commentary

Proportional Response

April 27th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

This morning there was an attempted shooting at a high school about five miles from my house. Thankfully no one was injured. What struck me most about it, though, was the fact that I was only mildly surprised at the news. School shootings have become common enough that I am no longer shocked by them, even when they are close to home (granted, I am sure that my reaction would have been very different if my son went there or if I knew anyone who attended or worked there).

Now take another almost-tragic event, the shoe bomber. His attempt was also unsuccessful, but anyone who has flown since 2001 is aware of his legacy as they proceed, shoeless, through security checkpoints. What would gun policy look like if our country reacted on the same scale to what are becoming semi-regular school shootings?

I’m not going to talk about what we should do as a country about either of these issues, as it would distract from my point: It is highly unlikely that our systemic responses to these two issues are both correct, and they could both be wrong.

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Best books of 2014

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

Okay, that title may be misleading, it should say “Some books that I read during 2014 and think that you should, too” as some of these books were not published in 2014 (Lady of Mazes was published in 2005, for example). Of course, if I were to actually put that as the title, the Headline Writer’s Guild would blacklist me (don’t laugh, they are scary, secret, and very powerful. haven’t heard of them? my point exactly). In any case, you’ve made it this far, so I should probably give you some actual content. This is a list of books that I read and enjoyed last year, and is not in any particular order.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Far and away my favorite book of last year, but also the one I am most hesitant to recommend. Watching the main character, Maia, trying to do the right thing without letting his new position destroy his values was amazing. I loved everything else about this book, too: the setting, the plot, and the language. The last one is kind of the issue, however. The book is full of jargon, and it was annoying to have to refer to the glossary in back constantly. But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to have me experience the same thing that Maia was going through; just as Maia was overwhelmed by his new position I was being overwhelmed by the jargon. When I stopped worrying about knowing exactly what people were talking about and just allowed myself to experience the slight confusion as I read, the book really came together for me. Which is precisely the reason that I have such a hard time recommending it, as I can see it being too literary-minded for many fantasy readers and to fantasy-minded for many literary readers (which isn’t to say that fantasy readers can’t handle heavy literature or vice versa, but rather that they have different preferences). In any case, best book of the year, go read it (but make sure you read at least two chapters, the first chapter has a different tone than the rest of the book, and doesn’t give a good sense of what you’re getting into).

Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine a Science Fiction dystopia that reads a bit like Lord of the Flies if all of the characters started off as sociopaths. Red Rising (so far, it is only the first installment in a trilogy) is everything that I wanted The Hunger Games to be. It is dark, but amazing. I loved it. The audiobook was fantastic, too, I could listen to that guy read the phone book. Also, some people seem to think that this is a Teen book, and yes, the main character is a teen, but the book is very adult in its sensibilities, expect to be horrified not just by the things that the characters do (though it really isn’t that graphic, the worst of it happens offscreen), but by the cold, rational way in which they go about it.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – I had made an attempt to read Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, a few years back but it didn’t take. I tried it again this year after hearing that I really needed to read it from a trusted friend (thanks Linda!). It was brilliant. Then I read Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second book. It has a lot of the same elements that made Gone-Away World so good, but in a tighter, more finely-crafted package (hence why I chose it over the debut). Imagine a British, leftist Neal Stephenson (Angelmaker has some parallels with Cryptonomicon, actually) with pop culture sensibilities writing about things like identity and free will. These books take some work, but they are pure fun and totally worth it (usually I don’t care much about ‘style’ and ‘voice’ but I would read a technical manual on the manufacturing of manhole covers if Harkaway were to write it). The audiobook of this was great, as well, the narrator reminded me in turn of Jason Statham and Bill Nighy (favorite line: “I can sue anything.”). I would not be surprised in the least to see Tigerman on next year’s list.

The Martian by Andy Weir – While not my favorite book of the year, this was definitely my most recommended book of the year. At this point, something like half of my coworkers have read it due at least in part to my proselytizing. If you like Science Fiction, read it. If you like adventure (particularly man vs. nature), read it. If you like space, read it. If you like gallows humor, read it. If you like entertainment, read it. If you like science, read it. If you are not completely dead inside, you should read this book (and if you are dead inside, read it anyway, it might help, who knows). Instead of summarizing the plot, I’ll just go ahead and suggest that you click on the link and read the description on Goodreads.

Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf – History books usually aren’t my thing. I’m not reading them to build the foundation a master’s thesis, I’m reading so that I can get some sense of the general patterns of the world. Rome: An Empire’s Story is exactly what I want in a history book. It takes a close look at a handful of periods of Roman history that exemplify what was happening in the empire. It was entertaining and informative, and it never outstayed its welcome, thanks in part to its brevity. If you are reading for more serious reasons, however, I would still recommend this book. It covers a lot of things, and has a truly massive reading list included, making it a great place to start for the more academic minded.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder – Karl Schroeder has long been one of my favorite short story authors, but his novels hadn’t grabbed me the same way (the Virga series was good, but not great, in my opinion), until this year. Lockstep is his shot at reinventing space opera, a genre which I usually don’t go in for, and it was amazing. The central idea is that of a culture that gets around resource scarcity and lack of Faster Than Light travel by hibernating in lockstep. Everyone goes int cryostasis for thirty years, then wakes up for one month, then goes back into stasis. This allows them to live in marginal environments by having machines stockpile resources while they hibernate. As a side benefit, if someone travels to another planet several light years away, they would spend the entire transit asleep, meaning that it would just be like waking up the next day on a new planet. This book is everything that epic science fiction ought to be: mind-bending and hope-giving. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible cover. Look at it: two generic people in some sort of . . . environment (perhaps it is the future, perhaps it is a Japanese luxury hotel, who can say?). Yay? It would be a perfectly fine cover for a thriller or a novel without cool visuals . . . but Lockstep has Denners. What are denners, you ask? Picture a cross between a cat and an otter, with embedded net access. Adorable and really freaking cool. So why the hell aren’t they on the cover? In any case, read the book, it is excellent.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder – I tried to keep this list down to one book per author (see entry for Angelmaker, above), but Lockstep and Lady of Mazes are very different, and each is very cool in its own way. Whereas Lockstep reinvents space opera, Lady of Mazes takes a shot at the singularity. It is set in the far, far future (complete with implanted computing and ringworlds), but is really about (for me, at least) social media and the incursion of the virtual into the real (see Google, Facebook, etc), and the ways it will affect us. Whereas reading one of Schroeder’s short stories is like having a firecracker set off in your mind, this is like having a whole damn string of the things, but you are having such a good time with the pretty lights and loud noises that you hardly notice that your worldview is being tampered with. This is a big, sprawling adventure like Lockstep, but where Lockstep was largely about family, this is largely about society. Also, they didn’t botch the cover.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes – A juvenile book, really? Well, yes. A sequel? Yeah, that too, so this also, perforce, an endorsement of the first book (Darkbeast). This book may be aimed at younger readers, but it is more emotionally mature than 90% of what I read (and to be clear, emotionally mature does not mean sex and violence). The book manages this by talking to its audience, not at them. The reader gets to watch as Keara makes mistakes, deals with them, then grows up a little. Aside from that, the world is fascinating: every child gets magically bonded with an animal (their Darkbeast) and is taught to give their animal all of their undesirable traits and impulses. The catch is that, when they turn twelve, they have to kill said Darkbeast. In the first book, Keara refused to do so, and this book is the continuation of her struggle to survive the continuation of that decision. As far as I can tell, the publisher only contacted Keyes for two books in this series, and although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, I really, really hope that more get written.

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I know nothing about Robin Williams

August 12th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Well, that may not be quite true. I know that he was in a bunch of films that I enjoyed, but I have no way of knowing how similar on-screen Williams was to off-screen Williams. So when I ascribe things to him, know that I am talking about neither of those people, but rather the version of him that lives in my head (who probably has little relation to either). That being said, he died yesterday. Well, off-screen Williams died, on-screen Williams can still be watched and there are millions of versions of himself running around inside the heads of just about everyone who has been influenced by him. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, the Robin Williams who lives in my head says not to mourn him. As far as I can tell, Robin Williams made the world a better place, and that is a truly noble thing. I won’t catalog the things he did, as others will do a much better job of it, rather, I will repeat what I learned from him: Laugh. Laugh at things that are hard to laugh at. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the things you take seriously, and if you can’t laugh at them, I would suggest that perhaps you aren’t taking them seriously enough. If you want to honor his memory, lighten up and make the world a better place, and maybe go ride a bike.

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Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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Judge Dixon, you’re doing it wrong.

May 19th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Last year, a guy decided to drive his Ferrari through downtown Olympia at 100 MPH, while drunk and being pursued and with a captive passenger. It was his 7th DUI. He recently plead guilty to felony charges of the DUI as well as eluding a police officer. His sentence: no jail time and a one year work release program. WTF?

Reading about this, one has to wonder what Judge Dixon was thinking. It looks an awful lot like corruption, and even if it isn’t, when you’re talking about the judiciary, there is little difference between the appearance of impropriety and impropriety in fact. This sort of thing damages the perception of the courts, and therefore the fabric of society (insofar as we are a nation of laws). I doubt that much can be done at present, but until it can, lets just hope that the defendant decides against vehicular manslaughter, as the courts seem to have no interest in doing anything about it.

