Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Frank, Anne (1947): The Diary of a Young Girl

What is it about?

The book is a compilation of diary entries kept by Anne Frank, a daughter in a Jewish family which was in hiding in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1942-1944 during Nazi occupation.

The diary entries end -- understandably a bit abruptly -- when the family was discovered and apprehended by the authorities, and sent to the concentration camps. Only the father of the family ultimately survives the camps.

Was it good?

The book is remarkably good, and well worth all the acclaim around the world for decades.

The book is good at so many levels. First, the author -- 13-15 years old at the time of writing  -- is remarkably mature and fluent writer for a girl of her age. Second, she is especially bold and talented in describing the thoughts and feelings of a teenage girl. Third, the peculiar circumstances of the author and her family -- hiding in a building annex with another family during Nazi occupation -- make the book historically very valuable and of special interest. And fourth, the text -- as read with knowledge of what eventually happened -- is highly resonant at places giving it extra emotional load.

The main take-away for me?

The obvious take-away here would have to do with tolerance, inclusivity, anti-racism etc. But perhaps even a stronger one has to do with the mental life of children. It may be that Anne Frank -- 12 years old at the time of starting the diary -- was quite exceptional, but I'm pretty sure that we adults by and large under-estimate what goes on inside the heads of our children, and we should usually take them more seriously and involve them more in discussions and decision-making.

Who should read the book?

Well, just everyone.

The book on The Diary of a Young Girl

Durant, Will (2002): The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time

What is it about?

In the book, the author lists and briefly describes (in a very peculiar style) what are according to his assessment the peaks of human achievement in terms of thinkers, poets, educational books, human progress and world events.

The book is only a bit over 100 pages long, and therefore the treatment within each of the categories is quite condensed.

Was it good?

To be honest, I must say that based on the title of the book, I expected substantially more. Of the main chapters, in my opinion only the The Ten "Greatest" Thinkers (sic.)  really lived up to the title. All the rest was -- again, in my opinion -- somewhat besides the point. For example, I certainly would not include poetry in this kind of a book, and listing a number of dates of death under Twelve Vital Dates in World History was a bit surprising.

Furthermore, I didn't really appreciate the nearly poetry-like writing style of the author -- its distinctive lyrical tone distracted me from the subject matter under discussion.

The main take-away for me?

It's hard to say what would be a take-away here when both the writing style and some of the content choices distracted me from a coherent train of thought that would run throughout the book. Perhaps there is a lesson for me with regard to "how not to write".

Who should read the book?

Well, I can't really recommend the book. Perhaps if one appreciates poetry and lyrical writing, there might be something to enjoy here.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Taylor, Frederick Winslow (1911): The Principles of Scientific Management

What is it about?

This is a very influential book which formulates the principles of systematically, i.e. scientifically, making work (mainly manual) more productive. This, Taylor argues, is based on careful observation of tasks, experimentation with conceivably efficient means of performing those, and recording the results.

Taylor posits that such systematic, i.e. scientific, management can in most instances more than double the output per worker, and he cites several such successful initiatives.

In sum, this book is a very influential one, and constitutes a foundation for "Taylorism", both in good (evidence-based systematic efficiency improvement) and bad (viewing human beings more as machines than holistic, intelligent and social beings).

Was it good?

First of all, I believe that this is a book which is often cited and referred to, but actually rarely read - and this is one of the reasons I selected it for reading.

I'm a bit divided about the book. Of course, it is a classic, and is very laudable in proposing systematic (as opposed to convention-based or rule-of-thumb) means of developing work methods. On the other hand, Taylor's view of workers is not so laudable, as the following quote perhaps illustrates:

"After completing this series of experiments, therefore, each man's work for each day was translated into foot-pounds of energy, and to our surprise we found that there was no constant or uniform relation between the foot-pounds of energy which the man exerted during a day and the tiring effect of his work. On some kinds of work the man would be tired out when doing perhaps not more than one-eighth of a horse-power, while in others he would be tired to no greater extent by doing half a horse-power of work."

All in all, Taylor's overriding concern is to find methods to maximize "a day's work for a first-class workman", and not to develop a good overall workplace.

The main take-away for me?

This two-sidedness of the approach leads me to think, as the main take-away, that most lines of enquiry like this probably are misguided if taken to the extreme with no "balancing" considerations. Indeed, maximizing "a day's work" probably does not lead to long-term prosperity of either the employees or the employers -- long-term, that is.

