Archive for the 'reading diary' category

Reading Diary: Genius At Play The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts

Jan 04 2016 Published by under book review, mathematics, reading diary, science books

John Horton Conway is a great mathematician, certainly one of the greatest living mathematicians. Polymathematical in his mathematical interests (game theory, geometry, group theory, topology and more, not to mention the Game of Life), he's also one of the most eccentric, and that's saying a lot in a field where Cedric Villani is prime eccentricity competition.

As one can imagine, the biographer of an oddball character like Conway faces certain ... challenges ... that most biographers don't face. Memory, obstinacy, whimsy, the whole nine yards.

So it pleases me to say that Siobhan Roberts' recent biography, Genius At Play The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, rises to the occasion and gives a wonderful and quirky portrayal of a wonderful and quirky figure in the history of mathematics.

But it must be said. If the author of a book about such an unconventional

unusual, irregular, unorthodox, unfamiliar, uncommon, unwonted, out of the ordinary, atypical, singular, alternative, different; new, novel, innovative, groundbreaking, pioneering, original, unprecedented; eccentric, idiosyncratic, quirky, odd, strange, bizarre, weird, outlandish, curious; abnormal, anomalous, aberrant, extraordinary; nonconformist, Bohemian, avant-garde; informalfar out, offbeat, off the wall, wacky, madcap, oddball, zany, hippie, kooky, wacko (here)

figure faces some challenges, so does the reviewer of such a book. How to convey both the book subject's personality and how that personality is reflected in the book itself? Because make no mistake, Roberts does a great job of mirroring Conway's personality

the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character.

"she had a sunny personality that was very engaging"

synonyms: character, nature, disposition, temperament, makeup, persona, psyche

"her cheerful personality"

qualities that make someone interesting or popular.

"she's always had loads of personality"

synonyms: charisma, magnetism, strength/force of personality, character, charm, presence
"she had loads of personality" (here)

in the way she tells the story -- fresh, fun, whimsical, a bit wild and offbeat. But not purposefully difficult or obtuse or overly wilful or inventively fanciful with details (like Conway also can be), I guess leaving those aspects out of the direct telling of the tales.

What I'm going to do is leave it to the book itself to tell it's own tale. Here's a bunch of quotes, I won't tell you who from, from Roberts or Conway or one of the other people quoted in the book. 'Cause where would the fun be in that.

  • p. 20: There goes somebody looking strange. Ergo it must [be] a friend of Dad's!
  • p. 25: You know, it's hard to think what message to send your tongue to get it to do this thing.
  • p. 51: I'm a Platonist at heart, although I know there are very great difficulties with that view.
  • p. 57: Mercifully, the hiring process for the Cambridge mathematics faculty was then loosey-goosey, somewhere between anarchic and irrational.
  • p. 64: "Had the baby?" / Yes. / "Boy or girl?" / Yes.
  • p. 74: Were my lectures anywhere near that coherent?
  • p. 75: The smitten students loved him as much for his mind as his silly high jinks, and maybe most of all for his singular hybrid of sophistication, sincerity, and lascivious showmanship.
  • p. 82: Cue the tremolo whistle that presage a duel in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." It's a mathematicians shootout. Who's the fastest to draw to draw a stellated icosahedron.
  • p. 97: During a trip to Montreal there was 8 inches of snow. Conway, as per usual, was wearing only his sandals.
  • p. 107: Are there any determinists present?
  • p. 124: I like to think of a huge abandoned warehouse equipped with logical devices such as AND, OR, and NOT gates.
  • p. 128: It terrifies him that another of his worst nightmares might come true, that his life will in the end be reduced to Life.
  • p. 133: You know, when you play a game, if you learn to be good at it, you find what it is you should be thinking about. That is really rather subtle. And that's what we do in mathematics.
  • p. 139: Come again? (As the actress said to the bishop.)
  • p. 145: Which is to say, Life could calculate pi. It could calculate anything. In the broadest logical sense, Life was a metaphor for all of mathematics; it contained all of mathematics.
  • p. 181: No. Yes. I'm not sure, to tell you the truth.
  • p. 186: Conway carries the Shannon philosophy to its extreme, often forced by his lack of system to rediscover his own results.
  • p. 213: Suppose surreal numbers had been invented first and real numbers second -- suppose it had gone the other way and we had all grown up learning surreal numbers.
  • p. 224: Conway's philosophy of study, which has served him well, is to always take his investigations several steps beyond what any reasonable human being would do.
  • p. 224: No no no no no! You're being far too REASONABLE.
  • p. 237: I arrived at the alcove armed with the "Monstrous Moonshine" paper...in hopes of getting, if not an answer, at least some elaboration about what exactly he and Norton had accomplished.
  • p. 242: Conway employs an entomologically inspired algorithm in explaining his own mating patterns.
  • p. 244: How, pray tell, does an unkempt nerdy mathematician get so lucky?
  • p. 275: It's one of the surest signs of senility in a scientist -- or a mathematician, for that matter -- when after having made a reputation in one subject, he somehow feels he can make a contribution to something else.
  • p. 364: We are parasites, we mathematicians, on the proper function of the brain.
  • p. 379: But my view is we are trying to find the truth, and there are other ways of finding the truth than proofs. And this is unsettling to mathematicians.
  • p. 390: Gareth, it must be said, is as psyched about having a nerd for a father as any boy could be.

