Monday, August 2, 2021

Prague: Belonging in the Modern City (Chad Bryant)

Chad Bryant's Prague: Belonging in the Modern City takes the stories of five residents of Prague from the past through the present day. These individuals were marginalized within the greater Prague community for various reasons, but all were able to forge their own sense of belonging within the capital city of a nation that for many centuries struggled with its own identity.

Prague has been many things over its history - a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the home of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and eventually a major city within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is where Bryant begins his story, talking about the developing sense of Czech nationalism through the eyes of a guidebook writer and a German-speaking newspaperman. The city convulsed through the era of World Wars I and II, eventually becoming the capital of a communist state that itself struggled with an identity within the greater Warsaw Pact before emerging as the capital of a relatively free democracy in the post-Soviet era. Whether it’s the story of a communist carpenter during the 1920’s, an actress who performed on stage in the Iron Curtain era, or a Czech-speaking Vietnamese blogger, Bryant’s wonderful writing elevates their stories and contributions to Prague.

None of the individuals who are discussed in the book are known to most of us in America; however, they share a common theme of the individual’s struggle to fit in with their city and their country, woven within the tale of a city and even a nation that struggled in its own way to know who it truly was. Both the individuals and the city figured out how to belong despite their struggles. These five individuals’ stories are powerful metaphors for Prague.


Friday, July 23, 2021

The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company's Future (Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller)

The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company's Future, by Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller, is a call-to-action for businesses to harness imagination to drive growth. Reeves and Fuller target the leadership of established, larger businesses, arguing that a lack of innovation will stymie the long-term success of a business. As technology evolves ever more rapidly, the authors advocate a change in thinking to better harness the creative power that a business's employees likely have.

The book presents a toolbox of suggestions to engage the workforce - things like “playtime” within the office where small teams of people work on various projects, brainstorm, and collaborate on ideas to foster new ways of thinking. The authors cite real-world examples of how things that we take for granted came about from playtime. Google Maps is one such example!  A chunk of the book dives into how companies should take advantage of artificial intelligence to help their innovation and imagination efforts - citing examples of companies that are taking greater advantage of AI technology to help craft news stories or create predictive forecast models - and how AI can likely help us come up with many ideas in the future.

Reeves and Fuller have a well-researched and thoughtful vision for better creativity in large companies. While The Imagination Machine definitely has a specific target niche, both business students and leaders in established companies that need a creative boost may be wise to read the book.


Monday, July 12, 2021

Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else (Jordan Ellenberg)

Jordan Ellenberg’s Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else is a far-ranging exploration into geometry and its impacts on everything in our life. You might vaguely remember your isosceles triangles, proofs, and angles from math class, not thinking of the practical uses that shapes and geometry may have in your life. Oh, dear reader, geometry is everywhere.

Two topic areas that get extensive coverage in Shape are COVID-19 modeling and political redistricting. In the first, the various models that were used - often erroneously - in predicting death and positive case counts due to COVID-19 were based on geometry. Ellenberg discusses how the models were put together, why forecasting is hard, and what went wrong with the early predictions. The second topic, political redistricting, has become increasingly partisan as state political parties often game census data to create advantages. Ellenberg spends a large chunk of the latter stages of the book tackling political gerrymandering, noting that its origins are not exactly where the history books credit it, and also discusses some ideas of varying craziness in tackling the problem.

I generally enjoyed Shape but had to re-read some sections a couple of times to understand them. It’s clear the author, who is a math professor, is passionate about geometry. The relevant, modern examples of how shapes matter in and impact today’s world makes this book worth reading if you’re an educator or someone who has an interest in math’s application in life.


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein)

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, returns with Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. Written with co-authors Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, Noise explores why people make bad judgments.

“Noise” is defined as variability in decision making, whether it be in prescribing medicines, making forecasts, deciding on personnel, determining how much bail to require in a criminal case, and so on. While bias is talked about frequently in social science, the concept of noise is not. Kahneman’s book gets into the weeds on how noise can negatively and inconsistently impact individuals and businesses. Humans are susceptible, as the authors articulate, to noise in all aspects of life. The book spends a lot of time explaining the why behind that fact and how to address it. 

Solutions to address noise include “noise audits” to measure disagreement in group decision making as well as algorithms to help reduce human input in the decision making process.

