Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Intelligence-Priming Reading List

Neil de Grasse Tyson answered a recent post on Reddit that asked which books the whole world should read. printed his list here.

Tyson’s reading list is as follows:

1.) The Bible (eBook) - “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

2.) The System of the World by Isaac Newton (eBook) – “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”

3.) On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”

4.) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (eBookAudio Book) – “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”

5.) The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (eBookAudio Book) – “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”

6.) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

7.) The Art of War by Sun Tsu (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”

8.) The Prince by Machiavelli (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

I like the list a lot, but I think the commentary could use some tweaking. The Bible, for example, is far too complicated a work of literature to be summarily dismissed as a mind control tool, even though he’s right in observing that’s how it gets used more often than not.

The Wealth of Nations, for another instance, is a more fully  developed continuation of Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which deals much more fundamentally with the ethical and moral construction of modern industrial commerce than the later book does, which is one reason it’s less widely studied in business schools.

Similarly, Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War as a primer in how to defeat an opponent in any contest of power. Its principles apply to the political and commercial realms as well as to the battlefield.

Lastly, The Prince is widely thought of as an instruction manual for achieving and maintaining power, but there’s a school of thought that says Niccolo Machiavelli intended it to be a sarcastic screed against the machinations of the great houses of Europe.

Anyway, Paine, Darwin, and Newton are the three on this list I still need to actually read over a weekend. How about you?

Bush Presidential Library Opens

The George W. Bush presidential Library opened last week. The reviews were both mixed and predictable:

The Nation lamented the “collective amnesia” of the exhibit, while USA Today compared the physical space to other similar venues, and also took a look inside.

The New York Times pointed out up front that “[i]f every memoirist is the star of his own story, every president is the hero of his own library,” before going on to say that oh yeah, Bill Clinton did the same thing and Obama probably will, too.

The Washington Post didn’t produce an article per se (not that I found) but did liven the coverage up with a lovely 26-color slide show.

The Houston Chronicle stopped at publishing a total puff piece but still managed to maintain a subtext of “Good Old Boy Elected President, Loves America, Repels Muslim Hordes.”

The Huffington Post even did a piece on Bush’s public outpouring of emotion at the ceremony, but then took the opportunity to say that not everyone shared that view (“Protesters Gather Outside George W. Bush Presidential Library Ceremony.”)

Ultimately I think Jon Stewart and Tim Naftali tapped closest to the vein here with the former’s “Disasterpiece Theater” coverage and the latter’s column, “Presidential Libraries are Educational Centers, Not Shrines.”

It goes without saying that the office of President is a managed position. There are crowds of people telling him the details of what’s going on in every corner of the country and globe, and recommending courses of action to him. Bush was no different, but he may have been the most micro-managed president in American history; I’ll leave that to history to judge (and so far, Uncle Dick Cheney looks like the Acting Guy in Charge, at least regarding foreign policy in the Middle east from 2001-2008.) Additionally, the Bush family has lived for generations surrounded by a great deal of private money which generally gets what it wants. Regardless of the veto power the National Archives has over the content of the Bush Library–over the loud objections of the Bush Foundation–congress has made these very public venues more vulnerable to private money. That’s a reason to be wary of who co-funds them and why.

In any case, read Tim Naftali’s column and know that the Dear Leader syndrome of recent American Presidential politics rolls merrily on.


A Kunstler Christmas

I didn’t grow up in a small town in New York, but today’s column by James Howard Kunstler almost made me wish I had. Mostly, it reminded me that it’s a good feeling to think well of the people around you and to know that they are in the habit of returning the feeling.

