HICSS Book Club 2006

Jan 4, 2006

A meeting of friends, their books and recommendations

Each year I have dinner with my IBM friends and (now, former colleagues) Wendy Kellogg, John Thomas, Christine Halvorsen, Robert Bowdige (who works at Apple), Tom Erickson and Katie Solomonson (who's at U. Minnesota). We talk for a couple of hours summarizing our annual books reading for each other—what’s best and why you might ant to read it. This year we sat on the white veranda with green trim at the Kiahuna Plantation. Tropical tradewinds brought the scent of plumeria to us while we listed our favorites…

Round 1: In which everyone presented their favorite,

And gave a pitch about why you should want to read this.

Tom: The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki. Tom tells the story of how a crowd can more accurately determine the weight of a cow (butchered) than any individual. We are all very impressed by this. From Publisher’s Weekly: “…’Wise crowds’ need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge….”

Which explains why this book group is so successful.

John: Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. John made a nice segue here. If a crowd can be wise, any someone can be blink-smart, what would a crowd-blink-smart be? Online voting in a chat room? Best SIP (statistically improbable phrase): “intuitive repulsion.”

Wendy: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. SIP: “our ethical intuitions” From Amazon reviews: “Sam Harris cranks out blunt, hard-hitting chapters to make his case for why faith itself is the most dangerous element of modern life. And if the devil's in the details, then you'll find Satan waiting at the back of the book in the very substantial notes section where Harris saves his more esoteric discussions to avoid sidetracking the urgency of his message.”

Christine: Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson. (A follow-up to his previous book, Forty Signs of Rain.) Global warming; Gulf Streams stalls out; everyone gets really cold. Smart science overcomes governmental stupidity.

Robert: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (the new translation by Edith Grossman, 2003). Robert says it’s great and feels very modern, bringing medieval Spanish life into a context that feels real and current. Best SIP: “fulling hammers” (I looked it up so you wouldn’t have to: “flat-faced hammers or mallets that drive oil from cloth.”)

Katie: not a single book, but the entire body of work by Pierre Bourdieu. As Katie said, “He’s influenced my thinking more than any other writer.”

The French sociologist’s (August 1, 1930-January 23, 2002) work ranged widely from philosophy to anthropology. His obit said: "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan". Several of his books are considered classics of in sociology anthropology, education, and cultural studies. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste” was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. His book “Outline of a Theory of Practice” is among the most cited in the world. “The Rules of Art” has influenced sociology, history, literature and aesthetics. [ DMR: Edited from the Wikipedia entry ]

Dan: God's Secretaries : The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. I picked this up by sheer chance when in JFK one day and had a marvelous read. This book’s got it all: major cultural effects, internecine battles, Puritans, debauchery (well, not much), lavish payments for political influence, a huge committee charged with rewriting the Bible, intrigue and a complex political landscape that makes the Bush White House seem like a day at the State Fair. Worth the reading time.

Round 2: After everyone presented their favorite,

we went to our second picks

Tom: Rational Ritual : Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Suk-Young Chwe. A game theory approach to rituals and behaviors in general.

John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man -- by John Perkins. “Perkins says he was an "economic hit man" for 10 years, helping U.S. intelligence agencies and multinationals cajole and blackmail foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy and awarding lucrative contracts to American business. "Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars," Perkins writes. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is an extraordinary and gripping tale of intrigue and dark machinations. Think John Le Carré, except it's a true story.” (From Amazon.com review) John Thomas says it’s a very scary book. From what little I've read, I agree.

Wendy: The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. The story of how Google changed the way we think, work and live. That’s all. Not bad for a startup. The Search is not exactly the corporate history of Google. Battelle wants to understand “the cultural anthropology of search, and to analyze search engines' current role as the "database of our intentions.” (My opinion: it’s a fascinating book and filled with great background gossip.)

Christine: My Friend May Ellen << still trying to figure out what this book is! Christine: let me know! >>

Robert: Come Back to Afghanistan : A California Teenager's Story by Said Hyder Akbar, Susan Burton. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, Afghans living in exile began to return home in hopes of participating in rebuilding their war-torn country. Akbar's father sold his hip-hop clothing store in Oakland to join his friend Hamid Karzai, now the elected president, serving first as his spokesman and later as the governor of the remote province of Kunar. The author joined him right after he finished high school and spent three summers, first in Kabul and then in Asadabad, the provincial capital. The young man traveled through the countryside and across the mountainous border into Pakistan. Equipped with a microphone and recorder, he chronicled his experiences and his reactions for public radio's This American Life. These immediate observations form the basis of this engaging and informative account of Afghan life and politics interwoven with a teen's reactions to his first visit to his family's native land. (From School Library Journal)

Katie: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books -- by Azar Nafisi. Reading banned books in a repressive regime is always tough. Reading Lolita (or 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale) in Iran was akin to heresy. Here we meet women who read banned books—women who are lliving, breathing, tough and intriguing.

