This is one of those rare books that strikes the right balance between being choked full of fascinating information, and not being over the head of a non-specialists. It has a tremendous breadth of coverage, and I would absolutely recommend it first (before anything by Sachs or Easterly, for example) for those interested in development economics. (It's not a bad read for economists either.)
For those who don't know: there's a longstanding feud between Sachs and Easterly--who sit at opposite ends of Manhattan at Columbia and NYU respectively--over, among other things, whether giving more aid to poor countries actually does any good, with Sachs arguing that it does, and Easterly basically arguing that if you don't have good "institutions"--which no one ever quite fully defines--nothing is going to help. Banerjee and and Duflo, at MIT, are trying to move the discipline beyond this old argument, and I would say largely succeed in this book. They do this by focusing on data driven results, especially experimental results, which are very rare in much of economics, but are becoming more and more the norm in development since there's a good deal of donor money and projects in poor countries can be remarkably inexpensive. So, for example, there's this really old irritating argument over whether giving away mosquito bednets, as opposed to selling them cheaply, actually leads to less usage because people don't value them. Well, someone finally actually did the experiment, and found that people who are given bednets mostly do actually use them, though they may take extras and waste them, and selling them really cheap works pretty well too. This is what development economists spend their time on.
But there are many more interesting facts to be learned from this book. For example, hunger apparently isn't a problem almost anywhere in the world, though a few specific spots in sub-Saharan Africa may be exceptions. But in most places, if you give people more money to be spent on food, they don't end up eating any more calories; they just eat nicer food. On the other hand, poor nutrition among children and pregnant women may be an issue with serious long-term costs. Community scale drinking water systems may be one of the most effective ways of preventing illness. Microfinance doesn't hurt the poor, but it doesn't seem to help all that much either. Insurance schemes for the poor may seem like a nice idea, but are very hard to implement and are often resisted by those they're intended to help.
My main quibble: This new approach to development is inherently microeconomic (as opposed to macro) in nature. You can't really do macroeconomic experiments where you transform one country's economy and not another. Which doesn't mean macro issues aren't discussed at all--there's a very long discourse on how poverty traps, essentially a macro idea, are to be understood at the micro level. But some of the big ideas in development are inherently macro in nature. One book can't do everything, but since I really do think this should be the first book non-specialists read, I would have liked the authors to summarize some of the other perspectives on the field a little more/better.
This book has a gee whiz aspect to it that I found irritating. The author begins with an anecdote about how he begins his freshman course at Stanford by bringing a newspaper into the class and showing how all the stories on the front page (Patriots Win Superbowl?) have something to do with law. If that sounds exciting and insightful to you, this may be the book for you. If it sounds like a pretty banal observation, pass this one up. The book lacks a coherent focus, and seems to delight in the sort of random factoids that are designed, again, to make an impression on college freshmen: early American law had a lot of provisions to deal with slavery. Umm, ok, so what? I think the author wants us to scratch your head and say "if law was wrong about the morality of slavery, what other moral issues could it be wrong about?" I'd like to think this wouldn't have struck me as deep even when I was a college freshman. He also makes frequent reference to the work of actual scholars without providing actual citations or context--again the sort of thing to whet the appetite of freshmen without scaring them off (or allowing them to check your claims and demonstrate that their professor has no clothes).
Here's the good news: it turns out that audible has a lot of interesting books on law, many targeted at law school students rather than undergraduates. I'm pretty new to the area myself, so I can't provide great recommendations, but keep looking and you'll find something worthwhile.
You know the story of the blind men and the elephant: one feels the trunk and says it's a tree branch, another feels the ear and says it's a fan... Green seems strangely determined to cast the various reform movements in education in this spirit, as all essentially striving for the same thing, even as they differ in their particulars. Having listened to the book, I see this as fundamentally wrongheaded. Various reform agendas are clearly at odds, and for any one to be right, many of the others must be wrong. Ironically, good teaching confronts students' incorrect beliefs about a subject rather than trying to synthesize them into an incoherent whole (check out the classic teaching video "A Private Universe" if you haven't seen it). It may feel good to say we're all in this together and playing for the same team, but if that's not true, pretending it's so will only lead to muddled thinking and bad policy.
