Friday, April 9, 2010

Book Review: Bursts

The nonfiction book world owes Malcolm Gladwell a beer. Or maybe a car. Or even a house. You see, as far as I can tell, Gladwell was the first one to make science-y concepts accessible by telling you a story about someone or something. He won't just explain, say, some new strategy for cancer research, he'll tell you about Bob the cancer patient and Joe the cancer doctor and how no one understood what was wrong with Bob until one day he met Joe and ....

Bursts tries to make the research of author Albert-Laszlo Barabasi accessible. And Barabasi really gives us a cast of characters: the globe-trotting artist who keeps getting harrassed by Homeland Security; a guy who corresponds with Einstein about the fifth dimension; a dude with an fake ear surgically implanted on his arm (really); and best of all, half the book tells the story of the Hungarian version of Braveheart.

These stories are generally great and very intersting. The story of the Hungarian Braveheart is worth buying and reading the book alone in my opinion. The chapters of the book actually alternative between the main narrative and the historical tale of a minor nobleman who starts a rebellion of the peasants in late Medieval/early Renaissance Hungary (for Freedom!). So you could just read the history and skip the rest. In fact, I'd almost recommend it because the rest of the book is a bit of muddle.

The book is called "Bursts" and it turns out that scientists, including Barabasi, have discovered a bursty pattern in nature, including human nature. For example, animals don't search for food using a truly random pattern. If they did, you see the same animal is all kinds of different places on any given day. Instead, animals stay in a particular area for a while, hunting someplace while the hunting is good. Once the hunting turns bad, then there's a 'burst' where they jump to a new hunting ground. Similarly, humans tend do to things like respond to emails in bursts during the day. We don't respond as every email comes in, but we prioritize. Some emails will get an immediate response. Some will wait hours, some days, some even weeks (or longer for me).

Great. So we burst. Animals burst. So what? Well, Barabasi is also trying to tell us that we're very predictable. If he knows your daily pattern he can tell you where you're likely to be on any given day at any given time. For a huge percentage of us 80% of our time is spent at home or at work. And we're very regular about it. We might show up in Australia once in a while, but that, too, happens in bursts. We don't wake up on random mornings and say "hey, why don't play hooky from work and fly to Paris instead!" (or if we do, we don't actually follow through).

Barabasi thinks that someday we'll find out that our future is totally predictable because he can predict (using our cellphone location records) where we spend most of our day. Or at least, the future might be predictable. Or it might not. Hmmm. Did I mention the part about the Hungarian Braveheart? I don't want to give anything away, but if you think Mel Gibson got tortured good at the end of that movie, wait until you find out how they did it in Hungary! Worth the price of admission alone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out's an experiment that Barabasi launched yesterday. He hopes to create a burst of his own.