books

100 Books: on deck

I’m thrilled by the amazing recommendations that came in after my call for help in finding books by a diverse range of authors. I thought I’d quickly recap my new and improved reading list (loosely grouped by theme) for those who are interested.

First up is Ron Carlson’s The Hotel Eden, which I’m planning to read tomorrow as part of the 24-Hour Bookclub. If you’re local to Cambridge and want to meet up for an hour or two to drink coffee/tea/a beer and read together, let me know!

Also on the list are a handful of career-related books that have been recommended to me recently by various cool people. These aren’t necessarily hitting the diversity buttons I mentioned in my last post, but I’m excited about them anyway: Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, and Judith Hanson Lasater & Ike Lasater’s What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication.

A couple of other awesome non-fiction books that made it onto the list: Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race, and Class and Anne Kingston’s The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century, which I’m looking forward to picking up at the library this weekend.

A whole slew of memoirs, which are quickly becoming my favorite genre: A Homemade Life and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, both by Molly Wizenberg; Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood (opinions on this one are mixed, but it’s a subject area that’s particularly interesting to me); and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.

And lastly, some wonderfully diverse fiction recommendations: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love.

If any of these sound interesting to you, I’d be delighted to bake cookies and chat about introversion / stir up a pitcher of cocktails and sit on the back porch and discuss modern marriage / email back and forth as we work our way through a 700+-page Pulitzer Prize winner. (I think this is what people mean when they talk about “book clubs,” though my approach is…considerably less formal.) Let me know!

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book covers
books, life list

100 Books in 2014: midpoint check-in, call for help

When I overhauled my Life List earlier this year, I decided to make 2014 the year I cross off “read 100 books in 365 days.” I’ve been tracking my books here and on Goodreads, but today I decided to take a closer look at how things stand midway through the year.

This analysis is prompted in part by my friend Kendra, who ran a similar but significantly more ambitious project last year in which she read 5 books a week, meticulously blogged reviews of each one, and tracked the diversity of the authors she was reading (leading to an awesome talk at the Boston Quantified Self meetup which you should watch right now). Taking a cue from her, I created a spreadsheet today to track a couple of different things:

  • Date I finished reading the book (some of these are approximate; if I’ve been reading a lot I tend to add things to Goodreads in batches)
  • Title
  • Author (books with multiple authors have each author listed on a separate line)
  • Author sex
  • Continent the author is “from,” defined loosely as “spent formative childhood/teenage years in”
  • Whether or not the author is a person of color
  • My Goodreads rating of the book (1-5, 5 highest)
  • Genre
  • Page length

Verdict: I’m not doing so great. I need to read just over 8 books a month to make it to 100 by the end of the year, but I’ve only hit that goal once—in January.

book count

I got close in April, probably because the 7 books I read were comparatively short:

page count

I expected that most of what I would read would be fiction (by which I mean “literary fiction,” as opposed to young adult fiction or fantasy novels), but I’m reading a surprising number of memoirs, plus a fair number of other types of books—a shooting script, two books of marriage-related humor, and two cookbooks (which I tend to read cover-to-cover as soon as I bring them home), among other things.

genre

Digging into author diversity is somewhat surprising, though I had the benefit of Kendra’s experience to prepare me—I think of myself as someone who tends to gravitate to novels about other places (see this Ask Metafilter question, where I beg for recommendations for lengthy, place-oriented fiction), and I assumed that the authors I read this year would be diverse at least in continent of origin, if not in sex. Sadly, no:

author diversity

I didn’t enter into this project with any specific goals around diversity, but it’s clear that I’m reading largely books by authors from the global north. (Interestingly, over the course of the year so far I’ve managed to read almost as many female authors as male—just over 42%.)

My reading list right now is even less diverse—a quick scan of my unread Kindle books reveals nine by American or British men and one by an American woman. This is where you come in: I have six months and 70 books to go. What should I be adding to the queue?

