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11 Mini Reviews
November 10, 2013 - 9:00pm

It has been a while since we caught up with what we have all been reading.

If I don’t write about the books that I read then I forget what they say.  How about you?

In sharing my recent books I very much hope that you will find some time to reciprocate.  My book buying is driven strongly by word of mouth, and knowing what you are reading and loving will help me determine what to download next.  

And I’m interested in what higher ed people are reading.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
Format: Whispersync: Kindle and Audiobook

Mini Review:    So I’m reading this book now.  (My Kindle tells me I’m 39% through this 512 page political junkie must read).  Double Down is so good so far that I’m really hoping that you will pick it up as well so we can bookclub in the near future.

The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy by Daniel Alpert
Format: Whispersync: Kindle and Audiobook

Mini Review:   What is the biggest change that has impacted your working life and standard of living in the past couple of decades?  The liberal investment banker (did you know there was such a thing?) Daniel Alpert has the answer.   It is the hundreds of millions of new entrants into the global economy that have joined the party with the opening up and rapid growth of China, India, South America, and countries once behind the Iron Curtain.  Alpert wonders how politicians can keep offering solutions to problems that worked before the flood of cheap goods and cheap money started gushing in from China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia?  His thesis is that the U.S. and Europe are suffering from a jobs and growth crisis brought on by a combination of under-investment and over-consumption.  The solution is for government to invest in infrastructure improvements that will create new jobs (ones that can’t be outsourced), and raise our long-term productivity.   The real danger is not deficits or government debt, but underemployment and an erosion of public services.  Will Alpert persuade anyone?  Probably not.  But reading The Age of Oversupply should help those of us that believe in the value of investing in our people and our infrastructure some strong arguments to help us better make our case.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer 
Format: Whispersync: Kindle and Audiobook

Mini Review:    The Unwinding is nonfiction that reads like fiction.  We learn about what has gone wrong in the U.S. (over-consumption, debt, bubbles, growing inequality, the hallowing out of the middle class and large sections of the industrial Midwest) not through statistics or theories but through the lives of a diverse cast of American characters.  The Unwinding illuminates our societal failings (economic, political, and social), without offering any solutions or even much of consistent thread to understand the larger story.   The safety net and the social fabric have been frayed. Political power and wealth have been largely joined together.  The country has divided along economic and ideological lines.  The Unwinding is so well written and so artfully constructed that it is hard to be overly critical of Packer’s accomplishment.   My critique would be that the last few decades have been pretty amazing with hundreds of millions of worldwide citizens joining the market economy and gaining political and economic freedoms that previously had been reserved to only a few in a few wealthy countries.   That the U.S. decline is more relative than absolute, and that with some relatively straightforward political and economic choices that the lives of our grandchildren will be better off than those of our grandparents.   

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy and John List 
Format: Whispersync: Kindle and Audiobook 

Mini Review:    This book should have been Economists Who Do Experiments.  Theory is out.  Big thoughts about how the economy works or why some people are rich and some are poor are not tackled.  Instead, we learn the best ways to motivate parents to pick up their offspring on time from daycare (answer - beware of perverse incentives), how to reduce teen violence (answer - get the incentives right), and how to increase charitable giving (answer - common sense is no substitute for experiments).   This is less a book about how the world works and more a book about why doing experiments is the only way to figure anything out.   I’ve long thought that our profession of educational technology and course design is pretty bad at doing experiments.  We tend to go with theory.  Go with our gut.  Go with what we have always been doing.  Gneezy and List argue that experiments need not be overly costly or overly complicated.  That the real price we pay is not testing our assumptions, and making decisions based on something other than the evidence that would be available to us if we were willing to run our own experiments.  

