All posts in books

24-Hour Bookclub

[24-Hour Bookclub](24-Hour Bookclub is a reading flashmob organized by Diana Kimball and Max Temkin. Every few months, we pick a book, read it in one day, and talk about it on the internet.) is a reading flashmob organized by Diana Kimball and Max Temkin. Every few months, we pick a book, read it in one day, and talk about it on the internet.

Nice idea. Think I’ll dive into the first read, Jack Cheng’s These Days.

Recent Reading

A nice thing about being on the road is that there’s a lot of time to read. (And to watcha lot of TV series, but that’s another story.)

Here are some quick recommendations:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

We are imperfect mortal being, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.

Didion shares a moving account about the death of her husband and her year of mourning. She’s so vulnerable and honest in the piece that it reminds of you how scared you are to lose the people you love. Modern society shies away from grief, preferring that mourners to “be strong” and unemotional. Yet Didion describes how we’re never fully prepared for death, that it hits you suddenly and deeply, and that losing someone is trying, complicated and of course irreversible.

The Room by Emma Donoghue

Sometimes when persons say definitely it sounds actually less true.

This is a simply written but disturbing novel about a five-year old boy held captive with his mother in a Josef Fritzl-esque backyard shed. Donoghue uses the innocence of her narrator’s voice to slowly reveal the situation and discover that the world is bigger than the room. It was a gripping if claustrophobic read.

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Cops and robbers all using the same screwdrivers, and civilians in the middle, getting screwed.

In the sequel to the young adult novel, Little Brother, Doctorow revisits encryption, data security and citizens’ rights. I admire him for working in how-to guides to set up TOR networks or disk partitioning. Since the surveillance state laced with torture is hardly fiction, it’s great to read a book that makes these issues immediate, urgent and hopefully defeasible.

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara

I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with a new energy and a new hope.

Well, no trip to Argentina would be complete without reading the account of Che’s journey across Latin America. I learned his name is a common nickname for Argentinians, who often refer to each other as “che”, meaning “friend”. It was fascinating to read about Latin America in the 1950′s and to see the spark of Che’s revolutionary spirit, especially when he described the terrible living conditions of miners, lepers and other unfortunates.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Britain no longer rules the waves, it just waives the rules.

The author of Cloud Atlas wrote quite a different kind of novel with Black Swan Green. It’s apparently semi-autobiographical and recounts the young narrator coming to terms with his speech impediment (“stamper, not stutter”). Mitchell writes well, although some of the fantastical / dream elements in the story seemed somewhat out of place. I’d recommend Cloud Atlas over this one, but if you’re keen to read more Mitchell, it’s a solid choice.

Recent Reading

FWIW, some thoughts from the latest batch of reading:

  • A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith
  • The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Set in a decaying Californian wasteland, PKD dedicates his novel to friends lost to “slow death”, fictionalized as the narcotic Substance D.

An undercover cop Fred poses as small-time dealer and burnout, Bob Arctor. The cop/Bob’s personality cracks after the police task Fred with surveilling himself. Fred must bug his house and analyze recordings of himself/Bob through “a scanner darkly.”

His schizophrenia is intensified by wearing a scramble suit, an outfit that loops “a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people” and projects all the variations of eye color, hair, facial structure, etc. so that “the wearer of a scramble suit was Everyman.”

Suffering from the psychological demands of auto-surveillance and the physical pains of Substance D withdrawal, the police ask Fred/Bob why he does this line of work. To which he responds, perhaps channeling PKD on why he wrote this novel, “On a horrible positive reason: to have watched a human being you loved deeply, that you had gotten real close to, head and slept with and kissed and worried about and befriended and most of all admired–to see that warm living person burn out from the inside, burnt from the heart outward. Until it clicked and clacked like an insect, repeating one sentence again and again. A recording. A closed loop of tape.”

Definitely a good read, albeit with some disturbing misogynistic undertones.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crime novels are difficult to describe without giving away too much, but this book earns its praise as a page-turner even if it won’t win a spot on literature lists.

A not-so-newly-wed couple move from NYC to the husband’s hometown in Missouri in search of brighter job prospects. Matrimonial disharmony ensues. Each chapters reveals more knotted coils in the relationship and all the ways the couple will try to sever/untangle/tighten the knot.

