Archive for: July, 2015

Reading Diary: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman and This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips

Gabriella Coleman's Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is largely a laudatory history of the Anonymous hacker activist movement with some anthropological and political analysis. Whitney Phillips' This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture on the other hand, is much more geared towards an analytical and philosophical analysis of past and present (and even future) of how online trolling relates to contemporary culture.

Neither book is perfect, and both tend to falter where it comes to how closely the author identifies with the community being analysed, but both are very solid entries into two very new areas of study.

The best parts of Coleman's book is the detailed description and account of the Anonymous movement/phenomenon. For sure, there are numerous misconceptions about Anonymous, some understandable since the movement itself is so diffuse and decentralized, some which seem to be more a case of willful misconceptions on the part of media and political classes. Coleman's step by step history of many of the various Anon campaigns -- like the anti-Mormon church one, for example -- really clarify that there is no one Anon, just a loose aggregation of fellow travelers. There was some central control at the beginning but as becomes clear, that also began to be harder to enforce as the movement gained in size and popularity. Coleman's anthropological and ethnographic approach also served to humanize the movement. What might have been a simplistic "angry dudes in their parent's basements" we see in mainstream media was complicated and clarified by Coleman, both in terms of demographics and motivation.

On the other hand, the way she embedded herself in Anon communities and built personal relationships with activists -- and her own identification with the kind of activism they were doing -- sometimes left me with the feeling that she could have been a bit more detached in how she approached the ethical and legal implications of how Anon operated. There were a couple of spots where I thought she might dive into those sorts of issues at the end of a chapter or section, but then the story just continued on as before. She certainly deals with a lot of those sorts of issues at the end of the book, and deals with them fairly well, but dealing with those sorts of issues as they arise would have been better.

That said, overall I quite enjoyed the book and learned a lot about a topic I thought I already knew a fair bit about. There were some parts that could have been edited a bit for length, but that's a small complaint. I would recommend this book for any academic or public library collection that deals with the social aspects of technology or the interface of technology and politics.

By contrast, Whitney Phillips' book This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture could have suffered from the same ills as the Coleman book but it didn't. In fact, a recurring theme in the book is Whitney's struggles to distance herself from her anthropological/ethnographic subjects and not be tempted to identify with them. Is she completely successful in distancing herself from the trolls, of not identifying herself and sympathizing with them even a little bit? Not completely, but she is very aware of the temptation, especially as it relates to some trolling tendencies in her own family.

Phillips' main point is the book can be summarized as this: "Trolls are asshats. But they way they are asshats and how their asshatery manifests itself in our media-drenched contemporary society is useful for understanding that society." It's clear that she has no love for trolls but rather seeks to understand them as a way of understanding the society they reflect. And while it would be nice to think that the reflection is a carnival mirror reflection, one that is untrue or exaggerated, Phillips I think really wants us all to understand that what trolls represent in a genuine and authentic part of our society. As ugly as that reflection is, it's more true than we would like to acknowledge.

Trolls are the symptoms of a mean, cruel, misogynistic, racist, exploitative society, not the disease itself. And while treating the symptoms is unquestionably important, the underlying disease is even more important to recognize.

I have no hesitation recommending this book to all libraries that collect in technology and society. Any academic library would find this useful and probably most public libraries as well. Even high school libraries could find this a useful addition.

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York: Verso, 2014. 464pp. ISBN-13: 978-1781685839

Phillips, Whitney. This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Boston: MIT Press, 2015. 251pp. ISBN-13: 978-0262028943

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Librarians, institutions, soldiers, revolutionaries

One of the central tensions of modern librarianship is how to allocate limited resources to both make the whole world a better place and to serve our local communities by providing them with the services and collections they need to support their teaching, learning and research.

The particular way we try and change the world that I'm talking about here is working to create a fairer and more equitable scholarly communications ecosystem. We do this by both advocating for increased openness in the publishing system and working to actually create that fairer system via our own local open access publishing and support activities. (There are also other ways we work towards making the world a better place, for example, through our instruction activities. Not mention that there is an aspect of making the whole world a better place via serving local needs.)

