Aug 29, 2010

Too many secrets

Did you see Sneakers? In this 1992 movie, Robert Redford plays the head of a private security company. He and his team are brainstorming to figure out whether the name of a firm they are investigating, Seatec Astronomy, has some hidden significance.

They spread out some Scrabble tiles and start anagramming the company's name, stopping when they are able to rearrange the letters to spell "too many secrets." I'll leave the significance of the decrypted name to your viewing of the movie, along with a warning that the IMDB site and several others blithely give away way too much of the plot.

I will reveal, however, that the movie centers on whether a device that can automatically decrypt classified government secrets should be allowed to exist. This seems more relevant than ever all these years after the film's release, with the WikiLeaks controversy in the news. Leaving aside the movie's focus on cryptography, the question remains as to what legitmate function secrecy plays in government, and how much should be considered secret.

Some weeks before I became aware of WikiLeaks, I came across a book called Code Names, by William M. Arkin of The Washington Post. I was surprised to learn that a book with such content could be published, but on looking further I found that this was not even Arkin's debut foray into uncovering supposedly classified information. His previous books gave locations of US nuclear weapons installations, which I would have thought was so highly sensitive that it could not possibly have appeared.

What I learned was that everything in both Arkin books was in the public record. I also read his assertion that even though it was all publicly available, he considered what to include and what to omit with painstaking care.

My shot at Code Names was too brief for me to read more than the introduction and the first couple of chapters. This is oddly parallel to a more recent experience with a book by Ray Kurzweil, described in the post just ahead of this one. What I read turned out to be plenty, as most of the rest of the book was simply a reference list of code names as they have been used.

The first part summed it up nicely, however, and my own summary of the summary would be that since 9/11, our government and its intelligence agencies have used that terrible tragedy as pretext to classify everything and anything. This has gone to extremes that would be ridiculous except that since real life and real issues are involved, outrageous is the better word.

I hadn't paid enough attention to Arkin's bio on the flyleaf but with a little online research quickly discovered that books are only part of his real work as investigative reporter for the Post. My take is that he is more a bulldog and journeyman than an ideologue, which I find a good thing. I naturally suspect people who take on causes with excessive zeal, much preferring a dogged determination to report what is there to the fervor that produces slanted coverage. Fair and balanced, forsooth!

To get to the point, where Arkin started plowing in 2005 with Code Names, a dozen The Washington Post journalists headed by Dana Priest harvested the crop in July 2010 with a series entitled Top Secret America. This investigative journalism project was two years in the making. The main link leads to many, many other links, including a list of articles and a summary of methodology.

Too many secrets? Even though the information is in the public record, mostly online, it is so insanely complicated that Arkin says he couldn't do what he does without help from the inside. We can safely conclude that these are people outraged by what has happened in their workplace since 9/11.

A letter to the editor from a retired intelligence professional says the current state of affairs bears little resemblance to the intelligence community he remembers. He seems outraged that these excesses have been allowed to flourish, but not upset at all that The Post is bringing them to light.

There is a real concern underlying all this outrage and zeal, and that is the enormous expense incurred when too much is made too secret. The money wasted in this process is breathtaking even by government standards. Even if you think you don't especially care whether government is using secrecy excessively, once you get a glimpse of how much money is being flushed down this particular gold-plated toilet you may be reminded of the historic advice from Deep Throat to Post reporters of an earlier time, "follow the money."

History of the future

Somewhere along the breadcrumb trail I must have decided I didn't need to keep my copy of Marshall McLuhan's book The Medium Is the Massage, because it's no longer on my shelves. I would have liked to consult it today when I came home from a weekend jaunt visiting a friend who introduced me to a book I had never heard of by a writer I thought I knew.

The writer is Ray Kurzweil. I knew him as the inventor of the Kurzweil keyboard, regarded as an ultra-high-quality electronic musical instrument since its introduction in 1984. What I didn't know was that this was only one of many inventions by a man who has been compared to Thomas Edison, nor that his writings on the future of technology and society put him in the exalted ranks of McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, and the like.

The book was The Singularity Is Near. It's fantastic to visit a friend and discover a book so unexpected and so profound, a long way from the beach fodder one might be content to find.

I knew "singularity" as the term used by physicists to denote the collapse of gravity at the center of a black hole. I learned that futurists have adopted it to mean a period of cultural change so rapid and so deep that human society will be irreversibly altered. They see technological advances as the agency of this change.

The rate of technological change is exponential, the way gravity increases exponentially as one gets closer to the center of a black hole. To demonstrate, Kurzweil plots crucial events in human history according to lists from 13 sources. These are an assortment of fellow futurists as well as traditional references like The Encyclopedia Britannica. The events vary somewhat, but most include the big bang, the first cells, the demise of dinosaurs, and the successive rise of railroads, telephones, computers, and the Internet.

Linear x-y plots of these events over time are too compressed to be useful, appearing as nearly-horizontal lines for most of the chart followed by multiple events crammed into a near-vertical section at the extreme right. Logarithmic plots, however, consistently appear as 45-degree lines for each of the sources and their varying lists. This is what one would expect from events occuring at exponentially increasing rates of change.

This was just a two-day house visit so I didn't get much past the introduction and the first chapter, but it was enough to give me the picture as Ray Kurzweil laid it out in this 2005 book. I'll get a copy so I can finish it, and rustle up McLuhan's book from 1967 for comparison.

Meanwhile I did find Our Posthuman Future on my shelves, which was to be expected since I only read it in the past year or two. Author Francis Fukuyama was famous for his 1989 pronouncement that history as we know it had reached its end, but it seems that he found more to think about and write about by the time Posthuman was published in 2002. The subtitle, Consequences of the Biotechnical Revolution, is an accurate summary of what the book contains, and utterly consistent with what Kurzweil would be publishing three years later.

