sexta-feira, agosto 29, 2014

"Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing" by Adam Greenfield

Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing - Adam Greenfield
“Everything that can be digital, will be”.

A long time ago, I found myself sitting on my bed, breathing in a cloud of card fumes, using a stiletto to pick at the corner of a London electronic travel card (acquired in a school field trip to the UK). After arriving in Lisbon I became utterly fascinated by it. Thus I decided to dissect one of them. After letting the card sit in a nail cosmetic lacquer remover for a time, and after the plastic had softened enough I was able to peel apart the layers within and voilà: inside was a tiny microchip attached to a fine copper wire: the radio frequency identification (RFID) chip.

Now you’re probably wondering. What the heck did he want with it? I wanted to be a cyborg! What else? (Remember this happened a long time ago; I think it was my first trip to the UK). If anyone out there in the Netherworld has been reading my reviews, she or he’ll have noticed that my first love was (and still is) SF. What better chance to put into practice what I’d been reading SF-wise, I said to myself. This is it. I’ll leave this mortal coil and I’ll become a cyborg…

To accomplish that I’d to bury the chip under my skin, so that the turnstiles at the entrance to the London Tube would open with a twist of my hand, as if I were some kind of Open Sesame wizard. Unfortunately I had the chip, but what I didn’t have was a Special Forces doctor willing to do the surgery. On top of that I also failed to get my hands on the state-of-the-art silicone I’d need to coat the chip to prevent my body reacting against it. In this fashion ended my dream of becoming the first Tube Cyborg.

This book aimed to substantiate and formalize (in 2005) what it meant to be able to interact without thinking with our everyday objects. This later became known as Ambient Informatics.  

The ubicomp (ubiquitous) concept really took off with Mark Weiser, who developed the idea of an “invisible” computing (vide “The Coming Age of Calm Technology”), a computing that “does not live on a personal device of any sort, but is in the woodwork everywhere”. In other words, what Mark Weiser described was computing without computers, or as Greenfield states it: “Everyware is information processing embedded in the objects and surfaces of everyday life.”

The book’s structure is one of its main points. It presents 81 individual “theses” on the various subjects at hand. These are further annotated with several pages of discussion and references. Any one of them triggers discussion and reflection. A sample:

Thesis 17: “The overwhelming majority of people experiencing everyware will not be knowledgeable about IT”.

Thesis 24: “Everyware, or something very much like it, is effectively inevitable.”

Everyware has been at the forefront of my academic, intellectual interests and work. In this sense Greenfield’s book was able to fulfil two objectives:

  1.    It’s a book we should read for itself (the theses are by themselves worth the price of the book);
  1.    As a means of getting into many other subjects, many of which are amongst the more pressing of our generation (the book was written in 2005, but the assertions/theses are still quite valid in 2014).

Is there a universal path to Everyware? I don’t think so. Each person makes choices about technology. For instance, I only watch TV when I’m looking for a particular TV Show. I don’t indulge in channel surfing. I don’t need another life-time burner in my life…

Is resistance futile? That depends upon you... According to a Motorola executive, the choice is not ours:

“A Motorola executive, interviewed in a recent issue of the Economist, asserted the rather patronizing viewpoint that if customers didn’t want these conveniences [in this case the mobile phones, but we can extend this to the Ubicomp field], they’d simply have to be “educated” about their desirability until they did manage to work up the appropriate level of enthusiasm. In other words “the floggings will continue until morale improves.” (page 89; bold mine).

NB: By reading this book in 2014, I wanted to validate how many of the 81 theses were still relevant. The book was so ahead of its time that all of the theses are still relevant in terms of discussion of what we mean nowadays when we use the term “ubicomp.” I still consider it to be one of the “bibles” of Computer Science. Well, right off the top of my head I'll list a few other “bibles” worth reading: 
  1. “The Art of Computer Programming” by Donald Knuth;
  2. “The Coming Age of Calm Technology” by Mark Weiser;
  3. “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter;
  4. “The Inmates Are Running The Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity” by Alan Cooper;
  5. “Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” by Steve Krug;
  6. “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman”;
  7. “The C Programming Language” by Kernighan and Ritchie;
  8. “The Art of Unix Programming” by Eric S. Raymond;
  9. “Modern Operating Systems” by Andrew S. Tanenbaum;
  10. “A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine” by Charles Petzold;
  11. “The Annotated Turing: Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine” by Donald A. NormanTamara Dunaeff;
  12. “The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander;
  13. “The Tao of Programming” by Geoffrey James;
  14. “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering” by Frederick P. Brooks Jr.;
  15. “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture” by David Kushner;
  16. “How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method” by George Pólya.

