The thrust: Over the past 20 years, and particularly in the past decade, the stock market has undergone some significant changes. The most visible change is that much of the action has now become computerized. For example, whereas stock markets used to consist of trading floors, where floor traders swapped stocks back and forth, we now have computer servers where sellers and buyers are connected automatically. Now, on the one hand, this automation has led to some substantial efficiencies, as once necessary financial intermediaries have now largely become obsolete (this has led to savings not only because the old intermediaries earned an honest commission for their dealings, but because their privileged position sometimes led to corruption).
It is not that the new stock market has done away with intermediaries entirely. Take brokers, for example. Brokers are still used by large investors to help them move large chunks of stock where the market may not be able to fill the order immediately. The brokers take some risk in this action, and provide liquidity in doing so—since they help move capital to its most useful location—and thus brokers still provide a very useful service.
While brokers have always existed, the new stock market has also added a new breed of intermediary. This new breed of intermediary is known as the high-frequency trader (HFT). The high-frequency trader operates on speed, relying on location and advanced communications technology to learn about the movement of the market before others, and uses this knowledge to make winning trades.
To give you an indication of how important high-frequency trading has become, consider that at least half of the trades now being made in the United States are coming from high frequency traders.
Those who defend high-frequency trading argue that these quick trades actually help move money through the stock market, and thus add liquidity to the system (the way brokers do); and that, therefore, high-frequency traders provide a valuable service.
However, just how high-frequency trading works has largely remained a mystery to anyone outside of the industry itself; and many have become concerned that at least some forms of high-frequency trading are not so much liquidity-contributors as a way of scalping money off of trades that would have happened anyway.
In Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis follows one man who made it his mission to find out what was going on at the heart of HFT. That man is one Brad Katsuyama, a broker from the sleepy Canadian bank RBC.
Katsuyama’s interest in the mystery began back in 2007, when he found that the trades he was trying to make from his desk at RBC were not being executed in the way they once had. In short, Katsuyama was being ripped off. And that’s not all. Katsuyama soon found that other brokers were also being ripped off—which meant that the big investment firms who were entrusting their money with the brokers were being ripped off too. And since the investment firms manage your money and mine, we were being ripped off as well!! This was big.
Katsuyama’s dogged persistence eventually led him (and a growing band of fellow mystery-solvers) to find that it was indeed the high-frequency traders who were ripping him (and everyone else) off (though the HFTs were not the only culprits involved). What’s more, Katsuyama’s team also discovered just how the HFTs were doing it. The long and the short of it is that the HFTs are just gaming the technology. And in a way that is not only ripping others off, but making the system more volatile, and prone to errors and disasters as well (witness the flash crash of May 6, 2010).
Rather than deciding to join the HFTs at the trough (which would have been easy enough to do), Katsuyama and his team decided to fix things. Specifically, the team decided to start their own stock exchange: a stock exchange (called the IEX) that was designed to be immune to advantages in technology, and hence fundamentally fair to all (it was either that or wait around for the SEC to do something—which may take forever).
Now, you would think that a stock exchange that is fundamentally fair to all would be a big hit. But then again, a whole heck of a lot of people have no interest in making things fair to all. Which side will win? The fate of the IEX (which opened in October of 2013) has yet to be determined…
This book is fantastic. The story will confirm your suspicious that truth is stranger than fiction. Lewis writes beautifully, unpretentiously, and makes the characters jump right off the page (that wouldn’t have been that difficult here—these are some brilliant characters). My only objection is that Lewis’ explanations of the technical side of things, while very good, could have occasionally been slightly more clear. Still, an enlightening and wonderful read. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/04/15......more
The main argument: The unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world has become a significant issue in recent years. Indeed, the data indicate that in the past 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have surged into the stratosphere (and the higher up in the income hierarchy one is, the greater the increase has been), while the incomes of the large majority have stagnated. This has led to a level of inequality in wealth in the developed world not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. This much is without dispute.
Where there is dispute is in trying to explain just why the rise in inequality has taken place (and whether, and to what degree, it will continue in the future); and, even more importantly, whether it is justified. These questions are not merely academic, for the way in which we answer them informs public debate as well as policy measures—and also influences more violent reactions. Indeed, we need look no further than the recent Occupy Movement to see that the issue of increasing inequality is not only pressing, but potentially incendiary.
Given the import and the polarizing nature of the issue of inequality, it is all the more crucial that we begin by way of shedding as much light on the situation as possible. This is the impetus behind Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
One of Piketty’s main concerns in the book is to put the issue of inequality in its broader historical context. Specifically, the author traces how inequality has evolved from the agrarian societies of the 18th and early 19th centuries; through the Industrial Revolution and up to the First World War; throughout the interwar years; and into the second half of the twentieth century (and up to the first part of the twenty-first).
With this broad historical context we are able to see much more clearly the causes of inequality. As we might expect, what we find is that inequality is influenced by a host of societal factors—including economic, political, social and cultural factors. However, what we also find is that inequality is influenced by a broader set of factors associated with how capital works in capitalist societies (and market economies more generally).
Specifically, we find that capital (and the wealth it generates) tends to accumulate faster than the rate of economic growth in capitalist societies. What this means is that capital tends to become an increasingly prevalent and influential factor in these societies (at least up to a point). What’s more, wealth not only tends to accumulate, but to become more and more concentrated at the top (mainly because those with more capital are able to earn a higher rate of return on their capital investments). For these reasons, capitalism on its own tends to produce a relatively high degree of inequality.
The natural tendency of capital to accumulate and to become ever more concentrated largely explains the high degree of inequality that was witnessed in the developed world in the early part of the twentieth century. This inequality was largely dashed, however, in the interwar years. The reason for this is that the major events of the first half of the twentieth century (including the two world wars, and the Great Depression) thwarted capital’s natural tendency to accumulate, and also destroyed large stocks of wealth. The end result was that by the time World War II was over, inequality in the developed world had reached an all-time low.
After the Second World War, the natural tendency of capital to accumulate resumed. However, various political and economic measures (including progressive taxation, rent control, increasing minimum wages, and expanded social programs) worked to redistribute this growing capital, thus preventing inequality from growing as quickly as it would have otherwise.
In the 1980s, though, the developed countries did an about-face, and began eliminating many of the measures that had prevented inequality from rising according to its natural tendency. The consequence was that inequality reasserted itself in a major way, such that it is nearly as extreme today as it was on the run up to the Great Depression. Furthermore, the historical evidence indicates that capital will likely continue to accumulate and become ever more concentrated, such that we will witness an even greater level of inequality moving forward.
As far as justifying the growing inequality that we are currently seeing, Piketty raises serious doubts as to whether it may rightly be considered fair. What’s more, as inequality continues to grow, it is increasingly likely that large parts of the population will also come to see it as unfair and unjustified—thereby increasing the likelihood of political opposition.
For Piketty, the best and fairest solution to these problems would be to steepen the progressive taxation applied to the wealthiest individuals. The problem, though, is that in a world of financial globalization (where there is a high degree of competition for capital—as witnessed by tax havens), it is extremely difficult to apply the appropriate tax scheme without the cooperation and coordinated efforts of the international community—and this is simply not something that is easy to achieve.
The alternative, however, is much more troubling for it is likely that it will involve reverting to protectionism and nationalism—and this is really in no one’s interest.
This book is an absolute tour-de-force. The broad time-frame that Piketty explores, and the enormous body of data that he brings together, makes this study extremely comprehensive (no one will even think of accusing Piketty of cherry picking the data). Also, the reader is struck by how dispassionately Piketty analyzes the evidence he brings to the table. Indeed, while the author does have a position on inequality, one never receives the impression that this is corrupting his analysis (I consider myself to be a pragmatist politically, and often find that writers on both the left and the right massage the truth, but that was never the case here). Finally, it should be said that the book is very long, and just as dense, with the author often delving into extreme detail, so be prepared for a challenge. A must read for anyone with a serious interest in economics. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/04/04......more
The main argument: Up until 15 to 20 years ago the instruments and methods used to study the brain were still somewhat primitive. Since this time, however, advances in brain-imaging and brain-probing technology have gone into overdrive—as have the computers needed to make sense of the data coming out of these technologies. The deluge began in the early to mid 1990’s with the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and it’s more powerful cousin the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it hasn’t stopped there. In addition to the MRI and fMRI, we now have a host of advanced imaging and probing technologies from the positron emission topography (PET) scan, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to optogenetics, to the Clarity technique, to the transcranial electromagnetic scanner (TES), to deep brain stimulation (DBS) and more. In addition to these new imaging and probing technologies we have also advanced greatly in understanding how genes are expressed in the brain.
The result of these new advances is that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 15 years than in all of history put together. And we are beginning to see real-world applications of this new understanding. For example, in the past decade scientists have learned to read the brain’s functioning to the point where they can now read (and recreate) thoughts and even dreams and imaginings directly from the brain; use the brain to directly control computers, and anything computers can control—including prosthetics (and even have these prosthetics send sensations back to the brain); implant and remove simple memories in the brain; create primitive versions of artificial brain structures; and also unravel at least some of the mysteries of mental illness and disease.
And this is just the beginning. Scientists continue to refine the scanners and probes that have recently been invented. What’s more, governments are beginning to put up real money to fund major projects designed to help solve the remaining mysteries of the mind. For example, in 2013 both the United States and the European Union announced significant funding for two ambitious projects whose ultimate goal is to give a full map, model and even simulation of the human brain. Specifically, the American government contributed over $3 billion to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, while the European powers contributed over $1.5 billion to the Human Brain Project.
What this means is that we can look forward to a time when some of the early advancements we’ve made in understanding and manipulating the brain will reach full maturity. A time when we will interact with computers directly with our thoughts (and paraplegics will power exoskeletons directly with theirs); a time when we can share our thoughts, memories, dreams, and imaginings directly with others; a time when we can upload knowledge and skills directly into our brains; a time when we will have a full understanding of mental illness and disease—and the power to cure them.
And not only does the future of neuroscience promise these great feats, it also promises to help us develop the coping stone of all technologies: artificial intelligence. Indeed, while artificial intelligence has progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years, it still remains fairly limited. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we have modeled our artificial intelligence systems based on how we think the mind should work, rather than on how it actually works. With our new knowledge of how the mind does work, however, the prospect of creating AI machines with human-level intelligence becomes ever more real.
The high point of the book is that Kaku gives a very nice overview of the latest developments in neuroscience, as well as where the field is headed next. The weak point of the book is that Kaku occasionally veers way of topic, and occasionally gets carried away on wild flights of speculative fancy (to give just one example, I wasn’t expecting, and didn’t appreciate, a full chapter of speculation about what alien intelligence—if it exists—might look like). Still, the book certainly contains a lot of very interesting and valuable information about the latest in brain science, and it definitely gets the imagination going. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/03/11......more
The main argument: The sciences that focus on human behavior, meaning the social sciences, have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations. While valuable to a degree, these sources of evidence do have their shortcomings. Most significantly, surveys offer but indirect evidence of human behavior (and can also be compromised by deception and self-deception); while lab experiments tend to be somewhat artificial, and fail to capture the complexities of real life.
Recently, however, new digital technology has opened up a whole new way to study human behavior. This proves to be the case since mobile devices and sensors of all kinds are now able to record a dizzying array of human activity—everything from where we go, to what we buy, to whom we interact with and for how long, to our body language, and even our moods etc. When placed in the hands of social scientists these new sources of information can prove very valuable (and are far preferable than either surveys or lab experiments); for they allow scientists to study us in our natural environments—out in the real world—and they also allow scientists to study what we actually do, rather than what we say (which are sometimes quite different).
The method of investigating human behavior in our natural environments using digital technology has come to be called reality mining, and it is revolutionizing the social sciences.
One of the pioneers and leaders in the field of reality mining is Alex Pentland, a researcher out of MIT. Pentland’s main field of interest is using reality mining to explore the properties and patterns of interactions between people—what he calls social physics. Specifically, Pentland uses reality mining to investigate the social physics in a wide range of groups and situations, from social and peer groups; to social media platforms; to institutional settings such as schools and businesses; to even whole cities. And in his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science Pentland takes time out to catch us up on his findings.
One of Pentlands’s main findings thus far has to do with the importance of social interaction in influencing our behavior. Indeed, Pentland has found that much of our behavior is dominated by the influence of our close relations and the peer groups we are embedded in—everything from our diet and body weight to our political opinions and all things in between.
