Saturday, January 03, 2009
BooksFirst - December 2008 - Genius Edition
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Odalisque by Neal Stephenson
Ender In Exile by Orson Scott Card
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
Kingmaker by Alex Braguine
Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
Since January is National Just Read More Novels Month, my reading in December consisted of deck-clearing non-fiction. And all the books I bought were fiction except for the how-to books which were more expensive than any of the other books.
Innumeracy is a book I found in a used book store in Durham for a bargain price and since it is considered a standard I decided to give it a try. At least part of the thesis is that a lot of nonsense is written whenever journalists, politicians, or just the general public try to use numbers in their writing and reasoning. This argument is pretty low hanging fruit and the book contains a lot of strawmen. A disproportionate amount of the book deals with how statistics get misinterpreted. I expected some better, stronger case studies, but the examples used were fairly minor.
I guess I was expecting a stronger book because the concept of innumeracy is very important. If someone can’t read, they are treated as a tragic failing of our school system worthy of pity. If someone says they don’t understand numbers, people nod their heads in sympathy. There is a much bigger issue about how mathematics is taught and how the system treats people with different math abilities. The book is thin and breezy and I wish it weren’t, but maybe it needed to be to get its message out there.
Malcolm Gladwell is the latest pop sociology wunderkind to come along. The Tipping Point has gone from meme to catch phrase to conventional wisdom. In Outliers, he looks at what it takes to be truly great, and guess what, you and I are never going to make it. Gladwell posits that true success requires not only innate ability, but dedication, and the right set of opportunities. He puts the threshold for competence at 10,000 hours of practice or experience. The admonition that the way to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice holds more than a grain of truth. Judging by today’s youth we are grooming a generation of truly phenomenal Warcraft players.
The bad news of the good news/bad news revelation is that you also have to be in the right place at the right time. Accidents of birth are way too important to be dismissed. His case study concerns Canadian teenage all-star hockey players. If you weren’t born in the first quarter of the year, the chances of you getting singled out for the good positions and special attention are pretty slim. The third leg of his thesis is that cultural aspects shape natural ability. Asians are better at math because rice takes a lot of thinking to farm properly. Koreans and South Americans make lousy pilots because they are much more deferential to authority than North Americans and Europeans. And this is where he starts to lose me. He takes some interesting statistical observations and tries to stretch them a little too far into huge patterns. But I did learn that next life I need to pick my parents a little better. And obsess a little more.
I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up Infinite Jest by the recently deceased David Foster Wallace and bounced it a few times in my hands and put it back on the shelf. It’s the same daunting feeling that has kept me from ever finishing Gravity’s Rainbow. So when I saw Consider the Lobster on sale, I decided this was a good way to put at least a toe in the water. This essay collection is entirely random, covering a wide range of topics at varying levels of intensity.
The titular essay is a PETA-friendly screed on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive. I’m sorry, they are too tasty not to. QED. The real must-read in this collection is “Authority and American Usage”, a far inferior title to “Tense Present”, the title it ran under in Harpers. Ostensibly a review of a grammar usage guide, it is a tour de force about the entire meaning of language and the confines of Standard Written English. Heavy with footnoted asides, the essay just overloads the reader with erudition. Other good essays include a deep inside look at the Adult Video News awards, a snapshot of life on the campaign bus during John McCain’s 2000 primary battle in South Carolina (particularly relevant after the past election) and a wonderful look at a mid-level right wing talk show host.
The amazing breadth and depth of the essays is staggering. Wallace is both comprehensive and accessible. His stylistic nuances are a lot of fun once you get used to them. Next time I run across Infinite Jest I may have to consider it a little harder.
Within the deepest levels of geekdom there is a substantial cult of Richard Feynman, one of the Manhattan Project prime movers. Whenever you run across a reference to lock picking, bongo drumming, or Tuvalu throat singers, homage is being paid to Feynman. His memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is subtitled “Adventures of a Curious Character.” And both ‘curious’ and ‘character’ cover a lot of territory. Curious means both intellectually wondering as well as deeply eccentric. And I will let the reader be the judge of his character, but an awful lot of his anecdotes take place in and around strip bars.
I first stumbled across Feynman in James Gleick’s biography Genius. I’ve also seen the stage version based on his works, QED. So as I’ve nibbled at this book over several years, all the anecdotes, shaggy dog stories, apocryphal tales and legends have all blurred in my mind.
His humor is both intellectual and self-deprecating. I don’t know how Malcolm Gladwell would interpret his career, but he definitely was one of those people in the right place at the right time. His contributions to the atomic bomb are made to sound more logistical than theoretical, but there is an Feynmanesque element of understatement at work. Post-war he made important breakthroughs in quantum physics that eventually won him the Nobel Prize. But he had a wide range of outside interests that made him a hero to nerds everywhere. Surely You’re Joking is one of the sacred texts of dorkdom and should be read at least once by anyone claiming nerdocity.
I realize that nearly all the books this month deal with genius at one level or another. Perhaps reading books by or about these intellectual giants is my way of living vicariously through these outliers.