Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

What are fifty inventions that helped shape the modern economy? This book doesn't attempt to find the 50 most important inventions, but 50 that have had impact. Some of the things are classical physical inventions like the plough and plastic. Others like management consulting and Seller Feedback are modern, abstract innovations that are important to our economy. There are also cautionary tales. Attempts were made to ban leaded gasoline in the 1920s. However, lobbying get it going for another half decade before it was eliminated. What other things in our current society are still being forced upon us by the regulatory framework and inertia. (Cars seem to come to mind.)
The book does a good job provided self-contained stories of individual innovations together with the glue that holds it together. Paper money is in interesting innovation, but the story of how it came about makes it come alive. The Smart Phone has quickly become an integral part of our lives. However, it is an amalgam of technologies produced primarily via government sponsored research. Compilers allow code to be more easily programmed, bringing programming to the masses and allowing higher and higher level programming. The barcode had been "invented" multiple times. The technology was the easy part. Getting producers and retailers to agree on to use it in a standard way was the challenge.
While a number of different innovations could have been included here. The author does a good job justifying the ones included and providing an informative and entertaining work.

Monday, January 01, 2018

A Mind at Play

A Mind at Play deifies Claude Shannon as a renaissance-type genius who is able to make contributions to any field he desires, yet is likely to leave his greatest ideas unfinished. You would have a tough time finding any criticism in this work. He grew up a tinkerer in small-town Michigan. He was super smart, and was great at understanding and applying math. He was also able to pick up domain knowledge of other fields and made great contributions to genetics research (that were only recently "rediscovered"). However, his primary contribution was the theory of information transmission. Alas, only briefly discusses what this theory is, leaving us wondering why he is so important. (Though this may be in part because it seems so obvious today.) He made some of the earliest "thinking machines", such as a "maze running mouse" and chess computers. He lived to see the dawn of the information age, but was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time and was thus barely able to comprehend it.
While I found the book to be a excessively laudatory, I did enjoy the descriptions of the time at Bell Labs. Having a bunch of people turned lose at doing whatever they wanted seems to be one of the advantages of monopolies. Any research that could be tangentially related to phone company business was fair game. The huge number of innovations that arose from Bell Labs validates its value. Imagine if we allowed more researchers the freedom to investigate ideas rather than spend endless hours writing grant proposals or helping the companies short-term bottom line? We see some of that with the big tech companies like Google and Facebook these days. Alas, a lot of the innovation today is in the small startups, and that funding is driven by the ability to appease the venture capitalists.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

1984

I remembered 1984 being a lot better. Maybe I am confusing it with other similar books. (It does seem a lot like The Giver in theme. The start of the book is primarily about physical relationships, then rebellion, then torture and brainwashing, then an ending contentment. What does the main character accomplish in the story? His seed of rebellion is quashed and he is back to a "respectable" member of society. He just went through a very painful way of getting there.
The society is very stratified. The senior party officials live like kings and have a right to limited privacy. The lesser party party members are always watched, but live within a rule of law. They are protected, but most adhere to the strict rules. Even history is subject to change. They are always monitored by two-way telescreens. Even their thoughts could turn them in. The lower classes are for all practical purposes ignored. They can get away with anything, but end up punishing themselves with internal crimes. The society is content, but suffering as war continues going on.
Why is the book important today? The stories of fake news do seem similar to what happens in the Oceana of the novel. People are manipulated in to believing what the government wants them to believe. These same people may see their physical comforts diminish as they are cheering on the war's heroes and "hating" the other side. This parallels the left's view of the right-wing reactionaries. However, the left doesn't get off unscathed. The party regularly rewrites history to conform to the the current views. Disgraced people are "removed" from historical accounts. The current enemy has "always" been the enemy. This parallels sure looks a lot like the right's view of left-wing political correctness and revisionist history. The stratification of society can also be adopted by either side to describe modern day America. We have a wealthy elite that control everything. The party, represented by big borther is the corporate entity that has total power over society. The upper party members are those corporate elite that exercise true power. The others are their minions. The lowest classes are meant to rot as being unimportant. (Or depending on political persuasion, they are kept in a sufficient mass to allow the middle class to be oppressed.)
The moral code (with sex restricted solely to procreation as a duty to the party) and torture (strict physical torture to brainwash nonconformists) occupy a great deal of the text, but reduce the power of the novel. A society that actively spends that much effort physically forcing control seems less powerful than one that uses subtlety to get people to exercise the control themselves.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Children of the Fleet

Children of the Fleet takes place after the conclusion of the formic wars. The world is celebrating a great victory. However, they are still not sure if another onslaught is coming. There is some effort made to colonize other planets as "insurance policy". However, most of the world is more concerned about internal affairs. Dabeet Ochoa is child prodigy in the vein of Ender who wants to finagle his way into the "fleet school". He learns that being the smartest kid around will not get him anywhere. He needs to learn how to work with others, both accepting their instructions and helping them to achieve on their own. He eventually gets to prove himself in a real life situation. Like other Card books, the characters just "know" what needs to be done and have elaborate plans to help get other people to do it. It makes for good entertainment, but sacrifices believability. Perhaps as a payback, we get to know about Dabeet's parentage while he has not yet figured it out. (But if he can figure out everything else, why can't he figure this out?)

