July 12th, 2009


But, you've read this one already ...

This is another of the books that has languished in my "yet to be reviewed" pile for several months, oddly in that I was quite enthusiastic about it, but it was something that just didn't say "write about me!" when I blocked out time for reviewing. In reflection on this, one thing does occur to me. Just as my reading over the past decade has included very little fiction, I've also steered away, as much as possible, from "popular" books ... anything (as this does) trumpeting being a "#1 National Bestseller" being of questionable value for my limited reading time (as the gist of it will no doubt "filter through" various media channels whether I want it to or not).

While I'd heard of the book (the title being something of a buzzword for a while there), the first I really "encountered" Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was via my old Toastmasters group, where one member was quite enamored of the stories in it, and spun off a number of his speeches from these. I also had another personal connection with this book, albeit in a second-hand and inconvenient manner. One of the subjects of one of the chapters here had been featured in a magazine story that I'd encountered on the web. She was the head of a Department in the City of Chicago, lived in my neighborhood, and was likely to have certain acquaintances in common with me ... and was featured as one of those people who just knew everybody. As I was, at the time (as I am now), in a rather desperate job search, I attempted to connect with this person, hoping that she could point me towards some likely places where I could find employment. Unfortunately, due to having been featured in this book (a fact I was unaware of when writing to her), she gets hundreds of such requests a week, and is unable to respond to any of these (I was so informed by her assistant). So, the book, when I got around to reading it, was ever so slightly tainted by this experience!

The over-all premise here (as one might infer from the subtitle) is that there are small things, seemingly insignificant on their own, which can produce rather substantial changes in the world (much like the classic "butterfly wing" adage in relation to weather patterns). The book looks at various topics: crime (the "broken window" theory, Bernie Goetz, etc.), marketing (from shoes to books, etc.), health, education, and communications, bringing in examples of how certain things filter through certain people in certain ways and then explode on the general consciousness.

One of the most fascinating things in here is "the magic number one hundred and fifty", 150 being the approximate number of individuals that any given human is really able to have a social relationship with. One researcher has an equation that relates the size of the neocortex to a "social relation" number, and it appears to work quite well across all the great apes (including us). Interestingly, the 150 group size crops up over and over again in human history, from typical village development to church size in certain denominations, to effective unit size in the military.

Concepts slide back and forth within the sections of The Tipping Point, as definitions of people functioning as "connectors, mavens, and salesmen" have applications in almost every one of these, and "stickiness" can apply as well to both Sesame Street and cigarettes. There are many amazing research studies referenced here, from the classic "six degrees of separation" work of Milgram in the 60's to work done in TV and direct marketing. Overall the book frames a "new way" of thinking about the world, although not presenting itself in that light. One thing the book does not do is to formalize this ... frankly, there is enough material and structure in this to make up a good solid minor cult (think of the crap that's grown up around the Enneagram), and I don't know if I'm relieved or disappointed that there isn't (to my knowledge) a "Tipping Point School" out there!

This is, of course, still in print (and no doubt easy to find at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor), but Amazon has this paperback at a whopping 43% off of cover (putting it well under ten bucks), which puts it on a par with the cheapest of the used options (w/shipping). This is certainly one of those that I would recommend to anybody interested in how human consciousness (especially in social settings) works.

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A bit deeper into the stack ...

As I've noted, I'm trying to catch up on a fairly large stack of "to be reviewed" books going back as far as last fall. This one's been waiting since December, so my impressions are somewhat dulled by the delay, but I'll have a go at it.

I picked this up at used book store a year or so back, and the copy I have looks considerably older than it is ... this came out in 1997. I make a point of this, as I tried to do some follow-up research on a couple of things which grabbed my imagination at the time of reading, but I was singularly unable to find any current vestiges of those programs and projects that I was seeking more info on. There appears to have been a second edition of this (at least Amazon defaults to a different cover), but that appears to have just been a couple of years after this one, so I doubt that is more current at this point. This is too bad, because Janine M. Benyus' Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature is based on a fascinating concept; Biomimicry is defined here as 1) a new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems (e.g, a solar cell inspired by a leaf), 2) a method that uses an ecological standard to judge the "rightness" of our innovations - after 3.8 billion years of evolution has learned what works, what is appropriate, and what lasts, and 3) a new way of viewing and valuing nature which introduces a model based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

The book is in 8 chapters, an introductory one and then seven which seek to answer certain questions ... How Will We Feed Ourselves? - Farming To Fit The Land: Growing Food Like A Prairie ... How Will We Harness Energy? - Light Into Life: Gathering Energy Like A Leaf ... How Will We Make Things? - Fitting Form To Function: Weaving Fibers Like A Spider ... How Will We Heal Ourselves? - Experts In Our Midst: Finding Cures Like A Chimp ... How Will We Store What We Learn? - Dances With Molecules: Computing Like A Cell ... How Will We Conduct Business? - Closing The Loops In Commerce: Running A Business Like A Redwood Forest ... and Where Will We Go From Here? - May Wonders Never Cease: Toward A Biomimetic Future. As you can tell from reading over that list, the book covers a lot of ground, some being more "Biomimetic" than others, and some being more plausible than others. Frankly, I wanted to run off to Kansas after reading about The Land Institute as what Benyus wrote about them was deeply inspiring ... she also covers a half a dozen other renewable resource approaches from around the world in that chapter (from fish to wood to low-impact farming).

However, some stuff in here is pretty stale ... the computer-themed section goes back more than a dozen years, and stuff that seemed "gee wiz" back then has long been lapped (try telling somebody in the mid-90's that a Terabyte external hard drive would be the size of a book and cost less than a nice dinner for two) by reality ... plus there's a lot of "guessing" about things like "holographic storage" which so far has remained within the realm of fiction. And, needless to say, when you start getting Gaia referenced in the "Running A Business" section, you know that you're in territory only reasonable to the Green Party loons.

All in all, though, Biomimicry is a pretty thought-provoking read, although frustrating for the reasons detailed above. It appears that this is currently out of print, so if you're interested in picking up a copy, you'll be at the mercy of the new/used vendors ... oddly enough, the hardcover version of the first edition is probably your best bet, with "like new" copies going for as little as $7.50 (where some guys are trying to sell "new" copies of the later paperback for upwards of seventy bucks!) ... or, you could find it in a used bookstore like I did.

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