Monday, December 25, 2017

Reaction to Beauty Pays

[Just a public copy of the email:]

Just finished your book Beauty Pays and feel like I have to comment, even though I can't say much that is good about it... Yes, it does have a lot of interesting data, including some that was new to me, and I'm interested in specialized branches of economics (though you didn't mention ekronomics), but the flaws were so overwhelming that I feel like I could write another book about the problems.

So let me first provide some easy outs and reasons to discount my negative reactions: I think you should probably just regard my comments as sour grapes related to my mostly worthless second degree from UT (Austin). Or maybe the sour grapes are related to my own physical appearance and generally bad attitude? Or maybe I was just put off by the excessively legalistic perspective, and more so when I discovered why in the footnotes?
However, your fundamental misconception of genetics was so bad that I can't stop myself from commenting about page 143. The genes come in PAIRS, and the genetic cookbook that is assembled in a fertilized egg has one half coming from each parent. The "half the genes" that come from the father will absolutely NOT "be the same regardless of the choice of the egg donor", but it will be a uniquely random mix of half of his genes in each instance. Ditto the mother, no matter how beautiful she is.

Some of the math involved in genetics is pretty basic, well below the level of the fancy equations of today's economists. However before I would spend more time on this topic, let me pose a challenge. Do you understand the genetic relevance of this algorithm and its result?

(1) Skip n/e.
(2) Accept the next outcome with a better score than any previous outcome.

That outcome has a 1/e probability of being the best outcome possible.

Just thought of one more good thing to say about your book. I like having my thoughts provoked, even though I favor positive provocations over negative. Your book qualifies as thought provoking.

#1 Freedom = (Meaningful + Justified - Coerced) Choice{~5} ≠ (Beer^4 | Speech | Trade)
It took me so long to learn patience that now I have no time to be patient!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Version 0.4

Review of and Reactions to Weapons of Mass Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

Quite a good book, though I have a number of nits to pick. Overall the book is worth reading and I'm glad to give it the same strong recommendation that led me to read it, but there are places where her focus seems too shortsighted, especially in terms of the underlying motivations of the problems.

The largest nit is probably the title, not so much directly, but as used in abbreviated form within the text. The title is actually catchy and provocative, though I think it falls short of witty. However, in the text it is reduced to WMD, and that's a serious problem because there is a competing and quite well established definition of WMD. Weapons of Mass Destruction are still a huge problem and frequently mentioned in the news and books. There are good reasons we read about WMDs, but that means that each time WMD appears in this book the reader has to stop and remember the crucial distinction here. Actually, it would be even worse if she had focused more on the mass destruction that can be caused by her WMDs. She didn't go that far in spite of her focus on the scalability of the the weapons. (There's a secondary problem that she probably couldn't have considered, but for Japanese readers in particular, the spoken words "math" and "mass" are hard to distinguish because Japanese does not use the "th" sound. In other words, to a Japanese ear, both "math" and "mass" sound like マス。)

The reading would have been much easier without the conflicting WMD references in the test. Perhaps WM for Weaponized Math or MWs for Math Weapons? The kind of math is actually limited to statistics, so another option could have been SWs for Statistical Weapons. Lots of possibilities beyond the catchy but conflicted WMDs. Just hard for me to recommend this book without a warning about being a more difficult read than it needs to be.

Now for my page-linked comments (though I resisted noting pages until I was halfway through):

On page  115 I was provoked by the passage "a quality computer, like an IBM Selectric", since that was a typewriter, not any type of computer. That was the reaction that went too far...

On page 130 she is talking about a blurred focus on "efficiency and profitability" without justifying the inclusion of efficiency. This reminded me of corporate cancerism, though without the clarify of the singular focus on profit that modern corporations claim they are legally required to pursue.

