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Some book reviews
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Saturday, March 10, 2007

With McQ possibly still suffering a bit of blogging ennui, I’ll fill the gap with a few book reviews of things I’ve read in the last few months. First, you need to understand my rating scheme. It’s similar to Amazon’s, but I try to give more definitive advice embedded in it.

***** (five stars) – This book is so good, you should buy it and read it even if you only have a passing interest in the subject

**** (four stars) – If you’re interested in the subject matter, this is a worthwhile book to get, even if you have to pay your own money

*** (three stars) – Not really good enough to spend your own money on, but if you’re interested in the subject, you’ve run out of other things to read, and someone gives you a copy, then it’s worth a glance

** (two stars) – Not worth your time or your money

* (one star) – If someone gives you a copy, use it to start a fire

These are not all the books I've read during that period, but I'm only doing reviews on those published relatively recently, and that might be of interest to QandO readers. It's not likely that anyone around here would care about "WPF Unleashed", for example.

Here are the books, with links to Amazon to find them. The reviews are below the fold.

Freakonomics – Steven Levitt (***)
The Undercover Economist - Tim Harford (****)
Unknown Quantity – John Derbyshire (****)
John Ringo’s Posleen series (***)
The Laws of Simplicity – John Maeda (***1/2)
Freakonomics – Steven Levitt (***)

A vastly overrated book. Most of the chapters follow a standard pattern:

  • We’ve always thought phenomenon X was due to factors a, b, c, and d

  • I found a new factor, e

  • Look how important factor e is

  • In fact, e is so important and obvious, I don’t understand why those doofusses ever thought a, b, c, and d were important

If the author had stuck to the first two points, and if his analysis actually had any statistical rigor, it would have been a pretty good book. But he keeps over-reaching, as if desperate to convince you of just how smart and creative he is. Well, he is smart, and some of his ideas are new and interesting. But they are not nearly as important and well-supported as he seems to think.

The Undercover Economist - Tim Harford (****)

If you’re thinking of getting Freakonomics, I recommend this book instead. The author does a far superior job of calling out economic principles in everyday life, and there’s no over-reaching. I thought the chapter on healthcare was weak, but the author admits that he doesn’t know much about healthcare. I do, since I write a lot of healthcare software, and I thought he wandered way off the field when he discusses why healthcare is somehow not amenable to standard economic principles.

So I’d recommend skipping that chapter and reading the rest. The first few chapters are the best, so this is a great candidate for checking out of the library. If you don’t finish it before you have to take it back, you’ll still get the best parts.

Unknown Quantity – John Derbyshire (****)

The subject is algebra, including its history and concepts. The title refers to the “x” in an equation, which is, in a sense, the unifying idea of algebra.

If you have a degree, or even a minor, in mathematics, this book is a great read. But if you don’t, just give it a pass because you’ll probably only get about a third of the way through the book.

The first third is accessible to anyone who’s had high school algebra. The history of early math concepts leading to algebra and the genesis of the subject are discussed. I found it a fascinating look at how the ancients viewed math.

Then things start getting dicey as algebra becomes generalized. I had abstract algebra in college, and I think Derbyshire did a better job than my textbox at giving enough context to make the material understandable. But if you have not had at least linear algebra in college, you’ll start to struggle in this part. Later portions of the book go into highly conceptual material, and I had to really labor to follow the last few chapters. But it was fun, and probably good exercise for long dormant mathematical muscles.

John Ringo’s Posleen series (***)

This set is a few years old, with the most recent book in the series published in 2004. But I haven't been reading much fiction lately, so I thought I'd throw it in. (I have Orson Scott Card's "Empire" and John Scalzi's "The Android's Dream" on the list, and I'll probably get to those in next few weeks.)

I don’t know where the term “carnography” originated, but the author cheerfully applies it to his own work in the series. Slaughter is the order of the day, as humans fight an alien race that breeds fast and prefers to just charge in and get chewed up instead of indulging in high strategy.

There are four books in the original series: A Hymn Before Battle, Gust Front, When the Devil Dances, and Hell’s Faire. The first one is easily the best, and Ringo’s military background shows through. I enjoyed reading it. However, as the battles get bigger through the four books, the slaughter just got monotonous for me. I guess I just don’t care for carnography.

I feel pretty good about recommending the first one, but the problem is that if you read it, you’ll want to read the others to find out how everything turns out. That’s a long slog, and even at the end you don’t get answers to all the questions. There are several alien races involved, with intrigue among them, and the book doesn’t even completely resolve who the good guys and bad guys are. There are more books in the same “universe” that presumably answer that, but I’m just too fatigued about piled up bodies to get to those any time soon.

The Laws of Simplicity – John Maeda (***1/2)

I really wanted to like this book. But at the end, I felt that the author had danced around the subject and never really come to any kind of resolution I could embrace.

The subject is simplicity, and it’s one I take up a lot in software development. It’s my contention that software is just too bloody complex, and that there is a dire shortage of people who have both the talent and the passion to work toward simplicity. Maeda believes that this problem is not confined to software, and if you’ve ever tried to decipher a typical mobile phone bill, you probably agree.

He steps through the major concepts in simplification, starting with reducing and organizing. These chapters don’t contain particularly profound concepts, but reminding ourselves of the key ideas behind simplification is always useful.

However, the further along the book goes, the more zen-like it becomes. I have no problem with that, but I don’t find it particularly useful either. It’s pretty easy to read, though. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to reading non-fiction for simple escapist pleasure.

As befits a book on simplicity, the book is short. It’s only a hundred pages. But that’s where the “maybe you don’t want to spend your own money” comes in, because it’s almost fourteen bucks on Amazon, which is a bit of stretch for a hundred page book.

If you want to get a faster, less expensive exposure to the concepts, you can check out the website the author set up to discuss the book: Laws of Simplicity

I mentioned America Alone by Mark Steyn before, so I won’t go into again. But it’s a five star book, definitely. Spend your own money on it. Don’t even wait on the paperback.

In the comments, I would welcome "If you like this, you would probably also like this" recommendations. You can also post some reviews of your own, and naturally you are encouraged to disagree with my evaluations above.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

This is slightly off topic, but here’s a pretty good documentary on Global Warming (long run time: 1 hr, 15 minutes).

The video

I wouldn’t call it balanced, more of a counterpoint to Al Gore’s film. Then again, science doesn’t have to be balanced, just accurate.
Written By: Steverino
Thank you for the book recommendations. I tend to go through a few out here, so new reading material is always appreciated.

Written By: Bryan
URL: http://
Wow, you nailed my exact feelings for the Posleen series: an interesting idea and excellent start but in the end, an series I did not want to finish.

Try anything by Peter F. Hamilton (later years is better)
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
I feel pretty good about recommending the first one, but the problem is that if you read it, you’ll want to read the others to find out how everything turns out.

I’ve only read the first so far. The second is about 12 books down on the to-read shelf at the moment. I’m not a big hard sf/military sf fan, so I was a bit dubious going in, but somewhere in the middle of one of the battles it grabbed hold of me. My impression just from the first book is that none of the aliens are particularly good guys — the humans’ ’sponsors’ are basically playing ’let’s you and him fight.’ Given your reviews, I’ll rethink whether I want to continue with it after I’ve read Gust Front.
Written By: Achillea
URL: http://
Just finishing Hell’s Faire now and the body count is numbing. I’ve read that even he tired of it and is swearing off that style. His Council War series is pretty good evidence of that. More story but still plenty of action.
Written By: Metzger
URL: http://

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