To wit:

I was not prepared for how splendid the event turned to be. The theater walls were decorated with pine boughs. Little electric lights and swags of pine edged the apron of the stage and the balcony rail. Many tables were set where the audience usually sits (the chairs are movable), covered with table-cloths, with a big platter of Christmas cookies at the center of each. Children about ten or eleven circulated with platters of pirogies and strudels. The bustle of life in that room was enchanting. There were two seatings at the breakfast, nine and eleven, both of them very full. The program on stage was a mixed bag of dance, story-telling, puppetry, and musical performance, all done surprisingly well and with the wonderful élan of people who know and care about each other. When both seatings were over, our little band broke spontaneously into Christmas carols, which we hadn’t practiced at all, and somehow managed to play pretty well as the townspeople drifted toward the exits.
I maintain that there is something about the room itself, its small-scale magnificence, that honored the presence of the people in it, and amplified all the pleasures of being together for the purpose of festivity. America these days is mostly composed of places that are not neutral as they seem, but positively hostile and antagonistic to what is most human in us – the mechanism that produces love. To quote myself from a book published some time ago, we built a nation of scary places and became a land of scary people. Thus, we are truly fortunate that the long emergency is upon us, because now circumstances will compel us to do things differently.
In other words, we will all slow down to smell the roses on a daily basis because that appears to be what the universe is demanding of us. Not a bad way to slouch towards the new year.


To Wiki or Not to Wiki: That is the Question

We all know the phrase, since we’ve all had the talk with our students regarding research, so let’s all say it together: Wikipedia is not a citable source. Fine. Except we came up with that rule a billion years ago when the Wikipedia project was in its infancy. Or at least, its adolescence. Things have changed since then. Haven’t they?

Ultimately we have to re-evaluate the question and ask ourselves how reliable is Wikipedia anyway? I mean, considering that professionals like Trevor Thornton and Christina Pattuelli are using publically edited records for their own work? Does the description of Wikipedia’s contents as nonsense invalidate these models by association? The question did come up during the NYTSL panel, and they felt that for the purposes of their own work, the data standards were high enough to make it a reliable source.

On the one hand, those linked data projects were limited in scope. It’s one thing to crowdsource the conversations and quotes from musicians, or an index of personal names in a historical context. It’s quite another to use the same strategy to, say, devise medical treatments (except they are). And to be fair there is a world of difference between creating a wiki-based general catalog of informative articles and utilizing a distributed data processing model. (Except when there isn’t.)

Additionally, Wikipedia can be improved and if its own metrics are to be believed, is continually being improved by users who actually give a hoot about the quality of their submissions.  Whether or not that improves the whole project or just select bits of it is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with my advice to students that Wikipedia is still not citable, but it is a decent source of useful references that might be well be worth checking out.


Linking Library Data (Part 2)

Trevor Thornton then introduced his project, which involved linking data in archives and establishing links in archival storage systems to open data systems.

The NYPL got a series of private grants to digitize a variety of data from manuscripts and archives, which itself had to focus on a number of different elements:

-Linking archival data to open source GUIs;

-Redesign a web-based user interface to take advantage of linked open data;

-Establishing links between the appropriate collections and open data sources.

Focusing on personal names which existed in the description was their first step. Through Library of Congress URIs* they can link LC authority records to clusters of IDs that collectively represent the name in question.

The Samuel J. Tildon Papers was the first collection Trevor’s team worked on. Interestingly, LC and Wikipedia were all considered to be valid access points, with correspondence files used to provide additional data access points where needed. Ultimately, 1300 personal names and 100 corporate names emerged as a result of the linking practices. That done, name authority control utilities streamlined the process and distributed the work among the researchers.

The model being established, the next project was a bit more involved but went more quickly. This time they went to the Thomas Addis Emmet collection, which had been donated to the library in 1896. The documents involve all founding fathers, reprints from historical documentation included. One of the examples of the emergent model that Trevor showed us was a calendar to the Emmet collection, including a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams describing how all the newspapers in the colonies hated each other.)

Google also become an important part of the process, used to refine data , i.e., cleaning up dirty data in large sets. The addition allows one to refine large collections of dirty data values into a more uniform value. Finally, they ended up with 3000 personal names.

The big lesson: discrete data can and will eventually give way to open frameworks as more and more private data supplies become available for use by those open frameworks.


*URI = Uniform Resource Identifier. Slightly different from a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) inasmuch as it points to a particular datum rather than the server location where the datum sits.