I realized that I've been fascinated by futurism for a long time without realizing there was such a thing. I Googled "futurism" and found a good summary on the Wikipedia page. This explained that the term in its current use didn't really arise until the 1940s, with 50s and 60s writers like Toffler and McLuhan giving us plenty to think about. I followed a link to a Wikipedia list of futurists, and recommend it highly. I found Toffler, McLuhan and Kurzweil there as well as architect Buckminster Fuller, astronomer Carl Sagan, and a host of people cited by Kurzweil in Singularity.

Curiously, the list omits novelist Wiiliam Gibson (Neuromancer) as well as Fukuyama, but it's a terrific start on the subject. Michael Crichton is there, and so is Gene Roddenberry. Wikipedia critics may find plenty to chew on from those included or omitted, but we'll leave the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia for another time.

For now, I'll be busy thinking about the prospect of nanobots in my brain, the merging of virtual and real realities, and other possibilities I find somewhat disturbing but which may be inevitable just the same.

Jul 27, 2010

Writer's Toolkit 1

First of a series. The trail of breadcrumbs goes way back...

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. The slimmest little volume you never heard of until you decided to try writing and somebody said you might want to check out this book. Eighty-five pages of dynamite, good to dislodge those stubborn bad habits. Of course, if your own writing mistakes are too stubborn for even Strunk & White, then go do Your Own Thing and leave us alone. It's the granddaddy (ou grandmère, s'il vous plait) of writing guides. Ignore it at your peril. By the way, did you hate being subjected to French just now? Kind of make you bristle? From p. 81 - "Some writers sprinkle...with foreign expressions...with no regard for the reader's comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English." My bad! Their good, er, they're good!

We'll be right back after the break. I Love this expression from public radio. I often don't love what follows, especially if it's a promo for a station I don't like or a program I don't like, and too loud to boot. But the concept is excellent, a natural marker recognizing that thought can pause, that discourse need not be seamless to be good. The best of these refresh the mental palate, like a sorbet before the main course. Michael Feldman's program Whad'Ya Know does us the favor of using live jazz, piano and bass, throughout each broadcast. The breaks treat us to a minute or so of fine music before we get back to the comedy and quiz questions. At least, that is, when the big cheeses don't obliterate it with a promo for the Hockey Channel.

We're back.

Modern American Usage, by William Follett, revised by Erik Wensberg. Originally published 1966, revised edition 1998. Best I can remember, the original edition was a gift from my parents before I went off to college, which means the book had only been out a year or two when they laid it on me, as we used to say in those days. How did they know? I've often been guilty of thinking my parents were a lot like other parents, but with minor differences. Giving a brainy teenage boy Modern American Usage doesn't qualify as a minor difference...this is real Baby Einstein territory, I see now from my own adult perspective. The Baby Einstein reference suggests a kinship with those parents who play Mozart for their pre-verbal tykes, that sort of thing. In the case of my parents, it often took the form of not stopping me, simply getting out of the way while I strew breadcrumbs left and right in hopes of finding my way back...eventually. But active involvement was there, too. Just as when Dad gave me The Best of S.J. Perelman at the age of 10, or giving me a full-size Random House Dictionary at about the same time as the Follett, this was more major than minor.

An awful lot about what the gift of a book can mean, but precious little about the Follett in particular, I know, I know. Here goes.

Alphabetical entry makes it easy to use. Opening at random to antecedents, for example, leads to fully realized essays on nine types of antecedent problems and how to resolve them. The following essay on apostrophes tells you everything you need to know about the little buggers, no more and no less. This is the reference book every American writer should have at his or her fingertips.

Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad.

Jun 22, 2010

Define your terms

I thought the phrase "First, define your terms" might have come from Plato but didn't know how to find out. Google to the rescue! Turns out it was from Voltaire, and actually went "If you would converse with me, define your terms."

Seems that we routinely insert "first" much the way we add "again" to that movie line from Casablanca, "Play it, Sam."

At any rate, a Wikipedia quote archive came up first in Google and I found it very interesting. It's informal even by Wiki standards, often in a question-and-answer collaborative process. Those who dislike the utter lack of centralized control endemic to Wikipedia should have nothing to complain about here, as it's obvious that no one is posing as an expert.

Not content to take this on faith, I Googled the phrase "Voltaire define terms" (without the quotation marks) and came immediately to quotations on http://www.thinkexist.com/. The relevant page not only confirmed the wording of the quote, but went on to list many other thought-provoking quotes from the French philosopher.

I had known he was responsible for saying he would defend to the death your right to say things he disagreed with, but hadn't thought about it in a long time. What I hadn't known was just how many wise and wonderful things he did say, and how well-collected and well-presented they are on this web site.

http://www.jstor.org/pss/420322 My Google search also yielded a good page from JSTOR, a scholarly repository I had visited before, but forget why. This article by Darius M. Rejali, a Reed College political scientist, is entitled Define Your terms! Dictionaries, Medievals, and Thinking About Concepts. Only the first page is available without logging in and I think that login is free, unlike some scholarly sites, but I didn't pursue it just now.

http://stackblog.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/define-your-terms-such-as-say-jesus/ Then there was this excellent blog post from John Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College, University of British Columbia. He explains that although most Canadians check the box for "Christian," most have an unclear picture at best of who Jesus was. This is discussed without religious fervor but in the academic sense, that in this instance as in any other, it makes no sense to try to discuss something without comprehension of principal salient points.

http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/02/define_your_ter.html
Caution: explicit language. My search also turned up this blog post at the other end of the spectrum, in a sense. Blogger Greta Christina observes that reports of a study on teenagers and oral sex fail to distinguish between fellatio and cunnilingus, and eventually decides that it is the former that is really being discussed but not the latter. This post elicited several interesting replies. The point is well-taken that without "defining terms," the study's conclusions are without much meaning.

