Book Review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkFactfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hans Rosling wrote this book with his son and daughter-in-law. It was his last book. Because he knew he was dying while writing this book he wrote:

This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance. It is my last attempt to make an impact on the world: to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities.

His last breaths and words gave me new hope. As a librarian and self described rational thinker, facts and data are a big part of my stock and trade. But since 2001 and especially the past few years, it’s seemed like facts never matter any more. That people across the political spectrum have fixed views incapable of change or compromise. I found myself questioning my life’s work in a post factual world.

The Roslings’ books has given me something to hold onto. Not so much as the facts themselves – though there are plenty in this book. What I feel like I’ve gotten is a more systematic way to talk about facts, particularly in relation to global development but also in crime, terrorism and other areas.

Hans Rosling spent a good chunk of his life asking audiences and commissioning polls that asked a small set of multiple choice questions. He found that audiences across the world answered worse than random chance and always skewed negative. In thinking about why that might be, Dr. Rosling documented ten types of bias errors. He devotes a chapter to each one, closing each chapter with tips on addressing this bias in ourselves and others.

In the first chapter, “The Gap Instinct” he also introduces what I believe is a more useful way of talking about income groups. Rather than the usual “The healthy and rich West and everyone else”, he and his family suggest four groups:

Level 1 ($1/day) – Has to walk everywhere. Hauls water by hand, No food security. No electricity.
Level 2 ($4/day) Has a bicycle, hauls water more quickly, Food is stable but monotonous . Erratic electricty
Level 3 ($16/day) – Has a motorbike, indoor plumbing, mostly reliable electricity, refrigeration helps with more varied diet.
Level 4 ($64/day and above) – Drives a car and other things in life we’d regard as “Western” here in the United States.

According to global income statistics, most people in the world are living in levels 2 and 3. This leads to different approaches and different ways of looking at other countries. Also, grouping people by income lets Dr. Rosling point out that in the next day or so, most people living at level 4 (modern consumers?) will reside outside the traditional “West plus Japan.”

But this isn’t a dry book of data and human mental mistakes. There are many anecdotes to illustrate this data, many of them drawn from Dr. Rosling’s personal life. He comes across as earnest, warm, willing to admit to his own mistake and more interested in fixes than blame.

The book is well researched and all conclusions backed with data, usually from international statistical agencies. The surviving authors accept corrections through the books website at gapminder.org.

I had borrowed this book from my local library. Then I was impressed enough to buy my own copy. I hope you’ll have a look.

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Juneau and Alaska Voting Resources

I just wanted to let people know that I created a page of resources for voting at the local, state and federal levels. I live in Juneau, Alaska so my page is focused on what people in Juneau are able to vote on. But I think all Alaskans can benefit from the State and Federal sections of the guide. The guide also has a set of voting troubleshooting Q&As that ought to be helpful to all.

The guide is intended to be nonpartisan and feedback is welcome.

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Book Review: Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan

Boilerplate: History's Mechanical MarvelBoilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cute. This book answers the question “What if Forest Gump had been a robot?”

Like some other reviewers of this book, the charm of seeing Boilerplate Photoshopped into various historical photographs wore off about a third of the way into the book. But I was intrigued by all the actual history. Events and people I spot checked on Google held up. Minus Boilerplate, these things actually happened. I was most surprised by the account of the First Korean War – I didn’t think we could actually do something that vicious and stupid, yet we really did. Having late 19th – early 20th Century history seasoned with a bit of robotics was fine by me. I just stopped reading most of the captions with Boilerplate and focused on the main text, fact-checking when I felt the need.

Because this book uses so much authentic history, it is both surprising and disappointing that the book has neither a concluding chapter that distinguishes fact from fiction, nor does it have a bibliography clearly citing sources. There is some citations in the text, but most of them aren’t exact and some of them are clearly fake. Even a “suggestion for future reading” would have been nice.

It seems like the authors wanted to teach some history in a whimsical way, but then don’t give readers a way forward. That’s a sad missed opportunity. But if you’re willing to do your own research, the book gives you some intriguing starting points.

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Book Review: Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life

The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real LifeThe Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life by Anya Kamenetz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I am childless. Take that as you will.

I found this to be a fabulous book that walks a middle path between technophobia and techno-utopianism. The author is a mother and reporter who did a lot of research and interviewed experts holding a variety of opinions. She also surveyed hundreds of parents and seems to have interviewed dozens of them.

What emerges is a book that carefully lays out the evidence for the harms and benefits of screen time, distinguishes between types of screen time and asks parents to inventory and be wise about their own screen time. The book has an extensive notes section and a good index.

Throughout the book Ms. Kamenetz emphasizes the desirability of parental involvement while recognizing limits on parents due to work and stress. She offers practical suggestions for talking about what kids are doing on the internet without putting them under surveillance. There are also joint activities proposed. Along the way she examines types of parenting and questions the extreme “attachment parenting” that has generated a lot of “mom shaming.”

