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Turning Numbers into Knowledge 60

rcr1001 writes "Turning Numbers into Knowledge (TNIK) is an entertaining and readable primer on practical problem solving. TNIK is about structured analytical thinking and Slashdot readers interested in improving the quality of their critical thinking skills should consider learning from this book." Read on for the complete review.
Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving
author Jonathan G. Koomey, PhD
pages 221
publisher Analytics Press
rating 9
reviewer rcr1001
ISBN 0970601905
summary A guide to mastering the art of problem solving

An overview:

TNIK is one of those rare books that is simple in its presentation and quietly leaves a deep understanding of its topic. Chapters read like common-sense and jibe with everyday experience in a satisfying way. Koomey is a masterful analyst who has distilled his years of experience into a well-thought-out, well-written book on the "art of problem solving." Koomey's tone is conversational and succeeds in making a potentially dry topic interesting and relevant through genuine insight, clear prose, and real-world examples.

TNIK is divided into 5 sections containing a total of 38 chapters. The chapters are easily digested. The book can be read equally well straight-through or in bites here and there as interests warrant -- in fact, Koomey uses icons in page margins to cross-reference chapters encouraging the reader to jump around if a thread seems particularly interesting.

See table of contents at bottom for more information on content -- the chapters are small enough that the ToC provides an excellent summary of the territory covered in the book. Also, here are some sample chapters online.

Why Recommend a Book about Problem Solving on Slashdot:

While I consider myself more of an analyst than a programmer, I've written a fair amount of code in support of data analysis (mostly perl and sql). I've benefitted invaluably from books recommended on Slashdot that I wouldn't have known to pick up or notice otherwise. I thought this book might be similarly useful to others who were interested in improving their problem solving skills and/or analytical approach. This book is the The Practice of Programming of the practice of problem solving.

What I Enjoyed About the Book:

I have read TNIK twice and used it as a reference on many occasions. Reading it has helped me retool my approach to analysis in a broad way (getting more organized, becoming more cynical about "official" analysis, questioning my own analysis more deeply, and developing different analytical scenarios all come to mind), pointed me to other excellent references, and most importantly, always helped me with whatever problem I'm currently working on. I tend to pull it off the shelf when I'm starting a big project and it has been an easy way to gain inspiration.

Other Good Stuff:

There is an outstanding "Further Reading" section which is essentially an annotated bibliography of recommended books organized by topic. There are many, many excellent books in this section and each listing contains a short description by Koomey as to why he recommends them.

Each chapter begins and ends with a quote relevant to the chapter topic and lots of humorous comic strips (Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, New Yorker, etc.) relevant to the chapter throughout the text serve as comic relief.

A Note on the Publisher:

This book is published by Analytics Press in Oakland CA. Individual copies are available through Amazon or Barnes and Ordering options here.


This book is on par with Edward Tufte's influential Graphical Explanations (which amazingly hasn't been reviewed on this site yet!) The beauty of the book is in its elegant coverage of so many topics in such a short space. This book is a road map to great analysis and it behooves anyone interesting in improving their skills to take advantage of it, and judging by the amount of bad analysis created on a daily basis, it deserves a spot on many bookshelves! Other reviews are here.

Table Of Contents:

  1. Part I: Things to Know
  2. Beginner's Mind
  3. Don't be Intimidated
  4. Information, Intention, and Action
  5. Peer Review and Scientific Discovery

    Part II: Be Prepared

  6. Explore Your Ideology
  7. Get Organized
  8. Establish a Filing System
  9. Build a Toolbox
  10. Put Facts at Your Fingertips
  11. Value your Time

    Part III: Assess their Analysis

  12. The Power of Critical Thinking
  13. Numbers Aren't Everything
  14. All Numbers Are Not Created Equal
  15. Question Authority
  16. How Guesses Become Facts
  17. Don't Believe Everything You Read
  18. Go Back to the Questions
  19. Reading Tables and Graphs
  20. Distinguish Facts from Values
  21. The Uncertainty Principle and the Mass Media

