Recently Consumed V

This time the links are few, but the texts are longer; I started gathering links a few months ago, but waited too long to write the reviews, and then afterwards was too lazy to re-read all of them. So I had to throw away most of the links, and restart with really recent stuff.

  • Most recommended: Politics; meet big data and software. Information science and technology has left quite a mark on the latest US presidential election, with a large data analytics team --formed to years in advance of the election-- joining the Obama campaign. This team gathered and analyzed all the data from the previous election and the work of the volunteers to direct communication and fundraising efforts, vastly improving the traditional hunch-based decision making. Data analysis was also a topic when it came to predicting the results; a host of statisticians predicted an easy win for Obama, and were promtply called liberal hacks by republican pundits who hd no idea about the methods they used, and what the results meant. The best known of these statisticians, Nate Silver, was even attacked for being gay. The role of data technology does not stop here: The Obama campaign built a platform to run various web apps, connected to a common data store --named Narwhal-- through a REST API. This platform ran on Amazon AWS servers, uniting various applications written using pretty much every programming language out there used for developing web apps; Narwhal itself was written in Python. The Romney campaign had a competing application, named Orca, which crashed and burned on election night, because it wasn't tested properly before. To be honest, what surprises me is not that technology and data analytics played such a significant role in the latest POTUS election, but that it did not happen before.

  • In The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett, sums up his research on the transformation of western labor institutions. The differences between our and our parents' work story is all too obvious; while our parents (mostly) worked in stable institutions (mine in the turkish health and education systems) with secure but stiffling bureaucracies, we change not only our jobs, but even our job descriptions frequently. Sennett has carried out research on both generations and labor conditions, and in this book, he sums up this research, presented in more detail in other books, and gives it a narrative backstory, which goes as follows. After the breakdown of Bretton Woods currency agreements, investors acquired more freedom to move their money through boundaries, and started looking for quick ways to make profit ("impatient capital"). They thus started getting more active in the way companies are run, pushing managers --traditionally more directed towards stability-- to reorganize and venture into new areas in order to increase shareholder value in the short run, since they made their profit mostly from share value, instead of the income of the company. This increased interest in short-term valuation led to the breakdown of what Sennett calls the iron cage of bureucracy: Instead of offering their workers a safe future in which they could advance their career in a not-so-exhilirating but always predictable and tightly laid-out bureucracy, companies aimed to increase their value by engaging in short-term, rapidly developed and finalized projects, which not always produced pratical outcomes, but projected activity and dynamism. This led to people working in ever changing environments, with colleagues with whom they don't have the time to build complex networks, and on ever new problems and solution paths. Sennett has also analyzed the software working environment, and it really shows in the surprisingly direct and (in my case) applicable insights. It is very interesting to read one's own experiences put into global context, with a background story, and bolstered with wise abstractions which only such a good sociologist can make. Highly recommended.

  • Steve Yegge on why Lisp is so great. Not much new information in this 7-year-old piece, but this one made clear to me how much technical gap becomes apparent in Yegge's blog posts. He writes something, it looks and sounds obvious, but in order to confidently make that statement you need a very good understanding of fundamental issues, something Yegge has and I don't. So great reading to see how much there is to learn.

  • How Guardiola worked at Barcelona, and made his stamp there. Barcelona became the epigone of football after Guardiola took over from Rijkaard, whose failure is forgotten now. According to this article, Guardiola was an obsessive and extremely disciplined man, who burned with passion for the football team that educated him. He joined these qualities with tactical knowledge and deep sympathy for his players to make Barcelona the perfect football team it is now. An example for this sympathy is when he allowed Messi to play for the Argentinian national team, although the team officials went all the way to the arbitration court to keep him for the champions league games; Guardiola remembered his own experience at the Olympics, and wanted Messi not to miss out on such a chance. His obsession, however, led to the job as trainer becoming more and more demanding, and his eventual burnout and leaving his trainer position.

  • Malcolm Gladwell is a corporate propagandist. I remember the first time I read a Gladwell article --the one about profiling-- like yesterday. The article was like a revelation, the conclusion glass-clear, the writing flawless. That was before he became the new-age guru of making knowledge out of data; in the meanwhile, he wrote a number of best-selling books, and started talking at conferences for piles of cash. His piece on Enron was a bit peculiar, and that was the point I started getting skeptical of his writing; the conclusion in that article was that it was all a misunderstanding, and the cause was too much information because of too complicated business, without anybody's malevolence. Brad Delong did not take this white-washing lightly, and responded in the comments section; Joe Nocera, who wrote a book partly about Enron and specializes on corporate fraud, did not take lightly to Gladwell's whitewashing, and pointed to the obviously criminal character of the whole story, and the gaps in Gladwell's account (such as omitting significant parts of reports from which he quoted). The first link documents Gladwell's education in right-wing think tanks and journalism schools, and his frequent essays in support of e.g. the tobacco lobby. Gladwell's only response in the face of heavy criticism has been I was just trying to provoke discussion. This is a really awful excuse for bullshit, only second to "Your criticism violate my freedom of speech".