Recent reads

Here are brief reviews for the 6 books I read in the last couple  of months.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (Jordan Ellenberg, 2014)

This book discusses applying mathematical thinking in everyday situations for decision-making in order to avoid common pitfalls.

The book shows how mathematical principles can be applied to real-world scenarios involving statistics, probability, and game theory. There are some fun real world examples discussed including lotteries, election polls, finance, tax schemes, and medicine. The book aims to show readers how embracing mathematical reasoning can guard them against being misled by faulty arguments or misinterpretations of data.

The book is written in an engaging and accessible style, but it gets tedious as it is more than 450 pages long. Inevitably, it delves into repetitive explanations, creating monotony and disorganization. The book loses focus as it disperses its attention. Did we really need this long of a book? Couldn't it be half or quarter the size?

Personally, I found more enjoyment in the "Mathematics for Human Flourishing" by Francis Su (2020).

On grand strategy (John Lewis Gaddis, 2018)

This book explores the concept of grand strategy: how leaders formulate and implement long-term plans. Being a historian, Gaddis draws on the writings of  Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Machiavelli, and military campaigns going as far back as 480BC to Xerxes's invasion of Greece, to make his points.

He employs the fox versus hedgehog framework (popularized by Berlin in 1953) to discuss different philosophies leaders adopt for grand strategy. "A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing." --Archilochus

Foxes are adaptable and versatile. They draw on a wide range of experiences and ideas, avoiding a fixed, singular perspective. Hedgehogs, in contrast, are characterized by a singular focus. They have a specific, central vision or principle that guides their actions. Gaddis argues that an effective grand strategy requires a deep understanding of the geopolitical landscape, clear objectives, yet flexibility in approach, combining strengths from both fox and hedgehog frameworls. 

This quote from Gaddis is a stark reminder: "Commonsense is like oxygen: the higher you go, the thinner it gets." In complex situations, commonsense is insufficient and inapplicable. It becomes important to understand things deeply and think strategically. This reminded me of the "Are Right A Lot" and "Earn Trust" leadership principle from Amazon.
  • Are Right, A Lot: Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
  • Earn Trust: Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.  
Despite the promise and boasting of brevity in the first chapter, the book extends to nearly 400 pages. This confused and frustrated me -- I guess I need to calibrate expectations with the work of historians. I found the book to have a dry and academic tone. As the book lingered on in detailed and dry accounting of ancient military campaigns, I got bored and moved to other things.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Colin Woodard, 2011)

This book explores the cultural divisions within the United States through a historical reference of frame. Woodard argues that North America is comprised of 11 distinct regional cultures, each with its own historical roots, values, and political characteristics. Woodard traces the development of these 11 nations from the colonial period to the present day, discussing how their unique cultural and historical backgrounds continue to influence politics and society.

The book offers a thought-provoking exploration of the regional diversity. Of course, the book simplifies and generalizes heavily, as the author briefly acknowledges. But this was an engaging book, and I enjoyed it. Coming to the States as an immigrant, this book felt like the manual I was missing for understanding American history and current state of affairs.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)

This fantasy-fiction book combines intricate world-building, and exploration of contemporary issues within the framework of old myth. The central premise is that gods and mythical beings exist because people believe in them, and their power diminishes as belief fades. In the book, the old gods start a campaign to resist being forgotten, and this starts a conflict with the modern gods. The book has superb storytelling as is the hallmark of Neil Gaiman.

Norse mythology (Neil Gaiman, 2017)

This book retells the ancient Norse myths with a modern (and superb) narration. Gaiman's short sentences and simple clear prose weaves a captivating narrative of the  world of Norse folklore, including stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, Frey, and Freyja. It is funny. I imagined this book was Gaiman's writer block therapy book. It is just retelling of Norse myths, an easy book, that helps him exercise prose and prowess in writing. I mistakenly thought this predated the American Gods. Anyways, I love reading Neil Gaiman, and I loved the simplicity and elegance of this book.

"Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away." --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The creative act: A way of being (Rick Rubin, 2023)

Rick Rubin is a legendary American record producer and music executive. He is very memeable.

This audiobook is superbly narrated by the calming voice of Rick Rubin himself. The book features snippets of Rick Rubin's insights on creativity, punctuated by a resonant gong sound following each brief section.

I liked the insights. Most of them are very relatable. You recognize them from your own work, but realize that you never articulated it this way before. 
  • Creativity is not a rare ability. It is not difficult to access. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human. It’s our birthright. And it’s for all of us.
  • Living life as an artist is a practice. You are either engaging in the practice or you’re not. It makes no sense to say you’re not good at it. It’s like saying, "I’m not good at being a monk." You are either living as a monk or you’re not. We tend to think of the artist’s work as the output. The real work of the artist is a way of being in the world.
  • To live as an artist is a way of being in the world. A way of perceiving. A practice of paying attention. Refining our sensitivity to tune in to the more subtle notes. Looking for what draws us in and what pushes us away. Noticing what feeling tones arise and where they lead.
  • All that matters is that you are making something you love, to the best of your ability, here and now.
  • To the best of my ability, I’ve followed my intuition to make career turns, and been recommended against doing so every time. It helps to realize that it’s better to follow the universe than those around you.
  • Art may only exist, and the artist may only evolve, by completing the work.
  • The call of the artist is to follow the excitement. Where there’s excitement, there’s energy. And where there is energy, there is light.
The book is very disorganized, which makes it less engaging compared to previous work on the topic, such as "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (Steven Pressfield, 2012)". This is also reminiscent of "The great work of your life (Stephen Cope, 2012)" and work by Seth Godin


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