What I have been reading

A couple of books I have read within the past few weeks, most of them on my Kindle 3G device(*):
Scott Berkun’s “Confessions of a Public Speaker” (get the Kindle edition): the author is a professional speaker, in front of audiences large and small, hence he has got some very helpful tips for anyone who ever needs to engage in public speaking, mostly drawn from his own experiences. These tips range from the a priori preparation for your speech, to engaging your audience, to knowing what to do when you have a too large room and too few people in there etc.What is missing, but understandably so given the author’s career, is the treatment of academic public lectures, which can be quite different than any other public types of speech– nevertheless a series of Berkun’s recommendations work perfectly also for academics. The book is at the same time a very fun reading.
Jason Zweig’s “The Little Book of Safe Money: How to Conquer Killer Markets, Con Artists, and Yourself” (get the Kindle edition): useful advice for small investors (that can be probably summed up by the following quotes “for most small investors, an indexed bond mutual fond is the best way to go” and “[d]on’t invest in leveraged and inverse ETFs. Leave them to professional traders” …) and adapted particularly for the US audience (you do find for instance very helpful info on the so-called ‘529 plans,’ including some online links to compare various such plans, in case you are interested in that). Definitely not for more sophisticated investors (some of you, readers of this blog) or for people who’ve read much more detailed stuff on financial investments earlier (although I am myself in this category, sometimes it is useful to consult other perspectives at a more elementary level). A tad too cautious and limited on scope and purpose. Anyhow, if you are a beginner and (plan to) live in the US, by all means do read this book.
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s “Superfreakonomics” (get the Kindle edition). I find this better written than their first Freakonomics success (see, e.g., the first bullet point here for some of the huge debate on that earlier book)– probably experience and learning on the job– though it contains as little economics as the first one (it is written more in an investigative journalism style: Dubner obviously has the feeling for what sells and what not). That being said, I still think it is eventually a great service even to the economics  academic community (at least in drawing attention to the range of situations/phenomena that economics can be applied to; NB: I personally doubt it would give the/a too wrong impression of what economists do and should do– if anything, it might convey the idea that some economists know very well how to sell their books,), and probably that writing it in more ‘econo-prose’ would have reduced its popularity. I would particularly recommend it to any non-economists, for sure (e.g. last winter I noticed the Romanian translation of the book is already out, and made it present to a good old Transylvanian friend of mine– in function of his reaction I might offer it to my parents as well). By the way, related, the Freakonomics documentary is currently available for instant viewing on Netflix (I correct myself: right now their site is down, but it is the first time I do not see it functioning), if you are in US and have access to that service– I plan to watch it one of the next days.

And now to my two favorites in this set: 

John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction. Composing an American Life” (unfortunately not available on Kindle): this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read, within the musical realm and beyond. Honest, full of wit, style, and extremely informative– and that to say the least. As somebody who’s listened to a large set of Adams’s compositions (and working on the remaining ones…) and who regularly follows his blog, I simply had to read his autobiographical piece in order to have access to Adams’s detailed perspective on both his  own work and his general ideas of music (composition, interpretation, intrigues, all the hoopla), politics, life, everything… Highly recommended: one of those books that you simply cannot stop reading once you have started. I’ll most likely refer to passages or ideas from “Hallelujah Junction” in many of my future blogposts.
Steven Landsburg’s “The Big Questions” (get it on Kindle): I will only tell you that this book is from my perspective really scary, in that its author appears to think about  crucial stuff –i.e. mathematics, economics, physics, philosophy, tax policies, trade, sex, religion, life, Universe etc.– in an almost identical way to yours truly (ok: I should maybe phrase it as “I think almost exactly like him”– after all he was there before me…). In any case, even if you’ve known all the time and agreed all the way with everything in the book (though he does cover an enormous range of topics, requiring that you’d be an extremely well read person), Landsburg’s exposition is one of the clearest I’ve ever encountered (this is true also for his previous books, some of them recommended earlier on this blog; I will only say here that I even used an earlier quote from him as one of the “propositions” –“stellingen”, in Dutch– to go along with my PhD thesis defence– see under IX in this list). In particular, he’s got the rare ability to explain in few paragraphs, mainly by means of easy examples and analogies, some highly complex material (try explaining quantum physics or deontological vs. consequential ethics to the non-initiated!), albeit he needs to strip them down to the bare essence (but then again this is a popularizing book, aimed for a wide audience). Landsburg’s writing style is also something I personally like a lot: he’s got just the right amounts of humor, irony, and even the tiny bit of arrogance (why not?) mixed in his book. Check out also Landsburg’s “The Big Questions” blog, something I’ve followed and enjoyed since its very start. I end with a larger quote from the introductory chapter of “The Big Questions” that is likely to give you a good feeling of Landsburg’s ‘creed’ and goal in this book (as well as the similarity with my own academic training and beliefs, c.f. the scary/eerie part from above):

