The “Manual for Civilization” Project: A Library for the End of the World

With the subtitle, “How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch,” you can probably guess the genre of The Knowledge. I read this ambitious book over the holidays, hoping that I could learn some of the basics of fields I’m less familiar with such as organic chemistry and medicine. On that front the book delivers, but does it live up to its title?

Some parts of the book were very practical while others seemed superfluous. Purifying water with bleach (p. 37) could be useful in even a small-scale disruption. But in the wake of a larger disaster I find it hard to believe that knowing how to build an internal combustion engine (p. 199) or mix gunpowder (p. 232) would be near-term priorities. (As an aside, the book contains a one-decimeter line segment from which you can reconstruct the entire metric system, but I happen to think that less formal systems of measurement such as the acre–the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day–would become popular in apocalyptic scenarios.)

The Knowledge is a fun read and contains some useful tips, but I would not want it to be my go-to book for emergencies. That is why I was interested to learn of the “Manual for Civilization” initiative, started by The Long Now Foundation.  This is a library of books that were listed by domain experts and Long Now staff and donors in answer to the question “If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?

After reading through the answers I have compiled a short list of my own with the additional qualification that the book offers knowledge that is beneficial even if disaster doesn’t strike. The name after the title is the first recommender on whose list I noticed the book, with a link to their full list of recommendations. (Kevin Kelly’s compilation seemed especially good; his book Cool Tools would likely fit in the list below).

Review: RubyMotion iOS Development Essentials

rm-ios-devRubyMotion is a continued topic of interest on this blog, and I will likely have more posts about it in the near future. At this stage I am still getting comfortable with iOS development, but I would much rather be doing it in the friendly playground of Ruby rather than the Objective-C world. In addition to the RubyMotion book from PragProg, the next resource I would recommend is RubyMotion iOS Development Essentials.*

The book takes a “zero-to-deploy” approach, which is great for beginners trying to get their first app into the App Store. The first few chapters  will be redundant for developers who have worked with RubyMotion before, but they provide a helpful introduction to how RM works and the Model-View-Controller paradigm.

For several chapters the book uses the same example application, a restaurant recommender reminiscent of Yelp. Demonstrating code by building up from a simple application is a nice way of presenting the application. By the time readers have worked through these chapters they will have an example app that is more interesting than many of the toy apps in shorter tutorials.

Later chapters will benefit novice and experienced developers alike, because they fill a gap in the RubyMotion literature. Many tutorials overlook the process of testing RM code, and testing iOS in general can be challenging. The testing chapter of this book goes over unit testing, functional testing, and tests that rely on device events such as gestures.

My favorite chapter in the book was chapter 6, which goes over device capabilities. At 46 pages this is the longest chapter in the book, covering GPS, gestures, Core Data, using the Address Book, and more. I especially enjoyed working through the section on accessing the camera and Photo Library. This is difficult to test on the simulator since there is (obviously) no access to a built-in camera (as with certain iOS devices including some iPod Touch models), but the example app covers how to handle this gracefully.

Stylistically, it can be a challenge to lay out a book that uses iOS API jargon like UIImagePickerControllerSourceTypePhotoLibrary. There were some gripes with the authors’ choice of two-space indenting, but that is my preference so it did not bother me. One addition I would have preferred would be additional formatting for the code, using either colors (for the e-book) or bolding (for the print version) to distinguish function names and help the reader keep their place in the code. The apps themselves rely mainly on iOS defaults. This is common in tutorials, but it also helps them look natural in iOS 7. Most of the time I was working through the book I used the iOS 6.1 simulator, but it was no problem to upgrade to iOS 7.

As a whole this book is a thorough introduction to RubyMotion development. It has several key features that are missing from other RubyMotion tutorials, including an emphasis on testing code. This book makes a great resource for new RubyMotion developers, or developers who want to use more of the device capabilities.

*Note: For this review I relied on the e-book version, which was provided as a review copy by Packt Publishing.

Grad Student Gift Ideas

My sister is starting a graduate program this fall, so I wanted to put together a “grad school survival kit” gift basket for her. When I was looking, though, most search results for things like that were put together by gift basket companies and a large number of them include junk food as filler. While junk food can be a great stress reliever, I would not recommend making that the bulk of your gift to a grad student. Instead, consider some of the following gifts that range from practical to fun:

graduation

Great Gatsby, Copyright, and the Public Domain

f_scott_fitzgerald_in_carIs the Great Gatsby in the public domain? The book was written in 1925 and Fitzgerald passed away in 1940. Copyright generally expires 70 years after the author’s death, so you could be forgiven for thinking the answer is “yes.”

If you live in Australia, Canada, or another jurisdiction outside the US, you can already get the book through sites like Project Gutenberg Australia. US residents should not click that link–had SOPA been passed, this site could have been censored for even providing the link. In these United States, however, Gatsby is still not in the public domain.

