How Innovation Really Works [Book Review]

Happy New Year!

And with the beginning of 2018, it’s time for a new book review.

And like new year’s resolutions, we like to get straight to the point (and finish early). Not going to lie, reading this book felt like going through a “dumbed-down” version of a dissertation. It had the many qualities that you would find in such a document (and in this order):

  • What has happened in the past, and why it doesn’t work?
  • What did I do to help fix this problem?
  • What did I find? What were the results?
  • Look….. equations!
  • Conclusionss in each section AND in the conclusion chapter.

I was a little worried at first, because it kind of had a similar feel to a previous book I reviewed, “Life at the speed of light.” But this book stayed on target, and I was not disappointed in the book’s material. Additionally, the book was, ironically for this type of book, mentally engaging. Half of the chapters are based off of misconceptions that most readers would consider “strong” before reading this book. Concepts were challenged based off of a common sense mentality and discussed the reasoning behind why some methods worked and others just made things worse.

Spoiler alert:  The chapter titles did spoil half of the surprise on which practices were inefficient.

This book is about Research and Development (R&D), and how best to optimize it (from a corporate standpoint). To stay strong, most industrial corporations must stay ahead of (or at least keep up with) the wave of technological progression. If it doesn’t keep up, no one buys your stuff and the company economically dies.

So companies give smart people LOTS of money and hope for the best. That’s the cool part about R&D in general.

But how much money is enough……and how should it get invested? Do you invest most of it in research OR development? Where should R&D take place? Should it be internally conducted? Or should you just buy it from someone else and not even bother setting up a lab?

How Innovation Really Works, written by Anne Knott, dives into these questinos. And no, it wasn’t her PhD dissertation work re-written into a book format. [It was “Do Managers Matter?” (I haven’t found a free copy to read yet)]. And the main tool that she uses to determine R&D efficiency is RQ (research quotient), a unit-less measurement that was founded by the author of this book over 10+ years of research and evaluation.

RQ also trademarked……in case you were wondering.

To calculate a company’s RQ score, years of financial data are required. Harvesting the fruits of R&D labor typically occurs after years of effort, so ~5 years minimum of data are required for an accurate “estimation” of a company’s performance.  Consequently, a company’s stock prices (also required) are correlated with a company’s RQ score. This correlated time lag between these two values is taken into account into calculating a company’s RQ value. This information is then applied to a regression analysis to observe the impact of R&D funding has on company performance in the following equation:

Output ~ [R&D Budget]^(RQ) x [Capital/Labor/Advertising/Etc.]

Also for normalization purposes (and ease understanding), the values are adjusted to read similar to the IQ scale in determining a human’s “cognitive skills,” with an average score of a 100 for all companies.

RQ is not necessarily independent on HOW MUCH money the R&D budget is. Sometimes investing more into development can improve the sector’s potential. Alternatively, RQ can fall drastically if too much money is allocated due to inefficient monetary allocation. But the major player that impacts RQ are the corporation’s internal practices. Below are a list of some major factors:

  • The number of patents filed is NOT a strong measurement of R&D performance. Most companies only patent for legal protection and leverage, while keeping many “crucial” discoveries as internal secrets hidden from the public (and thus hard to measure externally).
  • A major shift in corporate practice has been the “external allocation” of technological advances. Unfortunately, this work is filled with proof demonstrating that this trend is detrimental to a company’s financial potential, but sometimes necessary if time is of the essence. Once intellectual property has been purchased (which is NEVER cheap), the company still has to spend internal R&D resources to build up it’s understanding and incorporation into current procedures, which is basically redoing the work that was previously done by others. As stated by the author, “outsourced R&D had an RQ of zero!”
  • Companies tend to be split between having a single R&D headquarters vs. multiple field-specific sites. While it looks good on paper, the latter method reduces the potential to network between business segments to combine multiple distinct ideas into novel products. Additionally, the concept of R&D “silos” has the additional disadvantage of multiple groups working on the same problem, possibly leading to competitive vs. collaborative efforts (or even worse, not even knowing that the problem has already been solved internally).
  • R&D efforts can be split between research AND development tasks (companies mostly do r&D, with a strong emphasis on development). It can also be divided between incremental and radical innovation. Radical work involves more “fancy” topics including fusion science, gene editing, and other “start-up” ideas. But incremental works are the major game changers for large companies, allowing manufacturing costs to be reduced and product specifications to be improved.

These ideas, and many others, can better be explained by the RQ methodology. It gives R&D and upper management a clearer windows to observe which practices improve a company’s competitive edge and how efficiently it does so. It also lays out the reasoning why this method is superior to previous methods of innovation ranking, including patent potential, total factor productivity (TFP), and Innovation Premium (IP).

The one slightly-obvious detrimental aspect to this book’s appeal is it’s portrayal on RQ; it’s too positive. Just like in the dissertation model, it’s almost a long advertisement for the author’s personal “invention” (for lack of a better word at the moment). Like it’s a tool that can be bought for consulting purposes.

Not surprisingly, this is what you get when you do a quick Google search on RQ ……..

RQ_Website.PNG

 

But the book still doesn’t state ANY methods of WHY it could possibly not work, or at least the possible limitations in this measurement. It lists some, but then right away “proves” that’s not the case with RQ.

Everything has some sort of weakness or limitation. Heroes can (and will) die. Corporate expansion plans can become disastrous if projected growth does not occur. Scientific theories are only applicable if certain caveats are ignored [From my experience, anything with the term nonlinear is always the exception rather than the rule]. And this RQ has got to have some limitation, with examples out there to prove them. While the concept is quite convincing, I can’t fully believe in the methodology until I have both sides of the story.

 

 

Side Rant: Leia should have died in space during that last movie. It would have made the movie more believable.

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American Nations [Book Review]

Quick background story on how I started reading this book:

When you go the rock climbing gym 3-5 times/week, you get to know and befriend the staff there (while they prowl around for “noobs” and making sure no one falls to their deaths). Turns out that working at the gym is quite social, so many typically prefer isolated activities outside of work, including reading.

This is actually the opposite problem I have; I want to get out more and socialize. Unfortunately, this is harder to do than convincing your book to be read…..

So while I talked about Antifragile, one of the staff mentioned this book as an enjoyable read. So I bought it online that night and started reading in two days. Bet you can’t guess where I bought it from…….

Needless to say ………….. I got tricked into reading a history book.

But it’s a very engaging read, at least for the first hundred or so pages. There’s this subtle transition as it goes from “theory” to “detail” where I started finding myself glossing over the subsequent paragraphs hunting for gems knowledge that I found plentiful shallow to the cover’s surface. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

American Nations. As you can tell, it talks about the nations in America, specifically in North America. While most people would think these nations are Canada, the USA, and Mexico, that’s actually false due to the technical definition of nation (for those in the social sciences). The United States is a “state,” a political entity with a government, a flag, a postal code….you get the idea. In contrast, a “nation” is an area with a sense of culture and social identity. And these nations can cross “state” borders, with the strong example being the American-Hispanic culture found along both sides of the US-Mexico border.

The author, Colin Woodard, writes about the main nations that are present in North America. He sections the continent off into 11 different zones, each with cultural cores and levels of diffusion between each other. While you can find individuals in each nation that don’t represent these descriptions, he argues that the area as a whole plays a larger role on the nation’s identity, goals, and actions. And despite the massive waves of immigration that the continent has undergone over the last five centuries, these nations are strongly influenced by the initial settlers for each region. When new settlers arrive in an already founded nation, they assimilate to their new local culture instead of altering it.

Thus, when one argues about how our current political system is gridlocked between two completely different arguing parties, we must do what us Americans are really good at doing. Blaming someone else!

And in this case, it’s our ancestors.

Over half of these nations were taking root by the late 18th century. The Spanish Armada had infiltrated Central America and spread northward into Texas, New Mexico, and California. Settlers from Barbados have invested in their traditional southern farming lifestyles in South Carolina and Georgia. Noble Englishmen with their aristocratic nature started sporting the wilds in Virginia and growing tobacco. The Quakers initially started in Pennsylvania and soon spread westward with their strong background in farm land management. The Dutch founded a major trading post, New Amsterdam (now New York City), and stayed near the ocean. The Irish skipped the coastline altogether and went straight into the mountains to live in isolation. And the “Yankees” landed in the Boston area after landing the Mayflower around Cape Cod, MA.

These nations are currently known as El Norte, the Deep South, Tidewater, the Midlands, New Netherlands, Greater Appalachia, and Yakeedom respectively. While they are all in close proximity to one another, the cultures that inhabited them all had strongly contrasting ideas on how life for everyone should be lived. The Deep South comes from a background of brutal slave lords, which believed in strong caste systems and selective individual superiority. Yankeedom forced governmental regulations which enforce personal sacrifices (mostly taxes) for the greater good of the entire society. And the Midlands and Greater Appalachia….. kind of just wanted to be left alone, with the latter group being a lot more resentful and trigger-happy towards acts of violence.

As the US spread westward as a state, each nation also had a desire to expand their beliefs and, as a result, their influence on the state’s governmental actions. The book goes into more detail on how each nation reacted during the revolution, the US civil war, the numerous US/Mexico conflicts, and the industrial revolution.

In particular, the industrial revolution opened up the Far West and the Left Coast nations and accelerated their own sense of identity. The Left Coast was a hybrid between El Norte and Yankeedom that occurred due to the isolation present from the original colonies thanks to the inhabitable Far West region that wasn’t efficiently inhabited until the invention of the rail road. Any image that pictures the Wild West is a close approximation to the development of the Far West nation.

For visual reference, a nice map of the current regions can be found in the link below:

https://jaymans.wordpress.com/american-nations-series/

I found myself going through a lot of “Oh…..that’s why!” moments while reading this book. For example, New York City is the bustling commerce/fashion hub it is today because it was The Original multi-cultural trading port of the western world that embraced a strong level of diversity acceptance and tolerance from the very start of the nation.

Additionally, the first quarter of the book was completely about the people, their lifestyles and hardships, and the cultural ideals they wanted to live. Unless you were poor and desperate, one needed a strong sense of mental strength to drag their family halfway around the world and settle in an unknown territory, possibly full of harmful locals, Native and European descents alike. But for those that persevered, their sense of cultural identity stuck!

But in order to fill up the last 3/4 of the book, it involves filling you in on what happened between then and now. And with each nation being involved in all of the continents struggles one way or another, the author has to bounce back and forth between these nations one-paragraph-at-a-time. This by itself can be a little jostling at times for the reader.

Personally, I think I could have been fine without the multiple pages worth of quotes from each nation’s locals and political leaders. I find the use of names of individuals mentally disengaging, especially if they are only going to appear once or twice in the entire novel. It’s one thing to associate multiple items and events to a single person (like a biography). In contrast, you get nothing when you describe an event with a bunch of names.

One of the main reason why people in general are bad at remembering names is because names don’t mean anything by themselves. They have to be tied to a mental idea or emotion to have value. Unless they are found very attractive, people have no unconscious motivation to remember the names of people they just met.  So when George Cabot comes into the picture……..why would I care what he says?!

Bottom line. Skip the quotes. Turn them in more engaging sentences and cite them later.

And yes, I know Colin already does this in his novel. And it’s actually done quite well! So all I would have preferred is to just cut the excess. That way, my mind doesn’t have to filter through the book for what I really enjoy reading.

Even if the book would have been shorter, sometimes less (physically) is more (appealing). Kind of like body weight; there’s a healthy medium that an author should strive to achieve.

Bottom line #2: Good book. The first half of the book was well worth the $15 I spent on this soft cover novel. I just wish the second half the book was just as addicting as the first section.

 

 

A Crack in Creation [Book Review]

So if you have you been listening to some of the most hyped up scientific discoveries in the last decade, you have probably heard of CRISPR (no E) and it’s potential in gene editing technology. And as you can guess, this book is on that technology. The book gives you a good description on the technology, how it works, and its application in the first half. Then it continues with an ethical conversation on its possible portfolio of applications in the second half. This section, personally, was almost overly-detailed to the point of me losing interest in the subject……….but I’ll get to that.

But first the fun part: the technology.

CRISPR (cluster regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats). I actually have no idea what “palindromic” means, but we don’t really have to. It just means that there’s a sequence of identical sequence of repeated genes in the genome. They are never spaced throughout the gene, just in a designated section.  And between these sequences are copies of viral DNA. It’s basically a library that the genome references when it needs to identify what is “foreign DNA” (typically viruses).

How do we apply these CRISPR genes for gene editing?

…………………

………………..

We don’t. I don’t know why we keep calling it CRISPR, but here’s probably the reason:

The cell as a whole manufacture proteins of various functions and types. Mostly any action that a cell can do is dependent on the functionality of some sort of protein (or in most cases, A LOT of proteins). And the cell’s self-defense system is one of them. Specific proteins will create unique “tags” of DNA from the CRISPR genes, and other proteins will utilize these “tags” to hunt down matching DNA and cut it up.

The last part is the significant aspect of the whole CRISPR system: the protein that utilizes a tag to cut up DNA. We just want that protein, typically known as Cas9 (Crisper ASsociated protein #9).

We don’t need the CRISPR genes, just the Cas9 proteins that attach to the tags created from other Cas proteins.

Jennifer, both the author of this book and “finder” of the Cas9 protein’s potential, initially noticed that for Cas9 to function naturally it needed two pairs of genetic code to function: the strand to bind to the virus DNA and the second to bind to the protein itself. Natural selection wasn’t efficient enough to just make one gene strand that could do both…….so that’s what her team and the following major publication demonstrated:

1 protein + 1 gene strand = 1 precise cut

It’s not 100% precise, but it’s pretty darn close compared to the previous technologies available. And since we can just have bacteria make more of the protein, it’s dirt cheap (relatively to biochemistry standards, that is). And if you make two types of Cas9-encoded proteins, you can cut two locations and remove a subsection of DNA from the system.

Note that Cas9 doesn’t fix anything; it just cuts DNA. If you want to add DNA to the genome, it gets a little more sketchy. We don’t have any specific biochemical tools that say “put x gene in y location.” Scientists just utilize the cell’s own DNA repair mechanism (more proteins) to either stitch the genes (either referencing a floating template gene, the partner chromosomal pair, or just haphazardly) back together. So some genetic diseases are easier to cure than others, in the case of adding vs. deleting genetic information.

Note: I don’t know if it’s a field yet, but I love the idea of “protein engineering.” Currently, we just see what mother nature already makes, and we research what else we can do with these products. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use quantum biological physics to build a protein model from scratch to do X, and just inject DNA into a protein to manufacture the desired “artificial” molecule? That’s the scientific breakthrough that I am waiting for!

And that’s how Cas9 (CRISPR technology) works. Part II is about integration. Which starts out technical, but drags out into being ethical.

Cas9 has already been used on a lot of applications, though most of them have only been in research labs. Food, animals, human cells. Finding a target gene and cutting it. If you want to add genes, you inject the cells with template genes for the body to use as a repair blueprint. And that’s how you replace an A with a G (or a lot more than that). It’s a lot easier to do when there are less cells, like a sample of bone marrow or a single germ (egg/sperm) cell.

The coolest method of implication that the book talked about is the gene drive. For a gene drive to work, the newly implemented gene also codes for the Cas9 protein and “gene tags” itself! If one chromosome has this gene, it creates the Cas9 protein and ensures the paired chromosome also undergoes the same edit. This guarantees that its offspring/kids/baby kittens will get one of those genes during reproduction, edits the other parent’s inherited genes, and the cycle continues until the entire population inherits the “driven gene(s).” This is one way to kill the mosquito population: female sterility. The males can still inherit the gene and produce with the unaffected females until there’s no more fertile females left….. and the whole population just collapses! We just need to make one mosquito with the gene drive and let it free!

