Book review

Thing Explainer

Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Really a very enjoyable book from Randall Munroe, which takes the graphical style of his brilliant going-15-years-and-still-funny xkcd web comic series, adds to it the self-imposed restriction of only using the thousand most common words in English, and pits it against various everyday “things” and attempts to explain them.

You get cross-section views of things like a datacentre (“computer buildings”), dishwashers (“box that cleans food holders”), and laptops (“bending computers”), as well as more abstract things like the US Constitution (“laws of the land”) and the periodic table (“the pieces everything is made of”). Munroe clearly had a lot of fun not just picking the things to explain, but coming up with cute names for them (“sky boat with turning wings” for helicopter, and so on). It’s perhaps a bit more fun if you actually know what he’s talking about, so you can work out what the actual concept he’s getting at is, but it’s fun even when I couldn’t quite get it!

Is this a book you could give to (say) a child, and expect them to learn about microwave ovens, or the Mars Rover? Perhaps not without additional guidance, but for grown-up kids (like me) it’s a delight. It’s charmingly done, and makes a much more entertaining coffee table book than many (physically it’s quite big – 23x34cm, although not super thick at about 1cm).

Four stars for flair and execution, and a bunch of fun.

Book review

Team Human

by Douglas Rushkoff


There’s a lot that I liked about Team Human: the underlying thesis is that we have let technology into many corners of our lives without thought for many of the consequences, and that the motives of those driving the technology adoption are often very poorly aligned with those of the users of the technology. The result is often a significant level of social isolation and repression, and Rushkoff proclaims loudly that the default answer of “add more technology to fix it” is unlikely to improve things. For me, it’s undeniably true, and the author does a great job of assembling a manifesto make his points.

The structure of the book was interesting, too – 100 short sections, varying from a few paragraphs to two or three pages. I did find it frustrating at times, though, as very often you would meet assertions that you disagreed with, and although there are footnotes on each section at the end of the book, I often had to do a reasonable amount of googling to find the supporting evidence. I sometimes didn’t find the evidence very convincing, either – e.g. in #58, where he refers to Penrose and Hameroff’s “Orch OR” theory of quantum consciousness, which is widely regarded as at best somewhat hokey science, and likely to be just flat out wrong.

Also worthy of comment is that the physical book itself is beautifully put together, in a non-traditional way. I almost always buy on Kindle, but I didn’t with this one, because (a) I was able to follow the book’s own thesis of more local, distributed, human activity by buying it from my local small bookshop, and (b) I wanted to own the physical hardback. Definitely worth it (plus you get to Stick It To The Man by doing so…)

The ultimate question is I suppose whether there’s actually anything we can do about any of this. Can we stop the tech juggernauts taking all our data and using vast clouds of Big Data machines and machine learning algorithms to work out how to drive us towards their desired economic behaviours (usually, although interestingly not always, they’re economic)? I don’t know if we can stop it, but I know if we don’t try to at least chisel away a little at that rock face, we’ll very likely regret it.