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Books


Books21 Mar 2010

I have several complaints about Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: The book feels unfinished. The introduction is scattered and unconvincing. He often makes little asides that sound really interesting and then never follows them up. He doesn’t spend enough time exploring his many ideas. His solutions to the problems he discusses are often not convincing. And I could have done without the distraction of the too-clever section headings that appear every second page and feel like slogans rather than content.

But in spite of those complaints, I’m still recommending this book to everyone I meet. It expresses a number of ideas that I’ve felt implicitly, draws some incredible connections, and engenders a lot of worrying thoughts about the digital age we’re living in.

I tried to write a quick summary of Lanier’s argument, but the book isn’t really structured like an argument. Rather, it’s a web of interconnected and sometimes contradictory ideas. The best I can do in a sentence: Lanier thinks that our present technological and cultural milieu poses danger to individual identity and individual creativity. The book explores many forms of this danger, and considers some of the solutions. Some of the more interesting examples:

- That Web 2.0 sites like Facebook try to standardize the definition of fundamental human concepts like “person” and “friendship” in simplistic ways that are understandable to computers but miss much of the richness of reality. Because people are willing to dumb themselves down to fit into the boxes that the machine provides, we’re in danger of losing that extra richness completely. He uses MIDI, a music standard designed for digitizing pianos that has become the standard for digitizing all instruments, as his example of what happens when a poor representation becomes entrenched.

- That first order creation by individuals is not valued as much as aggregation and derivation by the anonymous crowd. He illustrates this by leveling some fresh criticisms at Wikipedia, that triumph of “crowd sourcing”. Most people who complain about Wikipedia worry about its accuracy. Lanier worries about Wikipedia’s tone, which is a kind of neutral journalistic style free of the imprint of any of its authors. He thinks wikipedia is in danger of claiming too much authority: it becomes the voice of the all-knowing crowd, rather than the creation of a bunch of real, individual people with whom one could meaningfully disagree. He draws an interesting parallel: “Like wikipedia, the Bible’s authorship was shared, largely anonymous, and cumulative, and the obscurity of the individual authors severed to create an oracle-like ambience of the document as “the literal word of God”.”

- That there is very little that is new coming out of online culture: “Even the most seemingly radical online enthusiasts seem to flock to retro references. The sort of “fresh, radical culture” you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a pretty mashup of preweb culture.

“Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over the garbage dump.”

If you don’t believe him, plug “Super Mario” into the search box at YouTube, and look at all the people making things about a game from the mid 1980s…

- And, most frighteningly, that there is no standard path to success for a creative person trying to make it online. In the old days, if you were a musician, you played concerts, got a record deal, and got your music on the radio. If you were a writer, you sold your book to a publisher. Large numbers of musicians and writers did these things and were able to make a living. Now, what do you do? There are people making a living from their online endeavors (he mentions Ze Frank and Jonathon Coulton), but Lanier thinks that their success is doesn’t represent a model to follow. They’re one-offs. There is no reproducible method. Once “old media” is dead, how will the creative people be able to keep creating?

The thing that makes his criticisms so hard to ignore is that he is not a Luddite. He’s a silicon valley nerd who believes that the internet ought to have lead to an explosion of new weird and vital forms of culture. He isn’t arguing against technology, but against the unconsidered attitude that the digital revolution will magically turn out alright, and against the way the technology is structured and used. Drawing an analogy to the printing press, he writes, that “People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.”

If you think all of this sounds interesting and true, you should read his book, because there is much more material where that came from. And if you think this sounds fishy and wrong, you should still read his book, because you can always benefit from someone challenging your premises, and the stakes are very high here.

Books and Musings24 Oct 2009

The prevailing story on the Balloon Boy episode is that it was a stunt designed to attract attention to the boy’s family and help them secure a reality television show about themselves. I don’t have an opinion on whether the it was a hoax or whether Falcon’s parents really believed him to be aloft in their homemade weather balloon. However, if it is true that the family wants to bring the dead eye of a reality TV camera into their lives, well, I must question their judgement.

