T214: Linked Chapters 1 and 2

The course set book – Linked by Albert-László Barabási (Barabási 2003) – looks like it’s going to be a very interesting read.

I’m required to read this book in two chapter chunks – and so far I’ve only read the first two – and I’m supposed to write a summary of what I think about it. If the the first two chapters are anything to go by I’m going to be, in turns, confused and entertained.

Chapter One

Barabási sets of by describing the successful attack on Yahoo! and Amazon by Mafiaboy (BBC News, 2001)back in 2000, and then goes onto set out how systems, or networks, could be subjected to similarly disruptive attacks. If Mafiaboy – a single tech-savvy guy sat at home with a persoanl computer – can cause such chaos to preofessionaly-built networks, what might happen if a group with greater technical skills and resources put their minds to doing something similar?

He then changes tack and describes how early social networks back in St Paul’s time – involving nothing but people, naturally – succeeded in spreading the word of Jesus, thus creating ever-increasing support for Christianity.

The crux of the first chapter is to introduce the possibility that all networks have similar driving forces, whether they’re people, computers or whatever else composes the network. “Everything is connected to everything else” it says on the front of the book, and I have to say that I’m intrigued, and a little sceptical, as to how this is all going to work out.

He complains that reductionism has failed to help us understand the whole: “[…] we are as far as we’ve ever been from understanding nature as a whole.” I’m not with him there. I understand his point that our attempts to reduce complex systems into smaller parts has revealed ever-increasing complexity, but the Scientific Method has indeed helped us to better understand how systems work.

I guess I’m going to find some of his assertions difficult to take!

He further explains that “networks are present everywhere” and that ignoring the whole system while concentrating on small parts of the whole is a recipe for disaster. I agree with him there.

It’s all written in an easy-to-undestand way and I like how he’s setting the groundwork for the book.

Chapter Two

This chapter launches into some mathematics, involving an early maths genius (Leonhard Euler) (Hoffman 2003) and a twentieth century equivalent, Paul Erdös (Hoffman 2003). What follows is a potted history of graph theory, something I’m sure is going to crop up a lot.

I’ve got an A-level in Mathematics but I don’t remember covering graph theory. This concept looks simple on the surface but seems a little difficult to grasp. I like the idea of simplifying a network with the use of nodes and connecting lines (I’ve seen quite a few telecommunications network diagrams using similar ideas) but it hasn’t quite sunk in how this relates to the descriptions in the book – cocktail parties and the bridges of Königsberg (Weisstein 1999).

Barabasi suggests that it is possible to represent systems with nodes (in this case people or bridges) and lines that represent some sort of interaction or communication (conversations or public footpaths). This is how networks are formed, and there are rules and conditions that occur in all networks, be they technical or social.

I got a bit lost at this point, but I think I know where he’s going. We shall see.

References:

Barabási, A., 2003. Linked : how everything is connected to everything else and what it means for business, science, and everyday life, New York: Plume.

Weisstein, E.W., 1999. Königsberg Bridge Problem — from Wolfram MathWorld. Available at: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/KoenigsbergBridgeProblem.html [Accessed February 16, 2011].

BBC News, 2001. ‘Mafiaboy’ hacker jailed. BBC. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1541252.stm [Accessed February 16, 2011].

Hoffman, M., 2003. LEONHARD EULER. Available at: http://www.usna.edu/Users/math/meh/euler.html [Accessed February 16, 2011].

Hoffman, M., 2007. ERDOS NUMBERS. Available at: http://www.usna.edu/Users/math/meh/erdos.html [Accessed February 16, 2011].