Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

My friend Doug sent me this article by law professor Cass Sunstein on risk analysis.

The truth is that, when it comes to risk, people often think poorly. Research shows that much of the time we fixate on bad outcomes without stopping to assess the probability that we will actually be harmed.

Sure, we want to be "safe" and "protected," but safety and protection are inevitably matters of degree. Often, we neglect the size of the risk altogether.

Consider the astonishing finding, from University of Pennsylvania economist Howard Kunreuther and his colleagues, that many people will pay the same amount for insurance against risks of 1 in 100,000, 1 in 1 million and 1 in 10 million. We don't have much experience in thinking about low probabilities like these, and so we pay no attention to differences that really should matter.

When our emotions are engaged, our judgment gets even more muddled. We focus on what looks like the worst case, giving no thought to the likelihood that it will occur. Vivid, dramatic images of harm -- hazardous waste sites, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks -- can lead us to excessive fear of highly improbable risks. Social scientists find that when people discuss such risks, their concern usually rises, even if the discussion consists mostly of trustworthy assurances that the likelihood of harm is tiny.

But when we lack vivid images -- as in the case, say, of obesity or sun exposure -- we often treat the risk as if it were zero. The result is that we badly overestimate some risks and underestimate others.

Studies by psychologist Paul Slovic prove the point. Because grisly accidents are more dramatic than deaths from disease, most people think that accidents kill more people than disease. But the opposite is true. (emphasis added) |Link|

Risk analysis is an important topic and I think this article points out how we often get our risk analysis wrong as a society. Because we live in a democracy, popular fears and misconceptions are often codified into law.

Canadian sociologist David Lyon in his book Surveillance After September 11 puts risk management into a larger societal context:
Contemporary societies produce risks on a large scale, just because they intervene so decisively in natural and social life, using a range of technologies to do so. Managing risk is now central to government activity. Since the Cold War era in the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant view was that security against the risk of foreign aggression (of Soviet power against the USA) could be guaranteed by technical and military means. Security technologies have proliferated , and with them two central beliefs: one, the idea that "maximum security" is a desirable goal; and, two, that it can be pursued using these increasingly available [security and surveillance] techniques that are on the market. (Lyons 2003, p. 46]

I think Lyons has a provocative thesis that we are a risk management society, but the question is how successful these efforts will be and what we are willing to trade for security (or the illusion of security) in terms of capital, liberty, privacy, and human dignity.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Waves of Water: Tsunami and Flash Flood

According to FEMA, floods are the most common natural disaster. I couldn't find the statistic again, but I think it is plausible. The Tsunami in the Indian Ocean this week and the flash floods in Los Angeles today certainly have flooding on my mind.

As the climate changes, we can expect more flooding on low-lying areas. As a librarian, water is a library's worst enemy. The computer systems are as vulnerable as the books to moisture. Even humidity can destroy a collection as books mold and microfilms fade. Floods can be external, or they can be the result of a water pipe breach. A fire will also cause the fire department

The best book I've read of preparing for disasters in libraries (so far) is An Ounce of Prevention: Integrated Disaster Planning for Archives, Libraries and Record Centers, Second Edition by Johanna Willheiser and Jude Scott (Scarecrow Press 2002).

It was funded by the Canadian Archives Foundation and is quite good. It addresses an entire management philosophy for setting up a disaster planning team and a separate disaster response team. Preparing for a possible disaster at some distant point in the future is a distinctly different task from responding to an emergency right now. The skill of pre-planning is largely strategic and the task of disaster response is largely tactical.

Here's a page of links for library and archive disaster response.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

GTA killed my PS2

I've had my Playstation2 (PS2) for about 2 years and it has served me well. But over the past couple of days I've been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA) and my PS2 has started failing to read the disc. I popped in another disc and it couldn't read it either, so I think it's my machine and not the disc.

Of course, GTA gets a lot of bad press for being sexist, violent, and criminal. Which is all true. But it's also a lot of fun. But so are the movies the Godfather, Scarface, and Pulp Fiction, which have inspired the GTA series.

