Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review, “Average is Over” by Tyler Cowan

I read this book after seeing a review in the Lexington column of The Economist magazine. The Economist review is good, but I do have a few quibbles with the book. First, let me say that the general theme, “average is over,” is I believe, right. I agree with Cowan that those who are able to work effectively with electronic devices and tools will be those who are able to hold down the higher paying jobs of the 21st century. Effective education is a part of the equation, as are motivation, perseverance, and native intelligence. Those who lack one or more of these qualities will have a hard time being in the “top 15%” of society, as Cowan postulates.

Now, on to my issues with the book. Cowan’s focus on chess, while understandably important to him, is but one case study, and I think that he uses empirical observations about chess and chess computer programs to project a narrow domain on both human endeavor and computational theory. Not only that, but he lets this example run on far too long. More important, though, is Cowan’s focus on “genius machines” and their ability to develop theoretical frameworks beyond the ken of humans. In chess or other computational problems, there are data and algorithms. Lots of data and sophisticated algorithms can produced results that are beyond human abilities due to the immense amount of computation and number crunching involved. By mining data, computers can find correlations that we didn’t know existed. But, can they determine if a relationship is causality or coincidence? To the extent that the answer is “computable” a computer is a wonderful tool.

I’m much less sanguine about a set of silicon having a spark (perhaps at the Kurzweil singularity) that allows it to develop theoretical frameworks (without significant fundamental changes in the science of computers). More data and faster execution won’t make the qualitative changes necessary for those results. Cowan is right that we are getting further removed from understanding the technologies behind our tablet computers and smartphones. However, as “magical” as the iPad may be, as Arthur Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At its heart, the iPad, your desktop computer, or a supercomputer is still a von Neumann computer with one instruction from a program being executed after another. The processor (running its own sophisticated microcode) may support parallelism, predictive execution of code, modification of the code it’s executing, and a myriad of other performance enhancing features. However, it still at heart is executing one instruction after another and processing data with those instructions…albeit very quickly with a precision that a human can never match. Cowan’s economic analysis may be good, and his theory on the impact of technology on the workplace generally accurate, but he’s not a computer scientist.

All in all, it’s a good book. While my left-leaning democratic tendencies make me believe that we do need to provide a higher level of social services for those who are digital roadkill, Cowan’s thesis that the economic impact of technology is just beginning to be felt is something that I agree with wholeheartedly. Cowan highlights problems that our politicians need to address and that the electorate needs to understand.

Book Review, “Why the West Rules–for Now” by Ian Morris

I picked this book up (virtually speaking, as I read most everything in the Kindle ecosystem) after hearing a reference to it in the Economist magazine. It’s been out since 2011 but I’d not heard about it until earlier this year. It’s a fascinating book, on a couple different levels, as a historical review and a speculation about the future.

First, Morris is an archaeologist and historian, who as he continued his post-graduate research, began to wonder about the dichotomy apparently posed by the “uniqueness” of ancient Greek society, yet its role in launching Western democracy. He takes the reader on a quick but comprehensive review of History 101 (aka Western Civilization) as well as an equally comprehensive and comparative tour through the Eastern equivalent. This is high readable, and will refresh your memory on all the history courses you took (or should have taken 😉 ). He covers ground that Jarred Diamond discussed in Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, with attribution, of course. Morris puts his “spin” on the various rises and falls with his societal development index, used as a metric to compare the developmental heights of various empires, kingdoms and the like. He postulates that society develops as the engines of sloth, fear and greed motivate various people to tinker, innovate and look for ways to make themselves safer and more comfortable. A key part of his thesis is that there are certain hard ceilings that it’s difficult for societies to break through, and if they don’t, they fall apart. When they do, it’s often catalyzed by geography, resources, and turning backwardness into an asset as groups leverage the technologies available in creative, lazy and greedy ways. Social development has been led by both Western and Eastern civilizations, but more often than not Western civilization has been in the vanguard. Morris takes pains to say that this is not due to “long term lock-in” or inherent abilities, as much as circumstance, geography, and other factors that have favored Western civilizations. The West has led, but the gap is rapidly closing, and this is where it gets interesting. Will China overtake the US? What will society look like then, and what would it actually mean?