It’s a crime novel that manages to be fun to attempt solving while also capturing the little moments between people in love, and in hate, with one another: “Maybe he understands that you’ve made a witty remark, but, unsure of what to do with it, he holds it in his hand like some bit of conversational phlegm he will wipe away later.”

Could be a fitting way to describe finishing this book, too.

NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith takes us through a concatenation of events in NW, the North West of London, a neighborhood years ago could be described as “well-appointed country living for those tired of the city.” Now “Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”

The novel is anchored by two NW childhood friends, Leah and Natalie, who now struggle with adulthood. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”

Not knowing much about the real NW, I can’t attest to the novel’s verisimilitude, but little descriptive bits color it well. (The local accent “drops their aitches”, for example.) By trying to compare descriptions of NW with other neighborhoods, one realizes how comparison itself is a central theme of the novel. Leah vs. Natalie, Natalie vs. her husband, haves vs. have-nots, happy vs. sad.

The characters are always measuring themselves against one another, deciding that, for example, “marriage is the art of invidious comparison” or more tellingly, that “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”

One can’t help compare NW with other Smith novels, and while this one was a good read, I prefer The Book of Other People and have heard White Teeth is probably her best.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

This story follows Loeser, a set designer/dilettante, who in 1931 leaves the wild warehouse parties of Berlin for Hollywood in pursuit of the seductive Adele Hitler (no relation).

Loeser is enamored not only by Adele but by a legendary Venetian tinkerer, Lavincini, who built beautiful stage sets and a teleportation device, which “magically” delivered actors from one part of the stage to another. The device was used once, in Paris, in front of Louis XIV.

With the device, Beauman draws an arc from Venice to Paris, to Berlin and Hollywood. And with it follows the debate about special effects: “Enlightened critics [in Venice] complained that genuine dramatic values had been surrendered to this obsession with ‘the marvelous’, continuing a debate about the overuse of special effects that had begun with the Reformation and would presumably last until Hollywood fell into the San Andreas fault.”

In a novel about theater, the theme of masks can’t be far. The main character Loeser is fascinated by Carnival in Venice during which everyone wears a mask so one doesn’t know a prince from a pauper. To Loeser, “the glamour and intrigue of the old Carnival were nothing compared to its unacknowledged political radicalism.” Although he remains pathetically apolitical throughout the novel.

All in all, the book was enjoyable and not a typical of stories set in Germany in the 1930′s. Even now it’s hard to decipher what, if anything, Beauman is saying about that period and just used it as a backdrop.

What else

Any good reading recommendations?

End of Summer Reading

Summer has come and gone, but it didn’t leave without a few good reads. I’d just like to share some books; you might find them a worthy consolation for the departed sun.

  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Picked up this South African sci-fi/crime noir thanks to a BoingBoing recommendation. It takes place in a corrupt, near-future Johannesburg whose downcast residents are punished with animal familiars and magical tendencies. It’s all darkly gripping as the heroine Zinzi December and her sloth try to solve a case and escape the dark Undertow.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This beautiful “sextet with overlapping soloists” spans six nested stories, told from different points of view. It spans a voyage across the Pacific, a journalist on the verge of a volatile scoop, a troubling totalitarian corpocracy in future Korea and beyond. Mitchell certainly has a way with words, and the film adaptation will hit theaters this fall.
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I was a bit hesitant when starting on McDougall’s breathless, sports-magazine-style account of an ancient Mexican running tribe. But I was hooked after being introduced to a cast of characters including Barefoot Ted the ballsy pioneer of barefoot running in the US, Caballo Blanco a lone Gringo living in Mexico desert canyons, and of course the Tarahumara tribe, a peaceful people known for racing over 100km wearing little more than huarache sandals. An epic race pits the Tarahumara against the fastest (read: craziest) ultrarunners from the US, and the book not only relates who crosses the finish line first, but throws in some interesting theories on humans’ capacity to run extreme distances by design. I confess, after reading this book, I was so amped up about running that I started doing 20km routes on the weekend.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron. I hadn’t heard about Ephron, the writer of ”When Harry Met Sally”, until listening to a heartfelt obituary for her. It prompted me to try out her collection of essays. She’s a witty New Yorker who “tells it like it is” about aging and womanhood. It’s a light enough bundle of urban anecdotes, if you’re in to it.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In this novella, Barnes uses exactly the right amount of words. The narrator, Tony Webster, recounts his youth and then, as an old man, soliloquizes about time, memory, and the subjectivity of history. You’re taken on a wonderful meander through the mind, and it’ll only take you one sitting to read.

