"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Why Is the Landscape the Way It Is? The Geology Underfoot Series

One of the first things I went looking for during our sojourn on Vancouver Island was Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia. I didn't know if such a book existed, but I was sure that the world needed one.

Published in 2005, the book is a great companion for road (and ferry) trips.  It explains the forces of the earth that made this amazing piece of country, with seismic faults, evidence of millennia of glacial ice, and the backstory of continents moving across the surface of the earth.  Interpersed are stories from the present and recent past: the coal mines that burrowed under the Georgia Strait at Nanaimo and what happened at Port Alberni on Good Friday, 1964, for example. That was when a massive earthquake in Alaska sent a tsunami surging down the coast where it was funneled into a fjord, and amplified by high tides, engulfing much of the fishing and lumber town.

As we drove along, I would read Lee the relevant passages until he got tired of "the lessons for today."  But reading about what we were seeing  made the trip that much more interesting the way having an explanation for anything enriches an experience.

Twenty-five years ago I stumbled on the Roadside Geology series when we were on the Oregon coast.  Why were there so many marvelous sand dunes, I wondered.  I found the answer in The Roadside Geology of Oregon: sand ground from the Cascade Mountains has been deposited along the Pacific shore, as sea level rose and fall over the last couple of million years. 

Since then I've collected other books from the series, including The Roadside Geology of  the Northern Rockies (published in 1972 with a spiral binding, as if it were an amateur endeavor, and now out of print), and The Roadside Geology of Northern California (now revised as The Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California  with much more up to date material on tectonic plates).

But what I didn't have and couldn't find was The Roadside Geology of Washington, even at excellent book stores like Mermaid Tales in Tofino (where I found the BC version) and Village Books in Fairhaven, WA. We can order it for you, bookstores folks said, but I declined since we were on the move.  Amazon.ca had links to where I could get it, and I was just about to order on line.

But then I was looking for something else, and what do I find?  Yes, there it was this afternoon, all ready for me to dip into, like the dips and doodles of these somewhat metamorphisized rocks on Schooner Beach, BC. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What the Internet Is: Fragile or Robust?

As I write this, The New York Times has been off-line for about 18 hours here.  Some stories are being posted on the newspaper's Facebook page, but because of a hacker attack the main website remains down. 

This is a warning shot, according to some observers.  Syrian hackers or hackers sympathic to the Syrian regime (and who call themselves the Syrian Electronic Army) are demonstrating what havoc they could wreak if Western powers follow through on their tough talk.  The trouble follows the disruption of the Nasdaq stock exchange a week ago, which is supposed to be due to a technical glitch rather than bad guys.

Both events are troubling, and underscore how much we rely on binary code sent at the speed of light to operate nearly every corner of our lives.

According to Informationnews, the current hacker battle involves trying to wrest control "by adjusting the domain name system (DNS) settings for the hacked sites....

"The affected domain names were all registered through Australia-based Melbourne IT, which confirmed Wednesday that its systems had been compromised by hackers. The company said Wednesday that it had restored the hacked DNS credentials, locked those records to prevent further changes, disabled the legitimate account credentials that hackers had used to access its systems, and continued to investigate the intrusion."
Melbourne?  Aren't we talking about New York?  Those are questions I might have asked, had I not just finished reading Andrew Blum's recent   Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. 
A journalist who has written often for Wired, Blum began his quest when a squirrel gnawed through a fiber optic cable connecting his computers to the internet.  A little disingenuosly, he  says he wanted to know to what that cable connected him.  The result is an engaging, somewhat meandering story of his travels to find out.

To make a long story short, the cable was (and is) connected to other cables which pass through several junctions where information is routed practically instaneously, and  automatically directed to its destination.  Blum is very good at giving the (relatively short) history of how these networks were set up and what they look like.  He's also good at finding a good comparison: cases containing coils of optic fiber cable are the size of Labradors and the cable itself looks like "giant squid."  

The reader learns why you don't often get that annoying lag in transcontinental telephone conversations these days (the signals used to be bounced up to sattelites, but most now go by undersea cable: same speed, shorter distance).  Blum tells us about the secrecy at Google's data center storage facilities on the Columbia River in Oregon, and the much more open  facility at Facebook's installations a couple of hundred miles away.  The difference, he suggests, may have much to do with the way "Facebook played fast and loose with our privacy while Google vehementaly protected it."

He also tells us that those little packets of information that are our emails, web pages, pictures and stock quotations must be "goosed" along every 50 miles or so to keep moving at light speed. But what he doesn't do is give a really good explanation of how those packets are made up.  Yes, we know that binary code is just circuits off and on, but how does that get transformed into light?  Are we talking simple alternating current here?  Or something else?
The book has no maps or charts that might let us figure out why messing around with DNS in Melbourne could shut down website of giants in New York.  And Blum is rather sanguine about where this all leading us.  The internet isn't "a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world," he ends the book.  "...Wherever I am, wherever you are."

So even though I felt myself better informed when I finished the book, this morning I am considerably more concerned about where all this interconnectivity is leading us.  It makes perfect sense that Melbourne IT ordinarily involved in spreading the NYT's word around the world, and trouble there could mean trouble lots of other places. 

BTW, are you receiving this?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mysteries and Other Good Reads from the Far West

Two of my cousins are as crazy about books and book groups as I am, and I recently spent several days with them, picking their brains about what their groups are reading. The photo was taken from the dock on the lake near Spokane, WA, where their parents bought a cabin decades ago.  It's still a lovely place to visit....and read.