All of this harks back to a question raised in my mind by the way we define words. The Meaning of Everything, as it described 70 years of writing for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary by volunteer conrtibutors, showed that it can be done, but that it requires consensus rather than submission to authority.

Which brings me full circle to the Wiki page on Voltaire's quote, and the following quote by John Locke added by one of the people responding to the initial question about defining terms:

The names of simple ideas are not capable of any definition; the names of all complex ideas are. It has not, that I know, been yet observed by anybody what words are, and what are not, capable of being defined; the want whereof is (as I am apt to think) not seldom the occasion of great wrangling and obscurity in men's discourses, whilst some demand definitions of terms that cannot be defined; and others think they ought not to rest satisfied in an explication made by a more general word, and its restriction, (or to speak in terms of art, by a genus and difference), when, even after such definition, made according to rule, those who hear it have often no more a clear conception of the meaning of the word than they had before.

Cited by Rowena Cherry from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Book III, chapter 4. She mentions that she has studied both Voltaire and Locke. I now remember having read Locke and Paine and many others while at Duke University, and thinking at the time that Locke must be one of the smartest people who ever lived. There's nothing in the above quote to make me change my mind.

May 21, 2010

Modern parables

It's one thing to follow the breadcrumb trail out of pure curiosity. It's another to look for The Meaning of Life. Gratuitous capitalization, I know, is a way to mask sincerity with apparent cuteness, the sort of post-modern affected emotional distance perfected by David Letterman. But the meaning of life, to drop the capitalized pose, is after all a trail worth following.

I've always been more attuned to spiritual friends than to religious institutions. More than 20 years ago, friend Jim Shanley gave me a copy of a book called Joshua, subtitled A Parable for Today. It's by Joseph F. Girzone, who is not identified as a Catholic priest on the cover itself although I am told he is one.

A modern parable it is, a modern telling of the return of Christ. No burning bushes nor thunder and lightning, but simply a quiet, humble man who appears in a smallish town and... I'll leave you to read it yourself if you like. Just to say that the author's plainspoken style and the lack of sturm und drang grabbed me more and better than any amount of fist-shaking or Bible-thumping.

Fast-forward to the recent present. I had never forgotten the powerful impression this book made, but somehow never got around to re-reading it. Some time in the past five years, after what I think of as my intellectual rebirth, I finally read it again and was delighted to see it had lost none of its appeal. Just last week I got from the library two other books by Girzone, and plan to read them as soon as I finish a couple of other things.

A couple of years ago, another long-time friend, Charleen Crean, lent me a short but wonderful book that turned out to be another modern parable. In it, a successful man of business receives a mysterious invitation to dinner. Even though he suspects a trick played by friends, he pursues it only to find himself seated at a nice restaurant opposite Jesus Christ, dressed in a business suit and very much a modern man of the world. I want to re-read this as well and will have to get with Charleen to remember the title. I seem to recall that like Girzone, this author also wrote sequels, so I should be busy for a while.

But wait, there's more! (The return of cuteness, as the sincerity gets to be a bit much after a while.) A third friend, Brian Douglas, has introduced me to a world of ideas about the ways we worship together, and what has been happening to traditional churches. In our conversation he mentioned a book called Kicking Habits, and I asked to borrow it. Unlike my usual pattern of plowing through books helter-skelter, I'm reading this one a page or two at a time and really absorbing what is there.

Author Thomas Bandy holds a post with UCC Canada and was formerly a Methodist clergy in Illinois. He compares the way traditional churches are bogged down in committees, endless talk and constant meetings to the way addicts persist in destructive behavior even while they know it's not working. This book is letting me take what I've learned about the relationship of recovery meetings to the groups that coalesce around them, and see an analogy with religions and congregations.

I'm not sure where this branching of the breadcrumb trail will lead, but recently I found myself attending Sunday worship for the first time in several years. It was serendipitious, meeting a new friend and being open to his no-strings offer to tell me about his church. Thanks to him I met Pastor Renwick Bell, who seems to be a person I was ready to meet at this point in my life. Your imagination may lead you to picture him one way or the other, but you might be very surprised at the reality. Suffice to say that he and his congregation appear to be right for me right now.

I have an opportunity to use my music in ministry, not as a paid professional (which I did for many years as an organist and choir director) but as an individual. This is consistent with what I'm reading in Kicking Habits and with the spirit of the modern parables. I'll never get preachy, and I may not mention this topic again, but I'm glad to find that my spiritual life is growing alongside my renewed intellect.

Bonus breadcrumb: The Mitford books by Jan Karon. Episcopal priest Father Tim finds love and fulfillment in the small town of Mitford, unsurprisingly a lot like Karon's beloved hometown of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Charleen introduced me to them on a visit to her home, surprised I had not even heard of them. I've read all of them two or three times and recommend them readily. She writes entertainingly, her characters are true to life, it's wholesome but never preachy. These are the kind of books that would make appropriate gifts for anyone from a hardboiled prison inmate to your white-haired granny. By coincidence, my friend Charleen's husband John is an Episcopal priest remarkably similar to Father Tim. John, you can expect an email alerting you to this post and to my renewed interest in spirituality, so look out!

May 11, 2010

Perception management

The Whole Truth, by David Baldacci, 2008 (read 2010)


Nicholas Creel is a great villain. The flyleaf quotes him saying to his chief hatchet-man, "Dick, I need a war." As CEO of the world's biggest defense contractor, Creel isn't satisfied with the billions of dollars he's amassed. He sees his power slipping thanks to the collapse of the cold war, and the rise of terrorists, those pesky guys who distract superpowers from acquiring billion-dollar bombers with your basic SAMs and machine guns.

