books

Umberto Eco on books

From Umberto Eco’s “Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books” (Al-Ahram Weekly: 20—26 November 2003):

Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them. …

First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. …

YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT that our unravelling activity must start because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the pages, one—once arrived at page 300—can go back to check or re- read something at page 10—but this implies physical labour. In contrast to this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing hypertexts. …

Simply, books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the ‘detective story way’. You start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. …

Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the first to the last page. …

Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information. …

Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors. …

TWO NEW INVENTIONS, however, are on the verge of being industrially exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single copy using the font the reader likes. … Simply put: every book will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.

The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the book’s spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. … E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. …

Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre’s invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter’s eye through the photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new invention has always profoundly changed an older one. …

The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. …

Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link. …

In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and infinite.

First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items—a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth. …

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, ‘This morning I had for breakfast…’, for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, ‘This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter’, then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. …

Take a fairy tale, like Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations—a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood—and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. … This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false. …

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to ‘open’ up a finite and limited text?

The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of the son of Tutankhamen. …

AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.

Another example would be a jazz jam session. … What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories. …

A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems. …

All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. …

At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a closed one, let us say, Little Red Riding Hood or The Arabian Nights, and that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against the concept of definite authorship. …

A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified. … Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death. …

Reading the impenetrable too fast

From Lee Siegel, quoted in Juliet Lapidos’s “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great” (Slate: 11 August 2011):

It was like Herbert Marcuse’s advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn’t understand it: “You’re reading too fast,” Marcuse told him.

Clay Shirky on the changes to publishing & media

From Parul Sehgal’s “Here Comes Clay Shirky” (Publisher’s Weekly: 21 June 2010):

PW: In April of this year, Wired‘s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation. … Kelly explained, “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

CS: It is possible to think that the Internet will be a net positive for society while admitting that there are significant downsides—after all, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.

No one will ever wonder, is there anything amusing for me on the Internet? That is a solved problem. What we should really care about are [the Internet’s] cultural uses.

In Here Comes Everybody I told the story of the Abbot of Sponheim who in 1492 wrote a book saying that if this printing press thing is allowed to expand, what will the scribes do for a living? But it was more important that Europe be literate than for scribes to have a job.

In a world where a book had to be a physical object, charging money was a way to cause more copies to come into circulation. In the digital world, charging money for something is a way to produce fewer copies. There is no way to preserve the status quo and not abandon that value.

Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution.

PW: When do you think a similar realization will come to book publishing?

CS: I think someone will make the imprint that bypasses the traditional distribution networks. Right now the big bottleneck is the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. That’s the seawall holding back the flood in publishing. Someone’s going to say, “I can do a business book or a vampire book or a romance novel, whatever, that might sell 60% of the units it would sell if I had full distribution and a multimillion dollar marketing campaign—but I can do it for 1% percent of the cost.” It has already happened a couple of times with specialty books. The moment of tip happens when enough things get joined up to create their own feedback loop, and the feedback loop in publishing changes when someone at Barnes & Noble says: “We can’t afford not to stock this particular book or series from an independent publisher.” It could be on Lulu, or iUniverse, whatever. And, I feel pretty confident saying it’s going to happen in the next five years.

John Steinbeck on finishing a book

From Nathaniel Benchley’s interview of John Steinbeck in “The Art of Fiction No. 45” (The Paris Review: Fall 1969, No. 48):

I truly do not care about a book once it is finished. Any money or fame that results has no connection in my feeling with the book. The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them…

Luther & Poe both complained about too many books

From Clay Shirky’s “Does The Internet Make You Smarter?” (The Wall Street Journal: 5 June 2010):

In the history of print … complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

Linux Phrasebook in Russian

My book, Linux Phrasebook, which is still selling well & still just as useful today as when it came out in 2006 (& will be for another decade or two, given how consistent the Linux command line is), has been translated into Russian. You can find it at this Russian website, where I found out that it’s translated title is Linux Карманный справочник, which looks pretty cool. The other cool thing I found out from going to the page is how to display my name in Russian: Скотт Граннеман.

