The Boys in the Boat book review

I read The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. The US crew team was made up of undergraduates from the University of Washington. Most of the oarsmen were from rough-cut families, sons of lumberjacks, farmers, and other laborers. The main focus was on rower Joe Rantz. As early as age 10, he was left by his parents to fend for himself. Joe had to split wood, illegally poach fish and steal alcohol, do janitorial and construction work, and do any other odd jobs he could find to support himself and pay for his tuition. So Joe’s story starts out with him being abandoned and alone, determining that he could trust no one but himself. But through crew, he learns to trust his teammates, finds a sense of belonging, and reconciles with his family and starts a family of his own. I don’t know anything about crew, but this book gave detailed, reverent, even spiritual descriptions of the sport. The author waxes on about the difficulty and precision required to be in sync, the need to be strong individually and yet subsume oneself to the team, the transcendental feeling of togetherness when the oarsmen move as one unit. The book culminates in the crew’s suspenseful come-from-behind victory in their gold medal race, overcoming an unfair start and bad lane position to become world champions. Interspersed in the story of the crew, there are tangents on the significance of the Olympics to Nazi Germany, the preparations and propaganda for the purpose of deceiving the world into believing that Hitler’s Reich was a powerful but benevolent force. The US crew’s victory is all the more meaningful knowing the global, historical context.

Oftentimes, the US crew team’s strategy was to start at a slow pace, then finish off the race with a sprint. Likewise, this book started off slow. So slow, in fact, that I read one chapter last year, then shelved the book out of boredom. But when I was back in Seattle, there the book was on the shelf, and I thought I’d give it another go. The book is descriptive, verbose to a fault. But as I read more and more chapters, it had me hooked. I developed an emotional connection to Joe and wanted to know what happened next, even though I knew from the book’s cover that the crew team would end up with Olympic gold. Their journey, their camaraderie— it was inspiring, something I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience. And I was so impressed by the resolve the oarsmen showed in their lives, to succeed despite their modest upbringings.

I learned a bit of trivia too. For example, this week I drove on Royal Brougham Way, by Safeco Field. From the book, I learned that Royal Brougham was an enthusiastic Seattle sportswriter, and among the stories he covered was the University of Washington crew team’s ascent. I also happened to drive by Carnegie Lake this week, and I learned from the book that it was built so that Princeton’s crew could practice there instead of having to row in the Delaware and Raritan canal with all the commercial boats.

The Why Axis book review

I was home for a few weeks, and amongst the old mail that I rifled through, there was a book mailed from my undergraduate economics department. And so I read the book, The Why Axis, by Uri Gneezy and John List.

The book is about using field experiments to generate insights. The authors described field experiments that they performed, and the results were fascinating.

Structurally, the book could have been tighter, more concise. Oftentimes, the author would repeat exactly what he said in the previous paragraph. And there were awkward transitions that made it more difficult to follow the train of thought. Also, the chapters were written inconsistently. Some chapters had detailed storytelling or tried to focus on impacted individuals, while other chapters were descriptions of the experiment and data. There were fluff sentences with vague pronouncements that lacked any insight.

The authors state that by observing the world, you can come up with many correlations. But determining causality requires an experiment, whether the experiment was accidentally or purposefully orchestrated.

One issue the authors look at is why men get paid more. They find that in patrilineal societies, men are more competitive and aggressive. The opposite is true in matrilineal societies. Also, they find men are more likely to negotiate salary unprompted. When a job listing states that salary is negotiable and the ambiguity is removed, men and women are equally likely to negotiate salary.

The authors say much of the bias today does not stem from hate, but the desire to make money. In a field experiment, they found that disabled people were given a 30% higher quote for a car repair because it is assumed they won’t want to go through the effort of collecting multiple quotes. If they tell the car repairman that they are receiving 3 quotes, then the repairman gives them the same quote as able people. In another experiment, they found that young black males wearing hoodies were the least likely to receive help when they asked for directions. In order to receive equal treatment, they had to dress better and wear business clothes.

The authors discuss experiments they performed for Chicago public schools. In one experiment, they confirmed that loss is more motivating than gain. One effective strategy to motivate test-taking students is to give them $20 before the test and have them write what they want to spend the money on, then let them keep the money if their test scores improve. That is better than telling students that they will receive $20 if their test scores improve. In another experiment, they wanted to see what would improve scores the most, giving financial rewards to students, parents, teachers, or a mix. They found that financial rewards improved performance in all cases, and rewards improved scores the most when they were given to any one group (such as just parents, or just teachers).

