Friday, July 8, 2016

"The Course of Love" by Alain de Botton

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton rating: 4.08
my verdict: crap

pro: short
con: it's not that short

This one has the highest rating in among de Botton's numerous books. I found it too late that this is because it has been only very recently released. I believe the rating will go down to around 3.6ish in two months. Of course, for me, this is a one-star crap.

The book is comprised of a series of episodes that you have already seen in some sitcoms. The narratives are pretentious but hollow. De Botton's dumb style that attempts to decorate a pile of shit so that it looks like a cake, persists.

The highlight of the author's stupidity comes when he attempts to compose a bundle of proverbs of his own, when he speaks about Rabih's being ready for marriage. It makes you puke. Hold Caulfield would have puked like a million times about this phoniness.

This being not enough, the audiobook is read by some idiot, who whispers whenever he reads a part where Kirsten says something. Boy, he whispers when Kirsten is quarreling with Rabih.

This is the most horrible book experience for me this year, and I sincerely this does not happen to me again. Not to anybody, for that matter.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Organisez Vos Idees avec le Mindmapping" by Denis Rebaud et al.

Organisez Vos Idees avec le Mindmapping by Denis Rebaud et al. rating: 3.5
my verdict: mixed, but it's worth a shot

pro: sincere intention to invite you to the mindmap
con: unorganized, incoherent, helter-skelter, verbose, out of focus

Everyone knows that action is the key to any change. David Allen's Getting Things Done is, in sum, about the importance of breaking things into pieces so that each piece becomes actionable.

Before this book, I've tried a few books on Mindmap, two books by Buzan himself and one by someone else. Even though the concept of mindmap is simple enough, I could not really grasp the usefulness of such a tool. Frankly, up until yesterday, my conclusion about mindmap was that it is another marketing BS. It felt like people are trying to sell something that they themselves do not know exactly what it is.

Yes, I talked about action. What happened was, yesterday afternoon, I just decided to give it a shot. I just decided to try making a few mindmap. The authors of this book says mindmap can be used in almost all mind activities, from taking a memo to managing projects. I tried summarizing a report, and voila, it felt not too bad.

I finished the book this lunchtime. And in the meantime, I summarized about five work-related reports using mindmap. It feels fun!

At the beginning of the book, it says one obstacle in using mindmap is people's gaze. Seeing you scribbling something on paper in a peculiar way, people might regard you a weirdo - is the fear you have that prevents you from trying mindmapping. Now I strongly agree. You'd better not take others' gaze into consideration when you want to decide whether mindmap is for you or not.

Mindmap, despite its dirty look, has one clear advantage: that you can see the whole in one shot. Now I believe that it's worth trying at least once. You might end up being another mindmapper, or maybe not. But why don't you even test it once?

p.s. About the book itself, you can never say it's well written. The book is composed of incoherent parts sewn together. However, the authors' intention is sincere, and somehow they succeeded in persuading me that mindmap is worth a try. So, I give it three stars even though the book itself deserves even less than that.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"The Art of Travel" by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton rating:3.81
my verdict: you can forego this one

pro: you might like some part of the book, guarantees a good night's sleep
con: you get bored

Most of us can neither compose a decent piece of concerto nor paint a decent piece of oil-painting. However, most of us can talk and write. Of course, this does not mean that most of us can write a decent piece of essay. However, it is much easier to overestimate our capacity in writing than in composing music or in painting. Thus, writers are rather forced to foster a style of one's own. Simply put, styles can be either succinct or verbose. While succinct sounds positive, verbose does not. The reason is as follows: To be succinct is difficult. On the other hand, not to be verbose is very difficult.

I do not like the style of Alain de Botton. He easily bores readers. He is very verbose, often lost among his own words. He often overstretches similes and metaphors. He knows too much useless things. And worse, he wants to let it show. The Arts of Travel is like a sampler of his boring style.

My wife finished this book first and told me, "it gets better in the latter half." Yes, it does. However, it took her a whole week to finish this one. Seeing this, I took a rather strategic approach, and read a chapter every morning over breakfast. It also took me a whole week. (Yes, I read more in the weekend.) And yes, I liked the parts about Wordsworth (who has never been my favorite poet), Sinai Desert, and John Ruskin.

But, why, why should someone ever read this book? It does neither entertain nor inform. Actually, if you want to try this book, read a chapter every night, which will nudge you into a good night's sleep.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely rating: 4.09
my verdict: super-fun reading

pro: interesting facts, funny experiments, great style
con: nothing

It is known that we human are irrational. But the author says that our irrational behaviors are predictable. Therefore, we can predict our irrational tendency and choose to fix it if needs be.

In this fun book, Dan Ariely shows how we human beings behave in irrational, but predictable ways, by showing the results of his and other people's funny experiments. In many experiments, Dan himself carried out the experiments. For example, it was Dan who put the 6-pack cokes in the fridge to gauge their half-life. And it was also he who got beer orders in a restaurant when people tried to look unique just for the sake of it.

