Geekspeak, by Dr. Graham Tattersall (Hardcover, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, geek.
My geek qualifications: Electrical engineer, graduated
#1 in MBA class, active in IEEE Computer Society, wear IEEE Computer
Society shirts in public, best friends include a serious programmer and
an Intel chip designer, accurately add up grocery tab without paper or
calculator while shopping, write a brainpower column twice a month, am a
life member of Mensa, etc.
I very much enjoyed this book. Perhaps that's because I do these kinds of
calculations all the time. It's a form of mental exercise that has many
mental health benefits. For anyone who
isn't doing these kinds of exercises now,
this book may help you get started.
To me, this book isn't geeky. It's a good presentation
of various concepts in mathematics, physics, fact-gathering, and
analysis--all areas in which the average person really needs to do
I've read other books that purport to explain such
things and they seem to do everything but. This book uses examples that
you can relate to, as well as some absurd examples that are amusing.
Dr. Tattersall writes in a style that makes good use of subtle British
humor. It's obvious that he took pains to present the material in a
clear, jargon-free manner. Even for those not particularly mathematical,
his examples are probably easy to follow. The book presents many of what
engineers like to call "back of the envelope" calculations--things we do
very quickly in the course of a conversation. It also shows how to
estimate quantities you don't know by relating them to quantities you do
Though I easily qualify as an uber-geek, I differ with the person who
wrote the back cover slug, whose verbiage suggests reading it all in one
sitting. There is a certain amount of mental gymnastics and focus
required to work the problems Dr. Tattersall presented. A book like this
is best enjoyed in multiple sessions. The average person's
attention span is 20 minutes, so probably reading this for 20 minutes at
a time works out just about right for most readers. A person on the more
technically-gifted end of the spectrum might want to do it in a few
I also disagree that the book is a tool. A tool is something you use to
accomplish work, and you use specific tools for specific types of work.
This book will serve different purposes to different readers, depending
on where they are.
- For someone who is "left-brain challenged," the book perhaps
can help open that person to the beauty of numbers and logic, as
well as their practicality.
- For people who are mathematically inclined, it's an entertaining
look at how to use your existing skills in ways you probably
haven't thought of before.
- For a geek, it's basically just confirmation that
there's nothing wrong with enjoying math rather than being
intimidated by it.
The copy I reviewed was actually the paperback. In that version,
there are a few errors. These include copyediting errors, words missing
from sentences, and calculation errors. Let's stress the word few
and leave it at that.
Unlike most authors of nonfiction titles today, Dr. Tattersall
doesn't fictionalize his work by inserting personal political opinions,
pseudo facts, or unrelated material to push a personal agenda. This book
stays on topic.
Geekspeak is unlike most nonfiction in another way. Instead of the usual
three parts and 10 chapters (or slight variation thereof), it consists
of 26 chapters. These chapters are more like magazine articles than
parts of a book that form a cohesive whole. You could read them in any
order. One chapter does not build on the previous chapter. So, we won't
go into a chapter by chapter analysis or summary.
Each chapter does have its own theme, however, and Dr. Tattersall presents
several related problems around that theme. These problems form a cohesive whole within
a given chapter. At the end of each chapter is a practical application
of the concepts presented, in a section titled "Speak Geek."
Take Chapter Two as an
example. The title is, "Pumping Iron," and the subtitle is, "Are you as
powerful as a washing machine?" In this chapter, Dr. Tattersall goes
into the basic formulas for work and runs through calculations of watts
and horsepower. In the course of a few pages, he explains such things as
what horsepower actually means and what happens if you convert
horsepower to manpower. In a later chapter, he shows how to calculate
flypower, to determine how many flies it would take to accomplish a
given task (e.g., moving a car down the highway). The Geek Speak section
of Chapter 2 shows you how to determine the amount of waste heat
generated by your car's engine.
Throughout the book,
Dr. Tattersall explains the basic rules of physics that most people seem
blithely unaware of. For example, I am amazed at how many people propose
electric cars or windmill farms as a cure for the energy crisis. Folks
with such opinions would do well do read this book so they understand
why those things don't confer the benefits often mentioned in the
hyperbole that passes for information (but is actually disinformation).
Another issue he tackles is the idea of "too rare to be
just coincidence." A proper statistical analysis is much easier than it
Dr. Tattersall shows this in his examples where he examines the likelihood
If you have strong quantitative skills but are
frustrated with a friend or relative who can't "do the math," this book
would make an ideal gift. For the person who has a sharp mind that just
hasn't been properly trained in quantitative concepts, here is your
chance to correct that without sitting through classes or crunching tons
of mind-boggling math problems.
This book is also good for teens who have haven't
developed a taste for math or science, but somehow expect to make a
decent wage later in life (but a caution to parents--if you strictly
police the language your kids are exposed to, there is some wordplay
with the "F" word in one of the chapters).
You won't find a bunch of hard to do math problems.
What you will find is the author's fascination with the world around us,
with math used merely for seeing things more clearly.