Tag Archives: nonfiction

Fearless – Eric Blehm

IMG_3726Review (Amazon): 

Fearless takes you deep into SEAL Team SIX, straight to the heart of one of its most legendary operators.
 
“As a rule, we don’t endorse books or movies or anything regarding the command where I work—and Adam Brown worked—but as the author writes in Fearless, ‘you have to know the rules, so you know when to bend or break them.’ This is one of those times.  Read this book. Period. It succeeds where all the others have failed.”  –Anonymous SEAL Team SIX Operator

When Navy SEAL Adam Brown woke up on March 17, 2010, he didn’t know he would die that night in the Hind Kush Mountains of Afghanistan—but he was ready. In a letter to his children, not meant to be seen unless the worst happened, he wrote, “I’m not afraid of anything that might happen to me on this earth, because I know no matter what, nothing can take my spirit from me.”

Fearless is the story of a man of extremes, whose courage and determination were fueled by faith, family, and the love of a woman. It’s about a man who waged a war against his own worst impulses, including drug addiction, and persevered to reach the top tier of the U.S. military. In a deeply personal and absorbing chronicle, Fearless reveals a glimpse inside the SEAL Team SIX brotherhood, and presents an indelible portrait of a highly trained warrior whose final act of bravery led to the ultimate sacrifice.

Adam Brown was a devoted man who was an unlikely hero but a true warrior, described by all who knew him as…fearless.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: intense

This isn’t my sort of book, but as far as books like this go, this one is really good. The story is about Adam Brown, a specific member of SEAL Team SIX (the team who killed Osama bin Laden if you’ve been living in a hole for a few years). Instead of it being a general story about the team themselves though, the book focuses specifically on Adam, starting with his family background and childhood.

Adam grew up in a hardworking lower class family who stemmed from Arkansas. Growing up though, the family moved around all over the place looking for work until finally when Adam, his twin sister Manda and his older brother Shawn were in late middle school/early high school, his parents decided it was time to settle down back in Arkansas.

Adam was (as the book is titled) fearless. Not just for stunts like jumping off a bridge from a moving car, but also standing up for the little guy against the biggest bullies. Adam was loved by everyone, but when he graduated and went to college, he no longer had the same friend group to rely upon. Like many stories progress, he fell in with the wrong crowd and eventually became addicted to crack.

He was in a free fall for many years, stealing from his friends and family to pay for his addiction. He knew he had a problem, but he couldn’t seem to fix it no matter how hard he tried. He stayed with a high school friend who had always been such a good influence but eventually the disappearances, theft and nightly worries of whether Adam would be found dead got the best of him too. With Adam’s family’s help, they filed a police report, and then tracked Adam down and turned him into the police. This time his family did not bail him out and let him serve his sentence. Upon release, they signed him up (and paid for) a rehab program for him which was religious focused. His parents had found (re-found) Jesus while trying to deal with Adam’s struggles and felt like it would be the best thing for him too. It seemed to work, and when he returned, he started dating Kelley, a girl who had re-found Jesus after a (not quite as rock bottom as Adam’s) period of time. Despite being told not to, she continued to date him and help him through relapse after relapse.

Eventually he ran off to Jeff’s (a high school friend) house, but Jeff wasn’t going to put up with his shenanigans either. He suggested that Adam join the Navy, and Adam remembered this Navy SEAL movie he had seen in high school which prompted the dive off the bridge from a moving car. Suddenly he once again had a goal. He returned to Kelley and married her at the justice of the peace. When Adam went to the recruiting office, he was forthcoming about his arrests and jail time. Luckily Jeff’s dad was also a Navy captain, and when called agreed that Adam would be a great choice for the Navy. Adam and Kelley  had three weeks before they moved for his basic training.