Page 134 starts considering the misguided destruction of public education in 1983, but I was mostly reminded of "Figures don't lie, but liars figure" and the book Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics from 1976. I felt she wasn't seeing the real problem because she wasn't considering the motivations. She is focused on the attacks on unionized teachers, but she didn't even consider why they would be targeted. I would actually agree that they were part of the motivation was that progressive teachers can encourage progress and change, and conservatives are fundamentally opposed to that, but I think she failed to see the larger attack in which public schools were divided and conquered. The result was a tiny division of good schools to keep up the hopes of the good teachers and the truly concerned parents, while the lion's share of public schools became obedience schools you wouldn't send your dog to. The underlying motive for this wholesale destruction was mostly to reduce property taxes, though the rich landowners were glad to use and exploit such public-school-haters as religious fanatics who had other reasons for wanting the public schools to be destroyed. Though she talks about problems with voting and democracy at various places in the book, she apparently doesn't see how the mushrooms were cultivated in those obedience schools so that Putin (with Trump's help) could harvest them as mushroom voters in 2016.

Page 136 on Simpson's Paradox was quite enlightening, but mostly a reminder of how liars figure. It doesn't matter what the data shows when there are external motivations driving the analysis and the desired outcomes have been predetermined. The liars will find some way to slice and dice it and they are probably planning to take the money and run before the suckers figure it out.

Page 143 was about selective treatment in call centers, and made me paranoid about how I get treated these days. Also reminded me of the extreme form practiced at Apple, where I believe they now block negative comments from even being posted in their discussion forums.

On page 146 she emphasized that it was wrong to study "How have people like you behaved in the past?" She said the ideal question would be "How have you behaved in the past?" Actually, the ideal question would be "How are you going to behave in the FUTURE?"

Page 162 is discussing insurance, but I felt there was general confusion. The basic problem is that it only makes mathematical sense to insure against unlikely events, not likely events. Trying to insure against inevitable events is a kind of oxymoron, because there can't be any profit there if all of the policy holders are guaranteed to collect at some point. They might as well save their money and cut out the insurance company overhead.

Page 180 is talking about viral encouragement of voting via Facebook, but mostly it sounds ridiculously naive in light of the 2016 election. There was no mention of Twitter in the book, either. Page 185 sounded even more naive when she says that she has "no evidence that the companies [Facebook and Google] are using their networks to cause harm." Page 186 sounds almost ridiculous when you consider how Trump just ignores all of the conflicts and counts on each of his contradictory tribes to believe he is telling that particular tribe the truth while lying to all of the others.

On page 205 she is talking about an "oath" that data scientists should take, but the notion seems completely implausible because of her own emphasis on scalability of the WMDs. If a WMD is scalable, then all it would take is one violator of the oath to render it useless. This reminded me again of the moral neutrality of the technology (though she didn't use that phraseology) while the people are going to use any technology for good or bad purposes.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


Not an actual book review, but just a reactionary letter sent to the publishers of a book that especially annoyed me:

Again, my apologies for writing in English. My Japanese writing is poor, notwithstanding having read over 100 of your ひみつ books.

I just finished 山梨県のひみつ and I feel I have to say something. More so since I actually lived in Yamanashi many years ago.

The smallest problem is one that I've called to your attention before: Unreadable fonts. This is most often a problem with the まめちしき, especially the フリガナ where the little 〃 and ゜ can be hard to tell apart. However, this book had MANY pages of small print that made the problem much worse. I actually wound up running those pages through a high resolution scanner and displaying them full-screen on my 28-cm monitor, and even then they were barely readable in places.

That leads to the middling problem, which was the book took MUCH more effort than any previous volume of ANY of your series, which I've been reading for many years. In general, the ひみつ books are a pleasure to read, but this one was NOT. If you don't believe me (or if you don't care), then I strongly urge you to ask ANY of the children (your intended audience) who have actually read this volume.

Sometimes less is more, and in this volume there was LOTS of stuff that could have been cut, which also would have allowed you to use larger fonts for the remaining material while making the book more pleasant to read. For example, all of the America stuff was unimportant and distracting and should have been cut. The details hours and fees of the museums are not needed here, but if you insist, all of that stuff could have been reduced to a one-page table at the end of the book. Lots of unneeded redundancy, especially around the high-speed train.

