Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pirate Cinema

Pirate Cinema
© 2012 Cory Doctorow
384 pages

All Cecil B. DeVille wanted to do was make movies. He didn't mean to ruin his family's lives or start a revolution. In the not-too-distant future,  consumer electronics have concealed chips which monitor and report web activity, and when that involves streaming or downloading copyrighted material,  the reprisal is extreme: three-time offenders have their household internet connection terminated for a year.  When Cecil's hobby of downloading movies and remixing their scenes to make new stories  catches the attention of the authorities and his home loses connection, the results are devastating:  Cecil's father loses his job and his sister begins sliding into academic failure. Horrified by the repercussions, Cecil flees to the streets, there to befriend eccentrics who have dropped out of society.  Raiding dumpsters for food and living in an abandoned bar,  Cecil finds the knowledge, the tools,  the will, and the friends that he needs to fight back.

At the heart of this teen political thriller is the debate over intellectual property. This is a recurring theme in Doctorow's work, but the center of everything here. In the book's world, the American entertainment/recording industry has essentially captured Parliament:  both of the major party-alliances pass whatever bill it urges.  While attending an illicit screening of remix films,  Cecil learns that a bill is heading toward Parliament which will allow for the incarceration of anyone -- even minors -- who breach very broadly-defined copyright laws.  Even excerpting scenes for use in a YouTube movie review could land a kid in serious jail time.   Armed with a self-built laptop sans corporate spyware, Cecil and friends launch an agitation campaign to spread the word and hopefully force an upset.   As with Little Brother,  Doctorow uses the novel to debate an issue.  Doctorow's publication history indicates that while he's  a proponent of looser copyright laws,  there are limits to how far that can be taken.  Here,  the moments of nuance as  other characters challenge Cecil's  presumptions are overshadowed by the flagrant bullying of the entertainment industry, who divide their time between creating garbage films and  bankrupting or jailing kids.

I found Pirate Cinema interesting from every angle;  from  Cecil's  obsessive interest in producing films by creatively remixing scenes from one particular actor's vast corpus of works, to his exploration of an illicit society --  living in abandoned buildings, exploring underground London and looking for places to host film screenings,   finding technological workarounds to counter technological surveillance, and  of course the debate itself.  Because his story is set in London, Doctorow also unleashes the full power of British English.   Doctorow's other novels set in America were written or edited so well to match an American voice that the hurricane of British lingo took me by surprise. I'd be really curious about a Brit's perspective, whether his use of slang flows well or if its just a little much.  (Imagine a narrator who sounds like Eggsy from Kingsman: The Secret Service, prior to  wearing suits and speaking RP.)  My used copy of the book is  a discard from a Canadian library, though, so there may be an American edition out there that refers to dumpsters and drugs instead of skips and sugar.

Although part of the novel are unrealistic -- the lack of dangerous and seriously disturbed people among the homeless who Cecil meets, for instance,  and the over-the-top villainy --  I found Pirate Cinema both clever and fun. Intellectual property and copyright issues are an on-going issue as we find ourselves more and more immersed in an ocean of content.  What makes this novel especially interesting is that people really do edit films the way Doctorow describes; I've seen trailers made for movies that don't exist (Titanic 2: Jack's Back) ,witnessed the crew of Deep Space Nine react to Star Trek 2009, (they disapproved), and watched 'movies' that used footage from video-games, sometimes edited or framed to make it more cinematic.  Improvisation with already-existing materials is the basis of culture and innovation: even  at a professional level. I can't help but think of John Carmack of ID Software  creating a way to have side-scrolling PC games by using the first level of Mario as his subject.   Cecil's is a case that's more troublesome: while he IS using footage in original ways, the film itself is someone else's product, and it cost them to produce it. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

E-Readers, 1990s style

Tonight while checking one of the retro-tech YouTube channels I follow, I spotted an interesting, recent upload about the Sony Data Discman (1992), which was an attempt to sell books as discs.  The discs themselves seem to have the same capacity as ordinary CD-ROMS, roughly 400 MBs or so, and the awkward size meant they were ill-suited as carriers of just one book. The books in the catalog appear to be mostly larger reference books -- encyclopedias, telephone directories,  and dictionaries.  ("Internet" is not an entry in one of the encyclopedias,  which is not surprising given that popular access to the internet didn't really take off until late '93...)  The device could also play mini-discs (also demonstrated). The device seemed as though it would only attract dedicated first-adopters, since even the discs required manuals.  Not a manual for the device itself, a manual for the book

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The New Tsar

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin
© 2012 Steven Lee Myers

When the Soviet Union collapsed abruptly at the dawn of the 1990s, the world order changed overnight. Optimists predicted the 'end of history'.   Such an end wasn't kind to Russia, which faced a sinking economy,  dysfunctional attempts at democratic governance, and evaporating infrastructure. It could only watch in frustration as its former adversaries in the west made geopolitical moves in its backyard,  like attacking Serbia to help a breakaway province gain independence. That began to change in 2000, however, when a largely unknown spy-turned-administrator became president, and the oil crunch jump-started the Russian economy.  Vladimir Putin has been at the center of Russian politics ever since,  slowly becoming a bête noire to the power-circles in DC and Brussels.    Although his administration was initially known for an imposition of order and a revival of Russian interests abroad,   in twenty years Putin has  become more inflexible and less effective.   The new order has been built around the man, and even if he wanted to leave, it's an open question as to whether could survive the sudden vacuum.

As a little boy, Vladimir Putin didn't want to grow up to be a global leader.  He was more interested in being a spy.  He said as much when he walked into a KGB office and asked for employment. While they turned him down -- a literal case of don't call us, we'll call you -- the officer in charge suggested what academic credentials might serve Putin will in the future.  In 1975, the KGB did come a-calling, eventually stationing Putin in Eastern Germany. That's where Putin was when the Berlin wall fell and the DDR disappeared. With a mob gathering around the Soviet embassy, and no word from Moscow despite repeated signals for instructions, Putin confronted the mob alone.   Myers suggests that that silence from Moscow -- the lack of authority in the face of mounting chaos -- haunted Putin and strongly influenced his political career.  That career began when the mayor of St. Petersburg needed a liason with the state security forces; from there Putin would become a deputy mayor, and serve two key men so efficiently that at the end of the nineties, he was a deputy in the national government.  A sick and ailing Boris Yeltsin thought his quietly efficient, politically un-connected lieutenant would be an able successor to continue guiding Russia closer toward concord with the west, complete with a growing economy and growing democracy.  Well...nyet.

It is fascinating to learn that Putin's rise to power came through his decision to support the liberal, democratic forces within Russia, and particularly when he backed the nascent government against an attempted old-order coup.   We in the west tend to think of Putin as more authoritarian and un-democratic, and by our standards he certainly is.  In his twenty-year reign,  regional democracy has faded away, replaced by appointed governors;   at least two dissident journalists have died , and activists who stage protests seem to find security waiting for them before they begin.   Most of the domestic criticism around Putin's administration erupted during the 'tandem' period: the Russian constitution forbids more than two consecutive terms,  but Putin effectively remained in power despite that limitation by stepping down,  championing a supporter as his successor, and then doing much of the same job from a different office for four years, overshadowing his official boss.  When Putin re-assumed the presidency, Russians objected to the transparent self-serving operation.

I read this primarily to understand more about Russia and the west's inability to maintain any kind of amicable relationship.  Both American presidents covered in this book approached  Putin hoping for amity and a reset, but each sides' foreign adventures have undermined those efforts.  Russia's attempts to maintain its influence in Crimea and the Ukraine, resisting the  latter's courting by the west, have succeeded only in alienating Ukrainians further and making Europe regard Putin with fearful hostility.  The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and western adventures in regime-toppling with subsequent  chaos and monsters like ISIS,  have led Putin to regard the west as irresponsible fools.  As the west continues to try to contain Russia, Russia continues to boil with predictable resentment about being encircled with  bases and missiles.   Over time,  a desire for respect and legitimacy in Putin's first two terms has slowly grown into a cool contempt --  while Yelstin wanted to move Russia closer towards the west, Putin's Russia is increasingly removed from it.

The New Tsar is compelling reading for those interested in Russia's role or the man himself.  Myers  does a fairly good job at keeping himself out of the text and focusing on how the subject himself came to power and how the position has changed both him and Russia.   Putin is not villainized and turned into a monster-in-the-making,  but he isn't admired either. Instead, readers are allowed to see why different Russians can value Putin's  emphasis on strength and stability, or lament his lack of support -- and resistance to --  democracy.    Putin has indicated as recently as May 2018 that he plans to step down as president in 2024,     but  his quarter-century of power will cast a long shadow over where Russia goes from there -- even assuming he doesn't exercise influence from semi-retirement, a grey eminence pulling the strings from behind the curtain.  He is a figure well worth understanding.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
© 1971 Corrie ten Boom,  John and Elizabeth Sherrill

You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalms 32

When Corrie ten Boom turned in her family radio to the Nazi officials who had taken control of her town and her country and was asked if anyone else in the home had another set, she looked him square in the face and said "No".  As she departed, she shuddered -- not from the fear of encountering an agent of tyranny, but from how easy it was to lie.    The ten Booms were a deeply religious family whose watchmaking business opened and closed it day with the reading of Scripture, and even lying for the good did not come easy to the ten Boom sisters.  But it would have to, because as the Nazi consolidation of power in the Netherlands began, and their Jewish friends fell under duress, the tiny watchmaking-shop became the hiding place for a group of resistance fighters and Jewish citizens seeking refuge from the government.    It was last until late 1944, but even when the family had been seized by the SS and imprisoned in camps, there still remained one hiding place more.  The Hiding Place is both a wartime memoir and a work of Christian testimony, declaring and demonstrating that light can shine in the darkness.

