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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.
I enjoyed the Hungarian history, but the constant interruptions "for a message from our sponsor" (i.e. Barabasi) made it less like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (with multiple parallel plots) and more like a TV show where they build suspense only to cut to the commercials every three minutes. The only way I finished this book was to jump through it to read the Hungarian history thread uninterrupted, and then go back and pick up the science.
There were a lot of off the wall characters paraded through the book, so it had interest as a shop of curios.
But I would have to say that whatever actual assertions Barabasi is making about "the hidden pattern behind everything we do", I am not persuaded.
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.
By the way, though the review says it is a Kindle book review, it is a paper book review.
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I couldn't but it down - the beautifully painted narrative covers past and extremely interesting historical events,...Read more