Dick, the hatchet-man, sounds like a spin doctor. But Baldacci explains that perception management guys like Dick, PMs for short, are way way beyond spin doctoring. They manufacture a version of truth, a nice way of saying utter fiction, and pump it into our culture so efficiently that practically overnight, we all accept it as real. Creepy stuff, fer shure.

Dick does his stuff, of course, and thanks to Internet viral marketing, the world meets Konstantin, a Russian who tells us by an amateurish video that if we are seeing this, he is dead. His family is dead. They were all killed by the Russians. The video spreads like wildfire, of course, and everybody buys in.

Everyone, that is, except for a couple of pesky journalists and a tough guy named Shaw. No first name, just Shaw. I like pesky, by the way, and it seems to fit nicely a character slot useful to Baldacci and a whole bunch of action writers. If it weren't for the peskies, where would these plots be?

Speaking of which, I like Baldacci just fine. No illusions as to literary merit, any more than with writers like Tom Clancy or W.E.B. Griffin, but I don't think that is the aim here. The idea is to write something readable and entertaining, and sometimes to slip in a cautionary message like Watch Out for Perception Management, and Baldacci succeeds admirably.

Anyway, Shaw and the hard-to-kill and most attractive female journalist manage somehow to save the day, and it's all good.

But learning that PM is out there did in fact get me thinking.

Mere days after I finished the book, I happened to hear the Bob Edwards Show on XMPR, where faithful readers may recall I began this renewed life of the mind a few years back. The date was May 4, 2010, the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. (If you don't know what that is because you are too young, or from another country, or for any reason, it's worth looking up.) I had what is probably a typical impression of the events of that time, but also typically without benefit of some interesting facts, facts I learned from the radio show.

How about this for a fact? The National Guard, which shot the college protesters on May 4, 1970 in Ohio, has yet to reveal what they have learned about what happened that day. The absence of a class of facts becomes a fact itself, and the typical impressions carried by people like me persist without correction, like an unchecked illness.

Or how about this, heard from the lips of a man about my age who was one of those present at the time, and interviewed on the radio show? The earliest reports, that protestors had killed a soldier, stemmed from a single story in the local paper, hurriedly phoned in by someone who simply got it wrong. That story spread like wildfire (still the operative word, none better) and even though the truth became known in just a few hours, even that was too late. Perceptions of people like me (all right, simpletons, if you insist, but careful how you sling those stones around that glass house, mister) that maybe the protestors brought some of it on themselves, although they certainly never deserved to die, what a tragedy - turn out to spring from a journalistic accident.

A spin doctor couldn't have done it better. And who knows exactly how accidental that news mistake was. It's the kind of stuff conspiracy theorists live for.

Meanwhile if Baldacci is to be believed, and I'm enough of a conspiracy nut not to think otherwise, perception managers are out there doing this sort of thing all the time, on purpose. Now that's creepy.

Bonus breadcrumb: State of Fear by Michael Crichton, 2004.

Global warming has been sort of like abortion. Once you decide where you stand, you are more likely to shape your own perceptions to fit your views than to change your views. Crichton took a lot of heat for this book, which is set smack dab in the middle of the global warming brouhaha. I just reviewed the Wikipedia page. It quotes from The Wall Street Journal review calling it a novelization of a speech Crichton gave in San Francisco in 2003 in which he condemed environmentalism as a religion. The following review from Entertainment Weekly is closer to the mark, in my opinion, quoted below.

"Part of the fun is that, for the first 400 pages or so, Crichton wants you to think of him as a right-wing nut. Don't be fooled. He's not just deflating global-warming environmentalists. When he finally gets around to explaining what he means by "state of fear," it's in another character-sputtered rant on "the way modern society works — by the constant creation of fear" by politicians, lawyers, and the media. Michael Moore, who made the same point in Bowling for Columbine, could've written the passage. State of Fear is one of Crichton's best because it's as hard to pigeonhole as greenhouse gas but certainly heats up the room."

Sounds like perception management to me. Black is White, Slavery is Freedom, it's a Brave New World of Newspeak and 1984 is way behind us.

Apr 20, 2010

The middle way

The Way of Life by Lao Tzu changed my life.

I only read it once, as part of college studies in the history of religion, around 1970. I will have to re-read it to see if the breadcrumb trail is there at all, but as I recall the book was the foundation of a philosophy called "the middle way." To avoid excess or zealotry, to embrace the path rather than yearn for the goal, to seek moderation and not the extreme...these are the things I remember, and I wonder how far I am from what is actually there.

Mine is an English translation by Wittner Bynner, copyright 1944, a Capricorn Books paperback from 1962. Only 81 stanzas, just 75 pages even with Bynner's intruduction, and many lovely black-and-white illustrations.

Less can truly be more.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Physicist-author Tyson was interviewed one day by Bob Edwards on XMPR and I had to rush to the store and find the book they talked about, Death by Black Hole.

How dare I think I can read something so recondite? As it turns out, non-experts dabbling in subjects way over their heads is a time-honored tradition. Besides, part of the point is that Tyson writes so well that you don't have to be, well, a rocket scientist to follow what he's saying. Even if you don't get all of it (and I certainly didn't), it's really, uh, cool reading.

Tyson is a really cool guy, too, as it turns out. I haven't looked again but when I Googled him after reading this 2007 book, feature articles called him one of New York's most eligible bachelors. Forty-ish, an Olympic athlete, handsome and funny, a leading scientist among the scientists (not just the dabblers like me), and African-American to boot. What a fascinating individual! I wrote him full of praise for his book and he even wrote back a courteous thank you.

By the way, this morning on the Edwards program I heard an interview with author Richard Holmes, whose new book is entitled The Age of Wonder. Turns out he's an authority on Romatic poets, Keats and Shelley, those guys, and he talked about the fascination many of the Romantics had with science. Not everyone, to be sure, but for many artistic types it was quite the thing to be up on the latest discoveries, whether it was something about the outer planets (Jupiter and Saturn, in those days), or what Darwin was finding on Galapagos.