The rest of the book focuses on his time in the Navy. With God, his family (he and Kelley have two children), and his unquenchable optimism, he manages to move up the ranks to eventually join the elite DEVGRU group even after losing his dominant eye as well as full use of his dominant hand, forcing him to have to learn to shoot with his non-dominant side. He was never one to be told no, and he did whatever it took to get there.

Unfortunately, in the end, the war got the best of Adam. He was shot and killed by insurgents, but his legend was far from over. He was the man who prayed for the little guys. He was the one who organized a shoe drive for Afghan children who were wearing flip flops in the winter. He really epitomized the best things about the Christian religion showing Afghani civilians the good side of Christianity. It is very possible that those “little things” will one day make a big difference in the culture of the world.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

In fairness, this book probably is worth more than that, but like I said, it’s just not really my sort of book. I don’t like books about war, and it is a little hard for me to read about someone who is that passionate about war. On the other hand though, there are a lot of motivational lessons in this book. Being a good person goes a really long way in influencing those around you. Having a positive attitude and never giving up (although I personally thought that there were times that Adam should have given up for his own health and family but that’s not my judgment to make) also goes really far in motivating the people around you. Both good things to think about in my (and your) own life.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

Hedy’s Folly – Richard Rhodes

 Summary (Amazon): Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes delivers a remarkable story of science history: how a ravishing film star and an avant-garde composer invented spread-spectrum radio, the technology that made wireless phones, GPS systems, and many other devices possible.

Beginning at a Hollywood dinner table, Hedy’s Folly tells a wild story of innovation that culminates in U.S. patent number 2,292,387 for a “secret communication system.” Along the way Rhodes weaves together Hollywood’s golden era, the history of Vienna, 1920s Paris, weapons design, music, a tutorial on patent law and a brief treatise on transmission technology. Narrated with the rigor and charisma we’ve come to expect of Rhodes, it is a remarkable narrative adventure about spread-spectrum radio’s genesis and unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.

My Review:

Executive Summary: zzzzzzz

Holy cow was this book boring. I was really excited about reading this because I’m an engineer myself, and I thought it would be really interesting. Unfortunately, no.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil worked together during WW2 to create a patent for a radio frequency hopping torpedo, the technology from which helped form things we use today like GPS and wireless technology. Sounds cool, right? And Hedy Lamarr is a famous movie star, the most beautiful woman in the world. And George Antheil, who you maybe have never heard about (I hadn’t), wrote an autobiography called The Bad Boy of Music so he has to be cool (or at least crazy and therefore interesting). Somehow a Pulitzer Prize winning author managed to turn this story into something less interesting than reading a phone book.

Hedy was born in Austria to progressive parents. She dropped out of school to pursue theater and star in a risque German movie. She married Friedrich Mandl, who was involved in munitions during WWI. He forbade her to continue acting, and eventually she had had enough, left him, and moved to Paris. There she met the head of MGM who encouraged her to move to Hollywood.

Through a mutual friend, Hedy and George meet and begin to realize the joining of their skills could be very useful. George spent many years trying to figure out a way to join player pianos together to create a sort of orchestra. Hedy spent time listening in on munitions secrets of her first husband’s. Together they realize that they can come up with a design for a frequency hopping torpedo which cannot be jammed. They apply for the patent which is filed as secret and is sent to the Navy, who decides not to implement it. In the 1970s, it gets revived and is used to progress computer technology leading to wireless, cellular phones, GPS and more although no money ever trickles down to either original inventor as the patent has expired by that time. In 1997, posthumously for George, they are given an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

As a memoir, also specifically titled to Hedy, you’d expect her to be the star of the book, when in fact, upon finishing, I knew almost the same about her as when I started. Over half the book talks about Antheil, which while fair since he is the co-author of the patent, was not in any way alluded to by the title of the book. And it is strange that the author spent more time talking about Antheil and the patent itself than he did about Hedy. Basically, I expected and wanted this to be a book about a powerful woman inventor, and it spent more time on her male lecherous partner. Fail.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

  Summary (Amazon):  Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles?

Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list).

With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international bestseller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.

My Review (spoilers?):

Executive Summary: inspiring

So I am fairly certain that this will be a first for me. I do not think I’ve ever reviewed a self-help book before! My plan is to summarize the point of the book and once I finally start implementing it, I’ll post an update. (I mean, how will you know if it’s worth it fully if you don’t know whether it actually helps!?)

I’m not sure where I first heard about this book but it has a near-perfect review on Amazon, and after the frustration after packing and unpacking for our move this year, I was ready to de-clutter EVERYTHING.

The Japanese author, Marie Kondo, has developed her own method (the KonMari method) through years of experimenting on how to de-clutter your house and (important!) keep it that way. Marie herself sounds like quite the crazy person in the funniest, most adorable way. As a small child, she became obsessed with organization and being tidy and has been that way ever since. Most of the experimentation was her own and the KonMari method stemmed from this. She has stories of racing home from elementary school to get the latest organization magazine or being frustrated with her siblings’ junk so she would hide it and then if they never missed it, she’d throw it away. I’m so glad she wasn’t my sister, but it’s funny to hear from someone else! All this is to say, the book is not dry, and she livens it up with childhood stories as well as examples from clients who she has had.

There are a couple premises of the book that are critical to the KonMari success of tidying. First is to focus on reducing the amount of stuff that you have. She provides a general list of the order in which you are to do this. Essentially begin with clothes, move to papers, books, and documents, miscellany, and lastly, anything with sentimental value. The point is that by the time you have made it to your sentimental things, you will have fine tuned your decision making skills on what is important to keep.

She does not recommend doing any of these over time. She preaches the “all in one fell swoop” method. I will use the clothing organization as my main example. She tells clients to find ALL their clothing (any in miscellaneous closets) and put it on the floor in a pile. Anything that doesn’t make it in the pile will be gotten rid of because it was obviously not important enough to remember anyway. Part of the method of putting it on the floor is just so that you can see HOW MUCH stuff you actually have. You then proceed to go through your items by group (i.e. shirts, pants, etc.), picking up each item and asking yourself “does this bring me joy?” If not, the item finds a new home.

The idea is to move through all your items keeping only what is absolutely necessary to your needs and happiness. Organization is a lesser focus of the book itself, however she does offer suggestions as to things like how to arrange your closet and how to fold your clothing, but the major focus of the book is how to make the decision to throw things away. Which sounds like a very easy idea. But if it’s easy and obvious, why doesn’t everyone do it?

She also mentions how to manage other people as you are going through the process. A few psychologyesc points that she makes that I find fascinating involve family members. Don’t let your parents (specifically your mother) see you tidying. Parents are specifically designed to want to protect you, and if they see you throwing away most of your stuff, they will feel stressed that you won’t have enough to survive and will try to limit your progress on tidying. Another point that was made was that people need to break the habit of passing on their junk to others. The big sister/little sister type of relationship is hard to break and because of years of conditioning, younger siblings have a much harder time with the tidying (because typically they have so much more stuff). I thought about this with regard to the thrift store as well. I want to be more mindful of the quality of the things that I take to a thrift store as I don’t want to pass on the burden of sifting out stuff that is far too warn onto those volunteers. That’s unfair to them. (I have a habit of never throwing away anything that is far too rigid).

Marie mentions that for most people, the full process for tidying takes about 6 months (although I would suspect that most westerners would find it to take even longer than that as we have bigger houses and therefore more stuff). I am looking forward to starting this in 2016 and I will keep an update of my progress!