The influence of our social world is so great, in fact, that Pentland argues it is much more appropriate to think of ourselves as group-oriented than self-directed. This is important because Western society as a whole tends to take the opposite view. The result is that many of our policies and institutions are ill-fitted to our true nature—which leads to less than desirable outcomes. Thankfully, Pentland does offer some advice with regards to how we can re-design our policies and institutions in a way that better accommodates our nature.
A second of Pentland’s main findings has to do with how ideas and behavior spread through human interactions and groups—and also, and even more important, what kinds of interactions produce the best results in terms of generating the most creative and productive ideas.
Specifically, Pentland has found that the most creative and productive groups tend to have something very important in common: the group members have numerous interactions with highly diverse people outside of the group, and the group members are also highly connected to one another.
In terms of explaining why this pattern works best Pentland argues that the interactions outside of the group are important in becoming familiar with many different types of ideas, while the interactions within the group function to winnow out what are the best ideas, and also help build common norms of behavior and trust that allow the group to work well and cooperatively together.
I was happy to get the opportunity to learn about a very new and promising science from one of its leading practitioners. Many of the ‘living lab’ experiments outlined in the book are very interesting and I certainly learned a lot. My only complaints are that the book does have a fair bit of repetition and jumps around some, so I question the writing and organization a bit. All in all, though, a very good and interesting read about a new field that we are sure to hear more from moving forward. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/02/25......more
The main argument: That the earth’s climate is warming, and we ar*A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/
The main argument: That the earth’s climate is warming, and we are the main cause of this phenomenon (through the emission of greenhouse gases, including especially carbon), is now beyond dispute to anyone with an objective mind and an appreciation of science.
The clearest and most obvious effects of global warming are the melting of glacial ice and the corresponding rise in sea levels. But the effects of a warming world do not end here, we now know. The models tell us that warming also means less rain and even drought and desertification in some areas; more rain in others, often in deluges; stronger storms, such as hurricanes and cyclones; and an acidifying ocean.
On a human scale, this means salinated and eroding coast lines; desiccated farmland and more wild fires in drier areas; increased flooding and soil erosion in suddenly wetter areas; more destructive and deadly storms; and threatened sea life.
With all these negative effects, you would think that the people, companies and governments of the world would be eager to step in and do everything we can to stem the rising tide of climate change (including especially cutting emissions). Instead, however, what we have seen is much talk and little action.
There are several reasons for this complacency. One of the leading ones is that the effects of climate change often seem somewhat removed from our daily lives. Indeed, even though we are now seeing the beginnings of many of the effects listed above, most of us glimpse at most a small fraction of these effects. And besides, it is difficult to attribute any one of them to global warming specifically. What’s more, we like our way of life, and it’s difficult to imagine changing it for something as abstract and often remote as global weather patterns.
In connection with this, many of us are wont to think that the best approach to climate change might simply be to adapt. We’re an innovative species, after all, what’s to stop us from innovating our way out of trouble? This idea is especially appealing to the innovators and entrepreneurs among us, for whom not only peace of mind, but profits await. Given that this is the case, it is no surprise that we are already beginning to see some very innovative business approaches to adapting to the new normal. Everything from extensive water desalination plants, to man-made floating land-masses, to storm-surge sea walls, to snow machines and indoor skiing resorts.
Continuing with our wishful train of thought, it might also occur to us that as we are innovating to adapt, we should also be able to innovate to help mitigate and even halt climate change without necessarily weaning ourselves off oil until it is more convenient to do so. Once again, there are profits to be made here, and once again, such innovations are already underway. Everything from the development of alternative forms of energy (including solar, wind, and other renewables), to ingenious ways to manipulate the weather and climate back to normal (known as geoengineering).
Beyond optimism (some might say denial), and the fact that there are big profits to be made from adapting to climate change, there is also one other factor to consider in our relative complacency when it comes to halting and reversing carbon emissions. That is that while many of the effects of climate change listed above are bad for many people, at least some are good for some people some of the time—at least in the short-term. For instance, while melting ice stands to swamp some parts of the world, it is also leaving large tracts of land in the arctic open for resource exploration and shipping routes. In addition, while shifting hydrology is leading to the loss of large tracts of farmland in drier areas, it is also often leading to richer agriculture in newly warmer, wetter areas. Also, while shrinking farmland and water resources is leading to food and water shortages, and rising prices, those in control of these precious resources are making a fortune.
As we can see, then, being complacent about cutting carbon emissions is not only pleasant for most of us, for some of us, it’s even a windfall! And that brings us to the topic of the book: all the things that are now being done to profit off of climate change (which we have now been introduced to above).
First off, on the whole this book is very good. It is extremely well researched and very well written. Also, the author does well to make sense of our relative complacency regarding cutting emissions, and just what is being done to address climate change right now. My one and only objection to the book is that though the author claims he will be entirely neutral in the book, it becomes clear that he favors the carbon emissions cutting route to the adaptation route (all the while admitting to recently having bought a bigger car, and flying all over the world for the purposes of his book). And one does wonder whether in the end the author’s political stance really does affect his supposedly objective reporting (though for the most part we don’t get the impression that this is true). All in all, though, a very good and interesting book. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/...more
In the first machine age—otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution—we humans managed to build technologies that allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power like never before. The result, which has reverberated these past 200 years, has been an increase in economic productivity unprecedented in human history. And the corollary of this increase in productive power has been an increase in material standard of living and social development equally as unprecedented.
In the past 30 years, with the rise of computers and other digital technologies, we have moved from overcoming our physical limitations, to overcoming our mental ones. This is the second machine age. Though we are still at the dawn of the second machine age, it already shows at least as much promise in boosting productivity (and quality of life) as the first. Indeed, by various measures—including the standard ones of GDP and corporate profits—we can see that the past 30 years has witnessed an impressive steepening in productivity.
And this is just the beginning. For digital technology continues to advance at an exponential pace; more digital information is being produced (and kept) all the time (all of which has enormous economic potential); and new ways of combining existing (and new) ideas into newer and better ones are ever being found.
Still, what is equally apparent is that the benefits of this steepening in productivity have gone to the few, rather than the many. Indeed, while the top 20% of earners have seen their pay increase since the early 1980s (and the closer you are to the top the more dramatically your pay has increased), the bottom 80% has actually seen their wealth decrease. And the spread is widening ever more as we go.
This is no random, or merely temporary outcome. Indeed, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee demonstrate, the unequal distribution of wealth in the second machine age is a natural corollary of how digital technology works and is used. Specifically, computer technology produces an economy that favors capital over labor; skilled labor over unskilled labor; and superstars (who are able to reach and corner entire global markets) over local players.
And not only does computer technology tend to play favorites, thereby increasing inequality. It also steadily erodes human employment outright. For as computer technology advances, more and more jobs that could once be carried out only by humans, becomes possible (and cheaper) for computers to accomplish. Nor is there any guarantee that new innovations and advancements will necessarily produce new jobs as fast as old ones are being lost (as was once thought inevitable). Indeed, we have already seen signs that this simply cannot be counted on.
The problem with all this is not just that extreme inequality is a political problem on its own. It’s that as more and more people are driven out of the economy, the prospects for greater growth are themselves undermined.
Nevertheless, just as wise policies have helped us overcome many of the problems with the Industrial Revolution, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the same can be done with the problems of the Digital Revolution. Specifically, more can be done to ensure that our education systems are geared to the realities and demands of the second machine age; more can be done to ignite and encourage entrepreneurship, which is needed to replace many of the jobs that will be lost; and more can be done to mitigate the inequality caused by the new technology, such as introducing a negative income tax—which preserves a minimal standard of living for all (and keeps people in the economy as consumers), while encouraging all who can to stay in the workforce.
The book is very well-researched, well-written and wisely argued. The authors have taken the facts and the data as they stand, without preconception or political coloring, and have delivered an honest and insightful analysis. Both the bounty and the spread of the second machine age are made apparent, and the proposed approach moving forward is well-measured and judicious. An important book for policy-makers, and the generally curious alike. A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/01/28... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon. ...more
The main argument: The idea that we can boost our brain power through interventions of various kinds has been around a long time. Over the years, numerous drugs, diets and other practices (including everything from physical exercise to learning a new language or musical instrument to meditation to even zapping the brain with electrodes) have been purported to pump up our mental strength. And lately, a new practice has been added to this list: brain-training games and exercises. Indeed, in the past decade a whole new industry has emerged around brain-training programs. Built on the premise that specific types of mental activities can strengthen our cognitive skills and add to general intelligence, companies such as Lumosity and LearningRx have convinced millions of paying customers that their product will give them an edge in the brains department.
The more skeptical among us, however, may find ourselves wondering just what is the scientific basis behind all these brain games and other interventions. It was just this thought that occurred to science writer Dan Hurley; and so, following his skeptical sense, Hurley decided to investigate the matter for himself. What Hurley found was a scientific field that, though young, is bustling with activity (and controversy).
The new science of building brain power may be said to have truly kicked off in 2002. In that year, Swedish psychologist Torkel Klingberg performed a study wherein he found that subjects diagnosed with ADHD improved in both attention span and general intelligence after undergoing a brain-training program that involved working-memory exercises (it was this very study that kick-started the brain training industry).
The finding flew in the face of the long-accepted belief that intelligence simply could not be enhanced through training; and therefore, it sparked a great deal of interest in the scientific community. Eager to test the new finding, scientists from all over the world launched their own studies. While not all of the studies replicated the results that Klingberg found, many did; and enough promising results were found to draw even more interest into the field (while those who found negative results began setting up a staunch opposition to the research).
Despite the minority opposition, the long-held belief in immovable intelligence was rocked, and scientists began testing other kinds of interventions as well (including all of those mentioned above). While many of the interventions tested were found to have no effect on cognitive functioning, some did, and thus the new field gained even more momentum.
Wanting very much to get to the bottom of the matter (and the controversy) Hurley decided to check out the studies himself, and also to interview the major researchers in the field (on both sides of the debate). Based on this investigation (which is explored at length in the book), Hurley launched his own brain-training experiment–on himself. Specifically, Hurley took all of those interventions which he felt had the best evidence behind them and incorporated them into a grand brain-training program to see whether he could improve his intelligence.
The routine included the following: A boot camp program (that incorporated both aerobic exercise and resistance training); Lumosity; learning a new musical instrument (the lute); mindfulness meditation; a nicotine patch; coffee; and transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). The results of the experiment? They were mixed.
Hurley's exploration of the new field of building brain power (as well as his own experiment on himself) is fascinating (and often hilarious). One of the strong points of the book is how much detail Hurley gives regarding the experiments that he investigates. However, there is one detail that Hurley often leaves out that would be nice to have: rather than specifying exactly how much a given intervention improved intelligence in terms of percentages, Hurley often confines himself to mentioning whether the improvement was statistically significant or not (which leaves us without a good indication of exactly how well a given intervention worked). Still, Hurley's book is very well researched, and both highly interesting and entertaining. A great resource for those who are interested in getting past the hype of brain boosting, and investigating the actual science. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2014/01/14... a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
The modern city owes much of its current design to two major trends or ‘movements’ that have emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first trend traces back to the industrial revolution itself, when the appearance of smoke-billowing factories (and egregiously dirty slums) necessitated new solutions to the problem of how to organize city life. The answer—still reflected in cities all over the world—was to compartmentalize functions, such that industrial areas, shopping areas, office areas, and living areas were separated off from one another into distinct blocks of the city.
The second trend in urban design took full hold in the post-war era, with the rise of the suburbs. In a sense, the suburbs represent a continuation and intensification of the compartmentalization movement, as the living areas of the upper classes were separated-off still further from the other areas of the city—out into sprawling districts miles away (as automobiles made it possible for certain city dwellers to escape to an idealized haven away from the hustle and bustle).
While the suburban movement has had the bulk of its impact on the landscape outside of the city proper, the city itself has not been spared of its influence. For indeed, the city was gutted of many of the inhabitants that formerly occupied it; and, what’s more, it has been reshaped by the roads and freeways introduced to shuttle-in the suburbanites from their faraway destinations.
Now, it may well be the case that all this compartmentalization and suburbification was originally intended to benefit (most of) the city’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, however, the longer we live with these trends in urban design, the more it is becoming clear that this way of organizing the city leaves much to be desired.
Let us begin with the suburbs, and work our way inwards. In the first place, those who have fled to the suburbs have found that there is a steep price to pay for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, and that price begins with all the driving. And the hellish commute is only half of it: virtually nothing that the average suburbanite wants and needs, and no place they want to go, is accessible without a car trip. Obviously, all this driving is unpleasant in itself, but this is just the beginning. Second, and even more important, it leaves less time for other things—including family life. Also, the piling up of time spent behind the wheel is just plain unhealthy, as it leads to both obesity and—by extension—several other health problems. Additionally, having to drive everywhere is expensive, and is only getting more so as the price of oil continues to rise. Finally, because suburbanites spend so little time actually walking through their neighborhoods, they tend to have little casual contact with neighbors, which at least partly explains why they tend to be more detached from their communities.
