Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dennett, Daniel C. (1997): Kinds Of Minds: Toward An Understanding Of Consciousness

What is it about?

The book is about the question of whether other animals (or more generally, forms of life or even complicated molecular assemblies or machines) have or can have a mind - or be conscious - and whether and how we can know this.

Dennett, quite reasonably, ends up suggesting that the question is not about "does X have a mind or not" - or, as Dennett puts it, "is X is a mind-haver". Instead, the focal phenomenon, mind-having, is a ramp phenomenon, i.e. there (most likely) are different degrees of consciousness, i.e. a continuum of different kinds of grades of consciousness.

In other words, the "mind or no mind" question introduces an artificial boundary where one naturally probably does not exist.

Was it good?

The book is guaranteed Dennett quality: reads well, discusses in a 'deep' manner despite quite light surface style, and advances a well-reasoned point.

Especially I appreciate Dennett's steady reliance on thought experiments - a staple method in philosophical investigations more generally.

In short, the book is guaranteed to stir some serious reflection in a reader.

The main take-away for me?

As in so many cases, the main take-away from the book was a meta level one: one should be really careful in falling into imagining up artificial boundaries or advancing false dichotomies. Admittedly such simplifications are quite natural for us human beings and can simplify a complex phenomenon - e.g. typologies and similar classification apparatuses do just this - but employing such devices should always be accompanied with background appreciation of the true nature of the focal phenomenon.

Who should read the book?

The book, I think, can be enjoyed by everyone as it discusses also about being a human being and how this (probably) differs from being another kind of a life form. Especially if one has a philosophical bent, this book is quite recommended, as are all Dennett's books.

The book on Kinds of Minds

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Waldfogel, Joel (2009): Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays

What is it about?

The basic point of the book is very simple, and made already in the very beginning of the book: people value the presents they receive significantly less than their purchase price, thereby creating economic "deadweight loss".

For instance, if a person receives a piece of clothing as a present, which the giver purchased for 100 euros, and for which the recipient him/herself would have paid only 60 euros, there is an economic loss of 40 euros. If the recipient hates the piece of clothing and would have not purchased it for any price, the loss is 100 euros.

According to surveys the author has conducted in multiple countries, recipients usually value the presents they receive, on average, to about 80-90% of their purchase price. Multiply this with the value of presents purchased every year around the world, and the bill of "deadweight loss" is formidable.

As a solution, the authors recommends basically gift cards and other "cash equivalents" (and cash in cases in which does not carry stigma) so as to allow the recipient to exercise his/her own valuation judgments.

Was it good?

With regard to its basic point, the book is just superb! It organizes analytically a phenomenon - gift giving - and sheds new and refreshing light on it.

However, the basic point is stated already in the very beginning of the book, making the rest of the book feel like "mandatory pages to make a proper book". This is not to say that the rest of the book would be totally without interesting arguments, but that the core contents of the rest of the book could have squeezed into 10% of their current extent without losing much relevant content.

The main take-away for me?

After having read this book, I most certainly think more carefully about what I give to others as gifts - and most likely will favor even more gift cards and similar "cash equivalents", in order to avoid creating "deadweight loss" myself.

An interesting thought is also giving "through" someone or some organization, such as giving donations and then giving this (already made) donation as a gift. The book has some nice economic argumentation to support this train of thought (discussion about luxury, necessity and inferior goods).

Who should read the book?

Well, everyone - I mean, everyone gives gifts, and more or less everyone could do this in a more mindful manner.

The book on Scroogenomics

Lyon, Matthew & Hafner, Katie (1999): Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet

What is it about?

The book basically covers the history of the Internet from its late 1950s-early 1960s ARPANET origins until the early 1990s when the commercial Internet - as we know it today - was about to take off.

The book proceeds mostly chronologically and is nicely built around the central people involved in the key developments, with a nice balance between technical and "social" issues.

Was it good?

The book is good - it reads very nicely and is very accessible to a non-specialist reader as well. Especially the style adopted by the author is appealing: tracking a handful of key individuals and their undertakings, concentrating on key technical choices with ample explanation concerning their relevance and implications, and offering helpful analogies in cases with more advanced technical description.

Personally, I also appreciate the fact that the book is written before the dotcom hype, giving the book a neutral and calm perspective on its subject matter without wondering into the annoying superlative department. A well-rounded general historical account indeed.

The main take-away for me?

The book really underscores the fact (without explicitly pointing that out) that behind the services, technologies or products we use every day and take for granted, there is a lot - and I mean a lot - of hard work and careful thinking that has gone into those. For this reason, a book that makes it visible and makes one appreciate the accomplishment (such as the modern-day Internet) makes very worthwhile reading.

