More ideas for book social software

danah boyd wants to like Books We Like, an online service for collective discounts and recommendations in book purchasing.
In the comments, Brad deGraf writes about supporting the import of an existing book spreadsheet, and a future feature that will import Amazon wishlists.
Even nicer would be something that combined an Amazon purchase list, with the “I’ve read that” responses to Amazon’s recommendations (which catch books you’ve read but not bought on Amazon).
For this to work, Amazon would need to componentize its records of the books its customers have purchased (from them or elswhere). Then Amazon, or somebody else, would enable the user to create a public view that could weed out gift books (Audobon Quarterly, for the birdwatching uncle), and purchases one might rather not advertise.
Or perhaps, if more purchases are done through Books We Like, their database will become the master for more of us, rather than Amazon’s.
Because BWL is an infomediary, they would have more of an interest than Amazon in providing tools for individuals to manage and combine their book databases. Amazon offers APIs but has a conflict — they have less of an interest in letting customers control their own data.

LiveJournal, Six Apart, and the future of community governance

SixApart, maker of TypePad and Movable Type weblog services and tools just bought LiveJournal, driving business praise and social angst about the role of the merger on the community.
LiveJournal is a hosted online journal community that is thriving and well-loved by its millions of active participants. danah boyd worries that SixApart will suppress freedom of expression. “My second concern is that Six Apart will not be prepared to deal with the userbase and will initiate practices that are more detrimental because of fear. [For example, what’s the best way to handle an LJ community dedicated to cutters trying to outdo each other via images?”
The social implications of the merger are foretold by Clay Shirky’s writings on Nomic online worlds. When online communities have commercial hosts (or non-commercial hosts who own the server and the code), some differences between the will of the citizens and the business interests of the hosts are inevitable.
Shirky’s article had some interesting and prescient reflections on models for online community governance. Just as democracies evolved to reconceptualize rulers as public servants, elected at the discretion of the populace, there may eventually emerge models of community governance where the host is chosen and serves terms at the discretion of the community.
In order for this to work, content needs to be a lot more portable and platforms need to be more commoditized. And there will need to be new rules and traditions for the management and governance of community infrastructure. In the long run, fees are taxes, governance is the will of the people, and online infrastructure services are public services like roads and schools.
Meanwhile, the in physical world, there’s a trend toward the privatization and corporatization of neighborhoods, controlled by developers and management companies. These corporate-sponsored neighborhoods run into the same sorts of tensions as corporate-sponsored online communities.
In the 90s, Disney Corporation’s efforts to develop Celebration, a Disney-branded community with houses, schools, and community services drew lots of attention. The pristine Disney vacation image foundered in the day to day reality of school board politics, and Disney eventually sold celebration.
The commercial quality control of the management companies conflicts with free speech in the physical world. There’s a bill in the Texas Legislature to permit the display of large American flags, in violation of management company enforced decorum.
Online and in 3D, there are tensions between neighborhoods and corporate hosts. Democracy has value, whether the infrastructure is bits or pixels.

Evolution and the mind: science and speculation

The Birth of the Mind, by Gary Marcus, tells a fascinating story discovered in recent years about how genes drive the development of the brain. The primary puzzle is how 30,000 genes enable the creation of billions of neurons and trillions of connections. The answer is that genes aren’t like a blueprint with each gene coding for a component. Instead, genes act like computer programs, with behavior that is switched on and modified based on developmental and contextual cues. Brain wiring isn’t complete at birth or in childhood. Learning consists of rewiring the brain across the human lifespan.

Marcus hypothesizes for further research that the difference betweeen humans and chimpanzees isn’t just brain size, it’s differences in the developmental program. The same components are re-used and extended — the “then” parts of the genetic conditionals — the proteins produced — are the same but the “if” sections are different — the conditions and sequence in which the proteins are produced.

One of the interesting areas of discovery how modules are repurposed. The FOXP2 gene has been discovered to play a role in human language capabilities; it’s also used in the heart, lungs, and other areas. Another gene, PAX6, which controls eye-building, also used for “development of the central nervous system and endocrine glands, and regulates a range of cellular processes, including proliferation, migration, adhesion and signalling.” (from this paper by Marcus on FOXP2).

The story Marcus tells is complementary to the science sections of The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain, which describes the developmental patterns of neural growth. In human brains, neurons get extend and infiltrate from motory, sensory, and emotional centers through to centers of reason and planning, extending vocal calls to speech, foraging instincts to ethnic cuisine, emotions to poetry, weddings and funerals.

