Archive for the 'Books' Category

Book Review: Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

October 15th, 2009

Bad Science is drawn from the Guardian column of the same name, as well as the many other things that Ben Goldacre covers on his website. The main focus is on the abuses of science that seem to proliferate in the press and on the Internet. Things such as scares over the MMR vaccine, scares over radiation from mobile phone towers, the infamous Brain Gym taught in some UK schools, and so on. Each topic is carefully examined, the faulty assumptions identified, and the real truth drawn out.

The author has a saying (available in T-Shirt form): “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than hat”. He revels in the complication. When it comes to the oft dismissed placebo effect he dives deeply into the inherent, wonderful weirdness of the placebo. If statistics are required for the explanation of something (often the case in modern medicine) he draws the details out. The combination of detail and accessibility is rare, and is a product of the author’s deep passion for the area.

It would be very easy for a book on this topic to be very depressing. There is so very much bad science out there, so many people profiting from people’s willingness to believe, and so many newspapers more than happy to put the simple answer on the front page, rather than all the footnotes. But I found the book energising, a call to action. It’s a book that brings the scope of the problem to your attention, and calls you to do something.

Of course, I don’t know a lot about science. But the book also made me think about the similar problems that are seen in journalism around economic issues in Australia (and probably elsewhere). But after reading this book I’m very tempted to start my own column on these things: Bad Economics. And that kind of result of reading a book is the sort of thing most authors would dream of.

Kindle International content pricing – a guide for the perplexed

October 12th, 2009

I’ve done a little research to work out what the Amazon Kindle

is charging for international content in Australia. This is only relevant for people that are not in the US.

  • Books costs $US 2 more. This is in contrast to the UK, where there’s also VAT added, which adds nearly another $US 2 to most books. The UK is uniquely stuffed over by this.

  • Newspapers cost $US 14 per month more.

  • Magazine pricing is profoundly random. For most magazines it seems to be around $US 3.00. But I’ve seen a lot of $US 1.50 to $US 2.50 as well, and I’ve seen as low as $US 0.50. My guess is that there’s something more complicated going on in this one.

This is quite unfair, if you look at the rules for accessing content Internationally if you have a US account:

  • Books $US 1.99 extra

  • Magazines and Newspapers for a fixed $US 4.99 weekly fee

  • Each magazine issue $US 1.99

Which is a much better deal if you subscribe to several newspapers/magazines. And is that all important 1 cent cheaper for the books.

Update: Some more analysis on the magazine pricing. For the most part:

  • US Cost $1.25 = $US 1.24 surcharge

  • US Cost $1.49 = $US 1.50 surchage

  • US Cost $1.99 = $US 2.00 surcharge

  • US Cost $2.49 = $US 2.50 surcharge

  • US Cost $2.99 and higher = $US 3.00 surcharge

But, for some reason some magazines have zero surcharge right now, one has a $US 0.50 surcharge, and one has a $US 9.50 surcharge (!).

The very high surcharges on magazines are, to put it simply, completely unjustified as well. If the pictures were maintained, fine. But it’s more than the cost for international access by US users, and they take the pictures out as well. There is no way an issue of Analog Magazine has more text in it than the average book.

There’s a small caveat to this one as well: the US page for (as an example) Time magazine says ‘Delivered Weekly, Price Monthly’. The international store page says ‘Delivered Weekly, Price:’. It’s not at all clear if that’s the weekly or monthly price.

Book Review: The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson

October 10th, 2009

I’m a big fan of money.

I don’t just mean in the mundane “it’s nice to spend sense”. Money is a profoundly weird, incredible invention. It is ultimately very hard to explain money, and hard to see how it ever really came into use. The story of money is incredibly interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s not the book that Niall Ferguson has written. Rather than being the story of money, the book focuses on the development of financial markets. Bonds, shares and insurance. Fortunately, that’s a big a field to cover. As with his previous books, the scholarly approach that Ferguson takes gives the details that bring the story to life, although his approach sometimes removes complications to tell a simpler, more coherent story.

This isn’t the same as Niall’s previous books. The list of topics is actually somewhat eclectic: cash money, bonds, stock market bubbles, insurance, real estate markets, public pension schemes, and international financial systems. This is probably a product of the book being linked to a TV series (a pretty good one, actually), so some breadth of topic was needed in order to sustain interest. But that breadth comes at the cost of depth, especially by contrast to some of Niall’s other books. His history of World War I, for instance, goes into fantastic depth on topics such as the bond market’s movements prior to the declaration of war.

