Another year, another book list. I read less book this year than last, but over two thousand more pages! Here’s the list:
11.) Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy – Daniel Altman
78.) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla – David Kilcullen
In a recent Twitter conversation with Justin Pickard, I referred to myself as a “conservative futurist.” He said he would be interested in what that means and I promised to write a blog post about it. This is my attempt to do so.
Looking back over my social media profiles (Facebook, Twitter, blog) you can see that I am a Christian, and nominally a libertarian. Those two alone put me at odds with many of the futurists I read, and especially with many Transhumanists who seem to believe that anyone who believes in God is opposed to them and trying to hold back humanity.
That’s not a debate I want to get into because it’s too polarized and neither side is going to change its mind no matter how well the other side argues. Instead, I want to touch on a few issues that commonly come up in Futurist conversations and describe where I might be positioned on them.
First, and probably most controversial, I am a global warming skeptic. Note that I did NOT say denier, which is a derogatory term used by those who are convinced. Does global climate change happen? Absolutely, and in cycles through time. Are we causing global warming? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen evidence that contradicts it, and seen good arguments against it. Enough so that I’m not convinced. It will be interesting to see if many of the scenarios used for planning that assume global warming will be useful after all.
Second is artificial intelligence. Ray Kurzweil (link to Kurzweil) and others believe that within forty years we’ll have created computers that will be super-smart and capable of thinking – that will, for all intents and purposes, be alive. I am, again, skeptical. First, I think it’s a long way from creating a computer program that evolves to one that can think for itself. Even Watson cannot do much without tweaking it’s program – which is done by human programmers, not by itself. Second, (oops, here come my religious beliefs) I don’t believe that it’s alive unless it has a soul. Does this mean I think all research should stop? Of course not – the smarter we can make them, the more help they’ll be. I just don’t believe that any computer (or robot) will ever be truly alive.
Third is life extension. I’ve read quite a bit on this, (links to books) and pay special attention to the blog of Sonia Arrison. I’ll be honest though: I believe that there’s a limit set in the Bible for us. As a matter of fact, a recent article notes an average of 114 years. I believe we can extend the healthy part of our lives up until then, but remain unconvinced that we can extend it much beyond that – and I don’t believe immortality is a possibility in any way, including “uploading.” Especially at our current state of technology, but even beyond, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to use a silicon-based matrix to represent the human brain. (I would love to be proven wrong, of course!)
That’s just several areas where my beliefs affect my view of the future. What about you? Do you lean more toward a transhumanist view of the future or more towards a “conservative” view of the future? If you believe in some sort of supernatural diety, how does that affect your view?
I read quite a bit last year, with an emphasis on linguistics, Counterinsurgency, complexity, and mathematics. Fiction, as always was scattered throughout the year. Lots of good links below; I encourage you to check them out, along with the reviews I did of several of them…
1) Your Child’s Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence – Jane M. Healey, Ph.D
2) Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) – Jeffrey Kluger
3) The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
4) A New Kind of Science – Stephen Wolfram
5) Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power – Robert D. Kaplan
6) The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity – Richard Florida (My review here)
7) Language: The Big Picture – Peter Sharpe (my review here)
8) Understanding Physics: Volume 1: Motion, Sound, and Heat (Understanding Physics) – Isaac Asimov
9) Seven Firefights in Vietnam – John A. Cash, et al. (My review here)
10) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages – Guy Deutscher (My review here)
11) Chaos Theory Tamed – Garnett P. Williams
12) Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity – John Gribbin (My review here)
13) The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa: With E. D. Swinton’s “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift” – Michael Burgoyne and Albert Marckwardt (My review here)
14) The Age of the Unthinkable , Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It – Joshua Cooper Ramo
15) The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) – Graham Greene
16) Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq – Patrick Cockburn
17) Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life – Len Fisher
18) Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language – Seth Lerer (My review here)
19) Migration: Species Imperative #2 – Julie Czerneda
20) Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology – David S. Richeson
21) Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (My review here)
22) Chicago Blues – Edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann
23) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink
24) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why – Richard E. Nisbett
25) Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer – Mireya Mayor (My review here)
26) A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – Anthony Bourdain
27) Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World – Liaquat Ahamed (My review here)
28) Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall
29) The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way – Bill Bryson
30) Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents – Robert A. Cutietta
31) Thought Contagion – Aaron Lynch (My review here)
32) Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia 2) – C.S. Lewis
33) Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
34) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Open Market Edition) – Duncan J. Watts
35) The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention – Guy Deutscher
36) Hardwired – Walter Jon Williams
37) The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been . . . and Where We’re Going – George Friedman
38) Almost Human: Making Robots Think – Lee Gutkind
39) Understanding Physics: Volume 2: Light, Magnetism and Electricity – Isaac Asimov
40) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) – Robert B. Cialdini
41) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
42) The Secret Servant (Gabriel Allon) – Daniel Silva
43) Pittsburgh Noir (Akashic Noir) – Edited by Kathleen George
44) Freedom (TM) – Daniel Suarez
45) Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots – Gareth Branwyn
46) The Traveler (Fourth Realm Trilogy, Book 1) – John Twelve Hawks
47) Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back – Douglas Rushkoff
48) Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource – Peter Rogers and Susan Leal
49) Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants – Dennis Okholm
50) Counterinsurgency – David Kilcullen
51) Hunter’s Run – George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Daniel Abraham
52) The Killing Ground (Sean Dillon) – Jack Higgins
53) One Shot (Jack Reacher, No. 9) – Lee Child
54) The Hard Way (Jack Reacher, No. 10) – Lee Child
55) Why Things Break: Understanding the World By the Way It Comes Apart – Mark E. Eberhart
56) Earth Strike: Star Carrier: Book One – Ian Douglas
57) Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese – Robert D. Kaplan
58) The Post-American World: Release 2.0 – Fareed Zakaria
59) Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – Novella Carpenter
60) The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization – Bryan Ward-Perkins
61) The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century – Thomas X. Hammes
62) Four Colors Suffice: How the Map Problem Was Solved – Robin Wilson
63) How to Build Your Own Spaceship: The Science of Personal Space Travel – Piers Bizony
64) The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives – David Bainbridge
65) The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World – Peter Schwartz
66) The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine – Francis S. Collins
67) The Scar – China Mieville
68) The Profession: A Thriller – Steven Pressfield (My review here)
69) Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature – Marcus du Sautoy
70) The Five Chinese Brothers (Paperstar) – Claire Hutchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
71) Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America – Matt Taibbi
72) How to Talk to Your Child About Sex: It’s Best to Start Early, but It’s Never Too Late — A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents – Linda and Richard Eyre
73) The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – David McCullough
74) Havoc – Jack DuBrul
75) Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, Book 1) – David Brin
76) Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy – Steven Metz
77) The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov
78) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things – William McDonough and Michael Braungart
79) 7th Sigma – Steven Gould
80) 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know – Tony Crilly
81) The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life – Thomas W. Malone
82) Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier – Edward Glaeser
83) Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself – Dan Pink
84) The Future of Management – Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
85) 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith – Sonia Arrison
86) The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics – Karl Sabbagh
87) Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) – David Foster Wallace
88) The Final Warning (Maximum Ride, Book 4) – James Patterson
89) Re-read Where Eagles Dare – Alistair MacLean
90) The Caryatids – Bruce Sterling
91) Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality – Jonathan Weiner
92) Mathematical Mysteries: The Beauty and Magic of Numbers (Helix Books) – Calvin C. Clawson
93) The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity – Amir D. Aczel
94) Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes – Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
95) Reamde: A Novel – Neal Stephenson
96) The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe – Donal O’Shea
97) Euclid’s Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace – Leonard Mlodinow
98) Millennium Problems – Keith Devlin
99) The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
100) Godel’s Proof (Revised Edition) – Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman
101) Moscow Rules (Gabriel Allon #8) – Daniel Silva
102) The Bourne Legacy – Eric van Lustbader
103) Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus – John Eldredge
104) Count Down: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad – Steve Olson
105) The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets – Alan Boss
I’ve read most of Steven Pressfield‘s books, and The Afghan Campaign was the one that really made me realize that we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. I had no idea that the tribes had been around since before Alexander’s time, and if Alexander, the British, and the Soviets couldn’t subdue them, how would we?
Since then I’ve followed Mr. Pressfield’s blog where he discussed the tribes and how an understanding of those tribal groups was a key to the fight in AfPak. I looked forward to reading his newest novel, The Profession, because it combined three things that I have an interest in: the classics, futuring, and modern warfare.
By 2032, most land warfare is fought by mercenaries. These range from Marine MEU-sized groups complete with logistical support such as intelligence and communications to Apache helicopters owned and operated by individuals. Most of the action in this book takes place in the Middle East and the United States. The events in the book cover the gamut from the tactical level – ambushes and so on – to the geostrategic level.
The story is well done, and I did get a pretty good feel for the characters. There’s enough action to keep things moving but Pressfield also gives a sense of the geopolitical background and the history that has led to this world. The book excels in portraying the brotherhood between warriors – the knowledge that above all else you are fighting for the man beside you. You are left with no doubt that these men would die for each other. Pressfield also does a good job of portraying what it takes to lead such men, at least in the character of Gentilhomme. I also liked how he worked in quotes from and references to the classics such as Thucydides, Alexander, Xenophon, and others.
As for the geopolitics, personally, I hope Pressfield’s wrong about this becoming a world where nations and corporations hire their armies to do their dirty work. One of the complaints I have about the book is that mercenaries are portrayed as honorable – in real life, some are, but many aren’t. For example, in the Sudan, it has been noted that:
“among those in the counterinsurgency accused of war crimes were “foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity” – that is, mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan. The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence has also been seen…in Iraq.”(1)
Another thing that disturbed me – although I think Pressfield’s portrayal is spot on – was the utter amorailty of the characters. For the most part, each one seemed to feel that the ends justified the means and it seemed many of them had values that changed with their circumstances. As one of the characters notes, this is how things are done in 75% of the world. My question is, if we abandon what makes us the other 25%, what makes us any different than those we fight? It’s a tough question and I certainly don’t have the answer. For a mercenary, it’s probably not as big an issue.
I was also interested in how much this reminded me of the Hammer’s Slammers series by David Drake – I wonder if Mr. Pressfield is aware of that series, which has a tank regiment of mercenaries that is employed by different groups on other planets to fight – you guessed it – other mercenary armies, and often is based on historical themes such as the odyssey or Xenophon. A collaboration by these two authors would be outstanding (hint, hint)!
Overall, this was a good if disturbing read, and I highly recommend it.
As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been exploring the science of complexity these last few months, trying to get a feel for the different subfields and how it can be applied to various real world issues. One of the areas in the field of Complexity is that of Network Science.
Linked: The New Science of Networks by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is a useful overview of the field. It’s an easy read that covers a broad amount of the field and is a good layman’s introduction to network theory. He shows that the world around us can be described in terms of Networks, and comments on how they are formed, what forms they take, and how they grow. Note: This is one of my longer reviews, and I left a lot out!
Barabasi starts off with one of the most famous network problems of history: the bridges of Konigsberg. He shows how the problem can be solved using nodes and links, which was discovered by Leonhard Euler. This segues into a discussion of graph theory and its history. Graph theory describes a network as a collection of links and nodes. How to connect these nodes and the relations between them, as well as how the network grows in the first place, is the focus of the book. Hr runs through a history, starting with random networks which although helpful in formulating basic laws, do not really describe real world networks. He describes Stanley Milgram’s famous six degrees experiment and how Barabasi and his team researched it and found similarities in other networks of small worlds, where any node can reach any other node in a small number of jumps no matter how large the network. He also talks about the strength of weak ties.
Clustering – each of us has a small number of close friends – is a key structure in networks and Barabasi talks about these and how a few links between them reduces the length between distant nodes. Still, the nodes are all egalitarian and this is not how it works in real life. Barabasi refers back to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, talking about connectors and hubs – which means they have more than the average number of links which the egalitarian model doesn’t allow. Hubs are apparent in the Kevin Bacon Game and in airline networks, among others. The distribution follows a Power Law rather than a bell curve. These networks are “scale-free” since there is no average node.