With all the negative consequences of suburban life, it is no surprise that many of those who had formerly fled to the burbs are now fleeing back to the city. Actually, in many cases, suburbanites have had little choice, as the rising price of oil—together with the housing crash of 2008—has left them with no way to afford their suburban nightmare regardless (thus many of the suburbs have become as abandoned as the inner city once was).
Unfortunately, life back in the city has seldom been much better. For one thing, outdated compartmentalization in the city has interfered with accessibility in a manner that is similar to the way that sprawl has interfered with accessibility out in the suburbs. Second, since transportation networks in the city have been rearranged to suit cars, alternative forms of transportation have largely been compromised, thus leaving citizens with less real choice when it comes to getting around. Also, because it has been so expensive for cities to service the suburbs (they being so far away, and so spread out), there has been less money to fund public goods that serve the city, such as public transit, parks and sociability-inviting squares—thus the city has actually become a less livable place in the suburban era.
Thankfully, at least some cities around the world (from Bogota to Copenhagen to Vancouver etc.) have begun taking efforts to remedy these issues, and are beginning to embrace a vision of the city which (according to the research) is both better-functioning and leads to happier citizens. In broad outline, the happy city is composed of multi-use, multi-income communities; laced with parks and public squares of varying sizes; and tied together with transportation networks that reintroduce walking, cycling and public transport as real options. (This vision of the city is often referred to as the new urbanist movement.)
In his new book 'Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design' urbanist and writer Charles Montgomery takes us through the history of the modern city, and the latest efforts to reform over a century of ill-conceived design decisions.
Montgomery's book is a fantastically informative and fun read, and the author does well to introduce the ideas of the new urbanist movement, and the efforts that are currently underway to implement it around the world (as well as the forces that continue to oppose it). If the stories and research presented here do not render you a full convert to the new urbanist movement, it will at least make you rethink where (and how) you'd like to live. Bravo Charles Montgomery! A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/12/17... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at a lightning-quick pace. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another—and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends—and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results—and thus we can expect that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.
The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick—and also touches on what is likely to come next.
After taking us through the basics of DNA, Venter touches on the advances that led up to his effort to sequence the entire 3-billion-letter human genome. This story includes all of the major advances in biologists’ ability to read DNA, and culminates with the success of the human genome project.
From here we are taken through biologists’ efforts to move from reading DNA to synthesizing it in the lab. Once again, Venter and his collaborators have played a central role in these advances, including being responsible for the latest and greatest accomplishment here—which involved synthesizing a modified version of the genome of a single-celled organism, booting it up inside a recipient cell, and having it survive, thrive and reproduce. Venter gives a detailed account of this accomplishment, and thus we are given an inside view into the scientific process—with all its trials, tribulations, and glorious successes.
Finally, Venter details where biology is headed now, and next—including where his own research is taking him. Here we learn about the cutting-edge of synthetic biology, which is the attempt to transform biology into an engineering science. Specifically, we learn how biologists are continuing to perfect the art of manipulating DNA, and how this is leading to exciting new applications across many fields. To give just one example, take Venter’s work with influenza vaccines. Venter is in the process of using synthetic biology to design, manufacture, and deliver influenza vaccines in a fraction of the time that it now takes—work that promises to save millions of lives in the event of future influenza outbreaks.
On the more speculative side of things, Venter ventures into how new advances might be used to probe for life in other parts of the universe—and how the genomes of any such life might be read, and sent back to earth on the back of electromagnetic waves to be synthesized and recreated in the lab. Life at the speed of light indeed!
It was a delight to read about the recent history and latest advances in biology from one of its most accomplished and renowned practitioners. Some might find Venter’s level of detail regarding his own work to be somewhat tedious at times, but I found this to be one of the strong points of the book. The only short-coming of the book, I thought, is that it does jump around somewhat, and the details are occasionally difficult to follow (so be prepared to read through it VERY carefully). All in all, though, a very good popular science book. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/12/03... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
The main argument: In the developed world, the vast majority of us enjoy a standard of living unmatched in the history of humankind—and going hungry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that poverty and hunger have been eradicated in the developed world entirely (in the United States, for example, 1 in 6 are considered food insecure—including 16 million children). Still, the greatest problems with poverty and hunger continue to exist in the developing world. Indeed, despite substantial improvements over the past 30 years, poverty remains a significant issue, and nearly a billion of the world’s 7 billion people still face chronic hunger (while about twice that number are malnourished in some way)—and millions starve to death every year.
It is not that many well intentioned people and organizations have not spent a great deal of time and money trying to solve the world’s poverty and hunger issues. Indeed, over the past half century the amount of resources that have been poured into these problems is staggering. So, just why do the problems of poverty and hunger stubbornly persist?
Well, at least part of it has to do with the fact that there are several significant obstacles standing in the way—everything from armed conflict, to corrupt governments, to particular cultural practices etc. The humanitarian Howard G. Buffet has been involved in fighting poverty and hunger for upwards of 30 years, and knows these obstacles all too well. However, Buffet insists that there is yet another reason why all of the well-intentioned efforts have fallen short of reaching their ultimate goal. And that is that many of the approaches have proven to be inadequate (if not downright counter-productive).
The fact is that most of the aid flowing to the poorest parts of the world has been (and continues to be) in the form of projects that are meant to help people in the short-term. For example, NGOs commonly enter an area, drop off bags of seed and fertilizer, and then turn around and leave. This approach may help the area for a season or two, but in the end the seed and fertilizer do run out, and the community is right back to square one. Thus the approach acts more as a band-aid, than a self-sustaining solution that addresses the root causes of poverty and hunger.
Thankfully, in Buffet’s 30 years of work as a philanthropist he has learned that there is indeed a better approach, and one that stands a much better chance of rooting out poverty and hunger for good. The more effective approach is much less about aid as development—less about helping people as enabling people to help themselves.
The development approach involves linking subsistence farmers up with the larger economy, and establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem that will allow this connection to be maintained into the future. It involves things like helping to establish agricultural schools and private seed companies; working with farmers to improve farming techniques and yields (and not in a way that assumes that what has worked well in one place—or one’s own backyard—will work everywhere); establishing grain storage systems; physically connecting farmers to markets; and working with governments to establish and maintain the infrastructure (especially roads) needed to make the system work smoothly.
The development approach may be more involved and take longer to get off the ground, but it pays off in the end, as when it is done well, it only has to be done once (Buffet speaks often about NGOs needing to take an approach that ultimately puts themselves out of business).
And helping impoverished farmers join the larger economy is not just a matter of helping them help themselves. The fact is that the world’s population is continuing to grow, while we are running out of good farmland to farm. The UN estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected 9 billion people by 2050, farmers everywhere will need to increase the planet’s food production by 70%. Part of the solution to this problem must involve helping the world’s subsistence farmers to produce a surplus to help everyone.
But the solution doesn’t end there. Farmers everywhere, including in the developed world, will need to increase their yields to meet the growing demand. However—and this is important—farmers will need to increase their yields in a sustainable way. That is, they will need to do so in a way that does not degrade the soil, or threaten the world’s fresh water or woodlands—as too often happens now.
Thankfully, Buffet’s experience as a farmer (which he has been practicing even longer than philanthropy) has shown him that here too there is a solution. And a big part of this solution is a very straightforward approach known as no-till farming. No-till farming is an approach that eschews tilling the soil in favor of planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops. The approach not only increases water retention, saves soil, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, it also helps increase yields (and thus it’s a win-win solution). Now it’s just a matter of convincing other farmers of this—which is a big part of Buffet’s project.
This is a fantastic book. Don't let the fact that Buffet is the son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet dissuade you from taking him seriously. The author may have had a head start in life, but he stands on his own two legs, and he has used his privileged position to help him gain perspective (rather than let it make him arrogant and entitled). Anyone interested in the hunger problem (and the best way to approach it) would be well advised to read this book. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/11/19... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
The main argument: Until quite recently, the field of economics was dominated mainly by theory-making. Specifically, economists applied their intellects to the human world, and developed abstract models to explain (and predict) the unfolding of economic events. At the heart of all this theory-making stood homo economicus—a narrowly self-interested individual who responded to incentives and disincentives in a perfectly rational way.
In the past half century, though, various economists have added new wrinkles to the field’s repertoire. To begin with, pioneering economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced controlled lab experiments (among other things) into the fold. And these experiments succeeded in adding nuance to our understanding of economic-man (he’s not quite as one dimensional and rational as he was once taken to be), as well as texture and complexity to our understanding of economic phenomenon.
More recently, economists such as Uri Gneezy and John A. List have stepped in and showed that controlled field experiments also have a place in economics. For Gneezy and List, the world is their laboratory: the two go about slyly manipulating the natural environment in a controlled way (often fiddling with incentives and disincentives of all types) to see how we humans respond to the tweaks. Gneezy and List have been practicing this approach for upwards of 20 years now, and in this time they have helped shed light on everything from how to decrease crime rates; to how to improve school success; to how to encourage more charitable giving; to how to promote healthy living and decrease obesity; to how to set prices on products (so as to maximize profits); to how to understand (and limit) discrimination (to name but a few lines of research of theirs). And in their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life the two catch us up on their experiments and their results (while also touching on the experiments of other like-minded practitioners).
Take education, to begin with. Gneezy and List have gained a fair bit of attention recently for showing how monetary incentives can be used to help improve grades and graduation rates (particularly with at-risk students)—and even curb school violence; and here we are apprized of the ins and outs of the experiments that were used in this research. What is less well-known is that the authors have also recently become involved in a massive longitudinal study that is designed to test the effectiveness of different approaches to pre-kindergarten education. Though still in its infancy, the study has already yielded some very interesting results; and given that the researchers intend to follow their experimental subjects throughout their lives, the study should help shed a great deal of light on just what approach to early childhood education is most effective.
When it comes to charitable giving, Gneezy and List’s experiments have worked wonders in showing just how to encourage as much charity as possible—and have challenged many of the industry’s long-held beliefs in the process. The authors cover everything from how much seed-money is needed for a project to maximize donations; to how to approach follow-up requests made to established donors; to how to leverage raffles, lotteries and tontines for best success.
On the topic of business, Gneezy and List remind us how a failure to use an experimental approach can lead to business disaster (as illustrated by Netflix’ 2011 decision to modify its business model without experimental research—a decision that drove hordes of customers away, sent the company’s stock plummeting, and nearly sank the business outright). The lesson: business tweaks (including changes in pricing) should be tested in a controlled way in a small market (say a given city) before being adopted across the board (an approach that has been utilized to great effect by such companies as Intuit and Humana).
When it comes to discrimination, Gneezy and List have been able to use their experiments to reveal that much of the discrimination that happens nowadays is motivated less by hatred (or animus) as it is by plain old self-interest. Though perhaps not as threatening as outright hatred, discrimination practiced out of self-interest (known as economic discrimination) is problematic in its own right, and Gneezy and List also explore what strategies are best to curb it (this work is more important now than ever, as the internet [combined with data-driven analysis] has made economic discrimination very easy to practice--and hide).
The book is a very fun and interesting read, and Gneezy and List clearly have a knack for telling about their research in a highly entertaining way. The only issue I had with the book is that the authors occasionally exaggerate and over-state just what we can conclude from their experiments. Still, there is much of interest to be learned here, and the book is well-worth the read (just make sure you take it with a grain of salt). A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/11/05... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
This book is not about underdogs and giants in any conventional sense of these terms. Rather, the book is about the curious nature of advantages and disadvantages, and how each can (under certain circumstances) become its opposite.
The first lesson to be learned is that the things we take to be advantages are often no such thing. Our greatest mistake here comes from the fact that we identify a certain quality or characteristic as being a benefit or advantage, and then assume that the more of it there is the better—when this is often not the case. Put another way, most of us recognize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and yet we fail to appreciate just how often and where this principle applies. For instance, we recognize that having a certain amount of money greatly facilitates raising children (it being very difficult to raise a family in a state of poverty), and yet we fail to recognize that beyond a certain point wealth also makes parenting increasingly difficult (for it becomes harder and harder to instill qualities of hard work and self-control). Or we recognize that small class sizes are a good thing, and yet we fail to recognize that classes can actually begin to suffer once they become too small (since diversity and energy begin to disappear).
