Saturday, June 21, 2014

Thinking, Fast and Slow -- Daniel Kahneman --------------------------------- 4 Stars

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is a monster.  It's a monster in length, in scope of content, and in general premise.  But, it's also quite awesome and highly recommended.

So, why 4 stars?  Well, as I said, it's really quite good but it really is a challenging read.  In the same vein as many other books about behavioral economics, Kahneman's basic goal is trying to explain to the readers how we think.  To do so, he narrows down our brain to two simplistic parts, simply titled: System 1 and System 2.  System 1 moves fast, very fast, instinctual fast.  System 2 is slow, analyzing everything.  System 1 does a vast majority of our everyday lives: read, breath, eat, walk, drive, etc.   System 2 does the more complex stuff, but it asked to take things on far less often.  The problem in life is that many things that we should be using System 2 for, System 1 takes on (silly System 1), and vice versa.  So, basically the book is trying to explain and rectify these issues.

Overall, the book is fascinating.  While I had seen many of the studies from it in other books on behavioral econ., like Predictably Irrational or Nudge, I still love the premise of this book, and though he gets way too deep on some things, the basic points of each chapters and large sections are fantastic.  He has a great organization to the book and there is pretty good flow during his presentations from experiment to the other.  It's really amazing how much though has gone in to understanding our thoughts and this, at least to me, is the most comprehensively explained books of this type.

The biggest drawback, however, and what kept it from a higher rating, was the length and difficulty to follow some of his writing.  To me, Malcolm Gladwell, is one the best at simplifying complex ideas and taking rather scientific studies and making them clear to a laymen like myself.  Kahneman, while nowhere near as difficult to follow as, say a scientific journal, does not have Gladwell's skills for being straightforward and clear.  While one might think this is not a big deal, I agree it's not, until you ask someone to read over 500 pages and, by the end, they are begging for a better editor.  So, yeah, it's kind of a rough read throughout many spots.

Overall, though, this book really is a gem.  So many great experiments, so many wonderful points made, so many new ideas and concepts for the reader to think on, and so many interesting ways to better look at, and contemplate, human psychology.  While you need to have a specific interest in this type of work to read this book, if you do have some time and can manage to wade through the deep end of the some these ideas, you will come out on the other side with a much better understanding of thinking.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Killer Angels -- Michael Shaara -------------------4 Stars

So, there is this old saying NBC had going for a while, "It's new to you."  I think it was a way to promote and market people watching repeats of television shows.  You know, if you have not seen something before, even if it's old, it's new to you.  This make sense.  I am watching the old Friday Night Lights TV series right now (btw, fantastic!) and all of it is new to me.  All of this is a long way of saying that when I recently read Michael's Shaara's classic, Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1987, Killer Angels, it was new to me, and it read as well I could have imagined if I picked it up when it came out.

Basically, its historical fiction for the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg.  What is so cool about the book, though, is that Shaara takes each of the major generals, Lee, Chamberlain, Longstreet, Pickett, etc., and creates dialogue and scenes to mimic the action that occur during this pivotal battle.

I waited on reading this book for a little while after getting it as I was not convinced that I would enjoy it.  I am not a big fan of historical fiction, in general, and am even less of a fan of any sort of books that detail war and events of battles.  As such, I was pretty wary about reading a book about the 3 days of the very bloody Gettysburg battle.  But I was so very pleased with what I got.

While this book is definitely about battles and includes a fair number of descriptions about the fighting, the book is really a story about people.  Sure, the lens is the Civil War, but this book's description, dialogue, and expression of people's thoughts really is incredible.  I loved the descriptions of each main character at the start, discussions that occur throughout the days while the battles are going, and incredible connections made between the characters and the reader.  As a history teacher, this book truly helped me better understand and empathize with these soldiers but also, to more easily identify with the challenges of war through individuals. 

I really recommend this book for nearly all readers.  It's a great story, historically accurate (including plenty of maps), and is really a wonderful portrait piece about these different characters.  Have no fear, this is not a book that glorifies battle in anyway, but does give you really good understanding of what some of the most critical soldiers thought during America's own Civil War.  If that doesn't convince you, remember, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and if you haven't read it before, it will definitely be "new to you".