Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Bowling Alone identifies a significant decrease in civic involvement and social capital since World War II. then it seeks to explain this fall. The book is meticulously detailed an is very dense for a "popular" work. Lack of "social capital" is seen as a bad thing in part because it leads to a lack of societal trust. (The population of lawyers has risen significantly during the study time period.) People that are involved in a socially active society also tend to be happier.
The author first picked a number of measures to identify social involvement. Active church and club membership, voting and sports league participation were some of the measures. The data was analyzed to tease out relative decreases that were masked by an increasing population. Time series data was also analyzed to see the differences. (Often a single population would remain active, but a younger generation would not.) These measures generally showed a decrease, however there were some exceptions. While people were often not members of chapter-based organizations, they did often write checks to national organizations. Evangelic and proselytizing churches also showed an uptick in activity while "mainline" churches were falling.
A number of of hypotheses were chosen to explain the lack of social involvement. Some did not seem to play a significant role. (Liberal politics did not seem to cause a decrease in social capital - however, I do wonder if policies would be enacted in response to a decrease.) Newspaper readers tended to be more socially active. Television, on the other hand, was strongly correlated with decreased social involvement. Suburbanization  was also strongly correlated. People in small towns were most socially involved, while those in metropolitan areas were least involved. The suburbs were in some ways worse than the those in the central cities. The suburbs had connections to many different suburbs. They also tended to have a more homogeneous local government. 
The chain in media has caused many different changes in social activity. New telecommunications means are able to reproduce parts of the in-person communication experience, but still lack the immersion of in-person communication. They also tend to advance to a more isolated experience. TV originally had isolated people, but they could socialize later after watching the same programs. Now there are many different channels and on-demand streaming removing that common experience. The book was written in the early days of the internet. A lot has changed since then. TikTok and Zoom provide a for an audio-video experience. However, they are still lacking compared to "real" people. The lack of "general" community involvement has also led to a more polarized society as people can remotely be involved with those that think the same. Getting back our social capital would be extremely valuable, but it is hard work.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Getting Things Done is a productivity book that advocates simple processes for actually getting things done. It is agnostic as to whether digital means or paper are used. (He mentioned his previous version mentioned specific productivity tools, but they have been changing so fast that this became redundant.) The key principal is to follow "natural problem solving":  capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. We often have a tendency to jump too quickly into solving problems without spending time asking why we need to solve the problems. To solve, it is important to use a "no filter" approach early on. Later things can be organized with items that are quick to complete done, while more detailed projects are broken down and reflected upon. There are many different components that would be useful for "getting things done." Getting everything together would probably be best, but even just getting a few components would be helpful.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

What Technology Wants

The author of What Technology Wants comes across as a techno-phobic technophile. While he loves technology, he also sees issues with the uncontrolled adoption of new technology. 
He cites the example of the Amish with their measured approach. They don't shun all technology. In fact, they are willing to allow people to adopt new technologies. However, the adoption comes with the stipulation that the elders may decide that the technology is not appropriate and the right to use it may be rescinded. Those living in the Amish community have agreed to these stipulations. (Amish youth are given a chance to live in the outside world and then chose if they would like to commit to the Amish way of life or live outside it.) They pick and chose the technologies that they want. There is also some degree of autonomy in each community. They may chose to allow machines, websites and smart phones, but not the electric grid. They choose ways to allow the technology to help them without hurting the community.
As the title would imply, the book spends time discussing technology as a "living being". Just as trees have a mechanism for seeking water, technology has developed mechanisms for seeking its own growth and propagation. It is important for us to understand what it is doing. We have some ability to control it. However, there is a lot that will just happen. Our lives will be changed significantly as technology advances. Some of the change will be good, some will be bad. Much of it is interconnected. What technology wants is both scary and exciting.