Have you read anything good lately?

Kindle-Powered Summer Reading

This is a short post, but just wanted to share a few good reads picked up this summer and why I’m enjoying them on the Kindle.

Why the Kindle rocks

The Kindle, which I’ve been using heavily since January, has definitely help speed up reading, thanks to several key features:

  • mobility (duh)
  • adjustable font size (I have crappy eyesight, especially at night)
  • range of texts available (in case you weren’t in the mood for that novel you schlepped, there are other things read)
  • free sample chapters (to bypass guilt-reading a book I bought but then didn’t enjoy)
  • instant new material (to immediately dive into the next book when you’re zooming through them)

Some summer reading recommendations

  • For the Win by Cory Doctorow. A fast novel about how the internet could lower the transaction cost to form a global labor movement, led gold farmers and other virtual game workers. The plot spans internet cafes in China, Singapore, India and the US with plenty of Doctorow-esque trivia and asides (including how to cozily cross the Pacific in a shipping container, how to calculate Coase cost, and a glimpse into virtual world markets).
  • Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. A detective novel taking place in the near-future where evolved animals and hormone-treated “babyheads” roam the streets and the state doles out free “make”, a drug that placates the population so that it can be controlled by Inquisitors. The protagonist, an old school detective, tries to solve a murder and crack open the twisted system despite being as addicted and as part of the crazy world as anyone else.
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. A poetically written story about a boy Kafka who runs away to the island of Shikoku, trying to escape his Oedipal fate. His journey is paralleled by an odd old man who can talk to cats. It’s all a bit bizarre but enjoyable to read.
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Spanning 13 chapters all told from the perspective of different characters, it first sounded like this novel would be a headache to keep track of. But the stories all interweave in a lovely way, and Egan draws the characters so well. The book feels very modern, especially of course the famed Powerpoint chapter, which was easy enough to read on the Kindle and definitely proved that slides can be vehicles of literacy art. Or at least entertaining stories.
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. This book digs deep into a nuclear family and a love triangle carried over several years. It studies the emotional paralysis and, at times, depression and self-pity arising from the “freedom” of modern America and the suburban family.

Filter Failure

Clay Shirky suggests that there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. This is a very modern response to an older question. Futurist Alvin Toffler warned us about information overload, popularizing the phrase. It’s an extension of the idea of sensory overload, the idea that too much input could overwhelm and paralyze you. This is based on the faulty assumption that brains are information processing machines, and that we can overwhelm and crash them. …

Knowledge is too big, messy and wildly unsettled, just like the internet. “For every fact on the internet, there is an equal and opposite fact.” David [Weinberger] warns that there is nothing we all agree on – you can find someone willing to argue that 2+2 is not 4 (and, indeed, a quick Google search shows this to be true.) We don’t agree about anything, and David warns, we never will. “This doesn’t mean there are no facts – but it does mean that people are going to insist on being wrong.”

“Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but is is truer about knowing… This crazy approach to knowledge feels familiar to us, because it’s how we tend to know.” [Weinberger] closes with an observation that’s both hopeful and unsettling: “What we have in common is a shared world about which we disagree, not a common knowledge we share and can collectively come to.”

— snippets from Ethan Zuckerman’s heroic liveblogging during the book launch of Too Big to Know by David Weinberger.

Read/Writing

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying.

Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

— Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book. via Brainpicker

Caterina Fake’s copy of Ulysses, which inspired the founding of the reading & annotation community Readmill by Henrik Berggren. CC BY NC SA 2.0

Marginalia in Merckwürdige Nachricht aus Ost-Indien, Reise- und Missionsbericht by Heinrich Milde (1676-1739). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Julius Caesar marked up by students and teachers using co-ment.

