Saturday, December 19, 2015

Comments on Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquered Egypt, and historians presume that Augustus ordered his death because he had a more legitimate claim to be Caesar's heir than did Augustus himself.  The other three were children of Marc Antony, whom, Shakespeare omits to mention, was actually married to Cleopatra.  The two elder were twins, Selene and Alexander.  Selene is the heroine of this book. No likenesses of her endure; the bust above is of her mother. They had a younger brother named Ptolemy. Augustus took them to Rome as young teenagers after his victory over their parents and paraded them in his triumphal march.  He then gave them to his sister Octavia to raise.  He later marred off Selene to a Juba II, whom he appointed king of Mauretania (roughly today's Morocco).  Juba II had been educated in Rome and was a distinguished geographer and writer.  Alexander and Ptolemy mainly drop from history after the triumph.  Today's historians generally assume that Augustus had them killed because they could be nuclei of a conspiracy against him by Marc Anthony's clan, but there is a suggestion by a historian writing about 200 years later that they accompanied Selene to Africa with Juba II.

 I usually write about the plot, characterization, and prose of a novel. But for a historical novel something else is necessary. I'll call it setting. Setting has various parts -: physical setting; the customs, ceremonies, infrastructure, clothing of the time; and psychological setting, the social structure and self-image in which people shaped themselves.

The prose of this novel is not prone to errors, but it is flat and uninteresting.  It is prose that is successful by not taking chances. The force of words and images never makes you say to yourself, ah, that is what that means.

Material and customary setting is meticulously painted. I'm no more than a knowledgeable layman about ancient Rome, but I know enough to see that the author has done her homework and displays it very effectively. The heroine travels early in the book from Alexandria where she has reached the age of 13 to Rome where she gets a tourist-like chance to check everything out including an excursion to Capri. She arrives during the period when Augustus was converting Rome from the city of brick to the city of marble, as he self congratulatorily boasted, and the author does a fine job of showing the physical process. She's also up on what Romans wore, the various festivals, the formal relations of social classes.

The frame plot is a historical question: What will Augustus do with these young people?  There are two sub plots: one is the sort of romantic intrigue typical of young adult novels, and the other is a highly visible slave rebellion in which several patrician characters a take a compassionate interest. They are reliably exciting sub-plots for young adult novel, but not Roman plots. In the end it turns out Selene at first hated Juba II due to misinformation, and then had a crush on him.  We have lots of good documentation of the love life of upper class Romans of this period, from Catullus through Petronius and many others. Lots of people fell in love, but not with the people they had been married off to.

Slave rebellions were chronic during the Republic and early Empire.  Spartacus', which preceded the time of this book, is only the best known. They were not something the patricians as a class felt sympathy for. The heroine and some of her friends feel weepy about the slaves and all poor people. Of course individual Romans may have felt the same way, but this is not characteristic of the society.

Augustus rightfully feared conspiracies against his life and power, but they came from the patricians, the senatorial class, not from the populace, as portrayed in this book.  That's why he had Cesarion and Alexander killed, so they could not be the nuclei of patrician conspiracies.

Selene's thoughts and feelings center on the suffering caused her by Augustus killing her parents, sympathy for the oppressed, her love interests, and self-realization. She is a graphic artist and budding architect. These are the interests of privileged American teen-aged girls. As I understand classical Roman culture, a typical girl like that would be interested in fulfilling her duty to her clan by marrying and running a household and in maintaining her reputation. I cannot stress enough the importance of reputation to self-image. I remember reading Shadi Bartsch's The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, where she discusses what Socrates meant by the Greek words that we translate as, “Know thyself." Our current popular culture gives them a kind of Freudian dig; they mean something like we should have a deep understanding of our inner nature. As I understand it, what Socrates meant and Roman people meant was:  be able to see yourself as others see you. In a way the opposite.

So, from the viewpoint of portraying the self-image and consequent interests of Roman or Hellenistic characters, this book is bogus. But what does that matter? Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours? Especially considering that empathizing with the self-image of an ancient civilization so different from ours is hard both for the author and the reader. The book, instead, gives the intended reader an attractive perspective to survey externals.