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lawrence

A Song for Kansas Day

Wandering children of Kansas away,
 By mountain, by desert, or sea,
Feasting or fasting, at prayer or at play,
 Whatever your fortunes may be,
Open the doors of your hearts to the breeze,
 Prairie wind never are still,
Hark to the surf in the cottonwood trees,
 The breakers that boom on the hill.
Open your soul’s windows–let in the sun–
 The prairie sun gay with delight.
Where’er your wandering pathways have run,
 Come home tonight.

Come home where Kansas lies under the stars
 Twinkling back beauty and joy;
Come and let homely love poultice your scars,
 Leave off your restless employ.
Come home where summer winds billow the wheat,
 Where golden tides cover the sands;
Come–let your heart’s longings hasten your feet
 And home love unfetter your hands.
Come where the tawny sunflower eagerly bends
 A tawny frank face to the light,
So do our hearts seek the joy of old friends–
 Come home tonight.

— William Allen White, “A Song for Kansas Day”

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making things

I made a thing

In the spirit of making things this year, I bought a sewing machine. My ultimate goal is to make beautiful quilts like this and this and this, for wrapping myself in while reading books and for giving to friends and for handing down to future generations. I’m starting small, though: I made a potholder.

yellow_potholder

I looked up a bunch of tutorials online, ranging from the fancy matching set with rounded corners and double fold bias tape binding to the quick and dirty, who needs pins?, all machine-sewn version. Ultimately, I leaned toward the quick & dirty.

This may have already been obvious from the photos above.

It’s not perfect—I attempted to free quilt using my new machine, just for kicks, and didn’t end up liking the look of it (though maybe actually having a design in mind, rather than going at it willy-nilly, would have helped). The binding is wonky. The hanging loop was an afterthought, and as a result is oddly placed. HOWEVER. I’m proud of my awkward first attempt (which Dan already used this morning to pick up a hot cast iron skillet—it’s functional, even if it’s ugly!), and I’m not yet totally scared off from the idea of someday making something someone else will actually admire. Success!

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books, life list, making things

Goals

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about goal-setting, self-incubation, being myself and being bad at things, and finding direction and clarity. Today, I stumbled across Maggie Mason’s blog post on editing your life list and decided it was time to give mine an overhaul.

Taken off: lots of old travel goals that have become less interesting or important over time (do I really need to ride in a dhow off the coast of Zanzibar? There’s a good chance I’d much prefer spending a week on the Pacific Coast Trail instead.), a few conferences I no longer want to attend (ahem), a few older fitness/adventure goals that have since changed (goodbye, obstacle race; hello, ultramarathon).

Updated: liking poached eggs. A couple of years ago, I somehow convinced myself a) to eat one and b) that I liked it, but I’ve never ever wanted to eat one again. I’m leaving this as a successful accomplishment anyway (though I did remove “learn how to make a poached egg,” as it now seems like a fairly pointless personal skill).

Added: a ton of goals related to making things. Since finishing the first version of Wedding Draft last fall for my CS50 final project, I’ve been itching to make more things—to write more (and better!) code, to cook, to blog, to hand-stamp thank you cards, to sew, to make things out of clay. Some of these are things I already do well; some are things I haven’t done since I was a kid. I’m looking forward to working more on these skills this year.

Reviewed: I realized I’ve let some of the goals on my list languish, un-crossed-off, for years, even though I’ve almost definitely achieved them. The problem: I have no proof. To help fix this, I’ve started tracking the books I’ve read this year so that I can finally cross “read 100 books in a year” off the list. So far it’s a few fantasy novels (vacation reading), a couple of more literary novels, and, erm, a wedding planning book because Dan and I got engaged last week. Looking forward to keeping track for the rest of the year, then maybe using the skills I’m hoping to learn over the next few months to make some pretty pictures out of the resulting information about the kinds of things I’m reading.

To sum up: housecleaning, self-incubating (less weird than it sounds), and making things. Here’s to 2014!

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cs50, SIPA

On numbers

One of my favorite lectures at SIPA was Paul Thurman’s last lecture for Quantitative Analysis for International & Public Affairs.

