Category Archives: Books

United America, divided media?


If you look at American media you can see a sharp ideological divide. Television networks show notorious political biases, and book-buying habits show a schism between what those on the left read vs those on the right. If you looked only at media, you’d think that we lived in two countries, red and blue, with hardly anything shared between the two sides.

Wayne Baker‘s new book United America looks at survey data from citizens across the country and comes to a different conclusions: that there are core American values that are common across the entirety of the political spectrum. He has identified 10 beliefs that are widely held across political boundaries and uses this survey information to tell a story of how an shared American identity emerges from this study.

I talked with Dr. Baker the other day after having read the book. We discussed in more depth some of the survey techniques as well as our shared surprise at the results. What was most interesting was a discussion of which shared values did not make the cut. For example, he identifies “symbolic patriotism”, an emotional connection to the country triggered by the flag or the national anthem, as a shared value. What didn’t make the cut was “blind patriotism”, an “our country right or wrong” point of view. That type of patriotic fervor showed a wide variety of responses across the American spectrum, whereas the symbolic and emotional response to national icons was much more uniform and common.

The book is based on survey results that are in the publication process. More information about the survey and its surprising results are at


A review of Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science, Alex Pentland


A review of Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science, Alex Pentland, 2014.

Pentland and his research group have appeared to have discovered a simple model of human behavior with great predictive power. By snooping on people’s cell phones, they can reduce typical human interactions into a set of interacting finite state machines, and by noticing just how regular those behavioral patterns are they think they understand ideas. Quite evidently the populations they study live routine, predictable lives. (Perhaps we all do.)

My biggest criticism (& thus the non-recommendation for the book) is that the technologies for making these monitoring of human behavior that Pentland describes are dehumanizing and a grave insult to personal privacy. The authors vague promises of a personal data store that would broker our most personal information are unrealistic. If these plans pan out, we will always be watched over by machines that seek only to predict our patterns of behavior and exploit them. An algorithmic prison awaits us.

Every once in a while the author describes unexpected behavior by individuals thus modeled, and betrays an element of surprise that we might step out of our everyday paths into something his system doesn’t contain. It’s a glimmer of hope in a dystopian world that we might surprise our ever-present overseers and do something that their social physics does not anticipate.

Related articles

Leading Scientist Alex “Sandy” Pentland Introduces the New Science of “Social Physics” That Promises to Solve Our Biggest Problems
The New Science Of Effective Organizations
Inside The Weird, Profitable Study Of “Social Physics”
Social Physics
Big data privacy concerns spur research, innovation
Social data is honest.

Having read a passage from a book, I then …. Rereading Benedikt’s “Cyberspace”


I’m rereading some books from my bookshelf, on the theory that it’s easier to make sense of the static texts that I own than to try to dip into the infinite stream of the internet and be enlightened or entertained by it.

So far, so good; I pulled out a copy of Polya’s “How to Solve It” (1945), David Sucher’s “City Comforts” (2003), and Michael Benedikt‘s anthology “Cyberspace: First Steps” (1991/1992), and enlightened myself with each.

The challenge of books in a digital age is that they want to be a part of your every day reference use, so that you could rummage through them whenever you wanted to and have some sense of what was in them that could be used or reused. Books – unlike tweets – have gravity. They need space well beyond what the microchip could be used to store them, and they demand a certain carefulness so that you can’t simply throw a dozen of them into your book bag.

One nice thing about books is that they live on a bookshelf; and by doing so they are near their neighbors which helps you understand the next work you might want to read. Consider only one of these, Benedikt’s “Cyberspace”. It’s a wonderful book written at the very beginning of the era of the World Wide Web, yet it is completely untouched by The Web As We Know It Today. If there’s anything of common use that defines it, it’s the more fanciful and imagined virtual worlds of the MUD and MOO systems of its generation. In its uncommon manifestations its all about the otherworldly architecture of a generation of imagined but unbuilt online human-computer environments.

I read Cyberspace, and I want to put my stamp on my cyberspace to show that I have read it and to increase the chance that if I’m stumbling upon the same ideas again that I will find it again. How to do this, in a way that’s true to the work?

One simple technique is to anchor this essay with the words that will let me find it again. A Google search for “vielmetti benedikt cyberspace” should, by all expectations, find this again. That helps, but only if I remember the exact incantation.

A more elaborate technique would be to note my interest in this book in various social reading systems, like Goodreads (which helpfully saves what page you are on) and Librarything (which helpfully tags the work and suggests related). I could review it on Amazon, though Amazon is most helpful for me in noting that if I ever lose my copy, that I can have another one for a penny plus postage and handling.

For every work, there’s some chance that an echo of it will be online too; IEU in Turkey has the introduction, as a reading for a Media Culture and Technology class.

What I want to know, though, is what are the contemporaries of this work, and its descendants. What was next to it on the shelf at Borders Store #1 when I pulled it off the shelf to buy it? Who will nod knowingly when I pull it out of my bookshelf, dust it off, and flip through to find some passage that I might remember? What should go next to it on my own shelves, real or imagined?