Most of all, I liked his style. He is not verbose at all, but he puts a few extra words to describe how irrationally people behave, which make you laugh out loud.

I would like to give this book 4.5 stars. But again, a few hearty laughs are worth more than half a star.

What follows are summaries of of each chapter, more or less for my personal record.

Chapter 1 - The Truth about Relativity
Two choices are juxtaposed and we don't know which to choose. It is like, A is better than B in one trait, but in the other trait, B is better. Overall score looks similar. In this picture, a marketing guru comes in and puts another choice, namely, A-, which is overall similar to A, but a little bit (but noticeably) inferior to A. Then everyone rushes to A. With the backdrop of the inferior counterfeit, A suddenly looks better than not only A, but B. His episode with the Economist subscription tells the story in a succinct and clear way.

Chapter 2 - The Fallacy of Supply and Demand
Price is not determined by supply and demand. Price is heavily influenced by the initial anchor! Given the same task, people who were suggested 90 cents bid higher wages than those who were suggested 10 cents. MSRP is designed to be the anchor for our willingness to pay.

Chapter 3 - The Cost of Zero Cost
Zero cost rushes you to make choices you won't make otherwise. The author believes this is because of we human beings' deeply rooted fear about loss. When something cost you nothing, you don't see the downside of the interaction, and there it goes. But marketers know this well, and make you spend even more by giving you something for free. The Lindt vs. Kiss experiment shows this well. (By the way, in Switzerland Lindt is a cheap low-quality chocolate and is dirt cheap!)

Chapter 4 - The Cost of Social Norms
People are willing to do things either when they are paid reasonably, or when they do it in the context of social relations. When they are paid inadequately, they won't do it. Your lawyer friend might pick up a parcel for you in return for a candy bar, but won't fill your legal form for the same candy bar! The even more important lesson from this chapter is, that a social norm relation can really quickly easily turn into a market norm, and that once deteriorated into a market norm, the social norm won't return easily. A bank might be able to cuddle a customer with simple gifts and free services, so that he feels he and the bank are in a social norm. Let's say, the customer fails to pay his due once, and the bank makes him pay the penalty according to the account contract. Now the relation plummets into a market norm, and will hardly ever return. So, corporations, if you want to make customers feel like they are at home with your services, choose wisely when to apply the market economics.

Chapter 5 - The Influence of Arousal
Dr. Jekyll believes that he can control the dark Mr. Hyde. But no. Hot is actually hotter than we think. When hot, we cannot control ourselves and make lousy and dangerous decisions. Don't you affirm that you will be different.

Chapter 6 - The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control
We perform best when we are dictated to do things. The report deadline experiment shows this so crisply well we can't deny it. So, if we are fined when we skip our routine cholesterol check, general health level of the country will enhance. What I liked in this chapter is the author's meeting with the bankers, marketing a self-control credit card. While the bank will lose some $17 billion in interest charges, it will stand out among the crowd as the good bank. But the bank never called back. Perhaps they decided to choose the interest charges over the good bank image. Or perhaps they just procrastinated. ;)

Chapter 7 - The High Price of Ownership
We price what we have simply because we have it. We are emotionally attached, and we focus more on what we lose than what we gain. The IKEA effect (TM) says that the more labor and efforts you put in, the more you value it. Furthermore, we assume ownership even before we actually have it. So, 30-day money back guarantee works. When the deadline approaches, your loss of what you already have looks much bigger than the meager cash payment you will receive in return.

Chapter 8 - Keeping Doors Open
Even smart people make bad choices just to have more options. So, parents teach their kids all kinds of things - foreign language, piano, painting, and Taekwondo - just to keep the doors open.

Chapter 9 - The Effect of Expectation
The well-know effect of expectation on actual outcomes. The example is about the famous Pepsi blind test. When people are told that they will drink Coke, a part of the brain activates, and they come to believe that they are drinking Coke, their favorite brand. Asian girls will score higher in math when they are (secretively) reminded that they are Asian, but they will score lower when they are reminded of their gender. Their performance actually follow the popular myth - an expectation.

Chapter 10 - The Power of Price
Continuing from the previous theme, the expectation effect, this chapter talks about the Placebo effect. A 50-cent drug can do things that a 1-cent drug can't.

Chapter 11&12 - The Context of Our Character
Again, the priming effect. Primed by reminding oneself of the Ten Commandments, people cheat less. We feel stealing money much more uncomfortable than stealing a can of coke. As we get further away from "money", such as a token or a stock option, less qualm we feel.

Chapter 13 - Beer and Free Lunches
When ordering in a restaurant, people tend to order different dishes when they are heard. On the other hand, when they can order in writing, they order what they want. So, be the first one to order in restaurants, or talk about what you will order before the waiter arrives. Behavioral economics do not presume rational human behavior, instead, it observes how they behave. In behavioral economics, because things are not perfectly organized, so you might be able to find a loose spot and earn some free lunches.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Spark" by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman

Spark by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman rating: 4.09
my verdict: yes, solid 4 stars

pro: it reads well, and it makes you feel good (the book makes you believe that you will exercise)
con: somewhat repetitive?