“[…] I went on to a career of research in teaching in both mathematics and economics, with a little dabbling in physics along the way, but I never lost sight of my fascination with the big questions of philosophy: Where did the Universe come from? Why is there something instead of nothing? How is knowledge possible? What justifies a belief? How can we tell right from wrong, and good from evil? How should we live our lives?

Philosophers have useful ways of thinking about these questions, but so do people  who are not philosophers. Physicists know something about the origins of the Universe; mathematicians know something about the patterns of reality; economists know something about how our choices affect the lives of others, which is not distinct from the problem of distinguishing right from wrong. I’ve come to believe that these disciplines provide some of the best available tools for chipping away at the problems of philosophy.

When a man  with a hammer tells you that everything looks like a nail, you should doubt his objectivity. When a man who knows some math and economics tells you that the problems of philosophy can be solved with math and economics, you’re entitled to exactly the same reaction. But in this case I believe the causality runs the other way: I was drawn to math and economics because they illuminate the big questions. I saw the nails and went out to find a hammer. […]”

(*)which is absolutely fantastic and you must have it, despite 1. the fact that David Letterman cannot find page numbers on the Kindle books — and hates it because of that; 2. the fact that each Kindle book costs more if you buy it outside US– function of the IP address from where you log in to your Amazon account when buying it (before investigating and realizing this, I did actually buy quite a few Kindle books during my European winter holidays– and ended up paying about 50 bucks more than I would have paid, had I bought them here in the US). In any case, I am the owner of more than 100 Kindle books already (yes, Amazon, I expect some loyalty awards!): given my fairly long commuting time between Lakeview, where I live, and Northwestern Univ in Evanston, I can read up to two or three books in good weeks.

8 thoughts on “What I have been reading”

  1. Yes, you are right that sometimes the paperback seems to be cheaper than the kindle edition (for instance for some of the books in this post): I believe this happens because the paperback might be published in Europe (for instance, if you check Superfreakonomics the cover is different in the European edition, I have no idea if anything at all changes as content), hence they might get over some of

  2. Fine, so what I see is that in US yoiu do not pay then sales tax on what you get from Amazon? In Denmark buying the hardcopy is cheaper then the digitalcopy. This is silly or what?<br />a Danish economist

  3. I am sure it is somewhere in the fine print somewhere, just that nobody (myself included) did not bother to read. In any case it states that the price of a Kindle book, when you try to buy it in Europe, includes VAT, which should indicate already a higher price than in US, where currently there is no VAT; as you surely know, there is a &quot;sales tax&quot; in US, but that is different than the

  4. fine, but let me rephrase then: there is not much information about this, is it? You ddi not knew about it either. Not a proof of intentional malpractice then for Amazon? <br />a Danish economist

  5. i) Varianta in romana la Superfreakonomics am cumparat-o in Cluj de la Libraria Universitatii (stii unde vine, langa Str. Universitatii, langa statuia lui Matei Corvin, cred ca Pta Libertatii ii zice acum). Nu tin minte la ce editura a aparut, dar sigur pot sa iti zica la orice librarie. Eu as citi cartea in engleza daca as putea, dar cred ca acum mai repede o gasesti in romana, la noi… <br /><

  6. Da e numa&#39; nervi nordicu&#39; :). Maestre zi-i lu&#39; nenicu&#39;, unde ai gasit cartea tradusa? Ca de kindle inca nu e lovele, da&#39; parca as ceti niscai superfreconomice.

  7. Hmm, are you sure you want to call yourself a (Danish)) <i> economist </i>? :-). <br />Amazon is entitled to charge whatever it wants, VAT is added in Europe for instance, so that is part of covering their costs then etc. I meant more the fact that, if you can travel to the US and have your Kindle with you, you might get everything cheaper, if you buy your books when in US (alternatively, do not

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