I probably would have preferred a book that was more along the lines of his previous work. That’s because I work in this field, and I find it very interesting. But it’s nice to see his voice and tone translated to a more accessible form. So while ultimately I hoped for another book, it’s a book that is easier for me to recommend to others as a result.

Book Review: Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen

October 8th, 2009

When I first started reading this book my wife thought it was a waste of time. She said that I was already pretty much in touch with my inner economist.

That’s pretty much true. And overall she was right – I didn’t really get much out of this book.

Tyler Cowen is an economist who I can respect. His work doesn’t always agree with my views, but it’s usually well argued and thought provoking. But what works well in short doses in a blog becomes grating in larger doses. Throughout the book points are belaboured to the point of pain, and the central insight overeexplicated at the expense of subtlety and nuance.

Nothing in the book made me go ‘aha’, nothing changed the way that I was planning to behave. The advice was either obvious, or it was things that I would never consider doing for one reason or another. For instance, the advice on how to motivate your dentist comes down to “supporting their self-image as a good dentist”. The discussion around the problems with incentives is interesting, but the final advice comes across as flat and dull. Perhaps it’s because Cowen is ultimately too honest – he knows the complications that behavioural economics causes in most classical economics predictions. Which in turn means that there is little that can be provided in terms of concrete, usable advice.

So all the book had to offer in the end was a slight discussion of some interesting economics, devoid of concrete advice that might be interesting or provocative, and without the interesting stories found in books such as Freakonomics. Most non-economists would come away from this book with at least a greater appreciation of the complexities of the science, but most professional economists will find little new here.

Recent books completed

October 6th, 2009

Books that I’ve finished since May or so this year:

Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon

Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow

The End of Days, Gershom Gorenberg

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay, Harlan Ellison

The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

The Walking Dead, Volumes 1-5, Robert Kirkman

Fables, Volumes 1-12, Bill Willingham

Jack of Fables, Volumes 1-5, Bill Willingham

T-Minus, Jim Ottaviani

Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen

House of Cards, William D. Cohan

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

Agincourt, Juliet Barker

The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson

The Good Book, David Plotz

US Guys, Claude LeDuff

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

To The Bitter End, Peter Hartcher

Losing It, Annabel Crabb

Book Review: Hyperion Cantos

February 11th, 2008

I just recently re-read an old favourite of mine, the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

The Cantos is a sequence of four books:

These were well received novels when they first came out – the first won the Hugo award, and three of them one a Locus Award.

I won’t try and summarise the whole story (it’s hard to cover the story of four books without spoiling at least three of them). The central setting is the strange world of Hyperion, with it’s time tombs travelling backwards in time, the labyrinth with its millions of miles of underground tunnels, and the vicious metallic Shrike. And beyond Hyperion, there are the post-human Ousters who live in space, and the independent artificial intelligences of the TechnoCore.

The writing of the books is interesting to follow. The first book is written in imitation of the Canterbury Tales model, with a series of tales told by pilgrims within a thinner framing story. The second book has a different framing device, but so much plot is included in the frame that it becomes difficult to really call it a ‘frame’. The third and fourth books resort to a very conventional framing device, the ‘condemned man’ flashback plot. The writing throughout is good, but I have to admit to enjoying the earlier books with their more ambitious approach more.

The quality of the story, on the other hand, gets considerably better in the second two novels. The story throughout is interesting, but the backing plot is overshadowed in the first book by the tales of the pilgrims, and the second book is weighed down heavily with picking up the dropped threads of the first book. The third book is a much more closely plotted, faster moving story with far more engaging characters – the most engaging character of the first two books is the artificially reconstructed personality of the poet John Keats.

While I personally enjoy the series as a whole, it’s hard to recommend to others. The first book is hard going, and has the least engaging of the pilgrims tales at the start. As a result I suspect that Hyperion is a much-abandoned novel. It’s also not very representative of the story and style of the later books, with pretty much only the setting and a few characters carrying over. Personally I enjoy the first book quite a bit, but it is (far more than the other three) not for everyone.

Harry Potter and the Final Chapter (Spoilers)

July 22nd, 2007

Don’t read on unless you’ve read the book or don’t care about spoilers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Harry Potter and the Penultimate Evening

July 20th, 2007

One more night until Book 7.

The only real purpose of this post is to provide fair warning: as of Sunday morning, I may be posting spoilers to this blog. I won’t put anything on the main page or the feed, but be warned that any Harry Potter post from Sunday may have spoilers for book 7 in it.

Of course, the same is probably true of the Internet as a whole. If you want to stay unspoiled, then either unplug your computer and TV and cancel your newspaper and magazine subscriptions, or buy the book first thing tomorrow and read it immediately.

