Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Arbesman, Samuel (2016): Overcomplicated - Technology at the Limits of Comprehension

What is it about?

The basic position of the book is that the technological environment in which we live has become so complex that in many cases we no longer fully understand let alone control how technology works. Especially this is true in large technical systems such as the Internet, or electricity or water distribution.

Thus, complex technological systems exhibit emergent behavior which is at times surprising to us because due to their complexity, their behavior can not be modelled or otherwise anticipated in all possible circumstances.

As examples, complex technological systems cause phenomena such as sudden swings in financial markets (computerized systems trading by themselves at a very high speed) and large-scale electricity outages (a single failure causing a cascade of effects which diffuse system-wide).

According to the author, this "overcomplication" is to a part due to fundamental restrictions in our capacity to process and understand information, and to a part due to the very nature of complex systems/phenomena (c.f. complexity theory).

As a possible way to at least partly tackle the problem, the author suggests that we should increasingly view technology with biological rather than mechanistic metaphors.

Was it good?

The book is quite good and pleasant to read. Well, probably the contents could have been squeezed into one third if not even tighter with the basic message left basically intact -- North American non-fiction books for a general audience seem to suffer from a kind of a syndrome of "having to be of a reputable length".

In any event, the book contains a number of illustrative examples (stock markets, electricity grids, commonly-used software applications, computerized functionality in cars etc.), which make one to really appreciate what the author has to say.

The main take-away for me?

In a way, the book didn't include anything particularly new to me, which I assume to be the case if one is read anything touching on complexity theory and/or technological systems. In any event, the human side of the discussion (how we, as humans, may be inherently incapable of grasping large complex systems) was a welcome and refreshing addition to a "standard treatment". Also, the biological vs. mechanistic metaphors of viewing technological systems (though not worded in this manner by the author) was thought-provoking--the fundamental metaphors with which we view the world surely are quite consequential.

Who should read the book?

The book on Amazon.com: Overcomplicated

Monday, April 24, 2017

Lohr, Steve (2015): Data-ism - The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else

What is it about?

The book is, loosely speaking, about big data and its various possible and actual uses in different walks of life, especially in business. Data-ism basically refers to the all-pervasive importance of data especially in the future -- to the tune of "data is the new oil".

The book quite welcomely also includes ethical discussions, especially towards the end of the book, about how much data about our activities in, say, in the Internet can reveal about our preferences - including such preferences which we are unaware ourselves.

The book is quite heavily built around case studies, which for the most part travel with the author throughout the book, from theme to theme. In addition to the case studies, the book also includes general discussion and technology description, but it most often is motivated by an opening case.

Was it good?

The book has its merits and its drawbacks. On the plus side, the book is quite accessible and well-balanced overview of how data can be put into use in different walks of life, and what potential problems this brings about or has brought about. The case studies are also quite interesting and serve a clear purpose.

However, I increasingly like the "make it vivid" style of writing in general audience non-fiction books. In this book, for example, the descriptions of the outer appearances of featured people is striking to a degree of being annoying. Who cares, what is the texture of someone's moustache and how it plays along with the colour of his tie, if one wants to read about predicting customer behavior with social media data.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away perhaps once again is the increased appreciation of what can be done with data, and how many applications there are for data accumulation, processing and consequent decision-making.

Who should read the book?

The book on Amazon.com: Data-ism

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scahill, Jeremy (2016): The Assassination Complex - Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program

What is it about?

The book describes how the U.S. government employs so-called drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles, in various countries to eliminate - kill - people deemed dangerous to the USA or, quite vaguely, its interests.

Instead of a start-to-finish narrative, the book is a compilation of articles written by different authors, some of whom remain anonymous.

Apparently quite a bit of the contents of the book is based on leaked government/military documents, including some released to the public by Wikileaks.

Was it good?

The book is highly fascinating. The book quite naturally describes how the drones are technically used (e.g. how cellular telephone identities, signals and location data is highly important for target identification and missile guidance; how a satellite relay station in Germany is evidently a crucial data transmission link between the drones in Africa and the Middle East and their operators in mainland USA).