Lastly, the big problem: I felt personally offended by the use of katakana for the Japanese words of the two American children. Hard to read and it feels downright racist, too. Perhaps the biggest difference between America and Japan is that Americans think that anyone can learn to speak English, while the Japanese think no one can learn to speak Japanese unless they are born Japanese.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Reactions to General will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google

Reactions to General will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google by Hiroki Azuma (一般意志2.0 ルソー、フロイト、グーグル)

In summary, a tremendously provocative and rather interesting book, but too flawed and immature to be important or influential. It makes me feel like I have to start with rationalizations about the book's limitations. I think there're three kinds of problems that affected this book.

One is that the translation itself seems somewhat suspicious, Either because the material is so difficult or possibly because the translators own philosophies were brought into the picture, especially if either of them is a libertarian. In my page-based notes I will include a few specific questions about the translation, but I think there's more a general problem manifested in the confusion of proper nouns with generic usages. Quite frequently the book uses terms such as "general will 2.0" that should be capitalized and treated as proper nouns, but which appear in lowercase. It is barely possible that this reflects a feeling that the frequent capitalization would have made the book feel too heavy in some way, but I think it much more likely that it reflects the lack of capitalization in the original Japanese. (There are no capital letters in Japanese.)

The second problem could be described as a kind of trauma due to the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of 2011, immediately followed by the nuclear-power-plant disaster in Fukushima. My own trauma was relatively minor, just that I voided elevators for a few months, but perhaps the author had tighter connections to Fukushima or for some other reason felt the disaster more deeply. He gives the impression in the introduction that he was forced by the earthquake into rethinking many of the points raised in the book in ways that prevented him from merely polishing the original essays. His choices were to present them almost intact from the magazine serialization or completely rewrite the book.

The third problem can be described as a kind of forced extension beyond the original conception, especially as regards Rousseau. He is trying to rework the philosophy of Rousseau in a way that goes beyond the plausible implications of the original philosophy of the "social contract". I think it started as an interesting thought experiment, but he went so far that he at some point even the author understood that the connection to the original was overstretched. Even with the stretching, it's thought-provoking, but I felt it was not a mature conceptualization. There was some additional confusion caused by the layering in of later philosophers and thinkers, especially as regards Freud.

So here are my page-based comments:

On page vii I saw the first thing that made me worry about the translation. Near the bottom he says "I was able to assume the place ..." in a way that sounds quite pompous and assertive, even aggressive. I suspect the original Japanese may have represented a gentler conception that should've been translated into something like "I found myself thrust into a place ..."

On page xii he notes that it is September 11, 2011, which is exactly half a year since the disaster of the great earthquake. As an American I was struck but that the date was also exactly 10 years after the great and similarly traumatic disaster of 9/11 in America. It would have been even more striking as the double anniversary. (The 9/11 disaster was mentioned on page 60.)

On page 6 he talks about the Google's mission statement of organizing the worlds information. My main reaction was negative in light of my reconsideration of that mission statement in favor of giving priority to accessing the advertising information with the new utility metric of the paying advertisers' profits. I wonder if his generous and friendly interpretation was still plausible when this book was written?

At the bottom of page 11 was another sentence that made me wonder about the quality of the translation. It uses a very unusual word, "sublated", in such a way that it could not be clearly interpreted from the context. Perhaps a dictionary-based translation? Following the literal Japanese, but the result was not clear in the actual context. Better writing or a better translation should have made this concept clear. There are other examples in the book where free translation was clearly used. For example the "two heads are better than one" expression is used instead of a direct translation of the Japanese expression about the three men being wiser then Buddha. (三人寄れば文殊の知恵 was referenced in a note.)

On page 53 there is a confusing note about the two Japanese forms of 意思 and 意志, which are homonyms with closely related meanings. (One kind of 同音異義。) However my main reaction to this footnote was to realize that all of the Japanese intrusions in the book would have benefited from the inclusion of proper Japanese. The use of Romaji was as usual ambiguous and confusing. If you don't already know the Japanese, then the Romaji is just gibberish, and if you do know the Japanese, then the Romaji is just intrusive.

