Another reading update

I’ve been terrible about keeping track of what I’m reading lately, I know.  I just–and–I was–ummm… Yeah.  Well, anyway, here’s some of what I remember.

Conan Doyle for the Defense

I picked up a copy of this one at the local bookstore because, I mean, Margalit Fox.  How many authors can make you have a favorite prehistoric writing system?  But that is exactly what Margalit Fox did in The Riddle of the Labyrinth (love that book!), so when I saw that she had a new book out, and it was nonfiction about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle getting involved to free a man who had been wrongly convicted of a scandalous murder… How could I possibly pass that up?

In the end I think this book could have been rather considerably shorter than it was without suffering any.  It’s still a story worth knowing, though.  Just maybe get it from the library instead of buying it in hardcover.

Tell Me How It Ends

The college’s reading initiative picked this book for this year, and Valeria Luiselli is coming to campus to talk about it.  So when I was scrolling through NYPL’s ebook app and this one popped up, and I didn’t have anything else particularly in mind to read… Well, why not be a good campus citizen and read it?

Tell Me How It Ends uses Luiselli’s experience translating for the unaccompanied refugee children making their way to the US, and the framework of the questions those children have to answer so that lawyers can decide whether to argue their case, to make you feel the inhumanity of US immigration policies.  It’s a fabulous book–well written, well presented, really important topic–but it left me wanting to scream at current and recent US politics.  I bet it would pair really well on a reading list with Haven.

What I Found In A Thousand Towns

A student came to the reference desk this week asking for a bunch of books focusing on small town America.  Our library didn’t own most of them, so I was showing the student ILL, and they were reading out titles and authors for me to search–and then they said “Dar Williams.”  I started typing, and then I stopped.  “Wait.  Dar Williams??  I love Dar Williams!  She wrote a book?”

Whichever prof told that student to read this book, thank you!  This is another one that I was able to get through the NYPL ebook app.  I haven’t finished yet, but I’m psyched for the section talking about the Finger Lakes (since I’m very fond of the Finger Lakes in general and Ithaca in particular).

The book looks at different ways that small towns become actual communities–the kind of place where people know each other and are involved in things and take pride in being from there.  The kind of place where downtown isn’t full of sad and empty storefronts, but instead is a place where people actually go to live and work and eat and shop and play.  Because Dar Williams has been playing in all kinds of places since (apparently) the ’90s, she has interesting firsthand perspectives on a number of before and after stories.  Also I love the motley assortment of people she talks to about their towns/stores/projects/etc.

This book also makes me want to up my game at connecting people and making things happen.  I mean, I already have had a couple of notable (if relatively small-scale) successes in that arena–but this makes me want to scale up and really contribute to the efforts underway to revitalize my town.  Hmmm…

Reading: Arithmetic

So I mentioned a while back that I was reading Arithmetic.  I did pretty well with it for a while; Lockhart has an engaging writing style, and his was by far the best explanation of thinking in anything other than base 10 that I’ve come across.

…But, yes, there’s a but.  I’m nearing the end now–I’ve just gotten to the bit about fractions–and I’m flagging.  I’m no longer wowed by the different perspectives you can take on how all of this works, and I’m starting to think he’s annoyingly glib at times.

I’ve spent some time as I read Arithmetic trying to decide who I would recommend this book to.  It’s not really for children, for all that I think children are the ones who could benefit most from the different takes on how arithmetic works, and interesting points of view as those takes are explained.  Adults can just use a calculator if they don’t enjoy doing the arithmetic themselves, as Lockhart points out every few pages.  Kids, though–kids are stuck in school math classes where they’re graded on this stuff, and not tracked into the actually interesting math until/unless they master arithmetic.  But this isn’t really a book for kids.

Maybe it would be good for the parent or tutor of a kid struggling with math?  Or anyone who teaches math to elementary schoolers, I suppose.

Anyway, I’m not 100% sure whether or not I’ll finish this one.  I might.  But then again, I’ve already stumbled across Music and the Making of Modern Science while trying to find stuff to buy for collection development.  I’m not sure I can justify buying it for the library… but I can certainly justify ILLing it for myself!  Maybe this one will be the bedtime reading I’ve been waiting for.  It could be, right?

