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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki" by Higashino Keigo

Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki by Higashino Keigo rating: 4.34
my verdict: the very best

pro: everything
con: nada

Higashino Keigo is crude. To talk about his style, I can't say anything but that his style sucks. His style is worse than most junior high students. His characters are weak. I admit that there are exceptions (for example, Yukiho in Byakuyakou, or Ishigami in The Devotion of Suspect X) but most of his characters are just names. His storytelling methods are most of the time very banal, or to put it more positively, cliché. His employment of frame narratives is so crude that it hurts the flow.

Still, I like most of his novels, and love some of them. The stories he tells are way too powerful. The basic idea that sustains the whole plot is simply genius. Small devices here and there do their job artfully in delivering the overall effect. As a result, his story rivets into your mind.

Reading Byakuyakou ("Walking under the White Night") is like being stabbed with a knife in the heart. When Yasuko reports herself to the police, and seeing this, Ishigami falls on his knees and cries, who is it that can stop himself/herself from shedding tears as well? (The Devotion of Suspect X)

But, of all his works, I love this one best. I can earnestly say that writing such a story is itself a miracle (kiseki). This novel is like a touch of a warm, soft hand of your beloved when you least expect it. It is like the first snow. It is like the moment when a kid finds what he wished for in the Christmas Stocking. The boy rubs his eyes because he is only half-awake yet, but he wants to find out sooner. And the world outside is shrouded with cotton-soft snow.

What I want to tell you is, reading this book is like receiving a gift. You never knew you wanted that gift, but now you know it.

Three good-for-nothing youngsters get into a shabby house. Then they find that there's a letter in the letterbox. They have nothing to do, and a night to spend. They decide to read the letter...

I still feel electrified just by thinking about the story.

I strictly stay away from containing spoilers in book reviews. So I do not wish to talk more. But I earnestly recommend this one to literally ANYONE. There are books that appeal to some but disgust others. But this one, I believe, will move any human being. I believe reading this book will make you happy, being reminded that you also belong to the same race.

(This is the cover of the Korean edition of the book, which I read)

"The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor rating: 4.13
my verdict: good!

pro: actionable
con: repetitive

Recommendation is a powerful tool in choosing books to read. The title of this book sounds so banal that you can instantly say that this must be a good-for-nothing self-help book that disguises itself as a psychology book. To tell the truth, the book title couldn't be anything else. This book actually says about the advantages of being happy. However, it is also true that I wouldn't have picked up this book if it were not for the recommendation of someone (and's high rating of course).

There are seven principles with the happiness advantage (even though they are not systemically interwoven like those seven habits of Stephen Covey).

1. The Happiness Advantage: capitalize on positivity to improve productivity/life.

2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: adjust your mindset (the fulcrum) so as to attain the most power (the lever).

3. The Tetris Effect: you are the lucky guy! Everything will turn out best for you!

4. Falling Up: Eureka, you fell! Now it's time to get up even stronger!

5. The Zorro Circle: start out small. Retain your core circle of control (i.e. the internal locus of control) whatever happens to you.

6. The 20-Second Rule: reroute the path of least resistance. Eliminate the 20-second obstacle to good habits. Build 20-or-more-second obstacle to your bad habits.

7. Social Investment: invest in friends, peers, and family so that you have a social support network when needed.

(Almost) Every item on the list is actionable. But I'd like to recommend the item number 6, that is, the 20-second rule, to people like me who get heavily challenged in terms of willpower on daily basis.

For example, you know daily exercise is great, but what if it takes 5 minutes in the morning to get ready and walk out the door to go jogging? Shawn says he went to bed in gym clothes so that he could automatically dash out of the bed to go jogging in the morning. For me, I found myself eating less potato chips when I put it in the pantry with a door, instead of right beside the coffee machine where I can see it (and grab it) more easily. So, for a good habit that you want to build on yourself, remove any obstacle that might discourage you from doing it habitually. For a bad habit that you want to shake off, build many obstacles so that it takes a lot of time and effort to do it. In other words, put your good habits on the path of least resistance.

Have I said that I like this book because it contains many actionable items? I will recommend some from the book.

1. Choose a day of the week. This is your good-deed day. Do five good things to others throughout the day. Of course, you will count each of them as you do it and feel great.

2. To have or to be? Spend money on experiences, rather than on stuffs. (This reminds me of the good book, The Story of Stuffs.)

