Book Review: Mortality – Christopher Hitchens

I know that many people found Christopher Hitchens a divisive character. Mostly that's because he very openly, directly questioned, and at times ridiculed, long-held beliefs about religion and about inappropriately revered people. He did not (as the old saying goes) suffer fools gladly. I read Mortality quite a while ago and wanted to wait a while after his death to see how I still felt about it.

Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010 while on a book tour for Hitch-22. Hitchens died in December 2011.

While acknowledging his rough edges, I was an unashamed fan of Hitchens' work. His writing on religion was incisive, but his writing on politics and culture was masterful.

So many religious leaders say that when facing death, people often find religion, even if they hadn't done so before. They used to say that "there are no atheists in the trenches" during the first world war. Many thought he would embrace the apparent solace that religion might offer, as he came closer to death. That wasn't ever the case.

With COVID-19 wreaking havoc throughout the world at present, reflecting on his book on mortality is timely. As he was slipping away, he was most worried that he might lose the ability to express himself.

While I don't think this was Hitchens' best book, it's still a wonderful poignant read. It's a practical guide to what we're all going to face one day. Compared to his other books, Mortality has a gentler tone. Critics mistake him for being negative, but that's just usually because he was challenging them. On the contrary, Hitchens loved life and his friends and family deeply.

A focus of the book is his experience of dying from cancer but unlike the books of many who are facing their own mortality, you won't find a trace of self-pity.

Hitchens' wife noted in the afterword that "Christian always has the last word". Given this was published posthumously, I'd say she was right. Although, I loved her little jibe:

"My husband is an impossible act to follow. And yet, now I must follow him. I have been forced to have the last word."

Bottom line?

This isn't a long book. It's basically a short book of essays. It's hard to believe he managed to write it. I found reading it to be really moving. If you find yourself contemplating your own mortality at present, you could do worse than read this book.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: Stories I'd Tell in Bars – Jen Lancaster

I mentioned recently that I haven't been doing as much driving in my car lately, so that's limited the time I've had for listening to audio books. But another one that I did complete on Audible recently was Stories I'd Tell in Bars by Jen Lancaster.

I've seen comments about the printed version of this book, that say it's riddled with typos and grammar/spelling errors but fortunately that wasn't an issue for me as I listened to the audiobook. The narration of that was fine.

Jen comes across as a somewhat neurotic identity that I found more relatable in the earlier parts of the book. She's entertaining in her story-telling style. People who've read Jen's earlier work say she's toned down a lot since she published others like "Bitter is the new Black".

Going through the book feels like just listening in on a series of pages from a diary. I can't say I loved the section on poolyball (yes that's a thing for them).  I really did enjoy though, the section o the Citizen's Police Academy.

While I did listen to it intently to the end, and enjoyed quite a lot of it, I still ended up with a bit of a nothingness feeling about it at the end.

Bottom line?

I'd class this one as just an interesting diversion for about 9 hours.

Greg's rating: 6 out of 10

Book Review: AI Super Powers by Kai-Fu Lee

I haven't been doing as much driving in my car lately, so that's limited the time I've had for listening to audio books. But one that I did complete recently was AI Super Powers by Kai-Fu Lee. The subtitle is China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.

This is an area that I've been really passionate about for the last few years.  I can see AI changing so much of our current world, and much sooner than I think most people will realise.

It was interesting to hear the opinions from Dr Lee as he's got a fascinating background.  He effortlessly blends his Chinese background with his American background. He's worked for many of the companies who are directly involved: Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc., has headed up large AI teams and is a cancer survivor. These things all give him quite a unique perspective.

He provides a pretty frank discussion of where AI is today. Importantly, he covers the big breakthroughs, and says that the last real breakthrough was Deep Learning. There might be another big breakthrough one day, but everything else since has been just incremental improvements.

He contends that AI will determine the balance of the world going forward. And he sees that whoever owns the data, will own the best outcomes. Increasingly, that's China.

I've seen criticisms of the book, but mostly from US readers who think Dr Lee is a little too biased towards China but I honestly think they're missing a bigger picture.

I think he's right. If you've watched the startup scene and the passion of young Chinese business people who have survived the cut and thrust of their local market and economy, you'll see abilities that I just don't see anywhere else.

It's not something that's covered in this book, but as an example, I read recently that young people in the USA are far less likely to start a new company today, than their forebears were in the 1960s. That's concerning. There are many reasons for that but I suspect that younger people in the USA have a far more comfortable existence without taking the risks that these young Chinese do. And another large reason, is that health coverage in the USA is so broken, that I see would-be entrepreneurs (of all ages) stuck in the wrong jobs because they aren't game to leave their employer-provided healthcare.

I've seen many discussions about the upcoming loss of blue-collar jobs but Dr Lee is spot on with his discussions around the impact on white-collar jobs.

He finishes out the book with a section on Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals. That seems to resonate well with the Silicon Valley companies, but from what I've seen, welfare-dependent societies (which is what this would be), never seem to turn out well.

Bottom line?