Full stop.

Any other suggestions?

sábado, agosto 23, 2014

"The Annotated Shakespeare" by A.L. Rowse

Finally it's arrived...

Life-is-Shakespeare, Transcendental-Experiences, Not-The-Whole-Truth, Strongly-Recommended.

Review to follow... I think... Floating in a sea of memories...

"The Dawn Patrol" by Don Winslow

The Dawn Patrol - Don Winslow
“Everything tastes better on a tortilla”. With this simple dictum ends “The Dawn Patrol” by Don Winslow. It’s a good ending. The spirit behind this phrase is a wonderful representation of the book’s tone.

The surf culture abounds. I’m not a surf guy. I’m more into scuba-diving. They both rate high on fellowship, kindness, journey, and cooperation, with surfers/scuba-divers helping each other out when they can and working together towards common goals. To make a story out of it is the hard part. Winslow, maybe because he lived the culture himself, is more able to mythify the surf culture. Nowadays the map of myth is lost to us. The core of 20th-century discourse has been convulsed by a paradox of semiotics. No need. Writers, such as Winslow, and a few others, are fully able to provide all the mythifying we need for our enjoyment. In this case, surf culture:

“U.S. Highway 101.
The Pacific Coast Highway.
“The PCH.
“The Boulevard of Unbroken Dreams.
The Yellow Brick Road.
You may get your kicks on route 66, but you get your fun on Highway 101. You may take 66 to find America, but you won’t find The American Dream until you hit the PCH. Sixty-six is the route, but 101 the destination. You travel 66, you arrive at 101. It’s the end of the road, the beginning of the ride.”

(Myth: the surfer as the always-roaming, always-looking-for-new-things kind of person).

“Or drive it at dusk, when the ocean is golden, and the sun an orange fireball, with dolphins dancing in the break. Then the sun flames red, and it slips quietly over the horizon and the ocean slides to gray and then to black and you fell a little sad because this day is over, but you know it will begin again tomorrow.
Life on Highway 101.”

[Myth: the (metaphorical) power of the ocean realm]

What keeps me wanting to read Don Winslow? I’m not sure. Apart from his ability to produce mythifying-like literature, there’s definitely something more. The bottom line is that he’s (almost always) able to write inwhat I call “breezy style”, ie, his ability to paint clear pictures in succinct strokes.

Nobody’s going to claim that Winslow characters should always fully believable (they are not, hence Winslow’s mythifying ability). After all you’ve got give your heroes and villains some colour, so to speak. Elmore Leonard comes to mind when I think about it.
Another strong trait shows up in the dialogue. What Leonard first did and Winslow next keeps on doing is to show us how to transform the rhythm of his characters’ dialogue and interactions into its own art form; this speech and dialogue cadence will be instantaneously recognizable decades from now.

That distinct interchange between characters is usually never more captivating than when it’s in the hands of authors like Leonard and Winslow. Their characters always have a quick mind and a splendid gift of repartee. Delivering clever remarks with the kind of effortless cool is not an easy thing to do. Only those who’ve an ostensibly rich literary voice can do it. I’ve seen bad imitations of this (I won’t write down any names – I’m not sure about the writing policy on this internet medium; I’m quite sure what would happen at Goodreads; it happened to me several times…Forgive me the rant, but I had to get it out…That’s why I’ll refrain from mentioning any names in order not to cause undue stress).

To end this overlong review (it won’t happen many times, but sometimes the subject matter asks for it and because close reading does this to me…), I can’t resist showing you the following passage that I’d to re-read several times:

“Josiah Pamavatuu is a good man, no doubt about it.
Now he drives his truck with two wet and shivering women at his side and his best friend in the back, a man who is like family to him.
But like ain’t is.
Is is is.”