And that brings us to the ethical issues. A technology so easily accessible, financially and technically (there’s simple lab kits available now). Could it be used to target a specific ethnicity with a specific genetic trait? Would a single edited creature bring the downfall to a major staple in the food chain (or food web if you prefer)? Does this bring into similar disputes against GMO (genetically modified organisms) and its human-consumed products?

This book goes on for ~50 pages of continuous questions, details on international meetings, social opinions, and related technological disputes. A major lash back on the technology was when a group in China (it would be China) did the first Cas9 edits on a fertilized human egg cell [Yes, it passed China’s ethical standard boards, and the cells wouldn’t develop anyway due to an intended flaw in the genome. But in the name of Science, anything goes ……. I guess]. A lot of questions, and not a lot of answers. Whatever answers we do have are very opinionated and dependent on our upbringings, beliefs, and possibly our current mood.

Just like politics…..

But you can never tell what is good until it actually happens. You can’t make a statement until you have data on the subject. And that’s the scary part; we may overshoot the technological harm an idea might bring BEFORE we can detect and the situation becomes irreversible.

But Jennifer (the author) also brings up her own, and quite compelling, opinions for the utilization of the Cas9 protein. While this procedure does cause an artificial edit in the gene, it is far more controlled and occurs significantly less than what occurs naturally in your own body. There’s random breaks, radiation edits, chromosomal twists and recombinations, and even “jumping genes” that move on purpose (please don’t ask me why). And while there may be some ethical dilemmas that we face, the main drive behind this technology is overall positive (mostly for mankind; not for the mosquitoes). And there may be a time where we ask ourselves if it’s ethical NOT to edit an embryos genome so it can live a happy, healthy, and self-fulfilling lifestyle!

There’s also an underlying fact that I truly appreciate the author bringing up within the last chapter. The technology behind CRISPR was not something that was a direct action to discover a specific tool. No one said, “I want a better gene editing tool”……research, research, research……..”Eureka, I’ve done it!” CRISPR has been known for a long time now, and the discovery of the proteins that utilize it have been known (but their underlying reactions and workings were not). Jennifer didn’t even know much about CRISPR until someone approached her and asked if they could use her genomic expertise to help solve their questions on these CRISPR associated proteins. So while Jennifer and her team did publish the first paper on the understanding and application of the Cas9 protein, a lot of additional thanks have to be given to those that enabled her research group to go in that direction.

In the end, research is about discovering an area and seeing what comes up. Sometimes it gives you lemonade, sometimes it gives you lemons. But I’ll tell you what… most of the time it just gives you lumps of rocks. And it’s hard being a scientist for that reason.

A big thank you to all researchers out there in the world! Even though most of you don’t find things as “awesome” as the Cas9 protein, we at least know that those areas don’t contain any groundbreaking technology. And it’s all thanks to you [and trust me, I’ve been there].

 

Also……..F#@k mosquitoes.

 

 

ANTIFRAGILE [Book Review]

There, I did it. It took……..a little longer than expected, and that’s already taking into account his particular writing style. Well, here we go.

Nassim Taleb has a relatively unique writing style for his non-fiction books. It’s almost flamboyant, and just as messy as the previous book I read and reviewed, The Black Swan. However, this book seems to have a little more depth, and as the author describes early in this work, it’s more of a continuation. While The Black Swan is more of an awareness type of literature, where he describes the event, Antifragile feels more applied. And as you have probably experienced in advanced classes, the two compliment each other and your understanding on both sides improves quite dramatically (that is, if you decided to pay attention).

I truly experienced this phenomenon when I took Calculus for the first time. AP Calculus during my senior year of high school, which coming from a “hick town” type of community, I felt blessed to even have the class available. Anyways, before Calculus, Trig/Algebra/pre-calculus all felt like a memorization of methods, tables, theorems, and equations (or how to read them). Which was fine, but I still felt uncomfortable applying them on my own. Then calculus starts taking these ideas and incorporating them into practical applications. How the velocity can be determined by the derivative of an items position, or how one can optimize the surface area to volume of an item. I really didn’t understand exponentials until I started integrating them, which turn out to be more exponentials…..

But I digress.

Black swans are events that are “exceedingly rare,” but have major consequences. Mostly because no one sees them coming, or refuses to plan for them due to their “low probabilities.” But there’s a thick gray line between what is normal and what is “Black Swan Territory.” Everything from people and items to corporations and ideas are affected by events somewhere on that line, and they will typically either survive (robust) or die (fragile). But there’s a third option, and that is when the object/idea will improve and become more efficient with these events.

This is called antifragile, a term basically made up by the author since he couldn’t find any other word that best describes this scenario.

Note: I can’t say “there is no term for the opposite of fragile” for one major reason (which is hammered in throughout the book). The fact that I can’t find evidence of it DOESN’T MEAN that the term doesn’t exist. The absence of evidence  is not the same as evidence of absence.

Black swans……they’re out there. Just waiting to PROVE YOU WRONG!

Antifragility. The most visibly acknowledged form of it is in building muscle. How do you build muscle? You stress your muscles. They react (torn fibers, hormone stimulation, whatever the current theory is) to these events and recover stronger than before. There are limits, of course. You can’t expect to improve if you do too much damage (like rip your tendons doings pull-ups); there’s a sweet spot for optimal strengthening.

The term can also be applied to the realm of economics. Large corporations are more fragile, with their large “presence” and complex, tortuous bureaucracies prevent them from adapting to the dynamic market. Larger government, which also over-support “too big to fail” entities, are also more susceptible to economic downturns, in contrast to the partitioned governments of Switzerland.

In describing this phenomenon, the book does has a rough form. There’s an introduction, some philosophical arguments for antifragility, some theories on how to become antifragile, and its implications in society. And of course, the lines are blurred.

Heavily.

I constantly end a chapter not really knowing the main idea behind it and still being slightly lost when the next chapter begins. Maybe its because of a higher-level of thinking and writing. I just like to think of the book as one big picture that has parts “just as they are.”

But here are some highlights that I got from the book (which I have “bookmarked by folding the corners on specific pages).

  • In order for fragility to be effective, the sub-segments of that system have to be fragile. If a product doesn’t make a profit, the company stops producing that unit. As a government improves with time, amendments must be added, edited, and/or deleted. For the human genome to evolve over time, people with weaker genes must “leave the gene pool.”
  • Ironically, the units (both success AND failures) that allow for antifragility to occur are rarely praised. This is true for entrepreneurs, where the majority of them fail (mostly due to luck). It’s these individuals that risk their time and careers trying out new ideas that could be the new black swan. But we still consider failed restaurants/companies/inventions in a negative fashion (which is unfortunate). Because they are like the thousands of ways Thomas Edison failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded (or however his famous quote goes…).
  • In order for development, randomness in the environment must be present. When muscles are stressed, resting time is required for improvements can be incorporated. Fluctuations in tensions and relaxation. And if the stress factors don’t exist, there’s no incentive for improvements to be made.
  • Where some people may find information, too much turns into unhealthy noise. If too many “warnings” are present in the system, many will actually become too independent on the system itself and lose themselves. Slight fluctuations in the stock market is noise. One can look into the details, but too much can prevent the system from being focused on its own flexibility and antifragility. So when Thanksgiving comes……. you aren’t the turkey looking for the food on the ground and miss the axe in the air.
  • One of the main way to become antifragile, in Taleb’s mind, is to have a “barbell strategy.” This is split into a “safe” and an “extreme” portfolio. For investments, for example, you have a large portion of your money in safe investments (government bonds, for example) and the rest is on high-risk investments. Not a lot in the later half, but in events where the payoffs are still large, like your next-Apple stock. Just don’t go all in (or not even close to all in).
  • The other common tactic is through “subtraction.” One does not become more flexible by adding bulk. It’s through the elimination of negative segments and habits that can improve your performance. Excess knowledge in your theory or even carbs in your diet. There’s no “magic pill” that doesn’t have no side effects. Unfortunately, fasting, while quite effective, does not make money for anyone.

The themes which antifragility are applied to cover a few, re-occurring topics: medicine, economics and finance, government, personal development, and a couple others. And the discussions are backed up by a whole section of appendices and references.

The topic is well worth the read, and it constantly led me through the maze of themes present in this novel. While I was constantly thinking of “putting it down,” the hidden gems of useful knowledge throughout the book was almost……addictive. If the book was written in a more open fashion, it would have been addictive, at least in my opinion.

Another note when reading this novel. There is also consistent bitterness against “the man.” It’s almost like he wrote the book to really bash into “success stories” and managers and talkers without skin in the game. It’s easy to get riled up with these side swipes, as many of us have felt the pain of a few crashes in the last couple decades. While it does make the book feel more biased that what the topic should be, it definitely gets points for utilizing ethos to sell the topic.

But here’s my problem. When I try to think of how I, personally, would write a book on such a topic….. I’m at a loss. Do I do separate chapters for separate topics (economy, governmental, medical) after talking about straight theory? I guess I would intersperse theory chapters with “case studies,” almost text book style. Keep the application constant to truly cement the idea into the audience. Kind of like Taleb did, but a little more organized.

But maybe it’s not that important on HOW the terms and ideas are laid out, but more on it just being there. In its own, unique way.

Hmmm….. that sound like a problem that I might have on a personal level. I’ll have to drink a glass of red wine and think about that one.

 

Homo Deus [Book Review]

I’m finally recovering from my broken clavicle, so this will be the last book review for a while. I can at least run again, but I still can’t throw my yo-yo without causing the screws in my bone to cause some uncomfortable pain throughout my shoulder.

So let’s just get to the book.

Homo Deus. And it’s quite the heavy book. It’s not excessively long, but it’s thick cover and pages make it feel more like a tomb that you could cast spells from. But I still read all 400 pages.

The odd thing I learned about this book is the reasoning why we should care a little bit about history. History gives us a perspective on why we are in the situations that we currently have to deal with. It also gives us light on the assumptions that we feel we have to live up to. The book gives us an example about lawns; how a symbol of wealth and royalty became an affordable commodity that now the middle-class family can maintain. It takes up so much time and effort, yet it’s one of the most prized components of owning a home.

I personally prefer berry bushes and rock gardens, but I do just enjoy a nice apartment. Minimal upkeep-based responsibilities!

And history is over two-thirds of this book. And you wouldn’t really think it because the description on the book is how the author, Yuval Noah Harari, is going to predict the future of human kind. This work is on the transformation of homo sapiens to the futuristic species “Homo Deus,” the next generation of humankind in possible evolution terms. But this is only in the last third of the book. You NEED the history to follow his thought process in order to be in alignment with these theories.

The history itself is very well written. And it’s in a form that I actually enjoyed. It wasn’t about “who did this”, and “this event did that”; the junk that you would find in textbooks. Homo Deus paints a bigger picture and summarizes these overflowing trends on politics, religion, science, and how our faith in these themes has evolved through time.

The book also details our faith in the 21st century of humanism, the belief that we are individuals that control our fate by our own free will. This has been paired with our massive success in science and technology. In the dark ages, the society looked to a higher being for a bountiful harvest, a healthy family, and their “pre-labeled” rank within society. Religions were the corporations of the past which collected taxes, owned land, and even decided judgement based by ancient scriptures and environmental signs.

But now we can fertilize our crops, vaccinate our kids, and go to school to develop our own career. When someone has a medical emergency, we may pray for a fast recovery, but that’s after we call 911 and show our faith in humanity for a medical remedy.

But the trend in science has not been able to prove that we are individuals, but more or less “dividuals” that respond to external inputs from what we sense in our environment and a computed output based on our neural wiring and our current biochemical/hormonal stimuli. We are essentially complicated algorithms with a side effect of conscience. And at this rate of technological progression, there will be a time where computers and electronic networks will surpass almost all human capabilities in terms of algorithmic calculations.

This book doesn’t really discuss the issue on what to do with all the jobless personnel. It’s about how we are slowly putting less faith in ourselves, but in the data that we are collecting about ourselves and having another algorithm crunch those numbers for us. We wear wristbands that count our steps. We have Amazon and Facebook track our likes and purchases that can then recommend more links to follow and items to buy. More people are putting pure faith in online matching sites to see who’s compatible with whom in terms of long-term relationships.

It’s now easy to read your genome and discover which traits you are prevalent in, so the medical system can deliver us preferred lifestyle choices. From controlling our binge-eating of high sugar content, to staying out of the sun more, to even having preventive surgery done before cancer can take place and becomes metastatic (spreading).

While we as a society have had drastic improvement in old age issues; including starvation, plague, and war; the trend has now moved forward towards enhancing the healthy. As companies and algorithms control the data, wealth, and land of the nation, it leaves the majority behind. Possibly all of humankind. This isn’t as much of a state of poor, impoverished population. Rather, it’ll look bleak compared to genetically enhanced and extremely wealthy minority that has more of a say in how the mass population’s faith in the data will guide their lives. And even then, this minority of “Homo Deus” will still be in the same predicament; the only difference is that they will have more money to spend.

Overall, there’s a lot more to the book that what I wrote about in this review. And regardless of all this information, the book flows extremely well. The content is well sewn together, and there’s enough detail to feel satisfied in each topic without losing the reader too much (and there’s 30 pages of bibliography to back up its facts).

I personally would enjoy having a personal algorithm take the load of personal decision making off my back, and at least give me a detailed schedule / to-do list that I could follow. I feel like I spend enough time worrying about how this single bachelor is going to spend his Friday evenings and the following weekends.

But in that same case, I wish there would have been more “predictive branches” of the possible futures that we could have. Yes, I know there’s no definitive way we can know how it will unfold. But it’s also fun to imagine what it will entail. But there’s still enough of that to truly give this book a good rating. Thank you, Harari.

The Black Swan [Book Review]

So this is the book review that I dreaded typing up for a variety of reasons. The book is on a great topic, but the layout and style of writing was not only hard to follow at times, but it almost contradicts its seriousness.

Imagine meeting a stranger in a bar, and he/she is telling you his/her experiences (startup/relationship/travel/etc) that you DO find interesting. However, that person, while being quite intoxicated, incorporates a lot of unfamiliar and dark sarcasm, goes off on multiple side tangents, and never tells his experiences a temporally cohesive way (from start -> finish ).

That’s this book……….The Black Swan, on the Impact of the Highly Improbable. As an ex-stock/bond/money trader, when Nassim Taleb’s (the author) career was “thrown under the bus” (or liberated in his terms) due to the stock market crash in 1987 (?), he switched his pursuits to the study of philosophy and its correlations to modern economics. This has resulted in the creation of his Incerto, a 4 book set (5 if you count the technical companion) on these specific topics.

The Black Swan is about how unforeseen, yet significant effects have drastic effects on the marketplace, social trends, and scientific advancements. The term black swan comes from a time when no one could possibly imagine there ever being black swans. It’d be like locals in Africa believing in pink elephants. But then they did find black swans in Australia! Who saw that one coming?

Well, the difference between these swans and Taleb’s economic black swans is its level of impact. Let’s be serious here, dark birds isn’t making anyone rich anytime soon.

For Taleb personally, it was the stock market crash during his early career. No one saw it coming, and his company went under as a result. In 24 hours, he went from feeling like he had a stable job to being completely lost, career-wise. You can lose your home to an unforeseen storm, break a bone due to a tree root out-of-sight, or catch your perfect spouse having an affair. All these things could be perceived, but those involved don’t consider such occurrences until after the event, when they can finally see them in hindsight. And then become over-protective for a time period afterwards.

Truthfully, most black swans don’t just happen overnight. However, their impact is never felt until it’s too late for the affected parties.

The people on wall street don’t trade like the stock market’s going to crash tomorrow. Do they have a plan if it does? Do all marriages sign prenuptial agreements? Does every house come with a bomb shelter? There is this realization that we limit the commitments on the way our world works, focus on the close possibilities, and ignore the possible extremes.

Black swan events can also be positive (for most parties). The invention of penicillin was a positive black swan, causing a sweeping effect in modern medicine not initially foreseen. In fact, most scientific discoveries were found through mistakes. Kevlar was an accidental discovery while DuPont was creating materials for other applications. Microwaves from the cosmic background of the universe were found when builders of a microwave detector found “unwanted noise” in every direction they pointed it at. Even recent discoveries, including CRISPR-related proteins (discussed in my previous book review) wasn’t found directly due to gene-manipulation research.

Thus, this book highlights some unique ideas on the topic of black swans:

  • You can’t predict WHEN a black swan incident will occur. If you could, it’s not a black swan. People would prepare for it, and it would have no drastic effects. You can’t determine the next stock market crash from the last two years of data. Like a turkey can’t predict from experiences in its caged (or “cage-free”) environment when it’ll become a family-cherished meal.
  • Black swan occurrences are often “under-predicted” by most “experts” (a term that the author likes to truly emphasize on). Most economists utilize standard textbook probabilities, the most popular being the Gaussian curve. While it is useful for physical limitations (body shape, particle physics occurrences, etc), it does not apply to economic limitations (personal salary, book/movie sales, stock prices, etc.).
  • Luck plays a major role in winners and losers. While you can study all the successful start-up big-shots and CEO multi-millionaires of the world, no one studies the graveyard of millions of untold stories from failing enterprises and garage band enthusiasts. And if you studies both, you would find the same characteristics in both parties. Confidence. Determination. Charisma. I’ve read many excellent books in my lifetime, but why did Harry Potter get so much attention? In most cases, it’s about being in the right place at the right time which separates success and failure.
  • Beyond Harry Potter, there isn’t a long list of books that even come close to its level of popularity. In the world of global commerce and digitization, the market has become a winner-takes-all concept. One person/group gets all the sales, while the others flounder. Writers, musicians, actors, (starving) artists? And once in the system, advertisement can keep the momentum and drown all others out except for a few major competitors (Coca Cola vs. Pepsi / Starbucks vs. Tim Hortons / NSync vs Backstreet Boys [yes, it’s kind of a stretch]).

The book is divided into thirds. The first part is mostly focused on mental and psychological theories that drive the massive impacts black swans have (due to their unexpectedness). However, this was the section that I remember the LEAST about. Due to his philosophical background, the writing style was personally hard to follow. With addition to the additional sarcasm and relatively boisterous approach (in terms of both word selection and objectives), I spent the first 100 pages calibrating to this style, learning to absorb his work efficiently.

The second and third sections deal more with business theory and practice with some overflow of ideas from the first segment. The lines between each section were quite gray (like it didn’t have specific chapters or sections). But more importantly, it personally felt like there wasn’t much of a flow in general. It felt more apparent as I approached the end of the book, so I believe its there is one IF you look deep enough. But you can easily be misguided into feeling like you’ve bought a book on random though exercises.

It’s as if you’re looking at a reflection of an object from collection of broken mirror shards. Due to the randomness of the mirror shard orientations, it takes a bit to take in the information before one can imagine the full picture.

But this is what makes the book unique. The author doesn’t write in a style that editors would desire, in order to help maximize book sales. If he did, he would be selling his soul to those believing in Mediocristan (the world of black swan non-believers) and contradict the main point of his book entirely.

So while you may never be able to truly prepare for a black swan, the best way to strive living in the world of Extremistan (our world with black swans) is to keep your eyes open and stay flexible. Become familiar with what you truly have control of and don’t become too dependent on external factors.

And don’t run for trains. In the case of life’s possible outcomes, it’s only painful if you’re chasing an almost improbable expectation to catch a ride on.

-KK

Note: I plan to read at least one more book of his in the future (Antifragile). It’s also a bigger book, so it’ll be an experience. Hopefully, I’ll have a better understanding of the author and his method or writing afterwards.

Life at the Speed of Light [Book Review]

I love the idea of biological engineering. I (wish to) believe it is the next, upcoming scientific revolution after the dot com and big data achievements that we are experiencing even today still. In actuality, the big data revolution didn’t do too much to the economy, in relation to the previous revolutions, due to it’s lack of physical products created; it more digitized and improved our knowledge and efficiency on already available technologies. But it’s still awesome.

But what if we could truly program biological machines to do our bidding. What if instead of conducting multiple chemical syntheses to create a pharmaceutical drug, we can tell a bacteria to do it instead? We can change a bacteria’s DNA to create function specific enzymes which help create the drug at a fraction of the required energy costs. Just feed the bacteria sugars and nutrients in a test tube, wait a few hours, and distill the compound afterwards. If we can do that with penicillin from fungi, what stops us from doing it for all chemicals (within reason, of course).

And it’s not just limited to chemical synthesis. Using controlled viruses and DNA-targeting proteins, we can eliminate genetic diseases enhance specific traits in already growing organisms. “Bio-machines” could even introduce more or even enhanced versions of mitochondria into our muscles.

If we could introduce chlorophyll into our skin cells, which could absorb light and already present CO2 in our bloodstream to produce sugars for our body, could help or truly eliminate world hunger (if you don’t mind being a weak Hulk)? I mean, there’s got to be a way for us to re-engineer chlorophyll-like organisms to absorb specific wavelengths of energy so they look pink, tan, brown, or dark (whatever your preference). We could even group them into “energy freckles!”

