Saturday, April 5, 2014

How to succeed as a popularizer of technical material without knowing anything

The problem with financial journalism: journalists
[T]his is the formula for selling middlebrow “popular science” books. Flatter the reader that he is a smart monkey privy to the secrets of the universe; so much smarter and better informed than those people who actually work in the field. Popular science writers don’t sell actual popularizations of science like they did when Asimov used to write them; modern popular science writers now sell smugness. Modern upper middle class over-educated people love smugness, and use it as a sort of barter currency in social interactions with the fellow enlightened.
A perfect description of the genre and its audience. Applies equally to all technical material: science, technology, engineering, economics, business, management.

I continue to ask my kinetic energy question to people who want to "talk science" to me, and still find that most of them can't answer it. And don't get me started on "analytics" or "big data" advocates (as opposed to practitioners) who don't understand -- sometimes know -- Bayes's formula.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Six rules for my financial bliss

Really there's only one rule: make more money than you spend. Much more, if possible.

These rules work for me and are not to be construed as investment advice. They based on three components: basic knowledge of finance, good understanding of economics, and expertise in marketing (in other words, the art of making others spend money – knowing it is like being inoculated against it). Some people might get ideas for their own rules from these, so without guarantees of any kind, here they are:

1. Investment assets should produce income (yes, they could produce a capital gain instead, but I'm not a fan of counting on capital gains as a life strategy); an "asset" that produces a need for income (for example, a house bought with a mortgage) is more correctly defined as a liability. The best investment asset I can acquire is expanding my skill set, and the interwebs have made that almost free. (I'm weary of leverage, even for income-producing assets.)

2. There are many things I'd like to own that I don't really need. Using a total cost of ownership model, including the space and time cost, rather than simply looking at the price, and comparing with alternative uses for money and alternative sources of happiness, I generally stop myself from buying anything but consumables. For example: books, once one of my largest like-driven expenditures, I have all but stopped buying. I rely on libraries for most and have set a rule not to buy more than five books a month, avoiding paper books when possible.*

3. Exceptions to rule 2 are: small luxuries and a monthly "slush fund" of $100 for impulse purchases, with the proviso that they have to be physically small, require no maintenance, and enrich my life in the long term.

4. Proper maintenance and care, coupled with high-quality purchases to begin with, are key to asset longevity. Bespoke suits physically last longer and look stylish much longer than designer suits, so their yearly-amortized cost is much lower. (Is it noticeable that I aced all MBA accounting and finance classes, despite being in a marketing and strategy concentration?) I avoid any assets with planned obsolescence paths if I can and never buy anything for identity reasons. (I do buy some experience products; there's no real defense against those except no-exceptions thrift.)

5. When earnings increase, I feel no obligation to increase spending in fact fight the temptation to do so. (Note that I live a very comfortable life, with no privations; this rule would not apply to someone just muddling through.)

6. Long-term forecasts of economic variables are about as reliable as long-term weather forecasts. I trust estimates of growth and inflation for 2030 about as much as I trust today's rain and temperature forecast for San Francisco on Jan 3, 2030.

Yes, these rules are like the way to lose weight: control what you eat and exercise diligently. There's one extra rule, though, for people who are disappointed by the lack of a magic solution to financial problems:

7. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Money-wise and otherwise.


-- -- -- --
* During three separate decluttering events in the last 8 years, the hardest part was getting rid of books: in the first one, I only got rid of outdated textbooks; in the second one I didn't touch the books at all; in the third – radical – one, I went from a little under 2000 books to just below 500, but took weeks doing that, while the selection of around three cubic meters of designer clothing for donation took but a couple of hours. Electronic and library books will spare me further trauma.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The books of January

The unusually cold Bay Area weather colluded with the short January days to give me a lot of time to read; here's the result. Books listed in order of acquisition; reading was interleaved and out of order, as usual.

1. Henry Petroski: To forgive design. (I'm a fan of Petroski's work, and have all his books.) In this book Petroski extends the study of engineering failure to include systemic components and human decision-making, getting into Donald Norman territory. For anyone interested in technology, engineering, and understanding the way things work and fail, this is a must-read.

2. Matthew Jackson: Social and economic networks. This is technically a work book, but I already know its contents, so I read it for pleasure. It's reasonable as a set of class notes for Jackson's course and MOOC, fairly technical for the general educated public.

3. Charles Gasparino: The sellout. Reads like a novel about the crash of 2008. Gasparino,  a journalist, writes better than former trader Michael Lewis, with better information and broader vision (because Lewis was in "the trenches" where vision is necessarily limited), and without a chip on his shoulder against the financial system. Read in two sittings in two consecutive evenings. Take that, tell-lies-vision.

4. Duff McDonald: The firm: the story of McKinsey. I won't comment on this book, other than to say I highlighted a large number of passages.

5. Richard Hammond: Or is that just me? (Library book; doing my part to slow down economic growth.) The self-described short bloke from Top Gear writes about the making of some of his shows and some personal stories. It's not bad per se, but it's not funny or insightful, like the books by the louder, bigger Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. I started skimming, then skipping ahead, and eventually gave up in the middle. Sorry, Hamster.

6. Charles Gasparino: Circle of friends. (Library book.) Again reads like a novel, and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it describes the witch hunt criminal investigation of insider trading in the late 2000s. As one of those involved points out, it's funny how insider trading is touted as a heinous crime, and people serve time for it, but it doesn't make people poor, like bubbles, which have produced zero arrests.

7. Charles Gasparino: Blood on the street. (Library book.) Unsurprisingly, it reads like a novel and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. The same weekend. (Bad weather weekend.) If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it's the story of the late-90s stock boom and bust, with an emphasis on the conflicts of interest between analysts and investment bankers in the same firms, while the various regulators looked away, then political opportunism in finding a few scapegoats. (This is my interpretation of the book, not how it's presented.)

8. Peter Mayle: Acquired tastes. Got it after reading this post at A Suitable Wardrobe. A fun description of some luxuries by a member of the upper middle class — which looks sober and thrifty compared to the lifestyles of the rich and shameless of the third Millenium. Also a infomercial in text for Provence (not that it needs one). Two examples. Laugh-out-loud, especially for anyone who has spent time in France outside Paris, ski resorts, and beaches.


During January indoor rowing, elliptical walking, commuting, shopping, cleaning and other dead times, I also heard a few audiobooks (fewer than usual, but I listen to a few interesting podcasts and they compete for the same aural time):

9. Clayton Christensen: How will you measure your life? Reflections on what is important in life; a little more philosophical than one would expect from a Hahvahd B.S. professor. Made me think hard about some of my life choices, which is all that can be asked of a book like this.

10. Oscar Wilde: The importance of being earnest (performance). Obviously a reread, and I've also watched a few live performances and movies based on it before. Wilde's writing is magnificent and the actors (not readers) do a great job. The play is available free on the interwebs.

11. David Weinberger: Too big to know. Only heard part of it, still about two-thirds to go, but it's not grabbing my attention, to say the least. Perhaps a harsh assessment, since I have a professional interest in the issues of the book. But in general I tend to like popular books on my area of technical expertise, so the problem is mostly with the book, not any professional elitism on my part.


As is my habit, I reread bits and pieces (sometimes large fractions of the book) of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ian Fleming [James Bond], and Agatha Christie [Poirot] here and there. Even some Umberto Eco essays! I haven't read any new fiction, since I find most of what's on offer formulaic and preachy, often poorly written and scarcely researched as well.

(Someone pointed out that in my "Books of 2013" post I missed quite a few, like the haul from the SFPL shown in this photo or this one. That's because I didn't log them; the system isn't perfect.)