I’ve carried around some of these texts for a long time. In some real world of the current cyberspace, I want to embed them so that I can find them again (so they can find me again) when I need them. What’s more, they are not just ever-scrolling words on the infinite Internet scroll; they are real and unique objects that take up space and weigh something and that have bookmarks and notes in the margins.

noted as well:

An interview with Benedikt in AIGA

At the same time I was also lamenting that cyberspace—that wonderful, phantasmagoric three-dimensional alternative reality imagined by William Gibson—was not actually shaping itself on-line as I and many others thought it surely would. What Mosaic, then Netscape, then Explorer delivered was mostly the content of your local drugstore newsstand, but worse: delivered more jerkily, more shallowly, and more resolutely two-dimensionally—like paper flyers blown against the back of the computer screen. (99% of it still looks that way, Flash graphics notwithstanding.) Set aside the code-writing required: by 1993 it was clear that the transmission and processing speeds required to sustain cyberspace were going to be long in coming. They are still not here. To this day, only advanced intranet gamers have a foretaste of Gibsonian cyberspace: a real-time, shared, virtual space seamlessly mixing useful data, personal presence, and real-world, real-time connection.

11th Kerrytown Bookfest, September 8, 2013, Ann Arbor Farmers Market

From the official Kerrytown Bookfest web site:

The 11th Kerrytown BookFest will celebrate Detroit and its writers with three panel discussions featuring celebrated auto executive Bob Lutz (“Icons and Idiots”), rock ‘n’ roll writers Steve Miller (“Detroit Rock City”) and Peter Benjaminson (“Mary Wells”) and urban observers Edward McClelland (“Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heydey”), Gordon Young (“Teardown”), June Thomas (“Redevelopment and Race”) and John Gallagher (“Revolution Detroit”) of the Detroit Free Press. The BookFest is set for 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday September 8 at the Farmers Market in downtown Ann Arbor. The BookFest is free. Parking is free.

See the full list of illustrious speakers and plan your trip to the event!

Adam Grant, Give and Take; on being “otherish”

A brief review of Give and Take, which I checked out from the Ann Arbor District Library.

Grant writes about a number of people he calls givers, who are generous to a fault when sharing their time and expertise, even when there is not a sure bet that the generosity will be repaid. He contrasts this with the matchers, who always keep track of favors, and the takers who seek to exploit every circumstance.

Grant likes givers, but recognizes that sometimes people give too much and never manage to get things in return. These selfless people tend to burn out when too many things go opposite to their interests. He opens up the opportunity to recognize a newly coined word “otherish” – an opposite of selfish where you consider both your interests and the others interests simultaneously. “Otherish” people are looking for win-win situations, as opposed to selfless people who end up in win-lose setups.

“Givers are overrepresented at the top, as well as at the bottom, of most success measures.”

An interview with Adam Grant about the book is a 25 minute version which touches on several more high points of the book.

Obituary: Karl Pohrt, 65, owner of Ann Arbor’s Shaman Drum Bookshop

Karl Pohrt died Wednesday, July 10, 2013, after a battle with anaplastic thyroid cancer. He wrote about books and life on his weblog "there is no gap". Karl was the owner of the Shaman Drum Bookshop, an independent bookstore on Ann Arbor's State Street which closed in 2009 after a 29 year run.

Some obituaries from the net:

Publisher's Weekly:  "Karl Pohrt was a true bookman: a bookseller, compulsive reader, and a publisher as well. He had a very strong sense of the material and spiritual value of the reading experience. He was a man with a mission and an unshakeable devotion to the idea that books could transform human beings and the world for the better," said Bruce Joshua Miller of Miller Trade Marketing in Chicago. 

Media Bistro:  "I will never forget the hours and hours I spent in his bookshop as a college student, discovering some of the most important books of my lifetime." Jason Boog

Open Letter: "I’ll never forget all of the visits to Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, which was one of the greatest independent bookstores ever. And Karl was one of the greatest managers ever. He assembled an amazing crew of employees, and did more for literature in Ann Arbor than the massive (also now defunct) competitor down the road . . ." Chad Post

Shelf Awareness: Mary Bisbee-Beek, who knew Karl when she lived in Ann Arbor, remembered: "Karl told great stories and loved really off-beat movies. He loved to travel and he adored his two daughters, Tanya and Tasha. Family meant the world to him and community…if you were in Karl's world he was unstintingly loyal. If he loved a book, he'd make sure everyone knew about it. I loved to talk to him about books and always felt on top of the world when I presented him with something that he connected with–it was like a good luck charm for the book and the author!"

A memorial service will be held for Pohrt on Sunday, July 14, at 2 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 3257 Lohr Road, Ann Arbor. The family requests that donations be made to the church or to the Children’s Literacy Network.



Bookgate in Urbana, Illinois at the Urbana Free Library

People in Urbana Illinois are up in arms that the Urbana Free Library director decided to discard a large portion of the library's non fiction collection. Shelves were left bare after books older than 10 years old were summarily discarded. Citizens, up in arms after their library collection was decimated, packed a library board meeting to demand answers.

Every library weeds old books from their shelves, partly to make room for new ones, partly to remove surplus copies of no longer popular titles, and partly to get rid of texts that are no longer accurate or true. The last is most critical for nonfiction, where old works in science or medicine can be misleading or even dangerous.

Weeding is one of those arcane skills that is taught in library school. (Back off, man, I'm a library scientist!) The problem happens when you don't pay attention to a wide range of factors when looking at what to get rid of.

My own bookshelves get sorted through from time to time, and I count on the library to backstop my collection when it's time to make room for new materials. It would be horrible to have that extra set of shelves full of books laid bare by an overzealous discard policy.


#bookgate detailed timeline of links (Google Doc)

Twitter: #bookgate

Chicago Sun-Times: Why do the shelves at the Urbana Free Library look so empty?

Book Riot: Bookgate: When Urbana Free Library Purged Thousands of Books

Smile Politely: Miscommunication, or mismanagement?

Smile Politely: “Public officials do not have the luxury of lying”