Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

WBR: Intelligence and How to Get It

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

As promised, here's a review of Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.  it's the book that Nicholas Kristof's column a couple of weeks ago was based on.  The book jacket describes this book as "the authoritative anti-Bell Curve" and indeed, much of the book is  a full-out attack on the claim that intelligence is primarily determined by genetics and that any attempts to improve outcomes for members of disadvantaged groups are doomed.

To be honest, the "how to get it" part was the least interesting part of the book for me, because it covered ground that I already know about — Perry Preschool, KIPP, Carol Dweck's work on the "mindset" that effort matters more than inherent ability.  That said, Nisbett does a good job of writing about these issues in a non-technical manner, and I'm hopeful that he will influence public opinion.

The "intelligence" part of the book was far more interesting, because Nisbett is implicitly arguing with both the strong hereditarians who believe that intelligence is overwhelmingly genetic and that environment (including parenting) doesn't matter much, and with the liberals who aren't sure exactly what is meant by "intelligence," and are pretty skeptical that intelligence tests are picking up underlying ability rather than leaning.  The first two chapters (and a more technical appendix) are aimed squarely at these issues, and should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to talk about intelligence.

Nisbett argues that the high estimates for the genetic component of intelligence are overwhelmingly based on twin studies, and especially adoptive studies, and these don't haver nearly as much variation in environments as there exists between families overall.  He also notes that overall IQ levels have risen steadily over time, far too quickly to be accounted for by natural selection (if you look at the raw scores, rather than the normed ones which are forced to have a constant mean of 100).  Addressing the question of racial differences in IQ specifically, he points out that the black-white gap has also decreased significantly in the past decades, and that African-Americans with a higher percentage of European genes do not have higher IQs than African-Americans with fewer European genes.

I'm going to end this review where Nisbett begins the book, on the question of what is intelligence.  Even after reading the book, I find it hard to define.  Nisbett is clear that he believes that schooling does increase intelligence, and that scores on even the most abstract and supposedly culture-free components of the IQ test (such as the Raven progressive matrices*) improve markedly with practice.  So he doesn't agree with the opening quote from Cyril Burt that intelligence is "inborn, all-around intellectual ability.. inherited, not due to teaching or training… uninfluenced by industry or zeal."  But he also thinks it's a real characteristic, distinct from specific knowledge of a subject.  In some ways, he almost seems to define intelligence as that which is measured by IQ tests, which is a strong predictor of academic and career sucess although not the only factor in either (with effort, emotional skills, self-discipline, and motivation being the strongest non-intelligence factors in these).

* For what it's worth, I would have chosen a different answer than the "correct" one on the sample problem given in the book, and still think that my answer is equally plausible.

ebooks, audiobooks, book books

Monday, April 27th, 2009

As I mentioned in the comments last week, I was somewhat tempted by the Kindle version of Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It, because it was backordered at Amazon (now back in stock), the library had not yet ordered it, and I was going away for a business trip and so would have several hours to read on the plane.

I put in an online request for the library to order it, and received a form response saying "check back in a few weeks to see if we've ordered your suggestion, but please remember that our budget adds up to about $3.22 per customer, so we can't afford to buy everything that people ask for.  And here's our Amazon wish list."  A bit more poking around revealed that the book was in fact still available at the Borders near my house, so I decided to fork out the extra money for a real book that I could donate to the library when I'm done reading it.  (Check back tomorrow for my review.)

I did, however, decide to load up my iPod with an extra book in case something went horribly wrong with one of my flights and I finished everything I had with me.  Since I find reading on the iPod a not terribly appealing experience, I decided to try out an audiobook instead. 

I downloaded one, and it's a mixed experience. I like listening to it, and I can do it walking down the street, or on a super-crowded metro train, when books aren't quite practical.  But when I get distracted, it's hard to figure out where I lost my place. I'm not sure I get more distracted listening than I do reading on paper, but books are ideal for figuring out where you were, and going back over the past few paragraphs if needed.  There's not an easy way to do that with the iPod.

I guess the same thing happens listening to podcasts or the radio, but in that case, I generally just accept that I've missed a section and keep going.  I'm not as willing to do that with a novel.

Harry Potter

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I've been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to N as his bedtime story for the past several weeks, with D usually coming in to listen as well.  (I read it to him when he was about N's age.)  We finished it over the weekend, and tonight N asked if I'd start another chapter book.

I said, sure, how about Harry Potter?  This was a devious move on my part, because I tried reading it to D last year, and during the letter delivery sequence, he decided it was too scary and refused to go any further.  But N is much less freaked out by "scary" books and movies (remember, he's the one who came to see Coraline, even though he's almost 3 years younger than D), and he said ok, mostly because he could see that it was a big fat book that would get him my attention for a long time.

