#BookReview: American Made by Farah Stockman

Strong Case Studies Marred By Author’s Biases. Overall, this is a strong case study following three people the author somewhat randomly stumbled into when tasked with reporting on the closure of a particular factory and its implications on the 2016 and 2020 elections. The author openly admits in the very first chapter that she is a fairly typical New England Liberal Elite, and that flavors much of her commentary and several of her observations – but also provides for at least a few hints of potential growth along the way. But once her own biases are accounted for, this truly is a strong look at a deep dive into the three people she chronicles and their histories and thoughts as they navigate both their personal situations over these few years and the national situations as they see and understand them. At times funny but far more often tragic, this is a very real look at what at least some go through when their factory job closes around them, to be moved elsewhere. (Full disclosure, my own father living through this *twice* in my teens in as Goodyear shut down their plants in Cartersville, GA has defined my own story almost as much as a few other situations not relevant to this book. So I have my own thoughts on the matter as someone whose family underwent similar situations a couple of decades before the events of this book, but who saw them as the child of the adult worker rather than as the adult workers chronicled here.)

Ultimately, your mileage on this will vary based on whether you can at minimum accept the author’s biases for what they are or even if you outright fully agree with them. But I *do* appreciate the flashes of growth she shows, particularly in later sections, as she learns just how fully human these people are, even as her prejudices early in the book somewhat openly show that she didn’t fully appreciate just how fully human people like this could be before actually spending considerable time with them. Indeed, the one outright flaw here is that there is at least a hint of impropriety when the author begins engaging perhaps a bit too much with the lives of her subjects – but again, that ultimately comes down to just how sensitive your own ethical meter is.

Overall a mostly strong book, and very much recommended.

This review of American Made by Farah Stockman was originally written on August 31, 2021.

#BookReview: What’s The Use by Ian Stewart

Beware The Mathivores. And Stewart’s Myopia. Ok, so the title of this review is a bit of a spoiler, as a “Mathivore” is a creature Stewart describes in the final chapter while summarizing the book. But it doesn’t *actually* give anything away, and it makes for an interesting title to the review. (One suspects it wouldn’t have worked as well for the title of the book, though I think it would have been awesome. :D) Beyond that, I also find it interesting that the only other review on Goodreads for this book at the time I am writing this one is from a historian with a bare knowledge of mathematics, and I am actually a mathematician (though nowhere near as degreed as Stewart, having just a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and lacking a handful of classes for separate Bachelor’s degrees in both Mathematics and Secondary Mathematics Education) with a fair knowledge of history. More than a “normal” person, likely much less – at least in some areas – than the other reviewer. ANYWAY, y’all care about what this book is about, not about me. 😀 But my background does play a bit into my own experience with the book, so I thought a brief summary was warranted.

With this book, Stewart *mostly* does a truly remarkable job of showing the history and current uses of math, in many ways many may not be aware of or at minimum fully aware of. With my background, I knew that there was *some* form of math in the background of most of the techs and issues Stewart discusses, but Stewart goes full-bore on the details, yes, quite often showing samples of the actual equations – or at least types of the actual equations – involved. And these are far beyond E=MC^2, y’all. 😉 But still, Stewart’s explanations, at least to my own mathematically inclined brain, were straightforward enough, and there is enough humor (of the British variety) sprinkled throughout to make the overall text much more palatable to the average reader.

But there *are* a couple of weaknesses even from my own perspective, and they combined to knock the book down a star – neither by themselves was quite enough, but combined they are.

The first is that while Stewart does a remarkable job of showing how math is integral to so many fields from elections to medical scanning to photography to fingerprinting, he doesn’t do so well in showing how it shapes everyday life outside of the tech people use and the things going on around them. He doesn’t show how people actually *use* math every day, from calculating how much a trip will take to estimating their grocery bill or restaurant tab to deciding any of the numerous factors related to personal finance and building or maintaining any form of home. Perhaps a follow-on book could explain how these maths shape even more people’s lives.

The second is Stewart’s Myopia. By this, I mean those issues where the Professor. At several key points – likely not caught by someone less familiar with the mathematics of the fields – Stewart dismisses advances in mathematics that oppose his positions. In one, while there is indeed still much work to be done, Stewart’s disdain for autonomous cars belies the stunning advances made in mathematics related to the field. In the other big one, Stewart seems completely ignorant of the emerging mathematics showing the many varying holes in the current “Climate Change” “science” – including some written by a man who quite literally wrote one of the first textbooks on climate modeling with computers. Another, more obscure one, was where Stewart mentions numeracy and Bayesian statistics, but seems ignorant of Bernoulli’s Fallacy (or at minimum dismissive of those who pursue that line of mathematical thinking).