A discussion Of Pareto’s 80 / 20 law and a discussion of “phase transitions” follows, and how understanding them helps us to see how hubs appear in networks. He notes that networks grow and are not static, and that counterintuitively just because a hub is old doesn’t mean it will get the most links – although that does play a role. There is “preferential attachment” – nodes prefer to link to nodes that already have a lot of links. Google today is a perfect example. In other words, the rich get richer…
A basic prediction of scale-free networks is that the first mover will have an advantage in forming the most links. In real life networks, however, this isn’t the case. This is because contrary to the assumption that all links are the same, they instead are all different with different intrinsic properties. This is defined as fitness. More fit nodes will end up with more links. This is complementary to preferential attachment which only examines the number of links. It also shows that the number of links is therefore independent of when the node joins the network.
In an intriguing chapter, Barabasi then turns to the weaknesses of a highly-interconnected network. Most networks in nature are highly interconnected and are also highly robust in that the failure of one component won’t take down the whole network. Barabasi and his team investigated this phenomenon. They found that for these networks, removing a large number of nodes typically had little or no effect on the functioning of the network. This is due to the hubs model – removing nodes randomly eliminates a large number of tiny nodes and not very many hubs, which preserves the integrity of the network since the tiny nodes aren’t very interconnected. However, if the Hubs are specifically AND simultaneously targeted, the network will quickly break apart. This, then is the primary weakness of these networks. they are not vulnerable to accident, but are highly vulnerable to attack. This applies to both man-made and natural networks from the internet to food webs. Cascading failures can happen when the load from a failed node is shifted to other nodes that are unable to handle the load, whereupon they fail and pass it on to yet more nodes that cannot handle the load, and so on. This is what happens during blackouts and rolling power failures and in denial of service attacks on routers. These happen in dynamic networks and still need researched.
Using these findings of network theory, Barabasi discusses the spread of ideas, fads, and viruses, using as examples AIDS, computer viruses, jokes, and hybrid corn. Malcolm Gladwell covers some of this in The Tipping Point. One of the more surprising findings was that the rate of spread does not depend on virulence. The solution is to target the cures to the hubs. In AIDS, this would involve targeting the people who are most likely spreading the virus (those with many partners) as opposed to those who don’t (people with only one or two partners). There are, obviously, ethical questions associated with this course of action. Barabasi also examines the resilience of today’s internet (the physical infrastructure as opposed to the World Wide Web). Instead of being a mesh as it was originally designed inj the 1950s, the Internet is more of a hub and spoke model that has grown organically. This is why the Internet, too, is vulnerable to an attack on Hubs, rather than being perfectly resilient. It also enables “parasitic computing,” where your computer can be “hijacked” and used to perform functions for a computer thousands of miles away – this is done with spam, for example. It can also be used voluntarily, as in SET@Home or research into protein-folding. Another question asked is that as the Internet continues to grow across the planet as it is connected to computers and sensors and cell-phones, will it eventually become self-aware?
One surprising thing about the World Wide Web is how difficult it can be to find information, even though theoretically the amount of information is limitless. Google, surprisingly, indexes less than 25% of all the pages out there! Worse yet, despite the fact that most webpages are separated by an average of nineteen links, due to the architecture of the Web, only 24% of pages can be reached by surfing from one to the other. This is due to the structure of the Web: it is a Directed Network. Barabasi describes this in detail. Also, due to these properties, sections of the web can be partitioned off – providing a tool for control of access. However, the topology of the Web as described here is much more effective than a government at keeping a website hidden! Barabasi notes that the Web is little understood and a great deal more time and attention should be paid to understanding it.
Networks are common, and especially so in biology. Barabasi also discusses how network theory can be applied to business and the economy. He posits that to compete organizations need to go from a tree hierarchy to a web or network instead. They will also participate in ever interconnected webs with suppliers and customers. He shows how members of boards of corporations are ever more interconnected with hubs – 20% of them serve on more than one board. The degree of separation of boards of directors is only three!
In conclusion, Barabasi summarizes: “…though real networks are not as random…as envisioned, chance and randomness do play an important role in their construction. Real networks are not static, as all graph theoretical models were until recently. Instead, growth plays a role in shaping their topology. They are not as centralized as a star network is. Rather, there is a hierarchy of hubs that keep these networks together, a heavily connected node followed by several less connected ones, trailed by dozens of even smaller nodes. ” There is no center, or controller, in the middle of the network that could be removed to destroy the web. They are instead self-organized with emergent behavior. Al-Qaeda is an example of a web organization, which is why the United States military – a hierarchical tree organization – has had trouble battling it. Barabasi suggests that “We must eliminate the need and desire of the nodes to form links to terrorist organizations by offering them a chance to belong to more constructive and meaningful webs.” We can do this by attacking “…the underlying social, economic, and political roots that fuel the network’s growth.” Barabasi sees the future of network theory as understanding complexity and “move beyond structure and topology and start focusing on the dynamics that take place along the links.”