Dan: Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures. by Howard Wainer -- More a social history of information visualizations than a “how to” or technical book. Lots of fun to read about the inner life of folks like William Playfair (18th century wildman who really popularized information graphics for analysis) and John Tukey (who I worked with at PARC, and the father of the t-test) and how their work changed our understanding of information visualization.

Round 3: You only get 1 minute to say your 3rd favorite.

Tom: God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams. A parable about a young man and his mentor, an old man who seems to know everything. Note: This is a non-Dilbert, non-humorous book. It is also the Number 1 selling e-book. As Adams writes: “this is a book designed to spin your brain around and get you thinking…” about God, the nature of the universe, and…well…everything!

John: Spoken Here : Travels Among Threatened Languages -- by Mark Abley Languages fade and pass away. When they do, does the world lose something precious? Do we all lose a different way of looking at the world? Yeah, I think so too. This is a lovely book (at least the parts I read) and worthy reading…before any other languages disappear. (Ooops… too late. One just vanished.)

Wendy: The Truth (with jokes) -- by Al Franken. Swiftboaters, Bush's fake "mandate," Tom DeLay, Iraq, Karl Rove, Abramhoff off to prison. WMD, war on terror, wacko policies… all in searingly funny text. Depressing, but very, very funny.

Christine: What Happy People Know : How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better -- by Dan Baker, Cameron Stauth. Just read this book. Be happy, damn it. (Seriously: there is a bunch of interesting new data about what makes happy people that way… aside from unnaturally high levels of serotonin in their brains. Useful.)

Robert: Trains to Yosemite –- by Jack A. Burgess An improbably interesting book about the Yosemite Valley Railroad. Lots of great pix, maps and data. An expensive book, but worth getting from the library.

Dan: The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread -- by Peter Reinhart, Ron Manville. It’s food porn, I knew it when I first picked it up. But I really love bread, and I’d heard Reinhart talking about bread making on a long radio interview. He made it sound so… so… spiritual and lovely. I immediately went home and made bread. Alas, it was a disappointment. There really are deep secrets in creating great bread, and this book beautifully tells them. Give this book as a present to your foodie friends. Then wait for the freshly-baked bread to start flowing back in gratitude.

Katie: Visual Perception; Physiology, Psychology and Ecology -- by Vicki Bruce. A great book about how visual perception works. Targeted for undergrads or beginning grad school.

Round 4: Rapid-fire book associations,

shout out a pick in reaction to what you’ve heard

other people have talked about….

1. Shaping Things –- by Bruce Sterling. "Shaping Things is about created objects and the environment, which is to say, it's about everything," writes Bruce Sterling in this addition to the Mediawork Pamphlet series. He adds, "Seen from sufficient distance, this is a small topic." Sterling offers a brilliant, often hilarious history of shaped things. We have moved from an age of artifacts, made by hand, through complex machines, to the current era of "gizmos." New forms of design and manufacture are appearing that lack historical precedent, he writes; but the production methods, using archaic forms of energy and materials that are finite and toxic, are not sustainable. The future will see a new kind of object -- we have the primitive forms of them now in our pockets and briefcases: user-alterable, baroquely multi-featured, and programmable -- that will be sustainable, enhanceable, and uniquely identifiable. Sterling coins the term "spime" for them, these future manufactured objects with informational support so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. (from the book’s description)

2. The Kite Runner -- by Khaled Hosseini. A tale of two boys in a turbulent Afghanistan. An attempt to keep a difficult war in the minds of people not there ("people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz..”). Tragic, sometimes funny, honest, emotionally engaging. This is what it’s like to live in Afghanistan as a child.

3. Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics -- by Kevin M. Dunn. Projects for the mad scientist caveman in all of us. Robert points out that it’s also a secret story of how all those complex chemistry concepts got figured out.

4. Garlic and Sapphires : The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise -- by Ruth Reichl The third book in her memoir triology (“Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples”). Funny, poignant, crispy, salty and sweet. About food, yes, but also about identity (she has to review restaurants undercover) and the effects of other people and their acceptance (or not) of her in that role.


Poipu, Kauai, Hawai’i January 9, 2005