Books I Read in 2016

 

  1. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
  2. The Autobiography of Assata Shakur
  3. The Autobiography of Angela Davis
  4. Malcolm X Speaks
  5. The FARC: The Longest Insurgency
  6. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
  7. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies
  8. Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
  9. How To Build a Girl
  10. Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
  11. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depressions
  12. Denial of Death
  13. The Seducer’s Diary
  14. Game of Thrones
  15. Lazarillo de Tornes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels
  16. Don Quixote Part I
  17. BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family
  18. A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida
  19. The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics
  20. How to Leave Hialeah
  21. Make Your Home Among Stangers
  22. Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow

Review of The Autobiography of Assata Shakur

A former Black Liberation Army member that has obtained political asylum in Cuba for perceived lack of evidence for crimes connected to the murder of two police officers, Assata Shakur is a polarizing figure. She is still wanted by the FBI and talk of her possible return to America was discussed between respective nations bilateral trade meetings leading to online talk of her spiking to numbers not seen since legal defense committees received donations in her name for other sham trials in the late 1960s. Assata was one of many black political and cultural activists that were falsely imprisoned for hours to years based upon the whims of the judicial system. The Autobiography of Assata Shakur memoirs describes the evidence against her, the conditions of her trial, penetrating and poetic social insights, her treatment in the prison as well as her socialization with white communities under Jim Crow, her work with the Black Panther Party, etc. It is, another word, wonderful for touching on so many of the important issues of that epoch.

At a young age Assata describes herself as being very sensitive to the Jim Crow conditions which she grew up under. She tells of the isolations of being unable to play with neighborhood children because of her families purchase of a home in a white community. She describes how the low level of intellectual abilities that her classmates first had for her.  Later she will also describe in detail her close relationship to two of the five young girls killed in a church bombing that happened a short distance from her childhood home.

Yet her anger is not without a certain sense of revolutionary irony. Revolutionary as while recognizing the seriousness of the situation – racially informed class oppression – she is also able to recognize the base absurdity of its claims and the essential precariousness of the various power allegiances keeping it together. For example she describes going into a shoe shop in Montgomery with her friend as a young teen. A white clerk and overweight customer look at her in red-faced anger and terror quickly take on a tone of deference granted as they speak with a French affectation and claim to be from the Martinique. They are Caribbean, the social thought of the day went, therefore exotic and ergo not black. They are conversed with by the staff as they try on shoes.  Assata, at the time named Josephine, speaks in her best accent and finally breaks character. The initial angry attitudes return, however the girls can’t stop laughing. Now speaking in plain English, as they leave the store, she calls the people present out for their bigotry. There are many poetic turns of phrase and local color captured in these and other exchanges, all of which is to sound please but be immoral. Given these exclusionary experiences it is no wonder that she begins to have increased involvement in black nationalist cultural and political networks and organizations.

What makes this such a compelling book is not just the everyday heroics that comes to be displayed but also it’s structure. After childhood and arrest are covered the structure shifts to a back and forth between a horrifying depiction of what life is like in jail and narrative of her work as an activist. First one starts to become painfully aware of the cruelties of the treatment afforded her because she was a political prisoner, such as being forced to live in an isolation room for 21 months on end – a practice which was only stopped after a long struggle to get an independent investigator of the court to verify Assata’s claims. Following this Assata describes her work at a Black Panther Party breakfast program for children. She would wake up at 4am in the morning and cook for all of the children and come up with various educational programs for them to help get in the learning mood before going to school. She describes the paranoia and fears of briefly having to live an underground life as she’s just discovered that she’s again being promoted in the media as responsible for a crime that she’s not committed. And what helped her face such COINTELPRO actions? Her good skill set was recognized and she was promoted to New York to help the Party be more efficient.

Assata’s autobiography is good not only for the above, but she also reminds the reader that there were many others targeted for assassination, observation, infiltration, and social subversion through ruses, rumors, and other sorts of intelligence campaigns designed to delegitimize and destroy trust. She names three people that were connected to high ranking members of the Party that were used in FBI conceived plots to entrap or bring harm to Members. She is not, however, wholly uncritical of the Party. Some of the members are upbraided for their misogyny when she first arrives in New York. She eventually left the group as she found Newton’s ideology to be incompatible with her own, as she thought they needed to have less of a focus on the thoughts of a greater leader and more information on black history. Certainly anyone seeking to learn about black history is well served by reading this story and her other writings.

Review of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger is one of the books that inform the unique grading rubric for determining whether or not a certain campaign conceived in our daily Ideation meetings will be proposed to our advertising clients, send back for further details how it would be completed or shelved. The TL;DR book review format can turn the book into a short acronym, STEPPS, that stands for and encourages marketers to ask the following about their products:

Social Currency – Does sharing information about this make you look good?