David Foster Wallace on serious vs. commercial art

From David Wiley’s interview of David Foster Wallace, “Transcript of the David Foster Wallace Interview” (The Minnesota Daily: 27 February 1997):

But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably 70 percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.

What Google’s book settlement means

Google Book Search
Image via Wikipedia

From Robert Darnton’s “Google & the Future of Books” (The New York Review of Books: 12 February 2009):

As the Enlightenment faded in the early nineteenth century, professionalization set in. You can follow the process by comparing the Encyclopédie of Diderot, which organized knowledge into an organic whole dominated by the faculty of reason, with its successor from the end of the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie méthodique, which divided knowledge into fields that we can recognize today: chemistry, physics, history, mathematics, and the rest. In the nineteenth century, those fields turned into professions, certified by Ph.D.s and guarded by professional associations. They metamorphosed into departments of universities, and by the twentieth century they had left their mark on campuses…

Along the way, professional journals sprouted throughout the fields, subfields, and sub-subfields. The learned societies produced them, and the libraries bought them. This system worked well for about a hundred years. Then commercial publishers discovered that they could make a fortune by selling subscriptions to the journals. Once a university library subscribed, the students and professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. The price could be ratcheted up without causing cancellations, because the libraries paid for the subscriptions and the professors did not. Best of all, the professors provided free or nearly free labor. They wrote the articles, refereed submissions, and served on editorial boards, partly to spread knowledge in the Enlightenment fashion, but mainly to advance their own careers.

The result stands out on the acquisitions budget of every research library: the Journal of Comparative Neurology now costs $25,910 for a year’s subscription; Tetrahedron costs $17,969 (or $39,739, if bundled with related publications as a Tetrahedron package); the average price of a chemistry journal is $3,490; and the ripple effects have damaged intellectual life throughout the world of learning. Owing to the skyrocketing cost of serials, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographs now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.

The eighteenth-century Republic of Letters had been transformed into a professional Republic of Learning, and it is now open to amateurs—amateurs in the best sense of the word, lovers of learning among the general citizenry. Openness is operating everywhere, thanks to “open access” repositories of digitized articles available free of charge, the Open Content Alliance, the Open Knowledge Commons, OpenCourseWare, the Internet Archive, and openly amateur enterprises like Wikipedia. The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality.

What provoked these jeremianic- utopian reflections? Google. Four years ago, Google began digitizing books from research libraries, providing full-text searching and making books in the public domain available on the Internet at no cost to the viewer. For example, it is now possible for anyone, anywhere to view and download a digital copy of the 1871 first edition of Middlemarch that is in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Everyone profited, including Google, which collected revenue from some discreet advertising attached to the service, Google Book Search. Google also digitized an ever-increasing number of library books that were protected by copyright in order to provide search services that displayed small snippets of the text. In September and October 2005, a group of authors and publishers brought a class action suit against Google, alleging violation of copyright. Last October 28, after lengthy negotiations, the opposing parties announced agreement on a settlement, which is subject to approval by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.[2]

The settlement creates an enterprise known as the Book Rights Registry to represent the interests of the copyright holders. Google will sell access to a gigantic data bank composed primarily of copyrighted, out-of-print books digitized from the research libraries. Colleges, universities, and other organizations will be able to subscribe by paying for an “institutional license” providing access to the data bank. A “public access license” will make this material available to public libraries, where Google will provide free viewing of the digitized books on one computer terminal. And individuals also will be able to access and print out digitized versions of the books by purchasing a “consumer license” from Google, which will cooperate with the registry for the distribution of all the revenue to copyright holders. Google will retain 37 percent, and the registry will distribute 63 percent among the rightsholders.

Meanwhile, Google will continue to make books in the public domain available for users to read, download, and print, free of charge. Of the seven million books that Google reportedly had digitized by November 2008, one million are works in the public domain; one million are in copyright and in print; and five million are in copyright but out of print. It is this last category that will furnish the bulk of the books to be made available through the institutional license.

Many of the in-copyright and in-print books will not be available in the data bank unless the copyright owners opt to include them. They will continue to be sold in the normal fashion as printed books and also could be marketed to individual customers as digitized copies, accessible through the consumer license for downloading and reading, perhaps eventually on e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.

After reading the settlement and letting its terms sink in—no easy task, as it runs to 134 pages and 15 appendices of legalese—one is likely to be dumbfounded: here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.

An enterprise on such a scale is bound to elicit reactions of the two kinds that I have been discussing: on the one hand, utopian enthusiasm; on the other, jeremiads about the danger of concentrating power to control access to information.

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit. If approved by the court—a process that could take as much as two years—the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.

Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.

Google’s record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges, especially the price of the institutional subscription licenses. The settlement leaves Google free to negotiate deals with each of its clients, although it announces two guiding principles: “(1) the realization of revenue at market rates for each Book and license on behalf of the Rightsholders and (2) the realization of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education.”

What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high. Google may choose to be generous in it pricing, and I have reason to hope it may do so; but it could also employ a strategy comparable to the one that proved to be so effective in pushing up the price of scholarly journals: first, entice subscribers with low initial rates, and then, once they are hooked, ratchet up the rates as high as the traffic will bear.

Outline for an Unpublished Linux Textbook

Back in 2004 or so, I was asked to write an outline for a college textbook that would be used in courses on Linux. I happily complied, producing the outline you can see on my website. The editor on the project loved the outline & showed it several professors to get their reactions, which were uniformly positive, with one prof reporting back that (& I’m paraphrasing here) “It was like this author read my mind, as this is exactly the book I’d like to use in my course!” Sadly, the book was never written, because the editor’s boss didn’t like the fact that I didn’t have a PhD in Computer Science. I thought that to be a silly reason then, & I think it’s a silly reason to reject the book now.

However, their loss is your gain. Here’s the outline for the book. Yes, it’s sadly outdated. Yes, it focuses quite a bit on SUSE, but that was what the publisher wanted. Yes, Linux has come a LONG way since I wrote this outline. But I still think it’s a damn good job, and you may find it interesting for historical reasons. So, enjoy!

4 sources of tension between science and religion

From Steven Weinberg’s “Without God” (The New York Review of Books: 25 September 2008):

But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.

The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena – thunder, earthquakes, disease – that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected.

Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, “The theory that it’s all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

A third source of tension between science and religious belief has been more important in Islam than in Christianity. Around 1100, the Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against the very idea of laws of nature, on the grounds that any such law would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smolder because of the heat of the flame, but because God wants it to darken and smolder. Laws of nature could have been reconciled with Islam, as a summary of what God usually wants to happen, but al-Ghazzali did not take that path.

Al-Ghazzali is often described as the most influential Islamic philosopher. I wish I knew enough to judge how great was the impact on Islam of his rejection of science. At any rate, science in Muslim countries, which had led the world in the ninth and tenth centuries, went into a decline in the century or two after al-Ghazzali. As a portent of this decline, in 1194 the Ulama of Córdoba burned all scientific and medical texts.

Nor has science revived in the Islamic world. … in 2002 the periodical Nature carried out a survey of science in Islamic countries, and found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellent science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding.

Something like al-Ghazzali’s concern for God’s freedom surfaced for a while in Christian Europe, but with very different results. In Paris and Canterbury in the thirteenth century there was a wave of condemnations of those teachings of Aristotle that seemed to limit the freedom of God to do things like create a vacuum or make several worlds or move the heavens in straight lines. The influence of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus saved the philosophy of Aristotle for Europe, and with it the idea of laws of nature. But although Aristotle was no longer condemned, his authority had been questioned – which was fortunate, since nothing could be built on his physics. Perhaps it was the weakening of Aristotle’s authority by reactionary churchmen that opened the door to the first small steps toward finding the true laws of nature at Paris and Lisieux and Oxford in the fourteenth century.

There is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. …

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets.

My new book – Google Apps Deciphered – is out!