Actually, I’ll let Anton Chekhov question their judgement, since he does such a good job. Follow this link to read his short story “Joy”.

It laughed out loud the other day when I read this for the first time. It completely sums up my thoughts on our culture of celebrity-for-any-reason, and it was written in 1883. We ought to have learned our lesson by now.

Books and Musings06 Sep 2009

I just finished reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, and I recommend it highly. The book imagines that all humans vanish from this planet overnight (aliens, killer virus, the rapture, etc) and then investigates what would happen to the planet after we’ve gone. It makes for a good framework within which examine all the terrible things we’re doing to our little blue marble home and what it would take to clean up our mess.

To me, the scariest chapter is the one called “Polymers are Forever.”

“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated,” says [research scientist] Tony Andrady […], “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

Most of it is in the ocean. The large pieces are clumped up in what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the middle of the Pacific Ocean absolutely covered in garbage. Which is bad enough, but that’s only the big pieces. The really terrifying part is what happens to the small pieces. Plastic pieces don’t biodegrade, they just break down into smaller pieces of plastic.

The book quotes marine biologist Richard Thompson, who studies the accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans. Thompson has discovered that most sea creatures happily eat “bite-sized” pieces of plastic, and then die if the pieces are too big to pass through their digestive systems. As the plastic bits get smaller, smaller animals start eating them and dying.

At what point would [plastic debris in the ocean] star to naturally break down—and when they did, would they release some fearful chemicals that would endanger organisms sometime far in the future?

Richard Thompson didn’t know. Nobody did, because plastics haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long they’ll last or what happens to them. His team had identified nine different kinds in the sea so far, varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All he knew was that soon everything alive would be eating them.

“When they get as small as powder, even the zooplankton will swallow them.”

We’re wildly irresponsible in our use of plastic. It’s one of the most indestructible materials we’ve invented, and we use it primarily to make disposable goods like packaging and grocery bags. It’s insane. As a species, we’re terrible at long-term thinking. We’re merrily destroying our home and poisoning ourselves, but it’s happening slowly enough that we can turn a blind eye to it in the name of short-term profit.

We ought to factor the costs of safe disposal (and by disposal I mean breaking down to base elements) of our materials into their cost. It’d drive the price of plastic through the roof and probably ruin the holy economy in the short term, but it might keep the plastic wrapper containing today’s breakfast from being part of breakfast tomorrow.

Books and Musings13 Jul 2008

I unexpectedly found myself on the side of the road Friday when my bus driver declared “last stop” rather sooner than usual. Making the best of it I walked down to the grocery store, and my route took me past Chapters. I have a hard time walking past a bookstore. My poor-studenthood used to keep the bibliospending in check, but now it takes all sorts of mental effort. As I neared the entrance I started enumerating all the reasons why I shouldn’t stop: I still have books I haven’t read from the last Amazon order, I have one more library book to finish and two more I’m planning to borrow, I just bought a copy of The New Yorker the other day, etc. As I passed a group of patrons sitting outside the attached coffee shop, a young woman turned to her friends and articulated the reason she wouldn’t be going into the bookstore:

“I haven’t read a whole book since like grade 4.” How could I argue with that? I walked on.

A couple weeks ago in the wake of the aforementioned amazon order, I signed up for an Ottawa Public Library card. I’m not sure why I didn’t do so sooner; public libraries are awesome, especially in the age of the interweb. The library catalog is searchable online, books can be requested online, renewed online, etc. The chance to read widely and with no risk (don’t like the book on the history of parsnips in 18th century France? Take it back and get one about the frogs of the Amazon) is something I’m quickly going to be unable to live without, I’m sure.

I am a little puzzled about how libraries are allowed to exist in our capitalist society. The intellectual property giants scream and cry against file sharing, but never seem to complain about libraries: state-sponsored institutions that will lend you as many movies, cds, and books as you want, for free. Perhaps, because libraries traditionally deal in books and, as such luminaries as Steve Jobs well know, books don’t matter, they are given a free pass? Who knows. Don’t knock it. Get a library card.