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I know that seems high for something that I haven’t actually tried. However, the book is written in a way that makes it very easy to follow which I believe is the most important thing about a book like this. It’s an exhausting extensive task to clean out your entire house, but if you come away from the book thinking “I can do this!”, I think the author is fully successful! I also really like the zen spirituality of the book about how to deal with things that you once loved but don’t have a use for any more. It’s something that I think we as westerners need to do more often. (Thank the item for its contribution and release it from your care.) It sounds a little cheesy, but I think that making the conscious choice is sometimes all we need to be able to move past something. I’m legitimately excited to try out this method and hopefully get my house (and therefore my mind) in a clearer state.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald

  Summary (Amazon):  In May of 2013, Edward Snowden, a young systems administrator contracting for the National Security Agency, fled the United States for Hong Kong, carrying with him thousands of classified documents outlining the staggering capabilities of the NSA.’s surveillance programs–including those designed to collect information within the U.S. There Snowden arranged a meeting with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, and so began the most explosive leak of classified material since the Pentagon Papers, over 40 years ago. No Place to Hide opens with Greenwald’s tense account of his initial cloak-and-dagger encounters with Snowden, then transitions into descriptions of the NSA’s vast information-collection apparatus, including a selection of the “Snowden files” with commentary on the alphabet soup of agencies and code names. And–in typical Greenwald style–the book is packed with his opinions on government snooping, its legality, and the impacts on our Constitutional freedoms. Whether you consider Snowden a whistleblower crying foul on government overreach, or a self-aggrandizing traitor who put national security at risk, Greenwald’s book is thrilling and enlightening, a bellwether moment in a crucial debate.

My Review (Spoilers–is this accurate in this case? Probably not)

Executive Summary: dry

Glenn Greenwald was the journalist who broke the NSA spying story that Edward Snowden discovered and then went on to write this book. This book is not a full publication of all the leaked documents, however, it does have some to back up the main points. The book is essentially split into 3 sections. The first section is very Snowden focused (and I thought the most interesting of the book). The second section goes more in depth into the data that was leaked, what it meant and what the affect of it is, and the third section was the after-effects for Greenwald and the others after the story broke.

Snowden repeatedly tried to contact Greenwald to have him set up a secure method of communication which Greenwald continued to neglect to do. Eventually Snowden contacted Laura Poitras, a filmmaker, who then contacted Greenwald and essentially told him to get it together or he was going to miss out on something big. Greenwald, who worked for The Guardian, received permission from them to travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. Greenwald, Poitras, and another Guardian employee traveled and met him. They were surprised that he was so young and so at peace with the situation.

They proceed to interview him for the documentary, ensuring to cover all their bases. They don’t want him to come off as a crazy person as that is the first thing that is always pointed out when someone goes against what is expected. Snowden had systematically acquired documents, organizing them and even creating lists of abbreviations and acronyms to make the organization more palatable. I found the description of him, his background, and his character to be the most interesting and unknown part of the story (to me) which makes sense as Snowden has been essentially in hiding for the last few years since the story broke and he rarely gives interviews.

The second part of the book focuses heavily on the data that Snowden acquires which essentially can be boiled down to the fact that the USA (and many others) is spying on its citizens as well as other public officials. While it has been in some cases brushed off as “if you don’t have anything to hide, why do you care?” but Greenwald goes into a lot of detail to discuss why even the metadata which seems fairly innocuous actually provides a lot of detail into people’s lives if it is put all together. Examples being that if you make a lot of phone calls to family members on a certain holiday, your religion may be deduced. Or if you make phone calls to certain medical professionals, your physical or mental health may be gleaned.

But it isn’t just “average” citizens who have been targets. World heads have been targeted to learn information about them, not strictly for terrorism prevention, but also for political gain. Angela Merkel (German Chancellor) equated it to the Stasi (secret service in Eastern Germany). There were reports of people’s personal information being tracked and then used against them to obtain additional information, as well as internal reports discussing how it would be possible to gain even more personal information about the American people.

Also interesting to note is that since the Patriot Act emerged (when the surveillance began), not one single case of using metadata collection has actually prevented an imminent terrorist attack. Aka, it’s all for naught.