I don't think children should be watching those movies or playing GTA.

I admit to having bad thoughts. I sometimes want to beat people down for being morons. When I see people making U-turns on busy, four lane roads while talking on their cell phones...I imagine pulling them out of the their cars and beating them with a baseball bat, like I would do in GTA.

But I have excellent impulse control. Should people with poor impulse control play GTA? Probably not. But then, should they also be allowed to watch the King of New York or Scarface? Certainly we shouldn't let them near chainsaws....

I've been studying a lot of criminology and I think that the causes of crime are complex and that blaming video games is a really simplistic solution.

Our entire culture is violent and the Brit's who write the GTA stuff are actually making total fun of Americans. And laughing all the way to the bank.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Qwantz: the Dinosaur Comic Strip

My friend Jim Hamilton recently turned me onto the comic strip Qwantz.

I like this one about nihilism.

The simple style and acerbic commentary remind me of Get Your War On.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

GPS to be switched off during major crisis

The Bushies have made public their intention to turn off the GPS system in case of a major terrorist attack. Ok, so just when Americans might need GPS the most, they won't have it. Do they plan to shut down the cell phone system too? Terrorists use cell phones to detonate bombs after all. How about the Internet? Terrorists might be using it too.

I suppose it would be irresponsible of the people at Homeland Security to not even consider shutting down parts of our information infrastructure in the case of a terrorist attack, but I think switching off GPS is a dumb idea in most scenarios.

In Tom Clancy's novel Rainbox Six, there was an Information Technology (IT) guy on the team and he used a program (or command code of some sort) to shut down cell phones, but he had to drive to the local tower to do it, and he only shut the cell phone system down locally.

Oh well, like I needed a reason to own a compass (or three). GPS is a nice toy...until the batteries run out and then you're back to the compass and maps.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Sprint to the finish

I just turned in my last paper this morning. I am elated, but also one tired puppy. I'm not a procrastinator, but library science school is so much work. When you have weekly assignments in every single class it is all but impossible to work ahead.

But I did enough to get by (I think) and I learned a few things in the process...which is supposed to be the standard for satisfaction, I guess...

You'd think I'd been in school long enough that I'd have developed a philosophy of pedagogy by now...

Monday, December 13, 2004


Over the past week, I've had two people try to tip me after I helped them at the law library. It's very flattering, but it seems odd to me. I wonder if it is a cultural dynamic of Los Angeles. Perhaps these people tip the valet who parks their car $2, and therefore think nothing of slipping a $5 to librarian with a nice attitude.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Finals Week Approaches

I haven't been blogging much this week since this my last week of classes. All 3 of my final papers were due next Monday, but I got a 48 hours extension on one, so at least I have a little breathing room now.

I'll be back in my typical blogging form later next week.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Organzing your Personal Library in Six Easy Steps

Kendall Grant Clark has an interesting article at on using freely available Library of Congress Information to index your books, CDs and other materials.

Since he's not a librarian, I'm impressed with his ambition and vision.

This is what we librarians call copy cataloging, where you use pre-existing call numbers to label your materials.

Worth a read if you have the problem of not being able to find the book you are looking for when you want it.

Of course, the reason I ran across the article is because he mentions the role of RFID in cataloging a library:

If I were writing this article in, say, 10 years, I'd be talking about RFID tags instead of barcodes. I think it's likely that in 10 years books will include active RFID tags, which will largely obviate the need to label them in order to manage your collection. Ubiquitous RFID tags in books seems more likely to me than the pure digital lifestyle scenario about the future of books, namely, that we'll all be reading books on some electronic paper device in 10 years, having foregone a 500 year old tradition of relishing the tactile pleasures of books as physical objects.

But I think he meant to say passive RFID tags in the above passage. The problem with active RFID tags is that their battery will eventually run out and then your cataloging system would stop working.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Free disaster management courses through EMI

My advisor introduced me to the Emergency Management Institute (EMI). Selected courses are free and open to the public. FYI.