Thu, 28 Dec 2006

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

— SjG @ 2:09 pm

Haruki Murakami, Vintage, 1997

This isn’t the first time I’ve read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It may not be the last.

Wind-Up Bird seems to me the culmination of Murakami’s prior work. It has all of his hallmarks: a strangely detached narrator, dreamworlds that intersect with reality in nysterious ways, people responding to unseen forces, wells, and teenage girls of questionable mental stability.

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Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World

— SjG @ 12:30 pm

by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Oxford University Press, 2006

This interesting three-part book describes the evolution of the Internet from an academic network governed by utopian techno-idealists into an increasingly partitioned collection of networks under the control of national governments. It also predicts that the future will continue in this direction of many localized nets.

The overall conclusion of the book is that this evolution is a (mostly) Good Thing[tm], as human beings can’t be trusted to conduct business without the treat of violence. The assumption that the purpose of the internet is to facilitate business is not really questioned. Of course, I’m oversimplifying their case. There is also discussion of the value of information, its relationship to proximity, and the desire to allow enforcement of local standards.

I remember many of the events described in the history — most notably, the transfer of the DNS Root and its aftermath — but can’t say I really appreciated their significance at the time. I do recall being impressed with the anarchic, cooperative culture of the early internet. The philosophy of the Cypherpunks (e.g., “information wants to be free”) is a compelling idea, except when it comes to my credit card number. John Gilmore’s famous saying that “the net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it” is also a sentiment I still feel is powerful, but I fear that the mechanisms of censorship are getting ever more sophisticated. I also still have hope that ubiquitous communication can help humanity.

However, Wu and Goldsmith’s points are well made. I remember, in particular, believing in 1995 that the internet was going to connect everyone in the world, and promote an unprecedented era of communication and peace. After all, I was in communication with people all over the world using the internet (in English, of course). Then, in December of ’95, I embarked on a trip through Asia and the Middle-East. Something about these utopian beliefs kept nagging at the back of my mind as my travels progressed, and I met people in different countries and from different backgrounds. It wasn’t until months later, on a bus ride through the Sinai Peninsula, where from my window I could see Bedouins struggling against a mini-sandstorm that the realization broke through. Yes, these people and I share a common humanity — but then, that was about the limit of what we shared. If I were to visit with them, I could perhaps learn of their beliefs, culture, hopes, expectations, and so on. But simply tapping words into a keyboard from half a world away, such an exchange would be nearly impossible. How could I begin to understand their world without seeing, feeling, and smelling it?

Well, today, I have friends I have never personally met, throughout many nations that I have never visited. I chat with them, some daily, as I work on projects. I communicate with them mostly in English, a little bit in German, and even less in Spanish. Does this contradict my pessimism above? Well, yes and no. We have a common starting point (e.g., the projects), and, to be frank, relatively common culture: we are, for the most part, Europeans, Americans, Australians.

So maybe the internet is not the borderless world we once hoped for, but it’s also not (yet) the parochial collections of fiefdoms that it could become.

Tue, 19 Dec 2006

In the Company of Crows and Ravens

— SjG @ 9:40 pm

John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell, Yale University Press, 2005

The subject of animal intelligence is emotionally charged and controversial, often pitting steely-eyed, cold-hearted scientists against pet-owners and their fuzzy, big-eyed companions. The scientists want to see repeatable experimental data before making a judgement call, whereas the pet owners are overwhelmed with evidence.

In the Company of Crows and Ravens falls into both camps simultaneously.

On the side of science, the book documents examples of culture among animals — learned behaviors that have are localized to specific groups and which are passed on from generation to generation. It describes the co-evolution of human and animal culture, and gives concrete examples of where the behavior of one species influences a cultural practice or tradition in another. On its main subject, the family corvidae, it describes experiments confirming the ability to recognize individuals of other species, the use of group-specific vocabulary, and documents observed shifts in group behaviors in response to outside influences which is then taught to others outside the influence area. It even documents observations of brand loyalty among crows, and cultural place memories.

On the other side, however, the book is a paean to corvids, their cleverness, and their playful ways. It is clear that the authors love these birds, respect them, and maybe even want them to be smarter and more talented than the actual average crow.

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Sat, 19 Aug 2006

State of Fear

— SjG @ 8:07 pm

Michael Crichton, HarperCollins, 2004.

Crichton knows how to write a thriller, and even when it’s a pedantic screed, he still manags to make it fun. Imagine, if you will, a cabal of evil environmentalists, who go to outlandish lengths to try to kill lots of people in order to sway public opinion, thereby bringing in more revenues for their nefarious organizations (which need big money primarily to support their leaders’ lavish lifestyles). Don’t think too hard about the fact that these evil environmentalists’ biggest scheme is to trigger a tsunami in order to spread fear about climate change (huh!?).

Crichton definitely has his axe to grind, and even has a few valid points to make (I liked the idea about double-blind science funding, for example). But this just isn’t a book you can take seriously as anything but a preachy adventure. There are some fun aspects, though. I enjoyed the barely disguised Martin Sheen and Barry Glasner characters, for example, and Crichton’s sadistic glee in dispatching one of them. Crichton is obviously infuriated by hypocracy within the environmental movement and among its promoters. And sure, he has plenty of footnotes to support his “no such thing as global warming” hypothesis — drawing different conclusions than some of the studies’ authors. He explains that away by arguing that they have to make the politically-correct assumption in order to publish. But any chance of taking his science seriously is impacted by assertions like that there are more old-growth forests around today than 150 years ago (must have something to do with what the definition of “are” is).

Tue, 4 Jul 2006

Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

— SjG @ 6:16 pm

Christopher Moore, 2002, Harper Collins

This is a book that was recommended to me a couple of time, and which I never tried to find. The premise — the “true” history of Jesus and his formative years, as told by his not-very-bright best friend Biff — is not only tired, but not very compelling. When you add in that the reviewers often mention that there are lots of fart and fucking jokes, I thought this was one to miss.

So when it showed up lying around in the living room (a loan from Paul & Jeanette), I only opened it to confirm my doubts. Turns out, however, the book is very entertaining. Sure, it’s full of juvenile humor, crude language, anacronisms, wildly improbable plotting, and elaborately-worked retro-explanations of traditions. But, that being said, it’s charming. It winks and giggles and lets you in on the joke — which is that it’s a respectful, if untraditional, imagining of the life of Jesus.

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