Category Archives: Review

Review: “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” by Cory Doctorow

The title is misleading. Cory Doctorow’s full observation is, “Information doesn’t want to be free. People want to be free.” Though the book is sold as a guide for creative types to make a living off their work in the digital age, Doctorow’s real purpose is political. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s a rich book with a lot of useful insight into the rapidly changing way we create and consume media. But calling it a “how-to” book is selling it short.

The gist of it is that we are at a crossroads in history. We can either embrace the possibilities of new media or let powerful existing interests dictate them for us. The pessimistic view is that you’ll be at the mercy of Amazon and Apple, buying products and thinking you own them only to have them deleted from your hardware because you didn’t read the fine print. Or, worse, get fined or thrown in prison by bringing the wrath of Disney down on you.

On the other hand, Doctorow argues that creators could instead trust their audiences and fight for relaxed copyright laws. It’s kind of a utopian view, but not necessarily wrong. Now that instantaneous copying and dissemination is a fact of life, we are faced with the choice of creators (actually, the distributors) having absolute control over their work, which is technically impossible without destroying personal privacy, or just trusting people to be honest.

Doctorow isn’t saying everyone needs to be honest, just enough people. And this happens all the time without anyone realizing it.

Growing up I developed an enduring hatred of NPR’s membership drive season. My parents, since before I was born, have been dedicated listeners and the radios in their kitchen and car have always been set to NPR. I’ve inherited the addiction. About a year ago, I realized that I finally had a disposable income and could do things like financially support the news, art, and institutions I’d been freeloading on for 27 years. And it feels good. I don’t get anything extra out of most of my monthly donations, but it does give me gratification to know that I’m giving back to mainstays of my intellectual and personal life. And, as any development professional will tell you, arts and culture nonprofits can’t exist without contributing audiences.

Point being, this model already exists and it works. People want to support the content creators they like, preferably without going through five middlemen.

Anyway, I agree with all that Doctorow writes, to a point. He’s Cory Doctorow — of course if he publishes a book and puts it up for a free on the internet with a “donate” button he’ll earn bank. He is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years and so his generous terms don’t really prove anything.

On the other hand, he is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years. That really isn’t any different than the traditional way of becoming an artist, except that instead of going to a publisher or label, you go right to the audience instead.

So, I look at myself and wonder, “Could I follow his advice and become a successful, professional writer?” Maybe. But I write professionally already, churning out grants and copy for an organization I like, so I don’t feel compelled to make a lifestyle change. But I am optimistic and I think Doctorow has a good point. I do know artists who make a living (not a glamorous one, but neither is mine) off of their work because there are enough people out there who like their work enough to support them.

That was a review, I guess. Read it and come up with your own opinions.

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Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

I admittedly have a crush on Naomi Klein.

Well, This Changes Everything is excellent. That’s the gist of it. And I think everyone should read it.

I don’t feel like explaining the book or Klein’s arguments, because you should read and interpret them yourself. But, to sum up, she says that the societal changes we must undergo to address and mitigate climate change will create a more just and equitable society. Klein isn’t so much concerned with climate change itself as with its relationship to modern progressivism. I find it refreshing, since I have always been, and increasingly am, more skeptical of the philosophy that unfettered free market capitalism is Good and anything in the public sector is Bad.

My admiration for the book isn’t diminished by the one flaw I find with it, and the one that I’ve been struggling with professionally for a while: what is this zero-carbon world supposed to look like?

A friend of mine is a PhD student specializing in environmental communications. When I asked him if he knew of any books or resources that talked about what exactly we’re are trying to achieve, he said, “That’s a problem with the field: lots of critique with no vision of how to improve it.”

Before I started working for an conservation nonprofit, I was aware but didn’t particularly care about environmental issues. My roommate, Derek (the Viking), a botanist, and I had a conversation about Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and how I didn’t like it because the book’s prescription sounds genocidal.

“Do you know the term ‘Carrying capacity?'” Derek asked. “It’s the maximum population size a given environment can sustain and the human population is way beyond it.”

I argued that Thomas Malthus predicted that the population couldn’t move past where it was in the 19th century, but never anticipated the tractor. Derek looked bewildered by this and now I understand why. Because we have thousands of years of innovation-saving-society scenarios to look at, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t invent our way out of the problem. But as soon as there is one catastrophic event that we can’t use brute intelligence to get out of, that’s it. That we, as a species, could be living on borrowed time and debt sounds absurd. But if you really think about it, assuming that some genius is going to save us all is pretty repellant, too (see, The Watchmen). In other words, it’s hubris, or, worse, a stupid acquiescence.

