31 January 2013

Library favorites

The whole lists are 25 items long. I've only reprinted a few. If you want to see the complete lists, "check out" the Hennepin County Library site.

Psst... I haven't read any of them, not even the Fancy Nancy titles.

Top 25 Adult, Teen, and Children’s Books at Hennepin County Libraries In 2012 Show Consistent Author, Genre Favorites

Hennepin County Library has tabulated the top 25 adult, teen, children’s and very young children’s titles checked out in 2012, and the lists show that Hennepin County readers are remarkably consistent in their reading interests year to year.

In 2011 and 2012, 24 of the top 25 adult titles checked out were fiction. The one non-fiction title in the top 25 — both in 2011 and 2012 — was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption...

Once again crime and mystery fiction by well-known writers such as John Sandford, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, and James Paterson were clear favorites.

  1. Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller by Vince Flynn
  2. Stolen Prey by John Sandford
  3. Shock Wave by John Sandford
  4. Explosive Eighteen: a Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich
  5. V Is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton
  6. The Litigators by John Grisham
  7. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
  8. Private: #1 Suspect by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
  9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  10. Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  4. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  1. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff Kinney
  2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal by Jeff Kinney
  3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney
  4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinney
  5. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney
  1. Lego Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by Hannah Dolan
  2. Curious George Goes to the Zoo by Cynthia Platt
  3. Fancy Nancy and the Mean Girl by Jane O’Connor
  4. Fancy Nancy and the Delectable Cupcakes by Jane O’Connor
  5. I Can Be a Ballerina by Christy Webster

The first big library I remember (Minneapolis)
The fondly remembered library of my youth (Redwood Falls)

21 January 2013

A company company

I checked out another non-fiction book from the Northfield Public Library a month ago. The fact that it took me a month to finish it ought to be an indicator. The book was Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

This book had been on my "to read" list since I'd seen a laudatory review of it last year. In addition, I grew up in a Ma Bell family. My dad worked for one of the Baby Bells and was a true believer. So, I grew up seeing the company magazine and hearing stories about the great Bell System, including that wonder, Bell Labs. When I was in high school (in the early 1960s), I got a Bell Labs kit for making a solar cell and another for making a transistorized buzzer circuit that was powered by the solar cell. They both worked for me.

Gertner's book, like Sam Kean's book on genetics, was disappointing.

I decided that The Idea Factory... was a good set of notes which could be used to write a book, but it wasn't a real book. Like Kean's book, it had no voice. There were stories to tell, but the disjointed anecdotes were not a story. There were characters, but their appearances and disappearances in the pages of The Idea Factory... were hard to follow. I'm sure there are more dramatic stories about the development of the first kinds of transistors and the rivalry among the ambitious inventors, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ

Gertner kept relating anecdotes and when he finished with one, he'd circle back to the decades between 1939 and 1959 to begin another (sort of like the circles around the Bell Labs HQ, above). As a reader, I felt like a tether ball winding round and round a pole until reaching the end of my rope and then being pushed back in the opposite direction until I hit the pole again.

There are other important stories to tell about the relationship of business, research, engineering, and product development hiding in this book, but they're not there. Gertner describes a bit about the lengths to which AT&T went to preserve their telephone monopoly, but that probably deserves its own book. (That book might exist in the business school library for all I know.) There are hints about things like business decisions to promote picture phones and initially discard fiber optics, but they're only mentioned.

There are hints about the revolving door between Bell Labs and the U.S. government (especially top secret R & D), but it's not told.

There are hints about patron-client relationships and keeping friends on the payroll even when they no longer worked for Bell Labs.

There's a brief description of the break up AT&T and the disappearance of Bell Labs into Lucent and then into Alcatel•Lucent. The merger of some parts of the old AT&T's engineering, manufacturing, and research organizations probably also deserves its own case study in business schools, and it might also exist (in the history section now). And what about the developments outside of Bell Labs that became competitors with AT&T? I really expected to read about how Bell Labs was involved with DARPA in some of the initial development of the Internet. There's nothing in the book, and Bell Labs isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the development of the Internet. How'd all those smart guys working in communications miss that?

That last bit made me realize that, in spite of the propaganda I grew up with, Bell Labs was not unique. Every really large corporation does R&D. Bell Labs did come up with some remarkable inventions, like the transistor. But Texas Instruments came up with integrated circuits. Xerox PARC came up with laser printers and computer mice. Hewlett Packard developed scientific calculators and thermal printing. Microsoft, Apple, and Google invented themselves. And, to go back a bit, Thomas Edison, James Watt, Eli Whitney, and Henry Ford came up with some amazing things. So, to call Bell Labs' heyday "the Great Age of American Innovation" is a pretty big overstatement.

So, what I was looking for was a book, not a collection of notes and anecdotes. I guess I'll have to go back and read something more by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Tim Berners-Lee.

Have you read Jon Gertner's book, The Idea Factory?

What did you think about it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

19 January 2013


Lest we forget.

More non-fiction

Okay, it's not a book.

But this thinking and reading project took some time.

Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing pointed me at an old essay in Natural History Magazine by Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The Importance of Being Constant." Most of it was written for me. I learned things and I learned to think about things differently. I've been looking for someone to write like this since Stephen Jay Gould died.

What a way to begin a Saturday. I have plenty of things to think about as the temperature falls from the present 34° to an expected low of −5° tonight.

From Tyson's article:
"… the universe has its own constants, in the form of unvarying quantities that endlessly reappear in nature and in mathematics, and whose exact numerical values are of signal importance to the pursuit of science. Some of these constants are physical, grounded in actual measurements. Others, though they illuminate the workings of the universe, are purely numerical, arising from within mathematics itself…"

Okay, I had never thought of the fact that some constants are natural and others are artifacts of measurement ("purely numerical…"). Very interesting. Confusing, but very interesting.
He also wrote:
"Whenever a repeating pattern of cause and effect shows up in the universe, there's probably a constant at work. But to measure cause and effect, you must sift through what is and is not variable, and you must ensure that a simple correlation, however tempting it may be, is not mistaken for a cause… "

Oh, the time I've spent trying to teach those ideas.
Later in the essay, Tyson wrote:
"Kepler figured out that if you square the time it takes a planet to go around the Sun, then that quantity is always proportional to the cube of the planet's average distance from the Sun…"

I will never understand how someone could "realize" that squaring and cubing numbers that measure things create relevant relationships. If somebody wants to square time and cube distance measurements (which are not even measurements of the same things), my response would probably be, "So what?!" 
Even though I got lost somewhere in Tyson's description of Newtonian constants (never mind the quantum physics), he was quite clear about some things:
"No matter when or where you live, no matter your nationality or age or aesthetic proclivities, no matter whether you vote Democrat or Republican, if you calculate the value of pi you will get the same answer as everybody else in the universe. Thus constants such as pi enjoy a level of internationality that politics does not, never did, and never will—which is why, if people ever do communicate with aliens, they're likely to talk in mathematics, the lingua franca of the cosmos, and not English."

Another thing I've spent hours trying to teach. 

Although, I do wonder if the universality of these constants is a safe assumption. The Chinese spent millennia convinced that their culture was the center of the world (whatever shape it had). Where did that get them? And the author describes at the end of the essay how some physicists are looking for evidence that constants change over time. Why not look for evidence that they change over space as well?