In other news, I think I saw a house finch yesterday, and I’ve definitely seen crocuses in bloom in two different places.  It’s spring!  And See You Around has been on repeat in my office and apartment for the past couple days.  That has nothing to do with spring, but it’s always nice to have new music as you usher in a new season.

Reading Update

I’ve been reading all kinds of things since the last time I posted an update.  It’s true that I haven’t finished them all… but it’s also true that I’m not actually going to, in most cases.  Shrug.  My grandma claims she’s never started a book that she hasn’t finished.  Personally I don’t understand why I’d want to waste my time finishing things I don’t care about when there are so many other options just waiting for me to discover them.

Haven, by Ruth Gruber

I read this mostly while I was visiting family for Christmas, which… this is not a cheerful book.  It ought to be required reading for any human being alive right now, though; it feels entirely too relevant to current events for my peace of mind.  If you are someone I know, you can expect to be given this book at an upcoming holiday.

See, during WWII, the extent of the US’s willingness to take in refugees outside of its regular immigration quotas was to bring in 982 refugees as “guests” of the president, and keep them more or less confined to Fort Ontario.  (They were allowed out into the city of Oswego as long as they were back at night, but that seems to have been about it.)

Ruth Gruber accompanied the refugees on the troop transport ship that brought them to the US, and then stayed on at the camp once they arrived.  She recounts brief histories of some of the refugees, which–they’re Holocaust survival stories.  If they don’t make you cry, I’m not sure you’re actually a person.  Haven also gets into some of the politics and problems around the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario, all of which could just as easily be happening today.  For instance, the refugees’ legal status in the US was a mess, leading to all kinds of issues like how they couldn’t even apply to immigrate legally.  And the sheer bigotry surrounding how the US dealt with these people… yeah.

I had never heard of any of this until I moved about half a mile from Fort Ontario.  Why had I never heard of any of this until I moved here?  Why has no one I talk to heard of this until either they move to Oswego or I tell them about it?  The moral of the story is, read Haven.

The Nibelungenlied, translated by A.T. Hatto.

Yep, The Nibelungenlied.  Like, the thing Wagner apparently butchered for The Ring Cycle. (I’ve not actually seen that, so I’m taking Wikipedia’s word for it that it’s a butchering of the story.)  I’ve read parts of a version of The Nibelungenlied story before, because I read The Saga of the Volsungs a year or two ago.  I don’t remember hating Siegfried/Sigurd quite so much during that, though, probably because 1) I wasn’t as invested in Brunhild, and 2) I’m pretty sure he was less awful to Brunhild in that one.

I remember, like, Sigurd (who I guess is the same is Siegfried?  So maybe ye olde listeners to this story were as confused by all the Sig-something-or-other names as I was) riding through some fire his friend couldn’t get through, to prove his fearlessness so the friend could marry Brunhild.  And then he slept beside her with a sword between them, because stories this old are weird.

Anyway, in The Nibelungenlied it’s a much more involved deception, and then after Brunhild is tricked into marrying Gunther she refuses to have sex with him until he explains what’s up with Siegfried.  When Gunther tries to insist (aka rape her), she’s like, “Nope!” and ties him up with her girdle and hangs him on the wall.  F*** yes, Brunhild.  F*** yes.  Rock on.

But then Gunther goes and whines to Siegfried, and Siegfried is like, “Yeah I’ve got this; I’ll make it so you can rape her,” and Siegfried uses his super strength to beat Brunhild at wrestling while she thinks he’s Gunther.  After that she’s not so strong anymore and Gunther gets to rape her after all.  You see why I’m not loving this?  I’m having trouble continuing with the rest of the story to find out why exactly the Nibelungs are important enough to it to get the whole thing named after them.

Also I have this problem where I keep wanting to pronounce the name of this story as The Nibbling Iliad, which… I mean, who doesn’t want to nibble on The Iliad?  But still.

Anyway, if you’re curious, my vote is to stick with the Brunhild story in The Saga of the Volsungs, even if that one does get a bit weird with Brunhild predicting stuff and then getting mad at people because they do what she predicts.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

I loved the movie, so I wasn’t about to pass up my chance when a friend moving out of town offered me her copy of the book.  The book, too, is awesome.

