Monday, April 28, 2014

Wealth of Nations

Knowledge products created a course that provides background information on Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations. The focus is on the views of Smith that seem to fly in the face of the modern pop culture view of him. We get details of Smith's disdain for businessmen and respect for common laborers.
Our modern environment seems to fly directly in the face of his views. Even the most "right wing" companies tend to want deregulation only as it benefits them. They are happy to make "regulatory sacrifice". Far from being benevolent, they are merely eyeballing the regulations as a convenient way to raise barriers to entry of new competitors.
Smith also disdained excessive profits. These were seen as a failure of the free market. Instead, these profits should have led to higher incomes for workers and increased competitors. This favoring of workers, however, did not extend to unions, which he saw as placing a barrier to the freedom of workers.

The audiobook is a nice intro to Smith that leads you to rethink common knowledge. Now I want to read the real thing.

Distrust that Particular Flavor

These writings were primarily Gibson's articles for wired magazine. Many of them were written in the early days of the internet (even including the pre-web days.) He made some interesting observations, some of which seem to have come to fruit. In this selection, we get the raw articles, along with some of some present day commentary looking back at them. In some cases, he admits to getting things totally wrong. In other cases, he confesses to being somewhat of a "luddite" with regards to technology - but that is a good thing.

In addition to technology, there is also a focus on different societies, especially Japanese. Again, with some things he seems to admit to having gotten some things wrong. However, most of the descriptions are his personal feelings about places he likes.

While there are a couple clunkers in here, most of the writings are pretty good. The commentary helps everything to flow together well, making it a nice readable work.

Planet Thieves

This book felt like it should have ended multiple times. However at the last minute something comes up and prevents a conclusion. When it finally does end, it feels incomplete. Instead of ending, it just sets things up for a sequel.

As for the story, a boy tries to play a prank on his older sister. Only this seems to occur right as everyone is summoned for a major battle. Did I mention they were on a space ship? Some aliens were attacking them. The aliens and the earthlings both wanted the other planet to relieve their population pressure. However, the aliens have a trick up their sleeve and move earth itself to a different star system. The boy becomes a hero in various ways and ends up becoming in charge of the ship. He also discovers that the aliens look a lot like a friend of his - because the friend happens to be the king's daughter. They also discover that the aliens and humans descend from the same people. There are some other horrible beings that they barely manage to keep at bay.

Lots of stuff. It gets confusing at times. There are seeds of a good story, but it does not produce much fruit.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Power of Small

The Power of Small posits that the small things we do can have oversize impacts. This thesis is backed up almost entirely by anecdotes. We hear about a woman with a boyfriend that would not commit. After she helped out a homeless man, he suddenly asked her to marry him. The "small thing" of helping the guy was the big trigger for the big life-changing event. We also hear of the IT guy who was interest sales. After getting a fancy haircut, he had confidence in himself and ended up becoming the top sales guy in the company.

There are many other anecdotes of small things that end up leading to life-changing events. Just being friendly to people you regularly meet can create connections and help you to achieve big goals. The small details can also help you to be more friendly. The failure to pay attention to details can also be devastating. An example was given of a prospective medical student who was rejected due to a typo in his application. After correcting it, he was finally admitted. There was also an ad-campaign that created all sorts of controversy because a black child was wearing a confederate uniform.

The science to back up these claims? Well, it is missing. The authors are, after all, advertising people. Science does not matter didly-squat if you cannot convince somebody to buy your product. Anecdotes rule the field. This book takes advantage of that and gives us a nice story. It is a fun read and contains plenty of entertaining tales. Some of it might even be applicable to life.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

Where did computers come from? Despite Turing having his name in the title, this book focuses on the roll of John von Neumann. A math genius as a child, he played a central part in bringing about the early computers. There were also other players who helped influence the computer revolution. The recruiting of refugees from Europe to American universities helped get the brain power together. The need to rapidly calculate trajectories for warfare helped to provide a goal (and a source for funding.)

The book suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. At times it is a history of the origin of the computer. Then it switches to biography mode, providing intimate details of the lives and relationships of the people involved. Then it makes another abrupt turn and decides it is going to talk about the philosophy of the digital universe. Perhaps each of these could have made a compelling book. Alas, all three together do not work well.