Unlike the Symbolic Species and recent books by Steven Pinker, Gary Marcus’ mentor at MIT, this book doesn’t stray as far into unprovable speculation about human nature and the origins of consciousness and culture. Which is just as well — the science is fascinating with less speculation. It is quite a thrill to read about a body of scientific knowledge that is growing so rapidly.

Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves is on the speculation side of the continuum. No surprise, since Dennett’s a philosopher. The book tries to show how evolution can give rise to free will.
The first part of the book is a defense of an old philosophical perspective called “compatibilism”, whereby human free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. Even though natural events are predetermined, humans can choose to avoid determined events. For example, I might be genetically nearsighted, but can choose to wear glasses. The logical failure case is the intersection of multiple agents that each have free will. Ghandi chose nonviolent tactics to oppose British colonial rule, Indians chose to follow Gandhi’s nonviolent approach, and the British agreed to concede.

Following the defense of compatibilism, Dennett cites game theory and evolutionary biology to explain how humans may have evolved tendencies to co-operate, to develop ethical norms and social judgement. Dennett’s discussion of ethics seems rather impoverished. The examples he gives are mostly about the use of prison as just punishment, rather than the less extreme ethical issues that pervade social life. When discussing “free will”, Dennett tries to zero in on the rare circumstance of pure free choice, rather than the common situations where ones choices are influenced by habits (which one has chosen at some earlier date).

Dennett is vehemently in opposition to traditional, religiously derived perspectives. The book is studded with barbs against unnamed opponents who are supposedly terrified of the liberating impact of Dennett’s evolutionarily derived secular philosophy.

Yet spiritual thinkers from various traditions have more nuanced and insightful discussions about the range of ethical behavior, from parent-child relationships, to social gossip, to business ethics, to more extreme cases of crime and punishment. It is commonplace in Jewish ethical writing, for example, to talk about choosing good companions, teachers and habits to foster good choices.

Like Steven Pinker, Dennett scornfully replaces traditional ethical thought with modern, science-justified speculations that don’t, however, seem particularly wise. It is possible that moral philosophy guided by evolutionary science will contribute wisdom about the human condition; but these writers haven’t done it.
The developing science of mind, shaped by research in genetics, developmental biology, psychology, computational modeling, and evolutionary analysis is generating fascinating results. So far, the science seems more compelling to me than the philosophical speculation surrounding it.

Pinker, Marcus, learning and culture

In an Edge interview, Gary Marcus talks about how his perspective on the “nature/culture” issue differs from his mentor, Steven Pinker.

Pinker allows less room for improving the human condition than I would. I don’t think we disagree a whole lot about the nature of the facts, but Pinker tends to put his emphasis on the ways in which the biology constrains us in one direction or another, and he puts less emphasis on ways in which learning can change those things. I would say that the ability to learn is actually one of the things that humans are really good at. One of our unique talents is an incredible facility for learning, an incredible flexibility in learning, that even some of our closest primate cousins don’t have. Our miraculous abilities to learn actually open up lots of possibilities, and by not stressing this, Pinker in his latest book paints a somewhat darker picture of human nature than I would.

Jared Diamond on avoiding “Collapse”

Jared Diamond’s latest book is superb. Collapse tells the story of civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental destruction (Easter Island, the Maya), and societies that avoided a similar fate with prudent decision making (Japan).
The book surpasses earlier books covering similar cautionary material, including
A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
Here’s why the book is so good.
In addition to stories about civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental degradation (Easter Island, the Maya), Diamond also tells the story of societies that managed to avoid environmental distruction through prudent and farsighted decision-making (the Japanese Tokugawa shogus decided to stop logging and reforest; Tikopia, the Pacific island that decided to stop raising pigs because the pigs were destructive to the island’s fragile vegetation, though pigs were prestigous in Polynesian culture. Diamond provides examples of societies (including Japan) that made decisions to protect their environment by top-down command, and societies that made similar decisions through bottom-up processes (like the New Guinea Highlands).
Diamond does comparative analysis, assessing various environmental and geopolitical factors, showing, for example, how Easter Island’s ecosystem was more fragile than other Polynesian colonies, and how Greenland’s environment was less appropriate for Scandinavian customs than other Norse colonies. He shows how environmental initial conditions interacted with cultural practices and decisions to facilitate decline. The comparative approach lends credibility to the analysis of contemporary cultures (Australia, China) threatened by environmental degradation.
The treatment of the environmental records of big businesses is another area where Diamond’s balance give’s the book credibility and usefulness. For example, Diamond compares the record of Chevron, which maintained a meticulous record of environmental responsibily in its Indonesian oil drilling, with the reprehensible record of Pertamina, also drilling for oil in Indonesia. He compares the grudging acquiescense of Arco at cleaning up polluted mines in Montana, with the evil record of Pegasus Gold, which left its Montana mines leaking cyanide, took $5 million in bonuses for the board of directors, and declared bankruptcy to avoid cleanup responsibility
Diamond also provides valuable perspective on the best places for citizen activism to have leverage. For example, the drive for sustainable wood harvesting has been led by big consumer-facing companies, including Home Depot and Kinkos, which are huge buyers of wood products, and are highly sensitive to public opinion. The logging companies that supply them don’t care about habitat or individual consumers — but they do care about the bulk purchases of Home Depot.
Diamond avoids the hyperbole of doom used by some environmentalists as a rhetorical strategy. And he shows how some societies managed to make good decisions, in time to successfully reverse decline. Therefore his assessment of the risk faced by our interconnected global civilization, and the responsibility faced by leaders and citizens, is more persuasive, and more chilling.
It’s early January, but this may be the best book to read all year.