    Part IV: Create Your Analysis

  22. Reflect
  23. Get Unstuck
  24. Inquire
  25. Be a Detective
  26. Create Consistent Comparisons
  27. Tell a Good Story
  28. Dig into the Numbers
  29. Make a Model
  30. Reuse Old Envelopes
  31. Use Forecasts with Care
  32. Hear All Sides

    Part V: Show your Stuff

  33. Know Your Audience
  34. Document, Document, Document
  35. Let the Tables and Graphs Do the Work
  36. Create Compelling Graphs and Figures
  37. Create Good Tables
  38. Use Numbers Effectively in Oral Presentations
  39. Use the Internet

    Conclusion: Creating the Future

    Further Reading

You can purchase Turning Numbers into Knowledge from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Turning Numbers into Knowledge

Comments Filter:
  • Triptophan (Score:5, Funny)

    by renosteve ( 628802 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:13AM (#4779977)
    First Turkey now this...

    There is just no way I can stay awake this holiday weekend!

  • by oliverthered ( 187439 ) <> on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:32AM (#4780051) Journal

    After reading the review I didn't know what the book was 'about', sure it sounded interesting, interesting enough to take a look at the web site.

    This book appears to present methods of managing and analysing data so that you can 'solve' the problem without getting bogged down.

    I would recommend giving this book a look over for the following reasons.

    I do a great deal of analysis work and a lot of the concepts in the TOC sound familiar.
    The logical approach the book appears to present should help you fine tune your analysis and hopefully identify some areas where you've been slipping.
  • by BabyDave ( 575083 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:35AM (#4780061)
    "Turning Webservers into Puddles - a guide to mastering the art of Slashdotting"
  • by zephc ( 225327 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:35AM (#4780064)
    Anyone reading 'Dianetics' need not apply... ;)
    • by zephc ( 225327 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:40AM (#4780077)
      On second thought, anyone reading Dianetics should immediately put it down and pick this one up. Maybe even read the first couple chapters a few times to make sure it sinks in. Got to rescrub those brainwashed minds...
      • Hey that's a great idea! "re-scrub" those poor brainwashed minds with a book that purports to tell you how to think!!!!!
        • There's nothing wrong with teaching somebody how to think; it is teaching him what to think that is the problem. Teaching somebody how to think amounts to little more than introducing him to the principles and patterns that good thinkers intuitively use.

          Teach a man what to think, feed him for a day; teach him how to think, feed him forever. Or something like that ;-)

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Anyone reading 'Dianetics' need not apply... ;)

      I actually did before learning about what scarry wackos were behind that book. Someone mentioned Triptophan in an earlier thread? It fits. Booring, long-winded, and uninformative -- just like Battlefield Earth. (Yes, I read that one too. Fool me once...)

  • Are you telling me I can't hold a logical conversation?!

    <voice value="Home">Why you little...</voice>
  • vice city (Score:4, Funny)

    by prell ( 584580 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:37AM (#4780068) Homepage
    forgive me, but while Im reading the preface/overview of the book, I cant help but think of the radio interview/commercials on gra:vice city, where the guy is selling books/tapes with titles like "think, hold that thought, complete," and "learn, start, doing" ("where I explain the mysteries of starting!"). The book does seem interesting - I'm going to check it out at bn today. thanks for pointing it out
  • by Anonymous Coward
    beginner: ask slashdot
    advanced: ?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    1) Get numbers (any numbers will do)

    2) Turn numbers into knowledge

    3) ???

    4) Profit!
  • by eric_ste ( 446052 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:42AM (#4780086)
    I am sure that Many of you kown of this book: "Handbook of applied cryptography" well I found out lately that it is available at in pdf. There are many other texts available on this web site This might be more for the nerds like /. is supposed to be.
  • Maybe TIA [] will use TNIK.
  • Thinking Skills? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jaaron ( 551839 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:51AM (#4780122) Homepage
    Slashdot readers interested in improving the quality of their critical thinking skills...

    You've got to be kidding me right? Slashdotters? Thinking Skills? Someone ate too much turkey yesterday. :)
  • Slashdot (Score:5, Funny)

    by kirkb ( 158552 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @11:55AM (#4780134) Homepage
    ...Slashdot readers interested in improving the quality of their critical thinking skills...

    Actually, it's the Slashdot posters who need to improve their thinking skills. :)
    • Actually, it's the Slashdot posters who need to improve their thinking skills. :)

      Probably the Slashdot editors could use some work, too...

      ... Particularly given all the dupes we've been seeing around here lately. // naNoox
    • "Actually, it's the Slashdot posters who need to improve their thinking skills." Indeed, it is! And may I be the first to heartily welcome you to our number! }:~)
  • by morgajel ( 568462 ) <> on Friday November 29, 2002 @12:01PM (#4780160) Homepage
    every time I see a book that's supposed to make you think better,act smarter, etc- I wonder...

    does the book really do that? it seems they always get positive reviews(wish I could think of other examples)...
    it sort of leads me to believe that this is sort of like the emperor's new clothing.... you have the choice of saying
    "this book didn't make me smarter/it didn't work because I'm too dumb"
    "I am now enlightened. look how clever I am. if you can't understand this book, you must be too stupid to help."

    Don't know how true that is with this reviewer, but I tend to take these things with a grain of salt. just a thought....
    • every time I see a book that's supposed to make you think better,act smarter, etc- I wonder... does the book really do that?

      I agree. I've often wondered about the various structured problem solving methods out there like TRIZ, QFD, Taguchi, TQM, etc. and wondered if anyone has done an objective study to see if these methods really do work and maybe even comparing them. Does anyone know if there have been any studies like this? I'd be interested in seeing them. Until then, I'm not likely to take testimonials as an acceptable reason to invest time and effort learning and implementing these approaches.

      And for all of you out there who are tempted to reply "Just try it!" I'll just say that I'm looking for studies of the effectiveness of these approaches on a study group of larger than one person. If you try a new method and it works well for the first problem you try it on, that doesn't mean "Hey, it works!" You need to try it on multiple problems. And, really, you should compare the results you get following the new approach with your old approach before claiming the new technique is an improvement. Hence the need for controlled studies.


      • Why?

        Why have controlled studies of the effectiveness of consumable opinion. It's dumb. Some guy writes a book about how he prefers to think, and suddenly we need a Senate committee hearing on his books' effectiveness. I don't see a reason to do a study on something that you are not being forced to read. If you don't like it, don't buy it, but you don't have to go marching about proclaiming "foul" because you don't like someone elses thinking, be a real intellectual and write your own damned book hot-shot.

        Meanwhile: I intend to check this book out since I never rest at improving myself and never take issue with someone elses' ideas, if they are grounded in reality and help the with the betterment of The Tribe.
      • ... and there are many others. I believe that many manufacturing technology institutes (technology transfer institutes also), such as the one I'm familiar with, QMI [], have done work into the effectiveness / requirements pertaining to quality and problem solving methods, in order to lend credibility to their recommendations. Check your local guides. :)

        Personally, I've found it very interesting to look at the social, political and economic conditions that caused these "lean manufacturing" ideologies to develop in Japan first. The best explanation I've heard so far is that during the American occupation of Japan after WW2, many labor laws and conditions were put in place, making the HR environment very different. This combined with cultural differences and a need to develop very good manufacturing and assembly industries because of Japan's (supposed - I haven't checked for myself) low level of mineral resources and more compact manufacturing facilites to drive this development.

        In effect, raw material, manpower and space became much more expensive than in the Western world. This meant that higher levels of automation and more emphasis on waste reduction could be justified.

