September 15, 2008

The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls, by David W. Moore

David W. Moore argues that polls are being misused. He argues that questions are formulated in such a way that the results make for interesting news stories while bearing very little resemblance to what the public actually believes. He argues that even good polls are presented by news organizations in dangerously misleading ways. He argues that polls, as they are practiced today, both misinform the public and elected officials, and actually can create public opinion and misguided policy decisions. Having been a senior editor at Gallup Polls for thirteen years, he has an insider's perspective on how they're run, and where they can go wrong. And by the end of the first chapter, I was sold.

By the end of the second chapter, I wanted him to stop trying to convince me of what he'd already established, and get on with developing his argument further. By the end of the third chapter, I was bored, impatient, and starting to suspect that he really didn't have anything new to add beyond what he'd said at the outset.

I turned out to be right. The book is filled with example after example after example, interspersed with reiterations of the same argument over and over and over again, scrupulously documented with endnotes. Almost any given chapter would make for a good essay; I'd pitch it to Harper's, or maybe Mother Jones. Possibly even Esquire. (Perhaps some chapters were essays originally; if so, the copyright page gives no indication of this.) But as a book, it never goes anywhere.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that David W. Moore believes in polls. He believes that, taken properly, they can yield valid data. He believes that, used properly, they can do tremendous good. I do not know why. I kept waiting for the chapter in which he would make the case for the utility of polls, but he never really does; the belief goes so deep that it's taken for granted. When he mentions, on the fourth-to-last page, that he wrote another book sixteen years ago about how nifty polls were, it comes as no surprise. (Perhaps he figured that having made that case sixteen years ago, he didn't need to recapitulate it here. If so, he was wrong.) I think this belief in polls may account for his driving his argument into the ground; he's trying to battle a resistance that he feels, and perhaps others in his field feel as well. He's trying and trying and trying to convince those who really don't want to believe that polls could be bad.

I have no such problem. After the first few dozen pages, I was ready to declare that all political polls sucked, that they had no utility whatsoever, and that the only good polls worth taking (or paying any attention to) were the actual elections themselves. And a counterargument for this never came. While he proposes some specific ways to fix some of the specific problems in some polls, he never makes a case for how—if all his suggestions were taken—the public would be better served than by having no polls at all.

(The closest he comes is in telling the history of George Gallup and his hopes that polls would give the public more of a voice in national policy, but the exposition is apparently enough. He appears not to see any need to establish that this could really work in practice, or would even be a good thing.)

Recommendation: read the first chapter. Or almost any one of the others; they're close to interchangeable.

Posted by Shmuel at 11:57 PM

September 5, 2008

Two Lives: A Memoir, by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth never writes the same book twice. I don't know what's next, but it would not surprise me too terribly much if it were a brilliant 200-page coloring book about a family of flamingos. (It would, of course, have a sonnet in the dedication. It's nice to have at least one constant.)

This one is a memoir of his great-uncle Shanti and great-aunt Henny, and it's an excellent memorial to two people he loved. It's generally interesting, often gripping. With that said, the last section in particular might have profited by a ruthless attack with a large set of pruning shears.

(Four stars out of five.)

Posted by Shmuel at 9:37 PM

August 19, 2008

Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection, by Isaac Asimov

I rather liked the first story ("Cal"), about a robot who wants to be a writer, and the title story has some interesting ideas about a future sensory medium and may give some indication of Asimov's feelings about The Gods Themselves. The rest of the stories are okay, but nothing special.

That's roughly the first third of the book; the rest reprints introductions to other anthologies and editorials from Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (though without any headnotes indicating what came from where; you're left to extrapolate from internal evidence and the copyright dates at the end). On the whole, these aren't worth the bother.

Posted by Shmuel at 9:27 PM

January 7, 2005

Crap I Drew on My Lunch Break: Volume 1: The First 100 Comics, by Jin Wicked

As the title suggests, this book, printed via CafePress, contains the first 100 comics from Jin Wicked's online strip Crap I Drew on My Lunch Break. It's largely autobiographical, occasionally political. The strips themselves are viewable online, so I don't see much point in describing them; also included is the written equivalent of the director's commentary from Jin, and some thoughts at the end from some of the people who appear in the comic. On the whole, it's cute.

Posted by Shmuel at 9:09 AM

May 10, 2003

Dating: A Survival Guide from the Front Lines, by Josey Vogels


Posted by Shmuel at 10:00 PM

April 29, 2003

Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, by Riki Anne Wilchins

[I never got around to writing this entry. In a nutshell, I liked the book.]

Posted by Shmuel at 7:47 PM

April 24, 2003

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, by Kate Bornstein

As Anne of Green Gables might have put it, I think I've found a kindred spirit.

[I never got around to finishing this entry. In a nutshell, I liked the book a lot.]

Posted by Shmuel at 11:41 PM

April 6, 2003

Growing Up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg, by Barry Williams with Chris Kreski

[I never did get around to writing this entry.]