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What does your ringtone say about you?

February 3rd, 2014  |  Published in commentary

So I have this theory (okay, I have a lot of theories, most of them likely wrong, but bear with me), and if you started this article by reading the title, you might have guessed that my theory is about classifying people by their cell phone ringtones. Yes, I realize that I am painting with the broadest of brushes and that I have a definite preference for not being aware of other people trying to contact you while I’m talking to you, but this blog has been on my To-Blog list for over a year now, so I kind of have to write it down at this point, as it has reached the internet age of majority and will soon sue me for confinement. So what does your ringtone say about you? I’ll divide this into two portions: volume and type of tone. After going through this, you will be a better person.

Volume

The volume at which you have your ringtone set says a lot about how you view the people in close personal proximity to you. Here is the range:

  • LOUD: The people who are near you, physically, are nowhere near as important as whoever might call you. And how could they be? You already know all about them, they’re right there next to you, after all. Chances are, the people you hang out with share many of your values, and so their cellphones are set just as loud as yours. Alternatively, you might have hearing loss.
  • Moderate: Most of the people who call you are actually people you might need to talk to, and although you want to make sure that you don’t miss the call, you also don’t want to annoy the people around you. This would also be the setting for someone who would normally be the LOUD personality type but is forced to adopt a less irritating persona for the sake of appearances (think corporate executives).
  • quiet: The people around you are more important than those far removed, but occasionally you do need to hear what the person on the other end of the metaphorical line has to say, though if you miss it the world will not immediately go off the rails.
  • vibrate: You find buzzing things to be calming. Or more likely, you aren’t planning on answering your phone but you want plausible deniability (“Sorry, didn’t feel it go off, but I can’t turn it up at work. No, I don’t have a reason for why it took a week to get back to you. What, the problem has resolved itself without my intervention? Splendid. I think my work is done here. Bye.”). You are a good person.
  • silent: Answering your phone is simply not a priority. Not as in low on your priority list, but more akin to not on the list at all. Alternately, you might have AT&T and so have long since given up on actually being able to use your phone as a phone. Either way, you may want to talk to someone about that.

Tone

Whereas the volume of a cell’s ringer indicates how a person views the world, their tone is all about how they perceive themselves or want themselves to be perceived.

  • Music: Either you really like listening to music in short, randomly spaced snippets or feel that dressing just like your friends leaves a little to be desired in the individuality business.
  • Preloaded Quasi-Musical Ringtone: Just like the Music type above but attaching a much lower value to individuality. Alternately, you might just be trying to prove how hip you are.
  • Theme Song to Quantum Leap: You want the rest of the world to recognize your awesomeness, but instead finds that whenever your phone goes off you look for whoever that cool person is with the cool ringtone only to realize that the cool person is you and your phone is about to go to voicemail.
  • Combination of Beeps and Tones: You hold tight to the outdated idea that a ringtone’s job is to alert you to an incoming call. You probably don’t even have a colorful protective case. If you are not in this category, avoid these people, they might attempt to convince you that individuality is about the way you live your life, not how you decorate it. If you are in this category, it is probably too late for you.
  • Silent/Vibrate: You don’t believe in ringtones and are probably actually a luddite who only grudgingly goes along with societal norms. Get help now.

Conclusion

So there you go, you can tell everything you might ever need to know about a person simply by the volume and tone of their phone. All without ever having to actually get to know them. Think of how much time this is going to save you!

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Meme Culture

April 24th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Sometime last year, I stumbled across a blog post about how Star Trek had prefigured the direction our language and culture is heading in. In essence, there was an episode that dealt with a race that communicated purely by metaphor, the author then compared this to the rise of memes and reaction gifs. Of course, these things were around long before that post was written, but it wasn’t until I read it that I saw the connection between memes and language. And now I can’t unsee it.

More and more, I see emails and facebook posts that consist of nothing but a meme or reaction gif. These things can be fun, and I know that I’ve spent my share of time looking at lolcats, but when they become a substitute for communication, I begin to worry. These things are sort of like the graphic equivalent of cliches. Both are useful for expressing a common sentiment to someone who shares the same cultural frame of reference to yourself, both make it difficult to say anything interesting, novel, or memorable. The main difference is that I would guess that there are fewer memes/reaction gifs than there are cliches, due to the higher cost of production and the shrinking half-life of popular culture phenomena.

