The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.

Um…: Slips, Tumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean

Link: The Amazon Review is here.

Um…, as I shall refer to the book, is an unusual book on many counts. I read books in several non-fiction genres. But books, that marry genres, such as food memoirs of MFK Fisher or Mark Abley’s language-cum-travel memoirs, find favour with me.

I read Um… on an oblique recommendation from a friend, who was reading it too. I found it overall a fascinating book especially for those with an itch for being pedantic about language, grammar and its uses and abuses. Was the friend trying to tell me something? There is a thought I shall leave unexplored, because I believe we are quite direct with each other and need not bother with dropping hints.

At a good 252 pages, not including the useful glossary and appendices, Um… pre-requires the reader to have a deep love for languages, in general. It would also add greatly to the enjoyment of the book, if the reader is curious about linguistic quirks and history.

In return for all this, the author, Michael Erard, a linguist and a PhD in English, presents with irreverence and panache, this work of ‘applied blunderology’ – or ‘word botching’ as a back cover reviewer describes it – that aims to examine how verbal blunders happen, what they mean and if they matter. This chronicle of the history of verbal slips, tumbles and blunders from the time of Reverend Spooner to President George W. Bush is written accessibly with humour, and has been edited tightly so as to be free of the bloopers that are its subject.

The 11-chapter book starts with the story of Reverend Spooner who lends his name to ‘spoonerisms’. As usual, the facts are not half as fun as the story, which is not the writer’s fault, but the story has been told well, which is to the writer’s credit, especially since he weaves with it the story of the changes in the understanding of human cognition.

A longer second chapter on the Freudian slip follows dispelling or at least challenging the commonly held notion that a Freudian slip must hint at something sexual or repressed. Soon after reading the chapter, I addressed the said friend, as ‘My <Name>‘ instead of ‘Mr <Name>‘. However since he too had read the book, I was able to retract my mistake quickly and without embarrassment on either side.

‘Some Facts about Verbal Blunders’ discusses the origins and peculiarities of blunders and slips, how they vary from person to person; how they indicate a person’s physical, emotional and mental state; and how there really are knows-better and doesn’t-know-better types of errors in human speech. Erard says he is fascinated by ‘knows better’ type of errors and by how they get treated like some sort of moral failing (note to self: I need to start checking my tendency to proof-read nearly everything set in front of me, including Um… and to stop wondering how he knows me so well.).

The chapters that follow discuss technical, social and biological aspects of language, and speech disfluencies; the brief history of ‘Um…’ and the story of Toastmasters. My favourite chapter in the book was Erard’s assessment of President Blunder, oops, Bush and how societally pre-determined and inextricable from their speaking abilities our expectations of ‘leaders’ are. The book concludes with the author’s hope of note on the future of blunderology, that we may come to watch, forgive and enjoy our blunders.

Erard warns readers that a side-effect of reading the book may be that a pedant’s antennae become unusually fine-tuned to listening for and catching disfluencies, boners, eggcorns, mondegreens and (what I call) “snooperisms”, not just in others, but in oneself too. That certainly was my experience. I also began to notice much more my own self-correction tendencies as well as those of others.

The book is not an easy read all through, but that is probably just my experience. Some chapters, in my view, seriously need the non-linguist to re-read. I also read rather rapidly so sometimes delayed connections made in my neural circuits require me to return to the text. This book has not yet had that second outing with me. The writing style changes in difficulty levels sometimes, so the time taken to read and absorb may vary from chapter to chapter. This too could be a side-effect of the fact that I am trying to take some notes which I condense into the book review, and may not apply to a reader, reading for fun.

Overall, a great read. Set aside about 6-7 hours for it and they will not have been wasted.

Star rating: 4 out of 5.

Usefulness note: An advantage of such a book available in festive times of the year is that it solves the problem of buying a present for the dedicated and curious pedant(s) in one’s life. This book makes it to my to-gift list this year.

Only As Good As Your Word

Links:  A link to this review can be found on the author’s blog here. The Amazon Review is here.

My reading backlog is being dented rapidly even as I keep adding books to the pile called to-read. As far as I can, I intend reviewing those books here, or on Amazon-UK, or both.

This post’s title refers to Susan Shapiro’s eponymous book.

At 400 pages, this book demands a lot of time and attention from the reader. Amazingly enough, it took me just 1 day – albeit the whole of that day of my weekend – to finish it. This is down to Susan Shapiro’s writing style which is simple, conversational, light and fast-paced. At times, the breathlessness, with which she might regale a story in person, comes through quite amusingly.

The book is the story – or more accurately, the stories – of Susan Shapiro’s relationships with her writing mentors, interwoven with her running of a very popular writing group in her apartment for many years, her professional progress as a writer all set against a rather rich tapestry of New York’s Jewish society and New York’s publishing world’s glitterati. When the said writing group is dismantled, a student says “I am going to need therapy”. That therapeutic element, in essence, is the sublimation of Shapiro’s relationships with her mentors. She refers to more than one mentor as being like ‘her father’ with whom she appears to have a rather emotionally distant relationship, and then a protégé as ‘her kid sister’.

