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Sun, 11 Sep 2016

If you can only bear to read one 9/11 retrospective or tribute piece this year, I’d humbly suggest — if you are not already familiar — reading the story of Rick Rescorla, one of the many heroes of the WTC evacuation.

The Real Heroes Are Dead, written by James B. Stewart in The New Yorker, from February 2002, is worth the read.

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Mon, 31 Jan 2011

I’ve been hearing about this book literally for years now, and just got around to reading it this month: The Victorian Internet (non-referral link) by Tom Standage. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

Who or where I heard about the book from initially I can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by a mention recently on MetaFilter, had the ‘free sample’ sent to my Kindle, and ended up buying it while waiting in the departure area of IAD last week.

It’s not a long read, but it’s an interesting look at the history of the telegraph, which I thought I had a fairly good understanding of but in truth knew very little about. If you want a companion book to go with it (long flight?), I’d say that Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is a good choice, although it’s a bit more historical-fictiony, since it essentially picks up a few years after the period that Standage examines in The Victorian Internet. (Thunderstruck deals with the development and impact of radio, mostly during the early spark-gap era.)

Anyway, Standage writes a nice little book and even if it does tend to hit the reader over the head a bit hard with the telegraph-network/Internet comparisons, they’re mostly apt.

Although Standage doesn’t come right out and say this, one of the reasons I suspect that the parallels about workers in the early telegraph industry and the pre-DotBomb tech industry (keep in mind, Standage’s book was written in 1997) work so well was that both involved skills that were so in-demand that employers were willing to overlook a multitude of issues in potential employees, and workplaces developed a colorful culture as a result.

But the real reason to read the book is as food for thought and as a counterpoint to the frequently “chronocentric” (Standage’s term) claims about the unique or unparalleled nature of current technological developments.

About the only negative — and this is expressed in the Amazon reviews — is that the Kindle edition is really pooly done. It’s pretty obviously just some sort of OCR dumped out there for purchase without even the benefit of a single read-through by a human. It’s full of I’s standing in for 1’s, and the drop caps at the beginning of each chapter seem to be a frequent source of problems. It’s certainly readable, but a bit embarrassing on Amazon’s part.

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Thu, 17 Jul 2008

From here, which has photos of each. Unfortunately there’s not an easily downloadable list so you can compare your alcoholism to that of your friends’, so I typed one up. Enjoy.

Best Hotel Bars List: 1.17kB ASCII.

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Mon, 14 Jul 2008

It’s a new week, and for me, that means a new plane trip. And a new plane trip means new reading material.

Having finished Jared Diamond’s (excellent) Collapse — post forthcoming, eventually — I’ve moved on to GMU Professor Rick Shenkman’s book Just How Stupid Are We?

I saw Shenkman on “The Daily Show” a few weeks ago and ordered the book based pretty purely on that; he seemed like an intelligent guy making an interesting point. (Also, I needed something to round out an Amazon order. Yay for free shipping.)

It’s a short book, written in fairly large type. Perhaps this is appropriate given Shenkman’s overall thesis: over the past 50 or 60 years, we as a society have given the ‘American Voter’, otherwise known as ‘The People’ (as in “we the People…”) far too much credit and far too little blame for our policy failures as a nation. In other words, we’re all a lot more stupid than we like to think (and have our leaders tell us) we are.

In our search for places to lay blame, few stones have been left unturned. Bankers, investors, lobbyists, corporate executives, trial lawyers, members of the media, and of course politicians generally have all faced criticism. But only very rarely does anyone take the American people, collectively and as a group, to task for their complicity for the outcomes of government.

It’s a controversial question to ask because most of us have been taught, and probably believe quite sincerely, that “more democracy = better”, and it’s hard to blame the people for much of anything without considering whether that’s necessarily always true. Put bluntly: ‘Is more democracy really better democracy, if the people, by and large, show little-to-no inclination to do anything besides blindly accept whatever they’re told?’ Even raising the question endangers some very sacred American cows, and opens the questioner to accusations of being “undemocratic” or “elitist”.

