Friday, November 27, 2020

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

Tech business books from a decade ago are always a fun read. Crowdsourcing looks like a great concept. The public will use their spare cycles to do things that they enjoy doing. Companies will benefit from "free labor". Only it is not that simple. People will catch on. They wont provide free labor just to help a corporation reduce labor costs. They want their own recognition. They also need appropriate freedom to do it. Computer software has had great success with crowdsourcing. Open Source software is created primarily with free labor. Anybody that wants to code can do so. Corporations will often employ workers to create software that is released as open source. The goal is to more quickly create higher quality software, primarily that which undergirds the "proprietary" software.

Other bits of crowdsourcing take us back to the "renaissance men" previous times. Currently science is primarily performed by credentialed PhDs. Crowdsourced science allows amateurs to participate in research. This can often lead to solutions to hard problems from those with different backgrounds.

Where does crowdsourcing stand today? Companies like Facebook are driven by the content created by users. However, there is pushback from users. There are now increasing demands for privacy there. There is also concerns with fake content. The crowd has driven things down to the least common denominator and generated a need for more moderation. Youtube is going wild with crowdsourced video. Many people have made YouTube their regular job. Many others are seeking to do so. It has become an "open bazaar" rather than a source for crowd generated content. The crowd continues to be willing to "help" as long as they get the compensation (in money or "fame") that they desire.

The Case for Jamie

In this Charlotte Holmes story, there is more "school life" than detective work. Jamie Watson is trying to finish school, but gets framed for a minor crime. Charlotte Holmes is on the run. There is a "unifying" marriages and a bit of independent "detective work", such as slyly digging through airline reservations. High school social life remains important - People don't want to rat on others for fear of killing their social life. Charlotte continues to be nearly "superhuman". Despite being a teenage drug addict, she manages to show up at just the right time to save the day.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Old Drift: A Novel

Old Drift is an amalgam of interrelated stories tied together in a novel. It follows families in southern Africa from the colonial times to the present. The focus is primarily on the women, their reproductive systems and their influence in the time period. It feels like an "outsider" quasi-romantizaiton of Africa. Mosqiuitos also play a key role in the story. Both mosquitos and and humans are trying to mate, reproduce and eat. In the end, there is an attempt to perform a mass vaccination via drones, with some unintended consequences.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Trump and Me

The author of Trump and Me had a great deal of experience covering Trump from his early days sa a business tycoon. With Trump becoming a viable political candidate in 2016, he wrote a book.

Trump is portrayed as a master salesman. The item he has sold best has been himself. He was able to draw funding for his real estate ventures even as previous adventures had failed. He would portray himself as a playboy billionaire. However, he would be nearly insolvent when an ex-wife tried to get a divorce settlement. He made it a point to respect the little guys that worked for his enterprises. This would help endere him to the blue collar workers nationwide. Russian oligarchs saw him as "old money" and had a great dela of respect for him.

From an early day, he had leaderhsip and political ambissions. However, his ideology and party affiliation were unclear. He had been a Democrat, a Republican and a potential Reform Party candidate. He had engaged in blatently unpolitical behavior (such as talking about his sex life on Howard Stern.) Regardless of his afifliation, his primary allegience was to himself and his brand. He was eventually able to sell that brand to the voters to secure a nomination. Truth was never anything that he would let get in the way of self promotion, whether it be in politics or business. It just so happened that Truth checkers are a little more common in the political sphere.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

Slavoj Žižek explores the "current events" of 2011 from the Marxist perspective. He has ample criticism and compliments for all sides. There were some protests that were just violence without any particular result desired. Some had concrete goals in mind, but were just advocating changes within the current capitalistic system. He would like to see a full on quest for communism. However, even here he has concerns. Marx was very much a student of the industrial age and thus is very biased towards that way of development. That age is long since passed. A new arising of communism will be different. There may be things that look frivolous today, but in the future will be key events that lead to the new world order. 

He focuses on events such as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring and brings in other less well known uprisings. The discussion is layered with pop culture and literature. He praises "timeless" creations that still work in new places and time (such as Romeo and Juliet set in modern Venice Beach.) He manages to tie Ayn Rand and Lion King together. The circle of life is great if you are a lion. There are a lot of interesting ideas in the book. There are some significant structural problems with our capitalistic society today. The past attempts at communism have also had their shortcomings. Would the dialectic lead us to something totally different?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

What Does our stuff say about us? What can we find out by superficially looking at other people's environment? These are the questions that Snoop tries to answer.

People will often have two different "physical views". Some areas, such as an office cubicle are meant to be public. A bedroom, on the other hand is a private space. Sometimes people will try to portray a different image in public than in private. This can extend to the digital domain also. An email signature and facebook profile are carefully curated. However, tagged posts are not subject to so much control. Sometimes the public profile will be more aspirational. People may aspire to be neat and tidy. However, there may be evidence of an occasional clean sweep of the mess rather than actual dedicated effort to tidyness.

Psychologists have divided people up into various common profiles. Some internal traits can easily be identifiable by the physical world, while others are more difficult. Our intuition can help us in some areas, but hurt us in others. The author notes that we tend to easily retroactively understand the "correct" intuitions, but these may not be the first ones to come to mind. He found the lectures would go very differently based on the order he presented things. If he asked people to identify the person based on the environment first, people would use the "most common" criteria and then be shocked at the incorrect conclusion. However, if he first started with the "correct" identification mechanism, people would more easily put that in their frame of reference and thing that it properly related.

Music plays a key role in personal identification. The author is based in Austin, Texas where music plays perhaps a greater role in society than most other places. Could this have influenced the finding? The book was also written more than a decade ago when musical experience was different than it is today. One had to actively seek out and purchase music in advance. Now, one can instantly pick anything to stream. Does this change the identifying power of music.

One interesting finding was the power of stereotypes and the negative impact that the fear of racism has played in our public use of stereotypes. There has been a great deal of research into how stereotypes are bad and lead to improper outcomes. However, there has been very little (if any) to study how stereotypes can be good. White people, especially, are reluctant to admit that race even exists. In one study, they were given different pictures of people to distinguish. The white participants would identify by hair color, gender and any other characteristic they could before trying to use race. (Black participants were more willing to use race.) In our interactions in the world, we must use stereotypes. We cannot relearn everything. We assume that the sidewalk is rigid,even if we have never stepped on it before. Similarly with people, we can assume a great deal about them based on their stereotypes. The mannerisms, clothing and personal environment all tell us a lot about a person. This can help us to understand them better. In job searching, employers give a high weighting to a face-to-face interview. However, this can be misleading. The brief interaction may encourage us to play more to our preconceived notions. We think we are not stereotyping when we are. Instead, we should acknowledge that we are stereotyping all the time. It is normal. We can't fully know somebody. We can work on improving how we group somebody and make sure we are not relying on things that are not valuable for the given situation.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz identifies some big problems with the current higher education system. Then he rambles on for a while as he explores possible individual "workarounds" for the problem.
The big issue is our current "elite" higher education system. Currently, the ruling class of the country comes primarily from a few elite universities. The Supreme Court is the domain of graduates of Harvard and Yale law schools. Government and business leaders disproportionately come from elite schools.  Even many of the upstart "tech geeks" often attended these schools. (Microsoft and Facebook were started by Harvard dropouts, Google by Stanford dropouts and Amazon by a Princeton grad.)  Admissions to these schools is based on merit, so anybody can join the elite, right?
Well, not exactly.
A century ago, the Ivies became the finishing school of the aristocracy. However, that did not mesh with the egalitarian nature of our society. So the schools created a seemingly objective admissions scheme that appeared to make things open to everyone, yet still primarily provides spots to the same people. Sure, there are legacy admissions. However, others are more nefarious. The schools look for students with high test scores, advanced classes and extra-circular activities. Parents must prep students from a young age. Expensive test prep courses are mandatory. The student will most likely need to attend an elite school - either by paying for a private school or living in an upscale suburban school district. Then there are the extra-ciriculars. These take time, money and transportation. Parents must spend a lot of money in order to get their children in the desired schools. The schools do admit a token few from less-well-to-do backgrounds, but these are the exception rather than the rule. 
Most of the students at elite colleges have been driven from a young age to follow the rules of the competition to get admitted to their desired school. Many of them continue this through college and end up as consultants because the interview process follows a similar paradigm. They are encouraged to be "sheep", doing what is required of them in the classes rather than taking part in free academic inquiry. 
While there are professors that are dedicated to instruction, many are focused on their individual research. (After all, that is most likely to get them tenure.) Students miss out on this educational opportunity. They also miss out on true connections across society. They end up in school with a diverse group of students that are all alike. They are more likely to meet a classmate from wealthy foreign family than one from a blue collar family in the midwest.
Even lower tier schools are following this pattern. Many programs are focused on getting students ready for careers, rather than finding a field they want. While a career is important, spending time studying for the wrong career may delay the entry into the desired field.
How do we solve this problem? That is the big question. The author proposes attending second tier liberal arts schools that are not so beholden to US News rankings. He also proposes more activism. Though that seems to be narrowly within the realm of "common" activities. There was some criticism of service - people are willing to go help "others" without seeing the problems internally. Religious students do have some positive characteristics. Perhaps because they are willing to be "different". Perhaps we need to really encourage more "different" students in school. Would a pure lottery help? Or perhaps one for part of the spots. And how can we fix universities and their teaching? There are plenty of big problems in need of solutions.