Overall, this *is* a strong book with quite a bit to be commended. It could simply have been a bit stronger. Very much recommended.

This review of What’s The Use by Ian Stewart was originally written on July 26, 2021.

#BookReview: The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell

Before You Talk About The Student Loan Problem, Read This Book. Here, Mitchell does a phenomenal job of going from the very beginning – before World War I even – and showing just how the student loan problem grew from a well-intentioned idea into the massive debt bomb that we are now struggling with at all levels. Other than one short, couple of pages – if that – section near the end, Mitchell keeps all personal ideas and politics out of the narrative, instead focusing on as objective a reporting of the events as they unfolded as I’ve ever seen. Indeed, there are only two things that I can think to ding him on at all here, and neither one quite warrants a star reduction:

1) Throughout the narrative, particularly once his timeline gets into the 1990s and 2000s eras, Mitchell doesn’t account for the rise of State-sponsored lottery-funded scholarship programs. Though upon a bit of research, it seems that these only exist primarily in the Southeast: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia. Though I’ve lived in three of those States and had my college funded by Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship – it is at least plausible that anyone living outside of those States, or without close friends or family in them, has never heard of these programs. (And yet even with HOPE, I still managed to amass a $20K student debt load that had ballooned to nearly $40K before I began actively repaying it – upon threat of legal action – largely due to exactly the forces Mitchell describes in this text, but mostly because I was an idiotic 18yo and it was “free money”. Though I’m proud to note that as of this moment, I have less than the various forgiveness amounts that are being bandied about in DC – which Mitchell also covers, in a near up-to-the-minute fashion, even 2 months before publication of this book. An amount that I *will* pay off before the current suspension of interest – signed by President Trump and extended by President Biden – expires, currently slated for less than two months after this book is published.)

2) The Bibliography is a bit scant at only about 15% of the text, though there is a decent portion of the book – focusing on a singular case study in recurring episodes throughout the narrative – where Mitchell conducted extensive interviews and examinations of the relevant documents personally.

Overall truly an excellent, objective look at the history and many factors that have created today’s student loan problem. And as GI Joe once said, “knowing is half the battle”. Very much recommended.

This review of The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell was originally written on June 12, 2021.

#BookReview: Shape by Jordan Ellenberg

Love Song To Geometry – And A Look At How It Is Truly Everywhere. This is a mathematician showing just how prevalent geometry is in our every day lives – and why modern math classes tend to ruin it for most people. As a mathematics oriented person myself (got one math-derived degree, very nearly got two others almost at the same time, former math teacher, current active software developer), this was fairly easy to follow – Ellenberg mentions some advanced concepts without actually *showing* many of them, though there *is* more actual equations in here than some might like in a “popsci” level book. Thanks to Ellenberg’s explanations of said equations and concepts, this *should* be an easy enough follow for most anyone. And he really does do a great job of showing how even advanced ideas really do come down to the most basic principles – just applied in particularly interesting ways. Indeed, the only real critique I have here is that when Ellenberg gets off the math specifically and into more political and social commentary – even when ostensbily using the math as a shield – it gets much closer to “Your Mileage May Vary” level. Overall, those moments weren’t quite pervasive enough nor did they stray far enough from the central premise to warrant dropping a star, and thus the book maintains the full five stars that all books start with for me. Very much recommended.

This review of Shape by Jordan Ellenberg was originally written on March 27, 2021.

#BookReview: Two Tyrants by A.G. Roderick

This Is Frank Castle Speaking. To know the tone of this book, you really only need to know about two other things within the pop culture psyche, if a bit obscure: The 80 page Galt Speech in the back part of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged gives you an idea of the overall length, and Frank Castle’s letter over the final scenes of the 2004 Punisher movie show you the overall style. This is a dogmatic polemic against Democrats and Republicans that is generally roughly as problematic as the problems it (mostly correctly) points out. It could absolutely use more documentation and a far more extensive bibliography, and even its general points and recommendations need quite a bit more thought. But it does espouse a bit of thinking that more people need to be exposed to, and therefore even with its issues it is recommended.

This review of Two Tyrants by A.G. Roderick was originally written on December 29, 2019.