Books and Movies10 Apr 2008

April fools! I’m not really in Nebraska.

I have only a weak affinity for the undead. Some people apparently think vampires and zombies are the Coolest Thing Ever, but not me. They can be a good device when done properly, but proper handling of them is rare.

I was quite disappointed when I discovered Halo’s single player campaign eventually turns into a ho-hum zombie hunt. Tactical battles against clever aliens gave way to leaning on the “fire” key and hoping my shotgun wouldn’t run out of ammo at an inopportune time. Endless faceless hordes are scary at first, and then become repetitive.

I caught the movie “I Am Legend” a couple months back. It’s about the last man alive in a world overrun by vampire-like plague victims who only come out at night. It’s notable for its scenes of people-free New York City and it’s fun to watch Will Smith crack up from loneliness, but ultimately failed to deliver on its premise and suffered from an absolutely idiotic ending.

I liked it enough that I subsequently read the 1964 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. The book offers a more interesting take on vampire-plague dystopia, one in which the title actually makes sense. It’s tough to say a lot about without giving away a lot of the plot (and if you think you might want to read t, for god’s sake stay off google). Compared to the movie, the undead are a little less terrifying and a little more pathetic (though still dangerous), the protagonist is even more deranged, and the ending does a nice job of turing all the vampire folklore on its head. It may seem a bit predictable to today’s (metaphorically) undead-plagued reader, but it actually pioneered the “zombie as plague victim concept” and so is a notable part of the Undead Canon. What it really does well is paint a portrait of a man driven mad by the mad world he’s been thrust into.

Worth checking out. Your local library probably has a copy with Will Smith on the cover.

Books and Musings08 Mar 2008

I’m reading “Disturbing the Universe”, the autobiography of physicist Freeman Dyson. The principle aim of the book, he says, is to “describe to people who are not scientists the way the human situation looks to somebody who is a scientist.”

Dyson came of age in the second-world-war Britain and wrote the book in America after the Vietnam war, so he’s seen a lot of the human situation, much of it ugly.

In his early twenties, Dyson worked as a civilian advisor to Britain’s Bomber Command, and was responsible for trying to improve the rate of losses among Lancaster crews who went to bomb Berlin. The odds were atrocious: the chance of a bomber crewman surviving his 30 mission tour of duty were at around 30%.

After carrying out a statistical study that showed there was no correlation between experience and survival rates (turned out the Germans had learned to attack from the blind spot underneath the bombers with special guns), Dyson and his colleagues argued for changes in how the bombers operated.

Since the number of planes lost on a mission depended largely on whether the bombers were intercepted or not, the civilians proposed removing the top and tail gun turrets and reducing the crew from 7 to 5. The reduction of weight would translate into a 50 mph top speed improvement for the bombers, giving them a better chance to get in and out ahead of a fighter response, and, most importantly to Dyson, the change would “at least save the lives of the gunners.”

The idea of sending the bombers out “unarmed” was so against the thinking of Bomber Command that they refused to even try a test with a few squadrons. Still, the anecdote is a great example of how sometimes an analytical mind can look at the numbers and come up with a solution that ends up being more humane than the one arrived at by human intuition. I’m reminded of an article I read once (sorry, I’ve forgotten where) that said Bill Gates showed this kind of thinking when he decided to funnel his charitable donations into fighting malaria. When was the last time you heard anyone appealing for donations to fight malaria? As a cause it’s a non-starter. And yet, Malaria kills as many as 3,000,000 people a year, mostly in developing countries.

Musing on how at the end of the Second World war, Bomber Command had little to fight for while the Luftwaffe were defending their own homes and cities from firebombing, Dyson has some words that George Bush ought to hear as he vetoes another torture ban.

A good cause can become bad if we fight for it with means that are indiscriminately murderous. A bad cause can become good if enough people fight for it in the spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice. In the end it is how you fight, as much as why you fight, that makes your cause good or bad.