Giant Golden Buddhas and the Importance of Data Journalists

In the 1980s the Internal Revenue Service underwent a controversial rebirthing. Turning away from its paper-laden, human-eye examiners, it looked to become a more automated, “noncompliance-seeking” (read: for-profit) outfit. The process, termed “the Initiative”, serves as the backdrop of Dave Foster Wallace’s self-described nonfictional memoir, The Pale King[1].

It’s also a fitting case study of why we need data journalists and good data designers.

According to DFW, the system-wide restructuring of the IRS was, obviously, massive. It affected every American and held great repercussions for business and the role of the state. But as Wallace reports, the Initiative was never investigated deeply by journalists.

Why? Despite the Initiative’s far-reaching impact, the actual material recounting the IRS’ changes was never read. But not because an extensive public record wasn’t available (it was). Rather the written proceedings, in their mountains burocratese, were so utterly mind-numbingly boring that no one could bear plowing through them. The public record was solid rock.

…one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exam group, a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddha statues that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move.

This is a brilliant insight. As DFW argues, we shouldn’t underestimate government’s reliance on this very strategy, the intentional opacity of the public record to discourage journalistic investigation. Secrecy invites curiosity and scandal — yet monumental dullness will pass unexamined.

It’s striking how relevant this chapter is to the world of open data and journalism today. More and more data is being created and released. More and more journalists are expected to have data literacy. But without tools that support sensemaking and parse databases, the public record will remain unyielding and under-reported.

[1] Footnote HT to DFW.  Mid-book, he slips in an author’s forward that counters the boilerplate disclaimer publishers are legally obliged to include: “all characters and events in this book are fictitious”. Instead, Wallace asserts that nearly all of the book’s content is true, documented from his year in exile at an IRS examination center in the Midwest. You get in a nice tangle trying to sort whether his statements about the book’s authenticity, which occur after the disclaimer, are in fact subject to the blanket disclaimer about everything in the book being fiction. And so on. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it,” says Buddha.

Image: The Buddha King of Angkor Wat by Stuck in Customs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Future of Art and Sharism

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/19670849]

The transmediale gave a lot of attention to Free Culture and the Open Web this year, from the book sprint to the Open Zone to a panel series called Lost in the Open, and piles of spontaneous sharerrorism actions throughout the festival. Curated (or should we say connected by) the talented Stephen Kovats and Ela Kagel, these events offered a platform for reflecting on sharing and collaboration through the lens of art.

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about art, but the biggest take-away from the festival was: 1) you don’t need to know much about art to try it yourself, and 2) the internet, including clusters of standards like the Web, is really important to making, distributing, critiquing, funding, and reusing art — now and in the future.

A film sprint by the Emergence Collective (Gabriel Shalom, Patrizia Kommerell, Clare Molloy, Annika Bauer) helped capture the state of the conversation. Iterating on the immediated documentation techniques pioneered by the group, they produced the film The Future of Art. This time they complemented the in-person (and one in-robot) interviews with an online discussion via the #futureofart hashtag and several Quora threads.

The team did a great job compressing 13 interviews and lots of festival footage into a thought-provoking film. After watching the screening at transmediale, it made me appreciate how challenging it must be to harmonize so many different voices. One thought, at least from an interviewee point of view, is that in advance sitting in front of the camera, it would be helpful if you could grab a sneak peek of the other conversations. At least with my non-existent art cred, it would’ve helped to know the angle other interviewees have taken and respond to their comments. In particular, Ken Wahl’s insight was excellent and very riff-able in hindsight:

The idea of originality and proprietary-ness contributes to the whole Great Man theory, which is slowly disintegrating. The concept of the genius — you know, the Freud, the Marx, the Leonardo, the Einstein — [who] come up with an idea that is completely related to the man who came up with the idea. Today, ideas just get thrown out there and used. And it’s that use in a way that’s the art, rather than the person that comes up with the idea.

While I’ve often seen the Great Man theory as a historical anomaly (albeit an enduring one since the Renaissance or thereabouts), there has always been a strong undercurrent of collaboration all throughout art and other cultural processes. Even the canonized Greats were immersed in conversations and environments that enriched (or challenged) their thinking, some of them having close friends or partners who pushed the work further, often without the same recognition.

