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When Words Mattered

September 28, 2014 Comments off

Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook

Past few weeks I’ve been posting various quotes on Facebook.  Here’s the story on the source of these bits of ephemera.

Two weeks ago Kim and I took a ride out to Shelburne, Mass.  Purpose of this trip was to get some grass-fed beef from Wheel-View Farm, a great place where John and Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle just on grass, free from antibiotics, corn or hormones.  It is just beef that tastes great and is great for you.

On the way back we passed an antiques store – can’t recall if it was in Turner’s Falls or Miller’s Falls, but around there.  New Englanders will instantly be familiar with this kind of place: aisles and aisles and shelves and shelves of old junk, from keys to tableware to brushes and razors to aged toys to old signs and more.  We were in no hurry to get back and you never know what you will find, so we stopped and browsed around.

The was a section of old books and out of the yellowed issues of Life and Time the title shown here to the left instantly leapt out at me: Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.  I snatched it up and without even opening it made my way to the checkout, where I parted with all of $4.50.

I know Hubbard, at least a bit.  He was one of the great progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a printer and businessman, and founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement that lives on to this day in East Aurora, NY, not far from my own hometown.  (He is also the uncle (adopted) of L Ron Hubbard of Scientology and Battlefield Earth fame.)  On Hubbard’s wikiPedia page you’ll find he was a socialist and anarchist, but his was a uniquely American version of those ideologies, melding a deep reverence for personal responsibility and productivity with a desire for social justice.  If Hubbard is known for anything today it is for the essay, Message to Garcia.  The message in this story of initiative, self-reliance and devotion to duty has made this work required reading in US military academies for decades; not many socialists nor anarchists are so revered.

The scrapbook is not Hubbard’s own writing, but writings of others that he prized.  In it you will find quotes from over 500 authors: Twain, Wordsworth, Solon, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Savonarola, Blake, Bronte, Buddha, Charles Darwin, Eugene Debs, Cato, and Cicero, just to name a few pulled at random from the index.

Isn’t this amazing?  I consider myself a well-read person, and having access to the information resources of the modern age, I should easily excel someone like Hubbard – who, as Mr. Spock remarked lived in a “stone knives and beaksins” culture – in exposure to great thoughts.  Yet it is not so.  My own scrapbook would be a thin volume indeed, compared to Hubbard’s.

We can debate the reasons for this, but it hardly matters.  To skim through the Scrapbook is to quickly see how the progressive movement was born in words, wed to action, much as the independence of America was born in the works of thinkers like John Locke and later John Stuart Mill.

I suppose people today would find much of the Scrapbook maudlin, or naïve.  In my sampling of it I have found to be energizing and optimistic.  I’ll leave you with this quote:

EVIL is unnatural – goodness is the natural state of man.  Earth has no hopeless islands or continents.  We live in a redemptive world.  Poverty will end; sin will die; love will triumph and hope will plant flowers on every grave.
David Swing

I imagine this was Hubbard’s belief as well – provided of course enough men and women are willing to take the message to Garcia …

roycroft-stamp

Categories: Books

Book Reviews: Kipling Sahib

June 7, 2014 Comments off

kipling-sahib

Sorry for no blogging in a while, have had a lot of customer trips/meetings at work, and the activities for the return back westward for me and family have begun.  Less than 2 months till we are all back home, where doubtless we’ll dream of India the way we dream of Massachusetts now.  Anyway, on to this longish posting.

I daresay there is no Westerner more famously associated with India than Rudyard Kipling.  As children we saw the Jungle Book cartoon and probably read Rikki-tikki-Tavi.  As we became older we saw the Man Who Would Be King, and possibly saw and read his great novel, Kim.  Finally, there is his poetry, inescapable from anyone who took an English Lit class 40 years ago, such as this from his famous Recessional:

    God of our fathers, known of old –
    Lord of our far-flung battle line –
    Beneath whose awful hand we hold
    Dominion over palm and pine –
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget – lest we forget!

I’m afraid today neither East nor West has a great view of Kipling.  Here in India he is typically dismissed as a racist, though perhaps a congenial one.  And in the West, he is alternately lauded then excoriated as a dead white guy.

I knew some of that when I was in the bookseller’s and saw  Kipling Sahib, by Charles Allen.  But frankly my motivation to get the book was boredom – there’s not a lot to do out here and all we Salazars pass a lot of time by reading.

Kipling Sahib was a welcome surprise.  The author, Charles Allen, comes of a long-time Anglo-Indian family and his grandfather, George Allen, was founder of the newspaper The Pioneer. It was George Allen who employed Kipling as a journalist and later as associate editor, and so connected with the Kipling family, as ex-patriates were wont to do in those days, in a way that persisted over generations.

The details related here were unknown to me and fascinating.  Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, came to India to as a member of an industrial academy, to teach Indians to make sculptures, moldings, and other architectural adornments prized by Victorian architecture.  An accomplished illustrator he created many telling portraits of Indian life, such as this:

Rudyard was himself born in Mumbai, in Dec. 1865 soon after the arrival of J.L. and his wife Alice in India.  An episode of Kipling’s early life that Allen relates near the start of the book sets the tone for all to follow:

… a story related by Alice Kipling to her son’s first biographer, of the four year old [Rudyard] walking hand in hand with a Maratha ryot or peasant cultivator over a ploughed field and calling back to his parents in the vernacular, “Goodbye, this is my brother.”

The word for brother the small Kipling must have used is bhā’ī, the same in Hindi and Marathi.  Certainly people use this for their siblings, but bhā’ī has broader meaning here, it can mean a friend you would do anything for, or one you depend on to do the same for you.  Your baṛē bhā’ī or bahut bhā’ī, your big brother, is someone who looks out for you and your family almost like a father.  In this the unknowing Rudyard was almost saying, “This is my new family.”

The life of Kipling that Allen relates has a Downton Abbey-like quality to it.  It was the Victorian era after all, and parents were comfortable with sending children thousands of miles away for schooling while they themselves strove for advancement in the far flung colonies of the Empire.  This time in England for Rudyard, age 5 to 12, and for his younger sister Trix, was to mark him forever.  It was in England while still only a boy he discovered his avocation for writing.  But it was also an episode of loneliness and abandonment that was to inform all of his work and life to come as well.

