Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds: James Surowiecki

“Many hands make light work” is old hat. James Surowiecki refreshes it, with two significant variations – one, many people working on the same idea/problem can collectively think better; two, these people are not working together – they are working in parallel.

Tommy Lee Jones’s character said in Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb.” I wrote The Wisdom of Crowds in part to explain why this idea is wrong.

And James Surowiecki does that persuasively, leaning on subjects as diverse as politics, defense, space exploration, business, information technology, sport, and entertainment, among others. He argues that collective wisdom almost always outweighs the wisdom of the few – even if the few are experts in that field. The concept, however, is without its detractors and exceptions, and Surowiecki is well conscious of that.

Of the myriad examples quoted in the book, my favorite one is the (unfortunately) aborted Policy Analysis Market. It truly sounds like democracy in action, where we make policy decisions democratically instead of electing someone who will do so on our behalf.

The focus on examples, both historical and contemporary, makes sure that you don’t need to be an economist or a sociologist to understand the book. And that perhaps accounts for the success of The Wisdom of Crowds and other books of its ilk, like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist.

Today’s era of web 2.0 and the whole trend towards collaboration is clearly based on the wisdom of crowds – we better be right.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Firewall: Henning Mankell

Notwithstanding the title, I didn’t quite expect the world of computers, viruses, and security breaches in Firewall – somehow those subjects seem out of place in the Sweden of Kurt Wallander. So it was a bit of a surprise that Firewall was indeed about firewalls, though the connection seems a bit tenuous.

Apparently unconnected murders threaded today through meticulous police investigation is par for the course in police procedurals, and Firewall is no different. It has all the ingredients of a police procedural as it seems to come out from Sweden, be in from Henning Mankell or from that delightful duo, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

The other staple from this part of the world seems to be the plaintive reportorial tone (though I confess I read it in the English translation). About 100 pages into Firewall, Mankell (through Wallander) summarizes the case as it stood then.

Two girls went out and had some beers. One of the girls was so young that she had no business being served in the first place. Some time during that evening, they traded places. This happened at the same time that an Asian man came into the restaurant and sat down at a nearby table. This man paid with a false credit card in the name of Fu Cheng, with a Hong Kong address.

After a couple of hours, the girls ordered a taxi, asked to be driven to Rydsgård, and attacked the driver. They took his money and left, each going separately to her home. When they were picked up by the police they immediately confessed, sharing the blame and saying their motive was money. The older of the two girls then took advantage of a momentary lapse in security and escaped from the police station. Later her burned corpse was found at the power substation grid for southern Sweden. When Sonja Hökberg died, she plunged much of the region of Scania into darkness. After this event, Eva Persson retracted her earlier confession and changed her story.

At the same time as these events, a parallel story was unfolding. There was a possibility that this parenthesis, this minor story, was in fact connected to the very heart of the other occurrence somehow. A divorced computer consultant by the name of Tynnes Falk cleaned his apartment one Sunday and then went for an evening walk. He was later found dead in front of an automatic teller machine nearby. After a preliminary investigation that included a conclusive autopsy report, the police eliminated any suspicions of possible crime and considered the case closed. Later the body was removed from the morgue and an electrical relay from the Ystad substation was left in its place. Falk’s apartment was also robbed in conjunction with these latest events, and at least a diary and a photograph were missing.

At the periphery of all these events, figuring as a face in a group photograph and as a customer in a restaurant, was an Asian man.

The use of a young nerd Robert Modin as an unofficial aid in the investigation, did seem a bit jarring; but considering that Modin plods away pretty much like the police do in Mankell’s works reassures you (his dietary habits are interesting!). And the fact that Modin comes up with data-based hypotheses without sounding like a superman rings true to form.

The typical insights into how the main investigator Kurt Wallander functions are there as well – his meticulousness and patience (“I’m proceeding too quickly”), his obsession with playing with facts from different angles (“he wrote out the facts again, this time from the perspective that all that had happened was part of a well-planned, act of sabotage”), and his relentless attempts to suppress his own angles and get alternative perspectives (“if I hear your voice, at least I won’t be hearing my own thoughts for a while”). The social commentary on Sweden, bleak as it sounds, is a delightful aside of Firewall.

As you would expect with police procedurals, not all the crimes are solved – there certainly are some loose ends. But Firewall does seem to have a bit too much of that – almost all the murders in the book are either only blandly resolved (one of the murders is not even a murder; though the character is an antagonist) or are not resolved. And the fact that all the murders are connected does seem a bit glib.

But the biggest letdown in Firewall is the dimension of the meta-plot – it seems a bit far-fetched and global in its impact, and the antagonists are not characterized in sufficient detail to make us believe that they can actually pull it off. May be in the world of technology, you don’t need a horde of terrorists to stymie the world, but a half-crazy duo still needs to have the credentials to stop the world. Carter and Falk just don’t have the force of character to convince me.

But for Wallander’s sake, go behind the Firewall.