But the Malthusian thing still bothers me. If the situation is going to get as bad as the research indicates, how do we save seven billion people, let alone provide a just standard of living for them? Klein talks about it, but doesn’t offer any concrete advice, but mostly because the answer is: it’s complicated. Or, maybe, she does say what we need to do and it’s “that depends…”

The greatest obstacle to overcoming climate change is not technical, but conceptual. Just like the eponymous Ishmael explains, we need to see ourselves as part of the world, not masters of it. The world isn’t a resource, but a source. Everything that we take, we take from ourselves or future generations. Likewise for giving.

The reason this all interests me is that I work for an environmental nonprofit and am in communications. The environmental movement is in a bit of a predicament right now because we just fended off a concentrated attack from the denialist camp that eroded confidence in the science and we’re only starting to climb our way out of the post-2006 slump in public opinion. While most people are paying attention to the facts and are aware that we are in a serious situation, it’s still a low priority.

It’s just not fair.

When Fox News gets to say, every day, that the world is ending, people act. When environmentalists say the apocalypse is taking place right now, people shrug it off and say, “That’s just the price we pay.”

A lot has been written about this phenomenon, but I really do think that the problem is in the messaging. Progressives abhor hyperbole and are distrustful of Doom and Gloom. It doesn’t help that the language of science doesn’t really work in American political dialogue, because, in science, the data can always be re-interpreted and new theories could, and probably will, replace the old. Whenever something is asserted scientifically, it’s in the form, “The data indicates…” not “the data proves…”

The protagonist of Thank You for Smoking makes a similar point, that political power and public opinion follow the people who offer the least doubt and most confidence. Demagogues don’t have to prove that they’re right, just that we might be wrong. By offering the data with caveats, we’re winning the argument for our opponents.

The Left’s greatest weakness is one of it’s defining strengths: skepticism.  Progressivism is an agnostic political theory that can’t stand absolutes. What I’ve learned by reading Klein’s Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, is that the progressivist’s position is often portrayed by the reactionary as “absolute” when it is, in fact, not. It’s not communist, socialist, totalitarian, Nazi, or whatever else, to say our society should regulate the market and ensure a reasonable standard of living for even our poorest.

That’s what I really admire about Klein, that she takes a hard-line in a philosophy that prides itself on not being hard-line. Freedom and independence is good. But so is compassion, reciprocity, generosity, and duty toward the society that enabled us to thrive.

So, the book means a lot to me. I recommend it. Also, Greed Is Not Good.

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Against Bad Reading Recommendations: If You’re Shaming Adults for Reading YA, You’re a Bad Critic

For the record, I haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, Twilight, Looking for Alaska, or If I Stay and many other popular YA novels out there, but that didn’t stop me from being appalled by Ruth Graham’s “Against YA.” Because I have read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Charlotte’s Web, A Christmas Carol, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, guess what, those are all classics (a few are even considered to be that weird thing called the Great American Novel) and they’re young adult novels. Some are even (gasp) children’s literature.

I could go on, but so could everyone else reading this. You see, I love spec fic and I’ve had enough arguments with people who automatically assume it’s garbage to know better than to make lists. For every example of a lousy book you can go tit for tat with a masterpiece and vice versa. But, I admit that I just gave examples of the canon, just like Graham – but I think my argument is strong enough not to have to be propped up by Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

By now, I imagine Graham has gotten a lot of flack from the mob who shares my opinion, so let me be clear that my first reaction when I read the essay was admiration. She’s right – it’s now acceptable for adults to read YA, so her opinion is probably unpopular. I’m pretty sure what Graham was really getting at is that people should challenge themselves with what they read, and that’s good advice. But her argument is so patently bad that I can’t even begin to take it seriously.

If you want to encourage people to seek out good art, try recommending good art instead of attacking what you see as inferior. Fans of the latter will hate and ignore you, and advocates of the former will just agree with you more.

So, here are some things that are wrong with Graham’s essay – and, indeed, telling people they should be ashamed of their reading preferences in general.

For starters: assuming that any genre (or arbitrarily selected group like YA fiction, which includes a multitude of genres) has objectively better or worse aesthetic qualities than any other. That’s not just ridiculous, but lazy – and I’m tempted to dismiss it outright, but that would just be committing the same crime.

Basically, if you assume that any genre or class of art has intrinsic value by virtue of what defines it, either, 1.) you’ve got an agenda and are straw-manning whatever you’re criticizing by choosing the worst examples possible, or 2.) you’re being willfully ignorant. I can’t tell the difference between one death metal band or the other, but I have friends who are connoisseurs.  As I said before, in any craft imaginable, there will always be examples of crap and excellence. So I find all-encompassing statements like “… YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way,” as suspect, at best, and stupid, at worst.

