Archive for: March, 2011

Reading Diary: On the Grid by Scott Huler

In his incredibly wonderful new book, On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, Scott Huler gives us three essential take-aways:

  • Thank God for engineers
  • Get out your wallet
  • Let's learn to love our infrastructure. (p. 217-225)

In fact, not much more need really be said about the book. In essence it's a kind of tribute and salute to the women and men who keep our highly technoligized society functioning. The people we often forget about, whose glamour pales in comparison to movie stars, singers, politicians, even police and fire departments who have a much higher profile. Huler is really talking about the engineers and technicians and workers who drive buses, build roads, survey new neighbourhoods, keep our lights on and make sure the waste from all of this activity gets carried away somewhere safe.

Of course, the perils of infrastructure are in the news these days, but I think the current troubles in Japan are only more indicative of the need to pay attention to the threads that keep our society running. Huler visits a local nuclear power plant in one of the chapters and I'd be curious about his thoughts on the long term place of nuclear power in a sustainable world energy mix. He does have some thoughts on the infrastructure workers involved in Japan right now.

Anyways, in the book Huler takes us all on tour with him as he explores the various types of infrastructure in his own city and neighbourhood: water, garbage, electricity, telecommunication, transportation, boundaries and surveys. He visits with the people who work on those systems and witnesses the daily work. He struggles with the short- and long-term challenges of keeping the lights on, literally.

And makes sure we start to understand how important it is to keep track of what's going on under the street as much as we keep track of what going on in all the buildings.

And he really makes sure we understand that all of this costs money to do right and that we should be willing to pay for it. And he doesn't shy away from some of the environmental issues either -- the impact our infrastructure choices make beyond our daily lives and on society and the planet as a whole.

I thought it would be interesting to take a sentence or two from each chapter to give a sense of the themes that run through the book -- and the countless little revelations about our infrastructure.

  • Chapter 1: land surveys: [about an old axle used as a place marker on his land] "It's a big, solid piece of iron sticking our of the ground, and it's been there for almost a century." (p. 27)
  • Chapter 2: the hydrological cycle: "So as I looked at the roots of Raleigh's infrastructure, I tried to think like water." (p. 32)
  • Chapter 3: water treatment & distribution: "'The only time customers see when they're gonna be late for work because we've got a backhoe sitting in the middle of the road. The unfortunate thing about our job is that as long as we're doing a good job, nobody notices.'" (p. 69)
  • Chapter 4: waste water: "Until around World War I ... it was understood that watercourses were to some degree self-cleaning, that 'the solution to pollution is dilution.'" (p.92)
  • Chapter 5: roads: "'I'm using physical engineering methods to solve social engineering problems.'" (p. 108)
  • Chapter 6: electricity: "I counted no fewer than 15 electrical wires running up and down my street, not counting telephone and cable TV wires or the guy wires holding up the poles themselves."
  • Chapter 7: garbage: "Landfill entombment raises the prospect of perplexed future archaeologists, who will wonder why we took such enormous care to make sure our trash lasted for, basically, geologic time." (p. 161)
  • Chapter 8: telecommunications: "The complete contents of the Library of Congress would take just under 2 minutes to transmit on a 100 G fiber." (p. 184)
  • Chapter 9: transportation: "With its meandering, car-centered development, Raleigh offers an object lesson for how to discourage transit use." (p. 196)

You get the idea.

This is an important book, one that I would recommend very broadly. It's certainly a great acquisition for any academic library as well as any public library in any sized community. As far as school libraries go, this would be a fine purchase for any high school or even middle school library.

As well:

  • This would be a great "What is engineering really all about?" book for an Engineering 1000 course or any kind of capstone design course. It gives a sense of what engineers really do and the interconnectedness of that work.
  • I'd also recommend this as a book to send to any short-sighted, tax-cutting, worker-bashing politician you happen to know. You might also have a family member or friend who's in that camp as well -- this would make a great gift idea.
  • The book would also make a great "One campus, one book," again since it shows the interconnectedness of so much that we take for granted.

Huler, Scott. On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work. New York: Rodale, 2011. 248pp. ISBN-13: 978-1605296470

(Book provided by the publisher via Science Online 2011.)

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From the Archives: The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr

Mar 20 2011 Published by under book review, science books, social media, web 2.0

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, is from June 22, 2008.


This is a book with a profoundly split personality. It's like two books warring in the bosom of one volume. It's a bit hopeful and visionary but it's also cranky and complaining.

And it's not like the author Nicholas Carr is any stranger to controversy. He's famous for stirring up a hornets nest in the business IT community with the article IT Doesn't Matter in the May 2003 Harvard Business Review, followed up by the book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage. More recently, he's quite infamous for the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

So, he's a guy that doesn't pull any punches.

So, what's The Big Switch all about? Ostensibly, it a book that compares the rise of utility computing with the development of the delivery of electric power to the USA as a mass utility. In other words, during the late 19th century, electricity went from something that mostly industrial plants provided for themselves in dedicated generators to something that a centralized utility provided for everyone, for a price. And so computing power has evolved as well. Once upon a time, computing power was chained to a single organization via a mainframe computer or to a single desktop via a PC. Carr's book describes the incredible recent developments where so many companies are now outsourcing their IT and raw computing needs to utility-like providers with vast server farms. Cloud computing, it's often called. Computing power and processes are commoditized the same way electricity was a century or more earlier. Amazon Web Services, a lot of what Google does with products like Docs. This was a very interesting part of the book. I knew a bit about utility computing but not that much and I certainly didn't know a lot about the electrification of the continent.

That's the first half of the book.

The second half is a darker look at the world of Web 2.0. Carr takes a very hard look a the wide-eyed optimism so prevalent among web-heads. What about the job losses and dislocations coming from new business models and paradigm shifts? The fallout from the shift in marketing and media production for news and cultural products. The balkanization and narrowing of taste due to ultra-narrowcasting media and the amplification of negativity and trolling. The potential for terrorists and others to use the web for attacks and violence. The tension between privacy and control on the net, particularly the corporatization of virtually every last web space and censorship and control by totalitarian governments. Carr makes a lot of very good cautionary points in this part of the book. However, I didn't find all of it very convincing. As well, in a lot of cases, he's really complaining about something where the horse has already left the barn. There's no going back. It's certainly an interesting counterpart to Shirky's Here Comes Everybody or to Wikinomics, and would make an interesting book to read with those as part of a Web culture course.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend quite highly. The first part has a lot of interesting information and history that leads into some interesting ideas about the future of computing power as a utility. The second part, covering the dark side of the Web 2.0/Web revolution is less convincing but still makes many compelling cases that cannot be easily or lightly dismissed.

Carr, Nicholas. The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google. New York: Norton, 2008. 276pp. ISBN-13: 978-0393333947

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Friday Fun: University Performs Fastest Soulectomy on Record

Mar 18 2011 Published by under academia, friday fun

Yeah, we've all had this kind of week.

Thanks to The Cronk for humourously saving my soul this week: University Performs Fastest Soulectomy on Record.

Doctors have finally verified claims that the College of Madison performed the fastest soulectomy in higher education history.

"We couldn't believe the soulectomy could be completed in less than two days," said Dr. Rachel O'Quinn. "But all evidence points to verification."


"The department was far more dysfunctional than Dr. Mecum anticipated and she had to act fast," explained the medical examiners. "The women professors in her department resented her youthful enthusiasm and the men thought she was weak because she liked students. She was advised immediately that the tenure committee frowned upon all candidates who enjoyed their jobs."


According to witnesses, Mecum sold her soul the second day of work in order to maintain her sanity.

In a written statement that will be released in health journals next month, Mecum explained, "Being a jaded asshole isn't bad. I have lots of great colleagues to remind me that students are stupid and that having a life is a ridiculous and selfish goal. It's exciting to have made the transition to the tenure track in such a short time."


Run on over and show The Cronk some pageview love!

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Innovation & asking the right questions

In all of our organizations fostering innovation is an important goal. But how do you turn the innovation fawcett on? Somehow it seems so much easier to turn it off.

Of course, it's all about institutional culture. The way problems and solutions are framed. The way management/leadership/peer culture frames, encourages and rewards ideas.

Sometimes it just the way we ask questions about new ideas.

A nice articles from Tony Golsby-Smith at the Harvard Business Review blog site: Three Questions that Will Kill Innovation.

They're mostly aimed at commercial organizations but can easily be re-framed for non-commercial organization like universities or libraries.

First of all, how to ask innovation-discouraging questions.

  • What is the return on investment on this project?
  • Can you prove your case and back it up with hard data?
  • Are you meeting your milestones?

And now, how to ask essentially the same three questions but in a way to encourage innovation.

  • What hard and soft capabilities are you beginning to build by doing this? (ie. skills and techical infrastructure.)
  • What value are you creating for stakeholders?
  • What are you learning?

This is all fleshed out quite a bit more in the original post. It's well worth reading.

I also like the way Golsby-Smith ends his article:

What are the most toxic questions in your organization? The most energizing?


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Around the Web: HarperCollins library ebook linkdump apocalypse (#hcod 'r us) (Updated!)

For my own purposes I've been collecting various ebook-related posts for a while now and in particular the whole HarperCollins/library/ebook/Overdrive thing is a valuable source of lots of speculation and information. What I have below no doubt only represents a fairly small percentage of the total number of posts and articles about the issue.

