New: Book Report: The Starfish and the Spider

Yesterday, I was on my way to the comic book store when I saw Professor Karp. That is to say, I saw that computer science NP-Completeness guy. (Note to non-computer geeks: NP-Completeness is A Big Deal. Karp is a Big Deal.) Immediately, I felt shallow. Why was I on my way to the comic book store instead of hunched over a laptop, thinking deep thoughts about algorithmic complexity?

Now as I sit down to type this, I remember historical precedent. Back when I was a student, I took a computer science theory class from Karp. He was kind of intimidating. This was partly because he's that, you know, NP-Completeness guy. It was also because--maybe he was nearsighted?--he had this way of kind of leaning, of looming over you as he talked to you.

So I can still remember the rush of embarrassment when Karp began a lecture by holding up a copy of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip collection (Yukon Ho? I forget which one) and asked who had forgotten and left it behind after the previous lecture. "Oh, me me me!" I said. I learned a valuable lesson that day: if you're willing to embarrass yourself in front of your peers, then you might be rewarded. You might not need to buy Jimmy a replacement copy of that comic book you lost track of a few days ago.

So here it is almost twenty years later, and Professor Karp can see that I'm still reading comic books like a shallow undergrad. Maybe. He might be nearsighted--that would explain the leaning thing. Maybe he didn't recognize me.

Oh, I'm getting sidetracked, aren't I? What was my point? Oh right. Priorities and comic books.

Comic books can be pretty rewarding. There are worse things. You can read books that discuss Social Phenomena so that you can pick up some jargon to sling around with other people who read the same book. But I'm not sure that's any less shallow than comic books.

Anyhow, you already know I read shallow things, so I guess I can admit to you that I read that book The Starfish and the Spider about leaderless networks. I didn't get much out of it. Did you read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" a few years ago when everyone was reading "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"? Have you spent time in any communities and seen emergent... I guess I'm saying that you've probably already picked up some chatter about leaderless networks and this book might just be telling you things you already know.

Some organizations spread by defining a "franchise-able" set of behaviors that can spread. For example: AA, Apache tribes, P2P file-sharing networks.

Some organizations are centralized.

Centralized organizations can sometimes accomplish more because they have direction.

Distributed organizations can sometimes accomplish more because the "legs" don't need to coordinate with "headquarters".

It's hard to squash out a distributed organization because you can't just behead it.

If you looked at those sentences above and said "I already know that. I don't need to slog through 200 pages about that", then go ahead and skip this book.

OK, I got one thing out of this book: I learned how to conquer the Apache tribes. Give each shaman control over a gift of cattle. Once a shaman has real power and doesn't need to convince people through cogent argument, then any jerk can become a leader, and society falls apart. I got the impression I could have learned this from a book they mention--Michael Nevins' "The Apache Indians: In Search of the Missing Tribe". And maybe I would have learned more instead of just hearing a bunch of stuff I hear every day.

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Posted 2007-09-09