Brief Reviews

  • Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Stupefying. If you wade through the “Freudian” slips—treating regression results as causal (when “disproving” a Freudian “theory”, no less)—, and overlook the problems with ecological inference, the crudeness of normalized search data, the lack of detail about how the precise number of searches are arrived at using Google trends, numerous inaccurate statements, and plodding writing, you will have a few really compelling numbers as reward.

    Now someone please explore the social science gold mine that is Whatsapp, the network of misinformation, hate, personal uplifting messages, and religious gobbledygook.

  • Waldrop, Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal. Admirably researched. An edifying history of computing. Key point = the singular importance of WW II in the rise of computers. Explains some key technical points clearly. A worthy read. h/t Alan Kay.
  • Thaler, Richard. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. A triumph. Nicely written. Admirably clear. Worth it just for its clear description of what underlies prospect theory. Edifying.
  • Brynjolfsson, Erik and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Mostly a waste of time. Especially for anyone reading in 2017 or after. The most illuminating little nugget? As recently as 2008/2004 prominent people were prognosticating that driverless cars, SLAM, human voice recognition, etc. were unlikely to ever become a reality.
  • Akerlof, George, and Robert Schiller. Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. Two Nobel Prize winners come together to deliver an unsatisfactory amuse-bouche. How ironic is it that the two have phished us for phools by doing some “reputation mining” of their own? The two state that they intend for Phishing “to be a very serious book,” but go on to deliver an assortment of stories about how people are being phished. Some stories hang by the barest thread of evidence. The sections on politics are particularly cringe-worthy.

    That market economy is not optimized for what people “really” want is an important point deserving of careful attention. Someone serious should give it the time it deserves.