(And, as a small and irrelevant gripe, I’m baffled by the statement, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” Have you read Shakespeare? As a rule, comedies end in a bunch marriages and tragedies end in a pile of bodies. Is it any more unexpected that a lot of YA books have happy endings than a lot of literary novels have deliberately ambiguous and obtuse endings? Moreover, just because the conclusions may seem satisfying, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there to think about. If I can find critical – though tongue-in-cheek – interpretations on The Cat and the Hat, certainly you can be bothered to accept a piece of writing on its own terms.)

But, let me step back a moment and entertain Graham’s actual argument that mature readers ought to have higher standards and read challenging literature. Okay, good, I’m with you. Yes, you should read books that challenge you. But just because you indulge in something light and entertaining every so often doesn’t mean that’s all you consume. What’s wrong with pleasure reading? I love playing Go, but I’m not ashamed of playing Cards Against Humanity (okay, maybe a little, but everyone does. Especially when playing with family).

But, apparently, mature readers must “… find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.” I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly difficult to empathize with teenagers, and I’m just 27 (damn kids).

The crux of what bothers me is this: Graham isn’t just saying that YA books are inferior, but that adults finding emotional resonance in them are wrong to do so, that the sentiment itself is mistaken. I have a strong feeling that there is just something wrong with that analysis.

But, in the end, I have to admit that I agree with Graham. People should read what challenges them. If that means revisiting and reckoning with some of the most emotionally confusing years of our lives, what’s wrong with that?

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What Books Say About Us

A while ago, a friend told me that she tries hard not to look closely at people’s book shelves. I asked her what she meant and she explained that she’d worked in a bookstore for about five years and she can tell things about a person based on the books they keep on display. It’s sort of like palm-reading. Or, as she put it, “It’s like looking through someone’s underwear drawer. People usually have no idea what they’re saying about themselves with the books they have out.”

So, of course, I asked her to take a look at my shelf and tell me what she saw. She did so, reluctantly, “You like to be challenged and entertained.”

Another friend, who also possessed this talent, looked at my books and said, “Well, there’s a lot of fiction. German. Nonfiction. Authors from other countries. I see a lot of breadth, but little depth.”

Ironic. Because, if you looked at my playlists and the podcasts I listen to you would see no breadth and nothing but depth. Terrible, eldritch depth.

I like horror. All of the podcasts I listen to and most of the movies I watch are horror. This has not always been the case. When I was a kid, I was terrified of everything and so I avoided the genre. But later in college I started devouring it.

After consuming so much of the stuff, I have come to the conclusion that this says something about me. Mostly that I have something to say about it and now possess some authority. So, here are some thoughts on a few of the popular podcasts out there:

Pseudopod: This is where my obsession started. I have listened to every single episode and can vouch for the craftsmanship in the editing. Typically, they publish re-printed work, which means that you get a pretty thorough snapshot of what is being published in the horror genre these days and whose putting it out. The current host, Alasdair Stuart, and  editor, Sean Garret, are both incredible.

Knifepoint Horror: My favorite sub-genre of horror is found-horror. The kind where you’re really not sure if it’s true or not. Your better sense says, “That couldn’t possibly have happened,” but a part of you wonders. This podcast is that.

I think that horror works best when it seems confessional, as if you’re sitting down with a friend you’ve known for years and, after a few drinks, they start telling you about the worst moment of his/her life.

As far as I can tell, Knifepoint is written and narrated exclusively by Soren Narnia (which I assume is a pseudonym). If that is the case, he’s a freak. A talented, prolific freak.

Every story is a first person narrative and each episode begins with “My name is…” At no point in any episode is there a break from the world of the podcast. No credits, no legal jargon, no updates on the state of the podcast, etc. The only thing that is non-diejetic (there’s a grad school word for you) is the music that you can occasionally hear playing softly.

No Sleep Podcast:  When I ran out of episodes of Pseudopod, I was hunting around iTunes for a horror fix and found this. It wasn’t until after listening to ten or so episdoes that I decided to hunt down the origins of the podcast to the SubReddit No Sleep forum.

No Sleep showcases short stories from the subreddit forum. Each episode typically has between two and five stories, usually from different authors, and so ends up being over an hour long. Very few are great, less are bad, and almost all of them are good.

The podcast began from the generosity of the current editor/narrator/producer, David Cummings. For three seasons, he paid all the costs and shouldered most of the considerable burden of editing and putting the show together. Over the months, and now years, many talented writers and narrators have contributed their talent to the show. During the third season, the show underwent a slight transformation so that episodes are still free, but abridged; with a “season pass” you can get the full episodes. This seems more than reasonable to me.

