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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 2, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 41
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Out of the Box

During the year, many kind people graciously send me copies of books — either ones they have written or ones they think I should read. Unfortunately, I rarely have time to read them all, so I place them in a cardboard box for future reference, the table by my bed already having overflowed with unread tomes. I also come across titles of other interesting books I'd like to read, and since I'm an Amazon junkie, I tend to binge order these as well. When the UPS shipment arrives, I throw more brain fuel into the cardboard box.

Then come summer, when my schedule of "required" events diminishes somewhat, I begin working my way through the box. I confess I never make it to the bottom, but this year I have been particularly ambitious, got a head start on the book pile and have already read more than I usually wade through in an entire summer. Several of them I would recommend to our readers, so herewith are my summer picks:

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life by Nassim Taleb. This is a fascinating book about the role of randomness in our lives. Although written by a Wall Street trader, the author has a Ph.D. in statistics and an unusually broad intellectual background. It has applicability to science as well as Wall Street. I have often marveled at the role of chance in scientific discoveries, and this book provides more insights into the role of random events than I had previously understood.

Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education by Derek Bok. The emeritus president of Harvard has some sage observations about universities and their quest to go "commercial" in everything from scientific research to intercollegiate athletics. Bok pours some cold water on the present trends that many research universities are following.

How Israel Lost: The Four Questions by Richard Ben Cramer. Events in the Middle East are dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Johns Hopkins alum and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ben Cramer has written a book that will jolt you out of your beliefs of what is going on there, whether you are pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, anti-terrorist, pro-peace, anti-settlement, Islamic/Christian/Orthodox Jewish or whatever. There is probably something in this book that will offend everyone, and though you may be put off by the author's aggressive style, I guarantee you will come away with a different view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also, the print is large, the book is small, and the stories he tells are fascinating.

I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. A best-selling novel that dramatizes the dilemma of the working mom. A must for all male faculty members (and especially department chairs and deans) to read.

The last two on my list are probably only of interest to sports addicts, although both have a more serious bent to them meant to provide useful insights to nonsports fans as well.

The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do by Michael Mandelbaum. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Professor Michael Mandelbaum has written about how the three "major" American sports reflect the culture and values of our society.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book is entirely about baseball and perhaps really only of interest to the baseball fan, but the lessons here are more widely applicable. It is a book about Billy Bean, the manager of the Oakland Athletics, and how he has been able to assemble a competitive baseball team, year after year, even though his payroll for players is one of the lowest in major league baseball. How does he do it? With a contrarian's philosophy, a sophisticated use of statistics and statisticians, and a healthy disrespect for the current experts of baseball, he develops a strategy for picking winning players and putting together winning teams, much like a modern portfolio manager would invest a university endowment. There is much we could learn in academia from this book if we had better statistical measures.

No doubt you have titles of your own choosing you are already intending to read. My suggestion is, Grab a box, head for the beach, the mountains or the backyard and have a wonderful summer. Happy reading.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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