Thursday, December 29, 2016

Close, Frank (2004): Particle Physics - A Very Short Introduction

What is it about?

Like all titles in the Oxford University's "Very Short Introductions" series, this one too is true to its title: it provides a general overview of particle physics including the history of the discipline (how we came to know what we know today), and what are the experimental bases for the current state of knowledge.

Quite welcomely, the book concludes with some forward-looking thoughts, some of which have already come to fruition, such as the (quite likely) discovery of the Higgs' boson.

Was it good?

With only very general prior knowledge about particle physics, I appreciated the opening and closing sections of the book, which were more contextualizing by their nature. However, the rest of the book was a bit too technical for my liking. That is, I find it hard to maintain keen interest in reading which particles combine to form which particles, or which particle disintegrates into which new particles, or learn about the spins of various particles.

The main take-away for me?

Once again, the main take-away from the book for me is a meta one. Namely, it is quite astonishing as to what kind of and how much knowledge physics and chemistry has created. Indeed, some of the assertions of modern-day physics - taken for as "known" facts - are significantly more astonishing than any religion has managed to produce, such as elementary particles comprising superstrings existing in 10 or 11 spacetime dimensions, some of which are curled so intensely that we can't observe them. Furthermore, it is quite remarkable that we (or most of us), including myself, accept such assertions as scientifically established facts. I mean, science is quite wonderful in so many ways, and therefore quite a curious social phenomenon as well.

Who should read the book?

This book clearly is not for everyone. I doubt whether I fall into the target demography either. Thus, I presume that a keen interest in physics or (hard) science in general is required to appreciate and enjoy the book.

The book on Particle Physics

Chomsky, Noam & McChesney, Robert W. (2011): Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order

What is it about?

The book describes, discusses and criticizes the political doctrine or ideology known as neoliberalism.

The basic position taken by the authors is that this ideology is quite prevalent today, and that it is societally detrimental because it favors corporations, especially the big ones, and thereby the rich, while the vast majority of people are correspondingly deprived of wealth and political influence.

Was it good?

With regard to its subject matter, the book is quite good. Its basic message is highly resonating with respect to the world political situation today and with respect to Finland in particular. Especially insightful is the discussion about the illusion of there not being any alternatives to neoliberalism - an assertion quite frequently heard in the public discourse both here in Finland as well as abroad.

The style of the book, however, leaves something to be desired. First, I found the book somewhat disorganized. That is, for me, the argumentative progression did not seem to follow a structured build-up to major conclusions. And second, the writing style came across as quite "complaining", i.e. negative tone used throughout the text. Thus, a more dispassionate and/or "intellectual" rhetorical style would have been more to my liking.

This is not to say that the observations made in the book were not to the point - rather, that if made in a more structured and dispassionate way, those would probably have been even more forceful.

The main take-away for me?

I personally appreciated the "illusion of there not being alternatives", because this issue (or non-issue) is rather topical here in Finland at the moment. That is, the neoliberal political line usually states that X must be done, because it is the only possibility. According to the authors, this is an illusion created by the currently hegemonic status of the neoliberal doctrine.

Who should read the book?

This book, too, is quite healthy reading for everyone. However, perhaps a dose of "political awareness" is beneficial for appreciating and especially enjoying the text.

The book on Profit Over People

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pinker, Steven (2008): The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

What is it about?

The book is quite a multifaceted discussion on language/linguistics, theory/philosophy of action and cognitive psychology.

While such a disciplinary repertoire might seem quite challenging for a casual reader at first glance, the book is actually rather accessibly written and only occasionally resorts to technical language.

Pinker's basic message is that human behavior can be understood (better) if one understands the goings on of the language that underpin our behavior and/or through which we influence each other's behaviors.

Was it good?

The book is quite insightful and accessible at the same time, which may not be a given for an account such as this, which operates in the intersection of disciplines which may be quite complex in their own right.

Accessibility is greatly enhanced by Pinker's practice of employing examples frequently throughout the book.

All in all, both human behavior and everyday language can be better understood after reading this book - at least that's the case for me, since I'm not a seasoned/scholarly expert in any of the focal disciplines (though have resorted to a little bit of theory of action in my dissertation).

The main take-away for me?

For me, the eight chapter "Games people play" was the most rewarding and thought-provoking. Here, Pinker, building on established scholarship, discusses how our everyday language is quite complex and nuanced "game" of meanings, connotations, "between-the-lines" messages and so on. In other words, what we say (literally, that is), is often quite far away from the message that we actually convey and/or intend to convey and/or end up conveying.

Here, though, Pinker's treatment could have ventured a bit more explicitly and farther in to discourse analysis (where this train of thought may be more fully developed), but still I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter in particular.

Who should read the book?

The book is clearly intended for a general audience, but perhaps an ideal reader is someone who already has at least a nascent interest in linguistics, or "how people do things with words". In any event, this book allows one to better understand the "language games" we engage in all the time.

The book on The Stuff of Thought

Bering, Jesse (2014): Perv - The Sexual Deviant in All of Us

What is it about?

The book intends to "demystify" human sexuality by exploring, without a coating of political correctness, the drivers and different varieties of human sexual behavior.

The basic message Bering evidently is intent upon putting forth is that what normal people in their normal discourse talk about as being normal sexuality (if the topic may be discussed at all) is quite far away from the actual sexual behavior that even the most "mainstream" people actually engage in.

Thus, Bering quite reasonably argues, practically every person is a pervert, or perv for short, if compared against this politically correct (and unreasonable) standard.

In addition, Bering covers a vast repertoire of various fetishes, which makes quite interesting reading as well.

Was it good?

The book is quite good: at the same time it is written in a very light and amusing style (though sometimes one may perceive the constant stream of jokes and puns even slightly excessive) and manages to be rather informative from start to finish.

After having read the book, I found it to be quite difficult to disagree with what Bering argues, i.e. that even the most normal of us "harbor secrets" with regard to our sexuality, if compared against the standards we assume in our everyday conversations.

The main take-away for me?

Put shortly, Bering's main messages are quite loud and clear, as noted above.

Who should read the book?

I think that it would be quite healthy that everyone read this book - especially the uptight (or "flower-hatted women", as they are proverbially called here in Finland) and those who have a hard time accepting that some people have sexual orientations different form their own. I believe that our society would a bit healthier in terms of its social interactions as a result of everyone having read this book.

