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Oct 24, 2008

My Book List

I Am What I Read

These are books that helped form my view of the world. I remember them fondly, some after 25 years. I don't remember all of the details, but their advice has affected how I analyze situations. They are all interesting, clearly written, easy to read, and worth talking about over dinner.

They are not expensive. A friend told me that most books are free. They make back more than their cost if you learned something that improved your happiness, understanding, or productivity. These books did that for me.

It is an amazing world, where almost everything has been tried, investigated, and explained. If I want to do something new, I find a few books on the subject or a similar subject. Before reinventing the wheel, read about how past wheels were built. In school, I thought that three books on a subject were better than taking the course.

An untruthful book is easier to detect than an untruthful speaker, because the organization of a book reveals fuzzy thinking. They don't have the lecturer's excuse for making mistakes.

Don't you wish that the last person to interview you for a job had first read a book about doing interviews?


See  How to Lie With Statistics
See  Knowledge and Decisions
See  Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
See  What Do You Care What Other People Think?
See  How to Solve It
See  Economics in One Lesson


See  Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
See  Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
See  Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay

See  Stop Walking on Eggshells - Borderline Personality


See  The Elements of Style - Writing
See  Parkinson's Law - Management
See  A Random Walk Down Wall Street
See  The Effective Executive
See  The Organization Man - Big Companies

How to Lie With Statistics

by Darrell Huff, 1954       Amazon      Reviews

Statistics have undeserved respect because they are supposed to be the result of smart, mathematical people. So wrong. People often lie with numbers, or just pass along bad results because they serve a political or commercial purpose. There are standard statistical packages available for evaluating study results. It is easy to come up with automated conclusions, without having a clue about the automated errors.

Example. A study might report that smoking increases the risk of a particular cancer by 20%. Scary. But, you learn that the incidence goes from 2 up to 2.4 per 1000 population. This small difference is not so scary. If 5000 people were studied, 2/1000 is 10 cases, and 2.4/1000 is 12 cases. So, 2 extra cases of the studied cancer produced the headline. Is this significant or a random variation? A good question.

Example. Bias means getting an incorrect result because a study did not choose a random sample. "Survivor Bias" shows up (directly) when people are asked at their 100th birthday about what they did to live so long. Was it really the daily drink of Scotch or the teaspoon of vinegar? You can't tell unless you find out about all of the other (dead) people who did those things.

Knowledge and Decisions

by Thomas Sowell, 1980       Amazon      Reviews      Overview     

What do you know and how do you know it? Is government using good information to manage our lives? Should you believe what you are told? Is society transforming to use knowledge in a better way, or to ignore what has been learned? Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper.

This is not a mysterious book of philosophy. It discusses real problems about acting in groups and dealing with others. Life is complex, and it is much better to understand why it is so.

I read another of Sowell's books (which I can't find) about how racial and social discrimination affects success. His current books on this should be just as good.

Sowell asks and answers an interesting question. We can assume that bigots are not delicate about who they hate. For example, they shouldn't care much if they are hurting people of northern Vietnamese vs southern Vietnamese origins. So, why have these two groups done so differently in an American society that has elements of discrimination?

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard P. Feynman, 1918-88       Amazon      Reviews

Feynman had one of the best minds in physics, combined with a direct and playful personality. He brought a fresh, analytic, and inquiring view to everything. This book collects stories about science and his life.

When Feynman was at Los Alamos labs, working on the atomic bomb, he questioned the security of the research documents. When the directors ignored his concerns, he left notes like "I was here" in the files, to show that they were insecure. The security officers corrected the problem by issuing a memo "Don't let Feynman near the files".

The lesson of this book is to look at things skeptically. Don't take what others say without examination. People who know what they are doing and tell the truth do not mind answering questions or explaining their results. Others are afraid of being caught.

This book is important to the non-scientist, to understand how a great scientist looks at science and what good science is like. It is fun training in how to be skeptical about authority, especially when cloaked as science.