Triggers – What cues do people have with your product, how can this be expanded

Emotion – What sort of emotion is elicited by discussion of you product and how can this be changed?

Public – What can be done to make private purchasing decisions private?

Practical Value – Can you assist others in some way by this information

Stories – Are you framing the information you want transmitted into a narrative format or just a list of product specifications?

Delving deeper into these principles, Berger presents a number of case studies that illustrates various advertising campaigns in action using these principles, correctly or incorrectly.

Being familiar with internet lore in general several of the examples provided in each of these sections, or variations therein, were those that I was familiar with. For example the $100 sandwich and the  connection between 1980s anti-drug advertising, which made the private public, being seen in part as a cause for the rise in teen drug use. A larger number of them, however, I was not. Thankfully the books was written in such a way that though it consists primarily of case studies illustrating the aforementioned messaging qualities the book does not take an overly formal tone.

Reading these analyses and commentary on the over-importance of influencers, varieties of physiological arousal, presenting information in an appropriate context all are very useful not only to those seeking to raise awareness about products for sale but also for those seeking to engage in any sort of public awareness campaign. An anecdote about a healthier eating campaign on college campuses, for instance, is described how a different choice in wording (A/B testing) could have a 25% greater likelihood in encouraging students to eat more fruits and vegetables. The difference in wording? Using a general food associated terms “When you eat” versus “when you fill your tray”. The latter was more effective as it had a stronger contextual trigger – students saw this in a cafeteria.

I found the “fool in the pool” anecdote – the story about Ron Bensimhon’s break in to the Olympics and jumping from the divers deck while wearing polka dot tights and GoldenPalace.com emblazoned on his chest – to be particularly useful as a reminder for the need for correct triggers/context and being attuned to the psychology of sharing. As a content marketer, depending on the client, much of the material we produce can be quite tangential to those whose products or services we are seeking to help bring greater exposure to.

The book is a quick and easy read and I was happy to learn that some of the practices that I’ve applied to my project decisions are those that Jonah Berger endorses. This isn’t necessarily a result of my own genius, but likely from my having read Berger’s teacher’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. For example, a project that I’m working on I was ready to use a single broad survey as a data source for a campaign. After having read this I’m now more confident in pursuing a slightly different direction that queries less people but gets more information that will likely lead to others relating to it at a deeper level. Previously open to pursuing the least time intensive route that would likely still make the customer happy, now I can cite evidence why a small pivot could be result in much greater visibility.

Review of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin is the first deep archival work that truly showcases the Black Panthers brief but pivotal role in the African-American freedom struggle, the black power movement and the New Left movements in America. While the Panthers were only an effective political machine for a mere four years, this account shows how and why they were able to attract so many under its banner despite being intensively repressed by the FBI and there being a variety of other organizations which politically radical blacks could join.

The opening chapters provide an on the ground account of the Oakland /Bay Area political and cultural scene through Bobby Seale’s and Huey Newton’s engagement with them. The organizations that would influence and be influenced by the Panthers included black nationalists, U.S. socialists, third-world communists, cultural uplift organizations, New Left groups and the government through the form of social work programs. It was their militant anti-imperialism that separated them from other organizations. Following Malcolm X’s views that the U.S. police force was akin to the troops of a colonial empire, they organized patrols to monitor the police’s activity in the community while openly armed and actively courted the “brother on the street” to become involved. At this time the organization was called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a name that would be shortened following the expansion of social services provided and their rapid expansion into cities with large black populations.

I found it amusing that one of the Party’s early and vehement supporters mentioned several times in the book is Bob Avakian – the not yet founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party. More interesting yet is the descriptions of the organizational conflicts brought about after the Party’s spread following the California Courthouse Incident. The extensive archival work depicts a variety of factors constraining and supporting the party’s goals – be it police suppression and infiltration, or the coalition style politics that was able to support their goals.

Some of the more interesting things revealed to me in the book was the existence of an organization similar to the one that Happy runs in Unraveling in Chicago. In the chapter on the State’s assassination of Fred Hampton the authors describe the existence of a militant gang that also offered some social services and had members that would adjudicate conflict between members extra-judicially. They describe a scene wherein Fred Hampton tries to talk to their leader in an attempt for them to merge. As the FBI had started a rumor that the Panthers were going to kill their leadership if they didn’t join the tense scene of around 100 armed and militant gangsters coming into what was supposed to be an amiable meeting is very dramatic.

