Thursday, 4 December 2014

Video: How We Got to Now – Interview with Steven Johnson and Fred Wilson

This book and documentary series by Steven Johnson came out recently.  At the launch event, Johnson was interviewed together with Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist, to talk about technology history.

I quite enjoyed the video – Johnson did most of the talking, as he should, about the many fascinating story of technology.  For instance, the first North American sewage system set up was in Chicago, but the city was too flat for water to flow properly into the ocean.  So the engineers lifted the city up, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, using jackscrews, sometimes while the residents were still in the building.  This, together with his describing the experience of filming the series, gave an intimate view of the past and the present.

While Johnson brings the historical perspective, Fred Wilson looks into the future and gets paid to bet on some of his views.  At around 17:40 in the video, he talks about some of the big challenges of our time – transportation in crowded cities, new form of energy that is renewable, sustainable, and not carbon based, and how laying out communication networks through underground means is getting more expensive and making ideas like mesh networks quite enticing.

Here’s the video.  Hope you’ll enjoy it, too:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Big History Extended Trailer | Narrated by Bryan Cranston | History Chan...

I recently watched this documentary series and thought it quite interesting.  Big history isn't really “history” in the traditional sense, but tries to see historical events in the context of science, somewhat similar to the way Jared Diamond uses Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain human developmental patterns.  The project was developed with the Big History Project supported by Bill Gate’s foundation.

There are 17 episodes in all, but most of them are short episodes.  Time may pass faster than you think.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Book Thoughts: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Habit, it turns out, means more than just subconsciously grabbing a toothbrush using the same hand all the time.  During the time of WWI when brushing wasn’t a habit, professional salesmen had to go door to door selling toothpaste, often with so poor a result that toothpaste companies suffered financial loss and the government considered the state of oral health to be of national concern.  Leveraging tendencies in human habit and creating a craving through leaving a clean feeling in the mouth, however, Americans learned to brush, earning fortunes for the companies involved and left many with much better teeth.  Through this and many other examples, Duhigg shows habit’s impact in businesses, civic movements, and an individual’s well being.

Fundamental to the forming of habit is the “habit loop”, consisting of a trigger, a routine, and finally, a reward.  Once a routine has been performed many times with a reward following it, the brain identifies a trigger – a signal which is always associated with the ensuing routine, and engages the proper “autopilot” routine in the brain to perform the sequence of actions to get to the reward.  For a habitual smoker who lights a cigarette when feeling the need to relax, that feeling of tension is the cue triggering the routine of smoking.

Finally, the reward (a sense of relief in the smoker example) reinforce the habit loop, flagging it to our mind as being a worthwhile habit to keep, prodding the brain to seek ever more efficient ways to perform the routine, and gradually creating a craving, such that when a cue is given, one’s brain already anticipates and expects the reward.  If the reward is absent, however, feelings of disappointed and frustrated would arise – the stronger the habit, the stronger the emotions.

My favourite part of the book is in seeing the extraordinary similarities of human behaviours between individuals as manifested by the predictions of commercial software.  Retailers know a few things about its consumers.  First, buyers of a particular profile – say the same gender, age, wealth, and occupation – have fairly similar and persistent buying patterns.  Secondly, though many shoppers try to stay to their shopping list, most purchasing decisions are made during their time in store.  And thirdly, one is most susceptible to marketing influence such as placement, shelving, and display of products in the store when major life changes happen, such as a job change or family relocation.

All this adds up to one particular customer profile being exceptionally lucrative – couples with newborns.  Babies cost money – by their first birthday, the average spending on each is close to $7000.  That’s just a start.  Parents with a newborn are so deprived for time and energy that they will purchase everything in one location, during a time when such a life changing event renders them most malleable to advertising influence.  Soon, where they get diapers will get to sell them orange juice, movies, and many more items.  It is why retailers go to great lengths to court parents of newborns, even visiting maternity wards in hospitals.

But by the time a baby is born, the competition for that customer is too fierce.  Could it be possible to win the moms over before others got to them?  Target, a leading retailer, wondered if they could somehow find out who are the expecting mothers through their buying patterns.  Target’s group of mathematicians, scientists, and programmers experimented, and found they could – that 25 products, if purchased in a certain sequence and over a period of time, predicts quite accurately if the buyer is expecting a new baby.  Through the loyalty program data, Target would then send relevant marketing material to entice the customers ahead of competitors.  This program was so successful it contributed to Target’s profit rise from 44 to 65 billion between 2002 and 2009.