The narrator has a mother who was an actress. The book begins with the death of the actress. Then the narrator flashes around to different times in her life as she explores her life, her sexuality and her family. Then the novel ends.

Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren't Your Best Source of Health Information

Bad Advice is written to both the consumer and producer of scientific information. He draws from his experience working in science and communicating to the public. He openly details many of the instances where he did not communicate as well as he wished he could have. (Going on the Oprah show as the "corporate" foil to an emotional woman is usually not a recipe for success.) He has done extensive research on vaccines which has caused him to wade in to the anti-vax minefield. 
One of the hallmarks of science is being proven wrong. A good scientist will find that many of their previous findings are no longer true. This does not necessarily mean that anything has changed other than our understanding of phenomena. This is especially true in medicine. There are so many variables in play that a particular "miracle cure" for some may later be proven to be a death sentence for others. A good scientist will rarely present absolutes, instead presenting "most likely" probabilities. It is fairly easy to show that something is associated with something else. However, the null "no correlation" hypothesis can only be proven if every possibility is analyzed, a practical impossibility. These "degrees of certainty" to no go well with a public that loves unchanging absolutes.
People also like to trust information from public figures. These people may have little understanding of the science involved. However, their fame and strong opinions can cause misinformation to spread like wildfire. Even scientists can get involved with the misinformation - especially when they become closely attached to an idea. Andrew Wakefield is a case in point. He published studies showing a link between vaccines and autism. He achieved a great deal of renown for this and started an anti-vaccine movement. However, his findings were not replicated. There were also found to be flaws in his science. He was discredited, yet continued to stand behind anti-vaccine work. Many people continue to believe in his work because they have seen autism arise in children shortly after they received vaccines. (Alas, this appears to be coincidental - autism is often first visible at the same age that vaccines are given.) The vaccine work may be doing more to harm autism research by leading the public down a wild goose chase. Is it possible that we later do find a link between autism and vaccines? We can't rule it out. However, that does not mean that it is a place we should focus our efforts. 
We also suffer from the "science glut" in society today. There is so much research done. Anything that can get media attention will help with reputation and potential funding. The government provides a lot of basic research funding. However, corporations and foundations also provide additional funding. Scientists also need to work with companies to help commercialize products. This can create conflicts of interest. It can also cause the appearance of conflicts of interest even where they do not occur. Scientists can walk in a minefield when they go out in public. Testifying before the government can be even worse. Members of congress have their own motives. They are often looking for confirmation of their beliefs rather than honest communication. How do we go about making sure we get good policies in spite of this? 
Science is far from perfect. The focus on logical reductionist experimental discovery can conflict with actual lived experiences. There are so many factors in play with human health that it can be impossible to model all of them together. Actual science is probabilistic. However, what we see communicated tends to be absolute. Would it help if we had a standard way of distilling data to the public? Something that has been verified in 20 different studies is stronger than something that has only been seen once. However, the "once" will get all the publicity. The lay public rarely sees data on time frames and sample sizes that are key to understanding science. How can we communicate detailed probabilistic data to a society that wants absolute answers?

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast

The weather is both local and global. Each location has different weather. However, the global forces impact everyone. The "skill" in a weather forecast is a measure of how well the forecast is better than guessing from climatological norms. This skill has been gradually increasing over time, with more skillful forecasts being made up to around a week in advance. Making these forecasts requires enormous amounts of data and computational power. In the early days, weather forecasting was done by looking at the current conditions and assuming future weather would be similar to how it was after similar conditions. Alas, there are so many variables in place that it can be difficult to have such a library. Eventually the scientists looked at the physics of the situation and gradually developed the discipline of meteorology. 
The advances in technology came along with the evolution of weather prediction. The telegraph enabled knowledge to outpace weather systems. With most systems moving west to east, telegraph communications could provide advance notice of upcoming storms. Weather stations helped provide many different data points. Supercomputers have the power to crunch the data. Satellites provided even more observations on a global basis.  The weather does not know geographical boundaries. However, many of the tools used for weather prediction are also useful for national security. This creates interesting conflicts in governments. However, weather continues to be one area of international cooperation. With widespread data availability it may become nearly impossible to manipulate weather information for an individual country's gain. There are now many personal weather stations as well as cell phones that can record weather data. These mobile devices also demand up to the minute weather information. Gone are the days when a single weather forecast can be made. Now the weather simulations most be constantly rerun to get the most up to date forecast. We have come a long way in the field of weather prediction, yet forecasts are still far from perfect.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

International waters begin a few miles past the coast. The areas are truly international. Often a ship is registered in country while owned by residents of another country. The crew will often hail from multiple countries (often whereever labor costs are low). And then the ship will likely sail between a few totally different countries. There are different regulatory bodies involved. However, often the worst problems occur when ships are obeying the letter of the law. Outlaw sea explores some of the issues that happen out in the open seas by focussing on a few anecdotes. Commercial shipping is not a preofession for the faint at heart. The conditions are not great. However, the pay is relatively great for many of the crews that hail from low-income countries. Alas, pirates also can recruit from those same places. Pirate crews have captured ships and avoided detection in the wide open ocean. The shpis themselves have their share of problems. The book details the sinking of the Baltic Ferry Estonia in detail. There are also stories of environmental devastation. In one case, a ship was forced out, only to end up making a big mess in the ocean. In the case of the Exxon Valdez, the oil spill prompted important improvements to ships (like double hulling.) This has positive and negative impacts, but would probably not have helped prevent the oil spill. Finally the book ends with the end of ships. These days, many ships are just rammed on the coast of India where workers pick apart the valuable scrap. It is dangerous work. However, it is also a valuable source of employment for the many workers there. "Dry-dock" ship breaking in western countries is much more expensive, but it may do a better job protecting the local environment. (Though it may actually have a greater negative environmental impact in other ways. Those first world workers are driving to work and burning more fossil fuels.) The current situation is full of conflict. One one hand, it is a fairly optimal use of labor and resources. The Indian ship breakers require fewer resources and are able to more cheaply recycle the ship. On the other hand, this has negative impacts to their local environment. It is also dangerous, with many workers killed or injured. In spite of this, there are always plenty of workers lining up to take their place. They don't want the outsiders telling them how to manage themselves. It seems fitting that a ship can't even leave this world without stoking additional international conflicts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway

Boston finished the first subway transit system in the US, though New York's subway is better known. However, there were many predecessors that were needed to make it all possible. Subways systems were already in place in other places in the world. London had started an underground railway with steam power. However, the pollution involved caused problems. Advances in electric motors were a prerequisite for further expansion. In the late 1800s, most street car systems were powered by horses. Railways helped improve efficiency. However, horses were still slow. Cable cars were another alternative, and continue to be used successfully in places like San Francisco. However, cable systems have their limit and they can't cross draw bridges. Electric motors at the time had limited power. It took a series of advancements, including test runs on hills in Richmond before they were good enough to power railways. 
There were also politics. Most urban transit systems were private enterprises with entrenched interests. Alfred Beach created a pneumatic underground railway system in 1870 in New York. However, there was little political will to expand it. There was also concern that people wouldn't want to go underground. Eventually, it took the buy in of politicians, transit barons and the local populace as well as some bad weather to finally get the subway built. Boston was able to get their subway built first, though did little to celebrate it. New York, on the other hand, made a great celebration of there new system.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Marketplace 3.0: Rewriting the Rules for Borderless Business

