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Posts Tagged ‘James Gleick’

David And Goliath”  (2013©)  —  book review
Today’s book review is for non-fiction “popularized science” / sociology genre book” “David And Goliath“, written by Malcolm Gladwell.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Gladwell, Steven Levy and James Gleick are my favorite three “modern” “pop”-science writers, so I have a natural inclination to review this book favorably.  (Of course, my “All-time” favorite for this genre is Isaac Asimov, who could explain almost anything to the common reader – and with over 500 books to his name, he certainly tried.)
Anyway, as stated, I was (am) predisposed to a favorable review.  And, I’m giving it that…
It’s not a “great” book and it didn’t make me feel like I just hit myself on the side of the head (“Wow!!).  But, with Gladwell, you pretty much know what you’re getting when you hand over your dosh.  One, two or three observations about human behavior, a bit of socio- / psychological support (a few facts to support the point and not much to contradict the point) to bolster the observations, and then a bit of storytelling to make Gladwell’s conclusion seem more palatable.  Generally, if you “want” to agree with Gladwell’s observations you won’t look too closely at the support, because, heck, you already agree.  Right?  And if you are not predisposed to agree, Gladwell offers almost twenty pages of “Notes” for further research.  But, if you’re going to all that trouble, you probably have some subject matter expertise and don’t need to read a “popularized science” book on this topic.   Do you?
Per his normal format, Gladwell breaks the book into three main sections:
1) The advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages);
2) The theory of desirable difficulty; and,
3) The limits of power.
Amplifying the observations:
1)  Underdogs win more that we (the average reader) would expect – in some specific categories as much as 30%.  Why?  Because we see our disadvantages as their disadvantages, when they (the underdogs) don’t.  And, if they don’t see themselves as underdogs, they have no incentive to quit before they even try to succeed.
2)  Sometimes disadvantages turn out to be advantages and vice versa.  Great schools and small class sizes don’t necessarily produce the best employees or academics.  Gladwell introduces the idea of a inverted U shaped graph to explain this phenomena.
3)  People with challenges (dyslexia, early family tragedy, ADHD) can still become very successful.  Sometimes / somehow the “challenges” early in life prepare them better than their peers for challenges later in life, so they are “ready” when the real life test happens.  And,
4)  You can never “really” know how people will react when they are placed under pressure.  You generally, expect them to fold (because we believe we would, too), but sometimes they exceed your expectations.
My reaction to all of this?  Yes, it may all be true, but how do you build a society around the observation / hypothesis?  With no controls, you have observations, but you cannot test hypothesis.  And, if you could create similar situations, is it ethical to do so?  …For a hundred people, just so five or ten or thirty percent can overcome them?  What does society say to the others who don’t overcome and become super-achievers?  We’re sorry we ruined your life, but we wanted to see if you were “destined” to be elite.
Final recommendation: moderate to strong.  The book presents some interesting ideas and promotes thought by the reader.  (It certainly made me think!)  It successfully brings academic observations to the masses by means of popular writing.  However, in the end, I was left feeling neither individuals nor the government have the ability (or wisdom) to use power effectively in attempting to control the actions of others.  But for me, making me think is enough to prompt me to recommend the book.
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On This Day In:
2018 Still More Prejudice
A Well Trod Path Of Hopes, Expectations And Surprise
2017 …And With It Civilization
2016 Just Like My Mother
2015 All Omissions Are Mine
2014 Precise Order
2013 Uh, No. Not Really…
Deep Regions
2012 A Pre-Valentine’s Day Message
2011 Easy Like Sunday Morning
May I Have A Little More, Please…
2010 Valleys and Peaks
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The result of a mathematical development should be continuously checked against one’s own intuition about what constitutes reasonable biological behavior.  When such a check reveals disagreement, then the following possibilities must be considered:
a.) A mistake has been made in the formal mathematical development;
b.) The starting assumptions are incorrect and/or constitute a too drastic oversimplification;
c.) One’s own intuition about the biological field is inadequately developed;
d.) A penetrating new principle has been discovered.
   —  Harvey J. Gold
From his book: “Mathematical Modeling of Biological Systems
  —  As quoted by James Gleick
In his book: “Chaos: Making A New Science
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On This Day In:
2015 Limiting Choices
2014 Praise The Lord And Pass The Hypocrisy
That Sound
2013 Still Waiting For Answers
2012 Informal Leadership
2011 A Little More Progress
2010 Bec’s Gone Again…

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Book Review:
Last night I completed the book: “Genius – The Life and Science of Richard Feynman“, (1992©) written by James Gleick.  As I had already read four of Dr. Feynman’s anecdotal books, most of the main content was already known to me.  What was “new” and interesting was the placing of Dr. Feynman’s work in context with the rest of the world (in general) and physics (in particular).  This is not a particularly “scientific” book.  There are no formulas and what nuclear physics which is discussed is not explained in any great detail.  Lots of things – quarks, spin, muans, top, tensor, scalar, photons, etc – are named, but very little is “explained”.  Probably because to do so would require math skills which so much of the general reading public lacks (myself included).  Or it could just be that the words naming things don’t translate into other words which explain them clearly.  I feel the latter is just as likely as the former.
Essentially, Feynman made his name by working on the creation of the “bomb” (the Manhattan Project), while he was in his early twenties.  He received his Nobel Prize (for physics) in 1965 and then achieved “popular” fame when he was on the commission to review the Challenger Shuttle disaster in the 1980’s.  There, he famously demonstrated how / why the “O-rings” failed by taking a piece of a ring and placing it in ice water during one of the televised sessions.  He then pressed on the chilled rubber and when it failed to return to “normal” shape, he explained this was the cause for the subsequent catastrophic failure (“explosion”) of the shuttle.
The good Dr. is “humanized” by repeatedly reporting on his sexual escapades and his other personal peccadilloes.  One is left with the impression that although brilliant, he was not necessarily a good / nice person.  Having said that, my experience is that focused and driven individuals rarely are – good or nice.  They rarely have the time or feel the need to make the effort to be “normal” in everyday society.
Anyone interested in seeing Dr. Feynman can look him up on YouTube and his world famous “red book” series are still widely available as references for Physics.  I’m told (actually I’ve read) you can practically hear the joy of science in Dr. Feynman’s lecture notes.  You can also find the books on-line for free, if you care to download them.
Final Recommendation:  Gleick is a very good writer and this is a fascinating (if deep) book.  If you are looking to try to understand the role of Physics in the 20th century, this is an excellent primer.  It is also an interesting biography of a true scientific iconoclast.  As mentioned, it is not for the faint of heart, but I’d say anyone with a deep (loving) curiosity of the world would get something out of this book.  Highly recommended.  And, of course, a good number of quotes will follow in the coming days…
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On This Day In:
2013 Serve The World
2012 Acquaintance, n.
2011 On Why His Father Was A Great Teacher
A Baker’s Dozen

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There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.”  An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better.   There is no mystery as to how his mind works.  Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it.  It is different with the magicians.  They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.  Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.  They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works.
  —  Mark Kac
Quoted by James Gleick in the Prologue to his book: “Genius
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On This Day In:
2013 To The Last Link
2012 Slept In Again
2011 Home Again, Naturally
2009 Thoughts after a long day of OT…

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I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there.
  —  Richard Feynman
Quoted by James Gleick in his book: “Genius
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On This Day In:
2013 Pillows
Steppin’
2012 Invincible Summer
2011 Being Objective
2010 First Things First…
Northwest Passages – Intro
Northwest Passages – Day One
Northwest Passages – Poetry
Northwest Passages – Evening One
Northwest Passages – Morning Two

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