Review: Lexicon

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”

It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.

The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.

Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.

Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.

View all my reviews

In Case You’re Wondering What It Feels Like

I reached my NaNoWriMo goal on Monday: 50,000 words in 30 days (well, technically 27 days). What does that feel like? At this point, it’s more a relief than anything else. I did celebrate reaching my goal by opening the 12 year old single malt scotch and drank a glass with my wife, but only because I decided to save the 21 year single malt for when the manuscript is actually done.

Because that’s the weird thing about NaNo projects, at least for me; 50,000 words has never, ever conincided with me reaching “the end.” For the only NaNo that actually went on to become a finished manuscript, 50,000 words was roughly the midway point.

Which means that there isn’t really a feeling of being done. You turn in your word count, get the neat little validation thingy from the website, which I do like quite a bit because I’m a gamer and gamers are conditioned to perform repetitive actions to raise bars. This aspect of my personality is why YNAB worked on my finances and Fitbit was working for my fitness level (at least, it was working until the damn band broke and I stopped wearing it).

So here I am, done with my big goal, my winning streak extended by another year (up to eight wins in a row now) and then, with all that said and done, you get back to work. Because there’s still a lot more story to tell and a hell of a lot of rewriting for this one.

Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

View all my reviews

Would You Pay For An Ad-free Internet? I Would. And Some Other Thoughts On Noise.

This is not the first time I’ve ruminated about ad block. But it’s on my mind today.

I can’t remember when one of my savviest of tech savvy friends turned me onto ad block software, but it was a watershed moment; I immediately installed it on everything I own and never looked back. I’ve changed the specific program over the years (originally it was the classic Ad Block, though these days I favor uBlock), but regardless of the specific program, it’s always the same goal. I want a clean, minimalist, distraction-free browsing experience.

In fact, I didn’t realize how bad advertising clutter had gotten until I borrowed a co-worker’s terminal to cover her service point (public library term, basically, an information desk) and used a browser without ad block.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt unusable. Videos started autoplaying, forcing me to choose between keeping the sound muted and being able to hear important alert notices and phone calls through our call routing software. Things crawled and slid and demanded that I interact with them in some way to get them out of the content. Worst of all was the ads that seemed intentionally built to create an accidental click; trying to close it instead opened a new link to whatever product or service was being peddled. It was awful and it made me retreat to my own station with my clean, quiet, distraction-free experience.

It was a painful realization for someone who works with information professionally, but here it is; the greatest information pipeline in human history is filled mostly with garbage. Fortunately, you can put a filter on your particular tap to remove the junk, akin to using a Brita filter when you don’t trust the quality of the local water.

I actually have a strong feeling of revulsion to most forms of advertising. I hate it. I hate the noise that it represents.

When I was a kid, the television (televisions, really) was the electronic hearth around which life revolved. As far as I can remember, the television was on. My parents watched it. My brother and I watched it. We all watched it. Even if no one was watching it, the television was usually on, as something to be “listened to” or even just as “background noise.”

Our first computer was located in the kitchen/breakfast table area. There was a television in this room, too. I recall when I started to write, when I wrote my first complete manuscript for a terrible fantasy novel, I learned to tune out the noise around me with what felt like superhuman focus. But there was always so much noise.

I haven’t had cable television in my life in probably ten years. This was never done as some sort of act of defiance; I never made the decision to become a “cord cutter.” The rise of digital delivery, a la carte downloading, and other services created a much more powerful incentive for the consumption of content. The fact that it was ad free (because I was either paying for the individual episodes or for the subscription service itself) was just a bonus.

This is how it’s been for so long that I forgot how noisy the rest of the world is.

I came to realize how much noise I’d filtered out when I went back to Tucson to visit my family earlier this year and spent a few days at my brother’s house and then a few at my mother’s. Once again, cable television with all its commercials, all its ads, all its noise, was back in my life. Even at my mom’s place, with her candles, crystals, peaceful demeanor, and adorably ancient cat . . . there was still the television and the noise.

It was a powerful lesson in how noisy life is and how much energy we spend ignoring it. Because make no mistake, even if you don’t consciously notice the noise, even if you can tune it out with superhuman focus as I did, your body is still experiencing it. Your ears are taking in the sound waves and your brain is filtering through the massive amount of data it ingests to prioritize what it believes to be the most important bits and so much exposure to this barrage of junk sound mean it all gets chucked into the spam folder . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s not still being ingested.

I resent it. I resent the bandwidth advertising consumes. I despise the cognitive tricks that are deployed to co-opt my reason and manipulate my emotions. I know enough to know that I’m not immune to these techniques; that they are crafted by people who devote their considerable intelligence to this purpose. I am not immune; thinking otherwise simply means you’re easier to manipulate.

I treasure silence. It’s hilariously stereotypical, considering my profession, but there it is.

Let’s return to the Internet and all its mental noise.

I understand why ads exist. I know that everything we do online has a cost and if I’m not paying for a service or product directly, it’s because I am the product. Ads are the price of admission. It’s the model that we’ve gotten used to. But it’s one that I’m sick of. I’m so sick of it that I pay money to keep ads off my site, because I don’t want anything I do to  help contribute to that flood of noise. It’s worth it to me.

I don’t think content should be free. Content has value and content creators should be compensated for their time and effort.