Finally, Christina Pattuelli spoke about her own linked data work on the Linked Jazz Project.

The main thrust of this particular project was the idea that linked open data takes disparate data which is published online into a single global dataspace. New data paths create newly navigable paths and new interpretation of data in an emergent web of relationships. The ultimate goal was to create a linked open data cloud (LOD Cloud). The phrase Christina used to bring this home was “Sharing Reuse Integration”.

Legacy data allowed the cloud to grow 100 pieces, but theoretically, the only limits to such a database would be storage space, bandwidth, and maintenance (read: labor) costs.

The resulting Web of linked data made use of documents on the web, linking networks of people to networks of information, connective creativity being the pathways between each discrete item.

As the title of the project suggests, they used Jazz musicians as their points of access: the statements of musicians were used as data sets. For instance, statements by Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Count Basie, and Art Williams became linked by way of personal names linked by their mention of each other’s names. (Think of it as a running interactive record of mutual citation.)

Once the relationships were established, they sat down to begin building an application to use as a distributed platform. It wasn’t easy. The Linked Jazz name directory had to build a controlled vocabulary of jazz artists’ names from scratch, using DBPedia as a semantic hub. A personal name mapping tool was created by extracting names from DBpedia relative to authority names. Integration with alternate names was achieved with a transcript analyzer which led to the use of another tool, which mapped to authority files within given context.

The final result was the Linked Jazz Visualizer, an interactive tool that had no need for plugins or downloads.

Take a look at the final result on the Linked Jazz website.


Linking Library Data: A Panel Presentation

Last night the New York Technical Services Librarians (NYTSL) held its panel presentation at the New York Society Library. If you weren’t there, you missed a fascinating evening in a gorgeous space (with impeccable catering).

The speakers were Cristina Pattuelli, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, Pratt Institute; Ingrid Richter, Head of Systems & First Ledger Project Coordinator, New York Society Library; and Trevor Thornton Senior Applications Developer, Archives, NYPL Labs, New York Public Library.

Mark Bartlett, Society Head Librarian, made a few opening remarks about the history of the institution: the founding of the library in 1754 as a private repository which was open to members only. The Society Library’s membership has included names like John Jay, Herman Melville and Willa Cather. (Their website gives a fuller description of the institution’s history.)

Ingrid  Richter spoke about the New York Society Library’s First Charging and Early Borrower Ledger project.

The starting point for Ingrid’ project was a wealth of original material dating from 1789-1792 that provided some amazing information about the books that luminaries such as Aaron Burr, George Washington, and John Jay checked out while in New York. As the only materials used in the project involved raw data transcribed in the original ledgers, the main goals included creating images which were user friendly and promoting knowledge of the charging ledgers.

Step one involved converting TIF images of the pages. Automated batch commands in Photoshop created thumbnails which were then converted to JPGs.

Step two was the creation of spreadsheets, using Excel. A team of four librarians converted the ledgers into the sheets in question to track data locations.

Step 3 involved creating database in File Maker Pro, imported all spreadsheets into raw data over 2k entries. This database allowed a better, more comprehensive type of reporting than spreadsheets.

Step 4 involved tracking people. What were people doing? Ledgered information allowed the tracking of birth and death dates (for example) and the two databases were linked together by linker web addresses together. The result was a count of borrowing records, counts of checkouts, borrowing dates, etc. Finally, a database of book titles was created to define what happened to book information. Each book had its own database.

Web pages were created to link back to raw data about books. A pages database was visualized as a finding aid for people who might want to read the ledger page by page. HTML sounded simple enough but they finally decided that static web pages were preferable as the metadata needed to be reliably locatable. A bulk reading utility made everything more convenient.

Check out the full exhibit on the library’s website.

Also, check back tomorrow for the rest of the presentation summary.



Rebecca Solnit was right, it turns out (but you knew that). Not only because she’s an excellent writer with a reputation for top-notch research but her recent book A Paradise Made in Hell is about the community-centered action that the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took up to dig themselves out of the hole that Mother nature had dropped them into.

