Summer Reading: Theft by Finding

Book three is on the lighter side, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding.  This is a collection of diary entries from 1977-2002.  It reads differently from his other work in some ways, but as a long-time fan, I could see where the ideas for much of his work came from, and by the end, could hear his distinctive voice.

The book begins in media res, so to speak, unlike a memoir, which might cover childhood, etc.  Instead, we’re thrown into a time when David is hitchhiking and unless you do the math, you’re not sure how old he is.  The early entries are filled with interesting observations of people and places, but also tales of his own harassment by others, his drinking, doing drugs and being broke frequently.  I was glad I knew how things turned out for him because if I didn’t, I’d have been worried.

Though Sedaris has always downplayed his ambitions, you can see glimpses of it even in what looks like pretty desperate moments.  He knows how much he needs to save to get to New York.  There are brief mentions of writing he’s working on.  You can tell he wants to get somewhere, and that’s why the story doesn’t end in tragedy.

As always, there are some really funny moments where I found myself laughing out loud.  His thoughts are so weird and yet, somehow, not that different from our own weird thoughts. I found myself thinking simultaneously, wow, that’s odd and oh, yeah, that’s exactly how I’d feel.

I always find myself thinking after reading books like this, that detail how people live their lives, that I should do more.  I think I should travel more, write more, go out more, etc.  If a memoir/diary has ended up in print, generally the person’s life isn’t boring–or at least the slices we’re shown aren’t boring–and so then I think my own is boring by comparison.  Of course, I’m writing this from the porch of a beach house, so my life isn’t that bad.

Summer reading: Everybody Lies

I heard about Everybody Lies from listening to the Freakonomics podcast where Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was interviewed about the book.  I absolutely love data.  I’m not necessarily good at evaluating it as I don’t have the same toolkit as many modern data scientists, but I do often turn to data to answer questions I have in my life.  This book didn’t disappoint in answering some really interesting questions–about racism, sexism, poverty, sex, and more.

The main points of the book, I’d say, is that our intuition about things is often wrong and that we have enough data at our fingertips and the tools to dig into (in the form of computing power) to answer some really big and important questions that might make life better for lots of people.

Stephens-Davidowitz is also a really good writer, so while the book is about datasets and regression analyses, it’s not at all dry.  And the insights the book reveals about human nature are also compelling.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • While we talk all the time about implicit bias when it comes to race, search data reveals that racism is not as implicit as we think it is.  It’s really explicit. People just hide it well.  They’re not unaware that they’re racist, as implicit bias would have us believe.  They just don’t share their racism with others.  But they share it with Google.
  • Parents display a lot of bias against their daughters. They assume she’s not smart, that looks are more important, and that ugliness is a very undesirable characteristic to have in daughters but not necessarily sons.  (I found this nugget particularly interesting given my interest in girls education).
  • The Internet is not as segregated as one might think.  Most of us bump into people whose opinions are very different from our own very regularly.
  • People say they’re going to do one thing — like watch a documentary and not the chick flick — but they do something else entirely.  Which is why Netflix and Amazon and other Internet sellers pay more attention to what you actually do (watch the chick flick) and not what you are projecting you’ll do (because you added that documentary to your queue).
  • Sometimes data doesn’t give you the whole picture, so you need human intervention. Test scores, for example, don’t tell you everything you might need to know about how effective a teacher is in creating student success. Test scores, student surveys, and teacher observations (the last two qualitative data from humans) taken all together give you a really solid picture.
  • Also, the size of a horse’s left ventricle is a big indicator of whether that horse will win a lot of races.

And those are just a few of the cool things I learned.  But the other cool thing about the book is that it’s also a story of data itself, of how much we have (even us regular people), of what kinds of things scientists are investigating and discovering from all this data, and the untapped potential that’s there.  I actually think I’ll be applying some of what I learned from this book pretty immediately.  And that’s cool.

Summer reading: Pitch Perfect

I finished book two of my summer reading project.  Pitch Perfect was about how to speak more effectively, in many different situations, from formal presentations to conversations at cocktail parties.  A couple of years ago, I read The Well-Spoken Woman, in preparation for a TED-style talk I had to give.  I think both books are helpful.  Communication is one of the most important things we do, and we are constantly sending messages with what we say and how we say it.  It’s an area I’m working on all the time.

The message from the book that I found most helpful is that you should always be prepared, no matter how often you do public speaking or how confident you feel.  Speaking well under any circumstances takes preparation and practice.  That’s comforting to think that everyone needs to prepare.  So I don’t feel stupid for going over things in my head before I say them or thinking through what I might say in a meeting, even if I’m not the one running the meeting.

The book is broken down into seven basic principles, which I’m going to paraphrase for my own sake: Get to the point, tell stories, keep it short, slow down, convey confidence, be curious, change/control the conversation.  Many of these you’ve likely heard before, but McGowan’s specific stories and examples drive these points home, giving you some very specific places to start.

I’m looking forward to putting some his tips into practice, both for myself and for my students.