So, it seems with the rise of massive collaborative online projects, we see a return of sorts to more distributed authorship, yet at the same time with a granularity of attribution never before possible. Each commit or edit or interaction can be logged and attributed to one source. So this gives rise to an unprecedented quantitative measure of reputation. And what’s more interesting, to follow Wahl’s point, is that the measure of contribution isn’t so valuable as the measure of reuse. A good idea is duly cited, a great idea takes flight and becomes owned by all.

(For the record, this is very much how I feel about the concept “collaborative consumption,” although it seems to be at great odds with one public proponent of the term.)

Similar sentiments were echoed in the Sharism workshop I conducted with Fabricatorz Jon Philips and Christopher Adams. Sitting in a circle (just realizing how redundant it is to say “round circle”), we raised the question about motivations and effects of sharing. Here’s a nice recap of the ground we covered.

When one participant asked whether sharing excludes people without wealth and means, it was countered that in fact one of the greatest things to give is one’s attention and willingness to listen, learn, and contribute. A conclusion was then that sharing is often, in its most profound form, an immaterial gift. And so rather than getting bent up about direct remuneration for each and every act of sharing (which quickly dissolves into a quid pro quo “business model” crisis), it’s actually not insane to talk about sharing holistically and karmically.

This is where I sometimes feel the need to run around in tie-dye and chant, but for all it’s cheesiness, it’s actually a powerful idea. And one that gets lost sometimes in the noble trenches of the copyfight…though the sunshine is not meant to downplay the importance of remuneration and viable use cases. I care about those and empirical support for them quite a lot.

It also seems like I shared enough today, so with that — curious to hear your thoughts!

The Skandle

In November, Amazon won a few good enemies by scrapping public domain texts from Project Gutenberg’s database, wrapping them in DRM, and then selling the books without a cent or a thank you to the project they’re ripped from.

Is this legal? Yes. Is it ethical? I don’t think it is,” commented Project Gutenberg CEO Greg Newby about the maneuver.

In response to this shady practice, and because it’s fun to riff on these things and learn how to make stuff, Skandle buddies ℝ & ⁋ (also of http://inunico.de/ fame) partnered up with me (ӎ) to deliver:

The Skandle

The Skandle is a free software project that uses a scanner and a laptop to bypass Amazon’s DRM — by scanning Kindle pages one by one, cleaning up the images, and converting the file into plain text.

The resulting plain text version of the book can then be modified, adapted, and shared freely. The text can’t expire or be deleted by a private company. It can’t be controlled by obscure terms of service that chip away your rights or try to lock you into a manufacturer’s empire.

Amazon’s Digital Restriction Management (DRM) is a system designed to take away rights you would typically have when reading a book.

Digital Restriction Management

Normally, after you read a physical book, you can give it to a friend or sell it. Not so with a Kindle book. Kindle’s DRM is designed explicitly to prevent sharing. This is a legal and technical battleground. Amazon can remotely delete books from your device, as it did during an infamous 1984 recall.

Amazon uses DRM and a proprietary format (AZW) in an attempt to lock you into its distribution model. It wants you to buy from their ecosystem alone, and it won’t allow you to change providers or move your bookshelf without their approval. The price you pay for this “convenience” is restrictions on your rights and coercion to hand over personal data linked to reading habits and purchasing practices.

The Analog Hole

Computer security systems can be described as a method of delivering a message from a sender to a receiver, while not allowing the message to be read by an attacker. The reason DRM systems aren’t generally effective is because the end user, in this model, is both the “receiver” and the “attacker.” This paradox is demonstrated especially well by exploits of the so-called analog hole.

The term “analog hole” describes the idea at the end of the day, the user has to actually see or hear the content that DRM systems are trying to restrict. No matter how many digital fences are put up along the way, the last stage has to be something that can be perceived by a human being, and thus just as well by a camera, scanner or microphone. For this reason, attempts to close the analog hole end up making content less usable.

The Skandle exploits the fact that Kindle books are easy to read on the screen. And if they’re easy for us to read, they’re really easy for a computer to read.

Our Skandle

We used an HP PSC 2410 and a Thinkpad running Ubuntu 10.10. Decisions were made with portability in mind, so it should run with a little tweaking on plenty of other platforms.

You can check out http://skandle.us/ to see how to make your own.