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I’ve been reading my daughter the tale of Rumplestiltskin over the last day or so. Man, it’s wild! For anyone not familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell.

A miller foolishly tells a king that his daughter can turn straw into gold.

The king gets interested, siezes the girl, locks her in a room full of straw and tells her upon pain of death, that all the straw needs to be turned into gold before dawn the next day.

An elf appears and for a small fee, offers to do the job. Offer is accepted and hey presto – the straw is converted into gold by the elf.

The king is impressed, but rather than let the poor girl go, he brings her to an even bigger room full of straw, and the nightmare for the girl continues for another few days, with the rooms getting bigger and bigger each time. Every time, the elf saves the day, but the poor girl is eventually obliged to promise her first-born child to him in return for a room full of gold.

Get, this: the girl then marries the king. It’s her reward no less.

She has a baby, the elf comes back looking for the kid, she refuses. The elf then proposes that if she can discover his name in 3 days, she can keep the kid. At the last minute she finds out that his name is Rumplestiltskin (a messenger hears him sing his name as he dances around his house), and when she tells him his name, the angry elf puts his foot through the floor before he leaves and is never seen again.

Now who exactly is the bad guy here? That king is a complete psychopath! I mean, imagine marrying someone who has just threatened to kill you if you can’t do something that should be impossible to do! And, like, what the hell is Rumplestiltskin doing, loudly singing his name outside when so much is at stake? Idiot.

So what was the moral of this tale? “The bigger the bastard you are, the greater the rewards”? “All men are bastards”? “Keep your father away from the drink, because he might say something really stupid”? Possibly all these are lessons to be gained from the story, but should we really be telling our kids this? 🙂

Still though, it makes a welcome change from “Prince Charming”…

The Wisdom of Crowds is an enlightening book, particularly at the beginning where he spells out his thesis: that, under certain defined conditions, the views of many can often trump the views of one single person, no matter how influential or how much of an expert that person may be.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The book justifies the opinion that forecasting and estimating are better performed by many people from different backgrounds instead of just a single elite. These types of problems, referred to as “cognition” problems, are commonplace – who is going to win the 3.40 at Newmarket, what will our sales be for the next quarter, when will the project be completed, etc.

He then tackles more complex problems, called “coordination” problems and “cooperation” problems, and arrives at a similar conclusion that, left unhindered, crowds of diverse people, acting independently, can arrive at an elegant solution to very complex problems.

In some ways, the book is nothing new. Adam Smith promoted the basic idea over 200 years ago when he talked about the “invisible hand” guiding the market and economists and politicians have been discussing this ever since. Surowiecki asserts that some of the rules of the free market have applications way beyond finance – the inner workings of the Google search engine and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) are examples that are mentioned.

But, you might be saying, what about stock-market bubbles, group-think, decision by committee, mass-hysteria, riots and all the things that one would attribute negatively to crowds? His view is that crowds work best when a highly diverse group of individuals are able to make independent choices with levels of influence minimised as much as possible. In this way the maximum amount of information can be gleaned from the environment and an aggregation process can then happen which may yield a good answer to the problem at hand. Influence and persuasion are seen as disrupting factors in this process.

If you are looking for a “how to” manual, then the book will be somewhat disappointing. For instance, many business managers face challenges in getting groups to come together to make good decisions. This book provides some tantalising evidence that group decision making is indeed superior, but the reader is left to figure out for themselves how to apply it to their own particular situation.

The book is very readible. It contains a large body of fascinating research material and conveys the conclusions elegantly.

When I went to the US three years ago, one thing that struck me when I went to book stores was the large number of conservative right-wing books on sale, decrying liberalism, promoting imperialism and calling for a return to old-fashioned Christian values.

I went into Barnes and Noble today for a wee stroll through the paperbacks and hardbacks and it suddenly hit me – where have they all gone? I counted about 20 books on sale, and about two were touting a conservative stance. The others were unflinchingly anti-Bush. I noticed two books apparently featuring Ann Coulter on the cover but on closer examination they were written by fierce opponents of her. Other books were taking aim at Bush, Cheney, the religious right, the Bush administration’s views on the religious right, Iraq, Katrina and US government policy. I even noticed a very critical book written by a Christian minister.

Man, the wave has truly crashed. With the congressional elections tomorrow it will be very interesting to see how it all turns out. I must profess to knowing very little about US politics, and my instinct tells me that the outcome might be somewhat more muted than might be expected, but if this was the UK or Ireland, the word “landslide” would be on everyone’s lips.

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