Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is blogging a lot like academia?

Last week, a SUNY professor I am happy to know posted a link on Facebook to a clip from the 2009 movie Leaves of Grass, in which Edward Norton plays the roles of twin brothers. As IMDB has it, "An Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord." The NY Times called the movie "a straight-twin/stoned-twin story."

The clip nails academia in a mere forty seconds:

But ... isn't what Edward-Norton-as-Brady-Kincaid describes also a lot like blogging?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Eternal recurrence: Britten's opera, Tunisia, Japan

On Friday evening Lorin Maazel conducted the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in the Castleton Festival Opera's performance of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, a story that has been rendered in prose, verse, and paint by the likes of Livy, Ovid, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Rembrandt, and Dürer. The opera tells of Tarquinius, a prince of Rome and son of the last Etruscan king, and of chaste Lucretia. Tarquinius savagely rapes Lucretia, who consequently commits suicide. These grave offenses rally the simmering Roman populace to a boil and precipitate overthrow of Etruscan rule and establishment of the Republic.

Titus Livius (Livy) wrote his version of Lucretia's story, which took place circa 500 BCE, at the time of Christ, during the same period when Ovid wrote his account. Ronald Duncan wrote the libretto for Britten's opera in the immediate wake of World War II; the opera was first performed in 1946.

In March 2011, a hellaciously volatile month around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, it was chilling to hear Duncan's words reverberate off the austere walls of UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall:

All tyrants fall though tyranny persists
Though crowds disperse the mob is never less.
For violence is the fear within us all
And tragedy the measurement of man
And hope his brief view of God.

Twenty-six hundred years ago Lucretia's violation and suicide is said to have sparked rebellion against tyranny, and establishment of a Republic that itself went on to impose order and and military domination from the region we now know as southern France, down the Italian peninsula, and south and west across the whole of North Africa.

Late last year in North Africa, a Tunisian named Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammad Bouazizi set himself afire after police confiscated the vegetable cart from which he made a livelihood, touching off mass protest in his own nation that quickly spread to Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and beyond, and continues to rage today. As reported on 17 January, a month after the Tunisian's self-immolation, "Freedom is expensive and my brother paid the price of freedom," Salem Bouazizi told Reuters by telephone from the central town of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolt began.

When Britten's opera was first performed, the world was reeling from the fresh horror of massacres from Bergen-Belsen to Babi Yar, from the Philippines to the broken and irradiated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the fiercely contested city of Stalingrad to the firebombed wreckage of Dresden, Cologne, and Hamburg.

As Maazel waved his baton on the UC Berkeley campus on Friday evening, Japan continued to struggle against the release of radiation from nuclear power plants critically damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the eastern coast of Honshu, the nation's largest island, a fortnight before. The vast forces of nature overwhelmed human craft and care to exact a toll that will be paid over years, and perhaps decades or even centuries, to come.

Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, wrote in today's issue of The New Yorker, "I have long contemplated the idea of looking at recent Japanese history through the prism of three groups of people: those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who were exposed to the Bikini tests, and the victims of accidents at nuclear facilities. If you consider Japanese history through these stories, the tragedy is self-evident. Today, we can confirm that the risk of nuclear reactors has become a reality. However this unfolding disaster ends -- and with all the respect I feel for the human effort deployed to contain it -- its significance is not the least bit ambiguous: Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes."

And if those who survive the current, still-brimming rebellions and wars and disasters "resolve not to repeat their mistakes," how long will that resolve hold?

The NY Times reported over the weekend that "The Tennessee Valley Authority opened the doors to its Browns Ferry nuclear plant on Friday to present perhaps the most detailed case so far that American reactors of the same design and vintage as the ones damaged in Japan do not face the same risks. The agency seemed to be seeking to project a balance of confidence and openness to improvements, a challenge now faced by the entire American nuclear industry as the nation watches the Japanese struggle to contain their crisis." Later in the same article: "[...] Browns Ferry is ready for 'a one-in-a-million-year flood, or however many zeroes you want to go out,' said Preston D. Swafford, the T.V.A.’s chief nuclear officer, who led a group of reporters on a three-hour tour through the plant."

However many zeros? Really? I suppose there's no hubris like the hubris of co-opted engineers.

As the final scene of Britten's opera opens, Lucretia's nurse and maid greet a magnificently dawning day, ignorant that their mistress has in the night just ending been brutally violated by Tarquinius:

Oh! What a lovely day!

Look how the energetic sun
Drags the sluggard dawn from bed,
And flings the windows wide upon the world.

Oh! What a lovely morning!

And how light the soft mulberry mist
Lifts and floats over the silver Tiber

The discord between this scene and the violence that preceded it is excruciating. The violence to come? We dread its imminence, because history has told us precisely how it will unfold.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moving one's life to the cloud

The big news in books and copyright this week is that the Google Books Settlement was rejected by Judge Denny Chin, who said it "would simply go too far," thirteen months after its submission to the court ... and after a lot of people just kind of forgot about it, or figured that since there hadn't been news in ages the case must have been settled.

I'm not going to explain this decision, and I'm not going to contextualize it, so ease away from that mouse button, okay? Everybody remotely interested in how this enormously consequent matter will affect the 'ownership' of culture is already writing and reading furiously about it (as I have in blogs gone by, including The Google Books Settlement in Six Easy Bullet Points of March 2010). I'll spare you my nickle's worth re: the latest developments. You can always ... Google it!

