silverflight8: stacked old books (books)
Wow, I haven't posted about my reading in forever. In fact there are still books undeleted from my kobo/marked as unread in Calibre cause I'm not even updating my spreadsheet of read books...for shame.

I finished Here Be Dragons. It improved as I went on, and the narrative really narrowed down a lot more after John's death, which was helpful - I don't really like a lot of POV-jumping. I find it hard to care as much when it constantly flips between people. At any rate, I didn't even recognize the Magna Carta when it showed up. Joanna calls it the Runnymede charter, which makes sense. You don't call it the ancien regime when you're in it. John's death also took me rather by surprise. I was reading a non-fiction biography sort of concurrently with Here Be Dragons, but very intermittently, during lunch breaks, and it was going much slower than Here Be Dragons, since it had to describe the warfare and political situations, esp on the continent.

some light discussion )

I also read the End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India's Young, by Somini Sengupta, on recommendation from [ profile] wordsofastory. It's a very engaging, well-written and also easy-to-plow-through book, which is really difficult to do. She doesn't shy away from talking about how ugly circumstances and life can be, but she doesn't pity or coddle either, and she does in an incredibly readable way. She takes stories from seven different young people, from all over the country with different ambitions and aspirations, and ties their expectations and hopes back to some of the hopes and promises that came out of independence. She calls them noonday's children - out of the dark, big dreams sometimes, wanting those promises to be fulfilled. And she wrote about inequality, which is something that is very relevant right now. This is an extremely recent book - especially since I'm always late to the party when it comes to reading new stuff - and it was good to see how she incorporated current events in her discussion. Overall extremely good, although I found the last chapter hard to get through - I had to slam the book closed a few times there because it was getting to me. This review is very short because I know next to nothing about India, history or current, and moreover I've had to return my book, but it's very good for someone who doesn't know India well at all.

I read Martha Wells' The Wizard Hunters in an effort to stave off my burning desire to have the next Raksura book. You know how you have books on your e-reader or shelf for ages and ages and are always excited about them when you're sorting through the library (and don't have the time to sit down and read), but when you are actually in a place to read you go, no, I'd rather reread this extremely trashy book for the 48572th time? Anyway, I finally started while I think I was waiting for the train and the opening part hooked me immediately, though when I say what it is it sounds rather horrible. Tremaine's looking for a way to kill herself that would be passed off as an accident - because her city's under siege and she doesn't really have close family anymore and it's not nearly as horrible and sad as it sounds! Oh god. Think Lirael's beginning or something.

some discussion )
silverflight8: stacked old books (books)
Freakonomics is a book exploring questions about society with the tools of microeconomics and statistics. It's a book full of interesting questions--why did crime fall in the 1990's? can we detect cheating by teachers in standardized testing? do real estate agents try harder with their own houses? why do drug dealers live with their mothers if they're making riches?--which are asked with some economics framing and some very clever experiment set-ups. The thing with research into these fields is that they're impossible, either because of ethics or sheer impossibility, to control variables the same way you might an inorganic chemistry experiment. But Levitt uses opportunities in different data ingeniously to extract data. For instance, Chicago's public school system created a lottery assignation of spots in different schools in the city--this is the sort of thing a researcher can only dream of, to randomly be able to place subjects in different "treatments" i.e. schools (without regard for socio-economic status and similar factors that might be the reason for attendance at a particular school) and thereby tease out differences in education. This is what they call randomized controlled trial, by the way.

The questions are treated in an economics way, by which I mean there's discussion of common concepts in economics (incentives, etc). But the questions themselves are rather a departure from most economics texts--for one, they're not macro! (I feel macroeconomics--you know, GDP, unemployment, monetary policy, exchange rates--has practically dominated the field, and the perception of the field, for a long time. Then again, what do I know?) The book's written in a very non-technical manner. If you look very closely Levitt and Dubner actually talk about multiple regressions and dummy variables when discussing methodology, but for the most part the technical part about statistics and economic theory are completely elided.

For me, the most interesting part of the book wasn't necessarily the conclusions that Levitt reached or the anecdotes, though both were excellent, but instead the way Levitt got them. Designing experiments to test hypotheses is sometimes really hard, and Levitt extracts meaningful data from larger pools (e.g. government records on whatever) to make sense of it. I really love experimental economics and the elegance of these experiments are amazing and fascinating.

However: the reason why this review has languished since June 2013--Levitt's conclusion regarding abortion and crime rates came under criticism. Not from random pro-choice people but rather pretty respected economists like ones who work at the Boston Fed. Here is a link to the paper that Foote and Goetz wrote: It's been ages and I've still not read that stupid thing so I have been holding off posting this review but really, enough is enough and it's clogging up my desktop (purposefully, I mean, I put documents on my desktop when I want them to be done ASAP because it drives me mad to have a cluttered virtual desktop. But less about me.) So grain of salt, as with every economics paper you ever read.

(Reinhart and Rogoff, anyone?)

Finally, I would like to quote a part of the Q&A that is appended to my version of the book, which made me laugh:
Tell us about the criticisms you have received from traditional/academic colleagues over Freakonomics--J Plain.

Levitt's academic colleagues tend to react in one of two ways. The majority of economists thought about it like economists: the success of Freakonomics probably increased the number of students wanting to take economics courses, and since the supply of economics teachers is fixed in the short run, the wages of academic economists should rise. That makes economists happy. A second group of economists decided that if Levitt could write a book that people would read, surely they could too. So there has been a flurry of "popular" books by economists--some good, some not so good. And then, inevitably, there are a handful of economists who feel that he violated the secret handshake of economics by showing the outside world that what economists do really isn't that hard or complex. They will never forgive him.

supply of economics teachers fixed in the short run, it's like the most basic essence of economics distilled into one sentence. I'm laugh-crying into my fingers at this paragraph.
silverflight8: Barcode with silverflight8 on top and userid underneath (Barcode)
I was reading Genome by Matt Ridley, just before I had to return it to the library. I like to live dangerously. It was published 1999, so just as the Human Genome Project was entering its wildly successful stage. It tells the tale of 23 chromosomes and "stories" I suppose of selected genes on each.

And yes 1999, and yes also POP SCIENCE BOOK but I was reading the chapters about psycholinguistics and intelligence and also evolutionary psychology and I started making >:( faces. I am not a biologist. I am not even studying to be one, although I was a pretty good bio student when I was studying the subject. (Labs don't agree with me. I'll never be a scientist.) But the more he talked about some subjects the more my "uh wait what" sensors went up. Especially--

Um I got to there and now I'm having tab explosion because hm, going after an article on 'interlocus contest evolution' (it was about X & Y chromosomes competing, and had some pretty stereotypical writings about male-female interactions). More research required, I'm trying to navigate JSTOR--takes me ages to get through stupid eJournal sites, they always kick me to the landing page for the whole series of journals which started in 1904 when I clearly clicked the "full text for article in January 2004 issue 294" *complaint*

Maybe tomorrow, I'm tired and it's making me cranky.

I also had objections to how he wrote about evolution. Popular science, I know, but evolution doesn't want to do anything. Was under the impression that Noam Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar getting pushback?

In conclusion, I'm actually not terribly fussed about having to return that book, although maybe I should re-borrow it to look up the bibliography/references in the back. I am more sad about having to return Questioning Collapse, which is a collection of articles written specifically to refute Jared Diamond's Collapse, which in a nutshell argued that civilizations make choices that lead to their eventual collapse (with the parallel to modern day environmental mess.) Questioning Collapse is written by anthropologists and historians, people I'm about five million times more likely to trust than authors who write popular books about a field of study, and the case studies are well-cited and backed up by information, and also very interesting. I was in the middle of an article about the Qing dynasty and the 18th century and the eventual mess of the 19th; I really like how varied their case studies were.
silverflight8: text icon: "Go ahead! Panic! Do it now and avoid the June rush!" (Panic!)
This is a nonfiction book that deals with the intersection of humans and technology. Vicente first argues that our thinking has become two separate views that don't interact: what he terms mechanistic and humanistic. One view primarily considers people (he cites cognitive psychology as an example of one such discipline); the other is an analytical, technical science, like engineering. He argues that we have become used to seeing the world by dividing it up into these two views, and thereby blinkered by attempting to solve problems while only considering one view.

He begins by explaining what he calls "Human-tech", a mix of the two competing views mentioned above. In the lowest rung of the ladder, what Vicente calls the physical level, is indeed the physical compatibility of some technology with human physiology. Is the toilet paper dispenser in public bathrooms easy to use? (Since he brings it up, the answer is "not always" – trying to get the last bits of paper out of the kind that have teeth demonstrates that toilet-paper dispensers eat human flesh). In later chapters he talks about the fit between humans and other types of technology, things that aren’t usually considered "tech" – psychological, team, organizational, political. In each of these different topics, which Vicente stacks in a ladder, the focus is on the interaction between humans and the technology, not the merit of technology alone.

In this way, the book argues for a different way to design things. He reiterates throughout the book that technology, no matter how well designed from a mechanical/technical perspective, can never do better than how well people can use them. Examples range from Three Mile Island disaster to hospital and aviation systems to the fender stratocastor (an immensely popular electrical guitar). As he moves up the ladder, like when considering the Walkerton disaster*, the effects of more than one level are felt. In Walkerton, for example, there were significant organizational flaws, such as the fact that the man who was employed as foreman at the plant had little training and didn't even know what E. coli was; political flaws such as the Conservative party's slashing of the number of public employees played a major part as well, since there simply weren't enough resources to properly inspect Walkerton. On a organizational-human basis, the examples of hospital work is brought up. Vincente argues that hospitals and health care should avoid pointing fingers at mistakes, because most mistakes are neither malicious nor infrequently made, and workers are aware and unhappy that mistakes are made in the first place. Instead, the book suggests hospitals work on reporting issues and trying to make systems that avoid the error in the first place. Cited as an example is three separate disasters involving vincristine, a drug to treat cancer; in three geographically distinct and unrelated cases, doctors accidentally administered it intrathecally instead of intravenously, which is fatal; because there was no reporting system, doctors were suspended or punished, but the information wasn’t passed on, and steps to actually prevent the wrong administration weren’t taken.

The book is composed in three parts – introduction, examples explaining the levels and the misfits between humans and technology, and a conclusion which tries to address what we should do next and what’s currently happening. Theoretical explanations are form a small iintroduction, but the bulk of the book is taken up with examples. Though I have not independently verified the sources, the book is actually footnoted and references respectable sources. A very informative, interesting book.

*Walkerton, Ontario, had an E. coli breakout in 2000. Population of 4,800: seven died and about 2,300 became sick; applying these figures to a larger city is horrifying.


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