Book Review: The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers
Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg
Paperback: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0142003085

The Gatekeepers goes a long way towards demystifying the college admissions process in the United States. Steinberg adapted the book from a series of articles that he’d written in the New York Times. Unlike most article adaptations, he actually has enough material collected to justify a full-length book. Apart from the somewhat overlong mini-biography of admissions officer Ralph Figueroa that opens the book, it's captivating reading.

I knew a fair amount about college admissions to start with. I went to a very competitive suburban high school. I applied during the 1999-2000 admissions season – the same season chronicled in this book. One of my apartment-mates in grad school went to Wesleyan, the college whose admissions office threw open its doors to Steinberg. I do admissions interviews for applicants to my alma mater, almost all of them students at a super-competitive suburban high school. So I have a better idea than most people of how the admissions game is played.


Book Review: The Hollywood Economist

The Hollywood Economist
The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies
by Edward Jay Epstein
Melville House, 2010.


Edward Jay Epstein once wrote the Hollywood Economist column for Slate. But these are hard times in the media industry. So clearly, it’s time to compile those columns into a book – a sequel of sorts to his earlier elucidation of Hollywood economics, The Big Picture [read my review]. As with any compilation of this type, there will be some repetition. But the column format forces him to get right to the point, and it is eminently skimmable for the most salient points.

Informed by his knowledge of industry financials, Epstein presents some truly fascinating nuggets of information. Who knew, for instance, that Tom Cruise was such a clever financier? He had enough star power that he insisted on 100% accounting, in which every penny of revenue gets counted when calculating his percentage, instead of Hollywood accounting. As a producer, he sometimes took more out of the movie than the studio – which made the powers-that-be at Paramount so mad at him that they dumped the War of the Worlds project.


Book Review: The Big Picture

The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood
by Edward Jay Epstein
Random House, 2005

Edward Jay Epstein occupies the strange position of being a Hollywood columnist – but one who focuses on the business side of Hollywood rather than the razzle-dazzle. That is a unique niche to be in, but it's also a very small one. When times got tough in the magazine business, Slate dropped his Hollywood Economist column, and Epstein now gets his film-business commentary out through his blog.

Hollywood Economist

But he's absolutely right to point out that the news media rarely covers the substantial parts of the film business. All the focus on box-office receipts obscures the fact that the box office is no longer so important to profitability.  A film need only do well enough to guarantee an afterlife, in which the real money gets made. On the other hand, the shallow focus on box office grosses is not unique to Hollywood. Most business coverage in newspapers is awful, whatever the industry. They focus on big day-to-day events, and rarely do the simple arithmetic to explain the economic fundamentals that drive whole industries.


Book Review: The Snowball

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
by Alice Schroeder
Bantam, 2008.

Alice Schroeder's comprehensive biography of legendary investor Warren Buffett tracks practically every one of Buffett's business ventures since childhood. His paper route, his business recovering and selling used golf balls, his jalopy rental-car – all presented to the reader, presumably so that we can trace his later success back to the business acumen that he showed early in life. Schroeder is a chronicler rather than a storyteller – she writes down nearly every detail that she can pry out of her interview subject, rather than making a judicious selection. That's why the book unfolds over 838 pages of text (plus endnotes).

But at the same time, Warren Buffett is a fascinating person. The advantage of a chronicle is that it allows the reader to draw his own conclusions. Even when Schroeder is clearly being sympathetic to Buffett, such as when she describes some of the negative press coverage that he once received, she does not inject much color or bias. You can really read the book in peace and then think about how the various pieces fit together? Schroeder's prose is more businesslike than eloquent, as befitting a former Wall Street analyst, but it succeeds in telling the story of Buffett's life without turning it into the author's opinion. Alice Schroeder came into Warren Buffett's confidence, and the result is a book with many details that are hard to find in the many other accounts of the Buffett legend.


Book Review: The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
by Norman Stone
Macmillan, 1976

In the West, World War I is remembered for the futility of trench warfare, as men died in the tens of thousands for gains of a few hundred yards. In an attempt to break that stalemate, the most industrially- advanced nations of the world applied their ingenuity towards developing industrial ways of killing on the battlefield. Men were asphyxiated by poison gas, burned alive by flamethrowers, and finally, crushed by tanks. Yet another First World War was also fought alongside the war in the trenches -- a war of movement, in which victorious campaigns led to advances of tens, even hundreds of miles. That was the war on the Eastern front -- a war forgotten by a Western Europe that was preoccupied with its own tragedies, a war whose results were overturned by later events, a war that ended up overshadowed by revolution, a war that Winston Churchill dubbed "the unknown war".