After this exposition, the closing two chapters summarize why the West has been further along the social development scale, and speculate about the future. We’ve made it so far without an Asimov Nightfall moment (BTW, a great sci-fi story!). Society is set to move exponentially on the development index as information technology driven innovation and globalization changes everything. Will the Fermi paradox come to fruition (let’s hope not)? Will we reach the Kurzweil Singularity? Both are conveniently “due” in 2045 😉 . Will we have a dystopian society or Roddenberry’s Federation of Planets? My Panglossian nature makes me gravitate toward Roddenberry. As a technologist, I am fascinated by the impact of social technologies and other IT tools on everyday life. I reflect on my 30+ years working professionally with computers and their impact on our daily lives and I see the trajectory of change and am amazed. We go to work each day to build the future, without any real idea of the where we taking things.

So, will the East be more advanced than the West in 2100? What will it mean to be more advanced? What’s the meaning of geography in a fully interconnected world? Who’ll have the advantages to build upon? These are great questions. We’re building the airplane as it goes down the runway.

This is a great book, and I give it two “thumbs up!”

Book Review, “The Shallows…” by Nicholas Carr

It is an interesting thing to read a book whose thesis involves less-than-benign impacts of technology on our brains while using an iPad to read that book.

I finished Carr’s book last week, and was favorably impressed. I’ve read a couple of reviews that were not enamored by Carr’s presentation, but I was not expecting an academic book. However, I thought it was a well-researched, well-written volume that carried an interesting message. His idea is that today’s modern information-rich environment and the way we process in our work and daily life is changing the structure of our brains. He reflects on his own abilities to concentrate, and relates the motivation that had in his desire to pursue this line of inquiry.

“Traditional wisdom” was that the adult brain was not malleable, but emerging views are that it is much more plastic, and in fact is “massively plastic.” Carr gives many examples of how we have been changed by our technological tools, from maps to typewriters, and extrapolates to the profound changes wrought by the massively parallel multi-tasking world of today’s networked computers and communication devices. Do the changes that allow us to cope with staccato tempo of the workplace and life in general make it harder to think deeply about vexing problems and knotty issues? Carr thinks so. Do the devices we use contribute to that?

Hmmm…maybe it’s a good thing that the iPad doesn’t do multi-tasking though as I’ve typed this post on the iPad I’ve referred to the Kindle version of the book, and looked up the spelling of “staccato.” 😉

Book Review, “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

Somehow, I’ve gotten to be 52 years old, and I think I’m a decent geek (I used to be a bit-twiddling systems programmer back in the day) as well as a Sci-Fi fan, and I managed to miss reading Snow Crash for 18 years (published in 1992). Oh well, no time like the present to make that up. I thoroughly enjoyed Snow Crash. I found the style and presentation to be interesting and compelling. I’ve read, over the last couple of months, Stephenson’s Anathem and Cryptonomicon, enjoying them both immensely. It’s clear that they are by the same author, but yet they are so different in characters and story that it doesn’t feel like rehashing the same ground. That’s important when an author spends as many pages telling a story as Stephenson 😉 . I won’t spend a lot of time here rehashing the adventures of Hiro and Y.T. There are a zillion reviews on the ‘net. What I will say is that this is a fabulous book, well worth the attention it has received. The amazing thing to me is that when I read it, though it was written and published in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the computer/information technology described in the book doesn’t feel dated. Sure there are some places where you can spot some anachronisms, but they are so few and far between that it doesn’t detract from the story. I felt the same way about Cryptonomicon, by the way. So, go pick up a copy of Snow Crash if you’ve never read it; as a friend said to me on Facebook, good thing I finally read it so he wouldn’t have to pull my “geek card” 😉

Now, one interesting angle. I’d been looking at eBook readers (and as I write this, I’m awaiting the announcement, in less than 24 hours, of Apple’s “iThing”) and had decided that I didn’t want to spring for a Kindle but I liked the concept. Then I saw that I could get the software for iPhone/iPod Touch (I have a Touch) and PC, with Mac and Blackberry on the way. Cool, I say, so I downloaded the software and forked out $9.99 for Snow Crash on Amazon (I know, coulda got a used paperback for $1). I really liked reading on the Touch. I did read a few chapters on my laptop (but since the Mac version is not out, had to use Parallels with a Windows VM 😉 ). It was useful, though, to be able to read the book in one window and have Wikipedia articles about Sumerian history open in another window (read Snow Crash, you’ll know why). I suspect I’ll buy more books this way, though I really don’t like the Kindle Digital Rights Management (DRM) and think that this is the main thing that we’ve got to figure out in the business model. I should be able to loan or give away the copy I’ve licensed, just like a physical book.

