If you've enjoyed audiobooks by Malcom Gladwell, you'll probably enjoy "The Swerve." The author, Stephen Greenblatt, does a wonderful job of turning history into a compelling story, moving between small details and grand implications in much the same style Gladwell employs.
Some reviewers seem disappointed that The Swerve doesn't go into much detail on the contents of "On The Nature of Things." If that's what they're looking for, they should read Lucretius themselves. While the rediscovery and republication of "On the Nature of Things" takes a central role in how the world became modern, what's also critically important is the role of the Humanists and the ancient book hunters who sought out such ancient texts as part of a re-visioning of knowledge that started the Renaissance. This is what "The Swerve" is about. It's much bigger than just the contents of "On The Nature of Things."
The reader, Edoardo Ballerini, gives a first-class performance. His pace is on the slow side, but his clarity, intonation, and cadence are perfect.
This is a must-read for anyone professionally involved in the creation of advertising. It's written for people without background on the subject, but does such a good job in organizing and clarifying the principles that it's a good read for even marketing veterans.
Berger does an excellent job exploring and detailing the message elements that cause people to remember advertising messages and stories, and to want to pass around those stories (with or without embedded ad messages). The book explores 6 principles involved in why things catch on:
* social currency
* practical value
These principles serve as a checklist for the creation of advertising, especially any advertising that attempts to be viral.
If you want to know what caused the obesity epidemic, here it is!
Sugar, Salt, Fat is about how the processed food industry figured out how to use sugar, salt, and fat to make processed foods taste more than just good, but to make them something close to addictive. With this technology, they could make cheap, unnutritious foods taste good, and use the resulting high margins to fund advertising to drive demand. The food industry also made these foods more convenient than cooking. They even played a role in killing off home economics in the schools to ensure the next generation would not know how to cook.
Oh, one little side-effect that the industry needs to sweep under the rug: because these processed foods are so unlike foods found in nature, the body body can't properly gauge when these foods make the body full -- causing people to consume far more calories than they need.
Some interesting angles to the story are the involvement of the tobacco industry, such as Phillip Morris’s acquisition of food companies; and the healthy lifestyles pursued by the food industry executives, who eat their own products far more sparingly than the general public does.
This is not rocket science, but it’s great investigative journalism. It may be the best investigative journalism about the food industry since Upton Sinclair's work a century ago about food impurities. Yes, that good; that important.
One minor annoyance is that the narrator, Scott Brick, over dramatizes. Brick mostly narrates fiction, which he should probably stick to. He was perhaps chosen because he did an excellent narration of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (another great book for folks concerned about modern food), but that book was more of a memoir, making it a better fit with his narration style. Sugar, Salt, Fat is pure investigative journalism. The emotional level of Brick’s reading doesn’t fit with this genre.
This book made me sad and angry.
I'm angry that the War on Drugs is disguised war on Blacks and Latinos, and especially on young Black men. Michelle Alexander looks at the War on Drugs from every angle to show how the War on Drugs is selectively pursued to perpetuate a racial underclass, and how each step in that pursuit is covered with plausible deniability that the gross racial disparities that the system produces are racially motivated.
The War on Drugs is not only a mistake like Prohibition was; it is indeed the new Jim Crow. It's evil, wrapped up in intentions that sound good.
I'm sad that Michelle Alexander did not write a better book about the problem. The book is verbose and repetitive, making the same points again and again, in just slightly different ways. The sentences are even flabby. This book could be reduced by half and leave nothing useful out. This would make it a far more compelling read, allowing it to reach a broader audience. This, too, is a tragedy. This message needs to be heard.
Having worked in the pharmaceutical contract research industry, I have observed that for the most part the author's fundamental complaints about the pharmaceutical industry are correct. The public desperately needs to know about how the industry has gotten out of control. Its greed is now a major drain on the health and wealth of the world, but most particularly that of the United States. This book is an excoriating expose of the industry.
