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