The book on Perv

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mitnick, Kevin & Wozniak, Steve (2012): Ghost in the Wires - My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker

What is it about?

The book covers the life of Kevin Mitnick, perhaps the best known telephone and computer hacker in the world. The story is told in the words of Mitnick himself, and therefore offers quite a fascinating "insider's view" on how a hacker works, and what makes him or her tick.

The book focuses heavily on Mitnick's hacking activities - relying quite much on "social engineering" (i.e. persuading people to do things for oneself) instead of technical hacking - and his avoiding of law enforcement until his major arrest and conviction in mid 1990s.

Was it good?

The book is highly interesting, for a large part thanks to Mitnick's descriptions of how he pulled off various hacks, often relying heavily on social engineering.

The book also paints a very insightful picture of how the mind of an (ethical) hacker works. In a nutshell, an ethical hacker - such as Mitnick - is after "trophies" and enjoys accomplishing hard hacks as such, instead of seeking any economic or other such gain. Moreover, in the hacking scene, there seems to be (or has been) a social hierarchy wherein hackers hack each other - and a disgruntled fellow hacker eventually was indeed instrument in capturing Mitnick at the end of his hacking career.

The main take-away for me?

I was quite surprised to realize how much top-notch hackers rely on social engineering, i.e. persuading people to grant user credentials, tell proprietary information etc., and how much advance studying such social engineering often requires (e.g. studying organizational charts, rehearsing a role etc.). Mitnick, for example, could have never accomplished even a half of his hacking without social engineering.

Another take-away was the relization that we human beings are very, very vulnerable to social engineering - all it takes is for someone to put forth a plausible story on the telephone and often we're in.

Who should read the book?

I think that every computer (or more broadly technology) enthusiast would enjoy the book immensely - especially those who remember and relish the "Commodore 64 years".

The book on Ghost in the wires

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kersten, Jason (2010): The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

What is it about?

The book is a biographical account of the life of Art Williams, a U.S. counterfeiter, until about 2005.

The story covers Williams' life from the early, quite rough and deprived childhood, through his years of counterfeiting U.S. money (esepcially 100-dollar bills), escaping the U.S. Secret Service to Alaska and eventual fall, or actually two major arrests.

The epilogue of the book is not too delightful reading, since Williams was in the brink of what looked like a successful legitimate career as a document security expert, consultant and public speaker, but was forced to give it up because of objections from his parole officer. This, in turn, lead into making counterfeit money again, and arrest.

Was it good?

The book certainly is very good; the chronologically progressing narrative is very professionally and compellingly written making it hard to put the book down for a while. Moreover, the narrative style in which the book is written, one is bound to "take the side" of the main villain, Mr. Williams.

What perhaps could have been featured more prominently was the technical aspects of designing and making the counterfeits, and the technical hurdles that had to be overcome. There understandably may be some legal obstacles for disclosing such information, perhaps especially in the USA, but still even some not-so-accurate technical-methodological descriptions would have been a welcome addition, because these would have portrayed the actual undertakings and prowess of Williams in a more appreciable way.

The main take-away for me?

Although the book does not discuss it it at length apart from some brief references in the beginning, the book nicely - though mostly unintendedly - problematizes the modern notion of money. In fact, the book in a way complements the Austrian Economics view on modern "fiat" money, which basically states that what today passes as money is what a government says that will pass as money - a somewhat problematic notion, or at least a bit risky.

Who should read the book?

The book is of quite general interest, though those with an interest in economics - whatever the persuation - probably will enjoy the book the most, because it allows one to ponder about some "meta" issues with respect to the nature of money while reading along.

The book on The art of making money

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Glover, Stephen Steve-O (2012): Professional Idiot - A Memoir

What is it about?

The book tells the story of Steve-O, i.e. Stephen Glover, a member of the Jackass group until about the year 2001.

The book is autobiographical, covering Glover's quite eventful life from his own perspective.

The book may be thought to consist of three chronologically sequential themes, which all play a distinct part in painting the whole picture: childhood, the "stunt years" (i.e. including the Jackass career covering the two first movies), and sobriety following a mental (probably to a large part due to quite voluminous drug use) breakdown and subsequent institutionalization.

Was it good?

The book is quite breathtaking and engaging reading.

This is partly because of the drug- and mayhem-infused "stunt years" which make one to just wonder that Glover is still alive let alone reasonably healthy.

However, the book is - either intentionally or unintentionally - constructed so that the "third part", i.e. recovery and sobriety, makes all the preceding text to be seen in a completely different light.

Thus, what comes across as a narrative of outrageous irresponsibility up to about 75% of the book, in the end actually turns out to be a book about life values - and a quite contemplative account in that.

The main take-away for me?

I just can't say anything else than to admit, that the "third part" made me really contemplate life in general and - of course - my life in particular.

Somehow the feeling the book provides is that it is really difficult to appreciate what one has (what could perhaps be called as normal life) until it no longer is there. That is, it is often too easy to take things for granted.

Moreover, Glover's reflective discussion throughout the book about his dependency on attention from others certainly makes one think about the current buzz around social media, self-branding, "attention economy" and so on. In fact, if one feels that one may have a dependency problem (or any such problem) with social media, this is certainly one book to consider reading.

Who should read the book?

While the book is of quite general interest, I think that the book is exceptionally good reading for anyone suffering or recovering from a dependency of any sort; the book describes quite graphically both the highs and the lows, and a path onto solid ground in the end.

The book on Professional idiot

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Buonomano, Dean (2012): Brain Bugs - How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives

What is it about?

Basically the book describes and discusses the multitude of ways in which we human beings depart from rationality in our decision-making and behavior.

Thus, the book covers cognitive biases but also, and quite welcomely, discusses the current understanding about the evolutionary origins of such biases.

Was it good?

The book is unambiguously good; the thematical arrangement (e.g. memory, perception of time, fear, supernaturality) works well, the narrative has a nice interplay between "theory and practice" - i.e. principles of a phenonenon and examples of it at work - and teh book concludes with a nice section on how to avoid the biases unduly influencing our behvior to our detriment.

The main take-away for me?