On page 69 he's discussing the shallowness of conversations on the infamous Nichanneru (2ちゃんねる?). Reminds me again of Nicholas Carr's excellent book The Shallows.

On page 70 the second note is talking about the creator of the Google's Japanese input system, someone named Taku Kudo. One of my reactions was to wonder if he was might be related to the security expert Kudo-san at IBM Japan, but mostly I was curious about the extra features of Google Japanese input.

What struck me about page 73 was his essential confusion about the nature of freedom. However I think it helped to trigger me to think more about the meaning of constraints based on reality within the context of my own equation defining the most important sense of freedom. [#1 Freedom = (Meaningful - Coerced) Choice{5} ≠ (Beer^4 | Speech | Trade) in my favorite sig.] Not sure if this is when I started wondering about some way to work the word constraint or reality into my sig, but it also reassured me about the usage of "Coerced" there.

My main reaction to page 79 was probably do to his apparent confusion about the you effective use of personal time. This is also another intersection with The Shallows.

Page 81 i talking about island universes from a libertarian perspective, but this is a concept I now map to do-it-yourself brainwashing.

Page 86 represents another other intrusion of libertarian fantasies. He's trying to rationalize minimizing government without considering the essential blindness of masses of people. The kinds of data he is collecting here are fundamentally incapable of revealing what should be done, incapable of dealing with the notion of change itself, but only capture the static conditions. I7m doubtful that the author understands that leadership requires unified vision, though this might be an overlaying of the libertarian conceptions. There's also some confusion with his use of the word "database" throughout the book, where he was probably thinking about something like "big data". Perhaps the use of big data came later, so he was forced to use the approximating word database?

I had two reactions on page 96. The main one was feeling his interpretation of Google PageRank was quite shallow and even inaccurate. I also had trouble with his interpretation of Freud here.

Not certain what caught my attention page 113, but perhaps that is where I realized the confusion between database and big data? The closing paragraph of that chapter was quite confusing to me, though that might be another translation problem.

Page 115 he had me thinking about reality-based constraints in relation to freedom.

On pages 136 and 137 he made me feel like he was confused about how the wisdom of crowds works, even though he refers to that book. The independent perspective of the individuals within the crowd is key to avoiding mob-based decisions.

The third note on page 139 made me think of time-based economics, although that general topic is clearly beyond his thinking in this book. I think that was the main problem that caught my attention on page 145, too.

On page 150 he's talking about the Japanese website Niconico, which has a real-time chat mode similar to YouTube's. He's talking about the problem of an overabundance of comments on the right side. This make me think about an obvious solution. Most of the comments should never be displayed, though perhaps they could be saved somewhere else for later reference. The displayed comments should be throttled to a slow speed to make sure they can be read. After each comment that makes it onto the display there would be some number and buttons. The first number would represent how many comments had been skipped before accepting the displayed comment. This would give a real-time indicator of the activity of the discussion. A thumbs-up and thumbs-down button would let the audience try to push the comment up or down the list, with a number for the net value. If the comment is accumulating a lot of positive reactions, then will tend to rise in the stack of displayed comments, but if it's getting negative reactions it will sink. There should also be a button for "the subject has changed". If enough viewers click on that one, then the comment will disappear to make room for a new comment. This system would then semi-automatically create a time-based list of the most important comments associated with each part of the video. More ideas and details available upon request, but that offer feels like a joke these days...

The discussion of Twitter on pages 182 to 184 was also thought provoking. It made me think of a new way to make Twitter much more interesting and useful. You should be able to sort and group the accounts you are following so that the different kinds of information appear in separate lists. On a large screen computer you would be able to display the lists side-by-side. For example the Twitter feed of your family members and close friends might be in the first column on the left side, while the second column might be for news sources and the third column for celebrities you are interested in. On a small screen device a sideways flick could switch between the columns representing your groupings. Another new idea of the sort I like to think about...

On page 204 he suggests that Google and Apple are influenced buy their shareholders. Seems to me to be a remarkably naïve statement, based on my firsthand experience as an Apple shareholder and most starkly in a recent interaction with Sony. They are not interested in new ideas or any sort of "guidance" from shareholders. That's part of a more general problem and made me think his economic models are too naïve by half.