  • Horowitz, Ben. The Hard Things About Hard Things. A largely honest semi-personal account with some homey practical advice about management. Some of the most revealing passages deal with the sacrifices spouses of high-powered executives willingly make (lesson: marry someone like a Dorothea from Middlemarch) and the role of looks in hiring. Modestly edifying. Badly written and organized. p.s. Ben says he is friends with Kanye West.
  • Schmidt, Eric, and Jonathan Rosenberg. How Google Works. Includes a side order of a Silicon Valley baloney sandwich. Like all successful people (organizations), gives itself too much credit. Focus on hiring the best technical talent is not new. But the singular importance of it has never been highlighted so effectively. Includes some useful tips for hiring well. Ghostwritten by some marketing person, which takes much away. Badly organized.
  • Sloman, Steven, and Philip Fernbach. The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. A disappointing book about a topic that is very close to my heart. Aptly, the authors suffer from illusions about how much they know about the illusion of knowledge.
  • Pfaff, John. Locked In. A book about what isn’t rather than what is. Likely to clear up a lot of misinformation that people have about incarceration and crime in the US. Pleased and impressed that the book goes after public sector correctional officer unions. On the other hand, the author repeats himself endlessly, regularly compares between extremes as a rhetorical device, hoists crucial points on citations to studies which are never described so that the reader could judge the research design, misses several key points, rebuts his own points, has too little original data, and at the end of the book resorts to just broad arguments. Frustratingly, very likely the best book on incarceration in the US.
  • Dahl, Roald. Boy. Simply written. Sweet and moving. Conveys the immense strength of his mother in surprisingly few words.
  • Lane, Nick. Life Ascending. An educated, well-written, well-reasoned, account of 10 biggest inventions of life, including the invention of life itself. You will come back staggered, charmed, and excited about the miracle that is this world.
  • Sharma, Akhil. An Obedient Father. Honest, devastating, and well-written. A triumph.
  • Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl. Immensely Moving.
  • James, Gareth, Daniela Witten, Trevor Hastie and Robert Tibshirani. An Introduction to Statistical Learning A somewhat rushed job that suffers from poor organization in various places. Portions of it seem like compendia of small points without a front-end. I believe an expanded form of my lecture 4 can be inserted up-front to guide what comes later. Still a reasonable introduction to some of the basics of `statistical learning.’ Would be better for discussing MLE and visualization.
  • Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Light on science. Brief. But grasps enough about addiction to make it scary. Lessons: 1. Get customers to want to use your product to ‘scratch their itch.’; 2. Sell what people really want—social validation, feeling more competent, etc.; 3. Focus on stuff triggered by negative emotions; 4. Make it easier for them to get to it; 5. Variable rewards like gambling more ‘addictive’; 6. Get people to invest as more people invest, more they like something.
  • Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. More Achen than Bartels. Starts with an unexpectedly verbose meander through American political history as it relates to ideas around democracy. Full of long quotes that convey little beyond the summaries they accompany. Relevant empirical research is cited in a particularly pernicious manner —excerpts of only the broadest of the conclusions. The book sputters into life in Chapter 5 only to periodically die. Evidence for accessibility bias in retrospection is well taken. So is the point about group attachments and rationalizing voter, and the evidence on citizen ignorance. But too many words for the data. Soggy. Inattention to the role of institutions in exacerbating or mitigating the problems is disappointing.
  • Larry M. Bartels. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. A compendium of Larry’s already public papers? A disjointed book with no one particular point beyond perhaps citizen ignorance. Contains the slightly misguided ‘rebuttal’ of Thomas Frank—doesn’t engage with the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have moved to the right on economics. And the interpretation of finding in chapter 1—likely not correct. See Blinder etc.
  • Ansolabehre, Steven, and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative. A more measured, thoughtful interpretation of the results would have made for a good book. Starts out well before disintegrating.
  • Groeling, Tim. When Politicians Attack. Badly written and researched. Hopeless.
  • Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian. An illuminating dive into India’s argumentative tradition. Shows that spiritual-East, rational-West stereotypes are weakly founded in history. Third-world citizens interested in secularism and rationalism, and attacked by the religious right for being cronies of the West will walk away from the book with a new found confidence.
  • Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. People sometimes have trouble looking beyond images of deprivation. But beyond the ‘beautiful forevers’ lie ordinary lives, in all their pettiness and beauty. A largely honest account of life in the slums. On the downside, writing is plodding, and Boo at times struggles to be sympathetic.
  • Epley, Nicholas. Mindwise. Among the best of the recent set of popular books on psychology. Deserves a special mention for its focus on numbers. Among other things, you will learn that ‘perspective getting’ is superior to ‘perspective taking.’ (That point has implications for Bob Goodin’s point about ‘deliberation within.’)
  • Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City. A fat-free readable account by an outsider insider. Full of important, if rarely new, points. Fixation on gangsters, film stars, and prostitutes is slightly grating. But the book redeems itself by its honesty.
  • Greenstein, Fred. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama. An analytical account of people in a very complex job. Clear, concise, and illuminating. A must read for presidents and their advisors.
  • Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Sharif. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. A charming introduction raises hopes. But such hopes are quickly dashed. Existing concepts are relabeled and cannibalized to describe and explain consequences of scarcity. As a result, the cartilage between the overall point and specific arguments and evidence is thin at various places. Equally gratingly, tendentious interpretations of anecdotes and data abound.
  • Sunstein, Cass, and Reid Hastie. Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Nobody would be a whole lot wiser for having read it. Carries a lot of new folk wisdom. Like other mass-market social science books, claims with scant empirical basis are not hard to find. Poorly organized. The points could have been conveyed in a quarter as many pages. And this is a slim book to begin with.
  • Dunning, Thad. Natural Experiments in the Social Sciences. Elementary. Typology of natural experiments makes little sense. Chapters 2-4, which list examples of ‘natural’ experiments, may be useful to some.