My attention over the last few weeks has been a bit inconsistent too say the least so I'm sure I've missed a bunch of important posts. Please let me know in the comments about ones I should include. And I encourage people not to be modest and to let me know about their own posts.

I'm not particularly looking to add a lot of stuff from the popular media, more analytical or opinion pieces rather than reportage.

Like I said, please tell what I missed so I can update my list.

Update 2011.03.17. Added a few newer posts and some also based on recommendations on Twitter or Friendfeed. Thanks to those that made suggestions. I've also added my own relevant posts which I left out before out of a misplaced sense of false modesty. While I really can't fairly judge their actual significance compared to other posts, I at least attempted to advance the conversation. And that was more-or-less the criteria I used for inclusion on my list. The posts I added on this update: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14.

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A bibliography that's Too Big to Know

David Weinberger of <a href="Everything Is Miscellaneous">Everything is Miscellaneous (review) fame is working on a new book.

It's going to be called Too Big to Know and over the last year or two he's blogged quite a bit of the thought processes that have gone into the writing of the book.

Here's a brief sort-of description of what the book's going to be about from way back in December 2009:

The opening looks at the history of information overload, going back to the book Future Shock, and pointing to the coining of "sensory overload" in 1950. I look at how pathetically small was the amount of info that seemed threatening to us back then. And I point at research (especially by Ann Blair and Richard Yeo) on information overload in the 16th-18th centuries. (Yes, I have the Seneca quote as well). All this is in service of the point that information overload has changed now that it's gone exponentially exponential [thanks for the link, Linda Stone] and is so much a part of our ordinary context.

Next, I think I want to gesture at one way of understanding the change: We now face "knowledge overload." But, the point of the book is that knowledge is no longer what it once was, so I don't want to point to ordinary cases of knowing things; I fundamentally disagree with the idea that knowledge is to information as information is to data. So, I'm thinking that I might here use an example that will show the reader that this is a real, concrete issue, and it is not exactly the issue that she probably assumes it is from the fact that I'm talking about "knowledge."

In any case, he's starting to approach the end of the writing process and he's graciously decided to share his bibliography with us in a Google Docs spreadsheet. The bibliography itself is here.

It's an incredibly interesting bibliography and I can't wait to read the book itself. It's also interesting to note that he does cite some of the usual science suspects like Jean Claude Bradley and Jennifer Ouellette but I admit to being a bit surprised not to see a few more.

Quibbling aside, the bibliography is full of interesting stuff and is well worth checking out.

At the end of the post, Weinberger does raise a question, although not explicitly:

I'm planning on not including it in the book itself, although I'm open to Tim's advice. In any case, I will put it up at the TooBigToKnow website (which currently consists of nothing but posts tagged here). If you want to see the current version of the bibliography, it's available as a Google Docs spreadsheet here. I'm thinking that making it available as a spreadsheet online makes it more useful. Also, I plan on annotating it.

In other words, is it worth including the bibliography in the book itself if it's also going to be available in a possibly annotated version online?

I have a couple of opinions on this:

  • Most of all, YES. The online version of the bibliography may not be preserved online in the same way as the version that's part of the book itself. In 50 or 100 or 500 years, will someone who has the book (print or e-) be able to find the bibliography easily? Maybe, maybe not. But the librarian in me says I'd rather they be together in some form for the sake of those people in the far future looking at the history of what we thought about the internet.
  • I recognize that making the bibliography available serves as a kind of advertisement for the book itself and that's a good thing. But I don't see that as separate from having the bibliography in the book itself. Of course, making an annotated bibliography as an enticement to purchase would be even better.
  • Once again, speaking in my librarian persona, when I'm in a bookstore trying to decide whether or not to buy a non-fiction book, I'll often glance at the bibliography to see if the author refers to the kinds of things I would expect for the topic. Weinberger clearly does and that's great, but it'd be nice to be able to see that in the real or virtual bookstore as well.
  • Once again, in my librarian persona, I often use bibliographies at the back of books as collection development tools. In other words, if Weinberger uses cool stuff to write a great book, maybe people here at York might want to read the same cool stuff. Having the bibliography as part of the book itself makes it easier for me to note the cool stuff and remember to order it. At that point, having it online is a bit easier for the mechanical part of the process of checking to see if we already have the books and ordering them if we don't.

And I can't wait to read the book when it comes out!

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Reading Diary: Galileo by J.L. Heilbron

Mar 14 2011 Published by under astronomy, book review, science books

Here's a hint. Never, ever, ever put the following sentence in any non-fiction book you are writing:

This is dull stuff. (p. 165)


An object lesson on non-success for popular science books to compare and contrast with an object lesson for success in popular science books.

But, to be fair, the book under consideration isn't really a popular science book. J.L. Heilbron's new Galileo is a scholarly scientific biography of Galileo and as such shouldn't really be compared to popular science books.

On the other hand, it was a topic I expected to really enjoy but I did end up struggling quite a bit to actually get all the way through the book. It's quite detailed, quite chronological and quite scientific so it's a challenge. Not to mention that the best part, Galileo's standoff with the pope and Catholic church, really only gets going in the last fifty pages or so.

In fact, Galileo's long-running conflicts with religious authority do get a bit of a short shrift in the book as it concentrates on the day to day and year to year details of Galileo's life, really concentrating on locating him firmly within the currents of Renaissance Italian culture. Which is fine, of course, if that's what you want.

In the end, I'm glad I got through the book as I did learn a lot. On the other hand, this is a good case of a spoon full of sugar would have made the medicine go down a bit easier. More of a narrative drive to the "story" of Galileo's life would have been appreciated. As well, locating Galileo's significance in a modern context was really left for only the last few pages.

I would definitely recommend this book to any academic or institutional library collecting in the history of science or other relevant fields like religious or Italian studies. I have a hard time imagining any but the largest of public libraries really needing this book at all. I would also have trouble recommending this book to any but the most hardcore amateur historians of science unless they were really Galileo fanatics. In both cases, Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love is a book I would recommend instead. It's a better book for public libraries and for historians of science with a more casual interest in Galileo.

Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-0199583522

(Book provided by publisher.)

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From the Archives: The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the internet by Daniel J. Solove

Mar 13 2011 Published by under book review, education, social media

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, is from July 10, 2008.


Another cautionary book about the effect of the Internet on our lives, this one concentrating on the effect that it can have on our privacy.

Overall, I liked the book for its detailed exploration of the effects, mostly potentially negative, of blogs and other social tools can have on our lives, how we can regret things we expose about ourselves and the things other people can expose and reveal about us. How little incidents can burst into Internet controversies and our 15 minutes can be excruciating. On the other hand, there were some vaguely Chicken Littleish aspects of the book as I feel some aspects were oversold. The book also has a academic and legalistic tone at times, drifting away from the more popular tone it maintains most of the time. Some of the extensive legal information in some of the chapters was probably not necessary. That and the occasional repetitiveness gave the impression that the book was a little padded -- that it could have been an absolutely fabulous 20 page essay in The New Yorker but not so much a 246 page book. The highly legalistic middle chapters almost lost me.

So, what's the book about?

At the beginning we learn about the Dog Poop Girl and the Star Wars kid and all the others who've been exposed to extreme humiliation on the Net against their wishes. It's an interesting discussion about the control we should have over our reputations online: do minor transgressions deserve the over the top exposure to ridicule, does some harmless fun deserve any? Should we be able to have any control if a jilted girlfriend blogs about us on a very public blog. Should gossip and slander fall under freedom of speech?

When we trespass societal norms, society gets us back into line by shaming us into behaving. That's fine in a village, but shaming someone on the Net is beyond global. And should minors be treated differently than adults? And if so, how to enforce it. Shaming on the Net can be all out of proportion to the crime.

Once upon a time, if someone violated our privacy or insulted us, we challenged them to a duel! What legal recourse do we have in the online world? And should we have legal recourse or should it just be the wild west? How do you balance free speech with anonymity and accountability?

In the end, we have to find a balance between freedom and privacy, anonymity and accountability. But how? This book certainly places a lot of trust in various legal systems to solve our problems for us, but I'm not so sure. It really is the wild west out here on the Internet and there's no sheriff in sight.

This is a brave book in many ways, to try and throw a rope around the nebulous and unstructured web but perhaps a bit naive as well. Worth reading, for sure as it will make you think and think deeply about some very important issues. Probably there should be the short version, something that we can all get our kids to read before they expose themselves too widely on the Web.

Any library collection that covers Internet culture would benefit from this book. In an academic context it fits is any of law, science, business or social science collections. Even high schools and public libraries should consider this book as the ideas are certainly relevant and vital for young people.

Solove, Daniel J. The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 246pp. ISBN-13: 978-0300144222

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Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship, Winter 2011

As usual, a bunch of great new articles from the most recent ISTL!

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Friday Fun: Responsible, Thoughtful Nation Decides To Ignore Ch**lie Sh**n Situation

Mar 11 2011 Published by under friday fun

Please, can we just move on.

From The Onion, Responsible, Thoughtful Nation Decides To Ignore Ch**lie Sh**n Situation.

Calling the situation "none of our business" and "not worth a second of our time, quite frankly," a responsible and thoughtful U.S. populace uniformly decided this week to ignore Ch**lie Sh**n's recent outbursts, saying they had far more important things to focus on than a sitcom actor's personal troubles..."Not only have I chosen to ignore Mr. Sheen, but thankfully so has the American media, which has once again shown journalistic decency by only reporting the news that people legitimately need to know." Ch**lie Sh**n was not sought out for comment.

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