Monday, March 26, 2012

Encyclopedia Britannica Goes Out of Print

A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago-based firm that publishes the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it will no longer publish a print edition of that venerable work, which was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. Sales had dwindled from a high of 120,000 sets in 1990 to a measly 8,500, and in the meantime the firm had moved on to a variety of educational software products anyway. There is an online edition which will continue, but accessible only by payment of an annual subscription of $70 a year for individuals.

I will miss the print version of Britannica, though I confess it has been many years since I consulted one. I go back a long way with encyclopedias, being one of those peculiar children who preferred to spend recess in third grade curled up in a corner of the classroom with an encyclopedia article on oil refineries rather than going outside to play. Along with thousands of other upwardly-mobile middle-class families, my parents bought a set of the World Book encyclopedia around 1965, complete with yearly updates mailed in a separate supplementary volume for several years. My favorite article was the one on electronics, though I had many others. In a peculiar twist of fate, a few years ago I was approached by an editor of the same World Book to revise their article on electronics, so if you happen to glance into any edition after about 2005 in a public library, you will find your humble scribe’s byline at the end of the electronics entry (that is, unless they’ve revised it again). But as Britannica is now acknowledging, print encyclopedias are a thing of the past, and so in the future, only historians will occasionally rummage around in dusty encyclopedia volumes stowed away in the corners of library storage warehouses.

It’s important to distinguish between the medium and the message here. While the medium has changed from print to bits, the message that an encyclopedia sends is still the same one that Denis Diderot and his Enlightenment colleagues wanted to send with their great Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers in the years 1751 to 1772, which was how long it took for them to complete the twenty-seven-volume work. Their message was that everyone had a right to know the best and the latest about everything, and the encyclopedia they put together was their effort to share knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) with the entire (literate) world.

At the time the French Encyclopédie and the Edinburgh Britannica were published, print was the very latest and best way to propagate knowledge to the largest number of people. When Wikipedia came along, it showed how an online community of interested parties could create a living, continuously revised encyclopedia that in breadth of coverage far surpassed anything that could be printed. As far as accuracy and quality of authors go, Wikipedia is occasionally spotty, as compared to the carefully selected writers of articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica. But since I have begun using Wikipedia (and I probably consult it at least an average of once a day), I have found it to be an invaluable reference with regard to scientific matters, and pretty good on most other types of subjects.

Engineers have played a vital role in this transition from print to electronic media, and it is no coincidence that modern scientific engineering as a profession dates back to around the same time that the first encyclopedias were published. Engineering depends on the free exchange of scientific principles rather than the carefully-guarded and often poorly understood trade secrets that were handed down from generation to generation during the Middle Ages. “Looking it up” is as natural an action for an engineer as breathing, and without electronic access to technical information from both public and proprietary sources, modern engineering would be much more difficult. Any engineer over 40 or so remembers the piles and piles of print catalogs and data manuals published by manufacturers and distributors, most of which have also turned into websites by now.

I try to think of a downside to all this, and the only ones I can come up with are two: (1) encumbrances to historical research and (2) the unlikely global disaster scenario. Shortly before we left Massachusetts in 1999, I went to a tag sale on the common in Belchertown and found somebody selling a complete set of the Columbia Encyclopedia for some ridiculously low price like fifteen dollars. I bought it and it has an honored place in my bookshelves, though it is years since I looked at it either. But if I ever want to know what the general perception of a certain subject was around 1980, I can look in that encyclopedia and find out. You can’t do that online, not easily, anyway, although with projects such as Google’s attempt to put every non-copyrighted page of print online, that problem may soon go away too.

That leaves the global-disaster scenario, one in which all Internet service and servers are so disrupted that we basically all go back to pre-Internet days for an indefinite period of time. No Wikipedia, no Facebook, and no TV or phone service either, probably, if things got that bad. In such a dire situation, I suspect we would all have more urgent things on our minds than looking up encyclopedia articles, such as where our next meal is coming from. But the chances of something this awful happening are pretty small, I hope.

So as we bid the print version of Britannica farewell, I hope there is some third-grader out there who can look up oil refineries, or the biology of the eggplant, or some equally obscure subject online during recess. But I don’t know if they let you do that these days.