Decades after it was written in 1976, Norman Stone's meticulously researched book remains the most complete English-language account of the Eastern front of World War I. In the introduction, Stone summarizes the existing English- language literature as consisting of essentially two books, one of them being Churchill's book from 1931! Of course, by the time Stone was writing his book, the Eastern front of World War I had long since been overshadowed by the Eastern front of World War II, which saw the fiercest fighting of the war and ultimately decided its outcome. The same cannot be said of the Eastern front of World War I.


Book Review: Infantry Attacks!

Infantry Attacks
by Erwin Rommel
Published in German in 1937.

English translation as "Attacks!": Athena Press, 1979.
Later editions are retitled "Infantry Attacks!"


"Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"
          -- George S. Patton (in the movie)

Well, not quite. The movie shows General Patton reading Field Marshal Rommel's book on tank warfare, which he never got a chance to complete. But it's possible that Patton had read this earlier work on infantry tactics, which the US Army rediscovered and had translated into English in 1943.

Infantry Attacks! describes the engagements that Rommel participated in during World War I, as a young lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. The book is structured as a set of tactical problems, giving the disposition of friendly and enemy troops and setting out the objective. Rommel then describes the solution that he decided on, followed by the actual results, along with an assessment of the lessons he learned and suggestions for improvement. It is given largely in


Book Review: Recountings

This book traces the development of MIT’s Mathematics department after World War II, as it developed from a service department in an engineering school into a world-class center of research.  In that sense, the book follows in the footsteps of The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s, which attempted to capture a Golden Era of mathematics at Princeton.  But the MIT oral history is somewhat more cohesive, for Joel Segel conducted all the interviews himself.  As a result, he can adapt his questioning as he goes along, seizing on salient events and getting reactions from later interviewees.

Common threads

For example, several of the professors mentioned the tension between the pure and applied groups in the department.  Indeed, many top math programs handled this tension by splitting into two departments.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is still home to a unified Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, seems to be reluctant to split disciplines apart.  Yet that doesn’t mean that everything was smooth sailing.


Book Review: River Town

First, I read Peter Hessler’s articles in The New Yorker.  Then, I encountered the author last month on one of his periodic visits to his alma mater.  Finally, I got around to reading his first book – and discovered what I’d been missing all this time.

River Town is en exceptional book that describes the two years that Hessler spent teaching English literature in Fuling, Chonqing as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Since my encounters with Hessler had taken place in reverse order, I couldn’t help but compare his .  The book has a fresher quality to it, for Hessler is is younger and perhaps a bit brasher than he is now.  It combines the personal development of a young man fresh out of college with China’s still-early steps into the larger world.


Book review: The First Team

This is a 500+ page book, and it is chock-full of details. There's even a table that lists every American carrier pilot who fought at the outset of the Second World War in the Pacific. Not just their names, but also the number of Japanese planes that each shot down, when and where some of them were killed, and — for those who survived — their date of retirement and final rank. There are quite a few Captains and Admirals on this list.

But it’s not just facts and figures. The profuse level of detail extends to the history of the fighter squadrons, which is recounted almost on a day-by-day basis. After all, wars is not just a matter of great battles and turning points. In-between the battles comes the daily routine of continual inner-air patrols, for there was always a reconnaissance threat from Japanese scoutplanes. Every once in a while, there would be minor engagements that do not decide the outcome of the war, but cumulatively advance the cause of victory.

Carrier aviation is a very dangerous field in which high-performance aircraft are flown off minuscule shipborne airfields. During the early days of World War II, it was even more hazardous, for the planes had shorter ranges and flew more slowly. Returning home from a mission and flying slow to conserve fuel, the pilots depended on the carrier's own 30-knot speed, for it was a sufficiently-substantial fraction of the airplane's own speed that it affected the navigational calculation. It was not uncommon for a routine scouting mission to run out of fuel and end up with the crew “on the beach,”, waiting to be rescued by the next passing destroyer. And that was if you were lucky, and your radio worked. If nobody heard from you, then the search party had to guess at your position. It was also hazardous on deck. A grizzled veteran may survive numerous encounters with the Japanese, only to be killed by a mechanical accident on a day that saw no combat.


From the Stacks: Canadian Defence Scheme Number One

A Plan for a Preemptive Strike on the United States by the British Dominion of Canada, circa 1921

[...] Yet, until the 1920s, there was a real risk that the Anglo-Japanese alliance would draw Canada into war with the United States. The British were quite serious about their alliance with Japan, inviting Japan into the inner circle of the Allied Powers in the Paris peace talks ending World War I1. The alliance bound Britain to neutrality in the event of war between Japan and one other power, and to military support of Japan in the event of war between Japan and two other powers.

[...] James Sutherland "Buster" Brown prepared for a war with the United States. Thus was hatched Canadian Defence Scheme No. 1. [...] To counter the seemingly overwhelming American military advantage, "Buster" Brown envisioned a preemptive strike against the United States. Canadian troops would mobilize quickly and attack with little warning, relying on surprise to penetrate American soil as far south as Oregon.


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