To be clear, I am not worried that using memes and reaction gifs will start us on the slippery slope to complete illiteracy. Rather, I feel that their use constitutes a vocabulary of expression, and a small one at that. The capacity of expression of ideas and sentiments seems as though it could limit the occurrence of them, or put another way, if you cannot express something, how fully can you be said to experience it?

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you speak the English language, and if those upstarts over at Oxford Dictionaries are to be believed, “there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary”. This number likely also doesn’t include cool untranslatable words like fingerspitzengefühl, or neologisms (look at what Shakespeare did to the English language). Taken together and considering that most things will be expressed by a combination of words, and the possibilities appear to be virtually endless.

The Devil’s Advocate in me responds to all this by saying that creativity is often the result of artificial limitations, and so reducing our vocabulary to a handful of memes might actually act as a font of creative expression. I would have to disagree. As a culture, we use memes as a shorthand for complex ideas and sentiments, as a shortcut. Words, on the other hand, are hard to use well, much like representing three dimensional objects on a two dimensional medium. As such, it would seem that words are inherently more limiting, and thus more beneficial to creativity (which also helps to explain why we have a quarter million of them in the English language).

So the next time you feel the urge to reach for that comfortable meme, take a moment and do yourself and your culture a favor. Just put it into words. Don’t worry, we won’t run out any time soon.

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Organization: what it is and why it matters

April 17th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

When we talk about organizing and organization, we often think about it in terms of optimizing an existing organizational structure. This is all well and good, but the concept of organization has become so ingrained in our culture and language that it is often assumed as a given and little thought is given to what it means to organize and how the resulting order differs from disorder. So I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, what is organization? Following the word’s etymological trail leads one eventually to the greek organon which apparently translates literally to “that with which one works”. In short, organizing is the act of creating something that is useful, an infrastructural element of getting things done. One could think of it as the fundamental aspect of toolmaking. All of this is good if you’re making a musical instrument (something else that pops up when looking into the history of the word), but how does it function when applied to people? Sure, forming a task force to get something done fits the notion, but a couple of interesting ideas come from it:

  1. Organization is a multiplier of force. For example, take a mob of people who want to effect some sort of change. As a mob they have certain amount of ability to influence the world. Now, arm the mob, give them all guns. The mob has exactly one more option, violence (and even that isn’t really anything new, any mob is capable of violence with or without weapons, arming them just makes that option more effective and more likely). Okay, so go back to the original, unarmed mob. Instead of giving them weapons, organize them. Get them talking to each other, have them work out what it is they want and delegate tasks to individuals or subgroups. All of a sudden, the mob (although it is no longer a mob, really) has as many options as it has ideas, and the amount of ideas in proportion to its size. Instead of adding to its options, the mob has multiplied them. This is specifically why governments are leery of any well-organized group, they are more dangerous than an armed crowd ever could be.
  2. Mindset. Unorganized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the individual, organized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the group. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is in fact the difference between powerlessness and power. Many of the issues that we find troubling in our world are not problems at the individual level but problems at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or world level. Dealing with problems on those scales as an individual is difficult, if not impossible (which is why superheroes seem to be such a dangerous fantasy to me, almost no one can deal with those problems on an individual level).

All of this is not to say that there aren’t problems with organization. Take for example the Stanford Prison Experiment, which suggests that it is possible for our individuality to be overridden by group identity. Despite this, I don’t honestly believe that there is a better option, yet.

In short, organization is a process by which useful things are created, multiplying the options of a group and providing the potential for hope against long odds.

So why am I going to the trouble of working all of this out? Aside from the subject being interesting in its own right, I’ve wanted to write something about organizing in a post-privacy society, and so this post was a necessary prerequisite. I’ll try to get that (more interesting, I promise) post written in the next week or two.

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Tolerance

April 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I worked in a bookstore, I would frequently hear the following sort of exchange between my co-workers. One of them had been asked where the bibles are kept, and told the other that they had been tempted to tell the person that they should look in fiction. Both of them would have a good laugh. Even though I’m not a Christian (not even close), I always got a bit offended (but, to my shame, never said anything). Now, I’ll be the first person to say that if you can’t poke fun at your religion (or handle others doing so), you might want to consider changing it. But the fact is that for anyone who spends much time thinking about it, coming to terms with your own mortality is one of the most important and difficult things that you will do in your lifetime. Belittling someone else’s choice on this matter is not a sign of enlightenment, but rather of insecurity and immaturity.

Of course, reading the above paragraph puts me in mind of the stereotypical retiree waving his cane at a group of teenagers and telling them, “Get off my lawn!”. Then again, if that is the price of tolerance, so be it.

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As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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