Book Reports - Non-Fiction

I've been on another non-fiction kick lately. Here are the most recent books I've read:

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop - Clifford Nass:
I really enjoyed this one. Nass has spent his career studying human-computer interactions and then using computers to help him study human-human interactions. Very well written. One area he and his team researched was why everyone hates Clippy so much (that stupid paper clip in Microsoft Office that tries to help you). He also worked on a project to improve Clippy's image. He found the most effective way to get people to like Clippy was to have Clippy insult Microsoft anytime something went wrong. This put Clippy on the same side as the user instead of against the user. Users loved it, but Microsoft didn't end up using that idea. There are many other fascinating insights all backed up with extensive research.

Raving Fans - Ken Blanchard & Sheldon Bowles:
This one I didn't enjoy nearly as much. I was hoping for a similarly data-driven approach but was disappointed. Instead it's written as a matter-of-fact narrative. There are no cited studies to back up their claims. I like the ideas they present, but they simply provided no evidence that they're legit. It's about improving customer service but they never address the fact that all of their suggestions cost money and unless the better customer service brings in enough additional money to cover the costs it's not going to work. I can see it as the kind of book your stereotypical MBA would get excited over.

For Better - Tara Parker-Pope:
This book was recommended on the GeekDad Blog. I found it quite interesting. It follows my preferred model of heavily citing studies that back up the claims being made. It begins with an overview of current trends in marriage success. Namely, marriages are far more successful today than many people believe. People like to kick around "50% of marriages end in divorce," which ostensibly is still mostly true, but not nearly true for all demographics. When broken down by demographics you see that many common groups have a greatly reduced risk of divorce compared to others. The book goes over risk factors and warning signs and provides evidence-backed suggestions on changes that can improve your relationship.

One interesting point is that a lot of the troubles they cover stem from husbands and wives who expect to maintain the same life they had before marriage afterwards and when raising children. They both want to keep working full-time and going out at night and such and for a lot of people things completely fall apart when they have children and realize that they might have to adjust their lifestyles.

Another major trouble for many people is financial arguments. But the authors point out that financial arguments are rarely about finances and almost always about overall values and the financial arguments are just a symptom. You probably wouldn't be arguing about how money is spent if you both had the same goals in life.

How Risky is it, Really? - David Ropeik
I enjoyed this one too. Ropeik does a great job covering the neuroscience behind threat response. I found the discussion fascinating, though frustrating. He talks about the things that contribute to threat responses, but mainly admits defeat when people over/under-react. Ropeik suggests that once it comes down to it, someone who has over/under-reacted to a threat won't change their opinion unless they are honestly interested in adjusting their attitude to more closely match reality. Regardless, it still provided interesting insight into why Americans are still afraid of nuclear power despite the long safety history and other improvements compared to other fuel sources (and many other society-wide issues). He also provides some guidelines of steps you can take to better understand a threat to prevent yourself from over/under-reacting.

NurtureShock - Po Bronson & Ashely Merryman
This is probably my favorite out of this bunch of books. I also found it via the GeekDad Blog. It discusses a whole slew of aspects of the current understanding of child development. With 62 pages of citations at the end of the book, it's well documented and based on empirical studies. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in the subject matter. I'll just go over a couple of the most interesting things.

One of the most interesting things was the studies of the effect of praise on children's motivation. It basically boils down to the idea that children who are unconditionally praised for being smart (or other inherent qualities) have their internal motivation destroyed. Because when they fail at a task it must be because they weren't smart enough (or other inherent quality). However, children who are praised on their effort and work ethic are far more likely to continue working on difficult (even impossible) tasks. They believe that their lack of success is due to a lack of effort rather than inherent failings which they can't control. This discussion all occurs in the context of the self-esteem society that was so popular in the 90's. An entire generation of children being told unconditionally how special and great they were, basically resulting in an entire generation of adults who don't like working on things that are hard. I guess growing up with a bunch of siblings who made sure you never thought too much of yourself has some benefits.

Another chapter that I found really interesting was about teenage sleep patterns. So, melatonin buildup is a big factor in what makes us feel sleepy. When it gets dark outside melatonin begins building up in our brains and we get sleepy. However, for teenagers, the melatonin buildup doesn't start until 90 minutes after it begins for adults and children. Meaning, chemically speaking, teenagers aren't tired until 90 minutes after adults. This is a major factor in why teenagers stay up later at night. The flip side is that the melatonin production continues later in the morning and is a factor in teenagers feeling sleepy in the mornings more than adults.

Here's where it gets more interesting. Several school districts in the country have used this information to guide their school start times. They've pushed back the high school start times by 90 minutes and the results were incredible. Truancy rates dropped, grades went up, SAT scores went up, the number of fights dropped, and aggressive behavior dropped. Basically, everything got better and has remained at those elevated rates ever since the start time change. Yet, most school districts still haven't adopted these changes.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested.

The Smart Swarm - Peter Miller
I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as I could have, but it still had a bunch of interesting things in it. The author makes a couple of dubious conclusions in some places, but overall it's a great discussion. I learned about how ants cooperate, how bees find new hives, how termites build their complicated mounds, why starling flocks and schools of fish move the ways they do. Those were all really interesting. The other aspect of the book is applying those studies to human behavior, computer/robot designs, and other places where large complex systems interact. It's interesting to read about how scientists and engineers have used these studies to improve telephone networks, industrial chemical production systems, delivery systems, traffic flow, and other complex problems.

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