The return of the settlement story to the news leads me to think about my own evolving relationship with first digitizing, and now cloudsourcing so many artifacts of my own life-in-words ... much of it cloudsourced to Google, as it happens, including this very blog. The NY Times reported in their article announcing Judge Chin's ruling, "The decision throws into legal limbo one of the most ambitious undertakings in Google’s history, and it brings into sharp focus concerns about the company’s growing power over information." Reporter Miguel Helft is right. My concerns are, once again, in sharper focus.

Here's what I mean about cloudsourcing, or externalizing, my own life in words.

I've always been a big letter-writer. I hand-wrote letters as a kid. I typed loooooooong letters, first with a manual and then with an electric typewriter, when I was in college and for some years after. Then I typed looooooooooooooooooooooooonger letters on my first computer, printed them on my dot-matrix printer, and mailed them, you know, in envelopes, to intended recipients. With stamps. The kind you had to lick.

We're talking many, many thousands of words here.

And then came the intertubes.

Those first letters typed on an IBM AT were my first foray into digitizing the ephemera of my life as a writer. Later on there was e-mail. For years I was one of those people who printed and saved e-mail. Why? Because that's what I'd always done with letters: kept them and filed them.

Then I started printing and filing only the important ones. Then only the really important ones. Then just a few of the really important ones, when I remembered to do so. Then just a few of the really really important ones, the ones my imaginary biographers (ha!) really shouldn't be permitted to miss. And those only when I remembered and bothered.

Then, after migrating from one e-mail client with years and years of backlog correspondence in it to another, open-source client, I figured, okay, the data here is portable. I can take it with me. No need to keep anything but the electronic files. So that's (mostly) what I did.

At this point, my life as a correspondent was almost wholly digital. But that wasn't the end of it.

At a certain point I had my fill of using my work e-mail address for all my correspondence, personal and professional. I was ready to turn off the professional spigot evenings and weekends, yet still be in touch with my friends. So I started using a Google's Gmail for personal correspondence, and thus crossed a twenty-first century line. I now keep my correspondence in the cloud. That is to say, on Google hardware in Google data centers that Google owns and for which Google sets ownership, access, and persistence policy (I'm talking about that required checkbox next to the label that reads "click here if you agree to licensing restrictions read by no one you know and no one you will ever know").

For now, at least, I do still use a desktop client to read e-mail, and that means that copies of electronic messages are stored on my local hard disk, and are accessible even when the intertubes are not available to me, perish the thought.

But the trajectory is clear.

Not only have I given up on keeping copies in that more durable paper-and-ink format ... but I'm leaving my correspondence, my written history, my content, people, in the care of a vast and hugely powerful corporation.

I don't have my stuff anymore. A commercial behemoth has my stuff. What Google hasn't grabbed (e-mail and blog) belongs to Facebook and Twitter.

Bloomberg reported on Monday that "Evernote Corp., Dropbox Inc. and let users store their notes, documents, images and other content in the cloud. [...] 'Twitter and Facebook have done a great job of representing your social life, but the other half of your life, your personal life, is where we want to be the signature brand,' Phil Libin, chief executive officer of Mountain View, California-based Evernote, said in an interview. 'Facebook is for your friends -- Evernote is for you.'"

I found this a little disconcerting.

Lest anyone doubt that access to what we imagine we own in digital space is subject to the whim of very powerful agents ... consider the move Egypt's now-former government made to shut off the internet (cf., Block Like an Egyptian, 28 Jan 2011).

Need a more recent example than that? Consider China. In this week's article, China Tightens Censorship of Electronic Communications, reporters Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza of the NY Times describe cell phone conversations being cut off as soon as the word "protest" is mentioned in a conversation -- in English or Chinese -- even when the offending conversation is a quote from Shakespeare's "Hamlet"! Yes, indeed, quoting Queen Gertrude -- "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" -- earns cell phone users an instant dropped call.

Better keep up those local backups after all.....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Losing a digital life by syncing thru 'the cloud'
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Google yanks APIs, developers caught with pants around ankles
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive

Thanks to Engelbert Reineke, the Bundesarchiv, and Wikimedia Commons for the photo of 20th century computing. Nope, that's not me. I was older than that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sweetness and light: a transcendent oatmeal-raisin cookie

(Okay, enough with the earthquakes and tsunamis and nuclear disasters and political irresponsibility. Even a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist needs a break from himself every once in a while....)

Some dear friends were in town last weekend and we enjoyed a late dinner together at a restaurant in Berkeley, Gather, which opened last year shortly after our friends left for the East coast. Great food in a California organic-locavore vein, great ambience, unbeatable company. It was one of those nights when the food and the conversation compete in an ascending spiral. At some point, it must have been as we ordered dessert, our talk turned to cookies.

I'm mad about cookies. My partner, not so much. Our out-of-town friends love snacks of all sorts, cookies included, so the whys and wherefores -- the good, the bad, the ugly of cookies -- flew thick and fast as our friends struggled to comprehend my partner's oddity. L-- wondered whether her recipe for oatmeal-raisin cookies might change his mind.

