Category Archives: Science

Reading #58: Cooperatives, Stone Axes, and Soviets


The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and PlaceThe Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place
by John Abrams

John Abrams is the founder of South Mountain Company, a design & build worker-owned cooperative in Martha’s Vineyard. His books describes the history of the company, their choice to move to a worker-owned cooperative model, and their overall philosophy of work.

Those principles are:

  • Sharing ownership
  • Cultivating workplace democracy
  • Challenging the gospel of growth
  • Balancing multiple bottom lines
  • Celebrating the spirit of craft
  • Practicing community entrepreneurism
  • Thinking like cathedral builders
  • Committing to the business of place

All of these principles resonate strongly with me, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how they might be relevant in my less tangible design practice. Some of the principles (craft, challenging growth) are similar to the philosophy of the folks at 37 Signals. The workplace democracy angle can be found, at least to a limited extent, at Valve. Thinking like cathedral builders is, of course, a cornerstone of the open source movement. But I can’t think of a technology organization that embodies all of the principles in any meaningful way. I’d like to see one.

Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
by Mark Twain, Harriet E. Smith (Ed.)

Mark Twain did not write a conventional autobiography, and it has not been published conventionally. He tried at various times and in various ways to get his life story down on paper, and what resulted was a mishmash of unordered (or at least unconventionally ordered) stories, notes, copies of old talks, and miscellany that kind-of sort-of adds up to life story. He also asked that it not be published until 100 years after his death–while portions of it have been published previously, the 2010 edition is the first definitive one. (And it’s only the 1st in a projected 3 volume set.) If you really, really like Twain (I do) this is worth reading, but you should know a few things before buying a paper copy:

I enjoyed it immensely, if slowly. And it has given me an idea for a project or two I’d like to work on.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects
by Neil MacGregor

This is a companion book to the Radio 4 BBC / British Museum series of the same name. One hundred human-created objects that span our history on this planet, all from the British Museum, are shown, described, and put into context. It’s a lovely way to cruise around areas of history you know nothing about, and has the (intended) effect of driving home the sheer scale of human history. Plus you’ll never think all stone axes look alike again.


Red PlentyRed Plenty
by Francis Spufford

Red Plenty is an odd and powerful book. It is famously genre-confusing–if you look at the main text, it’s historical fiction, set in the recent past in the Soviet Union. But it has lots of footnotes and good portions of the text are nonfiction. And, due to a combination of its subject (science in the Soviet Union), it’s style, and some of its earliest and most vocal fans, it reads very much like science fiction. I thought it was, when I picked it up–and I’m not alone in this.

So it acts like a one-book vindication of Samuel Delany’s theories of genre. It’s also brilliant. Multiple viewpoint characters–some with multiple sections, some without–experience the brief post-Stalin period where (some) Soviet scientists attempted to create a materially wealthy society through central planning. And they experience the failure of that vision. It’s hard to summarize, but incredibly compelling (and tragic) in practice.

If you do read it, follow it with this intense online seminar on the novel at Crooked Timber, including posts by Spufford.

Report from Planet Midnight Report from Planet Midnight
by Nalo Hopkinson

From PM Press’s series of radical genre works. This includes two short stories, an interview with Hopkinson, and the core piece, a lecture she gave on race, ethnicity, and science fiction. Of the two short stories, I liked “Message in a Bottle” – it was usefully creepy, if that phrase makes any sense at all. The lecture is very direct, which is probably a good thing. Science fiction fandom can miss more subtle critiques sometimes.

Invisible ArmiesInvisible Armies
by Jon Evans

Sometimes I pull things off my wishlist without knowing why I put it on there in the first place. (I have a long wishlist.) In this case the acknowledgements include a bunch of my friends, so probably that’s why.

It’s a thriller, with a eco-terrorism theme. The first half is superb. The second half dissatisfied me–it felt (to me) that the later plot twists were there to be twisty, rather than emerging from the characters and situation.

A life lesson, or, what is seen cannot be unseen.


It was a lesson I should already have learned. I had learned it.

Many years ago, as a teenager growing up in Washington D.C., I worked a summer job at Reiter's Books on K Street. Reiter's was and remains one of the finest science & technology bookstores in the world. It was a great job, as long as I was allowed to avoid working the register (I was terrified of ringing up someone incorrectly) and avoid answering the phones (I was phone-phobic to a paralyzing degree).[1]  I did odd jobs like sweeping and taking out the trash, but mostly I unpacked books and shelved them. 

I loved shelving. The backs of these books gave me windows into whole worlds of knowledge that were unknown to me, that I could envision someday being a master of. I developed strong opinions about whole fields based on the covers of their textbooks. Advanced math, as represented by the classic yellow Springer-Verlag books, was serious, imposing, monolithic, and impenetrable. Computers were a muddle of garish covers and unlikely promises (learn C in 3 weeks!), but also contained a placid island of well-designed, nicely bound books that paired engravings of unusual animals with intriguing UNIX terms (sed! awk!). Those, I lingered over, though not as much as I lingered over the tall stacks of Edward Tufte books  (only three at that time) placed at the entrance to the store. The Tufte books I returned to again and again as I replenished the stacks, and could even occasionally understand.[2]

And then there was the back of the store, which was a whole different beast. It primarily served the George Washington University School of Medicine, and stocked most if not all of the core course material. There was never any question of my being interested in medicine, though I flipped through the textbooks as frequently as any other. I didn't like shelving that section, though, for two reasons:

  1. Medical reference books are really, really heavy.
  2. Illustrated textbooks of skin diseases.

This was in 1991 or so, before the World Wide Web. Full-color illustrations of horrifying medical conditions and procedures were not mere clicks away, as they are now. There were no trolls gleefully linking to eye-bleeding visual experiences in innocent disguise just for laughs. There was no reason to see a closeup of some terrifying pustule unless you were a medical professional, or actually had it on your body. Or you were shelving books in the medical section.

I'm not actually that squeamish, but I do remember vividly the experience of idly flipping open one of these books and wincing at what I saw. (And looking again, and wincing, and looking again … I was 16.)

So you would think I would have learned.

Fast-forward 20 years. I'm about to undergo a fairly minor outpatient surgical procedure. The surgeon tells me that the procedure is a fairly new one for this condition, but that his own experiences and some solid studies hadve confirmed its effectiveness. Now, everyone handles these sorts of things differently: some people might pepper the doctor with questions, others might just take his word for it, still others might get a second opinion. Me? I read the study.

I am emphatically not a medical professional, or anything like, but I have the basic "evaluate a study" skills that to some extend go across disciplines. Who were the authors, what was the method, how many subjects, does the conclusion seem to follow from the results, that sort of thing. I don't really expect to find anything when I do this, it's largely a way of both educating and reassuring myself. And as far as those things go, everything looked perfectly fine. But (I was to discover), studies covering surgical methods tend to include one extra thing I wasn't expecting.

Step-by-step pictures of the surgical operation itself.  


In vivid color.

I should already have learned.

[1] I got over the phone thing, eventually. The register thing too, somewhat

[2] An observer could have predicted my non-humanities academic path by noticing my early bookstore preferences: a brief foray into math, a longer but incomplete journey through computer science, a final landing in the world design.

“Any sufficiently advanced civilization is … “

Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

— Wikipedia, Clarke's Three Laws

So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

— Karl Schroeder, The Deepening Paradox