Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: Geekspeak- Dr. Graham Tattersall

It has been almost a year since I have posted anything here, or written a book review and a lot of that has to do with a lack of time and a lot of bad luck with MP3 players.  I had one die right before Christmas and held off purchasing a new one until after the holidays.  And when I didn't get one, I ended up waiting until the summer to replace it.  I did have my wife's for a while of the summer, so I did listen to some books, but this one hear is one I actually read the old fashioned way, literally read the words on the page.  This is something that usually only happens during the summer and unfortunately with a large backlog of magazines, especially Popular Science, I didn't get many other physical books read.  However, I picked this one up a the library book sale in the spring and read through it pretty quickly during the summer.
I really liked this book.  It reminds me of xkcd's What If, light.  The biggest difference is that you knew what question was being asked and could pause in your reading to do a quick estimated guess. This book focused on different ways of measuring, estimating, guesstimating, and Fermi problem solving.  The calculations were real, and somewhat practical.  I don't know how often the author went back and checked his estimates against real values, but the estimates all sounded reasonable and so the ballpark answers were good enough.  And even though the answers were frequently not specific, that was kind of the point of the book.  It focused on ways of estimating and doing simple mental-math calculations to get to a satisfactory answer.  One of the most memorable calculations was a conversion of power consumption of different items to horsepower, but since horsepower really is foreign to a lot of us now that we don't use horses as a primary means of transportation or labor, and furthermore, because we don't comprehend large numbers well and most cars have horsepowers in the tens to hundreds, he did a further conversion to human power, which he called slavepower.  He further argued that maybe we'd be better at conserving energy if we understood in units of slavepower instead.  Anyway, the book was a good short read with frequent chapter and section breaks which made it easy to put down and pick up again.

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