Later when Rudyard became an adult and returns to India he has his share of excitement and disappointment in the highly insular and stratified society of British India, especially at its favored summer location, the mountain city of Simla.  It is in Simla that the eccentricities of the British character conjoin with the diversity of India to create some rather amusing instances, like the 100,000 item collection of birds, eggs, and other natural artifacts that Allen Octavian Hume intended as source materials for an epic work entitled The Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon, but was sold off in the bazaar for kindling by a servant during one of Hume’s absences.  This same Hume later became a follower of “theosophist” Madame Blavatsky, who claimed powers as a medium; J.L. Kipling dismissed her as ‘’”one of the most interesting and unscrupulous imposters I have ever met.”  Later when Blavatsky’s deceptions were exposed and Hume withdrew his support, Kipling’s employer The Pioneer suffered greatly, as the paper had endorsed her.

These, together with numerous  romantic intrigues, were the doings of Simla observed by  Rudyard aged 17 or 18.  Interestingly, Allen Octavian Hume went on to become a sponsor and founder of the Indian National Congress, the party that would fight for and ultimately achieve Indian independence.

Kipling Sahib also shows us Rudyard’s history and struggles as a writer.  Kipling’s age was one where the Western world was hungry for information and novelty.  Newspapers and books of all kinds sold in great numbers, and stories of far places were especially prized.  Writers combing the countryside looking for exotic stories became commonplace, so much so that the guise of “writer” sometimes was used as a foil by blackmailers and the like, as Kipling suggests in The Man Who Would Be King:

“… here’s precious few pickings to be got out of these Central India States—even though you pretend to be correspondent of the ‘Backwoodsman.’ “

“Have you ever tried that trick?” I asked.

“Again and again, but the Residents find you out, and then you get escorted to the Border before you’ve time to get your knife into them …

“Residents” are British officers or officials, assigned to help keep order in the independent states.  And ‘Backwoodsman’ was an obvious reference to The Pioneer.

As Allen relates it, Kipling seems to have been driven both by insecurity as a writer, driven to distinguish himself in the growing ranks of travel-writers and diarists, and by a desire of truthfulness, a kind of dramatic journalism that led him to focus on the lowly and powerless and not the powerful.  His first success was the somewhat eldritch tale The Phantom Rickshaw, in which a man, Jack Pansay, has an affair with the wife of an officer, only to leave her for a younger, unmarried woman.  When the first woman dies of a broken heart, the man is haunted by her rickshaw, that pursues him when he rides with his fiancé, the spurned lover’s ghost crying,  “It’s some hideous mistake, I’m sure. Please forgive me, Jack, and let’s be friends again.”

The Phantom Rickshaw won a kind of prurient following, for affairs of this kind were a common but unspoken aspect of Anglo-India life; officers and bureaucrats were away months or years at a time, leaving wives with little to do and no companionship other than those in similar straits.  Rudyard’s father J.L. never liked the story, saying he “… hoped someone would rap [Rudyard’s] knuckles for the unwholesomeness of the Phantom Ricksha.”

Kipling would stay on the edge of knuckle-rapping his whole career.  For all that he championed British Imperialism in works such as The Recessional and The White Man’s Burden, in writings like Soldier Stories he related the perspective, and courage, of the lower-classes, both brown and white.  A typical example is The Drums of the Fore and Aft.  In this story, a regiment of new recruits has two British war-orphans for drummers, Jakin and Lew, always undisciplined, but longing for the day when they would be men and full privates in the regiment.  In a battle in Afghanistan the regiment cuts and runs, but Jakin and Lew stay, all alone playing drum and fife as they march out against the Pathans.  They are cut down, but their courage rallies the shamed regiment who drive off the enemy.  At the end of the story the Brigadier and the Colonel congratulate themselves on the action, which in fact they had little to do with. Kipling ends with these lines:

But some say, and among these be the Gurkhas who watched on the hillside, that that battle was won by Jakin and Lew, whose little bodies were borne up just in time to fit two gaps at the head of the big ditch-grave for the dead under the heights of Jagai.

Kipling is a complex figure, no doubt.  George Orwell wrote a famous piece on him, both condemning and defending.  In fact Googling about while writing this post I came across old acquaintance David Friedman’s critique of Orwell’s critique.  I rather agree with David’s point that while Kipling related many racist or oppressive scenes, what he in fact was, was a realist, who tried in his way to show the truth of many kinds of lives: of soldier’s lives, or of Indian’s lives.  These truths may not always be flattering to their subjects, or convenient to those in power, but Kipling did put them on paper.  Consider this, from the poem The Young British Soldier (from Barrack Room Ballads):

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
   An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

I can barely imagine how such realism was received in 1895.  Even today this poem quite rightly resonates, as it was taken as inspiration by British troopers in Afghanistan, there again after a 60 years of absence.

So, should you read Kipling Sahib?  If you are the reading kind, or a Kipling completist,  or perhaps in need of distraction as I was, then certainly you should.  Otherwise, I have to say no; the book has too much biographer’s detail.

Instead, if you have not done, you should read Kim.  I have long known of this book – in it Kipling invented the term “the Great Game”, after all – but never read it.  I assumed it was adventuresome, like The Man Who Would Be King, so felt no great reason to read it.  But after reading Kipling Sahib, and finding many free editions of Kim on Kindle, I thought, why not?

I found this book to be wonderful.  I won’t add another review to this already too-long first review.  I will just say Kim is about discovering oneself, what is important.  I am much taken with this passage, recited by the lama who befriends the orphan Kim:

‘Long and long ago, when Devadatta was King of Benares – let all listen to the Tataka! – an elephant was captured for a time by the king’s hunters and ere he broke free, beringed with a grievous leg iron. This he strove to remove with hate and frenzy in his heart, and hurrying up and down the forests, besought his brother-elephants to wrench it asunder.

One by one, with their strong trunks, they tried and failed. At the last they gave it as their opinion that the ring was not to be broken by any bestial power. And in a thicket, new-born, wet with moisture of birth, lay a day-old calf of the herd whose mother had died. The fettered elephant, forgetting his own agony, said: “If I do not help this suckling it will perish under our feet.” So he stood above the young thing, making his legs buttresses against the uneasily moving herd; and he begged milk of a virtuous cow, and the calf throve, and the ringed elephant was the calf ’s guide and defence. Now the days of an elephant – let all listen to the Tataka!– are thirty-five years to his full strength, and through thirty-five Rains the ringed elephant befriended the younger, and all the while the fetter ate into the flesh.