3. Do you think you are doing petty things to earn living? That petty stuff most probably will lead to something greater in the bigger picture. Write down the petty thing you do not like, and draw an arrow. Then write down what that leads to. If that still does not satisfy you, draw another arrow and at the end of it write down what is accomplished by that. In most of the cases, your petty daily chore is a building block for a lot greater thing that you can be proud of.

4. Set an alarm at, let's say, 11 o'clock in the morning. When that sets off, begin writing down three good things that happened yesterday. Now your mind is set on the positive side.

5. When you get really stressed out, draw a table and divide the causes of your stress into two groups - those you can control and those you can't. Forget about those things you can't control. Focus on the little things you can tackle easily (the Zorro Circle). You will get improvement.

6. Clear obstacles to your good habits. Build obstacles to your bad habits.

7. Many people (including me!) spend energy and willpower in making small decisions that does not make any difference after all. Set up a simple rule and use it for quick decisions. Pizza or spaghetti? Toss a coin. You want to have one more cup of coffee? Set up the daily limit.

8. Make eye contacts. Look at people's eyes when they speak to you.

Wow, that's already quite a long list. At the end of the book, Shawn says about a man who thinks he is already doing all of these, while his wife isn't. Shawn told the man that he had heard the opposite from his wife a while ago. What I mean is, people (again including me) think they are doing things while they aren't. Let's start actually doing those good things. :)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Quiet: the Power of Introverts" by Susan Cain

Quiet: the Power of Introverts
by Susan Cain rating: 4.00
my verdict: well! (see below)

pro: good intention
con: this is part book, part manifesto (someone's review in

All's well that ends well. So, the final verdict for this book  is well(!) instead of good. The few pages at the end of the book, under the heading of conclusion, include some really good real-life advices for introverts, extroverts, teachers, and managers.

Except that, well, like the reviewer I quoted above, this may not be even a book. Yes, of course you can call a bundle of printed pages glued together a book. Yes, physically, a book. But what about the basics you learn at school about writing? I don't even accuse this book of being illogical. I accuse it of being incoherent. In one part, the author distinguishes being introvert from being shy, and goes on bedeviling shyness. In other part, she presupposes that being shy equals being introvert and goes on advocating shyness.

Even worse, for a very large part of the book, the author depicts a world torn apart between introverts and extroverts, and affirms single-handedly that it's the extroverts' bad. For example, she says the subprime mortgage crisis would not have happened if the bankers had been introverts instead of extroverts.

I am actually amazed that she has the gut to pitch this kind of stuff in the TED. Most people would have just ended up writing in their diaries.

However, as mentioned above, the book has a good intention. I wish it had a matching quality. And yes, I wasted a fair amount of time.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel" by Carl Safina

Goodreads rating: 4.38
My verdict: Good

Pro: Interesting and emotional episodes
Con: Do not expect science


Having a rating of whopping 4.38 on is a feat, you know. For your information, Richard Dawkins's Selfish Gene has a rating of 4.10, Stephen Hawking's The Universe in a Nutshell, 4.12, Keigo Higashino's Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki, 4.33. My brief search could find only one book that has a higher rating: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, at 4.59.

This is a very interesting book, coming at you often with riveting stories of emotional depth that leave big impacts on your mind. I was an elephant lover but I am an adorer now. Wolves deserve much more respectable traits for metaphors. Killer whales, (I sigh,) they are much better beings than us humans, in every aspects.

But, is this a science book? If you expect it to be one, you will be disappointed. Most stories are told like a gossip. When the author argues something, what he brings as the proof is, most of the time, a hearsay. Yes, the hearsay is in the format of some scientist's argument, but the scientist is quite often a like-minded fellow researcher who happened to live in the author's neighborhood and told him the episodes over a dinner table.

This book is like the famous animal stories by Ernest Thompson Seton. The book strikes you with a very powerful insights about the world and the position of us human beings in it, but you'd better not expect what is told is scientifically solid. I strongly suspect the author actually believes that he is delivering a set of scientific arguments backed by solid evidences, but I don't think the author's arguments will appear on The Nature as they do in this book.

But do not underestimate this book. It will make you think about the world, mankind, and other habitants of our planet, from a different perspective than before. And once more, it is a powerfully compelling read. Science or not, you will enjoy this book and love the animals in it. And yes, there are other beings living in this world that matter too.