From the beginning, the hiding place was not a great secret. The hidden compartment was physically well-concealed, but  no one could miss the sheer amount of people entering and exiting the building, and the neighbors had to ask (very quietly)  if they couldn't keep the Hanukkah singing down just a little bit.  The local police also knew, but had no interest in helping their grey-uniformed bosses in persecuting the innocents.   Someone did want to help the Germans, however,  as the family was betrayed and imprisoned. (Their wards, however, escaped notice!)  Eventually Corrie herself would travel to  Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp.  But that's where the memoir comes something else altogether, as the ten Boom sisters are isolated from one another and forced to rely on nothing but their faith to keep them sane -- and not just sane, but human.  The Gospel stories kept hope alive in the face of brutality -- and kept  them from sinking into despair and deadened souls. The camps destroyed many who survived, inflicting long-lasting psychological trauma, but ten Boom emerged from the war as a more fervent Christian missionary.   Remarkably, she and her sister refused to hate those who abused and humiliated them, and killed their father; they constantly expressed thanks for whatever small mercies they can see, and even when Corrie is being interrogated by an SS official, his skull-and-crossbones staring her down,  she urges him to turn away from the darkness and look to the light.   

In their darkest hours, the ten Boom sisters shared hope for the future -- dreams of what they would do when they were released.  They wanted to turn their home into a refuge for those who had been crippled by it. This was not new to the ten Booms: even during the war they sought to shelter and teach the mentally infirm, who were left without resources by the Nazis and threatened with euthanasia.    ten Boom shared a vision of having a place where former collaborators could redeem themselves  by serving those whom they'd previously oppressed. This, she admits, did not work out well: there were too many fights between both sides, each holding the other in resentment.  Even so, her shelter was one of the few places open to homeless former collaborators.   The ten Booms' refusal to give in to hate is utterly inspiring in a day when  spite and contempt saturate every political argument, when old hatreds are constantly given new life and the bleeding sores of politics never allowed to heal.

"It was a day for memories. A day for calling up the past. How could have guessed as we sat there -- to middle-aged spinsters and an old man -- that in place of memories we were about to be given adventure such as we had never dreamed of. Adventure and anguish, horror and heaven were just around the corner, and we did not know.
Oh Father! Betsie! If I had known would I have gone ahead? Could I have done the things I did?

p. 12

And now, the News (2)

Back when I read Alain de Botton's The News: A  User's Manual, I shared an excerpt from it.  While poking through my draft posts I found another quotation I'd jotted down that remains worth sharing.

Herein lies a central paradox of the news: it gives us the tools to develop views on serious and consequential decisions which have a direct impact on our lives. It invites us to the conference table and into the parliament, it introduces us to the key players, then it shows us nothing but inexplicable delays, strange compromises and maddening evasions. It can feel as though we are daily being invited to watch helplessly while a close friend drowns behind a plate-glass window.
The news routinely tantalizes us with the promise of drastic change and improvement. It anoints certain politicians as visionaries and expresses confidence they can fundamentally transform the nations within a few months of attaining office. Then everything falls apart. The politician turns out to be a fool and is dismissed as shallow and complacent, the central bank governor cites the behavior of the bond market as the reason for renewed caution, the conferences get bogged down in petty squabbling...
What the  news seldom bothers to mention is why things don't change very much; why great power and resources can't solve our difficulties, at a stroke.  It leaves us to assume with mounting fury that every ongoing problem can only be the result of laziness, stupidity, or malevolence -- and could be solved in a few relatively decisive and simple steps by someone intelligent and ingenius.

p. 53-54, The News: A User's Manual. Alain de Botton.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Broad Band

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet 
© 2018 Claire Evans
288 pages

When the ENIAC was first displayed for the public, its proponents bragged that it could do complex mathematical calculations in seconds which would have taken a skilled man hours upon hours.   Well...baloney. The ENIAC was an admirably complex array of metal, but without the human beings who had pored over its every component, turning their brains into maps of circuit boards,  creating the very language that was needed to put that array of metal to work -- it was useless. Hours and hours of human effort had gone into that little calculation, but they weren't man-hours.   The programmers of the ENIAC were six women, descendants of the calculating computer pools of the late 19th century. Broad Band is their story, and the story of other lady pioneers of the computer age.

