August 22nd, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

Some recent non-fiction reads

_Big Data_, Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Kenneth Cukier
Subtitled : A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

OK, starting with that subtitle. Arguably has already, at minimum is in the process of doing so. Whatever, right?

I can't be the only person on the planet who, once they realize that they know a bunch of the people being quoted as experts, suddenly feels somewhat disillusioned. That may have been a factor in how I felt about this book, but it cannot be the most important one.

_Big Data_, like a lot of books about a "revolution", oversells the good and the bad of using copious amounts of somewhat dirty data to get insight into messy reality. Which is okay. I'm used to that. What is less okay is their ridiculous obsession with personal agency/free will. They spent a good chunk of the "dark side" of data rebutting Minority Report or some hypothetical future world sort of like Minority Report or beats the fuck out of me it made no sense. Their notion of "punishment" as including Not Giving Someone a Reward They Didn't Earn would be funny if it weren't starkly horrifying, especially since I've been reading about the whole Remy/Martel thing and how even the small data says you shouldn't listen to the victim's assessment and other people REALLY need to step in to prevent Worse Things from Happening. Their idea that even in a world of Big Data we should just do this a lot more -- ignore all the signs and sail merrily off an avoidable cliff -- all because they believe that that the freedom to commit a heinous crime is more important to everyone (including the perp) than avoiding that nasty outcome.

I've spent the week hanging out with my sister and while we don't agree on everything, we think that people can collect all kinds of data and do all kinds of things as long as Everyone Feels like They Got an Okay Deal. Want to track all my purchases? Fine. Write my grocery list for me, so I don't have to, and Do It Right by my metrics, not yours. If you're going to do something really appalling, like bug the loo, I expect you to refill all the toilet rolls and empty all the garbage receptacles while you're at it. Etc. Otherwise you're just engaging in a fancy, sophisticated version of theft and That is Not OK.

_Big Data_ is highly readable, and might be a useful survey for business-types trying to come up to speed.

_The End of Competitive Advantage_ takes on some of the same issues, but from a different perspective. Rita Gunther McGrath takes on the strategy orthodoxy, arguing for a lot of what the _Big Data_ guys favored for related but slightly different reasons. Both focus on identifying upcoming opportunities and threats and favoring access to assets rather than ownership of assets. From an entrepreneurial perspective, of course they are right. From an empire building perspective, they continue to be entirely wrong, as the present behavior of the Heavyweights clearly indicates. Gunther McGrath's dad left Xerox to go to Kokak in the late 1970s, and he had an inkling during his interview that Kodak was not seeing the End of Film. FujiFilm is another of Gunther McGrath's case studies, so it's not like this was all that impossible to do. But daughter only asks why dad didn't fight harder to convince the Big Bosses what they should do and why; she doesn't ask why he went to Kodak in the first place, and all kinds of wisdom could be found there.

_Big Data_ and _The End of Competitive Advantage_ both illustrate how individuals with a vested interest in not seeing something coming will NOT see it coming, even if the resulting extinction of the corporation/group affects them as well. They have different ideas about how to solve the problem of insensitivity to feedback, without really engaging with the underlying issue, which is changing the incentive structure (they do, occasionally, get into that as well) and/or providing people with a clearer path to Do the Right Thing. (It isn't just that you don't see it coming. It's that you feel tied to the railroad tracks. Saw them loose, help them up and guide them to safety and a lot of them will come with you.).

That said, _The End of Competitive Advantage_ is pretty good, as case study management books go.

But as annoying as each of these books struck me (at least while I've been sick), _Sunburnt Cities_ is much more unpleasant. While _Big Data_ was upbeat, chatty and kinda ra-ra, and _The End of Competitive Advantage_ was personal and evocative (not an easy thing to accomplish when you are writing about corporate strategy), _Sunburnt Cities_ felt conservative, racist and like a retread of all the worst of urban planning history. Sure, it's about "Smart Decline", and sure, it's about "New Urbanism" and the Transect and how to apply it to depopulating areas, but in the end, it is still someone kinda freaked out by for sale signs, unwatered lawns and people who feel a passionate attachment to the place they've stayed in after most everyone else moved on. He's fundamentally on the side of the skateboarders, which I'm betting a lot of Fresno is not, altho probably everyone agrees that draining pools to reduce the problem of mosquitos is Not a Bad Thing.

Loaded with word-os (affect/effect, faired/fared) and weird assertions (like a gratuitous slam on Fresno's discovery based approach to helping a neighborhood improve its quality of life by asserting that We Already Know How to Do That when we manifestly Do Not).

The application in reverse of New Urbanism's Transect is a good one. It's sort of a "duh" idea, but okay. Otherwise, don't waste your time on this book.

I'm trying to read the latest Rachel Morgan (fiction) and once again failing. What did me in this time was the lack of helmets while riding horses. Honestly, it felt like I was reading a romance novel without condoms or other birth control even being mentioned in the sex scenes. Just Wrong.