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Bunch of Amateurs

Book Review of: Bunch of Amateurs

A Search for the American Character

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Review of Bunch of Amateurs, by Jack Hitt (Softcover, 2012)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


The promotional literature on this book begins thusly:

"America's amateurs are back at it in their metaphorical garages--tinkering with everything from solar-powered cars to space elevators. In Bunch of Amateurs, Jack Hitt visits a number of different garages...."

That blurb does not match this book. The first chapter is a general essay on amateurs (albeit a good one), and the second chapter focuses on Ben Franklin (I may be wrong, but I don't think Franklin spent much time tinkering in the garage while his Chevy was parked in the driveway). The third chapter goes on about bird watching, a subject that has nothing to do with garage-based tinkering except, I suppose, if you are looking for the yellow-bellied garage finch. Nowhere does the author get into solar-powered cars or space elevators or any other intriguing technology. He does spend a chapter talking about making cheap lenses for telescopes by grinding your own (chapter 6).

I noticed also that the promotional literature refers to the author as "absolutely unique." Whoever wrote that needs an English lesson, apparently not having learned that the word "unique" means "one of a kind" and thus cannot have a modifier.

It's frustrating to see that some English-challenged person in the employ of the publicist or publisher wrote promotional literature without, it seems, actually having read the book. Fortunately, with one exception, Hitt himself did a much better job of writing this book.

This book consists of 7 chapters in 268 pages, in the uncorrected proof sent to me for review. Each of the 7 chapters can stand on its own, though they do fit together under the theme that amateurs often accomplish things that their establishment counterparts cannot. In the first chapter, Hitt provides a rich discussion that gives the reader a good idea of what an amateur is. Some highlights:

  • An amateur typically lacks the credentials and formal training of that a practitioner or professional has.
  • An amateur typically does it as a hobby (though often with great passion), while the practitioner or professional does it for a living.
  • A practitioner or professional works within a certain structure and abides by industry conventions; an amateur thinks and works outside the box (sometimes that is helpful, sometimes not).

Hitt doesn't say it's better or worse to be an amateur. He merely points out that the amateur tends to come at things from a different perspective than the practitioner or professional does. With different assumptions, different limitations, and often different goals, the amateur produces different results. Hitt does not say that practitioners and professionals are mentally desiccated zombies who can't get results. In fact, he's respectful of them.

Hitt's basic message seems to be that amateurs often broach the frontiers of their fields, from astronomy to zoology, and in ways that are significant. The examples he probes along this line of thought are what this book is about. The examples he probes in depth are bird watching (Chapter 3), genetics (chapter 4), archaeology (Chapter 5), and astronomy (Chapter 6).

Unfortunately, Hitt keeps stating that robotics is mature (as in "nothing new going on there") and he makes remarks about young people and robotics as being some kind of dead end. This uniformed view is contrary to reality. Anyone who reads IEEE Spectrum is frequently made aware of new advances in robotics; it's a hot subject. Spectrum is the magazine of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, which is the world's largest professional association for the advancement of technology.

Also agreeing are people who've had any involvement in the wildly popular robotics contests. Sometimes, the winners of those contests find themselves courted by the Pentagon or by a company that wants to develop their product (I reviewed this book about a month after a major story broke on this very thing).

As I am an IEEE Senior Member, I took Hitt's remarks as offensively contrary to the interests of engineering and science. I wish he had done his research before making these statements. The relevant professional journals (and a large number of other sources) are full of articles that directly contradict his expressed views.

The book was interesting, though at times my interest flagged (way too much detail on the bird watching thing) and at other times I was unhappy with some comments  (the robotics thing, in particular). For a second edition, I recommend expunging the book of the wildly inaccurate comments about robotics and cutting the bird watching material by at least half. Hitt might even consider adding a chapter about the exciting new things happening in robotics, a field that is far from mature.


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