‘Then one day the young elephant saw the half-buried iron, and turning to the elder said: “What is this?” “It is even my sorrow,” said he who had befriended him. Then that other put out his trunk and in the twinkling of an eyelash abolished the ring, saying: “The appointed time has come.” So the virtuous elephant who had waited temperately and done kind acts was relieved, at the appointed time, by the very calf whom he had turned aside to cherish – let all listen to the Tataka!— for the Elephant was Ananda, and the Calf that broke the ring was none other than The Lord Himself…’

 

Soon (I hope) some posts about the preparations and perspectives on returning home.  Till then …

Categories: Books, Expat life

Book Review: The Circle

October 20, 2013 2 comments

the_circleI really wanted David Eggers The Circle to be the dystopian novel of our time.  It isn’t – it is all at once too approachable, too light-handed, too inclusive and, oddly, too believable to be truly menacing.

And that’s a shame, because the subject of The Circle is an insidious one, a true and deadly threat, and worthy of a dystopic classic.

Here’s a spoiler-free summary of the book: In a future fairly near to now, a company named “The Circle” – a combination of Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Google and others – dominates the worldwide internet.  The core of the company’s success is an authentication service called “TruYou”.  TruYou can be used by any third party application, much like Facebook’s OAuth-based service does today.  However TruYou purports to allow unique, real-world people only – no invented IDs allowed; when you login with TruYou, you can only operate as your actual self.  The great benefit of TruYou is supposed to be the greater transparency (get used to hearing that word if you read this book) and authenticity it promotes.  No longer can trolls, scam-artists, sexual predators and the like hide behind IDs like “rockrDude882”.

Into the world of The Circle enters Mae Holland, the every-person protagonist required by a dystopian story.  Mae is in her mid-20s, in a job at an old-school company she finds unsatisfying.  To the rescue comes Annie, Mae’s college roommate, who in the four years since she’s last seen Mae has had a meteoric rise in the management ranks of The Circle.  Annie gets Mae a job at The Circle, something incredibly hard to do as an outsider.  Annie does want to do a favor for her pal, but mainly she wants allies; even from the first few pages you see The Circle has a cruel corporate culture, though of course officially performance-minded and caring. Mae’s job is in “customer experience”, essentially a customer-service phone rep, as was explained to Mae by her trainer:

"Okay, as you know, for now you are just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers.  They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us … When you figure out the answer, you write them back…

“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back.  You should make each response personal, specific.  You’re a person and they’re a person, and you shouldn’t treat them like robots … you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.

Humanity, however, is the last thing the Circle is about, as Mae finds when the trainer explains the rating system:

“Now let’s say you’ve answered a client’s question … that’s when you send them the survey and they fill it out.  It’s a set of quick questions about your service, their overall experience, and at the end they’re asked to rate it.  The rating pops up here.”

He pointed to the corner of the screen, where there was a large number 99, and below, a grid of other numbers.

Mae’s first day of work is all about her struggles and triumphs with her score.  In the end she achieves a 98.  This news – the highest-ever score by a first-day person – is “zinged” (The Circle’s equivalent of Twitter) to over 10,000 people and leads to 187 follow-up comments.

You may be thinking: So what?  This already happens at countless companies today, and I don’t see the world coming to an end.  Well, 99% of what happens in The Circle is happening today – it just is not happening under the auspices of a single entity.  The Circle aggregates everything and is the one thing that has a total view, which it uses to promote its capitalistic growth and raw power.  Another example: In the course of the story, The Circle launches “transparent democracy”, a 100% public life-log for elected officials.  A fictitious Congresswoman describes the benefits:

“That’s right, Tom.  I’m as concerned as you are about the needs for citizens to know what their elected leaders are doing.  I mean, it is your right, is it not?  Who they are meeting with.  Who they are talking to.  What they’ve been doing on the taxpayer’s dime.  Until now, it’s been an ad hoc system of accountability … But still we wonder, why are they meeting with their former-senator-turned-lobbyist?  And how did that congressman get that $150,000 the FBI found in his fridge?

“So I intend to follow Stewart on his path of illumination. And along the way,I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent.  Starting today, I will be wearing the same device that Stewart wears.  My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.”

In the story, “transparent democracy” becomes an unstoppable force, driven by the insidious view that, if someone protests, they must be hiding something.  The persistent holdouts all find themselves forced from office, victims of sudden discoveries of past poor judgment, ambiguous financial dealings, or questionable tastes in pornography.

I hope no one doubts the fundamental plausibility of this.  We live in a world where a significant portion of the US population believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya, all based on publically retrievable information.  Given enough money and media control, anyone can be ruined just by “facts” – no need to concoct anything.  In the world of The Circle, The Circle has all information, all media, and everyone’s identity.  That “closing of the circle” is the danger.

Here’s a scenario to ponder.  One of the links in this post is to the Goodreads page for The Circle.  I am a member of Goodreads, having linked my Facebook ID.  Like a lot of people I have rated some books.  Now, imagine if I listed and rated every book I have read.  In there would be works like The Occupy Handbook, The Price of Inequality and The Myth of the Rational Market. Looking at these and other books I have read it would not be hard to infer my political leanings.  Now, let’s say I want to get a job.  Hiring today is done more and more through a small number of online providers, and has a heavy component of online analytics, looking at public internet data about you, like what keg-party pictures you publicly post on Facebook.

Finally, imagine that the online company that does hiring is the same company as Goodreads, as Amazon, as Facebook, and more.  They know everything you read, everything you buy, everything you search for on the web.  What do you think about the hiring process now?

Maybe that scares you, maybe it doesn’t.  This is one of the ironic truths of The Circle.  It correctly captures the reality that people aren’t frightened by this, that while (for example) they maniacally protest that affordable health care for fellow citizens is somehow destroying their liberty, they happily surrender liberty by telling everything about themselves to Facebook, to Walmart, to Twitter, and just about anything online with a nice looking web page, all for the sake of a few “Likes” on a cat picture.

