I’m on the fence about these “Great Courses.” Each lecture begins with the same snippet of classical music. The kind that (tries to) signal that something sophisticated is about to happen. Each lecture ends with obviously fake clapping. The folks reviewing these “Great Courses” universally have taken notice of how awful it is. Maybe I’m petty for mentioning it, but it made me suspicious of the whole product.
I listened to this course and another one (by a different professor) on cyber security. Each of these courses shared the same strength: organization/conceptual clarity in surveying the various topics you might expect to find under the topic’s umbrella. But that strength notwithstanding, I struggled to finish both courses. Here, there’s a dumbing down quality; a feeling that Roberto is lecturing to the lowest common denominator. Also, the book’s audible blurb suggests that the course is aimed to help you “approach the critical decisions in your life,” but the material is 99% MBA-type material addressing business/management situations. I was also left with the nagging feeling that Roberto could have delivered the same content in a quarter of the time.
The Audible environment makes transparent the time commitment the book or lecture commands. Twelve and half hours (or faster if you rev up the audio) spent on this lecture series is twelve and half hours I won’t spend on something else. And so, when it comes to spending future credits – to committing my future listening time – I’m leaning towards picking what’s behind door #2.
If I were magically transported back to ancient Egypt, I’d be nothing but a crazy prophet – able to describe modern technological marvels, but not sure how any of it works. Indeed, I don’t really understand what electricity is, how it is generated, or transferred from point to point.
Maybe that helps explain why I didn’t seem to appreciate the a-ha behind many of Tesla’s break-through ideas. For example, I didn’t really understand the apparently brilliant and elegant solution that Tesla’s AC power generation was. I recently had the opposite experience listening to the Emperor of All Maladies, another history of science book (about the history of cancer treatment). While I similarly lacked the technical understanding, Emperor of All Maladies made clear to me how researchers had been stumped and why breakthroughs were breakthroughs. So maybe the problem isn’t mine, but Wizard’s.
Tesla had many technological ideas that never gained a foothold, e.g. using the Earth itself as an electrical conductor, and many ideas that seemed outlandish, e.g., his idea for an earthquake causing machine. But Wizard often didn’t help me understand whether the idea was viable. The audiobook ends with two short appendices that discuss a disagreement among experts as to the viability of two such ideas. That was fascinating. I wish there had been more interspersed throughout.
My negativity aside, the book did capture my imagination. As wizards like Tesla were unlocking these new technologies, the 1890s/1900s were a strange time. Everything suddenly seemed possible; the line blurred between science and magic; and it was difficult to tell scientist from con-artist.
Today, much of Tesla’s vision of the future has been realized. Many of the technologies he dreamed of have been thoroughly developed and interwoven into the everyday. So much so, that we don’t understand how much of it works despite our utter reliance on it. In some funny way, then, perhaps my lack of comprehension is a tribute to how deeply Tesla’s visions of future technologies have been fulfilled.
When I read Outliers, I thought Malcolm Gladwell oversold his “10,000 hour” thesis. That is, in critiquing our culture’s emphasis on innate talent, he immediately swung too far the other way, overemphasizing deliberate practice. He hinted (or contended?), for example, that the apparent genius of Tiger Woods or Mozart is in fact primarily a function of their incredibly early start on the competition… An intriguing thesis, for sure, but maybe only because it flies in the face of an obvious and contrary reality.
Epstein has the empirical data that shows the extent to which Gladwell oversold his thesis at least with respect to certain athletic endeavors. At the elite level of athletic performance, genetics often matters. For example, Epstein tells us that a male between the ages of 20 and 40 who is 7 feet or taller has something like a 16% chance of being a current NBA player. That undercuts Gladwell’s contrary and offhand assertion in Outliers that once a person achieves a threshold height, say 6’4”, additional height matters less and less, and practice more and more. Epstein explores the genetic link in dozens of different sports.
While I think Gladwell got it wrong that genius is practically nothing more than years upon years of smart practice, I think he got it right as a formula for being pretty darn good. While I may not have the ingredients to become the best of the best at anything, through sheer force of will and effort, I believe I can become workman-like at almost anything at all. To me, that’s empowering. As much as I didn’t like Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours,” his core message is similarly empowering – it doesn’t take as much time as you may think to achieve a level of enjoyable competence.
(There’s a tricky counter-point towards the end of the book where Epstein suggests that even one’s appetite for practice and ability to improve through it may have a genetic component. That proposition is worth a double take – your propensity for hard work necessary to overcome your genetic shortcomings may itself be genetically driven.)
Dan McLaughlin, aka “The Dan Plan,” discussed in the Sports Gene, is perhaps the living embodiment of my thoughts on this subject. In his early thirties, he quit his job and took up golf, setting a goal of making the PGA tour after he accomplished 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. On the one hand, his goal is patently ridiculous because it naively discounts the importance of talent and age. But on the other hand, 5000+ hours in, McLaughlin’s a good golfer by amateur standards (a 4 handicap). And he’s garnered enough attention and money(?) so that he can play golf full time. He’s living proof that hard work can take you to great heights, even if it won’t take you to the peak by itself.