Another arena wherein an advantage can become a disadvantage is in power and authority. Power and authority is an advantage, of course; however, when it is wielded illegitimately and without fairness, it can actually cause more chaos, destruction and violence than it curbs. This is as true in the classroom as it is in community policing as it is in handling minority groups within a nation’s borders.
The second lesson to be learned here is that certain disadvantages can sometimes drive people into positions of advantage. Take the disadvantage of being born with a disability, for example. Say dyslexia. In our modern world, where the ability to read is extremely important—and practically a requirement for success—having great difficulty with reading is a major disadvantage. And indeed the statistics indicate that the vast majority of those who are born dyslexic end up falling through the cracks and missing out on success.
Still, though, many dyslexics have gone on to become highly successful people; and it has also been noted that in certain fields (such as entrepreneurship) an inordinate proportion of the most successful individuals do, in fact, have dyslexia. So how can we explain these success stories? What we find in these cases is that these individuals have managed to compensate for their disability by developing skills that make up for their flaws (such as an improved memory or debating prowess). Thus, in a way, the successful dyslexic has actually benefited from his disability, because it has forced him into a position where he has had to develop other skills that have led him directly to success.
Also at play here is the fact that dyslexics tend to endure many failures when they are young. Repeated failures (especially at a young age) have the potential to crush the spirit. But they can also have the opposite effect: they can inure the individual to failure, thus making them more likely to take risks and try things that others wouldn’t—which is often a sure path to success.
A similar phenomenon also sometimes touches trauma victims. Take the ultimate trauma of losing a parent in childhood, for example. This is one of the worse experiences imaginable, and the trauma of losing a parent in childhood does indeed crush the vast majority of those who have the misfortune of enduring it.
Again, though, it has been noted that a very high proportion of highly successful individuals across many fields (from science to art to politics) have in fact lost a parent in childhood. And what we find in these cases is that the experience has left these individuals with the mind-set that now that they have endured such a terrible event, that nothing could ever be so bad. And thus they are liberated from the fear of failure, and—like the successful dyslexic—are willing to try things and take risks that others are not (which often leads directly to success).
The same experience and logic can also apply to underdog groups. For example, when a group recognizes that it is severely over-matched in terms of skill or strength compared to its opponent, it can begin to feel liberated to try unconventional tactics and approaches. This is often for the best, for it turns out that unconventional tactics and approaches are frequently very effective against giants—in everything from sports, to politics to war—and are, in many cases, the only chance the underdog has to win anyway. Again, then, in both of these instances (the trauma victim and the underdog group) a disadvantage has driven the party into a position of advantage, and thus the disadvantage may itself be seen as a kind of boon.
Gladwell has done well to make us rethink the nature of advantages and disadvantages across many fields. The only major flaw in the book, in my view, is the third and final part. The theme of the part is that power becomes less effective (or even counter-productive) when it is wielded illegitimately. The problem with this argument is that it's a classic case of the straw-man: Gladwell has set up an opposition that is very easy to defeat, and then smashed it to pieces. What's worse is that the examples Gladwell uses to prove his point here are quite weak. Still, there is much of value in the first 2 parts of the book. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/10/22... A podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter. ...more
The main argument: Prior to the 19th century, public goods and social goals such as sanitation, health, affordable housing, education, and environmental protection were largely left up to individuals to sort out for themselves. Beginning in the 19th century, though, more and more governments—particularly in the industrialized, democratized world—began taking these responsibilities on themselves. In the latter half of the 20th century, the promotion of public goods and social goals expanded as governments in the developed world intensified their efforts at home and began spreading their attention to the developing parts of the planet, and large non-profits and NGOs started cropping up to help with the issues both domestically and abroad.
Recently, we have seen a new trend develop, as in the past two decades businesses and corporations have themselves increasingly entered the fray. Now, this may seem odd, given that business is often seen as indifferent—if not downright hostile—to public goods and social goals. However, several developments have occurred in recent years that have flipped this logic on its head.
To begin with, many consumers have begun to demand that companies display real concern and commitment towards the issues that mean something to them—and have begun to shun companies that fail to show a sense of social responsibility. This trend has caused businesses to respond in several ways. First off, most companies now assess the social and environmental impact of their business practices, and have taken measures to ameliorate them under a Corporate Social Responsibility report (CSR). Even more impressively, corporate philanthropy has skyrocketed in recent years; and, what’s more, companies are increasingly moving beyond donating, and are instead using their peculiar expertise to help directly with social projects and development efforts.
Business involvement with public goods and social goals goes well beyond just brand-building, though. Indeed, it turns out that big profits are also at stake. To begin with, many companies have come to realize that there is a fortune to be made by entering non-traditional markets and catering to the unmet needs of the world’s poorest people—and in helping them bootstrap themselves out of poverty. For though the so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’ may not have much, they do have some, and collectively they represent an enormous business opportunity. Indeed, the bottom of the pyramid has been estimated to represent a $5 trillion market.
Still other businesses in the social economy are organizing themselves from the beginning around a particular public problem (such as traffic congestion or waste control), and then cleverly designing a business model that helps solve the problem—all while turning a profit.
Aside from these self-starting enterprises, other companies have been lured into the social economy by governments or non-profits who are looking to exploit their expertise—or who are looking to capture the benefits of competitive organizations more broadly (specifically increased innovation and efficiency)—and who are willing to pay top dollar to do so.
These types of collaborations (between governments, non-profits and businesses [and other types of groups]) have actually become quite a theme in addressing public goods and social goals—and author William D. Eggers makes a special point of addressing it in his book. The beauty of the arrangement comes from the fact that each type of organization has access to a special class of information, expertise, and resources, which, when brought together, can help yield solutions that are particularly effective.
As you might expect, many of the developments spoken of here have been made possible by recent innovations—everything from social networking, to crowd-funding, to crowd-sourcing, to micro-financing, to prize and pay-for-success exchanges, to socially-responsible and impact investing etc.—and the author is sure to touch on all these as well.
On the bright side, it is certainly nice to see a book-length discussion about a very timely and important topic. On the not-so-bright-side, the reading experience of the book leaves much to be desired. The biggest issue here is with the examples. Many of the examples are touched on only briefly, and in passing—some of them receiving but a single sentence in a paragraph. It would have been much better to see fewer examples explored in greater detail. Still, there is much to be learned here, and the book is a valuable read. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/10/08... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon. ...more
When the early states came together to discuss the possibility of establishing a confederacy, they did so with a great deal of hope, but also a great deal of trepidation. The hope was that a federal government might be formed that could handle the few issues that were common to all the states but which could not be dealt with by the states individually. The fears, on the other hand, were that this government might come to gain an enormous amount of power; that this power might come to be concentrated in the hands of very few; and that the federal government as a whole might end up overreaching its purview and meddling in affairs that ought rightly to be left to the states and the various local governments (if not individuals themselves).
Thus the constitution was framed in such a way that the power of the federal government would be split between 3 separate branches—each acting as a check-and-balance on the power of the others. And the power of the federal government as a whole was limited to certain specific areas—all other areas being left expressly to the power of the states and local governments (and individuals).
Over the past century, though, this original arrangement has largely been undone. Indeed, after numerous constitutional amendments—and loose interpretations of the constitutions itself—each of the branches of the federal government has, by turns, usurped (or been left with) more power than it was ever meant to have, and the federal government as a whole routinely involves itself in matters far from federal in nature—to the extent that it now insinuates itself into virtually every aspect of life, political, economic, and social.
For author and commentator Mark R. Levin it’s time we reversed this situation. For while those who made for the changes may have thought they were strengthening the nation, the fact is that the changes have contravened the very wise principles upon which the nation was built, and the practical results have been nothing but negative. Specifically, the changes have left the nation with nothing but ever-increasing taxes, ever-mounting debt, and ever-more soft tyranny for some with ever-reduced freedom for everyone else.
And the reform we need, according to the author, runs more than legislation-deep. It is reform that needs to happen at the very source: it is the constitution itself that must be reformed. For only radical constitutional reform can undo the radical and misguided reform that has come before.
Specifically, Levin proposes 11 constitutional amendments. They include: 1) term limits for members of congress; 2) election of Senators to be returned to state legislatures; 3) term limits for Supreme Court Justices (and the opportunity for federal and state legislatures to override Supreme Court decisions with a super-majority); 4) limits on federal spending (with an eye to curbing federal debt); 5) limits on taxation; 6) limits on how much power the executive branch can delegate to the federal bureaucracy; 7) limiting the federal government from interfering with economic activity that does not pertain to interstate or international trade; 8) requiring the federal government to compensate property owners for the devaluation of property caused by federal regulations; 9) allowing the states to amend the constitution directly (without having to go through Congress); 10) granting states the right to overturn the laws and regulations of Congress with a super-majority; 11) requiring voters to produce photo identification at election booths.
Of course, the federal government cannot be expected to make the proposed changes itself (since many of the amendments entail limiting this government’s power). Thankfully, though, it needn’t; for as the author points out, provisions exist under Article V of the constitution for it to be amended not just at the instigation of Congress, but at the instigation of a state-led convention—which is precisely what Levin is pushing for here.
Having great respect for the constitution (and its framers) myself, I am glad to see a book that reminds us of the values and principles that went into it, and that stands up for these values and principles. My issue with the book, though, is that Levin spends as much time and energy defending Republican Party policy issues (albeit covertly) as he does defending liberty as it was conceived under constitutional republicanism. The book would have made a much cleaner argument had the author stuck to his constitutional reform effort, without coloring it Republican red. Still, the main argument is strong and deserves our time and attention. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/09/24... ...more
The main argument: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed.
All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book 'The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way'.
Ripley focuses her attention on the education systems of 3 countries in particular: South Korea, Finland and Poland. South Korea and Finland are chosen due to their being on top of the world when it comes to academic results, while Poland is chosen since it has recently been able to improve academic outcomes greatly despite the fact that the country faces many of the same challenges as the US—including especially a high rate of child poverty.
When it comes to the author’s approach in the book, it is very much that of the investigative journalist: Ripley relies heavily on interviews with specific players in the education systems of the various countries at play (including students, teachers, principals, and politicians); and her main sources are 3 American exchange students (Eric, Kim and Tom) who spend a year immersed in the education systems of the respective countries.
When it comes to South Korea, we find that this country’s edge in education has to do mainly with the very intense motivation and hard work on the part of the students. This is a culture where it is no exaggeration to say that most students spend every waking minute on school work: students spend all day at school, eat dinner at school, and then proceed from there to private tutoring schools (called hagwons), where they study right up until bed-time (and often beyond it). The reason for this intense focus on education is that there is very fierce competition to be accepted into one of the few best universities in the country, and only those who score in the top 2% on a single test at the end of high school are allowed in (a set of circumstances that most Koreans actually resent, but which they nonetheless feel compelled to play along with).
In Finland we find that academic outcomes are on par with those in South Korea, but that the students here have achieved these results without the same level of acute devotion displayed in South Korea. Indeed, Finland’s edge in education appears to derive not so much from excessive studying, but from its very high quality of teachers—which begins with Finland’s exceptional teachers’ colleges. Specifically, the country’s few accredited teachers’ colleges are very selective in terms of who they accept, and the teacher education programs in Finland are themselves very lengthy and rigorous.
In Poland we find that the country’s improvements in academic outcomes as of late may be attributed to a host of recent reforms. These include the ratcheting up of the country’s education curriculum and standards; the awarding of more funds to vocational schools and schools that under-perform in terms of academic outcomes; and the delaying of the streaming of students (i.e., separating students into academic and vocational classes).
Beyond their peculiarities, we find that there is one thing that all 3 countries have in common (which is also shared by all nations that perform well when it comes to academics); and that is that they all maintain very high educational expectations and standards, and these standards are consistently tested in a way that holds real consequences for the students and their future prospects.
The good thing about Ripley's approach is that it gives us an insider's look into the education systems of the various countries discussed. This approach is particularly good at unearthing specific insights with regards to effective educational practices. However, the approach does have its drawbacks compared with one that is more scientific in nature, and broader in scope. Ideally, it would have been nice to see Ripley combine the two approaches in her book. Still, Ripley has done very well with the approach that she has chosen, and there are many important insights here. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/09/12... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
What does it take to become an elite athlete? The intuitive answer for most of us is that it probably takes some lucky genes on the one hand, and a whole heck of a lot of hard work on the other. Specifically, that we may need to be blessed with a particular body type to excel at a particular sport or discipline (after all, elite marathon runners tend to look far different than elite NFL running backs, who in turn tend to look far different than elite swimmers), but that beyond this it is practice and diligence that paves the way to success. When we look at the science, though—as sports writer David Epstein does in his new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance—we find that the story is much more complicated than this. In general terms we find that nature and nurture interact at every step of the way in the development of an elite athlete, and that biology plays far more of a role (and in far more ways) than we may have expected.
