Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thinking, Fast and Slow ****

As a popularizer of Economics and Statistics, no one surpasses Steven Dubner (Freakonomics etc.), but that didn't stop Daniel Kahnman from adding his more rigorous and erudite contribution to the genre: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Of course you wouldn't expect light reading from a Nobel prize winner, would you?

As a psychology professor, Kahnman's book is packed with fascinating experiments and observations. Consider the case of praising good behavior versus punishing bad behavior ... in this specific case, the subjects were Israeli fighter pilots, but that is not really important. Kahnman observed that praising good performance was following by a decreased level of performance, while castigating poor performance was followed by an improvement. Clearly a rebuttal of the positive reinforcement crowd!

But ... as Kahnman explains in exhaustive detail, this is a fault of the human tendency to see cause and effect where none exists. Both above average and below average performances are always followed by average performances. The positive or negative feedback is irrelevant. The instructor could just as well have praised the below average and ranted against the above average.

This book is packed with similar examples and experiments, each followed with detailed analyses backed by Economic, Statistical and Psychological theory, together with the historical evolution of these theories. I found that I was retelling this fascinating vignettes to anyone who was within earshot.

The astute reader might notice that I haven't mentioned thinking, either fast or slow. This book as actually a collection of stories is packaged in four parts: Don't trust what you think, Don't trust statistics, Don't trust experts, and Everything else. The final sections reveals the book as a biographical retrospective covering Kahnman's life work.

The title comes from the first section which introduces System I, the fast, automatic thoughts that control much of human interactions and responses, all below conscious thought, and System II, the slow, conscious thought processes that aspire to rationality and logic. While this is really interesting and insightful, much has been reported on NPR and it is mostly irrelevant to the remaining 75% of the book.

I began the book expecting to learn some new paradigm of thought and action, but instead I found a collection of experiments and observations surrounded by rigorous analyses. As an intellectual omnivore, I found the mixture of serious Statistics, Economics and Experimental Psychology a pleasure to read. For the eclectic dilettante, this is a nice compromise between the popular fluff of Steven Dubner and the dead weight of college textbooks.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen *****

What can I say about Nature Girl? Humor and Hyperbole. Everyone in the story has recognizable motives: the telemarketer who wants to be a successful salesperson, the 12-year-old boy who want to fit in, the fishmonger who wants to sleep with his assistant, the wife who wants a XXX video of her cheating husband, the schizophrenic lady who tracks down the telemarketer, tricks him into flying to Florida, and invents an EcoTour scam to get him out on an isolated island to teach him a lesson. Recognizable, though not necessarily reasonable or believable.

Here are people with everyday desires for successful careers and relationships, and maybe a little sex, but so strange as to be laughable or cry-able. But do not worry, this is a comedy and most characters arrive at a happy ending. In the interim, their adventures are, well, adventures. While most characters survive, the characters a subjected to a wide variety of abuse - groins are subjected to cactus spines, hammering, and a taser; heads crash into a garbage truck, are hit with a tree branch, 2x4, and a guitar. Conventional weapons include a sawed-off shotgun and semi-automatic pistol.

So ... a comedy of zany adventures and and lots of mayhem. If you start it, you won't be able to put it down.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bill and Dave by Michael S Malone ***

Bill & Dave, as anyone who grew up on Silicon Valley knows, is Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Michael S Malone's book is part history, part business advice and part hagiography.

Let's start with the history. You younger reader might not remember this, but in the early 1940's, most of the industrial world was blown to smithereens ... basically everything except the United States. This asymmetry meant laid the groundwork for the greatest period of economic success and expansion the United States has ever or will ever experience. HP was one of the many companies that benefited from this historical accident. This book chronicles how they internalized their success as unique and validation of genius, in spite of the later difficulties when a more normal conditions were restored.