Rick Anderson's recent piece A quiet culture war in research libraries – and what it means for librarians, researchers and publishers has certainly reignited this conversation in the online librarian world in the last couple of weeks, sparking a lot of commentary and discussion in blogs and on Twitter.

The core of the piece is those two tensions. Being soldiers and taking care of our communities versus being revolutionaries and trying to change the system. Anderson mostly attempts to play it right down the middle and not really fall on either side of the issue. And he certainly acknowledges that it's unlikely that any person or institution will fall completely on one side or the other, that a mix of both roles is natural and desirable. But in the end he seems to favour the role of soldier over revolutionary.

Take the final paragraph for example,

This fact has serious implications for the ultimate outcome of the culture war that I believe is currently brewing in the research library community. We are now working in an information environment that makes it possible for each library to exert a global influence in unprecedented ways. The desire to do so is both praiseworthy and solidly in keeping with many of what most of us would consider core values of librarianship. However, even as we experience varying levels of agreement amongst ourselves as to the proper distribution of our time and resources in pursuit of these two different orientations, virtually all of us continue to be supported entirely by funds that come from institutions that expect us to use those funds to support local needs and an institutionally defined mission. As long as it remains impossible to spend the same dollar twice, we will have no way to avoid choosing between programs that support local needs and those that support global ones and, as long as we depend on local resources to do so, we will have an ultimate obligation to act more like soldiers than like revolutionaries. Libraries that fail to do so will inevitably lose their institutional support – and with good reason. (Bold is mine -- JD)

Where do I fall?

First of all, at the institutional level academic libraries (and librarians) have no choice but to take care of local needs. Our patrons and communities need the collections we purchase and licence and we must take great care to spend our institutions' funds wisely.

At the same time, we would also be betraying our profession and failing our patrons if we did not also keep our eyes on the long-term needs of our patrons and communities. That long term need being to play a role in building a system that just works better, that spends their money more wisely and more equitably on making their scholarship more rather than less accessible to the rest of the world. On making the scholarship they need to access from the rest of the world more rather than less accessible to them.

Hogwash, you say, there's no way I can justify this. My job is support the mission of my institution and nothing else. Resources are limited. It's clear how I have to allocate them.

The mission of my institution.

A lot of the discussions seem to revolve around those words.

So I looked up the mission statement of my institution. York University.

The mission of York University is the pursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. We promise excellence in research and teaching in pure, applied and professional fields. We test the boundaries and structures of knowledge. We cultivate the critical intellect.

York University is part of Toronto: we are dynamic, metropolitan and multi-cultural. York University is part of Canada: we encourage bilingual study, we value diversity. York University is open to the world: we explore global concerns.

A community of faculty, students, staff, alumni and volunteers committed to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance, York University makes innovation its tradition.

Tentanda Via: The way must be tried. (Bolding is me again. )

[P]ursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. Check. That's what building a fairer scholarly communications ecosystem is all about.

We cultivate the critical intellect. Check. It's part of our mission to think deeply and critically about the world. Which can lead to thinking of ways that it could be better.

[C]ommitted to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education. Check and bingo! My institution's mission actually includes working to make the world a better place.

The way must be tried. Check and mate. Just do it.

Of course, I work at York, one of the leftyest, most progressive universities out there. So the kind of language that we in the library (as a whole and as individual librarians) can use to justify building and advocating for a better world is all over the place.

But I invite everyone else who might be tempted to take a pass on devoting time, energy and other resources to making the world a better place to take a look at their own institution's mission statement. I've looked at a few around academia recently and from what I've seen most places have something in there about giving back to the community or making the world a better place.

Take a look for yourself. I hope your institution has something in its mission statement that you can work with (though I recognize it might not). And think about joining the revolution.