In his book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke The World, Liquat Ahamed writes the story of the Great Depression of 1929 by following the lives of the Central Bankers of four of the leading countries of the time – France, Germany, England, and the United States. It is a new perspective to me, and while I don’t pretend to know all the differences between the Austrian School and the Keynesians, I thought it was very interesting. Reviews of the book are generally positive although there are followers of Austrian theory that state that Ahamed, who worked in the past for the World Bank, is too accepting of Keynes.
Again, I’m not well read enough in economic theory to say. Ahamed does make a case that the slavish adherence to the gold standard by these men was a prime cause of the Great Depression and that the ultimate cause was a “…series of misjudgments by economic policy makers” both in the decade before and during the Great Depression. By economic policy makers he refers to the politicians and the central bankers of the era. An item that caught my eye was the fact that the Great Depression was the confluence of a number of cascading failures:
* “The contraction in the German economy that began in 1928
* The Great Crash on Wall Street in 1929
* The serial bank panics that affected the United States from the end of 1930
* The unraveling of European finances in the summer of 1931″
Ahamed compares these to (respectively):
* The Mexican Peso crisis in 1994
* The bursting of the Dot-Com bubble in 2000
* The financial crisis of 2007-8
* The Asian Flu of 1997-8
He states that had these events occurred together, we may have seen a financial disaster of the scale of the Great Depression. There are, however, a number of financial bloggers that believe that we are indeed headed for one anyway, and that the crisis of 2007-8 isn’t really over…
Some other items from the book I thought were interesting:
* Before World War I, Norman Angell, a British journalist, wrote a book called Europe’s Optical Illusion. In it, he stated that “…the economic benefits of war were so illusory…and the commercial and financial linkages between countries now so extensive that no rational country should contemplate starting a war. The economic chaos, especially the disruptions to international credit, that would ensue from a war among the Great Powers would harm all sides and the victor would lose as much as the vanquished. Even if war were to break out in Europe by accident, it would speedily be brought to an end.” Both Tom Friedman and Tom Barnett (especially with respect to China) make similar arguments today – let’s hope they’re not as wrong as Angell was when he was “…trusting too much in the rationality of nations and seduced by the extraordinary economic achievements of the era.”
* Related to the above: “The argument that it was was not so much the cruelty of war as its economic futility that made it unacceptable as an instrument of state power struck a cord in that materialistic era.”
* An English newspaper article after the 1884 panic on the New York Stock Exchange: “The English, however speculative, fear poverty. The Frenchman shoots himself to avoid it. The American with a million speculates to win ten, and if he takes losses takes a clerkship with equanimity. This freedom from sordidness is commendable, but it makes a nation of the most degenerate gamesters in the world.”
* The signs of a mania: “…the progressive narrowing in the number of stocks going up, the nationwide fascination with the activities of Wall Street, the faddish invocations of a new era, the suspension of every conventional standard of financial rationality, and the rabble enlistment of an army of amateur and ill-informed speculators betting on the basis of rumors and tip sheets.” Indeed, ten percent of households were in the market in 1929.
* Almost a third of the speculators were female. There were even special brokerage houses set up to cater to only women.
* “One is led to the inescapable but unsatisfying conclusion that the bull market of 1929 was so violent and intense and driven by passions so strong that the Fed could do nothing about it. Every official had tried to talk it down. The president was against it; Congress too; even the normally reticent secretary of the treasury had spoken out. But it was remarkable how difficult it was to kill it. All that the Fed could do, it seemed, was to step aside and let the frenzy burn itself out. By trying to stand up to the market and then failing, it simply made itself look as impotent as everybody else.”
All in all, I thought it was a well-written summary of the actions and lives of the Central Bankers of the era, and it was an easy read. Whether or not you agree with the Keynesians or the Austrians, you should definitely read this book as a way of beginning to understand the events of the last few years…and where we could be headed in the future.