Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Know-It-All (A.J. Jacobs)

I actually read The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World a couple months ago, but since in those last couple months we’ve moved, found ourselves with a baby on the way,* and spent our weekends doing absurd things like thinking we could repaint our entire downstairs in two days, I hadn’t actually gotten around to reviewing it. Maria already had to renew it after it was overdue once (library fine: $0.25; result: cheerful turning over of quarter to library), and then discovered it was overdue AGAIN (library fine: $0.50; result: wild accusations thrown in my direction and a certain amount of crying, correctly blamed later on pregnancy hormones), so it seemed like I’d better get something down quick before more than just accusations started flying.

So, the short version: This was the precursor to Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, previously reviewed by Maria, and takes the same kind of “immersion journalism” approach—in this case, he spends a year reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish, all 33,000 pages, all 44 million words. Like The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs brings the funny along with some interesting facts:

Fillmore, Millard
The thirteenth president was born in a log cabin. Why doesn’t poor Millard ever get press for this? Lincoln hogs all the log cabin spotlight.

nursery rhyme
My favorite Mother Goose fact thus far: “Jack and Jill” is actually an extended allegory about taxes. The jack and the jill were two forms of measurement in early England. When Charles I scaled down the jack (originally two ounces) so as to collect higher sales tax, the jill, which was by definition twice the size of the jack, was automatically reduced, hence “came tumbling after.” Kids love tax stories. I can’t wait to hear the nursery rhyme about Bush’s abolishment of the estate tax.

He also still finds himself unable to begin relating everything in his life to his current project, shoehorning random facts into every conversation and generally driving his wife (Julie) crazy:

“Brrrr,” says Julie as she unbundles her several layers of winter wear.

“A little nippy out there, huh?” says Shannon.

“Not quite as cold as Antarctica’s Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero,” I reply. “But still cold.”

Shannon chuckles politely.

We sit down in the living room and Shannon starts telling Julie about her upcoming vacation in St. Bart’s.

“I’m so jealous,” says Julie.

“Yeah, I can’t wait to get some sun,” Shannon says. “Look how white I am.”

“Albinism affects one in twenty thousand Americans,” I say.

Shannon doesn’t quite know how to respond to that one.

“Anyhoo,” says Julie, “where are you staying?”

An entertaining read from start to finish, although if you’re planning on checking these out, read this one first, then The Year of Living Biblically—certain developments in the Jacobs household will be considerably more suspenseful if you read them in order.

OK, now if we can just find a couple of quarters around here . . .

* Yikes! Names rejected by Maria thus far include Binomial, Flapjack (or Flapjill, if it’s a girl), and Tater. We’re working on it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Evolution of Useful Things (Henry Petroski)

Maria had picked up a used copy of The Evolution of Useful Things for me, and given how much I liked Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things (review), it definitely sounded like I would like it. Unfortunately, it turns out I’m not really interested enough in paper clips to take on a couple hundred pages of passages like this:

A great variety of such fasteners came into existence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and there was fierce competition among them. As in the evolution of all artifacts, each variation of fastener promised to solve some or all of the problems of the preexisting forms. One style, the Premier fastener, advertised that its points did not become crushed “as in fasteners similar in appearance to the Premier.” Fasteners of dissimilar appearance were also developed to answer the objection to the paper-piercing points altogether.

(I’ll refrain from boring everyone by listing all the reasons why that last sentence is the prose equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.)

I did make it about 80 pages in before moving on, so I can say that Petroski’s basic argument is that the commonplace phrase “form follows function” is wrongheaded and entirely inadequate as an explanation for how many of the objects we take for granted—forks, paperclips, zippers, etc.—came to be. Instead, he argues, these objects are the current result of a long, often meandering developmental process, one driven by the shortcomings of previous designs: “form follows failure,” as he puts it. Interesting enough. It turned out the book wasn’t really for me, but if you’re in to the history of these kinds of design and engineering problems, and if you didn’t blink at the excerpt above, it might be for you.