From the review by Subornator:

Feynman's book, subtitled "Adventures of a Curious Character", is his memoir - not written down, but narrated in conversations with a close friend. It is very clear that nothing surpassed his ardent passion for physics. When Feynman spoke about his subject, he rejected all notions of etiquette and subordination; Nils Bohr and Einstein could discuss their new ideas only with him - other colleagues just gaped in awe at any dictum of theirs. Feynman writes about the very *process* of discovery - this is probably the only sincere and authentic description of scientific creativity of such scale in literature. In the closing chapter, Feynman speaks about the scientist's responsibility - not to society or colleagues, but rather to himself and his science; all his recollections, serious and jocular, clearly demonstrate how serious it was to him.

From the review by Lance Mitchel:

There are some great stories in this book and they will make you laugh out loud. Feynman was always so full of life and he was curious about absolutely everything from a very early age. He would always want to know, "How does that work?" or "Why is that the way it is?" or "Is there another way to do that?" He would also latch onto something and decide that he wanted to do it, and to do it really well. For example, witnessing the bongo-playing in Brazil inspired him to learn to play like that and not like some studio-taught purist. He achieved it through dedication to his objective and sheer passion.

What made Feynman a genius? Well, there were lots of factors that contributed to his status, many of them discussed in other reviews of this book, but, my reason for putting him into that classification was that he was capable of explaining the most complex of matters to a five-year-old. That is TRUE genius. I have read this book many times. It is a short book and will remain amongst my collection until the day that I die. If you haven't read it already, you should. You really need to read this book. I can guarantee that it will change at least one aspect of your life!

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Richard P. Feynman, 1918-88       Amazon      Reviews

From the review by D. Roberts [edited]:

One quarter of this book fits the tone and humor of Feynman's prior book "Surely You're Joking". The rest is more serious. One section details Feynman's love for his first wife as well as her untimely terminal illness. The other section reports his work on the commission to examine the technical problems leading to the explosion of the Space Shuttle CHALLENGER in 1986.

The chapter on his wife's suffering is especially poignant and touched me very deeply. Feynman was a man whose love and compassion matched his intellect. I felt empathy and admiration for the way he took care of his bride, knowing all along that she would not live long. His decision to be straight with her about her condition, instead of feeding her some fairy-tale story about how she had a good chance of recovery, was both painful and edifying to read.

The section on the CHALLENGER goes into great detail on everything that went wrong that fateful day in '86 as the nation watched the disaster on TV.

How to Solve It

G. Polya, 1957       Amazon      Reviews     

I was always interested in mathematics. I owe much of my success to reading this book when I was 18. It uses some mathematics in a simple way. The lessons work for all types of problem solving. They are things that you say "I knew that" after you see them, and it gives you an overview in an organized way.

This review by Philip Hamilton describes the essence of the book.

Polya provides a systematic way to creatively solve problems. This volume has withstood the test of time for nearly 50 years. I recommend it highly.

  • What is the unknown? What is the data? What conditions does the solution need to satisfy?
  • Do you know a related problem? Look at the unknown and try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.
  • Can you restate the problem? Can you solve a part of the problem.
  • Can you think of other data appropriate to determine the unknown?
  • Can you check the result?
  • Can you look back and use the result or the method for some other problem?

Economics in One Lesson

Henry Hazlitt, 1946, 1978       On Line      Reviews     

From the review by Aaron Jordan [edited]:

The one lesson is simply this: economic planning should take into account the effects of economic policies on all groups, not just some groups, and what those effects will be in the long run, not just the short run. That's it. That's the lesson.

Hazlitt examines the many variations of fallacious economic policies that benefit one group at the expense of others, or give short-term benefits at the expense of long-term costs.

I should have studied economics. Hazlitt's book is remarkably readable, coherent, and logical. It confirms that truth is understandable, whereas complicated obfuscation is usually the alarm bell that tips you off when people are trying to shaft you. This guy really knows his stuff.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and
How You Can Make Yours Last

John Gottman, 1995       Amazon      Reviews      Gottman Institute

Gottman learned in school many reasons why couples bonded or separated and decided to check it out. He couldn't verify anything, and decided that the conventional wisdom was only a guess. Gottman now bases his recommendations on his direct observation of couples in his lab, where they spend 3 days being videotaped (but not in the bathroom or bed).

