Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quick book reviews (#3)

As I've done previously, I’ve written some brief reviews of books I recently read. These reviews use a scale of one to five stars based on Library Thing. I am generally a tough grader, and even though these books don't get more than four stars, they were all worth reading.

Race against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (3.5 stars)

This is a fairly short book (with a really long title) that explores technology’s effect on our economy and employment. The basic premise is that computers and related technology are accelerating at a rapidly increasing pace which is straining our economy and employment picture. The authors show how technology is changing the balance between superstars and average people, high-skill and low-skill labor, and capital and labor. For the superstar balance, they explain how in the 1800s, the best singer in the world would be hard pressed to sing before more than a very small fraction of the people in the world. That inability to be heard by most people left room for lots of local singers who made decent livings. Now, practically everyone in the world has heard the music of the pop stars of the day (who make enormous sums of money) and most singers cannot make a living singing. Generally, the book is very thought provoking and at least somewhat depressing. The book’s premise fits it with an observation I had—unions, and others, fought automation and robots in manufacturing during the 70s and 80s. So, jobs moved to low-cost geographies. Now, manufacturing jobs are returning, but they are heavily automated. Basically, the automation originally planned is now being welcomed because the jobs are already gone. This book gives a lot of data that helps explain that. The authors provide a tons of information, but I have to admit that I don’t have the necessary background to know what the other side of the story is. I recommend this book to anyone interested in economics and the future of employment in America and around the world. It will force you to think.

Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy by Gary Thomas (3.0 stars)

The title of this book is a very good summary of its contents. That premise is a good one and is well worth considering. We often think of marriage in terms of what can we get from it or in terms of meeting our needs. Thomas turns that thinking on its head and proposes that marriage should instead be about what God and the world can get from a marriage. That is a refreshing and healthy perspective. The problem for me was that the book is rather dry and the examples did not really relate to me. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a fresh perspective on marriage, but it will take some perseverance to finish it.  

 The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely (4.0 stars)

I’m a big fan of Ariely’s work and this book is no exception. As in his previous books, he uses a number of behavioral experiments to explain how people act. This book was not as good as Predictably Irrational, which I would recommend to everyone. But, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty is well worth reading. The experiments he looks at are variations on one or two primary ones. Basically, they bring in people to take a test that is fairly hard and time consuming.  Each person gets a reward such as one dollar for each correct answer. They then vary the conditions to allow for opportunities to cheat and see how that influences the score. One of the big things they do for most of the experiments is have people score the results themselves and then shred their answer sheets. Basically, that means they can cheat and no one will know. Generally, people cheat some, but not too much. So, if there are ten questions and people who can’t cheat would answer five, when given the opportunity to easily cheat, they might claim seven, but not ten. All of this is very interesting, but what makes the book more interesting for me are some of Ariely’s personal examples coupled with his conclusions. One of the interesting takeaways is that just reminding people not to cheat has a positive effect.

Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder (3.5 stars)

I only gave this book 3.5 stars because it took me a long time to finish and because it is probably of interest to a limited audience. That said, however, I found the book to be very enjoyable. It is a book about four college friends—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. They decided, in the way that college students often do, to change the world. Their world was that of science, though in the 1800s, the scientific world was very different than today. They started by changing the notational system of calculus from the obscure English system of Isaac Newton to the French system we use today. You can imagine how hard it was to make that change at the university where Newton had been a professor! They went on to define how science would be conducted throughout England and the whole world. They influenced the next generation of scientists like Charles Darwin and their influence continues in science today.

I had only heard of Charles Babbage prior to reading this book, because of his work on computers before there were computers. He turned out to be the least interesting of the four, and the biggest jerk. While Babbage arguably invented the computer, the others made major contributions to fields as varied as astronomy, geology, economics, and mathematics. They also did things as different as serving in government, coining the word “scientist”, heading a major university (Cambridge), translating Greek poetry, and pastoring a church. They were indeed a group of college friends who changed the world.

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