Monday, December 28, 2020


Hamnet was William Shakespeare's son. Little is known about his life, other than that he died of the plague while still a child. In this novel, the author imagines a history of Shakespeare and his family. It is loosely based on real life, but is a work of fiction rather than any attempt at accuracy. Shakespeare himself is never named. However, he is a main character. (This can make it somewhat difficult to follow who is who.) The book focuses on his life and relationship with his spouse. His spouse is portrayed as somebody not very interested in his work - even to the extent of being upset that their dead son is portrayed as "Hamlet". He was heavily involved with his job, however, the couple does eventually find peace together. This is a 21st century perspective of 16th century life. It almost intentionally pulls the "people's history" approach of avoiding most "real history" to tell a familial love story.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Overstory: A Novel

The Overstory is a story about trees and the humans associated with them. It starts with the story of migrants from the east coast to the Midwest. They happen to have chestnut seeds with them and end up with a lone tree. Things happened to the family on their farm, but the tree remained, eventually becoming an area landmark. Meanwhile, the chestnut blight wiped out almost all trees in the native habitat, leaving the isolated trees as loners.
Other characters have very different histories, yet eventually come together through the trees. There is a lawyer, a game programmer, a vet, a neo-hippie, a daughter of a Chinese immigrant, a psychologist and a botanist. They all come to respect trees. The trees have lived longer than people. They have their own communities and even have means of communicating with each other. Different species have different means of reproduction - some requiring fires and other extreme events. Clear cutting and replanting can create a monoculture, but don't create diverse forests. Similarly, the suburban vegetation is an attempt by humans to control the environment - but often far from a healthy ecosystem.
The message is that trees are important. We should respect what they have given to us. If we treat them as partners we can benefit from them without sacrificing their (and our) futures. The book paints "tree huggers" in a very positive light. Timber companies and loggers can be good also. However, once the finance make money as the ultimate goal, they become evil destroyers of forests. Even local cities can become too focused on "beauty" at the expense of the trees. The book can be a little extreme in the demonizing, but it flows well with the story.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Lying Life of Adults

The Lying Life of Adults is a very Italian novel. It was originally written in Italian by an Italian author and is set in Naples. It deals with a family that is torn apart due to infidelity in relationships. The central character is the daughter who gradually discovers that the adults are all caught in a variety of "lies". Her father fears that she may turn out like her distant aunt. The daughter then sees the aunt and learns about the affair that this aunt had. She becomes more friendly with the aunt and learns more about her life. At the same time, she gradually comes of age and discovers her sexuality as well and has various types of relationships with boys. Her parents' marriage falls apart as they got caught in "accidental" infidelity with friends. Then the book seems to meander along for a bit before it comes to a conclusion.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Zizek's Jokes: (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?)

Zizek's Jokes is a selection of Jokes from works (both published and unpublished) of Slavoj Žižek. Many are off-color and are often used to illustrate concepts in his works. The book can be repetitive - with slight variations of the same joke culled from different sources. The jokes can be used to tell "truths" of situations. They can properly criticize even when public criticism is not allowed. On the other hand, they can also give the feeling of criticism, and allow people to feel empowered even when they are not. Plenty of jokes cover feelings of those in the Eastern Block countries (where they may or may not have been created by those in power.) The book is short, but largely disappointing.

Midnight at the Well of Souls

Midnight at the Well of Souls is set primarily on a bizarre planet. A spaceship crew have discovered it. It seems to have had an advanced civilization, but left very few artifacts. There are some space ships explorations and some fighting and deaths. That is almost a sideshow to planet itself. There are a lot of ideas to explore. Sentient creatures can occupy many forms, from plant to animal. They may change and experience many different life forms. Some may look similar to what we know, but may be hermaphrodites or have other differences. The beings may not even be real, but just a projection from a central computer. There may be means for people to go out and have their own worlds. Things are never quite as they seem. Life can be different experienced in different times or in different bodies. The humble innocents may be more "blessed" than those fighting for power. There are a jumble of interesting ideas that sometimes seem to congeal into a story. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Last of August (Charlotte Holmes Novel)

Last of August is the second Charlotte Holmes novel. I probably should have read it before reading the third one. It starts with some basic teenage romance coupled with wealthy British dinner parties. Watson really likes Miss Holmes, but struggles with execution. There is also a big mystery to be solved related to art theft rings. Charlotte Holmes continues to be "super human". Perhaps those drugs that she is addicted to give he special power to (almost) always know what to do to help solve cases and get out of trouble. 