The authors discuss experiments that they performed for various charities. One question they had was what would result in more giving, saying that the goal was 0% reached, 33% reached, or 66% reached? They found saying the goal was already 66% reached was the most effective. Even though people would have to give less for the charity to meet its goal, they actually gave more, because having the goal partially met provided validation that the charitable cause was valid. Another interesting finding was that when there is a matching gift promotion, all matching gifts perform equally well, whether the match is $1 for each dollar you donate, or $2 for each dollar you donate. Again, the matching gift provides validation for the charitable cause, and the match multiple does not matter.

The authors urge individuals and businesses to experiment more. They find a few reasons why businesses do not experiment as much as they should. One is that managers want to validate their positions, and they fear using data-driven methods will invalidate their own methods or compromise the appearance of their expertise. A second reason is inertia, some businesses are slow to act. A third reason is managers are scared of uncertainty and change. They want to use familiar methods that have been satisfactory in the past.

For incentives to be effective, they must speak to people’s underlying motivations, lest unintended consequences occur. Field experiments are an excellent way of discovering these underlying motivations.

Seconds comic review

I read the comic Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the same author of the Scott Pilgrim series.

The comic is a quick read. The main character is Katie, the head chef at a popular restaurant. She meets the restaurant’s house spirit, and Katie is given a magical mushroom that lets her redo events that happened in the restaurant (or rather, the mushroom sends her to a world in which she made a different decision). Katie finds more mushrooms, and uses them in an attempt to build a perfect life. Katie is rash, impulsive, and a bit self-absorbed, so she needs to consume a lot of mushrooms to fix her mistakes.

In the end, after abusing the mushrooms and destroying the fabric of space and time, Katie reverses all her changes. She learns her lesson, and her life ends up exactly as she wanted it to anyway. Everyone gets a happy ending.

Outliers: The Story of Success review

I read Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, a discussion on what factors enable someone to be successful.

The main takeaway is, success requires preparation and lucky opportunities. Gladwell’s cherrypicked examples include Bill Gates, the Beatles, and a prominent litigator.

In the book, Gladwell claims that superstars are not innately talented, it is only by hard work that one can become an expert. Roughly 10,000 hours of practice appears to be the requirement to become an expert. He notes that people with extremely high IQs are not more likely to be successful; rather, there is a threshold where an IQ is “good enough.” The socioeconomic class of the parents contributes the most to the child’s success, more so than raw IQ.

Gladwell says there are three things that make work meaningful: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. Children are more likely to be successful if they have parents who perform meaningful work.

While the first part of the book is how success is granted through opportunity, the second part is how legacy makes a difference. Gladwell argues that Asians are better at math because Asian cultures emphasize hard work, and the way numbers are structured in Asian languages makes it easier to perform basic math operations. On the other hand, cultural legacy can cause issues. He cites cockpit recordings from Colombian and South Korean flights that crashed, and notes how deference to authority caused the first officers to be indirect in their emergency warnings to the captains.

The self-indulgent epilogue is the story of Gladwell’s mother, and how various chance opportunities aligned so that Gladwell could become the successful author that he is today.

Spring Reading: Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude

I finally read Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I like Nabokov’s effusive prose, so good.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, about the rise and fall of the Buendía family over seven generations. At the beginning of the book, I read it as realistic fiction due to the matter of fact tone. But then flying carpets and magical elements were introduced, and I realized these things were taken for granted as completely ordinary, versus to be interpreted as metaphor. Adding to the realism of this fantasy novel, the book interwove actual historical figures and events into the story, such as the banana massacre. Every time I picked up the book, I felt somber afterwards. The decline of the family and their village is foreshadowed and feels inevitable. Buendía family members are born, grow up, live a unique and solitary existence of their own making, then die. In each generation, the children are named after other family members, and so everyone has one of a few names, and the generations follow a cyclical pattern. Events that happened prior in the book are often recalled. The weight of prior generations stack, so that by the end of the book, at the mention of a single room, several generations’ worth of memories in that room are recalled.  At the end of the novel, a mystery introduced at the beginning of the book is finally revealed, and everything comes full circle.