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Book Review of: Geekspeak

How Life + Mathematics = Happiness

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Review of Geekspeak, by Dr. Graham Tattersall (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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 better.

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 know.

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 sittings.

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 appears, and Dr. Tattersall shows this in his examples where he examines the likelihood of coincidences.

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.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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