Holmes said we are in a new golden age of popular science writing, as so many brilliant scientists have found they can also write very well. I'd call Neil DeGrasse Tyson a wonderful and welcome case in point.

The Meaning of Everything

Is that a great title, or what? It's what Simon Winchester called his history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and a fitting title it turns out to be.

Visionaries, among them Samuel Coleridge, put the project in motion in 1860, but it was James Augustus Henry Murray who rescued it from chaotic enthusiasm. Sir James patiently set forth a system in which slips of paper would be received from correspondents located in every English-speaking country on the planet (mostly England and America), their contents logged and eventually compiled in the greatest multi-volume publishing enterprise ever undertaken. Its release in 1928, an astonishing 68 years later, was celebrated with an epic dinner for 150 guests, lovingly described in the pages of this lavishly illustrated gem.

What did it take to find every word in the English language and give it a proper definition? Read the book and find out. Don't be surprised to learn that diplomacy was necessary to maintain funding for the massive project, the kind that policitians then and now would call folly, or pork-barrel.

I was struck by the similarity to the Open Directory Project, where I was a volunteer editor for seven years. The infighting, the flashes of brilliance, the dogged determination to keep at it despite the inevitable irritation that comes from working closely with a lot of brilliant and often eccentric people, each of whom is generally convinced that they know what is right, if only everyone else would listen - the Oxford English Dictionary had all of these things just as the ODP does today.

I resigned from the ODP, also known as DMOZ, to devote more time to what we online denizens humorously call Real Life. The sobriquet is so widely used that it's often seen in its short form, RL. I can just imagine an OED contributor in, say, New Zealand in 1890, telling his wife "I'll be in to dinner in just a moment, dear, just as soon as I finish this definition for zymurgy. (Goodness, real life can be such a bother when there is so much important work to be done.)"

If it weren't for compulsively addicted people like my hypothetical Kiwi, things like the Oxford English Dictionary and DMOZ would never be attempted, let alone completed. Let's hear it for the hapless souls who sacrifice RL for all the grand schemes that seem impossible, and yet somehow reach fruition. Hear, hear!

Our Posthuman Future

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama made a famous announcement that history as we knew it had reached its end. Famous though it might have been, it was still news to me when I read about it on the flyleaf of his 2002 opus entitled Our Posthuman Future.

Can't remember for sure now, but I think this was one I picked up from Daedalus Books, the online and mail-order remainder house. I've found some great books from them, and saved a bundle in the process. That same flyleaf, for example, sets the price for this hardcover at $25, but I probably bought it for five or six bucks. Unless, of course, it's one I heard about on Bob Edwards' radio program, and dashed out and paid full price for. But I doubt it.

Anyway, Fukuyama had had a few years to reconsider whether he wanted to stand by his earlier pronouncement when he came out with Posthuman. He doesn't exactly repudiate what he said, but he sure finds some new stuff to talk about, the kind of stuff that will make new history after all. Mostly he looks at the social consequences of genetic engineering, foreseeing as inevitable a capitulation to parents on the subject of optimized offspring.

This is strong stuff, a fitting non-fiction companion to Michael Crichton's fictional Next. The next thing being post-human humans, of course.

If this has whetted your appetite, go for it.

Apr 13, 2010

Lincoln Child

I'll never catch up. A friend poked me lightly to say I hadn't posted in a while, and I thought I was due for the current month. Turns out that was last month. It's been two months since I sat down to write, yikes!

I've been busy, yeah, yeah, so what? We're all busy yadda yadda so there's no excuse.

Anyway I spotted something by Lincoln Child and decided to give him a try. Terminal Freeze turned out to be, well, a page-turner. Not for me to eschew the well-worn cliché, especially when it fits so well.

Lincoln Child writes thrillers with a science background. He may write lots of other stuff but I'm in too big a hurry to do the research. Very busy, you know. At any rate, Terminal Freeze retreads ground covered by Michael Crichton in Next, at least to some small extent. I mean that in a good way, because he does it so well. Besides, if you ask me, in Next, Crichton was echoing his own Jurassic Park. You're not asking me, I know, but if you don't agree - hey, start your own blog.

Again, Child writes well. That's really all I ask. Somebody said there are only seven plots anyhow, so you're always going to be using something somebody used before. Just do it well, OK? Thanks.

Speaking of next, after the Arctic Circle adventure, the library coughed up Child's Utopia. Now we're really talking. A slightly off-kilter computer scientist whose belief in machine learning earned him disrespect from his peers but a blank check from a fabulously wealthy illusionist, who with his help builds the ultimate theme park. Then he dies (the illusionist, not the scientist) and the scientist is dismayed as the bean counters betray the founder's vision in favor of gift shops and casinos. Boo, hiss!

I love stories with a fabulously wealthy character conveniently inserted, don't you? Look at what Jack Nicholson's hospital mogul capitalist did for The Bucket List. Insert endless additional examples here...

Getting back to Utopia (which come to think of it, is an odd locution - anyone lucky enough to find utopia would hardly leave, a necessary precursor to "getting back"), the scientist conveniently has a fourteen-year old daughter who accompanies him on a business meeting to the theme park, and who naturally falls into the path of (evil music here) bad guys.

Add not one but two brainy and very attractive women, one a business type and the other a fellow off-kilter computer scientist (guess which one our protagonist ends with, go on, guess), and then a highly trained James Bondish type "bodyguard" who happens to be vacationing with his dorky in-laws when the excrement hits the ventilation device, and decides to join forces with the first scientist.