You get the idea. And you'll have to get a hold of the book itself to figure out the context of the odder of the quotes above. Parasites. *snort*

Needless to say, this is an excellent book, one that belongs in every library's mathematics collection, academic or public. It is also indispensable for collections in the history of science or math. It would also make an excellent addition to the personal collection of any lover of math or personality.

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

Roberts, Siobhan. Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 480pp. ISBN-13: 978-1620405932

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Reading Diary: Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik

This latest book in my reviewing adventures continues the recentish trend of books concerned with science during World War II. Michael Hiltzik's Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex follows books such as Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War and Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l’Histoire. A little further back, there's Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War and Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact, which I read and enjoyed but never got around to reviewing. And graphic novel-wise, there's Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and even Feynman and Suspended In Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped about Neils Bohr (another I read and enjoyed but haven't reviewed).

Which adds up to quite the little obsession, when you think about it. Which is fine, of course, we're all allowed our obsessions. And FSM knows, the history of the atomic bomb in particular and World War II in general are endlessly fascinating.

Which brings us to Big Science.

Which is a scientific and technological biography of Ernest Lawrence as well the story of the birth of Big Science as a research and funding methodology. And to throw in some spice, we also see how Lawrence and Big Science collide (heh) during the late 1930s through the epochal year of 1945 to help bring us the atomic age.

With all this thrown in, what could possibly go wrong? And Hiltzik delivers and excellent and detailed history of all those intersections which, which it might drag at some moments, has a hugely interesting story to tell, one that I really didn't know a lot about and one that probably needs to be better understood in the modern world.

Especially the whole Big Science thing. Yeah, especially that.

Big science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups of governments.

Because it was Ernest Lawrence and his drive to build bigger and better cyclotrons and colliders at University of California Berkeley that drove the creation and development of Big Science. It was Lawrence who also pushed the nascent idea of Big Science towards it's logical conclusion during World War II, using his ideas of big labs funded by big government with big staffs to found the Oak Ridge National Lab as well as the Livermore National Lab, which later was renamed Lawrence Livermore.

Hiltzik does a great job of outlining Lawrence's progress, painting him as a kind of relentless technocrat, imbued with the endless optimism of science and discovery, willing to do almost anything to get where he needed to get. But not as a villain of the piece, blindly pushing for an ever-more militaristic scientific establishment -- the Military Industrial Complex. Though that's what Lawrence (and the rest of us) seem to have ended up with, Lawrence the bureaucrat and manager comes off as more naive and overly optimistic than scheming or grasping. As David Lilienthal described him, one of the "scientists in grey flannel suits." (411)

The last section of the book puts it in context. While the paradigm has lead to amazing things -- like what the Large Hadron Collider has given us in theoretical physics or the Human Genome Project in biology -- there's also been a cost. When science costs an awful lot of money, what happens is that the paymasters get to start calling the shots. In government and academia, that's increasingly the case, as science gets more corporatised. The Manhattan Project was kind of the great honeymoon for Big Science, but seventy years its has become far too ingrained for any talk of divorce.

Michael Hiltzik's Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex is a very good book and a wonderful addition to some less-well-known periods of science -- the eras just before and just after World War II. It was certainly an area where my knowledge was lacking. As well, during the section on World War II, the focus on the Oak Ridge, TN lab where the uranium was enriched rather than Los Alamos which usually gets all the attention, was quite welcome. I recommend this book without reservation for any academic collection that collects in the history of science or WWII.

Hiltzik, Michael. Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-1451675757

(Review copy provided by the publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Steve Jobs: Insanely great by Jessie Hartland

Sep 10 2015 Published by under book review, reading diary, science books

It's tempting to go a couple of different ways here.

A book that has "Insanely Great" in the title? What could possibly go wrong?

On the other hand....

A kids book about what a jerk Steve Jobs was. What could possibly go wrong?

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. An illustrated biography of Steve Jobs aimed at a younger audience which gives an honest, unflinching look at his life, warts and all. Maybe not up to the "insanely great" standard, but engaging and enjoyable with a lot of openings for parents and children to talk about how complicated real people are.

What more could you ask for, really?

Jessie Hartland's book could very easily done a very superficial life in pictures of Jobs, something that would be interesting and cool and above all inoffensive for his intended audience. Probably mostly the parents and friends of 8-10 year olds who might be interested in technology or Apple products or even just a slice of life. Another audience is adults -- Apple and Jobs fans and cultists who will probably read the book on their watch, looking for a brief, quirky but affirmational look at the life of their hero.

