Book Reviews

5/5 Stars

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It goes into great depth on many of the cognitive biases that we face when making both minor and important decisions in our lives. It’s replete with examples, and spares no effort to make sure that you’ve wrapped your head completely around the concepts.

At its core, this book will teach you when you can and can’t trust your intuition. It examines this from the perspective of two “systems” that coexist within the brain, but serve entirely different purposes. It expounds on when we use each one, why, and each of their failings.

For such a high level book, I’ve found it very actionable. I’m watching my thought processes more. I’m steering myself away from snap judgments when I know that there’s no supporting evidence for the conclusion that I arrived at. I’m learning to ask the right questions of myself when making estimates and associating concepts.

The author has done decades of research on this topic. He won the Nobel Prize for it too — in economics, despite him being a psychologist and having never taking any economics courses. Even more surprisingly, the book includes several fairly scathing critiques of mainstream macroeconomics.

I think that anyone who does knowledge work can strongly benefit from reading this. I might even read it a second time in the future.

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic look at the most misunderstood villain of our time, Genghis Khan. For the first half of the book, I felt almost like I was there in the Steppe with the Great Khan as he unified the Mongolian tribes and conquered the lands around them.

Why would you want to read this book? If you’re anything like me, it’s appealing to read the story of a leader who went from having absolutely nothing, to commanding vast armies across continents. Most interestingly to me, Genghis Khan did this by controlling his ego and thinking rationally about the challenges that he faced.

The research and pacing of this book are both very well done. Where it falls short is in the last 1/3 or so, where it reads almost like a completely different author’s work. It’s still interesting, but it loses the depth and storytelling elements of the first 2/3.

It also seemed like it might be overly flattering of Genghis Khan. He was misunderstood, no doubt, but I got the sense that some of his mistakes and atrocities were glossed over for the purpose of hyping up the central theme of the book.

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Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster (Lean (O'Reilly))Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster (Lean by Alistair Croll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A quite elaborate, though not rigorous, analysis of all the numbers that you should be looking at in every stage of an early startup. When I was building my startup, I found myself correcting the course I was on several times as I went through this, despite having an extensive background in lean beforehand.

Particularly useful is the analysis of the One Metric That Matters (OMTM). The clarity that this provides really helps with focusing and cutting out all the noise. The case studies that are included, while not all examples of lean, show how you can sprinkle this thinking into your startup without fully committing to it and still get fantastic results.

If I could go back in time, I would read The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company first, and then read this once I got to phase 4.

I would have liked a primer on how to measure the success of marketing campaigns, but I suppose that I could find that in other books.

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4/5 Stars

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Elements of Style is a terse and shallow exploration of writers’ commonly made mistakes and neglected sentence-paragraph structures. It’s composed of several chapters, each one assigned high-level concepts such as “style,” “paragraph and sentence structure,” etc. It’s further broken down into sub-sections, each one with actionable suggestions, including explanations and examples demonstrating both the erroneous and correct forms. You would appreciate this style if you also appreciate instruction manuals and textbooks.

The first time I’m using what I’ve learned is in writing this review. As I tap away at the keyboard, I’m alternating between my review’s text and my notes, where I’ve copied a dauntingly large amount of the book’s recommendations. If you read this book, you too will anguish at rewriting a sentence several times before settling on its final form; and it’ll be worth it.

I am a man who enjoys complying with standards and best practices insofar as exceptions aren’t obviously warranted. This applies to language, purchases, programming, and many other areas of my life. If you don’t also derive pleasure from standardization, you will be frustrated by this book.

Many other persons gave this book unfavorable reviews. Note that the use of the word “persons” rather than “people” is one of its recommendations. I’m a novice writer–if one would even dare to call me a writer at all. This book was quite helpful to me, but I would have benefited from analyzing more examples. I caution that unless you’re making many mistakes already, you will need to read many more books to improve your writing significantly.

Overall, I recommend reading this book. It took me only four hours to get through from beginning to end while taking notes. As I haven’t fully internalized it, I will, however, write substantially slower for the foreseeable future. If you write as part of your career, or you’re interested in writing as a hobby, you too will almost certainly benefit from reading it.

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Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On ItNever Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never Split the Difference is a fascinating series of anecdotes and observations written by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator. He clearly intended for this to be the “one negotiation book to rule them all,” as he both invalidates and builds on top of the ideas of Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In, the former bible in this space. The essential innovation is that the exploration and manipulation of feelings are a core part of good negotiating.