(This is about balance in resource allocation, of course. Every place and every situation will be different and local administrators will need to make different calculations about resource allocation. This isn't a call for librarians and libraries to shoot themselves in the foot. What I hope is to maybe expand a little bit how we look at our mission in relation to our institution's mission when we make those decisions.)

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As is my wont I've gathered together some of the recent commentary sparked by the original Rick Anderson article. There are lots of different takes on the soldiers vs. revolutionaries issue and several of the items I'm pointing to make similar points to my own but perhaps a bit more eloquently.

As usual, if this issue continues to have legs, I'll probably update this list. If I've missed something, please let me know either in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

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Reading Diary: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is one of the most flat-out entertaining books I have read in a very long time.

You should buy this book. Your library should buy this book. Buy a copy of this book for all your friends.

What's all the fuss?

TTAoLaB is a graphic novelization of the lives of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, those wacky pioneers of computers and programming. But TTAoLaB isn't really just a novelization of their lives -- really only the first chapter or so pretends at any kind of historical accuracy. What it is is an imagineering of what their lives could have been like if Lovelace had lived longer and her and Babbage had actually been able to build and program their Analytical/Difference Engine. And used it to fight crime. In a wacky humourous absurdist sort of way. Kind of Terry Pratchett crossed with steampunk and a little Gibson and Sterling thrown in.

Like I said, only the first chapter really deals with the historical details of Lovelace and Babbage's lives but there is a fair bit more historical and technical details in the Appendices to round up more detail about especially Babbage's work on his various Engines.

The bulk of the book are the crime fighting graphic novel adventures of Lovelace and Babbage and their interactions with various real characters in Victorian England (including Victoria herself, natch). Padua's story telling style, both graphically and textually, is light-hearted and fun. She really paints a vivid picture of Lovelace and Babbage as oddball geniuses, headstrong and a bit full of themselves but full of contradictions. They are definitely better realized in fiction than any factual account I've read.

Padua laces her tale with footnotes and endnotes and footnotes for the endnotes. This serves two main purposes. Three really. First of all, the various notes are hilarious. They also provide a lot of historical and technical detail that would bog down the main narrative if she tried to jam it all in there. And perhaps most fittingly, in the way this note-iness echoes the conventions of Victorian writings, it brings some of the digressive, detail obsession of the Victorians recursively back around to the story about them.

A bit unusually among the science-themed graphic novels I review, TTAoLaB is much more fiction than fact. And that's a good thing in this particular case. Padua takes advantage of her storytelling talents to give us the bare bones of Lovelace and Babbage's lives via the notes and the appendices while using the narrative drive of the graphic stories to make us interested in learning about them. This is a great strategy, one that many science-themed graphic novels take advantage of, but that I've rarely seen done so well as in TTAoLaB. Perhaps this is a lesson for non-fiction graphic novel creators -- use a little more fiction to make your non-fiction go down easier!

I recommend this book without hesitation for any library that collects graphic novels. This would be a perfect fit for any high school or middle school library as well as public libraries of any size. Academic libraries that collect graphic novels (science-themed or not) or that have leisure reading collections would find an enthusiastic audience for TTAoLaB.

Padua, Syndey. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. New York: Pantheon, 2015. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0307908278

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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The Canadian War on Friday Fun: Government of Canada pledges $30 million to ignoring science

In the Late Harper period of Canadian politics it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between satire and legitimate news stories.

Here's a couple of examples of satire followed by one that's even scarier and more disturbing because it's an actual news story. We live in interesting times. Fortunately there's a election coming up...

Honestly, few of the serious critiques of the Harper government's war on science, evidence and civil society ring as true as these two satirical takes. This is definitely in the Stewart/Colbert mode of so funny it hurts.

Government of Canada pledges $30 million to ignoring science

OTTAWA (The News Desk) — In what observers are calling a cynical attempt to score political points with the Conservative base, the Harper government announced an infusion of more than $30 million into its efforts to ignore science on Monday.

