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  • You are not a gadget

    Thu, 21 Jan 2010 11:33

    Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto gets the Wall Street Journal treatment:

    Ever since the Internet began to make its way into everyday life -- beginning roughly in the early 1990s -- commentators have worried over its cultural effects, fearing isolation, regimentation, a loss of privacy or a loss of sustained thought. Back then, Jaron Lanier was one of the pioneers of immersive virtual worlds and helped to popularize the term "virtual reality." Those were the days when the Web's promise seemed bright and limitless. Mr. Lanier was one of its champions. Now, as experience has set in, his outlook is decidedly gloomier. In You Are Not a Gadget, he sounds an alarm about the social-media technologies of the so-called Web 2.0, arguing that they reduce individuals to mere cogs in a mob-based, crowd-sourced apparatus. "Technology criticism," he says in defense of his own role in this debate, "shouldn't be left to the Luddites."

    Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls "the lords of the cloud" -- huge entities such as Google and Facebook -- constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. "Emphasizing the crowd," Mr. Lanier writes, "means de-emphasizing individual humans... and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors." At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment (more...)

  • Mary Gordon's 'Reading Jesus'

    Tue, 19 Jan 2010 10:19

    Interesting review of Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus ("a fresh and personal journey through the Gospels, exploring the mysteries surrounding Jesus [reinterpreting] a rich store of overlapping, sometimes conflicting teachings that feel both familiar and tantalizingly elusive") from the The Boston Globe:

    The question mark, not the cross, is the dominant symbol in Mary Gordon's new book about Jesus. A Barnard English professor and acclaimed novelist and memoirist, Gordon went back to read the four Gospels as a "person of hopeful faith." Like the inquisitively brightest kid in the class, her hand shot up to ask a question, and another, and another, and another.

    The result is a book well worth reading. Her questions are challenges to orthodox conventions about faith and the man Christians deem the son of God.

    On many questions, Gordon admits she's stumped or leaves the matter hanging without answer. Those who haven't read the Gospels, or have only heard snippets read in church on weekends, will puzzle with her over her insightful inquiries. Dogmatists may object that she skirts the institutional church's take on these questions, and in some places, it's a fair objection. But only those afraid to venture outside the realm of received ideas will deny the legitimacy of her questions; the fact is that for many people, orthodox answers often aren't slam-dunk persuasive (more...)

  • The Lineup

    Thu, 14 Jan 2010 12:13

    The New York Times on Otto Penzler's The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives:

    It began as a marketing strategy. Otto Penzler, the renowned proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, wanted to keep his customers happy. And he wanted to keep them out of chain stores. So he began commissioning annual Christmas stories from popular crime writers and giving out free copies of these stories as thank-you gifts to the shop's customers.

    Then Mr. Penzler had an even niftier idea. (Santa! Are you listening?) He lined up some of the most famous mystery novelists around and asked them for 10-page riffs about their best-known characters. Those essays have been collected in The Lineup, an exciting omnibus volume that has widespread appeal and adds up to much, much more than the sum of its parts.

    The mystery writers were free to attack this assignment in whatever way they chose. Some were more assiduous than others. Some just rambled; some indulged their egos; some cooked up conversations with their fictitious creations. One, Jeffery Deaver, even used his character's obituary to create a miniature mystery plot.

    But each wound up delivering memorable revelations about the mystery genre and its different incarnations. And there are many conflicting approaches represented here. That makes The Lineup the best book of its kind since Mr. Penzler edited a similar book, The Great Detectives, in 1978. Writers in that one included the creators of Dick Tracy, Matt Helm, the 87th Precinct and Nancy Drew (more...)

  • The Stanford University Press Blog brings my attention to one of their fine looking titles, Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely:

    The recent 'climategate' flap -- regarding some leaked e-mails suggesting that science has manipulated data to under-exaggerate global warming -- has caused quite a stir within the field of science, and more importantly, outside of it.

    In an op-ed in the Short Stack of the Washington Post, Ian I. Mitroff addresses the 'climategate' scandal. Mitroff attributes the commotion surrounding climategate to science's inability to educate the public about how scientific research is actually conducted. While science is often seen as a completely objective field of knowledge, what people have to bear in mind is that in reality science is conducted by real humans with, understandably, real opinions and biases. This fact, however, does not make science any less respectable or true.

    As Mitroff says in his book Dirty Rotten Strategies: How we Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely, (co-author Abraham Silvers) "Although science is certainly one of the best ways that humans have ever invented for producing knowledge, it is not the only way." What Mitroff wants us to take away from the 'climategate' flap is not that science is flaky and fallible but that scientists do have social considerations and biases that actually allow their data to be better tested and proven over time. From Mitroff's piece in the Short Stack: "It's not just that opposing biases cancel out -- which they do -- but that opposing passions prod scientists to collect more data and invent new theories to see who's right. Without such passions, science would grind to a halt. After all, science is done by all-too-human beings."

    Scientists must now be unafraid to bring the social aspects of the field into the light of the public. Then, perhaps, we might have a better understanding of their methods and a better chance of dealing with the important issues that lie in our future.

  • On marriage...

    Wed, 13 Jan 2010 06:00

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    Over at the Financial Times, Isabel Berwick looks at three recent books on matrimony:

    As I said in my wedding speech, while ruefully acknowledging the cliche, getting married is a giant leap into the unknown. Just as it is the anticipation of giving birth -- rather than the profound life-shift once the baby arrives -- that makes first-time pregnant women anxious, so it is that a wedding day to organise always gets in the way of consideration of long-term married life. A wedding day is a public event, a rite of passage. What comes afterwards, the modern marriage, is a private and unknowable realm on the other side of the contractual fence.

    Historically, there have been plenty of books about marriage, practical "how-to" manuals offering guidance on conduct, housekeeping and sex. Until very recently, a wife had a clear-cut role she was expected to fulfil -- and so did her husband. "Undoubtably the husband hath power over the wife, and the wife ought to be subject to the husband in all things," wrote Hannah Woolley, the author of The Gentlewoman's Companion: A Guide to the Female Sex (1675). But we have, unsurprisingly, moved on from those rigid expectations.

    A fundamental shift is that women, in particular, seem to have transferred the focus of their relationship anxiety on to child-rearing: parenting books are published by the shelfload and bought by singles and couples alike. Few now bother with practical books about marriage. And if we no longer feel we need to get married to have children, what is the point of modern marriage? (More...)

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