After the reports began to break, US and UK officials began to really start to try to do the covering up and misinformation. So many “journalists” are fed information directly from the government itself that they were encouraged/forced to downplay the impact. Greenwald himself was suggested to be an accomplice as well as an activist or a blogger (rather than a journalist who receives special protection). Greenwald’s partner, David, had his laptop stolen very shortly after a Skype call with Greenwald mentioning a large encrypted file of documents he was going to send. At a later date, David was held at the Heathrow airport under the terrorism act. The Guardian was invaded by the British intelligence and security organization (GCHQ) and told to hand over all copies of the Snowden files. The Guardian asked if they could instead destroy it all while GCHQ officers oversaw. Obviously these were not the only copies of the documentation. None of this was published.

Snowden is still somewhat on the run. He has been in Russia since the USA rescinded his passport. He had hoped to move to somewhere in central America but he has yet to find a place that will grant him asylum.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

Like I mentioned, I found the book good to start out with but it began to drag during the middle section. It was a lot of details about the documents and was really dry to read through. By the time I got to the end section which I did find interesting, I was just ready for the book to be over. I did appreciate that the book was written in a non-partisan light, and I think that the story is one that needed to be told.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle

Summary (Amazon): In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provence transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: light-hearted

So I went skiing for the first time last weekend, and my return flight was delayed for 3 hours. We were lucky to make it out at all. The tiny airport didn’t even have a bookstore, but it did have free wi-fi. So I went through my To Read list to see if any of the books on the list were available for instant download from the library. This one was!

This book is an auto-biographical account of the author’s (and his wife’s) move from London to Provence. The book is set up with chapters for each month, which is a unique way to do it, and it does actually tie into a point at the end of the book.

I understand why people really like this story. It’s succinct but not so much that it seems stunted. It’s quirky and funny, and the characters and the atmosphere really draw you in. However, to me, it wasn’t particularly relateable. My life essentially went in reverse–moving from a small town to a big city (and then a bigger one, and then a bigger one). Maybe sometime I will move to back to a small town, in a foreign country, and understand things a bit better.  Also this book was written in 1989. I’m curious whether the last 25 years have changed things. I guess I will have to travel to Provence to find out.

Peter and his wife, after years of traveling to Provence, decide to buy an 1800s farmhouse there to live. They develop good relationships with the neighbors, even the weird ones. Their closest neighbors, Faustin and Henrietta take care of the vinyard that stretches on both their properties. In January, when the first Mistral comes, their pipes freeze, and they realize that the house needs renovations. Thus begins their year-long adventure of how time moves in Provence.

The story focuses on a lot of the mundane sort of things that everyone deals with–tourists, visitors, restaurants, neighbors, renovations, and weather. But they are all seen through the lens of a different viewpoint and told with a whimsical humor.

The book has a great ending which I will share. Peter’s wife eventually grows a bit impatient at the unfinished house projects so she decides to take matters into her own hands and invite all the contractors and their wives over for a dinner. Suddenly all the contractors are over at their house, rapidly working to finish their projects so that they can show them off to their wives (brilliant!)! The projects are finished, the dinner is a success, and everything is ready for Christmas. When they awake on Christmas, they find that their power is out so they can’t cook their lamb. Restaurants apparently would have been booked for weeks (this surprised me because in the states, nothing is open on Christmas except the occasional Chinese restaurant!) but they call the chef at one of the restaurants anyway. He is so horrified by their circumstance of not being able to have a wonderful meal for Christmas (which to me seems very French–being concerned about not having a good meal), that he sets up a small table just outside the kitchen just for them.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This is a fun, quick read. It takes a good writer to make a story out of general grocery shopping and home improvement. However, I do think that this story will appeal more to some people than to others.