Oatmeal-raisin cookies are among my favorites. Alas, I've never found a recipe that comes close to the Platonic ideal so I've never been able to satisfy this particular craving on my own steam. Sure, there are indifferent oatmeal-raisin cookies sold in cafés all over town, and even a few good ones. The best oatmeal-raisin cookies I know of on offer in Berkeley are baked at a café near my office ... but while their pastry case is usually awash in chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles and pecan shortbread and chocolate-walnut ... only rarely do they make my personal favorite, oatmeal-raisin cookies. (Yali's, are you listening?)

So, I reply that if L-- will share her recipe I'll make them and see if that might cause Matthew to see the light. Hang on, L-- replies. I've got the recipe in my wallet.

I was skeptical -- who carries recipes in their wallet? Yeah, I cook, I have shelf-feet of cookbooks, and notebooks of my mom's recipes, and more notebooks from the era I worked as a cook ... but carry them around? Written on paper?

L-- does, apparently.

Oatmeal-raisin cookies. Right there in her wallet. In miniature, on the back of a business card. Check out the proof.

I love that L-- carries a favorite recipe wherever she goes, even to dinner thousands of miles from the city she now calls home. Even more, I love that in a fully-stocked kitchen, armed even with the original of the business card on which it's scribbled, you'd need a cryptographer to understand what the heck to do with this recipe.

L--'s husband S-- snapped a photo of the card and sent it to us over the (unsecured) intertubes. Once home, I did my best to decipher it ... and L-- kindly helped me over e-mail to fill in the blanks. And so, for your baking pleasure:

L--'s Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies

3/4 c brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
3/4 c raisins
2 c oats
1 c flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 sticks butter [= 12 tbsp.]
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

L--'s instructions: mix dry ingredients, add wet ingredients. Yep. That's all she wrote.

Bake at 350 degrees (F) for 11-13 minutes on the usual greased cookie sheets. L-- guessed the recipe makes about 36 cookies. Like, I like 'em big, so I sized for 24.

The first time I baked L--'s cookies I wasn't having any of this 'mix dry, add wet' minimalism. I applied tried-and-true techniques, learned from my mom back in the day: cream the butter and sugar; add the egg and vanilla; add the raisins; combine the dry ingredients together and add them, being careful not to over-mix. Then bake, as L-- recommended, at 350 degrees for 11-13 minutes.

The result? Pure deliciousness. I mean, hands-down the best oatmeal-raisin cookies I've ever baked. Check out the photo, the one on the square, green plate.

The thing to notice is that the cookies spread out and got nicely melty in the oven. The edges caramelized, a fantasy in butter, sugar, and cinnamon. This isn't what I expected from a oatmeal-raisin cookie, though, no matter how delicious, so I asked L-- whether they get melty and caramelized when she bakes them using her technique. I sent along a photo for diagnostic purposes. We exchanged theories of cookie-making, and I decided that Science required me to make another batch in order to see whether L--'s methods would turn out differently than mine.

Not that I needed an excuse to bake a second batch. But not that an excuse hurt either.

Indeed, L--'s technique produced cookies that weren't quite so melty. The cookies mixed using her simplified dry + wet technique came out a bit more cakey ... still with a nice, crispy hint of caramelization around the edges, and a chewiness to-die-for. Just as delicious as Batch #1. The cookies on the round blue plate illustrate my second attempt.

I recommend either ... both ... either ... both ...

Really, it's up to you. Happiness follows, in any case. I brought a big (yellow) plate full to my reading group yesterday. Just the ticket to fuel a discussion of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

It's fantasy that safety, as engineers can deliver it, is a guarantee. Safety, as engineers can deliver it, is a reduction of risk.

In May of last year, as Deepwater Horizon spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Things fall apart and Digging deeper holes were two of my blog posts that made this argument. I wrote on 3 May:

As for nuclear power, those intrepid fission fans are again promising everything will be just fine if they're allowed to build baby build. In February the prez pledged $8,000,000,000 (count the zeros...) to guarantee financing for a new round of nuclear-powered fallacy. [...] We can only hope that Obama's plan to revive that lunacy gets torpedoed. Before the plants get built, I mean. Because ... well ... things fall apart.

The relevance of that hope is bitterly underscored in this past week. Over the past six days the world has watched in horror as natural, known, expected, statistically likely events -- an earthquake and a tsunami -- have wreaked havoc and death, decimating, among many other things, the safety systems meant to protect densely populated communities from spectacularly dangerous nuclear technology. As far as anyone can tell, it's going to get worse. It's probably going to get a lot worse.

Earlier this week I quoted John M. Broder of the NY Times, from his article U.S. Nuclear Industry Faces New Uncertainty. The gist of that article is that nuclear plant disasters in Japan are likely to erode confidence in nuclear power as a means of addressing U.S. energy consumption. I didn't excerpt any of the counterpoint paragraphs from the Broder article, so here are some bits that focus on what the Republican party's leadership has to say on the question:

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said that the United States should not overreact to the Japanese nuclear crisis by clamping down on the domestic industry indefinitely. Republicans have loudly complained that the Obama administration did just that after the BP oil spill last spring when it imposed a moratorium on deepwater oil drilling until new safety and environmental rules were written. "I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," Mr. McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday." [...] "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan," Mr. McConnell said.

What. A. Pandering. Snake.

