Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Barabási's Bursts

There have been a recent slew of books that peer into a deeper reality of modern life; often counter intuitive truths that serve to illuminate and, even, correct common perceptions. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Nicolas Taleb and the economist - authors of the book ‘Freakonomics.’ Now there is scientist Albert-Laszló Barabási with his book ‘Bursts’. Of course there have always been good writers who educate and explain subtle theories to lay men due to their specialization. People like the late, great John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Stiglitz, the economist author of ‘The Myth of the Rational Market,’ John Perkins’ the author of “Economic Hit Men,’ Niall Ferguson, Benoit Mandelbroth and so on. So called intellectuals who move towards the cutting edge of thought in their respective fields whether economics, social science, history, investments and finance.

Their subjects often refer to exotic fields that may become mainstream thinking later on. In literature or popular fiction, writers like Spanish authors Arturo Perez Reverte or Carlos Ruiz Zafon or even the American writer William Gibson are visionaries who write of a different actuality, away from the conventional. Eventually, success will allow them to move towards a common acceptance. Movie directors are an obvious example such as Francis Ford Coppola (including daughter Sophia), Darren Afronsky, and George Lucas and so on. Visual artists are a good gauge of the move from obscurity to popular acceptance as one can actually see the progression of styles (unlike written words). For instance, Picasso and the French impressionist and abstract painters who were first rejected from the salons but eventually created a new movement. 

It’s the stuff of revolutionaries where new ideas from Karl Marx or Lenin or Mao or John Maynard Keynes transform whole countries and cultures. But it’s no longer politics or economics or literature but in design and marketing and business. Take a look at Steve Jobs who altered the computer, animation, music and phone industries. It’s the force of an idea whose time has come that these visionaries ‘bend’ their society towards their purposes. But at the start, these ‘radical’ thinkers are the butt of abuse and ridicule. But due to these uncertain times - are radical ideas the new normal? The collapse of the old order in finance, politics, country-power (US, China and Soviet Union) has set normal moorings adrift. One is floating in a turbulent sea that any new idea is like an outpost that one must reach and grasp, thinking it would anchor one firmly away from the chaos.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The premise of Albert-Laszló Barabási’s book is that modern man’s behavior can now be predicted. Today, the actions of every man is monitored via his phone calls, Internet usage, credit card and ATM usage, travel patterns and so on; recorded somewhere in a database. Scientist like Barabasi can access these databases and derive certain patterns. His book is a meditation on esoteric thinkers, Eastern European history particularly Hungary and Transylvania, Christian crusades and battles against the Ottoman invasions and 9/11 surveillance. It’s an intriguing book with many story lines that leap into diverse topics and later combine. I plan to borrow the book that made him famous, ‘Linked’ about social networking. These types of books allow one to delve into a deeper reality as Taleb wrote in one of the book’s adverts.

‘Bursts’ contend that people works in burst patterns. For instance, one works in bursts of energy after long periods of inactivity. This pattern is displayed in travel where one would journey a few miles from home and suddenly move thousand of miles. I have proven this theory myself. For example, living in the Philippines for about 36 years suddenly moving hundreds of miles to Singapore, living there for 7 years and suddenly moving thousands of miles to live in the US. The stock market also performs in the same way where drastic rises in stock value occur in only a few days or weeks. It’s proven by other scientists like Benoit Mandelbroth and seasoned stock market investors. One wonders if this pattern can be exploited in some way. I guess that’s the important thing – to exploit new knowledge from radical thinkers to benefit the common folks.

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