So I read the first half chapter to both boys, and then D asked if I'd read the rest of the chapter as his bedtime story.  Gee, I guess you can twist my arm.  So we finished the first chapter, and then D asked if he could keep going on his own.  I said yes, overruling N's pout, and D made it to Diagon Alley before I made him turn out the light.

I'm feeling pleased as punch, both because I think he'll enjoy it, and also because D has been resistant to reading chapter books on his own, in spite of the fact that he's quite capable of doing so.  He reads lots of manga, and has read some of the kids' novelizations set in the star wars universe, but that's about it.  And while I'm willing to concede that Harry Potter isn't great literature, it's a heck of a lot better than those star wars novels. 

Fundamentally, I think I've been feeling a bit left out of D's interests.  I'm not fascinated by Pokemon, and I can't fake it.  I'm not a big fan of manga.  I'm really bad at Lego Star Wars.  So I'm excited to have him interested in something that I like too.

TBR: The Instinct Diet

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

This January, I got back from vacation and hopped on the scale, and was horrified to see a number that I had previously only seen when pregnant — yes, I really did weigh more than I did immediately postpartum.  It shouldn't have surprised me — all my pants were too tight.  Somewhere along the way, I had added an extra 10 pounds to the usual "I could really stand to lose 10 pounds."  So I started looking around for a diet plan that I could follow.  I'm pretty skeptical of diets, but I also know that all of these "lifestyle" approaches that claim that you can lose weight effortlessly by making simple substitutions don't work for me, because I already drink skim milk, don't drink soda, rarely have chips, etc.

Over at US Food Policy, Parke spoke highly of The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep It Off, by Susan Roberts, so I decided to give it a try.  Eight weeks later, I've lost the "extra" 10 pounds, and am finding it painless enough that I'm going to keep going and try to get rid of the "could stand to lose" weight.

Roberts goes through a whole explanation of the different "instincts" that make us overeat, but fundamentally, the diet is about eating a nutritionally balanced diet, restricting calories, and using a bunch of "tricks" so that you don't feel deprived and hungry along the way.  So, you eat lots of soup and salad, because they're high volume.  You put the most fattening flavorful things on the outside (chocolate on strawberries, dressing on salad) so you maximize the taste punch.  You eat mostly whole grain or high fiber carbs so they digest slowly and make you feel full.  You eat a wide variety of veggies, but rotate through a limited set of main dishes, and have a choice of a starch with dinner or dessert, but not both.

The book includes both recipes and suggestions for how to follow the diet using mostly packaged foods.  In general, the recipes are quite good — the thai peanut dressing for salad is amazing, and all the soups have been good enough that I'd make them even when I wasn't trying to watch my weight.  However, the "pizza" base was all but inedible — possibly because I couldn't find the white wheat bran she recommended anywhere, either online or looking at health stores.  But the no-cook alternative is to use a low-carb pita bread, which worked out ok for me.  I thought the "I-diet bread" was awful the first time I had it, but it's grown on me over time.  (And one of Roberts' instincts is indeed familiarity.)

So, I don't think the diet is perfect, but it's working for me.  And the Amazon reviews are overwhelmingly positive.  This may be the best diet book you've never heard of.

Sorry, this post is attracting too much spam.  I'm going to close it to comments.

TBR: Outliers

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This week's book is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  It's his attempt to look at the environmental and cultural factors that affect why some people succeed and others fail, and to blow apart the idea that individual genius is responsible for success.

It's a quick read (probably took me less than 3 hours front to back) and each section is reasonably entertaining, but it doesn't quite hold together as an overall book or argument.

In particular, the middle section, where he argues that Korean airlines have a terrible safety record because of the cultural pressures for subordinates to defer to their supervisors, seems to have little connection to the rest of the book.  And while it's possible that Gladwell is correct in his claim that the reason that Asian cultures respect hard work is that rice is more work to grow than wheat or corn, he sure doesn't present enough evidence to convince me.

Gladwell is correct that Bill Joy (one of the founders of Sun) and Bill Gates were extraordinarily lucky in having the opportunity to program a lot when very few people had access to computers at all.  And there's no doubt that practice is necessary (if not sufficient) for being good at programming.  On the other hand, the reason that Gates is one of the richest men in the world has very little to do with his coding skills. (He didn't write the code for DOS, after all.)

I thought the discussion of the relationship (or lack thereof) between extreme intelligence* and success** was the best part of the book.  In particular, Gladwell tells the story of an early 20th century researcher who identified 1470 highly gifted California elementary school students, and was shocked to learn that only a small fraction of them were particularly successful later in life.  Moreover, there was a huge correlation between economic class and success (not exactly shocking to me, but still sad).  Gladwell cites Lareau and argues that the upper class kids know how to manipulate systems to their advantage, but I'm not convinced –I'm pretty sure that "concerted cultivation" wasn't around in the 1920s.