However, in addition the book includes quite illuminating discussions about the legal status of and issues involved in using drones in areas which are not designated war zones, and their use to basically assassin people without any legal process (e.g., a president's order suffices).

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was a greatly heightened understanding of how drones are being used in a technical sense and an appreciation of all the questions, problems, gray areas (and black) and so on which essentially remain unresolved and to a degree undiscussed by the public at large.

Who should read the book?

I am quite confident that anyone with any interest in international or U.S. politics should read the book. Moreover, the book is bound to make one think also more broadly about how efficiently and effectively people - we - can be monitored through the the technology we use every day.

The book on Amazon.com: The Assassination Complex

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hutson, Matthew (2013): The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking - How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

What is it about?

The author intends to provide a "popular" overview of magical thinking in its many forms.

Here, magical thinking is understood very, very broadly and quite synonymously with irrationality. For example, any sentimental feelings (e.g. valuing one's original wedding ring more highly than another identical ring) are classified as "magical thinking" by the author.

The author argues that everyone of us engages in magical thinking. The assertion is easy to accept given the exceedingly encompassing understanding of what constitutes magical thinking.

Perhaps more interestingly, the author argues that magical thinking is beneficial. In a number of cases this is thought-provoking (e.g. connecting with past in terms of the historicity of objects), but the author robs a bit of content from this assertion as well by including, for example, cognitive heuristics, in magical thinking.

Was it good?

I appreciate the basic setup of the book. Moreover, the book is quite nicely written, and reads well because of, for example, because of a high number of examples of the varieties of magical thinking discussed.

However, the highly broad conception of magical thinking inflates the capability of the book to deliver. In my opinion, sentimentality and cognitive heuristics and biases should have been left out, because I understand those to constitute somewhat different phenomena than magical thinking. Moreover, there are excellent books on those subjects already, whereby their treatment in this book pales in comparison.

The main take-away for me?

Perhaps as a result of reading the book, I "observe my thinking" more critically. However, I'm not sure what I should do differently in terms of my behavior. Should I try to value my wedding ring less? Or be grateful that I'm capable of assigning this additional "magic" value to it? Hard to tell.

Who should read the book?

Since the book is so encompassing and "general interest", it's difficult to think of a particularly fitting target audience for the book. Perhaps if one likes popular books on psychology, one would enjoy this one as well.

The book on Amazon.com: The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

Kwack, James and Johnson, Simon (2017): Economism - Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality

What is it about?

The book has a fairly straightforward main message: that the theorems and their derivatives introduced during a basic course of economics ("Economics 101") are not an accurate representation how the economy actually works. Namely, the standard basic depiction of markets (e.g. matching of supply and demand, and the price mechanism therein) rely on a number of simplifying assumptions (e.g. self-interested actors highly adept in monetary calculations), which should be born clearly in mind.

Despite this, this basic view of economics - laden with quite bold assumptions - dominates public policy such that the underlying assumptions are forgotten - either intentionally or unintentionally - and policy recommendations or even demands are advanced as if the basic view of economics accurately represented how the economy actually works.

All this the authors call "Economics", justification of public policy on the grounds of economic theory and, moreover, overly simplistic such theory.

Was it good?

The book is quite refreshing reading. For someone with a good knowledge on basic neo-classical economics and its main "rivals" such as the Austrian school of economics (which the authors, nonetheless, roughly bundle in the same "camp"), the book offers rather little in terms of new theoretical insights, However, the book does an excellent job in illustrating how overly simplistic views of economy have successfully been employed to justify public policy in issues such as minimum wage or unemployment insurance.

The main take-away for me?

The book actually forced me to revise my own thinking as well. I, too, am guilty of relying on quite simplistic economic theory to make sense of and discuss societal issues. Thus, I personally greatly benefited from reading the book by way of wanting to do better job of not falling back to "Economics 101" thinking.

Who should read the book?

I believe that the book would be healthy reading for anyone interested or active in societal issues. Especially "right wing" politicians should read the book with heightened attention.

The book on Amazon.com: Economism