IN THE QUEUE:

In the reading queue for February (not counting work-related materials, which take about half of my "leisure" reading time), meaning books I already acquired but had no time to read in January:

a. Niall Ferguson: High financier: the lives and time of Siegmund Warburg. (SFPL book.) Got the library copy to reread - I had read a library copy in 2010. (Slowing down economic growth even then.) Returning books to the library recently, I saw it and checked it out on impulse. That a person would choose to reread the biography of a mid-century banker on impulse is review enough for the book (or the person!), but to be fair to Ferguson: unlike most narrative writers now, who pepper their prose with irrelevant distracting details, NF picks the interesting parts of the story and paints a picture of a sober, vaguely obsessive, cunning banker who lived an interesting life.

b. Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca: A history of Western music, 8th edition. (SFPL book.) I own the portuguese translation of the third edition and I'm considering buying the upcoming tenth edition. Since it's a textbook and therefore costs its weight in DeBeers diamonds, I decided to check this intermediate edition to get an idea of the changes. (Textbook publishers use unnecessary proliferation of editions to undermine the used book market, and the parts of Western music that I care the most about happened too long ago for their history to have changed much from edition to edition.)

c. Lawrence Freedman Strategy: a history. Books that take a very broad view of strategy tend to be either good (rarely great) or very bad. I saw his talk at Google and since the book was only $10 on Kindle I bought it on impulse. (Publishers: cheap books mean a lot more impulse sales; do your math.) The sample was not too bad, so it might not be one of those very bad books.

d & e. Peter Mayle: A year in Provence and Toujours Provence. (Two eBooks, plus an abridged audiobook version of the two.) Given how funny Acquired Tastes was, I decided to try a couple more; added the audiobook so I can enjoy it on assorted torture repetitive exercise machines.

f. Peter Mayle: French lessons: adventures with knife, fork, and corkscrew. (Audiobook; considering the companion Kindle book to try Amazon whispersync.) Another Mayle book for exercise occasions. I expect that these books will put some stress on the Paleo, but then again – to paraphrase my PhD advisor, a very wise man – life is too short to eat bad food.

g. Lucius Beebe: The provocative pen of Lucius Beebe, Esq. (SFPL book.) Beebe is a chronicler of San Francisco in the old days, and I like the history of this city. People who protest ongoing changes in the city seem to not understand its history. San Francisco has changed its character more often than any city I've ever known, and that's one of the exciting things about it.

h. Herb Caen: Only in San Francisco. (Berkeley Public Library book.) Another chronicler of San Francisco's past. I like the city, I really do. I just don't want to live in it; the suburbs are much nicer than the city, now. Caen calls San Francisco Baghdad-by-the-bay in an eponymous book; Beebe's description, older, is more like Paris in the West Coast, with Boston being London on the East Coast.

i. Burt Folsom: The myth of the robber barons. On the recommendation of Free The Animal, I watched the author's video, so I'll read the book to balance out all the Aaron Sorkin series (The West Wing, The Newsroom) and movies I have watched.

j. Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis: Abundance. (Audiobook.) Strangely enough, I find listening to popular books about my areas of expertise a good way to relax after work (on top of a elliptical machine, an indoor rower, or a treadmill – that's an essential part; never during resistance training, all 11 minutes per week of it).

k. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The second machine age. Ok, this one is close to a work book, but it isn't technical (at least from the quick browse), so I'll count it as leisure reading. (My work books have phrases like "compact space," "support vector machine," and "Markov perfect equilibrium." Also, they cost their weight in Beluga caviar.)

(That's eleven books – plus one abridged audiobook and an art book, Architecture Now 9, which should arrive tomorrow (it did) – in the queue and February hasn't even started yet. I already pre-ordered a couple of books coming out in March. It never ends.)




HOW THIS IS POSSIBLE:

The secret to reading all these books is very little television. (Also, being a vaguely misanthropic bachelor with no children.) For example, arriving home at 6PM I brew a pot of tea, sit in a comfortable chair, and read until dinner at the civilized European hour of 10PM; many people I know vegetate in front of the tell-lies-vision for the same period. (Or have families.) Reading four hours a day, eight or more per day on weekends, even if half of it is work-related, means two or three books per week.

Here are a few recommendations for improving the reading experience:

A comfortable chair is of paramount importance. Not an ergonomic office chair; a club chair. A tall overstuffed leather chair invites the relaxed feeling necessary to enjoy a book; ergonomic office chairs demand efficiency, measurable return on time invested, results Now! An ottoman is a better foot rest than a La-z-boy-type contraption designed for bovine ingestion of tell-lies-vision.  Fireplace and labrador retriever are optional.

