The GovEx Book Club

If you’ve worked with us, it won’t surprise you that our office is full of people who spend the day reading articles and books about data and governing. But we love to read about other subjects, too! We wanted to provide a taste of what we have been reading lately. Read on to see what we’ve been reading about, including some connections to the work that we do that may be unexpected. Oh, and there are one or two books about data. We can’t help it – it’s what we love.

Sophia Dengo | Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk has a reputation for being really tough and hard to work for. But in part that’s because his goals aren’t necessarily to make money – so far, it has been a great side effect of his drive to push the boundaries of what is possible. When asked what she thought made his projects so successful, Sophia was emphatic with a response. She says that it was clear to her that it’s his drive – when he comes up against some barrier, he doesn’t stop. His massive amounts of money may help that, but a stubborn personality and incredible drive to make a difference in the world are key. If you are looking for some inspiration from someone who has devoted his life to challenging the norm, this is a great read.

Eric Reese | The Signal and The Noise, by Nate Silver
Eric reading one of our favorite books "The Signal and the Noise"
Eric reading one of our favorite books in the GovEx trailer

Also known around the GovEx offices as “The Bible of Predictive Analytics,” The Signal and the Noise explains why some forecasts and predictions are better than others. After seeing it sit on the coffee table in our trailer for several months, Eric finally picked it up to see why colleagues view Nate Silver as the predictive analytics prophet. Eric found it to be engaging and easy to read – no small feat for a book about forecasting. The book covers fields where forecasting has come a long way (weather forecasting), where it doesn’t work (predicting earthquakes), and other fun areas where it can be applied, such as baseball (Eric’s personal favorite), politics, and online poker. The book talks a little bit about how analytics can be applied in a government venue, but doesn’t go into great detail. A key takeaway for Eric was that we all come to prediction problems with inherent biases, and we need to be able to recognize and control for those biases in order to generate good predictions. Eric’s only criticism is that Silver doesn’t really give any concrete recommendations on how to get started for someone interested in doing his or her own predictive analytics.

Sharon Paley | Rubicon, by Tom Holland

Sharon wanted to explore the expression “crossing the rubicon,” so she turned to this 1,000-page book by Tom Holland. The Rubicon was a river that served as the dividing line between Julius Caesar’s territory, where his army was allowed, from the territory where he wasn’t allowed to have his army. The focal point of the book is the moment where Caesar decides to cross the river. In so doing, he starts a civil war. This is widely thought to be the moment that ends the Roman Republic and gave rise to the Roman Empire. The book goes into great depth about how this moment came about, setting up the cast of characters that lead to Caesar’s rise. The phrase “crossing the rubicon” is ingrained in our society to mean the moment when you have made your decision and must accept whatever fate it brings. The phrase has persisted for over 2,000 years, but interestingly, nobody knows exactly where this river is. You may be picking up on some mapping and geography love here.

Michael reading "Speeches that Changed the World"
Michael takes a short break from analyzing police data to gather inspiration from a speech
Michael Benison | Speeches that Changed the World, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is one of three speech compilations that Michael is currently reading or has read. He says that it is not a book that you sit down and read cover to cover, but it’s great if you are traveling or have a few minutes and need some inspiration. The book includes speeches from throughout history, from religious figures including Saint Francis of Assisi and Jesus Christ to political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. So far, Michael has most enjoyed the speeches from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He finds their focus on forgiveness, love and nonviolence inspiring, and reminds him to focus on thinking and spreading such virtues.

Lena Geraghty | What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is a Baltimore-based author whose stories take the reader to interesting places around the cIty. This book is set in Dickeyville, where Interstate I-70 dead-ends into a Pleasantville-like bubble of a neighborhood in Baltimore, with stone fences, huge homes, and a trickling stream running through it. The story is about a group of kids who witness a murder in this idyllic neighborhood and agree never to tell their parents above it. The story follows them as they grow up and move out to other neighborhoods in Baltimore. As a new transplant to Baltimore, Lena enjoys reading about the neighborhoods, restaurants, and stores that are still around today. It’s an engaging way to learn about the minutiae of life in a city, and how the city has changed over the years.