If you’re looking for a clear-headed examination of issues surrounding children’s use of electronic devices, tips on parenting kids in a digital age or even a reality check on your digital usage, I think this book is for you.

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Tradeoffs in reading Overdrive e-books – Libby and Kindle

I enjoy e-books. Mostly because they do not take up physical space and because I can enlarge the print for my middle aged eyes. A consortium of libraries in my state of Alaska have contracted with Overdrive to maintain Alaska Digital Library.  If you enjoy e-books and live in one of the member communities, you ought be using Alaska Digital Library if you aren’t already.

If you tried Alaska Digital Library back when it was Listen Alaska Plus, you should go back. It’s much easier to find and enjoy ebooks and audiobooks. Especially if you use the new(ish) Libby app on your phone or tablet. In most cases, Libby gives you the option to send your book to your Kindle (easily!) or read it in app.

I like using the Libby app when I know I want to read something on the go on a device that will fit in my pocket. I prefer sending a book to Kindle when I want to be assured of distraction free reading – usually at home, sometimes during my lunch hour.

The one source of frustration I have is with the tradeoffs I need to make depending on the device. I like being responsible and returning books early if I’m done with them. With some, but not all books, I really enjoy sharing quotes with friends. But no matter whether I use Libby or my Kindle, I can’t do both. At least not that I’ve been able to tell.

With Libby, I can return books early, but I cannot share quotes on GoodReads or Facebook.

With my Kindle, I can easily share quotes that touch me, but then Amazon doesn’t let me return the library books earlier.

On one level this is frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as when we had to use Overdrive Console in combination with Adobe Digital Editions. Tech can get better.

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Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens DemocracyWeapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a well written, engaging and well researched book. It is backed up by a notes section that takes up a third of the book. The author is a data scientist who does a good job of translating from algorithms to English. It is a useful warning that any citizens and policymakers ought to read.

The big ideas of the book are:

– Algorithms tend to become destructive when a program measures proxies instead of the desired trait and when there is no feedback to the algorithm.
– Algorithms keep people stuck where they are, or worse, push them backwards because the programs depend on past performance of “birds of a feather” to assign probable outcomes.
– What you choose to measure can have unintended consequences on what you don’t measure – like how US News college rankings might be indirectly responsible for tuition inflation.
– Algorithms don’t make sense when trying to base decisions on small numbers – like a teacher’s classroom.
– Algorithms – in education, hiring, scheduling, credit, and policing tend to hit the poor and people of color hardest – the very groups that have the least ability to fight back.

These concepts are illustrated with examples. The chapters on for-profit colleges and payday loan companies using Big Data to find the most vulnerable were especially chilling.

The only reason that I gave this book four stars instead of five is that the final chapter on what to do about these algorithmic Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) felt squishy to me. Ms. O’Neil acknowledges that as long it is profitable to be abusive, WMDs could not be self regulated. She calls for government regulation, which I support. She calls for independent audits of algorithms for WMD potential, which I also agree with. But after reading her conclusions, I wasn’t sure what she expected government to do, or who exactly ought to be doing the auditing.

Overall, it is still an important and engaging read. It is an important reminder that we must be critical and watchful of so-called impartial, computer-driven solutions. Because they might not be.

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Book Review: Alien Encounter: A Scientific Novel by Dirk Schulze-Makuch

Alien Encounter: A Scientific NovelAlien Encounter: A Scientific Novel by Dirk Schulze-Makuch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is one of a series of “scientific novels” – science fiction written by working scientists. Like other books in this series, the bulk of the book is the novel and the last 5% or so is an explanation of the science used in the book. After that comes a good bibliography.

The novel is decent. In some ways my favorite part took place on Earth where a skeptical astronaut was put through a training program that included meditation, martial arts and sensory deprivation. As exhausting as it sounded, it seemed like a good way to spend six months of life and I’d consider it as a retreat – if time and money weren’t objects.

Aside from the Venus sections and the whole concept of “voids” little of this book strained my suspension of disbelief. The characters weren’t particularly vivid for me — at times they seemed like roles rather than individuals, but the plot held my interest.

Part II – the science behind the novel was quite plausible. I’m slightly more willing to believe in Venusian microbes than when I started reading. The author’s explanation for why aliens would be inclined to be hostile made sense though I think he misses other possibilities. Unless we’re talking about hive intelligences, most intelligent aliens would have needed to learn how not to destroy themselves before proceeding to the stars. This “graduation” would likely make them less hostile.

As to the subject of “voids” the author freely admits this isn’t completely science but a marriage of Buddhist thought to quantum mechanics.

Overall, a book worth reading, especially if you’d like to demonstrate how science fiction can be grounded in realistic science. Just be warned that it feels more like a teaching tool than a great science fiction novel.

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