If I'm reading on an electronic device, an increasingly common situation, I put it in airplane mode, blocking out the World Wide Wasteland. For the same reason I never read with the television on, even if muted.

Soft warm light is very important, especially at night; there's the matter of intensity (too bright you'll feel like you're being interrogated, too dim and your eyes will soon be tired) and of warmth, or hue. Most fluorescent lights (and cheap LED lights) have too much blue and violet in them; get a "warmer" lightbulb, one with more yellow and red, especially if you read a lot at night. Or bounce a "cold" light off a warm-colored reflector.

I like to have soft background music, usually something from between mid-16th and early 18th centuries; the mathematical precision of Buxtehude or his pupils J.S. Bach and Handel can serve as a mental rest area when I pause to parse a thought. Friends tell me they use jazz, but I find it distracting.



Reading: it's a cheap hobby, an invaluable habit.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Food rules, via experience marketing

Using experience marketing to improve one's lifestyle; if there was ever a case of déformation professionnelle…

A while ago I saw this quote in The London Lounge:
Fitzroy Maclean, the real-life James Bond who died a few years ago, always carried with him on his travels a tube of anchovy paste. He explained that in his experience one could always locate some alcohol and a crust of bread: his tube made it a party. This sort of discernment has much to do with small luxuries: too luxurious and they cease to be fun, too small and they cease to be rare.
I thought it very insightful, added some marketing knowledge and a dash of Paleo to it, and came to the conclusion that life is much better if I stick to the following rules:

1. Life is too short to eat bad food. Corollary: better to go hungry than eat bad food, considering that I have subcutaneous energy reserves. When we consider the needs serviced by food, in particular hedonic needs, the satisfaction created by bad food, which at best satisfies a functional need for calories, is necessarily inferior to that of an experience good; why waste a perfectly good opportunity of high value need satisfaction with mediocre product? What are we, an airline?

2. Small luxuries, infrequently consumed. Three reasons for this: (a) experiences saturate fast in an individual consumption occasion, i.e. the pleasure from eating 25g of Brie is much higher than 1/20 the pleasure from eating 500g of Brie in a single seating [yes, it's possible, with enough baguette]; (b) longer periods between consumption occasions lead to better experience, first by decreasing any habituation that might lower the situational consumption value, second by increasing the anticipatory value of the experience; (c) infrequent consumption of unhealthy items (such as crème brulée) doesn't have the long-term health damaging effects of frequent consumption (like insulin resistance). One of the great advantages of intermittent fasting (eating only when hungry, which sometimes means less than once a day) is that each meal is a noteworthy experience: fasting takes you off the hedonic treadmill. Oh, yes, there are also some health advantages, but who cares about that?

3. Creative use of available resources yields surprising value. When we productize an experience, such as with packaged food, a lot of the degrees of freedom for consumer adaptation of the experience are lost. But when we deconstruct the productized experience, as in the quote above, the result is that surprisingly good value can be achieved with minor adjustments. "Anchovy paste, therefore party" is not something that would have come to mind easily, but it's remarkable what a few drops of white truffle-infused olive oil can do to boring fish or a thin slice of foie gras (Nein! Verboten in Kalifornien!) to a green salad.

And two general rules that have to do with how manufacturing and marketing work. (Shush, don't tell anyone.)

4. Ignore most talk about nutrition. Most people are "educated" by marketing and PR, usually without realizing it, and the purpose of marketing is to deliver value and capture part of the surplus created, not to educate people about scientific results. Not that marketing communications are outright lies, but there are entire floors of copywriters in advertising agencies and buildings full of PR people whose job is to shape the narrative. (Doesn't that sound much better than "obfuscate, defuse, and deflect?") Read Salt, sugar, and fat; great marketing book, but will raise some heckles about manufactured food. (I'm assigning a few excerpts in my value proposition design modules.)

5. Cook your own food. Corollary: learn about food and cooking, from sources like On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen, The professional chef, Larousse gastronomique, and Alton Brown. (Famous chef cookbooks are worthless, as they are mostly productization of the chef's brand equity. Neat marketing, worthless pedagogy. Julia Child excepted, because in her case the fame followed the cookbook.) With a little practice and learning, cooking becomes a multi-faceted experience (sense, think, and act, sometimes even feel – all in one activity), plus it can become a free part of one's identity, replacing those expensive Pradarmani clothes [so 1990s].