To begin with, when it comes to physiology, we find that genetics not only has a large role to play in influencing our height and skeletal structure (as we would expect), but that genes also influence physiology in many other ways that are important when it comes to elite sports. For example, we find that people naturally vary widely in all of the following ways: the size of our heart and lungs, and the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin that pumps through our veins; the specific type of muscle fibers that are most prevalent in our bodies (and the specific number of each); as well as our visual acuity—and again, all of these factors play a significant role in determining just how athletic we will be (and in what sports we will excel).
Second, when it comes to training, we find that hard work is not all there is to it. For genetics not only shapes our physiology, but also how our physiology responds to training (including how much muscle mass and aerobic capacity we are able to build through exercise). The fact is that we naturally vary widely in just how much we respond to exercise (to the point where some of us improve dramatically through exercise, whereas others of us respond hardly at all). And we also respond differently to different training regimens (to the point where a training regime that works well for one person may in fact harm another).
And while we may wish to take credit for just how hard we train, here too genetics is found to play a role. For it turns out that we differ widely in just how naturally disposed we are to push ourselves. And over and above this, genes also influence how much we experience pain, such that even among those who experience the same desire to push themselves (both in training and in competition), one may find it much easier to handle the pain involved than the other—which, of course, can have a big impact on results.
And speaking of pain, our genes even influence how easily we injure and how well we recover from our injuries—which, once again, has a significant impact on performance.
As an added bonus, Epstein not only covers which biological factors have an impact on sports performance, but the evolutionary story behind these biological factors (including why different populations that have adapted to different environments have come to acquire traits that make them well-disposed to different sports and disciplines [for example, why many elite marathoners have origins in East Africa, many elite sprinters have origins in West Africa, and many elite swimmers and weight-lifters have origins in Europe]).
In short, then, biology plays much more of a role in elite athletic performance that we may have realized. Not that the point of the book is to say that athletic performance is all in our genes. Just the contrary, as mentioned above the book makes the point that genes always interact with the environment to produce athletic outcomes. Genes are essential in shaping the athlete, but just as essential is the athlete’s upbringing and culture, and that they do in fact get the training that is needed to make the most of their natural talents.
This book is a triumph. I can't imagine it would be possible to cover the topic better than the author has. The science involved is thoroughly researched; the anecdotes are perfectly chosen and add both context and interest (many of them are downright inspirational); and it is all presented in a very clear and thoroughly enjoyable way. Well done Mr. Epstein. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/08/21... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
This is not a book about the end of the internet, as the controversial title may seem to suggest. Rather, it’s a book about networks (meaning a group of interconnected people or things) and how networks evolve; and its main focus is on internet-related networks and the internet itself (which is one enormous network). The author, Jeff Stibel, argues that there are certain natural laws that govern the unfolding of networks, and that understanding these laws can help us understand how the internet (and other internet-related networks) are likely to evolve over time, and also how we should approach these networks in order to get the most out of them (including make money off of them).
When it comes to the evolution of a network, Stibel argues that there are three main stages here: 1) Growth; 2) Breakpoint; and 3) Equilibrium. In the growth phase, the network grows in size, usually at a very quick (often exponential) pace. This is a precarious time for networks, for if they do not grow fast enough and large enough they will simply wither away and die (the vast majority of networks do in fact die at this stage).
Though a network must grow very quickly in the growth phase just to survive, this initial rate of growth is not something that can be sustained indefinitely. For all networks have a natural carrying capacity that limits how large they can be. This carrying capacity is defined by two factors: energy and organizational complexity. When it comes to energy, a network needs physical energy in order to sustain itself, and thus it is limited by how much energy is available in the environment and that it is able to access (and physical energy is never infinite, so all networks must ultimately have a physical limit).
When it comes to organizational complexity, as a network grows in size it also increases in complexity, and it eventually reaches a point where it becomes so complex that it becomes unwieldy, and begins to lose its utility. Thus a network has an optimal level of organizational complexity, and this optimal level of complexity defines its carrying capacity. (Whether a network hits its carrying capacity due to energy limits or complexity limits depends on the network itself—but whichever limit is met first defines the carrying capacity of that network).
Now, while each network has a natural carrying capacity, a healthy, successful network will almost always grow beyond its carrying capacity during its growth phase. This is because a network never actually knows what its carrying capacity is beforehand, and can only discover this by feeling the effects of having gone beyond it. Once a network exceeds its carrying capacity it begins to perform in a suboptimal way, until eventually, if it keeps on growing, it collapses. The point at which a network collapses is the breakpoint (the second stage in the evolution of a network).
Now, if a network has grown too far beyond its carrying capacity (often due to human interference) it may collapse entirely. However, if the network is allowed to reach its breakpoint naturally, it will usually just collapse in a way that leads it to shrink back in size and complexity to its natural carrying capacity. If the former happens the network dies, if the latter happens the network reaches the third and final stage: equilibrium. In the equilibrium stage the network may lose some of its size, but it is at this stage that it begins to improve in quality and stability.
Take an ant colony, for example. A successful ant colony grows in size until it reaches its breakpoint (sometimes due to an energy limit, but most often due to a complexity limit), at which point it begins shedding off ants to form new colonies. This downsizing process continues until the colony shrinks back to its natural carrying capacity–at which point it enters its equilibrium phase. It is only when it reaches equilibrium that the ant colony becomes as efficient and stable as it can be, and hitting this stage most often allows the colony to persist well into the future.
Or take the human brain. The brain generates new neurons and connections at an incredibly quick pace in the beginning. Eventually, though, it hits a breakpoint, at which time it begins culling back neurons and connections until it reaches equilibrium. It is at this stage that the brain begins developing real intelligence and even true wisdom.
When it comes to the internet—the network that is the focus of the book—we learn that this network is still in its growth phase, and thus it still has much evolving to do before it reaches maturity. Specifically, the internet must still grow beyond its carrying capacity, reach its breakpoint, and collapse back to equilibrium. What this means is that the internet stands to go through some very significant changes in the coming years.
Drawing on evidence from other networks, Stibel seeks to chart out what is likely to happen to the internet (and other internet-related networks) as it passes through its various phases on its way to equilibrium. Stibel predicts that the journey will feature some real growing pains, but that ultimately the internet will emerge better and smarter than ever (and may even develop consciousness).
The point of view that the author brings is very unique and interesting. His argument is also very persuasive. The one area where I felt the book fell short is in exploring the implications of what an intelligent and even conscious internet would look like. Will the internet just function in a way that it appears to exhibit intelligence and consciousness (as an ant colony does), or will it actually be intelligent and conscious (as a brain is)? Perhaps the author himself does not know, but if this is the case, he should at least say so. Instead, the author is very ambiguous here, and plays with the idea that the internet will actually be conscious, without fully committing to this or drawing out the implications thereof. Still, a highly entertaining and interesting read. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/08/07... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
Sophisticated, humanoid robots as featured in such movies as 'RoboCop' and 'Terminator' may not be with us just yet—but we shouldn’t let this fool us into thinking that we are not already in the incipient stages of the robot age. The fact is that rudimentary robots and other automated technologies have already been with us for several years, and advances in computing power, artificial intelligence and materials are even now quickly scaling up the range and functionality that our robots are capable of.
RoboCop and Terminator notwithstanding, robots already have a significant impact on our lives, and this impact will only increase as the technology advances. And one of the biggest impacts here has to do with the world of work, and the economy more generally. Specifically, robots have already shown themselves to be capable of numerous jobs traditionally carried out by people, and as the technology advances the range and sophistication of the jobs subsumed by robots will only grow.
Now, the story of technology taking over human jobs is nothing new. Indeed, the loss of jobs has occurred every time a major new technology has been introduced, from the plow, to the power loom, to the steam engine, to the computer. In the past, though, the technologies that have usurped human jobs have also led to the growth of new jobs (normally requiring more advanced skills) that have ultimately offset, and even outstripped, the jobs that were lost originally.
With robotic technology, though, there is something new under the sun. Specifically, many of the new jobs that robotics will create will themselves be capable of being carried out by robots—largely due to the sophistication of the technology. What’s more, as robotics advances, the range of new jobs that are capable of being carried out by robots will only grow. I think we can see where this is going: fewer and fewer jobs for people.
In his new book 'Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots Will Replace Them' entrepreneur and writer Ben Way takes a look at how robots have already come to replace many human jobs, and how coming advances promise to intensify this trend and extend it to virtually every industry we can think of from custodial and maintenance services; to the supply chain; to transportation; to security services; to manufacturing; to construction; to farming and fishing; to mining; to retail and hospitality; to health care; to education; to the military and policing; and even the shadow economy.
Though Way does not predict that robots will come to replace all human jobs (the creative industries, as well as jobs that require strategic planning and decision-making should be safe for some time to come) he does predict that upwards of 70% of traditional jobs will be replaced by robots within the next 30 years. On the bright side, this new efficiency will cause the prices of goods and services to plummet. On the not so bright side, there will be fewer and fewer employment opportunities through which to afford goods and services even at cut rate prices.
There are two possible outcomes here, according to the author. The first possibility is that mass unemployment will take hold, and the growing rift between the rich and the poor will continue to deepen, until massive social unrest becomes a real threat (not so good). The second possibility (considerably better) is that governments will step in and ensure that those who do lose their jobs are given the training they need to land the few new jobs that emerge, while everyone who does continue to hold a job will take a cut in their hours, thus allowing for the continuance of full employment, or the next thing to it.
Whichever route we, and our governments, decide to take will determine how the robotic age will unfold. Should we choose the former we can expect a robotic dystopia; should we choose the latter we can expect a better world where people are freed up to spend an increasing share of their time in creative and recreational pursuits of their choosing.
The book is an interesting and fun read, and the author makes a cogent and fairly well-researched and well-thought-out argument. Also, Way does well to explore the current and up-coming advances in robotics that stand to have an impact on the world of work. Having said that, there were times when I wished Way had fleshed out his points more, and also said more about some of the up-and-coming technologies that he discusses (especially when he teases us with the knowledge that a particular technology [such as cyborgism] is already being developed). The book is only about 150 pages long, and could have benefited from 25-50 more. Still, an interesting and enlightening read. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/07/24... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
As the blueprint of all that lives, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) may be said to be the key to understanding life itself. It is incredible to think, then, that the structure of DNA was only discovered some 60 years ago (thanks especially to the work of James Watson and Francis Crick). Since that time, many significant advances in genetics have been made—including the deciphering of the genomes of numerous species (including our own); and, even more impressively, the successful manipulation of the genetic code to introduce the features of one species to another (for example, having a goat produce spider’s silk out of its milk).
As impressive as these feats are, though, they are but the beginning of what promises to come from the study of genetics. Indeed, compared with other sciences, such as physics and chemistry, genetics is still in its infancy, and we can be assured that the most significant discoveries and applications are yet to come. Even now, geneticists are making significant progress in uncovering the origin of life—meaning answering the question of just how life may have sprung out of lifeless chemistry—and are also making advancements in turning genetic manipulation into a standardized engineering science that is capable of churning out technological solutions in everything from food production to energy to medicine (a field that has been dubbed ‘synthetic biology’). It is these recent advances in genetics that are the main topic of Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by science writer Adam Rutherford.
Rutherford begins by giving us a refresher in basic biology, by way of running through the 3 ideas that stand at the heart of biology: 1) cell theory; 2) Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection; and 3) the structure and operation of DNA. Each of these ideas leads us to the conclusion that life began at a single point, but does not address the question of how life began in the first place. Now, though, this question is being addressed, and Rutherford updates us on the progress.
A living organism requires both a structure that can be replicated, and some energy to carry out this replication; thus the question of the origin of life comes down to the question of how this structure originally came to be organized, and where the energy came from to allow for the replication. With regards to the first part of this question, scientists have been able to trace out the likely original constituents of the first organism, and have also established that many of these original constituents readily self-organize into the form that they take when the right molecules and conditions are present—thus while the question of the original structure of life has not yet been solved entirely, geneticists are hot on the trail of doing just this.
Second, with regards to the energy problem, it has been established that, originally, the energy needed for replication could well have come from outside of the biological structure itself—the most likely candidate at this point being the energy from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Experiments are currently underway that recreate the physical and chemical conditions at the bottom of the ocean near hydrothermal vents—but the hit and miss nature of this procedure means that there are no guarantees these experiments will be successful in procuring life.