Both these audiences would seem to favour a fairly modest accounting of Jobs many flaws as a boss and as a person. The more-than-occasional indifference to family and friends, the perfectionist mercurial obnoxious tightly-wound boss. Easier to focus on his passion and brilliance, his flair for design and laser-focus on simplicity and elegance.

And Hartland is to be congratulated on bringing both of those sides to the table, using his child-like, simple, elegant artwork to bring out the lovable in the obnoxious as well as the obnoxious in the lovable, walking the tightrope of honesty and integrity in storytelling versus an age-appropriate approach.

Because the theme of this book is how even the best and brightest people are complicated and imperfect. Jobs was a genius, but he could be a jerk. Why is that? Are all geniuses jerks? Are all jerks geniuses? Aren't we all imperfect and why shouldn't famous people get to be imperfect like the rest of us? These are great conversations that will arise naturally from reading this book with your local young person.

This is a charming book and provocative book for young people. Buy it for the young people in your life as well as any fans of Apple who might want a quick and quirky read. This book is definitely suitable for libraries with children's collections. Academic libraries that support early childhood education or children literature programs would find an eager audience for this book.

Hartland, Jessie. Steve Jobs: Insanely great. New York: Schwartz & Wade, 240pp. ISBN-13: 978-0307982957

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani

Aug 04 2015 Published by under book review, mathematics, reading diary, science books

Cédric Villani's Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure has risen to the top of my Best Science Book of 2015 list. It'll be tough for another book to kick it off that summit before the end of the year, that's for sure.

The name Cédric Villani probably sounds a bit familiar to most who follow the science world reasonably closely. That's because he's the spider-pendant wearing, cravat and three-piece suit porting, Fields Medal winning French mathematician who's currently the director of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris. He's known in math circles for his work on nonlinear Landau damping with Clément Mouhot.

Birth of a Theorem is his memoir of how he and Mouhot made their breakthrough in nonlinear Landau damping. Curiously, the book really isn't about nonlinear Landau damping itself, barely including any kind of non-specialist description of it all all. Rather BoaT is about how they made their discoveries. It's about process, not product.

So the book includes copious email discussions between the two, some barely comprehensible to non-specialists, including TeX code and equations. It includes digressions and discussions, explanations of illuminations about the famous figures in their field, side trips into the music Villani likes to listen to while working. It's about the importance of collaborators and mentors in the scientific enterprise. It's about needing time to think deeply, away from pedestrian concerns, to get to the heart of the math. The serendipity and randomness of learning new things and making unexpected connections. It's about the challenge of finding good bread and cheese in New Jersey.

And lots and lots of rumination about work/life balance, juggling spending time with his small children, balancing his wife's career and his own, and the challenges of relocating to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study for six months and throwing all those balls up into the air, working in the shadow of Einstein. Mostly it's about balancing total immersion into the world of pure math with the demands of the very real and impure world of people and institutional politics and collaborators and family and life and death. Is Villani rather self-absorbed? Do we feel for his poor wife and kids at times? Sure, but we also root for him fiercely, hoping that he and Mouhot will slay their dragon.

And as incomprehensible as some of the math is, the process is vibrant and alive like in few other books I've read. Something like Wrinkles in Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe by George Smoot and Keay Davidson comes to mind as a similar example from what I've read before.

I would recommend this book without hesitation. Malcolm DeBevoise's translation is smooth and seamless. BoaT would make a great gift to any science- or math- loving member of your extended circle. In particular, for anyone contemplating a research career, this book would provide an amazing insight into how research actually happens, especially in the more abstract areas of math and science. This book should find an eager audience for any library that collects popular science.

In many ways, Villani has only whetted my appetite for learning about the processes of mathematical discovery. Michael Harris's Mathematics without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation seems like an interesting second step in this adventure. It's much longer and from the reviews and descriptive material, it looks like it just might pick up from where Villani left off, taking us from the unraveling of one discovery into a more generalized discussion of how the mathematical mindset works.

I have also recently reviewed the graphic novel Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and Baudoin.

Villani, Cédric. Translated from the French by Malcolm DeBevoise. Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0865477674

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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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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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Reading Diary: The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor

I am not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather that we've lived with it long enough to ask tough questions.
...
I've tried to avoid the Manichean view of technology, which assumes either that the Internet will save us or that it is leading us astray, that it is making us stupid or making us smart, that things are black or white. The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people's platform, we will have to work to make it so. (p. 8, 10)

Astra Taylor's The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age is easily one of the best Web culture books I have ever read, if not the best. It takes the onrushing revolution in art and culture and journalism head on. Of the books I've read recently it compares and contrasts very nicely with Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow. Like Doctorow's very fine book it's about what may be the central artistic/commercial tension in the Internet age: consumers of information (art, scholarship, journalism, etc.) want it to be free but the creators and distributors of that information (artists, scholars, publishers, writers, etc.) want the information to be expensive.