One has to ask whether for her, every relationship is one prolonged therapy session and exactly when is it that an issue can be deemed “resolved”. Other readers may feel differently about this common thread running through the book, but to me, it was a bit ennui-inducing after some time.

But it is a credit to the book that I still read on.

The most valuable bits are the last 2 chapters: How To Have A Protégé, and How To Get Great Gurus Of Your Own. To budding or growing writers, the tips are brutal but spot-on.

No matter how keen you are to find your own voice, the author’s note before the table of contents is instructive: “Some names and identifying characteristics of people portrayed in this book have been obscured so they won’t divorce, disown, hate, kill, or sue me.”

Rightly so, it is there at the beginning. A rule all writers ignore at their peril.

After all, “a true friend walks in when everybody walks out” , but as Shapiro asked herself (page 262), “who’d be there for you when you were up”. Worth pondering. No matter how tempting it is for a writer to find – and write and publish – juicy stories about one’s family, friends and community, it is always worth having someone who loves the writer and will be happy for her success when it comes, admittedly at its own pace.

I recommend the book highly, but not as the only book to have in the arsenal of a budding writer.

On Amazon, I gave it 4 stars. I recognise it is autobiographical but some of the book is too self-obsessed and too neurotic for my liking; some details of internecine feuds were also avoidable. There are a few, not many but a few, distracting spelling and grammar bloopers in the book, which could have been edited e.g. “none of them ARE”.

Star rating: The book deserves all its 4 stars for the many gems for writers and freelancers, scattered generously through the book.

Usefulness note: The book will interest both budding and established young writers.

The Interesting Bits

Link: The Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on the ‘helpfulness’ of this review.

On the Amazon Vine programme, I picked Justin Pollard’s The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed to read and to review.

I spent almost a whole day and then some, reading the book. As I was going to review it, I also made notes which made the whole thing rather time-consuming.

At just short of 300 pages, this is not a small book, but its being organised into 20 chapters makes it manageable.

Written by one of the writers of QI, a quirky quiz programme on the BBC hosted by the polymath Stephen Fry, the book is a treasure trove of historical tid-bits and trivia. It is no encyclopaedia but inside one finds gems such as Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh ancestry, the origins of the word ‘bunkum’, the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the Indian war of independence of 1857 (the Indian Mutiny if you prefer the British historical framing) and the country name that is an acronym (Paksstan if you are keen; go ahead, work it out!).

Each chapter begins with a quote that captures the essence of the chapter. For instance, Chapter 6 ‘What’s in a name?’ cites R S Surtees, in “Three things I never lend – my ‘oss, my wife, and my name‘. The questions addressed all relate to the theme so the said chapter addresses the curiosities behind Gordon Bennett, the Bob in Bob’s Uncle, the original Tommy, Uncle Sam and nosy Parker.

The style of writing is accessible and although intentionally funny, does not appear laboured. The book – as far as I could see – is remarkably free of typographical and grammatical errors. The parental rating within and between chapters may vary. My original intent was to hand over my 1st edition copy to my 8-year old godson. However having read it, I am inclined to wait for 2-3 years so that I do not have to field any tricky questions from him yet.

This is a book that needn’t be read in a sequence. In fact it is best enjoyed by randomly opening a page and reading whatever questions are contained on that page, as I did. Rather like a tin of mixed biscuits – some plain digestives, some cream cookies, some jam-centred tarts, where the best way to enjoy is to dip randomly into the tin, pick one out and relish it.

After all, it is about “the history you might have missed”.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book would make a good Christmas present for a 10-12 year old with a curious bent of mind and a nose for trivia.

Games Indians Play

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

W. H. Auden said “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” As a consummate buyer, reader and possessor of books, I will extend that to say that some books can be remembered for being egregiously bad. My abnormal love for books means that I try to give the author a lot of rope, benefit of doubt or whatever you want to call my generosity of spirit. I have found it hard to find that generosity in me for this book which I review below.

Thanks to my lovely sibling in India, I received a copy of ‘Games Indians Play’ by V Raghunathan. I daresay that having first heard about it on a blog, I had indeed asked for it to be sent to me. Would you not have done so if you were curious about Indians and someone had tempted you by offering a game theoretical explanation of at least some of the mysteries?

Having read the 150+ page book in some 3 hours, I am now considering refunding my sibling the price of the book and apologising for the hassle in procuring it, then travelling to my cousin’s house to deliver it so it could be carried to London.

The root of the fundamental flaw in this book is explained by the author under ‘Some Disclaimers’ in Chapter 1. He acknowledges that the book is not aimed at any specific group of readers in particular, a targeting problem that may still not explain the non-uniform, almost amateurish, style of writing. In many places, the arguments are so stretched that they become rants and successfully forcing me to make a cup of tea to stay awake and interested; in other places, the language is a stretch for non-Indian readers, settle as it does into Indian style of usage.