I have read a number of books and articles on the subject already before and therefore was familiar with many of the phenomena discussed. However, I really gained a deeper understanding (I think) of them thanks to the evolutionary explanations put forth. In other words, I believe that I now see better a common thread running through a multitude of phenonema, instead of a list of interesting curiosities.

If one section was to be highlighted in particular, I would say that it was chapter 8 on supernatural beliefs; i.e. the rise and nature of religious beliefs.

Who should read the book?

As the book is about fundamental human qualities and their effects on our everyday decisions and behaviors, I think that basically everyone should read the book or any other treatment on the same subject matter. The book is very accessibly written and does not include excessive scientific terminology (except for some brain-related special vocabulary), and thus should be quite enjoyable to read for nearly anyone interested in cognitive biases.

The book on Brain bugs

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Vaynerchuk, Gary (2011): The Thank You Economy

What is it about?

The book is about leveraging social media in bulding, growing and sustaining business.

The main message of the author is that social media allows people - and businesses - to engage in discussion without physical proximity, under which circumstances companies must be a part of that discussion (otherwise especially critical discussion about them proceeds without their knowledge and possibility to do something about it). Moreover, the tools of social media allow companies to conduct personal (or somewhat personal) discussions on a scale never before possible.

Was it good?

While I'm somewhat of a sceptic of social media especially when harnessed to brand-building (whether for persons or organizations), the book is actually quite credible, because the author time and again underscores the importance of being genuine and frank. Indeed, according to the author, using social media in order to push one's message is an entirely wrong way to utilize social media platforms.

In any event, if one would like to read a very, very, encouraging book about the possibilities of social media in a business context, look no further.

What makes the book credible in terms of its message is the number of real-world examples included, essentially including also those featuring the author and his business.

The main take-away for me?

For me, the main take-away was the (purported) importance of the way in which social media tools must be used, instead of just that they should be used. In fact, my deficient appreciation of this crucial distinction probably is the main reason why I have been quite skeptical about the real worth of social media: I have overlooked the myriad ways - better and worse - of utilizing these tools and platforms.

In a nutshell, social media tools are about discussion, interaction and engagement, not about marketing in a traditional way.

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is particularly suitable for social media skeptics like me; the book most probably is most effective when not preaching to the converted, but those thus far reluctant to being converted.

The book on The thank you economy

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Troost, Marten J. (2008): Lost on Planet China

What is it about?

The book is a laid back travel journey of sorts, documenting the experiences of the author while travelling around China.

The book is not, however, a "proper" travel diary, but rather a mixture between that genre and stand-up comedy, as the author concentrates on selected notable experiences commented on with a substantial dose of humour.

Despite this - or in addition to it - the author manages to convey quite a good and credible picture of modern China as seen through a Westerner with very little preknowledge of the country or its culture.

Was it good?

The book is quite enjoyable; the experiences and encounters described and commented on are selected in a nice way, and the humorous commentary is enjoyable to read (a personal assessment, of course). The humorous writing style succeeds in a very fine balancing act: a bit less of it would have turned the book into a somewhat poor travel diary, and a a little more would have been tasteless.

In any event, I would not recommend the book on a factual basis alone. Rather, this book is intended and best used for entertainment.

The main take-away for me?

Actually, main take-away from the book is probably a stylistic one: the book really is exemplary in making poignant and witty remarks of everyday life. Thus, the author, with his example, at least implicitly encourages to "turn an critical-huorous eye" on everyday occurrances, and take those less seriously. Quite a sound piece of advice, I'd say.

Who should read the book?

The book is quite obviously of general interest. I would recommend it as light reading even if one was not particularly interested in China per se.

The book on Lost on planet China

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Black, Edwin (2001): IBM and the Holocaust - The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation

What is it about?

The book documents the involvement of IBM, through its German subsidiary Dehomag (Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mbH), in the systematic rounding up and destroying og the Jews in Germany before and during the second World War.

The main message of the book is straightforward: "processing" (apologies for the term) the people involved was a massive information processing and recording task which would have been simply impossible without automation. And such automation took the form of punch chard machinery, in thousands of installations, developed by IBM and leased by its German subsidiary Dehomag. Moreover, IBM was the sole supplier of the cards as well, more than a billion of them.

Was it good?

The book is chillingly good. The story is even quite unbelieveable, but I take the reported 2003 award as the best non-fiction book by American Society of Journals and Authors evidence of its credibility.

Moreover, the source documents cited throughout the book (e.g. meeting minutes, original punch cards and contemporaneous newspaper articles) add to the weight of the story.

It must be noted, however, that according to the author, IBM's incentive was in making profits, plain and simple, instead of any sinister plot against this or that ethnic group or a support for any particular repressive political agenda.

The main take-away for me?

For me, perhaps the greatest revelation was the sheer magnitude of information to be processed, relayed and recorded that the Nazi undertakings required. This is not to downplay any of the atrocities of the regime, but to note that this perspective is not too often appreciated.

Furthremore, this should make one think about the current landscape of personal information, where quite detailed and intimate knowledge is in centralized possession of entities such as Google and Facebook -- combined with vastly greater technical capacity to record and process such information than was the case some 70 years ago.

Who should read the book?

The book is practically compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in the second World War, or war history in general. Moreover, I think that the book should be interesting for the general audience as well.

The book on IBM and the holocaust

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cunningham, Andrew (2007): The Making of Modern Medicine (BBC Radio Collection)

What is it about?

While not a book but a radio series, the book covers - as the title aptly suggests - the development of medical know-how, theory, treatment and medicine (or "drugs") from the Hippocratic times until around 1970 when the first organ transplants were more or less successfully performed.

The series consists of 30 episodes, each focusing on a theme (e.g. th egerm theory of disease, or the discovery and early use of antibiotics), and running for about 15 minutes. The episodes are "slightly dramatized" (e.g. re-enacing a historical dialogue or a speech), but not to a disturbing degree.

Was it good?

I really liked the series and especially the clear thematical arrangement (i.e. an episode per theme), in contrast to a general timeline in which things are interwoven in a complex way.

Perhaps a more "scholarly style" would have been to my linking (c.f. e.g. the lecture series by The Teaching Company of Modern Scholar), but the "slightly dramatized" style made some quite plesant and easy-to-follow listening.

The main take-away for me?