I don’t see how the truth of war can be told any better than that.

Books and Musings16 Feb 2008

I’ve just read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark. The Alice stories are much beloved by Martin Gardner and others of the same mathematical ilk, in no small part for their word-play and logical puzzles. Apparently I’m not of the same ilk? I nearly gave up after Wonderland, but I was on the bus when I finished it and so had little else to do but plough into Through the Looking Glass.

Looking Glass, with it’s overall metaphor of a chess game, seemed more coherent, unified. Wonderland seemed a little too, well, nonsensical. I don’t have much stomach for nonsense unless I grasp there is a reason for it, and I didn’t really find one in Wonderland. It just meanders from one clever/silly episode to the next without any real sense of why it is going anywhere. I’ve always found such things increasingly frustrating as they go along: if I can’t see some logic, I can’t get into it. (Yes, Carroll was a logician. Ponder that one). It’s too arbitrary.

Besides the relief of having some internal structure, Through the Looking Glass also has better episodes. For example, Humpty Dumpty’s take on the use of language and his explanation of “The Jabberwocky” poem (which originates in that story) is amusing and revealing. (“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a pormanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”) Some of the characters, especially Humpty, the White King and the White Knight, seem like somewhat pleasant people, rather than just frustrating hindrances put in Alice’s way (see: pretty much everyone in Wonderland, from the hatter to the various card people).

I liked Snark (“An agony in eight fits”) the best. It’s goofy, but the verse-form gives it the rhythmic coherence that nonsense needs to be organized within. It was, to me, the best of the three.

I won’t say really disliked these stories, but I didn’t really see what all the fuss is about. It’s odd, because I thought I would like them; wanted to like them. I almost feel like I’ve failed some kind of test.

Books and Music and Musings23 Jan 2008

It seems I’m blogging about Glenn Gould again.

“Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” by Kevin Bazzana is a fairly recent biography of the Canadian classical musical icon, and I wish I’d had my previous Gould encounters after reading it. I have a much better sense of the man and his significance now. I’ve seen the movie, been to the museum exhibit, and now, read the book. Next I need to hear more of his music. I have a couple of his Back and Beethoven albums, but I’ve got my eye (predictably) on his Goldberg Variations and hope to soon snag a recording of one (or both) of the Goldberg albums that book-ended his career.

Gould’s first record, at the age of 22 in 1955, was the Goldberg Variations and it hit the classical music world like an atom bomb. The Variations was not a well-known piece (Gould single-handly changed that), and Gould was a largely unknown artist making his debut, yet the album had huge success.

At one point in its first year, [Gould's record] was outselling a new recording by Louis Armstrong and the soundtrack of The Pajama Game; in 1960, in the New Yorker, Joseph Roddy reported that it had sold more than forty thousand copies, “which is just about as astonishing in the record business as a big run on a new edition of the Enneads of Plotinus would be in the book trade.”

In 1981, dissatisfied with his earlier recording, he recorded the Goldberg Variations again, offering a different interpretation of the music. The video I posted previously is of this recording session, and is the last videotape of Gould in existence. Bazzana again:

But within a week of the album’s release Gould was dead, and it was easy then to hear it as “autumnal,” as his “testament”; in the decades since, sentimentality about his untimely death has given the 1981 recording, and the Goldberg Variations generally, an exaggerated prominence within the Gould oeuvre. A better candidate for the summit of his Bach discography might be his two-record set of the English Suites, released in 1977: his Bach was never more thoughtfully creative, more intimate or more strongly characterized, and never attained a superior balance between high-modernist orderliness and Romantic flexibility. In any event, Gould had no plans to die at fifty, and his second recording of the Goldberg Variations became his testament only through a sad fluke of fate.