Leonardo da Vinci

I had always thought of da Vinci as a scientist who occasionally dabbled in artwork. In Isaacson's biography, however, he is presented primarily as an artist. (I guess that goes better with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle companions. In the book he is portrayed as a gay eccentric who has sufficient gifts to allow him to run in elite social circles and get away with eccentric behavior. He loved to tinker and dream. However, he often did not finish his work. (That may be how he gets his reputation. In retrospect, it looks like his ideas were the base of modern inventions. However, that assumes he would have continued down what we now see as the obvious path, which was not so obvious back then.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection

Arcanum Unbound is a collection of short stories in Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe. It is presented as a double abstraction, with an in-universe historian providing the background of the planet and the situation, as well as the author providing commentary on the story. Being fantasy, some of the stories are novella length on their own. There are some that focus on characters familiar to readers of other books he has written, while other stories are minor or new characters that have not had any significant appearances. Some served to add background to characters and events in his other novels. Others, were more random ditties. It felt like a fun dumping ground for interesting thoughts and stories that did not fit into the primary novel sequence.

The different titles (from Sanderson's website
“The Hope of Elantris” (Elantris)
“The Eleventh Metal” (Mistborn)
“The Emperor’s Soul” (Elantris)
“Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes 28 through 30” (Mistborn)
“White Sand” (excerpt; Taldain)
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” (Threnody)
“Sixth of Dusk” (First of the Sun)
“Mistborn: Secret History” (Mistborn)

Michael Vey 7: The Final Spark

In the final Michael Vey book, the resistance comes close to total defeat. Hatch continues to be portrayed as evil incarnate. He was close to defeat, but manages to enlist the Phillipino navy to capture most of the electric children. He also has a tick up his sleeve - a final "glow" that can take other glow's power. She is able to grab the power of the mind reading and use that to find out who the resistance members are and where their locations are located.
Michael himself seems to be dead, but makes appearances in various dreams. It is almost as if he has been resurrected as a god. He has been learning how to harness his powers, and eventually comes back to lead the good guys to a supernatural victory.
The book suffered from the same storytelling problems of the other books in the series. It spends time building up suspense and difficult situations, but then resolves them too quickly. It felt like I wasted time going through the build up, because it was obvious the solution would be easy.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rising Tides: Destroyerman 5

Rising Tides is the fifth book in the "Destroyerman" alternative history/science fiction series. Some world war 2 ships end up in some alternate earth filled with sentient animals. There are crazy mean monsters as well as cats that serve as crew. The author is obviously a military buff and spends a lot of time talking the details of military equipment. The plot is confusing with a large number of characters and animals doing various things. The book just had no appeal to me.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club

At the outbreak of World War II, Germany marched into Scandinavia. Norway put up a fight. Denmark, however, capitulated quickly. Businesses were more than happy to earn money from the German "protectors". Germany treated the Danes as a near-equal (they were the right race), and still let them govern themselves. However, the Germans occupied some of the key strategic areas for themselves. While many Danes objected to this, few were willing to take action. Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club were some that did.
They were teenage students that did not like the Nazis. They committed small acts against their oppressors. They stole weapons and vandalized Nazi holdings - often in broad daylight. However, they were primarily upper middle class teenagers and didn't have the heart to seriously injure others. In the book, it felt like they were building up to their big acts of sabotage as they finally destroyed some Nazi holdings. However, shortly afterwards, they were caught and jailed. Half the book details their activities after being caught. They were unwilling to back down. They pretty much forced the government to jail them (otherwise the Nazis would have excuse for taking over the justice system.) Even in jail, they had many a sympathetic Danish ear, and some were able to sneak out of their cell and wreck havoc at night before returning to their cells. Some were moved to German controlled cells and treated much worse. Eventually, they were freed and some were able to participate in the resistance movement at the end of the war. Some of them were able to go back to school and continue on with their lives afterwards. Others were seriously traumatized by the experience. What they accomplished did very little to directly impact the occupation. However, they did provide the seed for the later Danish resistance.
I was initially expecting some bold events in the story. But, in typically Danish fashion, there is very little drama going on in Aalborg. It is the subtlety of the Danes that undermines. The book shows the kids with a strong rebellious defiance, even if they are not able to accomplish much with it.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Wrath of the Storm

The conclusion of the Mark of the Thief trilogy amps up the stakes significantly. Our hero, Nicolas Calva escapes certain death in numerous occasions. He also finally shares his feelings towards the girl he loves (and realizes that his "competition" for her actually has a ting for his younger sister. During the story, Nicolas makes a habit of ignoring the advice of others. This causes him to get into deeper and deeper trouble. However, it ultimately leads to him saving the empire and fending off war among the gods and men. The ending takes perhaps too many turns before it finally comes to its conclusion. I wonder how many of the characters are actually based on real ones, and how many are purely made up for the story.