I’m really proud to announce that my 5th book is now out & available for purchase: Google Apps Deciphered: Compute in the Cloud to Streamline Your Desktop. My other books include:

(I’ve also contributed to two others: Ubuntu Hacks: Tips & Tools for Exploring, Using, and Tuning Linux and Microsoft Vista for IT Security Professionals.)

Google Apps Deciphered is a guide to setting up Google Apps, migrating to it, customizing it, and using it to improve productivity, communications, and collaboration. I walk you through each leading component of Google Apps individually, and then show my readers exactly how to make them work together for you on the Web or by integrating them with your favorite desktop apps. I provide practical insights on Google Apps programs for email, calendaring, contacts, wikis, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, video, and even Google’s new web browser Chrome. My aim was to collect together and present tips and tricks I’ve gained by using and setting up Google Apps for clients, family, and friends.

Here’s the table of contents:

  • 1: Choosing an Edition of Google Apps
  • 2: Setting Up Google Apps
  • 3: Migrating Email to Google Apps
  • 4: Migrating Contacts to Google Apps
  • 5: Migrating Calendars to Google Apps
  • 6: Managing Google Apps Services
  • 7: Setting Up Gmail
  • 8: Things to Know About Using Gmail
  • 9: Integrating Gmail with Other Software and Services
  • 10: Integrating Google Contacts with Other Software and Services
  • 11: Setting Up Google Calendar
  • 12: Things to Know About Using Google Calendar
  • 13: Integrating Google Calendar with Other Software and Services
  • 14: Things to Know About Using Google Docs
  • 15: Integrating Google Docs with Other Software and Services
  • 16: Setting Up Google Sites
  • 17: Things to Know About Using Google Sites
  • 18: Things to Know About Using Google Talk
  • 19: Things to Know About Using Start Page
  • 20: Things to Know About Using Message Security and Recovery
  • 21: Things to Know About Using Google Video
  • Appendix A: Backing Up Google Apps
  • Appendix B: Dealing with Multiple Accounts
  • Appendix C: Google Chrome: A Browser Built for Cloud Computing

If you want to know more about Google Apps and how to use it, then I know you’ll enjoy and learn from Google Apps Deciphered. You can read about and buy the book at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Google-Apps-Deciphered-Compute-Streamline/dp/0137004702) for $26.39. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me at scott at granneman dot com.

Bruce Schneier on wholesale, constant surveillance

From Stephen J. Dubner’s interview with Bruce Schneier in “Bruce Schneier Blazes Through Your Questions” (The New York Times: 4 December 2007):

There’s a huge difference between nosy neighbors and cameras. Cameras are everywhere. Cameras are always on. Cameras have perfect memory. It’s not the surveillance we’ve been used to; it’s wholesale surveillance. I wrote about this here, and said this: “Wholesale surveillance is a whole new world. It’s not ‘follow that car,’ it’s ‘follow every car.’ The National Security Agency can eavesdrop on every phone call, looking for patterns of communication or keywords that might indicate a conversation between terrorists. Many airports collect the license plates of every car in their parking lots, and can use that database to locate suspicious or abandoned cars. Several cities have stationary or car-mounted license-plate scanners that keep records of every car that passes, and save that data for later analysis.

“More and more, we leave a trail of electronic footprints as we go through our daily lives. We used to walk into a bookstore, browse, and buy a book with cash. Now we visit Amazon, and all of our browsing and purchases are recorded. We used to throw a quarter in a toll booth; now EZ Pass records the date and time our car passed through the booth. Data about us are collected when we make a phone call, send an e-mail message, make a purchase with our credit card, or visit a Web site.”

What’s happening is that we are all effectively under constant surveillance. No one is looking at the data most of the time, but we can all be watched in the past, present, and future. And while mining this data is mostly useless for finding terrorists (I wrote about that here), it’s very useful in controlling a population.

Luddites and e-books

From Clay Shirky’s “The Siren Song of Luddism” (Britannica Blog: 19 June 2007):

…any technology that fixes a problem … threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band.

… printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects.

The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information?” study, “the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.”

The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.)

If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions.