As with so many similar historical accounts, I was once again reminded of how much we (or at least I) take for granted - e.g. that diseases are transmitted by germs, or that the heart circulates blood in veins - that was at its time quite controversial and required a lot of work by very bright people to be established as factual knowledge. Corespondingly, I kept wondering, what people, say, 100 years from know take for granted that we are completely unaware as of today.

Who should read the book?

This series is quite umabiguously of general interest, and should appeal to basically everyone. Moreover, the subject matter is presented in a very accessible manner.

The collection on the BBC website: The making of modern medicine

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Schechter, Harold (2003): The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers

What is it about?

The book discusses serial killers, with a heavy U.S. emphasis. The contents fall into two broad categories: covering "case histories" of individual serial killers and discussing the phenomenon of serial killing from different thematic perspectives (e.g. unerlyig reasons, modes of operating, catching/getting caught, and cultural resonance of the phenomanon, for example).

Was it good?

The book is quite fascinating, I have to admit. Before reading the book, I knew very little about the phenomenon, and what little I knew basically derived from movies.

Perhaps the book could have been organized a bit more rigorously so as to make the thematic and case historical sections more distinct from one another; currently the thematic treatment in places didn't perhaps reach the level of generalization or abstraction that I woudl have wished because of the heavy case emphasis. Then again, perhaps the number of cases to build upon is so small (luckily) that this is the level of generalization one can resonably hope to achieve.

In addition, through the case histories are quite fascinating - again, I have to admit - there is a bit of repetition in the book in that the case histories are discussed as such, and then again in conjunction with different thematic perspectives.

The main take-away for me?

It's pretty hard to think about what would be the take-away from a book like this. Perhaps it would have something to do with some of the basic human qualities of being intrigued - as witnessed by the cultural resonance of the phenomenon (c.f. e.g. the movie Basic Instinct) despite it being empirically so repulsive and horrifying to the vast majority of the humanity.

Who should read the book?

I believe that the book should be quite interesting reading for most people. Perhaps the most sensitive may find the case descriptions somewhat disgusting, but the tone in which those are described in the book is likely to play down such an effect.

The book on The serial killer files

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Huxley, Aldous (1932): Brave New World

What is it about?

The book is basically a dystopian novel, set in the future a few centuries from now, describing a centrally controlled and manipulative society.

In broad outlines, the book is quite comparable to George Orwell's 1984, though the specifics and the style of story telling, of course, differ quite a bit.

In the Brave New World, the society consists of a distinct hierarchy of social classes (alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons), to which people are "engineered" during before and after birth. Moreover, in place of God, there is Ford (Henry Ford, that is), and the use of the drug "Soma" is quite prevalent.

Was it good?

Truth to be told, the book was a disappointment. I had really high expectations, i.e. that the book would be comparable to Orwell's masterful 1984, but I found the book at places quite difficult to follow and to be engaged with. Thus, I kept wondering throughout the book, given that it has been considered as one of the major works of literature in the 20th century, whether there simply is something that I fail to grasp or appreciate - perhaps a subtle subtext giving a unified meaning to everything. Could be.

However, towards the end of the book, chapter 16 differs from the general pattern quite pleasantly. In this chapter, one of the characters embarks on a monologue, discussing quite extensively about the properties of the focal societal order and how it brings about all kinds of benefits. It is here that Huxley, in my opinion, delivers his best societal criticism, and provides some food for thought concerning our (or his 1930s) societal order. For example:

"But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can't have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices."

In a way, it seems that the book up to that point was a lengthy and somewhat obscure build-up to this crystallization of the message in chapter 16.

The main take-away for me?

Of course, any dystopian novel should provide as its main take-away a heightened awareness of the (often invisible) prevailing societal order and the unspoken premises on which it is build. This is the case with this book as well. However, I think that Orwell's 1984 does a better job in this respect. However, The Brave New World does a better job with regard to social classes (or stratification), no doubt about it.

Who should read the book?

As a classic of 20th century Western literature, the book should be on everybody's reading list. However, based on my own experience, I think that one would be better off, if one read a scholarly commentary of the book instead (not, however, that I had read one yet).

The book on Brave new world

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ford, David F. (2000): Theology: A Very Short Introduction

What is it about?

The book provides a short (about 180 pages) overview of theology: what it is about, what "camps" there are, and what key questions theology answers or seeks to answer.

In addition, the book closes with the final chapter discussing whether and how theology is relevant in the 21st century (or the "third millennium" as the author has put it).

The book discusses the focal questions with Christianity as the "case religion". This makes the book quite accessible to a representative of a contemporary Western culture with cultural roots in Christianity.

Was it good?

I would say that the book fulfilled expectations, but did not exceed them. In other words, the book seeks like a quite solid introductory text on theology. I'm, however, perhaps not the best judge here, having very little knowledge about the field. But then again, I'm perhaps a good representative of the intended audience for a "very short introduction" in the field.

In any event, the book does a good job in depicting the - quite surprising - diversity of the field, especially with regard to different "schools of thought" or "camps" with respect to conceivable basic stances towards theology, from outright dismissal of such questions to unquestioning scriptural literalism, including a diverse spectrum between these extremes.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was perhaps the richness of tradition in theology: very bright people have throughout centuries expended great energy and a lot of time in thinking and arguing about theological questions (which some modern people might perceive as not worthy of any thinking at all), resulting in an astonishingly wide range of theological positions with apparently rigorous reasoning behind them.

Who should read the book?

The book would be beneficial to basically anyone, especially those with no significant connection to theological questions. However, I presume that enjoying the book requires quite a bit of interest - academic or otherwise - in such questions.

The book on Theology

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Porter, Richard (2016): And On That Bombshell: Inside the Madness and Genius of Top Gear

What is it about?

The book covers the story of Top Gear, the globally known car show by BBC. More specifically, the book concentrates on the "Jeremy Clarkson" years, i.e. 2002-2015.

The author of the book is (or was) the script editor of show, who can provide a highly interesting "behind the scenes" point of view about making the show.

The book does not follow a strict chronological progression (though the very first and last chapters are about the birth and the death of the Clarkson era show). Instead, most of the chapters - and there are quite many - focus on a theme, such as "The specials", "As not seen on TV", "Five ways to die in Bolivia" and "The naan bread".

Was it good?

For me, something of a fan of the show, the book was highly appealing and entertaining, and I even tried to find small slots of time here and there to continue with the book.