Sheila Dugan | The Hungry Ear, by Kevin Young

Apparently, all poets have at one point written a poem about food. The Hungry Ear is a compilation of such poems. It includes a works with titles such as “Ode to an Onion” and “O Cheese,” as well as “Capitalist Poem #5” and “Frying Trout While Drunk.” Authors include Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, and Claude McKay, among many, many others. Sheila says that she loves to read poetry when she needs to quiet her mind. It is understandable that she needs to do this right now, having just finished a several-month sprint to get the first GovEx course off the ground (with more to come)! She says that the poems force her to concentrate on the here and now, not allowing her to let her mind wander and think about the” million things that need to get done.” Sheila also reads a lot of news articles, and her two recent favorites are “The Matter of Black Lives” and “The New Europeans,” both from the New York Times.

Rebecca Williams | Gut, by Giulia Enders

Rebecca was on her way to the office in Baltimore from Washington, D.C. and went into a bookstore to warm up while she waited for her train. “Gut” was on display in the front of the store, calling to Rebecca from its shining table under a spotlight. Because Rebecca has been a vegetarian for years and dabbled in veganism, books about food and diet always capture her attention. While her rationale for vegetarianism has always been related to the effect our diets have on the rest of the world, she was really interested in how this book discusses diet in the context of one’s own body. Essentially, the book breaks down (no pun intended) how you eat, digest, and eliminate food. It goes into all of the bacteria inside of the human body and how they contribute to our health, behavior, and even our genes. As Rebecca puts it, there is an entire world inside you that is contributing to you and your genetic makeup. To bring this back around to data, consider this: scientists currently think that the number of bacterial cells in the human body is nearly the same as the number of human cells.

Andrew Nicklin | The Blood of the Fold, by Terry Goodkind

“That sounds dark.” “Yeah, it is pretty bloody.” The Blood of the Fold is the third book in a series that Andrew’s wife got him into. The website Goodreads offers the following summary of the series: In a dark age, it takes courage to live, and more than mere courage to challenge those who hold dominion. Richard and Kahlan must take up that challenge—or become the next victims. Andrew characterises it as “a human story of how love and instinct can help you achieve the things you want to achieve.” It is probably clear that Andrew reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy. He likes that these books imagine a world that is different from our own, whether that world is good or bad. To tie it to the work that we do at GovEx, Andrew says it forces him to think about what humanity could become. As we are looking at data, we need to be careful about being sure that it is being used to do good for people – and not helping to create these apocalyptic worlds that Andrew loves to read about.

Katherine Klosek | Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke

Katherine is a huge fan of Truman Capote, so when she found this biography in a used bookstore in Baltimore, she grabbed it. The best part about the book, so far, is that it brings to life events from Capote’s life that clearly informed his stories. For example, the author starts with Capote’s childhood and talks about him going out into fields and farms near his house to gather ingredients for fruitcakes. This is an integral part of one of Capote’s short stories, “A Christmas Memory.” In the story, the characters do this early in the Christmas season, the air is only just starting to have a chill in it. A repeated refrain spoken by the main character’s best friend is, “It’s fruitcake season, Buddy.” The biography really allows you to connect Capote’s life to his stories, which in turn connect to our lives. Whenever there’s a chill in the air, Katherine thinks, “it’s fruitcake season, Buddy!” Kat finds reading about Capote to be a great departure from what we do every day at work. He was an artist – he didn’t have any strategic direction, and he didn’t follow a defined path. Thinking about art is a good foil to thinking about data, analytics, and strategy all day.