Lighthearted, but actually dispensing real and good advice on time management, Perry lays out a method for getting stuff done while procrastinating (“structured procrastination”). For $1.95, a real bargain and not bloated in the way an actual self-improvement book, presumably written by a non-academic philosopher, would be. There’s some great insights here. E.g., a short to-do list is a bad idea for the procrastinator; with so few options to put off, the procrastinator ends up doing nothing. But with a thick and detailed to do list, the procrastinator has the option of putting off the first few items in order to accomplish other items on the list.
Self-improvement books about time management are one of my guilty pleasures. I also have a background (long ago) in academic philosophy. Probably not a surprise, then, that I was really tickled by Perry's short book. This is a great starter on the topic and not much of a time commitment.
Some quick thoughts about other treatises on this topic:
*Tony Robbin’s Awaken the Inner Giant. Clearly, if you’re going to read this, you’ll need to hide that fact from your friends and family and strangers on the bus. This book ought to be made with a fake War and Peace cover. While you keep telling yourself that you’re only reading it ironically, you’ll quietly be admitting that there’s fantastic advice. Robbins is probably the best on techniques to transform the procrastinator’s proclivity for avoiding the top of the to-do list (whereas Perry simply concedes that procrastination may be a fact of your nature). Having said that, I’m not admitting I’ve ever read any Tony Robbins.
*David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s probably the best with an ultra-detailed information, task, and time-management system. Unlike Perry, Allen is a bit soup-nazi-esque.
*Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, etc etc. This book often appears on Amazon or Audible as recommended if you like David Allen. It’s really junk. Short little essays and, for the bigger names, Q and As, that all are little more than advertisements for other books, blogs, and the like.
*How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. Written like a hundred years ago, but you wouldn’t realize that from just reading it. And you can read it in an hour.
*Josh Kaufman’s the First Twenty Hours. Kaufman and Perry, though from different angles, show you how the desire for perfection can lead to procrastination. If you want your output to be perfect, it can paralyze you from ever starting the project. But Kaufman’s thesis is that it only takes 10 – 20 hours of deliberate practice to become enjoyably competent at a new skill. By the way, I really do not recommend Kaufman’s book.
*The Spirit of Kaizen. Perry references this one. I don’t recommend it because its 180 pages that repeat the same core idea. But, that core idea is helpful – small changes can have huge effects; make the smallest possible change that will improve a process. Then repeat.
I listened to this to help me gain a deeper understanding of what the hell it is that the Fed and other central bankers do. It helped somewhat. Salemi’s explanations are clear and he’s unbiased in his presentation (unlike, say, Ron Paul’s End the Fed). The topics cover more territory than just central banking. Here are the lecture titles to help you know what the course covers:
1. The Importance of Money
2. Money as a Social Contract
3. How Is Money Created?
4. Monetary History of the United States
5. Local Currencies and Nonstandard Banks
6. How Inflation Erodes the Value of Money
7. Hyperinflation Is the Repudiation of Money
8. Saving—The Source of Funds for Investment
9. The Real Rate of Interest
10. Financial Intermediaries
11. Commercial Banks
12. Central Banks
13. Present Value
14. Probability, Expected Value, and Uncertainty
15. Risk and Risk Aversion
16. An Introduction to Bond Markets
17. Bond Prices and Yields
18. How Economic Forces Affect Interest Rates
19. Why Interest Rates Move Together
20. The Term Structure of Interest Rates
21. Introduction to the Stock Market
22. Stock Price Fundamentals
23. Stock Market Bubbles and Irrational Exuberance
24. Derivative Securities
25. Asymmetric Information
26. Regulation of Financial Firms
27. Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Reregulation
28. Interest Rate Policy at the Fed and ECB
29. The Objectives of Monetary Policy
30. Should Central Banks Follow a Policy Rule?
31. Extraordinary Tools for Extraordinary Times
32. Central Bank Independence
33. The Foreign Exchange Value of the Dollar
34. Exchange Rates and International Banking
35. Monetary Policy Coordination
36. Challenges for the Future
For what it’s worth, I had a really hard time finishing this, taking almost four months. I’m generally not a fan of the Great Courses (I listened to two others on cybersecurity and critical decision-making). The courses seem to share the same strength: organization/conceptual clarity in surveying the various topics you might expect to find under the topic’s umbrella. But they also share the same weakness, i.e., a certain superficial quality. I did not think that Salemi dumbed down the lectures as I felt with the other Great Courses. But, IMHO, he did not linger long enough on some difficult issues.
Also, you should know that this lecture series comes from a video. Salemi references many graphs, charts, and formulas that you obviously can’t see. In some cases (e.g., the explanations of several formulas), the absent visuals made the lecture quite hard to follow.