Many sites are switching to subscription models or donations or other options to pay for premium, ad-free experiences. And this is a good step, but it’s so fractured, so disjointed, that it wasn’t until I started seriously doing personal budgeting that I realized how many different goddamn subscriptions were sipping away at my finances. Things I’d used and forgotten to cancel. Things I used a few times a year. So many things. It’s too much mental bandwidth to responsibly manage all of those things, to do the mental math of deciding each and every time “how much did I use this site or that site this much? How much was this worth to me.”

The model I would use would be similar to my current cell provider, Ting. Each month, I use a certain amount of data and text messages. There’s a neat little meter that tracks it on my account. At the end of the billing cycle, they say “you used this much data,  you owe us this much.” And I pay that amount. You might also recognize this model as the one you get through your electric bill or your water bill or almost any other utility.

Websites already track your shit. All those cookies we mindlessly agree to are little troves of data to be bundled up, packaged, and sold, so that the commercial engine of the Internet continues to turn. Again, there is nothing on the web that is free. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product, or more accurately, your information is or your viewership or whatever other metric advertisers are measuring.

So that’s what I want: a meter that tracks how much I view each site each month and then calculates a value and from that total bill, pays out whatever dividends my consumption of that content would have represented in terms of ad dollars. I want it manageable from one central location, instead of having forty different subscriptions charging me a dollar each.

I recognize that this model may not be possible right now. Who decides how much each site is worth? What if one site decides it costs me five dollars per page and another says it’s 10 cents? It obviously would require an entire paradigm shift and at the core, what I’m really saying is that I want to pay more money than I already do.

Because, let’s be honest; the current model is actually fine for me. I block the ads, I get the content, the cost of having me as a viewer is subsidized by all the people who aren’t blocking ads. In fact, it’s better for me if ad block never goes mainstream, because if too many people start using it, it will fail for everyone. Content providers will see their revenue dry up and then something must be done. I already have noticed an uptick in the number of sites that just flat-out deny access if you have ad block running.

But this does not feel ethical or right. This idea shows up in philosophy a lot. Kant’s categorical imperative and the prisoner’s dilemma come to mind as possible examples.

So there we are. I’m an Internet parasite. I’d like to change. But currently it’s not easy enough or rewarding enough to do so, so I don’t.

Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

View all my reviews

Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles

Sir Robert Peel is often regarded as the father of modern policing. His work led to the British Parliament’s decision to pass the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This was the act that American cities such as Boston and New York decided to emulate when they established their own police departments, which are, of course, still operating today. He is an iconic figure to many people in modern law enforcement.

Peel worked to convince his colleagues who feared an organized police force would not become tyrannical and militaristic and would not treat the citizenry as enemy combatants. Given the time frame (circa 1820, it’s easy to imagine why the citizenry would be mistrustful of those perceived as operating as soldiers, especially in Great Britain). To this end, Peel had nine principles that he believed all police should strive to uphold.

They are:

1. “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”

2. “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

3. “Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”

4. “The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”

5. “Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”

6. “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”

7. “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

8. “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”

9. “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

The wording on these nine principles will change slightly, depending on your source; it appears that they were never compiled in a formal document but were instead something that colleagues working with Peel decided to codify and distribute. Nevertheless, the spirit of his principles has been preserved through history.

My question, then, to those that police and those that are policed . . . how are we doing? Have Peel’s principles been upheld? Are we moving closer toward or further away from the virtuous institution that he created? Why or why not?

Review: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetTubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Near the end of the book, the author realizes that he’s flown all over the world to essentially look at corrugated steel boxes in nondescript warehouses and feels a moment of despair; for me, it’s the moment that points out that while “Tubes” is lofty in its aim, it’s uneven in its execution. Essentially, we really are reading a travelogue about a guy wandering around the world to visit warehouses and talk to the people who work there. For the most part, it’s rather mundane, but the book redeems itself with poetic musings about what the Internet really is, how we perceive it, and the massive amount of unseen infrastructure that go into maintaining it.

It’s a neat idea; where is the Internet? And certain aspects of it are undeniably cool, such as the undersea transoceanic cables that connect America to Europe to Africa (look up a picture if you’ve never heard of these, they are literally these insanely long cables running across the ocean). But while author Andrew Blum continually defends his mission of “wanting to visit the Internet” to the skeptical, the reality is that finding the Internet’s physical structure is much like finding the man behind the curtain. Certainly, there is expertise and skill on display. There is brilliance woven into and through the various component pieces. But what they form is something much more impressive than the physical reality. Because the physical reality tends to be a steel box with a snake’s nest of cables everywhere.

Blum’s musings on the Internet and the genesis for his quest are the book’s highlights and the question he works to answer is provocative; how much time do any of us actually spend thinking about the physical reality of this crazy network we’ve assembled? It’s exciting to consider the scope. But the reality is as mundane as the scope itself is impressive and “Tubes” loses steam when we and the author realize that. Even so, it’s a quick enough read and worth a bit of wandering for those that are curious.

View all my reviews

Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

View all my reviews

Review: Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era

Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft EraPride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era by John Heilemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being “a thing” in the news for a while. But then, like many “a things,” it just sort of went away, didn’t it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, “wait, didn’t Microsoft lose that case? Weren’t they supposed to be broken up? Why didn’t that ever happen?”

The book itself is good; Heilemann’s writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham’s entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There’s no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that’s because we didn’t yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it’s been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?

In the end, if you’re looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there’s enough information here to sate your hunger. But you’ll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we’ve come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it’s fun to see the “who’s who” mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn’t yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.

View all my reviews

Compulsively iconoclastic!

%d bloggers like this: