Archive for: September, 2014

Reading Diary: No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state by Glenn Greenwald

Sep 30 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

This is one scary book. Never mind The Exorcist or Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain trilogy, this is the real thing. And that's because unlike those authors' fevered dreams of gods and devils and vampires and plagues, the nightmare that all of our governments are spying on is really real.

And we can thank Edward Snowden for uncovering and releasing information about the extent of the spying and Glenn Greenwald (and others) for spreading the word far and wide.

Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is the story of Edward Snowden's startling revelations about the extent of NSA spying on American citizens as well as the story of how he approached Glenn Greenwald to break the story in the media. The first part of the book is very much a story of skulduggery and secrecy and skulking around hotels as Greenwald tells the tale of his initial contact and later first meetings with Snowden in various locations. The dealing and back and forth and hedging and the bravery and cowardice of the media in publishing Snowden's story via Greenwald is also a huge focus. Not too many players in media or government come out of this tale smelling like roses.

It is the narrative drive and Le Carre spookiness of the first part of the book that are in many ways the most compelling. The story of Greenwald and Snowden orchestrating the leaks and convincing and getting agreement to publish is fascinating. The rest of the book goes into much more detail about what the documents that Snowden leaked actually contained -- in other words, the who what and where of the government's spying apparatus. This part is obviously shocking and appalling but not as engrossing as the "spy novel" sections.

In the last part of the book, Greenwald makes his case for why it is wrong for a democracy to spy on it's citizens in this way and especially the role of the media to keep our governments accountable on the surveillance it does perform.

And I do mean governments. While this book is mostly about the US government, it does definitely implicate the other nations of the "Five Eyes" partnership in the same kinds of surveillance. They are all of one mind in so many ways. Greenwald essentially argues that the kind of comprehensive transparency these governments are forcing upon us is destructive to our way of life.

We deserve our privacy. Our governments serve us, we do not serve them. If anything, government should champion our privacy rights against the big corporate technology players rather than getting into bed with them to gather more and more information about us.

I recommend this book without hesitation to all academic and pubic library collections, even high school libraries. I would imagine that most academic libraries would find a home for this book in multiple branches as it it equally applicable to people in computing and engineering as it is to people in history, sociology, politics or business. Not to mention that this book is vital reading to anyone interested in the relationship between citizens and their governments.

Greenwald, Glenn, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-1627790734

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Friday Fun: Night owls are psychopaths, the perils of cat ownership and more: The Ig Nobel Prizes 2014!

Sep 26 2014 Published by under friday fun

The Ig Nobel prizes were awarded last week and as usual they are hilarious. And this time around a Canadian was included! Yay Canada!

What are the Ig Nobel prizes? For the uninitiated they are a mock set of awards given out at a lavish ceremony at Harvard every year for interesting and bizarre real research and other actual "accomplishments." But with a humourous twist, of course.

Here's what they have to say:

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Who organizes the Ig Nobel Prizes?
The Ig Nobel Prizes are organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. The ceremony is co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. Find out about other Ignitaries and VIPs here.

Are you ridiculing science?
No. We are honoring achievements that make people laugh, then think. Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; So can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.


And without further ado, here are a few highlights of this year's winners:


PHYSICS PRIZE [JAPAN]: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that's on the floor.

REFERENCE: "Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin," Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, Tribology Online 7, no. 3, 2012, pp. 147-151.



NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: "Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia," Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada.



PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE [AUSTRALIA, UK, USA]: Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

REFERENCE: "Creatures of the Night: Chronotypes and the Dark Triad Traits," Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 55, no. 5, 2013, pp. 538-541.



PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

REFERENCE: "Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis," Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28.
REFERENCE: "Decreased level of psychobiological factor novelty seeking and lower intelligence in men latently infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii Dopamine, a missing link between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis?" Jaroslav Flegr, Marek Preiss, Jiřı́ Klose, Jan Havlı́ček, Martina Vitáková, and Petr Kodym, Biological Psychology, vol. 63, 2003, pp. 253–268.
REFERENCE: "Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record," David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585.

WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Jaroslav Flegr, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan

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Around the Web: Science Policy!

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Reading Diary: The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders edited by Melissa K. Aho and Erika Bennet

Melissa K. Aho and Erika Bennet's anthology The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders is pretty good for what it is, in some ways better than I expected. It's a guide for maneuvering office politics and advancing your agenda, big and small, with the stakeholders and influencers that matters in your environment. Sadly, this book fails for what it isn't: a book that tackles the issues and trends where librarians really need to advance our agendas and make ourselves key "thought leaders" and "influencers."

The book is a collection of 25 chapters, each presenting the authors experiences and views on applying the principles of Machiavellianism to the library world. Of course, a quick trip through Wikipedia (sorry...) gets me up to speed on Niccolò Machiavelli and some of the thoughts and philosophies in his most famous work, The Prince. Machiavellianism seems to be mostly about "the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct." Some further poking around gets me to the psychological concept of the Dark Triad with its three basic personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The Machiavellian trait is defined as "by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception."

Heavy stuff for librarians, I guess, but on the other hand I guess we live in a world where you have to Machiavelliate or be Machiavelliated.

But let's get back to the book. To get a sense of where they take it, here's a few chapter titles:

  • One Machiavellian librarian's path toward leadership
  • Weasels and honey badgers: networking for librarians
  • Influence without authority: making fierce allies
  • Prince or plebe: success at all levels of the library hierarchy
  • Mixed monarchies: expanding the library's sphere of influence to help student-athletes
  • Breading the mold: winning allies via self-discovery
  • Slybrarianship: building alliances through user engagement and outreach

You get the idea. While mostly focused on academic libraries other setting are featured and most of the advice and recommendations are broadly applicable. Generally, the individual articles are pretty good: lots of serious thought and effort went into them without a doubt.

And that thought certainly shines through in what's good about this book: practical real world advice on how to work the system and make things happen, mostly through outreach, hard work, gentle and not-so gentle persuasion. For the most part, the individual articles are well written and make compelling cases, either in a general way or connected to a particular real-world experience of the authors. A couple of them might make good Harvard-style case studies in fact, the kinds of things that could be analysed and dissected in library management or marketing classes. The focus on assessment and self-study, while a bit unhinged at times and not always applied critically, is also a positive. Many of the articles try to make sure the maneuvering is grounded in some sort of data or community research. Gathering information, looking inward as well as outward, are fairly common strategies for the Machiavellian planning process.

And a lot of being in the right place at the right time, especially in the sense that we should always keep a keen eye on making sure we're in the right place at the right time. In a sense, this is a book that doesn't believe in luck so much as making your own luck. It's all in the title. It's about winning, combating and influencing. Making sure the library is there to fight, influence and come out on top when tough decisions have to be make. And you, the librarian, you can be the hero of this story, the one that plants the library flag on the hilltop, that vanquishes the enemy.

So yes, this is a bit of a book on how to weasel your way into becoming the hero librarian of your institution's story. And while "weasel" is a tough word to use, part of making sure you're there when the deeds get done requires being a bit pushy and perhaps a bit sneaky. Something the book doesn't shy away from at all -- weasel is in one of the article titles after all.

Because at the end of the day, many of these articles are little more that "just-so" stories of "how I did good winning the day against the forces of evil." Which is a grand tradition in the library literature to be sure, but a little unsatisfying in the end. Because sometimes that end seems to justify the means. These tales of librarian heroism may be "just-so" but they are also the winners' version of their particular history. Not surprisingly, we don't get the version of history written by the colleagues, community-members and most of all the employees who were the subject of these experiments. No one wants to be "that person" in an employment setting, but some of these stories seem to be encouraging a kind of uncritical zeal for success.

None of which come easy for the stereotypical librarian, of course. One of the areas touched upon but not explored as fully in the book as it needed to be were some of the gendered aspects of the kinds of power dynamics involved in being sneaky and pushy and Machiavellian. Power dynamics generally could have been explored much more critically.