So, for my last chance to speculate, a few thoughts (based on nothing more than having read the first 6 books, and scrupulously avoiding all possible spoilers so far):

  • I don’t know who’s going to die in the book. My feeling is that it’ll be pretty bloody. If JK were keen on avoiding sequels, then Harry, Hermione and Ron will go. But as she doesn’t sound so opposed (sadly…), then I suspect that only one of the three will die. If one of those three doesn’t die, then it’s a cop out.

  • Snape will turn out to be good.

  • Voldemort will die, but the death eaters won’t be destroyed.

  • Dumbledore will return, probably a la Obi Wan in Star Wars.

  • Time travel may show up again. No reason, just feels like it might.

  • Sirius will return, probably for real. And then die.

  • Harry will not kill Voldemort, but someone else will.

I’ll know in a little under 24 hours. Look for a review (with spoilers) Sunday evening.

Harry Potter and the Structural Plagiarism

July 19th, 2007

The Harry Potter books look like they’re pretty strongly in the Fantasy genre: dragons, magic, centaurs, etc.

But there’s actually an older genre that the Harry Potter series shares a lot more with, the boarding school novel.

Boarding schools are getting pretty rare these days – the idea of sending kids as young as 10-years-old to school doesn’t appeal as much to parents, it seems. The genre has also been dying out. But Harry Potter shares a lot of structure with these books. The normal outline is:

  • The “at home” chapter – always starting at the end of the summer holidays. Usually includes the ‘buying supplies’ scene.

  • Travel to school – usually with one or two other school mates.

  • The opening dinner, with introduction of the teachers.

  • The first semester of classes.

  • The introduction to “games” (normally Rugby in british books).

  • The winter holiday, spent at the boarding school far more often than actually happens.

  • The second semester, with the build up to exams.

  • The farewell and the return home.

There are hundreds of books that fit this broad outline, starting with Tom Brown’s Schooldays back in the mid 19th century.

There are also a lot of other plot devices that show up in Harry Potter as well:

  • The prefect/head boy selection towards the end of their school career.

  • The competition with some other ‘nemesis’ school.

  • The inter-house competition.

  • The stern but avuncular headmaster.

Despite my mischievous heading, none of this is really stealing. It’s a very common structure, and the Harry Potter books use it quite uniquely. But it’s interesting to see just how closely the structure of the books matches this older tradition, just at a time when it’s becoming a lot less relevant to most of the books potential readers…

Harry Potter and the Book to Film Adaptation

July 18th, 2007

Adapting a book to film is not easy. There are not many succesful examples around, and what few there are (Blade Runner, for instance) drift a very long way from their source material.

The five books of the Harry Potter film series so far have been a distinctly mixed bag. Why? In my opinion, because they’re trying to stuff increasingly more book into less and less film. Consider:

  • Book 1: 223 pages, 152 min: 1.5 pages/minute

  • Book 2: 251 pages, 161 min: 1.6 pages/minute

  • Book 3: 317 pages, 142 min: 2.2 pages/minute

  • Book 4: 636 pages, 157 min: 4 pages/minute

  • Book 5: 766 pages, 138 min: 5.5 pages/minute

There’s a rule of thumb that one page of a book corresponds to around one minute of screen time on average. So even the first book required tremendous cuts. By the time of the adaptation of Book 5, realistically only about 20 per cent of the book can make it to screen.

The recent book to film adaptation with the most critical acclaim, the Lord of the Rings series, which runs to around 1000 pages excluding appendices, was given 557 minutes in total (683 in the extended edition), or slightly better than 2 pages of book per filmed minute.

Which is not to say that more is better. The first film was criticised at the time for sticking overly to the book, and not allowing the plot to really come through. The film plods along making sure to check off every scene in the original book.

The most recent film, Order of the Phoenix, by contrast feels like nothing more than a ‘greatest hits’ of the book – a few disconnected scenes that mainly make sense if you’ve read the book. I’d love the opinion of someone who hasn’t actually read the book of the film, if such a person exists…1

By far the strongest film so far was Prisoner of Azkaban, which felt far less compunction than any of the others to stick closely to the design of the book. It probably helped that it was directed by a truly singular artist, Alfonso Cuaron.

But as the books grow ever longer, I’m not sure there’s a good solution to adapting them to film. They would probably be a lot more interesting as a mini-series or even full on TV series. But as it is, there is so much plot in the last few books that it’s difficult to fit anything but that into a couple of hours of screen time. Which means that the real strength of the series, the characters, gets lost.

  1. The film has fantastic visuals, though. I think it’s best thought of as some kind of illustrated adjunct to the book.