Bookshelf | May/ June 2018

View a selection of reviewed books from the May/June 2018 print issue.


The Case Against Education“Our education system is a big waste of time and money,” says George Mason’s Bryan Caplan in this provocative book. He notes that most college-level courses—like the ones he teaches—focus on the professor’s exotic interests and impart no marketable skills to students. Why, then, do employers continue to seek out college graduates, whose degrees secure them earning premiums of about 70 percent? Because a degree signals that the graduate is intelligent, conscientious, and conforms to social norms. Caplan advocates for two radical changes—less government spending on education and more investment in vocational schools. His arguments are loaded with data, clearly expressed, and are sure to cause furious debate. (Princeton University Press, US$29.95)


MeltdownWhat are the common denominators between an airplane crash and a Wall Street fiasco? Both are catastrophic failures caused by tightly coupled complex systems where one error causes cascading effects, according to Chris Clearfield, a former derivatives trader, and András Tilcsik, a professor at the University of Toronto. The bad news is that tech-enabled complexity is on the rise in every sector. A series of intertwined small mistakes can lead to enormous consequences for nuclear reactors, commuter train lines, and deep-water oil rigs. But the good news is that designers can create systems that are less complex and more loosely coupled. Transparency also helps. “Transparent design makes it hard for us to do the wrong thing—and it makes it easier to realize if we have made a mistake,” write Clearfield and Tilcsik. Their book is both alarming and hopeful. (Penguin Press, US$28)


Prediction MachinesTwo hundred years ago, the price of electric light was approximately 400 times what it is today. When the cost plummeted, society was transformed, as people could live and work in artificially illuminated buildings. “When the price of something fundamental drops drastically, the whole world can change,” explain Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb of the University of Toronto. They explore the latest world-changing innovation: the technology of prediction, which is essentially the process of filling in missing information. It’s so cheap, in fact, that it’s being used to address problems that were never solved with prediction before, such as autonomous transportation. Eventually, the authors believe, prediction machines could become so reliable that they won’t just enhance strategy, “they will change the strategy itself.” (Harvard Business Review Press, US$30)


Alive at WorkHuman brains are wired to search for new information and extract meaning from our circumstances; when our “seeking systems” are activated, we are at our best. Those seeking systems are frequently stifled at work, where strict rules and protocols cause employees to disengage. But it doesn’t have to be like that, writes Daniel M. Cable of the London Business School. “With small but consequential nudges and interventions from leaders, it’s possible to activate employees’ seeking systems by encouraging them to play to their strengths, experiment, and feel a sense of purpose.” The book will make all readers review how engaged they are at work—and how they could make things better. (Harvard Business Review Press, US$30)


QuirkyWhat distinguishes serial innovators from their peers? New York University’s Melissa A. Schilling studies innovators such as Edison and Tesla to find what characteristics they have in common. Their shared traits include personal quirks such as social detachment, extreme faith in their own abilities, passionate commitment to their ideals, a deep need for achievement, and pleasure in the very act of working. Schilling believes that organizations can study their behaviors to encourage innovation in their own workers—for instance, by giving them solitude to ponder crazy ideas. They might not invent the light bulb, but they could come up with other great notions. (Public Affairs, US$28)