I'm guessing Green's credulity stems in large part from her proximity to her subjects. She's not a teacher or a social scientist, but a journalist, and the book has the feel of a string of irreconcilable magazine pieces, each about the latest fad or reformer, strung together. The splits probably come through more clearly in the print version, but from listening I'd pick out the following key ideas/sections: 1) the key to good teaching is to get inside your students' heads and understand what lead them to the wrong answers; 2) the key to good teaching is for teachers to observe one another and talk about tiny details of teaching (to me, this was the most compelling case in the book by far); 3) the key to good teaching is scalability/training since it's easy to improve one classroom or even school, but there's millions of teachers out there; 4) the key to good teaching is for "entrepreneurs" to bring business skills into the education sector; 5) relatedly, the key is to instill discipline in students (to me, these two points were by far the weakest, and Green presents plenty of evidence for their failure, but refuses to come out and say clearly that they're wrongheaded, again I think because she's too close to her subjects and found the education entrepreneurs so personable); 6) the key to good teaching is "rigor", although what this means is unclear--it's the missing element when discipline produces students who know their multiplication tables but still suck at math; 7) the key to good teaching is "infrastructure", i.e. providing resources (curriculum, test banks, etc.) to teachers, but this is tricky because it sounds like she's supporting the worst elements of test-based standards, which leads to a long and seemingly misplaced discussion of federalism in US education policy; 8) the key to good teaching is to love your students.
It's worth noting the few cross-cutting themes, and the ideas that Green does reject. While she makes frequent reference to studies by economists showing the value of good teachers, she argues strongly that teaching skill is not (always) innate, and thus that teachers shouldn't be dropped for bad results, but retrained instead. Perhaps, but surely there's some degree of aptitude, and willingness. She discusses, for example, how New Math failed in the classrooms of many well-intentioned teachers who simply didn't understand it. But surely there are also teachers who weren't/aren't well-intentioned, who will insist on doing things their way even if the research shows it's ineffective. What should we do with these teachers?
Ending the book with "all you need is love" really makes it clear that Green, after years of research, has no coherent thesis or plan for what needs to be done. That's fine, plenty of others have spent longer in the field and don't have all the answers either. But I would like to see her own up to this a little more, and be a bit more critical of the teaching professionals she profiles. This is probably the best book on teaching and education reform out there (the other obvious contender being "How Children Succeed") and it's a worthwhile listen. Just approach it with some criticality. You know, like you should have learned in school.
This is a hard book to review. I'm glad I listened to it, but I feel like I can't strongly recommend you do so. It's not a very enjoyable listen. I found myself frequently turning it off, even when I was doing nothing terribly important. It's full of detail that perhaps is important to making the author's case (though I question that), but which very few people will ever absorb let alone recall.
What I liked most about Freeman's perspective is that he engages his historical subjects as human beings. I remember from my required freshman humanities courses a constant refrain about how we can't impose our values on the past, that historical figures like Augustine need to be related to on their own terms, and that looking at them through something like a modern psychoanalytic lens is just wrong. Freeman is, unapologetically, more a popular writer than an historian or humanist, and he doesn't dilly dally around with this. He shows that early Christian thinkers asked the sort of questions you'd expect sensible people to ask when confronted, in a serious way, with nonsense: was Jesus less than God the father since the latter created (begot--what does that even mean?) the former? Was Jesus created at the beginning of time, or was he there before that? Did he assume his human essence at birth, or did he exist in Mary's womb? Freeman attempts to connect this line of inquiry directly with the tradition of Greek thought: early Christian scholars were trained at schools that could trace their origins back to Plato. These early scholars could frame solid philosophical arguments and could debate (and felt able to debate without fear of earthly or heavenly reprisal) at a high level, whereas later Medieval scholars had lost this ability. I'm no expert, but I found this line line of argument compelling.
The obvious conclusion from Freeman's arguments both in this and his previous book (which I have not read) is pro-secular: Christianity, and more generally religion, closed the Western mind. From his introduction, Freeman is clearly unhappy being associated with this view. He makes the obligatory swipe at New Atheism before sketching out a subtler thesis: It wasn't religion or (mono)theism that ended the tradition of free inquiry in Western thought for a thousand years, it was rather the intervention of the state into religious matters, especially in a religious conclave of 381. This is the core of Freeman's argument, and the main point on which I'm unconvinced. There are several lines of attack, but I'll just take one: that state intervention to resolve the never-ending disputes of the early Christian church was inevitable well before 381 given the interminable and destabilizing nature of the disputes themselves. This was clearly the perspective of many of the state actors (various emperors especially) who Freeman quotes. In the end, I felt like Freeman was trying to thread a needle (with a camel).
