One-Minute Book Reviews

September 21, 2009

‘Why We Make Mistakes’ – A Provocative Look at the Causes of Human Error, or Why There’s a 1-in-5 Chance That a Doctor Will Misdiagnose Your Final Illness

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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If you drink while studying for a test, hope the exam will be held in a bar

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. By Joseph T. Hallinan. Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A few days before Halloween in a small town in Delaware, a 42-year-old woman hanged herself from a tree across from a moderately busy road. Her body dangled about 15 feet above the ground and could easily be seen from passing cars, but no one called the police for more than 12 hours.

“They thought it was a Halloween decoration,” the mayor’s wife said as a crowd gathered at the scene in 2005.

Joseph Hallinan uses the tragedy to make a point: Context affects our perceptions of events more than we imagine. Its importance helps to explain why we often can’t quite place somebody we’ve run into: Is he a barista at the local Starbucks? A volunteer at the library? It’s easier to recall who a person is when you know where he belongs. And context involves more than time and place, Hallinan says in Why We Make Mistakes, a fascinating survey the causes of human error. One study found that people who learned while slightly drunk remembered better if they were tested while tipsy.

Hallinan focuses on cognitive or perceptual errors that affect behavior, or factors such as change blindness (an inability to notice shifts in what we see) and overconfidence (a trait that shows up more in men than women and influences the mistakes of each sex). But he writes at times about behavior that affects perceptions, such as not getting enough sleep. And this dilutes slightly the focus of his book, which draws on research in psychology, economics, and other fields. Why deal with fatigue but not with such physical conditions as chronic pain or stress that can also cause errors?

A larger issue is whom the “we” in the title of the book refers to. Hallinan seems to draw mainly on the work of American researchers, and this raises questions when he deals with a topic such as overconfidence. He makes a strong case that “we” are overconfident. But that’s what Europeans have said for decades about Americans, and it makes you wonder if his conclusions would have differed if he’d drawn on more studies of, say, Scots or Hungarians. You don’t know whether this is a book about why people make mistakes or about why Americans make mistakes.

Even so, Why We Make Mistakes is as sobering – and potentially helpful — as it is lively. If you can’t decide whether to get a second opinion about a recommended medical treatment, here’s a fact that could help you make up your mind: Studies of autopsies have shown that “doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time.”

Best line: No. 1: “Memory, it turns out, is often more of a reconstruction than a reproduction.” No. 2: “Wrong-site surgery continues to afflict untold numbers of patients each year. … One recent survey, for instance, asked hand surgeons about operating on the wrong place; 20 percent of them revealed that they had operated on the wrong site at least once in their careers.”

Worst line: “On the kinds of sophisticated tasks that economists are most interested in, like trading in markets or choosing among gambles, the overwhelming finding it that increased incentives to do not change average behavior substantially. Generally, what incentives do is prolong deliberation or attention to a problem. People who are offered them will work harder on a given problem … though they will not necessarily work any smarter.” This passage seems self-contradictory and an oversimplification of the effect of incentives. If people work harder on a problem, isn’t that a change in their “average behavior”?

Recommendation? Why We Make Mistakes may appeal to fans of the books of Malcolm Gladwell, though there’s some overlap of information with them.

Published: February 2009

Editor: Kris Puopolo

About the author: Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize–winner and former Wall Street Journal reporter. He lives in Chicago.

One-Minute Book Reviews posts short reviews by Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. The site is also the home of the “Backscratching in Our Time” series that calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books. The next installment in the series will appear Friday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 19, 2007

Great Small Presses #3: Academy Chicago

Filed under: Great Small Presses — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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Fed up with the poor quality of so many books from major publishers? This is the third in a series of posts on great small or independent presses that have had high standards for years and sometimes decades.

In addition to its usual reviews, One-Minute Book Reviews will post a short profile of a different publisher each day this week, including a link to its site, which you may want to visit for holiday gift ideas. The series will continue after this week on an occasional basis.

A firm with a diverse list that ranges from film and video guides to reprints of early novels by some of the leading English writers of the 20th century

By Janice Harayda

There’s nothing stuffy or academic about Academy Chicago www.academychicago.com, which bills itself as a publisher of “quality fiction and nonfiction.” This admirable firm publishes new and reissued books, mostly for adults, and has an especially strong line of reprints of 20th-century novels by well-known English writers. On its fiction list: Malcolm Bradbury’s first novel, Eating People Is Wrong, and Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke (a tale of what happens a husband and wife go on a diet together). Other specialties of this Chicago-based firm include murder mysteries, film and video guides, and books about Celtic and Arthurian legends. One of its showpieces: E.M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady and its four sequels, the subject a six-page feature in The New Yorker (“The Diarist,” by Cynthia Zarin, May 2005). The Academy Chicago Web site says it does not publish books with “explicit, gratuitous sex and violence.”

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept free books from publishers.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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