I really enjoyed this book.  If you have any interest in the future of the world and of work, this is a compelling book.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: TED Talks – The Official Ted Guide to Public Speaking

I do a lot of speaking at conferences, user groups, online, and other sorts of events. It's important to constantly improve, so I take notice of any books released on the topic. I recently listened (via Audible) to TED Talks – The Official Ted Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson.

I've been a fan of TED and their conference talks for a long time. The overall quality of the talks is very high, and some (like Ken Robinson's talk on schools killing creativity) set a really high bar.

TEDx talks are the extension talks. They are local events and the quality isn't quite at the same level, but still often very, very good.

So I was fascinated to see this book was by Chris Anderson. Chris is basically the guy who runs TED nowadays. He took it over from the original founder many years back, and has seen it go to great heights. I was keen to hear Chris' thoughts. If anyone has listened to a lot of presentations, it's Chris.

A real bonus was that he narrated the audio book that I listened to.

The book was a little slow getting started, almost to the point where I was going to give up, but I'm so glad I persisted. It's a truly wonderful book. If you don't gain insights from Chris' thoughts, you aren't trying.

I was also quite fascinated in some of the background info about TED, and how involved Chris and the team are with each presentation. They really help to improve the final product that you see. Not surprisingly too, there are sessions that just don't make it out the door.

The Financial Times review of the book said "Excellent; easily the best public speaking guide I have read".

Chris describes his five key techniques: Connection, Narration, Explanation, Persuasion and Revelation. He then goes on with additional ones to avoid. The book is really well constructed, and Chris is the ideal person to have written it.

Bottom line?

I really enjoyed this book. If you don't find the start of it all that compelling, I'd encourage you to keep at it. It's worth it. If you have any interest at all in public speaking, this is a wonderful book.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier

I've mentioned before that Orin Thomas tends to give me many good book recommendations. The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier is another of Orin's recommendations. I notice from the cover that it's also highly recommended by Bill Gates. So it had to be worth a look.

I ended up listening to this via an Audible audio book. It's quite a long book at around 9 hours 26 minutes.

Overall, I loved this book. I'd have to say though, that it took me quite a while to get into it. I just didn't find the first chapters all that compelling. But strangely, I then really did get into it.

The future of work and how it will affect society is a real passion for me. I'm both anxious and excited about what's coming. I just wish I was 40 years younger, to be in a better position to see this all play out. Collier, though, targets capitalism itself directly.

There are so many aspects of how the world currently does (or often does not) work that deeply concern me. Our current form of capitalism is of benefit to an ever-decreasing percentage of people. I remember reading elsewhere about how most of the people in the USA see themselves as "middle class" yet most of them are far from it.

Collier sees much of the current system to be inherently broken, and I agree.

What is different about this book is the way that Collier offers direct, and quite practical, pragmatic suggestions for how to solve many of the current problems.

Bottom line?

I really enjoyed this book. If you don't find the start of it all that compelling, I'd encourage you to keep at it. It's worth it.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: Power BI MVP Book

Over the last few months, one of my Kiwi buddies (and fellow member of both the MVP and Microsoft Regional Director programs) Reza Rad has been organizing a bunch of us to write a book that's a collection of ideas from a number of MVPs. It's the Power BI MVP Book.

There are a whole lot of authors from a whole lot of different countries: Reza Rad, Anil Maharjan, Indira Bandari, Liam Bastick, Ken Puls, Jesus Gil, Thomas LeBlanc, Ike Ellis, Matt Allington, Leila Etaati, Markus Ehrenmüller, Ashraf Ghonaim, Eduardo Castro, Manohar Punna, Treb Gatte, Gilbert Quevauvilliers, Michael Johnson, Shree Khanal, Asgeir Gunnarsson, Greg Low, Gogula Aryalingam.

I've done these types of books before with the SQL Server MVP Deep Dives pair of books. They are a different book in that you're not getting a single story throughout the book. Instead, you're getting a whole set of independent chapters on a variety of topics related to Power BI.

The general idea of these books is to support a charity, and that's where anything that I would have earned from them is going.

Bottom line?

I hope you find this book useful. There is both a paperback and a Kindle edition. The Kindle eBook is far cheaper.

Greg's rating: you decide

Book Review: Blood Rush by Bob Simms

I've got a number of friends who've been writing books over the last few years. Sadly, there seems to be no relationship between when I buy a book and when I actually read it.

And that's the case with Blood Rush by Bob Simms.

Bob is an old SQL Server trainer friend/colleague and I bought this book back when Bob first mentioned that he'd written it. I only got to actually read it last week.

I've always loved Bob's sense of humor (it's not common), and it shows through in this book.

The story starts out with a body in Brixton. All the blood is gone, and there are puncture wounds to its neck.

The tale weaves it way through potential vampire killings, criminal gangs, and even a ten year old girl.

Blood Rush is the third in a series of books by Bob, and I suspect that I'll try to go back and read the earlier ones now.

Curiously there is one older character that I'm left wondering about. Is he meant to be a bit autobiographical.

Bottom line?

