Other articles

  1. Standing up to the Madness is an excellent read

    2009 05 02 books

    Standing up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary
TimesMy labmate Tim sent me an email on Wednesday (April 15th) saying that Amy Goodman "Democracy Now! fame, and my heroin" [sic] was speaking on campus at noon. The place was packed, and it's the best way I could have imagined to snap back out of the Qualifying Exam bubble I've spent the last several months in, and re-engage with the world at large.

    One of the excuses for the tour is the paperback release of Standing up to the Madness: _ Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times_ by Amy and David Goodman.

    Now that I'm a tenured grad student, I can actually allow myself to read for pleasure - guilt free! So I went to the library that Thursday, and picked up the hardcover, which came out last year.

    What I liked about this book is what sets it apart from other political books of today. Amy and David don't just provide us with a laundry list of wrongdoing by the Bush administration, congress, various governmental agencies, as well as highlighting some of the ongoing local struggles. Though the book is chock-full of such details, they are all provided in the context of a particular vignette. What's more - instead of simply stating the problems, or providing an outline of the authors' opinions regarding what course of action should be taken, the book highlights the work average citizens have already done to oppose injustice, censorship, racism, etc. One example is T-shirt "terrorist" Raed Jarrar, who wore a shirt with the words "We will not be silent" - written in both English and Arabic - a reference to the White Rose - and was forced to put another shirt over it because JetBlue customers were threatened or offended. With the help of the ACLU, Jarrar sued the TSA and JetBlue, who ended up paying $240,000 to settle the discrimination charges.

    Like Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost ((which, after I first read it in 2001 became my measuring stick for gauging the quality of non-fiction)), this book is non-fiction that reads like fiction. Not because it is well-written, though it is, but because of the shocking realities of the content. Leadership cannot be taught, it can only be revealed. Standing up to the Madness gives us dozens of snapshots of the ongoing work of ordinary heroes.

  2. thoughts about the sea of information

    2007 07 31 books

    Everything is MiscellaneousI just finished reading ((In three evening sittings at Moe's Books)) David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous and I find it to be a pretty engaging description of how the state of knowledge evolved with time, and now it has given me a chance to write down some thoughts.

    The basic gist of the book is that knowledge is no longer tied to the physical (e.g. books), which used to limit how one went about organizing and finding it (e.g. Dewey decimal system). Now we can attach as much metadata as our hearts desire, which technology helps us sift through to help us find what we want. Instead of each book having a particular place, as in a warehouse, or a relative position (alphabetical within a subject), an individual leaf of information lives on a multitude of trees simultaneously, and the trees themselves are dynamically created and rearranged for each user on the fly.

    The first few chapters focused on how knowledge has been historically organized over the centuries. I did skim through a few of the middle chapters, it seemed to be pretty straightforward commentary on the digital lives most of us now lead - user created content, social tags and lists, auto-recommendation, etc. Some over-simplified, in that sometimes unavoidable awkwardness that comes out of describing something neat and complex yet obvious to those leading digital lives. It was refreshing to read about the downsides of scientific publications like Nature and Science (e.g. good science isn't enough ((some might even argue "isn't required")) to publish because of how few articles get in, the research has to be "sexy") and how the new comer PLoS One aims to correct these shortcomings. Because this was just the topic that was discussed at the Neuroscience retreat last year (in a lecture about the then-upcoming PLoS One), scientists care about this stuff and it comes back every so often.

    Although I never considered it myself, I totally got it when Danae started her Master of Library Science. I would argue that more than anything else, what we're producing most of in the world today is information. Perhaps capture and disseminate is a more appropriate description. Information, by itself, is agnostic to how it gets used (or abused). But the Cliff Stoll-ian side of me says that we should be weary of the exponentially growing amount of information, and not just for the obvious Big Brother / privacy reasons (e.g. "Plate reader draws objections of ACLU").

    The non-obvious threat of information is that we're drowning in it (my claim). Here I'm glad Weinberger mentions Cass Sunstein's book Republic.com ((Republic.com starts with a succinct vignette: "the daily me")), the basic thesis of which ((on my quick skimming at the UCD bookstore this past Picnic Day.)) is that with more and more information out there, we can all end up listening, watching, and reading only that which reinforces our world view - drowning out everything else without even having to plug up our ears and going "LALALALALA", but by finding podcasts, channels, and blogs where others are doing the "LALALALALA" for us.

    Touched by His Noodly AppendageIn many ways, this leads to huge portions of the population nonsensically parroting something like "Evolution is just a theory" to one another. Scientific theories both explain observed phenomena (why living organisms share so much of their DNA) and make predictions about future observations (my niece's hair color based on that of her parents, or maybe one you don't hear about so often: regular use of antibacterial soap might be a bad idea, placing evolutionary pressure on the bacteria to evolve immunity to the soap). Moreover simpler or more elegant, straightforward theories are preferred (aka Occam's Razor). Which is why Intelligent Design is on par with Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, not science. But this has been better described in other places and elsewhere (suggestions welcome). The point is that I'm worried that there's no way anyone get through to the people that end up isolating themselves in their own feedback loops. I worry that not enough people engage enough to think on their own. Technology can't fix this problem. No amount of metadata will ever be enough (( a point I think the book misses)).

    In this entry, I've linked to Wikipedia a few times, and while I agree it should not be regularly used for primary research, I also welcome the explicit uncertainty inherent in a publicly editable wiki, as it reflects the tentative nature of information, and I think we should be somewhat skeptical about a great deal. I have also been recommended, though I have not yet read Manuel Castells' The Internet Galaxy, though perhaps it is more topical for a future post I've been brewing for a while. Has anyone read it? ...Anyway, this is my first pass at processing this stuff, hope it's not too scatterbrained (( Cory Doctrow does a better job reviewing the book.)).

  3. damn you, amazon.

    2006 12 22 books

    So I used to go to the Super Crown by my house all the time when I was in high school. It became sort of a ritual for me, whenever I was feeling in the dumps, not getting any work done, or just needed a break and a walk to refresh my mind, I'd head out, usually around 9 o'clock at night, and spend a few hours sitting on their comfortable couch seats (or on the floor, when those were occupied) reading the first few chapters of some book, usually technologically related. The only one I remember finishing entirely at Crown, in several visits, was ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer, though I know I peeked into a bunch of others on telecommunications, AI, Unix, CS, etc. My thinking was that it's good to expose myself to just a little bit of a something that I didn't know anything about, and I'd walk away refreshed by the new knowledge. I treated the bookstore as a library (incidentally, the French word for bookstore is librairie, so you can't blame me there), and even took little notes of the things I had learned along the way, in part so that I could return to the page I read up to the previous time. I bought books, there, too, when I had the cash - Cliff Stoll, Steven Levy, Robert Pirsig, Daniel Quinn, Tim Berners-Lee, many others, too; I usually keep the receipt in the book (and would write the same sorts of notes on the receipts).

    It became a really familiar place, the same classical music, the same new book smells. I never really had to talk to anyone, or say anything, so it very much became a place where I could go and clear my head, just sort of process my thoughts. Then it went out of business and closed, which really made me sad. Luckily, Tower Books, nearby, had just started operating, and though it didn't have as large of a selection, I migrated over there, and got used to the music, atmosphere, and the staff there. So Tower, too, became familiar with time, and they were open till midnight, which suited my fancy more. Going down there at night became a ritual, whenever I was feeling uninspired, I'd just head over to there and immerse myself in some new book, if only for a few hours. I think I'm kind of different that way. If you've ever been in a bookstore with me, you'll know that I always want to stick around for a while, even though I usually have no specific book in mind, I just like to go and sit and read something new for a while. For example, I always like to drop by Borders whenever I'm on University in Palo Alto, but also usually overlook that whoever it is that I'm with, whether it's Elaine, or Philip, or Jon, doesn't have the same approach to visiting bookstores.

    Cody's Books on Telegraph closed earlier this year, though Moe's is still around. Now Tower's closing up shop, I just walked around the all of the empty shelves and saw very few books that'd be of any interest to me. Ended up picking up two DVDs: Before Stonewall, and Брат (Brother) for $6 each. It's really makes me uncomfortable and sad knowing that I won't have that little place to escape to, anymore. I'm not a big fan of changes like these.