Former students will recognize much of the above, except in the opposite direction of what we discussed in class. Experience marketing is the foundation for this post, but here I'm optimizing for the point of view of the consumer while in class we optimized for the point of view of the seller.

Bon appétit

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

MOOC-rize this!

Participant-centered learning is not scalable, so it's MOOC-resistant.

A couple of colleagues (in different fields) have shared MOOC-related worries with me. The logic goes, our research jobs are funded to a large extent by teaching, and if the need for teachers disappears, many schools will stop hiring expensive research faculty. Cathy "Mathbabe" O'Neil suspects MOOCs will have tragic consequences for mathematics research.

I'm not convinced.

As I see it, there are three main MOOC threats to traditional higher education: cost-effectiveness, brand equity of the schools offering the MOOCs, and quality of content. There's also one main visible weakness, certification.

Cost-effectiveness. The cost-effectiveness of MOOCs is the main argument I hear for "the end of universities as we know them," to which I say: if you can replace class X with videos of lectures and computer-graded problems sets, good riddance to class X.

Distance learning is an old proposition, it started with something called "a book." MOOCs add better media, the possibility of computer graded problem sets (for some fields, and requiring a significant investment in problem set design), and tutoring or discussion affordances.

But here's the crux: the scalable parts of MOOCs are the easy part of education. The hard part is motivating students, interacting with them and being responsive to their questions, taking the time to understand the reason for their incomprehension, and reacting in real time to information they bring into the class or developments in the field.

So, while MOOCs will work really well for highly motivated, studious students (nerds like me), the average student will need more personalized attention than is cost-effective to offer in large scale.

Repeat after me: Personalized attention doesn't scale.

True, many classes in many institutions of higher learning don't deliver anything more than the scalable parts of the MOOCs; no personalized attention or significant interaction with the students at all. Those classes are ripe for replacement by MOOCs, and that's good.

This is what gets me steamed about Mathbabe's post: if the professors don't add value to a student reading the textbook and solving the problem sets (that in many cases are straight off teachers' manuals from the textbook publisher and graded by teaching assistants), then what is the purpose of hiring someone with a deep understanding of the field a/k/a a research faculty member?

The answer to that lies in the value of an instructor with a deep understanding of the field to manage participant-centered learning (now called "flipped classroom" but in fact the only way anyone ever really learned any technical material was by practicing it).


Brand equity. Who wouldn't rather say "I took the Caltech Machine Learning course" rather than "I took the Cal State-Moraga Machine Learning course"? This is indeed a problem, but to a large extent it's a matter of brand credibility footprint, not a technological issue.

With prestigious schools creating extension campuses and joint ventures with other universities, MOOCs are only a small part of the problem. And let's remember that brand extensions are not one-way propositions; MOOC-rizing courses may dilute a school's brand equity. (So may having extension campuses, of course. Armani Exchange doesn't help the brand equity of Armani.)

Talking to some Hahvahd B.S. colleagues, I got the distinct impression that they believe the student physical presence in their Cambridge (Allston, really) campus is an essential part of the brand identity, one that they are not willing to compromise on. I'd venture that at Hahvahd B.S.  they know a thing or two about the network and identity dimensions of brand equity.

So, I agree that the brand equity is an issue, but more because of extension campuses and joint ventures than MOOCs, since the brand credibility footprint is much more likely to encompass the former than the latter. (Says the visiting professor at TheLisbonMBA, a joint venture of UCP, UNL, and MIT.)


Quality. Obviously there's a difference between the quality of the classes taught at Caltech and at [the fictional] Cal State-Moraga; and that is part of the brand equity of Caltech. But the real question is whether the students of CS-Moraga are going to benefit from a class that was designed for Caltech students more than from one that was designed specifically for them.

Note that this immediately raises the question of whether CS-Moraga classes are customized to their student population (that is now, before being MOOC-rized). And that's again the issue of what faculty are doing at CS-Moraga: if they rely on the textbook and the teachers' materials provided by the textbook publisher in order to save themselves the trouble of actually preparing a class, then as I said above, good riddance.