I admit to having some trouble keeping track of people’s names, possibly because I mostly was reading it a few paragraphs at a time right before bed.  Still, I think this book is both great and important.  The book gives a better picture of just how much time and effort went into these women’s careers.  The movie made it feel like they won their battles quickly; the book gives a better sense of just how much crap they fought through.  Hats off to Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden.  If I can be 1/4 as awesome as they are, I will feel fortunate.

Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life, by Albert-laszlo Barabasi

This is one that I’m not sure I’m going to finish.  It’s interesting reading about the differences between random and scale-free networks, and how that impacts things like the internet… but for some reason this book just isn’t cutting it for me.  I can’t sustain my interest, is maybe the better way to put it.  I read this one night and I’m like, “Oooh, interesting!”  Then I try to continue the next night, and I’m more like, “Ugh, I need to find something else to read.”

I bet if the author had a TED Talk it would be worth watching, but he doesn’t seem to.  So that’s that, as far as I’m concerned.

Design for the Real World, by Victor Papanek

I don’t remember why I pulled this one off the shelf at work.  Possibly I mistook it for a title published more recently than 1972?  At any rate I imagine I might have quite enjoyed this if I were reading it in the 1970s, but reading it in 2017 was an entirely different matter.

One thing I will say for this book: Papanek’s hatred of automobiles is hilarious.  He keeps coming back to it, over and over.  Here’s an example:

Is an automobile, for instance, a piece of sports equipment, transportation, a living-room-cum-bordello on wheels, or a chrome-plated marshmallow predesigned to turn itself into a do-it-yourself coffin?

I really wish I’d kept track of all his car-hating quotes, because… wow.  I mean, I dislike cars, but I’m practically the hosts of Top Gear compared to this guy.

And More

Definitely more.  A lot more.  Did I ever write a blog post about Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times?  If not, go read that now.  Maybe I’ll write about it if/when I reread it.  Going by memory months after the fact isn’t going to let me do it any justice whatsoever.

I started reading Between the World and Me, and holy crap, Ta-Nehisi Coates can write.  I picked a bad couple weeks to have that book out from the library, though, so I didn’t manage to finish it in time.   Someone had a hold on it after me, so renewing wasn’t a choice.  I need to get back to this one.  I REALLY need to get back to this one.

Plus, of course, fiction.  Most recently some nice, fluffy, cosy mysteries set in 1920s England.  But also some snarky fantasy capers, borderline trashy (but entirely too much fun) werewolf novels, and Rebel of the Sands and its sequel.  That one I’ll actually name because I quite like it.  I picked it up on a whim at the mysterious Daunt Books store that appeared at the end of a rainbow when I was lost in London.  True story–my friend and I were lost, there was a rainbow, and BOOM there was this bookstore.  It took us at least an hour of wandering to find it again the next day, and I still don’t know where it actually is.

What else?  I’d have to go hunting through my computer and apartment to find out the other things I’ve been reading.  There’s been a lot.  My crafting has been taking second place to books for a while now; it might be time to shift that focus again, at least for a few months.

Reading: Thinking in Systems

I don’t remember why I decided to ILL Thinking in Systems. I think it must have been cited in something else I read; maybe Design is the Problem?  Regardless, I did ILL it, and it was fantastic bedtime reading. Many thanks to Nazareth College for having a nearly three-month checkout period. Seriously: Much appreciated. Provided that I don’t forget to throw the book into my work bag tonight, I will even be returning the book early!  That makes me feel all accomplished and smart and stuff.

The only downside to this book was that I don’t (yet) keep a notepad and pen at my bedside, so I didn’t jot down any of the fabulous quotes in this book. And because I read it right before bed every night, I know that I’ve forgotten some of the best bits. The book is copyright 2008, but the author died in 2001, and–I mean, are we sure she didn’t have a time machine?  Because wow she had some quotes that feel very, very timely.

