Monday, December 14, 2009

Simulation and Its Discontents by Sherry Turkle is one of two excellent books on technology that should make fine gifts for the tech-minded reader. Reviewed in post below.
Tech Gift Book # 1
Simulation and Its Discontents
by Sherry Turkle
The MIT Press 217 pages

Daily life is being reshaped so rapidly and extensively by quickly pervasive new technologies that experienced perspective is correspondingly crucial. With The Second Self in 1984, Sherry Turkle established herself as a trenchant observer and analyst of the personal computer’s effects on people, and perhaps more importantly, as a deft writer on the subject. In this new book, she examines how professionals in several fields interact with computer simulation, suggesting the effects on all our lives. For as we’ve seen with cell phones and related applications, evaluating their effects is an afterthought at best. “The more powerful our tools become,” she writes, “the harder it is to imagine the world without them.”

Turkle tips her psychology background with the title, a nod to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. She quotes architect Louis Kahn’s question—“what does a brick want?” (with its echo of Freud’s “What do women want?”) and adapts it to all the fields she studies, and to focus the overall question: what does simulation want? And what do we want?

As a new faculty member at MIT in the 1980s, Turkle surveyed student and faculty reactions to the increasing use of computers in academic and professional settings. Twenty years later (finishing in 2005), for another ethnographic study she went back to the architects, engineers, biologists, chemists and physicists in the same firms and departments. In this book, she presents findings from both studies, highlighting their contrasts but also the developing themes.

The central theme is the most obvious and most profound: the worry over losing a sense of reality while being seduced by simulations. It was a worry at MIT as early as the first pocket calculators: without the visual reference of slide rules, students were making what seemed like small mistakes—a single digit-- but they were huge errors in order of magnitude. Similarly, simulations hide their own errors. The first simulations of crystals growing were mesmerizing, and also wrong. Simulations express biases in their code, their structure: an early game called Sim City (players planned and built a city) embedded economic theories associated with Milton Friedman, so that taxes for social purposes were always bad.

In the 1980s, Turkle found faculty insisting that students learn the programming to understand the assumptions of the simulations they used. By 2005, few were doing so. A generation has grown up with computer simulations, and the fear is that they can no longer detect errors because they have little experience with the reality being simulated. (Interestingly, Turkle found cases in which older faculty were pushing simulation programs but being resisted by younger students, who wanted more hands-on experience.)

Architects find that simulated designs look so “finished” that it's hard to change them, even though they are preliminary. Builders weren’t checking computer designs, assuming they were correct. But the basic fact of programming still pertains: garbage in, garbage out. Computers can be wrong, based on wrong assumptions and biases, and following programming steps that don’t end up reflecting reality (which is usually more complex.)

Turkle’s study is 100 pages of this book. The rest is comprised of case studies, including two that are especially fascinating: William Clancey’s study of NASA scientists and their relationships to the Mars rovers, and Stefan Helmreich’s description of high tech deep ocean explorers, about to be made obsolete by technology that doesn’t require human presence.
Another good bet for the Techie on your gift list: The Best Technology Writing 2009, reviewed below.
Tech Gift Book # 2
The Best Technology Writing 2009
edited by Steven Johnson

Yale University Press 222 Pages

Like a lot of writing on technology in the past couple of decades, Steven Johnson makes a good point and then overreaches. In his introduction to these pieces from magazines (Wired, Discover, Atlantic, Technology Review, New Yorker) and web sites, he points out that most of them are about the present, while tech writing has been habitually about wonders to come. This leads him to dismiss thoughts of the future entirely, which misses the point: the introduction of so much new technology so quickly requires attempts to understand its real world meaning, if we’re to have any control over the future at all.

He does a fine job selecting the writing in this volume, though. There’s absorbing reporting, like Dana Goodyear on the cell phone novel phenomenon among adolescent girls in Japan (leading to a lucrative new category in traditional book publishing there), and Joshua Davis on the guy who discovered a fatal flaw in the Internet. New tech roles in the 2008 election are evaluated in pieces on the Obama campaign and Nate Silver’s approach to polling, and Andrew Sullivan writes a deft if somewhat obsolete essay on blogging. Dalton Conley’s brief look at “time and money in the information age” yields unsurprising but quantified conclusions: because of new tech, top wage earners are working more, and there’s greater income disparity between the middle and the top.

The evaluative essays cover the usual suspects with mixed results. Nicholas Carr’s “yes, but,” discover-a- trend-by-interviewing-yourself piece on how the Internet makes him impatient with “deep reading” is familiar (and appropriately followed by an Onion expose, “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book.”) Clive Thompson’s similarly first person analysis of the “digital intimacy” enforced by Facebook and Twitter (“what’s it like to never lose touch with anyone?”) is thought-provoking and sensitive to this new phenomenon.

Sharon Weinberger analyzes the effects on privacy of GPS and Google Earth, while Dan Hill’s almost surreal narrative of pervasive surveillance is classically chilling. As in the Turkle book, Sim City's cultural, economic and political assumptions hidden from players are mentioned, as Luke O’Brien writes about a new game by the same designer. This time, "Spore" applies a brand of Intelligent Design to biological evolution.

