NOTE: This is my 300th issue. Because of the upheavals in my life caused by researching and writing The Thriving Library <http://marylaine.com/thrive.html>, moving to North Carolina, and setting up one household while trying to sell another, it's taken me as long to write the last 50 pieces as it took me to write my first 100. But with an offer on the table for my house in Iowa, I entertain the hope that I will soon have the time and mental energy to start publishing ExLibris again on a weekly basis.
WHAT I'M READING
by Marylaine Block
I don't know about you, but I'm a recovering liberal arts major who took only the bare required minimum of science and math courses. I've been trying to make up for my resulting vast ignorance ever since, reading books that attempt to make both fields intelligible to ordinary people.
Accessible books on these topics are valuable because widespread ignorance of math and science has real public policy consequences. Americans tend to worry about the wrong things, devoting inordinate amounts of time, money, laws, and regulations to preventing events that are statistically unlikely to happen to any individual (shark attacks, plane crashes, school shootings, terrorist attacks, etc.), and failing to take even the simplest precautions to protect against far more likely threats like automobile accidents and obesity. What we all could use is a good course in statistical probability.
If you don't have time for that, though, I suggest you treat yourself to Jeffrey Rosenthal's book, Struck by Lightning: the Curious World of Probabilities (Joseph Henry Press, 2006, $19.95). How accessible is this book? Well, for starters, Professor Rosenthal, winner of several awards for outstanding teaching, has also worked as a computer game programmer and an improvisational comedy performer. Those talents are all on display in this entertaining book.
Rosenthal does a bang-up job of explaining concepts like randomness, sampling bias, randomized trials, publication bias, causality verses correlation, and margins of error. But he goes beyond that and shows us how we can use this knowledge in our day-to-day life, and how this knowledge is used by others to bilk us or protect us. He uses stories to explain how to know when to fold a poker or blackjack hand, or what size fine is large enough to discourage small infractions when the likelihood of being caught is minimal. His stories explain how to tell the difference between luck and ability, how to divide a restaurant bill, and how probability helps determine whether a message is spam.
I've read books and articles about probability before. They were important but dreary, and two weeks later I didn't remember a single thing I read in them. Thanks to the power of Rosenthal's storytelling, I doubt I'll be forgetting what I learned from this book.
The other book I think will interest you is Alex Wright's Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages (Joseph Henry Press, 2007, $27.95). Wright traces the history of the struggle (by ALL life forms) to select and manage critical information, and shows the constantly shifting balance between scarcity of information and unmanageable excess, between oral and print information, and between the hierarchical, authoritarian control of information and the collaborative creation and dissemination of knowledge by scholars and ordinary people whenever technologies have given them the means.
Which is to say that this book traces the history of the upsetting of a whole lot of apple carts. As each profoundly disruptive technology comes along (written language, libraries that preserve it, the printing press, encyclopedias, and the internet), existing authority is undermined; then new hierarchies arise, using that technology to re-establish control until they, too, are overthrown by the next technology.
It's not a new story. Matthew Battle, in Library: an Unquiet History covered much of the same ground (see my review of it at <http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib188.html>). But Wright offers additional background drawn from evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, and mythology.
Librarians will be especially intrigued by the historical role of our profession in organizing and controlling the burgeoning flow of new knowledge, and by his explanation of the historical and cultural importance of taxonomy as a way of understanding and mastering existing knowledge. These and other insights make this a thought-provoking read for librarians, who are still trying to recover from displacement by Google and reinvent their role.
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Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for “honey-pot ideas” drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever’s fashionable, try to poke at it. Maybe 1 percent of the time you’ll find a trend or possibility that’s been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels—even sober business forecasts—seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time of actual discourse.
David Brin. "David Brin Predicts the Future." Discover, June 7, 2007, http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/the-discover-interview-david-brin
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2007.
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