Hiroshi Mikitani left a banking job to found the company that would be Rakuten - one of the largest e-commerce companies in Japan. This book briefly goes over his biography and then spends most of the time detailing what he believes a modern business needs to do to succeed. Japanese culture is very regimented. People expect to put in long hours and work their way up at a big company. He sought to break with that culture. Part of the break was requiring business to be conducted in English rather than Japanese. He aspired for the egalitarian nature of the English language rather than the hierarchical requirements of Japanese.
Alas, a lot of his business advice came across as somebody "speaking Silicon Valley" with an accent. Many of his examples are also quite dated. He mentioned the purchase of "" as a way to break into the American market with a familiar brand. Alas, that was later re-branded and has recently been closed down. Kobo e-readers were seen as a great platform due to social connectivity. Alas, those are also a very distant second to Amazon's kindles. (And these days, people are just as likely to read on their phone or tablet.) 
There were also a feeling of many inherent contradictions with Japanese culture. One example he gave was of people arriving late to an 8am meeting due to elevator congestion. His solution was to have the elevators only stop on a few floors, while encouraging employees to use stairs for the intermediate levels. This seems appropriate with a regimented work environment. However, a more Silicon Valley approach would be to reschedule it to later in the day and let people trickle in when they want to. He also managed to save time in meetings by sending out details in advance. That seems like fairly standard "good meeting practice". But perhaps it is more of a challenge in Japan.
This book may be quite useful for the Japanese entrepreneur trying to break through the cultural challenges. For those outside of Japan, there are some interesting tidbits. He talks of the concept of making very small improvements continually. He also emphasizes that customer focus extends to vendors and other "customers" of the company. However, other concepts are repeated so often they are now trite. Agility, fast failure and social media all seem like last years concepts. It feels there is a mixture of age and culture that combine to make this book not very relevant to today's world.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Promise of Blood

A kingdom has fallen and now divided into factions representing those that want to restore the monarchy and those that want a free society. There are some people that have magical talents. Some are more powerful than others. They battle each other and try to advocate for their sides. There is also conflict with the deity and the church. It is a long fantasy novel.

And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles

The Beatles were one of the most popular musical groups. However, they broke up while still extremely popular. What happened? And in the End explores the disintegration of the band. Each member had their own desires, some of which did not mesh with each other. There were also women involved that caused additional conflict. Lenon and Yoko Ono were already in a relationship, despite he still being married. Their work moved towards the bizarre, yet he still had some popular "peace" songs. (Initially, he credited his work to Lenon/McCartney.) Other members were going their separate ways, too. Somehow, they did manage to make a final album, but never did tour afterwards.  

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World

The Habsburgs had a very long history in Europe. They once controlled a large swatch of land (and most of the European wealth.) However, inbreeding eventually led to mental issues and the extinction of the male heirs. Eventually World War I led to the end of the empire, with the remainder of the family living primarily as celebrities.
During their history, they ruled over Spain and the new world empire as well as Austria, Hungary, the "low countries" and "yogoslav" areas. The control tended to vary. Different areas would have different degrees of autonomy over time. The Habsburg leadership mad their share of good and bad choices. However, genetics and cultural forces led to the downfall.  

The Shadows Between Us

Shadows Between Us takes place in a kingdom ruled by a shadow king. The culture requires a girl to wait until her older sisters are engaged before she can get married. This leads to the protaganist sleeping around as she waits for her older, favored sister to be wedded off. Once she is able to, she takes aim at the king. She works her way into his court with attempts to marry him and rule the kingdom. The King takes notice. However, he wants a "fake courtship" to get everyone else off his back. She takes it, but ends up spending time with other guys. Eventually, they do start to work together. However, there are also issues with the kingdom - a bandit and people trying to kill the king. There is some interesting "shadow" magic in place. People can "live forever", but without personal contact. However, the "magic" is just a sideshow for a romance work. Two young people try to use each other for their personal gain, yet end up falling in love.