Sources: I used information from two news articles on the Encyclopedia Britannica’s ceasing print publication: one from the Financial Times at and an Associated Press article carried by the Washington Post at And I also consulted Wikipedia on Denis Diderot.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Photography, Christianity, and Modernity

Ever ask a fish what water is like? Even if fish could talk, they probably couldn’t give a very good answer, because water is such a basic, constant, and unchanging part of the existence of a fish. Some of the hardest things to notice are all around us, all the time, and shared by everyone we know, and it takes a lot of effort to disengage yourself mentally from your surroundings in order to see assumptions or underlying ideas that have powerful effects.

We have Craig M. Gay to thank for making this effort. Author of the 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World, he has asked why modern life makes it so easy to act as though God doesn’t exist. I cannot pretend to summarize in a thousand-word blog what took Prof. Gay 314 pages to say, so I will use a personal example to give you a flavor or sampling of his findings. For the full meal, see the book.

I have been an amateur photographer since my teenage years, when I rigged up a crude darkroom in a disused garage apartment and developed and printed my own black-and-white photos of things like my home laboratory, my cat, and my cousin, who posed angrily for the camera as he wielded a baseball bat. You can go about photography in various ways, and I will attempt to describe two possible extremes that express a contrast or polarity that keeps coming up in various forms all through Gay’s book. The polarity is between modernity, meaning the way we in the U. S. have done things since, say, 1900 (if not earlier); and something that doesn’t have a simple name, but let us call it historic Christianity, although that doesn’t really capture the totality of the other pole.

How would a historic Christian go about being a photographer? He or she would, I think, approach photography as an art form, a way of helping others to see things that they might not otherwise notice. Art which is historically Christian in spirit somehow glorifies God and His creation by showing naturally beautiful, good, or true things, or by using elements of creation in new ways that help others to see God’s actions and achievements. Does this mean that all such photographs would be “pretty” in a conventional sense? Hardly. But photography, if pursued in the way I mean, would connect the viewer to something important in the divine scheme of things: a holy person, perhaps, or a story reflecting the divine nature. If this sounds restrictive and censorious, you misunderstand me. God created human bodies, for example, so people in all stages of dress or undress could conceivably show up in an exhibit of photographs taken in this historic Christian sense. The technology (chemical, digital, whatever) would be wholly subsumed in the God-to-person and person-to-person communication that the photographs enable to take place.

Now, how would a modern person go about being a photographer? More or less the way I do it, as it turns out, because despite my best efforts in some areas I am in most ways a typical modern. The focus (pardon the pun) would be on the technology: more megapixels, more convenience in file sharing, higher resolution, more levers to pull and knobs to turn, etc. What to photograph would be way down the list. Ease of control and reliability and uniformity of result would be important, as well as the possibility of mass duplication and broadcast to as many people as possible, regardless of whether the picture would mean anything to them or not. Lots of money would change hands because of this process, if possible. The machinery used would be as complicated and up-to-date as you can get, and would work exactly the way the user plans it all the time. There would be impersonal criteria by which photographs would be judged, with a grand hierarchy of amateurs at the bottom, then lower-paid and higher-paid professionals toward the top. The higher-paid people would get a lot of money, fame, and the other universal desirables of modern life.

Do you see the difference? Some words that relate to what I am inadequately terming historic Christianity are: hope (not certainty or assurance), creative making (not mass production), hand tools (not sophisticated machines), faith and trust (not rational thought ruling everything), one’s career viewed as a calling (not just work or a job), obedience (not being an autonomous self-definer), and patience (not impatience). The words in parentheses all describe modernity in its many and various guises, as Gay portrays it. The great irony he points out is that much of what modernity urges on us was originated by Christianity: the concept of the individual, the notion of science as the pursuit of truth, and many other tropes as well. But Gay shows how when these things are ripped out of their Christian context and set up as absolutes, they start banging into each other, and in order to please first this modern demand, then that one, we run around like ants on an anthill that’s been knocked down, never finding our place in the world and never being truly satisfied with anything.

As I said, you can’t summarize a three-hundred-page book in a blog. But Gay is on to something in this book, and as I let his ideas soak in I may have more to say about this in the future.

Sources: Craig M. Gay, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Regent College International Graduate School of Christian Studies, is author of The Way of the (Modern) World, or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Has Chevy’s Volt Shot Its Bolt?

Excuse the poetry, but on March 2, General Motors announced that it was suspending production of its Chevy Volt, a nearly-all-electric car that was one of the most ballyhooed recent achievements of the government-resurrected (and still partly government-owned) firm. Earlier last year, GM announced its hopes to sell as many as 45,000 Volts in 2012. But after anemic sales of only about 1600 in January and February of this year combined, GM’s management decided they had plenty of Volts on hand and shut down the single production line in Michigan.