Anyway, what am I taking away from this book?  The “systems zoo” was interesting, with its examples and simple diagrams of various types of systems:

  • Systems with competing balancing loops
    Think thermostat heating a room. The temperature is the stock, and the thermostat tries to keep the room warm even as the temperature outside tries to cool the room down.
  • Systems with competing AND reinforcing balancing loops
    Think population. The birth rate reinforces population growth, and the death rate competes with it.
  • Systems with delays
    Think inventory in your store. You buy more inventory to respond to what your customers have bought (and what you think they’re going to buy), but it takes time for the new stock to show up. How much of a delay you put on your orders for more stock affects oscillations in what/how much you have on hand.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a non-renewable stock
    Think oil economy. The oil is non-renewable; your oil company’s capital is renewable. The amount of capital you have (after you start) both affects and is affected by the amount of oil you extract.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a renewable stock
    Think fishing. Your fishing company’s capital affects and is affected by the population of fish. (Which is a population system–so the fish’s death rate is competing with their birth rate to control how many fish there are.)

If you think about systems rather than just events, you get into why things happen, which is truly a thing that I love. But how do you figure out the limits to your system?  You don’t want to think about too small a system, or you won’t learn much. But you also don’t want to think about too large a system, because you’ll get lost in waaaaaaay too much information that’s only tangentially related to whatever it is that you care about.

“Ideally, we would have the mental flexibility to find the appropriate boundary for thinking about each new problem. We are rarely that flexible. We get attached to the boundaries our minds happen to be accustomed to. Think about how many arguments have to do with boundaries–national boundaries, trade boundaries, ethnic boundaries, boundaries between public and private responsibility… It’s a great art to remember that boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.” (p. 98-99, author’s emphasis)

Swoon. And then she has a section on “system traps”: resistance to policies because the goals of sub-systems don’t align with the goals of the larger system(s); everyone’s beloved tragedy of the commons, where because people get all the benefits but only part of the negative consequences for over-using something, they over-use the resource; the drift to low performance, where we all say “well, given x, can you really expect any better?”; escalation, where we all keep responding a little more strongly in opposition to each other; the trap where the rich keep getting richer because one of the rewards of success is more of whatever it takes to become successful; shifting the burden to an intervenor whose “solution” to a problem isn’t really a solution; trying to beat the rules; and seeking the wrong goal (think: assessing the wrong things).

She offers ways out of these traps, but if I’ve managed to phrase them right in my summary, I think the ways out are generally pretty self explanatory. Once you’ve realized what kind of trap you’re facing, anyway.

She also offers a list of places to intervene in a system, albeit with the caution that we often have a tendency to “pull the lever” in the wrong direction. That reminds me of an obstructionist co-worker I once had, and how everyone just kept excluding her from more and more decisions because she argued about everything, but that just made her more and more obstructionist. When I shocked my boss and brought the obstructionist to the table intentionally, she worked with the team on the project instead of obstructing it. Seeing the larger system FTW!

Anyway, one of the last sections of the book is about places you can intervene in a system. Stock, buffers, reinforcing loops, delays, presence/absence of information, overall goals, and more. I liked this part, but really once you’ve gotten your mind wrapped around the system and are thinking of it as a system, I think these are also pretty obvious.

The very last section of the book is “Living in a World of Systems,” and offers a series of maxims that made me want to jump up and down and say, “This is what I’m trying to do!”  I don’t think any of them are earth-shattering on their own, but I quite like the list. This section of the book seems like it might make a good reading assignment for… something. Anyway, here are the section headings:

  • Get the beat of the system.
  • Expose your mental models to the light of day.
  • Honor, respect, and distribute information.
  • Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts.
  • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  • Make feedback policies for feedback systems. (This one I think needs translating: Make dynamic, self-adjusting rules to control your system.)
  • Go for the good of the whole.
  • Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  • Locate responsibility in the system.
  • Stay humble–stay a learner.
  • Celebrate complexity.
  • Expand time horizons.
  • Defy the disciplines.
  • Expand the boundary of caring.
  • Don’t erode the goal of goodness.

In short: This book is who I want to be when I grow up. And you can see why it’s so chock full of quotes that feel relevant right now, even if I didn’t transcribe those quotes. So much of my problem with current events is that I feel like the people in charge are not even seeing the whole system, much less understanding how its various parts play together, how those parts affect people who aren’t the same as the people in power, thinking about the future, etc.

Anyway. Thinking in Systems is good stuff, and I recommend it.