Here’s Duke’s Kevin Smith (who we’ve talked to before) on the convoluted reasoning behind this:

Let’s look for a minute at F. Scott.  Because he died in December of 1940, his unpublished works do enter the public domain in the United States as of 1/1/11.  His published works, however, are another story.  If a Fitzgerald work was published between 1920 and 1922, as This Side of Paradise was, for example, it is in the public domain.  But any works published in 1923 0r later, such as The Great Gatsby, are still protected.  After 1922 (and prior to 1963), a work that was published with copyright notice  and the copyright in which was renewed is given a term of 95 years from publication (the initial 28 year term plus a renewal term, after the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, of 67 years).  Thus published works from this time period are protected until at least 2019; — 1923 plus 95 years equals 2018, so works published that year will rise into the public domain on 1/1/2019.  The author’s date of death does not make any difference for these works.

This distinction seems designed to confuse librarians and other users of works.  An archive of Fitzgerald manuscripts, for example, could digitize and make available those items that were never published, or that were published earlier in F. Scott’s career (like Tales of the Jazz Age).  But a manuscript of Gatsby or Tender is the Night is still subject to protection.

The EFF had a nice explainer on this topic recently as well. Copyright restrictions aren’t just tougher in the US, they’re also subject to the whims of Congress. Congressional action can remove books from the public domain even after they’re put there by law, thanks to this Supreme Court decision.

How does this regulation affect the availability of books? Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic called it the “missing 20th century” based on Paul Heald’s study, “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Fall Into the Public Domain?” Here’s a chart of books available from Amazon by decade of publication:

Amazon pub domain-thumb-615x368-83391

Continuing to extend copyright protection every time Mickey Mouse gets close to being put in the public domain helps Disney, but it does not help the spread of knowledge. Don’t get me started on Hollywood, though–I’m off to see the movie.

Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Book ID Numbers

Pink identifies the prefix, current only 978 or 979. Purplse is the registration group element, identifying the geographical source of the book (1-5 digits). In light green is the publisher or imprint's ID, up to 7 digits. In yellow is the publication element for idenfitying the edition or format of the book. Highlighted in grey is the check digit, used to verify the number. "5" in red identifies US dollars as the currency for the price, highlighted in dark green.

Pink identifies the prefix, current only 978 or 979. Purplse is the registration group element, identifying the geographical source of the book (1-5 digits). In light green is the publisher or imprint’s ID, up to 7 digits. In yellow is the publication element for idenfitying the edition or format of the book. Highlighted in grey is the check digit, used to verify the number. “5” in red identifies US dollars as the currency for the price, highlighted in dark green.

If you are a bookworm like me, you have evidence of this micro-institution all around you. Grab a nearby book and look at the back cover, or a couple of pages inside the front cover. You will see a series of numbers that uniquely identify the book: its International Standard Book Number (ISBN). That 10 or 13-digit number serves as the worldwide identifier for books, helping customers at online retailers like AbeBooks, Half.com, and Amazon be sure that they are purchasing the right reading material without physically inspecting the product.

Ironically, it is those same online marketplaces and their accompanying e-readers that now endanger the future of the ISBN. The supply of ISBNs is finite, you understand, and demand is high:

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), invented in Britain in 1965, took off rapidly as an international system for classifying books, with 150 agencies (one per country, with two for bilingual Canada) now issuing the codes. Set up by retailers to ease their distribution and sales, it increasingly hampers new, small and individual publishers. Yet digital publishing is weakening its monopoly.

Publishers who were in at the beginning got great blocks of ISBNs. Many have plenty still in stock. Some countries, including Canada, Hungary and Croatia, make them free to bolster book publishing. But in Britain, America and Japan, where ISBNs are needed for any hope of mainstream publication, they are costly.

Self-published writers understandably do not want to pay for a costly ID number when they are making small margins off of an e-book. If they are only selling through a single retailer (say, an Amazon Kindle edition) there is little incentive to get a unique number–customers will be able to find the book without it. And alternatives are cropping up:

Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart, an American supermarket chain, has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks—including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.

It is foreseeable that one of these options will emerge as a privately-provided institution, replacing the ISBN. The transition is unlikely to be smooth, however–switching equilibriums rarely is. As you trace your finger across an ISBN number on a printed page, you are not only touching a micro-instituiton. You may be holding history in your hands.

ICYMI: Econ Valentines

It is well-known that studying the behavior of economists can shed light on the actions of other species (namely, humans) under a limited set of conditions. However, rigorous research on the mating habits of economists has been difficult to come by, in large part due to their habit of inter-breeding with humans. This week, there has been significant progress in filling that gap in the literature.

The first piece of evidence is 14 Ways an Economist Says I Love You, complete with graphs (of course), that made its way around on Twitter the last couple of days. It is not clear from the title, but I suspect that it is 14 ways that Econs say ‘I love you’ to one another, not the ways that they declare how I personally feel toward you, the reader. My favorite graph is below, which game theorists will recognize as a variant of the caterpillar game with one or two important changes.

For longer-term mating behavior, we have this piece that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend on the relationship between Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. The article seems mostly plausible given what I know about Econs, but a larger and longer-term study would be needed to provide convincing evidence. I suspect that Stevenson and Wolfers would support this, given that the article says they “[b]oth hew — one might even say passionately — to the data.” One part of the article that gave me trouble early on, however, was this:

Their daughter, Matilda, who is almost 2 1/2 , attends classes in art, music and soccer. She is not allowed to eat any meat or sugar, not even in birthday cake.

Everyone knows economists love cake.

For more, check out The Stand-Up Economist, whose most popular video is shown below. He is also the author of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, a lovely gift from my own Valentine this year.