Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Best Books of 2005

Well not really. This is actually a list of the best books I've read in 2005, regardless of when the book was published. You might also want to check out Roehl's 2005 book list, as well as my 2004 top 10 list.

Alright, here are my ten best books of 2005:

10. Prisoner's Dilemma - William Poundstone

This is a fascinating read. If I could summarize what this book is about in one sentence, it can be described as a technical discussion of game theory and other theoretical thinking/decision scenarios. When does it pay to cooperate with your opponent? Is there a single line of action that will assure a win no matter what the scenario? Poundstone describes interesting puzzle games such as the prisoner's dilemma, honor among thieves, and my personal favorite - the dollar auction. You think through the solutions to these problems. You can relate these to real life scenarios and it serves as great mental exercises.

There is also a side story on Von Neumann and the various cold war strategies employed by the US and Soviet Union. How the US government employed cooperative game theory in outmaneuvering their cold war rivals. Great stuff.

9. Armchair Economist - Steven Landsburg

This book opened my eyes to the economist's view of the world - a much different way of looking at things than we are used to. For instance, is pollution bad? Not if it lowers rent costs and real estate prices, which gives opportunity for lower income people to afford their own place.

Or imagine a scenario where farmers grow wheat, which they export to distant lands, and in exchange receive shiploads of Japan-made cars. It doesn't matter where the cars are built. It is as if the vehicles are grown directly in the farm. Growing wheat -vs- building cars has the exact same net effect - you get cars in return. Is inflation bad? Inflation causes prices to rise, which raises the cost of living, and directly causes interest rates to rise, which nets you a higher return on your investment. So it is neither good nor bad. When you set a dollar bill on fire, does the value of that dollar get lost forever? Or does it raise the value of every other dollar bill, which benefits everyone else. Thus, there is no net loss in the burning of your dollar bill.

The negatives: Some of the ideas are not presented in a very coherent manner. And you get the feeling that the author is too full of himself and feels superior to the reader. Still, whether you agree or disagree with the ideas or like the author, this book will change the way you think.

8. Freakonomics - Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner

Reading this is like eating junk food. It's fun, tastes good, and you want to eat more. This book is the main reason for the current popularity of economics texts. You'll find lots of interesting out of the ordinary conclusions based on the authors' research.

There's a controversial chapter that discussed the dramatic reduction of crime in the 90's, and how the Roe v. Wade supreme court decision to legalize abortion was the main factor behind it. It studies the statistics behind internet dating sites, which factors maximize results, and why having blonde hair for a woman is worth its weight in gold. There's another chapter that gives a good illustration of how people respond to incentives. When a school gets funding based on the test scores of their students, it results in an increased cheating rate done by the teachers themselves. Each argument and conclusion is presented well, supported by facts, and written in a very entertaining way. This book is just plain fun to read.

7. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

Another very entertaining book. Though I was put off by the lame ending and felt the author didn't go far enough. If you're going to write a fiction book about the descendants of Jesus Christ and the location of the Grail, might as well go all the way. I loved all the historical references and the idea that the history which we all take as fact could very well have been altered by those in positions of authority to suit their own objectives.

6. Learning Python - Mark Lutz, David Ascher

Only one computer book made the list this year and it happens to be a tutorial book on my new favorite programming language - Python. This book guides the beginner on using Python language features and writing useful programs. Python offers a low stress development environment, it's like writing pseudocode that runs. And it doesn't bog you down in language details that interrupt your flow of thought. A cool language and a practical book.

5. The Motley Fool You Have More Than You Think - David Gardner, Tom Gardner

I've read a bunch of personal finance books, both good and bad. A lot of them rehash the same principles over and over again - put away 10% in savings per month, pay yourself first, have 6 months emergency fund, pay down your debts, blah blah.

Ah, but the Fools put their own slant to the personal finance stuff. It is presented in a more practical, detailed way. My favorite chapter is the one about the value of a dollar. How much is the value of a dollar - not much you say? Actually the value of a dollar is worth more than a dollar, and they explain the reasons behind it. The Fools also tell you when you should not invest your cash, how to get a good deal when buying a car or house, and even some basic info on how to read those numbers and symbols you see in the stock market. All told in a humorous fashion making it fun to learn what used to be a dry subject. There is even a joke chapter on how to teach your dog tricks and make extra money, which caught me off-guard thinking it was serious advice. It would be nice to teach high school kids the concepts presented in this book.

4. The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell

One of two books written by Gladwell that made the list. The guy is an amazing writer. He puts into words old concepts that have existed for a long time, which we didn't have a name foir. For instance, take the concept of the Tipping Point. That phenomenon where a product or idea gathers momentum and slowly makes its way to the mainstream. One day it hits that magical tipping point where it gains critical mass and becomes a marketing success.