Reading: The Tea Book

I’ve lost some time lately to little things like, oh, introducing a second cat to my first cat, plus discovering that NYPL library cards are available to anyone who lives in NY state.  So many ebooks of fun, fluffy, escapist reading!  So convenient to download while preventing growling cats from killing each other!

But I’ve also been following through on some of the things I said I needed to learn about, when last I wrote.  Specifically, I have now read The Tea Book: All Things Tea.  Scholarly?  Heavens, no.  Unbiased?  Again no–this was written by some people who own a tea company.  So I can’t really blame them for the pages that discuss things like which of that tea brand’s teas are best for whatever mood, etc.

It did, however, serve me well in giving me a very brief history of tea drinking, some recipes, and explanation of the differences between green tea, black tea, and white tea.

In short–most of the difference is in how the tea leaves are processed after they’re picked.  There *are* some exceptions to that, like how white tea seems generally accepted to involve younger tea leaves / buds, and matcha tea involves shading the tea bushes for a couple weeks before the harvest.  Also you drink the entire leaf with matcha, instead of filtering it out, which makes sense of the fact that when I tried matcha this week it tasted like, well, leaves.  (It does taste nice in a milkshake with coconut ice cream, though, FYI.)

Anyway the difference between green tea and black tea is that black tea is allowed to oxidize (more) before they heat it to stop that process.

Plus everyone makes a big deal out of where the tea was grown, including considerations like elevation.  That part really sounded a lot like reading about wine.

And… now I know.  I’m also intrigued by some of the recipes in The Tea Book; I hadn’t previously considered cooking with tea.  That now seems like a grave oversight.  Culinary adventures, here I come!

Reading: Design is the Problem

I’ve been reading Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. LibUx was doing it as some kind of book club thing, and while I’m horrible at book clubs, I *am* open to book recommendations. So, Design is the Problem.

It makes pretty decent bedtime reading–engagingly enough written that I can stay awake for more than a couple paragraphs, not so thrilling that I will glance at the clock and realize that I should have been asleep hours ago.  I have a surprising amount of difficulty finding that balance, so it’s worth noting.  Also worth noting: I don’t have my ILLed copy of the book at hand, so we’re just going to pretend that my intent was to capture broad ideas and not worry about details.

Things I like as of right now, when I’m maybe 3/4 of the way through the book:

  • The focus on systems.  Systems make me so ridiculously happy.  Don’t just think of the system you’re designing in–think of the systems that system is a part of.
  • The idea that in nature, one system’s outputs are another system’s inputs.  No waste!  What would that look like in a library?  I keep trying to figure that out, and coming up with things like–I produce lots of data when I’m doing usability testing.  I do my best to share it, but I can’t force others to reuse it, and I don’t generally have time to reuse it myself.  Imagine if that were part of a larger process that I could dip into when I needed to and/or contribute my data to, and know that it would flow onward to someplace where it would see further use.  Being able to reuse others’ output, whether in usability data or anything else, would mean I don’t always have to start from scratch!  (And neither does anyone else.)
  • Building on that idea–the idea that a subsystem’s “waste” could actually improve the larger systems it’s part of.  Imagine a factory that purified a river instead of polluting it.  What would be the library equivalent?  Must figure this out.
  • The idea of river systems vs. lake systems.  In a river system, inputs come in, flow through, and pass right back out.  In a lake system, inputs come in and get used and swirl around and get reused, maybe several times, before they pass out of the system.  They contribute value to the system instead of just passing through.
  • Recognition of the fact that there are many kinds of sustainability: social, ecological, financial, etc.  Come to think of it, there are probably as many kinds of sustainability as there are kinds of systems.
  • The case studies.  I really enjoy the case studies embedded throughout the book; they take the abstractions and make them concrete.

Things I don’t like:

  • The footnotes.  I mean, I like footnotes in general.  Footnotes are good, right?  They often contain citations, and I like citations.  But the sources this guy is citing in his footnotes–!  Wikipedia, repeatedly.  And news articles.  I mean, nothing against Wikipedia and news articles, but seriously, these are the chief sources you use for your book?!  You couldn’t even be bothered to chase down the sources those sources cited?  My inner librarian is crying.

