Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Cult of the Amateur - a case of mis-selling and lost opportunity

I suspected The Cult of the Amateur might be pretty dated, despite the 'new edition' flash on the cover of the edition I bought (see pic), but I'd been browsing for a long time and was getting tired, and I was swayed by the high praise quoted.

My suspicions proved correct. However, that's a minor annoyance - places should stop stocking this book now, but most of the fault lies with me for not sampling it more thoroughly before buying it. What's more annoying is that the book is misleadingly titled and subtitled, regardless of when it was written.

The subtitle of the edition I bought, for those who don't want to squint at the pic, is 'How blogs, Myspace, Youtube and the rest of today's user-generated media are killing our culture and economy'. I thought I'd facetiously suggest a more accurate alternative, such as 'Some internet stuff you should worry about', but in looking for a cover pic I've discovered that the author/publishers have beaten me to it - other editions of TCA have been variously subtitled even more hysterically: 'How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values', slightly more accurately and punchily: 'How today's internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy', and slightly more accurately in one way but less accurately in another: 'How today's internet is killing our culture'.

That is, much of TCA is actually not about user-generated media at all, but just about the internet in general circa 2007. Substantial portions of the book are about regulating the internet for the sake of public safety, touching on online gambling, identity theft, and pornography, and placing the blame on governments and corporations as opposed to amateurs in any sense. All well and good, but not what was promised.

To return to the book's datedness, it's not just that the world has moved on - the edition I read is also self-defeating twice over. The first 7 chapters set out some problems with the internet circa 2007. Then chapter 8, called 'Solutions', presents various reasons why some of the foregoing problems are actually not all that bothersome after all, citing a number of websites, companies and initiatives that had already begun tackling some of the issues. This is no in-depth analysis or considered forecast, but just a few snapshots that undermine much of what has gone before. And then, a new chapter to the edition, titled 'Web 3.0', adds that actually much of those initiatives listed in chapter 8 failed to live up to expectations.

It's sheer laziness and dishonesty. A more scrupulous author and publisher putting out a 'new edition' would have thoroughly revised the entire book - if not reworking the whole thing, then at least taking out the dead ends and making the whole internally coherent.

And when it isn't hopelessly archaic or off-topic, TCA is often annoying for some other reason instead. I folded over the page every time I came across something that was either dated, off-topic, or that just got my goat, and this is how my copy ended up looking:

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the book is that Keen did a reasonable job some of the time - being quite readable in the section on the death of music stores, very sensible in the section on safeguarding children, and I think impressively prescient in picking up on the economic/employment costs of the media revolution. Unfortunately he spread himself too thinly, chose some of his targets unwisely, and became too hysterical in screaming about the slaughtering of culture and values. And he should have picked a more accurate title, damnit.

This is a book that should be put out to pasture. I haven't read them yet, but recent books by Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier have looked at the issues of technological blinkeredness and technology causing instability, respectively. Whether there is actually an up-to-date, well written, well researched, intellectually rigourous book on the effect of amateur content generation on our culture, I don't know. I do know that TCA isn't it.

The irony is that if I'd have thought to check Goodreads before buying TCA, I'd have seen that it has an average rating - from those dreadful amateur critics - of just 2.73 out of 5, and I probably would have put it back on the shelf. Would that have been an example of amateurs 'killing the culture' or 'assaulting the economy', or would it have been amateurs helping me to spend both my money and my time more wisely? YOU decide.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Averaging opinions on Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise

I always write my book reviews before looking at anyone else's opinion. In the case of Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise, though, I couldn't think of much to say.

But given that a substantial part of Silver's election prediction methodology was to take the average of all the polls he could get his hands on, what better way to consider his book than to take the average of everyone else's reviews of it?

The best place I know to find book reviews is Goodreads - the same place I do my reviewing, in case you didn't bother to click the above link. The mean Goodreads score for TSTN is currently 3.95 out of 5, based on 5,695 ratings. Not bad at all.

There's something a bit strange about the 'rating details' button for this particular book, as it is only providing a breakdown of how 77 of those 5,695 raters scored the book (The first 77? The most recent 77? Why 77???). This is not a very large sample, but it may still be informative.

The breakdown of those 77 ratings is as follows:

35% 27
50% 39
11% 9
2% 2
0% 0

The mean score of this sample of 77 ratings is 4.18, so it seems fairly representative, and the standard deviation, assuming I've done my calculations correctly, is 0.74.

By comparison, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, another popular science-esque book to go stratospheric, has a mean rating of 3.79 out of 5 based on 226,252 ratings. The 'rating details' button works better for TTP, although still not perfectly, and the data from its sample of 177,026 ratings breaks down like this:

26% 46663
37% 65831
24% 44192
6% 12276
4% 8064

You can see by eye that there is more variation in Gladwell's ratings, but to give you the hardcore data, the standard deviation of his sample ratings is 1.06.

So Silver's TSTN has a very repectable mean score of 3.96 out of 5, and a very low proportion of people (if we take The Tipping Point as a comparitor) deviated much from thinking it was at least this good. I suppose you would expect a higher mean score to have less deviation, but it makes you warm and fuzzy to have the detail, doesn't it?

So that's the quantitative data. Now for the qualitative.

In general only the first page of reviews on Goodreads (the 'best' 30 reviews) is worth reading, and that's assuming the book has even garnered 30 reviews. However, TSTN is a very popular book and has so far collected 853 reviews, and the quality of these (judging purely by length) doesn't seriously drop off until the 17th page, i.e. after about 500 reviews. But given that, as we've already established, there was very little deviation between the ratings, we can safely assume that there will be little deviation between the reviews too, right? Let's stick to page 1.

The top-rated review has attracted 19 likes and 13 comments. Charles rated the book 4 out of 5, although he says he would have liked to give it 3.5 (Goodreads doesn't allow half-point scoring). Interestingly, Charles also found TSTN difficult to review, and he therefore presents what he says are the consensus views of his book group. So here we have an averaged review inside an averaged review!

Charles' book group found the book generally interesting, but thought some chapters, including those on baseball and terrorists, were dull. Charles also mentions an 'unacceptable number of typographical errors' - something I noticed too, although I only found it mildly annoying.

Stuart's review, the second best, has 6 likes and 1 comment. Stuart has experience in earthquake prediction, which one of the chapters of TSTN takes on. He found 'a lot to like in terms of tone' but thought that 'Silver isn't a good writer' and that the book's organization was 'haphazard'. The most interesting point here is that Stuart felt Silver should have included Monte Carlo simulations in the book. Ultimately, he thought it was in need of more robust editing.

Here are some illustrative excerpts from the other 28 reviewers:
  • 'Silver is a great writer'
  • 'Silver is not the best writer ... His casual style ... diminishes the impact'
  • 'This is a really amazing book'
  • 'there is not much coherence to the thing'
  • There was plenty of good stuff in here, and little to actively disagree with'
  • I don't imagine that a lot of this material is going to stick with me, in no small part because ... Silver is often arguing for common sense things'
  • 'I'm not sure the chapters on baseball and chess especially added all that much'
  • Some good insights here, as well as a very good chapter on IBM's chess playing computer ... The section on rating a shortstop's fielding abilities was equally excellent.'
  • 'Bayes's theorem, however, requires us to know the probability of an event before we weigh in the new evidence. ... Silver doesn't really get into this discussion.'
  • 'considering its centrality to his book, I didn’t feel he did enough to explain how one goes about arriving at a prior probability in the first place'
  • 'I sadly did not feel like I had gained a very deep understanding of Bayesian thinking by the end'
  • 'Indeed his explanation of Bayes Theorem which has eluded me for years finally made the penny drop.'
So, not as little deviation there as we'd expected: Silver is either a great writer or a poor one, and chess and baseball either interest you or they don't.