The arc of the story in The Circle is embodied in Mae, who goes from angsty CE newbie to one of the 20-most followed people on the planet.  Like so many of us, Mae never notices what happens, every step on the path seems innocuous.  Things happen to people – which I won’t spoil for anyone – and much of the book’s message is in Mae’s reactions to it all.  The lobster/sea turtle scene made me squirm.

I said The Circle is not the cautionary story of our time.  I think its great weakness as dystopian fiction is it never really personalizes the threat, the danger.  Everything happens on the internet, as it were, and that makes it distant.  Again, that is part of the message: when your experience of destroying an enemy is not shooting him face to face, but through a drone attack you view by remote video, it’s a lot easier to follow through and just kill him.  But there’s a catch-22 here (another dystopian idea for which we should be thankful) that by showing the reality of how this threat works, Eggers weakens the message about the threat.

The most powerful thing in the book is the slogan of the Circle, articulated by Mae as she starts her rise to power:

SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT

Because of these three lines, if for no other reason, we have to contrast The Circle with 1984, which made famous three lines of its own:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

1984 is still the more powerful work by far.  In a way, the quest of Winston Smith and Julia, the lovers of 1984, is the problem of The Circle: How to be private, how to be alone with one another.  Yet, nothing in The Circle comes close to the visceral, personal experience of Winston in The Ministry of Love, Orwell’s vision of the KGB-like future intelligence/torture agency that enforces political correctness and combats “thoughtcrime”.  Here a fellow prisoner loses all control at the thought of torture in the dreaded “Room 101”:

’Comrade! Officer!’ he cried. ’You don’t have to take me to that place!
Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll
confess straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it — anything! Not room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
The man’s face, already very pale, turned a colour Winston would not have
believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.
’Do anything to me!’ he yelled. ’You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish
it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is
there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell
you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got
a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take
the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand
by and watch it. But not Room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.

Orwell was able to pull out the fear that is in all of us and place it in the light where it can be seen for itself: cold, cowering, heartless, and dreadful.  The Circle verges on showing us ourselves but, at the last instant, it steps back and grants us too much absolution.

I did “like” The Circle, though you won’t see me reviewing it on Goodreads <g>. It is a fast read, though the somewhat nerdy sex-scenes might make you wince, especially the one where one of Mae’s lamer liaisons asks for a 1-100 rating so he can post it on his blog.  (SPOILER: As women have done through the ages, Mae gives him a 100.)  But that I think was part of the atmosphere Eggers was trying to capture.  One side-aspect I really liked was the way it captured the faux-inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and the heartless nature of big corporate existence, though I think these are aspects that won’t be apparent to a reader unless they have experienced some of that first hand.  I will say I disliked the character of Annie at the start, only to really feel for her at the end.

My final thoughts?  I think it is part of human nature to care, to share, and to do the right thing.  But only part.  We are often worse in the aggregate than we are on our own. 

Thinking on the title of this book, this came to me, something I haven’t heard in many years:

Like the hymn says, there is a circle that connects us.  As long as we find ways to make that come alive, not with packets and posts, but with flesh and blood, I expect we’ll do alright.  But if we don’t, we could be looking at a future that makes the brutality of Room 101 look like a merciful finality.

Categories: Books, Technology

Book Reviews: The Last Lion; The New Digital Age

August 3, 2013 1 comment

The Last Lion on Amazon

Like many baby boomers I can’t help being fascinated by WW2.  The war was a constant subject of TV and movies in my childhood, from Combat to Rat Patrol to Where Eagles Dare to Hogan’s Heroes.  As I got older and my taste for actual history grew, I started reading accounts and perspectives of the war.  Among the things I read – we are talking 20 years ago or more – was Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, a memoire in 6 volumes.

This lengthy work filled me with questions:  Who was this man I’d formerly known only as a pudgy cigar-smoker, who shuttled across 4 continents in the midst of the most furious conflict in human history, meeting world leaders and crafting the conduct of the war, all the while downing copious volumes of brandy and painting the occasional water-color?  Who was this man who, in addition to his famous remark, “Yes madam, but in the morning I’ll be sober,” also observed, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”?  Who was this great politician who was also a great author, so much so he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953?

Motivated by these questions, in the 1980s I read the first two volumes of The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill.  Entitled Visions of Glory and Alone, they were published in 1982 and 1988 respectively.  It would be 24 years until volume 3, Defender of the Realm, would be published, 10 years after Manchester’s death and co-authored by journalist Paul Reid.

Though it has been decades since I read the first two volumes, it seems to me the tone and pacing of Defender of the Realm is markedly different.  Whether this is due to the change in authorship or the subject matter is hard to say, but DOTR reads much more like a weekly newsreel of the war than an examination of Churchill the man.

Perhaps that is how it should be.  One of the key messages of DOTR is that Churchill, molded by more than forty years of political and military experience, and having had a perfect vantage for the great events of the first half of the 20th century, was the very man Britain needed in her hour of need.  Aristocratic but not royal, old and not young, Churchill was nonetheless the nation’s Henry V when he famously said:

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

When we look back at history, events oft times seem pre-determined; we can’t resist the assumption things could not have turned out any other way.  But something that comes though, in many places, in DOTR is that things could have turned out much, much different. In movies, of course the Germans always lose.   Well, they weren’t losing in 1940.  The German army of that time was savage, innovative, and gigantic.  Taking no losses of note, the Germans had neutralized and then defeated a combined French, English and Belgian force that numbered in the millions, driving the English to evacuate at Dunkirk.  In June 1940 by no means was any victory over Germany pre-determined.  Most English expected Germany to invade, and to overwhelm and pacify England just as they had France.  In preparation for this, Churchill carried cyanide, intending never to be taken alive by Hitler.

But, they didn’t invade.  The reasons were many and even today uncertain: Logistics, Germany was spent after the Battle of France and needed time to consolidate; Oceans, in that invasion required a Channel crossing, but Britain still had the most powerful navy of any European power; Uncertainty, in that if the Germans did manage to land, they rightly believed the English, as an island race, would defend their country to the last man, woman and child; and Politics, as Hitler fully expected England, in the face of obvious defeat, would sue for peace.  Manchester/Reid write:

The Fuhrer has assumed that invasion would be unnecessary.  After the fall of France he considered the war over.  In the East his pact with Stalin assured continuing peace as long as neither side abrogated it, which Hitler intended to do once the English came to terms.  When Hitler ordered the demobilizing of forty divisions, he told Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, that all war plans could be scrapped; we would reach an “understanding” (Übereinkommen) with the British.

