Free Lunch [Book Review]

Free Lunch, by David Cay Johnston, is subtitled “How the wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense (and stick you with the bill).” Yes, it’s one of THOSE books.

I’ve read and watched a fair share of media concerning how Corporate America ™ is bilking the Middle and Lower classes, so I honestly expected to not see anything I hadn’t seen already. But once I started this book, I couldn’t stop. Johnston’s ability to investigate, research, and synthesize this topic is astounding. The only thing that could have made this book better is a “happy ending,” or sense of resolution, at the end of each chapter; But that would just be sugar-coating the reality of things.

This book is not for the faint of heart, not for those that can’t tolerate the raise in their blood pressure from anger & aggravation, and certainly not for those that cannot deal with harsh realities. Continue reading

The Long Tail [Book Review]

Longtail CoverWow.

Where to begin with this one.

Even though this book was released a few years ago, the concepts and contents of this book will probably be relevant for eternity, as long as there are means for abundant choice. I highly recommend everyone  read this, particularly if you are in either business or technology, as it is relevant to both fields. (specifically: marketing / internet technology)

Essentially, “The Long Tail” refers to a powerlaw curve, where the vast majority of VOLUME is comprised of very few products, and the vast maority of PRODUCTS individually pull a very small number of sales. (The example used by the author is comparing books / CD’s offered by Wal-Mart, which sells only hits, versus the books / CDs sold by Amazon.com, which sells pretty much everything you can imagine). It’s a contrasting between “hits” and “niches”. In a situation where choice is abundant (such as on amazon) a Long-tail distribution will often emerge.

But the true strength of this book is the insight in both the case-studies and applications. Continue reading

Society without God [Book Review]

In what reads like a combination of research paper and super-lengthy blog post, Zuckerman presents a very convincing case that religion is unnecessary for a society to prosper.

It’s important to note that the book’s hypothesis is not “secularism makes societies BETTER” but rather “lack of religion does NOT make societies fail.” To this end, Zuckerman interviews 149 semi-randomly selected people from Denmark & Sweden, while living there for 14 months. The general consensus is that religion is mostly a non-issue for people. Some believe, most don’t, but nearly all really just *don’t care*.

As for the support for his research hypothesis, one need look no further than the UN statistics on where Scandinavian countries place in terms of happiness, health, crime, poverty, etc. (hint: they do very well in all categories, significantly better than the US in most) The author does a good job of illustrating his personal experience while living there, as how it compares to living in northern California.

If I could, I would give it 4.5 stars. The only reason I don’t give it 5 is because at times, it feels a little bit too much like a research paper. At a mere 183 pages, it is a quick read; but there were a couple moments when it felt like the pacing was lacking. In spite of that, it is definitely worth reading; I highly recommend for anyone interested in socio-religious issues (whether a believer or a non-believer or a fence-walker).

Napoleon’s Buttons [Book Review]

This is by far the most interesting book I’ve read this year (and is a definite contender for the “all-time” best, as well!)

The premise of the book is “17 molecules that changed history.” From cotton to caffeine, scopolamine to saponin, this book colorfully lays out both the chemical nature of these significant molecules, explaining how they function and WHY they work the way they do; it also illustrates the historical impact, going into great detail about how the course of history was heavily affected by the molecular properties of the topical substance.

The author explained in her introduction that her publisher had initially balked at the idea of using the actual chemical structures in the text — perhaps it was the intimidating look of an organic stick structure that threw them off; But Le Couteur does a terrific job of demystifying these seeming cryptic diagrams, using arrows, circles, and notations to indicate key differences in otherwise similar structures.

In spite of this, Le Couteur’s main focus in the book is not on the technical chemistry, but rather on the historical relevance.

I find that when I’m learning something, the more connections I can form with an idea, the stronger my memory — this book is a powerhouse in that regard; the knowledge of the structural nature of these compounds (at least the relevant functional groups, anyways) coupled with the historical relevance, creates memorable, almost mnemonic, impressions in my mind.

One of my favorite stories from this book was about Isoeugenol (one of the key chemicals in the common spice “Nutmeg”). Centuries ago, before America declared its independence, the English and the Dutch were top world powers. The Dutch’s East India Trading Company dominated the spice islands, Indonesian region, and pursued Captain Jack Sparrow to the edge of the earth. They also controlled Manhattan island (then called “New Amsterdam”).

The British controlled the isle of Run, a tiny island down n Indonesia, near Australia. It was a fairly non-descript island, save for one particular feature: It contained a LOT of nutmeg. At the time, both the Dutch and the British were dealing with the plague, and Isoeugenol, found in nutmeg was believed (somewhat correctly) to help prevent the spread of that disease.

After some fighting, some discussion, and some agreement, the two nations traded the isle of Run for Manhattan island. The plague passed, and everyone moved on. It is quite likely that Holland would have yielded New Amsterdam eventually anyways, since the British presence in the New World was more prevalent, but who knows how things would have turned out that way!

If you enjoy non-fiction, particularly historical or science-oriented, this book is a must read.

Physics of the Impossible [Book Review]

Let me preface this by saying that I do like Kaku as a writer — Hyperspace is still one of my favorite books (I’ve given it as a gift on 3 separate occasions), and his followup “Visions” was equally good.

This, though… I was disappointed. But only because I’ve read all of his books up until now.

The content was interesting, but I really didn’t see much that I hadn’t already seen in his previous books — it was just written in a way that assumed the reader was slightly less scientifically / physically literate, contrasted to how his previous books were.

If you’ve never read his work before, and are curious for a nice smooth survey through some rather sophisticated aspects of the physical sciences, then the book is definitely worth reading — seasoned Kaku fans will be disappointed though.