My favorite parts of Noise regarded personnel decisions in the office, specifically performance reviews (the 3 your boss gives you in an annual performance review may not mean the same as a 3 Sally’s boss gives her, for instance) and hiring.  Some parts of Noise are very technical and in-depth, requiring a couple of re-reads to understand fully. However, it is a very good journey into the flawed process of decision making, one that will offer insight on how to improve this process.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Newcomer (Mary Kay Andrews)

Like many others, I tend to gravitate toward beach reads in the summer. This year, I decided to pick up Mary Kay Andrews's latest The Newcomer, as I had never read her before. I have seen reviews that this is unlike her other books, so maybe it wasn't the best book to start with to get the full "Mary Kay Andrews" experience. To me, this was a mix of good and just ok.

After she finds her sister, Tanya, dead, Letty Carnahan flees with her sister's daughter to Florida. Tanya had told Letty that "If anything bad happens to me -- it's Evan." Evan is Tanya's ex. In Florida, Letty tries to blend in at the Murmuring Surf, a motel with an unforgettable cast of characters, and it wouldn't be a beach read if there wasn't a romance with the local police detective. But of course, Evan wants nothing more than to track down Letty and his daughter.

I loved most of the characters in The Newcomer, especially the old curmudgeons at the motel. Andrews really does a nice job of making them all unique. I found the mystery tiresome though and the romance not believable. Plus, the book was just too long. I'm not saying that I wouldn't read another Mary Kay Andrews book, just that I wish I hadn't started with this one to get to know her as an author.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Louis Menand)

Louis Menand's comprehensive The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War discusses American and Western European culture in the years after World War II through the middle of the Vietnam War. 

Menand’s work dives into the economic, technological, cultural, political, and social evolutions over a rough twenty-five year period, focusing on key personalities that helped drive or lead the massive amounts of change that took place over the start of the Baby Boom era up through 1970. America’s role in the world was more than just the leader in economic might; it exported substantial amounts of culture globally as well. Art, music, literary works, movies, and even political thinking were chief American exports. Menand ties a bow on much of the work in showing how segments of these cultural institutions were underwritten by the CIA as part of the government’s work against communism.

I enjoyed the book although I found it meandering at times. The author occasionally dove very deep into the weeds on topics that he seemed either more knowledgeable or more passionate about, and I felt that those moments took focus away from the overarching themes of the book about American cultural influence in the post-World War II era. I would have appreciated seeing some additional content on the CIA’s subversion of cultural and philosophical institutions during these years or some references to other material I could read on the subject. That said, The Free World is a wide-ranging, comprehensive book that really reinforces the importance of art, ideas, and culture in the world.


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine (Robert H. Lustig)

Dr. Robert H. Lustig’s career was spent in pediatric medicine, working largely on the growing issue of childhood obesity and diabetes. In Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine, he discusses the role that processed foods have in impacting our society’s health...and not for the better.

Most of us often think of fat in food and fast food as bad things. Lustig argues that while, yes, those things are bad that it is really sugar and the lack of what he terms “Real Food” as the culprit of our medical issues. Real Food is unprocessed whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and meat that is raised and farmed in a non-industrial manner. While processed foods offer convenience and relatively lower upfront costs, Lustig advocates that the long-term health impacts from lower nutritional content and higher preservative and nitrate content will cause longer-term health issues. 

Lustig asserts that the medical community is also complicit in contributing to America’s poor diet as medical school offers very little class time on nutrition and that Big Pharma and Big Food underwrite much of the research and education that don’t educate people on nutrition and instead focus people’s attention on calorie count. Lustig argues that not all calories are created equal nor are the impacts from those calories going to be the same. 

Lustig wraps up Metabolical by offering policy ideas, similar to the ones used to counter tobacco and alcohol such as taxing sugary items and putting restrictions on advertising. Knowing the obstacles that some of the sugar taxes have had on a local level, a national or state level of taxation may face some tough opposition. 

Metabolical to be very much one man’s indictment of Big Food and Big Pharma, at times as bombastic as much as it is educational (and Lustig educates the reader a lot in this book). The adage “you are what you eat” keeps coming to mind; Metabolical may very well have you rethinking how and what you eat by the time you are done reading it.