Monday, December 14, 2020


Seeker takes place mostly in a dystopian drug-infested China. A girl has things happen to her. Things turn violent. She also likes a boy, and there is some romance to go with the violence. People like different people and try to kill others. There is also something like an "aphame" that is important. (It was said over and over, but I don't know how to spell it.) There is also questions about how people are related. It is a bit sci fi, a bit fantasy and a bit typical teen novel.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Arctic Incident: Artemis Fowl, Book 2

The Arctic Incident is the second Artemis Fowl book. He to Arctic Russia to try and rescue his father. He has some of the same compatriots that he had in the previous book. There are some interesting parts in the book, but it seems to try to be witty at the expense of making a good story.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

Kindred is a "popular" book written by an academic with extensive experience in Neanderthals. It is not as dense as a typical academic work. However, it is not an easy to access as a typical popular work. The writing is a fairly dense recitation of the "state of the art" in ancient hominid research, with small bits of narrative tied in.

Neanderthals lived in "recent" prehistoric times. There is fairly large amount of available fossil records. However, most of the work has been done by making inferences based on the state of the skeletons and the related material. Death rituals and eating habits can be more easily be determined by looking at the bones and those of related animals. However, we are somewhat constrained in dealing with the "well preserved" remains. Are sample may not represent the population as a whole.

Genetic analysis has made for some interesting discoveries. There has been interbreeding between humans and early Neanderthals. However, the later Neanderthals did not appear to mate with humans. There are a number of open questions as to what happened to Neanderthals. Did humans wipe them out? Are they a cautionary tale of what humans can do to each other and those that seem different?

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem

Columbus is a complicated figure. At one time he was venerated. Now he is often demonized. Regardless of he his is viewed, he played an important role in history. The primary sources available are remarkably abundant, yet influenced by the passing of time. After all, his voyages were over 500 years ago. The American Revolution is much closer to our days than it is to the time of Columbus.

Some of the mythology gets in the way of understanding Columbus. He, like many educated people of the day knew that the earth was round. However, he miscalculated the size of the earth. America happened to be right where he thought Asia would be. He was a great navigator and went through great efforts to launch his voyage. He had to spend time wooing monarchs in order to get funds to sail into the unknown. 

Religion was an important part of his reasoning for sailing - and one of his political talking points. He thought of the expedition as a great chance to help convert the Great Khan and his subjects to Christianity. He also saw it has a chance to accumulate gold to finance a crusade to retake Jerusalem. He also saw his discoveries as part of the steps needed for the oncoming of Christ's millennial reign, which was to come in about 150 years. Towards the end of his life he published a work that detailed many of his religious views.

Crews were initially reluctant to join him. However, after he succeeded on the first voyage, he had many more people willing to join him. This was perhaps a bigger challenge. Now in addition to navigating and exploring, he had to manage people. The "elites" didn't want to do the hard work of colony building. Men were also eager to abuse the natives and found the unclothed women especially tempting. Columbus's first settlement of La Navidad was totally destroyed by the natives after the settlers had behaved poorly with the natives. 

Many of the Spaniards saw the natives as inferior and felt no qualms of abusing them. Columbus was often at odds with his fellow Europeans. They preferred to live in their "European" style and treat the natives as slaves. These Europeans were often high ranking. They would use their position to report vitriol against Columbus, even sending him back to Spain in chains at the end of one voyage. Columbus even had concerns with the religious leaders. He wanted to make sure that the natives could be instructed in the teachings of Christ before they would be baptized. 

The "Indians" that were encountered were not a single entity. There were different groups. Some shared common customs and got along well with each others. Others were not so friendly. Some of the Carib Indians had customs that were seen as especially barbaric, such as cannibalism and sodomy. It became a question of how best to punish them. Some were brought back as slaves. (Slavery of non Christians was commonly accepted at the time.) Other friendly Indians were also brought back to Europe. 

Columbus died still thinking he found Asia, not a new continent. He had a special love for Santo Domingo, yet was upset with the poor behavior of those sent to rule there. Each generation has tried to make Columbus in their own image. As scientific rationality took hold, the "science" of this voyage took the forefront, with the religious point of view brushed aside. In today's anti-racist climate, the poor behavior of his crews and later followers have led people to accuse Columbus of genocide, mass murder and slavery. Alas, this all tries to simplify a complex man and put him in mold of the current day. Even the primary sources we can find can be somewhat misleading. (Columbus had plenty of enemies who loved to exaggerate or make up horrible claims.) The irony of those spewing negativity is that Columbus was one of the more liberal, peaceful men of his days. He had much greater respect for the "Indians" and their land than did the typical European sailor.  