The closing chapters describe the changing national and international dynamics that lead to the decline of the Panthers. On the international scene the countries that had previously recognized the Party – anti-colonialist, revolutionary, socialist governments – soon adjusted their policies to engage with the United States Government. China, which had once welcomed the Panthers as a proto-government, soon broke off discussions with them. Cuba, which had spoken of using farms their nation as a training ground for revolutionary fighters and supported consciousness raising activities such as radio shows and publication of books such as Negroes with Guns, soon drastically limited the ability of those seeking shelter – such as Assata Shakur – so that the relationship with the United States would be better. Same so for Algeria, which had one seen itself and acted as if it were the leader of pan-African revolutionary movements but then had to deal with the more banal activities of governing.

Additionally much of the impetus for liberal coalitions to support the organization was taken away as the government started to concede a number of the demands of the Panthers. As the number of young Americans getting drafted fell dramatically, the numbers of those dying in Vietnam fell and the beginning of Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” – or turning responsibility for fighting primarily over to the South Vietnamese – those in the Anti-Draft Camp started to back off. As the government started to institute quotas for government hiring and black unemployment decreased, criticism of the state as explicitly racist became more difficult.

Lastly the split between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver was of a quality that made it difficult for current members want to stay in and outside members not to view as cause for delegitimization as a movement. Party debates are one thing, but the rhetoric turned to broad purges and internecine assassinations between the Newton/Cleaver cliques. Rather than debate the merits of Social Democratic politics, advocated by Newton, versus forming an insurgency, advocated by Eldridge, Netwon’s expulsions of those against his position inflamed tensions. This is likely because a number of the high ranking members that had been supporting Newton’s release through a wide variety of actions now saw their work as towards someone that they now fundamentally disagreed with.

After the Party has been dismantled, there is a brief account of Newton’s new life as an Oakland Mafioso. While the book clearly is focused on the Panther’s, given that Free Huey! was an international slogan and major pursuit of the rank and file membership I would have liked to have learned a little more about this. I recognize the author’s claim that those who have fixated on it seem to extend Tom Wolfe’s criticism ex-post facto in such a way as to delegitimize the Panther’s in some fashion, but I am more interested in it as a case of what sort of enterprises are formed when political aspirations are difficult to form – a la the Chicago gang mentioned earlier.

Review of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier’s Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think provides an brief history and overview of the promises, advancements, issues and implications of the big data revolution.

Big data is a social phenomenon that has significant qualitative effects that the authors state is revolutionary. Able to come about as a result of technological evolution, for the first time in history, there exists the ability for people to easily and cheaply capture and store massive amounts of data and monetize it for various uses in a variety of ways one thought impossible. This transition means that statistical methods of sampling or estimation no longer ought to be seen as the ideal manner in which various interests can extract meaning from data.

The book points out that data is rapidly becoming the raw material of business and government policy. A number of other examples include, as it related to criminal justice issues, police use the technology to determine which regions to patrol at certain times of day. In the business realm Wal-Mart, the first company to adopted datafication for it’s sales analysis systems, learnd from that that they should send Pop-Tarts to areas about to be affected by hurricanes and not NutraGrain bars. This area small examples, however, as data accumulated by some companies for insurance and banking are able to sell for hundreds of billions of dollars as they can help with predictions about the likelihood of loans defaulting.

Data, as it exists in the world, can however lead to flawed conclusions. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier praise Google’s Flu Trends service – which analyses billions of searches into its website as well as other indicators to estimate the prevalence of flu in the United States. In 2015 Google’s estimate of flu cases was twice the actual number. This isn’t itself an issue – however – as it allows data scientists to better figure out how to quantify this without people filling out a survey every day. So, what exactly is so revolutionary about businesses having a better means of projecting items that will likely be purchased by consumers? Well, the book argues that it’s paradigmatically revolutionary and cites three shifts why this is so.

The first shift cause by big data is the ability to survey components of information from potentially a whole population instead of just sampling random portions of it. Rather than projecting based upon samples – which the authors repeatedly decry as an antiquated means of projecting (something proven by the recent election of Trump despite most polls to the contrary) – we can look at everything.

The second paradigmatic shift is that “looking at vastly more data also permits us to loosen up our desire for exactitude”. This is so as in big data, according to the authors, “with less error from sampling we can accept more measurement error”. Science is obsessed with sampling and measurement error methodologies and potential error percentages because they exist in a ‘small dataworld.

It would be amazing if the problems of sampling and measurement error really disappeared when you’re “stuffed silly with data”. But context is something that needs to be considered carefully and why it is easy to treat samples as n=all as data gathering means get closer to full coverage, researchers ought to account for the representativeness of their sample. One  easy to overlook example of this relates to the digital divide.