Gladwell describes exactly how the tipping point is achieved. It takes the work of key individuals such as connectors (people who connect you to other people) and mavens (people who are experts and an information resource that other people rely on). There is also the stickyness factor - how an idea can be 'sticky' which gives it a longer life. And the Law of the Few - a few key people can matter a great deal.

This book is sometimes sold as a marketing book, or business book. But I think the text is more about human nature and life lessons. Gladwell sometimes has the tendency of repeating the same point over and over again, with different examples, which can be repetitive reading sometimes. Still this is a great book and a bonafide classic. And it probably deserves to be higher on the list than just #4.

3. Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

Sweep! Two for two for Malcolm Gladwell in 2005. This is an incredibly interesting and fascinating book. It is about how humans think and perceive things. We look at the world around us and constantly make snap decisions without being aware of it. We think this item is good, this one is bad, this place doesn't feel safe, that tennis player will miss the shot.

Instinctively we know all this stuff. The most powerful computer in the world, our human brain works constantly, thin-slicing our gut reactions. We are taught in school not to make snap judgments. To use critical thinking, decision matrices, flowcharts and other aids. To minimize our instinctive reactions that we learn are not accurate. Gladwell's hypothesis is that our gut reactions to common everyday things are just as accurate, or even more accurate than if we spent a couple of weeks consciously mapping out which will be the best decision to make.

He also gives counterarguments as to why snap judgments may lead us to the wrong path. There is one interesting chapter on the race prejudice test where we tend to associate black with bad and white with good. Sometimes think-slicing doesn't work as well as we want it too. This book has it all, unique insights, new ideas, and an enjoyable read.

2. The Joy of Laziness - Peter Axt, Michaela Axt-Gadermann

I have a confession to make - I'm lazy. I have a hard time getting up in the morning. If I didn't have to go to the office, I'd probably sleep till noon everyday. Also, I hate exercise. The thought of going to the gym repulses me. I'd rather go for a long walk rather than go jogging or lift weights.

Conventional wisdom says you need to wake up early, have breakfast, join a fitness club, run marathons, eat five meals a day. Could it be that we were wrong all this time? That lazy people actually live longer and stay happier than their fitness-obsessed, always on the go counterparts? This is what this book is about. It describes a lifestyle change wherein we conserve energy, avoid stress, relax more, and have periods where we do nothing. Written by two doctors, one of them being a former marathon runner who found out that excessive exercise actually brought more harm than good.

Rediscover the lost art of relaxation. For exercise, take brisk walks rather than going jogging. Cancel breakfast or dinner once in a while, fast one day of the week to lower daily calorie intake. Start waking up later rather than earlier to give our body much needed rest and recuperation. Avoid job promotions that take away our peace of mind and relaxation. Be lazy and indolent - these are the heart of good health. Something I already knew but was always afraid to say out loud. Highly recommended to challenge conventional thinking.

1. Million Dollar Habits - Robert Ringer

Our top book of the year. Written more than a decade ago by the great hard-nosed, no-nonsense motivational author Robert Ringer. Not to be confused this with Brian Tracy's recently released book of the same title. Don't get that, get this one instead. I found an old copy in the public library. Took it home, liked it so much I reread it again immediately after finishing it the first time.

What makes this book great? First of all, this is an extremely practical book. Each piece of advice is solid, sound, can be readily applied in real life. There are no shortcuts or tricks. There are no magic words to use, or cute statements to fool yourself into thinking you are successful or happy. Just good practical advice which you can use.

You can access an outline of each of the principles mentioned in the book here. To summarize, you have to live in reality, not a fantasy world. You should not fool yourself into thinking your situation is better (or worse) than it actually is. You have to keep things in perspective. Losing your job may be bad for you, but there are far worse things (starvation or war for instance). You should live in the present, set in motion a cycle of good thoughts and success. You should not lie even if it will give you an advantage (very hard to do). By preserving your integrity, you are giving yourself true freedom and peace of mind which cannot be bought by any sum of cash.

You should practice good human relations. Be respectful to others, cooperate with them. Practice tactfulness and tolerance for other people's beliefs. Keep things simple rather than complicated. Avoid negative people who drain you of valuable energy. Practice self-disciple and learn to develop a laser-like focus on stuff that is most important to you. Take action - this is the best cure against adversity.

All of this stuff probably sounds like common sense, or mere motherhood statements. But Ringer writes in a clear manner with lots of examples from his personal life. He talks about the mistakes he made and life experiences he had which illustrates the point of each habit.

The title 'Million Dollar Habits' is a bit misleading. This isn't a book that will help you earn a million dollars. It's not even remotely concerned with making money or with achieving the illusions of "success" and all its trimmings. This is a book about life. Living in a manner that will give you great satisfaction, happiness, and true success.

Honorable Mention:
- The Okinawa Program
- How to Make Luck

Got some books you've enjoyed reading lately? Let us know in the comments section!

1 comment:

roehl said...

a very interesting list and who knows, i just might come across them in the future.