The business advice. If you are a busy business person looking for advice, the author correctly assumes you don't want to wade through the swamp of praise and rationalization. The 100-200 business advice one-liners are collected in the back of the book with gems like:
In high tech especially, it is vital to be revolutionary, but dangerous to be Utopian.
Take care of your smallest clients - they may one day be your biggest.
And finally the hagiography. The case of beatification is stated over and over citing such miracles as an early foray in X-Y plotters (if you don't know, don't ask) laying the groundwork for PC printers, and desktop calculators doing the same for PCs. Assumptions only the faithful can believe.

I'm sure retired HPers will love the book, and other Silicon Valley veterans might enjoy the history, though it is biased and repetitive. Otherwise, not much to recommend it.

Disclosure: I benefited by HP's mismanagement in the 1980s when they became a source of well-trained engineers and managers for many Silicon Valley start-ups.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley ****

Baret ... a woman who dressed as man; a female botanist in a male-dominated field; a working-class woman who traveled father [sic] than most aristocrats. How could the eighteenth-century mind classify someone who refused to be bound by her gender or her class?
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley chronicles to life of the extraordinary first woman to circumnavigate the world. Baret lived the life of an explorer and a scientist on an expedition similar to Darwin's , but over 50 years before the voyage of the Beagle. This is a story that foreshadows today's questions of career and family. In addition to the eighteenth-century expected hardships of manual labor, starvation and disease, Baret also suffers gender-specific challenges of sexual harassment and twice has to up a child that is not compatible with the life she has chosen. In the end she retired with a "government stipend for man of science."

While the story is a fascinating look at the eighteenth-century science of the French Enlightenment, the book suffers from the author's uncertainty as to the nature of the text. At times the book is straight history with in-text references, while in other places, historical blanks are filed with fabrications of feeling and motivations. Most disconcerting is a third case where inferred events are loaded down with conjecture and interpretation. In this third category is a gang rape, not in the historical record, but that Ridley discusses at length.

A great story with a flaw presentation.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn *****

Forget Watson or Grace Makutsi, the new detective sidekick is Chet. On the plus side, Chet is full of optimism, enthusiasm, and love. No matter how bad things might get, Chet lives in the moment, a skill aided by his ignorance complex issues like money and numbers, and his Alzheimer's-like lack of medium term memory. On the negative side, even though he seems to solve the crimes ahead of everyone else, his lack of effective communication skills leaves everyone else wondering what's happening. Oh yes, Chet is a dog.

In Dog On It by Spencer Quinn, Cheat and Bernie solve a missing person case involving a teenage girl and Russian gangsters. Since Chet is the narrator, some of the details are unclear, because at some critical junctures, Chet might smell an abandoned hamburger or hear the bark of a she dog, and completely loose interest in the current witnesses, clues, or even the entire case.

Wherever the case leads, Chet has a wonderful time, whether running through the woods, riding shotgun with his face in the breeze, playing with Bernie's son, or interrogating suspects, Chet has pretty much to same reaction, "What was more fun than this? Huh? I ask you."

For a wonderful guilty pleasure, spend a few hours with Chet, a dog is is never guilty about his pleasures.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W Durrow ****

Just a few days short of my estranged daughter Heather Jasmine Ehrlich's birthday I finished The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W Durrow. The girl from the title is Rachel. Rachel grows up with many questions, but the one which touched me at this time of year is: "Where is... who is my father?"

For many good hearted reasons, Rachel hears very little of her father as she grows up. Much like my own story, even when she finally gets some news, the result is ambiguous and inconclusive.

This novel, like real life, is richer and deeper than just a missing father, and each revealed truth is accompanied by a harder follow-on question. Rachel's mom is Danish and her father is African American. She's already in school when the family moves from Europe to the United States. Both Rachel and her mother have to adjust to a culture where Rachel is now considered to be Black and that is now her defining characteristic.

Rachel adjusts better than her mother who throws herself and her children off the top of their apartment building. Rachel survives and moves in with her grandmother - her father's mother. By now she is in junior high and she needs to adjust to her maturing sexuality.

Through all of this her family and friends take turns supporting and sabotaging her. In the end I have no better idea about Rachel's future than I do about Heather Jasmine Ehrlich's, or anyone else's for that matter. A wonderful story of growing up in a real world.