Hitler clearly had no understanding of Churchill and, by extension, of the English.  Churchill’s refusal to accept the European common wisdom of accomodation, as manifested by the French with the Vichy Regime, was his great accomplishment.  If not for this principled and obdurate stance on Churchill’s part, things would have turned out much, much different, and what seems pre-destined now might never have happened.  If you still can’t evade the feeling the outcome of the war was predetermined, try to envision an American president of the last 40 years carrying cyanide and preparing to use it in the case of total defeat.  I don’t think so.

Another aspect of Churchill that comes through in DOTR is the combination of his wildly active mind and his leadership style.  To his subordinates Churchill seemed constantly out of control.  Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) observed “It is a regular disease he [Churchill] suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched” and that Churchill “… never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor Marlborough!”

But their was method to Churchill’s madness.  He understood he was waging a global conflict that would set the course of history for a hundred years.  To focus on any single thing, a single strategy or a single front, would have led to disaster.  Instead he pursued a strategy of many fronts and many activities and was always ready to bolster those that succeeded and stop those that stalled.

To concentrate on a single thing was very much what Stalin wanted the Allies to do, in his constant demands to open a Western front.  Stalin understood that Germany, arrayed against the combined industrial might of the entire world, could not prevail.  His desire was that the Allies spend their strength in head-on encounters with Hitler’s most powerful forces.  This would allow Stalin more time and space to expand his own empire, and to insure the forces of the Allies would be depleted when he eventually turned against them.  Churchill’s strategy of first confronting Italy and Germany in North Africa, and then in Italy itself – something by no means initially supported by Roosevelt and his advisors – was intended to keep the Nazis off balance, but also to create a presence in the East, so that the Allies could take positions in Eastern Europe when the time was right.

Alas, it was not to be.  American Generals like John Lucas and Mark Clark were too cautious in the Italian campaign, completely wasting the surprise at Anzio and generally focusing on annihilating Germans face to face rather than neutralizing their ability to fight.  Churchill had a vision of taking Rome by April 1944, and from there striking quickly into the Balkans and thence to Austria.  Instead the Italian campaign stabilized and the Allies devoted all attention to Overlord in Normandy.  When in May 1945 the Americans, British and Russians finally joined forces in a conquered Berlin, the Red Army had already taken Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and much more of Eastern Europe – essentially the territory marked by the Iron Curtain Churchill would later describe in his famous speech of 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone — Greece with its immortal glories — is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.

As writing, I found Defender of the Realm to have a good pace, constantly weaving in Churchill’s views and activities with the unfolding events of the war.  The later chapters on Churchill’s post-war life and accomplishments are slower moving, but the links that were made to the younger Churchill – the writing, the socializing, the continued brandy and cigars – all serve to show how Churchill’s authentic self was always there.  The war did not make him – he made the war.

I’ll leave off this part of this long post (sorry for that) with my favorite image from DOTR:

Smoking a long cigar and stroking his cat, Nelson, he [Churchill] prowled the corridors of No. 10 wearing a soldier’s steel helmet (called by all a “tin hat”), a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms.  Sometimes he carried on anthropomorphic conversations with Nelson (including an admonition to be more stouthearted after the cat flinched in an air raid).

 

The New Digital Age on Amazon

Churchill was one of the architects of the modern world, a world where we  in the West enjoy the benefits of tolerance, democracy, and capitalism.  What have we done with the world Churchill bequeathed us?  One answer to that, at least, comes in The New Digital Age, by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google “Director of Ideas” Jared Cohen, a quasi-futuristic view of how information technology will transform daily life around the world in the coming decades.

You may recall this book from a previous post of mine, where I quoted Julian Assange, who described the book as an “expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world”.

I have to say that now having read TNDA, I get what he meant.  Schmidt and Cohen lay out a world where smartphones and pervasive internet, well, just make everything all right.  An example:

The future will usher in an unprecedented era of choices and options.  While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of exposure they incur.  Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency.  A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenage in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption.

Or, how about this:

People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners.

Are these guys using the same internet I use?  In the cases of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and even retired General James Cartwright we see what happens when citizens “participate”.

The main point of this book seems to be dishing out relentless naiveté to the effect that, whatever social ill is on your mind, the internet will magically fix it.  To be truthful, the book is not 100% internet rah-rah.  Here and there Schmidt/Cohen chill the fragrant sponge of fermenting digital dough with a few colder observations:

As part of their virtual containment strategies, states will undertake a series of transparency gestures, releasing crumbs but withholding the bulk of information they possess.  These states will be congratulated for exposing their own institutions and even their own past crimes … Manufacturing transparent-looking documents and records will not be difficult for these regimes – in the absence of contradictory information (such as leaked original documents) there’s little hope of proving them false.

Jared Cohen seems a serious guy – before his Director of Google Ideas gig he was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and staffer to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.  But I have to say, despite the subject matter he and Schmidt undertake – Identity, Government, Revolution and Terrorism – this is not a serious book.  Despite the various cautionary notes like that above, everything in TNDA is too pat, too suffused with the notion that technology always works out for the best.

One obvious example that shows how information access is not an unambiguous benefit is climate change.  What Schmidt and Cohen would have us believe is, if you are concerned, just Google it and you’ll find the answer.  However every reasonable person on the planet knows the “internet” has no such “answer”.  What you do find is different sides of the debate using the tactics of the digital world to promote their information and to suppress or discredit contrary information. Does anyone think a regular follower of foxnews.com will suddenly be enlightened by something they read on npr.org? Without getting into my own views on climate change, if you tried to distill down what you get from the internet on this topic into a real answer, it would take years and you would end up being close to a climate scientist yourself.  So, yes, it’s faster than checking out dead-tree books from the library.  But it is not fundamentally better.