As the original quote from Stuart Brand goes, "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other" with Brand's follow up, "Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away."

And what's interesting of course, is just how ingrained this tension is. While looking for a link to the publisher's page I started typing into my search window "astra taylor the people's..." and what should the type ahead show me? Yep, you guessed it: "astra taylor the people's platform pdf." It's ironic that a book that makes the case for financially supporting creating expression in the Internet age is, well, a book that a lot people on the web don't seem to want to pay for.

Paying for culture is a hard case to make sometimes, in a world where it seems more normal to pay for the gadgets that deliver the culture and rely on the creators of that culture to trade their work for "exposure." The commonly accepted devil's bargain is that at some point in the hopefully not-too-far-distant-future they will be able to trade that exposure for something that will pay the bills.

Which is all a bit odd for me, given my current vantage point. I'm writing this in Paris. Where there's a book store on every block and a record store on every other block. And this is only a very slight exaggeration for effect. The French are very protective of their culture, to an extent that seems a bit unhinged to we ruthless count-every-penny North Americans. Amazon and it's ilk discounting books is actually a controversy in France. Bande dessinées are expensive. Print books are expensive, CDs and records are expensive. Yet the shops are crowded and people seem to be willing to trade some cash for knowing that the arts are taken care of. If Silicon Valley disruptors are storming the cultural Bastille, the French are having nothing of it. Even Uber has to play by the rules, no race to the bottom here. Or at least a much slower race.

Astra Taylor might find her ideas have more resonance in Europe than in the land of disruption and discounting and dog eat dog.

[W]e should strive to cultivate the cultural commons as a vibrant and sustainable sphere, on ethat exists for its own sake, not to be eploited by old-media oligarchs, new media moguls, insatiable shareholders, for-profit pirates, or data-miners and advertisers. (p. 176)

This book makes the case -- that a truly democratic culture is worth directly supporting in the online world in the exact same way as the offline world. And it is worth supporting culture both by the everyday choices of the average cultural consumer as well as through the levers of various government agencies. In other words, a sustainable model for cultural support. Culture is a commons, one that needs to be supported. The new "tragedy of the commons" is not one of enclosure but of under-investment. A commons shouldn't be built on exploiting free labour on social media sites where the users are actually the "product" for advertisers or laying waste to the environment to mine precious metals to manufacture gadgets. We have to build in equity. We need free culture in the sense of a public library, not corporatized "free culture" like YouTube videos or Google Books or Facebook or Twitter.

(Fear not, Taylor does mention her support of a sustainable, open scientific commons.)

Appropriately, the conclusion of Taylor's book is subtitled "In Defense of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sustainable Culture."

And the first paragraph of that chapter reads,

It may seem counterintuitive at a time of information overload, viral media, aggregation, and instant commenting to worry about our cultural supply. But we are at the risk of starving in the midst of plenty. A decade ago few would have thought a book like In Defense of Food was necessary. Food, after all, had never been cheaper or more abundant; what could be wrong with the picture? A similar shift of perception needs to happen in the cultural realm. Culture, even if it is immaterial, has material conditions, and free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs. (p. 214)

Techno Uber Optimists beware. Taylor isn't afraid of saying bad things about the Internet (or good things, for that matter). She doesn't treat is like some sort of anthropomorphized overly sensitive person who can't deal with any even mild criticism. She treats gurus and pundits of all stripes with the same critical respect. She asks the tough questions and reasons carefully to work towards some answers, or at least ideas that might lead to some answers.

This is a great book, read it, argue with it, agree with it violently and disagree with it just as violently but give it's arguments a fair hearing. Recommended for all libraries and anyone interested in the future of culture.

Our communications system is at a crossroads, one way leading to an increasingly corporatized and commercialized world where we are treated as targeted customers, the other to a true cultural commons where we are nurtured as citizens and creators. To create a media environment where democracy can thrive, we need to devise progressive policy that takes into account the entire context in which art, journalism, and information are created, distributed and, preserved, online and off. We need strategies and policies for an age of abundance, not scarcity, and to invent new ways of sustaining and managing the Internet to put people before profit. Only then will a revolution worth cheering be upon us. (p. 232)

Taylor, Astra. The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014. 288pp. ISBN-13: 978-1250062598

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Reading Diary: Love in the Time of Climate Change by Brian Adams

May 19 2015 Published by under book review, environment, reading diary, Uncategorized

A bit unusually for me, I'm reviewing a novel as part of my Reading Diary series. Usually the closest I'll get to a novel is a fictionalized science graphic novel of some sort, kind of like the Survive! series or Lauren Ispsum.

But no, this ain't one of those. It's a good old fashioned novel.