But I think it does matter in this sense -: the more deeply we feel what personhood meant in a genuinely different society, the more we are broad and deep human beings. This book lets us look as through a window at history and does a good job of that, but we do not step through the glass.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Comments on Selling to Steven Jobs by Pierre Bedard

This short book or essay was written by a long-time Silicon Valley professional who has toiled as a writer and a sales rep. In full disclosure, he is acquaintance of mine of many years.  The book is a good way to get a feel for attitudes people have towards work, sales, management, and star figures in Silicon Valley from an enthusiastic perspective.

The overt content of the book is mainly about three things: the author (The book is about 40% over before there are more than passing remarks about Steve Jobs), about Jobs himself from a mainly anecdotal point of view, and about the craft of sales rep. A subtext about how people evaluate one another and establish esteem runs through it.

His image of his audience is not always consistent. On the one hand he writes as if he were explaining Silicon Valley culture to the uninitiate:

"Sit in any meeting in any conference room in the Valley. I challenge you to fine more than two of seven participants who were born in the Untied States. We are a Valley of immigrants." 

(Though many immigrants work there, I find this estimate something of an exaggeration.)

On the other hand he frequently names without explanation people and concepts that are locally famous but far from universally familiar:  "C-level" (local slang for corporate executive)" "NeXT", (an unsuccessful computer company that Steve Jobs headed for a while) "J2ME" (a layer of software that lets a given program run on several devices), "John Warnock" (an inventor of display software and in the C-level of Adobe).

The author is and portrays himself as a French Canadian working-class immigrant. He graduated in French form the University of San Diego and has translated French literary works. He holds and MBA from Sana Clara and a JD, but has not practiced law. He was the sales rep from Adobe to NeXT and has often negotiated intellectual property rights.

His style is open, engaging, chatty, and energetic like a friend addressing a small group of companions.

His openness extends to confession, almost to self-abnegation

"To the best of my knowledge everything I am about to relate here is true. I was, at times, inebriated. I did not live through my life with the idea of recording it. Keep that in mind as you are either being cruel fair or both."

The idea of heroism is important. He modestly describes himself as not a hero and explicitly seeks at times the reader's esteem. But he has lots of heroes, most of them managers of hardware or software development. The only other one you are likely to have heard of is Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, Steve jobs most of all.

He reports his negotiations with Jobs over intellectual property rights as someone might report negotiating the sale of baseball bats to Hank Aaron.

But Jobs is a controversial figure. Many admire him as a great CEO and technical innovator. Others, I among them, see him as some one who promoted an abusive and over-driven work environment, some one who improved the fortunes of Apple computer and affected the style of marketing and of industrial design of smart phones, but had no long-term technical or broad social effect. For example, you sometimes hear him credited with making the smart phone popular or even with inventing it, but we would be looking at smart phones if he had spent his energies in other fields. The first thing that could be called a smart phone was marketed by Bell South in 1994, and Ericsson and Palm marketed basic smart phones at the beginning of the century. The idea was on a role. The smart phone in our hand might look somewhat different, and Apple might have disappeared as a company if not for Jobs, but from my perspective that is not so consequential as to make him a heroic figure.

Bedard catches this difference of perspective neatly in an exchange with his wife:

"I remember telling Caroline that we had to get a front-loading washer, because Steve thought they were cool....As Caroline has pointed out for years since, what the hell does Steve Jobs know about washing clothes and clothes washers?"

The later part of the book provides advice about how to work as a sales rep in Silicon Valley and much of it thrusts toward being open and natural with your clients as he is with his reader in this book.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Comments on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This is a good, little book. It centers entirely the development of a single character. Eilis (pronounced just a little more tightly in the mouth than "Alice") has grown up in a medium-size town in Ireland in 1950's, where job opportunities are few. An American priest, who has been connived by her more expansive sister, propels her to Brooklyn.  Her world in Brooklyn is enmeshed in Irish connections and seems more like 1935 than 1955. She lives in an Irish boarding, house, works in a shop managed by Irish, and chiefly attends Irish church functions. But she grows in independence and sophistication, learns bookkeeping, and drifts into love with an American man of Italian descent. Then the death of her charismatic sister calls her back home. There she drifts into romantic involvement with another likely husband. She has to decide whether to stay or return to her commitments in Brooklyn. Her weakly-felt independence turns out to be constrained by the gossip of despotic, small-town figures.

