book reviews

Miscellaneous nonfiction books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Science and Human Experience: Values, Culture, and the Mind
Leon N. Cooper

A collection of essays dating back to 1968. In some, physicist Leon Cooper apologizes for science. In others, he tries to popularize it and explain how scientists think. Topics include creationism, fraud in science, consciousness, and neural networks.

Some typical quotes from the book:

“We live by learned images and the myths in our heads. Our imagination as well as our behavior is restricted by what has been learned.” [p.106].

“I would say that, even in a most extreme and mechanistic guise, and properly understood, science poses no threat to what we should regard as most precious: the value of our individual experience.” [p. 35].

This book isn't a memoir, and there's no particular argument structured around the theme. His purpose is not primarily educational, either; the goal seems to be to help the general public to recognize that scientists are just ordinary people, that science is what everyone does, and it's not a threat. Mainly what we get here is a collection of relaxing, anodyne thoughts about science and society, written for a general audience, from one of our great physicists.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street
The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing, 10th ed.
Burton G. Malkiel

B uy and hold an index fund. There, I just saved you $29.95 plus tax and shipping. Put that twenty-nine bucks in an index fund, and forty years later you will be rich. You're welcome.

This is one of the few books on investing for the average person that I found credible. It is also recommended by Bazerman and Moore in Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. Not least among Malkiel's credentials as a successful economist and investment consultant is that he has, as far as I know, never been in prison. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

Malkiel's thesis is that Wall Street follows a random walk, which is a mathematical concept for a thing that takes a path where each step is in a direction that does not depend on the previous steps, but gets there in the end. He says if you had invested $10,000 in a S&P 500 Stock Index Fund in 1969, you would have had $463,000 by 2010. Assuming you believe the government's line that the average inflation rate since 1969 really was only 4.4%, that $10,000 in 1969 would be equivalent to $59,415 in 2010. So your gain would have been 7.83-fold in real terms. Put another way, if the rate of inflation had been 9.8% you would still have come out even.

Malkiel's description of how the market works is remarkable in its clarity. It raises the question: why are so many security analysts wrong so often? The reason, in my opinion, is the same as the reason why new corporate CEOs so often ram their companies straight into the ground: people are always looking for a way to do things without having to know stuff. It never works. To make a profit on a tech stock, for instance, you would have to know both the market and the future changes in technology. Much easier just to follow the latest fad.

The basic thesis of this book is that the stock market is a money-making machine, and you need not (and shouldn't) do anything fancy. The catch, of course, is that at any moment the stock market could tank, or hyperinflation could set in, and you would lose everything. Then there are taxes, which can grab up to half of your yield. Or the voters could elect an economic illiterate who would then proceed to run the economy into the ground, thereby making everyone poor. But what are the chances of that happening?

The Book of General Ignorance
John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

A collection of little-known but interesting facts, including: white rhinos are not white; Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake"; and mosquitoes have killed half the people who have ever died. It has an amusing story about Napoleon being attacked by rabbits. Although some of the "facts" in this book are flat out wrong, it's interesting to read.

The Hypochondriac's Pocket Guide to Horrible Diseases You Probably Already Have
Dennis Diclaudio

W ho doesn't enjoy making fun of horrible diseases? This witty book, full of gallows humor, is a good way for laymen to learn some useful bits of obscure medical knowledge; and giving it to a friend is a painless way to tell them they're a wacko. Of course, since Diclaudio isn't a M.D., the book has a few minor errors. But if you're going to die of leprosy anyway, what's the difference?

The diseases may be disgusting, but this book is nothing compared to the real thing. And there are diseases far more horrible than these. Indeed, to be a successful hypochondriac, you really need something bigger, like the profusely illustrated book Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. Unfortunately, that book doesn't have as many disease jokes in it. Oh, the pain, the pain.

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read
Pierre Bayard

I n this short, witty book, Bayard describes the art of non-reading and its adherents, from Valéry to Oscar Wilde. In doing so, he makes some serious points: we must transform our relationship to books. "The encounter with unread books," says Bayard, "will be more enriching ... if the person undergoing it draws his inspiration from deep within himself." And yes, I really did read this book.

Managing Humans:
Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager
Michael Lopp

M ost managers would not know how to tell the truth if their lives depended on it. This manager does: he provides witty and believable advice on how to get a job, deal with managers, understand the hidden meaning behind what they are saying, and, maybe, be a decent human being if you should, by some miracle, become one.

The Secret
Rhonda Byrne

T his book is essentially an update of The Power of Positive Thinking for the Oprah generation. The author's "secret" is that you can have anything--like, for example, a parking space, or a million bucks-- just by wishing for it, and the universe will obligingly provide it for you. One problem with this idea (apart from the fact that it's ridiculous) is this: even if it worked, there are six billion other people wishing for the exact opposite of what you want. Many of them are wishing for that same parking space or that same million bucks. Their wishes would cancel out yours.

The Secret reminds me of the old joke about the devout old Jewish guy. Every day he prayed to God to let him win the lottery. Month after month he prayed, but no result. Finally, he cried out, "G-d, I've been devout all my life, never asked for anything, why don't you help this old man have one little request before I die?" Suddenly a voice boomed out: "Mordechai, meet me halfway ... buy a ticket already!" Moral: even God needs a physical mechanism to make things happen. For us mortals, it's called work, and it's what separates being positive from wallowing in superstitious New Age wishful thinking like that found here.

My boss gave me a copy of this book. I'm testing the principles now by visualizing a world without bosses who believe in magic. We'll see if it works. If it does, visualizing whirled peas is next.

Update: A couple of years after the boss passed out copies of this book, the whole company went bankrupt. The boss is gone. Maybe there's something to this!

