Recent book reviews — December 2012

Title: Trust Me I’m Lying — Confessions of a Media Manipulator
Author: Ryan Holiday
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Trust Me I’m Lying explains the failings of online news and the skewed economic base that encourages exaggeration and falsehood. Holiday explains how blogs are sustained by ad revenue based on “page-view” tallies and how this constant requirement for clicks encourages error-ridden “real-time” reporting easily manipulated by financially-motivated PR people like himself. He makes a strong case that these problems with the essential funding system of the internet threaten to undermine the value of the internet, the current repository of our knowledge, creativity, and greater culture.

For me, the book added another reason to block ads when using the web. Not only do ads negatively influence us as individuals, websites’ dependence on them also undermines the essential relationship between writer and reader. Ads threaten the content they generate. We must demand a system of supporting reporters (newspaper subscription vs page-views, for example) and other creators of digital works which better encourages our values.

When you see a blog begin with “according to a tipster…” know that the tipster was someone like me tricking the blogger into writing what I wanted.

When you see “We’re hearing reports” know that reports could mean anything from random mentions on Twitter to message board posts, or worse.

When you see “leaked” or “official documents” know that the leak really meant someone just e-mailed a blogger, and that the documents are almost certainly not official and are usually fake or fabricated for the purpose of making desired information public.

When you see “BREAKING” or “We’ll have more details as the story develops” know that what you’re reading reached you too soon. There was no wait and see, no attempt at confirmation, no internal debate over whether the importance of the story necessitated abandoning caution. The protocol is to press early, publishing before the basic facts are confirmed, and not caring whether it causes problems for people.

When you see “Updated” on a story or article know that no one actually bothered to rework the story in light of the new facts …

When you see a story tagged with “EXCLUSIVE” know that it means the blog and the source worked out an arrangement that included favorable coverage. Know that in many cases the source gave this exclusive tip to multiple sites at the same time or that the site is just taking ownership of a story they stole from a lesser-known site.

When you see “We’ve reached out to So-and-so for comment” know that they sent an e-mail two minutes before hitting “publish” at 4:00 A.M., long after they’d written the story and closed their mind, making absolutely no effort to get to the truth before passing it off to you as the news.

Title: Turing’s Cathedral — The Origins of the Digital Universe
Author: George Dyson
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

This is a wonderfully-written, authoritative history of the development of the personal computer. Unfortunately, I only made it to page 257 (of 338). While I love the topic and appreciated Dyson’s careful telling, somehow I wasn’t particularly grabbed by this book. Although the writing is similar to, Einstein – His Life and Universe, one of my favorites, when a rush of books came in from the library I found myself reaching for the newer books.

That having been said, I was fascinated to learn just how the development of the early computers was linked to bomb simulation and the development of nuclear weapons. It’s fair to say computing would not have developed in the same way without the atomic bomb, further complicating for my hopes for the humanitarian possibilities of technology.

Title: Which Side Are You On? — Trying to be for labor when it’s flat on its back
Author: Thomas Geoghegan
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

Having first-hand experience with the empowerment possible through good unions (the Bus-Riders’ Union in SF, for example) and also the corrupting effect of bad unions (the Teamsters at east-coast performance venues, for example), I am always looking to learn more about organized labor. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into Which Side Are You On and wound up moving on to other books at page 58. I had a bit of a difficult time following the thread of the writing. While reading, I thought perhaps it was Geoghegan’s conversational writing style, sometimes contradicting what he’s been talking about. Looking back at those 58 pages, I can’t find a great example, but writing like, “Anyway, that’s only half the story, and only half true…” (I’m paraphrasing), I thought, then why did I just read that? In any case, I found myself wishing I knew more about the history of the AFL-CIO and unions in general before coming to this book.

Title: How Music Works
Author: David Byrne
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

I ran out of time with this book and have to return it to the library at page 124. What I’ve read thus far was good, a mixture of Byrne’s experience becoming a professional musician and his current musings on all-things-art. As a performer, I found his thoughts on costuming on stage, and how they changed through the years, for example, particularly thought-provoking. Sometimes the writing is too general, I assume to appeal to non-musicians, and takes too much time explaining how digital music works, for example. But that is a minor quibble, solved by the book’s use of convenient, well-labelled sub-chapters. I sense there are gems to come in this book and will likely check it out again to finish it.

Title: What Money Can’t Buy — The Moral Limits of Markets
Author: Michael J. Sandel
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

What Money Can’t Buy explains the increase of market forces in civic life and the need for public discourse at each potential intrusion. Through thought-experiments and numerous real-life examples, Sandel makes a strong case that markets are not “neutral”, but effect the things they commodify and our relationships to those things. When schools open their textbooks to advertising and baseball stadiums install skybox seating for the wealthy, these incursions of the market into new areas diminishes their civic and cultural value. Whether the improved efficiency of for-pay, high-speed freeway lanes, or the revenue generated by selling the naming rights of a public park, outweigh the erosion of shared values, is a question we must address as individuals and citizens. This is a discourse we have largely side-stepped and conceded to “market-triumphalists”.

Commercialism does not destroy everything it touches. A fire hydrant with a KFC logo still delivers water to douse the flames…

Nevertheless, imprinting things with corporate logos changes their meaning. Markets leave their mark. Product placement spoils the integrity of books and corrupts the relationship of author and reader. Tattooed body ads objectify and demean the people paid to wear them. …

These are, I admit, contestable judgements. People disagree about the meaning of books, bodies, and schools, and how they should be valued… But… once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong — and where they don’t. …

In addition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. Beyond the damage it does to particular goods, commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up and the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. …

Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money can’t buy?

Title: How Much Is Enough? — Money and the good life
Author: Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

I absolutely loved reading this. How Much is Enough argues that wealthy countries have achieved a level of prosperity sufficient to sustain “the good life” for most of us, were we not distracted by growth-for-growth’s sake and the glorification of GDP. This book came to me just as I am exploring a slightly slower lifestyle and enjoying the relief of giving up my car. How Much is Enough is on my must-read list for anyone questioning our incessant need for new things and the creep of economics into all areas of personal and civic life.

Whatever readers may think of our particular proposals, not to try to develop a collective vision of the good life, simply to blunder on without having a view about what wealth is for, is an indulgence rich societies can no longer afford. The greatest waste now confronting us is not one of money but of human possibilities. “Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit,” declared Keynes in 1933, “we have begun to change our civilisation.” The time for such a change is overdue.

Title: Notes and Tones — Musician-to-musician interviews
Author: Arthur Taylor
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

I have difficulty writing this review. Notes and Tones is perhaps the best book I’ve read and not been able to get into. Taylor interviews an amazing group of musicians including Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Taylor’s personality and membership in the community enables him to ask pointed, interesting questions and elicit honest responses. Notes and Tones is often called the bible for jazz lovers. And yet, for all that, I couldn’t get through it. My only peripheral knowledge of jazz, combined with my experience of privilege rather than racial segregation, and the distance between my work as a professional taiko player and those of a working jazz cat in the 60’s and 70’s, meant I was constantly struggling to find relevance in the interviews. At least, that’s my best guess at what went wrong. In short, I only thought Notes and Tones was so-so, but I wouldn’t take my word for it.

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