One thing that I haven’t encountered in the book so far — and I’m about 60% of the way through, and will hopefully finish it later this week — are any proposed solutions to fix the system that we’ve created. It’s all well and good to criticize how we got to where we are, but that doesn’t provide much help in moving forward. So I’m hopeful that he’ll make some suggestions as to how the level of discourse or the system in general can be improved.

I’m holding off overall judgment on the book until I’ve finished it, but in general I thought the premise was pretty good. We’ll see if my feelings change once I make it through the conclusion.

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Sat, 14 Jun 2008

A few days ago I mentioned I’d picked up Jared Diamond’s book Collapse as my travel reading. Due to a few long airport delays (thanks, Delta), I’m now more than halfway through.

Rather than holding my thoughts until the end, I’ll be blunt: so far, I’m tremendously impressed. It’s a much more engaging read than Guns, Germs, and Steel, perhaps because it’s focused more narrowly, and the style is a little less academic. It is at times a downright chilling book.

Diamond’s discussion of the fate of the Easter Islanders is often mentioned in summaries and descriptions of the book, maybe because it’s in the first chapter. However, he spends far more time talking about the fate of Norse Greenland, and from the perspective of a modern American, it’s an easier story to relate to.

There’s a certain horror-movie quality to reading about the downfall of societies, especially ones who arguably doomed themselves or contributed to their own demise. Except instead of “don’t go in the basement!” it’s “don’t cut down those trees!” or “don’t try to graze sheep there!” But we know, of course, what’s going to happen.

You would have to be particularly thick to read Collapse and not draw substantial parallels to the fragility of our current society — not least of all because Diamond sometimes goes out of his way to explicitly make the point. Recently, the New York Times Sunday Book Review asked a number of prominent authors for books that they’d like to see the current crop of Presidential candidates reading. Personally I’d be happy if any of them picked up Collapse.

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Thu, 08 May 2008

As I mentioned a few days ago, Sudhir Venkatesh’s book “Gang Leader For A Day” is at the top of my reading list. Today I finally had some free time and dug in.

My initial reactions: it’s a fascinating book. Two chapters in, I’m definitely hooked. However, I’m not without some reservations. Venkatesh asks his readers to take a lot on faith; the nature of the book requires you to trust that the whole thing isn’t an elaborate fabrication, and that he’s honest both in his observations and recollections.

Although I’m certainly not one to cast aspersions — especially considering that I’m only a couple of chapters in — it would be difficult to fault readers if they decided to approach the book with a grain of salt. It is, after all, a premise that borders on unbelievability: a meek, bookish Sociology grad student at the U of Chicago walks up to a housing project and immediately forms a deep and lasting bond — “a strange kind of intimacy … unlike the bond I’d felt even with good friends” (p.23) — with a gang leader? It’s a hell of a premise.

Also, in terms of research methodology, what Venkatesh is doing is almost quaint, practically to the point of being 19th-century. In some ways, the premise of the book is essentially a ‘white man goes into the bush’ narrative. I’m waiting with bated breath to see how the book deals with this obvious issue, since I’m sure accusations of depicting the ‘noble savage’ in a tracksuit are something Venkatesh must have anticipated. At least, I hope so.

At any rate, the opening chapters suitably grabbed my attention. I have a few lingering reservations and doubts, but I’m certainly sold on reading it through.

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Thu, 01 May 2008

Just a few quick thoughts on some books I’ve read recently:

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

I realize I’m about six months or so late to the party with this book; now you can barely mention it in public without a dozen people rolling their eyes at you in boredom. But the number of people you’ll run into who’ve read it, are reading it, or have been berated by their spouses that they ought to read it, is a testament to how important this book is. If you’re one of the 15 people remaining in the country who haven’t heard of it yet, it’s worth your time. (If you’re in a desperate hurry, only read the first half, since it’s the most important.)

At some point I’ll probably write in greater depth about it, but suffice it to say for now that it completely changed my (admittedly ignorant) views on a number of food-related topics. NY Times Book Review

  • The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I’m a big fan of Scalzi after reading his debut novel Old Man’s War. This is a sequel, or at least a follow-up, set in the same universe. I thought it was solid, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who liked OMW.