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review, Books

Ten Days in a Mad-House – Nellie Bly

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9e3/45106722/files/2014/12/img_0990.jpgSummary (Amazon):  Nellie Bly, posing as “Nellie Brown,” went undercover to investigate the deplorable conditions of insane asylums. Her memoirs of this event form the basis of “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” which forever changed the way the world looks at treatment and housing of the insane.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: incredible

Nellie Bly, at age 23, in 1887, basically changed journalism forever. She managed to get herself committed into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (although it did not seem very tough to get admitted) and then wrote about the atrocities that were there. Her initial intention was to get to the worst section of the Asylum, but after arrival and talking to some of the other patients, she decided to not risk her health in that way.

At the time, it was very easy to be committed to an asylum. You just had to behave a little strangely and you were admitted. A lot of foreign women who did not understand fully what was happening were admitted. And no one ever recovered. You could only leave if someone from the outside came to collect you and promise to take responsibility of you. Nellie simply had to go to a working class boarding house and act strangely before the other women there were nervous enough to call the police. Once there, she was evaluated by the police and a doctor, and a judge sentenced her to to go to Belleville Hospital where she was again examined before taking the boat over to the Asylum. The doctor’s examinations consisted of very general questions, but regardless of the answers, everyone in there was deemed insane.

Upon arrival to the island, she found conditions much worse than expected. The nurses were lazy and cruel, and any discussion of it to the doctors or supervisor would result in further punishment. Complaints to the doctors also resulted in verdicts of insanity as the patients were obviously deluded and making up stories. They were bathed once a week in succession, with no water change, regardless of whether they were sick or not. The same with the post-bath hair combing. The temperature was frigid and none of the patients were provided with enough clothes or blankets. The food for the patients was horrible and spoiled while the nurses were provided with fresh food. The nurses specifically picked on certain patients trying to cause them to act out. Some patients were beaten and choked. No one was allowed to have any books or anything really to do.

 

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

 

Eventually Bly’s publisher came to collect her, and she testified before a jury about what she had found. They planned a surprise trip to the island to verify, but it turned out to not be a surprise. Someone had found out ahead of time and fixed many of the issues. Many of the women, specifically the ones who had the more horrible things done to them, were nowhere to be found. However, some small consolations were that one of the doctors told Nellie that had he known what she was doing, he would have helped her. Most of the atrocities were covered up by the nurses. And separately, even though much of what Nellie described could not be verified during their visit, they believed her story enough to allocate an additional $1M to help the insane.

Verdict: 4 stars

It’s hard to give a rating to a journalistic story. The writing in and of itself is nothing terribly impressive, but it’s the whole situation that is. It’s impressive that in an era where women did not even have the right to vote, Nellie was able to gain the respect of the newspaper, the court, and the general public to create actual change in a terrible situation. And not only that, she opened the door to investigative journalism from which I’m sure stemmed many other investigations which changed society for the better. It’s incredibly inspirational.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Club, Book Review

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

photoBook Description (Amazon): Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?

What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

How much do parents really matter?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to parenting and sports—and reaches conclusions that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They set out to explore the inner workings of a crack gang, the truth about real estate agents, the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, and much more.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, they show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: interesting

So this was the first audio book that I have ever listened to. In many ways, it was great. I listened to it while running, and because it’s chock full of information, I paid more attention to the book and less attention to my aching body (I’m the sort of person who is whining after 10 steps). However, the downside is that because the book is so chock full of information, there are times where an audio book can be a bit tedious like at the end when tables full of names are being read. Luckily, I also own this book in hard copy, so I can reference it as needed. The book was co-authored by the economist who came up with the data for the book and a journalist who helped make it more palatable. (The journalist was also the speaker for the audiobook).

I am not an economist, so I think the best way for me to review this book is to briefly discuss the points that are made, and if you don’t believe me, you will just have to read the book to get the background information that justifies them. And some of these topics are VERY surprising.

In the introduction, many of the points that will be discussed in detail in the book are presented. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like this, because I think it made the discussions about the points less shocking when they occurred.