Might sound cartoonish, and hey, if you can't go for this sort of thing then you already stopped reading long ago, so the heck with you. For the rest of us, Lincoln Child is a real winner. Sometimes you want to know why networks behave non-intuitively, or learn about the inner workings of human language, or watch a documentary on the history of metallurgy. Sometimes you just want to escape into a land where the good guys stop the bad guys from blowing stuff up and getting away with computer secrets worth a hundred million dollars, preferably hurting them badly in the process, and oh yes, saving a sweet teenager and a couple of beautiful women from harm. Add some decent science as a backdrop, and you've got a winner, at least in my book.

P.S. Not to be confused with Lee Child. The other L. Child writes action thrillers around a recurring character named Jack Reacher. Lean, tall, a hard case capable of killing with his bare hands but only in the pursuit of worthy causes. A complete independent, travels with only a toothbrush, wiring "home" for money earned while in some branch of special forces, from which he was pressured to resign after learning all these advanced combat skills. He only gets enough money for bus fare and cheap motels, and to buy a T-shirt and jeans he will wear until they get too dirty. Throw away, repeat...

I like Lee Child, too. But not to be confused with Lincoln Child.

Freakonomics

Jimi Hendrix said he would "wave his freak flag high." Frank Zappa warned us, or our parents, actually, about "hungry freaks, daddy." Steven J. Levitt called his off-kilter take on economics "freakonomics" not only because his conclusions made him freakish by the standards of conventional economics. I think it's really because he relished not being asked to sit at the economists' table in the college cafeteria. He likes being a freak, and you know what, so do I.

I am surely not alone. Even if Frank Zappa fans will always be relatively few and far between, Hendrix sold bajillions of albums to people who recognized a fellow traveler. And I was impressed but not all that surprised to read on the Wikipedia entry for Levitt's book Freakonomics that it sold four million copies. There must be lots of us freaks around, or maybe we're not as freaky as we'd like to believe.

Jerry Maguire's character loved to say, "Show me the money!" Levitt might not say "show me the data" in so many words, but that is surely his message. Like my friend Ted (whose comment appears on an early post, and who may weigh in on this one as well), Levitt is not exactly scornful of bad logic (or in the other Ted's case, bad science). He simply keeps asking for the backup. And if it's not forthcoming, he goes out and finds it, and lets the conclusions fall where they may.

This is good logic, or good science. Look at the data first, then draw your conclusions. Everyone knows you're not supposed to start with conclusions you'd like to support, then dig around to find some. So why do economists, and scientists, and lots of the rest of us, keep doing just that?

Maybe we're human. Maybe we should shake the dust off our freak flags and start waving.

One last word about Zappa's "hungry freaks, daddy." Daddy was as in daddy-o, not the paternal parent, at least in my opinion. When it comes to parents, we (I'm a Boomer, of course) are not only the people our parents warned us about, we are our parents as well. I just became a grandpa for the first time, and I'm as pleased and giggly as my own dear dad was when my daughter, the new mother, was a newborn herself. It's not so bad, in fact it's really great.

You want to know why he called it Freakonomics" Read the sucker, or least Google it for the Wikipedia page, and read that. What could be more 21st-century?

Feb 24, 2010

Goodreads

My friend Rick's online book club is named for James Mason. It turns out he loves movies as much as books so he named his club for one of his favorite actors, and the club welcomes thoughts about movies as well as books.

Rick is the only person I know with the same kind of movie knowledge in his head as my wife Marie. Marie and I still have the boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards we collected when they were in their heyday, and the one called Silver Screen Edition will challenge even the most devoted film fan. I can just barely beat Marie at the music questions in the RPM Edition, but she stomps me flat with movies. I'd love to get Marie and Rick together at the game table to tackle that one, and watch the gears turning.

The James Mason Classic British Book Club is hosted by Goodreads.com. It's a grand place to find book recommendations and make online friends, so grand and vast, in fact, that Rick's club is warm and cozy by comparison. For example, I just learned that Goodreads has six million books in their database as of this date. I haven't pursued all the breadcrumbs just yet but at first glance it appears that Rick's club, and others like it, get the benefit of the Goodreads structure with all the advantages of a smaller group that might actually get to know each other.

Who thinks this stuff up? Did they know all these connections would be possible? Did they see it coming?

It's a Brave New World, all right. Or jump from books to music, from Aldous Huxley to the Grateful Dead, and fast-forward a few decades to say what a long, strange trip it's been. With a flash sideways from California tie-dyes to martinis with Cy Coleman in New York, and a confident guess that The Best Is Yet to Come.

James Mason Book Club

My friend Rick is a fellow traveler on the breadcrumb trail, and he's done something for us book-o-philes that I could only dream of doing...created a book club that's about books and ideas as opposed to being just another sales scheme. Check out the James Mason Classic British Book Club. I've known about it since Rick started it but only finally joined just now. I think I'm member #677, so I'm no longer exactly in on the ground floor, but I'm glad to be among friends online. Rick moderates the discussions, so it's no surprise this is a place for civilized discourse instead of flaming and trolling. But I suspect book-lovers tend toward courtesy without too much interference...or am I just being naive?

Feb 10, 2010

A dozen authors

Isaac Asimov. When I read An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction from my father's shelves, it started me on a lifelong appreciation of the genre. I gave the well-thumbed (to put it mildly, more like falling-apart) hardbound to my nephew when he came of age, so I can't even be sure if an Asimov story was in it, but let's just say he can stand for the whole principle of sci-fi giving me stuff to think about. In this case The Foundation Trilogy supposed there could be a Plan, stored on a tiny cube that would project itself onto walls. A Plan for humanity, and society, the galaxy, maybe the whole universe. Grand thinking, mind-blowing without the foreign substances.

Greg Bear. More excellent sci-fi. Darwin's Radio put the idea in my head that long-dormant strands of genetic material could awaken, with, um, interesting results.