On the other hand, in participant-centered learning the instruction follows from the participants' needs and skills, moving at their pace, therefore for good quality the instructor must have a broad training in the general field and a deep understanding of the materials of the class.

It's incumbent upon the faculty to make itself more valuable than a cost-effective MOOC, or a textbook for that matter. Otherwise, it's their own fault if they're MOOC-rized


Certification. Certification of knowledge is the weak point of MOOCs as they currently exist, but it's important to note two issues with this.

First, certification cannot be the only function of universities or research faculty, as certification alone doesn't require the large infrastructure and cost of a university or the need for broad research programs.

Second, and much more critical, if the MOOC certification weakness is part of the advantage of a traditional university, that weakness ends if universities stop taking their certification responsibilities seriously. When some schools graduate computer engineers who never wrote a program that passed a compiler's syntax check, let alone run, let alone run correctly or efficiently — to choose an example I heard from someone I trust — then the credibility of universities as certification mechanisms comes into question, and their advantage vis-a-vis MOOCs in this regard evaporates.

(Yes, there's a third possible issue, that of MOOCs adding some sort of credible certification. I believe that that's a long way off, given how it would require (a) an infrastructure to prevent fraud; (b) some sort of long-term evaluation, since not everything can be certified with a short test; and (c) legal protection in case of unacceptable demographic results in aggregate, which universities seem to have had grandfathered in, but other institutions have found themselves liable to.)



I for one welcome our new MOOC multimedia limited-interaction e-textbooks for the 21st Century. As a complement to real instruction: customized, personal, and responsive. And as a mechanism for making universities take certification seriously.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Technocracy. It's new.

No. It's not.

I've read a number of recent books and articles about how technology, particularly computers and robots, will change everything and create a bipartite society, where "there will be those who tell computers what to do, and those who are told what to do by computers" – in a compact form. (As a computer engineer, I sort of approve of this message. :-)

This idea of a bipartite society with a small elite lording over the undifferentiated masses is not new (really, not new at all). That it's a result of technology instead of divine intervention or application of force is also not new, but, since most people have an "everything that happened before me is irrelevant because my birth was the most important event in the totality of space-time" attitude towards the past, this is ignored.

There are a few reasons contributing to the popularity of this idea:

It's mostly right, and in a highly visible way. Technological change makes life harder for those who fail to adapt to it. In the case of better robotics and smarter computers, adaptation is more difficult than it was for other changes like the production line or electricity. One way to see this is to see how previously personalized services have been first productized (ex: going from real customer service representatives to people following an interactive script on a computer) and then the production processes were automated (ex: from script-following humans to voice-recognition speech interfaces to computers). Technological change is real, it's important, and it's been a constant for a long time now.

(Added Jan. 7, 2014: Yes, I understand that the economics of technology adoption have a lot to do with things other than technology, namely broader labor and economic policies. I have teaching exercises for the specific purpose of making that point to execs and MBAs. Because discussion of these topics touches the boundaries of politics, I keep them out of my blog.)

It's partially wrong, but in a non-obvious way. People adapt and new careers appear that weren't possible before; there are skilled jobs available, only the people who write books/punditize/etc don't understand them; and humans are social animals. The reason why these are non-obvious, in order: it's hard to forecast evolution of the use of a technology; people with "knowledge work" jobs don't get Mike Rowe's point about skilled manual labor; most people don't realize how social they are.

(On top of these sociological reasons there's a basic point of product engineering that most authors/pundits/etc don't get, as they're not product engineers themselves: a prototype or technology demonstrator working in laboratory conditions or very limited and specific circumstances is a far cry from a product fitting with the existing infrastructure at large and usable by an average customer. Ignoring this difference leads authors/pundits/etc to over-estimate the speed of technological change and therefore the capacity of regular people to adapt to it.)

Change sells. There's really a very small market for "work hard and consume less than you produce" advice, for two reasons. First, people who are likely to take that advice already know it. Second, most people want a shortcut or an edge; if all that matters is change, that's a shortcut (no need to learn what others have spent time learning) and gives the audience an edge over other people who didn't get the message.

