A review of Derbyshire’s Unknown Quantity

Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra

Author: John Derbyshire

Year: 2006

Publisher: Joseph Henry Press

ISBN: 030909657X

This was an absolutely fascinating book that I had a very difficult time putting down each night… Many hours of sleep lost to its pages! The book wanders through lots of territory, including rings and fields, different algebras, etc. Derbyshire’s writing style is the perfect mix of fun historical narrative and clearly explained mathematics. The best thing about the book was the depth Derbyshire was willing to go into with the math and the clarity of his explanations – I very seldom felt either confused or like I wish he had given me more.

Creating Open Educational Resources

Product Image: Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials
My rating: 5 out of 5

Coase’s Penguin author Yochai Benkler turns his considerable analytical talent to the commons-based peer production of educational materials. Very readable and with great examples, Yochai describes why projects like wikipedia succeed and projects like wikibooks fail. It all has to do with the minimum work unit that can make a meaningful contribution to a project. If a meaningful contribution to wikipedia takes 10 minutes, but a meaningful contribution to a textbook requires an hour, more people will participate in wikipedia. It sounds like the commons-based peer production of learning objects is in, and the open source, distributed production of textbooks is out. Great, clear analysis.

When It’s Just Too Simple

Product Image: The Elusive Quest for Growth
My rating: 4 out of 5

Easterly argues that for all the money, theorizing, and research that have been poured into the effort to raise the standard of living in developing areas, little progress has been made because everyone ignores the first principle of economics: people act in response to incentives. If we wish to take education into the developing world, what are the incentives to which we expect potential learners will respond? A fun read, full of great quotes like “The prime suspect for mucking up incentives is government” (217).