2010-07-20

Book Review: "Bursts" by Albert-László Barabási

(CC-BY-NC-SA Das U-Blog by Prashanth)
Some of you may be wondering why I've written 3 posts today. Well, as I'm staying at my relatives' house, these relatives are at school or work during the day, so I don't really have a whole lot to do; hence, I've been reading a lot and blogging a lot. (I wish I had a more consistent Internet connection to download and try out some Unixoid distributions as well, but while I'm at it, I might as well wish for a Prancing Horse (Ferrari, for automobile non-enthusiasts).) Yeah, yeah, I have no life.
Also, some of you may be wondering why I've been putting up "(CC-BY-NC-SA Das U-Blog by Prashanth)" at the beginning of these book reviews. "CC-BY-NC-SA" refers to a Creative Commons 3.0 license where you can view, modify, and distribute the work as you like so long as you attribute me ("Das U-Blog by Prashanth") as the original creator, distribute derivative work for non-commercial purposes, and license derivative work with a similar/Creative Commons-compatible license allowing for similar unlimited viewing, modification, and redistribution.
This entire blog's content is already licensed as such. (The license is at the bottom of the blog page.) That said, the license on the pictures may be unclear. I have already provided a citation in the form of a link and the name of the original site for all pictures I have used on this blog that aren't mine. If the picture has no citation/link, it is mine and it is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. I know that a lot of my older pictures (mostly from Unixoid reviews) don't have this explicit license statement, so I felt it was good to make this clear now (rather than never). From now on, any picture that I put up that is mine (i.e. is not from another link) is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license.
Anyway, sorry to keep you waiting. Follow the jump for a review of the book.

I was given this book as a graduation gift, and I was intrigued by its premise and promise. It basically says that people are a lot more predictable than they would like to think.
Essentially, the book concludes that power laws, rather than normal Gaussian distributions, model many human and animal behaviors. But there are several points that confuse me.
At first, the book seemed to conclude that albatrosses' hunting patterns follow power laws. But then a new study came out saying that they in fact follow normal distributions. So which is it? The book doesn't make this clear.
Also, what was the point of the huge story (that took up half the book) detailing the rise and fall of Gyorgy Szekely in the final Crusade? Was the book trying to say that the relatively short period of fame/infamy for Gyorgy Szekely versus the relatively long period of time spent planning for this Crusade prior to these events is indicative of a power law? Granted, it was an interesting story, but it didn't really make a whole lot of sense as part of a book on burstiness as a model for human behavior.
Finally, on the whole, isn't Hasan Elahi's travels more indicative of a normal distribution than a power law? I mean, huh?
That said, I was able to appreciate the majority of the examples given to illustrate the prevalence of the power law. In fact, I see burstiness in my blogging; sometimes I go for longer periods without writing a single post, while other times I write several posts in a very short period of time. I would recommend that you all read this book so that you can clear up my confusions (heh, heh).
(Please let me know in the comments if the diacritical marks in the title aren't rendering properly. I will change the accented letters to their unaccented counterparts if this becomes an issue.)
(UPDATE: I should have probably clarified this earlier. My bad! A normal distribution is a distribution in the shape of a bell curve. A power law instead takes the shape of an exponential or rational function, in which the least intensity of some quality has the greatest frequency and vice versa. For example, albatrosses mostly fly short distances but occasionally fly longer distances.
Also, I meant to mention that I have also read part of Leonard Mlodinow's book The Drunkard's Walk. It's interesting that this book posits that most of human behavior can be explained through power laws, while that book posits that most of human behavior can be explained through normal distributions. I didn't finish reading that book, because it wasn't a very engaging read (definitely not as much as Bursts).)

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