Friday, December 19, 2014

What's in a Word? Digitale Schleimspur

So many English technology words seep into other languages.  English should reverse the trend and adopt the German phrase 'digitale Schleimspur' - digital slime - to describe the insidious digital trail documenting our preferences, habits, and history as we traverse the Web. You know slime: that stuff you can't ever seem to get off your hands. Isn't that a better description than cookie trail?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Headline Says It All

A recent article in the Washington Post had the headline:

The less Americans know about Ukraine's location,
the more they want U.S. to intervene

Their data showed that only one in six Americans knew where the Ukraine was, and while many guesses were at least in the neighbourhood, many were laughably far away, as shown in their map.

Read the whole article in The Washington Post,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christensen on Data

Rotman's Martin Prosperity Institute's hosted a conference today on Knowledge Infrastructure. The conference featured many great speakers, including Clayton Christensen.

Christensen's big message was that we have to be careful about depending too much on data, particularly data collected by other people. Data does not represent a universal truth: somebody decides what data to collect and what not to collect. That choice in and of itself can influence or even obscure truth.

He strongly advised people go 'dumpster diving' for their own data, so that they choose the pertinent data that exactly pertains to the question they're trying to answer. "Using somebody else's data won't lead to the truth". He argued that everyone who does important things creates their own data.

Direct data is similar to direct observation.  In my experience, observations have the greatest power when you observe them first hand. Just as physics tells us that electrical signals and waves attenuate over distance, so the power of observations attenuate for each step away from the original observer. Christensen was arguing that this applies also to data; it loses its power for explanation unless it's a dataset you create yourself to answer the specific question you have in mind.

Christensen also described the stages involved in creating good theory as a summary of some things he was currently thinking about. Clearly not an off-the-shelf presentation, Christensen said it was the first time for this presentation and that his presentations were crummy the first four times! Not crummy, for sure, but lacking the luminous clarity and inevitability of logical flow of the previous presentations I've seen.

I was saddened to hear that Clay is currently undergoing chemotherapy. He's suffered so many medical issues - heart attack, cancer, stroke, diabetes - but his cancer had been in remission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life After Life

Imagine you're knitting a sweater. You start knitting the back and once you've got a couple of inches completed in Pattern A, you unravel most of what you've knit, and restart with Pattern B. After knitting a few inches in this new pattern, you put down the back and start knitting the left sleeve in Pattern A. Then you return to the back, unravel some of what you've knit and start knitting in Pattern C. Then pick up the right sleeve and start knitting in Pattern D. And so it goes, knitting, ravelling, changing patterns, skipping between different pieces.

That's what it feels like to read Life After Life. The story gets started, and just when it reaches a climax, it rolls back and restarts, reversing the significant event. The reader is introduced to several different alternative plot lines.

Usually an author tries to weave a story that suspends disbelief, leading the reader to believe this is truth, the only way the plot could have unfolded. Kate Atkinson takes a different approach and dazzles us with her depiction of several alternative realities. The story - oops stories - span the First and Second World War in England, and the description of the Blitz feels totally credible, and totally unnerving. The main character Ursula dies or doesn't; is raped or isn't; marries, or doesn't. Not only does her life unfold on several different planes, but her personality evolves differently based on these events.

This was a fascinating book. No wonder it won or was nominated for so many awards, and made the New York Times list of 10 Best Books of 2013.

Past Book Reviews
I've had some people ask about past book reviews, so I thought I'd start including a list of links to past book reviews every time I write a book review.

The two most viewed reviews:
   The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

Murder as a Fine Art
The Pope's Bookbinder
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
The Taliban Cricket Club
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Imposter Bride
A Possible Life
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
22 Britannia Road
Berlin Crossing
The Redeemer
The Rebreast
The Keeper of Lost Causes
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Before the Poison
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
Rules of Civility
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Bad Boy
The Finkler Question
Faithful Place
The Help
The Dark Room
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Makioka Sisters
Still Life
A Corpse in the Koryo
Bamboo and Blood 
Hidden Moon
The Man with the Baltic Stare
The Housekeeper and the Professor
Suite Francaise
The Man From Beijing
Involuntary Witness
The Janissary Tree
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
The Upside of Irrationality
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
The Invisible Bridge
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
A Question of Belief
The Ghost
This Body of Death
Global Warring
The Council of Dads
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Elements
The Checklist Manifesto
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone