Friday, November 05, 2010

Paired Books

Reading When Computers Were Human, I was struck by how short a time it took for statistical analysis of mass behavior of large groups to be considered with an eye to predicting and possibly manipulating the outcome. The Henry Wallaces (C. and A.) for one, including novel analytical innovations like the younger's "corn-hog ratio"* and combining the bully pulpit of the Secretary of Agriculture's office with a private computing team, long before WW II; for another, more overt efforts like the (private, at least to begin with; a Foundation now) Cowles Commission for Economic Research, which originally investigated ways to predict stock prices.

This a remarkably congruent fit with the notions behind Michael Flynn's novel, In The Country Of The Blind, which starts out semi-steampunk and ends up in modern times, simultaneously well ahead of the curve and in some senses, back where it started. Recent editions append another (short) factual piece on peering into the future through math, neatly bookending the notion. (The novel pointed me to yet another interesting, little-known figure, Thomas B. Reed).

If you've read one of these books, consider the other; they compliment one another nicely. (And as I have pointed out before, if you buy 'em through Tam's Amazon link, they flip her a tip and it doesn't cost you any extra: win-win!)
* The Wallace's Swine Commission might've been as much in Upton Sinclair's mind as the packing plants when he wrote, "...porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics." More bacon, Mr. Sinclair?

1 comment:

Stranger said...

Besides being a Trotskyite, Henry A. was a lot more gaunt than his chromo makes him.

The knee slapper during the 1930's was about the city kid hired to do a census of farm animals. He was doing all right until he came to a goat, a critter he did not recognize. So he wired Secretary Wallace.

"There is an animal here with a long face, big ears, and chin whiskers. What is it?"

Wallace wired back: "That's the farmer, you dumb jackass."

And in passing, a good choice of literature.