Seven Reviews in 1,400 Words

by Chris Loyd (first installment)


Authors spotlighted: I. I. Gitelson, G. M. Lisovsky, and R. D. MacElroy; Robert V. Hogg and Elliot A. Tanis; China Miéville; Charles Murray; Henry M. (“Hank”) Paulson; and Nate Silver


Chris Loyd is a mission-support scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He and I have published on the Web, and collaborated in other ways, since 2000. Loyd is one of the few thinkers I’ve known since the 1970s whose prose is comprehensive, concise and objective (and spiced with droll humor).

This page offers Loyd’s take on contemporary books. After the founding e-mail exchange, we opted to add categorical shorthand: COHERENCE (letter grade), READABILITY, IN A WORD, and IN A PHRASE.

Our shorthand also includes a factor nearly all reviewers overlook: WHO NEEDS THIS BOOK. That’s not a dismissal, either. The point is to discern, in each case, the logical audience or market. Quite often it’s a group the author was hardly thinking about. We thank you for tuning in (and, to appreciate how this page bypasses the complications that have come to plague Amazon, see www.ExactingEditor.com/Phony-Reviews.html).

This page has its roots in a casual question. I e-mailed: “What book has made the biggest positive/productive impression on you this past year?” Chris replied with short reviews that I knew deserved a wider audience.

-- Frank Gregorsky, August 2013

Second Installment arriving February 2014


(1) For the category of "most useful", the book is Probability and Statistical Inference by Robert V. Hogg and Elliot A. Tanis. Yes, it's a college textbook.

Knowing how to calculate standard deviations, sample variances, and do hypothesis testing are all very, very useful. It will enable you to shrug your shoulders at many science reports. There are concepts discussed in popular physics, mostly quantum mechanics, that are metaphors about mathematical artifacts.

Probability is the mathematics of uncertainty. Statistics are functions (mathematical operations) of sample observations. When you understand that uncertainty can be mathematically analyzed, the mystery of it lessens. When you understand that in order to decrease uncertainty, you need huge sample sizes, you can understand why some scientific studies appear contradictory. Not just due to bad experiment design, but because of puny sample sizes.



(2) For "biggest smile/most thrilling”, the McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Seriously. This book is fun to read (except for the entries on insects -- they are only somewhat interesting). The downside is that the information density per paragraph is so exhausting that getting through the A's took a lot of effort.

Since different authors wrote their own respective paragraphs, the tone of each entry can vary. Fortunately, some of the authors had a sense of humor. Consider the first and last sentence of the following paragraph:

"By the Middle Pennsylvanian, a massive radiation of reptiles was in process. The most prominent reptiles belong in the Diapsida: dinosaurs, lizards and snakes, and pterosaurs (flying reptiles). The birds, Aves, which diverged from the dinosaur radiation in the Late Triassic or Early Jurassic, are considered to be feathered dinosaurs, and thus members of the Diapsida, whereas older authorities prefer to treat them as a separate case. In addition, there were several Mesozoic radiations of marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Turtles (Chelonia) first appeared in the Triassic and have been highly successful ever since" (from page 39, entry: "Animal Evolution").



(3) For "book that I can only read parts of on Google Books, because it costs over $100", Man-Made Closed Ecological Systems by I. I. Gitelson, G. M. Lisovsky, and R. D. MacElroy.

Pretty much the definitive text on closed-loop systems. Discusses various experiments, going back to the 1950s. It has chapters like "The Earth's Biosphere as a Closed Ecosystem" and "The Human Component in a Closed Ecosystem". This book is unique in that its authors are passionate and detailed, but don't have a lot of the political or mystical garbage that is too-often associated with anything "ecological".

Gitelson and Lisovsky are both Russian, so they talk a lot on Russian history and themes related to ecosystems -- namely, concepts like the "noosphere". It's abstract, and likely nonsense, but fortunately it seems impossible to translate into a political policy.



(4) For "work of fiction that every American should read, but won't,” The City & The City by China Miéville.

Two societies live right next to and intertwined with each other, but only physically. Legally, economically, psychologically, and culturally, they are different. If you live in one city, you cannot look at, listen to, walk in, or in any way acknowledge the other city, no matter how close you are physically. Something called "Breach" enforces this completely mental division and, if you cross the line, you disappear.