OK, it's a climate change fiction novel that's kind of like an Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell romantic comedy but starring Seth Rogan and Jennifer Lawrence. Set on a community college campus, it has a bit of a feel of The Absent-Minded Professor or even The Nutty Professor for the cli-fi set.

So what have we got? Basically, our hero Casey, is a professor at a small community college and not only is he obsessed with The Issue to the point where he calls his affliction OCD for Obsessive Climate Disorder, but he's also socially awkward, nerdy, immature and extremely lovelorn. And a pothead.

The novel is about his adventures during the fall 2012 term during which he is teaching a climate change course as well as getting more than slightly obsessed with a breathtakingly beautify school teacher named Samantha who is taking his class for professional development credits.

We get to learn about the dangers of climate change and the folly of the political/denialist set through Casey's classroom activities and through his advising of the campus anti-climate change club. These parts are very effective as we see issues such as fossil fuel divestment campaigns not just through a theoretical lens but also through the eyes of people learning about the issues and trying to make things better.

Casey's obsession with his student Samantha is a bit jarring at times, in a way that a post-adolescent frat boy crush is a bit embarrassing in a grown man. And it's never completely clear to me what she sees in him. Beautiful woman falls for goofy yet charming loser because of the power of his obsessions seems more like a teen-aged fantasy scenario rather than a fully-realized adult story. At times Samantha seems more like a prop than anything, a way for Casey to establish his "good guy" credibility by the constant obsessing over how he can't approach her while she's still a student. No surprising spoiler here, but it all turns out OK in the end for Casey and Samantha.

All that being said, the Casey/Samantha relationship isn't a deal-breaker for me. It did provide some nice comic relief what with Casey's constant romantic pratfalls and it seemed less jarring as I got further into the book.

This is a charming little book, a bit silly but entertaining in its goofiness. A recommended light read that many public libraries might find useful to add to their collections and even perhaps some academic libraries with leisure reading collections.

Adams, Brian. Love in the Time of Climate Change. : Green Writers Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0996087209

(Review copy provided by author.)

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Reading Diary: Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design by Lisa Welchman

What is digital governance in the first place?
Digital governance is a discipline that focuses on establishing clear accountability for digital strategy, policy, and standards. A digital governance framework, when effectively designed and implemented, helps to streamline digital development and dampen debates around digital channel “ownership.”
-- From the Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design website.

Universities
Intellectual autonomy and stubbornness of staff
-- From the index, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, p. 229

Time to take a little medicine! All those digital projects, all those digital projects teams, all those digital projects strategies. Libraries, academic libraries, we know them well, don't we.

Chaos is a good word. Lots of stakeholders, limited resources, competing priorities. Governance is a good word too, for libraries, as it tends to imply less a top-down, less hierarchical, more collegial way of making decisions. And when it comes to deciding how an organization should make decisions about their digital presence, finding a way to makes those decisions more effectively is very important.

Which is exactly what Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design by Lisa Welchman is about -- how to set up internal structures that will help organizations make decisions about digital strategies, policies and standards. Note that the book isn't about what decisions to make or even really how to organize the decision-making process. It's about what structures can facilitate and inform and govern a decision-making process that results in strategies, policies and standards.

It's that twice-removed aspect that is both the book's greatest strength and the source of some frustrations as well.

It's a strength because it provides a level of abstraction between the content of the decisions and the process of deciding that can take a bit of heat out of the whole thing. Frustrating because the occasional lack of grounding in reality of all the talk of policies and whatnot make it hard to see how it all ties back to reality. The endless talk of process this and committee that is sometimes like grasping at smoke. There are fairly detailed case studies at the end, but perhaps some of that content should have been distributed a little better up front -- or at least some more real world examples.

Building a governance structure where none existed before or overlaying one on an existing chaotic situation are challenging tasks to say the least. Basically it requires defining the appropriate structures and then figuring out how to overlay those bureaucratic structures on an organization that needs it but may not realize or recognize it needs it.

And Welchman does a terrific job of going through how to define those processes and even how to talk about implementing them. She's very deliberate and patient, setting everything out in words and charts, step by step, how to figure out who defines, who has input, who has final authority. And the things we're talking about deciding about (see how circular and vague and smokey this gets...)?

Digital strategies, digital policies, digital standards. And not in any concrete way, of course, but as those higher-level abstractions that will be different for every industry or sector and which will be different for each organization within those industries.

And yes, higher education is one of the sectors that get a case study at the end. The example is a university's central web team in charge of managing and integrating the school's web presence across all the various units. (The case studies are anonymized versions of experiences in her own consulting practice.)

Governance can be a good word for higher education, of course. But the challenge in the modern higher education landscape is distinguishing between governance and "governance" or governance-washing. Setting up a digital governance strategy for institutions that are as decentralized and multi-faceted as universities is doubly challenging. What's being governed in digital strategy anyways? Just marketing and communication? Data and scholarship resources? MOOCs and online education? Faculty and departmental web-presences? To what degree is the marketing and communications tail wagging the educational and research mission dog? Someone has to keep an eye on what universities are really for -- teaching and research. And not marketing. We don't have universities so we can market them -- as the tail sometimes seems to think.

