Recent book reviews — December 2011

Title: Creative License, The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling
Author: Kembrew McLeod, Peter DiCola
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

This is perhaps the best book I’ve never finished. The authors interviewed more than 100 musicians, including David Byrne, Cee Lo Green, George Clinton, De La Soul, and DJ Qbert to understand the variety of opinions on sampling and music licensing. The book’s explanations of sampling history, famous sampling lawsuits, and the danger of restricting sampling are all well-written and authoritative. The underlying theme is that the current system of music licensing is broken and threatens creativity. I feel passionately about the topic but somehow I didn’t find myself passionate about finishing the book. Many of the artists have a relatively basic understanding of copyright law and a conservative approach to ownership of music, even those who sample extensively. Only a few artists like Negativland question whether music should be owned at all. Creative License is decidedly even-handed with all opinions. I found myself pining for the revolutionist, copyleft writings of Eben Moglen and Richard Stallman.

The book is a significant addition to copyright academia and I’m glad to know the go-to book for facts on the creative importance of sampling. Kembrew gets props for responding to my questions by email!

Title: Using Drupal
Author: Angela Byron, Addison Berry, Nathan Haug, Jeff Eaton, James Walker, Jeff Robbins
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

I’m working on a website to allow taiko players to learn and share slant-drum movements and rhythms. Using Drupal provided a useful overview of taxonomy, views, and a few other topics with which I needed help. I didn’t complete the guided website creation tutorials but rather wish I had as that might have provided a more comprehensive understanding than my out-of-order reading. With the release of Drupal 7 the book will be out of date in a few years, but until then, it’s another good offering from O’Reilly.

Title: The Chairs Are Where the People Go — How to live, work, and play in the city
Author: Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti
Source: gift (thank you Margaret!)
Interest: 3 stars

Although I wasn’t initially inspired by this book, at about 50 pages in, I acclimated to the short entries on random topics and grew attracted to the real-life protagonist, Misha Glouberman. Having been recommended by the brilliant Margaret McKenty and following the book’s laudatory preface, I probably had set my expectations too high. But reading the book while travelling by bus, overhearing others’ complaints about the challenges of daily life, and feeling particularly reflective, I came to see the charm of The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Some of Misha’s ideas seem a little immature, and I disagreed with perhaps 20% of the ideas. In How to Improvise, and How Not to Not Improvise“, for example, he says, “… I’m much more interested in improvisation as a practice, or as something to do, than as something for people to watch.” Hallelujah, Misha! He immediately goes on, however, to explain how virtuoso performance is essentially “Look at how good I am”. Although I might have agreed 10 years ago, I have come to be very inspired by displays of skill and and associate Misha’s reactionary view with inexperience and lack of confidence.

In the end, these bits of disagreement likely kept me more engaged with the book and I very much enjoyed reading it.

During these events, people are able to derive a lot of aesthetic pleasure from the very simplest group exercises. You get a roomful of people and you ask them to close their eyes and make and hold a vowel sound together. And you know what? It sounds amazing!

Charging for My Classes… now I just name a price: “$360 or whatever you want.” … Amid all this, though, I’m also a real stickler about payments. If people drop out of the class, I usually won’t refund their money. People are allowed to pay in installments, but they have to give me postdated checks up front. So there is a contract and the contract is binding, it’s just up to that person to choose what the terms of the contract are.

I think playing the (improvisation) game can make people smart about things like: what it means to participate in a pattern versus what it means to break a pattern; what it means to try and start a new pattern or to do something that’s a counterpoint.

We’re all proud of our society’s ability to bring things about without violence. So, for instance, we applaud freely elected governments, where the reins of state can change hands without people having to kill people. But I think that a more advanced version of that goal is to be able to do things without antagonism.