But perhaps where the book comes most short, as I imply way back at the beginning of the review, is again all about what isn't explored.

Have you heard me mention scholarly communications? Open access? Publishers? Recalcitrant faculty? Author rights? I searched through the text of the book -- the advantage of ebook copies for reviewers -- and my initial reading impressions were correct. These concepts are almost completely absent. In my humble opinion, for academic libraries these issues are at least as important as any other when it comes to using our powers of persuasion and manipulation. American Chemical Society vs. SUNY Potsdam? The Research Works Act? Big Deal journal pricing deals? Ebook licensing insanity? Encouraging, implementing and enforcing institutional and national open access mandates? These are some oft the issues that I would really have wanted to see attacked and persuaded. And I'm sure librarians in other contexts, such as public, institutional or corporate librarian may have also wanted to see a few different case studies explored too

Wait a sec...oh yes. Now I recall. The publisher of the book is Chandos, a imprint of Elsevier. It all makes sense now. They certainly don't want librarians to train our Machiavellian powers back on them. Blowback, as it were.

Now the scholarly communications issues are just the ones that are nearest and dearest to my heart. There's a much larger world out there in which librarians can have an important impact. How about larger social issues like climate change or vaccination denialism, the digital divide, economic and gender inequality, ubiquitous government surveillance? All of these are issues that are pretty well ignored in the book. The explicit focus of Machiavellian Librarian is library stakeholders, so perhaps these are issues for another book, but I couldn't help but notice their near complete absence.

I will cautiously recommend this book for LIS collections, both at library schools and libraries which support their staff of librarians librarians. There's enough good for educational use and it'll spark some ideas and conversations among practitioners. Individual librarians may want to pick this up and flip through it for ideas, but there are likely better leadership and entrepreneurship books out there.

Aho, Melissa K. and Erika Bennet, editors. The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders. Oxford: Chandos, 2014. 340pp. ISBN-13: 978-1843347552

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Friday Fun: Comments and chronology on The Great Sonny Rollins Jazz Satire Blowup of 2014

Sep 19 2014 Published by under friday fun, music, personal, Uncategorized

Is jazz satire possible? Can it possibly be funny or even relevant?

This question is more immediate and pressing that you would normally imagine in the wake of serial controversies in the jazz world.

It all began at the end of July when The New Yorker posted a article in their humour column by Django Gold purporting to be the thoughts of jazz legend Sonny Rollins where he basically says jazz is a waste of time and they his whole life has been in vein. The jazz world exploded as it was not immediately obvious that it was satire. If it had been in The Onion people might have realized it immediately and probably moved on. But enough people misunderstood the purpose that the online outrage was able to build and reach a kind of critical mass. The New Yorker put a disclaimer soon after posting.

Like I said, the jazz world exploded on Twitter and it blogs. Largely because the satire itself wasn't very funny and that it disrespected one of the towering legends of the art form still alive. And at 83, it seemed cruel to pick on someone so revered at that stage of his career. Not to mention someone so dedicated and sincere in his passion. Rollins himself chimed in via a video interview, expressing a kind of sad resignation about not so much what was said about him but about the attack on jazz in general. To top it off, apparently Gold didn't write the piece with Rollins in mind and only added his name at the end to give it more punch.

But it didn't end there. Before too long the Washington Post published an article by Justin Moyer inspired by the Rollins satire basically saying that jazz is useless, bad and a waste of time. The jazz world blew up again on Twitter and in blogs. Not that jazz is or should be immune to criticism, but Moyer seemed more driven by a desire to provoke than any actual knowledge or appreciation for jazz.

To top it off, John Halle published a piece recently on the decline in the political consciousness of the jazz world that hasn't garnered as much reaction as perhaps it deserved (or Halle expected, hey, the jazz world is just tired now buddy).

So it's been a weird time in the jazz world.

Personally I love satire. I especially love satire about the things that are near and dear to my heart. The closer the better, I enjoy the uncomfortable laughter because it makes you think about what you love and why. The very existence of this long line of Friday Fun posts surely demonstrates that.

