"Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales", Stephen King. My wife hates short stories. She thinks they end too abruptly and leave you with no sense of closure. By the time you invest in the characters, the story is done. I think short stories are fascinating for this same reason. I like closure in life. But I don't necessarily need it in fiction. That said, I thought this book was hit or miss. I liked the really short stories, especially the ones with ambiguous endings like "All You Love Will Be Carried Away" and "The Road Virus Heads North". Some of the longer ones got a little too self-indulgent for me. One of my least favorite stories was the one that King himself said was his favorite, "LT's Pet Theory". Didn't do it for me. I don't read much Stephen King, but I love his characters. They are so "sweaty". (Sept. 2007).
"The Trouble With Physics", Lee Smolin. Do you know what "string theory" is? It's the idea that the theories of quantum mechanics (which describes the particles and the high-consant forces like electromagnetism, weak decay, and the strong force) and general relativity (which describes space-time and the low-constant gravitational force) can be mathematically unified using one-dimensional objects (strings). That's well and good. Except that string theory requires that each known particle has a "super-partner" particle and that the universe actually has 9 spatial dimensions, not 3. Where are these particles and these other 6 dimensions you might ask? Good question. We've never seen evidence of them and the constants of string theory can be fudged so that we should not expect to see them. How do we know that string theory is correct then? Another good question, we don't and it's very difficult to see how we ever will. So why is it that string theory is the only game in the theoretical physics town and that funding and faculty positions are not available for physicists who work on competing theories? That's the final good question and that is the "trouble with physics". Actually, I would recommend reading only the first and last sections of this book and skipping the middle section completely. I was a physics major in college and I have a high-level understanding of quantum mechanics, special relativity, etc. and I couldn't make heads or tails of most of the technical material in the middle of this book. Two great quotes from this book: "There is a big difference between leadership and management." and "You don't get a Nobel prize for being smart, you get one for being right." (Mar. 2007).
"The Pentium Chronicles", Robert Colwell. OK, so this isn't really a non-technical book in the sense that if you aren't a computer scientist, you probably aren't going to get too much out of it. Actually, this book has been a strange experience for me. The actual act of reading it was not very enjoyable. The writing was choppy, and too often wandered into diatribe. I have met Bob Colwell two or three and have heard him speak publically two or three times. In person/public, he is dynamic, engaging, and really funny. This book just didn't read like that. So that's the bad part. The good part is that after chewing on the book in my head for a couple I actually liked it better. There are some good managerial lessons in there and I think I am going to try to apply some of them to my research, my students, and myself. I heard someone else describe the book as "the worst book I will ever read twice." That's pretty apt. Also, this book gave me what is now my favorite quote of all times "Creativity is a poor substitute for knowing what you're doing." Thanks Bob. (April 2006).
"State of Fear", Michael Crichton. What if, just to put the fear of global warming into the rest of us, an environmental lobby funds a group of eco-terrorists to create natural disasters? I don't know that I liked the plot too much. The interesting thing is that the characters in this book articulate (and very nicely too) different environmental viewpoints. Worth a read just for that. And hoky as the plot is, it's a page turner and so the read will be a quick one. (Nov. 2005).
"Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies", Jared Diamond. Interesting, maybe even very interesting. If you have any racially prejudiced bone in your body, this book will help break it. But it's just way too long. Maybe I'm too used to scientific literature, but when I read a "popular science" book I would like it to get to the point quickly. If you would like an essentially lossless one-page summary of this book, send me email. (Sep. 2005).
"Angels and Demons", Dan Brown. This book is basically identical to "The Da Vinci Code." If I were to recommend one of the two I would choose this one, but there is certainly no need to read both. I think this is the last Dan Brown book I read for a while. Maybe a long while. (Mar. 2005)
Not So Recommended
"Digital Fortress", Dan Brown. Oops, I did it again. (Nov. 2005)
"Black Box", Amos Oz. A close look at love-hate relationships through the back-and-forth letters of an ex-couple seven years after their divorce. Amoz Oz is a wonderful writer, but this book is probably not for everyone. It's depressing and leaves you looking for a point. (Apr. 2005)