  • Sniderman, Paul, and Edward Stiglitz. The Reputational Premium: A Theory of Party Identification and Policy Reasoning. Some of the writing in the book is luminescent. As with ‘A group basis for political reasoning’, I am convinced that is how people ‘reason’ (inapt term). I am equally convinced that such ‘reasoning’ can lead to trouble. The research design for the key novel claim in the book is weak.
  • Gerber, Alan, and Donald Green. 2012. Field Experiments: Design, Analysis, and Interpretation. Perhaps the single best book on the topic. Lucid. Accessible. Could do with better organization in Chapter 5, and a discussion of weaknesses of field experiments.
  • Yan, Mo. 2006. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Brimming with creativity and energy. A tour de force. Acerbic commentary on communism by a petty landlord may disagree with some.
  • Bronte, Charlotte. 1847. Jane Eyre. Melodramatic. Cliched in parts. The opening section could have been from Cinderella. Saving grace — some sections that talk about similarities between what women and men want.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. 2008. Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. A clear, concise, edifying account of British involvement with the Atlantic slave trade.
  • Drew, Elizabeth. 1980. Senator. An illuminating recounting of a week in a senator’s (here John Culver of Iowa) life. It leaves one with a greater appreciation of not only the pressures faced by politicians but also a better grasp of the business of being a Senator.
  • Chandra, Vikram. 2007. Sacred Games. Richly deserving of the million dollar advance, it is readable ‘filmy’ mass-market trash. A close cousin to Shantaram—as vacuous but marginally better written.
  • Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1998. The Affluent Society (Revised Edition). A wonderful writer, Galbraith presents arguments against ‘Conventional Wisdom’ precisely, and persuasively. A must read.
  • Lelyveld, Joseph. 2011. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. Fills out Naipaul’s insight. Focuses heavily on his years in South Africa. Latter half of the book, focusing on his time in India, is poorly organized and feels rushed.
  • Korda, Michael. 2010. Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Ably researched but pockmarked with facile observations. Written by someone in love with Lawrence.
  • Shipman, Alan. Market Revolution and its limits: A price for everything. A rudderless, if mostly clear, summary of economic concepts. In dire need of pruning and a narrative. Sections on Administered and Relational Transactions may prove useful to the uninitiated.
  • Dwyer, Philip. Napolean: Path to Power. An engaging account of the Corsican’s life till the coup, but blemished by too many unsubstantiated claims.
  • Clover, Charles. The end of the line. A comprehensive, engaging, and sobering account of how corruption, and untrammeled capitalism, have wreaked havoc on world’s oceans.
  • East, P. D. Magnolia Jungle. Autobiography of a progressive Southern editor. A joy to read; it sheds lights on White poverty along with racial issues of the day, and what it took for a Southern White man to write biting satire against segregation
  • Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. The two most popular novels by the author, 1984 and Animal Farm, are also his worst. Orwell’s talent never lay in writing thinly veiled polemical fiction; his talents lay in writing honest clear-eyed accounts of complex politics and social issues. Homage to Catalonia, widely considered to be among the best books on Spanish civil war, is a clear-eyed account of the leftist politics that botched the war. Burmese Days, a complex atmospheric novel about colonialism by someone with ambivalent feelings towards colonialism, deserves a reading as well.
  • French, Patrick. The world is what it is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul. A near perfect biography of an imperfect man. It was all about sex.
  • Griffin, John. Black like me. A simply told story of a white journalist who changed his appearance to live like a black man in the Jim Crow era South.
  • Venkatesh, Sudhir. Gang leader for a day. A sociologist catalogs the ghettos and gangs of Chicago from inside out. Only modestly insightful, and a tad tedious.
  • Lewis, Anthony. Gideon’s Trumpet. An edifying, readable book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist on the historic sixth amendment case, Gideon Vs Wainwright/Cochran.
  • Dickinson, Charles. With or Without. A collection of exquisite distinctly American short stories that carry the waft of Cheever and O’Henry.
  • Forester, E.M.. 1924. A Passage to India. An elegantly written novel about the conflict between the rulers and the ruled, and the impossibility of friendship between the two. While the novel occasionally deals in cliches, Forester’s perspicacity and humanity provide a calming influence. A significant achievement for its time and an important book for the readers of English literature.
  • Nasr, Vali. 2006. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam will Shape the Future. A useful introduction for people who don’t know anything about the history between Shias and Sunnis. Otherwise, a tedious compilation of relatively obvious information put forth in uneven style.
  • Verne, Jules. Around the world in 80 days. The story moves a touch too quickly. Surface stereotypes stand in for descriptions of places. Replete with prejudices of its time. Mediocre writing or mediocre translation or both.
  • Verne, Jules. Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Icelandic guide, Hans, is no more than a caricature. Some charming portions but mostly a slog. Would deem it badly written, except allegedly it is badly translated.
  • Wodehouse, P. G. Jeeves (Misc.). Delicious. Characters expertly reduced to a single dimension.
  • Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods Immensely readable. An ordinary man takes on an adventure. Like Bryson’s other work, speckled with self-condescending anecdotes that make it much easier to identify with him.
  • Bryson, Bill. Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. Neither here nor there indeed. Unsatisfactory. A book that appears to have been written on auto-pilot.
  • Trollope, Anthony. Phineas Finn. An insider’s account of the politics of the day. Reasonably honest and astute. Among other things, highlights the importance of good looks and social networks in success. Notable for its portrayal of strong women.
  • Mehta, Ved. Mummyji and Daddyji. A warm, intimate portrait of his dad’s and mother’s families. As much a book as a meeting with a friend.
  • Seth, Vikram. A suitable boy. A bureaucratic novel.
  • Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. Easy efficient caricatures.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mediocre and self-involved.
  • Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. Melodramatic.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Jaguar Smile. Mediocre. Superficially observed, tediously written.
  • Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the sea of stories. Endlessly creative.
  • Iyengar, Shanto and Donald Kinder. The News That Matters. The kind of book you want social scientists to write — clear, beautifully written, and full of insights about the social world. The n in some of the experiments is small. But the arguments are compelling.
  • Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. News of a Kidnapping. Forget magic realism. Reality, magically written. A treat.
  • Sniderman, Paul. The Scar of Race. An achievement for its writing and its incisive analysis.
  • Art Spiegelman. Maus. Because you must.
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince. For all the serious adults.
  • Maurice Sendak. Where the wild things are.