Who should read the book?

Probably most management scholars and practicing managers should read this book in its original complete form in order to learn about what Taylor actually wrote instead of reading second- or third-hand accounts of "Taylorism".

The book on Project Gutenberg: The Principles of Scientific Management

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Gifford, Rob (2008): China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

What is it about?

The 'framing story' of the book is to cover a road trip along route 312 across China by the author. The author is a China correspondent for U.S. National Public Radio, and the road trip is to end his lengthy correspondence.

The framing story, however, is just the surface; the author uses his encounters during the trip as springboards into quite vivid vignettes about Chinese history, both recent and more distant.

Was it good?

The book is exceptionally good, I would say. Not only is Gifford a superb writer (at least to my taste), but in addition the 'two-dimensional' structure of the book (the road trip on the 'x axis' or timeline and the vignettes on the 'y axis) works beautifully.

Moreover, the author is able to put forward a very compelling and well-argued interpretation of Chinese history, present and likely future(s).

The main take-away for me?

I suppose that the main take-away for me was deepened appreciation of how different human experiences there are in the world. That is, we (or at least I) too rarely consider how things are outside our own social circle - or more broadly, nation. This, I'm convinced, makes us (me) interpret the world too single-mindedly.

Gifford's road trip encounters and vignettes really hammer it home that human beings at this very moment live in vastly different contexts and consequently have immensely different experiences - and consider those as "just another day". Here, I don't say that any of such contexts is at face value better or worse than another, but that our (my) own life experiences are likely constrain how we see the world (c.f. the Whorfian hypothesis in linguistics).

Who should read the book?

This is a book for everyone. It is very accessible to everyone, everyone can (I think) enjoy it from a perspective or another, and everyone should benefit from the broadened horizons Gifford puts forward. Well, this may not apply to Chinese in full force, but Gifford's interpretation of their country and culture should be of interest to them as well. At least I would be very interested in reading Gifford's take on Finnish culture and history!

The book on China Road

Gustafsson, Claes (2012): The Production of Seriousness: The Metaphysics of Economic Reason

What is it about?

Narrowly construed, the book is about the nature and origins of managerial rationality - i.e. the production of seriousness. However, the book is about quite much more as it discusses individual and social behavior from a multitude of different perspectives.

I think that it would not be too unfair to say that the book is about the human condition in general, with occasional more focused explanations of managerial behavior in particular.

As a very, very nutshell summary, Gustafsson appears to be quite opposed to "homo economicus" kind of thinking as overly simplistic, and instead argues that managerial behavior - as all human behavior - is quite mimetic and culturally embedded, i.e. not at all as rational as the proponents (if there any longer are any) of the "homo economicus" model would suppose.

Was it good?

Yes, the book is good - especially if one takes it from the "human condition" perspective. If, on the other hand, one takes it from the specific "managerial behavior" perspective, Gustafsson's very expansive and multifaceted discussion may be a bit too broad for this particular purpose.

I think that a scholar can not write this kind of a book at the early stages of his/her career for at least two reasons. First, this kind of a treatise requires quite broad reading in multiple academic traditions, which requires time and -- well -- reading. And second, this kind of a book is most probably so time-consuming to write that it would not be a good career move to embark on such a project at the expense of more focused (i.e. resource-efficient) publications.

The main take-away for me?

Gustafsson quite nicely illustrates how broad reading allows one to make sense of the world quite richly. Thus, treatises such as this certainly encourage one to read and study more and with a wider scope. And yes, rationality is not a good starting assumption as a "model of man", but this is nowadays not a real take-away for most people.

Who should read the book?

This is a difficult question. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, I think that management researchers - that is, modern-day career researchers - are not the prime audience of this book. Instead, I think that not-so-career-oriented scholars - in armchairs or universities - with broader horizons will enjoy the book the most, and get the most out of it.

The book on The Production of Seriousness

Ashrafinian, Hutan (2016): Can Artificial Intelligences Suffer from Mental Illness? A Philosophical Matter to Consider

What is it about?

First of all, this is not a book but a scientific (or philosophical) article, the title of which immediately caught my interest.

In perfect accordance to the title of the paper, the author suggests that if artificial intelligence (AI) can, at some point of time in the future, be conscious, then it is quite possible that such an intelligence can also be or become dysfunctional, i.e. suffer from mental illness.

Was it good?

