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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Fri, 28 Jan 2005

In Search of Stupidity, by Merrill R. Chapman
I picked this book up after reading the interesting foreword that Joel Spolsky wrote for it. Chapman's insight was that several of the companies lauded for having a great corporate culture in the famous business book In Search of Excellence had fallen off the face of the planet within a few years. From his own experience, he concluded that there was no singular "culture of excellence". Companies that survived were simply companies that avoided making hideously stupid blunders. A simple prescription, you'd think. Alas, no.

Chapman describes, as the subtitle declares, "Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters". He witnessed several of them from the inside as a marketing executive. Stupid cases like releasing two different products with the same name so that your customers had no idea which one to buy (Micropro had Wordstar and Wordstar 2000 competing against each other). Or the IBM PS/2 fiasco. Or Ed Esber, the CEO of Ashton-Tate, who enraged his customers (by threatening to sue them, calling them "parasites" and daring them to "Make my day!") to the point where one developer told Chapman (a product manager for Ashton-Tate at the time) "Ed Esber is a diseased amoeboid life form with the intelligence of a sick protozoa."

Lots of fun stories like that in this book. Chapman lived through several of these disasters, so he's got lots of good details sprinkled throughout. He's also got an engaging story-telling voice, which makes the book just zip along. I can't say that I learned that much from the book, but it was a quick read, and an enjoyable stroll through the last twenty years of techno-history (I had lots of "Oh, yeah, I remember that!" moments as they described various products).

P.S. In case any of my readers are curious about my increased rate of book consumption, it's because the holidays are over, which means there's lots of traffic on the Bay Bridge, which frustrated me to the point where I started taking BART regularly again (2-3 times a week for the past three weeks). An hour and a half of enforced reading time each day means I can keep up with the Economist, and finish four books in the last few weeks. Crazy stuff. I'm actually through my last Amazon order, and considering ordering more. Yay!

posted at: 00:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Global Brain, by Howard Bloom
This book was recommended to me by Dav after he read my post on social networks and rejection. So I tossed it in my Amazon shopping cart, but didn't end up ordering from Amazon until December, and didn't read it until last week.

Howard Bloom takes on the entire sweep of history (it's subtitled "The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century") in an attempt to tie together such disparate phenomena as quarks, genes, ants, and cultures into one overarching framework of an interconnected global brain. While I admire his chutzpah, I can't say that he entirely succeeds at making a convincing case for how these phenomena inter-relate. However, it is still a fascinating book, because he mentions many interesting phenomena and results in passing. If I were motivated, I would go track down several of the papers that he refers to (he's got a DFW-esque 65 pages of endnotes for a 223 page book, except that unlike DFW, his endnotes are mostly citations rather than commentary).

The concept that most resonated with me in this book was his observation of five essential elements that contribute to a "collective learning machine" (pp. 42-43):

  1. "Conformity enforcers stamp enough cookie-cutter similarities into the members of a group to give it an identity..."
  2. "Diversity generators spawn variety. Each individual represents a hypothesis in the communal mind..."
  3. "Inner-judges are biological built-ins which continually take our measure, rewarding us when our contribution seems to be of value and punishing us when our guesswork proves unwelcome or way off the mark..."
  4. "Resource shifters shunt riches, admiration, and influence to learning-machine members who cruise through challenges and give folks what they want. Meanwhile, resource shifters cast individuals who can't get a handle on what's going on into some equivalent of pennilessness and unpopularity..."
  5. "Intergroup tournaments...force each collective intelligence, each group brain, to churn out innovations for the fun of winning or for sheer survival's sake."

This is a really concise analysis of the elements necessary for collective learning. Most of the rest of the book delves into specific examples of how each of these elements shows up in biology (e.g. the immune system), zoology (in insect societies, particularly in E.O. Wilson's work studying ants), and in human society (e.g. the city states of Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece or the paradigmatic nature of the scientific establishment). You can see why Dav thought I'd be interested in this book, given that my post essentially was discussing the roles of Conformity Enforcers and Diversity Generators in social groups.

I don't think that any of these ideas are new, by any means. While reading the book, I was reminded of Pirsig's analysis in Lila, where he discusses Dynamic and Static Quality, where Dynamic Quality drove us ahead to try new things (Diversity Generators), and Static Quality was what latched new concepts that worked into a stable form (Conformity Enforcers). Or how even a community as anarchic as Burning Man requires some structure for it to function. But I thought Bloom did a good job of using a lot of varied examples to see how these principles are at work at many different scales, from the microscopic to the global.

I also liked many of the digressions. The chapter called "Reality is a Shared Hallucination" was a great summary of several studies I'd seen referred to, demonstrating that our senses are completely unreliable, because we are heavily influenced by what we "know". The power of suggestion in combination with our yearning for conformity leads to ridiculous results where a few studies showed people claiming they saw things that were not even there after being prompted by somebody else. Some of the historical stuff was fascinating as well, as he traced out why he thought certain societies were more adaptable (they "learned" faster), thus eventually winning out.

I do take issue with some of his more lyrical flights. I'm not sure I buy the concept that a Global Brain has already emerged. This is a case where I think he's stretching the metaphor too thin. I think it's clear that society is growing ever more interconnected, with innovations being able to be spread worldwide almost instantaneously, but does that make it a brain? By Bloom's definition of the five elements of a "collective learning machine", it does. I'm not so sure. Same for his assertion that bacteria form a Global Brain of their own.

Overall, I thought Bloom has a good overall model that explains a lot. The book got bogged down occasionally (where by bogged down, I mean it spent time on stuff that didn't interest me :) ). But I liked his analysis of how individual elements can create something greater than themselves. I may even play around a bit in code to see if I can do something with the ideas. Maybe generate some virtual ants. Anyway.

He had some great quotes scattered throughout the book. I'll share a couple here:

posted at: 00:04 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal