Category Archives: Reviews

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Finished Walkaway last night. It’s the hard utopian bit of wonderful you need in dark times. To live in the first days of a better nation, you have to build and believe that you can be in that nation before it is supported.

In Walkaway, the rich keep getting richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class is gutted out of society, fearfully scrambling to keep out of poverty and ignoring how close they are to being out on the street. Automation keeps progressing and the uber wealthy don’t need surplus people.

There’s no death camps, there’s just no jobs and no safety net and no healthcare for the unneeded.

So some folks walk away from money and just do for each other. That’s a threat to the base of a greed-sick society, so that society moves to protect itself.

The police are sent to deal with these terrorists and thieves.

The walkaway road is very hard and very dangerous and some people die.

I’m more energized than before to act to fix the place where I love, because what I do matters.  (You too.)

Two weeks with the Kobo Aura One

My nook finally died, so I upgraded to a Kobo Aura One

I wanted to treat myself to a really good e-reader.

Why not another nook? Meh. I heard that this one was pretty amazing. I don’t really like being locked into one store. Why not a kindle? Amazon already knows a hell of a lot about me and my family, we don’t really need to give them anymore info.

Besides, I heard a group of loyal and passionate readers contributed to the design of this reader. That’s a good sign that they made product testing part of the campaign.

What I like about it:

  • It’s waterproof. I can read in the tub or the rain. Which I do.
  • The integration with Pocket works great. Instead of falling down a twitter hole into an article in the morning, I can just send it to Pocket and set up a bunch of great reading on the subway.
  • You can check out books from the library right from it! This is a big deal – I can’t stand having to hook the thing up to a computer to transfer library books in.
  • I like the auto-warm light for nighttime.
  • Little stats all through it warm my nerd heart! Lots of little measures of how fast you’re reading or how many minutes of book you’ve got left sprinkled throughout the interface.
  • Easy to load on e-pub files!

Could be better:

It’s too big. Only fits in one jacket I own! My nook used to even fit in my back jeans pocket.

Wishlist:

I wish I could buy an e-reader that could integrate with my Calibre library of drm-free epub files. If I’m on a wi-fi network with a Calibre library, why can’t I have some sort of UPNP browsing through the books I’ve got? I’d chip in on development if this were a thing someone was making.

 

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read so much ABOUT this book that I thought I read it. Everyone talks about the gender fluid sex, but it isn’t that big of a deal in the story.

Duality and oneness are the themes – the most upfront example is how gender works on Winter, but there’s also the differences in how the main societies and governments function with openness/decentralized/feudal vs closed/centralized/communal.

The political intrigues that drive our protagonist across societies and from civilization into wilderness are gripping – and then it turns into an endurance adventure. I didn’t see that coming! Also, I’m not that into endurance adventures.

I’m probably going to reread this in a few years to see if I notice more.

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The Shooting by James Boice

Sonder
Guns
Narcissism

Sonder is what you feel when you are sitting on a plane, waiting for people to board and you realize that every person passing you is on a journey. This plane ride is an important part of their life and in their life you are just a minor character, a background actor. In the grand show of their life you’re an extra paid to mumble “rutabaga” to look like you’re talking.

Sonder is when you look down at the city and see people walking around knowing you’ll never know those stories. Everyone of those people are telling themselves and the world a story about who they are, what they’ve done, why. You’re telling a story too. You’ll never know even a hundredth part of the hundredth part of the stories around you. They’ll never know yours, but theirs are just as rich and complex, as painstakingly prepared. The camera of thought pulls back and back and back and the self becomes a dot, a pixel.

Sonder is when the impact of the world crashes into your head and you draw breath and feel not small but part of something huge.
sonder

Guns are a tool for killing. Guns are a tool for equalizing power. Guns are a force multiplier – they let you do a thing you would do, but do it more easily, more powerfully, more irrevocably.

The world is full of nice people and nasty people who want guns for similar and different reasons. Most people say they want guns for hunting animals or protecting themselves from nasty people. Of course, opinions differ as to who the nasty people are. Of course, opinions differ on if there are other, harder to speak reasons for wanting a tool that equalizes power. Guns are very American and our myths are full of people with guns. We love our guns and we hold them tight.

Narcissism is a perspective where the camera of thought is eternally turned in selfie mode. All things are seen with the self in the foreground. A tragedy is seen in terms of the properties one owns near it, not the many stories abruptly shortened by it or the tears of the survivors.

Narcissism is weird because it is very hard. The world is constantly connecting you, shaping you, crashing you into other people and changing you. To stand aside from all that and see it just in terms of yourself requires telling some inventive stories that don’t match with reality and abandoning what is for what isn’t. It’s hard to build the house of your life on something other than earth so it requires constant maintenance to shore up the false foundations, to insulate yourself, protect yourself, buffer against what is.

The Shooting  is a painfully good book about Sonder, Guns & Narcissism by my friend James Boice. Reading it made me happy, then sad, then angry at James for hurting me, then laughing, then happy again, then very happy. The structure of the book is Sonder. The focus of the plot is Guns. The antagonist is Narcissism.

No that’s probably a silly way to put it. It’s about a hurt boy who becomes a man, a shooting, and who got hurt by the shooting. No, that’s not right. The book is really a bunch of people, but the protagonist is Narcissism, the book barely has Guns in it and the antagonist is Sonder, trying to keep a Gun from firing.

I’m sorry, I keep getting this wrong. The book is about America, and how Narcissism takes a Gun and shoots Sonder in the head, then makes the story about itself.