 

The third and potentially most radical paradigmatic shift in understanding complex information and their relationship to each other means that people will change the “causal modality and get rid of “the idea of understanding the reasons behind all that happens.”

The traditional image of science the authors propound, however conflates principles with practices. While desire to determine causality and precision in measurements are generative mores, the authors seem to dismiss causation as something to aspire to too cavalierly with the promise of big data.

Their claim that the social sciences “have lost their monopoly on making sense of empirical data, as big-data analysis replaces the highly skilled survey specialists of the past” seems fatuous. So what if the new algorithms can review big data analyses and predictions, they only determine meaning by the means by which they are input. What others not so blinded by promise of datafication know is that even at the most granular level of practice, analytic understanding is necessary when attempting to implement these systems in the world or use them to understand the past.

Review of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization

Unlike any time before in history, people have access to vast amounts of free information and with the right tools and training they can structure data in an aesthetic manner that allows non-specialists in the field to see patterns and trends that would otherwise be invisible or difficult to derive meaning from. The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo presents an epistemological overview of how people read infographics and then demonstrates how to most effectively use statistical data to make charts, maps, and explanation diagrams. Cairo does not merely present us with a list of what he considers his best works but shows the steps taken to create successful infographics and how certain forms of quantitatively measurable changes should typically be associated with certain types of illustrating change – such as box and whisker plots.

By transforming numbers into graphical shapes, readers can come to spot the stories in the data and learn new things from it with greater speed than in text regardless of the type of data you’re working with. Cairo states that most people new to the field jump too soon to the “look and feel” part, without first asking the right questions. Based upon his experience, he believes that people should first ask about what information is most important to display, how consumers of it will want to explore the information – especially if it is interactive – and then at this point start to determine the look and feel of it. Cairo, like myself, views much of the decorative additions typical of infographics, i.e. symbols or icons included that don’t really add anything other than flair, as poor design. Not that it is ALWAYS bad to include these, just it’s become the trend for them to be included at the cost of reducing effective communication.

Exegesis on this issue of approach to graphical forms takes the form of a discussion of “engineers” versus “designers”. On one extreme is Edward Tufte, who espouses a minimalistic approach to visualization. On the other extreme is graphic designer Nigel Holmes, who takes a more emotional, mimetic approach to graphic design. Cairo argues that there are benefits to both approaches and that the project itself should dictate how one processed rather than personal preference.

In the first part of the book, Cairo explicates the three main tenets of good data visualization practice: first, good graphic techniques and strategies (minimal use of pie charts, reducing non-data ink, etc.); second, how to create eye-pleasing graphics (how to choose color, fonts, layout, etc.); and, most importantly, how to use data visualization to tell a story. I think this is where The Functional Art really stands out as a great reference – Cairo shows you how to use data visualization not as a way to just show your data or to create a tool for people to explore your data, but as a way to be a storyteller with data.

One of the model’s Cairo created to help him ideate on how to develop a visualization is called the “Visualization Wheel”. The top part of the wheel indicates increased complexity and depth and the bottom part representing simplicity and lightness. The key takeaway is to provide balance to a visualization with the audience in mind. Certain audiences are likely to gravitate towards one than the other.

The next part of the book explains the eye-brain connection – how humans perceive different shapes, colors, etc. – in relation to designing good infographics. Cairo isn’t a cognitive scientist, but the skill with which he addresses these issues illustrates the depth of study he’s done of the literature and how to use this knowledge to create better graphics. These two first parts of the book are helpful for anyone those in the visualization and the graphics Cairo has chosen to include are all inspirational and make this not only a good overview of the field but also a good reference book.

In the last section of the book, Cairo profiles and interviews 10 prominent data visualization designers and visual journalists, including The New York Times’ Steve Duenes, The Washington Post’s Hannah Fairfield, Condé Nast Traveler’s John Grimwade, National Geographic Magazine’s Fernando Baptista, Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, and others.

This section is beneficial as it gives brief insights into how it is that leaders in the field approach different challenges created by their projects and to see how journalists work with the information visualization professionals in their teams in leading newspapers in different  ways based upon the workplace.

In closing, The Functional Art touches upon all the important issues related to infographics such as:

  • Why data visualization should be conceived of as “functional” rather than fine art
  • A general outline of when to use bar versus circle charts
  • How to use color, type, shape, contrast, and other components to make infographics more effective
  • Differentiation between symbols and icons and help versus hurt their readability.
  • The science of how our brains perceive and remember information
  • Best practices for creating interactive information graphics
  • The creative process behind successful information graphics

It’s a great book for those new in the field and the clarity of expression found within was so good that I look forward to reading more of Cairo’s work.