Crime in the 1990s was terrible. Experts believed that the crime was only going to continue getting worse and worse. However, by 2000, the overall murder rate in the US had fallen to its lowest level in 35 years. Many theories were suggested for the drop in crime–gun control laws, police strategies, etc. However, the real reason for the drop in crime had occurred more than 20 year earlier. Roe vs. Wade. Yes, that is correct. The ability to have abortions was the main contributor to the drop in crime.

Is a real estate agent worth getting to help you sell your house? You would think so. They are more knowledgeable about the market than you are. However, in reality real estate agents list someone else’s house for an average of 10 days less than their own, and they sell their own houses for an average of 3% more. The reasoning behind this is that the amount of increase in their cut of the sale price is so minimal that it makes no difference to them.

Money buys elections, right? Actually statistically, money does not matter. What matters is how appealing the candidate is to voters.

What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? According to the book, they both cheat. Well, ok, not all of them, but some of them definitely do. And there are ways of determining who and how. Teachers cheat on standardized tests. Sumo wrestlers throw some of their matches to allow some of the others to make it to the upper echelon (there is a huge disparity between being top tier and middle tier). This is all tied to incentives. In many places, teachers receive a bonus for getting good test scores in their classes (and like I mentioned, the sumo wrestlers have a major incentive too). There are many examples of the benefits and drawbacks to incentives. For instance, in the 1970s, researchers began to offer a small stipend for blood donors. What happened? less people donated blood. In 1987, seven million American children instantly disappeared. The IRS started requiring social security numbers for dependents on tax forms. Providing an adequate incentive without it being abused is walking a fine line indeed.

The next section is about the KKK. And honestly I’m almost tempted to not discuss it at all. It’s so worth learning about yourself. So I guess you’ve been warned. Skip this section if you want to read it yourself. You won’t regret it. The KKK was formed after the Civil War, and was fairly dormant until 1915 when a book was written which promoted its agenda. It became hugely popular (8 million members including President Warren Harding) but waned again in WW2. Post-war, however, it began to rise again in popularity. A Jacksonville man named Stetson Kennedy (related to those who made Stetson hats) was unable to fight in the war, but wanted to wage his own war against bigotry after his childhood black nanny was raped by a group of Klansmen. He decided to infiltrate the Klan to spy. One day he saw some children playing a spy game where they had secret passwords, and an idea was made. Stetson contacted the producers of the Superman radio show (aired nightly) who loved his idea. (Superman has always fought against America’s enemies but after WW2, he was fairly light on work.) Stetson fed the Superman producers details including passwords, positions, etc. which they wrote into their episodes. (The Klan structure is such that the top dog is called the Imperial Wizard. Below him, a Grand Dragon. Below that, a Great Titan. All officer positions began with Kl, i.e. Klaliff, Klokard, Klabee, etc. So without any work, the Klan was silly enough to easily write into the show). The Klan membership fell dramatically. Despite debilitating the Klan, Stetson Kennedy always felt that his most influential idea was the idea of “Frown Power”–encouraging people to frown when they heard a bigoted speech. 🙂

The book now ties back to the real estate market discussed in the introduction segued in by the power of information. Information is what brought down the Klan. Information, or so we believe, is why we hire real estate agents. The main interesting tidbit from this section is the ten common real estate terms: fantastic, granite, spacious, state-of-the-art, !, corian, charming, maple, great neighborhood, gourmet. The five that correlate to a higher sales price are: granite, state-of-the-art, corian, maple, and gourmet. The other five correlate to a lower sales price. In summary, don’t use generic adjectives in your listing. Buyers tend to assume the worst.

Jumping to a completely different topic, the book now turns to why drug dealers still live with their moms. The reason is not hard to guess if you know that drug dealing is regarded as a business operation. Just as in any business, the people at the top make the most money, and the people at the bottom make the least. However, the way that a drug dealing business works is that the people at the bottom do the most dangerous work and the people above all get a cut of what they bring in which leaves a huge disparity between the top and the bottom, aka a pyramid scheme. Additional information gleaned from this chapter: crack dealers have a 1 in 4 chance of being killed (you are better off being on death row), and black Americans have been hurt more by crack than any other single cause since Jim Crow. Yikes.