(Try repeating this out loud in rapid-fire mode)

domingo, agosto 17, 2014

"Shakespeare on Toast" by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard - Ben Crystal
After reading “The Shakespeare Wars” by Ron Rosenbaum (review here), I sunk into a lethargic stupor. What can I read that will topple Rosenbaum’s book? I’d “Shakespeare on Toast” on my TBR Pile for a while. It went there just when it came out, but I thought it’d be something of a pastiche on Shakespeare's works, and I was not in the mood for that. What finally made the decision for me was my subconscious. I wanted something that could be used as a counterpoint to the Rosenbaum’s book. At least that was what I thought, but the book is nothing of the sort. It’s instead a nice complement to the Rosenbaum’s book. It didn’t exactly rock my socks off, ie, it didn’t revolutionize the way I see Shakespeare, but it gave me a fresh, zingy insight into his work.

Ben Crystal’s book tries to demystify Shakespeare by putting a new twist on the usual Shakespeare reference works. It attempts to explain the idiosyncrasies of Shakespeare’s language (the usual much vituperated iambic pentameter, which is the main stumbling block, where most people fall when dealing with Shakespeare), as well as giving us the context of the plays. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean days, Shakespeare's plays weren't viewed by the audience as something deep and meaningful that should be analyzed again and again ad nauseum. Instead, it would be something along the lines of a soap opera.

One of the reasons I love writing book critique is because it allows me the pleasure of close reading. Invariably this leads to question: “Why do you think the writer did that?” The ‘that’ could be a technique, a literary device, a plot point or some clever thing (like the iambic pentameter). Close reading is a wonderful technique to tell us how the writers use language for effect. It’s all about grabbing our attention. They just wrap it up in a nice little phrase that make us think before they answer the questions they always answer. “Shakespeare on Toast” also successfully attempts to answer this question in a roundabout way, ie, tackling the technical aspects that make Shakespeare unique. All by themselves, the several “chapters” dealing with the close reading of the iambic pentameter justify reading the book.

As a trivia snippet, this close reading apparently, when applied to Shakespeare, results in a documented and observed phenomena studied by a British scientist (Professor Philip Davis): “the extra work that the poetry and the unfamiliar words require makes a part of the temporal lobe of your brain known as the Sylvian Fissure light up like a Christmas tree.” (From scene 4). I must say that I’ve never felt a thing in my head (ie, the light bulbs) in all the years I’ve been reading Shakespeare…

Themes the book attempted to address:

  • What can we learn about how to break open his plays, from the plays themselves?
  • What is it about Shakespeare that draws us in? And what makes hate him?

Why are we talking about Shakespeare and not one of his contemporaries (eg, Christopher Marlowe)? I’ll give you a clue: it’s got to do with iambic pentameter…Mum’s the word.

This line from the Star Trek VI film pin-points the book’s spirit:

Klingon chancellor Gorkon: “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingonese.”
Klingon: “Tak Pah, Tak Beh…"
All: (laughter)

sexta-feira, agosto 15, 2014

"The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups" by Ron Rosenbaum

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups - Ron Rosenbaum
The Germans have Goethe, the Russians Dostoevsky, the Spanish Cervantes, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (and Camões). The English-speaking world has Shakespeare with a difference. Shakespeare “speaks” to us from a 400 year gap, while Goethe, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Pessoa are much closer to us. Their language is basically the language that we speak today. Not so with Shakespeare. Early Modern English is “another” language. This is what makes Shakespeare different, as well as the fact that we know next to nothing about him, which makes him harder to read and interpret.
To those who are in my age bracket, ie, long past childhood, foreign native English speakers on their Shakespearean quest, somewhat fazed, but still fascinated by the English language, I would simply give you one piece of advice: "Hang in there!" There are plenty of meticulously edited scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays. Take your pick and embark on your personal journey (see beneath my personal Shakespeare's bookshelf). Yes, it's very difficult. I'm quite aware of that. But it might just be worth it. There is no easy way to start reading Shakespeare, no easy paved path to understand and appreciate his writing. It requires lots of hard work.