I loved this book, I read it on subways and in bathrooms and finally all at once in bed staying up into the wee hours of the night until it was done. I hope you enjoy it and want to talk about it with me when we see each other.

Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always been a fan of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which is only nominally a study of architecture through strange lenses. (One of the first posts as I write this looks at an art study of the bacteria on money and how it travels through society and compares to seeds being transmitted through ancient boat ballast.)

And who doesn’t love burglary and heist movies – I’m in it for the naughtiness of penetrating forbidden places and urban exploration.

This book is a loving review of how architecture affects burglary, how burglary affects architecture, how the architecture of a city affects the burglary and then affects how policing responds. The helicopter patrols of L.A. sprawl are a response just as the vertical patrols of giant housing projects reflect their own landscapes.

We delve into locks, lockpicking, escaping, getaways, tunnels through earth, air, traffic, and buildings themselves.

At the end is the sobering reflection that all of this is only interesting as the edges of burglary, the mythical kind of burglary. Real burglary is too often full of ugly nastiness, destruction and damage to the lives of those burgled.

I really enjoyed the discussions on Nakatomi space and turning on burglar eyes to see architecture in a different way – it’s an easy read and I’d recommend it.

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Review: Against a Dark Background

Against a Dark Background
Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was good – but not as amazing as his other books. It felt like it fell apart more and more at the end, so many great ideas scattered across the field and then never explored, so many plot twists that meant nothing…

It’s kind of the Transformers: Dark of the moon for good thoughtful SF. Does that make sense?

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Book Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s books are just like her TED talk. They’re smart, funny and charm you with a total affection for her subject matter.

I’ve read all her books and so far Packing for Mars is the best. She is writing about the insane goal of shipping a few bubbling meat bags through an irradiated vacuum for 500 days so that we can visit a lifeless planet.

She covers it all from a people perspective, looking at the glorious business of being a person. How do we handle the boredom, the food, the farting? She covers the serious problems with poop, pee, vomit and also sex. The book is worth reading for the chapter on Space Hygiene alone. It’s called “Houston We Have a Fungus”.

Near the end, a final quote from Ben Franklin, on someone who sees the Montgolfiers’ maiden balloon flight and calls it frivolous:

What use is a newborn baby?

Read “The Degaussment” right now, you fool.


James Boice reached out to me to collaborate on a digital version of his short story “The Degaussment”. I didn’t have time to make anything worthwhile before he released it, but I was blown away by the what he sent me.

This is a story of mad obsession, a dying technology, horrible wounds, and a skill that eats its owner alive. I tore through it in a sitting, then read it again later. You aren’t going to pay $2 for a better experience today, so grab it now.

James gives a crap, so he’s not just selling a Kindle or Nook version – you can buy a DRM free epub file that works or a PDF for the same price. I ended up buying all the rest of his stories – he’s selling them for $.99 each.

I do not often tell you to buy something. Buy this.

Movie Review: Copyright Criminals

Copyright Criminals Boxed Set CoverSaw Copyright Criminals on Netflix Monday night while cooking up a mushroom risotto. Isn’t that the best time to watch a documentary, while you are waiting for something to boil or stirring occaisionally? Anyway, it’s a great great hip hop history, looking at the ways that copyright and remix culture intersect. You get interviews with all sorts of great turntabilists and producers like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and EL-P, but then you also get the side of guys who made the beats in the beginning like George Clinton and Clyde “Funky Drummer” Stubbelfield.

It turns out that if you cover a song, you are in the clear. Just don’t change any lyrics, you’re legally ok. However, if you lift a guitar riff, distort it and change the tempo or stutter it, then you’re a copyright criminal and you can’t make any cash off your music. There is a really good bit where the head of Tommy Boy and De La Soul are interviewed, discussing how the legal implications of sampling definitely changed the music they were making. Samples became more distorted to hide their origins, some songs are abandoned just because you can’t hope to clear the rights to a popular track. It’s strange to think of all the ghost songs floating out there that were smothered in their cradles before they could be heard or developed.

One last bit of the movie I really loved were the visual breakdowns of remix and mashup songs. Nothing makes it clearer how much actual artistry is happening than seeing the interleaving, distortions and tweaks in all the clips visually.

Book Review: Inverted World

Young Helward graduates into manhood and responsibility at the age of “650 miles old.” For him, this means helping guide the city his civilization lives in north to safety on 4 giant rails. To the south,a terrible secret danger grows, always more powerful, always dragging anything too slow backwards into it.

We follow Helward through an inverted story on an inverted world. The hero is not the iconoclast, but tries his best to prop up the calcified old order. Over time we learn more about the danger behind them. The descriptions of Helward’s journey down south into the past is a highlight of the book. It is hard to tell you about this without giving too much away, but if you liked “Flatland”, you will like this.

Ok, that is nice, but the book feels always a little styled, a little uncomfortable and I found out why at the end of the book. The story arc is as twisted as the physics are. Also, the book was written in the 70s, there is a flavor of writing from that time that is unfamiliar on my inner ear. It is strange to reflect that in such a short time, the rhythms of writing have changed enough to make a noticeable difference, but they have. I can’t quite sort out what it is, but it is there. If you have any idea what it is, please comment.

Alas, it is a good book, but not a great book. I found myself appreciating the weirdness, but waiting for it to get even weirder. Perhaps this is because the book was written in a time where people were beginning to really feel the old order collapse, while I live in an age of change both exponential and fractal. I think you should read great books, and there are so many. You’ll die far far before you read all the great books, which is why I drink.