Alexander Hamilton and Cod

Not long ago, I read two good history books from alternate schools of history.
Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Alexander Hamilton tells the life story of a “great man” — how Alexander Hamilton overcame poverty and social prejudice against his out-of-wedlock birth, through ambition, hard work, and what we’d call networking — to become a leading figure in the founding of the United States.
The catchy but shallow metaphorical “frames” of George Lakoff make one nostalgic for the good, old-fashioned Enlightenment. The 18th century world had slavery shadowing the rhetoric of freedom, and plenty of smaller vicious customs like tarring and feathering and duels. The politics of the time were often vicious, personal, and corrupt. Hamilton was vain, insecure, and contentious; biographies of other founding fathers reveal plenty of flaws.
But the bold and ultimately successful ambition of the founding fathers leave the student of history in awe. Alexander Hamilton made a comprehensive study of European economic and financial theory and practice, and drew up a blueprint for a nation’s financial institutions.
Following an election campaign in which George Bush’s indifference to ideas and facts was portrayed as a strength, and Kerry’s nuanced equivocation made intellect seem weak, it’s inspiring to read about founding fathers who were both smart and brave, and whose intellectual achievements were integral to their bravery.
The book is relatively weak on Hamilton’s contributions to the structure and philosophy of US government (he wrote most of the Federalist papers), and his role in creating the US financial system. Chernow’s more recent biography is probably the place to go for more substance on those topics.
The Hamilton bio is surprisingly strong on the twists and turns of the Revolutionary war. Battles and feints that come off as “one thing after another” in textbook accounts make sense as strategic moves and historical turning points. The sheer stress and uncertainty are brought to life.
In contrast to the old-fashioned individual and dramatic focus of “Alexander Hamilton”, Cod takes a broader, impersonal look at world history through the theme of the prosaic codfish, which supported economic life and cooking from Iberia to Scandinavia, Canada to the Carribean for hundreds of years.
The cod was part of the North America/Carribean/European trade that gave Alexander Hamilton his initial opportunity — as a teenager, he started as a clerk in a trading house on the Carribean island of Nevis. His bosses, New York traders, eventually paid his way to college and introduced him to New York business, political and social circles.
Cod was a core part of the trade economy that the American Colonists went to war to protect; taxes on molasses, and later on sugar and tea penalized the Carribean leg of the trade route. The New England cod trade was part of the painful irony of the American revolution — New Englanders defended their rights to be represented in tariff decisions, and voiced opposition to slavery on principle, but were silent about the role of slaves in the far side of their trade routes.
The story, in the end, is an environmental fable. North American fisheries have proven unable to refrain from destroying the cod population with factory fishing methods. By contrast, Iceland has managed to understand the danger, and reduce fishing to sustainable levels.
The decline of fish, soil and water are part of a current danger to civilization — Jared Diamond’s latest, on the role of environmental mismanagement in the fall of civilizations throughout history, is at the top of the pile to read next.
For Peterme who always asks for recommendations, the lively recounting of the revolutionary war is the strongest reason to read the Hamilton biography. Cod is a strong addition to the shelf of commodity-oriented social history, with an appealing system picture connecting food, politics, and the environment.
Neither book is brilliant, both are good and well worth reading.