Welchman trods this fine line not always successfully in the higher ed case study. Too much emphasis on top down from the senior admin and provost and not enough grassroots bottom up from faculty, staff and -- yes -- students. For governance to be legitimate in a higher education environment, the decision-making needs to flow upward, not downward, as inconvenient and frustrating as that can seem sometimes on the inside. The digital part of the university serves the teaching and research mission of the university, not the other way around. Autonomy and stubbornness are virtues, not inconveniences to getting input on long, tortuous processes.

Overall, this is a very good book, if a little dry and disruption business web hallelujah jargony at times. The digital/web teams are perhaps too often portrayed as the misunderstood heroes of the various tales rather than part of complex organizational ecosystems where heroes and villains don't really exist. References to "disruption" and "digital natives" and "digital campus" don't necessarily inspire complete confidence, but there is also an incredible amount of wisdom here when it comes to creating collegial governance. Your mileage may vary, but it's hard to imagine that anyone involved in digital projects at any level won't find something here to help them navigate creating better processes at their institutions.

This book belongs in any library/information science, technology or business library collection in academia. Probably only quite large public library systems would find an audience for this book, but branches in technology hub neighbourhoods should probably put a copy in their window display. Also, buy a copy for everyone on your digital team, up and down the hierarchy all the way to the CIO.

Welchman, Lisa. Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, 2015. 248pp. ISBN-13: 978-1933820880

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Reading Diary: Books on Canadian politics: Harris, Wells, Delacourt, Savoie, Bourrie, Gutstein, Doern/Stoney, Pielke

This roundup includes reviews of a bunch of recent and not-so-recent reading about Canadian politics, in particular the Harper government and how it controls information. Some of the books are pretty directly related to science policy and some, not so much. These are all worth reading, some kind of overlap while others present fairly unique approaches. All were useful to me in my long term interest and work around Canadian science policy and in understanding the current Canadian Conservative government's anti-science attitudes. All are solid additions to the growing body of work on the Harper government and its impacts on Canadian society and belong in every public policy collection at academic or public libraries.
 

Bourrie, Mark. Kill the Messengers — Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. Toronto: Patrick Crean, 2015. 400pp. ISBN-13: 978-1443431040

The books I'm reviewing here all basically have one purpose -- to expose the Harper government's anti-science, anti-democracy, anti-information leanings. They all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, they all cover slightly different aspects of the Harper record. Some are a bit dryer and more academic that others, some deep dive some topics and others are very general.

Mark Bourrie's Kill the Messengers is a very fine addition to the cannon. While ostensibly aimed at the information control aspects of the Harper Tories, it actually covers a fairly broad swath of what's been going on, and I think that's the case because pretty well all aspects of their dysfunction circle around information control, from attacking libraries and archives to muzzling scientists to whipping up terrorism terror, it's all about information.

And Bourrie does a great job of giving an accesible, detailed account of the "kill the information messenger" aspects of the Harper regime, as all-pervasive as they are.

What Bourrie does that's a bit different -- his added value, as it were in oh-so-appropriate corporate speak -- is place what Harper is doing in the context of the collapse of traditional media, how what we have left if hobbled and sycophantic like never before. Where there's less coverage, there's less accountability. He explains how the Conservatives have used their own larger-than-ever-before communications apparatus to fill the void, replacing news with propaganda.

I highly recommend Bourrie's book. If you've read all the ones that came before, like I did, there might be some redundancy but that's probably not the case for most people. The long form census, the history-bending military fetish, the intimidation of charities, the McCarthyistic "enemy lists" are all covered very well. He doesn't cover science or libraries as much as I'd hoped but at least Chris Turner has covered science exhaustively in his book. We're still waiting for the definitive treatment of the Harper assault on libraries and archives, but I guess that will have to wait.

 

Delacourt, Susan. Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-1926812939

Shopping for Votes is easily one of the most fascinating and important books on Canadian politics I've read in a long time. It's not only or even mostly about the Conservatives -- though they serve as the main case study -- as it is about how electoral politics has become about using marketing, polling and micro-targeting as the main tools for fighting and winning elections. It traces the transition of the the political class's conception of the voting public as citizen to the voting public as consumers of politics and how this plays into the hands of both governments and the media/corporate elites. Not to mention how that conception of voters-as-consumers has fed into and paralleled the rise of attack ads and negative politics. It's a tool box largely imported into Canada from the US by the Conservatives but more and more it's being use by all the parties.

This is an illuminating and frightening book. Highly recommended. Read this book.

 

Doern, G. Bruce and Christopher Stoney, editors. How Ottawa Spends, 2014-2015: The Harper Government - Good to Go?. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014. 216pp. ISBN-13: 978-0773544444

This is the most recent in a annual series of books that discuss Canadian federal politics through the lens of, well, how Ottawa spends. I guess the idea is that you can talk about high-falutin' policies all you want, but reality is where the budget dollars hit the road. Kind of like an Annual Review of Canadian Politics, with thematic contributions by a changing cast of experts every year. In the last little while, I've read a good chunk of the volumes covering the Harper years mostly to get a sense of the longer context on changes to science policy through that budgetary lens. Not all the articles are directly about budgets or spending per se, but often about governmental priorities or programs.

This 2014-2015 volume at hand has four articles with a science or environmental focus that I read with great interest. All provided solid coverage of their topic area and gave me great context and current information that was very handy for my presentation on Canadian science policy and the Harper government last fall.

Those articles are:

  • Harper’s Partisan Wedge Politics: Bad Environmental Policy and Bad Energy Policy by Glen Toner and Jennifer McKee
  • One of These Things Is Not Like the Other? Bottom-Up Reform, Open Information, Collaboration, and the Harper Government by Amanda Clarke
  • Managing Canada’s Water: The Harper Era by Davide P. Cargnello, Mark Brunet, Matthew Retallack, and Robert Slater
  • How Accurate Is the Harper Government’s Misinformation? Scientific Evidence and Scientists in Federal Policy Making Kathryn O’Hara and Paul Dufour

Perhaps not surprisingly, the article that was the most useful for me was the O'Hara/Dufour one on muzzling of Canadian scientists. They provided a great overview of the controversy, the facts and how it was covered in the media. The Toner/McKee article was also very useful in covering environment and energy, a topic that's covered fairly regularly in the various volumes of the series.

This series is required reading for anyone interested in a detailed view of Canadian politics from the inside.

 

Gutstein, Donald. Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada. Toronto: Lorimer, 2014. 288pp. ISBN-13: 978-1459406636

Conservative think tanks FTW! I bet they never get audited by the Canada Revenue Agency!

But they definitely have a long term and lasting impact on Canadian government policy. Or at least that’s the thesis of Donald Gutstein’s recentish book Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada. And a pretty convincing case he makes of it too, in a fairly short and focused book that still covers a lot of ground.

Basically, the Conservatives have used think tanks as a way of framing key issues that they want to deal with during their mandate. Gutstein does a good of what those core conservative ideas are in his chapter titles: Reject unions and prosper; Liberate dead capital on First Nations reserves; Counter the environmental threat to the market; Undermine scientific knowledge; Deny income inequality; Fashion Canada as a great nation.

Those pretty well encompass the Harperism movement, don’t they?

Gutstein kicks off the book with one of the best extended definitions of neoliberalism that I’ve seen, including going into some depth about the influence of Friedrich Hayek on both Harperism in particular and neoliberalism in general. The meat of the book is a subject by subject exploration of how various think tanks and “thought leaders,” such as the Fraser Institute are used to both generate ideas as well as to normalize and communicate them to the public. The use of bogus ideas such as “ethical oil” or the misleading buzzword “sound science” is also explored.

This is a well-researched, precisely-argued book that adds to the growing body of analysis of the roots and impacts of the current Harper government. Recommended.

 

Harris, Michael. Party of One: Stephen Harper And Canada's Radical Makeover. Toronto: Viking, 2014. 544pp. ISBN-13: 978-0670067015

The most recent of the general book to deal with the Harper years, this is probably also the one I got the least out of, probably mostly because I’ve read so many other books (and articles and blog posts and...) about Harper and merry gang of wreckers. But also at least in part because Harris gives the most extensive coverage to the Harper controversies that I find the least compelling and the least damning/important. I’m talking about the robocalls scandal, which in the absence of a smoking gun seems to be important but not the most important in the list of Harper’s sins. Yes, we all “know” that the election shenanigans originated at the highest levels, but “knowing” isn’t the same as knowing. I’m also talking about Mike Duffy and the senate scandals. To me the situation is too analogous to the previous Liberal government’s sponsorship scandals to regard it as anything other than politics as usual as opposed to something that marks the Harper government as uniquely disastrous compared to any other recent government. There are certainly plenty of those disastrous circumstances to go around.

And Harris, to his credit, covers most of those pretty well too, from the appalling treatment of veterans, to the situation at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries to the muzzling of scientists to the various “bad boys” like Bruce Carson, Arthur Porter and Nathan Jacobson.

Harris does a pretty good job of covering the later years of the Harper government, covering some stories that the other very general books didn’t. This book is recommended.

 

Pielke, Jr., Roger A. The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 188pp. ISBN-13: 978-0521694810

Roger Pielke is a bit of a controversial figure in the science policy field, which I didn't quite realize when I picked up this book as a general introduction to science policy. Last fall I needed something to give me a theoretical introduction as a way to ground the presentation I was going to be giving as part of York University's Science and Technology Studies Seminar Series. So I searched around Amazon and a few other places to see what I could find and this one seemed a decent choice.

