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  • orbitals - A Fun Book About a Subject That's Still RelevantA really charming, but also brilliantly put together demonstration of the shear insanity that really occurs when people try to implement a socialist utopian fantasy. The reader is reminded that there were those who actually thought that the whole centrally-planned economy thing could be made to work, but it's hard to believe that the outfit that put Stalin in charge really contained a lot of good intentions. And any poor, lonely good intentions there surely go to prove the old adage of how the road to hell is paved with them. A hell in which millions innocent people are deliberately starved to death - right before tens of millions die in a brutal war. Only the war itself doesn't kill as many as their own leader does during and right after the war, under various (thin) excuses.

    The reason one can enjoy this book so much is that most of it is set in the period immediately after this nightmare. Food and goods start to become more available again, the Soviet economy briefly grew faster than those in the West, and new leadership did their best to ease up a little after having been genuinely horrified by Stalin, and especially Beria (his truly frightening head of the NKVD and something of a rapist-in-chief).

    This story has been told before in the traditional historian's very solid way, with plenty of hard (dry) data, but Mr. Spufford does such a beautiful job by telling the story using peoples' lives. This allows him to give us a view into Soviet life from this period, especially the increasingly absurd contortions into which nearly everyone is forced in order to meet various arbitrary targets and requirements handed down from on-high by someone at Gosplan who likely as not has no idea what he has actually forced these poor sods to do. The unfortunate soul at a lumber producing operation who found himself in the uncomfortable position of having produced more lumber than was called for in The Plan in an excellent example. He makes the costly mistake of trading the lumber to someone who raised pigs and wanted to construct a shelter for the animals before the harsh Siberian winter set in, lest the poor creatures succumb to the elements. He did something useful with the product he produced when he could simply have burned the material that did not conform to the plan. His "reward" for his failure to perform according to plan is publicized for all to read about, as a warning to them just in case anyone should get any ideas of committing "profiteering" and crimes against the state. This is just the beginning - the author has packed this book with endearing and often simply hilarious tales of just how ridiculously distorted an economy becomes when you decide to fight Human Nature itself. It is a battle that never has any real winner - only lots and lots of losers.

    Unless you decide to read this book! That's just plain good fun.
  • J. D. Lasica "open media" - Capturing the pulse of new tech's megatrendsEvery few years someone comes along and pulls the camera back to reveal a wider view of the technological changes coursing through the business world and larger culture. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel have done just that with their new book, "The Age of Context."

    The authors nicely contextualize what they call the "five forces" in what amounts to a technology megatrend: mobile, sensor devices, social media, big data and location-based technologies. These forces add up to a formidable package, one that deserves scrutiny far beyond the boundaries of greater Silicon Valley, where much of the action takes place.

    Scoble and Israel convey their thesis - generally about the public good that will be served by the new contextual technologies, accompanied by the occasional caveat or warning - by stringing together short anecdotes about how people are adopting and adapting to this quickly emerging landscape.

    Throughout the book, the authors raise provocative questions about how society should navigates an era of pervasive data: Who owns data being collected on individuals? How are the rules of privacy being reshaped, and who gets a say?

    As someone who is immersed in Silicon Valley culture, I found myself nodding along more often than not, bemused by some of the bouts of optimistic boosterism and skeptical of some of the more grand claims. But that's precisely why "The Age of Context" works: It raises the right questions and takes square aim at many of our cherished beliefs. We all have opinions about the effects that these transformations are casting on society, and you'll have your own chance to cheer or jeer at the conclusions the authors draw.

    For instance, why do smart gestures represent a better way to turn on the lights rather than simply flicking a light switch? (Hotels, I can see. Homes? Not so much.) How will "voice and gesture input" possibly supplant keyboards for the millions of us creative types? Will we really see tens of millions of "right-time experiences," where store employees make offers tailored to customers' personal needs based on implicit and explicit data they hoover up? And how does a one-click pizza delivery button -- or a smart home that times your microwave popcorn to coincide with a commercial break -- bring greater context to our lives?

    The passages on Google Glass are predictably upbeat, given Scoble's vow to wear them every waking day until something even more mind-bending comes along. The writers bemoan the fact that no automaker seems interested in exploring the use of digital eyewear for automobile drivers. (Well, OK, as long as the eyewear keeps the Internet shuttered while on the road, but the authors don't say that.)

    They predict that Google will sell a minimum of 100 million units of Glass, at an average of $300 each, over the next three to five years. We'll have to check back in 2018. I think Google will fall short of that mark and will have to make major changes to Glass for it to reach mass popularity. (Friendly wager?) Of course, when digital technologies become integrated into mass-market eyeglasses and contact lenses we may finally see the tipping point that the authors so eagerly anticipate.

    But disagreements like this are what make "The Age of Context" fun as we collectively navigate the churning waters of modern culture. What's your take? See, predicting the future is fun!

    Just when my skepticism meter starts beeping, a few pages later, the promise of the new technologies become much more apparent when the authors report on GE's Grid IQ insight tool, which mines social media for geo-tagged mentions of electrical outages, allowing crews and first responders to respond to power outages, floods, tornadoes or fires. Smart grids may some day minimize the damages from wildfires that claim the lives of firefighters and unaware residents.

    I was also riveted by the chapter on sensor-based health technologies, where chips the size of a grain of sand are already being embedded into a pill that can be swallowed for diagnostic purposes. I was unaware of "geographic asthma hotspots," which can be tracked through access to big data to help people avoid asthma attacks. And I didn't know about the new context-aware brassiere invented by three college students in India that jolts assailants with an electric shock and alerts authorities via a cell network and GPS geolocation. Genius!

    Those who want to remain ahead of the game on the business front won't want to miss the chapter outlining a vision of a micro-commission marketplace that scales to millions or billions of customers. The authors predict that Google will pioneer a new micro-payment system based on real-world actions people take whenever they act on a tip or lead from a Google device. Microsoft may get in the game too, they suggest.

    In short, this insight alone could help augur the most important change in the online marketplace over the next generation and is worth the price of the book, and the five-star rating, alone.

    Everyone will come at "The Age of Context" with a different perspective. But they'll come away with a deeper understanding of the technological and business forces reshaping our lives.
  • Dario Mendoza - so far so...excellentI am starting my reading and so is excellent. Very clear explanations and comprehensive. Nobody will give you this amount of details and clear explanations. I am starting also to practice and all her suggestions work" that is the best part and I can see also the effects on my daughter's riding. Great book Jane. thank you.
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    This is a must-have upgrade.
    QuickBooks Pro 2013 [Download]