The Victorian Internet

the_victorian_internet The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage i.e. The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers is really quite fascinating. There were two things that really stood out for me.

For one, I couldn’t believe how technologically advanced information sharing was in the late 1800’s. I never even heard of a visual telegraph and had no idea pneumatic mail tubes were so advanced back then, that one could even send a cat from Brooklyn to Manhattan by them. Add to that the electric telegraph, which is the star of the book, with which people were having online-weddings, using it with complicated encryption schemes and of course scammers and spammers were all over the technology.

Which leads me to the second revelation, I was fascinated to find out how closely the telegraph revolution mirrored our own information explosion in the age of email and the “new” internet. I think I might have to agree with Standage when he claims that Time-traveling Victorians arriving in our time would be much more bewildered by our heavier than air flying machines and space flight, “as for the Internet – well, they had one of their own,” in short, they would probably be unimpressed.

the drunkard’s walk

the_drunkards_walk I found Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Rules Our Lives to be a pretty fascinating read. It definitely fits into the pop-science category, so if you want hard-core science or even math it’s probably not for you. But with all of it’s historical interjections, sociology, psychology, gambling tidbits and surprising facts about how our brains handle randomness [hint: badly!], on the whole, it worked for me!

One random, no pun intended, no really, quote that I liked has to do with the fact that we really don’t like/understand things that are truly random. For example when iPods first came out the random playback setting truly was random, with the result that occasionally a song would get repeated or played back-to-back, but to our minds that’s not random. Apple’s response, as explained by Steve Jobs was to make the feature “less random to make it feel more random.” Sums up the human/randomness relationship in a nutshell.

However, the overall lesson I learned from this book, is one Mlodinow comes back to again and again, in different forms, throughout the book. It’s best summed up by this quote from IBM pioneer Thomas Watson: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” It might sound negative but really it’s an encouragement, don’t get discouraged by failure and instead respond with even more attempts. With the way success works, governed by chance more than we realize, eventually you will succeed.

Kaspar

kaspar_diane_obomsawin
wow. somewhat of a sublime experience reading this little gem. really great but also unhinges you a little.

I can’t believe I’ve never hear the story of Kaspar Hauser before. (I highly recommend you read this story first, before you look him up on the internets.) do yourself a favor go read this book, it will only take a little while and it’s worth it. thanks diane obomsawin!

You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe

you_are_here_christopher_potterThis is a pretty rambling account, with way too many footnotes, digressions, “useless” facts, and Scientist name dropping sprinkled in. But in the end it was an interesting journey through the world of science, with scale from mega-macroscopic to miniscule-microscopic as a loose scaffolding on which this adventure unfolds.

At times Christopher Potter’s You are Here reads like an endless litany of facts, but the over reaching arc was enjoyable. And, for a book so entrenched in science, I like how it ends on a note of maybe science doesn’t know everything after all, summarized by a quote from Robert Jastrow:

“[The Scientist] has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Outliers

outliersWhile reading Malcom Gladwell’s latest book I couldn’t really figure out why it is so controversial. Everything he said made a lot of sense to me. Perhaps he is just really good at laying our his arguments, he is a convincing writer, all the while expounding theories that fly in the face of the ideals that the United States is mostly built on, like The Myth of the Self Made man.

I think, just as he does, that it is important to acknowledge chance and good luck and unusual opportunities in people’s success stories. That way we can assure more success for more people by bringing those extra opportunities to everyone. I do wish he would have touched on some theories that maybe counter what he is saying, that is usually what a good thesis does.

Also, if I ever disliked flying, I am even more weary, having an even more first-hand account of all the things that can go wrong in the cockpit. I never thought “cultural legacy” was something I would have to add to that list. Gladwell devotes a whole chapter to this subject.

Being Digital

being_digital

Nicholas Negroponte’s 1996 bestseller was an interesting read. I must say reading old tech oriented books is amusing. So many predictions are so wrong and many futuristic maybes become long gone relics of the past, just a little over a decade later. If we set all that aside, I think this book is still a quite useful read.

