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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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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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