Freeman has a strange reverence for philosophical debates, even when they fall into the Seinfeld category of debates about nothing. Again, I like that he engages with these historical disputes without condescending to them, but I feel like there's way more detail than there needs to be. This is, unfortunately, usually what happens with scholars who are questioned: they write another book that reads like the endnotes to their first book. At the same time, Freeman's lack of academic chops shine through in his failure/refusal to engage with, or really give any sense at all of, the existing literature. I have no idea which pieces of Freeman's argument are novel and which are well-trodden. I'm also unclear (I assume these are in actual endnotes of the print version) what his sources are, or how this information about the 3rd and 4th century came down to us. That would have been quite interesting to discuss in the text, I think.
I hope this makes clear why I say I'm glad I listened to it but I don't recommend it. As for the narrator: yes, he has an annoying way of ending every sentence like it's a cliffhanger. But it honestly stopped bothering me pretty quickly, and I doubt you'll find it a problem.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of this book is that it teaches us nothing new (and Lewis' smug press tour is more than a little self-aggrandizing). That's surely true for people close to the topic, and it's true that the book "Dark Pools," also on audible, covered most of the same ground two years ago. But while most people have heard of high-frequency trading, remarkably few people really understand how it works, let alone are able to explain it. Narrative matters, and Lewis is a master storyteller with a gift for finding compelling characters. I struggled through Dark Pools, but eagerly devoured Flash Boys, and it's clear that Flash Boys may yet change the world (at least a little) in a way Dark Pools did not. Perhaps the other big criticism of this book is that it only gives a surface gloss of what HFT is all about. This is also somewhat true, and also doesn't really matter. You won't come away from this book with the knowledge to open your own high frequency trading firm, but you will get what it's all about.
This is partly because HFT is simply not rocket science. There's a just-so story about a lot of physics PhDs moving to Wall Street and applying their super intellects to outwit the mere mortals who preceded them. In fact, HFT is all about being faster, not smarter; and as Lewis makes clear, the smartest people on Wall Street are often the tech guys in the back room making the computers work and being paid a fraction of what the traders get. Yes, the markets are extremely complicated, but that's all built-in, obstacles added by the exchanges to help their best clients: the high frequency traders.
Lewis wasn't able to get away from intelligence hero worship altogether though. The people he chronicles always turn out somehow to be the smartest, and quirkiest guys in the room. From early in the book (and even before reading it), I was wondering: why not just build a short delay into everyone's orders to prevent HFT? I figured it must turn out to be more complicated than this, and I'm sure there are wrinkles, but that's basically the answer you come to after 300 pages/10 hours. But then there's a problem: they want to slow the traders down, which means adding a few hundred extra miles of fiber optics (I don't understand why this couldn't be done with software--possibly for regulatory reasons--but no matter), but they don't want to make the brokers connect to their service in Indiana. What could they do? In Lewis's telling, these geniuses sit around their scrappy startup office, wracking their brains through tense hours until inspiration strikes the cleverest among them: why not just coil the fiber round and round? I mean, where does this level of brilliance even come from? Why, this guy could be the hero of his own Ayn Rand novel!
This somewhat unctuous (to his preferred interviewees) quality of Lewis's writing is not helped at all by the narration of Dylan Baker, who has narrated a number of Lewis' books and has the verbal equivalent of botox-induced constant surprise face. Every sentence is the most shocking thing he's ever heard in his life. It's strange, but you get used to it, and at this point it just sounds like Michael Lewis to me.
Arguments over Alexander Hamilton generated tremendous passion in his own time; indeed they largely defined the first decade or two of politics in the new republic. If this biography fails to rise above those old debates and give us a rounded, warts-and-all perspective on this undeniably great man, you could attribute this to Hamilton's singular extraordinariness. Ron Chernow would undoubtedly attribute it Hamilton's magnificent genius, still to polarize opinion two centuries on. I, though, blame it on Chernow being a crummy biographer.
Time and again, this book reads like a defense of Hamilton against scurrilous accusations in the contemporary political press. Some of these defenses are valid, interesting, and worth including: it appears, for example, (if you believe Chernow, though the rest of the book gives me a little pause on this) that Hamilton was in fact rather scrupulous about financial conflicts of interest, and charges of personal corruption are baseless. On the other hand, Chernow spends an inordinate amount of time defending Hamilton from accusations that come off as trivial and strange, such as that he had an undue fondness for Julius Caesar. In response, Chernow points out that Hamilton frequently compared others he disliked (e.g. Jefferson) to Caesar. This puts the lie, Chernow tells us, to the initial charges. I can't tell if Chernow is being disingenuous or if it honestly hasn't occurred to him that one way smart people win arguments is by twisting their opponents' criticisms back upon them, thereby disguising their own views.
