Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Everything is Obvious

Everything is Obvious (Duncan Watts, 8:44) A very persuasive account of sociology, from a rehabilitated physicist. Watts makes a concrete case for abandoning physics envy, and accepting the limited and partial generalizations of social science, by advancing clear explanations of his own research that showcase why abstract universality cannot encompass all the arbitrary and provisional patterns encountered in human behavior. Watts' vision of research that deploys the internet for data collection is inspiring. Some of his own findings reveal the power of this promise. One of the more famous studies he performed was done by setting up a multiplicity of music download sites, with different levels of exposure on the social patterns of others. This experiment enabled him to demonstrate that the "hit" in one world was not necessarily a breakout in another, all-but-identical setting. This in part is driven by Merton's Matthew Effect. Another particularly interesting result came from investigating twitter retweets across 2 months in 2009. Over 98% of all tweets were never re-tweeted, and only a handful of the more than 2 million tweets had more than 1K re-tweets. When social influence occurs at such a limited scale, the idea that any scientist could predict which one in a million tweets will be a breakout viral success defies credibility. I should also mention that it was a pleasure to listen to the author read his own book, with a bracing Australian accent.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Willpower (John Tierney & Roy Baumeister, 9:16) This book was previewed in the NYT article on "decision fatigue" published Aug 17, 2011. I pre-ordered the hardback, due to my enthusiasm for the drift of the article. When I first tried to read the book, I was quite annoyed by the disingenuous tone, particularly that Baumeister was referred to in the 3rd person, and yet was listed as the co-author. Eventually, I chose to give it a second chance, and purchased a second copy of the book as an audible file. It's not as bad as it first seemed, and Tierney is very gifted as a communicator. I would rate both Duhigg's Power of Habit & McGonigal's Willpower Instinct as superior; the latter also compresses much of Baumeister's research into a single chapter, without much loss.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Passage of Power
(Robert Caro, 32:45)
Volume 4 covers the intense point, from being VP to JFK, through the end of the 64 term, ending before the election race against Goldwater. Caro narrates history with real nail-biters; even Greek myths cannot outdo "Landslide" Johnson's theft of his first Senate race, and Caro briefly nods toward the tale, with a tribute to Abe Fortas' ability to get the Supreme Court to deny standing to the case, sparing LBJ the embarrassment of explaining how over 100 men's votes were cast, 6 days late, in alphabetical order all in the same pen ink and handwriting. The antecedent volume (Master of the Senate) was published in 2002. Caro's bumping against the cognitive limits of even the most devoted readers; there are points where he copies into volume IV whole paragraphs from one of the earlier 3 volumes. Rather than object, I honestly wished he had quoted more liberally from the previous work, though that risks seeing the whole thing spin out in a vortex of infinitely looping self-quotation.
Page 17 has amazing historical support for the Delmore Effect: "much as "He [Johnson] wanted the nomination, he did not want to be tarred" with -- did not want the stigma of -- "having lost it." And, Connally says, "If he didn't try, he couldn't fail." Says Jim Rowe: "He wanted one thing. He wanted it so much his tongue was haning out; then he had another part inside that said, "Why get my hopes up? I'm not going to try. If I don't try, I won't fail.""
Another very vivid story: RFK gets credited with transforming the missiles of October crisis onto a path that enabled the Soviets to save face. LBJ lost all credibility with the Kennedy insiders when, being consulted late in the crisis, he insisted on viewing the confrontation as a power threat that required absolute aggressive reaction. To think that LBJ might've killed the human race, and that RFK saved us all, is a revelation that makes the blood feud between the two men tilt irrevocably in the younger Kennedy's favor.