A charming and insightful airplane read on innovation.



An astrophysicist who helped land Mars rovers shares some tips for launching your own big project. Varol’s polymathic background—rocket scientist, law professor, public speaker—makes him an engaging guide for this book, which cannily blends memoir, pop science, and self-help manual. Many of his insights come directly from his experience working on the team that successfully landed two rovers on Mars in 2003. For instance, the plan to send two rovers instead of one speaks to the need for redundancies in a process; the use of inflatable balloons to land the rovers spotlights how effective solutions require escaping we’ve-always-done-it-this-way mindsets. Throughout, the book is peppered with counterintuitive but sensible commentaries about working with teams, testing rigorously, and embracing failures. “We must expose ourselves to failure regularly,” he writes. “Each crisis becomes training for the next one.” Varol thoughtfully selects his anecdotes from outside his own experience, with a mind toward showing how even the brightest scientists can slip into complacency. The Challenger and Columbia disasters, for instance, revealed how engineers dismissed sustained evidence of problems as mere data points. In a way, the author is almost too good at his job; he so effectively relates space-program history that his comments about how it can provide help for your business feel modest and tacked-on. He also discusses the private rocketry work of Elon Musk with an enthusiasm that borders on hagiography. On the whole, the book is an effective and good-natured effort to remind readers that everybody has mental ruts and would do well to escape them with the help of other people, even made-up ones: “Build a mental model of your favorite adversary, and have imaginary conversations with them,” suggests the author. Talking to yourself never sounded so sane. A charming and insightful airplane read on innovation.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5417-6259-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2020

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.


Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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