Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki


The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) by James Surowiecki challenges the notion that experts know the best answer to everything. Instead, large groups of people often can come closer to the correct answers in problems whether it be the average guess of the weight of a pig, or the location of a wrecked submarine in the ocean. Surowiecki applies his theory through a series of entertaining anecdotes related to law, elections, intelligence, gambling, traffic, scientific collaboration, small groups, corporations, markets, and democracy.

The author breaks down three types of crowd knowledge: cognition, coordination and cooperation. He also finds four keys required for crowds to be wise: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. The lack of aggregation in particular is often the reason why crowd knowledge is seen as lacking by some and furthering a move toward centralization, such as the inability of US intelligence agencies to stop terrorist attacks on American soil (because they had not aggregated knowledge from diverse sources).

Surowiecki is particularly fond of free markets, and illustrates their advantages in way that can be convincing to a left-leaning “anticapitalist” like myself. Particularly interesting is the Iowa Electronic Markets which have been highly accurate in predicting everything from Presidential elections to Academy Awards because the participants are betting on outcomes not selecting preferences.

It was a very interesting book and interesting follow-up to reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Of course, I can’t read a book without learning about other books and these books mentioned in the text look interesting:

  • William H. White, City
  • Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery by John E. Mueller

Favorite Passages

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, if figures out how to use mechanisms — like market prices, or intelligent voting systems — to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. – p. xix

What [Henry] Oldenburg grasped was the peculiar character of knowledge, which does not, unlike other commodities, get used up as it is consumed and which can be therefore spread widely without losing its value. If anything, in fact, the more a piece of knowledge becomes available, the more valuable it potentially becomes, because of the wider array of possible uses for it. – p. 166-67

Author : Surowiecki, James, 1967-
Title : The wisdom of crowds : why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations / James Surowiecki.
Edition : 1st ed.
Published : New York : Doubleday : 2004.

Idea: The Librewery


I’ve been mulling an idea for sometime of opening a biblio-themed brewpub called The Librewery. The Librewery would have a bar and a network of small dining rooms, nice little nooks and crannies, or “snugs” as they’re called in Britain. The walls would be lined with bookshelves filled with real books. In keeping with library tradition, customers would actually be able to read and take the books although I think here it would work best as a swap “take a book, leave a book” system.

The menu would be designed to look like a classic catalog and each menu item given a call number. Since this would be my place, the chef would specialize in vegetarian dishes and the brewer would make cask-conditioned ales, wheat bears, and stouts. Yeah, there would be some meat options and IPA’s too. Of course it would be interesting if the meals and beers could be based on ones from literature. But not from Silence of the Lambs, that would be gross.

While this place would be for random socializing like most pubs, I’d also see to it that there would be quiet spaces set aside for people who want to read and write, work on their laptops (free wifi!), or gather together for book clubs, discussion groups, and gaming (both board games and video). Of course, this being my pub there will also be regularly scheduled sing-a-longs.

So that’s by dream brewpub that brings together many of my favorite things. I’m better at ideas than I am at acting on them. Any entrepreneurs out there who can help out? Investors? Chefs? Brewers? I’d love to see The Librewery brought to life.

Concert Review: Tunes, Tales & Tricksters


On Sunday, the Forest Hills Educational Trust and Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston presented a family concert in the lovely Forsyth Chapel called Tunes, Tales & Tricksters. The theme of the concert was stories, conversations, and communication through music.

Hans Indigo Spencer narrated the event by telling stories about the pieces and involving the children through questions and answers. Spencer also composed a great piece about a lonely cello looking for a friend at school. The music was interesting and accessible to children — even my 7-month old boy who was rapt in attention by the drums during “She who sleeps on a small blanket” — without being too cutesy for adults (my son did get fussy during the narration parts though).

Another example of why Forest Hills Cemetery is one of the great venues for arts and culture in Boston

The program included:

Richard Strauss
Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders! for clarinet, bassoon, French horn, violin, and double bass

Martin Rokeach
Six Questions for violin and percussion

Ned Rorem
Katherine from “After Reading Shakespeare” for solo cello

Kevin Volans
“She who sleeps on a small blanket” for solo percussion

Jean Damase
Conversation for clarinet and bassoon

Hans Indigo Spencer
“Conversations with a Cellist” for cello solo
with clarinet, bassoon, French horn, violin, double bass, & percussion