“This is clearly pandering to critics of the scientific method,” said NDP science critic Rene Prefontaine, referring to the title of the press release circulated by the office of the prime minister earlier today, “The Scientific Method: In Over Its Head.”

In the press release, the government promises new funding to purpose-built departments devoted to misunderstanding, misrepresenting or altogether lying about science to the public.

And on a related satirical note...

Feeling dead on the inside now a requirement for federal government jobs

Feeling dead on the inside will be added into the the standard public servant tests, reflected in questions like: ‘On a scale of 1-5, one being the least and five being the greatest, how worthless do you feel?’ and 'how frequently do wish you had another career?'

According to sources, Clement decreed that all public servants must now wear ball gags 24 hours a day to prevent any information leaks or expressions of creativity.

And to prove that truth still has something to teach satire in terms of jaw-dropping disgusted absurdity, here's a recent real news story.

At one federal department, office pals are risky business: Natural Resources Canada’s new code-of-conduct rules assign staff a colour-coded ‘risk’ level. And if you have work pals, or are a professor, watch out.

Last month, employees of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) were asked to fill out and sign a confidential conflict-of-interest document, part of a new code-of-conduct protocol that includes a mandatory training session and meeting with a manager. In itself, this is not unusual. Employers routinely require staff to disclose potential conflicts—financial or personal—that could compromise their ability to do their jobs.

What makes the 17-page “Employee Confidentiality Report” obtained by Maclean’s unique is that it classifies the civil servants’ behaviours—both on and off the job—by “categories of risk”: Red signals “high risk” of conflict of interest, yellow “moderate risk” and green “low or no risk.” The colour-coded model mirrors the terrorism threat-advisory scale created by U.S. Homeland Security after 9/11—except that the threat levels here apply to civil servants, many of them scientists, working for a federal department that oversees Canada’s earth sciences, minerals and metals, forests and energy, and identifies its vision as: “Improving the quality of life of Canadians by creating a sustainable resource advantage.”

*snip*

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union that represents professionals in the Canadian public service, including research scientists at NRCan, has seen conflict-of-interest forms implemented everywhere, but never in such detail, says Laurie Wichers-Schreur, manager of classification and research at PIPSC. “You generally sign off on a general conflict-of-interest statement; if it appeared you were involved in anything that could be construed as conflict of interest, they submitted you to a second form similar to this one,” she says. “In years gone by, it was more focused on sideline businesses; now it’s more focused on political activity.”

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Friday Fun: Creationist Museum Acquires 5,000-Year-Old T. Rex Skeleton

Jul 10 2015 Published by under friday fun

The Onion is the font of all great science reporting. Only the truthiest, most newsworthy items get published there.

And it seems as if there's been a breathtaking breakthrough in paleontology! One of our finer institutions of learning and research, the Creationist Museum of Natural History, has rocked the scientfic world with a startling find.

Creationist Museum Acquires 5,000-Year-Old T. Rex Skeleton

TULSA, OK—In a major coup for the growing field of creation science, the perfectly preserved remains of a 5,000-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex were delivered Monday to Tulsa's Creationist Museum of Natural History.

*snip*

Methuselah was discovered last summer in northern Turkey by a team of Oral Roberts University archaeologists, who were on a dig searching for the Tower of Babel. According to Gill, the skeleton, which stands nearly 20 feet tall, possesses terrifying, razor-sharp teeth and claws, confirming that it was an evil beast in league with Satan, the Great Deceiver.

Using advanced dating processes from the cutting edge of biblical paleontology, the Oral Roberts team determined that Methuselah lived during the late Antediluvian period, or "The Age of the Dinosaurs." They said the pristine condition of the find strongly suggests that it perished in the Great Flood, fossilizing quickly and thoroughly due to the tremendous water pressure during the event.

Even the mainstream scientific community, in defiance of all reason and expectation, can't stop talking about this amazing discovery!