Posted by Shmuel at 5:04 PM

Exhibitionism for the Shy, by Carol Queen

This isn't bad. I'm a bit... uncomfotable? Unconvinced? Uncertain? about Queen's advocacy of naming and developing different sexual personae for different situations. I can see how it could work, but I'm not sure sliding towards Muliple Personality Disorder is a universally contructive approach for adding new elements to one's life. I'd kinda prefer an approach towards developing a single, unified personality.

Then again, not having tried it, I probably shouldn't knock it.

Otherwise, it's interesting, it's well written, it's worth checking out.

Posted by Shmuel at 4:59 PM

April 4, 2003

Seinfeld: The Totally Unauthorized Tribute (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Whether you're a Seinfeld fan or not, you're probably not going to want to bother with this one. It might serve as an object lesson in what not to do in writing a book about a TV show. Overbearing author; almost useless capsule summaries of the shows that leave lots of stuff out; completely pointless trivia questions that add nothing to the body text. And it's missing the last batch of episodes, 'cause the book was rushed to market to capitalize on the Seinfeld mania that accompanied the end of the series. Pretty much a wash all around.

Posted by Shmuel at 5:02 PM

April 3, 2003

Iron Chef: The Official Book, compiled by Fuji Television; translated by Kaoru Hoketsu

If you're an Iron Chef fan, you'll probably want to read this; if not, you probably won't. It's a quick, momentarily diverting read, with lots of photos.

On the bright side, it includes a list of all the battles. It doesn't however, say who won (presumably so as not to give away the end for those who haven't seen a given episode yet), and I would have appreciated even a one-sentence summary giving a highlight from each episode, but I suppose that would've required too much effort. Also, there are a bunch of photos of various dishes made on the show, but in most cases, they're unaccompanied by actual recipes. Maybe those who are into epicurean eye candy will appreciate this; I didn't.

On the other hand, this book was originally written in Japanese, and some of the translations are, well, kinda charming. "This program is too demanding so I hope it stays in an eternal sleep," says Kenji Fukui, for instance. Love it.

Anyway. It's got profiles of the Chefs and others associated with the program, a history of the show, various highlights, and lots of photos. So, again, if you like the show, it's worth a read.

Posted by Shmuel at 8:15 AM

March 15, 2003

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, by Terry Ryan

Oh, this was good.

The subtitle concisely summarizes the entire book. It's the true story of how the author's mother, during the contest craze of the 1950s and 1960s, entered every contest in sight, winning often enough to keep the family afloat.

I liked this for several reasons. For one thing, I confess I give bonus points to any book chronicling a family whose size is in the ballpark of mine. (Ten is close enough to be in the ballpark, I figure.) This is one reason why I've long been a fan of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes. (Of course, small families can be nice, too: that's one reason why I've liked watching The Brady Bunch over the years.)

Anyway. Aside from that, the story is engaging, and it's pretty well written. I particularly liked the fact that the author didn't fall into the trap of foreshadowing contest entries that were going to win. As the narrative progresses, some contests disappear into the mists after the entries are sent out, never to be heard of again, while others pay off. You have to read on to discover which is which, though.

Finally, the book includes many of the actual contest entries, and while some of them are almost incomprehensible (but right up the alley of the contest judges), others are a delight to read. In one case, I'd actually read it before, in a collection of Burma-Shave signs, just without attribution to the author. (It's a real beaut, having relevance both to the actual product, and to the fact that it's being read from a car speeding along a highway: "Hairpin turn, / Hotrod ditched. / Lost control, / His whiskers / Itched. / Burma-Shave.")

Posted by Shmuel at 10:53 PM

March 7, 2003

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Rediscovery of a Jewish Spiritual Tradition, by Alan Morinis

I found this to be fascinating, but not for reasons that would apply to most people. This book, you see, concerns the discovery of Mussar -- which is more or less a Jewish approach to ethical matters -- by an unobservant Jew, who eventually has a series of meetings with a rabbi in New York in which he learns more about it.

The rabbi in question is the head of the high school and seminary where I studied for eight years. Seeing my school through the eyes of an outsider? Utterly fascinating.

Otherwise... not a bad introduction to Mussar. Kinda simplified, and definitely eclectic, but not a bad read, and I suppose it might be a useful starting point, which is all it really tries to be.

Posted by Shmuel at 2:03 AM

March 1, 2003

Fraud, by David Rackoff

The first episode I ever heard of This American Life featured both Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff. I instantly liked both. Over the years, I came to be somewhat jealous of Vowell. And, having just read this, his first book of essays, I'd have to say that I'm somewhat jealous of Rakoff, too. In other words, this book is highly recommended. I have a couple of nitpicks -- he sometimes allows his essays to meander a bit too much, and he doesn't always seem to have a point -- but it's good reading.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:21 AM