Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, July 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: one Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel, and three books on quantum electrodynamics.  Just kidding, the
other books were non-fiction.

1. "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole

This is the first and only novel written by John Kennedy Toole, who
sadly died before it was published.  Eleven years after his death, his
mother managed to find a publisher.  Toole was posthumously awarded the
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.  Here's the description on Amazon:
"A Confederacy of Dunces is an American comic masterpiece. John Kennedy
Toole's hero is one Ignatius J. Reilly, 'huge, obese, fractious,
fastidious, and a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French
Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original character, denizens of
New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the
zaniest series of high and low comic adventures' (Henry Kisor, Chicago
Sun Times)".

Set mostly in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the late 1960s,
it follows the (mis-)adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly and those
(unfortunates) within his orbit.  The out-of-work Ignatius lives with
his widowed mother.  When she causes a car accident, she demands that
Ignatius get a job to help pay the compensation.  Despite having
graduated from college, Ignatius is virtually unemployable.  It doesn't
help that he spends his days eating, sleeping and writing the rather
ironically-titled "Journal of the Working Boy".  His forays into paid
employment provide much amusement throughout the novel, especially when
he tries to "improve" the enterprises he works for.  He also has
ambitions of reforming the entire American political landscape.  This
is his unflattering assessment of New Orleans: "This city is famous for
its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics,
sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds,
jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected
by graft".  Many of the rather dysfunctional, self-absorbed characters 
in the novel seem to back him up, at least in his eyes.

While this is not strictly an autobiography, there are several parallels
with the author's real life experiences.  The novel's structure is based
on that of Ignatius's favourite book, Anicius Manlius Severinus
Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy".  A copy of the book even features
in the plot.  Ignatius is convinced he does not belong in this world,
and all striving is meaningless.  He blames his circumstances on the
fickle goddess Fortuna and her wheel of fortune.

Overall, I enjoyed this off-beat and quite farcical story.  But I
appreciate that it won't appeal to everyone.  The author's Southern
(USA) sensibility influences the portrayal of women and minorities, for
example.  While most readers seem to enjoy the novel, some do seem to
loathe it.  The characters speak in the various local patois.  Ignatius
himself tends to be verbose.  Initially, the dialogue can be hard to
follow, but eventually I got to appreciate each character's unique
"voice".  Recommended for anyone with a sense of humour.

2. "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schulz

It's often said that the only way we truly learn is by making mistakes.
Unfortunately, in our ever more competitive times, admitting failure or
being wrong is taken as a sign of weakness.  This book attempts to
remind us that it's ok to be wrong sometimes.

The book looks at human error according to various disciplines,
including philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, politics, art, logic
and evolution.  There are many reasons we make mistakes: biases develop
without us knowing, senses deceive us, reason is often preempted by
emotions, and we allow ourselves to be swayed by others.  The book
describes our aversion to mistakes is driven by feelings of
embarrassment, anger, heartbreak, betrayal, disgrace and foolishness.
So we become defensive and unwilling to admit even the slightest
mistake.  But the author explains why error should be seen not as
something to be avoided, but rather as something that should be
accepted as a healthy and necessary part of the human condition.  Far
from just a bad thing, making mistakes is part of the learning process.
In fact, many scientific advances are the direct result of accidents or

I recommend this book to anyone, especially those are obsessed with
perfection, or those who think they're infallible.

3. "Meatball Sundae" by Seth Godin

This light, breezy book looks at marketing in the "Web 2.0" age.  Godin
is a veteran of internet-era startups, and he was a former VP of Direct
Marketing at Yahoo!  These days he 's regarded as a guru for "new"
marketers.  Being a self-employed consulting developer, this book might
give me some useful marketing advice.

According to Godin, many established businesses market themselves as if
they're still in the 1960s.  The "Mad Men" era kicked off the broadcast
advertising model on our TV screens.  This is a "meatball" approach,
the author argues, and it no longer works effectively.  Nowadays,
businesses are coming to terms with information-hungry and always-
connected customers.  The pervasiveness of social networks requires a
new approach of marketing.  Some firms have tried to incorporate new
techniques, but their efforts come across much like putting whipped
cream and a cherry on top of the same old meatballs (or lipstick on a
pig).  To avoid this "Meatball Sundae", the author suggests firms need
to acknowledge fourteen trends that are remaking the way business is
done.  To thrive in the 21st Century, many firms will need to revamp
their marketing approach from the ground up.

The book starts off by giving a brief history of marketing: pre-mass
advertising was extremely local, relying on reputation and word of
mouth.  Mass-media allowed centralisation and a more global focus:
firms could get away with one thing for all people.  The internet age
allows a more personalised approach, sort of "globally local" strategy:
firms often need to cater for each individual's tastes.  The core of
the book describes the fourteen trends that are disrupting the way
business is done.  For example: direct communication, short attention
spans, outsourcing and explosion of choice.  The book concludes with
some case studies to back up the arguments made.  Conveniently, the
book has a four page executive summary of the book's main argument.

There are many interesting observations and ideas here, in particular
the shift in the balance of power from producers to consumers.  While
I don't fully accept all the arguments, they're presented in an
entertaining and easily digestible way.  This book is probably useful
for anyone thinking of running their own business.  It is possible to
compete with the big guys, if you know how to attract and keep
customers.  Also, more broadly, this book provides insights into how
companies will be trying to reach you, their customers.

Seth Godin is a regular TED presenter.  Check out some of his talks at:

4. "A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough" by Wayne Muller

This book aims to address a modern malady.  Many people feel they're
on an endless treadmill.  To keep up with the Joneses, they have become
obsessed with the pursuit of money, success and self-improvement,
without making much progress in the things that really matter to them.

As per the title, Muller argues that we should recognise that we already
are, have, and do enough just as we are.  We just have to know what
'enough' looks and feels like.  He summarises the basic research into
happiness, for example:
* "What makes us happy? For several decades, researchers have probed
  this question, and their findings are intriguing. First, once people
  (whether individuals, communities, or nations) have attained a certain
  level of security and comfort -- enough food, clothing, shelter,
  education, community -- any increase, however large. in wealth or
  possessions, appears to have no significant impact whatsoever on
  people's happiness."  [Deaton and Kahneman]
  ~ see <>
* "Studies that compare changes in the happiness of recent lottery
  winners with recent amputees find that, after a short time of
  adjustment, lottery winners soon return to whatever state of
  happiness they felt before winning their millions. And amputees,
  their bodies and hearts tender and grieving, find that their
  spirits rise and return to nearly the same level of happiness they
  felt before their amputation."  [Dan Gilbert]
  ~ see <>

The last chapter, "Happiness from the inside out" starts with this quote
from Abraham Lincoln: "Most folks are about as happy as they make their
minds up to be."  The chapter neatly summarises the basic premise of the
book: "Happiness is an inside job. Sufficiency, contentment, are grown
in the soil of moments, choice points, and listening at each juncture
for the simplest, most deeply true, next right thing."

The author often takes a spiritual approach - he is a pastor after all
- but don't let that put you off.  It's not a sermon, rather an easy-to-
read collection of personal anecdotes and research findings, to help
find a balance between competing demands on our time.  When everyone
seems to be so "busy" doing "stuff", sometimes it's reassuring to know
that it's ok to feel that we have "enough" (money, possessions, status).
Once we accept this, we can concentrate on the things that actually
makes us feel happy and fulfilled.


PS: Cheap parting shot. The cover of the current edition of "A
Confederacy of Dunces" makes me think of a typical Crows football fan: