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Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American…

Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character

by Jack Hitt

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Well, it wasn't quite what I was expecting...apart from the synth bio / robotics chapter (which I quite enjoyed).

The chapter on Franklin was a bit blah, not having much to do with invention (when you would suppose there was much fodder there, Franklin being and inventor of several things) but rather, his supposed craziness of character during his time in France. Eh? Whatever.

Then there were great swaths of boring, like the chapter on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Really? You're writing a book on amateurs in America and the most interesting thing you can come up with is amateur bird watchers? The chapter was boring, long and repetitive. If he'd have said ONE MORE TIME about the educated northerner being partnered with the colorful backwoods yokel I was going to toss the stupid book out the window!

The only thing that kept this book from one star was the synth bio / robotics chapter and the fact that there were fewer errors in this uncorrected proof copy than there have been in most of the published books I've been reading lately!

The amateur astronomers chapter wasn't too bad. It started out strong, then petered out. But, it was better than most of the rest of the book. ( )
  Ameliapei | Apr 18, 2013 |
Let’s get this out of the way: Hitt does almost nothing to suggest that American amateurism is different from anyone else’s amateurism, though he does say it’s part of our self-image. (The quality of his evidence includes this century-hopping comparison of fictional archetypes: “The mad scientists of Europe spawned monsters. Our absentminded professors [don’t get why they’re amateurs, but ok] created flubber ….”) He includes women in his story, but only in more traditionally male amateur pursuits, though his author’s note indicates that he did research fan fiction. His account of the amateur identifies two kinds: “They are either outsiders mustering at some fortress of expertise hoping to scale the walls, or pioneers improvising in a frontier where no professionals exist.” I think that reductiveness has a gendered component. That said, this is a readable book about the wacky and the non-wacky. Hitt covers amateurism as a path to success as well as a path to doing nothing much in particular or even being affirmatively and damagingly wrong: in his example, amateur archeaologists who end up promoting racist narratives about early “Caucasian” migrations to North America. One of these guys decided that a skull he’d found must have looked just like Jean-Luc Picard, and sure enough the facial reconstruction ended up looking just like Patrick Stewart. He “suggested to the artist that he not include the ‘epicanthic fold’ of the Asian eye since leaving that out would be ‘neutral’”—an almost perfect indictment of “neutrality.”

I liked Hitt’s point that we often bemoan the demise of the amateur because some field or other is getting so specialized, but “each generation also discovers that what they thought were very expensive, highly unobtainable technologies suddenly turn into the next generation’s play toys.” Also, did you know that a kid in Michigan became the eighteenth amateur to create nuclear fusion in his backyard?

Hitt is also fun to read about the payoffs from tinkering and failing. Discussing one woman who’s trying to genetically engineer yogurt to do various things (such as glow) in her spare time, he talks about her pleasure in finding older, cheaper ways to carry out parts of the process, and about the encouragement found in small victories when you don’t have a boss with a deadline for one big solution. “Amateurs are often fixing things, their own devices, so there is this constant reinforcement of feeling smart and competent.” Though, he points out, this can also lead to people spending their lives trying to make the one last tweak that will make the perpetual motion machine work. And Hitt emphasizes that amateurs (even the mostly male mechanical tinkerers of common tropes) actually tend to work in packs, cross-pollinating each others’ ideas. ( )
  rivkat | Jun 20, 2012 |
In this entertaining and wide ranging book journalist Jack Hitt explores what it is to be an amateur and why it has been a quintessentially American pursuit since the time of Ben Franklin, a man Hitt sees as a sort of founding father of amateurism. The word amateur came into English from the French word meaning passionate lover, and while amateurs can be off-track or irritatingly obsessed, they sometimes see possibilities more clearly than professionals because they aren’t so invested in the prevalent paradigm. An amateur invented the Dobsonian telescope, making backyard astronomy affordable, backyard rocketry amateurs have been hired by NASA, amateurs like the young Steve Jobs envisioned the personal computer, and it was ardent birding amateurs who spotted flaws in the evidence the Cornel Lab of Ornithology presented to prove that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was not extinct. A recent piece in the Washington Post Magazine profiled an amateur fossil collector in Maryland who has revolutionized the thinking about what sorts of dinosaurs lived in the eastern United States.

According to Hitt, the cutting edge of amateurism today is the scary sounding “biohacking”, or extracting DNA from one life form and inserting it in another in order to achieve sometimes whimsical results, like yogurt that can glow in the dark. It’s apparently bored computer programmers, unexcited by tweaking existing programs like Excel, who are looking for the next frontier and driving this trend.

Bunch of Amateurs has plenty of Bill Bryson-like side trips whose purpose isn’t always obvious, at least at first, but they are all so interesting I was happy to see where they led. It was fascinating and somewhat horrifying to read about the sordid origin of the word Caucasian, and Hitt’s descriptions of the distinctly different types of robots being created in America (functional), Japan (physically life-like) and Europe (emotionally intelligent) have embedded cultural observations I’m still trying to parse, and sent me running to internet to see examples . ( )
  Jaylia3 | May 7, 2012 |
Some small parts of this book caught my interest, but larger parts did not. The chapters on Benjamin Franklin were quite fascinating and very informative. Other chapters were overly long. Wading through the chapter describing the search for the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker left me wanting to knock my head against a tree. The premise of America being a nation defined by it's amateurs is intriguing but this book for the most part is not. I just had the feeling that the book was a loosely joined group of essays under the title of a Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character. This book provided for review by Amazon Vine. ( )
  Ronrose1 | Apr 15, 2012 |
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Beginning with Ben Franklin's kite and leading all the way to the current TV hit "American Idol," Hitt argues that the nation's love of self-invented obsessives has always driven the country to rediscover the true heart of the American dream.

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