Joanne Harris. Would it be politically incorrect to say I am drawn to female novelists for a certain quality of ideas? Maybe it's the wonderful female protagonists they can draw. Chocolat was made into a terrific movie that inspired me to read the book. Then I had to go on to every bit of her I could find. I find a common thread in many of her books, an uncommon woman and her uncommon daughter (seldom a significant male) making a life in a small and narrow-minded village. A woman of mystery, and often damn sexy to boot. Joanne Harris, you rock!

Robertson Davies. Acknowledged as the greatest Canadian writer ever, I say one of the greatest ever, period. He also tends toward trilogies, and since I love trilogies, well, he da man as far as I'm concerned. Highly recommended: The Salternon Trilogy (starts with Tempest-Tost) and The Deptford Trilogy, which in its evocation of mystery and illusion takes us to worlds far beyond the provincial Canadian origins of its protagonist.

Tim Dorsey. My favorite discovery of a small but remarkably productive sub-sub-genre, the funny Florida crime novel. Browsing a Books-a-Million to spend a gift card, I finally settled on Florida Roadkill. It was the garish cover as much as the goofy title that grabbed me, and I've been hooked ever since. Turns out Dorsey's a Florida fanatic, not the football team or the college but the state and its history. Grew up in Riviera Beach, a stone's throw from me (if you have a hell of an arm), and after a career writing for The Tampa Tribune managed to make Roadkill the first in a whole series of successful funny-florida-crime-novels. I own the complete set, about half in hardbound, an incredible extravagance for this otherwise thrifty, er, cheap reader.

Carl Hiaasen. The Godfather of funny Florida crime novelists, of course. In fact, Dorsey's press says he's "like Carl Hiaasen on PCP" which is about right. Just as Dorsey wrote for the Tampa paper, Hiaasen wrote for The Miami Herald. (I think Ruth Rendell wrote for The Miami News, although there's nothing funny about her chilling crime novels and they're not set in Florida, unlike those of Hiaasen and Dorsey). Start with Tourist Season, you could do worse.

Lawrence Shames. Bet you never heard of this funny Florida crime novelist, but you can thank me later. Try Florida Straits. Love the retired Mafioso Burt the Shirt and his little Chihuahua.

Hm...five to go, gonna make this quick so I can get to my oatmeal.

Kurt Vonnegut. Best novelist who never appears on official lists. In high school, after someone turned me on to Slaugherhouse Five and I began wading through his stuff, I could never understand why my teachers woulrn't even talk to me about him. I mean, it was like they never even heard of Vonnegut! Player Piano started it all, 1952 tale of a guy who lets them copy his movements so they can apply it to an automated process, then is fired. Sort of like Brave New World meets Roger and Me. Don't miss Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. Special mention: as a kid in Indianapolis my dad would take me to Vonnegut's Hardware. Turns out it was an uncle or something. Vonnegut was one of those Hoosiers known less for being from Indiana than more important stuff (see Cole Porter and jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery), so aside from the thought-wrenching stuff in his books, he gets an extra star for the accident of being from my own home state.

Kinky Friedman. Much better-known as the country-singing leader of a band improbably called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, and later for running for governor of Texas, he is also a wonderful mystery novelist. Don't let the punny titles fool you. Armadillos and Old Lace and Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola are wonderfully weird plot-strosities weaving the Kinkster and his real-life friends with ficitional murders in his adopted home town of New York City. The cowboy hat, the foul-smelling cigars, the noir slang straight from Mickey Spillane - great stuff.

Garrison Keiller. William Gibson. Neal Stephenson. They each deserve a lot more than I can dish out at the moment, Breakfast calls, must feed the inner blogger.

Lists

I seem to remember from music history class in college that the list song is a time-honored tradition. Probably some Mozart aria or whatever, maybe Verdi, you could look it up. Or from the new school, take We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel, pretty much a recitation of names and events from the moderan era...50 Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon...or for extra credit, Van Lingle Mungo by the eccentric and gifted songwriter Dave Frishberg, in which the title and every word of the lyric is the name of a true-life major league baseball player.

In a meta-reference I cherish, some newspaper article pointed out what should have been obvious, but what I had never noticed on my own - how writers love lists, especially when deadline looms. 19 Ways to Give Him Ridiculous Pleasure, The 14 Things Your Cat Knows, you get the idea.

So when the Palm Beach Post responded to that crazy list of 100 movies from the American Film Institute by asking readers to submit lists of their own, this was meta-reference heaven. Meta, if I understand it as it applies to the digital age means description not present in the item itself, but somehow referencing it. So the idea of a list of movies referencing another list of movies sounded, well, pretty cool.

Submissions by Post readers generated a list of novels as well as one of movies. At least, that's the way my imperfect memory renders it. Or to put it another way, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. After finding lots of books I could agree with, but never seem to find acknowledged in "official" lists (all right! one for the reg'lar folks!), I noticed Continental Divide by Russell Banks. I'd read his Affliction and seen the movie, so I crossed the divide (read the book, that is) and as usual went on to devour more of his oeuvre. I seem to remember a lot of it having to do with the Caribbean, and people of color finding their way in a world of voudun, and human trafficking, and perceptions of glory in these United States. Hey, if I'm wrong, sue me, but we're off to the races on a list and these will be snapshots only, pursuing philological progress, not bibliographic perfection.

Next!

Jane Smiley

The breadcrumb trail is elusive. Sometimes it's an echo of itself, so faint that I wonder if it's there at all. Then something happens and a part of it comes shining through (book title!) and down the trail I happily go, like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, or Alice down the rabbit hole.

Why did this particular memory come back to me? I think it was around 1990. Sitting at a favorite restaurant with the mother of a high school friend, talking about his peculair situation, when the conversation turns to reading. Seems we share the inescapable love of purusing the printed word, and for some reason she mentions the author Jane Smiley.

