The Long Tail of Long Tail Reviews

First Brad King posted a multi-part review at his Technology Review blog (which I can no longer find*) of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.  Now Tom Slee has posted an even longer multi-part review at his blog, Whimsley: The Long Tail.  It looks good, but I confess I haven’t yet had the time to read it.  I think I need somebody to write an abridged review of Slee’s review. 🙂

Anyway, I now feel even less need to ever read The Long Tail, and for that I thank King and Slee.

Tom Slee has his own interesting book out called No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice.

* because Technology Review‘s search function doesn’t work and their blogs and RSS feeds seem to change/break almost weekly — pretty good for a tech magazine!  Wired’s feeds recently broke too.  Like most blog readers, I rely almost exclusively on an RSS reader to keep up.

A Month Without the Net

Writer Stephen Elliott describes what it’s like:

I was in Gaza when the Israeli soldiers were snatched from their
posts. I was in New Orleans three days after Katrina smashed the levees
to bits and the city flooded. But of all of my various adventures,
people have been most curious about my recent decision to go offline
for a month. I bought an old word processor and left my fancy laptop
with a friend.

"How will you exist?" my roommate asked. "You’ll have no idea what’s going on. You won’t be able to find anything."

[…]

So
what did I do during my month offline? "You must be getting so much
done!" was the refrain I heard constantly. That wasn’t exactly true,
not initially. My first week offline was mostly spent in a state of
withdrawal. I suffered from bouts of extreme boredom. I realized I
hadn’t been bored in years because I’d gotten in the habit of never
giving myself the chance.

But slowly I began to find other activities to fill my time. During weeks two and three, I watched the first three seasons of The Wire (something I might have done anyway). I subscribed to the New York Times
and spent almost two hours every morning reading it from cover to
cover. It was only in the fourth week that things started coming
together. I wasn’t just breaking the Internet habit, I was breaking the
habits I had learned on the Internet: that addiction to continual
bursts of small information.

Link: Surviving a Month without Internet (Poets & Writers)

via Maud Newton

I’ve read Stephen Elliott’s book Looking Forward To It, which is about the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, and really enjoyed it.

Are You A Machine?

Sternberg I recently spotted this new book: Are You A Machine? The Brain, the Mind, and What It Means to be Human.  It looks like a good read and what’s also impressive is that it began as a high school essay.  The author, Eliezer Sternberg is now a sophomore at Brandeis University.  There’s an article about Sternberg and his book in The Bradeis Hoot.

From the book description:

Right now, someone in an artificial intelligence lab is fusing silicon circuitry in an attempt to engineer the human mind. In a hospital, a neurosurgeon is attempting to influence a patient’s emotions by firing electrical impulses into his brain. In a classroom, a teacher is explaining how neurons in the brain interact to generate thoughts, feelings, and decisions.

The question of where consciousness comes from and how it works is likely the greatest mystery we face. Despite progress in our knowledge of the brain, we still don’t know how it allows us to do things like enjoy a sunset, solve a math problem, or use our imagination. For those of us who have ever thought about issues of the mind or free will, these developments pose provocative questions.

What would happen if those mysterious processes could be understood? Would a scientist be able to know everything about our minds just from studying the systems in our brains? Could he predict how we will think and act? After all, the brain is an organ just like the heart or stomach, and scientists can figure out when the heart will beat and when the stomach will release bile. If such a thing could be accomplished, would that make me a machine?

There are those who approach this question from a technological perspective. Someday, an engineer might be able to build a robot with my memories, opinions, and behavior. Would that make me a machine?

This concise, lucid primer on neuroscience and philosophy of mind takes the reader to the very depths of the mystery of consciousness, exploring it through the eyes of key philosophers, neuroscientists, and technologists. Avoiding jargon and oversimplification, author Eliezer J. Sternberg illuminates baffling questions of the brain, mind, and what it means to be human.

Link: Are You a Machine? (publisher’s page)

It’s TV Turnoff Week

Schools in the San Francisco area are encouraging participation.  But what do the kids think?

Carson Tsang, 13, wrinkled his nose and scoffed at the idea of no
television for 10 days.

"Television is important," the Visitacion Valley Middle School
seventh-grader said. "There’s commercials. There’s news. And there’s animals in
trouble."

Link: School’s challenge: No TV

See also: TV Turnoff Network

Internet Bookstores and the Art of Browsing

Is bookstore browsing a dying art?  From the Times Online yesterday:

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author whose books include The Edible Woman,
The Handmaid’s Tale
and The Blind Assassin, which won the
Booker Prize in 2000, said that the “serendipity” of discovering something
in a bookshop has not been replicated online.

Kazuo Ishiguro, another Booker Prize winner, agrees. He told The Times yesterday that shopping for books on the internet was helpful for his work
“but it’s not fun”.

Atwood told the London Book Fair last week: “You are not going to get the same
experience on the net. Amazon is trying, by saying, ‘If you like this book
you might like this other book’, but it’s often something quite offensive
that they suggest.”

She added that the success of internet retailers meant that bookshops were
missing out on “the sales that they wouldn’t expect to make, but make
because somebody sees this beautiful cover and they pick it up and read the
front flap.

Link: How internet bookstores are killing art of browsing.

And today they published a counterpoint: The net: not guilty of grievous harm to bookshops.