Why should every American read this book? It's about studiously ignoring people in your town that are not like you. It's about arranging things to favor people like you; you're not against the people not like you, they are simply not on the radar. Readers in other countries saw this book as being about Israel and Palestine. The author denies this.



(5) For “book about statistics, baseball, the weather, poker, any many other things”, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.

Silver is a statistician who created and writes for the “538” blog on the New York Times website. This book is part autobiography -- Silver's experiences with baseball and poker -- and part overarching explanation of the difficulty of forecasting with statistics.

The topics that he covers span politics, sports (baseball, basketball), games (chess, poker), natural phenomenon (weather, earthquakes, climate), finance, and terrorism. It all can get overwhelming, though there are plenty of chapter breaks. During the chapter on a professional basketball bettor, he diverges into an introduction on Bayesian statistical methods. Silver is a strong supporter of Bayesian methods. While the book is very good, there are some typos, and Silver's tone is often very glib.

There are extensive citations and notes; they make up about 36% of the Kindle edition.

Coherence: A-. Writing is clear, though the occasional typo can either confuse or amuse.

Readability: Plenty of short interviews; the author stays on topics (mostly); clear charts and graphs.

In a Word: Bayes.

In a Phrase: Forecasting is hard.

WHO NEEDS IT: Anyone who tries to predict the future, scientifically. If you can stomach most of the diverse topics, you will enjoy it. People who want a more clinical textbook should look elsewhere.



(6) For “most detailed insider account of the 2008 financial meltdown”, On The Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. (“Hank”) Paulson.

From May 2006 through January 2009, the reader is taken through a series of meetings, phone calls, and conversations with large investment banks, the Fed Chairman, and various politicians. The action moves very quickly, save for a long autobiographical divergence in Chapter 2. In between the tense negotiations, Paulson reminds the reader of then-current headlines, the Dow Jones Industrial average, and consumer sentiment.

To read this book is to relive the 2008 financial crisis, from the viewpoint of the Secretary of the Treasury. One can better understand the urgency of the situation. Unfortunately, the big-picture how's and why's are missing. While learning about “commercial paper” (short-term loans, often used for payroll), helped illustrate the alarming situation in the autumn of 2008, one never learns how so many companies, big and small, became dependent on it. On the other hand, one does learn that Paulson dry-heaves when under great stress.

Coherence: C-. Easy to get lost in a blizzard of names, companies, organizations, and financial concepts. Several passages need re-reading.

Readability: Plenty of office conversations (lively) but a lack of big-picture introductions (bad). Too many meetings and phone calls.

In a Word: Educational.

In a Phrase: Insiders Under Pressure.

WHO NEEDS IT: Anyone with a deep interest in the 2008 financial crisis, especially fans of large companies and day-to-day DC politicking. Those looking for a big-picture analysis can find better books.



(7) For “how things were going before the 2008 economic crisis”, Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Murray has gathered extensive chronological data, showing the changes in two sets of Americans -- the upper 20%, and the bottom 30%. He shows that, since 1960, in most facets of life, they have become separated. He shows that this has been on-going for decades.

The book is strongest when Murray lets his conversational style and easy manner illustrate all the line graphs. The quiz in the book is also great, and can be used to spark discussion among your friends, family, and co-workers. The book is weakest when he describes the long-term consequence of this continued separation -- the United States becomes like Europe. This reviewer asks: Which country? Germany, or Greece?

Coherence: A-. Murray's thesis is conveyed quickly and simply enough, though it is hard to be alarmed with the prospect of United States becoming like Sweden or France, as the worst-case scenario. The reader can easily think of worse scenarios, if the United States continues to come apart along class lines.

Readability: The text flows without effort. One can read this book in a few days. As the number of charts increase, the paragraph-returns become more numerous. One recognizes all the data, but does not feel overwhelmed by it.

In a Word: Provocative.

In a Phrase: Do you live in a bubble?

WHO NEEDS IT: If you have college-educated neighbors, and think that is the norm for the United States, it isn't. You should read this book. People who are interested in income- and wealth-inequality, might learn more about the social aspects of class-stratification. People who cannot stand any libertarian or conservative arguments whatsoever, would find no joy in this book.


© 2013, Chris Loyd and ExactingEditor.com


“Reviews by Loyd” will be updated two times per year. Loyd will accept free nonfiction books of recent issuance, too, and would appreciate an e-mail exchange before committing to produce a review here or anywhere else. Publishers, authors and media operatives are encouraged to write CNLoyd@gmail.com.