Always one to follow a breadcrumb, off I scamper to the library and next thing you know I'm awash in Jane Smiley books. A Thousand Acres is her most famous, a modern take on King Lear, but I must have read a dozen or more Jane Smileys before being attracted to the next shiny object, like Gollum and that damned ring.

To refresh my memory, I Googled her and came across this wonderful list of books. It seems after 9/11 she took time off from writing to pursue 100 novels, not necessarily the greatest, but a representative sampling according to her preferences. You know what? Sounds like a fellow traveler on the breadcrumb trail to me.

But what I can't remember, at least right now, is which book left its tendrils in my mind so strongly that it resonates to this day, and my cursory Googlization bore no fruit. Can you help me out here? Her protagonist is a middle-age woman who one day walks away from her life and settles in a small town maybe an hour away from home. She takes a Joe job, starts a new life, simply starts over sans husband or kids or anything else. And finds something resembling contentment. Not an evil woman, she lets her past know she's okay, but what an exhilarating and oddball journey.

Please help me find this breadcrumb, and meanwhile enjoy Jane Smiley.

Feb 1, 2010

Book of Marvels

Until I lost my job at the real estate office, I was blessed to enjoy the company of a co-worker's grandson, call him Bill, when she would bring him in for a visit. Age 6 or so, little Bill loved to work the old typewriter we still had. (Amazing to call an IBM Selectric "old," but that's how far we've come, I guess.) We would enjoy conversation and he even made me little presents, so I would say we had become friends across the generations.

One day his grandmother, call her Mary, asked me about reading material for Bill. In a flash I was transported back to my own childhood, remembering my enchantment with a book called Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels. As I remembered it, he was an independent soul who traveled and wrote about places he had been. For some reason the Blue Grotto stuck in my memory, but other specifics escaped me. His writing was the thing, more matter-of-fact than breathless, but the places he visited and wrote about were so amazing that the book was an eye-opener for a boy of 7 or 8. That's how old I suppose I was when I found it on the school library shelves, and devoured it eagerly. Oh, it was illustrated with photographs, too.

At any rate, Mary found a copy of it on eBay or Amazon and picked it up for less than $20. It was heavily used, so she repaired the binding with some heavy black tape and gave it to Bill, who loved it.

Isn't it something? A book from 1941 enters the imagination of a boy in 1959 thanks to a well-run school library. Forty years later the digital age makes it possible for a a grandmother to find the book at a reasonable cost, and spur the imagination of her grandson. Reading is a legacy we can pass on, if we only take the time to do it.

By the way, a quick visit to Amazon just now showed "four copies (used) from $89.50." Ulp.

E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley was a gift from my wife. Marie, the amazing woman who takes the plunge in giving me books and music I haven't even asked for, is my muse. Sure, I love getting a gift card but Marie is the one willing to look for stuff on her own, and I am forever grateful.

Homer and Langley are brothers living in Manhattan. This is a story that is both warm and chilling at the same time, wonderfully written and wonderful to read, but with an ending that left me filled with reflections on our fleeting lives.

No spoiler from me. I'll just mention that Homer's descent, if that is what it is, begins with the gradual disappearance of his hearing as a youngster, while Langley's is brought on by the traumas of World War I combat, and its subtle development as full-blown mental illness. The two are lifelong friends and companions who try to fend off isolation in their big old house.

I recommend the book and plan to re-read Doctorow's Ragtime, followed by investigation of his other work. Thanks again to my muse, my own friend and companion, my lifelong lover Marie for such an incredible gift. How does she do it?

Jan 3, 2010

Back in the saddle

Or, Ride Captain Ride...

Alas, gentle reader, it's been too long since I dented your brain with any kind of message. But read and remember I do, and write I must.

News flash - I seem to keep misplacing jobs. While looking for them, I feel distracted from this pleasant duty. Still looking, but refusing any longer to stay away.

(Flash sideways - I don't know this Yoda-speak from where it comes, but addictive it strangely is when begins it once does, er, do.)

Where to begin? Reverse chronological order suggests itself, a nice counterpoint to some of the previous reflections, for example the one about 1969.

Currently reading South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Enjoying the plot line tremendously, and enjoyed Beach Music and maybe one other of his before, but funny, I don't remember his writing being quite so ripe, the flow being quite so, well, Southern. But as Conroy is a guy who references Tennessee Williams from time to time, it seems somehow "fittin'," as Butterfly McQueen might have said.

Before that, just finished That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. I became a confirmed fan after my daughter suggested one of his and I read it. Thanks, Jen! Russo is one of my faves and this one rang the bell for me yet again. Halfway through, I commented to my wife Marie that good fiction still teaches me more about our human relationships than I can explain or express. Russo's characters live up to that billing big-time, at least to this happily addicted reader. For those not lucky enough to have had a Russo recommendation before this, I'll mention that the new one pits a male protagonist against his upbringing by intellectucally snobbish parents, and the way it affects his cooling marriage. Good stuff and yes, occasional comic relief.

Paul Newman was wonderful in Nobody's Fool. I read the Russo novel after seeing the movie (and reading the one Jen started me on, might have been Empire Falls) and could easily see why Newman optioned several of his novels. I seem to remember it took ten years before Newman, even with his clout, could get Nobody's Fool to the screen, but the wait was worth it. Meanwhile Empire Falls was made into a very good mini-series, I think for HBO. All are recommended highly.

The new Russo and the new Conroy were both Christmas presents from my dear wife. Although things have been tight since those jobs went astray, and I asked for just one book, she couldn't stop short of four instead. Once I finish South of Broad, it's on to Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow. Wow. I read his Ragtime many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the movie (with a wonderful Randy Newman score) but feel sure I've been missing out on one of our great writers. Thanks, Marie! This will be one to look forward to. I'll get to gift book #4 in another post, and try to trace my steps since the last post, if the birds haven't gobbled up all the breadcrumbs.