OK, y’all don’t look at any strange bit maps now!

Need to kickstart the old blog…

It’s been just over a month since my last posting. I’ve thought about several things to blog on, but somehow it never happened. Lots of excuses, busy at work and at home. I’ve taken on the role of District Chairman for Orange District, Boy Scouts of America…that will keep me busy. However, if I don’t tend my digital garden, no one else will (they better not, ’cause then I’ve been hacked 😉 ). I’m off work until January 4th, so hopefully I’ll have something to say. I have read a couple of books, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I really liked Cryptonomicon, and the Lost Symbol felt like a lightweight after reading Cryptonomicon. I should do a book review of that one. Over Winter Break, I’ll try to catch up on my RSS feeds, update all the computers in the house, do a few blog entries, maybe go winter trout fishing, shoot some clay birds…hmmm…better take off a few more days!

Jan and I have done a few fun things. The weekend before Thanksgiving, we hopped a plane to Buffalo to catch the last stop on the Rippington’s 2009 concert tour (great show!). Also did a quick trip to Niagara Falls while we were there. So, what’s a question that you don’t answer affirmatively to the border agent on the Canadian border? Do you have any firearms on your person? Sure, I alway pack heat when I visit tourist destinations…geez, what the world must think of us Americans 😉 . Oh well…

Also, in early December, did the annual Chapel Hill Wine Company Champagne dinner at Acme Food & Beverage in Carrboro. Great food; Champagne really is a great dinner wine.

Can’t think of much else now…to be continued!

Book Review, “Anathem,” by Neal Stephenson

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a novel as much as this one. I did recently finish Jack McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins novels, and they were quite enjoyable, but it didn’t move me to blog about it. The book is extremely well written with fantastic character development, has an intriguing plot, and comes to a satisfying resolution. Fraa Erasmas (Raz) is a young “monk” (avout) living the the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a cloister of science, mathematics and philosophy. The earth-like world has a complex society made up of the secular inhabitants (living outside the various Concents) and the avout (living within). This society has a history of several thousand years, punctuated by cycles of world-ravishing societal unrest and collapse – but the Concents, at least some, have maintained the flower of knowledge throughout. This part of the setting reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. However, the world is much more richly described, and the Terrible Events have not as much scarred society, as built it up, though they do make the same mistakes over and over.

Fraa Erasmus is thrown from his sheltered life into the center of a world-spanning adventure, as the inhabitants of Arbre react first to the hint of, and the actualization of visitation from space. The book is replete with interesting characters having learned dialogs, adventure, intrigue, love and family. It makes you think as you follow the philosophical discourses of the avout as they place events into their own contex, based on their affiliation. The end game, with a polycosmic universe and non-linear time is fascinating. It’s 900+ pages of great entertainment, and I need to read it again to pick up nuances I missed the first time through.

However, first, I have a copy of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, his most well known book, to read this weekend on the plane to Buffalo…

Good stuff. Pick it up, you’ll be glad you did.

Book Review, “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant

I bought a copy of this book after seeing a reference to it on a mailing list to which I’m subscribed (the Flyfish@ list, for the curious). A quick trip over to Amazon and it was on its way. I’ll confess that the title sold it pretty quickly, though this book does explore a subject that interests me…the inability of centrist Democrats to connect with the “Red State” vote. Growing up in eastern NC and being within a decade of age of the author provided me a bit of affinity for the subject. For the past 30 years, however, I’ve lived in Chapel Hill, NC, which will skew your perceptions of North Carolina politics a little bit in the Blue direction 😉 . I thought reading this book would help me remember why there are a lot of Red folks in NC, and maybe give me a bit more insight into the illogical (to me) phenomenon that sends voters from economically depressed areas to the polls in droves, punting for the Republican candidate more often than not. These are the same folks that, out of concern over the possible policies of the then-putative Obama administration, bought guns and ammunition in droves.