The book drifts off with some familiar natterings by Wired’s “Senior Maverick” Kevin Kelley, and Clay Shirky’s call for a mouse-driven future, in which he misunderstands the nature and importance of story so completely that he resurrects my fears about what the virtual world can carelessly destroy. But on the whole this is a very useful book, and it’s a paperback, too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Blog Attack

This blog has been under attack by mass comments in the Chinese language. For the time being, I'm restricting comments and have enabled comment moderation, which means I see the comments before they are posted. If this doesn't help, I'll be forced to turn them off completely. Update: I've lifted restrictions on who can comment, but I'm keeping comment moderation, which means I see comments before they appear here, and can decide whether or not to let them appear.

So please continue to comment, and if you're comments don't show up right away, this is why. Sorry, because even though I don't get a lot of comments, I value the ones I do get.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A famous French linguist looks into the nuances and ramifications of the death and life of languages, and the cultures that they express, noted in post below.
On the Death and Life of Languages

By Claude Hagege
Yale University Press 334 pages

An average of 25 human languages disappear each year. Of the unknown number of languages that once existed, only five thousand remain, and half of them may be gone by the end of the century. That may even be a conservative guess.

French linguist Claude Hagege looks at the history of languages and their relationship to cultures. When cultures disappear, so do their languages, and that's been true in Europe as well as in Africa and North America, where the death of thousands of languages embedded in Native American cultures continues today, though there are concerted efforts to preserve and revive their use.

This is a scholarly, detailed and nuanced view of the subject that's of more than historical relevance. Hagege's last chapter involves the threat to national languages by the Internet. Are languages destined to die when cultural boundaries break and become part of larger cultures? Should this even be mourned, or are there valuable points of view embedded in languages that larger societies need? There are writers on Native American languages who make convincing cases that this is true. Though this book may be of primary interest to linguistic scholars and social historians, it does raise larger questions and contributes a knowledge base to begin to address them.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A new annotated edition of Thoreau's The Maine Woods is one of the books concerning nature and the environment informally evaluated for holiday gift-giving potential, in the post below.
Gift Books: Nature and Environment

Some books I've seen, evaluated for gift-giving potential:

On the literary side, The Maine Woods by H.D. Thoreau has been reissued, annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Yale University Press.) Like Cramer's 2007 annotated selection from Thoreau's journals (I to Myself, also Yale) and perhaps his edition of Walden (which I haven't seen), this is comfortably large-sized book that presents the text in two center columns of facing pages, with lots of white space and annotations in columns on both sides, of equal size. So essentially the facing pages are divided into four columns, with the text in the center two. This format may appeal to some people but it doesn't appeal to me. The text feels squeezed, and I find it hard to read. It's puzzling as well, because a lot of pages have only one or two annotations, and a lot of white space. There are no illustrations. Of course, these matters of format may not matter to hardcore Thoreau fans.

Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems by John Felstiner (Yale) is an attractive and useful book, though it is about how to read poetry more than about the relationship of poetry to nature. But it does discuss that as well. It's nicely illustrated, and the poems alone are worth the price of admission. More here.

Water edited by John Knechtel (MIT Press/ Alphabet City) is an eclectic and perhaps eccentric collection of pieces on the subject of water, with some art, some science and a lot of urban planning. The book is about as tall as a paperback and a bit wider. There are a lot of illustrations, of varying quality and interest--some of them are really eccentric. If you or your gift recipient is a fan of Alphabet City or books similar to this published by MIT, this one may interest you. It does nothing for me.

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker (Beacon Press) is a pretty straightforward account concerning a part of the world where a lot has been going on but little has been reported. This book is for someone motivated to know more about Sri Lanka. The travelogue writing can be oddly revelatory: "We ate on a beach that the police assured us had been de-mined..." The author makes brave attempts to understand the country's conflicts from the various cultural perspectives in play. She also describes the effects of the 2004 tsunami, which happened at Christmastime. However, this book is available only for preorder for the holidays, unless your bookstore gets early copies. It's officially available Jan. 1.

Green Intelligence by John Wargo (Yale) is an expose of the long-term effects of chemicals, from the effects of nuclear bomb testing to industrial and consumer chemicals in the environment that the author believes are hidden causes of some of the childhood disabilities and epidemics that characterize our times (obesity, asthma, learning and developmental problems) as well as dementia in the elderly. So it's not a cheerful holiday book by any means, but there may be someone on your list who would like to--or might need to--read it.

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future by Saleem H. Ali (Yale) offers a carefully worked out, big picture view, serving an approach to future policy. It links confronting poverty to dealing with environmental problems, in an argument with a philosophical point of view about human nature as reflected in society. This book is for someone who wants to grapple with big ideas, argue with the author and possibly come away convinced that this is a new and useful way to see the interlocking problems that threaten the future.

While the easy choice for a Climate Crisis book would have to be Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis by Al Gore (Rodale Press), I'm still a big fan of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris (Henry Holt). While Gore's book is about what we can do in the present to save the future, Faris is a journalist who covers what is happening right now, which more than suggests what is likely to happen in the future. There's a concrete quality about his reporting that can illuminate the topic for those who aren't quite sure what it's really all about, plus the quality of his writing keeps you reading. More here.

Finally, here are a few books I'd put on my Wish List--books I've read something about but haven't seen myself: James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press) sounds fascinating and useful, as described by Tim Flannery in this review. Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David Orr (Oxford University Press), Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow, Jr. (University of Chicago Press), Seasick: Ocean Change and Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell (Chicago), Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand (Viking), look intruiging. None too cheerful, but if this season is about heritage and the human future, then for the right readers these can be appropriate choices.