When it comes to creating life from scratch, the better bet might be that this will come from synthesizing the basic biological parts and manipulating them into the organization that is needed for them to carry on into perpetuity. This is the domain of a new science called synthetic biology. Of this domain we learn that geneticists have already been able to synthesize many biological structures—and have even synthesized DNA and introduced it into a cell where it functions normally, like any other DNA.
While creating life form scratch is one goal of synthetic biology, it is subordinate to a much larger goal, which is to take full control of genetic information in order that it may be used for any number of purposes, from incapacitating viruses, to creating synthetic biofuel, to fabricating food stuffs that carry any biological feature we may want. Scientists have in fact already made considerable progress in these areas. However, they have also run into some significant barriers along the way—largely having to do with the sheer complexity of biological systems. Still there is hope that this complexity will ultimately be tamed.
One part of this taming effort comes from the endeavor to create standardized genetic components that are capable of carrying out a specific function. The spirit of this enterprise is captured in the iGEM competition—an international competition that brings together teams of university students from every corner of the planet with one goal: to demonstrate a unique biological function using standard genetic parts, called ‘BioBricks’ (drawn from a library of these BioBricks that the students are themselves encouraged to add to in the course of their projects). The iGEM competition has already churned out some very impressive applications, and the speed of progress is very encouraging.
Rutherford does a very good job of covering some of the most significant recent advances in genetics, and of explaining the science behind it. The author also does well to capture the promise of the recent advances, while at the same time acknowledging the significant obstacles that stand in the way of future progress. The offering is certainly more readable than George Church's latest book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves--to which this book will no doubt be compared. However, Rutherford (despite having a solid background in biology himself) does not have quite the insider's perspective that someone like Church does, which is the only drawback I see here. All in all a very good popular science book on a very important topic. A full executive summary of the book is available at http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/07/10... a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
Over the past half-millennium the West has built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world when it comes to both economic power and material standard of living. Now, however, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they are experiencing impressive economic growth, while the West is stagnating. Many argue that this is the natural result of globalization (and the fact that major corporations are taking advantage of cheaper labor in developing nations). For Harvard historian and writer Niall Ferguson, however, there is something deeper going on here. For Ferguson, the closing of the gap between the West and the Rest has less to do with the rise of the Rest, as the decline of the West.
Specifically, Ferguson argues that it is the West's political, economic, legal and social institutions that have allowed it to gain the upper hand over the past 500 years or so, and that now these institutions are beginning to deteriorate (just as other nations increasingly copy what made the West successful in the first place). The result: Western stagnation, and the catching up of everyone else.
Ferguson identifies 4 primary institutions that account for the West's success over the past half-millennium: 1. Democracy; 2. Capitalism; 3. The Rule of Law; and 4. Civil Society. Each of these, the author argues, has eroded in the recent past.
Beginning with democracy, Ferguson argues that the deterioration of democracy in our time has not so much to do with the break-down of the social contract between the individual and the state, as the break-down in the contract between the present generation and future generations. Specifically, by taking on the astronomical amount of public debt that many Western governments have taken on over the past half-century, we have undermined our own growth and unjustly put future generations in hock. We have lived well at the expense of our progeny, and have set them up for failure.
With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex laws and regulations stifle new businesses and send domestic corporations overseas. Western banks and financial institutions, the author argues, are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. And what's more, they are not made to pay for their transgressions when they do breach the law (as witnessed, most recently, in the financial crash of 2008), thus they are invited to behave irresponsibly.
When it comes to the rule of law, where once the West did well to protect contracts and property rights, now tort law has allowed civil suits to run amok and choke the legal system. Meanwhile, copyright law now deeply favors the established over the up-and-coming, which has stifled innovation and progress. The Rule of Law has become the Rule of Lawyers.
When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate and any and all public goods.
For Ferguson, unless we reverse the current deterioration of our institutions, we can expect our stagnation to continue (and we also run the risk of having our societies crash outright).
The book is well-written and, for the most part, well argued. However, at 150 pages (before notes), it is quite lean. Several of the points could have used additional defending, with additional evidence. Also, the author largely eschews any talk of where he believes the reforms in each of the institutions could and should begin. This is a significant oversight, in my mind. All in all, some good ideas, but more fleshing out of the material would have been helpful. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/06/25... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
The main argument: Not so long ago the Internet was seen as the next great economic engine. The optimism was never higher than at the peak of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, of course; but even after the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, many believed that this was but the growing pains of an emerging industry, and that in the long run the Internet would yet provide the foundation for a new and improved information economy.
Since that time, it is certainly the case that the Internet has spawned a few major successes (such as Google, Amazon, eBay and now Facebook), as well as a host of hopefuls (such as Twitter, Kickstarter, Pinterest and Instagram). However, it cannot be said that the economy has enjoyed a great boost since the Internet exploded. On the contrary, the economy has, at best, stagnated--and it currently shows no signs of escaping its slump. So what went wrong?
According to Silicon Valley luminary Jarion Lanier, the problem is not so much with the Internet per se, but with how it has been set up, and how the major Internet companies themselves are organized. To begin with, major Internet companies tend to form monopolies, or near-monopolies, and on a global scale (mainly because Internet networks are able to reach a global audience and undercut local players, but also because these networks are more valuable to their users as they grow larger [for instance, it is most convenient to just join Facebook to connect with friends because this is the platform that most people, for whatever reason, have come to use--it just simplifies things]). The formation of monopolies and near monopolies destroys competition, of course, which compromises economic growth.
Even more important than this, though, is that Internet megaliths employ relatively few people, and have very little overhead (thus they simply don't contribute much back to the economy). You see, the business plan of most successful Internet companies is to offer a particular service for free (such as Internet search efficiency with Google, or social connecting with Facebook, or business connecting with LinkedIn, or an auction platform with eBay, or music and video files on a sharing site etc). The framework of the platform is provided by the company, but the content of the service is provided by the users and/or the general public (indexable websites on Google, Facebook pages on Facebook, LinkedIn profiles on LinkedIn, auction items on eBay, and music and video files on sharing sites etc.). The site attracts users with the prospect of a free and useful service, and the site itself makes revenue through selling advertising space. Oftentimes, the company collects information from its users through its activities on the platform, and uses this information to help target them with ads (among other things) and/or sells this information to third parties so these third parties can use it themselves. (Lanier calls companies that operate in this way Siren Servers--the term applies to any company or organization that uses data streams to garner wealth and power.)
As we can see, then, a big part of the value of these Internet companies comes from their users' content and information--as well as the content of third parties whose material is being shared no end. Now, if these users and content providers were being paid fairly for their contributions (according to how much value they bring to the Internet companies, and other Siren Servers, who use it), we could surely expect a major economic boost as a result. Instead, the users and content providers are paid nothing for their contributions (or at most a fraction of what their contributions represent). The end result of this is that wealth is concentrated at the top--in the hands of the major Internet companies and other Siren Servers--and the economy as a whole suffers (since few jobs are created to allow the wealth to trickle down).
And that's just the beginning. The fact is that more and more things are being digitized as we move forward (for instance, driving is being digitized through driverless cars, education lessons are being digitized through being recorded on digital equipment, and even physical objects are being digitized through 3D printing). As things become digitized they become capable of being shared over the Internet for next to nothing. This will inevitably mean the further erosion of productive jobs (and whole industries--such as has already occurred in the music and video industries).
Ultimately, the only wealth-generating endeavor left will be the Internet platforms that share all of this information--or provide other free services. Of course, with nothing productive left to advertise, their revenues will fall off as well, so even they won't be making any money. For Lanier, this is the fate we can expect unless we change the game we are currently playing.
The long short of it is that we must find a way to pay people adequately for the information and content they contribute to the information economy. Lanier argues this means reorganizing the Internet in such a way that informational transactions are monetized--such that the users of information are charged and the providers are paid for each transaction. It is not going to be easy to reorganize the Internet in this way-not only technically, but also because we have all become accustomed to using the Internet the way it is (and we like getting things for `free').
Ultimately, though, we will have no choice, for our current course is leading us to an economy that is dominated by wealth at the top--and eventually no wealth for anyone. At some point, this state of affairs must lead to a revolt and/or a complete breakdown.
Lanier's book is a sprawling affair occasioned with numerous fairly bizarre flights of fancy (I didn't mind this so much since Lanier is fairly interesting, and has a unique perspective), but the core ideas here are very intriguing and worthy of serious consideration. The problem with Lanier's solution at this point is that the economy has not yet slumped enough in order to convince us that Lanier's theory must be true, and that radical solutions are needed (and Lanier's solution is radical). Nevertheless, should events continue to play out as Lanier foresees, his solution may well become attractive at some point. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/06/05... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
Many of us living in the developed world have come to rely very heavily on digital technology (including the internet and our mobile/smart devices)—indeed, for many of us, our relationship with our various screens is nothing short of addiction. And we are not the only ones who are plugging in. We are also increasingly hooking up our various man-made systems (such as our infrastructural systems and financial systems) to the internet as well. Given how radically digital technology has transformed our lives, it is incredible to think how recently all of this change has occurred; for, indeed, all of this technology has come upon us entirely in the past 15 to 20 years. This is significant because it reminds us that the age of connectivity is but in its infancy, and that most of the changes are yet to come.
This is true for us here in the developed world, but is even more so the case for those living in the developing world, where almost 5 billion people are expected to go from no connectivity to full connectivity within the next 20 years. While it may well be the case that the overall impact of the connectivity revolution will be enormously beneficial, we would be fool to think that the impact will be none but positive. With forces such as criminals, rebel groups, terrorists and rogue states prepared to take advantage of the new technology, the connectivity revolution poses some very serious challenges as well. Google executive Eric Schmidt and U.S. policy and media expert Jared Cohen are particularly well-placed to assess how all of the upcoming changes will play out, and in their new book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business the two let us in on their ruminations and prognostications.
Beginning closer to home, the authors chart how the new digital age stands to increase our efficiency and offer new opportunities for both business and leisure. To begin with, the two argue that most of our day to day routines and workload will be streamlined by way of being hooked up to the internet and aided by various artificial intelligence machines. Over and above this, consider some of the extravagant possibilities: imagine attending a 9 a.m. teleconference with business associates from around the world in a 3D virtual space, where each individual’s comments are translated into your native language near perfectly, and near instantaneously. In the evening you enter a different 3D virtual space that captures a sporting event in real-time. After that you enjoy a holographic recreation of your wedding with your spouse.
As much as we will come to rely on the internet and other smart technologies, there is a significant drawback to all of this high-technology, and that is that more and more of our personal information will be captured and stored than ever. Much of this information will be available for anyone who is interested to see (friend and foe alike), and even more of it will be accessible with a bit of underhanded effort.
On the side of government, its operations, like our own, will be streamlined by way of being brought online—including in the realm of physical infrastructure (i.e. water, sanitation and power). In addition, the data streams captured from our own activity and that of our systems will grant us new insights into our behavior that can be put to good use by governments and businesses alike. On the negative side, all of this information in the hands of government (and potentially in the hands of savvy criminals, terrorists and enemy states) poses significant privacy and security concerns (both authors foresee cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism, and cyber-war being significant issues in the future). Rest assured that a very robust cyber-security industry will emerge, and that the conflict between privacy and security will continue to play out in a very prominent way.
As digital technology continues to spread to the poorest parts of the world, new economic opportunities will spread in its wake that will help pull these parts of the world out of poverty—and also aid in the push towards more democracy. However, criminal and extremist groups operating there will also increasingly be given access to the new technology, and it stands to help both in their enterprises. On the bright side, digital technology will also make it easier to track down and uncover illegal syndicates and bring them to justice.
Though the book does explore domestic matters, it is mostly focused on how the digital age will impact international relations and conflicts. The only faults I see in the book are that it occasionally indulges in speculation that borders on fear-mongering, and there are several cases wherein the authors do not explore their reasons for believing why a particular trend will emerge (instead favoring bald and sweeping statements). All in all the two authors have a very unique and privileged vantage point from which to view things, and it is very interesting to look in on their thoughts. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/05/23... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon. ...more
Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.
However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What’s worse, many of the earth’s resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.
Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).
So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).
For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. To begin with, Naam argues that the natural resources on our planet are far from running out. He assures us that there is enough water and arable land on the earth’s surface, minerals in the earth’s crust, and energy from the sun to feed the demands of the planet’s plateauing population for time out of mind (especially when we reuse and recycle these resources, which is what we are increasingly doing).