In my opinion, the two main merits of the book are (1) providing an insider's view about the show and making it, and (2) the style of writing which is well in line with the humour used in the show as well.

Moreover, the thematic - as opposed to chronological - organization of the book seems to work very well; telling about an incident, a particular aspect of the show, or the making of a certain segment of an episode makes very engaging reading.

The main take-away for me?

While it should be no surprise, still I kept wondering throughout the book how much thinking, careful planning, writing and re-writing and and a small army of people it takes to make a television program seem like it is spontaneous, unplanned and effortless. I would have not imagined that the presenters, especially Jeremy Clarkson, are so meticulous about the flow of script and transitions between program segments.

Who should read the book?

Quite obviously, if one loves (or even hates) Top Gear, the book is quite likely highly enjoyable. If not, the "insider's view" may not work very well unless the making of television programs in general is of interest.

The book on And on that bombshell

Heskett, John (2005): Design - A very short introduction

What is it about?

The book is, true to its title, a general - indeed, a very general - overview of design in its different manifestations and domains of application.

Heskett understands design very broadly - i.e. not in terms of aesthetic design or even that plus usability - including product development and strategy, landscaping, urban construction etc. In fact, in the opening words of the book, Heskett introduces the subject matter by suggesting - quite reasonably - that when a modern, urban person looks around, very little that he/she sees is not a result of some kind of a design effort.

Was it good?

The book is very straightforward and extremely understandable. In fact, in comparison to other books in the "Very short introduction" series, the book is quite a bit less "deep" than an average representative of the series. The contrast is exceptionally striking with the one in the series on postmodernism I read a few weeks ago.

Still, Heskett does, in my mind, very good job on conveying his basic message: that design is present in may if not most human undertakings and - evidently according to Heskett - it would be a mistake to equate design with aesthetic or usability considerations alone.

However, I perhaps enjoyed a biography of Jony Ive, the head designer of Apple, a bit more, since it gives a deeper "insider's" look into the world of design, especially product design.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was Heskett's basic message: that design is a very broad phenomenon with various manifestations in the human-built environment - including intangibles such as services and information systems and structures - which, once again, provides a worthy perspective with which to approach daily life with an "analytical" eye.

Who should read the book?

The book is of quite general interest, and it is difficult to think of a particular demographic who would particularly like or dislike it. Still, perhaps Jony Ive's biography would be a bit more compelling - though it's take on design is somewhat narrower.

The book on Design

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Focault, Michael (1975/1995): Discipline and Punish - The Birth of the Prison

What is it about?

The book is, generally speaking, about the development of penal systems in the Western world, from the tortures and executions as public spectacles to the modern prison and its subtle counterparts in other institutions such as the school.

It is quite noteworthy that Focault discusses penal systems - or means of discipline and punishment - both in their explicit and implicit manifestations. An example of the former is the prison whereas the contemporary school system with institutionalized procedures, physical arrangements (think about the stereotypical arrangement of a non-progressive classroom), exams and grades exemplify the latter.

Was it good?

First, even without knowing the identity of the author, it would be quite safe to guess that the book was written by a French sociologist; the treatment is often quite elaborate (I hesitate to say obscure), and the language used impregnated by "big words". Some of this, however, may be attributable to translation.

In any event, I found the very beginning (the medieval idea of punishment) and the very end of the book (structurally embedded subtle discipline and punishment in the contemporary Western world) quite engaging. In contrast, the quite nuanced travel from the former to the latter could - for my taste - have been presented in a more straightforward manner.

Thus, my overall impression of the book was somewhat mixed.

The main take-away for me?

By far the clearest take-away for me was Focault's insightful treatment of "discpline as structure" (my expression). That is, in modern world, we are surrounded by a host of quite "invisible" means of discipline which are so institutionalized that we have often become blind to them.

Think about, for example, various information systems which require one to fill in specific details in order to have something accomplished, whereby the information system forces one to submit to its coercive structuration in order to have something accomplished. Or think about the various ways one is evaluated and ranked: often measures for doing this are "system-provided" which do not take into account individual idiosyncrasies or contextual differences, let alone personal preferences. Yet, one must conform to these institutional practices in order to "perform" in the modern society. Perhaps the school is the clearest example of such phenomena, though the workplace often has comparable characteristics (c.f. e.g., time cards, budgeting, performance appraisals etc.).

After having read the book, I certainly am more attuned to observing my daily life from this perspective.

Who should read the book?

As a whole, I wouldn't recommend the book for a casual reader - the language is not very accessible, and apart from the very beginning and end, the book can be quite laborious to plow through. However, if one is into French sociology (or philosophy), the book is probably quite a good fit, though in such a case one probably has read it (or some corresponding work) already.

The book on Discipline and punish

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Butler, Christopher (2003): Postmodernism - A very short introduction

What is it about?

The title of the book is a great summary of the book: the book is a 130-page introduction to postmodernism. The scope of the book is, despite its length, quite broad, covering social sciences, philosophy, literature, music, art etc.

Was it good?

I was left with somewhat mixed feelings after having completed the book. On the one hand, the book is quite encompassing and written in the true spirit of postmodernism; using slightly obscure terminology and with a self-reflexive style. On the other hand, however, all this makes the book - perhaps again in the true spirit of postmodernism - somewhat difficult to read, follow and digest. At least I had to concentrate really hard on many occasions to understand what Butler was saying - and on some occasions I think that I didn't quite succeed.

Thus, in a nutshell, I think that the book is quite good, but curiously enough, I can't say very exactly how.

The main take-away for me?

Quite straightforwardly, the main take-away for me was a reinforced understanding of what postmodernism stands for (even if expressing that unambiguously is quite challenging): reflexivity, denial of unified 'grand projects', underscoring of subjectivity and the socially constructed nature of reality, use of humour, irony and general playfulness in exposing 'serious received truths' etc.

Who should read the book?

If the book was more accessible (i.e. not so postmodern in its own style, I would recommend it more generally because adopting the postmodern mindset enables one to see the world in a welcomingly different light (e.g. by questioning received truths). However, the book is written in such a manner that I would recommend it mainly to such people who already know the basic terminology and underlying ways of thinking - who, then again, may not have a need for a book like this anymore.

The book on Postmodernism

Deaton, Agnus (2015): The great escape - Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality

What is it about?