I enjoyed this book. It doesn't take too long to read, and it's quite a journey. I'll be keen to see how Bob continues to evolve as a writer. (In recent years, he's somewhat retired from the UK to Europe). I hope he keeps writing though.

Greg's rating: 7 out of 10

Book Review: The Happiness Manifesto by Nic Marks

One of the depressing things about watching TV is that producers (and in particular Hollywood-based producers) seem to have a very skewed concept of what happiness comes from.

Here's a bit hint: it's not from wealth or fame.

I've made enough trips around the Sun to know that anyone who believes what that TV is telling them, is being conned, big time.

Now I'm not saying that being poor is fun either. It's not. In particular, anyone who's deeply in debt would understand that they have very little control of their own lives.

I've known quite a lot of seriously wealthy people, and I can tell you that so often, they are some of the saddest, messed up people that I've ever met. If you've ever looked into a family many years after a big lottery win, things aren't special like the lottery ads would have you believe.

Things aren't helped by politicians who seem to assume that endless growth in GDP for a nation is the best indicator of doing well. It's not. In his book The Happiness Manifesto, Nic Marks wishes we had a measure of happiness of the people of a country, rather than a measure of GDP. In the big scheme of things, it would be far more useful if the policies being pursued by governments were about enhancing the quality of lives, and overall happiness of the citizens.

So it's interesting to get into the real roots of happiness.

I have not the slightest doubt that happiness in life comes more from accumulating experiences and friendships than it does from accumulating wealth and power.

Marks founded the Centre for Well-Being in London, as an independent think tank. He's spent a lot of time looking into happiness and what leads to it, and in this book, he suggests a lot of approaches that could be taken to have governments head in a much better direction, and how these approaches might be applied to a variety of disciplines. He'd rather see us measuring an HPI (happy planet index) rather than GDP (gross domestic product).

Bottom line?

I really enjoyed this book. I particularly liked the way that Marks didn't just tell us vague concepts, but drilled into how they could be applied in practice.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: You are not so smart by David McRaney

About a year ago, I attended a conference called DevOps Days in Newcastle, Australia. I wish I'd liked the conference more. But one of the memorable things from the conference was a keynote by David McRaney.

All the people around me seemed to find David's keynote interesting. Ironically though, I also heard many of them wondering what on earth it had to do with the conference topics. David provided example after example of how we all suffer from confirmation bias. I enjoyed his keynote.

So when I saw he had a book entitled You are not so smart (and subtitled Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself), I was intrigued to read it.

Like I was with the conference, I ended up with mixed feelings about this book. I saw a comment that said it was "a populist introduction to psychological delusions such as cognitive bias", and I think that's pretty accurate.

A big problem for me is that I listened to it as an audio book, and I wish they'd used a different narrator. In fact, I wish David had narrated the book himself. He has a wonderful sarcastic sense of humor, and that didn't come across with the narrator reading the book.

The book provides example after example of how we delude ourselves, and very importantly, how our memories are so very poor, no matter how much we trust them.

I really was hoping for more in-depth discussions on findings, etc. but I suppose the book is targeted at the community at large.

Mind you, after going through the book, it's quite clear how mass ignorance continues to be such an ongoing problem. In one reader's comments, I read that David Sirota (the author of Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now) had said that "Anybody still self-aware enough to wonder why society now worships wilful stupidity should read this book". That's probably a fair call.

Bottom line?

I enjoyed some of the stories in this book, but not all. It does offer a good introduction to cognitive biases, particularly confirmation bias in an easy to consume format.

Greg's rating: 5 out of 10

Book Review: The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

I've mentioned previously that I've come across Graeme Simsion previously in his role as a well-known data modeller, based in Melbourne here in Australia. I've recorded a podcast with him many years ago, on my SDU Podcast series. So perhaps I have a slight bias towards him as an author.

I was so excited to see the endless well-deserved congratulations he's received for his initial Rosie Project book. I thoroughly enjoyed that book.

I also enjoyed The Rosie Effect but not quite as much. Sequels are tough to write, I'm sure. I've had a few people tell me that they loved the first one, but didn't really like the second one.

So I didn't know how I'd react to the third in the series about Don Tillman: The Rosie Result.

I shouldn't have worried. It's still not quite at the level of the first book but I enjoyed it more than the second book. At this point, following the travels and travails of Don Tillman feels like looking back in on an old friend, to see how he's going. I've always loved how Graeme has made Don both quirky and detached, yet also so very human.

In this third book in the series, his son Hudson is at school and dealing with lots of issues, and his parents are wondering about getting him an autism assessment. As the book starts, Don is in trouble at work, and Rosie seems to be battling her job too.

I loved the continuing sideline story about the cocktail bar.

And so many of the discussions about areas in Melbourne are really familiar to me.

I heard a rumour that movie rights might be on the cards. I hope so.

Bottom line?

I thoroughly enjoyed this third book in the series. It continues Don's story seamlessly, and I'm looking forward to his next adventures. (I presume there will be another). Nicely done Graeme !

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10