He was able to make a 90% correct prediction of which couples would break up within the next 3 years, based on how attentive the couples were to each other, how many "bids" for attention or help were received rather than ignored by their partner. The rule seems to be that the couple will break up if they ignore more than 1 out of 7 requests for attention, or if they demean or criticize. Other things were less important.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

John Gottman, 1998       Amazon      Reviews      Gottman Institute

How to be responsive and informative to your child so he will understand his emotions in life. See your child's behavior as a way of communicating. Send the right signals yourself. Don't take a hard stand, or a soft stand. Learn what is going on. Give help and criticism without blaming your child.

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-By-Step Guide to Helping You Decide Whether to Stay in or Get Out of Your Relationship

Mira Kirshenbaum, 1997       Amazon      Reviews     

Analyzes the types of conflicts that lead people to break up. It presents whether most people later confirmed or regretted the decision to leave. How to think about what you will gain or lose by breaking up or staying.

Example: Leave if he throws one ashtray that hits you, or two that miss. Don't sacrifice your personal development to affection. It may be over if he loves the city and she loves the country, or if he loves public affection and she hates it.

Stop Walking on Eggshells
Borderline Personality Disorder

Paul Mason, Randi Kreger, 1998       Amazon      Reviews      Review

Everyone needs this book about Borderline Personality Disorder, to deal with a Borderline personality or to avoid the heartache of associating with one by mistake.

The Borderline does not fit into the usual categories of Depressed, Manic, or Psychotic. They are "borderline" to all of the categories. The danger of the Borderline is that she (or he) is hard to identify and often is "high functioning", intelligent, fun, friendly, interesting, spontaneous, and adoring.

The Borderline woman sees the world completely "in the moment", and may be the most vivacious person you have met. She is expert at responding to people in her life in the ways they desire, and may show love at first sight. She can love completely and with devotion, but seemingly small things eventually cause her to change her mind.

The borderline has wild swings of emotion. She begins with intense feelings that you are "the one", better than anyone else could be. As newness fades and she discovers some things that she doesn't like (possibly after many years), she discards memories of what was good. She yearns for a change and to find the next person who is perfect for her.

Typically, the vibrant, outgoing, spontaneous, wonderful woman who was so much in love announces that you just aren't right for her, and it would be too complicated to explain how this could be true. This announcement may be sudden or come after a few instances of feeling emotionally upset or distant, each time seeming to recover.

Borderlines do not integrate their prior experiences and memories into the present in the usual way. They rewrite history to fit their current emotion, and they eventually become bored with everything. You remember the great times together; she wonders why she ever liked you. If you hold any assets in common, she will fight for them as if you are an enemy who tried to fool her.

The Elements of Style

William Strunk, Jr., 1918       Amazon      Reviews      Excerpt     

Write clearly and simply. Punctuate clearly. Throw away all of the useless stuff and get to the point. This book can revolutionize your writing, and you will never be able to read a corporate memo again without laughing. It is written itself in a spare, direct style.

I was a poor writer in school until I found this book in college. I was in despair that I would never write with style, so I read this book, eliminated every stylish thing, and settled for effective writing. Amazingly, that was a style in itself. You be the judge.

Coding is Just Writing
11/08/08 - Jeff Atwood at CodingHorror says this book is a great guide to technical writing and programming.

There is perhaps no greater single reference on the topic of writing than Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It's one of those essential books you discover in high school or college, and then spend the rest of your life wondering why other textbooks waste your time with all those unnecessary words to get their point across. Like all truly great books, it permanently changes the way you view the world, just a little.

Donald Knuth was getting at this with his concept of Literate Programming (pdf).

Let us change our traditional attitude to the construction of programs: Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do.

The practitioner of literate programming can be regarded as an essayist, whose main concern is with exposition and excellence of style. Such an author, with thesaurus in hand, chooses the names of variables carefully and explains what each variable means. He or she strives for a program that is comprehensible because its concepts have been introduced in an order that is best for human understanding, using a mixture of formal and informal methods that reinforce each other.

Parkinson's Law, and
Other Studies in Administration

C. Northcote Parkinson, 1957       Amazon      Reviews     

This is a wonderful and funny book that changed my view of government and business, or confirms what I may have suspected. For example, why will a corporate board of directors spend five minutes approving a $100 million corporate plan, but require an hour to decide on what brand of coffee to serve at the next meeting. Answer: They know something about coffee.