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Courage of Hopelessness: A Year of Acting Dangerously

I love the "birds-eye" view that Zizek takes for current social issues. He also peppers his arguments with numerous references to modern and contemporary literature. He observes that LGBTQI+ activists and religious fundamentalists are essentially fighting for the same thing - their identity. They like to say that they are basing their believes on "universal" values. However, the values are rooted in their group and the society in which they live. Some of the big conflicts are based on tiny differences - that may not even be coherent for the group at large. (The "bathroom" debate was a case in point. There was conflict over laws that required people to use the bathroom associated with their birth sex. However, neither outcome would help those that didn't identify with either gender. And what about those that do have fluid gender identification but don't identify with the movement?) The grouping of "oppressed" and "oppressors" is also interesting in that it often has a subtext of implying that the "oppressors" are superior.

He is a strong leftist, yet finds good things to say about the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Clinton would have just continued the corporatist politics as usual. Trump spoke out in a vulgar fashion and aligned himself with "the people". He had much more in common with Sanders in his disovowel of the "ruling class". Alas, in 2020, Biden was brought back in to succeed where Clinton didn't. His election was possible in part by the voters that "settled for Biden" in hopes of getting Trump out. However, Trump still came close. There is a demand for more all out reform. Alas, it may take more time.

The refugee crisis in Europe has some additional clashes of civilizations. On one hand, these are underprivileged minorities. On the other hand, they tend to have conservative Muslim values that are at odds with those in Europe. How does one react?

Why does capitalism always seem to win out? Even so called communist states like China end up creating a highly effective capitalist machine. How do we go about effecting system-wide changes?

The Brain: The Story of You

The brain is a really complex piece of machinery. We understand it much better than we used to, but there is still a lot more that we don't understand. The number of possible data-points and connections is so vast that we just don't have the computing power to fully map out a brain right now. We seem to have free will, yet there is a lot that is programmed. Our world is filled with different waves, yet our brain adapts these signals into sight, sound and other phenomena. The brain does a good job of "stabilization", "synchronization" and "noise cancellation". Even though inputs may come at different times, they are synchronized to paint a coherent picture. We may "remember" things somewhat differently than we actually experienced them. (Memory can also be manipulated to help us remember things that did not occur.) We also only take in what we need for the given task. When we master skills, the brain does not need to spend as much effort and can put things on "autopilot". This book is a nice, short work with a lay-persons introduction to the science and complexity of the human brain. Like the human brain itself, our understanding of the brain is evolving. Many animals have brains that are mostly pre-programmed. Humans are more akin to a bare-metal computer with just a kernel. We must load the OS and programs on top. This makes us flexible, but also makes it challenging to understand the complexities.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement

David Graeber, The author of The Democracy Project was one of the key players in the early 2010's Occupy movement. He is an academic, self-proclaimed anarchist and the originator of "the 99%". The book is part history of the Occupy movement and part manual for running an anarchic organization.

He describes the "1%" as the ruling class of the United States. These are the people that are in political and corporate power. They are also those with lots of money that can make donations to political campaigns. While "legal", these contributions are viewed as a form of bribery. The institutions of the state (such as police, laws, courts, etc.) are set up to provide benefit to the 1%. Foreclosures are an example of the apparatus of the state being used to support the 1% against "the 99%". The current system of laws and regulations is so vast that it is impossible to enforce everything. The result is a selective enforcement. The protestors were hit with citations for crimes that were rarely charged. There is almost always "something" illegal that is being performed by somebody. It is up to those in authority to pick and choose what is enforced. This allows for fully "legal" discrimination on those that are out of favor. This also extends out of the state to unions and other organizations. (A bus-drivers union can cause a massive slow down simply by "working to the rule".)

The occupy movement did not have a leadership structure and used consensus to make decisions. Consensus ensures that everybody has a voice and nobody is forced to go along with something they do not believe in. Alas, it does not scale. He does give examples of reducing consensus decisions to those that are important to the body as a whole. (Universal agreement is not needed for designing a logo.) A consensus society would be an ideal. However, implementing it would be close to impossible. Some of the pre-Columbian societies in the Americas may have had the anarchic structure. However, they were also easily destroyed by the hierarchical Europeans.

The author advocates "real" democracy. He criticizes voting as just a means to promulgate the leadership by the elite. The masses are given a small choice between a few elites as a means of keeping them subjugated. There is rarely a choice between vastly different systems. The left can't understand how working class voters chose Republicans, seemingly against their own self interest. However, the voters realize that the Democrats are merely throwing them a few bones. There is little significant difference between the two parties. The constitution specifically did not have direct democracy, but merely a system of elected officials.

Full democracy is common in protest movements, but has rarely succeeded on a large scale. Pirate crews would often implement a democratic structure - after they had mutinied against their original ship leadership. Small communes have also had varying degrees of success with full democratic organization. On a large scale, there are just too many people and too many decisions to maintain direct democracy. These problems eventually led to the downfall of the occupy movement. 

The Long Ships

The Long Ships (originally Röde Orm in Swedish) is a viking epic set around AD 1000. The vikings have what would seem today as naive view of the world around them. They have a great sense of loyalty, and take what comes to them. The main goal is to seek out plunder and women to support themselves and their crew. However, with this lifestyle comes the likelihood of death or slavery.

The protagonists of the main religions of the day. A Jew helps lead them to a a great deal of plunder. However, they later fall victim to a Muslim leader who enslaves them. They take what happens. One viking is able to pick up the language. The vikings fight valiantly for their Islamic leader, adopt his religion and save his life. Eventually, the time arises for them to escape and they commandeer a ship to return home.

Back home, there are bouts of armed combat to resolve issues (often leading to the death of the loser.) Christianity has come to Scandinavia and many vikings convert. They often take a practical view to the religion. In Iberia, they convert to Islam as that god seems strong there. Later they convert to Christianity to restore their luck. Sometimes there are bits of confusion with the different religions.  The strong loyalty to family and one's word is often the predominant factor in guiding their life decisions regardless of the current religion.

The book is episodic, with many of the sections easily standing alone. The style seems to have been an inspiration for the Brotherband books by John Flanagan 

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

The Joy of x attempts to demystify math so that "the rest of us" can gain some of the excitement that mathematicians do. The author succeeds fairly well in relating complex mathematics to the real world.

The Joy of x starts simple and takes nothing for granted. An example from Sesame Street calling for "fish fish fish" begins the introduction into numbers and counting. Subtraction begat the need for negative numbers. Square roots gave us the need for imaginary and complex numbers. Parabolas and other conic shapes have the ability to concentrate and amplify due to their structure. Geometry, calculus and algebra all help us explain real world phenomena.

"School math" often focuses on isolated equations or contrived story problem. Connecting it to the real world does a good job of making things alive. There are always the assumptions in word problems that we are asked to take to solve them. In high school, wind resistance always drove me crazy. Riding my bicycle, I knew that the wind and hills made a huge difference in speed and effort. Yet, all word problems seems to assume that all travel was done in a flat vacuum. The math to account for those details was "too complex" for the moment, but important for the real world. Even acknowledging those factors helps increase the "joy" in math.

Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow

Going viral has become cliche. Often it a news story or a video will suddenly be everywhere, then disappear. In 2009, viral growth was the rage in Silicon Valley. Everyone wanted to engage in viral marketing to get their company to grow as quick as possible. Viral growth can be both a blessing and a curse. If an internet company is not prepared for the growth, they can quickly fall with the new growth. If customers don't like what they see, they may leave as quickly as they came.

The book talks about many companies that have gone viral. Hotmail added a tagline at the end of messages that lead to rapid adoption. Paypal, Ebay, Netscape and many others have grown virally. Ebay and Paypal have managed to remain today. Netscape is long since gone, with Internet Explorer taking its market, and the IP seeding Mozilla. The book praises Ning and its viral growth and "moat". However, Ning is now just a minor niche player. Other social networks come and go. Friendster had some life in Asia before dying. Myspace is alive, but no longer important. Facebook is still a behemoth, but no longer popular with youth. 

The book addresses some of the concerns with viral growth, but seems very optimistic. Biological viruses sometimes spread quickly. Other times they spread more slowly. Some viruses cause significant harm. Effort is made to counteract them. Others are a minor inconvenience and people just live with them. Some viruses also mutate making them almost impossible to eradicate. This could be a lesson for business also. Business that live by the virus also die by it. Mutation can help keep the business alive. However it is no guarantee of survival.