But I don't think the Rollins satire worked. First of all, it was poorly conceived and executed. It just isn't funny. The way it uses Rollins is kind of shameful really. Someone so dedicated and sincere, it feels like mean humour that punches down on the undeserving rather than punching up and lampooning the powerful. (My initial thoughts on Twitter, BTW)

Not that the the spirit of the piece is wrong. Just the target and execution. I can easily see something in the same spirit working very well if aimed at a younger, cockier, more controversial figure, especially someone known for their conservative, almost reactionary, view of jazz. Yes, I mean Wynton Marsalis. This kind of "I was wrong I wasted my life what is jazz even good for" could have worked well with someone like Marsalis, in the prime of life, influential, at the peak of his powers.

I don't think people are saying that jazz can't have a sense of humour about itself or that it isn't possible to poke fun at some stereotypes or foibles or whatever. Or to question and provoke about serious issues in jazz's past, present or future.

But if you're going to jump into the deep end, expect to face the music and account for your ideas and opinions.

Oh yeah, similarly inspired by a deranged bit of provocation, rock music is also having a rock is dead extended freakout.


Some General Information About Sonny Rollins


Here's the story. I've bolded the key pieces in the various controversies. As usual, I welcome corrections and additions. Peter Hum, Davy Mooney and Nicholas Payton have reactions worth reading.

The Chronology of the Interconnected Controversies


I like this Sonny Rollins quote from the Men's Journal profile:

This made Sonny laugh. When Sonny laughs, you know it. He bends his neck back nearly 45 degrees, casts his eyes skyward, and his mouth becomes a widening circle. Ha-ha-ha, he goes, loudly, like howling at the moon, albeit with perfect breath control.

"Don't you see, that's exactly the point," Sonny chortled as he clamped his skullcap onto to his head. "Those notes you mention, those notes have already been blown."

Sonny leveled his gaze, suddenly deadly serious. "People say, 'Sonny, take it easy, lean back. Your place is secure. You're the great Sonny Rollins; you've got it made.' I hear that and I think, 'Well, screw Sonny Rollins. Where I want to go is beyond Sonny Rollins. Way beyond.'"

Fuck yeah, Sonny Rollins!

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Friday Fun: All The Comments on Every Recipe Blog

Sep 19 2014 Published by under friday fun, Uncategorized

Yes, I cook. Yes, I use recipe blogs. Yes, I might alter the recipes I see based on what I have on hand or what various personal and familial preferences come into play.

In fact, I love recipe blogs, I really really do. Simply Recipes is probably my favourite.

The reality, of course, is that a lot of what you see in the comment sections of those recipe posts is just plain crazy. Sometimes it seems like people want to take a chocolate cake recipe and twist it into meatloaf via making a pina colada. Now there's nothing wrong with chocolate cake, meatloaf (in fact, I'd love to find a good meatloaf recipe...) or pina coladas, but somehow it seems to me like all three of them are fundamentally different undertakings.

And along comes The Toast with All The Comments on Every Recipe Blog.


Here are a few:

“I followed this to the letter, except I substituted walnuts and tofu for the skirt steak, ditched the cheese entirely, and replaced the starch with a turnip salad. Turned out great. My seven-year-old boys have never seen a dessert and I’ve convinced them that walnut-and-turnip salad is “cake.” Thanks for the recipe!”

“I’m having a lot of trouble signing up for your newsletter. Can you please assist?”

“a warning that if you cook this at 275°F for three hours instead of at 400°F for twenty-five minutes its completely ruined. do you have any suggestions?”

“I didn’t have buttermilk, so I just poured baking soda into a container of raspberry yogurt. It tasted terrible.”

But read the whole thing for yourself. And the comments on the post are, not surprisingly, priceless.

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Books I'd Like to Read: Making the world a better place

Sep 16 2014 Published by under acad lib future, environment, Politics, science books

It's been quite a long while since I've done a "books I'd like to read" post, that's for sure. This fall seems to be have a particularly exciting list of books so I thought I'd pull some of them together (as well as some older books) here for all our enjoyment. These are all books I don't own yet, so they are not part of my towering to-read list. Yet.

