The book – Imaginary futures: From thinking machines to the global village

This is another book that was recommended by Alison Macrina of the https://libraryfreedom.org/ project. It was listed in the further reading section of one of her talks.

I thought it would cover artificial intelligence and cybernetics a lot more than it did, but it was more of a book on the politics of the US and Russia, and on the cold war race to develop faster and better computing that supported military applications. I hoped that the final chapter would be a better conclusion to tie things together, but lo, it did not.

Sooooo much of the book covers political theory, especially capitalistic systems vs socialism and communism in particular. One should be familiar with Marshall McCluhan and the book Understanding Media, but I had not read that.

The final chapter gushes over Wired Magazine, as if that presents the final word concerning society and the internet. There were a ton of reference to Wired Magazine, but not many (any?) other periodicals that cover the internet as a social tool. It was like he was cherry picking quotes from Wired Magazine to show a point, and he did not explore other sources that might challenge that point.

The author did talk about the academic gift economy (p. 277 for example) and the way academics share information more freely, but the concepts of open access, and the problems with academic information hidden behind paywalls was not mentioned at all.

It is noteworthy that the book came out in 2007, and it got some things right. It mentioned that YouTube was a growing source of media viewing (p. 285), and it was pretty new in 2006/2007. It only mentioned the word blog once, and it is not in the index. Social media was not really covered or predicted.

Here are some specific things that jumped out at me.

Very soon, when the Net was ubiquitous, everyone would be equal within cyberspace. The rule of the few over the many was only a temporary condition. (p. 275.)

Ummm. What? The internet is not going to make the world an egalitarian place.

Of course, Napster was mentioned.

Anyone who distributed unauthorized copies of copyrighted material over the Net must be punished. Anyone who invented software potentially useful for on-line piracy should be criminalized. The courts and police had to stop consenting adults from sharing information with each other without permission. (p. 281)

Academics have been getting around this problem and issue for decades and decades. There are ways to get copyrighted material (journal articles and other bits of research) from others through email. This was not discussed at all. Napster made it easier for people to share songs with each other, and the music industry did not like that.

Overall, the book was a hard slog, since I was not expecting a book about communism vs the capitalist system. This review in Goodreads hit the nail on the head. “The book provides a lot of historical insight, really interesting, though it’s written in a such boring manner it’s really hard to go through it.”

I do agree with this statement from a different review of the book.

Barbrook has an amusing take on our distorted – if not delusional – relationship with technology, but his underlying point is serious: future visions of technology are used to distract us and also control us, and if we forget these imaginary futures, we are likely to repeat them.

Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

The whole book title is Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor.

This was a real eye opener for me. I grew up in a working class family, and we did have a time when we were quite poor, when my dad was on strike for about a year back in the 1970s, and we did not have much money. Also, my mom and dad divorced, and I was lucky to get scholarships to attend college with my mom being a single parent effectively. She did get income from my dad until I turned 18 I think.

Here is a good review of it. I first heard about the book from a talk about information privacy and AI and libraries by Alison Macrina of the https://libraryfreedom.org/ project. It was listed in the further reading section of her talk.

Anyway, the author, Virginia Eubanks, covers three case studies. The first is in Indiana, the second is in Los Angeles, and the third is in Pittsburgh. Chapter 5, The Digital Poorhouse, does a fine job of summing up the previous chapters. Essentially, the United States does a great job of using technology to track and police poor people. The system criminalizes poverty to keep poor people in that state. The system is designed to be opaque so that people can’t see how it really works.

Chapter 6 addresses ways to dismantle the digital poorhouse. I don’t see her recommendations coming to fruition any time soon. She brings up rhetoric from Martin Luther King, Jr., but technology has its claws so deep into law enforcement and in social support systems all across the country, I don’t think people will listen to the words of MLK, Jr. to dismantle those systems. She presents an Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data on pages 212-213. It will take a lot of work to convince companies to agree to that Oath. (While Google used to use the phrase — “Don’t be evil,” but that is now a former motto.)

I see it as a collective action problem. Even though she shows that the majority of people use social services as a temporary or full-time poor person, most people don’t see that Big Data has harmed them in any way. They might be convinced that Big Data has harmed some or many people, but it has not hurt them, yet. There needs to be more and better stories that get people to understand that Big Data hurting their neighbors is also hurting them. (People react better to stories than they do to plain old evidence and data, ironically.) That is when the voting public will act to change laws and policies when it comes to Big Data and the monitoring and policing of poor people in computer systems.

This book came out in 2017. It would be interesting to see how systems have changed with the Pandemic in the last three years.

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality by Edward Frenkel

Here is another book about mathematics. In this book, the author talks about his absolute love of the beauty of mathematics, and how it explains physical properties, such as features of subatomic particles and in quantum physics. For example, mathematicians postulated the existence of some particles before they were even found based on symmetry in the underlying mathematics.

I was particularly interested in this book, since the author attended college right around the same time I was going to college (he is one year younger), and he experienced the changing world at the same stage that my wife and I did. Even though he is one year younger, he graduated from his high school one year earlier than me at age 16.

In the book, he explains how he was singled out in the mathematics test to attend Moscow State University (or MGU) as a Jewish person. When he went in for his math test, the testers grilled him, and they found a reason to reject his application even though he is brilliant. Moscow State University does not accept people who are even just one quarter Jewish. He ended up going to the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas (also called Kerosinka and officially called the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas) which has a pretty good applied mathematics program. They accept Jewish people. This allowed him to attend some lectures (first by jumping a fence, then getting an ID card) at Moscow State University, even though he wasn’t a student there. (See Chapters 3 and 4.)

In 1989, he received a Harvard Prize Fellowship to attend Harvard for a Semester to learn from some of the best mathematicians in the world. Most of the other recipients had graduate degrees and/or PhDs, while he just had an undergraduate degree from Kerosinka. He worked hard to prove that he belonged there with the fellowship.

He ended up staying in Boston for longer than a semester. He was able to get his PhD in just a year between 1990 and 1991. Below is his dissertation.

Frenkel, E. V. (1991). Affine Kac-Moody algebras at the critical level and quantum Drinfeld-Sokolov reduction.

After he gets his PhD, he works on the Langlands Program. This attempts to be a grand unified theory of mathematics. As noted at Wikipedia — “The Langlands program consists of some very complicated theoretical abstractions, which can be difficult even for specialist mathematicians to grasp.” Frenkel tries to explain some of the math in the program, and I caught some of it, but not very deeply. At the end of the book, he talks about the movie that he worked on, The Rites of Love and Math. The book was published in 2013, while the film came out in 2010, so the film preceded the book.

American Eclipse by David Baron

While this book came out 6 years ago back in 2017, it is still a good fascinating read as we prepare for the 2023 annular eclipse in October and for the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. It looks like a new edition or version will come out February of 2024.

Much of the book is focused on the July 29, 1878 eclipse eclipse as it happened through Wyoming and Colorado. It was interested to read about how Maria Mitchell and her group observed the eclipse at a residence (Dr. Avery) at 20th St. and Champa. There is a nice drawing of the house on page 131. I drove by the location the other day, and it appears as if the house is no longer there. I spied two office buildings and two parking lots.

It was also interesting to see how involved Thomas Edison was in the event. He was trying to see if his “tasimeter” could be used to measure the heat of the Sun. It never really worked as expected. I also learned that Edison started the journal, Science.

The proposed planet Vulcan was supposedly observed during the eclipse, but it must have been some less bright field stars in the constellation of Cancer. The astronomer, James Craig Watson, from the U of Michigan was sure he spotted the planet, but after claiming his observation, he held on for some time before admitting that he did not see a new planet. Even though he was discredited, there is a medal awarded by the NAS as the James Craig Watson Medal, so his name lives on.

Overall, it was a nice read. It showed how far the US has come in scientific research in the last 155 years, and how the US scientific community was held in low regard by the European establishment at the time. But, the eclipse showed the world that scientists in the United States were getting better and better.

The book — Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them

The subtitle has — A cosmic quest from zero to infinity. It was written by physicist Antonio Padilla.

I was thinking this would be more math focused, but it is more about how a physicist explains very large and small numbers. That is fine with me, but it had a different bent from what I was expecting. With topics such as Tree(3), the Googolplex, Graham’s Number, zero, and Infinity, I thought it would be more mathematical than physics. I was particularly looking forward to the chapters on Graham’s Number and infinity.

The author is based in England, so it had British spellings, and it mentioned a lot of British and European sports. That is ok.

I did not expect Usain Bolt to show up in the book. The first chapter is about how Usain Bolt managed to run so fast in 2009, that he could slow his clock down by a factor of 1.000000000000000858 (I counted 15 zeros, but maybe I am off by one), and no human had ever slowed down their time that much. This is because of time dilation as objects approach the speed of light. As objects approach the speed of light, they also appear to have more mass, and they contract in size.

In the book, some of the things that I learned more about were:

  • Black hole head death. Which is “if you tried to picture Graham’s number in your head, then your head would collapse to form a black hole.”
  • Tree(3) — I am still not exactly sure why it is less than infinity, but I found some math articles to clarify that, but they were over my head. He did not explain that good enough for me. I guess it has to do with Kruskal’s tree theorem.
  • Where the name Fibonacci came from. That was not his real name.

In trying to explain how there are different levels of infinity, we learn about different sets. There are countable infinities, and then there are uncountable infinities. These concepts drove Georg Cantor mad.

Sometimes, the topics discussed seemed disconnected. For example, in the chapter on Infinity, he ends up talking about String Theory. I am not quite sure how he ended up there from the concept of infinity.

He changed the story of Schroedinger’s cat to be one of the Queen of England’s Corgi dogs. I found that to be a little odd.

It was an interesting read, but he does go off into tangents about the holographic universe, but that is his thing, so just be wary of the loose and strange connections he makes.

Here’s Looking at Euclid

Took me several months to finish this one, and I finally did a couple weeks ago. I particularly liked Chapter 4 the Life of Pie and Chapter 7, Secrets of Succession.

I’ve always like how pi has digits that go on forever, since it is an irrational number. The Secrets of Succession chapter covers sequences of numbers. It mentions the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which I had never heard of before. For example, the Fibonacci sequence has many notes, while other sequences are not as full.

I am reading another book that connects numbers with physics, and I learned that Fibonacci was not his real name. “The man’s full name was Leonardo of Pisa, or Leonardo Pisano in Italian. He was born in about 1175 in Pisa, a Tuscan town famous for its Leaning Tower. The name Fibonacci [pronounced fib-on-ach-ee] is short for ‘filius Bonacci’ or ‘son of Bonacci.’”

Overall, if someone is mathematically inclined, it is a fun read.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Since I am going to South Africa in about two weeks, someone recommend that I read the book, Born a Crime. This helped me learn a little bit about how the people of South Africa have dealt with Apartheid, and the transition away from that policy. I thought the United States was a racist nation, but man, that country has had to deal with some real bullshit.

There are plenty of other places to find reviews. While this isn’t a science book, I figured I might as well put it here since I have other book-based blog posts.

Finally finished the book, Code Warriors

This book came out in 2016, and we picked it up cheap at a JeffCo Public Library Whale of a Book Sale. In short, the author, Stephen Budiansky, wrote a fascinating tome concerning the history of code breaking in the United States. If you want to know more about the background of the creation of the NSA, this is for you. It also covers many other federal agencies that are engaged in military intelligence and counter-intelligence.

Well, I read another book on college costs – It is Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education

In the course of finding the previous book, I also had a citation to this new one published this year. I got this one from Interlibrary Loan, since it was not available in Colorado.

Bruce Kimball is in the Department of Education Studies at The Ohio State University. Co-author Sarah M. Iler got her Ph.D. from OSU, and she is currently teaching at Columbus State Community College.

In the preface, they note that several foundations declined to give them grants to support the research, since the foundations thought it should be written by economists, instead of historians of the american education system. They showed them. They were able to get research funding from a variety of sources.

The book essentially covers the years 1869 to the present. That is roughly when colleges began the work of building up an endowment, but the term didn’t become regularized until about 1920. Between 1870 and 1920, a college might consider buildings, equipment, property, trusts, and other financial holdings to be part of an endowment, but those items may or may not be considered endowment today.

The Ivy League schools plus other high prestige private universities (such as the U of Chicago, JHU, MIT) discovered the benefits of the “Free-Money Strategy” as covered in chapter 2. Charles W. Eliot popularized the idea with his annual reports to colleges in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. His father lost a family fortune in the panic of 1857, so that taught Charles the importance of saving money with sound financial strategies.

I skimmed most of the book, since it dealt with the history of how elite colleges developed their endowments with alumni drives, annual fund drives, and ways to influence politicians to give people tax breaks when they donate to colleges. I wanted to read chapters 9 through 11, since they looked at the college cost situation from 1980 to the present. Much of the chapters discussed two theories. One called “cost-disease theory” and another called “revenue-cost theory.” The revenue-cost theory seems to have won the day to explain the spiraling costs of colleges these days.

The conclusion of the book provided a nice overview. I liked the line on pages 274-275 where it was noted that rich universities “are acting like they exist to protect their endowments, instead of the other way around.” (From a law professor, Paul Campos, who stated this in a NY Times article in 2020.) Yes, this does seem to be the case. Colleges work very hard to build up a huge endowment, but to what end. Where should our higher ed spending go? Would a dollar be better spent going to Harvard to add to their 40+ Billion dollar endowment, or would that dollar be better spend helping an HBCU or to a community college scholarship for a first generation college student?

This book has me thinking that if I give to colleges in the future, I should have that money go to less wealthy institutions.