My new book – Linux Phrasebook – is out!

I’m really proud to announce that my 3rd book is now out & available for purchase: Linux Phrasebook. My first book – Don’t Click on the Blue E!: Switching to Firefox – was for general readers (really!) who wanted to learn how to move to and use the fantastic Firefox web browser. I included a lot of great information for more technical users as well, but the focus was your average Joe. My second book – Hacking Knoppix – was for the more advanced user who wanted to take advantage of Knoppix, a version of Linux that runs entirely off of a CD. You don’t need to be super-technical to use and enjoy Hacking Knoppix, but the more technical you are, the more you’ll enjoy the book. Linux Phrasebook is all about the Linux command line, and it’s perfect for both Linux newbies and experienced users. In fact, when I was asked to write the book, I responded, “Write it? I can’t wait to buy it!”

The idea behind Linux Phrasebook is to give practical examples of Linux commands and their myriad options, with examples for everything. Too often a Linux user will look up a command in order to discover how it works, and while the command and its many options will be detailed, something vitally important will be left out: examples. That’s where Linux Phrasebook comes in. I cover a huge number of different commands and their options, and for every single one, I give an example of usage and results that makes it clear how to use it.

Here’s the table of contents; in parentheses I’ve included some (just some) of the commands I cover in each chapter:

  1. Things to Know About Your Command Line
  2. The Basics (ls, cd, mkdir, cp, mv, rm)
  3. Learning About Commands (man, info, whereis, apropos)
  4. Building Blocks (;, &&, |, >, >>)
  5. Viewing Files (cat, less, head, tail)
  6. Printing and Managing Print Jobs (lpr, lpq, lprm)
  7. Ownerships and Permissions (chgrp, chown, chmod)
  8. Archiving and Compression (zip, gzip, bzip2, tar)
  9. Finding Stuff: Easy (grep, locate)
  10. The find command (find)
  11. Your Shell (history, alias, set)
  12. Monitoring System Resources (ps, lsof, free, df, du)
  13. Installing software (rpm, dkpg, apt-get, yum)
  14. Connectivity (ping, traceroute, route, ifconfig, iwconfig)
  15. Working on the Network (ssh, sftp, scp, rsync, wget)
  16. Windows Networking (nmblookup, smbclient, smbmount)

I’m really proud of the whole book, but the chapter on the super-powerful and useful find command is a standout, along with the material on ssh and its descendants sftp and scp. But really, the whole book is great, and I will definitely be keeping a copy on my desk as a reference. If you want to know more about the Linux command line and how to use it, then I know you’ll enjoy and learn from Linux Phrasebook.

You can read about and buy the book at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0672328380/) for $10.19. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me at scott at granneman dot com.

Ubuntu Hacks available now

The Ubuntu distribution simplifies Linux by providing a sensible collection of applications, an easy-to-use package manager, and lots of fine-tuning, which make it possibly the best Linux for desktops and laptops. Readers of both Linux Journal and TUX Magazine confirmed this by voting Ubuntu as the best Linux distribution in each publication’s 2005 Readers Choice Awards. None of that simplification, however, makes Ubuntu any less fun if you’re a hacker or a power user.

Like all books in the Hacks series, Ubuntu Hacks includes 100 quick tips and tricks for all users of all technical levels. Beginners will appreciate the installation advice and tips on getting the most out of the free applications packaged with Ubuntu, while intermediate and advanced readers will learn the ins-and-outs of power management, wireless roaming, 3D video acceleration, server configuration, and much more.

I contributed 10 of the 100 hacks in this book, including information on the following topics:

  • Encrypt Your Email and Important Files
  • Surf the Web Anonymously
  • Keep Windows Malware off Your System
  • Mount Removable Devices with Persistent Names
  • Mount Remote Directories Securely and Easily
  • Make Videos of Your Tech-Support Questions

I’ve been using K/Ubuntu for over a year (heck, it’s only two years old!), and it’s the best distro I’ve ever used. I was really excited to contribute my 10 hacks to Ubuntu Hacks, as this is defintely a book any advanced Linux user would love.