Methuselah has caused such a stir that even supporters of evolutionary science have found themselves caught up in "T. Rex Fever." Christopher Eldridge, director of New York's Museum of Natural History, raved that the acquisition was "absolutely inconceivable" and "not to be believed." Dr. Harmon Briggs, a Smithsonian Institution paleobiologist, gushed in a phone interview that the discovery of the 5,000-year-old beast was "mind-boggling" and "in defiance of all the human senses."

Said Gill: "I have even received an exciting letter from a paleontologist at UCLA asserting that Methuselah could be even older than 5,000 years. Who knows, it might even date back to the Sixth Day of Creation."

This may be the most important breakthrough I've reported on in these virtual pages since Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks! Or even Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence!

(Yeah, I know, this Onion piece is from 2003, but it's still a hoot.)

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Reading Diary: Are We All Scientific Experts Now by Harry Collins and To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

Science! What's it good for? Working towards better knowledge about the natural world!

Under review today are two books that approach what science is and what it's good for from very different angles. Steven Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics and in his book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science he uses the example of the development of physics and astronomy in modern times to show how the scientific method has been developed and evolved over time. Harry Collins is a sociologist who was instrumental in developing the fields of science studies and the sociology of science. In his book Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, Collins takes what the scientific method has given us and explores how society should take advantage of the resulting knowledge and expertise.

In a sense, we have two sides of the coin here, a way to approach the contingent, temporary, evolving "truths" of science. How did we come to know what those truths are and how should the citizens of modern society view those truths. Both Weinberg's and Collins' approaches are valuable and interesting, however one of them is more successful in terms of what we actually have before us as finished books.

The Harry Collins book is the more successful of the two and is actually one of the best examples of "practical philosophy of science for regular people" I have encountered. Collins' career project is understanding expertise, particularly scientific expertise, and this book is a kind of career capstone for him. He looks at different kinds of expertise in the book. In particular he evaluates scientific expertise how those regular people should evaluate the experts and make use of the expertise.

He comes to the conclusion that scientific expertise that is based on evidence and established community practices within science should generally be trusted by the general public. The question in the title of his book, "Are we all scientific experts now?" That he basically answers with a resounding No. While skepticism is important to science and citizens should be skeptical, when we look at so many of the major issues of the day where there is widespread disagreement between citizen skeptics and the consensus of the scientific community -- vaccines and climate change being the two biggest examples -- it's not contest. Evidence and expertise are fundamentally important.

Collins' book is an incredibly important contribution to the discussion on the place of science in society and the formulation of public policy based on science. I can't imagine a library at any level that wouldn't benefit from this book. It is a quick read and very accessible and is suitable for even high school or middle school libraries.

The Weinberg book by contrast isn't as successful as I would have hoped. The goal of the book is to demonstrate the development of the scientific method through the historical development of the major scientific ideas in astronomy and physics. This is actually a very interesting goal. The scientific method is often presented as a kind of fait accompli is explanations of how it works, as if scientists always used it and always understood its power.

Of course, that's no where near the case. And Weinberg does a pretty good job of using the history of scientific ideas to tease out the history of the scientific method. But a potential pitfall is all too obvious here -- finding the right balance between explaining the content and details of those scientific theories and ideas versus pulling together the progression of the philosophical ideas embedded in the discovery of those ideas. Too much either way and the risk is diluting the complementary goal. Too much philosophy and too little science will have no grounding. Too much science and too little philosophy will produce a book too similar to shelves and shelves of other history of science books.

Unfortunately Weinberg puts too much emphasis on the science.

This is a book that could easily have been fifty pages shorter and still made the same points. I often found my attention wandering wadding through the "facts" and looking forward to the context. Weinberg often got bogged down in the "What" rather than the "why" or "how." Overall a pretty good book, I would recommend it for academic libraries that have popular science collections. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.

Collins, Harry. Are We All Scientific Experts Now? Cambridge: Polity, 2014. 140pp. ISBN-13: 978-0745682044

Weinberg, Steven. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper, 2015. 432pp. ISBN-13: 978-0062346650

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