The problem, at present, is our relative inefficiency in accessing these resources. Even here, though, Naam argues, there is room for optimism. For our saving grace is our ability to innovate. It is our ability to innovate, Naam maintains, that is responsible for virtually all of our progress and economic growth to this point. It has brought us everything from the first stone tools and the ability to harness fire, to phones that fit in our pockets and allow us to access a world of information and all the world’s people. Along the way (and more to the point), our ability to innovate has allowed us to access an ever greater percentage of the earth’s resources (while at the same time decreasing the relative amount of resources that each of uses to achieve an increasingly affluent lifestyle).
And the really wonderful thing about our ability to innovate is that, unlike natural resources, it does not shrink over time. Rather, it only expands. This is because innovation is built on ideas, and ideas themselves only grow and multiply. Ideas can even be shared without ever being diluted. Instead, the sharing of ideas often generates even more ideas. The power of ideas—and the innovation that goes along with it—truly is an infinite resource.
Now, wherever there has been an incentive to innovate, innovation has come, and this helps explain why the market economy has been the single biggest spur to innovation ever invented. The market economy harnesses innovation by way of tying useful inventions to economic gain, thus exploiting self-interest for the benefit of all. Up until recently, a relatively small proportion of the world lived under a market economy. Not coincidentally, these were also the most inventive and affluent parts of the world. In the past 40 years, though, an ever increasing portion of the world has switched over to a more market-oriented economy, and this has greatly accelerated both economic growth and the speed of innovation. For Naam, this trend bodes very well for the future.
Now, as powerful as the market system is, Naam does concede that it has one fatal flaw. And this is that it does not put an accurate price on the degradation of communal goods, such as the environment. The end result is that the environment is not cared for as well as it might be (this phenomenon is known as ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’). Nevertheless, a market economy can be tweaked to ensure that a price is put on environmental degradation. Indeed, this has happened before, and it has helped put an end to several environmental crises (including, recently, both acid rain and the ozone-hole threat).
For Naam, this approach is also the best way to deal with the greatest environmental threat we now face: global warming. Specifically, Naam argues we ought to put a price on carbon dioxide (and return the tax proceeds to the people). This would not only help ensure against global warming, but also hasten the inevitable transition to the use of solar power and clean fuels to meet our energy needs.
With the right approach and policies, Naam argues, we can live in a world of plenty for all (and one that is clean to boot).
This is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent, the logical flow is superb, the supporting evidence is well-chosen and extensive, and the argument is air tight. In a world that is dominated by fear-mongering on the one hand, and blind optimism on the other, Naam is a shining beacon of sober and rational thought. If you are looking for a big-picture view of the challenges we face and how best to meet them, this book is for you. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/04/30... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon. ...more
You open a bag of chips intending to eat only a few handfuls. You find the chips tasting quite good, and a few handfuls turns into a few more. Just one more… o.k., last one… definitely the last one. A few minutes later you find yourself staring down at an empty bag. Then your stomach starts to hurt—then your heart. The guilt isn’t far behind. Who among us hasn’t experienced this at one time or another? This is junk food in a nutshell: it tastes great (practically irresistible) and is very convenient, but if you indulge too much (which sometimes seems all too easy), it’s not very good for you. All of this has an easy explanation, it’s right there on the label: impressive portions of salt, sugar and fat, the junk food trifecta. Each has its own appeal, and each is very inexpensive (which explains why it’s in our food), but over the years each has also been implicated in some of our most common and serious conditions and diseases, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Unfortunately, the junk food trifecta is not only popping up in our junk food, it is increasingly being featured in virtually all of the processed foods that we eat—from chips and soda, to canned food and prepared meals, to cake and ice-cream. And as salt, sugar and fat have become more common in the foods that we eat, the conditions and illnesses associated with their abuse have reached epidemic proportions. In his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us journalist Michael Moss takes us behind the labels and explores the history and practices of the processed food industry–a story that features the rise of salt, sugar and fat, and the deterioration of our health.
Moss divides his book into 3 parts, one for each of salt, sugar and fat (not in this order).
In Part I, on sugar, we learn how the processed food players have used very precise science to identify just what amount of sugar they need to add to their products to hit our `bliss point’ (a self-explanatory concept). We also learn how the bliss point (as well as marketing) has figured into the evolution of breakfast cereals, the soda wars, and the composition of so-called fruit drinks (such as Tang, Kool-Aid, and Capri Sun)–as well as many other processed foods. Interspersed throughout we learn about the emergence of science that has fingered sugar as a major culprit in numerous health concerns from tooth decay to obesity and diabetes.
In Part II, on fat, We learn how this substance, unlike sugar, has no bliss point, but is instead something whose allure just seems to keep on rising the richer it is, and the more of it we find in our mouths. The focus in this section is on the history of processed cheese, and the explosion of cheese consumption since the 1970′s. This explosion, we find, has been aided and abetted in the United States by certain government policies and interventions. Indeed, while one arm of the USDA has identified cheese as being a source of deep concern for its high quantity of fat, another arm has actively promoted it through a marketing program intended to prop up the dairy industry. Processed meat is also discussed in this section, with a special focus on hamburger and bologna.
In Part III, on salt, we learn how our taste for salt can be amplified through increased intake (and how our blood pressure tends to suffer as a result). We also learn how salt is used in the processed food industry for a plethora of purposes from enhancing certain flavors, to masking others, to adding crunchiness to products, to delaying spoilage. Finally, we learn of the ins and outs and ups and downs of the snack food sector, with its heavy reliance on salt (as well as sugar and fat).
The journalistic expose is inherently a tension-filled genre. On the one hand, there is often an issue of real public concern at play; but on the other hand, it is ever in the interest of the journalist to inflate the controversy (and the blame). Moss does do a fairly good job of steering clear of these traps--for the most part--though the objective reader will occasionally rankle at Moss' presentation, and his choice of words and focus. On the whole, I've come away with a renewed interest and concern in just what goes into the food that I eat, and how much salt, sugar and fat it contains--and this, I think, is very valuable in itself. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/04/17... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
It is only recently, with the rise of the internet, that the term ‘viral’ has gone, well, viral. But the phenomenon of social pandemics—ideas, products and behaviors, that catch on and spread quickly and widely—has been around presumably as long as sociality itself. The phenomenon is interesting in its own right, for it says something meaningful about our psychology and how we interact. However, understanding how social pandemics work also holds great practical value, for when public service messages, charity campaigns or products and services go viral, the effect has a big impact on behavior and the bottom line.
On the mechanical side of things, understanding why something goes viral is straightforward enough: it must be something that has an impact, and that people are eager to talk about or imitate. But this just forces us to ask: what is it that makes something impactful, and ripe for sharing or imitating? We may think that our intuitions can carry us some way toward answering this. Nevertheless, getting something to go viral is certainly no easy task (as many a would-be influencer has come to find); and therefore, we may benefit from a more methodical, scientifically-minded attempt to understand the phenomenon. It is just such a project that Wharton marketing professor and writer Jonah Berger has been engaged in for much of his career, and in his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger reports on his findings.
Berger’s research has revealed that there are 6 main factors that help explain social pandemics. They are 1. Social Currency; 2. Triggers; 3. Emotion; 4. Public; 5. Practical Value; and 6. Stories
When it comes to social currency, this refers to how good or important something makes us look for sharing it. We want to look bright, funny, entertaining, knowledgeable, prestigious etc. in the eyes of others; and therefore, we are more likely to mention those things that make us appear so. Certain talking points are naturally more interesting than others, just as certain characteristics are naturally more noteworthy; however, ideas, products and behaviors can all be presented or manipulated in certain ways to allow them to partake more of each (for example, a blender may not appear so interesting, but highlighting just how powerful it is by way of having it mash-up an iPod can make it appear a whole lot more interesting—and hence more worthy of sharing).
When it comes to triggers, this refers to stimuli in the environment that are associated with other phenomena, and that remind us of them. For example, peanut butter is highly associated with jelly, and so the mention of the former often ‘triggers’ the thought of the latter. Ideas, products and behaviors that are naturally associated with triggers that we encounter more often are more likely to be brought to mind than others, thus increasing the chances that they will be both talked about and influence our behavior, and hence spread. Natural associations often work best; however, associations between unrelated items can also be established through clever advertising campaigns (such as the Kit-Kat bar being associated with a coffee break).
When it comes to emotion, this refers to the fact that phenomena that evoke highly arousing emotions, both positive and negative (such as awe, excitement, anger and anxiety), are more likely to be shared, and hence spread; while phenomena that evoke less arousing emotions (such as sadness and contentment) are less likely to be shared. The share-ability of things that evoke highly arousing emotions helps explain why Susan Boyle went viral.
When it comes to public, this refers to how prevalent something is in the public eye. Things that are highly public and visible are more likely to be talked about and imitated than those that are more private. Nevertheless, there are ways to bring private phenomena into the public sphere. For example, donating to a charity tends to be a rather private affair. However, both the Movember movement in support of colon cancer (featuring the highly conspicuous mustache), and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign in support of cancer (featuring the yellow wrist-band), managed to bring charitable support into the public sphere, thus contributing to the success of these campaigns.
Practical value refers to the fact that people like to be helpful to others, and so anything that is particularly useful is more likely to be shared than that which is less so. This helps explain why so many articles on health and education matters are so widely shared, and also why an otherwise nondescript video about shucking corn (called ‘Clean Ears Everytime’) went viral on YouTube.
When it comes to stories, this refers to the fact that people tend to enjoy telling and hearing stories. Therefore, ideas, products and behaviors that are wrapped in narratives (and especially compelling narratives) are more likely to be shared than those that are just presented as information. Google’s ‘Parisian Love’ commercial, The Dove ‘Evolution’ commercial, and Panda’s ‘Never say no to Panda’ campaign are all good examples of products being wrapped in compelling narratives.
Berger's book is a very easy read, and he does a good job of using academic studies and interesting real-world examples to help prove his points. None of the theory here will be new to anyone who is steeped in the marketing/advertising industry (as is clear from other reviews). And much of it will even strike the rest of us as being somewhat self-evident after the fact. Nevertheless, it is not likely that many of us will have explored the subject with so much rigor, and this is valuable in itself. Altogether a very enjoyable read about an interesting subject. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/04/03... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon. ...more
The main argument: Statistical information, or data, has long been recognized to be a potentially rich and valuable source of knowledge. Until recently, however, our ability to render phenomena and events in a quantified format, store this information, and analyze it has been severely limited. With the rise of the digital age, though, these limitations are quickly being eroded. To begin with, digital devices that record our movements and communications, and digital sensors that record the behavior of inanimate objects and systems have become widespread and are proliferating wildly. What’s more, the cost of storing this information on computer servers is getting cheaper and cheaper, thus allowing us to keep much more of it than ever before. Finally, increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms are allowing us to analyze this information more deeply than ever, and are revealing interesting (and often counter-intuitive) relationships that would never have been possible previously. The increasing datification of the world, and the insights that this is bringing us, may be thought of as one grand phenomenon, and it has a name: Big Data.
The insights that are emerging out of big data are spread out over many areas, and are already impacting several aspects of society. To begin with, big data is helping established businesses to run more efficiently and safely. For example, big data is being used to streamline assembly lines and also to catch quality control problems in the factory. But the benefits of big data go well beyond the factory. For example, the courier company UPS has used big data to help it map out more efficient trucking routes. The resulting improvements have allowed UPS to shave 30 million miles and 3 million gallons of fuel per year from their routes (loc. 1352). The more efficient trucking routes have also led to less traffic accidents. Meanwhile, car companies are beginning to use data from sensors in automobiles to understand which parts are causing problems, and also to understand where and why accidents are happening, so that they may be lessened.
In addition to helping already established businesses, big data is also allowing for new business opportunities that were never possible before. For example, the business prodigy Oren Etzioni used big data to set up a business called Farecast that predicts the cost of airfare tickets. When his business was bought by Microsoft for $110 million, Etzioni used big data again to set up a related business that predicts the cost of all manner of consumer goods. His very profitable business, Decide.com, saves consumers on average $100 per product (loc. 1867).
Outside of the business world, big data is also being used by governments to help reduce costs and make society safer. For example, in 2009 Google was able to apply big data to search terms to help identify how the H1N1 virus was spreading through communities in real time. This method of tracking disease pandemics holds great promise for allowing public health organizations to know when pandemics are beginning, and also to keep better track of how they are unfolding, in order that they may better contain them. In addition, big data is being used to help identify where potentially dangerous infrastructural problems are occurring, and also to identify trouble spots for fire hazards, in order that they may be addressed.