However, on the key points there does seem to be good agreement: the book is largely interesting and highly readable, some chapters are more interesting than others, and some of the key arguments could be more deeply explored or better explained.

And I think that brings me back to where I started. Usually when I struggle to review a book, I find when I look at other people's reviews that they aren't terribly interesting or inspired, and that there is largely agreement on the key points and disagreement only about things that don't matter. That was very much the case here.

Having now looked at everyone else's reviews of The Signal and The Noise, I'm glad I didn't waste a lot of time trying to think of something to say.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Travelling with a Child

What to do when you face a 5-hour wait in Prague airport, a 2-hour flight, a 1-hour train journey and a 1-hour bus journey, all of it without reading matter?

Well you buy more reading matter of course, but Prague airport has rather limited options.

I could have bought a second copy of the book sitting shiny and new back in my flat awaiting my attention, Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise, but I didn't really want to waste a tenner.

I could have bought Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, but given that his LSE talk on it was about 98% bluster,  it didn't really appeal.

The only other non-fiction option was Jeremy Paxman's Empire, complete with a cover that looked like it was printed back when Britain still dominated most of the planet. I came very close.

There was also a selection of Kafka, the Czech Republic's most famous son...

But I needed something I could read for 9 straight hours without becoming saturated and tired. I needed a thriller. I needed a book with Tom Cruise's face on the cover:

The opening pages of One Shot were not promising, but by the time the plot hit its hook (an apparently nailed-on mass murderer says nothing when caught except to ask for ... Jack Reacher!), I'd settled into Child's rhythm and was no longer looking out for literary inadequacies, but just enjoying the unfolding of events.

Because the core of the plot is pretty great, I'll happily give Child that. It was the hook that made me choose One Shot over the likes of the new Dan Brown, the latest Ian Rankin, etc, but even once I'd passed the hook, the core of the plot continued to grip.

Some of the finer points did strike me as rather weak, though - generally points where things came to a head or the action needed progressing. I found some of the moments of conflict and resolution a bit of a let down, or a bit of a stretch.

But I thought the greatest weakness of the book was the main character's lack of it. I want two things from a thriller at minimum: a decent plot and decent characters. Literary skill would be nice but is not essential or expected.

One Shot features some fairly interesting bad guys, but I was surprised at the shallowness of the main character. I think One Shot, despite being the first Reacher novel to be made into a film, is not the first Reacher novel, which might go someway to explaining why it provides little in the way of backstory or outlook. But more of both would have been welcome.

In addition, I wasn't that impressed with Reacher's "special powers", if you get me. The stuff that makes him different from you or I, and worth sticking on a poster or 12. Yes he's a very astute investigator, but when it comes to the physical stuff he's basically just a very big guy. He gets his way simply by punching people in the face, or throwing them out of windows, or simply intimidating them. Finess is not the order of the day.

I wonder how Reacher is portrayed in the film, given that the character of the book is a 6'6" monster who bear hugs people to death, and Tom Cruise is about 5'7". Presumably he's some sort of martial arts specialist, which although very tired would at least make for more interesting reading than Me Hulk, Me Smash.

I have to give Child his due though: he kept me reading and entertained for the full 9 hours. In fact he surpassed that, because I still had 70 pages left to read when I got home, and rather than binning the book or setting it aside, after I'd eaten and showered I ploughed right on through. I didn't think an awful lot of those pages - the climax was the most anticlimactic part of all - but I stuck with them all the same, and then the day was done.

One last thing. One Shot reminded me quite substantially of another book published 9 years earlier: Stephen Hunter's Black Light. I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism - it's not that similar and I also don't know when the first Reacher book was written - I mention it only because I thought Black Light had more depth than One Shot and a more interesting and impressive main character than Jack Reacher. So anyone reading this who likes Child and Reacher would do well to check out Hunter.

For me, spending one day with a Child was nice, but enough for now, thank you.