The heroine is very likable, moderately smart, and moderately pretty. Tóibín doesn't tell us these things. Rather he lets the reaction of other characters show them to us. It is an engaging way to develop our understanding of the character and is part of the story. The only other fully drawn characters are her mother and her sister, Rose. Her mother is in a constant state of muted anxiety because she wishes her daughter well in the world and at the same time wishes her to stay home. Her sister knows from before the beginning of the book that she has a condition that may kill her at any time, although we do not. Her condition frees her to lead a more interesting life, more impulsive, free of the stereotypes of work and marriage of the village. At first we believe that our heroine is in a sense living through her sister, but later we realize that her sister was hoping to live through her.

The author is omniscient, and we see into the thoughts and feelings of the heroine but not very deeply because they are neither deep nor intense. Remember, she is 19 and from a rather unsophisticated background. Her fully realized and detailed characterization is like a finely cut empty space filled only with pastel inference but clearly etched within a lush medium of other people’s acts and feelings. That medium is part of the warmth of the novel.

Keeping silent is important in this book.  Characters tellingly do not utter their thoughts and often fail to articulate to themselves their own ideas and impulses.  In her family, in her town, and in her restricted corner of Brooklyn many things ride on unspoken. A stereotypical American popular novel would see such reticence as a failure -:  yet another family secrets novel. But it is not so simple. For example, when Eilis returns to her home town, she does not speak of her romantic involvements in Brooklyn and only slowly and reticently articulates them to herself, yet this process is how she finds her necessary path.

The prose is simple, carefully wrought, but not striking, like the story, like the heroine, always appropriate. Here is Eilis on her first day back in her home town:  

Eilis wondered if her mother had always had this way of speaking that seemed to welcome no reply, and suddenly realized that she had seldom been alone with her before, she'd always had Rose to stand between her and her mother, Rose who would have plenty to say to both and questions to ask, comments to make, and opinions to offer. It must be hard for her mother too, she thought, and it would be best to wait a few days and see if her mother might become interested in her life in America enough for her slowly to introduce the subject of Tony, ....

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Comments on Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow

Despite it’s lively style, this book is oppressive.  It has several threads, but it mainly explores the dismal consequences of the entertainment industry trying to impose copyright on the World Wide Web and on the world of digital communication generally.

Doctorow favors copyright in principle and supports strategies that would allow creators and the entertainment industry to make a reasonable amount of money but he is hostile to strategies that make information flow more difficult, more expensive, or more vulnerable to malware.

Along the way he offers advice for creators (musicians, movie makers, freelance writers, graphic artists, and the like) about how to prosper on the World Wide Web.  His basic advice is: Become well known. 

He is widely informed in relevant knowledge: about both the theory of computer operation and practical programming, about the ongoing development of the World Wide Web, about copyright law, about the policies and threatened policies of important nations and international agencies and treaties, and about the changing economics of the entertainment industry (which, of course, now includes Amazon and Apple and Google as well as Disney and, Warner Brothers, Bollywood, Nollywood, and Hachette).

Ironically this little book is a beautifully designed and printed example of a paper, hardcover book.  The writing is brisk, clear, but glib at times.  It is divided in to small sections and sometimes has the feel of threaded-together, short-form blogs, but it has an overall arch of argument.  He’s a bit exhibitionistic and frequently talks about his personal experience as a writer and entrepreneur and good deeds he has done.

I urge anyone who wants to become informed in this area to read this book.

He explains various political censorship efforts as those in China, Iran, and North Korea.  He discusses briefly their techniques, success and failures, and points out their similarity to censorship aimed a preserving copyright.  All this he does without citing more than illustrative snippets of computer code. 

The basic problem is that scattering copies is essential to digital communication.  When you log into a web site and, say, look at a picture, something like this happens: You send a request, which is a sort of text, to a server somewhere where the image resides.  In response, software peels off a copy of that image, which is reproduced and handed off in steps on its home server, and then passed to a node of the internet where one or more copies are made, and scattered to other nodes, where other copies are made and passed intricately toward you, until one arrives at your ISP, where a copy is made, or several in several steps, and transmitted to your computer, where one or more copies are made till one appears on your screen.  The same process applies to a movie, a song, a computer game, and the text of this little essay.  That’s what “Downloading “ means.