The "escape" in the title of the book refers to escape from poverty, or perhaps better, the increase in living standards that the post-industrial countries have experienced during the past hundred years or so, and that the "emerging" economies experience right now.

However, towards the end of the book Deaton turns to discussing about what still holds some countries (and also some fractions of populations within generally wealthy countries) back so that they are not able to "make the escape" despite decades of foreign aid.

Was it good?

The book is good; the historical account on how and why wealth has generally increased in the "West" is quite informative and insightful, and especially the discussion concerning why some "third world" countries have not made it certainly makes one (at least me) think.

In addition, one particular merit of the book is that Deaton, throughout the book, introduces the measures cited (i.e. the measurement methodology) and discusses their strengths and weaknesses, instead of just citing the numbers or other results that the measures have yielded. In this manner, the reader is able to construct a significantly more mindful picture of the topics at hand. For example, according to Deaton, the answer to the question "how many poor people are in X" depends very, very heavily on the measure one uses. Moreover, even if one was to rely on interview methodology (in order to gain contextually relevant subjective assessments on poverty), wether one asks people to recall their consumption 7 or 30 days into the past can significantly tilt the poverty statistics into one way or the other.

The main take-away for me?

In addition to the high importance of methodology, perhaps the biggest insight for me (as a virtual layman in these matters) was that foreign aid so complex a question and that (at least according to Deaton) "mere giving" is in many if not most cases bound to do less good than bad for the recipient country. Thus, the more mindful and nuanced approaches discussed by Deaton (e.g. pay-per-results, subsidies for drug development for which the target clientele is mostly very poor etc.) really led me to see the current discussion about falling short of the 0.7% GDP target for foreign aid in Finland in quite a different light.

Who should read the book?

The book is probably of interest to anyone, as wealth, poverty and inequalities in these - both in global as well as in national scale - are quite universally relevant issues to basically everyone.

The book on The great escape

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Juha Siltala (2016): Työnantajan alaisena ilman työsuhdetta - Uuden talouden keikka- ja silpputyö paluuna entiseen (in Finnish; transl. "Governed by an employer without an employment contract - Gigs and odd jobs in a new economy as a return to the old)

What is it about?

While not a book but a discussion paper or a pamphlet, I find this as a very important and weighty contribution to the ongoing discourse on the development of employment (as a wider societal phenomenon) and, by implication, political-societal conditions.

The basic premise of Siltala is that the current trend as exhibited by Airbnb, Uber and the like are driving towards employment built around gigs and projects, which for the most imply perpetual uncertainty (disallowing one to plan one's life in the long term) and assuming of entrepreneurial risk without express willingness to do so.

While there is a good counter-case to be made based on standard arguments on voluntary market exchange and the market process, Siltala argues that this is not the determining set of arguments, because the current trend leads to the shrinking if not withering away of the middle class, which, in turn, is likely to cause societal unrest.

This is not to say that Siltala is absolutely right and the market purists are absolutely wrong. Instead, I argue that Siltala's pamphlet makes highly relevant arguments worthy of careful consideration.

Was it good?

As might already be evident, I found Siltala's pamphlet extremely good because of the points Siltala puts forth. Moreover, Siltala's writing style is decidedly provocative which makes the text enjoyable to read. Indeed, in Siltala's grip, one is bound to feel a bit uneasy at points, because of the force exerted by the provocation.

The main take-away for me?

I found Siltala's counter-arguments - mainly built around societal order, stability and general happiness, in addition to morality - the most valuable insights to be gathered here, whose main value is their worth in countering the mainstream market-based arguments so easily made to justify the current trend. In Siltala's view, there is nothing inevitable in the current trend.

Moreover, what Siltala is putting forward may signal for a turn in a Kuznets wave (income inequality as a pendulum with a periodicity of a generation or so).

Who should read the book?

If one is at all interested in the present discourse of economic inequality and/or the changing nature of work and employment (as everyone should be), Siltala's pamphlet is compulsory reading. Highly recommended.

The pamphlet on Kalevi Sorsa foundation's website: Työnantajan alaisena ilman työsuhdetta

Grossman, Dave (2009): On Killing - The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

What is it about?

The basic premise of the book is relatively straightforward: human beings have strong built-in inhibitions towards killing other human beings, and overcoming those (e.g. to increase the firing capability of soldiers) requires either training which makes killing somewhat automatic or a reflex, or increasing distance (physical, psychological etc.) between the killer and the killed.

Grossman draws quite much from Samuel Marshall's research on firing rates (out of 100 soldiers, how many actually fires a weapon) in the World Wars, which quite famously report that e.g. about 75% of U.S. combat soldiers never fired a weapon with an intent to kill an enemy.

Was it good?

The book is good - though there may be a bit room for condensation in the text. Nonetheless, Marshall's firing rate studies, with which the book opens, are quite astounding to one who has not encountered them before, and built a highly convincing case for what Grosmann argues subsequently.

Moreover, Grosmann quite welcomely presents the reader with a variety of implications of his core argument - both in the military context (e.g. increasing firing rates through realistic training regimes and remote-controlled weaponry) and in civilian life (e.g. a case against realistically violent video games).

However, by entering into the realm of popular culture and video games in particular, Grossman appears to leave his area of expertise and comfort. Namely, I presume that most social scientists would find Grossman's analysis of video games (realistically violent video games --> lowered threshold for engaging in violent real-world behaviours --> increased violence in society) somewhat simplistic (though Grossman may get the end points of the causal chain right in the end).

The main take-away for me?

Well, the video game discussion surely got me thinking, on multiple levels (e.g., the effects of video games on people both in general and in the case of violent games in particular; how one could or should study the effect of video games; if and how video games are any different from any other earlier novel cultural form etc.).

However, perhaps the most striking thought was the effect of remote-controlled weaponry on the nature of war. Namely, people are highly unlikely to actually kill a human being if this has to be done with own hands or a hand-held weapon such as a knife or a bayonet. But, when killing is achieved by maneuvering an air drone with a joystick and a video screen from the distance of thousands of kilometers while sitting in an ergonomic chair, killing does not feel like such but rather "just executing a mission". Thus, increased technologization and distance are likely to make wars substantially more brutal (i.e. more casualties) than before.

Who should read the book?