I'm on sabbatical this academic year so I am trying to read and review books more diligently, aiming for about one per week. Maybe some of these will appear reviewed on the blog in the not too distant future.



WTF, Evolution?!: A Theory of Unintelligible Design by Mara Grunbaum

Mara Grunbaum is a very smart, very funny science writer who celebrates the best—or, really, the worst—of Evolution’s blunders. Here are more than 100 outlandish mammals, reptiles, insects, fish, birds, and other creatures whose very existence leaves us shaking our heads and muttering WTF?! Ms. Grunbaum’s especially brilliant stroke is to personify Evolution as a well-meaning but somewhat oblivious experimenter whose conversations with a skeptical narrator are hilarious.


Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow

In sharply argued, fast-moving chapters, Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free takes on the state of copyright and creative success in the digital age. Can small artists still thrive in the Internet era? Can giant record labels avoid alienating their audiences? This is a book about the pitfalls and the opportunities that creative industries (and individuals) are confronting today — about how the old models have failed or found new footing, and about what might soon replace them. An essential read for anyone with a stake in the future of the arts, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free offers a vivid guide to the ways creativity and the Internet interact today, and to what might be coming next.


Bold Scientists: Dispatches from the Battle for Honest Science by Michael Riordon

Michael Riordon asks deep questions of bold scientists who defy the status quo including: an Indigenous biologist who integrates traditional knowledge and a trickster’s wit; an engineering professor who exposes the myths and dangers of fracking; a forensic geneticist who traces children stolen by the military in El Salvador; a sociologist who investigates the lure and threat of mass surveillance; a radical psychologist who confronts psychiatry’s dangerous power; and a young marine biologist who risks her career to defend science and democracy.


This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

The most important book yet from the author of the international bestseller The Shock Doctrine, a brilliant explanation of why the climate crisis challenges us to abandon the core “free market” ideology of our time, restructure the global economy, and remake our political systems.

In short, either we embrace radical change ourselves or radical changes will be visited upon our physical world. The status quo is no longer an option.


Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

Half a dozen years ago, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman set out to study the rise of this global phenomenon just as some of its members were turning to political protest and dangerous disruption (before Anonymous shot to fame as a key player in the battles over WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street). She ended up becoming so closely connected to Anonymous that the tricky story of her inside–outside status as Anon confidante, interpreter, and erstwhile mouthpiece forms one of the themes of this witty and entirely engrossing book.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef.


Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) by Christian Rudder

In this daring and original book, Rudder explains how Facebook "likes" can predict, with surprising accuracy, a person’s sexual orientation and even intelligence; how attractive women receive exponentially more interview requests; and why you must have haters to be hot. He charts the rise and fall of America’s most reviled word through Google Search and examines the new dynamics of collaborative rage on Twitter. He shows how people express themselves, both privately and publicly. What is the least Asian thing you can say? Do people bathe more in Vermont or New Jersey? What do black women think about Simon & Garfunkel? (Hint: they don’t think about Simon & Garfunkel.) Rudder also traces human migration over time, showing how groups of people move from certain small towns to the same big cities across the globe. And he grapples with the challenge of maintaining privacy in a world where these explorations are possible.


The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World by William D. Nordhaus

Bringing together all the important issues surrounding the climate debate, Nordhaus describes the science, economics, and politics involved—and the steps necessary to reduce the perils of global warming. Using language accessible to any concerned citizen and taking care to present different points of view fairly, he discusses the problem from start to finish: from the beginning, where warming originates in our personal energy use, to the end, where societies employ regulations or taxes or subsidies to slow the emissions of gases responsible for climate change.


Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall

Most of us recognize that climate change is real, and yet we do nothing to stop it. What is this psychological mechanism that allows us to know something is true but act as if it is not? George Marshall’s search for the answers brings him face to face with Nobel Prize-winning psychologists and the activists of the Texas Tea Party; the world’s leading climate scientists and the people who denounce them; liberal environmentalists and conservative evangelicals. What he discovered is that our values, assumptions, and prejudices can take on lives of their own, gaining authority as they are shared, dividing people in their wake.