Besides the retailing world, Duhigg shows that software algorithms are now employed to predict the future success of songs in the music industry, and in casinos to forecast individual’s gambling behaviour, precise to the minutes and cents.  It reminded me of the talks that professor Larry Smith gave on expert systems.

Brain scans show that once a habit is formed it is etched in our neural pathways.  Trying to completely quash the desire to indulge in old habits through willpower alone is therefore often fruitless.  It’s why many who quit smoking “cold turkey” without other support can succumb to it all the more upon encountering major life stresses.

Bad habit may now seem like an insurmountable force that enslaves us, but Duhigg is more optimistic, and argues throughout the book that though persistent, habits are like muscles and can be weakened and also reframed.  Through patient self examination to find the triggers, and carefully cultivating new routines and experimenting with rewards that one responds to, habits can be changed.  Using again the smoker example, some have found the use of meditation as the routine (instead of lighting the cigarette) when the trigger of tension arises to be useful.  Others find this not at all, and try other methods.

Habit change then, can be a very drawn out process in self exploration that requires much motivation and an understanding that what seems like a string of failed attempts are actually experimentation toward betterment.  In addition, new habits can also be cultivated, and by weakening the old habit loops, can overtake the old habits.  It also bears mentioning that the power of habit works equally strong on the good habits too, and while bad habits may be devastating, good habits can be a significant force for good.

I’m not sure habit is destiny, but it is powerful – and the book showed a myriad of examples for its downside and upside.  In closing, Duhigg writes:

This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.  Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.’

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Learning material in 2013

Below is the list of books, podcasts, and a course that I had read/taken (some in part) in 2013 and have liked.  I did not include the documentaries, as their links have been posted over the year.

A special mention goes to Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas.  It is a beautifully written, thought provoking, and contemplative work and I would have missed it were it not for a library recommendation.  Thanks you, dear librarian!


Cover: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China in HARDCOVERDeng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
(by Ezra Vogel)

The biography of the preeminent leader of China who rose to power after Mao Zedong and implemented the political, social, and economic policies that have since lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and brought China into modernity. 

Walden on Wheels (by Ken Ilgunas)

Burdened by student debt, inspired by frugal philosophers, and attracted by the beauty of nature, a student crossed the continent to work in the Alaskan wild, living in a van back on campus, and lucky for the readers, documented his journey and discoveries about life in this humorous and honest account.


Cover Moonwalking with Einstein
(by Joshua Foer)

The serendipitous journey of a journalist delving ever deeper into the art of memory, first as an observer then as a participant in the competition in the field, and in that process, learned some mnemonic tricks and its practical functions in cultivating general expertise, and discovered memory’s historical role for the self and for the society at large.

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing GeniusThe Spark
(by Kristine Barnett)

The story of a loving mother’s courageous and creative efforts to connect with her son – a genius shrouded by the veil of autism, and in so doing, discovered the genius in her child, and gave the genius a childhood.


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The Perfume
(Novel – by Patrick Suskind)

The story of an olfactory genius, who, in the pursuit to create and capture the perfect scent that would clothe him in glory and subordinate those around, committed multiple murders, only to find the drive behind this reckless and obsessive pursuit is not the love of smell or glamour at all…

David and GoliathDavid and Goliath
(by Malcolm Gladwell)

A collection of stories and analysis of how the seemingly disadvantaged triumph over giants, and that often, what are considered obstacles are in fact, advantages.




Cover: A Cultural History of Modern Science in China in PAPERBACKA Cultural History of Modern Science in China
(by Benjamin Elman)

Outlines the Jesuit impact on late imperial China, circa 1600–1800, and the Protestant era in early modern China from the 1840s to 1900 (description taken from Harvard University Press web site).



Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyWhy Nations Fail
(by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson)

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the key to the wealth of a nation is its set of political and economic institutions, that while extractive institutions (where an elite class of members enjoy exclusive privileges and extract wealth from another class of society) impoverishes a nation, countries with inclusive institutions (where citizens enjoy social mobility and not extractive) prosper.


Course from Coursera:

A History of the World Since 1300 (Princeton University)
Where do nations come from?  Where did cities arise?  Where did the habit of eating different food types for meals of the day come from?

This course teaches much of what makes up our world today and is an eye opener for me.  It contains not just facts but analysis also.  I highly recommend this course.



In Our Time – History (from BBC)

Entrepreneur Thought Leaders (from Stanford University)

A History of the World in 100 Objects (from BBC)

Peter Mansbridge (from CBC)

A Brief History of Mathematics (from BBC)