Once again, I think that most people are likely to find the book appealing, as killing is quite a universal human phenomenon. However, those with a sociological or social psychological curiosity probably will enjoy the book the most.

The book on On killing

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Funder, Anna (2011): Stasiland - Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

What is it about?

The author reports about her encounters with people who lived in East Germany (i.e. GDR; German Democratic Republic) until its collapse in 1989-1990. More importantly, the author "tells the stories" of her informants as shared with her, which provide highly interesting windows into the everyday life in East Germany - in practice a police state.

Was it good?

I struggled a little with getting into the pace and narrative style of the book - the book is presented as case narratives within a larger autobiographical narrative - but after getting used to it, I really enjoyed the book.

Thus, at least for one not terribly familiar with the subject matter, the book offers a selection of quite captivating stories about what it was like to live in a police state "behind" the iron curtain. Moreover, the informants include both ordinary citizens as well as ex-Stasi officials.

The main take-away for me?

While the "this is how it felt living in a police state" narratives are interesting, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book was offered by those informants who perceive the "free" societal order as not preferable to the police state. Admittedly, there is a lot of nostalgia and selective forgetting going on there, but some of the aspects raised by the interviewees (e.g. lack of theft and other mundane security threats, affordability of various state-provided services etc.) are abound to make one think about what makes a society a good one. But then, all this and more can be accomplished by John Rawls' "Veil of ignorance".

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is beneficial for the younger generations who have very little if any connection, exposure or recollection about quite different societal orders - especially so that they would exist in the very heart of Europe. While fictional works such as Orwell's 1984 are highly illuminating, true stories have quite a different flavor to them.

The book on Stasiland

Monday, September 5, 2016

Quartz, Steven - Asp, Anette (2015): Cool - How the Brains Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World

What is it about?

The book basically (though at places somewhat implicitly) says that the "traditional" microeconomic homo economicus is a gross oversimplification of human (economic, consumption) behavior.

Instead, Quartz argues that purchase and consumption choices are inherently social psychological phenomena. In other words, we all, e.g., signal aspired identities and group memberships through our choices of what products (or services) we purchase, adopt, use and discard.

Moreover, Quartz quite sensibly - and with substantial backup from disciplines such as evolutionary biology and psychology and neuroscience - argues that in many cases there is very little we can do about this; such behavior is hard-wired in us through evolution.

Was it good?

The book is good indeed, though in my case Quartz is "preaching to the converted".

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the book is its exceptionally broad disciplinary scope, as noted above. This, in a way, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, drawing support from a broad range of academic research domains certainly adds weight and credibility to the arguments Quartz advances. But on the other hand, such multifaceted discussion may at places come across a little heavy for the reader ("a bit less would have sufficed").

But all in all, the book is - because of this distinguishing feature - a wonderful learning experience.

The main take-away for me?

While I never have denied the invalidity of homo economicus model, the book certainly made me pay a lot closer reflective attention on my own purchase and product use behavior. As a result, I'm certainly more cognisant about "what do I signal" with what I wear and use, though my own perception about this may be quite different from what another person would think.

Who should read the book?

Once again, I believe that most people should read the book. The book is not anti-consumerism by any means, but I sincerely believe that most people could be "better" (also more economical) consumers if they were a bit more reflective about their consuming habits; i.e. why they consume what they consume.

The book on Cool

Snow, Richard (2014): I Invented the Modern Age - The Rise of Henry Ford

What is it about?

The book basically tells the story of Henry Ford, from his early childhood until his death in 1947.

However, the book is not a basic biography, but focuses on his contribution to the invention of the automobile and, perhaps more importantly, the "modern age", including mass production, standardization, economies of scale and even urban culture.

Was it good?

For me, not having ready any other Ford biography, the book is highly fascinating. The book not only describes how the internal combustion engine automobile and industrialized mass production came to be, but also sheds light on the mindset of Ford and his colleagues who brought all this about (including Ford's contemporary competitors).

In particular, it became very obvious that it did not suffice by any means for Ford to be in teh right place at the right time, but in addition he expended significant effort in inventing some key technical constructions (such as the carburettor), conducting important publicity stunts (e.g. in early car racing) and organizing for efficiency and scale.

Towards the end, it also highlights the mental - and some organizational - inertia towards quite necessary renewal.

The main take-away for me?

Like some other inventor-innovator-related books, the main take-away here for me is that the right idea is just a start: in addition to that there must be a lot of hard work to bring the idea to fruition. Thus, some short journalistic accounts on new innovations or innovators often do not do justice on all the work that takes place "behind the scenes".

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is of quite general interest, and it is certainly written in such a way that basically anyone can enjoy it. However, those interested in cars, (history of) technology and engineering in general probably will enjoy the book the most.

The book on I invented the modern age

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nevanlinna, Tuomas (1999): Hyväkuntoisena Taivaaseen (in Finnish; transl. "To Heaven, in a Good Shape")

What is it about?

This is a book written by one of my favourite philosophers (though not a professional academic one), Tuomas Nevanlinna, one of the discussants in the light-mooded (or even humorous) philosophical radio program, Tukevasti Ilmassa (transl. "Firmly in the Air").

The book directs a philosophical gaze on everyday life, and makes very poignant and compelling observations. As a read thread that runs through the book, Nevanlinna's style (and way of thinking) is characteristically dialectical; often for there to be something, there also has to be its opposite. For instance, for something to be original, there must be imitators, even though original roughly means "the first one" (before there were any imitators). In other words, it is only the imitators which make something original.

As much as the book is a philosophical discussion about various everyday phenomena (e.g. air travel, sports, technological development and consumerism, love, education etc.), it is quite sharp social commentary.

Was it good?

The book is, in my opinion, supremely good, and is quite faithful to Nevanlinna's characteristic writing/speaking and thinking style.

I especially like the great variety of topics under discussion, and the often surprising points of view which Nevanlinna takes and then provides rather compelling argumentation to back those up if not to show that other perspectives seem even unthinkable.

For an everyday/common reader (i.e. outside the academic philosophical circles), this is what philosophy should be.

As an example, here is a passage from page 254 (freely and quickly translated by me; emphases in original):

"One of the defining features of European culture is despise towards and dismissing of material artefacts.

Our relationship with material artefacts is defined and maintained on the other hand a technological-economical complex (according to which material artefacts are taken as discardable or replaceable), and on the other aesthetics (according to which material artefacts are, in the end, in the mercy of our individual meaning-giving).

According to both perspectives, material artefacts don not mean anything in and of themselves.

What is annoying with regard to the prevailing culture is that material artefacts, after all, are meaningful for people in ways which are not exhausted by usefulness or sensory pleasure. For example, personal, "dear to me", mementos. One does not really deny the justification of this kind of a relationship to a material artefact, but it is valid only within the dark mazes of privacy.

Why? Because science teaches us that material artefacts "as such" do not mean anything. Their experiential meaning is a consequence of either a juvenile transfer of emotions, or an arbitrary judgment of taste. Furthermore, material artefacts do not live, "suffer", and therefore one can treat them in any way one pleases.

Humanists are against objectification of a human being. Feminists criticise objectification of women. But why does not anyone speak about objectification of material artefacts?" (p. 254)

Here, there is at the same time something to think about, and a quite humorous take on the World.

The main take-away for me?

The applicability and usefulness of dialectical thinking really struck me while reading the book, and I certainly intend to "direct such a gaze" to the everyday life -- like Nevanlinna has done here.

Moreover, Nevanlinna really shows that one does not have to be entirely serious in order to be insightful and compelling.

Who should read the book?

Perhaps the book is a bit too "high-flying" for a random reader, but if one has any philosophical bent or curiosity, here's a prime example of "philosophy put to real work".

The book on Hyväkuntoisena taivaaseen

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Weldon, Glen (2016): The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture

What is it about?

The book "tells the story of Batman" (the phenomenon, not only the figure) and with the help of that, and importantly, provides a cultural historical study of fandom, or nerd culture. In the case of this book, by nerd is understood a personality very, very close to that of the Comic book guy in the Simpsons, and not a computer geek.

It becomes quite evident that while the authors and publishers of Batman (like any other such comic and later movie franchise) have always been very responsive to changes in the surrounding societal and cultural environment (driven by the profit motive, of course), the increasing adoption of the Internet has made fans -- and also the more general audience -- an increasingly influential stakeholder in movie and comic production even to the degree of movie scripts being altered during shooting in reaction to discussion forum outrages.

Was it good?

While I'm not a Batman or comics fan by any means, the book works very well at both levels: in telling the Batman story (how the figure and the stories have reacted to changes in cultural "mood", thereby reflecting societal conditions) and especially discussing the "history and increasing prominence of the nerd".

The book is quite significantly tilted towards covering the history of Batman, but regular short and reflective discussions about "what this tells us in cultural terms" well justify the ample Batman content, and make the book actually come across quite balanced.

The main take-away for me?

While it should not have been as a revelation, it still quite astounded me to realise how overly engineered comic book characters, comics and movies are. Namely, even some of the very fundamentals in a character's "origin story" can be readily abandoned in the interest of sales. For example, the early Batman, to my surprise, even engaged in time travel and battles in parallel universes...

Who should read the book?

Quite obviously the book is very likely to appeal to any Batman or superhero fan, or a proud (or insecure) nerd. However, I think that the book should also be ready by anyone who perceives superheroes or comics or movies featuring them childish, non-serious and/or a waste of time.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book and can quite readily recommend it -- also as study in cultural criticism.

The book on The caped crusade

Jenner, Greg (2016): A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age

What is it about?

The book traces the history of everyday practices and artefacts (such as toothbrush/dental care, beer, clock/measuring of time, beds etc.), built around a framing story of spending a Saturday from waking to going to bed.

Thus, the book has an organizing timeline, with the help of which the author discusses quite a number of "thematic case histories" of "how things developed to be as they currently are."

Was it good?

The big idea of the book is very fascinating: really pondering, for example, why our clocks seem and work as they do (e.g. why there are 60 minutes in an hour). The "thematic case histories" are well chosen and discuss -- at least to me -- quite interesting issues and historical developments.

On the other hand, however, the writing style is from time to time quite irritating -- that is, again, to me.  For example:

"This, of course, finally led to the English alphabet of 26 letters, which I am currently using to bore you to tears. Sorry about that. Anyway, to make it really simple, without the Phoenicians there would be no 'Alphabet Song' on Sesame Street, and I think we can all agree that would've been a tragedy."

Thus, if the book would have been written in a more neutral, factual style (or more mindfully humorous), I would have enjoyed even more.

The main take-away for me?

I was quite astonished as to how advanced the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations were in terms of technology. For example, their centralized and public water and sanitation services and technologies -- already some 2000 years ago -- allowed for water on the tap and variously heated swimming pools in public baths. Thus, human ingenuity has flourished for a very, very long time already.

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is of quite general interest, but the writing style is off-putting to such a degree, that I would recommend the book only if the subject matter seems highly appealing to you.

The book on A million years in a day

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Diamond, Jared (1997): Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

What is it about?

The book has a very ambitious goal: it attempts to explain the course of human history (in broad outlines) during the past 13 000 years or so.

More specifically, the book aims to answer "Yali's question" (a question posed to the author by a prominent politician in New Guinea): why Europeans conquered native Americans and not the other way around? Or, why some peoples and some cultures developed "further" and more rapidly than some others?

The author gives a very clear-cut answer to this. It's NOT about inherent differences in human ability, but rather about what different environmental settings afforded. This is the "deep" answer -- argued into existence very carefully and convincingly, and backed up by a lot of scientific evidence. There may be some more superficial answers (e.g. with regard to technology, language, governance structures etc.), but these are only proximate causes, all going back to the "deep" answer.

Was it good?

The book is just superb. Not only is it insightful and credible, it is also highly informative and entertaining in a lighter sense. Put shortly, the book is delightful to read throughout.

Moreover, the author must be applauded for the breath and depth of his knowledge; the scope of expertise required for writing a book like this is immense.

The main take-away for me?

The book really highlights the fact that we human beings tend to focus on quite shallow (or proximate) explanations for phenomena, whereas in most cases there probably is a "grander", "deeper" mechanism (or a bundle of mechanisms) at work. At the same time, however, this is not very surprising, because evidently uncovering such "grand" mechanisms is no small feat.

Who should read the book?

I would recommend the book for anyone; both the message and the style should be very generally appealing.

The book on Guns, Germs, and Steel