Really what this book is, is a commercial for Google.  Internet, phones, and information – with tasteful, well-selected ads, of course – is what they sell. And, like a weapons-supplier, they sell their stuff to anyone who can pay.  Google wants us to feel everything is fine, and for us to keep giving our information to them, to Facebook, to retailers, and to the government.

I don’t think everything is fine.  I love tech,  I make my living from tech, but no tech is an unalloyed benefit.  I do think individuals need to take action, but not by “participating” as Schmidt and Cohen would have it, but by taking control of what they can.

An FB friend recently shared a link on this very topic, the Surveillance Self-Defense Project, or SSD.  SSD is an Electronic Frontier Foundation project that informs the public on how better to contain personal information.  A vast amount of data about each one of us is in the form of “business records” – information that is publically or government-accessible because we have disclosed it, either explicitly or in the context of a transaction.  SSD has some good guidance on how to manage all that so you at least know what you are disclosing.  It will be efforts like SSD that really enable the benefits that TNDA talks about, not just the raw existence of technology itself.

To wrap up, the best I can say about TNDA is that much of what they foresee is indeed possible and to be hoped for – but hopin’ don’t make it so.

 

Perhaps you wonder why I chose to review these 2 books together?  Churchill was motivated by understanding of foundational truths, about Democracy, Totalitarianism, Tolerance, Opportunity and above all, about Power.  He was an ardent believer in technology – he was the father of the tank, after all – but not bound by it.

What would Churchill say to our challenges today, of government transparency, of economic inequality, of worldwide poverty and repression?    Would he erect a few cell-towers and make an app for that?

I think he would say: Never surrender.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my tin-hat and bathrobe.  And who knows? when the monsoons abate I may get a few cigars.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

Jack Vance, August 28 1916–May 26, 2013

June 1, 2013 4 comments

In Memoriam

Amiante said to Ghyl in a voice Ghyl would never have recognized, “Take the papers. They are yours. Keep them safe.” He went into the square and sat upon a bench.

Ghyl hid the portfolio under the roof-tiles. An hour later welfare agents came to take Amiante away.

When he returned after four days, he was bland, easy, indifferent. A month later he fell into a dull mood and slumped into a chair. Ghyl watched him anxiously.

Amiante dozed. When Ghyl brought him a bowl of gruel for his lunch, Amiante was dead.

I first read these words over 30 years ago.  Since then I have re-read them … 10 times? 15?  They are from Emphyrio, one of my favorites of all the works of Jack Vance, who died this past Sunday.  The book tells the story of Ghyl Tarvoke.  Inspired by the legend of the hero, Emphyrio, and by the courage and lonely death of his father, Ghyl overthrows the “lords” who economically and spiritually oppress his world.  His weapon: Truth.  Along the way Ghyl experiences love, loss, the infuriating futility of religion, the bleak helplessness of totalitarianism, and a whole host of human weaknesses.

One reason I enjoy the words above is because of the author’s control.  Up to this point we know the young Ghyl has tremendous respect and love for his father, Amiante.  Yet Vance spares us the tortured outpourings of feeling so typical of today’s writing, instead choosing to make his message with the very starkness of the scene.  Later in the book we reflect on the life of Amiante in one of the ironic twists Vance is so famous for.  In Ghyl and Amiante’s society, duplication (or “duping”) of any kind is forbidden; the social and economic rule of this planet is that duplicates are inherently worthless and only unique handcrafts command enough value to trade with.  Amiante is a wood-carver; earlier in the book we see him execute a carved wooden screen he names “Remember Me”; for this work he receives a pittance, what we would call minimum wage.  Later, when Ghyl escapes the planet and travels to other worlds, he comes upon his father’s screen in a shop:

The screen had been carved to represent a lattice festooned with vines. Hundreds of small faces looked earnestly forth. Remember Me, read the plaque. Near the lower right-hand corner Ghyl found his own childhood face. Close at hand, the face of his father Amiante peered forth.

He entered the shop; a clerk in a black and white robe of a mercantile functionary approached him. “Your will, sir?”

  “The screen in the window — the price is four hundred and fifty bice?”

  “Correct, sir. Somewhat costly, but an excellent piece of work.”

  Ghyl grimaced in puzzlement. Going to the cabinet, he inspected the screen carefully, to learn if it might have been damaged or misused. It seemed in perfect condition. Ghyl peered close, then all his blood turned cold and seemed to drain to his feet. He turned slowly to the clerk. “This screen is a reproduction.”

  “Of course, sir. What did you expect? The original is priceless. It hangs in the Museum of Glory.”

To try and sum up Emphyrio in a few sentences is as futile a premise as trying to “recover an elixir … inadvertently spilled in the sea”, to use another Vance image.  Rather than attempt either feat, I will instead essay a few observations on Vance and why I find him so engaging.  This seems to me a nervelessly easy task – ‘”Simplicity itself”, as Cugel would confidently declare.

Inventiveness

No writer of SF&F can match Vance in the number and impact of his imaginings.  His earliest work, The Dying Earth, is an invention of incredible power: An Earth, billions of years in the future, where every possible achievement of science and magic has been made and forgotten countless times, and where the Sun is feeble and almost extinguished.  For many writers this would have been a career in itself.

But Vance’ well of ideas seems endless.  Consider The Moon Moth.  Just a short story, yet in a little space he crafts a wondrous society where communication is done via music and the medium of economic exchange is strakh, or prestige.  Again, for other writers this would be an entire franchise; for Vance it’s almost an after thought.

Then there’s Rhododendron Way, a sort of religiously-mandated system of prostitution instituted by the chillites, a sect Vance presents in The Anome, first book of the Durdane trilogy.  It is on Rhodenderon Way that Dystar the Druithine (a kind of philosopher-troubadour) encounters the indentured woman Eathre and fathers Mur, who later takes the name Gastel Etzwane.  Again in a little space Vance puts forth an idea that captures at once the full force of the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, and also the bittersweet nature of the human condition as well.

Vance’ ideas are not the mechanistic kind so often associated with SF; Vance has no equivalent of the 3 Laws of Robotics, for example.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s good; Vance’ ideas are not algorithms or scientific cleverness, they are reflections of human nature – as when he articulated the principle of magic in the Dying Earth, where the very words of a spell are so potent and fraught with power that a human brain can only recall a limited number at any one time.