It appeals to the chattering classes. The chattering classes tend to see themselves as the elite (mostly incorrectly, in the long term, especially for information technologies) and therefore the idea that technology will cement their ascendancy over the rest of the population appeals to them. That they don't, in general, understand the technologies, is beyond their grasp.

It appeals to the creators of these technologies.
 Obviously so, as they are hailed as the creators of the new order. And since these tend to be successful people whom some/many others want to understand or imitate, there's a ready market for books/tv/consulting. Interestingly enough, most of the writers, pundits, etc, especially the more successful ones, are barely conversant with the technical foundations of the technologies. Hence the constant reference to unimportant details and biographical information.

It appeals to those who are failing. It suggests that one's problems come from outside, from change that is being imposed on them. Therefore failure is not the result of goofing off in school, going to work under the influence of mind-altering substances, lack of self-control, the uselessness of a degree in Narcissism Studies from Givusyourstudentloans U.  No, it's someone else's fault. Don't bother with STEM, business, or learning a useful skill. Above all, don't do anything that might harm your self-esteem, like taking a technical MOOC with grades.

It appeals to those in power. First, it justifies the existence of a class of people who deserve to have power over others. Second, it describes a social problem that can only be solved by the application of power: since structural change creates a permanent underclass, not by their fault, wealth must be redistributed for the common good. Third, it readily identifies the class of people who must be punished/taxed: the creators of these technologies, who also create new sources of wealth to be taxed. Fourth, it absolves those in power from responsibility, since it's technology, not policy that is to blame. Fifth, it suggests that technology and other agents of change should be brought under the control of the powerful, since they can wreak such havoc in society.

To be clear, technology changes society and has been doing so since fire, the wheel, agriculture, writing,  – skipping ahead – printing press, systematic experiments, the production line, electricity, DNA testing, selfies... The changes these technologies have brought are now integrated in the way we view the world, making them so "obvious" that they don't really count. Or do they? Maybe "we" should do some research. If these changes were obvious, certainly they were accurately predicted at the time. Like "we" are doing now with robots and AI.

You can find paper books about these changes on your local sky library dirigible, which you reach with your nuclear-powered Plymouth flying car, wearing your metal fabric onesie with a zipper on your shoulder, right after getting your weekly nutrition pill. You can listen to one of three channels bringing you music via telephone wires, from the best orchestras in Philadelphia and St. Louis while you read.

Or you can look up older predictions using Google on your iPhone, while you walk in wool socks and leather shoes to drink coffee brewed in the same manner as in 1900. The price changed, though. It's much cheaper to make, but you pay a lot more for the ambiance.

Think about that last word.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Books I read in 2013

At the beginning of 2013 I decided to keep a book log (including Audible audiobooks). These are the non-work books I read in 2013, by author. Some are re-readings, and there's still enough time for a few more. I'll be adding notes later.

✏ Chris Anderson: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

✏ Julian Assange et alli: Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet

✏ Walter Bagehot: Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (reread; free)

✏ Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do

✏ Gregory Benford: Foundation and Fear (reread on Dec 31st.)
Screenshot; I'm impressed by how careful Prof. Benford is to make sure that none of his personal feelings about being an academic in America comes across in his SciFi writing. The Foundation series is a good illustration of the preachiness and neoteny of most science fiction; it's mostly amateur sociology with minimal exploration of the real changes that technology creates. As a former aficionado, I have some residual interest in the genre, but you bet better futurism from A McKinsey or Bain conjectural report than from most SciFi, even Cyberpunk.
✏ Gregory Benford and Larry Niven: Bowl of Heaven
The only new sci-fi book I read this year. Hard sci-fi took a hit after 2000, when some authors decided to join the culture wars and write metaphors for the american political system.
✏ David Brin: Earth (reread)
In July I decided to reduce the amount of stuff I owned, so I replaced a number of paper books with electronic copies. This led to an assessment of which scifi books I wanted to reread. Earth was one of them, Brin's best book in my opinion. Some of the other scifi books to get replaced by eBooks are mentioned below. In the end, I donated or recycled almost two thousand paper books.
✏ Sean Carroll: The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