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen 
Format: Whispersync: Kindle and Audiobook 

Mini Review:   Average is Over is Cowen’s most confidant and closely argued books to date.  This George Mason University economist (self described as sort of conservative but with libertarian leanings) makes the argument that when it comes to the jobs of the future that the center will not hold.  The future will belong to a small class of professionals with the skills needed to partner with technology to increase their productivity, while the rest of the labor market will increasingly cater to the needs of these new high priestesses and priests of the techno-analytical-elite.   This does not mean that everyone will need to become a programmer or an engineer - but that if we want our kids to be able to buy a house in a school district with good public schools that they will need to be able to work effectively with the programmers and the engineers.   Average is Over has some important implications for higher education.  I hope that you read the book and think about what these implications may be (or share your thoughts if you have done so), and I hope that Cowen turns his attention more directly the industry in which he is also employed.  Of course, I’d be very happy if Cowen was more careful in his language and refrained from conflating online education with MOOCs, but at this point that particular mistake in language is so ingrained that it seems pointless to keep pointing it out.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser 
Format: Audiobook 

Mini Review:   This book scared me.  Truly.  To read Schlosser’s masterful (and very long - 640 pages) Command and Control is to realize that the absence of a major Cold War nuclear weapons accident or accidental nuclear war was mostly dumb luck.  The U.S.’s command and control systems often performed neither of these tasks, and the history of near misses and close calls with a nuclear arsenal that Schlosser has uncovered are truly frightening.  

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell 
Format: Audiobook 

Mini Review:   The latest installment in the Gladwell nonfiction juggernaut is not getting the best of reviews.  Ignore them.  Read David and Goliath for the fun of reading a writer who writes as skillfully as Gladwell on subjects that we can relate to our own lives.   If nothing else us higher ed folks need to engage what Gladwell has to say about overmatching and the dangers of being a little academic fish in a big campus pond.   Besides, David and Goliath is bound to make you feel better about your place in the pecking order (particularly the academic pecking order), as almost none of us will identify with Goliath.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
Format: Audiobook 

Mini Review:  Good fun.  Rushkoff’s thesis is that the future has arrived, and it sort of sucks.  The possible future of mass leisure and a 20 hour workweek has been replaced by our present future of neurotic always-on communication and hyperkinetic consumption and work.   The all encompassing present is so overwhelming and disorienting that we leave ourselves little time to reflect on our choices, or connect with those around us.  My recommendation is to read Present Shock but make the choice to let Rushkoff (and the rest of the media theory class of scribblers, tweeters, and speakers) do most of the worrying.   Turn of the TV, take a vacation from social media, and go for a walk.  Nobody will miss you all that much, and the work (and all those e-mails) will still be waiting for you when you return.

Nine Inches: Stories by Tom Perotta
Format: Audiobook

Mini Review:  I don’t read enough fiction.  Tom Perotta is one of my all time favorite authors.  I’ve read everything he has written and will read anything else that he writes.  I like Perotta because his protagonists are people that I recognized.  Middle class suburban Dads, Mom’s and kids - the people that I grew up with.  While I’m looking forward to Perotta’s next novel, the short stories in Nine Inches kept me entertained and made me think.  What other fiction would you recommend based on my love of Perotta’s writing?

Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today by Mark Gerchick
Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections by Patrick Smith
Format: Audiobooks

Mini Review:    I want to put these two books together, as I recommend reading them as a set.  Gerchick’s book, Full Upright and Locked Position, is a must read for anyone interested in the business of the airline business.  If you wonder why flying has gotten so much worse during the last few years then the Gerchick book is where you will find the answers.  A long time airline industry lawyer, consultant, and lobbyist, Gerchick understands the world of airlines, airplanes, and airports as a true industry insider.  Her masterfully recounts how the airlines, once an economic and business basket case, have figured out the formula for reasonable levels of business consistency. (Hint: it has everything to do with unbundling the flying experience and charging for each desegregated piece).  Cockpit Confidential is an insider account of the airlines from a different angle - this time from an airline pilot.   Smith does a great job of taking us inside of what the daily life and routine of an airline pilot consists of, and in the process helping us understand what exactly is going on with the airplane during a typical flight.  Cockpit Confidential will make you feel more secure about the safety of your next flight, and dissuade you from any thoughts that the life an airline pilot is the least bit glamorous.

 

 

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