Whether it's worth it or not, that's up to you. Keep in mind that if you don’t get Shakespeare, don’t trouble yourself. Shakespeare is like that.

Rosenbaum's book is one of those that should be in every personal Shakespeare's bookshelf, along with a few others:
  1. "The Annotated Shakespeare" by A. L. Rowse
  2. "The Shakespeare Wars" by Ron Rosenbaum
  3. "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" by Peter Alexander
  4.  "The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents" by Russ McDonald
  5. “Shakespeare and the Art of Language” by Russ McDonald
  6. "An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Stephen Booth
  7. "Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare" by Isaac Asimov
  8. "Northrop Frye on Shakespeare" by Northrop Frye
  9. "Shakespeare after All" by Marjorie Garber
  10. "Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion" by David and Ben Crystal
  11. "The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge Companions to Literature)" by Margreta De Grazia, and Stanley Wells.
  12. "Dictionary of Shakespeare (Wordsworth Collection)" by Charles Boyce
(NB: No Harold Bloom reference work…)

For the plays I want re-read, I also (re)-read the relevant sections in these reference books. When I pick up the next play in my Shakespeare reading list, I start by reading the relevant section in the reference books, and also to refer back when necessary to get the background, history of performance and the critiques. 

I’ve always pondered whether I should tackle this book. And “tackle” is the right word here. When the book came out in 2006, the controversy surrounding Bloom’s book “Shakespeare: The Invention of Human” was rampant, and I was not interested in reading something along the same lines. Big mistake. What Ron Rosenbaum does with his book “The Shakespeare Wars” is quite a feast, and it should be read by all, Shakespeare aficionados or not. It’s refreshing to read something about Shakespeare that invites thought.

If one wants to understand what reading Shakespeare is all about, what language should be, “The Shakespeare Wars” is the answer. 

Nevertheless Shakespeare critique may seem an odd theme for a pleasure book but between deep love for this subject and breezy, journalistic prose, Rosenbaum pulls it off rather nicely. This book’s close reading approach to Shakespeare is what allows the book to make its mark. While reading it I was invaded by a sense of transcendence, bedazzlement and wonder. Even the most acerbic chapters are oddly charming (eg, the chapter on whether “The Funeral Elegy” was in fact written by Shakespeare). In my mind it accomplishes something marvelous: it proves that centuries-old language can produce evident fulfillment.

This book mimics almost in full my thoughts on Shakespeare: Going on incessant cycles of re-reading the plays, watching them played (Kenneth Branagh comes to mind). With each new reading iteration I find, time after time, a quantum leap to a new level or new depth of understanding. Each new iteration resulted in further wonderful glimpses of ultimate enigmas represented by Shakespeare’s writing. Only Shakespeare doesn’t bring forth diminishing returns with each re-reading. Rosenbaum is able quite aptly to show us why with each re-reading we get increasing returns.

“What’s all the fuss about [Shakespeare]?” as Rosenbaum asks? We feel that there is something in his writing beyond what we find in other authors, namely Shakespeare’s polysemy, ie, the capacity of Shakespearean language to generate an unbounded supply of meaning in the readers. As Rosenbaum states in his “exceptionalist question”, ie, “is Shakespeare on the same continuum of other great writers, perhaps the greatest, but still understandable in the same terms as other great writers, or does he occupy – has he created – some realm of his own, beyond others?” (To see Rosenbaum’s take on this you’ve got to read the book lol).

His chapter on Shakespeare on film and stage is almost the price of the book alone. Very useful insights on Stoppard (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”), Olivier (“Richard III”), Gielgud, Garrick, Brook (“King Lear”), Burton (“Hamlet”), Welles (“Henry IV”), Branagh (“Hamlet”, eg, this little snippet, which came as surprise when I saw the movie for the first time: “consider Kenneth Branagh’s decision in his often admirable full-length four-hour Hamlet to give us a flashback scene of Hamlet and Ophelia rolling around naked in bed making love.[…]. Setting aside Branagh’s understandable decision to err on the side of rolling around naked with Kate Winslet, who plays Ophelia, it’s not exactly an Originalist device.[…] But I was grateful that he did it and in doing so gave us John Gielgud’s last Shakespearean moment. […]. A sad, beautiful, silent farewell for Gielgud.