The entertainment industry marshals an army of engineers, expensive lawyers, and equally expensive lobbyists in a leaky effort to control copying and to make each of the entities that handles copies responsible for not leaking them. Of course ultimately we pay for this army.

But that is not the worst of the problem.  Of course, the title is false, (It is an allusion to a famous dictum by the futurist guru Stewart Brand).  Information lacks volition and doesn’t want anything.  But by the nature of how computers work it is unfettered.  In order to fetter it’s free flow, engineers and their bosses have to cripple the files, the programs that read them, and the machines that handle and display them.

They do this, on the level of glib generalization, by embedding in the image or in the machine bits of code invisible to you but visible to one another that make it impossible to handle the image freely. Generally, these are bits of code, that look to the human eye like, say, $sys$, though they may be much longer. They are called keys. 

Of course, cleaver engineers and hackers locate the keys and remove them to create files everyone can read or machines that can read any files, and the engineers working for the entertainment industry make new and cleverer keys, and hackers removed them in an endless escalation, but that is not the worst problem.

Worst of all the crippled software and hardware is vulnerable to spyware and malware. Doctorow gives this example:

In 2005 Sony shipped 6 million audio CD's loaded with a secret rootkit that covertly installed itself when you inserted one of these CD's into your computer.  Once your computer had been compromised, any file or process that began with "$sys$" was invisible.  The Sony toolkit was used to cloak a program that watched for, and then killed, attempts to copy music off audio CD's ... it looked like you computer had suddenly developed a mysterious bug that stopped CD ripping software from running.... But it didn't stop there.  Once there were millions of computers in the wild that couldn't see files that started with "$sys$," virus writers started to add "$sys$" to the names of their programs..."

Doctorow does not quite say, but implies strongly that the massive efforts to cripple copying are responsible for a substantial part of the vulnerability of software to viruses.

Nor does he hold back from scathing agencies like NSA.  Here is another example:

NIST (The National Institute for Standards) was forced to recall one of its cryptographic standards after it became apparent that the NSA had infiltrated its process and deliberately weakened the standard - an act akin to deliberately ensuring that the standard for electrical wiring was faulty so that you could start house fires in the homes of people you wanted to smoke out during an armed standoff.

Doctorow accepts the principle of copyright and proposes a compromise based on something called a blanket license, or similar arrangements.  Essentially it is a method for paying money into a collective pool of copyrights and statistically allocating it to the copyright holders. DJ's are allowed to play songs on the radio (Remember radio?) because of such an arrangement. There are many technical and legal difficulties, which he discusses.

From a time before this technology arose, I myself never accepted the principle of copyright. It seems to me, as has often been said, copyright is theft.  It is theft from the commons as sure as is The Lord of the Manor fencing off the common pasture of the village to run his sheep only.  It is theft for the simple reason that if I sell you an apple or a painting or a manufacturing device, at then end of the transaction you have and apple or machine tool or whatever and I do not.  If I tell you a story or tell you how to do something, at the end of the transaction we both have it.  In this way information differs from property as named by Proudhon in his original phrase, "property is theft."

Doctorow does not explain temp files, but perhaps that’s a red herring. He omits mention of 3-D printing, but the issues seem to me essentially the same except for the initial step of making an image of an object.

Be my perspective what it may, I believe that by its nature digital communication has killed copyright.  It is meaningless in the world of computer communication. But the entertainment industry is making a massive and destructive effort to give it zombie life, and it is eating our brains.

You may say that the entertainment industry could not exist as we know it without copyright.  Tough shit.

You may ask how creators are to earn their bread.  Creators have been surviving and occasionally prospering since long before the entertainment industry, since long before copyright.  Shakespeare did not have copyright (He did have a faint precursor called the Stationers Register, but he became modestly wealthy mostly by owning stock in his acting company). Dante did not have copyright. Archimedes did not have copyright.  Galileo did not have copyright. The authors of the Bible did not have copyright.  In the long view of recorded history creators have mostly earned their bread through patrons. The patronage system had serious problems and opportunities for abuse of creators, but it seems to me no worse than what is going down now. Furthermore, as Doctorow explains, the World Wide Web provides once unimagined ways for creators to reach audiences.