On to the book…

I really enjoyed the read. I’ll confess that it got off to a slow start for me. The Introduction and the first chapter, “American Serfs” are, while descriptive, the area where I feel that I am the least in sync with Bageant. I do believe in capitalism (with appropriate regulation!) and I don’t think that globalization will be going away…rather than fighting globalization, we need to educate and adapt, and we need policies that support that. As the book continues, it resonated much more with me. This is where he delves into the cultural factors that influence the political leanings of the denizens of Winchester, VA. I thought that he did a really good job of describing, in very personal terms, the culture of gun ownership and use. Then, his chapter on religion, “The Covert Kingdom” was also good, and in particular Bageant’s discussion of his relationship with his brother, a fundamentalist minister. I thought his best chapter was “The Ballad of Lynddie England.” Here he talks about how the abuse at Abu Ghraib could come about, and the historical cultures that still have significant influences today.

Bageant’s key point is that to be relevant to this constituency, the Blue politician has to go where these people are and be a part of their lives. Technical, logical debates from afar may work with the classic urban liberal wing of the Democratic party, but in an increasingly complex and challenging world, having foot soldiers among the voters who can package issues in ways that are relevant to the lives of Bageant’s contemporaries is the key to success. Foot soldiers carrying the “Red State” vision are there today, and are being highly effective.

Book Review, “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

Nothing like reviewing a book 52 years after publication. Well, 1957 was a very good year, as I was born then 😉

This is a book that’s been on my reading list for a while. Somehow, I managed to avoid it in high school and college. I’ve been reading a fair number of economics books in the last couple years, trying to understand some of the things that are going on around us, and I felt I need to pick this one up. And “pick it up” is the right thing to say, as the paperback copy from Carrboro Branch Library was 1069 pages!

I won’t try to do an exhaustive review, as this has been done by folks with much more energy that I have! There are thousands of reviews on Amazon alone. I’ll just give a few of my overarching impressions. First, I’ll have to say that it’s a good read. There are parts that do get slow, but the characters are compelling and the story engaging. What did I get out of it? Let’s see…capitalism works to incent folks to work hard. Check, knew that. Government bad? It can be (and was for much of 2000-2008), but I believe in moderation. Let the innovators and industrialists who take risks reap the rewards. Check, even though I’m not one. Discourage rewards from innovation and industry and the economy goes to hell. Doh. Check! However, taxes are not inherently bad in my worldview (even though I’m filing mine at the last minute 😉 ), as sometimes people just won’t pay to maintain the “commons” or do things for common good (check this for a great explanation of the Tragedy of the Commons, explained with Smurfs). Provide a safety net, but encourage people to help themselves. The best use of taxes is education in my mind, but I digress…

I think that the most fascinating thing, though, is to have read this book over the past month (March-April 2009), given the context of things happening in the world economy, and reflecting on the different approaches world-wide to moving us out of this morass. It’s not quite the world of Dagney, Hank, Francisco & John Galt out there today, but it does make one think about the steps we are taking as we navigate through the “late unpleasantness.” I’m just glad our current president is a thinker who is willing to listen and learn.

If you haven’t read this, you should, if for no other reason than the fact that it has been so influential on many free-market thinkers. Gee, there’s that education thing again…

Book Review, “The Conscience of a Liberal” by Paul Krugman

One of the best things about the holiday season is having time to catch up on reading…

This is a book that I both thoroughly enjoyed and one which I found made me think. We all are products of our upbringing and the arc of our lives. I grew up in the South in eastern North Carolina with parents who were public school educators, not manufacturing workers. My childhood was a solidly middle-class one, and like Krugman, I benefited from the “Great Compression” and its positive effect on my family. I entered the work force in 1979 (right as things were tilting toward the greater inequality Krugman writes of) after earning a business degree at UNCCH — the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were a challenging economic time, but I found a niche in information technology that has served me very well. My success in this field has shaped my views on work. Race in politics is a subject that Krugman mines in this book; I’m of an age (51) that while I don’t have vivid memories of the racial upheavals of the 1960’s, I remember snippets of conversations and TV news, and growing up in the south meant that it was obvious that there was extensive prejudice. This is an area that Krugman states has a powerful effect on the candidates for whom people vote.