Characters

Thinking of Vance’ characters here’s what occurs to me … Kirth Gersen, Cugel the Clever, the Mad Poet Navarth, Shimrod the Magician, Aila Woudiver, Madouc, Suldrun, Wayness Tamm, Magnus Ridolph, Rhialto the Marvellous, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, Traz Onmale, Ankhe at afram Anacho, Iuconnu the Laughing Magician, King Casmir of Lyonesse, Hildemar Dasce.  In my mind is a picture of every one of these – should I meet any one of them I feel I know what they will say.

Any Vance reader can rattle off a similar list of names and I daresay can visualize their favorites just as I can mine.  This is because as effortlessly as he envisages new worlds, Vance creates memorable characters, each invested with style, substance and feeling.  Vance brings these people to life with actions, as when the boy Traz Onmale first saves Adam Reith – at the cost of his place as tribal leader – in The City of the Chasch; and with words, like these from The Palace of Love:

Gersen interrupted one of Navarth’s dissertations.  "Is it here we can expect Viole Falushe?"

"Where else but here?" demanded the mad poet, now somewhat drunk.  "Where the heart of Earth beats the thickest blood!  Thick, purple, smelling of must: like crocodile blood, the blood of dead lions.  Never fear!  You will see your man! … What was I discussing?  My youth, my squandered youth!  At one time I worked for Tellur Transit, investigating the contents of lost suitcases.  Here, perhaps, I gained my deepest insight into the structure of the human soul … "

Vance does get criticized for his female characters.  It is true he has no real female protagonists, but there’s no law that says a male writer must do so.  And the female characters he has created should not be discounted.  In fact it is female characters who lead all the action in the Lyonesse Trilogy: Glyneth, Madouc, Twisk, Tatzel, Melancthe/Desmei and, tragically, Suldrun; in a certain sense Aillas, Shimrod and Dhrun, the male leads, are errand boys following the paths set for them by the women.  Then there is Wayness Tamm, who has at least half the action in Ecce and Old Earth, where she takes the role of detective tracking down lost documents across a future Europe and South America.

Style

Reviewers and critics often cite Vance as a “stylist”, by which they mean he uses long sentences and a lot of uncommon words.  Indeed, reading Vance you will find words like “opprobrium”, “encomium”, “inveigle”, “bathos”, “nuncupatory”, “tremulous” (one of his favorites), and “cachectic”.

Vance is also famous for the words he has invented: grue (an unknown, darkness-loving monster of dire potency), strakh (the currency of prestige in the Moon Moth), rachepol (an outcast with cropped ears), the whelm (name for a miltary force), or deedle, gruff and wobbly (kinds of bulk-processed food, terms adopted for  regular use in the Salazar household).

Yet, Vance is more complicated than all this.  Take the spareness of Raymond Chandler, the whimsy of Wodehouse, the other-worldliness of Dunsany, the fantasy of L. Frank Baum, the settings and action of Hemingway, the sense of macabre of Clark Ashton Smith, and you will approach Vance’ style as a writer.  Which is not to say he is derivative – not more than any successful writer.  His synthesis is unique.

To me one of the best examples of Vance style is this, from Suldrun’s Garden:

In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.

  The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.

  The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal. On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone. With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea. Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.

  The afternoon passed: a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.

  The sun sank softly and quietly. Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.

  The stars appeared. Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself. The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge.

Literature

Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said that the purpose of literature was “to entertain, and to instruct”.  The professor and great writer always put the two criteria in that order and when citing this dictum never failed to pause significantly between entertain … and instruct.  Yet for something to be literature, the two always go together.

For me, Vance in all his works never fails this test.  At his core he was a pulp writer, and I’m entertained by everything he did – from the mannered techno-comedy of Magnus Ridolph to the raw adventure of Tschai to the epic scope of Lyonnesse.  But Vance’ works stay with you because there is something more there, something beyond the images, the excitement, the invention.  His stories always have, in the broad, original sense, a moral.

The morals in Vance’ stories I am talking about are not always good things, or even terribly deep things.  They are ideas like: Liberty is better than bondage, Equity is better than duplicity, Self-reliance is better than dependence, Justice is better than cynicism.  As I said, not terribly deep, but still important … and they are there, which is more than I can say for most genre fiction today, which strives only to be shocking or superficially unique in its conceptions.  In The Durdane Trilogy, Gastel Etzwane strives to overthrow the oppressive rule of the alien Asutra, who act through though their puppet, the Anome.  In The Domains of Koryphon (published as The Grey Prince) and also The Cadwal Chronicles, the key question is, who is entitled to land, those who maintain and protect it, or an undifferentiated, unproductive invading populace?  Even in The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga there is a message – what goes around, come around.

Now, Vance I’m sure would disclaim any such significances – he was famous for denying any meaning in his works.  But he also said a piece should stand on its own and it is up to reader to discern these messages.  I discern in his stories a sentiment that comes from the best of America – for all Vance is loved in Europe he is truly an American writer – Strength, Fortitude in adversity, Adaptability, Exploration of the new, and Compassion for the weak.  All mid-century values and maybe a bit paternalistic, but to be valued nonetheless.

Last Thoughts

With his death there are many appreciations of Vance coming onto the web.  Some useful ones are here:

http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/jvprofile.htm

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/magazine/19Vance-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.stainlesssteeldroppings.com/in-remembrance-of-jack-vance

Also if your interest is piqued you should look at Foreverness and Cosmopolis, websites devoted to Vance.  A particularly affecting piece is Cosmopolis #41 which contains an article by Norma Vance, Jack’s wife of 62 years who passed away in 2008.

 

I have rambled on long enough, probably to little purpose – not very Vance-ian of me.  I wish I could end things cleanly, like Vance himself ended his Demon Princes series in The Book of Dreams.  The hero, Kirth Gerson, has spent his entire life from childhood on pursuing and dispatching 5 master criminals – the “Demon Princes” – who destroyed his home.  The Book of Dreams sees the demise of the last and most idiosyncratic of the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong.  Vance ends the greatest of his space-operas quickly and cleanly, like so:

Alice put her hands on his shoulder. “And now, what of you?”

  “What of me, how?”

  “You’re so quiet and subdued! You worry me. Are you well?”

  “Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done.”

 

Done indeed.  Till next time …

Visions of a Dying Earth

Categories: Books, Sundries Tags:

Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

May 4, 2013 3 comments

click-here-save-1

My job is building software.  Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment.  I like to think, at least,  that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.

But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly.  I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it.  Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock.  An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping  “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever.  Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed.  Why the heck is this?

Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions.  His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:

Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.  I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.

So what is solutionism?  Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking.  In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.

Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash.  The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.

So, what problems are these things solving?  Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful.  Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish?  What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook.  Bin-cam can have worse consequences.  Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.

Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy.  In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”.  Should we have a carbon tax?  Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes.  With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception.  All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert.  And so on.  (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)

Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it  good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”.  Morozov writes:

Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human  freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.  if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.

I said there were flaws in the book.  One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations.  He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference.  Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:

clay-shirky-hit

I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.

Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book.  Tim Wu writes:

“To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.

Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions.  Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?

There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition.  Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.

In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:

 

Technology mocking itself – a good sign.  Maybe I should make an app for that … ?

Categories: Books, Technology

Book Review: The Jim Corbett Omnibus

March 2, 2013 1 comment

Jim Corbett Omnibus

I like old things.  Old swords, old houses, old places … I prefer them all over present day fashion.  Yes, I need my cellphone, but, consider a hundred year old chair:  Someone made that, put their skill and attention into it, and then someone brought it home and used it.  And it persisted, decades longer than any “big box” store chair will last.  What’s important in thinking about the future is not the present, which by definition is impermanent, but the past, which holds real, enduring lessons.

I especially like old stories, which brings me to my subject for today, a book entitled The Jim Corbett Omnibus.  This was a gift from my friend and colleague here in Pune, Bhavuk.  The book presents a series of stories, all written from roughly 1945 to 1955 and that speak to experiences form the 1920s and 1930s.  The subject of the stories: Hunting for man-eating tigers and leopards.

I know, I know, sounds like Ripping Yarns and Argosy kind of stuff, right?  But as I said, I like old stories and I really liked this.  A sample:

As the old priest got up to leave me that evening I asked him if it would be possible for me to get some shooting in the locality, for my men had been without meat for many days and there was none to be purchased at Dabidhura. ‘Yes’, he answered, ‘there is the temple tiger.’  On my assuring him I had no desire to shoot his tiger he rejoined with a laugh, ‘I have no objection, Sahib, to your trying to shoot this tiger, but neither you nor anyone else will ever succeed in killing it.’ And that is how I came to hear of the Dabidhura temple tiger, which provided me with one of the most interesting shikar experiences I have ever had.

I love the tone of this writing: Simple, almost reporter-like, but with the understated building of tension that typifies the best pulp stories.

The India that Westerners see today is, for the most part, urban and modern.  Yes, you see massive poverty and bizarre forms of infrastructure as the country grows at double-digit rates every year, but the main elements of the cities here would not be out of place in Florida, for example.

Not so in Corbett’s time.  The population of India then was 200-350 millions (as compared to 1.2 billion today), and all overwhelmingly rural – today 31% of India’s population lives in cities, while in the 20s-30s the figure was on the order of 13%.  People then lived in villages scattered across a challenging terrain – especially in the north – of rocky hills and mountains.  The region Corbett writes about is in Uttarakhand, adjacent to Nepal and practically the foothills of the Himalayas.  The land then was essentially in its natural state and fish, birds and game – like  chital, a small spotted deer, sambhar, a larger long-horned deer, or arna, the wild water buffalo – were abundant.  Where you have game, you will have carnivores.  In India at the top of the food chain you have leopards, and tigers.

If we are speaking of a time 80 years ago, to the classification of “game” I’m afraid we have to add, well, people.  All across the sparsely populated landscape men, women and children of all ages eked out their livings performing the tasks of close-to-medieval farming: cutting fodder, gathering firewood, herding goats, carrying water.  These things were done on the edges of, or in the midst of, utter wilderness.  For a tiger or leopard that has been diminished by age or wounded – many that Corbett killed carried 20 or more long porcupine quills embedded in their flesh – a 90 pound Indian woman is far easier game than a 500 pound, long-horned sambhar.  Here Corbett describes one victim of a man-eater from the district of Thak:

The  victim on this occasion was an elderly woman, the mother of the Headman of Sem.  This unfortunate woman had been killed while cutting brushwood on a steep bank between two terraced fields.  She had started work at the further end of the fifty-yard long bank, and had cut brushwood to within a yard of her hut when the tiger sprang on her from the field above.  So sudden and unexpected was the attack that the woman had only had time to scream once before the tiger killed her, and taking her up the twelve-foot-high bank crossed the upper field and disappeared …

Tigers and leopards in those days were responsible for 1,000s of deaths; among the animals Corbett dispatched were a tigress and cub that were thought between them to have killed 525 people.  There are over 20 separate stories in this compendium, including the accounts of over 10 man-eating tigers dispatched, and the 2-years long story of Corbett’s pursuit and killing of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, a single animal responsible for no less than 125 deaths between 1918 and 1926.

These animals are powerful; Corbett relates how a tiger had carried a full-grown cow over 4 miles.  They are also, as you might imagine, wily hunters who naturally stalk anything that tries to stalk them; several times in these stories Corbett makes his way home in darkness only to discover next day the tracks of a tiger or leopard right atop of his own.

I have to say Corbett’s writing is not for everyone.  By today’s standards it is by no means exciting.  There is a volume of details on hunting procedures, and most of the stories expend significant time on the failures and setbacks Corbett encountered before finally bagging each man-eater.  But I greatly enjoyed Corbett’s voice as he related each tale, all of them vibrant and evocative of an India that now only exists in parks, preserves, a few remaining villages, and the memories of the elderly.

Jim Corbett was a conservationist as well as a hunter, and became an adept wildlife photographer.  India’s first national park is dedicated to him, the Jim Corbett National Park.  My list of places to visit here in India has now gone up.  Thanks, Bhavuk, for a wonderful book.

In closing, I can only wonder, what was it like for Corbett, making his way through jungles and over hills, seeking the man-eater but wondering if the man-eater might not be close behind?  Perhaps something like this:

Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park

If you missed it:

Sleeping, not crouching, tiger

Categories: Books, Expat life, Travel