Big data also has significant potential uses in health care. Indeed, our increasing ability to monitor and record everything from our vital signs to the health of our systems to our individual genomes promises to inaugurate an age of personalized medicine that will allow doctors to more easily diagnose our ailments and tailor treatments to our individual bodies.
While big data may already be bringing us impressive benefits, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier argue that the bulk of the benefits are yet to come. Indeed, for the authors, businesses and governments are only just now waking up to the incredible potential of Big Data. And as they direct more attention to recording and analyzing data streams, the potential uses of the information will only multiply.
On the negative side, big data also carries substantial potential dangers. Most notably, as more and more information about us is recorded, kept and used, our privacy is increasingly threatened. For the authors, a good deal of oversight will be needed in order to ensure that the potential abuses of big data are curbed.
The book is well written and represents a fine overview of the present and future of big data. Also, the authors do well to raise important big-picture issues related to the phenomena, though the potential impacts of big data (both positive and negative) are occasionally overblown. All in all the book is a good introduction to an important and interesting topic. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/03/21... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
It is a deep part of human nature to want to understand our origins. Indeed, creation stories are ubiquitous among the world’s cultures. Somewhat fittingly, the vast majority of these creation stories have the human race emerging quickly, if not instantaneously—a revolutionary moment befitting a revolutionary species. When it comes to the story from science, on the other hand, while it may be no less spectacular, it is far less abrupt, for it has our species emerging much slower. Indeed, the latest findings indicate that we began branching away from the species to which we are most closely related—the chimpanzee—some 7 million years ago, and that only a series of small modifications spread out over this time has led us to our current state.
However long the process may have taken, though, in the end it was nevertheless revolutionary, for it has changed us from head to toe. Or rather, from toe to head, for the evidence indicates the process began with a modification in our big toe (which made upright walking easier) and ended with self-awareness (which ultimately made us interested in the story of our origin). While the rough edges of this story have been known for decades, recent fossil finds and new techniques in DNA analysis in the past 5 years have allowed the story to come into much clearer focus. Armed with these new discoveries, science writer Chip Walter takes on the story of human origins and evolution in his new book 'Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived'.
The story begins with our ancestors living in the rainforests of Africa several million years ago (much like our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, continue to do to this day). At the time, a changing climate was beginning to threaten these rainforests, and causing them to recede. As the rainforests receded, our ancestors living at the outer edges were increasingly pushed out onto the savannah—a new and hostile environment to which they were not well adapted. Adapt or die was the reality of the day, and fortunately, our ancestors began to do so. (Actually the line between our ancestors and ourselves is not so direct: as the author points out, it is now thought that at least 26 other proto-human species arose, but that we are the only one that remains).
First things first, it is now thought that a mutation emerged that allowed our big toe to support more of our body weight, and this made it easier for our ancestors to walk upright—which held many advantages, including efficiency in locomotion, and enhanced sight lines. From here, other mutations followed that further facilitated our ability to walk bipedally—including a complete pelvic restructuring.
At the same time as our bodies were being restructured for the purpose of walking upright, our brains were also beginning to grow. This was highly adaptive, it is thought, for it allowed our ancestors to better cooperate for the purposes of securing new sources of food, as well as fending off new predators. It was the increased sources of protein out on the savannah (and the energy that it provided) that allowed our brains to evolve larger in the first place, and once our brains began to evolve larger it allowed for increased cooperation and even more sources of protein—thus putting into effect a positive feedback loop that was leading to very large brains indeed.
Unfortunately, our two latest adaptations were coming into conflict, as bigger brains became harder and harder to birth out of narrowing hips (which were choiceworthy for upright walking). Rather than compromise, though, evolution had another trick up its sleeve: it simultaneously delayed our development, and also started forcing us out of the womb sooner, before our brains had grown so large that they weren’t able to fit. The solution was ingenious but extremely dangerous, for it left us far more helpless for far longer after birth, which made us that much more susceptible to being taken down by predators. Nevertheless, the slowed development also had its advantages, for it afforded us a much wider window within which to learn about our environment, which helped us adapt to and overcome it.
In the final piece of the puzzle, the ability to think symbolically arose, and this ability not only contributed to our being able to communicate with sophisticated language, but also with our being able to represent ourselves symbolically, which ultimately allowed for self-awareness. Both of these allowed for the rise and flourishing of culture, which represents our greatest advantage as a species.
Walter’s book reads very well and his explanations are very easy to follow. Although the outline of the story that Walter tells is by now familiar, the author does a very good job of covering the latest findings and theories that are emerging that are allowing us to gain a fuller picture of just what happened (especially when it comes to hominid sub-species evolution, and the role of neoteny in our evolution).
I felt there were just two main weaknesses in the work. First, Walter does not address the change in mating and childcare patterns (towards more monogamy and paternal involvement) that made delayed development possible. And second, Walter’s discussion of the future of human evolution (both natural, and man-made) is scant and somewhat wanting. Other than that, though, the book is a valuable addition to the evolving story of our evolution as a species. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/02/26... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
Our world is becoming increasingly integrated and complex, and changing faster and faster. Out of the morass of elements involved here, Al Gore identifies 6 themes or factors that are emerging as the major drivers of change. The factors are 1) Work: the movement of labor from West to East (outsourcing); and, at the same time, a shift towards much more automation (robosourcing); 2) Communications: the rise of the internet that has led to a wild proliferation of information, and the ability of the world’s population to instantly connect with one another for a host of purposes—and the increasing reach of the internet from the developed to the developing world; 3) Power: the shifting of power from West to East; and, at the same time, the shifting of power from national governments to smaller players, such as businesses and corporations, but also rogue players, such as guerrilla and terror organizations; 4) Demographics: the enormous increase in the world’s population, and the movement of peoples both within and across national borders (as the result of numerous factors); 5) Biotechnology: the increasing manipulation of DNA to produce not only new organisms with novel features, but new materials and fuels as well, and 6) Climate Change: the increase in world temperatures caused by the continuing build-up of CO2, as well as the numerous other climate effects that this entails.
While several of these drivers of change have the potential to bring great benefits to the world’s people, all are fraught with potential dangers, and it is this that is Gore’s focus in the book. This, as well as Gore’s own advice as to how best to deal with the potential dangers.
When it comes to work, Gore argues that the major danger is that the increasing robosourcing of labour (and even services) threatens to eventually deprive a large portion of the world’s population of gainful employment. The major solution is to increasingly redistribute wealth from the few who earn the bulk of wealth to public services provided by government.
When it comes to communications, the major threat is the vulnerability of people’s personal information (and organizations’ operational information) of being collected (or stolen) by numerous players (including corporations, governments and criminal organizations) and used for nefarious purposes. The major solution is to introduce new measures to ensure that information is protected, and people’s privacy preserved.
When it comes to power, the major danger is that the private interests of groups that are gaining power (especially multi-national corporations) will increasingly run up against the interests and values of private citizens. The major solution is to reform our democracies to ensure that the interests of corporations do not continue to outbalance the interests of citizens.
When it comes to demographics, the major danger is that the continuing rise in the world’s population will place an overbearing amount of stress on the world’s natural resources, and that this will ultimately lead to the depletion of said resources. The major solution is to continue efforts to curb global population, and to introduce efforts to reduce consumption to sustainable levels.
When it comes to biotechnology, the major danger is that the discoveries and innovations that are being made here are being introduced faster than we are able to consider their ethical implications and potential negative consequences. The major solution is to ensure that we subject these innovations to full inquiry and public debate, in order that we may decide deliberately just what we want to allow, and what we do not.
When it comes to climate change, the major danger is that the world will experience irreversible climate effects, and that these effects will compromise the world’s arable land and water sources to the point where we will not be able to meet our needs. The major solution is for the governments of the world to take action now to reduce CO2 emissions, by way of such measures as taxing CO2, and introducing a cap and trade system.
Regardless of our political views, Gore’s book does contain a lot of very interesting information about the world today, and the forces that are guiding change. It is of value to anyone who is interested in gaining a big-picture view of what is going on now, and where the world is potentially heading. It should be noted, though, that Gore is very single-minded (unduly, I believe) in what he believes are the solutions to the world’s problems. They virtually always involve government interference and regulation. In other words, they are fully top-down. Gore gives very short shrift to the potential of bottom-up solutions (and is rather black and white in his thinking), which, I believe, is a major shortcoming of the book. Again, though, a worthwhile read no matter our political views. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/02/12... A podcast discussion of the book is also available. ...more
The main argument: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes is as popular today as when he was created back in the late 19th century. This comes as no surprise, of course, since there is just something about Holmes’ peculiar qualities—his keen observation, clever imagination, and incisive reasoning capabilities—that is both awe-inspiring and inspirational. We admire Holmes for cutting through the errors of thought that are so common to us in our daily lives (and that are reflected in Holmes’ sidekick, Watson). And yet we recognize that there is nothing in Holmes’ thought that is entirely out of reach for us. Indeed, his qualities are not so much superhuman as human plus: human qualities taken to their extreme. Still, human qualities taken to their extreme are intimidating enough, and we may find ourselves doubting whether we could ever really think like Sherlock—even if we put our minds to it. But for cognitive psychologist Anna Konnikova, we should think again.
Holmes’ prowess, Konnikova argues, rests no so much in his mental powers as in his mental approach. Specifically, Holmes has succeeded in making his thought methodical and systematic—essentially bringing the scientific method and scientific thinking to his detective work. This is an approach to thinking which, Konnikova argues, we can all practice. More importantly, it is an approach to thinking that can extend well beyond sleuthing. Indeed, it is a general approach that can help us get at the truth in virtually any arena, as well as help us solve virtually any problem. It is simply a matter of bringing a little science to the art of thought—and it is this very thing that Konnikova aims to help us achieve in her new book 'Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes'.
Konnikova breaks down Holmes’ method into 4 parts: 1. Background knowledge; 2. Observation; 3. Imagination; and 4. Deduction. To begin with, Holmes keeps an extensive and well-organized knowledge base to help him solve new cases. What’s more, he is vigilant in ensuring that he is ever assimilating new and important information that could help him in the future. Second, Holmes uses careful, mindful, and unbiased observation to glean what is important about the various characters and circumstances of each case. Next, Holmes uses the evidence that he has gathered—in conjunction with his far-reaching (though disciplined) imagination—to formulate multiple scenarios that could explain the mystery. Finally, Holmes uses his acute powers of reasoning to cut away the scenarios that just don’t hold up, until ultimately there is but one scenario left: the only one that is possible, however improbable.
While this approach seems straightforward enough, it is easier said than done. Indeed, our minds can and often do go wrong at any one of the steps. Konnikova construes it like this: our minds have two distinct modes of thought. The first of these modes operates quickly and automatically. It is our default mode, in that it is the one that we rely on as a matter of course. While it may be quick and effortless, it is also very error-prone. Our second mode of thought is slower and more deliberate. It has the potential to be far more accurate than our default mode, but it takes effort, and this is effort that we often aren’t willing to expend. Still, Konnikova contends that activating the second mode is worth the effort. What’s more, the more we employ this mode of thought, the more habitual and the less effortful it becomes. (These modes of thought correspond to System 1, and System 2 in Daniel Kahneman’s 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', though Konnikova refers to them here as our Watsonian and Holmesian systems).
At each step of Holmes’ method, Konnikova points out the errors of thought that our Watsonian system is wont to draw us into (as exemplified by a series of psychological experiments). In addition, she points out numerous tricks and pointers that can help us use our Holmesian system to best advantage in order to overcome these errors (exemplified by still other psychological experiments). In the end, it is really a matter of being ever mindful and careful in our thinking, and this is something that we could all certainly do more of.
Readers of Kahneman’s 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' will no doubt recognize many of the experiments talked about here. However, unlike in Kahneman’s book, Konnikova makes much more of an effort to explain how we can overcome the errors of our Watsonian system (system 1). I found these efforts to be worthwhile for the most part (4 stars). Also, I found Konnikova’s style easy enough to follow; however, I would not say that I was a huge fan of it: it comes across as patronizing at times, and she does engage in a fair bit of repetition. Still a good and worthwhile read. A full executive summary of this book is available here http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/01/28... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon....more
The main argument: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.
The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.
This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).
Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).
In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).
Diamond has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea, and is therefore a very credible authority on the subject matter at hand. What's more, his wealth of experience has left him with a trove of interesting and illuminating anecdotes to draw from, and these are on full display here. Finally, I felt that the author always maintained a very sober and balanced view with regards to the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and modern societies. I would have liked to have seen certain topics discussed more, and others less, but this is mere personal preference. Altogether a very good book. A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/01/15... A podcast discussion of the book is also available....more