There’s no question that the author is one of the foremost experts on the topic. His knowledge is the holy grail: a combination of theory and practice in the most difficult of situations. Furthermore, he’s unique in that he began his career on the ground, only later transitioning into academia. This gives the book a unique battle-tested flavor that I found lacking in Getting to Yes.

This is one of few self-help books that entertained me with its stories. The author recounts one tale of his team huddled around a table in the penthouse of a dimly lit apartment building, assailants holding hostages at gunpoint just across the street. The negotiators took turns speaking in their best late-night FM DJ voices, uttering gentle and reassuring coos into the phone for hours until the assailants threw up their arms and surrendered. In another flashback, he expounded on the beginnings of his career at a volunteer-run suicide hotline call center.

This book lacks a system of feedback to understand where you’re failing and how to improve. It offers the kernel of one, as it lays out how to “nudge” the opposite side to say “that’s right” instead of “you’re right.” This is important because a less defensive opposition that believes that it’s in control is easier to negotiate with. Unfortunately, this idea isn’t developed enough for the implementing reader to know what they should be improving.

As the author is incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, he deserves lavish praise–though the book is replete with self-promotion. He did an excellent job of burying this within the emotional highs of his stories. I only caught my irrational exuberance thanks to the tactics espoused in a book mentioned in the introduction, Thinking, Fast and Slow. I suspect that many people gave this book 5 stars because of this style of writing.

Don’t get me wrong; the tactics work. My results have improved significantly since beginning to internalize these ideas. Friends have told me the same. I’ve also changed the way I fundamentally think about negotiation. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you should benefit from reading this book.

If you’re looking for a quick fix, you’d be better served by a summary or a crash course from an experienced friend. You’ll have to take lots of notes and put theories into practice, in the process learning how much incredible depth there is to negotiation. No matter, the stories should engage you, even if the lessons don’t.

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3/5 Stars and Below

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human DecisionsAlgorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Algorithms to Live By, as its title implies, is an exploration of the intersections of computer science and human decision-making. It excludes all proofs and deeper analysis, thereby providing only a shallow understanding of the topics it covers.

It’s most useful in forming connections in your mind between the two spaces, rather than as a tool to ramp up on either or both. I’ve read Thinking, Fast and Slow, and I have plenty of background in computer science, therefore I felt that I was well-equipped to tackle this. Don’t get me wrong, you can still follow along quite handily without a background in either space, but you’ll miss many of the useful insights.

This book gives little in the way of actionable information. Most of its treatments are entirely theoretical, with only one or two directly actionable recommendations per topic. Furthermore, it often places caveats on these recommendations, for example: requiring very well-formed problem statements, or stating that humans already happen to choose the optimal solution, thereby not needing the recommendation at all. It’s a series of brain teasers; don’t go into it expecting more.

I softly recommend this somewhat unactionable book to anyone who considers themselves logical thinkers and wishes to build upon that strength further. I would also recommend it for people who are searching for topics to get excited about, as its anecdotes, particularly on probability and game theory, are quite good. A good heuristic is that, if you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell books and any STEM field, you would probably enjoy this. Unfortunately, people with an extensive background in computer scientist will derive little benefit from this book.

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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good overview of why deep work is important. Also includes useful tactics and strategies for getting more of it into your life. Unfortunately, if you’re a software engineer, I think you would be better served reading the blogs of top programmers like DHH and Joel Spolsky. They also go into some depth on these things in a more targeted way.

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Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and ContentAccidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has some interesting ideas, but it falls short because it really didn’t have to be the length that it is. This could have been an extended blog post with some footnotes and “see more” links and been equally, if not more effective.

The techniques do work to some extent, but the marketing both surrounding and inside (!) this book fall into the classic self-help trap of promising to turn you into Super(wo)man after you’ve read it.

To my own personal enjoyment, the author takes some jabs at famous woo-woo self-help advice, such as the “invisible council” of Napolean Hill. He even chooses to be constructive and builds it back up again to boot, using his own ideas to fix the weaknesses that he found.

The bottom line is that this is a good book to help you brainstorm alone more effectively, and get at the root cause of problems you’re facing. If you focus your efforts and reading on the sections covering these topics, then you can save yourself a bunch of time.

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