Those are my page-based reactions to the book. They sound somewhat critical, but I'm still interested in many of the topics he raised. Not sure if I can actually recommend the book, but I'm thinking of visiting the coffee shop (or maybe it's more of a discussion salon) that the author manages.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Good to Great

Version 0.2

A Critical Interpretation of Good to Great by Jim Collins

The core of my reaction is that Good to Great is not even good, but rather deeply flawed. Perhaps I should criticize it based on my own hedgehog concept that time is much more important than money? That is actually linked to the book's extremely narrow definition of "great"in narrow monetary terms, and that narrow focus made me increasingly suspicious as I read the book.

However, in the end I concluded that the premise was completely misleading, and my largest curiosity is whether or not any of the research team members voiced similar concerns. The book purports to be a comparison of great companies to merely good ones, but it is actually a comparison of lucky gamblers to non-gamblers, and the losing gamblers are completely ignored. Near as I can tell, they never considered the possibility that some companies could use ALL of their recommended techniques and still fail to become great or even avoid bankruptcy. The reason I'm certain that is the case is because of the scale of his thinking. There are only so many things that are available to try to be #1 at, and even fewer when defined in the broad fashion of his examples, and there are just far too many companies for all of them to become #1, no matter how long and how closely they follow his recommendations.

My interpretation of this study is that he defined a specific profit profile and then used it in almost exactly the same way they sometimes compare a large number of hedge funds. He started with over a thousand companies, and was able to find 11 winners in the top fraction. In the comparison of hedge funds, they usually use the example of starting with some power of 2 and picking the best one after each assessment period, cutting the sample in half each time until you get the best one--but then it turns out that gambling on this lucky winning hedge fund is going to win next time is no better than chance because the entire procedure is merely a statistical game. Think of it another way: Out of 100 companies, one of them has to be #1 and the top 1% on any dimension you use, and he merely used a dimension defined by stock performance. Of course he found the lucky winners, which is kind of a punchline since his winners mostly appreciated and gave credit to their own luck--and he basically avoided looking at the unlucky losers. (Actually there was one example in his reported data of a company that did everything right until there was an unlucky break, whereupon the company quickly lost it's 'great' eligibility. However, he didn't follow up on that hint to look for other similar cases.)

The author's conclusion is that the principles he discovered can be applied by any organization, and if applied for a sufficiently long time, then success will be assured, but that's NOT the way lotteries work. Actually, the main difference from lotteries is that the payoff date is known in advance, whereas the profit schedules of the companies are not known. His research essentially shows that these companies gambled everything they had on their hedgehog idea, and if they didn't lose, if they were betting on the right hedgehog and outlasted any other gamblers betting on the same hedgehog, then of course they outperformed their competitors who didn't gamble to the same degree. And what about all the companies that gambled everything and lost? Well, they just disappeared without notice or comment. The companies he focused on for comparisons were simply competent companies that didn't gamble. This book is comparing apples to oranges, not comparing great apples to good apples.

The part before this was basically my more considered opinion after a few days. The part that follows is based on my earlier dictated comments using the diary approach recommended by the same guy (google employee #107) who gave Good to Great his highest recommendation. I still haven't decided on the efficacy of this kind of verbal stream of consciousness writing, but I do think the contributed to the clarity of my conclusions in the first part... So here are the cleaned up results of the dictation session:

The hedgehog versus fox thing is the old idea about the fox knowing a lot of things fairly well while the the hedgehog knows one big thing, and knows it extremely well, which supposedly gives the advantage to the hedgehog. My personal hedgehog (and the underlying basis of my critique of this book) is that time is much more important than money. The hypothesis of this book is predicated on measuring goodness purely by the simple metric of stock price. In other words, he essentially ignores time and considers money alone (essentially stock cap growth) as a metric to determine which companies are good or great (and expends almost no thought on companies below those levels). I strongly disagree with this kind of simplistic reduction, no matter how much economists and MBAs like it.