The disclaimers also say it is not a research based book, but I think it is bordering on intellectual laziness when the author often mentions in the passing his own experiments, without clarifying how these were conducted and if the outcomes could be verified at all. One is left to guess that many of these experiments were conducted on his MBA students both at IIM-Ahmedabad (my business school) and SDA Bocconi. Either way, MBA students are hardly representative of the population and if you believe the negative press about MBAs, probably too focused on money making.

Another disclaimer says this is not a text book on game theory or behavioural economics but the contents say otherwise. There is much more theoretical discussion rather than ‘applied’ explanations of what the author set out to do according to the cover – explain ‘why we are the way we are’.

One disclaimer, where the author’s academic affiliation shows,says that the book’s conclusions are at worst conjectural and at best plausible hypotheses for further research. Having read it, I shall settle for the former.

The author lays a grand claim upfront that he has a 12-canon taxonomy for ‘Indianness’ – if you are an Indian, a class of people which the author says are “probably the most intelligent people in the world”, you will more than gasp at the laundry list of ills which make us look like members of some crazed despot’s army rather than citizens of a large developing nation and democracy:

  1. low trustworthiness
  2. being privately smart and publicly dumb
  3. fatalist outlook
  4. being too intelligent for our own good
  5. abysmal sense of public hygiene
  6. lack of self-regulation and sense of fairness
  7. reluctance to penalise wrong conduct in others
  8. mistaking talk for action
  9. deep-rooted corruption and a flair for free-riding
  10. inability to follow or implement systems
  11. a sense of self-worth that is massaged only if we have the ‘authority’ to break rules
  12. propensity to look for loop holes in laws

Those, who know me or read my writing on issues concerning India, probably know that my cognition sometimes impedes my ability to feel undiluted devotion for any person or entity. Far be it from me for being jingoistic about India (or about Britain, where I live) but I find these broad generalisations smacking of desperate attempts of the kind ‘Oh I have started all this so I better finish’.

Leaving that thought aside, let’s look at the book.

Chapter 2 claims that somehow an illiterate vendor who can do mental maths suggests Indians are amongst the most intelligent in the world. A logical leap at best, especially when efforts are made immediately to establish this as some kind of sacrosanct truth by comparing with systems-oriented jobsworths (a later chapter addresses why Indians do not follow systems) working in retail outside India. He then extends the argument meandering through stranger examples to say Indians are seemingly more rational and intelligent than those in Western societies, but our individual utilities do not maximise our collective utility.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Prisoner’s dilemma and the main message is the Indian inability to focus on the long-term (NPV if you are into MBA-speak) for fear of losing short-term gains. The argument is extended to explain why Indians do not champion issues citing the lament that one person’s efforts will make no difference.

Chapter 4 on iterative prisoner’s dilemma is more theoretical and focuses on explaining Axelrod’s experiments.

Chapter 5 asks if competition can lead to collaboration and many more examples are discussed. The chapter ends with suggesting how being simple, nice, forgiving and self-righteously provokable gets us ahead further. Hmm, okay!

At 30 pages, chapter 6 is the longest and asks questions about fairness, self-regulation, willingness to confront wrong behaviour in others, and incipient flouting of rules, abuse of office or authority and ironically, for a long-winded chapter, a section on long-winded arguments. It is however also the chapter that uses most stories and illustrations to advance the original aim of the book – using tools of behavioural economics to explain some Indian behaviours.

Chapter 7 is about free riding and asks if Indians are the world’s biggest free-riders. In fewer than a full 10 pages, the author discusses greed, fear and corruption as variations on free-riding. This chapter could have been longer to expand on some of the better ideas in the book. As the book progresses, the early awkwardness disappears, although not totally as it does rear its head in places.

Chapter 8 on systemic chaos, or Indians’ inability to follow systems without bending any rules is actually a compendium of various stories of corruption, bending of rules etc with air travel being a major theme and cricket, academia and private sector tussling with the government being minor stories. Not much game theory in this chapter and I could not help but notice that fewer than 10% of the Indian population uses airplanes to travel. To use a large number of cases from a minority population to generalise to a whole billion? Not ok I think, even for popular reading type books.

Chapter 9 resolves a poser from earlier in the book. Nothing upsets me more in print than avoidable errors in spelling. Repeatedly misspelling ‘Shrodinger’ in the text, when the reference in the appendix is spelt properly, is nothing but editorial laziness in my view.

Chapter 10 on Bhagwadgita is probably the most interesting but since the author says he is sharing his personal ‘awakening’ to the message of the book, I shall leave it to you to make your own mind up. Even if the book were meant for no specific reader group in particular, mixing religion and spirituality with a book purporting to be about game theory to me is just reinforcing the stereotype of Indians as beings of great spirituality.

Not enough game theory, not enough behavioural economics, not much by way of explanation either. In other words, a mistake to judge the book by its cover, the preceding hype, the fawning reviews and even the benefit of doubt given to the author, who did teach some of my best friends (but not me, me no finance major, me marketing type).

Star rating: 2 out of 5 (also 9 out of 10 marks for being the first book to have disappointed me so thoroughly)

The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’ were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.