Nick Hadjigeorge | Dune, by Frank Herbert

As a fan of science fiction, Nick decided it was time to finally get around to reading Dune by Frank Herbert. The best-selling novel, published in 1965, is an epic tale about political feuds, resource wars, and survival. Not to mention mysterious religious groups, trade guilds, and giant “sandworms.” Set in an inhospitable desert planet with mysterious locals, powerful families from distant planets jockey for control of Dune and its unique natural resource – spice. Spice is valuable for several reasons (no spoilers here), but it’s something like magical caffeine. Dune is not your typical science fiction novel with lengthy descriptions of alien technology or intense action scenes. There is just enough sci-fi to provide a mysterious backdrop to the Dune universe. However, much of the book is dialogue and internal discourse that approaches the density of psychoanalysis. Herbert’s style of writing and tendency to focus on the nitty gritty of human nature is what kept Nick reading until the end. It’s much more than the sum of its parts, and a chapter about escaping from a giant sandworm will leave you thinking deeply about political power, technology, tradition, and the environment.

A chapter about escaping from a giant sandworm will leave you thinking deeply about political power, technology, tradition, and the environment.

Beth Blauer | The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Beth wanted to go with a classic and talk about her favorite book of all time. Rather than go into a plot overview, which could take pages, suffice it to say that this is an epic tale of friendship, betrayal and revenge. Beth loves the book because she loves a good tragedy, especially one that ends on a hopeful note. It’s also all about relationships – the main character’s best friends and fiancee betray him – which she finds fascinating. The most important thing, though, is that the book focuses on the main character and how he takes his fate into his own hands. Beth loves that, because at the end of the day, she says, you have to be able to count on yourself.

Carter Hewgley | Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from the author to his teenaged son. In the book, Coates reflects on what it means to be black (and white) in America today. While the book is packed with important perspectives worth reading and re-reading, one of the central themes is the relationship between African-Americans and their own bodies, particularly as it relates to government and police forces – Coates grew up with the persistent awareness that his body was at risk of being taken, restrained, hurt or harmed. Carter found strong ties to the work cities are doing in performance management. Programs like CompStat and data-driven policing strategies, such as stop-and-frisk, risk ignoring the human beings on the receiving end of those “data-driven” tactics. Carter’s takeaway is that we really need to pause to account for the human experiences when we think about the strategies data leads us toward.

Matt Pazoles | Railsea, by China Mieville

China Mieville is a British science fiction author trying to write a science fiction book in every genre – Western, murder mystery, aliens. This particular book is set in a world where instead of oceans, there are great plains throughout which a bunch of independent rail owners had set up systems. This is a post-apocalyptic world. Matt describes it as Moby Dick set in a post-apocalyptic world where trains are the central organizing feature of society. Basically, after the apocalypse, people revisit the old west, but instead of fighting bandits of outlaws they fight train pirates. There may be no connection to our work with this one – so we won’t even try to draw any parallels.

Matt Raifman | The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

Matt is reading The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson. This is his second time reading it, although it has been several years since his first read. The Rum Diary is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young journalist at his first reporting job at a small newspaper in Puerto Rico. Matt is enjoying the book right now for several reasons. First, he finds the story relatable in so far as it covers a man narrowing in on what really matters to him in life and work. Second, the story (which involves a lot of booze and tropical weather) is a good escape from life in late winter in Baltimore. And finally, Matt recently visited Puerto Rico with his wife, Julia. He says that it has been a lot of fun reading about parts of the city that he visited recently.

Kristen Ahearn | The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion & Politics, by Jonathan Haidt

I read this book to try to understand why my father-in-law can’t talk about politics – even with people with whom he generally agrees – without ending up yelling about something (lately, Donald Trump is usually the focus). In the book, Haidt explores the divide between political parties in the United States, and particularly why we have so much trouble discussing issues with people from the political party opposite our own. Everyone has likely had the experience of discussing a policy issue with someone who disagrees. It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to understand how the other person fails to understand what we see as a completely rational view. One of the fundamental points that Haidt makes is that often our first reaction to a question, challenge, or situation is an emotional one – and reason follows the emotion. In other words, we use reason to justify our reaction, rather than to inform it. This isn’t the case in every situation, and the book goes into much more detail about morality and its cultural underpinnings. But a key takeaway is that it can be very difficult to apply reason over emotion. It isn’t something that we do naturally. The book helped me understand my father-in-law a little better, but also made me think about how this is a good reason to build data into decision-making frameworks by default – it helps to control for the emotional reactions we often have.

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