mini book review – “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and HappinessThis book is not for me, even though it is a topic that I am interested in, and one of the authors is a Nobel Laureate. My feelings toward it went quickly from ‘meh’ to dislike to hate. It is a good topic written badly. The condescending tone and the feeble attempts at humor annoyed me. I honestly could not bear it when I was half way. But then I struggled to finish it.

For topics on behavioral psychology and economics, there are many books that are far more informative and engaging – Predictably Irrational, Thinking Fast and Slow, Stumbling on Happiness, Mindless Eating, just to name a few. In comparison, this book is dry and offers no new insights. Still, this first part is better than the later examples/applications that bore me to tears.

The authors believe that many issues in society can be solved by ‘nudging’, in other words, subtly influencing the stupid population to make better decisions (e.g. set better default choices, design better systems and processes, require better information disclosure). These are all well and good, but they failed to sufficiently address the very real issue of banks, insurance companies, politicians that intentionally confuse and mislead the population in order to gain from their bad decisions. For example, the discussions on subprime loans completely missed the point. As a result, many advice/suggestions in this book are more noble than practical.

Because of the various fallacies of human brains, we don’t always make the best decisions. We know it. This is part of life, the learning process. People harvest what they sow. Every responsible person should know what happens if they over-spend, or over-eat, or sign papers without reading them, or whatever. Some self-congratulatory economists might think ‘nudges’ from companies or government could solve these problems. No, they can’t. Not to mention that improving self-destructive lives was rarely the top priority of these so-called ‘choice architects’.

I hate the phrase ‘libertarian paternalism’ with a vengeance – its appearance in every chapter (if not every page) makes me sick. To me it means people are manipulated into making certain choices, while foolishly feel that they chose with 100% free will. It is hypocrisy in my book. The authors seem to advise those in power that instead of helping us to become more intelligent or gain a greater degree of control over our lives, they should work on ‘nudging’ us to make the decisions they want us to make. I trust the authors’ intention was to make the world a better place. So, did I get the whole thing wrong? Or maybe because I am not the target audience of this book? Anyway, I am just so glad the ordeal is over.



mini book review – “The Mind’s Eye”

I learned a lot from this fascinating book by Oliver Sacks about the complexity of our visual processing, through various captivating neurological disorder cases: a person who suddenly lost the ability to read even though he can still write; people who see perfectly well but are unable to recognize faces; someone who had no stereoscopy at all but gained the capability to see in 3-D later in life, etc. The author is a neurologist and practicing physician and he wrote these stories with so much compassion. In this book he also recounted his own battle with an eye tumor and the strange visual symptoms it caused. I have always taken for granted my ability to see and perceive, but now I appreciate that it is a very complicated process and many things could go wrong. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to see the world through another person’s eyes, or rather, to process what my eyes see through another person’s brain.

mini book review – “A History of the World in 6 Glasses”

This enlightening book by Tom Standage is about how six beverages shaped the human history. Here are the section titles to give you a brief idea – “Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt’; ‘Wine in Greece and Rome’; ‘Spirits in the Colonial Period’; ‘Coffee in the Age of Reason’; ‘Tea and the British Empire’; ‘Coca-Cola and the Rise of America’. As the author puts it, ‘Understanding the ramifications of who drank what, and why, and where they got it from, requires the traversal of many disparate and otherwise unrelated fields: the histories of agriculture, philosophy, religion, medicine, technology, and commerce.’ Such a unique and interesting angle to look at the world history via three alcoholic and three caffeinated drinks! I really enjoyed the learning experience.

mini book review – “The Broken Window”

This book by Jeffery Deaver sent chills down my spine, because it revealed how dangerous it could be if data, information, and knowledge fell into the wrong hands. In this Lincoln Rhyme novel, the famous detective took on a psychopath, who ‘knows everything’ by hacking into databases and using data mining – the business of the 21st century – to select victims and frame the innocents. He also attacked police officers and detectives by manipulating data, which is very effective in a world where people trust whatever got stored in the computers. Once again, Deaver put several twists in the story that kept me guessing who was the bad guy. Not surprisingly, I never got it right.

mini book review – “Tesla: the Wizard of Electricity”

I love this beautiful book on Nikola Tesla by David J. Kent. Mr. Tesla is one of the greatest inventors in history, yet many people have never heard of him. This book does a wonderful job of introducing this eccentric genius to the general public – his upbringing and talents, his ideas and inventions, his unique and weird personality, his life from start to finish. It also includes two fascinating chapters on conspiracies after his death and his lasting legacies.

The author opens a door and introduces Mr. Tesla to the general public. The well written fluid text combined with various photos and illustrations are very effective in bringing Tesla the person to life. I hardly knew anything about him when I started, and felt I really knew this intriguing person when I finished. The whole reading experience was highly enjoyable.

This book would be a perfect gift to anyone (especially the young generation) who is interested in science and scientists, inventions and modern technology. I can say without hesitation that Nikola Tesla, brought alive by this book, will inspire followers from all over the world for many years to come.

Here is the author’s website

mini book review – “Switch”

“Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is very interesting and highly informative.

This fascinating book is a compelling narrative to bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can make successful changes – both at personal level and at institutional level.

When making a decision we are typically torn between our rational, logical reasons and our emotional, intuitive feelings. It is like a person riding an elephant. The Rider represents rational thinking while the Elephant represents emotions. On the surface the rider is in control, but when they truly disagree on where to go, usually the elephant wins.

Therefore, in order to make successful changes and head towards the goal, we need to 1) direct the rider; 2) motivate the elephant; and 3) shape the path. For each of these three areas, the authors provided clear actionable analysis and many entertaining examples. Highly Recommend!!!

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe it is the last day of 2013 already. It is a good time to reflect on this past year and think about what I plan to accomplish in 2014.

I read 41 books in 2013. The top ones are listed below, for which I might write separate mini reviews later. Let me know if you are interested in seeing the full list. 🙂

  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman
  • The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely
  • Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity by David J. Kent
  • Inferno by Dan Brown
  • The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany by Martin Goldsmith
  • Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century by David Aikman
  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Compared to 2012, I didn’t travel as much this year – only visited one new country Jamaica. But I did check off two National Parks from my list – Great Smoky Mountains and Mammoth Cave. I also  made a trip back to China in July for reunions with both middle school friends and college friends, some of whom I haven’t met for nearly 20 years. It was good fun. Counting in a few business trips to New York and London, all in all I spent 58 nights away from home this year.

In 2014, I plan to do what my blog tagline shows:

  • Read – likely 40-50 books, hopefully more good ones
  • Travel – to the southern hemisphere, visit a few more new countries
  • Play – more exercises (maybe lose 5 lbs), less time spent on games
  • Feel – God’s love, natural beauty, other people’s needs
  • Learn – professional expertise, Bible, Chinese brush painting

Happy New Year, everyone! Looking forward to a wonderful 2014!