Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen

We live in a world where anyone with a computer can have a platform for their opinion, start a business or download any type of media that they're interest in, often at low or no-cost. But what have been the consequences to people left out of the internet boom? And what lessons can we learn now that the internet has become so tightly integrated into all of our lives? Andrew Keen, the Christopher Hitchens of technology writing, uses his new book The Internet is Not the Answer to act the contrarian to today's full-speed ahead approach to the internet and to ask the important questions that often get pushed aside in our quest for the newest cool thing or the next Google.

The book's backdrop is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which Keen observes have become increasingly divided been haves, who attend exclusive clubs that claim to cater to all types, and have-nots who live on the streets in front. What concerns Keen beyond the destruction of the middle class that has accompanied the internet economy, as jobs have simply vanished (with desolate Rochester, New York, the home of the dead film industry provided as an example), is the fact that internet "gurus" and their acolytes keep preaching job creation and freedom when evidence points to the demolition of entire industries. While the early history of the internet is based philosophically around a sharing economy, Amazon has accumulated enough power to put retailers out of business and to run modern sweatshops. Meanwhile, Uber is one of the hottest businesses around, and while it has created some jobs it has also put traditional taxi drivers out of work. And what will be the effect when driverless cars appear on the landscape? And are jobs really being created when a successful company like Instagram gets purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars when it has only thirteen full-time employees?

Keen also ponders the new narcissism of the Facebook/Instagram internet "selfie" existence, in which we all become celebrities in our own minds to a small circle of likeminded friends. Paired with a world where online journalism is defined by the self-publishing of Huffington Post while professional newspaper reporting is seemingly slipping into extinction, we have to wonder whether the internet that was supposed to open our world has actually trapped us in boxes in which the only opinions that matter to us are ones that mirror our own and we cease to exist if we are not sharing our faces and location with our friends. Our online lives themselves are becoming commodities for companies offering free services and between our willingness to share everything and a world where the government can potentially track our every online and physical movement, perhaps it's time to take a step back and consider how connected we actually want to be.

Keen even tackles the current "maker" craze, wondering whether the potential for people to create goods in their own homes is just a repeat of previous empty promises of every musician being able to have an equal platform on the internet, when the current situation of music streaming that pays artists almost nothing is much more complicated than originally envisioned. Could 3-D printing mean the end of sweatshops, as fabrics become easy to create in the home, or the end of an industry, displacing thousands of workers? Obviously the answers are not simple but at least someone is asking the questions. However, as the title of the book states, the internet itself is not the answer to anything.

Often The Internet is Not the Answer comes off as a humorless screed but that does not diminish the importance of Keen's writing. As a parent, I have often found myself wondering if the current enthusiasm in STEM education needs to be accompanied by an equal reemphasis of philosophy, ethics and critical thinking, and this book does nothing to change my opinion. In the meantime, this book will certainly get you thinking about the potential societal impact of the next Amazon purchase or Uber ride.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson

A few years ago Bob Dylan was quoted in an interview saying "I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65," and Andrew Grant Jackson, in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, sets out to lay out the reasons that this is the case. In roughly chronological order, Jackson sums up the year in politics, civil rights and (of course) music and shows us how the country pivoted in this tumultuous year. It's an ambitious task that Jackson is not quite up to, but the book remains a fun read of a year of change in music and culture.

The book is divided into four sections, based on the seasons of the year. 1965 began with the recording of The Rolling Stones' early self-penned numbers The Last Time and Bob Dylan's transitional Bringing it All Back Home album in January and ends in December with The Beatles' experimental Rubber Soul and the heavy debut by The Who (as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas special, to which Jackson points out the oddness of launching a neurotic cartoon character with jazz accompaniment to massive appeal).

Naturally, there are a number of names that loom largely over the year 1965's music. Bob Dylan shifts from protest singer to rocker when controversially bringing out an electric backing band at the Newport Folk Festival (and later attacks the folkies with Positively 7th Street). The Rolling Stones were transitioning from an R&B group to one that favored exotic instrumentation in its hard rock hits. The Beatles try LSD for the first time in March and mix new Dylan influences with sitars and string quartets. Brian Wilson brings the Beach Boys to a new experimental level as he shifts from surf to Pet Sounds. James Brown creates a new kind of funk. The Byrds bring jangly Dylan covers to the masses. All in all it was not a bad year for music!

Lurking in the background of these musical changes are the societal crises that influenced a new kind of musician and music consumer. 1965 was the year of the Selma to Montgomery march, the assassination of Malcolm X, the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam (and protests spurred in response), new sexual freedom and increased drug experimentation. The author tries hard to make sure that we know the background behind the changing sounds.