I have more thoughts on all of these podcasts and specific episodes, but this post is long enough for now. And Philip Seymour Hoffman just died, so I’m sad.

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The Survival Rates Need to Improve (Review: You’re Next)

(Yeah, spoilers – you’ve been warned.)

I was surprised when A suggested going to see a horror movie. Usually, she refuses to watch anything that could conceivably be described as “scary,” while I seek out any and everything with a twisted, sinister heart held in the vice grip of some Cthulhu-esque monster. Having grown up terrified of my own shadow, I sometimes find it baffling that I’ve become a horror-addict. If you want to analyze it, I assume that I’m always trying to prove to myself that the monsters aren’t real.

“It’s supposed to be a new take on the Survivor Girl,” A explained. “It’s getting great reviews.”

We went on opening night and there were only a handful of people in the audience. I hadn’t seen the previews or read anything about You’re Next and was going solely on A’s vote of confidence. Within the first ten seconds I knew that everyone in the room was a horror fan because of the laughter and ostentatious, disgusted scoffing.

The film opens with a deeply uncomfortable sex scene followed by a grisly double-homicide as if to remind everyone that, yes, we were watching a horror movie. From there, it follows a formulaic plot of a rich family being hunted and killed by home-invaders for reasons that, if you’re familiar with the genre, are dead obvious from the beginning. I would go into greater detail, but that would require throwing buckets of blood at you because that’s about about all that’s left of the movie.

But I like bad horror movies. In fact, I deeply appreciate and am entertained by them. I prefer psychological over body horror, but I can roll with the occasional foreboding message scrawled across the wall in the victim’s blood if there’s more to it than that. What baffles me is that people seem to think this good horror movie. Reading the reviews, I seriously question whether or not I saw the same movie everyone keeps talking about.

And see that’s the thing – there are merits to You’re Next, but a unique take on the Survivor Girl is not one of them.

Erin, the Survival Girl in question, is unarguably a badass. The final scene between her and Crispian is genuinely funny and I can forgive all the bad acting for that one perfect disbelieving look she gives him as he comments, “But there’s a silver lining to all this,” as she stands there covered in gore from the half-dozen or so people she just dismembered. But, Erin’s resourcefulness is explained away almost immediately when we learn that her parents were obsessed with the societal collapse and subscribed to the John-Conner-prepare-to-take-on-the-robot-apocalypse method of child rearing. In other words, Erin did what any self-respecting commando would do in a situation like You’re Next: mercilessly kill the idiots who thought they could get the best of her.

But there was a moment, before the revelation of her upbringing, that I thought Erin was different. When everyone else is reduced to screaming hysterics, Erin keeps a level head and calmly throws out orders on how to barricade the house and get everyone to safety. That, I thought, was interesting. For once, instead of making herself an easy target, an average young woman in a horror movie is confronted with a crisis and finds it immediately in herself to be a deal with it.

I’ve craved in horror. It’s a depressing genre about atrocious things happening to people and usually, as Stephen King points out in The Danse Macabre, has deeply conservative undertones. The most blatant example would be, “Don’t do something stupid like venture into the dark, spooky forests where there are wolves howling,” (i.e. stay on the straight and narrow) or the more explicitly socially conservative rules laid out first in Scream: don’t have sex, don’t drink, be a good kid and you’ll survive. Horror is usually about punishment or divine retribution, and the scary part is that the reasons are vague but the consequences are painfully real.

In most horror, the protagonists are paralyzed, at least at first, by terror or disbelief. The former appeals to our sense of reason – after all, no one ever believes that they’re in a horror movie at first. The latter plays to that gut feeling, the unconscious, that which we can’t control about ourselves. It makes sense that when faced with horrendous violence most people scream and curl up into a ball, but that gets old fast in movies and literature, and verisimilitude is only entertaining for so long.

It’s Disbelief and Terror that get people killed in Horror. While this is innate to the genre, I find it refreshing when someone does it different, like in Scream. Sydney is an average high schooler who, when confronted by a knife-wielding psychopath, takes him on in a stride. And it’s not just Sydney. Casey and Tatum, the other two female leads, both rise to the occasion. They fight. Neither surrenders or begs, but instead does what she can to survive.

No one knows what he or she would do when thrown into a situation like You’re Next, but that’s sort of the point of the genre: speculation. What happens when worse comes to worst? It’s easy to find examples of failure because it’s predictable and understandable. But it’s far more interesting to see the stories about the people who accept that they’re out of the realm of the Everyday and aren’t afraid to do something about it. That’s when things get interesting. That’s when it’s hard to know what will happen next.

Yeah, horror is a usually a genre about the worst of us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be optimistic. I’d like to believe that we are all, if not heroes, at least survivors.

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