Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, August 2012

Reviews of books I read last month: all five books were non-fiction.
This wasn't intentional - I do have a few novels queued up and reserved,
but none were available in time.

Topics covered include the global financial crisis, human behaviour,
soccer (the real football), decision-making and how to lead a fulfilling
life. I guess a common theme is that each tackles their subject in a
rather unconventional way. All were pretty good, but my two picks would
be "Subliminal" and "How Will You Measure Your Life?"

1. "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World" by Michael Lewis

The author is an American financial journalist and former bonds trader.
Shortly after leaving Salomon Brothers he wrote his first book, "Liar's
Poker", which is an unflattering portrayal of Wall Street traders, and
their ethics, beliefs and work practices. That was an enjoyable and
well- written book, so I looked forward to reading the author's latest.

"Boomerang" collects a series of magazine articles which focus on the
ongoing financial crisis facing various European countries. A chapter
is devoted to each of four countries he visited between 2009 and 2011:
Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Germany. The final chapter brings the
global crisis back to where it began, the United States. Each country's
story is different, with the various national psyches contributing to
their individual predicaments. In doing so, the author is arguably
promoting national stereotypes, which I did find a bit off-putting.
It's too easy to generalise: the Greeks wanted easy credit to live the
good life; the Icelanders wanted to rocket themselves into the fast lane
by becoming big shots in the global hedge fund game; the Irish wanted to
overcome their reputation as being the poor men and women of Europe; and
the Germans wanted to believe in a united Europe. For me, the real story
though was how easy it was for anyone, regardless of nationality, to be
seduced by greed. Therefore I was willing to forgive any gross
stereotyping. Unbridled greed has a different way of manifesting itself,
but it brings out the worst in everyone.

Regarding Greece, while its government did cook the books to ensure
entry into the Eurozone, this could only have been done with the active
assistance of Wall Street investment bankers. Here's a quote from page
62 of the book: "Goldman Sachs ... engaged in a series of apparently
legal but nonetheless repellent deals designed to hide the Greek
government’s true level of indebtedness. For these trades Goldman Sachs
— which, in effect, handed Greece a $1 billion loan — carved out a
reported $300 million in fees." It gets worse: "The investment bankers
also taught the Greek-government officials how to securitize future
receipts from the national lottery, highway tolls, airport landing fees,
and even funds granted to the country by the European Union. Any future
stream of income that could be identified was sold for cash up front,
and spent."

The original Vanity Fair article is online:
Page 4 has the above quotes.

Overall, the book is well written, not overly technical, and often reads
like a good novel as new revelations unfold. I hope to read the highly
praised "The Big Short" by the same author, which looks in depth at Wall
Street's role in causing the global financial crisis.

 Here are a couple of interviews with the author discussing "Boomerang":
* PBS Newshour interview (~ 9 mins)
* ABC 7:30 Report interview (~ 8 mins)

2. "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior"
   by Leonard Mlodinow

This book is another one in my ongoing quest to try to understand the
curious workings of the human mind. The book's premise is that much of
our perception, memory, social judgment and behaviour are largely driven
by our unconscious (the mind's subliminal processes), and not by the
conscious processes as we like to believe. It shatters many common
misconceptions regarding the way our minds work. For example:
* Our vision does not function like a video camera - we have blind
  spots, we see only parts of a scene and our minds fill in the blanks.
* Human memory is not like a a set of files on a hard drive - memory is
  incomplete, influenced by many unconscious factors such as our senses,
  emotions and desires.
* Eyewitness accounts are not always reliable as evidence - this flows
  from the previous finding.
* We are not the best judges of our ability - in survey after survey,
  regardless of the task, almost everyone rates themselves above average
  or better. They can't all be right, and is called the "above average"
* Similarly, we aren't always good judges of other people.

Neuroscience is providing new ways of examining how our brains and senses
function, and what governs our behaviour. The latest research throws new
light on earlier findings from various scientific fields. Required
reading for anyone interested in how our "wetware" works.

The author gave an entertaining "At Google" talk earlier year. It
provides good coverage of topics in the book (~ 50 mins):

3. "Soccernomics" by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

As the title suggest, the authors apply concepts from economics to
explain the performance of soccer teams. In reality, it's more like
applied statistics than economics. The book's lengthy and descriptive
subtitle is: "Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why
the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey – and Even Iraq – Are Destined to
Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport".

Early on the authors describe the current state of the art in soccer
as follow: "The best soccer is [European] Champions League soccer,
Western European soccer. It's a rapid passing game played by athletes.
Rarely does anyone dribble, or keep the ball for a second. You pass
instantly. It's not the beautiful game -- dribbles are prettier -- but
it works best. All good teams everywhere in the world play this way.
Even the Brazilians adopted the Champions League style in the 1990s.
They still have more skill than the Europeans, but they now try to
play the European pace" (page 27). The key reason this type of soccer
has come to dominate is due to the close network of quality clubs,
players and coaches based in western Europe, which lead to the cross-
pollination of ideas. The English national team is not part of the
world elite, largely because of its relative isolation and resistance
to foreign influence.

The rest of part one looks at the club-level aspects of soccer:
discrimination, the player transfer market, remuneration (it turns out
there's a better correlation between performance and salary than
performance and transfer price). The chapter on penalty kicks was a
highlight for me, discussing information systems, game theory and
psychology. As you might guess, the best penalty takers are those that
get lots of practice and always mix things up, often changing their
minds mid run-up.

Part two looks at the fans, and is mostly Anglo-centric. It turns out
fans are not as loyal as they make themselves out to be: the legend of
the Fan is a British national fantasy. Hosting the World Cup finals is
not very profitable, but it does make the host citizens happy. National
unity brings people together, thereby reducing isolation, loneliness and

Part three looks at countries. Unsurprisingly, most successful teams at
the World Cup finals have large populations and are generally wealthy.
The idea that poverty helps inspire good players is the exception rather
than the rule. Diet, training, quality coaching and support mechanisms
are better predictors. Home teams do have a slight advantage. The
authors try to assess which countries over- or underachieve relative to
their wealth and population. Interestingly, by their metrics, Italy
(winner of four World Cups) underachieves relative to the comparably
wealthy and populous England and France (each having won only one title
- both on home soil incidentally). The authors seem to suggest this
discrepancy is due to luck, but I think their reliance on statistics is
leading them astray. Perhaps there are some intangible or unmeasurable
qualities at play, such as organisational ability, mental toughness,
commitment and passion.

The final chapter makes some predictions on which countries will be
future world powers. The diaspora of quality coaches from Western
Europe could lead to countries on the periphery, such as Turkey,
Russia and yes, even Australia, may become world powers. Regarding
Australia, the authors predict that early next century: "Aussie Rules
might only exist at subsidized folklore festivals". They might be onto

Overall, an interesting book. A bit too UK- and US-centric for my taste.
For example, there's lot of comparisons with baseball and other American
sports. Also, there weren't enough metrics on actual gameplay to back up
some of their assertions. The only in-game stats discussed were penalty

Here's an interview featuring one of authors, during the 2010 World Cup
in South Africa (~ 22 mins):

4. "Tempo" by Venkatesh Rao

This brief book by a popular blogger, Venkatesh Rao, an independent
researcher and consultant. He's worked for various organisations, such
as defence companies and startups. The book is about decision-making,
examining principles from information systems, military theory,
cognitive psychology, philosophy and narrative theories. Timing is a
big theme, as you'd expect from the title.

The author's approach is a bit unconventional, and perhaps outside the
interests of the average reader. But if you're work requires a lot of
decision-making, it's a quick and interesting read that might provide
new insights.

The book's website:

The author's main blog:

Perhaps his most famous series of blog posts take a deep look at the
TV series "The Office", in which he develops a new theory of the
organisation to rival established management theories.

5. "How Will You Measure Your Life?"
   by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon

Clayton Christensen is a Harvard Business School professor. He's
renowned for his theories about innovation and disruption in business.
In his latest book, he and the other authors apply techniques and
lessons learned in analysing companies and industries to the field of
individual human happiness. At first blush this may seem a stretch,
but it turns out being a useful approach.

From the book's inner jacket: "Christensen puts forth a series of
questions: How can I be sure that I'll find satisfaction in my career?
How can I be sure that my personal relationships become enduring
sources of happiness? How can I avoid compromising my integrity — and
stay out of jail? Using lessons from some of the world's greatest
businesses, he provides incredible insights into these challenging

The book was in part motivated by Christensen's recent illness, but as
he explains, he's always concluded his courses with an open discussion
where the techniques taught during the course are applied to individuals
rather than companies. Each chapter looks at a particular technique or
concept. There's a brief explanation of the concept as it usually
applies to business, then the rest of the chapter shows how it can be
applied to our own lives. For example, the dangers of outsourcing by
business can provide useful lessons for parents. The "job to be done"
approach to customer satisfaction shoes us how to be good spouses/
parents/friends. The "marginal cost" theory can be applied to our lives
to keep us out of trouble.

Overall, I found the book's novel approach to measuring satisfaction
very convincing. But, even if you're not swayed by the application of
these ideas to individuals, you will at least learn some things about
companies and industries.

Here's a TEDx talk given by Christensen. It's a brief, "big picture"
view of the book with a few examples (~ 20 mins):

Here's a longer, slightly more technical presentation for LinkedIn's
inDay (~ 73 mins):