Book Reviews: The Trouble with Physics, Not Even Wrong

Two recent popular science books provide a startling peek into the deep scientific and sociological troubles in the world of superstring theory. Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit and The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin together triangulate the core of the trouble. If you, like me, have been distracted from the foundational problems of physics by the ongoing two-decade fascination with chaos and complexity in the popular literature, now is the time to get back to observing the “deep” stuff. It is starting to get seriously interesting again.

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The House of Tata and Indian Innovation

As a kid in pre-economic-liberalization India, I grew up with the phrase “import substitution,” and surrounded by a low-credibility innovation culture best captured by the following joke (which we retold in various forms): The US, USSR, Germany, Japan and India decided to collaboratively build a new rocket. The US supplied the design, the USSR the engines, Germany the manufacturing and Japan the electronics. Punchline: what did India contribute? We added a “Made in India” label. Today, fortunately, that joke wouldn’t work. There is a small but growing culture of true innovation taking root. A question that I have been pondering lately is “what is the DNA of the emerging Indian innovation culture?” Whatever the answer, it definitely includes the genes contributed by the House of Tata. And just what might those be? I can’t quite answer the question, but I can provide you with some raw material so you can come up with your hypotheses.

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How to Define Concepts

Let us say you are the sort of thoughtful (or idle) person who occasionally wonders about the meaning of everyday concepts. So there you are, at the fair, laughing at yourself in a concave mirror, when suddenly it hits you. You don’t really know what “concave” means. You just recall vague ideas of concave and convex lenses and mirrors from high school and using the term in general conversation to describe certain shapes. So you decide to figure out a definition.

What do you? How do you make up a definition? Let’s get you into some trouble.

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The Silo Reconsidered

The silo is an ambiguous unit of organizational structure that is a favored strawman for management consultants. Admit it: you’ve probably ranted about silos at some point in your working life. The connotations of the word today are nearly universally pejorative. I have only ever heard the term used to refer to inefficiency, creeping bureaucracy, personal fiefdoms and poor communication. When the silo in question is also a locus of technical competency, it is also the target of accusations of narrow-minded scholasticism (“tunnel vision” is the phrase that appears here). This notion of silo is common enough that there are actually leadership courses out there promising to eliminate the silo mentality from your organization.

As you will see, this is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it can be a terrible thing.

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Concepts and Prototypes

We think about abstract concepts in terms of prototypical instances. These prototypical instances inform how we construct arguments using these concepts. At a more basic level, they determine how we go about constructing definitions themselves. Prototypes pop up in all sorts of conceptual domains, ranging from “war” to “airplane” to “bird.” So how do prototypes work in our thinking? Let’s start with an apparently simple example — the concept of triangle — that can get tricky really quickly.

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Book Review: Wikinomics

Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams

Despite the name, which suggests both a me-too jumping on the Levitt/Dubner Freakonomics bandwagon and a possible reductive identification of all evolving Web technologies with wikis, this is a surprisingly good book, written at a calibrated level of abstraction, with a tasteful blend of concepts, anecdotes and statistics. It has none of the anecdotes-of-a-gunslinger-economist machismo of Freakonomics, and the wiki in the title is synecdoche, not reductive imagining.

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