I'll admit that I had no idea any of these women existed. Histories of of early computing and the internet are a favorite of mine, but I usually begin further along in the story, with more user-friendly machines like the PDP-10 and the advent of networks. I was a little leery of the book given the asinine blurb on the back -- "alpha nerds and brogrammers"?  Really?  Thankfully, the funny title brought me, and glad I am because I never heard of these women...and some of them are really worth knowing.   Grace Hopper, for instance, was deeply involved in the Harvard Mark-1 and the UNIVAC, and she pionered the use of subroutines to speed up coding, as well as created the first compilers.    COBOL, which at one time was the language of 80% of existing code,  was based on her work.  A woman once refused admittance to the services during World War 2 because of her age would become a Rear Admiral before her life's computing work was done. Another remarkable subject here is Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler,  whose Network Information Office created and maintained a directory of...the internet.  Working for the still-nascent ARPANet, Feinler was the master of all information about it. Her team also created many basic protocols, both under-the-hood things most users wouldn't recognize as well as creating the original web extension: ".com".   The women who follow were also trail-blazers, experimenting with social networks (New York's "ECHO" bbs,  which could boast a  40% female population), as well as digital magazines distributed on floppy disks.  Surprisingly, ECHO is still around, though other projects like Word magazine are long gone. 

Broad Band effectively mixes biography and tech history, and the goal from the start doesn't overshadow the actual content.  That is,   most of the subjects should be included in histories of web regardless of their sex, given their importance. I say most because I'm not sure about the website creators of the nineties; I don't know enough about the web at that transitional moment to read Broad Band in context.  There were some claims that seemed specious, like references to Al Gore being the key player in making the internet a thing known to the public, and  there's a huge discrepancy in the estimate given for ECHO membership. Evans says it peaked at 40,000, while The Atlantic marks the peak as...2,000.  There's no way of knowing which is more accurate,  but given that it was only accessible via a paid membership,  I'm tempted to think Evans' is closer -- she interviewed the ECHO host herself.   The meat of the book seems to get leaner and leaner as it wears on, until at the end we're reading about how computers are couched in "masculine" language like..."crash" and "execute".    Despite the late-game weaknesses, there's a lot of fun information here about how the web as we know it evolved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Force and Motion

 ST DS9: Force and Motion
© 2016 Jeffrey Lang
352 pages

All Miles O'Brien wanted to do was visit a research lab and catch up with an old friend, along with his engineering chum Nog.  He didn't expect to be thrown into a fight for his life, one involving giant robotic spiders and a massive blob of organic materials using a dead engineer's head as a sock puppet. But that's a day in the life of Miles Edward O'Brien.

Force and Motion had two immediate lures for me: first, the friend O'Brien is visiting is none other than Benjamin Maxwell, the captain who went 'rogue' in TNG's "The Wounded", insisting the Cardassians were re-arming and launching a one-man war to stop them.  Maxwell  was cashiered and imprisoned after that,  but it's been twenty years and now he's out and about, actively avoiding any serious responsibilities.  He just wants to serve, why is why a twice-decorated captain is now the maintenance engineer of a private space station.  No one watches "The Wounded" and regards Maxwell as villainous; by the end we know perfectly well the Cardassians are up to mischief, and Maxwell had lost so much at their hands -- his wife and children -- that he was determined they'd never ambush the Federation again.  Maxwell was a good man, merely one who had made an error in judgement, and I was eager to know him better.

The space station was the other lure for me: it's a privately-owned science station. Star Trek and economics are like reality and political rhetoric; they never intersect.  The show writers invariably portrayed business owners as rats and pirates, so I was hoping that a novelist might produce a...well, novel approach.  A privately owned research station,  home to fringe scientists and the hub for otherwise outlawed genetic engineering? Cool!  But....the premise fails to launch.  Our enterprising private-owner-of-a-space-station is not a visionary trying to push science outside the smothering watch of a Federation bureaucracy; he's just an amoral eccentric whose self-absorption gets people killed and absolutely ruins O'Brien and Nog's day off.   We don't learn too much about the kinds of science and tinkering being done, besides (1) bacteria-eating bacteria (2) robot spiders and (3)..rumors of a shrink ray.  

What Force and Motion delivers is good content on the growing friendship between O'Brien and Nog, both of whom have seen their friends drift away.  Maxwell himself is a central character, but mostly we find him in flashbacks, brooding with his shrink and doing things like building robotic legs to amuse himself.  At the end he takes charge of a crisis and earns redemption, which is nice -- but the book's promise never catches fire and delivers for me.

My introduction to Maxwell, with he and O'Brien singing "The Minstrel Boy". Star Trek has introduced me to so much good music over the years...