Nobody doubts Hamilton's intelligence; time and again, he was right on weighty matters. Chernow, however, never misses an opportunity to give Hamilton credit for incredible insights when he makes the ordinary observations of a reasonably smart observer. Yes, Hamilton perceived the weakness in the Articles of Confederation from very early on. He also was convinced that guillotines were destined to roll through the streets of Philadelphia.
Chernow's reverence for Hamilton is at its strangest in his discussion of Hamilton's womanizing. Around age 14, Hamilton apparently published two love poems in a local paper, one praising an invented woman as chaste and pure, the other presenting a different woman in equally desirous terms as a vixen and Harlot. I'll grant that this is edgy and precocious, but Chernow rhapsodizes over how it demonstrates Hamilton's paradoxical complexities. Right. The truth is, Hamilton's relations with women were embarrassingly ordinary. He was a shameless flirt who wrote comically solicitous letters to women (it's hard to tell with 18th century writing, and Chernow doesn't really make this clear, but my sense is that they came off as comical to Hamilton's contemporaries as well, at least to his detractors), married a good solid woman, then fell for and had an affair with another woman whose con-artist husband proceeded to extort him.
Chernow's biased style is mostly, as I've presented it, amusing; but ultimately it really did leave me wondering if I was missing the truth. About the only thing Jefferson and Adams agreed on, for example, was that Hamilton was not to be trusted. I'm inclined to believe there was more to this than Chernow lets on. There are moments when Hamilton's real, dark faults (not the foibles of excessive pride that Chernow presents in the interest as feigned balance) shine through the cracks of Chernow's well constructed defense. During the Whiskey Rebellion, for example, Hamilton personally leads the army to Western Pennsylvania, where among other things, he spends two days personally overseeing the interrogation of a local notable before Hanilton concludes that the man is, in fact, a loyal citizen, and lets him go. Chernow claims this is exemplary behavior that should have convinced Hamilton critics--after all, he let the man go. But to me it sounds downright bizarre and creepy: spending two days dangling the prospect of execution over this unfortunate and, ultimately even in Hamilton's view innocent, man.
This is, unfortunately, the best (only) biography of Hamilton on audible at the moment. My recommendation is not to get it, and if you're interested enough in Hamilton, to search elsewhere in print. As to the big question, whether the abridged version will suffice: in my view, two thirds of this book could easily have been cut without any great loss.
In both the professional reviews and the user reviews here, everyone seems to be impressed by Gates' candor and even-handedness. If I agreed, I wouldn't bother cluttering the site with another me too review, but I don't. To be sure, Gates takes us behind closed doors, both of the Pentagon and the White House, and is open about those he disliked, most often members of Congress. But in Gates's telling, very serious people are always very serious, and most leaders (especially himself) just love the troops and always find visiting wounded soldiers the most heartwarming of experiences. I kept thinking of the anecdote in Leibovitch's This Town in which Richard Holbrooke told Obama that he faced a momentous decision comparable to Johnson's over Vietnam, to which the president apparently responded "do people really talk like that?" In Gates' Washington, they do.
It's not that I didn't enjoy the book, or that I don't recommend it. I enjoyed listening to it, and found myself eagerly turning it on whenever I had downtime, which is really my standard for a good audiobook. More than anything else, it takes you back to a strange period of our recent history, when whether or not to support "the surge" was the biggest political question of the day. Additionally, Gates offers up a unique vantage point on a number of issues beyond the central themes of the Iraq and Afghan wars and internal reform at the Pentagon, from the repeal of DADT to negotiating missile defense with Russia. I do think at times the book felt repetitious, and I would have preferred it have been shorter. A note on the narration: it's slow. I recommend listening at 1.5X speed.
What follows is less a review and more a response to the book:
Ultimately, I found myself generally liking Gates, but still disagreeing with him and somewhat disapproving of his style of leadership. It seems to me that he does not present well and then dismisses the arguments of those he disagrees with. A small example first: on supplying mine resistant vehicles to troops in Iraq, he basically attributes the resistance at the Pentagon to a fear that money spent on MRAPs would mean less available for other expensive procurement programs. I don't doubt that this was a factor, and ultimately I think Gates was largely correct about the value of MRAPs, but there are many strong arguments that the enormous investment in them was a boondoggle with a little payoff and that the process was mismanaged. But if there's one group of critics that Gates seems to enjoy dismissing altogether, it's members of Congress, especially democrats. Again, I don't entirely disagree with him that many congressmen played politics with war funding bills, but it also seemed to me that when these congressmen grandstanded over being lied to by the Bush administration and even military leaders, they had a lot to point to. Obviously there was the WMD claim of 2003 (a topic Gates glosses over early in the book, saying he too, as an ex-head of the CIA, believed what he'd read in the newspaper), but beyond that there was the constant refrain that yes we were winning and no the administration had not underestimated the troop requirements, right up to the start of the surge.