        So, a set of advanced manufacturing ideologies evolved to suit the prevailing conditions. The ideologies are expanding, displacing the old ideologies in the western manufacturing world, especially in the automotive sector. You can thank this for the vastly increased quality and rapid technology advance in many modern cars.

        But when someone comes to you with that look in their eye and says "We need to implement 5S to save the company!", I believe it pays to look at these techniques through OUR eyes. For us, it may well be more prudent to build a larger factory. Or lay off workers in the tough times - the inflexibility of the Japanese labour market has been blamed for keeping Japan's economic growth stunted for the last decade or so.

        Slavish adherance to any ideology is bad..... is that what makes things become "-isms"?
    • by joto ( 134244 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @02:22PM (#4780839)
      This is quite interesting. And I definitely think you are on to something. I've read some very highly acclaimed books of this type myself, and can't say I have become much smarter. But then again, I might be to stupid to understand it... Or I might be to smart to gain anything by reading what should be common sense, you decide.

      Of course, as with almost all books, you will learn something, but you are not going to get much smarter by reading this, than almost any other book on mostly anything else. So why does this kind of book, almost always get a cult-like following? Beats me... Maybe we should all take up Dogberts course in common sense for people without common sense?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I havn't read the book. But it looks like it is building a framework for analysis. Frameworks don't solve everything, but they are very important. People devolp "models" in their head about things, and teaching them well frequently involves improving stretching, or compleatly changing those models.
      I know that is how I learned the physics in High school and now am learning business in grad school. The ultimate framework is the scientific method. Kids learn it in school but can't solve difficult problems, but latter if they stick with it can perhaps advance the total of human knowledge.
      This looks like a framework to solve problems with. It won't be perfect, but gives people a way to start. Some people will be like kids in second grade science class. Others will be like phd's. But the phd's get there by starting slow and learning the basic framework.
  • by Fefe ( 6964 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @12:56PM (#4780446) Homepage
    Chapters read like common-sense [...]

    The chapters are easily digested

    One more fluff book full of trivial common sense. That's exactly what I have been missing in my daily analyses. Thank You so much, Slashdot!

  • is that math doesn't matter. I hear and see parents say it all the time. I will never use that stuff (I may have said it once or twice in high school)! I say bah. Many of the best paying jobs involve math at a level higher than simple addition and subtraction.

    Nevertheless, just trying to learn and understand math/numbers helps develop the mind.

  • Review is Useless (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Squintfield ( 566941 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @02:03PM (#4780758)
    Book might be great, but you couldn't tell it from the review, which reads like a marketing blurb.
  • by dagg ( 153577 ) on Friday November 29, 2002 @02:23PM (#4780847) Journal
    I'm sure many of you got into this business during the boom. You learned how to employ quick-fix algorithms (such as adding an ending table tag to your HTML, or adding a sub-query to your JDBC call). But now those skills are useless... because your unemployed. During this critical time... go and learn some low-level things that will teach you to think. In a few years or so... when your ending table tag skills are useful again... then you'll add the ending tables smarter than your peers.

    An efficient algorithm []
  • Just a bunch of common sense. The only thing that amazes me is this guy actually bothered to put it all together and try to sell it. I mean, even you could write a book like this. er..

    1. Be prepared
    2. Study hard
    3. Don't break the law
    4. Talk clearly
    5. You are biased towards your own work

    a..ehem. I mean, if this guy was a bit more humble, or would just admit all he is doing is "helping out" by putting some common sense in a binding, then I'd praise the guy. But when the last section reads:

    Conclusion: Creating the Future

    It depresses me. It should read:

    Conclusion: Catching up to YESTERDAY

    If anyone thinks this will help them with their analytical skills, then this should only be the beginning of their to-read list. IMHO.

    I wouldn't be so harsh if this didn't remind me so much of those sad self-help books.. :(

"What man has done, man can aspire to do." -- Jerry Pournelle, about space flight