For at least my taste, this book would have been much better if it were not so much a one-sided rant. The invention, development, and marketing of pharmaceuticals is complex and requires trade-offs. The author tends towards going over the top about about the sins of the drug companies and sees only what's bad. There's lots of sin to write about. But there's not a hint of balance to the author's work. A more reasonable presentation, with a little more perspective on why the drug companies see things as they do and act as they do, would have made the author's arguments more compelling and her book more interesting.
The author's tone is exacerbated by the reader's tone, which is chronically scolding. It's not pleasant to listen to hours of scolding. Further marring the performance is that reader mispronounces several key names that are important to the story and are repeated many times, such as the name of Senator Birch Bayh.
The author's fundamental points are critically important and should be widely known. For just that fact this book is worth reading. But the message will probably not become more widely known until it is delivered by a better author.
I've enjoyed de Botton's prior books. This one is a severe disappointment.
One of the things I've enjoyed about de Botton's work is how he brings a far-ranging understanding of canon of Western philosophy to bear on the major issues of modern life, doing so in an understandable and sometimes entertaining way. As I have no particular expertise in Western philosophy, I have always assumed de Botton was reasonably accurate in his understanding. Religion for Atheists gives me now great doubt about that.
In Religion for Atheists, de Botton discusses one subject that I have particular expertise in: Zen Buddhism. I found de Botton to be shockingly inaccurate. For example, he describes the Japanese Tea Ceremony as a ritual used in Zen. It isn't, and anyone who did a little as read the Wikipedia article on the subject could figure that out. Yes, Zen philosophy has heavily influenced the Tea Ceremony, so there is a relationship there. But it's like the US Thanksgiving holiday. The Thanksgiving dinner ritual is heavily influenced by Christianity, but Thanksgiving is not a ritual of the Christian church.
De Botton goes on to make a similar mistake about the Japanese Tsukimi festival, again thinking it's a Zen Buddhist festival. It's not.
Another weakness of Religion for Atheists is the author's numerous suggestions for impractical and implausible ways to implement valuable aspects of religion in an atheistic ways, such that it undermined the concepts the author was trying to promote.
De Botton's TED talk on this subject is pretty good. I suggest listening to that and skipping this book.
The writing of many great thinkers can be difficult to follow. Their great points are often much clearer in the hands of other writers. Author Joan Magretta demonstrates this with the works of Michael Porter. It seems that most executives are aware of Porter, but few bother to read Porter because it's difficult reading. Magretta's work takes that barrier away.
Everyone directly involved in business strategy needs to know Porter's thinking. "Understanding Michael Porter" is an excellent way to do it.
One of the biggest and most common flaws Porter finds with typical business strategies is that they fall into the trap of thinking that if the company is the best at something, that will make the company successful, and further that there's something unique that the company can do to be the best. In reality, all the competitors are working hard to execute well. Striving to be the best is a zero-sum game that has everyone copying everyone else and that does not lead to profitability. Rule #1 is not to make this mistake.
From there, Porter gets more complicated, describing the various types of strategies that can lead to superior profitability. The key thing is differentiation. Managers must make emotionally difficult decisions to ignore some opportunities so that they can focus on others.
In my consulting work, I apply a simple test to determine whether the strategy avoids the error of aiming just to be the best and embraces differentiation. Write out the strategy in one or a few sentences. Reverse the meaning of the strategy statement. If the result sounds somewhat plausible as a strategy, then you have a real strategy. If the result sounds ridiculous, then you have a ridiculous strategy.
Several reviewers have commented negatively on the performance given here by Erik Synnestvedt. I concur. The reader has an odd and annoying sing-songy drawing out of the end of most sentences, depending on the vowel sounds involved. You can hear it in the sample. At first it doesn't seem so bad, but after a couple of hours of it, it gets increasingly annoying and distracting.
