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In-depth, straight-talking reviews
The Straight Dope — book version. Free with Prime. WWW.the straightdope.net
The Straight Dope — book version. Free with Prime. WWW.the straightdope.net

How a decade of nonfiction changed my appreciation. Please check it out at http://www.thestraightdope.net


The sheer variety of ways judgment can be clouded is mind-boggling. The more closely we examine judgments, the more noise turns up as a factor. In Noise, an A-list team of celebrity psych stars, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein pull together their confrères and evidence from the usual innumerable studies to delineate how bad it really is.

Noise, at least in psychology, is “unwanted variability”. In practical terms, that means even the most focused person might be swayed by unnoticed noise. Noise can be the home team losing the night before, lunch coming up in half an hour…


In order to align the states into a united front against the British, the founders tried everything, but race worked best. That is the premise of Thirteen Clocks, a reworking of The Common Cause by Robert G. Parkinson. This book is tighter, shorter and sharply focused on the racist hypocrisy of the founders. It covers the 15 month period from the British attacks in Lexington and Concord to the publishing of the Declaration of Independence. It is a story of fumbles, slick marketing, racial fear-mongering, and blatant hypocrisy. And a miracle that a new country could come of it all.


Chiara Marletto is a delight. A theoretical physicist, she has written a book that makes it stimulating, varied, exciting and real. Plus, it is a genuine, innovative gamechanger. Plus, every chapter begins with a story she has made up, because her father was a fascinating storyteller. On their daily walks, he would make up stories about anything and everything they saw along the way. And passed this talent and tradition on. And one more thing. Marletto is Italian. English is not her first language. All these things combine to make The Science of Can and Can’t an unexpected treasure.

The…


Obsessions can make for fascinating books. In Jon Dunn’s The Glitter in the Green, his obsession with hummingbirds takes him from his native and hummingbirdless Shetland Islands to the Americas, where literally thousands of hummingbird species are hanging on. It is a great trip, with history, folk tales and biology percolating throughout. There’s even the occasional dash of danger. But not from the hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are a western hemisphere phenomenon. They live from the farthest reaches of Alaska to the tip of South America at Tierra del Fuego, up mountains and down at sea level, and Dunn booked himself a…


There is less and less in the way new fields of endeavor for psychologists, it seems. So a book on self-awareness holds promise. Stephen Fleming, who researches and teaches about it, has summed up the state of the art in Know Thyself. There is much to understand, but less to be excited about.

Self-awareness is called metacognition in the biz. It has been studied in animals (the famous mirror tests that elephants and dolphins pass, but cats and birds fail). It is most common in homo Sapiens, who is constantly introspective (a word which oddly does not show up in…


There are four basic social behaviors: co-operation, selfishness, altruism and spite. Simon McCarthy-Jones of Trinity College, Dublin has zeroed in on the last one in his book, Spite. It is wider and deeper than you might think.

Humans, and pretty much only humans, have a pronounced tendency to spite others. That is, they are willing to take a beating (financially, socially) just so someone else might not get ahead. He says they “do it to inflict harm on the unfair, the dominant, the elite. We may also do it to widen the gap between us and others and to stay…


What has been missing from the canon of management books is, apparently, music. Panos Panay and Michael Hendrix have attempted to fill that gap with Two Beats Ahead. Musicians, in their eyes, are just as creative in business. Maybe more so.

They have filled their book with endless examples of musicians who have branched out or moved on altogether. Everyone knows of singers who have suddenly become fashion, makeup or sneaker designers. But the authors have found fund managers, psychologists, neuroscientists and educators as well. They have different approaches to business, something the book attempts to attribute to their music…


Numbers Don’t Lie is an absolute delight for a reader like me. Vaclav Smil takes an engineer’s approach to dozens of everyday issues and shows how they work — or don’t — by the numbers. If we looked at more things this way, we would be dramatically better off.

The book is a collection of very short articles Smil wrote for an IEEE magazine. He has grouped them into categories like home, transport, energy and so on, so readers can explore the “well what about…” alternatives. This is the book that proves/disproves what people routinely toss off as factual. …


Leidy Klotz says he has a longstanding obsession with less. He has written a book called Subtract, to attempt to infect everyone with his obsession.

It is true we don’t think in terms of subtraction; we’re all about adding on, all about more. Overbuilding, overengineering, hoarding, wordiness — you name it, we’re busy adding to it. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger bodies … Economies are all about growth, which is proving to be problematic. Evolution is forever adding, usually without discarding the redundancies. Addition rules.

But Klotz has found some wise people over the ages who could see more clearly…

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