Many a CEO or layman of today still have trouble comprehending the fundamental difference between bits and atoms, and the huge implications that difference brings. Now more than ever this discussion is coming to a head, in the music business, in the distribution of media between television, cable and the internet, and finally in the discussions surrounding ebook distributions. “Move bits, not atoms,” is his motto for a reason.

I also think some the ideas he touched on, their heyday is yet to come. This is particularly true of his idea that we should use bits to encode instructions for things, not just as a means of creating an image of something by sampling it. It’s incredibly wasteful and lossy to just encode things by sampling. There are many advantages to vector graphics over raster, advantages to actually encoding text rather than just taking a picture of it, and he even describes how you could encode the information for how a piece of music was made instead of just sampling it at 44k times a second, and in the process shaving off the amount of space it takes up by factor of 1000.

Despite all this, faxes are still around (which take pictures/sample instead of encoding), even though tech people thought they would die a long time ago, and as much as ten years ago Negroponte already thought “the fax machine has been a serious blemish on the computer landscape.” I think the PDF format answers that quest/question nicely.

Here’s a 1994 Wired article that summarizes some of his ideas nicely.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

brieflifeofoscarwao A wonderful gem of a book, in the tradition of 100 years of solitude…or any other novel where generations intertwine and the past has a great influence on the present without the knowledge of it’s current inhabitants. Destiny manifested in our parents’, grand-parents’, and even great grand-parents’ minute decisions all have a great hold on us. This is a great read.

You also learn, at least I did, a lot of previously unknown history of the Dominican Republic through long and sometimes multi-page, quite informative, footnotes. Oh yes, and not many books out there that are so un-self-conciously geeky (Sauron and Akira anyone?). What a wondrous mix!

The Design of Everyday Things

I am somewhat surprised that this book has so much traction in 2008. The design corners of the internet are always raving about this book. How can a book that was written more than 20 years ago, and refrences film and slide projectors as the high tech presentation tool of it’s day be so relevant and so often quoted in the age of the internet? Let’s not forget the interenet is the land of things that usually have negative half-lives, and are tired and over, before they even come to existance.

Well the sad fact is that we, our society, has learned very little about designing things in the past 20 years. Actually, it’s more apt to say, we’ve learned a great deal, but we still have a great long way to go to actually implement what we now know, and have know for some time (i.e. this book).

Everyday things are still being designed and manufactured very very badly. The biggest conundrum is why we as a society stand for it? Why are we taking it lying down? Why do we continually accept things that in their design are hindering us, wasting our time, and even in many cases endangering our lives? Norman touches on this in his book, partly it’s because we all understand the need to occasionally cut corners to save time or cost, but partly it’s our own psychology, when bad design happens to us and causes us to make mistakes we always seem to blame ourselves.

Well no more! I think the main reason the book is so revered is that it is a manifesto of sorts, it ends with a call to action. You! Consumers! Stop buying crap! Put your money into well designed, thought out objects that don’t suck! If we all did that our world would be that much better.

The Blank Slate

A somewhat lengthy diatribe on a difficult and controversial subject.  At times I felt like this guy really had an axe to grind, but overall I think his argument makes sense.  In a few years this book will probably seem more like common sense than controversy, but at times the arguments Pinker makes were more like the kind of dehumanized “factual” statements a geek is likely to make that are disconnected from the meaty, love filled, human reality of the everyday world.

Pinker made great pains to overcome this diconnect and in fact a lot of his argument comes from and speaks for this human-ness, but it’s hard to overcome the coldness that a purely scientific argument has to make.

I think I agreed with what was presented overall, but I’m sure it would be no suprise to Pinker that I had the most beef with him about the arguments he makes surrounding art.  Generally I agree with him, art can at times be about a  search for status or sometimes just serve as an example of conspicous consumption but I think he is wrong on one point.  Minimalism is much more than just a formal exercise.  To some people, myself included, there is real beaty in it.  The kind of beauty that Pinker is calling for a return to in art, not just the hypothetical beauty of concept, but actual physical beauty.