Dan Ariely's "Honest Truth About Dishonesty" is a nice divergence from his earlier books on irrationality, and contains much more original psychological research than these books. If you've enjoyed his prior books, you'll enjoy this one.
Ariely's books are all connected by the theme of how it is that we fool ourselves. In this work, Ariely shows that we're fooling ourselves and others just a little bit, almost all of the time through a number of clever experiments. What's particularly interesting is that Ariely finds that this cheating is not driven by cost/benefit tradeoffs -- the generally accepted rationale for why people cheat -- but, as in keeping with Ariely's prior work, cheating is found to be driven by less rational motivations. Changes in cost/benefit do matter, but opportunities for rationalization, the effect of social norms, and cognitive dissonance are at least equally important.
I don't know why Ariely keeps choosing Simon Jones to read his books. Jones is a great reader, but in a strongly British theatrical manner. Ariely, whom you'll get to hear in podcasts appended to the end of the book, or whom you may have heard on a TED talk, speaks American English with an Israeli accent. Further, the places Ariely writes about are almost always either in the US or Israel and almost never in England. If you know what the author sounds like, Jones seems to be a strange choice.
This short book is an excellent expansion on the author's Harvard Business Review blog post on the same subject. The 9 things successful people do differently are as follows. It is well worth hearing the author flesh these items out:
1. Setting specific goals. Vagueness must be avoided. It must be a clear yes/no that the goal has been achieved.
2. Seize the moment. Always be looking to take advantage of time and opportunity.
3. Monitor progress towards goals, focusing on what is yet to be done.
4. Be optimistic, but realistic too. Realize that big goals are difficult to achieve.
5. Focus on improvement. Don't get hung up on evaluating good/bad. Just keep improving.
6. Grit. Persistence in the face of difficulty.
7. Focus on increasing willpower.
8. Avoid temptation.
9. Focus on positive actions, not on what you will avoid doing, or avoid thinking of.
I have never had so many people recommend a book to me as I have had this one. There's a reason. "Following Atticus" is about a middle-aged guy who hikes 4,000 footers in the White Mountains alone with his 20 pound Miniature Schnauzer. I am a middle-aged guy who hikes 4,000 footers in the White Mountains alone with my 20 pound Boston Terrier. Although a lot of people hike with dogs, one hardly ever sees 20 pound dogs on the high trails. In fact, one of the few I've ever seen is Atticus himself, whom I met hiking the Mount Caribou trail.
"Following Atticus" is a testament to truth being better than fiction. Dog lovers will all be captivated by the tale. But it's not a merely a dog book. It's a book of personal transformation on the part of the author. Some of that transformation is physical. You can look up photos of the author on the internet from his pre-Following Atticus days and compare them to recent photos to see this for yourself. Between the weight loss and the exercise, Tom Ryan looks like a different person. From "Following Atticus" we learn how the author became a different person on the inside, too -- a better person -- due to the influence of two great dogs in his life.
The book is read by the author. This adds to the reality of the story and conveys a sense of feeling that one would not get from a professional reader. The author does an excellent job of reading, but the listener should be prepared for a strong Boston accent.
There's a Youtube video trailer for the book, which I recommend for those who would like a glimpse of Atticus and Tom Ryan -- and the other great character of the book -- the White Mountains.
Of the books that were accepted into the New Testament canon, Revelations was the most controversial. Elaine Pagels traces the early history of Revelations in the context of the other controversial books that did not make it into the canon, most particularly the books deemed heretical and which were lost until copies were found in the Egyptian desert in 1945 at Nag Hammadi.
Pagels traces the changes in how each generation in the early centuries of Christianity interpreted Revelations, and how these interpretations were used in the politics of the early church. It was these political issues that caused Revelations to be included in the canon, whereas other, similar books of prophesy were declared heretical.
Pagels brings broad research to bear on her subject, producing a fascinating, illuminating, and comprehensible history that's a must-read for anyone interested in the history of early Christianity.
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