In the last part of the book, Gladwell returns to the question of education and class, and argues that the intensive school setting of KIPP lets poor kids spend enough time learning to catch up with their middle class peers.   Among other things, he cites the data that shows that much of the growth in the gap between poor and upper class kids during elementary school is not about what happens during the school year, but that the wealthier kids continue to gain over the summer, while the poor kids stagnate, or even slip backwards. I've heard that before, but had never seen the underlying data before — what struck me the most is that for the upper class kids, they gained about half as much over the 3 month summer vacation as they did over the 9 month school year.  In other words, per month, the upper class kids learned more during vacation than during school. 

*When I initially wrote this post, I omitted the word "extreme" which significantly fails to represent Gladwell's argument.  He cites Arthur Jenson (whom he calls an "IQ fundamentalist") as saying that the four cutoffs that matter for IQ are 50, 75, 105, and 115 — and that for real world applications, the difference between having an IQ of 115 and 150 or between 150 and 180 is less important.

**Jennifer asked what constituted success.  Here's what Gladwell writes "But few of his [Terman's] geniuses were nationally known figures.  They tended to earn good incomes — but not that good.  The majority had careers that could only be considered ordinary, and a suprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures.  Nor were there any Nobel Prize winners in his exhaustively selected group of geniuses.  His fieldworkers actually tested two elementary school students who went on to be Nobel laureates — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — and rejected them both.  Their IQs weren't high enough… if Terman had simply put together a randomly selected group of children from the same family backgrounds as the Termites — and dispensed with IQ altogether — we would have ended up with a group doing almost as many impressive things as his painstakingly selected group of geniuses."


Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I downloaded the Kindle software for my iPod touch.  I picked the Origin of Species as a free book to try.  My initial reaction is that the Kindle software slightly inferior as a reader to eReader, which is also a free download.  eReader allows for landscape orientation, and overall the text is somewhat easier to read.  (They've chosen an off-white background, which is a bit easier on the eyes, but I also just think that the font or something is slightly better.)  Kindle seems to have a better bookmark feature.

Of course, the big advantage that the Kindle has is Amazon.  There are far more books out for the Kindle than in eReader format, and the books that are available on both seem to generally be cheaper in Kindle format, sometimes significantly so.  eReader sells recent books for almost as much as the hardcover costs, and that seems like a losing proposition to me.  (Some of that may be because of what the publishers are demanding — my understanding is that Amazon actually loses money on most bestsellers, because they pay the publishers more than they make.)  Plus, Amazon is just a far superior user interface than the eReader store.  (Barnes and Noble actually just bought Fictionwise, which in turn owns eReader, but they plan to continue to operate the sites separately.)

I still have no plans to buy a Kindle until I can borrow library books to read on one.  But I might see if I can borrow one from a friend the next time I have a long trip coming up.

TBR: Elsewhere, USA

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Today's book (and possibly this year's winner for longest subtitle) is Elsewhere, USA: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety,  by Dalton Conley.

This book looks at such modern phenomena as the blurring of work and leisure, savings and consumption.  To take the growth of "weisure" (Conley loves making up compound words like that) for example, he remarks on the generally recognized growth of people working from home (and the history of the tax deduction for home offices was one of the few bits of the book that surprised me) and shopping at work, but also argues that "networking" forces people to turn their social interactions into an extension of work.

I picked up the book mostly because I was interested in hearing what he had to say about parental anxiety (he twice cites the same study that found that higher income mothers reported more time pressure than low-income mothers, even when they worked the exact same hours).  He argues that women's higher earning potential is the main source of stress, as women who aren't working feel the opportunity cost.  I think that's part of the story, but misses out on the degree to which working mothers also feel a high opportunity cost to their time.

Conley is a "real" sociologist, in the sense that he's a professor at NYU, but this isn't an academic book.  The only original research is what Conley conducted by looking at the dual-income families around him.  And Conley challenges the reader to evaluate the book by looking around him or herself and seeing if it resonates.

By that measure, I think this book would have done a lot better if it had come out a year or two ago.  The argument that granite countertops are a form of investment, not consumption, seems very 2006, as does the claim that no one resents the rich because we all depend on them for our jobs.  Conley's an interesting thinker, although not as profound as he thinks he is, but if there's ever a book that should have been a blog, it's this one.

TBR: Outwitting History

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

I'm just back from a quick vacation (a weekend with my family and then an overnight at Great Wolf Lodge*), and facing about a million unread emails, so here's a short book review post.

This week's book is the autobiographical Outwitting History: The Story of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by Aaron Lansky.  Like Three Cups of Tea, this is the story of a man who found his life's mission pretty much by accident.  In Lansky's case, his mission was the rescuing of Yiddish books that were going to be thrown out, and the founding of the National Yiddish Book Center.