Jumping back (this book seriously jumps a lot) to one of, if not the most controversial topics of the book–that crime in the 1990s was reduced because of the availability of abortion. The chapter begins in Romania. In 1965, Nicolae Ceauşescu became the dictator of Romania and made abortion illegal. Previously to this, Romania had had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. Obviously Ceauşescu wanted to strengthen the numbers of his tiny Romanian warforce as he also banned contraception and sex education. The plan worked, in theory, as the birth rate doubled in just one year of the abortion ban. However Ceauşescu’s plan was short sighted. These children had limited food, education, etc. and as time went on, the children eventually (1989) rose up against Ceauşescu forcing him to flee. He and his wife were captured and executed. The children of the uprising were mostly between ages 13-20 and may not have even existed to oppose him if Ceauşescu had left the abortion laws as they were. In the United States, an opposite trend was happening. The mothers who knew they were not in situations where they would be able to provide appropriately for their children had abortions thus eliminating future juvenile delinquents. This is statistically backed in the book. I realize it’s a hard thing to believe regardless of your views about abortion. However, the book does provide a bit of a thought exercise as to whether or not abortion is worth the drop in crime. In my opinion, less people would have abortions if they believed that the child would be taken care of–either by them or by another family (not in foster care forever). However, until we as a society figure that out, I think that there will continue to be abortions.

Tying onto that, if babies are born, what are parents supposed to do with them? Obviously you fret over them, get them into the very best schools, and put them into every activity possible. Right? …right? I don’t have any kids, but most of my friends do. (And honestly after reading this section of the book, I may consider it 😉 ) So anyway, I know that the parenting information is all over the board. This chapter points out that most of it…doesn’t really make an iota of difference. Basically it’s fear mongering (one of my absolute biggest complaints about our society). Parents want to keep their children safe and smart, so they will do everything it takes. Obviously bad parenting makes a large difference in society as referenced in the abortion study, but how about good parenting? It’s hard to measure personality or creativity, so those are neglected from the book. The book’s study is solely based on school performance. The book lists out 8 factors which are strongly correlated to test scores and 8 factors that are not.

Factors that are correlated:
The child has highly educated parents (+)
The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status (+)
The child’s mother was 30 or older at the time of the first child’s birth (+)
The child had low birthweight (-)
The child’s parents speak English in the home (+)
The child is adopted (-)
The child’s parents are involved in the PTA (+)
The child has many books in his home (+)

Factors that are not correlated:
The child’s family is intact
The child’s family recently moved into a better neighborhood
The child’s mother did not work between birth and kindergarten
The child attended head start
The child’s parents regularly take him to museums
The child is regularly spanked
The child frequently watches television
The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.

Let that sink in. Basically nature >>> nurture. And the reason that I said maybe I should re-consider having a child? My husband and I meet all the + (pre-baby) characteristics. According to this, we could basically have a baby, do nothing else, and that child would do at least above average on test scores.

The last section of the book is in regards to naming said baby. While it is somewhat interesting, it’s also very tedious. You’ll have to read it yourself.

Verdict: 4 stars. Really ~3.75.

I enjoyed this book. The studies were all very surprising, and the data to back them up was strong but also interesting. I wished that there had been a bit more cohesion throughout. I thought that the underlying points about information and incentives was very useful to ponder, and the authors could have probably used these points to tie together the entire book if they had chosen to. I also wished that the introduction had not given the conclusions of the studies that it listed. I realize that it was trying to entice the reader, but I think that it went too far–making those sections less interesting when I got to them. All in all though, it was an interesting read, and I did learn that I should list my own house when I want to sell it!

Leave a comment

Filed under 4 stars, Book Review, Books