Best & worst books I read in 2018

Continuing my 1-book-a-week reading catch-up since we moved back to the US, 2018 saw non-fiction books coming out on top of my list, all written by professors!

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5/5 ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On’ by Jonah Berger (2013): most insightful and easy to read, Prof. Berger’s book lays out the STEPPS of what makes things popular (Social currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value and Stories). The personal stories and diverse examples are just the right length, and prof Berger weaves in honest accounts about how he and his colleagues discovered the drivers of virality (in contrast to the ‘strong theory first, then let’s look at the data’ write-up standard in academic articles). The book is steeped in solid evidence, and doesn’t put the reader first on the wrong foot to then show the opposite and awe with its brilliance. Thus, I believe Jonah Berger surpasses the books by Malcolm Gladwell, whom he so clearly admires.

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5/5 ‘Handbook of Marketing Analytics’ by Natalie Mizik and Dominique Hanssens (2018): the editors offer over 50 experts explaining the best of their work in concise and readable chapters on marketing, analytics and the law. Besides my own chapter (on how applying marketing analytics in a field experiment increased profits fourteenfold), I especially enjoyed the chapters on marketing and litigation, as that combination holds so much promise. My students liked Chapter 33 on ‘Regression analysis to evaluate harm in a breach of contract case’ where marketing Prof Randy Bucklin and CPA Thomas M. Neches go head to head. Both the legal and marketing issues are well documented, and enough information is provided to discuss the econometric analyses. For the impact of models and algorithms on society, I also recommend  ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ (4/5, Cathy O’Neill, 2017) and Everybody Lies (3/5, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017).

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4/5 ‘You don’t own me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment exposed Barbie’s dark side’ by Orly Lobel (2018) : Happily buying Bratz dolls for our cousins over a decade ago, we were most distraught and surprised when they were taken off the market in a trademark dispute with Mattel, owner of Barbie. Prof. Lobel tells the story of why this happened in a most accessible manner and puts these legal skirmishes in the broader perspective of the battle for (employees) ideas with commercial value. If you like elaborate and strongly opinionated background stories on the main characters, you will enjoy the first 125 pages of this book. If you are like me, you’d prefer to skip those and start reading at ‘Part III: Warring Titans’, which provides you with the case facts on which those strong opinions are based. I thoroughly enjoyed Orly’s contrast of the judges in the two rounds, leading to very different legal and commercial outcomes. Prof. Lobel concludes with an eloquent and strong call for ‘Innovation beyond Toyland’  (p. 250-251): ‘The law has expanded too far in enforcing corporate ownership over the world of ideas (…) and must align itself with new realities and the interests of consumers at large. But to do so, as a society we must remember the original goals of intellectual property: developing creative communities, encouraging diverse content, and sustaining an ecosystem of ongoing innovation’. Word.

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4/5 ‘The Book of Why” by Judea Pearl (2018): Prof Pearl loves people, stories, causality and diagrams. Targeted to the smart layperson interested in causality but not in math, this book is elaborate on Pearl’s heroes and anti-heroes and on how he and they came about their viewpoints. I very much enjoyed the combination of words and graphs in thinking about causality. Pearl is most useful in thinking through what domain experts know and agree on regarding causal structure, and in quantifying these agreed-upon causal effects (the chapter on Mediation Analysis is especially illuminating). I found Pearl least useful when domain experts disagree on the causal structure – in fact I saw nothing in these 370 pages that would help come to such agreement. Moreover, time is missing from Pearl’s conception of causality, which is especially harmful in my areas of business and government, as decision makers typically collect time series data and care about when a proposed intervention should yield results (hopefully before their term/position ends). Pearl dismisses ‘Granger Causality’ without even letting the reader know what it means – see for my detailed take on temporal causality.

3/5 ‘My life as a quant: reflections on physics and finance’ by Emanuel Derman (2004): Dr. Derman reflects on his transition from physics to finance and from academia to Goldman Sachs, with a personal and insightful comparison between the different cultures. Personally, I found his account rather tedious and too much dwelling on his personal mistakes, from hubris to rudeness (e.g. refusing to switch seats to allow a father to sit with his son, after which it appears said father is a guru in the field). However, the account is honest and also tells elaborate background stories on the many people dr. Derman interacted with. Moreover, I truly enjoyed the concluding ‘Great Pretender’ chapter, which demonstrates the author’s wisdom and offers this eloquent synthesis: ‘You must always ask: Does the model give you a set of plausible variables to describe the world, and a set of relationships between them that permits its analysis and investigation? (…) The right way to engage with a model is like a fiction reader or a really great pretender, to temporally suspend disbelief , and then push it as far as possible’ (p. 269).

3/5 ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ (2016) and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari: While as eloquent as ‘Sapiens’ (2015, 5/5), Prof. Harari’s crystal ball is nowhere as good as his provoking and insightful synthesis of the past. The author falls victim to the typical extrapolating of current trends, which puts him in a crowded arena of competitors, with little competitive advantage.

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2/5 ‘The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth’ by Robin Hanson (2018): In contrast to Prof Harari, Prof Hansen makes a clear break with the past and imagines a future (of a decade or so, probably about 200 years out) where the actual work is not done by humans are but ems, i.e. emulations resulting from a detailed scan of a particular human brain. He applies fundamental economic principles to these em agents to describe how they would work, love and live.  While interesting, Prof Hanson’s scenarios appear too specific and far-fetched, especially compared to other books about the future.

1/5 ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ (2018) and ‘Maps of Meaning’ (2002) by Jordan Peterson: If you are a lobster, or lost in chaos, Prof Peterson’s common wisdom is refreshing: stand up straight, make friends with people who want the best for you, compare yourself to your own past instead of to someone else, etc. Likewise, I thoroughly enjoyed the prologue to ‘Maps of Meaning’, as Jordan’s journey appears so similar to my own. Unfortunately, his has lead him to very different conclusions with little evidence, and I could not bear to finish either book. Marketed for ‘an over-achiever burning through life, an under-achiever with perpetual overwhelm, or an intellectual, seeking deeper truths of human nature’, it appears the target audience are people who lacked a male role model in life, or by now have ‘forgotten the face of their father’ (King, 2016). It says a lot about our times that we apparently need to be reminded it is okay to show anger, to freely debate ideas and to listen to our common sense. Instead of reading these books, I recommend any of the many videos of Prof Peterson, where he shows himself to be a much better debater than a book writer.

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5/5 ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’ by Joseph Schumpeter (1942). To end on a high note, this classic excels in taking important ideas to their extremes, and analyzing what it would take to successfully implement them. A must read for anyone interested in capitalism, socialism or democracy, the author discusses each in depth and thinks through how they could work together. To place the work in context, first read Thomas McCraw’s (2010)’s ‘Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction’; an excellent (4/5) though long biography. My favorite part is Prof Schumpeter winning a sword duel with a librarian for his students’ right to access important books. A cause worth fighting for!

So now you know my take – what is yours? What are the best and worst books you read recently? And what do you recommend me to read next year? A very healthy, happy and successful 2019!

2 thoughts on “Best & worst books I read in 2018

  1. Pingback: Most viewed marketing analytics blogs of 2018 | Smarter Marketing with Better Results

  2. Pingback: Hype Machine review 5/5 | Smarter Marketing gets Better Results

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