  • The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

I picked this up from Amazon at the same time I was ordering The Ghost Brigades, simply because it’s Scalzi’s newest book. It’s a stand-alone, and it has a significantly different pace and tone than OMW/TGB. I think my feelings for it might have been colored somewhat by reading it back-to-back with Ghost Brigades; although The Android’s Dream is good, it’s a bit of a jarring transition. (My biggest thought throughout reading it was that this is what L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth books could have been, if LRH hadn’t been a crazy, racist, homophobic, misogynist with a dearth of talent and a team of religious sycophants instead of an editor. Okay, so on reconsideration it has nothing at all in common.) Overall I don’t think it’s Scalzi’s best work — that’s Old Man’s War, by a mile — but it was certainly better than par for the course.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

I don’t normally read books out of spite, but this was an exception. I decided to read Pullman’s trilogy only after hearing about the “controversy” it had generated within the Christian Right, on the assumption that anything that pisses off a bunch of thin-skinned religious nutbags must have at least some redeeming value.

As it turns out, I was about half right. I thought the books were pretty decent overall, and significantly milder in terms of content than I’d been expecting based on the boycott threats the movie received. As a treatise on or introduction to humanism it’s not much, but I suppose that’s better than becoming a Randian discourse on the subject.

The other accusation I’ve heard leveled at the series — namely that it promotes or condones age-inappropriate sexual behavior — doesn’t seem to stand up, either. Without going into great detail on the plot, I’ll just say that the author certainly doesn’t venture (at least in literal descriptions) anywhere that wouldn’t be rated “PG-13”. If readers look between the lines and see more than that going on, that’s really their own business — and really says more about them than it does about Pullman.

Overall I don’t think there’s much reason for adults to pick up the series, unless you interact with younger readers or just want to keep tabs (as I do) on whatever has the far-Right’s panties in a bunch this week. I’d recommend the books with limited reservations to most open-minded junior-high/highschool age readers or their parents; the only real exception would be to students who’ve already pressed on to more complex speculative fiction. (Personally, I can only imagine my younger self being impressed by His Dark Materials if I’d come across it before I’d discovered Heinlein; after that I think it would have seemed a bit tame.)

And in no particular order, my current reading list for the next few months:

  • Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
  • In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
  • The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (if it’s not already evident, I have a Michael Pollan fan in the house)
  • The Last Colony by John Scalzi
  • Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg (hat tip to MetaFilter’s Drezdn)

I’m especially looking forward to reading Venkatesh’s book, since I found the chapters discussing his work to be the most interesting parts of Freakonomics; I’m curious to see if his conclusions are the same as Dubner and Levitt’s.

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Sun, 20 Jan 2008

Tree growing in rotting school books I think this image really speaks for itself; there’s not much that I can say to add to it. The photographer, username “Sweet Juniper” on Flickr, discusses it on their blog. Be sure to view it at a large size in order to appreciate it properly.

Although I’ve done my share of photographs in abandoned buildings, most of the places I’ve been were your pretty standard post-industrial, “the world has moved on” landscape. They really have nothing on these locations, which are positively apocalyptic.

As a quasi-counterpoint — lest you start to draw overbroad conclusions about the city as a whole — the “Detroit is Beautiful” set, by the same photographer, is also worth a look.

(Via Reddit; also spotted on BoingBoing. Image is CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

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Wed, 24 Oct 2007

I recently ran across AnimatedKnots.com, and due to always having a soft spot for knot-tying (but absolutely no talent for it), thought it was fairly interesting. They get a gold star for being — as the name suggests — animated, which is a lot more useful than the majority of reference materials around. Most of the ‘animations’ are short (<10 frame) photo series, showing the construction of each. There’s also the ability to step slowly through the procedure, which is nice if you’re slow, like I am.

The site requires JavaScript and is probably best if you actually have a piece of rope to follow along with.

It surprises me a little, given how superior animations are to static images at teaching a skill like this, that such a site didn’t get created a long time ago, but it looks fairly new.

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