Buy Ubuntu Hacks from Amazon!

Library book returned 92 years late

From AP’s “Borrowed books returned to museum — 92 years later” (CNN: 6 November 2000):

The Field Museum of Natural History recently returned 10 volumes to the American Museum of Natural History in New York — 92 years late.

It seems a researcher from the New York museum took the books with him when he accepted a job at the Field Museum in 1908. American Museum officials suspect anthropologist Bertholt Laufer was using the books for research when he was hired away. …

Laufer had purchased 500 volumes — including texts on medicine and natural history — for the American Museum during an archaeological expedition to China from 1901 to 1904.

The American Museum didn’t even know 10 of the books — each belonging to a larger set — were missing until it decided in 1990 to computerize its collection.

Brin’s Transparent Society explained, briefly

From Technology Review‘s “Big Brother Logs On“:

In his 1998 book The Transparent Society, which is well known in the privacy advocacy community, science fiction author and technology watcher David Brin argues that society inevitably will have to choose between two versions of ubiquitous surveillance: in one, only the rich and powerful use and control the system to their own advantage; in the second, more democratic future, the watchers can also be watched. Brin concedes that the latter version would mean everybody’s laundry hung out in public view, but the transparency would at least be mutual. Rent a porn video and your wife knows it; but if she drives to your best buddy’s house four times a week while you’re at the office, you’ll know that also.

A living story, tattooed on flesh

From The New York Times Magazine‘s “Skin Literature“:

Most artists spend their careers trying to create something that will live forever. But the writer Shelley Jackson is creating a work of literature that is intentionally and indisputably mortal. Jackson is publishing her latest short story by recruiting 2,095 people, each of whom will have one word of the story tattooed on his or her body. The story, titled ‘Skin,’ will appear only on the collective limbs, torsos and backsides of its participants. And decades from now, when the last of Jackson’s ‘words’ dies, so, too, will her tale.

As of November, Jackson, the Brooklyn-based author of a short-story collection called ‘The Melancholy of Anatomy,’ had enrolled about 1,800 volunteers, some from such distant countries as Argentina, Jordan, Thailand and Finland. Participants, who contact Jackson through her Web site, cannot choose which word they receive. And their tattoos must be inked in the font that Jackson has specified. But they do have some freedom to bend and stretch the narrative. They can select the place on their bodies they want to become part of the Jackson opus. In return, Jackson asks her ‘words’ to sign a 12-page release absolving her of liability and promising not to share the story with others. (Participants are the only people who will get to see the full text of the story.) They must also send her two photographs — one of the word on their skin, the other a portrait of themselves without the word visible — which she may later publish or exhibit.

… Mothers and daughters are requesting consecutive words. So are couples, perhaps hoping to form the syntactic equivalent of a civil union. For others, the motives are social: Jackson is encouraging her far-flung words to get to know each other via e-mail, telephone, even in person. (Imagine the possibilities. A sentence getting together for dinner. A paragraph having a party.) …

… when a participant meets his or her demise, Jackson vows, she will try to attend that person’s funeral. But the 41-year-old author understands that some of her 2,095 collaborators, many of whom are in their 20’s, might outlive her. If she dies first, she says, she hopes several of them will come to her funeral and make her the first writer ever to be mourned by her words.

Still accessible after 1000 years

From BBC News:

In fact, it turns out that images stored electronically just 15 years ago are already becoming difficult to access. The Domesday Project, a multimedia archive of British life in 1986 designed as a digital counterpart to the original Domesday Book compiled by monks in 1086, was stored on laser discs.

The equipment needed to view the images on these discs is already very rare, yet the Domesday book, written on paper, is still accessible more than 1,000 years after it was produced.

The innovation of the margin

From InfoWorld:

In chapter 4 of Klaus Kaasgaard’s Software Design and Usability, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) alumnus Austin Henderson says that “one of the most brilliant inventions of the paper bureaucracy was the idea of the margin.” There was always space for unofficial data, which traveled with the official data, and everybody knew about the relationship between the two.