If there's one thing Gates seems to hold dear (besides the troops, who he cares about more than anything, has he mentioned that recently?) it's being a team player and never ever leaking anything--leakers are a pestilence, and generals and admirals who publicly disagree with administration strategy are almost as bad. In differentiating himself from his predecessor, Rumsfeld, Gates makes clear that he welcomes vigorous debate before a decision, but that after a decision is made, he expects that subordinates either publicly support it fully or quit. I agree this can be appropriate on some matters (at its best, the view is Lincolnesque), but applied too broadly it seems to me to justify the very behavior by congressmen (using hearings to score political points rather than to honestly gather information) that Gates abhors. It also encourages the insular group think that led us into war in the first place. I got the sense from that book that Gates' big advantage over other Bushies was that he was just plain smarter, and was more often right for that reason. But in many ways he was no more open to opposing views than was Cheney.
The view that Gates most often misrepresents and dismisses in the book was the case for early withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely, he keeps arguing, nothing could be worse for US security than losing the war(s). Maybe the Iraq War itself was a mistake, but the worst thing now would be leaving without finishing the job. This was classic late-Bush administration justification. But the argument of those favoring a preemptive withdrawal--and let me be clear, I wasn't one of them; I strongly opposed the war at the outset, but was guardedly in favor of the surge, although I'm still not sure whether I was right on the latter point, while I absolutely was on the former--was not that it would be better to let Iraq fail than to spend the blood and treasure to save it. It was (of course I'm simplifying here, there were many people with many related reasons) that Iraq was already lost, and however long we stayed we were just delaying the inevitable slide into chaos that would happen after our departure. As this book comes out in 2014 and we get word of the fall of Fallujah, this argument is again looking prescient. And honestly, having read Duty, I'm not entirely sure whether Gates disagrees with it or never really understood it.
Not a lot to say: There's a magic to informal live theater and improv/comedy. I can imagine this having been a great experience in person, but I'm not sure. On audio though, I found it fell flat. If you're smarting from a firing, you might find more here than I did. Some fun details, but I can't really recommend it.
Warren is not an amazing writer, and I don't like the framing of the book. But there's enough good stuff in here to justify a listen.
You might expect this to be a pretty hokey book: hypnosis, lucid dreaming, brain waves, biofeedback. A lot of it has a weird new-agey reputation. But that's exactly the point: there's perfectly good science behind all of this, even if many of the practitioners don't know it. To take one example: Warren goes to one of the world's foremost hypnotists, a man in his 80s (I think, it's been a little while since I finished the book) who used to be a university psychology researcher. He demos hypnosis very effectively and explains the simple relationship between easily measured brain waves and subjective consciousnesses.
Again, this is not a perfect book--too much of it is Warren self-indulgently reporting his experiences doing things like lucid dreaming seminars in Hawaii--but I don't know of a better one right now for explaining brain states. If you like Radiolab type stuff, give this book a try.
This is one of those books that someone had to write, and I'm glad to know it's out there. Sommers carefully documents all of the craziness in the feminist movement in the 1990s, and there sure was a lot of it! Claims that sexual assaults increase massively Superbowl weekend (they don't) or that the leading cause of miscarriage is domestic abuse (not even close) were bandied about wildly without regard for truth. What's more fun is the portrayal of academic conferences and the crazy one-upswomanship: when some of the attendees gathered in a drum circle, others declared that this was an appropriation of their cultural traditions and demanded they stop, which they did reluctantly. It's a delightful image of what happens when claims of marginalization become badges of honor.
Yes, the book is very dated. This of course makes you wonder whether things have gotten better. I have no idea.
Ultimately, this is one of those books that needed to be written but that isn't worth reading. Feel comfortable knowing that someone has done the work of collating all the craziness. And yes, Sommers has some affiliation with conservative hacks. That's unfortunate, but to my reading, this doesn't really affect the book.
There's a lot of 5-star reviews here that do a pretty good job of conveying the good parts of the book. I enjoyed it and I recommend it.
That being said, I can't call it a must-read. The story is entertaining but not really laugh-out-loud funny, and not must-know history. If you're looking for a fun, true story, go ahead.
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