The last time the Volt was in the news was also not favorable. In some side-collision crash tests, some coolant apparently spilled onto the giant lithium battery in the vehicle and the battery caught fire. If you poke around YouTube and look for “lithium battery burning” you can see why this might have scared off a few consumers. Once lithium gets going, there’s not a lot that can stop it. Of course, the same can be said for gasoline. We’re used to people being incinerated in fiery gas-powered collisions, but not lithium-powered ones. Whether GM will really resume production in five weeks, as they say they will, only time will tell.

At somewhere north of $40,000, purchasing a Volt is nobody’s rational economic decision. I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of those who have bought Volts have done so for reasons other than economy. Someone estimated that even if gas goes up to $8 a gallon, you would have to drive a 90-mpg Volt for nine years in order to make back your investment in fuel savings. There are 90-mpg motorbikes around, and they don’t cost near as much as an underwater house.

No, the main reason anyone would buy a Volt—and the main reason GM makes the car in the first place—is that it counts as a virtuous act in the Canon of Worldly Virtues. A person driving a Volt has significantly, and rather ostentatiously, reduced his or her carbon footprint, thus infinitesimally postponing the looming climate-change apocalypse which is an article of faith for millions around the world. There are other reasons for buying a Volt which are less globally conscious. You may be an electrical engineer who simply thinks driving an electric car is cool. And fortunately for GM, a good number of such people are rich enough to spend $45,000 on a car that does basically what other cars do for $20,000. But rich people have all sorts of hobbies, and the government doesn’t subsidize giant corporations to cater to all of their whims.

The problem with the Volt is not technical—I’m sure they’ll fix the battery-fire problem to where the Volt is as safe in a collision as an all-gas-powered vehicle, if not safer. In trying to sell the Volt, GM is doing something analogous to pushing water uphill. It is in the nature of water to run downhill unless rigidly contained in a pipe. And it is the nature of people to spend their limited funds on vehicles that deliver the most performance—meaning reliability, reasonable fuel economy, and a certain level of comfort and safety—for the fewest dollars.

This is why the fastest-growing automotive markets in the world are in places like China and India, where most people don’t yet have cars and want to buy one. And it so happens that today, given the availability of fossil fuels and the state of the propulsion art, the most economical way to power a personal motor vehicle is with gasoline. So in emerging markets, gas-powered cars practically sell themselves. Government subsidies or tax exemptions are not needed.

Not so for electrics. Discounting the few hobbyists, driving an electric car makes sense only to people for whom ideology counts more than economy. To make this more realistic, I will use an example from my own moral rules. Suppose one day we woke up and all the grocery stores except for a few pricey mom-and-pop operations were taken over by the porn industry. To buy a loaf of bread, you would now have to walk through the equivalent of a sex-toy store. I am morally opposed to the porn industry, so in such a circumstance I would accept almost any inconvenience and even pay several times the porn-store food prices, to shop in an expensive mom-and-pop grocery store that didn’t also sell porn. (Yes, I know about Cosmopolitan—but try and find a grocery store anywhere that doesn’t carry it.)

The best I can make out is that to some people—and I suppose these are the kinds of people who buy Volts—burning fossil fuels is as repugnant to them as porn is to me. So they leap—or at least walk—at the chance to buy a car that burns much less gas than your typical car does. The problem GM faces is that there are simply not enough of those kind of people, at least not enough of them who are rich enough to put their money where their ideology is.

As I mentioned, the only way to make water run uphill is to pump it into a pipe where it has no choice but to go that way. And the only way in the present economic environment that GM, or anybody else, is going to sell a lot of mostly-electric cars is if the government forces people to buy them, either through expensive subsidies or quotas or some other form of compulsion. We have already experienced a form of government compulsion in the automotive sector in the form of the ethanol mandate. Gasoline has to have a certain amount of ethanol in it now, and while this was a short-term boon for the farmers, it severely distorted the food economy and some studies have shown that, when you include the extra trouble and expense of making ethanol, it may not save fossil fuel anyway.

As an electrical engineer, I’m sorry to hear that GM won’t be making Volts for a while. But in the larger scheme of things, it seems like the only sensible thing to do.

