Book Recommendations (Non-Fiction)

  • Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It)
    by William Poundstone: I have always been interested in the mathematics of voting. It is not a simple problem to figure out the best way to select a winner based on a group of preferences. What you think of as the “normal” way (the person with the most votes wins) is about the worst there is. See the 2000 election the Bush, Gore, Nader dynamics for example. But it’s worse than that. Nobel-prize winning Kenneth Arrow proved that in any ranking voting system (I like him better than him) it is impossible to have all the basics of fairness. (It’s more mathy than that, but by basic I mean things like “If one person is favored by all voters, they ought to win” or “in comparing candidate A to candidate B, it shouldn’t matter if candidate C is there or not”.)

    This book walks through many real life cases that illustrate the problems with voting systems. It then shows you some of the options. You’ve probably never thought about it much, but there are other voting systems. (Order all the candidates, check all of them you approve of. etc.) In my book group, I changed our voting system to approval voting, which is a much stronger system.What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their chances of ever being used in the real world?

    The book was written in 2008. The author lists three politicians who are supporters of voting reform. Two of them are John McCain and Barack Obama.

  • Nudge: (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein)
  • You’ve probably heard about this book already since Cass Sunstein got a job with the Obama administration. This books shows how in many areas of life, the way choices are presented can nudge people towards certain outcomes. They call it paternalistic libertarianism, in that the state influences what you do for your own good, but doesn’t mandate or dictate what you do. The perfect example is 401(k) accounts. Very few people opt-in to these even though 99% of workers should be. A very simple change to the choice architecture is to make the default opt-in. Workers are automatically enrolled, but they can easily opt-out anytime they choose. The outcome is much higher rates of worker savings. The book is filled with examples from all walks of life how institutions (usually the government) can do a better job getting to the outcomes it wants without truly infringing on liberties.

  • The Way we Shop (Paco Underhill):Have you ever thought about why the milk is in the back of a supermarket? How the endcaps are arranged? How you are guided throughout a store? How the cash registers are set up? Underhill is a researchers who by chance got involved in these questions and has since made a career out of it. How do humans interact with a retail environment? The writing is only so-so, but the information is fascinating. You’ll never look a store the same way again. (It also has the anecdote I referenced (badly) in the bathroom flower post.
  • Tall Tales (Terry Pluto): An oral history of the early days of the NBA. If you are a basketball fan like it has loads of great anecdotes to entertain you. My brothers father in law was on the Minneapolis Lakers, he gets a couple paragraphs. (My oldest son says, “AWESOME!!!”) It seems he had unusually dark skin and got involved in a racist incident even though he’s white. It was a different world back then, hustling owners, two-handed set shots, Wilt Chamberlain, Celtics dynasty, racism, and fights fights fights.
  • The Chris Farley Show: Chris Farley has never appealed to me every much. I don’t like comedians with one basic joke. After seeing the fat guy fall down a few times I got the point. Nevertheless, I read this book because the Sports Guy said it was good. He was absolutely right. This is a biography, told in bits and pieces by the people who knew him best.

    Chris Farley is fascinating subject. His rise to fame took more twists than most. You get an insiders view on trying to make it, and making it, in comedy. You get great portraits of Farley’s character. Turns out he was a nice guy. A genuinely naive nice guy, character traits that often held him back. And the addiction. Wow. There are addictive personalities and then there are addictive personalities. Farley was the latter. From the very first sip of beer he ever took, he was a goner. He was practically doomed from the start, it just took a few decades to play out. By the time the book comes to it’s inevitable conclusion you may have just misted up a few times along the way.

    As a Who fan, I couldn’t help but see the obvious parallels with Keith Moon’s life. Both were crazy for public attention, and would do anything to get it. Too often the “anything to get it” meant bigger and bigger jokes at their own expense. Both felt they had to play the outrageous comedian role to succeed. And both had no self-control with drugs, unable to stop the lifestyle they had lived so long. And of course, both died young. (Although Moon was clean and dry at the time, and was ironically killed by anti-alcohol pills.)

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