Stats is required for every SIPA student, not just those concentrating in economic development or international finance, and a lot of people hate it in the same way that high school students hate math. Thurman was tasked with the very tough job of convincing us that it was relevant to each and every one of our careers. After a semester of practice sets and STATA and normal distributions and t-tests and midterms, Thurman sat us down, flipped on a projector, and pretty much convinced us all.

We had just finished presenting our final projects, which (he teased) had probably been rush jobs—all nighters pulled in the library frantically running multiple regressions. He asked us to walk through another rushed stats project with him to see if we could figure out what had gone wrong. The slides he put up were partially blacked out to protect the confidentiality of the client, but the essence was that a set of tests to identify possible correlations between temperature and the failure of a certain mechanical part were being horrifically misinterpreted.

Turns out the mechanical part was an O-ring—the O-ring that failed on an unusually cold day in January 1986, causing the Challenger to explode.

While the engineers in charge of determining safety—people whose jobs it was to run the numbers and interpret the math—had correctly identified this as a problem, multiple people at other layers of the project—managers at both NASA and Morton Thiokol, the contracting company responsible for building the O-rings—had decided to go ahead with the launch anyway.

Thurman’s point was that statisticians, engineers, and data geeks aren’t the only ones who need to pay attention to the numbers. Most of us would at some point be in a position where we would need to make decisions based on quantitative analysis, and given our collective interest in development, finance, and economics, many of these decisions could have real, serious impact on people’s lives. He then put a photo of his kids up on the screen and charged us with making sure, essentially, that we didn’t fuck things up for them or future generations.

(It sounds almost unforgivably hokey now, but I wasn’t the only one with goosebumps, and some people actually cried.)

Four years later, I’m taking David Malan’s intro to computer science course, CS50. Monday’s class was partially about imprecision in float variables, and Malan showed a video that took me right back to Thurman’s class:

(In case you’re not up for 9 minutes of Modern Marvels: because “one tenth of a second” can’t be represented precisely in binary, the clock on early versions of the Patriot missile lost precision over time. Because of this error, the missile failed to intercept an incoming Iraqi missile during the Gulf War, leading to the deaths of 28 American soldiers. A short explanation is here.)

To sum up: numbers are really important.

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digital activism, human rights, internet censorship, u.s. politics

Anonymous asks people to call Congress; US responds by shutting down wifi at Gitmo

Earlier this evening I saw that the Associated Press and others are reporting that the US military has shut down wifi service, along with access to Facebook and Twitter, at Guantanamo.

According to Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, who spoke with the AP, the shutdown was a response to a May 6 press release from Anonymous, titled “We are closing Guantanamo Bay for good.” The release lists the phone numbers of the White House, US Southern Command, and the Department of Defense, links to a Change.org petition to close Guantanamo, and urges readers to “join global actions on the ground and hacktivist protests as well as twitterstorms, email bombs, and fax bombs, in 3 days of nonstop action.”

Unlike in earlier operations, where Anonymous has threatened to “lay waste to…servers” in response to human rights violations in Bahrain or to prevent the State of the Union from being broadcast online, the #OpGTMO press release doesn’t appear to contain any specific hacking-related threats. In fact, I can’t find anything “threatening” at all about this entirely legitimate call to legal civic action.

I’m left wondering: why, exactly, was shutting down wifi and access to social media an appropriate response? (And furthermore, how would these measures—especially blocking Facebook and Twitter—even make a difference, were Anonymous or others to decide to launch a DDoS attack against US military servers?) So far the best commentary I can find on this issue comes from Brittany Hillen at Slashgear:

It is worth noting the press release doesn’t say anything about hacking or cyberattacking the network, instead urging the public to bombard the powers that be with denouncements of the prison’s conditions, actions, and continued existence. As such, it has been pointed out on the Operation Guantanamo’s Twitter account that the base has taken itself offline, with the hacking collective not having to do anything, seemingly fulfilling the purpose it was assumed Anonymous sought to achieve.

There’s no word on when the network will be available again.

Ahem.

(Relatedly: does anyone know what the non-military Internet access options are for military service members on the island? General Internet access in Cuba is fairly dismal, but I’m wondering what other options, if any, exist for the average sailor/Marine.)

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