>Science Fiction – "The War of the Worlds"

>This book was the June book for our local SF Book Discussion Group. The book was written by H.G. Wells and is one of the first SF books that describes aliens from another world. “The War of the Worlds” was first published at the very end of the 19th century in 1898.

One interesting aspect of this book is how quaint and old fashioned the human culture and technology appears from today’s point of view. For example, when the first martian “cylinder” lands in Horsell Common, after three days of it being there the narrator says that only people within 5 miles have heard of it. Imagine this happening today – in the era of instant communications.

There were several devices that were mentioned in use by the army trying to fight the Martians. One was a heliograph. I never heard of such a device and had to look it up.

Somewhat eerie were the descriptions of the Martians using chemical weapons. They launched carnisters that released a “black gas” that killed people. This was written more than fifteen years before World War I.

Although it did not occur to me, my book discussion group members pointed out that the Martians were sort of a metaphor for the British Empire and the book was meant to show a bit what it is like to be underfoot of invaders with much superior technology.

Since I knew what would happen in the end, there was no suspense in reading the book. This time around the fun in reading the book again was in seeing how different the world was only 100 years ago, and the technological inventions of H.G. Wells – which are suprisingly modern. In fact the Martian fighting machines are very similar to the imperial walkers from “Star Wars”.

>Non-fiction – "The World is Flat" (part I)

>”The World is Flat” is a new book by Thomas Friedman on the current globalization trends and how they will affect everyone. The subtitle of the book is “A Brief History of the Twenty First Century”, although the history covered is really the second part of the 20th century.

The “flat” in the title was inspired by a comment made to the author by a CEO of an Indian company. He said the world’s playing field is being leveled, by the technologies of computers and communications, so that people in India are now able to compete in the global markets. It is this “leveling” that leads to a “flat world”.

In the first part of the book, Friedman, examines the ten “forces that flattened the world”. Here is a short description of each of these:

  1. 11/9/89 – the Fall of the Berlin wall.
  2. This event opened up eastern Europe and country formerly known as Soviet Union, to greater participation in the world’s capitalistic system. There was quite a lot of energy bottled up behind the Iron Curtain.

    Together with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Friendman sees the rise of the ubiquitous computing platform of cheap PCs and Windows O/S. Now everyone, even people from Eastern Europe, can afford and use PCs and Windows.

  3. 8/9/95 – the day Netscape went public
  4. Essentially, the rise of the Internet is the second flattener. The power of the PC is mutliplied many-fold once you attach it to a global network. I couldn’t agree more.

    An unforseen effect the Internet bubble, was that networking infrastructure was put in place by companies like Global Crossing, and was cheaply sold off once the bubble burst. So, although the original investment to build these networks was lost (who were the investors?), the excess bandwith became available to everyone around the world, at much reduced price.

  5. Workflow software
  6. That is software packages that allow people to better organize work. From something as simple as MS Outlook that helps coordinate meetings, to custom software for managing workflow inside of a company, or with company external suppliers.

    I found that in this section he gives bit too much credit to “web services” – describing it as the technology that runs web workflows. I don’t think that’s quite correct. Seems he has been talking too much to marketers.

  7. Open Source software
  8. Here I again agree with Friedman, that open source software is an important “world flattener”. However, when talking about OSS he concentrates on the low cost, but completely missed the “free as in freedom” part. He talks a bit about the rise of the Apache server, as the premier web server and how it is available to everyone at no cost.

    But I think the large point is that most open source software comes with the source. Which means that the knowledge used to create it is spread around the world. This means some smart kid in sub-Saharan Africa could build the next killer-app, beause he can learn how computers really work.

    Friedman talks a little about the GPL license, but confuses the “free as in beer” with “free as in freedom” implications. Cheap software is one thing, but I think that Free software (as defined by Richard Stallman) will have impact on the world.

  9. Outsourcing
  10. Here he talks about classical outsourcing of programming work to India. The first batch of this occured shortly before Y2K. There were a lot of Indian programmers willing to fix old COBOL programs. That’s how the outsourcing work began.

    The rise of the Internet just made this much easier, as communications between India and the rest of the world improved.

    It’s kind of funny to notice that Friedman completely misunderstood what the Y2K problem was. He thought that “computer clocks” had to be fixed. Someone should have explained this to him.