We’re seeing something very similar in the presence of Occupy Sandy in NYC and the surrounding areas Consider the following items:

Justin Wedes, an Occupy Sandy organizer, said that ever since Occupy Wall Street was formally evicted from Zucotti Park, the Occupy network has been working on building communities and fostering relationships around the country, in neighborhoods like Red Hook and Sunset Park.

“We’ve been building neighborhood assemblies and community support networks,” he said. “So this relief is a natural response for us, where communities band together to reach out and support each other.”


The group has already launched a relief hub in Red Hook, in partnership with the Red Hook Initiative, to help coordinate donations of food and supplies and to cook meals for the over 5,000 residents of the Red Hook Houses housing project that are without electricity in the flooded neighborhood.


The Red Cross doesn’t accept individual donations of household goods—these things, it says, need to be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged, and all that takes up more time than they’re worth. It asks for financial donations only. But Occupy, as you would expect, has a different style. For instance: as soon as it was safe to go outside after the storm, first thing Tuesday morning, Michael Premo and a couple of people he knew got in a car and drove over to Red Hook.

There is no doubt that Sandy required an all hands on deck approach to relief efforts, and with voids left by FEMA and The American Red Cross, Occupy Sandy is here to help with immediate needs and minimal red tape.  Once again social media is being used as an effective tool to organize and Occupy Sandy is taking full advantage.


As Slate‘s Katherine Goldstein reported last week, Occupy Sandy got their hands in quickly to the relief effort in New York City. So how are they preparing for Sandy’s colder littler sister? “One thing we’re really good at is adapting,” Ed Needham of the Occupy Sandy press team told the Slatest. “Everyone’s going to try to do as much as they can until the storm provides an impediment to anyone’s safety,” he added.


The items on the New York registry are shipped to the Brooklyn chapter of Occupy’s Sandy relief operation at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill, where they will be taken to those in need. Gifts from the New Jersey registryare sent to Occupy’s outpost at Barrow Mansion in Jersey City.

Check out their link and help with whatever you can. Time, labor, materials, other donations are all appreciated.

Banned Book Week 2012

Sept. 30 to October 6 is Banned Books Week. But you knew that. The same way you knew that one of the best ways to get students to read a book is to tell them that it’s on the banned book list. Right?

Not that the list is a static thing. It changes as time passes, with some titles sticking around a few years (or decades) and others arriving and departing within a year or two. But, hey, you knew that, too.

Anyway, my own contribution to observing Banned Book Week here is going to be something similar to what I did last year. Then, I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a creepily prophetic story of a future America controlled by a brutal Christian Fundamentalist government.

This year I wanted to do something that in the same vein, so I’m reviewing Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. One, it’s a book that I’ve taught in class, and two, I’ve never sat down to review it. Like then, I’m doing this in partnership with Shiela DeChantal’s Book Journey blog, so we’ll be swapping a few readers along the way. Shiela is covering posts for the entire week, so it’s worth a few minutes to check out her updates along the way.

Better than that, I’m going to give away a copy of BNW. I’ll choose a winner based on the most interesting comment that someone leaves here.

The post will be up by 9AM on Thursday, October 4th, so check back then.




Sole-Source Vendors and You

We met the sales team from PrivCo. last Friday. Nice guys, but there’s a potential problem with their product: PrivCo. is a sole-source vendor.

A sole-source vendor is essentially what it sounds like. The vendor is your only known source of the material being offered. In PrivCo.’s case, it’s database information regarding the internal workings of private companies, venture capital firms, and other financial entities.

It’s a neat database. I won’t give a full review here (you can find a top-notch review from Library Journal here), but I will say that we found the package easy to navigate, highly responsive to search tweaking, and possessed of very handy export features.  Trial subscriptions are not insanely priced, either. It looks like a good deal.