Salemi, while an excellent lecturer, is one of the slowest speakers you’ll find on Audible. At 2x speed, he sounded like a normal lecturer.
All in all, while I’d recommend passing, I’m not sure what book out there is better as a survey of these topics.
For many reasons, I had high expectations for this book: a trusted friend’s recommendation; the high Amazon/Audible ratings; and Fishman’s track record (the Wal-Mart Effect).
By no means is the book a dud, but it’s not profound either. Here are my main two beefs and then I’ll spend some time explaining what the book does well.
First, unnecessary repetition pervades the entire book. For example, the first chapter is dedicated almost entirely to describing how water is enmeshed in all aspects of our lives. It keeps going long after its point has been made. Even the repetition of the word “water” – repeated well over 100 times in the first chapter and appearing multiple times in nearly every paragraph – grated on me (at least listening to the audio). In later chapters, Fishman repeats this tendency, not just leaving no stone unturned, but turning the same stones over, again and again.
Second, while Chapter 1 tells us that there’s a “new era of water” coming, Fishman’s more nuanced thesis doesn’t start to crystalize until later in the book.
My advice, should you choose to read this book, is to start by listening to the last chapter first. There, Fishman makes clear that this book is not an alarmist book or doomsday prophecy. Instead, we learn that the book’s core message is this: when the externalities of water use are not priced into consumption, water consumers make poor, non-sustainable decisions. No surprise there. And, hearteningly, when there’s an economic incentive to manage water use such as for large consumers of water (e.g., computer chip manufacturers, large hotels), those large consumers make smart decisions that cut costs and save water resources. Fishman also provides cautionary examples where municipalities failed to undertake needed water innovation because of politics, inertia, and outdated expectations about water.
Finally, the narrator is one of my least favorites for reaons I can’t quite put my finger on.
The book begins with a quote that says “you can’t do much carpentry with bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.” The first chapter catalogues some “tools” of philosophy designed to help thinking such as reductio ad absurdum, Occam’s Razor, and other useful ones that Dennett and his colleagues have invented more recently. These tools may have originated with philosophers, but they have application outside the world of philosophy and are generally helpful “tools” for critical thinking.
But after this short introduction, Dennett primarily focuses on debates native to academic philosophy. He does so using “intuition pumps,” i.e., thought experiments. Just a fair warning: these are tools for thinking about specific puzzles in academic philosophy. Unlike a concept such as reductio ad absurdum, these intuition pumps really aren’t transportable outside of the specific philosophical puzzles they are designed to explore. So, the book’s title, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” should have a subtitle: “…about Certain Problems in Academic Philosophy.”
Topics explored include: meaning, evolution, the nature of consciousness/materialism (including extensive discussion of the Chinese room and Mary in the black and white room); and free will. Dennett seems to presume some familiarity with these topics. And, it’s hard to imagine that a reader would really enjoy the discussion without some prior interest or background. As an undergraduate and graduate student (years ago), I read many of the papers Dennett discusses.
This is dense and challenging listening, but well worth the reward -- if it's your thing. I usually have a few audible books going at one time, and I found myself choosing to listen to this one over the others. I did make a conscious effort to avoid listening when distracted or tired because it is more demanding than other audiobooks.
In the wrong hands, I fear this narration could have been trouble, but I cannot say enough good things about this heroic narrator, Jeff Crawford. His voice crackles with intelligence, clarity, and playfulness too. While a lot of that is Dennett shining through, Crawford must share the credit. This is dense stuff, but Crawford never sounds weighted down. When I finished this book, the first thing I did was to look up the other books Crawford has narrated. I'm sad to see he has only narrated a handful of others and nothing else like this.
Zigzagging through dozens of seemingly unconnected stories, Gladwell explores how greatness can arise from life's difficulties, unfairness, and tragedies. "One time in ten out of that despair rises an indomitable force." The "Davids" explored include orphans, dyslexics, bomb survivors, civil rights leaders, and more. Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller and (who knew?) a powerfully restrained reader. And along the way, Gladwell never forgets the other 9 out of 10 (e.g., the disproportionate number of inmates with dyslexia or that lost a parent when young).
Wonderfully researched and well-written, but not the shocker that Fast Food Nation was for some. What Moss shows us is not surprising: profit drives the food processing giants, not concern about its customer's long-term health.
The most disturbing idea here is that the heavy doses of salt, sugar, and fat repeatedly delivered to children may alter their sense of what food should taste like....And, these children eventually grow up into adults who will only be satisfied by foods pumped with unnatural amounts of salt, sugar, and fat.
Well executed premise; theatrical narration; and satisfying conclusion to this first in the series. But a few flaws worth mentioning:
(1) Almost no character has any arc to speak of.
(2) Male/female interactions are at a juvenile fiction level.
(3) A grating main viewpoint character - a naive teenage girl from Oklahoma, who was one of the few characters the narrator just couldn't carry.
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