As if engineering failures in Japanese nuclear power plants have no kinship to engineering failures in nuclear power plants in the United States. Or, even more laughable, as if the United States does a better job at assuring safety than Japan. Here's what a USA Today editorial of several days ago had to say on that topic:

If any country understands this interplay of earthquakes, waves and buildings it is Japan, which has developed stringent building codes and well-rehearsed evacuation plans. [...] And yet, as the continuing stream of bad news from Friday's quake indicates, even the Japanese couldn't save themselves from a temblor of such magnitude so close to shore. Here in the USA, this should be sobering. When the capital of Haiti was leveled by a quake last year, Americans could at least take comfort from the fact that buildings here are much stronger and safer. The Japanese quake sends the opposite message. Earthquake-prone areas here are pockmarked with schools and other facilities built decades ago that don't meet earthquake safety standards. The Utah Seismic Safety Commission recently concluded that 60% of a sampling of 128 schools did not meet federal guidelines. A 2007 study in Oregon found that roughly 1,000 schools, or 46% of the state's total, had a high or very-high risk of failure during a temblor.

Pandering Republicans Senators aren't the only ones waving a flag to preserve unsustainable levels of energy consumption and corporate profit. Here's the conclusion of a NY Times editorial also datelined on Monday:

This page has endorsed nuclear power as one tool to head off global warming. We suspect that, when all the evidence is in from Japan, it will remain a valuable tool. But the public needs to know that it is a safe one.

Boosterism aside, what we're seeing in Japan is clear evidence that nuclear power is not safe, and will never be safe. Not while earthquakes, tsunamis, faulty valves, and human errors persist. And that's, well, forever.

Satisfying energy requirements of a culture built on massive distribution of goods across the globe, high-tech warfare, inefficient human transport, digital-everything, the intertubes that carry information between digital-everything, and energy-intensive food production is a road leading straight off the cliff. Down down down ... to much much more of what we're seeing in Japan this week.

The SF Chronicle's editorial board hit closer to the mark in yesterday's editorial:

Suddenly, nuclear doesn't seem so safe. The truth is that it never has been. As we're learning from Japan, it's impossible to ensure full stability with the nuclear energy production process. Japan was known for being extraordinarily cautious with its nuclear energy plants and safety procedures, and disaster still struck. All that means is that there are too many contingencies and too many opportunities for things to go wrong.

As Homo sapiens, we do have options other than destroying ourselves and taking much of the rest of the planet's life with us.

We could, as a collection of human cultures and a single human species, consume a whole lot less. Burn less oil and stop running nuclear reactors (never mind building more!). Stop 'resolving' our differences with murderous, energy-guzzling, economy-draining, solution-diverting wars. Eat foods that are less processed, and grown closer to where we live. Work closer to where we live, or vice versa. Stop driving Hummers.

But, really, I can't pretend to have a fully developed and articulated plan for getting us to that place of radically lower consumption. I don't. Not in my back pocket. Not on the back of a napkin. Not on my iPad. I don't even have an iPad!

A start toward a plan might be collective demand of our leaders -- including the President who wants to prop up nuclear investment to the tune of $8 billion, the Senator who pretends that American exceptionalism makes our nuclear reactors safe, and newspaper editorialists who counsel humans to act like ostriches -- to address U.S. 'energy needs' by developing policies that radically reduce consumption.

In theory -- a caveat required due to lack of anything like consensus on these questions among the U.S. electorate -- in theory we could demand of our leaders a swift and certain end to policies and pronouncements that assure Americans we needn't worry.

In theory we could collectively ridicule and ignore brain-dead promises that everything's going to be just fine so long as we keep shopping.

But will we?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart

Monday, March 14, 2011

Facing things we'd rather weren't so

Wednesday night, the Wisconsin state senate voted to further empower the wealthy by straitjacketing the only organized counterweight to their focused, self-interested influence. (If this were a political rant, I might go on to say that this amounts to a corporate coup orchestrated by a reclusive pair of billionaire brothers and executed by their hired-lapdog governor. But that's not where I'm going. Not today.)

On Thursday evening I saw an original stage interpretation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, written and performed by mostly-fifteen-year-old students of the Oakland School for the Arts. It was the opening night of a performance that's headed to the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. The review concisely summarizes the classic this way: "Josef K., "without having done anything truly wrong," is arrested, tried, convicted and executed -- on a charge that is never disclosed to him." The student artists situated their vibrant rendering of this posthumously-published work as Joseph K's dream of a world of social constraint, as oppressive in 2011 as when it was written in Prague nearly a century ago.

On Friday evening I saw Ruined at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ruined is Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning play that has been staged in New York, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, in Boston, and in La Jolla before making its way to the theatre where I volunteer as an usher. From the BRT's program notes: "This powerful new play provides a bleak yet beautiful look at the lives of women in a land ruled by whiskey and bayonets. As civil war ravages the Congo, the lucky ones find a home—and a regular meal—in a ramshackle building that serves as both brothel and refuge. Whether merchant, miner or soldier, the man you meet in the morning may be your enemy by sundown. Yet all of them come through Mama’s door for booze and a bit of comfort. Mama Nadi protects her girls with rough compassion, even as she profits from their bodies." The performance made want to climb out of my skin. Tonye Patano and her fellow-players confronted their audience stage front-and-center for two riveting hours with the most cruel and debased things that people are doing to other people right now, present tense.

In-between these two performances, a massive earthquake rocked Japan. A devastating tsunami followed. As anyone even distantly connected to the news cycle knows, the tsunami caused death and destruction whose scope is still emerging; then crossed the Pacific to kill at least one man and cause millions of dollars in damage to boats and harbors up and down the California coast.

