walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Head in the Cloud_, William Poundstone, not a review

I've given up; it's a thrower. Here are samples.

p 46: "Three-quarters thought English was the most commonly spoken language in the world (it's Mandarin Chinese, with 2.6 times as many native speakers as English)."

Okay. So that was a definitional change. When second and nth language speakers are included, English _is_ the most commonly spoken language in the world. And I have reasonable confidence that that was true in 2006 when the National Geographic-Roper poll was done. I'm hopeful that NatGeo/Roper got the questions right when they asked them; it is inexcusable Poundstone summarized it incorrectly in a book that is all about people being ignorant of details.

p 39: "Though the above facts might seem timeless and generation-neutral" (facts were: number of US Senators, capital of Brazil and where a shortstop plays). No, no they don't seem either timeless or generation-neutral. Nor are they culture neutral, race neutral or gender neutral.

p 24: "My surveys confirm what others have found. American Millenials don't know many facts that might be considered fundamental to cultural literacy." And you, Dear Author, seem unaware of how that is something that old people have been saying about young people (using different words, but the same idea) since forever. When the young people become the old people, they just use a new yardstick for which cultural icons are important. Poundstone, for example, thinks it is important to know who the pop star is who recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" and "All Shook Up". But I bet if you said anything and Ye and the Kardashians, he would be disparaging. (Cue R.'s rant about how all the compsci papers that were written in lisp originally and then redone as java papers.)

And finally, the piece de resistance: "Not everyone agrees with Hirsch that there is a fixed set of facts that all should know. But absent such a set, the concept of being well informed becomes a hopelessly relative one."

No, sweetie, it didn't _become_ a hopelessly relative one. It was _always_ a hopelessly relative one.

I feel compelled at this point to bring up something that El Jefe used to say back in the day, which I always grumbled about. He wanted that little bookstore on the internet to present to the customer not lots of books or all the books or whatever. He wanted to present to the customer the book that customer wanted to buy today. (My complaint was that I rarely only wanted to buy one book. But I agreed with the underlying principle.) None of us actually need to be "well informed". You don't really need to know and be able to reproduce in a multiple choice format how long it takes to boil an egg, as long as you know how to tell when it is done. You don't need to know how long it takes to cook a steak, as long as you have a meat thermometer. Nobody needs to be good at things which we have long, ad hoc familiarity with, but no formal training or credentialing in. It is okay to actually be quite bad at a lot of this stuff. Especially if the people wandering around telling us that we need to be better at some of it keep making boneheaded mistakes like these.

The end of the book appears to have some useful advice about designing apps -- putting labels on icons for new users and then letting them disappear as the user gets familiar with it is an interesting idea. I would rather see some sort of gamification approach (easy early levels that are fun to play and "teach" you how to play). But there's more than one way to do this.

In the meantime, Poundstone seems to suffer from a lot of uninspected privilege and assumptions. And the book as a whole suffers from the very common problem of people walking around pointing out ignorance. It's an old problem. It's described in the Sermon on the Mount, which Poundstone took pains to point out how little people know about who delivered it.

You might be wondering, why did you pick this book up? You must have known how it was going to turn out? Well, no, actually. I picked it up because I'm able to rapidly find things online from high quality sources that otherwise highly educated, intelligent friends of mine struggle with locating (I know people who are even better at this than I am; I'm not saying I'm The Mostest. I'm saying I'm noticeably better at this than I would expect.). I can find things that have been inaccurately summarized. I can find things that have been incompletely summarized. I have some theories about what I am doing, but my explanations don't help other people as much as I think they should. So I was sort of hoping that a subtitle like this:

"Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up"

might have some interesting insights.

Alas, no such thing.

Honestly, people have been bemoaning the decline of wtf since we started writing shit down. It's poor rhetoric, obviously inaccurate and very, very boring.


p 209 (I sampled the financial literacy stuff) "Which is better for someone on a fixed income: a 3 percent inflation rate or a 7 percent inflation rate?"

He says about people who answered other than (A) 3 percent is better: "Let's hope the other 25 percent have someone more knowledgeable handling their money for them." He also characterizes this question as "about as easy as an inflation question can possibly be."

So. What you _really_ want, of course, is a fixed income with a COLA that increases using a metric that is larger than the inflation you personally experience (basket of goods bought nationally, while you retire to some very inexpensive place and eat rice and beans, say). And before you say, but if it has a COLA, it isn't fixed income anymore! Well, try telling that to all the people on Social Security which has a COLA, but is still called fixed income.

He's also sort of a fan of deliberative polling, which I feel all too often must devolve into push polling.

I can't find any obvious indication that he explores the connections between factual knowledge and identity formation/enforcement or ingroup/outgroup mechanisms. Which is especially weird, since that framework would actually go a long ways to explaining the income effects of the otherwise useless cultural trivia he is so focused on.
Tags: not-a-book-review
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