I picked it up because of TC's recommendation and she's right, it's neither preachy nor pedantic.  Lansky's got a good comic storytelling voice, and turns a potentially dry topic (oh look, we found some more books) into a pretty funny one, full of love for both the books and the people who gave them to him.  (And the discovery that Meir Kahane was Arlo Guthrie's Hebrew teacher nearly gave me a heart attack.)

Yiddish is, of course, an all-but-dead language, and the reason there were so many books for Lansky to rescue is that all the people who actually read Yiddish have been busily dying off and their children had no interest in the books.  Some Orthodox Jews still speak Yiddish, but they have little interest in the mostly secular books that Lansky collected.  Mixed in with his funny stories about rescuing books in the rain, being fed by every donor, and giving a talk at a resort in the Catskills, Lansky tries to make a serious case for why people should still care about Yiddish.

That said, I'm not sure he succeeds.  And I say this as someone who took a course in Yiddish in college, much to my parents' bemusement.  (I took it mostly because my favorite professor was teaching it, and I would have taken almost anything he taught.  But it's also a fascinating mongrel of a language, with a Hebrew alphabet, a mostly Germanic vocabulary, but a primarily Slavic grammar.

So, I enjoyed the book (although it could have been a bit shorter without losing much).  But I think I might send you to read an actually Yiddish story instead.

* Fairfax schools were closed Monday and Tuesday. Tying this to the main topic of the post, I was struck by the number of Orthodox women at the waterpark, getting totally soaked in black dresses and hair coverings.  They seemed to be having a good time — more power to them for figuring out a way to enjoy a park while maintaining their version of acceptable dress.

Which Side Are You On?

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

I was thrilled to read earlier this week that Tom Geoghegan is running for Congress, for the seat that Rahm Emmanuel is vacating.  It's a special election, which usually means really low turnout, and there's about 10 people running for it, so goodness knows whether he's got a shot, but I'm excited enough about him that I squeezed out a contribution for him.  Thomas Frank called him an "unrepentant New Dealer" and that's probably fair enough.  He's a lifelong labor lawyer, a supporter of single payer health insurance.

But the main reason that I'm supporting him is that he wrote a book that changed my life.  It's called Which Side Are You On?  Trying To Be For Labor When It's Flat on Its Back.  It begins:

   "Organized labor." Say those words, and your heart sinks. I am a labor lawyer, and my heart sinks. Dumb, stupid organized labor: this is my cause. But too old, too arthritic, to be a cause.

    It was a cause, back in the thirties. Now it is a dumb, stupid mastodon of a thing, crawling off to Bal Harbour to die. How did it outlive George Meany? Sometimes, as a mental exercise, I try to think of the AFL-CIO in the year 2001. But I cannot do it. The whole idea is too perverse.

    U.S. manufactunng has gone down the drain, and with it, it seems, the entire labor movement.

The book is sad, funny, and poetic.  And it convinced me that tilting at windmills is a perfectly reasonable way to spend your life.  The next thing I knew, I was taking  David Montgomery's classes and a few years later I was in public policy grad school. 

My copy of the book is still on my shelf, and I just picked it up.  I had forgotten that Geoghegan had signed it for me.  It's dated November 1994, a few weeks after the election that brought us Newt Gingrich and the Contract with (or on) America, and I must have been pretty discouraged when I talked to him, because what he wrote is "For some good it may do — Read Coles!  Then just put it all aside, and do it all with as much style as you can."

Anyway, I'm not the only person who Geoghegan has impressed.  Here's Kathy G writing about canvassing for him, and Katha Pollitt and David Sirota and James Fallows and Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland) even Mickey Kaus

Oh, and if you're having trouble spelling his name, you can also find his website at

TBR: People of the Book

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

On vacation with my in-laws, I did manage to read a few books for fun. One of them was Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book.  It's fiction, but based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a rare illuminated Jewish manuscript, which was protected from the Nazis by a Muslim cleric and also survived the bombings of Sarajevo during the wars of the 1990s.

The title of the book is both a play on the traditional notion that Jews are "the people of the Book" (e.g. the Torah) and a description of the contents, as it follows the stories of the different people who were involved with the creation, use, and protection of the manuscript over the centuries.  Brooks uses the story to highlight stories of multi-cultural friendship in a part of the world known for its ethnic feuds. The story unfolds backwards, with each story tied to a piece of physical evidence found in the Haggadah, and at times reminded me of a highbrow version of a James Michener concept.  But Brooks writes very well, and I enjoyed the story as it unfolded.

By coincidence or serendipity, my in-laws gave me a reproduction of the real Sarajevo Haggadah for the holidays — purchased long before I showed up with the novel.  I certainly appreciated the gift more for knowing the story that went with it.

In writing this review, I remembered that I blogged about another Brooks book, March, a few years back.  I think I liked that one a bit more.