The fundamental problem with the author's approach is that it it's essentially a manifestation of the cancer model of growth uber alles. At his starting point, whatever a company does doesn't matter unless the company grows enough to be extremely valuable (in relative terms), as measured by the performance of its stock price against other companies and the market averages. He didn't select the dates in advance, but pivoted his data to focus around the most convenient dates for the desired performance profiles, which is another kind of criticism, though at least he was clear about what he was doing and his lack of any theoretical basis or hypothesis for the procedure. Given a large enough pool of companies (and he started with more than a thousand), some of them were going to be the best matches and therefore be defined as 'great', and they they used similar financial criteria to select essentially random comparison companies. However, once they had found the supposed differences that were correlated to the great companies (and remember that correlation is NOT causation), they never looked for the companies with their differences that somehow failed to become great successes.

Actually those two paragraphs are highly modified from about twice as much stuff that was too poorly recognized to reconstruct clearly. I wish there were an option to keep the recorded voice until I can clean up the transcription, and obviously use that data to improve the recognition for the next time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

Version 0.3

Reactions to and Minor Flaws Found in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the English translation of Capital au XXIe Siècle by Thomas Piketty

Most of this review is another dictation while walking. Just a stylistic caution, though I've tried to polish it up afterwards...

This book offers a very high level perspective on economics. It's kind of in the mold of the grand history books like Guns, Germs, and Steel. The central thesis is essentially tracing the long-term growth rates and capital accumulation against demographic transitions and concentration levels of wealth. Capital is treated quite broadly, even including a description of slave-based economies. The time scale is much larger than is usually encountered in most economics books, but the author actually regards this book is kind of an introductory textbook for general readers. In contrast the website contains a lot of much more detailed data and explanations about that data and how it was analyzed.

This approach is in itself is interesting economic model for academic publication. In essence, the sales of the book become a funding resource for the research and the website becomes an inexpensive distribution channel for much more information than is worth killing the trees for. There's also the obvious advantage that the website is dynamic and can easily grow with new data and new links.

When I went to the website, it was because I had found a number of minor typographic errors in the English addition. I was hoping to find a list of errors to check how closely and accurately I read, but unfortunately I was unable to find any errata (even though they'd been promised in the book). Notwithstanding, overall I would say was well translated.

My largest reservation about the translation was actually about the frequent literary allusions. Perhaps this is the norm in French academic writing, but it felt out of place and that even seemed to weaken his arguments in places. If this approach is a standard tactic or usage in French academic writing, then I think the translation should include some kind of disclaimer to that effect. He should only be citing the literary references because they match so well with his observations and calculations, thus indicating that the most popular and successful authors were truly reflecting the realities of their times.

A less serious translation problem involved the word "rent", which apparently has negative connotations in French. It seemed that the translator basically went all literal in this section, and the word "rent" simply does not seem to have such associations in English. I spent a while trying to imagine a better translation, such as "coupon clipping" or "dividend", but I think this is just not translatable into English. Therefore I think the correct approach required a bit of meta-translation to explicitly present and explain the negative feelings from a French point of view.

An even less serious translation problem involved the title. His discussion of that topic made me wonder if they considered "Capital into the 21st Century" as an English title. My French is totally rusty, but I even imagine that is semantically closer to the original.

My overall conclusion is that I don't feel I was much persuaded by the book, mostly because I still feel that the entire economics paradigm is in need of drastic revision. The essential focus of economics remains on the money and such things as can be conveniently counted. The fundamental position of the economist remains that a person with $1 million is in some sense 1,000 times better than a person with $1,000 dollars. Professor Piketty clearly regards this idea as a problem, insofar as he clearly favors less inequality, but to me this entire notion is more simply absurd. People are fundamentally much more similar than different, and the notion that any person can really be rated as 1,000 more of anything than any other person is not even in the bounds of reason as I see them. My position is you have to start comparing people with severe medical problems even to get to meaningful differences on the order of 2 or 3, and differences on the order of 1,000 are just pathological. In particular, someone who gets extremely rich because he loves money 1,000 times more than other people is NOT 1,000 times more valuable than those people. That much "love" is just a form of mental sickness, a severe aberration, if it has any meaning at all.