Sources: An AP story about the suspension of Volt production can be found at

Monday, March 05, 2012

Google’s New Privacy Policy

Like it or not, Google, in its sixty or so manifold services and its status as the six-hundred-pound gorilla of the Internet industry, is a part of the life of anyone who uses the Internet. So when Google changes the way it deals with information it obtains from its millions of users, it is a big deal. Starting last January, Google began announcing a major policy change to be implemented March 1, to consolidate the various privacy policies and information it gathers from users. In a nutshell, Google said it was knocking down a lot of walls that had been in place between its different services. Just to keep things specific, I will use as examples three of the services I often deal with.

Google’s search engine is my default on all my browsers, and I rarely use anyone else’s engine. I also view YouTube occasionally, which was purchased by Google several Internet eons ago, way back in 2006. And the blog you are reading operates through Blogger, also owned by Google. All we have to go on is what Google says, but presumably before the change in policy went into effect on March 1, the things I inquired about on Google’s search engine were known to the search-engine division, but not the YouTube or the Blogger divisions, and likewise with information on me in the other two divisions. Now, however, Google has merged all the lowdown on Karl David Stephan into one dossier, which contains information on everything I do with any of Google’s five dozen services. Why did they do this?

There are nominal reasons and real reasons, and the two probably overlap. The nominal reasons, which Google touted in its announcements, are that it is silly for people to have to deal with upwards of sixty different privacy policies when Google can come up with one uniform policy for all its services. Also, sharing information among services can improve their quality. One commentator said that for example, while you are doing a Google search, maybe now you’ll come across a little item reminding you that in half an hour you have an urgent appointment that you put on your Google calendar. To some people this would be a welcome reminder, but for me it would be both annoying and a little creepy, like a ghostly secretary I never hired.

The real reasons stem from the fact that at bottom, Google is a profit-making enterprise. This is in itself neither necessarily good nor bad, but it is a very useful fact to bear in mind whenever one is trying to figure out why Google does anything. From this viewpoint, one of the real reasons is that the change will allow Google to be more effective in selling advertising. Instead of telling Joe the Plumber (or whoever) about a new kind of pipe wrench only when he does a Google search for pipe wrenches, Google can now put ads for pipe wrenches next to the cat videos Joe likes to watch on YouTube. I blogged on this sort of thing some time back when I started seeing ads for a particular kind of hardware I had searched on previously, showing up in a totally unrelated web search of mine. But you get used to it, I guess.

Google’s revised policy is not without controversy. In Europe, for example, where laws regarding privacy are typically much more restrictive than in the U. S., the European Justice Commissioner has stated his opinion that Google’s new policy violates European laws. And even in the more easygoing U. S., some senators and state attorneys general have raised their eyebrows at the changes, although things haven’t moved to the point of formal hearings or lawsuits yet.

This kind of issue has arisen before in many contexts: with regard to privacy of a person’s mail, or phone conversations, or bank account. As I understand things, it is a federal crime for a postal employee to divulge information about what kind of mail a person receives. As for private telecommunications and banking networks, it is in the interests of those organizations to protect their customers’ privacy, because significant violations would result in a loss of business, especially in today’s deregulated world.

The case is somewhat different with Google, which is as close to a monopoly as I can think of for any modern industry. Historically, the Internet has thrived on minimal government interference, either positive or negative. The industry grew largely without government support (except for some very early R&D work), and has remained largely free of regulation or taxation, which may partly account for its generally efficient and benign presence in most peoples’ lives. It would be a shame if the U. S. government adopts some heavy-handed attitude that would stifle the mostly good job that Google has done in exploiting business opportunities while benefiting its customers in many ways.

On the other hand, any major policy change by Google affects all of us whether we like it or not. As long as the changes stay at the level of advertisements and little enhancements of services, I personally do not have much of a problem with them. I can imagine a dystopic scenario in which Google is taken over by some evil Big-Brother-type dictator, who uses information from Google’s databases to wipe out all left-handed red-headed libertarians, for example, or some other group. But such a thing is hard to imagine, and it was the late R. J. Neuhaus who liked to say that a person (or a corporation) is seldom more innocently employed when they are simply making money.

So I have decided to live with the new Google privacy policies, because I have little choice to do otherwise. But it is appropriate that we at least examine them closely and be aware of any signs that they are being used in a way that is inimical or unfair. So far, however, I haven’t noticed anything like that. Five days isn’t much to go on, though.

Sources: Besides the official announcements Google has been posting about its privacy-policy changes, I consulted articles published in TechWeek Europe at and cnet. com at