How Not To Be Wrong and other book reviews

I have discovered the pleasures of "Audible," which is an Amazon-related service that allows you to download audiobooks.  It's a great thing for beadworking, gardening, jogging, and driving.  If you hate the book, you can even return it and download a replacement for free.  I wasn't tempted to return "How Not To Be Wrong," by Jordan Ellenberg, a book about probability, statistics, and generally reliable analysis written by a guy with an engaging style and a good sense of anecdote.  I wish I could quote from it, but that's the disadvantage of an audiobook.  This L.A. Times interview gives you a good flavor.  The anecdote that deserves quoting at length concerned a spoofed research article about detecting emotional responses to photographs by scanning the brain activity of deceased fish.  The deadpan introductory sections of that paper are priceless, setting out the relatively little difficulty the researchers had in ensuring that the fish did not alter their positions while in the scanning machines.  There is also an explanation of the pitfalls of "regression to the mean" analysis that I found very helpful as a layman lacking any systematic training in statistics.

I hated Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind"--too snide and preachy--so I exchanged it for Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture," which I'm still on the fence about.  It's interesting, but I have almost no patience for extended philosophical discussions in the "what if it's all just an illusion" vein.  He does have a nice exposition of what he calls "poetic naturalism," which tries to bridge the gap between fine-grained mechanistic explanations of scientific processes and humanistic treatments of concepts like personality and duty, which he groups in the "emergent order" category.  It's a good shot at avoiding absurd reductionism.

Nick Lane's newest book, "The Vital Question," was as terrific as Nick Lane books always are; they call for re-reading.  Because "The Vital Question" is about the origin of life, I hoped it would address my favorite mystery, the origin of the DNA code.  Sadly, it did not, but the treatment of the origin of metabolism, eukaryotes (that's everything from yeast to us), and multicellular life is nevertheless mind-blowing for a non-specialist like me.  It's remarkable what people have figured out since I was in school.

"The Crash Detectives" by Christine Negroni was OK as far as it went, but read like a well-constructed brief magazine article that didn't quite get expanded to book length and trailed off towards the end instead.  Michael Foley's "The Age of Absurdity" was not bad but a trifle forgettable.  Tim Harford's "Messy" was quite good in many spots, an entertaining listen for times when you can't concentrate your full attention.  The anecdote I remember best from this book concerned a traffic circle in the Netherlands, which an oddball thinker made safer by removing a lot of traffic signs and making the segregation between foot and auto traffic more ambiguous; this had the paradoxical effect of causing slightly confused drivers to slow down and pay more attention, with the result that traffic accidents decreased.  After reading "How Not To Be Wrong," I'm skeptical whether this story holds water, but it's entertaining nevertheless.

I get a new download every month on my subscription plan, but my next new one isn't available until January 17, and I haven't found a new title irresistible enough to inspire me to fork over another $20 yet.  When I find a good one, I really look forward to quiet times when I can listen, like running errands in the car.  These downloads would be terrific for long solo car trips, if I had any of those planned, but I have no sick relatives in distant cities at present.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Thanks for the reviews! "How Not to Be Wrong" sounds good. I've added it to my wish list.