The Silenced Majority: Stories of Uprisings, Occupations, Resistance, and Hope by Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

In their new book, Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan provide a vivid record of the events, conflicts, and social movements shaping our society today. They give voice to ordinary people standing up to corporate and government power across the country and around the world. Their writing and daily work at the grassroots public TV/radio news hour Democracy Now!, carried on more than a thousand stations globally and at, casts in stark relief the stories of the silenced majority. These stories are set against the backdrop of the mainstream media’s abject failure, with its small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, attempting to explain the world to us and getting it so wrong.


What else should I be reading?

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Reading Diary: Really Big Numbers by Richard Evan Schwartz

Sep 15 2014 Published by under book review, reading diary, science books

This one's a bit of a head-scratcher.

Richard Evan Schwartz's Really Big Numbers has a great premise. A kids book that takes some fairly advanced mathematical concepts and presents them in a lively, engaging and understandable format. So far, so good.

Schwartz does a commendable job of taking the concepts surrounding Really Big Numbers and explaining them in a fairly comprehensible format, from simple counting to very high numbers, visual representation of big numbers, conceptual representations when there's no more space for dots on the page, an explanation of powers of 10 all the way to tree stuctures and networks, recursion, plexing and really big numbers. So far, so good.

Well, maybe not so good.

I think the confusion for me comes in the format of the book versus the age range it seems to be aiming for. The book itself, with its size, sparse text, simple vocabulary and colourfully childish and wacky art seems aimed at perhaps the under 10 set. Really, books with a similar look and format are often aimed at very young children, under 5 even.

But the context itself, especially by the second half of the book seems more appropriate for 10 and older.

So while I would definitely recommend this book for mathematically inclined and interested from the ages 10 and up, I would caution that they may look at you funny because the book does very much look like it's aimed at younger kids. Younger kids may appreciate the artwork, but all but the very most precocious will find the level too high for most of the book.

While admirable, this book needed to either make the content more appropriate to the format or change the format to something that would appeal to older kids, like the Survive! series I reviewed a while back.

Schwartz, Richard Evan. Really Big Numbers. Providence: American Mathematical Society, 2014. 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1470414252.

Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Friday Fun: The 123 Worst Musicians of All Time

Sep 12 2014 Published by under friday fun, music

Music critics. Got to love them. Just the right mixture of disdain, hipster arrogance and snobbery to set the teeth on edge. Ooooh, love that band no one has ever heard of. Hate that band that "sold out" and became famous. They were so much more authentic when they were poor and no one heard and enjoyed their music. Ask U2.

Vice's music critics have a new list out, The 123 Worst Musicians of All Time, which hits the hipster music critic disdain nail right on the head. Amongst them they come up with a list of the 123 worst musicians of all time, which amongst them leaves them with basically not liking any music every made at all anytime by anyone. Except King Crimson, which is the ultimate hipster critic band.

And at the end of the day, I actually kind of love the list. It skewers everybody, hammers every pretension and blasts every populist musical nitwit. Equal opportunity sarcasm and bile at its best. Sure, all my favourite bands are listed, but then again so are yours. Not to mention most of the time the smug dismissal of the bands in question actually has nothing to do with their music but with how they dress or other largely irrelevant factors.

Here are their comments for some of my favourite musicians. Check out the whole list. Your faves will be there too.


Most people can name more animals they think Ozzy Osbourne has bitten the head off of than actual Black Sabbath songs.


White man discover guitar. White man like guitar. Guitar fun. Guitar make good noise. Cocaine!


This guy could only play one instrument.


Rage is a band for the dude who just took a poli-sci class at the University of Phoenix Online.


Wow, a carefully constructed rock opera about the trials and tribulations of growing up, confronting bullying and abuse, and ultimately accepting yourself? More like The Who Gives A Shit?

Yes, you. It's also fun because all the bands you really hate are shot down too. Yes, go read it.

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Around the Web: A Creative Commons Guide to Sharing Your Science and more

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