This book was such a Shakespearean source for me that I found myself underlining so much of it that underlining lost the point of underlining…

Sometimes along comes a book where the collision between reader and text takes place at a perfect time. This is one of those books and I’m one of those readers. I’m glad I didn’t read it in 2006. I wouldn’t have appreciated it properly. If you are into Shakespeare in a big way, do yourself a favour, and get this book. You won’t regret it.
NB: His assertion that “Germany is Hamlet” came as a surprise. I’d never thought about it in those terms (when discussing Germany’s romanticism, and feverish intellectualism).

quinta-feira, agosto 07, 2014

"The Coroner's Lunch" by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill
I few years ago a realization struck me. Why were the protagonists of the books I was reading invariably between the ages of 20 to 40 (give or take a few years at each end of the interval)? Publishing-wise it seemed like nothing interesting was happening to people outside this age bracket. Is this realistic? Does it matter?  No wonder our society is obsessed with youth when fiction is aimed at certain age groups. After 40, am I simply seen as irrelevant? I’m sick and tired of reading about some 25-year-old that has the perfect career all tied up and is mature beyond his/her years (“Twilight” comes to mind). A novel with characters always in the right age group is for me a difficult sell. Is our society afraid to age and is that the reason why it clings to the same old stereotypes?

Here we have a 72-year old protagonist that made laugh out loud. That’s not a mean feat in my view of things.

Cotterill’s grasp on Lao’s time and place and culture is quite impressive. On top of that he was really creative with his characters, and his threads (there are several) are twisted and thrilling and deftly managed. The writing is hilariously funny, graphic while managing a wonderful pointedness. This pot-pourri mixed with the colour of the Laotian language and culture really makes it worth reading. Unfortunately that’s where the good stuff ends. The detours into supernaturalism didn’t ring true at all. Dead people appear to Siri in dreams and provide clues (Deus ex machina in my book). There's a long part of the novel in which Siri goes to a remote Hmong village and participates in a sort of exorcism, in which he personally battles forest demons… I think it’d have worked better if the plot device was reduced to a naturalistic explanation.

What (almost) saves the novel is Dr. Siri’s crusty, thumb-nosing personality. What a treat.

sábado, agosto 02, 2014

"A Bullet for Carlos" by Giacomo Giammatteo

A Bullet for Carlos - Giacomo Giammatteo
Arthur C. Clarke may have been the worst great writer I can think of (probably along with Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov).

Clarke’s prose is workmanlike at the best of times, his characters are emotional ciphers, his dialogue is seldom real, his plots are more like giant landscapes than any credible unfolding of events involving real people, and style-wise he happily breaks every rule of Good Writing.

Clarke doesn't care. And know what? Neither do I. Some of things Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein wrote are still among my favourite novels.

In genre fiction, if I pick up any modern novel, basically the villains are just cardboard characters that have to be locked up or arrested or shot by the good guys. Nowadays modern Crime Fiction is an entertainment genre and it’s huge business (in Britain around 30% of all the fiction published belongs to the Crime Fiction section). Crime Fiction is all about resolution, which you don’t get in real life. Although I have a bit of a reaction to this, it can be very good entertainment if it’s done properly.

Along with lots of other readers, I like the way I get sucked into Clarke’s bigger-than-space narratives. I get excited along with his cardboard but engaging characters in the vast spaces, unique vistas he shows us.

When I read Clarke, I know I’m reading a fellow geek, a non-artsy-fartsy guy, who was able to produce the wonderful trick of writing Fiction that resembled literary work. Nay, I must not think thus…. Something that is literary. Better than, in some cases.

This long preamble takes us to the novel at hand: “A Bullet for Carlos” by Giacomo Giammatteo. Was the constant POV shifting annoying sometimes? Absolutely. Does Giammatteo always move skillfully between the main character’s first-person account (Connie’s) and omniscient third-person narration? No, not by a long shot. Is it comparable with the best Crime Fiction out there today? Nope. Is it highfalutin literature? No. But it was all so damn fun.