Jackson works hard to integrate these threads into the overall story, and while they are essential to know about, they don't necessarily fit his chronological structure. Likewise, while it's great to hear about the development of the various subgenres of music that rose during the year, many of the sections of the book come off as long, interesting sidelights. But while Jackson probably bit off more than he could chew in trying to link politics and music, it still remains an enjoyable snapshot of a particularly eventful year.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

When I think of black diamonds, I think of the black gem stone, not coal. But coal and coal mining is the subject of this account of the aristocratic Fitzwilliam family and their Yorkshire coal mines. This fast-paced social history shows how coal gave this family its fortunes yet also caused its rapid downfall.

The family owned not only a vast estate but most important, the mineral rights to the coal below ground. The villages the coal miners lived in, the schools, hospitals, stores, everything that touched the miners' lives was dependent on the Fitzwilliam family. By all accounts they were decent people to work for and the mines were productive and successful. When the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902 he left an estate among the richest in England.

The family lived in the 300-plus room Wentworth House, once the largest privately owned house in England. But the politics that emerged after the great wars changed the family's fortunes in a spectacularly short time. The Labour government that came to power after the first World War levied massive taxes on the great landed estates; the government nationalized the country's mines following World War II. Today the Fitzwilliam estate is a wasteland and the once great Wentworth House a ruin.

Bailey writes books about the British aristocracy and their failings and foibles. In this fascinating book she lays the family's affairs, politics, deaths, alcoholism, illegitimate children, the cutting off of heirs and its ties to the Kennedy family bare for all to see. The story of their spectacular downfall reads like a novel. I found it fascinating.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

 Hausfrau is sure to evoke strong reactions. Its publisher, Random House, is extoling it as "a literary 50 Shades of Grey." It  has sold publishing rights in 14 international markets and ordered a third printing.

The book is a modern re-telling of Anna Karenina. In Hausfrau, Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her austere and handsome Swiss husband, mother-in-law, and three young children. Her lack of language skills and her own aloofness contribute to her ongoing sense of alienation. Yet, the main characteristic of our protagonist is her passivity.

As the novel progresses, we realize that Anna lacks all sense of direction. She has no moral core. Adultery, in the form of casual sex, is her escape from boredom and her acquiescence to a need to be desired.

Essbaum is a poet and her novel's language substantiates this. Her characters are well-drawn. Yet the difficulty in loving this book rests in Anna's unlikeability. We learn, through Anna's sessions with her psychoanalist, that she lost both her parents at a critical age. She felt unloved by others who cared for her. This may have contributed to her need to be dominated by men. However, Anna is so self-absorbed and uncaring of others that the reader finds it hard to understand her.

Hausfrau is definitely a well-written book with lots of explicit sex scenes. Anna is a complicated character, the subject of which might ignite heated debate at a book club. As Anna Russell wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "(Hausfrau) is guarenteed to be a hit. Nothing sells better than a large group of people complaining about the content...Now we just want to see what the fuss is about."

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

The book opens on the morning of Lord and Lady Montfort's annual summer ball. Iyntwood, a Downton Abbey-like house is in an uproar. Guests are arriving, supplies being delivered and the family black sheep, Teddy Mallory, Lord Montfort's nephew and ward, who has just been tossed out of Oxford for bad behavior, is on his way home. His removal from Oxford is just another incident in a long list of indiscretions.

The ball moves ahead as planned and everyone is having a good time, including Teddy who is being his usual horrible self. Things take a very bad turn the next morning, however, when the estate's gamekeeper finds a man  hanging from a gibbet in the woods. He turns out to be a family member and the guests are now sequestered at Iyntwood while the police investigate.

This book reads like a Downton Abbey episode as the very proper upper crust try to deal with a family scandal while around them there are more scandals, involving yet more guests and staff.  One murder, a missing guest, secrets and a missing house maid all make for a light mystery read. If you are a Downton Abbey fan this book is for you!  If you like cozy mysteries this book is for you. And if you are looking for a new mystery author, this book is for you!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production by Paul Fischer

Bizarre. It's hard to write about North Korea without using that word. By now, we've heard so much about the cultlike devotion to the late Kim Jong-il (and now his son, Kim Jong-un), dictators whose starving citizens are forced to listen to propaganda pumped through home speakers propped above portraits of the country's leader, that we move to the next overheard bizarre North Korea story without blinking an eye. A Kim Jong-il Production is a recently published book filled with accumulated details that illuminate a strange-but-true tale, one that might be difficult to accept if a reader lacked previous knowledge of North Korea's history. Even knowing quite a bit about the country I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

The stars of the story are Shin Sang-ok, a well-known South Korean filmmaker; Choi Eun-hee, his film star wife; and the aforementioned Kim Jong-il, whose rise to the country's highest post started with his role masterminding the Ministry of Propaganda, which included the country's filmmaking division. Jong-il was a massive film buff who had collected thousands of movies from around the world and kept them in a secure bunker, for his eyes only. When North Korea's economy started to dry up, he decided that exporting motion pictures was a way to bring revenue into the country. This is where the story's weirdness begins.

Jong-il's plan involved kidnapping Sang-ok and Eun-hee, bringing them to North Korea and forcing them make films for the glory of the country. And believe it or not, he succeeded. The book gives us a litany of North Korean kidnappings in the 1970s - their heyday - of which Sang-ok and Eun-hee were but two victims. While Eun-hee found it best to play along, Sang-ok tried multiple escapes, which eventually landed him years in some very harsh prisons. After his "reeducation", Sang-ok decided to play along and make movies for North Korea, a role which gave him unpredecedented freedom and produced movies like North Korea had never been able to create on its own.

This book does a great job providing the history of North Korea and Jong-il and building up suspense towards Sang-ok and Eun-hee's eventual - **spoiler alert** - escape to the West after eight years. Following their getaway, many questioned their account and wondered if they had voluntarily gone to North Korea in order to resurrect careers that had run aground in South Korea, despite much evidence that the kidnapping did indeed happen. While leaving a number of great South Korean films (and even some highly regarded North Korean ones) Sang-ok's post North Korea career was spent in the US creating the likes of the Disney Channel rerun fodder, 3 Ninjas, before he eventually returned  to South Korea.

This book was the essence of readable history and once the story got rolling I found it difficult to put  down until I found out how the couple would make their getaway. Fischer does a great job of telling a story with only a limited number of available resources about their North Korea stay. I also found myself fascinated by Jong-il's quirks, charms and obsessions. If you're looking for a little bit of bizarre (there's that word again) post-Cold War history then this book should definitely be added to your "to-read" list.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

Who's your favorite Beatle? Are you into winky, cutesy Paul? Is John's politicizing where it's at? Or maybe you're a Ringo person...if you're 5 years old. Let's face it though - by any possible means of measure, George was the coolest Beatle. He might not have been the best songwriter of the four but he did write Something, which has been covered by everyone from James Brown to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra (who supposedly called it his favorite Lennon-McCartney tune). When Paul was escaping to his farm and John was shuttling between New York and L.A., Harrison purchased the 120-room gothic mansion Friar Park, which included extensive gardens and underground tunnels - UNDERGROUND TUNNELS!!! And while Ringo brought us the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show and McCartney birthed the woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street, Harrison was responsible for producing Monty Python's greatest film, Life of Brian!

If I haven't convinced that Harrison was the coolest Beatle then you really owe it to yourself to pick up the new biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson. If you already love the man then you definitely need to read the book. It's a comprehensive warts-and-all look at "the quiet Beatle" that at 400 pages does not overstay its welcome.

Despite being with the Beatles from the very beginning, George's status as the youngest Beatle seemed to define his relationship with the others. A strong guitarist who was more comfortable playing set parts than improvising, George found himself in one of the most popular bands in the world by 21. At an age when most of us were looking for our first post-college jobs, George was one of the most recognizable people on the planet. As his songwriting progressed, he found it hard to convince the others in the band of his skills - somewhat understandable when he was competing with the likes of Lennon and McCartney to get songs on albums. Many people don't realize that not only was Harrison the first to leave the band, over frustration with the other musicians' dominance (he'd soon return) but he was also the first to release a solo album, with the experimental soundtrack Wonderwall Music.

While Harrison may not have been the musical leader of the band, he was the one who initiated the spiritual quests of the Beatles, leading them on trips to India to meet the Maharishi and meditate. While Ringo had very little interest and John a little bit more, the effect of Indian religion on George lasted his whole life, influencing his outlook on life, death and celebrity. More noticeably to the rest of us it also affected his role in the Beatles music, with exotic sitar colorings bubbling to the top of their songs.

There are many well-documented reasons behind why the Beatles broke up and certainly the release of Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass (the first triple album in rock) shows that he had more material available than The Beatles could ever handle. The rest of the book follows Harrison through a long career decline, as his limited writing skills became more evident. Following the charity Concert for Bangladesh event and his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour he retreated, as he attempted to reconcile his fame with his desire for peace and quiet. He was able to launch a late career comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine and his Travelling Wilbury's supergroup but without a desire to tour and lacking any massive hits from a number of subdued and sometimes lazily produced albums, the late 1970s and early 1980s remained quiet musically. He claimed many times that he simply wanted to be a guitar player and not a Beatle.

Harrison died a tragically young 58, though arguably his spirituality allowed him to accept his cancer diagnosis as well as a person reasonably could. He had been quoted many times as saying that he saw no difference between life and death as far as the spirit was concerned. Be assured, however, that the book does not paint him to be an angel. The author makes us aware of many of the material world struggles that Harrison dealt with - from drugs and alcohol to interpersonal relationships - and it points out that while having a serene and accepting outlook on life he also had an acidic side.

I really enjoyed this look at Harrison's life. It's a comprehensive look at a private person thrust into celebrity and dealing with all that followed. Even more importantly, despite the author's reservations about the quality of certain Harrison releases, it did get me listening to some of his albums again and appreciating his unique slide guitar sound once again.

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