On Saturday morning (California time), as the farmers of Wisconsin rolled into their state capitol in Madison to rally in support of organized labor, two reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station were leaking radiation and threatening meltdown after cooling systems failed due to earthquake damage.

On Saturday afternoon engineers flooded the reactors with seawater in an attempt to avert catastrophic meltdown of the reactor cores.

By Saturday evening word was that partial meltdown had occurred; and engineers were battling serious cooling problems in three more reactors at the Danai plant.

By Sunday morning the NY Times reported that "22 people outside the [Fukushima Daiichi] plant showed signs of radiation exposure and about 170 other people near the plant had likely been exposed, but it was unclear if they had received dangerous doses. Early Sunday, the government said three workers were suffering full-out radiation illness." By Sunday evening experts were predicting that radioactivity would have to be released from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors for weeks or even months as they slowly cool.

Today: a second explosion and a third failed cooling system, with the NY Times reporting that "Operators fear that if they cannot establish control, despite increasingly desperate measures to do so, the reactors could experience meltdowns, which would release catastrophic amounts of radiation."

The mind reels.

The aggregation of power. The abuse of power. Those abused by power. Mortal helplessness in the face of geophysical power. The lethal risk inherent in harnessing power to seemingly benign ends.

Politics, art, news. There's no getting away from facing things we'd rather not have to in these tumultuous times.

Some months back I wrote about Dystopias in fiction. The other day I finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, dystopian fiction if any was ever written. I stand in awe of Mitchell's acrobatic literary feat, the novel is a masterful construction. I am sympathetic to the novel's bleak sensibility and moral frame. On the other hand, I'm not usually enamored of setting stories (or parts of stories) in distant, speculative, technologically elaborate futures to paint a moral lesson about our present. There are certainly exceptions to my preference, including novels I cited in that post of mid-November: Huxley's and Orwell's classics, Brave New World and 1984. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And full disclosure requires that I acknowledge there have been times in my lifetime of reading when I was more deeply touched by speculative fiction than I am now.

Perhaps Mitchell leaned too heavily for my current taste on fictional science. Perhaps he fast-forwarded a few too many centuries, even after taking into account the historical anchoring of his arc by episodes set in the mid-1800s and between the World Wars of the twentieth century.

He did score a bullseye in naming humankind's fundamental tragic flaw: "a hunger in the hearts o'humans, yay, a hunger for more." But I'm left thinking that there's plenty of material in this vein to be mined from the 21st century and those that have gone before. Fabricating future global consequences, it seems to me, makes it too easy for a reader to dismiss clairvoyant vision as "eh, that's not really going to happen" fantasy.

Sometimes I think the best argument for dystopian fiction, present or future, is utopian (and I use the word loosely here) advertising produced today. Look at what people are instructed to want, and you know, sure as calving glaciers, there's trouble around the next bend.

A video shared by Nathan Bransford in his Saturday afternoon post makes this point in spades:

Why are people transfixed when confronted with things we would rather not face? Why are we distracted by unattainable fantasies? And why do our fascinations seem to change nothing, or too little, or too late?

And yet. And yet.

On Sunday evening I attended a performance at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus: the tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing Lieder by Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss. Kaufmann was accompanied by Helmut Deutsch at the piano. A virtuoso performance, the singer was called back by an enraptured audience for five encores. (It is impossible to resist an aside: by the fifth encore Deutsch had apparently run through the printed scores he'd prepared for the evening, and so brought an iPad onto the stage, from which to read as he played. That was a first for me: watching a pianist in a live classical performance flip a page with a touchscreen gesture.)

From Schumann's Stille Tränen, verses by Justinus Kerner, a German medical doctor and poet:

Just roused from sleep,
You wander through the meadow;
From east to west the sky arches,
Miraculously blue.

But while you were lying careless in untroubled slumber,
That same sky was weeping down
Tear after tear the whole night through.

So in the silent night
Many a man weeps out his sorrow;
Though in the morning you may think to look at him
That his heart had always been gay.

The NY Times now reports that "The fragile bipartisan consensus that nuclear power offers a big piece of the answer to America’s energy and global warming challenges may have evaporated as quickly as confidence in Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors. Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. [...] Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned."

The world turns.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Six things about e-books

E-books are really really hot in the news (again), in significant part because of through-the-roof sales of Amanda Hocking's self-published novels ... which I am not going to write about because Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, Lauren Abramo, and the author herself have already thoroughly deconstructed the hype.

Nope. I'm going to list five other things about e-books that have been news in the last several weeks, and that I think are worth a second thought. Here we go...

HarperCollins policy punishes libraries

As Publisher's Weekly explained last week, "HarperCollins -- citing the explosive growth of e-book sales --announced a new e-book lending policy beginning March 7 that will limit the length of its library licenses to a maximum of 26 loans per e-title." Librarians are furious, and Pimp My Novel blogger Eric explains how and why the publisher's policy is "completely nuts" in his post Panic! at the Library. (In a parenthetically related note, a former director of four public libraries who posts as "inHI" shared Thoughts on Public Library Funding this past Sunday on Daily Kos.)