And it was, for a first book. I found that the way he framed the relationship between scientists and society in terms of four idealized roles -- pure scientist, science arbiter, issue advocate or honest broker -- was useful for the way I wanted to frame my own presentation. As I got further in to the book, some of the parts did make me a bit queasy were ultimately reflected in what I learned about him over time. That being said, I did find his book to be a lively and useful introduction to the relationship between science and society: short enough to be easily digested while still having enough depth intellectually to be useful and challenging.

I probably need to read a few more general introductory books before the shape of the field really starts to take shape in my mind, for the issues and controversies to start to make coherent sense to me. Pielke's book was probably as good a place as any to start on that journey.

(Yeah, yeah, this one's not actually about Canadian politics but I see this as being all part of one large science policy project.)

 

Savoie, Donald J. Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?: How Government Decides and Why. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013. 336pp. ISBN-13: 978-0773541108

"How Government Decides and Why." Think of this subtitle as slightly re-worded as "How does government decide and why?" That's the question that Donald J. Savioe's book Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? tries to answer. And what would that answer be? Mostly, "It's complicated" for both how and why.

So in a similar way that the Pielke book helped me frame the scientist/society relationship, the Savioe book certainly helped me think more carefully about the three fold interface between government and the bureaucracy and citizens, with the emphasis on how elected officials interact with the civil service.

While not specifically focused on the Harper years, Savoie does use them as a case study as he examines how the civil service and the elected officials have evolved in their relationship over the years. Particularly interesting is how he goes into great detail on how over time as the government has become bigger and more complex, it has become much more difficult for politicians to make sense of detailed budgets and spending reports -- to the point where they no longer even seem to try any more.

Which dovetails nicely into some of Savoie's other themes. The spenders versus the guardians. The relationships between the various deputy and associate deputy and associate deputy assistant ministers and all the rest of the ever-proliferating levels of administration. The goal of government as blame-avoidance and butt-covering of those above you in the hierarchy to keep them out of trouble, to create a regime of "no surprises." Savoie again and again debunks the idea that private sector managerialism has any place in government or that it ever has been or ever really could be successful. That spending decisions get shifted and morphed by stealth rather than purposeful planning, all towards more complex administration. Planning relies less on evidence and more on opinion. The rise and rise of endless spin. The cocooning of the PM among a small circle of elite advisors.

And more.

Which gets us back to the original question. How and why do governments decide? Basically, the answer is that its complicated and messy, not a linear process, not a process that's easy to predict or easily quantify.

Making governing a very human endeavor.

Which gets me to a weird place when I think about the book. While it can be a bit dry, I certainly learned a lot of rather intricate detail about how government works, stuff I never knew or even really wanted to know. Which makes the book definitely worthwhile. I certainly ended the book with a much greater appreciation of the messiness of government than when I started. So I guess that makes the read worthwhile.

 

Wells, Paul. The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-. Toronto: Random House, 2013. 448pp. ISBN-13: 978-0307361325

One of the oldest books in this roundup, Paul Wells's book is probably also the first book to really look at the Harper government's overall legacy in a serious way. And of the books on this list, it's also the liveliest and most entertaining. Wells has a great way with a juicy story. And he certainly doesn't pull any punches -- he's pretty blunt about the good, bad and downright ugly about the early years of the Harper majority, about Harper's baldly stated desire to remake Canada as a conservative (and Conservative) country. "The longer I'm prime minister" as he's fond of saying, we won't even recognize this place.

Perhaps a bit dated now, with so much water under the bridge these last few years, I would still recommend this book for a solid insight into the first half of the Harper government's reign of error.

 

So what have I learned from all this reading? Aside from feeling, "holy crap have I ever read a lot of books about Canadian politics in the last few years?"

Somehow I think I should feel a bit more certain about what's going on or have a better sense of how we could fix it if we really wanted to. But in fact just the opposite. Like initial explorations of any field of study, those first excursions really just illuminate both how much you don't know and just how slippery solutions are.

And by solutions, I don't just mean electing another government, that's the easy part. I hope. What I mean is fixing the larger political climate in Canada so that evidence matters more. So that compassion matters more. So that micro-targeting narrow self-interested voter segments with tax cut goodies mattered less.

Understanding that context and framing those solutions is, if anything, even more illusive than it was when I embarked on this reading project a few years ago. And what it means is that even when the "Canadian War on Science" launched by the Conservatives is over, it does't mean that all the Canadian science policy battles have been won. Perhaps it means that rebuilding Canadian science will be just as important and finding that path will be just as fraught.

A new process and a positive project that will have just as much place for an old science librarian as the old battles.

As a bonus, here are some of the other Canadian political books I've read and reviewed recently.

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