With a glass of wine, I think I could go on this subject for a while. The problem is that there’s SO MUCH THAT WE DON’T KNOW. Trust me, I started college in biomedical engineering and transitioned early on into Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [before eventually moving to electrical engineering for job security (and LASERS)]. The proteins we do know that are utilized in molecular biology research (ex. PCR and CRISPR) were found indirectly, and their uses were found after their unexpected discovery. Initially, the discovered organism made from these cells and we filtered them out afterwards. Now, we can code small bits of RNA to mass produce proteins though translation. But we still can’t say, “I want a truly novel protein that can do Y, so I’m going to code a RNA chain so it reads X.”

We still aren’t sure what all the DNA in the human genome does. There’s simple stuff like “This region codes for a protein.” That’s easy; just look for start and stop codons. And then there’s promoters and inhibitors, which may not code for anything, but still play a role in “what’s being made” and “how much to produce.” And sometimes there’s inhibitors to promoters to a gene. And there’s possibly hundreds if interwoven genetic effects for “how your nose looks,” “how much fat your body prefers to store,” and “how fast are you to pick up walking during your infancy.”

With their being so much “dark energy” waiting to be discovered, and I respect any branch that pushes into this vast unknown. And that’s why I was so excited to read this book, Life at the Speed of Light. The book, as depicted on the back cover, is about how the author J. Craig Venter, and his team created the “first synthetic organism.”

Of course, the term “synthetic organism” deserves its own chapter (which it did). If you transplant genes from one cell into another, is that artificial? Do you need to create everything from scratch: the DNA, membrane, cytoplasm……the Endoplasmic Recticulum [even the synthesis of that one stumps me]?

What Venter’s team conducted was the creation of a synthetic DNA for a surviving and self-replicating organism. After accumulating research from his and other groups, one can determine the bare minimum gene sequences for a cell to function. While there’s a lot of solid knowledge in why, there’s also a lot of “Well, if we knock this gene out, we don’t see reproduction. So it MUST be necessary.”

This book describes the two major factors that the team had to overcome.

1). You can’t just tell a machine to write a ~500,000 DNA sequence from scratch. There’s no “magic black box” that allows us to do it. What we CAN do is create small segments, like ~5,000 sequences each. You still have to splice them all together to complete the final DNA product (which could take a while, if you don’t know how). Essentially, each segment have to have it’s unique “lock and key” ends which will find their mates in a test tube. And since you can’t have 100 unique keys and mix them all at once, there’s a lot of partial mixing, separation, amplify, repeat. Of course, you have to make sure that the final product is compatible with the host, which is problem #2

2). How do you get that massive DNA strand into the cell. It’s huge! While it’s possible, you can’t just do it with ANY organism. At least not yet; we would probably require some nifty vector viruses to pull that off. The team even had to create a second complete genome, since their original design was basically obliterated by the host cell during “DNA absorption”. Lesson learned. Know compatible cells; add in some chemicals allowing for DNA permeation, mix, and cross your fingers. There’s a million cells and a few million DNA molecules floating around. The success rate is small, but the numbers are high.

But it actually worked; the whole process only took ~10 years. While they only made the DNA from scratch, that’s essentially the important part. I mean, we can make simple cellular membranes by mixing soap and water. Then, blow a bubble. That’s pretty much it.

Fascinating science, but how was the book? Between you and me, I would be hard pressed to recommend it as a worthwhile read unless you had a college level biology course. The book’s initial chapters cover more of the history of “what is organic” and “what specifies the backbone of our cells.” And when it comes to the chapters on DNA and cell synthesis, it comes fast. And hard. I got enough to understand what was going on, but a lot of details still slipped my mind.

And that’s the first half of the book. His group’s accomplishments in molecular/synthetic biology and the history preceding it. Then the book starts to die. Slowly yet with an acceleration that I found quite uncomfortable.

After praising his new synthetic cell (which even has its own email address written into its DNA code), there comes the following chapter of “what is a synthetic organism,” which was quite brief. And then, the last 50 pages almost felt like a rant of interesting side research activities, science fair projects, and random extrapolations of possible directions in general science.

In the chapter “biological teleportation,” it starts out with quantum entanglement. Which has NOTHING to do with the topic. It’s kind of correlated to the fact that now we can send data from one spot to another, and we could have a machine at the end that can receive the data and do biological engineering samples. But I can guarantee it’s not going to be through entangled particle communication anytime soon. And even if it did, we can transport ANY sort of data through the method: lab results, XUHD (eXtremely Ultra High Definition) media, and R2D2 holograms (Why not. When you can can play oracle, anything is possible).

The last 50 pages felt like the editors told the author that his original story wasn’t long enough for a book, so just throw something to the end to make it look impressive in the consumer’s hands. It’s not like most people ever get halfway through the book, anyways. Right….?

But besides that last bit, the book’s excellent. There I said it.

Think of it this way. Even if customs getting back into the USA is a major taxation on your mind and spirit, you are still going to have a fantastic time while in the rain forests of Costa Rica. I did, at least!

 

 

Note: If I was born 50 or 100 years later, I totally would have stuck with molecular biology. Right now, I’ll be lucky enough to be alive just to see where this finally ends up going.