How to Become an Intellectual:
100 Mandatory Maxims to Metamorphose Into the Most Learned of Thinkers
Nick Kolakowski

Y ou might think that only non-intellectuals would need or want to read a book titled "How to Become an Intellectual." In fact, the opposite is true. This book is aimed at those who already consider themselves members of an intellectually elite group, but are not actually very smart, and therefore need affirmation that their bohemian affectations make them unique. You might call them Annie Hall intellectuals.

Nick Kolakowski gives the impression of being too kind-hearted to ridicule intellectuals, or pseudo-intellectuals, or even the popular stereotype of them. This causes most of his jokes to fall flat, which in turn makes the book sound like what it seems to be ridiculing: a manual on how to be a pretentious twonk.

Kolakowski gives 100 maxims, like "Passionately hate one classic author" and "Quote Shakespeare sparingly." Some are fairly reasonable, like "Design a fail-safe organizing system." Kolakowski also recommends finding a balance between reading "deep" stuff and light frothy books. So when you finally get through Finnegans Wake you can relax by reading something light, like one of those dreadful frothy How-To books.

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life
Charles Murray

O nce a guy reaches the “Get off my lawn” stage of life, he tries to take one last shot at transmitting his hard-earned wisdom the next generation. Charles Murray is there. He must be at least thirty-five or forty years old by now.

Charles Murray tells the truth in this book: kids will be judged by their attitude and appearance, and for good reason. He also gives good advice to aspiring writers. But, he says, today's kids have a major handicap: P.C. They might think it makes their lives easier, but they have P.C. to thank for making it unsafe for employers to give them any of the feedback we got at their age. Thanks to lawsuit-happy lawyers, kids these days face the prospect of being summarily fired—or not hired at all—with no explanation and no warning.

It will take a brave kid to buy a book written by Charles Murray. The progressives will never forgive him for telling the truth about IQ once before, and they'll be ruthless to anyone who buys this little book today. But forbidding it will only make some of them want to read it even more. Those who do are the ones who will become tomorrow's leaders.

Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis
Deborah Hayden

N ietzsche, Baudelaire, Schubert, Alphonse Daudet, and Guy de Maupassant were all believed to have gone mad from syphilis. A popular myth is that, during the later stages of the disease, their syphilis produced a spectacular increase in creativity and mental acuity.

This is one myth that you probably won't see tested on Mythbusters. But if it is true, it could be of immense scientific importance: if the syphilis spirochete can increase mental acuity, it could be used to treat dementia. In Pox, Hayden puts forward what evidence she can find from the historical records in favor of the revisionist hypothesis that various famous people, including Columbus, Beethoven, Lincoln, van Gogh, and Hitler may have had syphilis.

Establishing this scientifically, for example by using modern DNA technology, would have been a solid contribution to history. Unfortunately, all we have here is speculation and rumors. Some would probably say that rumors and speculation is what history is all about. But diagnosing diseases can't be done on the basis of innuendo; despite what you may see on TV, it requires evidence, which is not forthcoming in this book. For example, armchair physicians have claimed over the years that Van Gogh's madness was caused by absinthe drinking, schizophrenia, epilepsy, turpentine drinking, lead poisoning, Ménière's disease, acute intermittent porphyria, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, sunstroke, gonorrhea, syphilis, digitalis toxicity, and a dozen other disorders--all on the flimsiest of evidence.

Clearly, most of these diagnoses are wrong. Likewise, most of Hayden's diagnoses are probably also wrong. Still, the stories of the suffering endured by these famous artists, politicians, and explorers, whatever the cause, are poignant reminders of the horrendous price humanity has paid over the millennia for a lack of medical knowledge.

Real Estate Home Inspection:
Mastering the Profession
Russell W. Burgess

A lthough this book is written for professional home inspectors, it's full of valuable information for home buyers as well. If you buy a house, you might well get an incompetent inspector who nitpicks unimportant details while failing to notice expensive problems like a cracked chimney, a broken furnace, or unsafe wiring. This book will give you enough information so you can inspect the house on your own--and pass up a house that has those kinds of problems. As with so many other things these days, inspecting the house yourself is the only way to make sure it's done correctly.

The only problem with this book is that some of the information is out of date. For example, it's apparently no longer necessary for a water heater in a garage to be 18 inches above the floor, as the author insists on page 201. Nonetheless, this book is the closest thing to a homeowner's manual that there is.

The 48 Laws of Power

Robert Greene

P ower is not just for totalitarian dictators. Like money, it's something everyone has to have in order to survive in society. This outstanding book takes historical figures like Henry VIII, Qin Shi Huangdi, Mao, Cleopatra, and hundreds of others who gained and lost power, and explains why. A cross between Machiavelli and Sun Tzu for our times, this book will become a classic. If you live among humans, you need to know the information in this book.

The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong
Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

E veryone has heard of the Peter Principle: an employee rises to the level of their incompetence. But why? Peter's brilliantly witty work explains the science of “hierarchiology”: why, in every organization, supporting the hierarchy invariably becomes more important than being productive. Concepts like hierarchical exfoliation (where only the super-competent and super-incompetent ever get fired), hypercaninophobia (fear of the top dog) and percussive sublimation (where incompetent workers get kicked upstairs to get them out of the way) are essential for understanding every organization--and for helping you to rise to the level of maximal incompetence that you know is within you.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey

A typical self-help book describing how to become a better parent and employee by taking responsibility for your actions and willing yourself to become a decent human being. Talks a lot about "synergy", "win/win" and other concepts that have become HR clichés. This book is 90% salesmanship / self-promotion and 10% inspirational. Useful as an example of how a book full of useless drivel can sell 15 million copies.