✏  Phillip Dennis Cate et alli: Impressionists on the Water (FAMSF Exhibition Catalog)

✏ Arthur C Clarke: Childhood's End (reread)

✏ Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

✏ Edward Dolnick: The Forger's Spell
Few things describe the arts world as precisely as the end of chapter 11: "Van Meegeren fooled the world with a seventeenth-century painting made of plastic."
✏ Niall Ferguson: Civilization: The West and the Rest

✏ Niall Ferguson: The Great Degeneration
Like Civilization, you can get most of the content of the book from Niall Ferguson's talks. But I wanted the notes and details so I read the books.
✏ Seth Godin: The Icarus Deception

✏ Rose-Marie Hagen and Ranier Hagen: Masterpieces in Detail (Art book)

✏ Chip Heath and Dan Heath: Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

✏ Robert Heinlein: The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (reread)

✏ Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow (reread)

✏ Walter Lewin: For the Love of Physics
As autobiographies of scientists go, this one is more educative than the Feynman pair (Surely you jest, Mr Feynman and What do you care what other people think?). Lewin is a superstar Physics professor from MIT, who would be the first to say that students learn Physics only when they solve the problem sets, not in the lectures. Screenshot.
✏ William Manchester and Paul Reid: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965
Vol. III of Manchester's biography of Churchill, written by Reid based on Manchester's notes. Hard on the French. Read in one day plus two evenings. 1200 pages, but the last 130 are notes and references.
✏ Michael Moss: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

✏ Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: Lucifer's Hammer (reread)
One of my favorite sci-fi books (and the only Pournelle to make my top 10). I reread parts of it often (notes and highlights help). I bought it 5 times in different languages and formats.
✏ Donald Norman: The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition (added Dec 25)
There are enough changes from the previous edition to merit purchasing it anew, but in my case I get the added benefit of moving from a paper edition to a Kindle book, reducing the need for physical storage space. Subsumes Living With Complexity as well.
✏ Iain Pears: The Bernini Bust (reread)

✏ Iain Pears: The Titian Committee (reread)

✏ Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens (reread)

✏ Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint
Good book, though I wouldn't want to give up resistant starch altogether and the high-impact exercise recommendation is better ignored. But worth reading as motivation for life changes.
✏ Benn Steil: The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

Neal Stephenson: Anathem (reread)
Reread for the 10th or 20th time, despite being over 1000 pages long (read it in one very long reading marathon when it came out); possibly Stephenson's best book. Screenshot.
✏ Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Best non-fiction book I read in 2013. I think I'll be rereading my highlights and notes for years to come. Sometimes NNT's style may be a little over the top, but the substance is worth it.
✏ Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August (reread on Remembrance Day; screenshot)

✏ Barbara Tuchman: The March of Folly

✏ Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain takes on tourism, Americans, and foreigners. For some reason I had never read it before. It's available for free, since it predates the Mickey Mouse copyright rules.
✏ Lea Van Der Vinde et alli: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis (FAMSF Exhibit Catalog)

✏ Ingo Walther and Norbert Wolf: Masterpieces of Illumination: The World's Most Famous Manuscripts 400 To 1600 (Art book)

✏ Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (reread)
It's a book about class, friendship, religion, and growing up. The movie was a distortion of the book as bad as Starship Troopers was of the Heinlein original; the ITV series was acceptable, but the writing itself is a major part of the value of the book, and cannot be appreciated from video.
✏ Evelyn Waugh: Sword of Honor (reread)

✏ Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Big Money (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Carry On Jeeves (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters (reread, for the 20th time or so...)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: A Man of Means
Found a Wodehouse I hadn't read before. The year was worth it. Huzzah!
✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Mulliner Nights (reread)

✏ William Zinsser: On Writing Well (reread)
Best book on writing ever, IMNSHO. I reread parts of it often; read the whole book at least once a year; and reread my notes about it before starting any writing project. Technically it's a work book for me, but I like to read it for pleasure as well.

The secret to reading this many books: watching very little television. Most of these books take only a few hours to read (though some may take a lot more), so an evening or two without television is enough to read a book. By that metric, I read a lot less than my potential, and that's not considering the multitasking afforded by audiobooks during walks or repetitive exercise like Concept II rowing.