Whatever health trouble you have, begin exercising right now.

Exercise is perhaps the best thing that can happen in your life, if you round up the overall score, after accounting for all the minute plus and minus effects. Even better, it is something that you can ignite, proactively. Whether it happens in your life or not, it is your choice.

I do exercise regularly, and I feel the benefits - psychological as well as physical ones. I do enjoy the positive energy surging in my body when I finish the last lap of burpee in my daily exercise routine.

According to the author, almost all health problems related with the brain can be treated by exercising, at least to a certain degree. Depression, stress, ADHD, hormone imbalance, dementia... the list goes on and on.

However, do not count the author as another self-help book peddler. For example, he is subscribing medicines as well as exercise, which means he does not think that some strong belief can make anything happen. Of course, he is also giving lots of lab results as evidences, but I am one of those who do take statistics with a grain of salt. (I used to make living with statistics, for your information.)

Overall, the book reads well and do not tire readers despite some repetitions. I think this is due to the power of episodes, the true stories of living people around us. This book is not just a pile of information. Actually, it reads like an exercise. Reading this book makes you feel good.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

goodreads rating: 4.1
my verdict: really good

This is a famous novel, but I was not lured to read this until someone mentioned that Meursault (from L'Etranger by Albert Camus) and Zorba belong to the same kind of human being. For example, Meursault carries on his life as usual the day when his mother died. He knows that people expect certain behaviors on certain occasions, but he does not wish to live up to their expectations. He would rather live up to his own desire. Zorba, in this context, looks very similar. For example, even though his boss ranks very high on his life's agenda, Zorba decides to spend all the trusted fund to Lola, to follow his own desire. The two personae are quite different from the perspective of social status, Zorba and Meursault, but they both behaves as they like. They do not give a damn what others might think of them. And we know this attitude is extremely difficult.

Zorba the Greek consistently kept me thinking about Narziss und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. (And of course Siddhartha by the same author.) Simply put, Narziss versus Goldmund equals the boss versus Zorba. Two sets of personae, they both seek truth, but in different ways. Narziss focuses on mind activities for the purpose, while Goldmund decides to seek it in the world (in der welt). The boss, like Narziss, has been following books and buddhism to reach the truth. Then he meets Zorba, who seems to have found the truth already, by living in the world.

Therefore, strangely enough but also in a very unavoidable fashion, Meursault also meets Narziss and Goldmund, along with Zorba. What is L'Etanger? Perhaps the most famous existentialist novel. Martin Heidegger's dasein is also in-der-welt-sein. In other words, being cannot be but being there (dasein), and it is also being in the world (in-der-welt-sein). Zorba knew it, and Goldmund came to know it. And, Meursault was also living it.

I am not sure if Zorba is right. (Right and wrong is a very childish idea, but I cannot find a better term here.) But I know that I cannot choose to live like Zorba. All my life when I was in the university, truth was the biggest theme in my life, and I still think I want it. Is Zorba the answer? I know there are people who behave like Zorba, and I know I am not one of them. Should I aspire to be like them? Or should I yet stay on the road of mind like Narziss did? I still want to learn, and books are the easiest tool, at least for now.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Presentation Zen Design" by Garr Reynolds

Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds rating: 4.17
my veridct: main dish is excellent, but the hors d'oeuvre and the dessert are terrible

pro: solid core messages, good examples
con: verbose and repetitive introductions, shallow show-off about the author's knowledge about Eastern culture

This book is almost refuting its own arguments in its design and contents. In presentations, less is more. The book could have been one third of its volume and still perfect. The book starts with a very long and boring introduction. When you're done with the waddling through the puddle and are gasping, you find that every chapter afterwards starts with its own verbose introduction, thoroughly till the end. You can imagine all those introductions are repetitive, thus boring.

Another thing that rubs you the wrong way is the author's imprudent quotes about Japan. The book starts with the author saying that the Japanese cuisine, "washoku(和食)", is about harmony. Following the same logic, the United States is a country of beauty, Germany a country of mercy, and France a country of law. I know that the author added "literally" in that argument to avoid this kind of criticism, perhaps. Then again, I can say that, literally, the author is one that protrudes in the family of Reynolds.

I know he lived in Japan for 20 years and I bet he knows a lot about its culture. But put yourself in the other's shoes. Imagine some Japanese guy who lived in France for 20 years talking about the Latin roots of French words. Most of Europeans will scorn at the insolence. His quotes about Chinese letters are actually very scornful for most East Asian people, but I will talk no more.

Now, on the bright side, content-wise this book is very satisfactory. Nothing spectacularly new, but most suggestions in the book are solid tips for good presentation (and the design of slides for it). I learned a thing or two about the selection of colors, among other things. And the examples found in the book are well chosen. What I liked most was, the suggestion about using a photo bigger than the screen, leaving the unseen for the realm of imagination.

Overall, the book is worth reading. If the author could have followed his own advice and have written the book in, let's say, 70 pages instead of 240+, it would have won 4 solid stars.