I’ve always considered myself a liberal, believing in social freedom, and at least to some degree the welfare state and its inherent redistribution of income. However, a business degree (followed by a computer science degree) and a change-oriented technological mindset has focused me toward an economic worldview of embracing change and riding the wave of progress. As my wife and I have often said, we don’t have many blacksmiths now; they’ve had to retool and find other jobs. Generally, I believe in free trade, and (here’s where my roots living in a “right to work” state come in) have had a relatively dim view of unions, though my wife’s family were union members, primarily in the tobacco industry.

Reading Krugman’s book was interesting and challenging to my worldview. His thesis is that organized and intentional politics have driven economic changes over much of the last 100 years, rather than technological change and globalization. Starting with the progressive movement of the early 20th century and the imposition of the income tax and the beginning of wealth redistribution, powerful forces have been pushing and pulling America. Absent the ability of interest groups to rule by fiat, this has played out through the “democratic” process in ways that make me put that word in quotes. A major effort through time has been to convince the public to vote against their own economic advantage through disenfranchisement, deceit, trickery and occasionally outright fraud. Krugman writes of the period from the late 1940’s through the late 1970’s as a period of unprecedented equality as several things came together:

  • The institutionalization of New Deal social policies and the positive impacts they had on society
  • The social “norming” of compensation expectations coming out of wartime wage/price controls
  • The growth of labor unions and their effect on wages and benefits
  • The “right place/right time” to be expanding manufacturing

This created an environment where America birthed a burgeoning middle class and a political balance that reflected this “middle of the road” balance. We weren’t as polarized politically as we had been before, nor nearly as polarized as we’ve recently been. Krugman believes that it is important for long term stability to have more income equality than we have we have today; the differential between CEO and worker is much more skewed today than in the post-war boom, and is even more skewed than in the Gilded Age of unrestrained capitalism.

Krugman’s best material in this book is his argument for universal health care. Other reviewers have highlighted this as well. He sees this both as the “right thing to do” (echoing Lyndon Johnson’s statements about the rightness of passage of civil rights legislation, even though it handed power to the Republican party for a generation) and a template for showing that government can be a positive force, thus diminishing the efficacy of the message of Regan and his successors and setting the stage for other government actions.

Krugman spends a lot of time talking about race in politics and the way that race has been used to co-opt people into voting against their economic interests. I think that he’s right that this has been a powerful force. Reading this book after the election of 2008 is interesting. I know that I personally worked harder for Obama’s election that I’ve ever done in a political campaign; I felt that strongly that it was right. I am optimistic about Obama’s ability to bring forward real change in the way we approach our problems.

Clearly, things have been moving in directions that reinforce income inequality and put unprecedented challenges on the middle class. Are the demographic changes that our society is going through enough to sustain policies that will help us to reinfranchise this part of society and help to defuse political polarization? Maybe we can look at what our neighbors around the world are doing — we don’t have a corner on good ideas.

I recommend this book…it’s a real call to action and participation in our democracy, to make a difference in the way things work.

Book Review, “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This evening I finished reading “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is, more or less, the “prequel” to his more famous “The Black Swan”. I read the 2nd edition of this book, the “trade paperback” edition, which included additional material in several chapters. This edition was released in 2005; the original in 2004. I loaned my neighbor my copy of “The Black Swan,” and she loaned me her copy of “Fooled by Randomness.”

I liked this book, and actually found it more readable and original than “The Black Swan.” This book covers much of the same territory, though not in as much detail, and is, as Taleb states several times, more of a stream of consciousness where he’s writing from his knowledge and perspectives, making observations and not worrying about producing an academic tome. I won’t attempt to do more an summarize his thesis, that we are biologically programmed to be susceptible to being “fooled by randomness” and his efforts to overcome the biases that this generates. Taleb is an entertaining and engaging writer. If you believe that randomness and chance, positive or negative (the metaphorical black swan amid the white flock) has a lot to do with life and success, you will enjoy this book. If you take yourself too seriously and conflate luck with skill, you won’t 😉

Pick it up, and give it a read…