Jon Carroll on what's dysfunctional about e-readers

Jon Carroll is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. On 2 March 2011 Carroll wrote about his experience using a Kindle. I like his columns in general, and this particular perspective was a good example of why that's so. In Mr. Carroll's own words:

"I've been using my Kindle for two months now. [...] I quite like it - it's light, it's readable, and the tabs and buttons are intuitive and easy to use. Still, it's really, in my view anyway, only good for fiction. I like the random facts and discursive paragraphs in nonfiction, in part because I can use them for my column. I did not realize until I started using the Kindle that the advantage of a real book is that I can find specific sentences and paragraphs quickly using only my brain. I remember where in the book the page is, and where on the page the quote is. This is not a matter of turning down pages or inserting ripped-up bits of paper; it's just remembering. Using that technique on a Kindle is essentially impossible. There are no page numbers, and no good way to mark passages. There's a certain sameness to the typography, a digital-versus-analog thing, that is wearying after a while. I do like how portable it is, how good it is for lines and waiting rooms, but it ain't a book. So, you know, now what?"

Are e-book sales going up? You betcha.

Here's a summary from the AAP (Association of American Publishers) report on ebook sales, from Publisher's Weekly on Feb 21: "The Association of American Publishers' domestic sales report for 2010 showed e-book sales jumping significantly from last year, rising 164.4%, with e-books bringing in $441 million at the 14 companies that reported sales, compared to $166.9 million in 2009. While all print categories were down slightly in 2010, children's/YA hardcover dropped the most, at 9.5%. The good news for reporting companies is that the significant growth in e-book sales was able to make up for the drops in print revenue, resulting in a 0.2% increase in combined print and e-book sales in 2010. E-book sales represented 8.3% of combined trade sales in 2010, up from 3.2% in 2009. E-book sales have jumped 623% since 2008, when sales from reporting companies were $61.3 million, a figure that represented about 1% of trade sales."

Random House comes around to the "agency model" for e-books

This one's a bit arcane for those who don't follow the minutae of how publishing works. The "agency model" means that a bookseller (like Barnes & Noble or receives a commission on books sold at the price a publisher sets; this differs from the usual model for printed books, in which a vendor buys some quantity from a publisher and sets the price itself. Why is this important to e-book authors and buyers? Because it is a direct challenge to Amazon's lock on the market (including price-setting) for e-books, and aligns well with Apple's iBookstore business model. With his usual clarity, and the advantage of his insider perspective, Eric's The Agency Six provides a more complete explanation on his blog, Pimp My Novel. [UPDATE: About 20 min. after this post hit the intertubes, Nathan Bransford posted Why Some E-Books Cost More Than The Hardcover, which goes a long way toward explaining why bookselling looks so bloody confusing to book buyers in these perilous times.]

The iPad 2

The iPad 2 is more, thinner, lighter, faster, and -- we're told -- better that tatty old original iPad; it is an Apple device; and it may well push the boundaries of what people do with e-books. I don't plan to buy one, but Steve Jobs doesn't care because millions of others will -- starting tomorrow. Along with changes to the way books are sold (cf. the "agency model" note, above), the iPad 2 may prove a key element of Apple's strategy to challenge Amazon's dominance of e-book readers (i.e., the Kindle) and e-book sales.

Is the e-book revolution really revolutionary???

When curious about reality in all things bookish, it's generally a good bet to check on what Nathan Bransford has to say. Here's Nathan's 22 February take on reality in Do Record Stores Point the Way of the Future for Bookstores: "When you consider that the digital revolution happened in music a little over a decade ago, it's interesting to see what has happened to record stores since the rise of the mp3. Basically: carnage on a massive scale. A huge number of stores closed, especially national chains. [...] And an interesting fact to bear in mind is that digital revenue still has not surpassed physical."

Nathan cited a NY Times article of 20 Jan 2011, Digital Music Sales are Starting to Slow, Report Says: "Sales of digital music now account for 29 percent of record companies’ global revenue [...]"

He also cited a Dayton Daily News (Ohio) article of 20 Jan that asserted "Vinyl was the fastest-growing music format in an otherwise distressed year, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. The throwback format increased 14 percent, selling more copies in 2010 than any other year since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991." The more things change...

Looking for a bottom line here? You probably can't find a straight one, but I'll propose this:

The book's not dead. Long live the book!

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Speed dating for the bookish
Losing libraries (guest post)
Book clubs in a box from the public library

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wotan's dilemma: Wagner, free will, and modern American politics


We're in the time of year between the opening of subscription renewal for San Francisco Opera and the start of summer's portion of the current season.

This year's summer season is all-Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen in all its four-part, fifteen-or-so hours long, excruciatingly romantic glory. I'm not prepared to sit through four Wagner operas in a week, so I'm passing on the full cycle in June. But last summer SF Opera performed the second opera of the ring cycle, Die Walküre; I attended a performance in June of 2010.

There was plenty to chew on, even for someone who's not a fully-subscribed member of the Ringhead cult. The dramatic dilemma that most intrigued me as I watched Die Walküre last summer is Wotan's.

Wotan is King of the Gods in Wagner's mythical theology, and is racked with worry that his awesome power implies that those he instructs, or even advises, are rendered unfree. Those who are bound by the power of his word are insufficiently strong to be the heroic actor he requires in order to -- well, in order to get what he's after, the details go on for a good fifteen hours.

In a sound byte, Wotan needs a hero with free will.

On the other hand, he goes ballistic when his daughter Brünnhilde, a warrior-maiden you wouldn't want to scrap with, dares to act on her own rather than as an exclusive agent of his will.

Back and forth, back and forth. This is opera, people. But by the end of Die Walküre, Wotan has recognized that he has to let go, to quit being so controlling.

Ah, Wagner. Who else would write opera about a god who could have used an EST seminar?

Free will

Free will, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, has been "[a question] philosophers have debated [...] for over two millennia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it." Says the SEP's article, "The main perceived threats to our freedom of will are various alleged determinisms: physical/causal; psychological; biological; theological."

If you look around it's easy to spot these deterministic assaults on free will, which go hand-in-hand with assaults on the moral responsibility that attends the role of free will in our lives and choices.

It's all in the genes, that's a popular determinism of the past several decades. It's all about early childhood traumas, that's another. ADHD. Violent video games. Then there's the theory that you do according to what you ingest ... red meat, alcohol, PCP, Twinkies.

Modern American politics

It would really be something if our political leaders could act with free will ... and ... would it be too much to ask that they take moral responsibility for their choices?

If only politicians and the media who are meant to keep them honest weren't owned by corporate puppet masters. Or if the question of moral responsibility were taken more seriously in boardrooms or among the punditocracy that defends corporate avarice.

Speaking of corporate avarice: did you see Jon Stewart's piece from The Daily Show on Teachers & Wall Street?

In the SF Opera production of Die Walküre last year, Woton was dressed in a gray suit, and his great hall was taken up by a massive table of the sort you'd find in a corporate boardroom. It was kind of sinister, actually.

I'm thinking the operatic god would be thoroughly disgusted if he stepped off the Wagnerian stage and took a look around at the governing class of 21st century U.S. of A. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Rick Scott of Florida. The now-terminated Governator of California. Hope and Change melting into flaccid compromise. We're seeing a lot of bowing and scraping to what David Mitchell names a "corpocratic world order" in his novel Cloud Atlas. But not much in the way of free will in 'Merican politics, let alone moral responsibility.

Take this, for example, on the topic of government taking steps -- or not -- to hold corporate leadership accountable: an excerpt from a June 2010 blog posted on the Psychology Today site, written by Steven Reiss, an emeritus professor of psychology & psychology at Ohio State. Professor Reiss is talking about last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

"Although we will have to wait for the results of the Department of Justice's investigation, news reports suggest that BP executives may have been criminally negligent in regard to the Gulf oil spill. The right wing is calling for severe penalties on corporate BP. The left wing is blaming America's oil addiction. What seems likely is that nobody is going to prosecute and punish BP executives as individuals. No wonder oil company executives cut corners: If they get away with it, they are rewarded with higher pay. If they get caught, they just retire to their generous retirement plans."

So how did Reiss's pessimistic assessment of executive accountability pan out? Here's what The Economist had to say when the commission formed by President Obama released its report earlier this year on Gulf oil spill:

"THOSE greenish types who were hoping that the commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would call for radical curbs on offshore drilling have been disappointed. The commission, created by Barack Obama last May, said in its full report on January 11th that the security of the country’s energy supply and the dependence of the transportation sector on oil do indeed need to be addressed. But it did not call for further offshore drilling to be ruled out; on the contrary, it stressed a belief that, if properly managed and regulated, the risks of offshore drilling are still acceptable. Its account of the disaster, its context and its repercussions, however, makes clear just how far from such proper management and regulation the industry had departed by April 20th 2010. [...] The markets responded to what was not in the report: conclusions of criminal misconduct and recommendations that the sector be reined in. Shares in BP, Transocean and Halliburton all went up on the day that the conclusions were released."

Business as usual. Pandering to the excessively wealthy and morally bankrupt executives who oversaw, as The Economist put it, a corporate environment in which "[p]oor management and communication within and between the companies, as well as a number of outright errors, led to unnecessary and unrecognised risks being taken." In short, "the commission found, this amounts to a systemic failure in the industry."

Criminal liability? Could still happen, as Alexander Cockburn reported last month. But hardly a sure thing.

So far all we've seen in the personal responsibility vein is BP's Tony Hayward resigning way back in July ... but only because he flubbed his lines when speaking to the media. Business Week characterized the fallen CEO's emotional state as "heartbreak, despite a severance package worth up to £12m and a non-executive place on the board of BP's Russian joint venture TNK-BP." In Hayward's own words, his resignation was "a very sad day for me personally."

(To repeat Steven Reiss's assessment, quoted above, the month before Hayward's resignation: "If they get caught, they just retire to their generous retirement plans.")

It's enough to make a Norse god weep.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Losing libraries (guest post)

This guest post was first published on Monday as a diary on Daily Kos titled The Library is America's last truly socialized institution and you're about to lose it. The author posts as Democrats Ramshield. It's also the first guest post on One Finger Typing.

Many thanks to DR for his thoughts about why libraries matter. His call to oppose a particular and, to this writer and reader, fundamental aspect of the general trend to forfeit hard-won, shared resources in favor of an each-for-himself ethos -- well, it strikes a chord...