  11. Offshoring
  12. To Friedman, this is different from outsourcing. China’s entry into the WTO on December 11, 2001, opened the door for moving more and more manufacturing plans to China, where availability of cheap labor made the move very lucrative.

  13. Supply-Chaining
  14. This chapter talks about the efficient supply-chains created by the new technology. The main example here is Wal-Mart. According to Friedman, large part of why Wal-Mart can keep it’s prices so low is the very sophisticated supply-chain software, that allows it to manage it’s mechandise very effectively. By reducing the cost of supplying the stores by few percent, Wal-Mart can undercut most competition.

    Not everyone agrees with this assesment of Wal-Mart, but from the description given in the book Wal-Mart’s supply system is pretty impressive.

  15. Insourcing
  16. The idea of “insourcing” is to have a company absorb a task, in order to better serve it’s customers. The main example for here is UPS. Did you know when you ship a Toshiba laptop to be fixed, UPS picks it up, fixes it and the gives it back to you.

  17. In-forming
  18. This funny term is used to describe the ability provided to all by Google, Yahoo and other search engines. All of a sudden, we can find things that in the past required access to vast libraries and/or expensive research assistants. My favorite example here was of people entering the
    ingredients they have in their refrigerator into Google to see what recepies would come up.

  19. The Steroids – digital, mobile, personal and virtual
  20. Here Friedman talks a bit about how digital and wireless technology pulls all this together. I found this section somewhat weak. The author’s credibility was diminished when he started quoting Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard).

This first part of the book is certainly thought provoking, especially for people working with these technologies. However, one problem I found is that the author seems to have gotten his material from marketing brochures and CEOs who have something to sell. Parts of of story read like a Gardner Group Report (this is not a complement).

The following parts of “The World is Flat” discuss the implications of all this. I will write more on this in a follow up entry.

>Non-fiction – "How We Got Here" by Andy Kessler

>I read an electronic version of this book, which I got for free from this web site. You can get your own copy here (in PDF format). The book is a short history of technologyand capital markets, starting from the start of the Industrial Revolution, until today.

The story starts with the invention of the steam engine and the results that followed. The point that the author makes in several places, is that innovation takes time. In many cases several decades pass between the idea occuring to someone and the successful deployment of the invention.

The extreme example of this mechanical computation. The first mechanical calculators were built by Pascal and Leibniz in 17th centuary, and look how long it took before we got actually programmable computers. Even considering that Charles Babbage had figured out all the major concepts (i.e. machines that stored programs and executed them).

The technological history is aimed at showing how computation and communication evolved, into what we have today: our computers and the internet.

The history of capital markets is kind intertwined into all this, because to bring these inventions to market someone had to put up the money. Throughout this history the words “bubble” and “panic” occur rather regularly. One of the early examples is an “ipo” of a company whose stock went on sale on July 4th at $25 per share, month later was trading at $280, and ended the year at $150. No, this wasn’t an Internet company. These were the stocks for the Bank of United States in 1793. (see Wikipedia)

One of the more interesting subjects covered, was the author’s criticism of the Gold standard – that is hooking up value of the country’s currency to a chunk of gold (in England the Gold standard was defined by Isaac Newton). The problem with the gold standard is that the only way to create more wealth you have to get more gold.

England had a problem because of this, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. They had a big trade surplus – which meant that they had a lot of gold and their potential clients did not. At the time the Parliament (which was controlled by land owners) had passed protectionist laws (Corn Laws) to protect english farmers, so other countries could not sell food to England.

The result is that english factory workers were not being paid well (as the stuff they made was expensive to sell abroad, and the potential buyers lacked enough gold), but local food was expensive (since imports were severely limited) and this led to an unhappy working class. A ripe field for Karl Marx and his buddies.

Overall the book has a flavor of the James Burke series “Connections” (this was a show produced by the BBC, and shown in public TV in USA).

There were two slightly annoying things about the book. The author would stick silly puns/jokes here and there. Now, you know I do like puns, but these were not particularly clever and wound up being more of distraction. The second problem was that I spotted several minor factual errors. None of them were large, but it made me wonder about some of the historical facts. For example, the author refered to “Fermat’s Last Theorem” as “Fermat’s Last Algorithm”. I mean, come on! (grin)

All in all I enjoyed this book. I read the entire thing (nearly 200 pages). This book seems like a nice pre-quel to Thomas Friendman’s “The World is Flat: A Short History of 21st Century“. My next blog entries will be about Friedman’s book.