    Every time I say to myself, “Oh, that’s interesting!  I wonder where he pulled that from?” and then look and see it’s Wikipedia, I immediately begin to doubt the point he just made.  Is it actually true?  Maybe, but it just got added to the “Interesting but unverified” column in my brain.

Anyway–it’s worth a read, and possibly also worth further research to verify all the things the author relied on Wikipedia for.


Reading: The Paradox of Choice

I ILLed myself a copy of The Paradox of Choice, by Schwartz.  I forget exactly why–something else I was reading referenced it, maybe?  Anyway I’ve seen Schwartz’s TED Talk about this, I remember being intrigued by it, and before bed all I can read is nonfiction if I actually want to get any sleep.  Why not read the book?  Here’s the TED Talk:

And yeah… that moment with the “choice” of gender feels wrong to me, too.  I mean, I see what he’s going for.  But as I understand it, the only “choice” in being trans is whether or not to take the risk of being openly trans.  It’s a choice of being open about your gender, not a choice about your gender.


The TED Talk sums up the book pretty well, except it doesn’t name the concepts of maximizing vs. satisficing.  The idea with those terms is that maximizing involves you looking at each and every option you possibly can in order to make sure you get the very best one.  Satisficing is where you look only long enough to find an option that is “good enough.”

A satisficer won’t go to every clothing store within an hour radius of their home, looking for the perfect sweater; they’ll come up with some criteria and shop only long enough to find a sweater that meets those criteria.  A maximizer, on the other hand, will be the person who keeps finding sweaters that might work, but let’s just go check that other department or that other store or the outlet mall.  Just in case there’s something warmer/softer/cheaper/more exactly your size.

Schwartz ties these ideas in with the concepts he covers in his TED Talk, but the moral of the story is that satisficing is the way to go if you want to retain your sanity.  Figure out what’s good enough, and then don’t waste your time agonizing over whether you could have done better or whether someone else did do better.  You’ll end up happier with your decision even if objectively you could have done better.

He also recommends making “second-order decisions,” or decisions about when to even bother making a decision.  His example is the choice of whether or not to buckle your seatbelt when you get in a car.  Instead of having to choose each and every time you get in a car, just choose to be someone who always wears your seatbelt.

The librarian part of my brain spent the entire book wondering how to apply these concepts to information literacy and/or a library website.  Paralysis due to too many choices is definitely an issue with library websites–it’s the reason so many of us librarians are always going on about making our websites “more like Google.”  To a student who knows little or nothing about libraries, what is there to tell them whether they should search in this box or that box?  Or maybe they should click on this link that sounds like it might be relevant.  But there are these other links, too, which all presumably lead to important research-related tools and content, and–you know, it’s easier just not to pick.

Even once you’ve managed to figure out where to search on a library website, there’s a very good chance that you got hundreds of results.  Librarians used to brand ourselves as the only way you were going to find any information.  Nowadays we’re struggling to rebrand ourselves as the only way you can do a good job coping with the ridiculous number of choices you have in terms of information sources.

This also ties in to Living with Complexity, which I totally need to reread.  There’s that whole idea about how “complex” (having lots of visible options) is not the same as “complicated” (which involves being needlessly complex, hard to use, counterintuitive, etc.)  To a novice user, the difference between the two is incomprehensible, because the novice user doesn’t know how to choose between all the possibilities put forward by the visible options.

Even good library websites are going to be complex.  There are just so many things that people use libraries to accomplish, and so many tools customized to each of those tasks!  The question is, how can librarians tone down that complexity and provide just the right number of choices for non-expert users?  How can we simultaneously provide all of the most powerful tools we have for the users who need and expect them?

Questions, questions, questions.  Maybe I’ll get some answers as I move on to my next bedtime read: The Discipline of Organizing.  Somehow I doubt it… but I want to believe!

A side note about The Paradox of Choice that’s not really what the book is about: This book was published in 2004, and Schwartz spends all kinds of time on his example of the many choices available to anyone who wants long-distance phone service.  You know… for their landline.  I’m having an “I’m old!” moment here, because in my head 2004 is not actually that long ago, but ye gods, landlines?!  It just sounds so quaint.