Peggy is a member of a mystery reading group, begun 21 years ago at the college where she taught.  Recent reads include books by Laura Wilson, whose most recent crime novel available  in  North America is A Capital Crime; Norwegian  Karin Fussum, whose most recent is The Caller; Attica Locke, most recent The Cutting Season; and Chris Pavone, The Expats.   Another of  her groups liked Maria Doria Russell, whose Doc was one of The Washington Post's  Best Books of 2011, and M.L. Stedman's The Light Between the Oceans.

Cathy also gave high marks to The Light Between the Oceans, but said that the best discussions in her group were  prompted by The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton and The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle.  She also recommends New York Times columnist Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.  She had just begun Egan's biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: looks good, she said.

With the exception of T.C Boyle--and I think The Tortilla Curtain is terrific--I've not read any of these authors.  How nice to have recommendations of other book lovers whose reading follows paths a little different from my own.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Best Book I Ever Read on a Holiday

We're going to take  a little vacation, and along with getting house-sitters lined up, I've been thinking about what to take to read.  Don't know yet, but I keep coming back to the best book I ever read while on a trip.

It's Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.  Now available as a free pdf, 35 years ago the edition I took along was a quality paperback that still is in one piece despite being consulted many times.  It was just the right size to tuck in a backpack or to pull out at night in the twilight as we canped our way the US headed for California.

We hadn't been in Montreal very long, and this was our first trip back to visit family.  We  hiked quite a bit, and thought about what we were seeing.  For example, I couldn't figure out the geography of the Colorado Plateau:  how did all those layers of sedimentary rocks exposed by the Colorado river at the Grand Canyon come into being?  I'd done some reading about the Sierra Nevada before we left California a few years befoe, so I had some idea about uplift and mountain building.  The theory of plate tectonics was just being elaborated too, so there was much uncertainty about how things all happened.  A couple of text books picked up once back in Montreal helped me make sense of things.

But Darwin had no textbooks to explain the many things he saw in the five year voyage around the world. His observations were his own, rendered with the enthusiasm of a young man (he was only 22 when he started out) and were pertinent enough to guide his thinking until the end of his life. 

Definitely worth reading!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Other Revolutionary Malcolm: Malcolm Gladwell and Winning Uneven Fights

Malcolm Gladwell will have a new book out this fall, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Here's the bumph from his publisher Little, Brown. "Malcolm Gladwell,...
uncovers the hidden rules that shape the balance between the weak and the mighty, the powerful and the dispossessed. Gladwell examines the battlefields of Northern Ireland and Vietnam, takes us into the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, and digs into the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms–all in an attempt to demonstrate how fundamentally we misunderstand the true meaning of advantages and disadvantages."

Sounds fascinating, and right up Gladwell's alley, which usually involves a well-researched message that is aimed in part at the business world, but which can be read in a most subversive manner. 

Maybe it’s not surprising that someone like him who had a poster of Ronald Reagan in  his dorm room at the University of Toronto is making a lot of money today. His last book Outliers: The Story of Success sold for around $4 million, while it and his two others The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference  and  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking  were all  on The Globe and Mail and The New York Times best seller lists for months.  He reportedly makes $30,000 a pop for telling conferences of business types how to improve performance and foster innovation, too.  Nevertheless if you read just a little beneath the surface of the books and his articles in The New Yorker, you’ll see that he’s really calling for society-wide change nearly far reaching as what that other Malcolm, Malcolm X, advocated.
The Tipping Point started out as in The New Yorker as “The Cool Hunt,”  an examination of how trends start, how styles race through society like epidemics.  “A must read for any marketing professional" according its lead review on Amazon.com,  the book can be read as a guide to getting people to buy or to act: small groups work best, pick plugged-in spokesmen, work to make your message “sticky.”

Blink considers how we’re hard-wired to react instantaneously, which was great for our ancestors back on the savannah when a lion might suddenly roar nearby. In our fast-paced life today that’s not so good: culturally-engrained prejudices can trump reasoned evaluations in tight situations. Gladwell, whose father is a white Englishman and whose mother is an African-Jamaican, says the idea for the book came to him when he grew an Afro and started getting ticketed for speeding.  Social contexts should be changed so we’re not forced to rely on first impressions, he writes.  That’s good for creativity—and also social justice.

 The Outliers argues that success itself is based on a mixture of chance and hard work.  Change the rules to make the playing field more level—don’t throw all the kids born in a calendar year together when they start a sport, for example, because that gives the ones born in January a big leg up over those born in December.  Then tweak the cultural context to value hard work, and you increase the chance of success exponentially.  The result will be more “outliers,” people whose accomplishment is extraordinarily high, Gladwell says.

He, of course, is an outlier, and the story he tells about his own family in Outliers illustrates nicely his arguments.  But he could also  point to a man who called himself an outlier long before Gladwell’s book was published: Barak Obama (p. 18 in the Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.  If you look at Obama and his electrifying campaigns for the US presidency, you see Gladwell’s fingerprints everywhere—the kitchen meetings, the great slogans, the hard work, the hope held out.  Whether the  president has read Gladwell’s writing himself isn’t clear, but you can bet the farm his staff has.

Which probably makes Gladwell smile as he rakes in the royalties and the speaking fees.    The marketers and business types may not have noticed, but he’s intended a social revolution all along  “The hope with Tipping Point was it would help the reader understand that real change was possible,” he writes on his website. “With Blink, I wanted to get people to take the enormous power of their intuition seriously. My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.”

 Right on, Malcolm!  Can't wait to read what he has to say this time.

The photo, BTW, is of the high point of his running career when he beat Dave Read, "the greatest Canadian miler of his generation" in finals of the 1500 meters at the Ontario 14-year-old championships. Gladwell writes "I "retired" from competitive running a year later, in large part because I realized that the particular statistical fluke represented by me beating Dave Reid was unlikely to ever be repeated. "

Obviously he's a man who's been considering the odds and what it takes to be successful for a long time.