Book Impressions – 2019-Q1

One of my goals for this year is to read more consistently. It’s really hard because I’m quite busy, and for the last few years reading has been a bit sporadic for me. So far I’ve kept up my goal of one book a month (not much, but I’m a pretty busy guy). So here are my “Book Impressions”, not quite reviews but shorter thoughts on the book as a whole

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

I thought this book would be primarily about how “grid, curiosity and the hidden power of character” are the main factors affecting lifelong success. Although that was one of the main ideas, the approach to explaining it was less interesting for me personally. The author follows a few different lines of research and stories, mainly revolving around poorer and less fortunate kids in America, and how it is incredibly challenging to teach them to be successful due to their unfortunate circumstances at home or in the community.

I was hoping to have a broader understanding of child development from this book, in the context of kids that I interact with (such as my nieces). The book didn’t quite touch upon these cases as the focus was mainly on helping less fortunate kids, which, of course, is an important challenge, but not what I was hoping for. Overall, I would say if you’re interested in this subject and the context, it might be something you want to pick up.

Artificial Unintelligence by Meredith Broussard

This was a cute little book that I came across through Twitter (someone posted about it). The main idea of the book is that artificial intelligence (as it currently stands) has many limitations and the robot revolution isn’t coming any time soon. This idea is very close to me because most people have the wrong view (in my opinion) of where AI is going — it’s much less developed than people think, and this book touches on some great points towards this viewpoint.

The author starts off introducing computers, coding and AI/ML, which I mostly skimmed over (it was a good attempt targeted towards non-technical folk but it’s hard to explain difficult concepts concisely). She then proceeded on to describe several very interesting experiences with AI both as a user and as a creator. Some memorable ones involve almost dying in a self-driving car and creating an AI for investigative journalism and then telling people about it who then are extremely disappointed it’s not something closer to science fiction.

The other main idea she talks about is technochauvinism, which she coins as “the belief that technology is always the solution”. I thought this was illustrated very nicely in many different places in the book as well. The focus isn’t so much why all these silicon valley types are ignorant but rather that we need humans in the loop to solve some of our most complex problems (e.g. social, environmental etc.). This aligns perfectly with my viewpoint on technology. It’s so seductive to think technology can fix everything but once you start working in the real-world, you’ll realize how messy it is (just ask Bill Gates and his efforts to combat disease). Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book.

Principles of Product Development Flow by Donald G. Reinertsen

I found this book through a post on Erik Berhardsson’s blog (highly recommended) a while back and I finally decided to read it. The main concepts of the book are about how to optimize product development (in the broader sense of the word product e.g. software, consumer good etc.) and the differences from optimizing manufacturing processes. He attempts to (very loosely) model product development using mathematical or technical models such as queueing theory, economics, network routing etc.

The first few chapters of the book are all over the place because the author doesn’t spend much time defining terms or even clarifying what “product” means (I was quite confused). But… after getting into the main body, he has many nuggets of wisdom. His big idea is that we should pay attention to queues (of work) and manage them appropriately. In particular, shortening queues, having extra capacity and shortening batch sizes are recurring themes. Another really good idea is to quantify tasks directly in terms of economic value and not secondary metrics like throughput.

The chapters are organized into principles, where each principle has a page or so of description along with some examples. He covers many different cases in many different forms. Definitely something to go back and reference later for the particular situation.

It has some strong ideas that can definitely help shape and optimize a product development process. At first, I was a bit turned off on the “hand-wavy” usage of mathematical models but then I came to appreciate how it at least has some foundations in math vs. a pure anecdotal approach. I wouldn’t take every idea as a law of nature but definitely leverage the ones that make sense and experiment with them.

Overall, a pretty good book and definitely worth a read if you’re thinking about how to optimize a product development flow.