The time has come for a new paradigm for economics, and this book is really just another kind of band-aid on the old and borken model. (That how the French programmer Patrick Dussud always pronounced "broken" when we were working together at TI.) We should be working on a new economics based around time, which is an essentially equivalent resource for every human being. Yes, some of us clearly use our time much better than other people, but every human has exactly 24 hours in the day and 60 seconds in each minute.

Can I recommend this book to you? Turns out to be a difficult question. I certainly think he provides a lot of very interesting data, but absorbing the data in a useful way is going to be difficult for most general readers. I think his main conclusions and recommendations could be condensed into a much shorter book. Probably that's the thrust of his articles, though they seem relatively unavailable in English.


This list of minor errors is, as usual mostly to show how closely I read, but it's also a professional thing. I guess much of my work could be described as copy editing to the max. From that perspective, it would also be a test of my accuracy, but I couldn't find a corresponding list of typos on the official website for the book. (Most of the glitches were in the Notes at the end of the book, so it seems likely there was a bit of a rush for the printing deadline.)

Page 89 should say "all these changes with a single". [My initial idea was to mark the delta parts in color, but turned out to be too much of a nuisance...]

Page 198 mistakenly says "capital/income ration" (rather than "ratio") 6 lines from the bottom.

On page 320, there seemed to be some confusion about the text's references to Figure 9.6.

On page 498, in the middle of the page a space is missing and it should say "Sweden in 1903".

On page 604, in Note 5 the last line should be "riches 0.01 percent".

On page 606, in Note 26 it must be "2007" rather than "1007".

On page 614, in Note 27, it should say "close to the French level".

On page 622, in Note 1, there is apparently some confusion around "trillion" used for dollars and "million" used for euros. Possibly this is related to the British usage of "trillion" and "billion"?

On Page 630 there may be a problem, but right now I can't spot it. Or perhaps I was questioning the claim that the US has the highest rate of incarceration? My feeling is that Israel is the clear international leader based on their treatment of Gaza as the world's high security largest prison.

On Page 643, Note 20 should say "but to require payment".

Friday, August 22, 2014

Physics of the Future

Version 0.31

A Cautionary Tale from Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Interesting interference effects from having seen the author in many interviews, probably by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. From those interviews, I know he's a nice guy and means well, and I want to say nice things about his book, but this one was quite disappointing and even harmful. I'm not able to assess his expertise in his own field of physics, but I can clearly see places where he went amiss in some of the other fields (perhaps exacerbated by his conservative political leanings). 

The area that most bothered me was his shallow and misleading interpretation of genetics. I actually see it as a kind of threat that people will use his poorly worded descriptions to support their wrongheaded actions, especially as regards the topic of abortion. He actually describes the DNA as a blueprint for a human being, and he thinks that it would be possible to clone Hitler and produce another human monster. This is delusional, but exactly the kind of delusion that anti-abortion extremists are suffering from when they equate a fertilized egg with a unique human being. The DNA is NOT a blueprint, but more like a recipe book. Actually, I could argue that this book was helpful in that his sloppy writing helped me realize that the DNA is also like an instruction manual and some repair instructions. For simpleminded animals like insects, the DNA includes the complete behavioral repertoire and instinctive responses to all of the stimuli the insect is expected to encounter in its entire lifetime. However, he was generally discussing DNA in medical contexts, where it is the repair instructions and their limitations that are the real concern. If you cloned a human being from Hitler's DNA, you would NOT get another Hitler. You would get a NEW human being who has capacities for evil, but that's true of you and I, too. The entity that was Hitler was a unique being, and the DNA was merely a starting point on the sad journey. Actually, those references actually made me speculate about what sort of traumatic incident must have happened to create such insane hatred, but whatever it was and whenever it happened, it was NOT predetermined or even influenced by his DNA. Almost surely something in his childhood, but it must have been lost in the famed mists of history.