Doug Vaughn's review:

Parkinson's Law is "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." If it doesn't seem that an entire book could be written about this thesis then you haven't encountered the imaginative genius and the stinging comic wit of C. Northcote Parkinson.

He uses this insight as an analytic tool to expose much of what is wrong with organizations and why much in both business and government seems at odds with common sense.

For example, why the British Colonial Office has grown in number of employees as the actual number of colonies declined - so that it employed more people when the number of colonies had been reduced to zero than when they were at their highest number.

Witty, brilliant and always right on the money, Parkinson can make what should be deadly dull - a description of bureaucracy - into a delightful excursion through the halls of pompous human folly. Really great stuff. This book is a classic and can be read and reread with great pleasure.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street

Burton G. Malkiel, 2003       Amazon      Reviews

The basic facts that you should know about investing.

From the review by The Finance Buff:

The book begins with two basic stock valuation models -- Firm Foundations and Castles in the Air. It goes on with a review of bubbles and manias: the Tulip Craze in the Netherlands, the South Sea Bubble in England, the 1929 Great Crash in the U.S., the stock market anomalies from the 1960's and 1970's, and the late 1990's Dot Com Bubble.

The book describes two types of stock valuation: Technical Analysis and Fundamental Analysis. It shows how both fail to identify outstanding investment opportunities better than an efficient market already provides. You can make money with Technical Analysis and/or Fundamental Analysis, but you can't make more money than you already can by investing in a market index fund.

The chapter on behavioral finance is new for the 9th edition. It reviews how investors often become their own worst enemy when it comes to investing.

The Effective Executive

Peter F. Drucker, 1966       Amazon      Reviews

Clear advice for managing a business or any activity. No buzz words or strange methods. Useful as an employee wondering about who to work for, or how to have an influence in your organization.

This is an important point that I hope is in this book and not one of his other ones. The job of a manager is to organize the work so that the available people can do it. You have to get it done now, so how are you going to do it with the people and skills that you have. Maybe, by limiting your objectives about what can be done.

The Organization Man

William H. Whyte, 1957       Amazon      Reviews

Whyte talks about the mindset of people who have to operate with little independence in a big group. A cautionary tale of his own experience working as a bright, independent thinker within an organization of random beliefs.

He describes how "scientific" management took over from common sense. Corporations wanted to measure the people who they hired and managed. Who would be good for promotion? They accepted "Personality Tests" that were borrowed from psychology, previously used to screen for pathological behavior. Now you know why some employment tests still ask "Are you bothered by frightening thoughts?"

Worse, those tests valued being happy and ordinary, and penalized being unusual and unlike the group mean value.

Whyte found that he could beat those tests. His three thoughts to keep in mind while answering (lying) on a corporate personality test:

  • I love my family, but my job comes first.
  • I don't much like classical art or music.
    I would rather watch baseball.
  • Thing are pretty good just the way they are.

His manager responded to Whyte's test results. "Bill, I had my doubts about you, being a "thinker" and not fitting in. But, these tests show that you are really an OK guy." Whyte was promoted.

The 1950's and group thinking are still with us. This is a must-read. Know the enemy.

From the review by Christopher Hefele [edited]:

Whyte argues in this 1956 bestseller that some people not only worked for an organization, but sold their psyches to them. These "organization men" willingly subordinated their personal goals and desires to conform to the demands of corporations, hoping to gain loyalty and security. The organization is a friend, not a foe; it should be co-operated with, not questioned.

Whyte discusses the social ethic of the organization. Its core beliefs are that the group is superior to the individual, and individuals lack meaning and purpose outside of that group. The ultimate emotional need of the individual is to belong. To achieve it, society should not hesitate to use a bit of social engineering. The result is an ethos of conformity at any price.

Whyte looked around the world in the mid-1950's and saw the ethos of the Organization Man everywhere.

  • College graduates joined big corporations, pledging their loyalty with visions of a safe stable life.
  • Corporate executives pulled up roots every time the company wanted to transfer them.
  • Educators taught kids social skills to "get along" rather than teaching academic subjects that forced them to think for themselves.
  • Engineering companies that said there were "no geniuses here; just average Americans working together" (although studies show that innovative engineers and scientists are fiercely independent, thus the direct antithesis of the company-oriented man).

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