But Sole Source vendors can be tricky to work with. It’s not exactly the same situation as the one that Meredith Farkas blogged about a week or so ago. In her observations, she described a situation where a library goes with a vendor to gain access to a particular journal (or set of journals) even though doing so makes less than obvious financial sense. A Sole Source vendor pulls a switch and you have access . . . or they pull another switch, and you’re out again. Since they are the only source of the stuff you need, they can dictate whatever subscription terms they like, and if you want access, you’re kind of stuck. When I worked at an electronic components broker years ago, I worked with government purchasing agents. They were very up front about their bidding rules: if you were a sole source vendor, and identified your company as such, you automatically won the bid for the part.

Additionally (in this case), there’s another question to raise: private companies by definition don’t file the same reports with the SEC as public entities must. All the information that’s being extracted by PrivCo. is reported by their research staff, and while we met the sales guys, we didn’t meet the researchers. I would have liked to ask them what their rules of conduct were, what the penalties for false (or just sloppy) reporting were, what their histories were, what their relationship with their target firms are like, etc. Where does this information come from?

In all fairness we’ll probably get a trial subscription to PrivCo. It’s too useful not to have as a compliment to Business and Company Resource Center and we all had positive reactions to their user interface and product demo. But sometimes you just want the choice to go with a competitor.

Are Private Space Adventures A Shared Disaster?

Salvatore Babones does not approve of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism project:

If two words can capture the extraordinary redistribution of wealth from workers to the wealthy over the past forty years, the flagrant shamelessness of contemporary conspicuous consumption, the privatization of what used to be public privileges and the wanton destruction of our atmosphere that is rapidly leading toward the extinction of nearly all non-human life on earth, all covered in a hypocritical pretense of pious environmental virtue … those two words are Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, is charging $200,000 a seat for a few minutes of weightlessness and a view from outer space. The firm has so far taken in $70 million in deposits from 536 passengers, according to an August 1 report from Reuters.

Call me old-fashioned, but I personally find it morally offensive that some people can afford to spend $200,000 on a three-minute experience when others can’t afford food. Food first, luxury yachts second and $200,000 suborbital flights last. That’s my motto.

He’s right to be pissed off. A world where some can afford $200,000 for a ten minute suborbital flight where billions starve is at best unfair and at worst insane. Whether this particular luxury is making things worse for the poorest of the poor is another question.

Babones’s main point is that private spaceflight pollutes, creating greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. His secondary point is that very wealthy people are assholes who prefer private luxury over the public good. He adds these values and calculates that private space flight will boil us all alive in the cauldron of global warming. And, yes, he has a valid concern.

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan had a different take on the power of wealth when applied to private space travel, at least,  he did at the time he wrote Contact. In the pages of that book he noted several crucial points:

First, space travel is expensive. The limitation of such a thing to government bodies was a natural result of the ability of a government to amass the capital, labor, and knowledge to create such an industry. Only the wealthiest got the chance to head where only scientists, pilots, or military officers had gone.

Second, environmental repair is expensive. Same reason.

Third, space travel is subversive. The words of those who have flown in orbit are consistently spiritual and instructive:

 ”It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”–Neil Armstrong

“I see Earth! It is so beautiful!”–Yuri Gagarin

“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”–John Glenn

“We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way.”–Buzz Aldrin

Fourth, private space travel exposes the people with the greatest levels of wealth to the subversive experience of Earth as a very tiny blue dot in the cosmos. As a result, this  “Oh, Shit!” moment came home to the class of people with the resources to repair the environment and stimulated them into action.

Therefore, space travel for the wealthy was a good thing. (One hopes.)

The bad news is that Contact was a work of fiction.

It will be fascinating to see which line of thinking pans out. There’s every reason to imagine that it won’t go as well as Carl hoped, but it probably won’t be as bad as Babones fears. With 11 million potential clients worldwide, only a few hundred have signed up for the tours.

But . . . those few hundred customers are the ones in the best position to incorporate the spiritual aspect of space flight into their world views. And, since the wealthy tend to gravitate toward each other, they have access to plenty more resources, and can direct those resources toward Earth-healing projects of their own.

We shall see.

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