That passage should give you a sense of the book in general. Inevitably it contains a lot of musical terminology and history, with which the reader is not necessarily familiar. While I was put off by this at first, I came to appreciate it a lot. Any book about Gould with any insight must delve into music, which was Gould’s whole life, and Bazzana does a good job of giving the reader a sense of what these musical concepts are and mean. I feel like I know more about classical music now, even if I don’t know exactly what “high modernist orderliness” in Bach sounds like.

I also feel as though I have a good sense of Gould the person: quirky, gifted, suffering terribly from hypochondria, sure, but also likable and real. I’m a little sad to have finished the book: I was getting used to living partly in Gould’s world and now that connection has been severed. I do know that I’ll appreciate his music all the more for understanding the aims and story behind it.

Books and Music and Musings31 Dec 2007

It turns out I have a blind spot in my pop-culture vision that is the size and shape of Neil Young.

For Christmas, my mom gave me a big coffee-table book called The Top 100 Canadian Albums, as chosen by a panel of 500 musicians and music lovers. The chosen albums are ranked by vote and not sales, and span all genres and periods from the 1950s to present day, so the book is reflects a nice slice of the Canadian music scene.

The #1 album is “Harvest” by Neil Young. This, I am somewhat ashamed to report, didn’t really ring any bells for me. “Neil Young is Canadian?” I asked aloud on Christmas morning. And then, “Neil Young is who, exactly?”.

As I flipped through the book it began to dawn on me that this Neil guy was a bit of a big deal. He had the #1 album in Canadian history, and appeared a few other times on the list.

Specifically, Neil is #1, #3, #16, #22, #30, #31, #40, and #47.

Clearly I’ve not been paying attention.

In my defense, in order to answer my next question, “What does Neil Young sound like?”, my parents dug into their collection of vinyl records. So his peak was slightly before my time.

I listened to “Harvest” on the turntable, and while it wasn’t an epiphany moment, I did start to understand why he might be thought of so highly.

Since then I’ve been keeping an eye out for Mr. Young. k.d. lang covered some of his songs on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album (#59 in the Canadian pantheon) and I’ve been listening to that. On the airplane today I listened to a Neil Young live album via the in-flight entertainment system. I’m getting to rather like him.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of Neil Young on YouTube. Here he is with The Band. (“The Band is who, exactly?” led to more records being dusted off…)

Books and News22 Sep 2007

Gaelan and I went to hear William Gibson tonight. William F****** Gibson! The guy who invented the word “cyberspace” back in 1984!

He was reading and speaking at the archives as part of the Ottawa Writers Festival. He read from his new book, Spook Country, which, like the last one, is set in the present (or the past, actually: spring of 2006). “I’ve been writing books set in the 21st century since the 1980s,” he quipped, when asked about his “non-futuristic sci-fi”. After the reading, a local CBC host interviewed him and then he took questions from the audience. He was on stage for a good 90 minutes.

Despite the interview format, he was definitely in command of the discussion. Listening to him speak gave me the same feeling you get when your favorite prof. gives a really good lecture. For a man that pioneered the hyperactive world of cyberpunk, he speaks very slowly and deliberately.

He covered a fair bit of ground. One thing that stuck out for me was “Science Fiction is no more about the future than county music is about the country. And just as with country music, some people realize that, and some people don’t.” He went on to say that George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1948, didn’t need to look ahead to the future: that wasn’t the point. 1984 was built out of pieces of 1948, and was intended to make a statement about the present. This view of sci fi (or “speculative fiction”) as using the future as a convenient setting to make a statement about the present isn’t news to me, but it was nice to hear him say it.

Another thing he said was that before he started reading sci-fi, finding some old reels of wire containing audio recordings from the second world war for which no player existed anymore was an important experience for him. “Whenever I see some new technology, part of me always pictures it in a box under a table at a rummage sale in a parking lot”.

He also said he cringed the first time he heard the term “cyberpunk”.

He signed books for a while after the talk, so I got him to sign a newly-acquired copy of Spook Country. I shook his hand and thanked him for writing so many great books. Gaelan got him to sign a well-used copy of Neuromancer.

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