Moreover, the book also illustrates what can be accomplished when creativity and enthusiasm are allowed to work their magic. Namely, a substantial part of the early Internet was driven with academic curiosity and 'ideological purity'.

Who should read the book?

I think that every user of the Internet should read the book - it will at least make one understand the basic logic of the Internet better, and thereby appreciate it beyond "just water on the tap" (an equally valuable and complex system itself).

The book on Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Montreuil, Benoit & Meller, Russell D. & Ballot, Eric (2010): Towards a Physical Internet: The Impact on Logistics Facilities and Material Handling Systems Design and Innovation

What is it about?

This is not a book but an academic article. I chose to feature it on the blog because it really created a "wow" effect while reading it, and I though that some others might want to read it as well.

First of all, the article is not about run-of-the-mill Internet of Things discussion, such as making logistics more efficient by adding some sensors here and there. Instead, the authors outline a logistical system that would adopt, nearly one-to-one, the topological structure, logical setup and general principles of working of the Internet, based on the TCP/IP protocol architecture.

Consequently, whereas in the current Internet, data packets are being routed from origin to destination, in the physical internet, physical objects (cargo-carrying modules of different modularized sizes, to be specific) would be routed using the very same principles.

Was it good?

The article is, I would say, one of the best if not the best I have read for a long time. It is one of those rare articles where the authors put forth a grand idea with quite unambiguous benefits, if implemented.

The main take-away for me?

In addition to the concept of the physical internet - very fascinating indeed - the meta-level take-away for me is that regrettably few academic articles nowadays put forth something truly remarkable, a grand idea. One contributing factor to this may be the ever-increasing "publish or perish" race within academia, but that would require another discussion itself.

Who should read the article?

Especially anyone working with logistics or large infrastructure investments should be very, very interested in what the authors have to say. In additional, computer scientists should be intrigued with the idea as well.

See also the Physical Internet Initiative.

Duckworth, Angela (2016): Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

What is it about?

The book is a self help-like account on "grit", defined as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. The first part of the book describes the phenomenon, its effects (benefits) and offers ideas concerning its origins. The second part then adopts a more traditional self help style in offering inspiring advice about how to foster and build grit in oneself.

Was it good?

I liked the first part quite much, whereas the self help-like style of the latter part was not so much to my liking. Perhaps the reason for this is that the first part is more 'scientific' or objective whereas the latter part is more inspirational-speculative built to a large part on selected anecdotes featuring successful people and/or their parents.

As is the case with many or most self help books, an abridged version of the book (with the inspirational style toned down) would be - to me - a more compelling reading experience.

This is not, however, to say that the book failed to inspire me at all, but that the "you too can do this like this person did" style is not to my great liking.

The main take-away for me?

First, like Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit, Duckworth underscores persisting on a course of action (likely to result in a fulfilment of an important goal) so that it becomes a habit. I fully subscribe to this. And second, what gave me pause and really made me think was Duckworth's typology of one's work as (1) an occupation (or a job), (2) a career, and (3) a calling, with associated overall life happiness and even task performance outcomes.

Who should read the book?

As any self help book, this is certainly written for anyone, and probably anyone can get something to think about and even change in the personal life out of the book. However, those stand to benefit the most who struggle with commitment and getting things done. And, yes, parents - the book has a lengthy discussion about how to foster grit in children.

The book on Grit

Rothbard, Murray (1995): An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 2: Classical Economics

What is it about?

This book basically continues where the Volume 1 (see below) left off - in a chronological sense, that is.

Simplifying a bit, the book has two big themes: money and banking, and Marxism. Not surprisingly, coming from a strong libertarian tradition, Rothbard quite straightforwardly attacks fractional reserve banking, fiat currency, and Marxism.

Was it good?

The book was equally good as the Volume 1. For me, the inherent agenda embedded in the text was a slight concern throughout the book, because it gives the historical account a distinct flavour, and most likely also has influenced Rothbard concerning what to include and what to exclude.

But again, the Rothbardian style has its upside as well - the book is quite enjoyable to read. Consider, for instance the following assessment of Marx:

"An insatiable spender of other people's money, Marx continually complained about a shortage of financial means...As in the case of many other spongers and cadgers throughout history, Marx affected a hatred and contempt for the very material resource he was so anxious to cadge and use so recklessly...Marx' personal taste for the aristrocracy was lifelong." (pp. 340-341).

The main take-away for me?

Having ploughed through already quite a stack of books on Austrian economics and Rothbard in particular, it is difficult to think of any major let alone specific take-away from the book. Indeed, the book is very true to the Austrian economics heritage - and especially the libertarian branch within it.

Who should read the book?

I would say that the book is worth reading if one absolutely loves Voume 1 and craves for more. Otherwise another more than 500 pages of economic history with a distinct libertarian flavour can be a bit taxing.

The book freely available at Ludwig von Mises Institute: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 2