I agree with what Margaret Atwood says, but as an obsessive book browser and buyer, on-line and off, I think there’s probably room for both.

The Rule of Law in Shambles (Some Small Press Love)

Geoghegan
No, I’m not referring to the legacy of Alberto Gonzales (though that’s probably not an inaccurate characterization) but rather to a short book by Thomas Geoghegan, published by the Chicago-based Prickly Paradigm Press.  I  read an adaptation of it in the latest Baffler (site is currently down; buy it at Dusty Groove) and was very impressed.  It’s an informed rant about the result, in the US, of decades of deregulation and government neglect to enforce environmental and other laws.  Here’s the book description:

It’s
an enduring axiom of political science: before there is democracy,
there is the rule of law. The pillars of the American legal system,
however, are falling apart. And so too, argues Thomas Geoghegan, is
America’s democracy. The Law in Shambles explains how the
2000 presidential election was only the first sign that justice is now
a function of party politics. Geoghegan notes how even lawyers are
losing a sense of how the system works. And wait, there’s more. The
death of contract; the rise of tort; the loss of public space;
uncharitable charities; dumbed-down juries; these are yet more signs of
the law in shambles

Link: The Law in Shambles

I’m currently reading another book in this series called Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology by Susan McKinnon.   Mckinnon

Book description:

Evolutionary
psychology claims to be the authoritative science of “human nature.”
Its chief architects, including Stephen Pinker and David Buss, have
managed to reach well beyond the ivory tower to win large audiences and
influence public discourse. But do the answers that evolutionary
psychologists provide about language, sex, and social relations add up?
Susan McKinnon thinks not.  Far from an account of evolution and social
relations that has historical and cross-cultural validity, evolutionary
psychology is a stunning example of a “science” that twists
evolutionary genetics into a myth of human origins. As McKinnon shows,
that myth is shaped by neo-liberal economic values and relies on
ethnocentric understandings of sex, gender, kinship, and social
relations. Drawing widely from the anthropological record, Neo-liberal Genetics
offers a sustained and accessible critique of the myths of human nature
that evolutionary psychologists have fabricated. It also explores the
implications for public policy of the moral tales that are told by
evolutionary psychologists in the guise of “scientific” inquiry.

Another small press that has published several interesting books on culture and politics is Between The Lines, based in Toronto.  I recently read User Error by Ellen Rose and recommend it highly.  It’s a study of the social construction of the computer "user" as well as a critical assessment of other aspects of computers and society, along the lines of similar work by Neil Postman, Theodore Roszak and Jacques Ellul.  They also published Roszak’s World, Beware! last year, and have several titles on technology-related issues.

Technology and Emergency Communication

Over at the PBS Teachers "learning.now" blog, Andy Carvin has started a discussion about the use of text messaging and other technologies for emergency communication. The discussion is prompted of course by the Virginia Tech shootings.  He writes:

So as I watched the events unfold on Monday as police realized the magnitude of the shooting that had taken place on the Virginia Tech campus, one of my first thoughts was, “Of all the campuses in the country, how could this happen here?” Of course, there’s no way any institution can be 100 percent prepared for such a random, terrifying event.

As a high-tech university, VT’s students are about as wired as any other school, with laptops everywhere and cell phones close to ubiquitous. Over the coming weeks, we’ll surely see more hand-wringing and outrage over the two-hour delay that took place between the time the first shootings occurred and the first mass emails informing students and staff that an incident had taken place. I don’t want to second-guess why the university waited, or why they chose not to lock down the campus immediately. Instead, I’d like to focus on a broader technological issue – why email probably wasn’t the best way to notify everyone on campus.

[…]

Last July, you may recall, I wrote about how some universities were bucking the trend seen in K-12 schools, actually making cell phones mandatory for cases of emergency. Why? Because almost every cell phone available today is able to send and receive SMS text messages. SMS infrastructure generally holds up better in times of crisis than email, and it automatically appears on your phone’s screen when you receive one.

Link: PBS Teachers | learning.now . Virginia Tech: Yet Another Wake-Up Call for Better Emergency Preparedness | PBS.

I don’t know enough about text messaging to give an opinion on its merits for this purpose — it may well be a great improvement, though I think a healthy dose of caution (not to mention careful risk assessment) should be in order when considering bringing more complex technologies into the mix.

Future Words in Fiction

In an article in the Guardian, John Mullan writes about new words in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, both of which I highly recommend if you haven’t read them before.  Hoban’s other work is also terrific and under-appreciated (and under-published in the US).  Excerpt:

It is characteristic of dystopian fiction to make new words and phrases. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us "Newspeak" and, of course, "Big Brother". Remade worlds have remade language. Oryx and Crake has pigoons and wolvogs (genetically manufactured animals), the CorpSeCorps (a privatised police force) and the pleeblands (the diseased cities where the mass of humanity live). Such fiction invents words yet also finds in the imagined future the corrosion of language. In Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, for example, English has been roughly reconstituted after some apocalyptic event. You have to recognise the original forms beneath the narrator’s half-coherent expressions, as you have to recognise that the strange land where the novel is set is Kent. Hoban’s novel takes us as far down the path of linguistic forgetting as a novelist could dare. Atwood’s protagonist, in contrast, is fully articulate, but he feels how words may be lost. He tries to hold the memory of words as much as of people.

Link: Words of hope | Review | Guardian Unlimited Books.