Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which The Geek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvious reason other than the word 'geek' in the title of the book, the illustrator decided to provide us with highly pixellated illustrations as if they were being rendered in a 1980s video game. This probably seemed a good idea at the time... but makes for pretty poor graphics. Sometimes also there seemed to be limited coordination between the text and graphics. So, for instance, in a section labelled 'What's the best way to commute to work' the graphic is a bar chart showing relatively happiness of various commute times compared with a 1 to 15 minute travel time. There are several interesting features. People seem happier with a 31-45 minute commute that 16-30 minutes - and by far the best are working from home (not surprising) and a 3 hour or more commute (more surprising). None of this is referenced in the text, which just said the contradictory 'the longer someone's commute, the lower their level of life satisfaction.' Similarly in the 'How to Kick Ass at Monopoly' article, the text refers to the UK square names, while the illustration of the board shows the US names.

Having said that, I found the section on games (how to do better at the likes of Monopoly and Rock, Paper, Scissors) was probably the most fun part of the book. One of the problems of the more serious parts is that the short article approach is not always capable of providing effective guidance. So, if we look at 'how to save money at the supermarket' it's all about avoiding impulse buys and not buying stuff you don't need right now. The trouble is, if this is your sole tactic and you buy a product regularly with a long shelf life that is sometimes a lot cheaper than at other times, you will spend far more than if you buy extra when it is on sale.

Overall, there's no doubt the book is fun, but it does feel more than a little shallow. To be honest, I would rather Stuart and Looi had been allowed to write twice as much text and we lost the graphics. Nevertheless there were some genuine take home points here - and I expect to win at Monopoly next time I play, or I will be asking for my money back.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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