Unforgettable

by admin on May 17, 2018

Tuesday, May 15, was an unforgettable day for me: the launch date for The Book of Why, the book I have been working on with Judea Pearl for the last three years.

I’ve never been lucky enough to see a baby born, but I think that the “birth” of a book is similar in some ways. You labor on it for months and months; for most of that time it’s your own secret that nobody else (or few other people) knows about; and then in one day it is suddenly released to the world. It’s exciting and scary both, because the whole world can see what you’ve done, and you can’t control what the world is going to do to your baby.

Launch day got off to a very good start with the publication in Quanta (an online magazine) of an interview with Judea, my co-author. It was an exceedingly well-done article. The writer, Kevin Hartnett, begins with a preamble that answers all the questions a reader might have about who Judea is and what he has done in his career. The interview itself was great, too. You can see some of Judea’s humor, and he gets into some really thought-provoking questions. At one point Kevin says, “That was the last thing I wanted to ask you.” But don’t stop there — the most interesting part of the whole interview comes next! I don’t want to spoil the surprise by telling you any more.

For most of launch day I kept my browser window open to the Amazon web page, because I wanted to see how its ranking would do. For any readers who haven’t noticed, every one of the millions of books sold on Amazon has a ranking determined by its recent sales. For me, this is like catnip for a cat. I have been a chart-watcher since I was a teenager; I would listen to American Top 40 every week, and I would be thrilled every time Casey Kasem would say, “The highest-debuting single of the week!” Or “The biggest mover of the week.” I can still tell you that the Beatles held the record for biggest jump to #1 (Can’t Buy Me Love went from #27 to #1) until the 1990s, when recording companies started manipulating the charts.

So watching the ratings plugged into my deepest instincts, plus of course it was my own book that I was following. My wife does not want me to talk about particular numbers, because it sounds a little bit too much like bragging. But I will say that the Amazon ranking exceeded my expectations and my editor’s expectations. By day’s end, The Book of Why was in Amazon’s top 1000. (Here’s the latest screen shot that I took this morning. I’m obeying the letter of my wife’s injunction: I’m not telling you the ranking, but you can probably spot it.)

So that was the excitement part. The nervousness part was sweating out the customer reviews. There weren’t any on launch day, of course, but the first one showed up the next day, and it was not good: two stars out of five. The review itself … the less said the better, but let’s just say that I did not get the sense that the reader paid much attention to what we wrote. Still, there it was, and I was worried: Would all the readers feel this way? Would potential buyers be scared off when they saw that the only review gave us two stars?

Fortunately, four more reviewers have posted their comments in the last day, and all of them gave the book five stars. That brings the average up to 4½ stars, as you can see above, and I would be very satisfied if that continued.

Odd as it may sound, I think that the most fun thing about launch day was not sitting at home and watching the rankings. It was going to chess club at the Aptos Public Library. Some of the chess moms knew about my book, and one had already received her copy from Amazon and I autographed it for her. One of the other chess moms asked about this, and she immediately got on her cell phone and ordered a copy. How the world has changed since the old days, when you heard about a book, then went to a bookstore maybe days or weeks later and looked for it!

I don’t think that the kids knew or cared that I had a book out. They were just excited to play chess. Our lesson was one of our best ever, their energy feeding off my energy and vice versa. One of the chess moms afterwards said that she just loved the passion that I brought to the lesson, and I told her, “It’s so easy, when you have ten kids with their hands raised!” Seriously, there was one point where there were more kids with their hands up than not, clamoring, “I see it! I see it!”

I was so energized by chess club, and then when I got home I found a note on my door — posted by my wife, with the latest update of The Book of Why‘s ranking on Amazon. It had just gone from (number redacted) to (number redacted but around half of the first number). What a great day!

Okay, I have one announcement and one question. The announcement is: Please look for my op-ed in The Wall Street Journal! It will appear online tomorrow and in print on Saturday. Judea and I have been spending a ridiculous amount of time working on it — somehow it seems harder to write an 800-word article than a 100,000-word book. But it’s done now, it looks great, and I think it will be a perfect jumping-off point for people who want to find out what The Book of Why is about and why it’s important. I’m also hopeful that The Wall Street Journal will give our book a big publicity push. So far we’ve only had the Quanta article (which is seen only by science nerds) and a little blurb in the “New & Noteworthy” section of the New York Times Book Review (which is seen only by book nerds).

The question is this: When your ranking on the Amazon charts goes from (say) #3000 to #2000, do you say that it went up or went down? To me it’s obvious, from my years of listening to Casey Kasem on the radio: it went up. So I was surprised to find out that both my wife and my editor think the opposite. They look at the size of the number and say that it went down. My wife says that she is going to try to change for my sake; it did make sense to her that #1 is the top of the chart and that you would never say that your ranking went down to #1.

Okay, thanks for indulging my book talk! Please go to Amazon or your favorite bookstore and buy a copy, if you feel so inclined.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Schmidt May 17, 2018 at 1:12 pm

The ranking went up, of course; there’s a reason people say a song “shot to the top of the charts”, not the bottom!

I’m looking forward to the book; I’ve read a bit of Pearl’s writing on probabilistic graphical models but not his work on causality.

If you allow yourself to make another non-chess post, I would be interested to hear about your experience co-writing a book.

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Richard Robinson May 18, 2018 at 8:50 am

Hey Dana!
My copy arrived on my Kindle late Tuesday night if I remember correctly. I had been waiting… I have started it but not finished it. I like it a lot so far!
Beyond that…
I was talking to my daughter about the book and how she might want to read it. She does! She told me to hurry up and read it so she can. I told her how it proposed to move us beyond “Correlation is not causation…” and that was enough for her.
I told her I might be able to introduce the two of you if she had more questions. I hope I did not offer too much. You are becoming a rock star!
The day after that discussion she said she was in a bookstore in PA and saw the book being displayed prominently! Someone is pushing it.

The Wall Street Journal usually has a pay wall. I am not sure if I will be able to read your 800 words. But I want to!

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Larry Smith May 20, 2018 at 9:17 am

My hardcover copy arrived a few days ago! I haven’t opened it up yet! The Why of No Book of Why is because I have too many books in my queue in front of it. In fact, the main book I am working on right now is “This Idea is Brilliant,” which was edited by… John Brockman!

That being said, perhaps I will let “The Book of Why” jump the queue… it will move up, not down, in my list of reading materials… BTW, I have the same problem with up/down in regards to scrolling through the guide function on our TV. To move from channel 164 to 165, I move up number-wise, but on the screen I move down visually… and sometimes I have to think for a split-second as to which arrow I therefore need to push on the remote…

I was able to access the op-ed piece in the WSJ though I am not a subscriber. I thought the piece was tightly written and clear, unlike the comments which appeared to be “cleverly” beset by someone with an AI comment-generator. It would be useful to have qualified AI researchers comment on your and Pearl’s basic point. As it sits now, as a layman I have no idea where your thesis sits in regards to current AI thinking: is it a deep insight or obvious? Brilliant or silly? Possible or impossible? Inquiring minds want to know…

Congrats again on your book publishing! Please let us know when and where we can read reviews of it not on Amazon.

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