(Written by an American expat living in the European Union)

Did you know that the library is America's last truly socialized institution and that everyday you come a bit closer to losing it?! As a male who is a business librarian (that is to say, someone who holds graduate degrees in library science and an MBA degree in marketing), I understand very well that fee for service in America's library systems are creating a class of information have-nots. For some of you this means that your children aren't going to be able to read as well. It also means that as voters in a democracy, you will no longer be as well informed without full library services. As the series, the American dream vs the European dream which I was able to generously publish with the support of the Daily Kos community, we have seen that we cannot depend on the plutocrat-owned radio and television media. Sometimes we have to go to print sources, even international print sources of the variety and scope that you can't possibly afford as an individual to subscribe to them all. Additionally libraries make online databases available to their patrons that allow you with the touch of a button to read international media sources from around the globe. You're in the process of losing all this and a lot more.

Now let's ask why should you be interested in defending America's last truly socialized institution? Well, let's get down to it shall we? So you don't think the library is a completely socialized institution. Well, let's talk about the theory of a library for just one minute, which is: everyone who walks in the door and holds a library card has access to the same services. It doesn't matter if they're the mayor or a homeless person. Everyone in the library is supposed to be treated the same. It is the one place in America where equality doesn't just get lip service. The American Library Association has produced a wonderful statement called the Freedom to Read Statement wherein it is explained that your freedom to read comes directly from the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States. You're about to lose that, and that's pretty darn important.

You can think of the library as a repository of everyone who has ever thought and everyone who has ever written! That's a lot to lose access to.

Now we know that by and large, we are not really in tight budget times at all, but rather that a lot states have run up artificial deficits just like in Wisconsin wherein they give tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations and then try to balance the budget on the backs of working class Americans and their unions. So it is that library systems all over America are running out of money and this poses the danger of tearing the guts out of the last truly socialized institution in America, where everyone is supposed to be equal. Losing libraries threatens to create a division in the population between the information haves and have-nots.

L.A. Weekly - L.A.'s Library Measure L

There's lots of hidden City Hall fat to fuel the 73 shuttered libraries
By Patrick Range McDonald and Mars Melnicoff Thursday, Feb 24 2011

Last summer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council achieved a grim milestone. With little discussion, the mayor and 10 of the 15 council members approved unprecedented, punishing library cuts that made L.A. the only significant U.S. municipality, aside from the dying city of Detroit, to shutter its entire public library system two days a week. At the Cypress Park Branch Library in northeast L.A., children once streamed in on Mondays to work on computers many families can't afford at home, while other students read and avoided the violent Avenues gang after school. Now, with Sundays and Mondays dark and his staff cut far back, librarian Patrick Xavier says, "It's a struggle."


Literacy among adults and children in the information age is the linchpin to education, retraining and full employment. No institution in America does more to support literacy than your friendly neighborhood library. I'm not just talking about story hour and reading programs for children, but serious efforts to support young adults' and working adults' literacy and continued education. Let's understand that there is a strong correlation between literacy rates and crime. That is to say, most people in America -- including over 2 million of them who are in jails and prisons -- traditionally suffer from low literacy rates. Why is it that America can find plenty of money for prisons but has problems finding money for libraries? All of this is to say nothing of the staggering loss of human potential of the American prison population. In fact we have about as many people in prison as we do have in the military. Oh yes, and did you know that most American military manuals are written at the 9th grade reading level? Did you also know that there are millions of Americans today who cannot read this diary because they are functionally illiterate? Now we start to understand what it is that America is losing when it is losing the last truly socialized institution in America.

Fee for service

There is a trend in American librarianship called "fee for service." That is to say that services are made available only to those library patrons that can pay for them. This trend has been growing in recent years and now it's threatening to become an American national epidemic. Some people will always argue that there always will be some basic library services available without fees, but the issue is the cost to American society of a less well-read public. What is the cost to American society of not fully supporting our children's literacy? And then there's the issue of quality of life and the joy of reading, which can also be diminished by fee for service in public libraries.

Yet another alarming development is the privatization of libraries. This is another means of creating a class of information have-nots. Here's a link to the American Libraries Association information page on that issue. Link:

Information retrieval

Some people believe that they can find everything they need on the internet, and therefore don't want to support libraries anymore. The simple fact is this is not true, because there is too much irrelevant information on the internet. In library jargon, we say what people get from the internet is high volume retrieval with low pertinence. In fact what we want is low volume with high pertinence. That is to say, you want a small, manageable amount of information that is relevant to your information needs ... and that's why you need professional library collection development working for you, both behind the scenes and at the reference desk. The more information that becomes available in the bibliographic universe, the more we need the professional information management of librarians to help us navigate the information maze. We don't want to create a system where only the affluent, on a fee for service basis, can afford to have the librarian assisting their information retrieval needs through database searches, reader guidance, and support for children and adult literacy. The library must continue to be the social leveling institution that it has always been where everyone has equal access to have their information needs met. Library collections must continue to serve the full populations of communities (including non-English speakers) through collection development policies, rather than have library collections and services developed around the needs of a few affluent library patrons who are able to pay into a fee for service structure.

This diary encourages you to support your local library by writing a letter to the editor today and telling them why it is that you support libraries, that you support literacy and that you support intellectual freedom for both authors and readers. Also please consider joining your friends of the libraries group. We need everyone's help to defend the last fully socialized institution in America ... which is your local library.

Thank you for your support of American libraries.

(Finally it should be noted that the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who in the minds of many was a noted socialist set up libraries all over America.)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Speed dating for the bookish
Six things about e-books
Book clubs in a box from the public library

[Thanks to Wally Gobetz for his photo of the NYPL on Fifth Ave in New York.]