At Trampoline Hall, after every lecture, there’s a Q&A with the audience. One of the things that’s really great about the show is that the Q&A’s really work. The audience asks really good questions. I think a big part of the reason they ask really good questions is that at every show, right at the beginning, I talk for a long time about what a good question is. The first thing I tell people is that a good question has to be a question. … I tell people that if they think they have a two-part question, what they really have are two questions, and that they should just pick the better of the two. … What I warn people against is feelings of pride. I ask them to pay attention to the pictures in their minds when they feel a question coming on, and if they see themselves becoming enormous and floating God-like above the audience, and the lecture getting smaller and smaller in the distance, then maybe that’s a sign the question isn’t that great.

Title: Program Or Be Programmed
Author: Douglas Rushkoff
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

The opening is gripping. “When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.” Fantastic! I am a big believer that our society’s move toward “user-friendly”, dumbed-down, Apple-approved products is a detriment to our potential and this book contains interesting perspective on the topic. After setting the bar so high at the beginning, however, many of the later sections are less compelling. My confidence in the author took a significant hit with the borderline-mystical description of the limitations of digital audio (versus analog). “… early tests of analog recordings compared to digital ones revealed that music played back on a CD format had much less of a positive impact on depressed patients than the same recording played back on a record. Other tests showed that digitally recorded sound moved the air in a room significantly differently than analog recordings played through the same speakers.” What?! It sounds to me like Rushkoff is letting tecnhophobia get the best of him here. But in other areas, his insight into the internet and its cultural effects are enlightening. While I find Eben Moglen‘s use of history and understanding of digital culture more compelling, Program Or Be Programmed is worth the quick read.

Like the participants of media revolutions before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us. And so we, too, remain one step behind the capability actually being offered us. Only an elite — sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless — gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer. The rest learn to be satisfied with gaining the ability offered by the last new medium. The people hear while the rabbis read; the people read while those with access to the printing press write; today we write, while our techo-elite programs.

… the more we live this way, the more we value the digital’s definition of the now. Our search engines preface their more relevant results with a section of “live” links to whatever blog comment, social networking message, or tweet has most recently been posted containing the words in our queries. The only weighting that matters is how few seconds have transpired since it was blurted.

The danger, of course, is that today’s “penny for your friends” social networks will survive long enough — at least one after the other — for their compromised social standards to become accepted or even internalized by users. … If the social urge online comes to be understood as something necessarily comingled with commercial exploitation, then this will become the new normative human behavior as well.

Title: But Will the Planet Notice — How Smart Economics Can Save the World
Author: Gernot Wagner
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

The book’s ending provides the most concise summary.

By all means, de-clutter your life. Move to the city and, once there, downsize your apartment. Carry around a canvas bag. Bike. You’ll be that much better prepared when everyone else catches up to your good deeds. But everyone else won’t catch up to your good deeds voluntarily — not in time, and not with sufficiently strong action.

That’s where economics enters the room. There’s simply no way to go about tackling this problem other than taking seriously the incentives all of us face. Getting several billion of us to behave differently — to behave morally — means guiding market forces in the right direction, making it in our interest to do the right thing. It’s the only way to make the planet notice.

Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, makes the case that solving climate change will require fundamental changes to global economies such that the cost of pollution and environmental degradation are factored into the basic costs of production and consumption. This seems entirely logical to me. I especially appreciated the examples of regulation that allows markets to work properly (Maine lobster and Alaska halibut laws).

At the risk of niggling, I don’t think Wagner need emphasize the insignificance of individual action.

I never got my driver’s license. My reason back when I had the chance and refused was that if a billion Chinese all start to drive, the planet will be toast, so why should I?

The problem with my logic was precisely that a billion Chinese are going to start to drive sooner rather than later. Chances are they won’t take their cues from my behavior. My making the sacrifice and not driving contributes nothing to the solution: 1,000,000,000 – 1 = 1 billion.

I agree that individual action isn’t enough to solve our problem, but all the same, Wagner’s logic sounds great to me. Why not discuss the importance of being vegetarian, riding one’s bike, and working toward fundamental economic change. Perhaps the dichotomy enabled catchy one-liners for advertising the book, but that could be my overly-sensitive, anti-advertising twitch kicking in.