The paper is, in my opinion, a bit divided. First, the framing of the paper is exceptionally inviting: mental illness in artificial intelligence - quite a compelling line of argumentation. However, somehow the author does not seem to get exceedingly great mileage out of this setup. I can't, though, quite put my finger on the reason for this experience. In any event, the paper most probably must be perceived as an opening for a stream of discussion in philosophy of mind, and not as a fully-blown treatise on the subject matter. In this role the paper serves very well.

The main take-away for me?

Once again, the take-away is one at the meta level. Namely, in scientific/academic discourse, a good topic/framing/setup is highly important, yet a rare occurrence. That is, some 95% of academic papers I have read are quite incremental in their intended contributions - i.e. quite forgettable - while the remaining about 5% somehow catch one's attention and actually make one think. This paper clearly falls into the 5% category.

Who should read the article?

While the title and basic setup of the paper is quite universally appealing, I think that reading the paper requires some underlying interest in philosophy of mind, of philosophy in general.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Postman, Neil (1993): Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

What is it about?

The book is basically (though perhaps somewhat crudely put) against technocracy, as understood as an overarching emphasis on efficiency, scientism, and objective facts.

This, Postman argues, has, in the modern Western world, gone too far, with the expense of meaning. That is, children are being taught innumerable facts and humans are being evaluated on the basis of "marketable skills", while at the same time the meaning of life is being lost and "grand narratives" gradually vanish.

One could argue that Postman adopts quite an extreme position in his social criticism, and towards the end he all but acknowledges that (the beginning of the last chapter), but all the same he has some resonant points to advance.

Was it good?

Yes, the book was good. Postman is an excellent writer and capable of making his points quite forcefully. In this sense, the general style of the book is quite comparable to his Amusing ourselves to death, which I read a couple of months ago. On a very general level, the basic argument is quite the same as well, losing of meaning in society.

It would be particularly interesting to see Postman debate Andrew Keen, the author of The cult of the amateur, who apparently holds quite a different position, calling for most emphasis to be placed on experts (the very core of technocracy).

The main take-away for me?

There perhaps if no single tangible take-away from the book for me, but certainly Postman manages to convince one - including me - to approach any fact, scientific finding and even the very practice of science itself very cautiously. I don't mean here skepticism per se, but a reflective stance towards any fact, statistic of research result concerning their meaning in the larger societal perspective. For example, Postman would certainly have something to say about a research finding according to which Viagra reduces hamsters' jet lag.

Who should read the book?

The book should, like so many books, be read by everyone, because it fosters a healthy critical stance towards our modern increasingly technocratic society in the Western world. And in particular, those with social criticism stance are quite guaranteed to enjoy the book.

The book on Technopoly

Kaku, Michio (2008): Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel

What is it about?

Kaku, a theoretical physicist, discusses various "science fiction" technologies and evaluates whether those actually would be possible to implement (once successfully invented, of course).

The repertoire of technologies is highly interesting, ranging from invisibility and teleportation to time travel and precognition.

The author categorizes the technologies, after assessment, into three categories: (1) those which are not possible today but do not violate any known physical laws, (2) those which probably don't violate physical laws but lay at the very edge of the current understanding of the human kind, and (3) those which violate laws of physics and hence are simply impossible (as we know physics today).

Quite interestingly, only two of the 15 technologies end up in the third class: perpetual motion machines and precognition. Thus, teleportation, invisibility and even time travel seem possible - yet quite difficult - to achieve.

Was it good?

The book is very good and engaging. The book could have been highly more condensed if for each technology there had been just a straightforward assessment and conclusion. Instead, Kaku has chosen to include a lengthy discussion about the history of pertinent physical laws and a discussion concerning current scientific understanding to ground his assessment. Unlike with most such "book-lengthening tactics", this works beautifully and adds significant value to the reading experience.

The main take-away for me?

On a meta level, the main take-away is that the laws of physics allow for quite outlandish phenomena such as time travel - though in many cases harnessing and controlling required amounts of energy may be practically impossible. Thus, like Tuomas Nevanlinna has aptly put it, modern-day physics tells a much more incredible story than any religion is capable of (dark matter, anti-universes, new baby universes created in laboratories by humans....).

Also, antimatter is quite an expensive substance (see chapter 10).

Who should read the book?

I think that the book can be enjoyed by anyone, and especially those who have and engineering mindset/training and/or are big fans of science fiction.

Highly recommended.

The book on Physics of the Impossible