Another aspect of the disappointment was what struck me as a mismatch between his intentions and imagination and what his publisher must have wanted. Dr Kaku simply isn't up to predicting the mid-term future, and can't even make a persuasive case for his long-term ideas when he is closely tracking the current trends. It seems quite likely that this book started as a collection of short-term projections, and it remains firmly rooted in the current research and the current problems under attack, but his publisher must have insisted on including the sections about long-term projections for 2070 to 2100.

Okay, so it was an interesting read, and he has a light style that goes quickly. The background information was solid, too, but the book was supposed to be about the future, and it didn't go there.

Detailed (but sporadic and unsystematically sampled) Notes:

My first strong reaction wasn't until page 117, when he mentioned both Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, reminding me to check if any of their books are newly available in my public libraries.

Page 234 was where he explicitly called DNA "blueprints", which I regard as almost unforgivable scientific naivety at this point. Stop fueling the fools! Now my dander was up, so to speak.

On pages 239 to 240 I had my next strong reactions. One was to his naive economic speculations about robot-driven universal prosperity and downright silly and simplistic interpretations of socialism and communism. However, he was again thought-provoking and perhaps contributed to my thinking about time-based economics in terms of mapping global investments back to the individual level in the use of leisure time.

Page 318 had one of his speculations about positive uses of nuclear weapons. This idea of nuclear-bomb-powered spaceships is just silly and unrealistic, but it casts doubt upon his expertise even in his own area. What manner of blast shield does he imagine that could withstand thousands of nuclear detonations? Page 327 had another blaring slip that challenged his own expertise. Obviously he slipped a decimal place and meant to say 4,000 years where he wrote 400, unless the speed was supposed to 1% rather than 0.1% of c.

On page 334 he had one of his extreme misunderstandings of basic biology. It is absolutely not the case that "mammals produce just a few offspring and make sure that all survive." He evidently wasn't willing to really consider eugenics, but instead went much farther with speculations about essentially artificial genes added to the parents' own genetic material.

Page 348 features IBM, but what caught my attention was the statement "Today, the only place you can find a stand-alone computer is in a museum." Actually something of a contradiction to places where he acknowledges the growing presence of computers in arbitrary devices. Perhaps almost all of them will be networked in the future, but that is certainly not the case today. However it also reminded me of the IBM photo-typesetting equipment I used around 1977 and which I later saw abandoned in the hallway outside the Thresher offices. Unlikely any museum would have accepted it, though it was worth about $20,000 when new... (Also triggered by that recent book on fonts.)

On Page 360 he got way over his head in speculations about "perfect capitalism". Essentially he wants to believe human nature will go away or people will forget about personal advantage? Whatever he meant, he was unpersuasive. Page 361 continues with the buzzword of the day, "cloud computing", but his lack of expertise was only typical of the prophets of that field. I still feel like Sun had it right, for all the good it did them.

On page 367 is more of his peculiar economic speculations, though on the important topic of immigration. Page 369 addressed the shift in England from engineering to speculation, but with less insight than the Rice professor's book. Page 370 included the old saw about teaching a man to fish, provoking me to add "Teach everyone to fish and they will overfish the oceans and go back to starvation." On pages 372 and 373 is part of a series of contradictions about the educational strengths and weaknesses of America and other countries, while ignored the inconvenient parts of land and resource seizures. He showed some awareness of bits of history in places where he wrote about the conquistadors, but he is not any sort of grand historian. He wrapped up this part on page 374 with some contradictory discounting of China that mostly made me speculate about his ultra-conservative biases against China, or perhaps some legacy of the Meiji-period Japanese disdain.

On pages 385 and 386 he is repeating the fantasy interpretation of Reagan's strength rather than the Soviet Union's internal problems, and must of the rest of the book looked more and more conservative (and naive). Perhaps the best that could be hoped is that it was more influence from the publisher? Pages 392 and 393 were notably twisted and contradictory.

I did like the Benjamin Franklin part on page 402 and the Asimov quote on page 405: "The saddest aspect of society right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." However, I think "knowledge" and "wisdom" are being used in slipshod ways in the entire section, and mostly showed that Dr Kaku is also not an expert in epistemology.