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Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do Hardcover – April 29, 2010
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-Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody
"Barabasi is one of the few people in the world who understand the deep structure of empirical reality."
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan
"Barabßsi brings a physicist's penetrating eye to a sweeping range of human activities, from migration to web browsing, from wars to billionaires, from illnesses to letter writing, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Conclave of Cardinals. Barabßsi shows how a pattern of bursts appears in what has long seemed a random mess. These bursts are both mathematically predictable and beautiful. What a joy it is to read him. You feel like you have emerged to see a new vista that, while it had always been there, you had just never seen."
-Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., coauthor of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
"Bursts is a rich, rewarding read that illuminates a cutting-edge topic: the patterns of human mobility in an era of total surveillance. The narrative structure of Barabßsi's provocative book mimics the very pattern of bursts, as abrupt jumps through the lives of a post-modern sculptor, a medieval Hungarian revolutionist, and Albert Einstein eventually converge on a single theme: that our unthinking behaviors are governed by a deeper meaning that can only be deciphered through the brave lens of mathematics."
-Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., and Sai Gaddam, Ph.D., Boston University
"Barbasi, a distinguished scientist of complex networks, bravely tests his innovative theories on some historic events, including a sixteenth-century Crusade that went terribly wrong. Whether or not the concept of "burstiness" is the key to unlocking human behavior, it is nonetheless a fascinating new way to think about some very old questions."
-Thomas F. Madden, Ph.D., Professor of Medieval History, Saint Louis University, author of The New Concise History of the Crusades
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While "Linked" presented plenty of solid and useful science in an appealing format, "Bursts" has minimal scientific content and I learned almost nothing. The only significant idea Barabási presents is that the time-spacing of many events in the natural and artifical worlds follows a power law distribution, which means that events have some tendency to cluster into "bursts," although very widely spaced events can also occur, since power laws have "long tails" rather than dropping off exponentially (as Barabási himself acknowledges in passing, "bursts" is a somewhat misleading term, since power law distributions are continuous, not dichotomous). But Barabási doesn't offer much explanation for the ubiquity of these power laws, nor does he offer useful insights regarding their implications.
He does try to argue that awareness of these power laws will eventually enable precise prediction of human behavior, but this is simultaneously both obvious and wrong (and it's telling that Barabási appears to be unaware of the seminal work of Quetelet on this topic). It's obvious because we already know that people are necessarily creatures of routine and habit, so where we are and what we're doing will often be predictable. But it's wrong because, like the weather, our lives also involve volatility and bifurcation points, such that much that's important about our individual and collective lives will remain unpredictable. I've experienced this in my own life in profound ways, and so have you (think back, and you'll recall some pivotal moments).
Most of the book is actually taken up by a discussion of an episode from Hungarian history of the 1500s. This may interest Barabási for personal reasons, and perhaps it satisfies some urge to be a historian or novelist (which he apparently has a knack for), but it has no place in this book. I kept waiting for this plot and other plots interwoven throughout the book to all gel together in the end, but they never did -- I feel like I was waiting for Godot.
Overall, this book was a waste of money and (more importantly) time. The only redeeming feature is that I was able to read it quickly (three days), but that's small consolation. I really don't know what Barabási was thinking. I must also add that I was partly swayed to read this book by the endorsement from Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the back cover; that endorsement has unfortunately harmed Taleb's credibility in my eyes.
Some topics may be more appreciated by an experienced reader such as Levy flights, but the author does a great job of reviewing ideas on Levy flights and explaining in the context.
The idea unfortunately rests on absolute determinism, the presumption that every event is governed by inviolable laws of nature, theoretically enabling complete prediction of the future if all preexisting conditions are known. The author recognizes, of course, the role of statistics and its mathematical utility for successfully estimating many future occurrences. But he proposes additional "power laws", somehow independent of other, mathematical, laws, in keeping with the assumption of a law-based nature.
He nevertheless points to statistical patterns in even regularities interrupted by "bursts" or "outliers", returning us to probabilistic mathematics. The deeper issue is (bypassing here the famous uncertainty principle): are all events in nature truly predetermined by preceding ones? The author makes reference (p.105) to free will as complicating everything, and suggests (pp.253-4) that by "quantifying everything we do" science is "forcing us to rethink everything we take for granted, from free will to our privacy".
Does "quantifying everything we do" dispose of free will? There appears no such logic. We still seem to possess the power of choice, regardless of whether there are similarities in our actions because of similar circumstances, which allow statistical predictions. The irony is there is a contradiction in the deterministic hope for predictability of human action and for corresponding improvements of our lives. The author regrets (p.258) that, unlike in weather forecasting which has improved with increasing knowledge of underlying conditions, "to predict conflicts and wars in the hopes of helping us one day avoid them altogether" has failed, and he wonders: "Have we matured enough to trust our predictive abilities?"
What escapes him is that should determinism allow us "to predict conflicts and wars", it equally prevents this from "helping us one day avoid them altogether". If the future is determined, we have no choice about its course.
The author embellishes his rather narrow argument for eventual better predictability of all occurrences (an argument unfortunately endlessly elaborated by him and others in prestigious scientific journals) with intriguing stories both present and past, which somehow involve that argument. He is evidently a good storyteller, although his acknowledgements list many assistants. Many particulars seem gratuitous though. He gives the impression of a Hungarian chauvinist, writing, e.g., the dedication ("To my children") in Hungarian. Yet it seems unsuitable for children (I really don't know their age), and unnecessary, to resort to citing (p.169) obscene language in relation to a Hungarian accent, or to describe in detail (pp.265-6) the gruesome execution of a legendary Hungarian figure.
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