However much you recycle or turn off lights, it will be canceled out many times over by your driving a car. Driving ten thousand miles in even the most fuel-efficient Prius produces four tons of carbon dioxide.

This isn’t as easy as the decision to go vegetarian, as much as I would have liked to write a book like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a gripping essay that convinced Natalie Portman, a lifelong vegetarian, to turn vegan… The conclusion is simple: Don’t eat animals. Saving the planet is in a different league altogether.

… one ton (of CO2) corresponds to the subsistence level of someone living with the bare necessities.

(Lobster-catcher) Gangs aim for self-preservation: preserving their families, their way of life, their territories, and, as it turns out, the lobster stock at sea… If lobsters left alone spawn and multiply on your very own territory, it makes a lot of sense to let some go today for a greater haul tomorrow and in years to come… Tuna, sadly is in the opposite situation. … Catching tuna is a global scuffle with factory ships chasing increasingly dwindling stocks in international waters. Letting tuna go today does not mean you will catch more next year. It means your competitor will catch them tomorrow.

Let’s turn to a superbly performing fishery that uses caps on total catch the right way: Alaska’s halibut fishery after 1995. … Fishery scientists determine the total sustainable catch, but instead of declaring it as the overall goal of the annual race to catch as many fish in as little time as possible, regulators print up individual shares in that total catch. Fisherman then get the guaranteed right to catch a predetermined amount of fish. That simple step makes all the difference. It’s no longer a race. … The motivation to treat fishing as if it were a competitive free-for-all is gone.

Anytime we talk about carbon pollution associated with consumption — which is fundamentally the right way to look at things — we immediately get to something akin to border tariffs. … That’s not a tariff for the sake of throwing a wrench into world trade. It’s a tariff that would help throw a wrench into our unbridled desire to use the atmosphere as a free sewer.

… the Endangered Species act hasn’t saved the ivorybill (which was very likely extinct before it was listed as endangered), it didn’t save the bald eagle (that was thanks to the ban on DDT), and it won’t save the polar bears (that will require serious efforts to stabilize the global climate. … We can’t stop global warming by edict.

Socializing costs of private actions is the exact opposite of what libertarians would want to do, but that’s what the market does, when left entirely on its own. So yes, by all means, make your own decisions about how much you would like to drive, fly, and to pollute, but be prepared to pay every last dime of the consequences. … It doesn’t get much more libertarian than that.

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

Just as I was lamenting my long lapse from reading fiction, my mom recommended Moby Dick. Why not be ambitious?!

I loved it.

It took about 40 pages for me to warm up to it, as I had to transition from the non-fiction mindset. At the beginning, I prepared myself to be “entertained”. I found myself missing the non-fiction satisfaction of learning something concrete. Then I was caught up on the wonderful word selection and terminology, and I found myself inspired to improve my own language. Between readings I would catch myself observing things differently, with more attention to detail. Even the length of the book presented a satisfying challenge. In every way, the book felt “good for me”.

Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, a quirky sailor who gets geeky about all-things-whale. He spends the majority of the book reflecting on the significance of the whaling occupation, the manner of its coterie, and the beauties of the whale, and the sperm whale in particular. The 600+ pages are split into 135 chapters, most of which focus on some specific topic, like the tail of the sperm whale, which Ishmael expounds in beautiful language and from which he derives some truth about humanity. Though the sheer length of the novel was daunting in a few spots, the satisfying structure of the chapters made for fun reading at brief intervals throughout the day.

Faced with the challenge of finishing the book within the public library 3-week check-out period, I simultaneously borrowed the audio book version, read by Anthony Heald. This is fantastic, and Heald deserves great praise for meeting the momentous challenge of acting all the parts and convincingly delivering the language of Moby Dick. Although I only listened to 4 or 5 of the 19 CDs, they got me through a number of traffic jams and provided the satisfaction of moving the bookmark ahead whole chunks of pages at a time.

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