I am grinding my way through ‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything’ by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

And to be quite frank, the book appears to be another spin on economists and other so called brilliant thinkers trying to play catch up with Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’. Witness Tyler Cowen’s ‘Average is Over’, Kevin Kelly’s ‘What Technology Wants’, or Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’.

Note: Provocative titles don’t necessarily make for provocative and insightful contents. As someone once astutely noted after the OJ Simpson trial, that ‘given enough billable hours, one can create reasonable doubt’. And given enough pages it seems that some nonfiction writers are personally convinced that they can create grand works filled with insightful wisdom of astrophysical dimensions.

And let’s stop right there for a minute. Trying to add profundity to the minutiae is challenging at best. Take data analytics for example. An economist (or researcher) can mine petabytes of data forever but for right now the only tool at hand appear to be regression analysis; seeking those variables that correlate; hence, their highly subjective conclusions.

I have thus far found the opening Explanatory Note to ‘Freakonomics’ to be more useful than the contents. Maybe because I generally agree with the premise “…that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and – if the right questions are asked – is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.”

In spite of that premise, the read is still a real grind. Although to be fair I will say that book provides some useful examples and I did gain some useful knowledge that “incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And that conventional wisdom is often wrong.” And I liked the fact that the authors reinforced what I have long held to be true and that is, “knowing what to measure and how to measure [it] makes a complicated world much less so.”

The book also validated some currently held suspicions that “journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists”. And that the future [which started not all that long ago] will increasingly become – economically speaking – even more inequitably distributed. And yes, while that is not an original idea, it was their example I found quite novel. “An editorial assistant earning $22,000…, an unpaid high-school quarterback, and a teenage crack dealer earning $3.30 an hour are all playing the same game, a game best viewed as a tournament. The rules of the tournament are straightforward. You must start at the bottom to have a shot at the top.” And as we all know, the top is so nose-bleedingly high that most workers will never get their game past the early rounds and will unknowingly suffer, tragically playing out their lives, condemned to forever compete at the bottom of the food chain.

Where the book really began to lose me was when they started mucking around in sociology and spent pages (and groan, pages) attempting to build an argument that parents don’t really have as much influence over their children’s socio-economic future as conventional wisdom once suggested. My short counterargument would be that children are most influenced by those who set the most credible examples of good life/best living. And it’s from there they best chose their role models. And if the parents aren’t there for them – as in don’t set good examples – then their children will be looking elsewhere. Rap music lifestyle anyone?

I really tried to like ‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers but sadly couldn’t finish it. And it held so much promise. After living in Mexico these past two years I have often found myself puzzling over the substance of myth especially as it relates to the modern American. And I have convinced myself that we Americans no longer possess the proper images of self, society, and nation to prop us up.

I agree with Campbell where he says – speaking of the hero [in myth] – “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which George Lucas has dressed in the modern idiom (through ‘Star Wars’) — the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough.” He goes on to say, while answering the question – ‘isn’t that an affront to reason? – “that’s not what a hero’s journey is about. It’s not to deny reason…the hero symbolizes our ability to control the irrational savage within us.” The question arose “Now that we moderns have stripped the earth of its mystery…how were our imaginations to be nourished? By Hollywood ?” The mostly undeveloped answer to this question seemed to be that finding it would be solving a prime question of our time.

From there on, the story began to peter out. Lots of words. Lots of stories. But there were no cogent ideas that propose a viable cookie crumb trail that would lead us moderns back in search of the symbols from which to reconstruct a useful identity from the collected detritus of our own culture.

On a lighter note, I should be ashamed to say that among the many things I’ve got going on my reading table at the moment is Patricia Bigg’s: Mercy Thompson series; book two ‘Blood Bound’. It‘s mostly about the supernatural adventures of a pack of werewolves and a bunch of vampires; shit I most definitely am not interested in. I am reading it – and book two, mind you – because the woman narrator is an auto mechanic – specializing in Volkswagens – who lives in a house trailer.

I got to thinking more about this as I fired up my ancient Kindle this morning and it occurred to me that I am reading this book because I am drawn to characters that get stuff done. And Mercy Thompson gets it done. I truly like the idea of a woman character who is an auto mechanic*. And not just that, but someone who specializes in some of the weirder model esoterica of the Volkswagen line. From my perspective, that is an excellent framework to build any story around. And I really like the writing style.

I am still working my way through Francis daCosta’s ‘Rethinking the Internet of Things: A Scalable Approach to Connecting Everything’. I am really enjoying this book. And as I’ve mentioned earlier, the IoT is going to be entirely different than any of have previously thought. Francis daCosta’s an expert in machine to machine communications (M2M). And while I expect to post a longer piece in the future on his book in the short: daCosta expects an increase of 2 orders of magnitude in connected things (read 700 billion devices), and while IPv6 scales way beyond that, it won’t be used as the addressing scheme. And no, your toaster won’t talk to your dishwasher.

I am also starting a new book that I found on the subject of bricks and building with earth by Gernot Minke ‘Building with Earth: Design and Technology of a sustainable Architecture’. This looks like a great read.

*Apart from bicycle mechanics, why aren’t there more/any women out there working as mechanics?

PS – I used to subscribe to the morning book/night book reading model. Now I am following more of a technology/escapist fun/history reading regime. And with the new e-readers it is pretty easy to jump around.

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