My year in film, 2012

I have done my annual book review for a number years now, but this year I thought I would do films too. Around this time last year I was introduced to a movie social network/tracking site that I really like: Letterboxd. Check out their cool 2012 Year in Review. If you want an invite, just ping me! I used it to track all 47 films I saw this year. That is not a lot of films by my standards, but with two kids I have little time for movies. When I do watch I tend to have to split a film up over a couple of viewings. However, it does mean I get to see a lot more animation, incuding my beloved Ghibli films.

This year, only 3 films garnered 5 stars:

  1. The Avengers
  2. My Neighbor Totoro
  3. Kiki’s Delivery Service

Avengers is obviously not a masterpiece example of l’art du cinéma, but it was so fun that I wanted to watch it immediately again (which I did) and listened to about 6 hours worth of podcasts about it. I am not a pro movie critic so there is no requirement for objectivity. I agree with one reviewer that this film just might be the Star Wars to today’s young generation. To give a little more balance, here are some of my favourite films that scored 4 and 4.5 stars:

Moonrise Kingdom scored high too, but only ranked fourth on my list of Favourite Wes Anderson Films.

As for film duds, I really only saw one (The Lorax) but I would have to say that Prometheus and Dark Knight Rises were probably the most disappointing of the year. Unlike the prevailing hipster opinion, I enjoyed The Hobbit quite a bit. There are still a number of films released this year that I have yet to see (Skyfall, Argo, Django Unchained just to name a few). They will have to wait.

My year in books, 2012

Goodreads Challenge 2012

This year was a good one for books. I originally set 2012’s goal to 30. I thought with a new baby on the way I wouldn’t have as much time for reading. On the contrary, there was lots of manual labour giving me more time to listen to audiobooks. Since I didn’t read any more George RR Martin books I was able to hit 30 books quite quickly. I upped my goal to 40 by the end of the first quarter of the year. Thanks to my information diet in September I cut way back on my podcast listening and other media consumption, allowing me to read even more. In total I read 51 books, though a few of those could be considered mere essays or pamphlets.

Looking back I see a few over-arching themes in my reading.

Of course there were the typical books about startups, the web, design and other work related things. Design is a Job was the standout. Cosmology is another of my common themes, though this year I read more about the politics involved (understandable considering my new side project Above Orbit). Classical sci-fi became an interest when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World culminating in my reading of Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. What an amazing book! I think this tied in well with my other theme of the year: thinking. Prodded by the contrarian biographer of George Orwell — Christopher Hitchens — and inspired by the pamphleteering of Steven Berlin Johnson, I tried to think deeper upon what I was reading.

The three books that influenced me most in 2012 are:

  1. The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson
  2. Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City by Brad Feld
  3. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

The first made me make time to think about the things important to me; the second made me consider improving my community; and the third made me consider improving my intellectual self.

A little on the “how” and next year

I often speak about how much I enjoy audiobooks. Compared to last year the ratio of read to listened to books became a bit more narrow:

  • 2010 → 22 of 32 = 69% audio
  • 2011 → 23 of 30 = 77% audio
  • 2012 → 38 of 51 = 75% audio

(NOTE: Both Brave New World and Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From I read and listened simultaneously in Audible and Kindle formats.)

Next year I will attempt to push audiobooks downwards to the 50% mark. I will focus on reading different books, deeper (something I want to discuss in a different post). Paper remains my bane, but the Kindle will serve me well as the ability to annotate without limit helps me to return to specific passages and notes, allowing me to write more extended reviews, something that I have been doing more of since my information diet. I think the quantity of books I will read must suffer somewhat, thus I am setting my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal to 40 books.

From bits to atoms — a review of Makers

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Like others have mentioned, this book is pretty repetitive and drawn out. It is written in the shadows of his previous two books, but Anderson doesn’t seem to mind — cross-promotion abounds. Probably the most ingratiating bit is his constant construction of catchphrases. He writes as if he is looking to coin another “long tail”, closing each section with a pithy little comment. In the end, he simply returns to his old form: “Welcome to the long tail of things.”

Through the wordiness, there is some significant content. Learning about the various types of small batch manufacturing tools and services like MakerBot and Ponoko inspired a bit of maker envy in me. However, Anderson is not satisfied with writing a how-to guide or evangelizing 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters. He spends a lot of time on “DIY culture” and even moreso on open source culture (something he has written heavily about before). Anderson has become somewhat of a Karl Marx of Open Source:

Open source is not just an efficient innovation system — it’s a belief system as powerful as democracy or capitalism for its adherents. (pp 93-94)

He further claims that the open source movement is less driven by commercial reasons and more by social ones.

It is interesting to consider the rise of opensourcism as a competitor to straight capitalism. I wonder where it falls along the spectrum with regards to Peer Progressivism? They do share some values, as well as historical roots. Though Anderson’s opensourcism is fairly business-focused. Throughout the book he intones: “give away the bits, sell the atoms.” (Would it be too crass of me to point out that Anderson charges $17.53 for the eBook?)

Anderson’s most valuable observation in the book relates the world of atoms to the previous democratization in the world of bits: this new industrial revolution is similar to the web in “ever accelerating entrepreneurship and innovation, with ever-dropping barriers to entry.” Like SPIN farming and other reactions to twentieth century-style industrial globalization, personal manufacturing will surely impact how and what people consume in the future.

If you want to hear more, check out Glenn Fleishman’s new podcast The New Disruptors, which delves into “profound changes in the economy for making things.” Episode 2 features an interview with Chris Anderson himself, talking about the book.

Microcosmographia Academica

The Microcosmographia Academica is a satirical pamphlet on the bureaucratic politics of the “tiny academic world” published in 1908 by Trinity College, Cambridge professor FM Cornford. It is a short and savage excoriation of groupthink, inaction, sycophancy and other procrastinative tendencies found in academia or any group of humans finding themselves in a hierarchy.

Cornford directs his advice to the “pitiful young academic politician”, introducing a series of principles and maxims. It is highly worth the read. I experienced just a touch of insider academic life as a graduate student, mostly vicariously through my friends in the PhD program. I have included a few choice quotes below.

Political influence may be acquired in exactly the same way as the gout; indeed, the two ends ought to be pursued concurrently. The method is to sit tight and drink port wine.

Indeed!

University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their high calling.

Just look at my master’s thesis.

It is impossible to enjoy the contemplation of truth if one is vexed and distracted by the sense of responsibility.

Nobody really wants to engage in all this politicking, right? Everybody wants to retire to their office to read, in tenured solitude. Sometimes though, action has to be taken:

When other methods of obstruction fail, you should have recourse to Wasting Time; for, although it is recognised in academic circles that time in general is of no value, considerable importance is attached to tea-time, and by deferring this, you may exasperate any body of men to the point of voting against anything.

To which it follows:

No academic person is ever voted into the chair until he has reached an age at which he has forgotten the meaning of the word ‘irrelevant’

Cornford writes the driving force behind the political motive in academics is Fear, and lists a number of fear-inducing “bugbears” such as:

  • Giving yourself away;
  • Females;
  • What Dr __________ will say;
  • The Public Washing of Linen;
  • Socialism, otherwise Atheism;
  • The Great World; etc., etc., etc.

If you have ever worked for government, you will recognize the following:

This most important branch of political activity is, of course, closely connected with Jobs. These fall into two classes, My Jobs and Your Jobs. My Jobs are public-spirited proposals, which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend, or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself and your friends, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

The following quotes describe succinctly the thought processes of the Everyman, the “average” citizen. I take these to heart in my general political life as an ironic guide.

There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing.

… the only justifiable attitude of mind is suspense of judgment; and this attitude, besides being peculiarly congenial to the academic temperament, has the advantage of being comparatively easy to attain.

… it is a mere theorist’s paradox that doing nothing has just as many consequences as doing something. It is obvious that inaction can have no consequences at all.

It is your mind that changes you — a review of Hitch-22

Hitch-22: A Memoir

I purchased Christopher Hitchens’s bestselling memoir as soon as it was available in 2010. It took until now for me to read it. I sincerely regret the belatedness. Now, with just a few days until the first anniversary of his death on 15 December, I can say I have somewhat made amends by reading Hitch-22, Letters to a Young Contrarian and Mortality all within the last month. Although I just finished the touching and brutal Mortality, I would like to focus on his memoirs.

If only I were smart enough for Oxford, spent 40 years as an active journo and world-traveling speaker, then maybe — just MAYBE — I might be able to write as well as Hitch. Others more erudite than myself (if not the equal of the great man himself) have written of the quality and quantity of his intellectual fortitude. Take for example Graydon Carter’s foreword to Mortality. All I can express are my experiences as a reader.

I came to Hitchens late, in his final decade of ever active duty. Thus it was a pleasure to read about his early life as a “rabble-rouser” (a term he denied) and all the amazing people he befriended or interviewed. The memoir is less an autobiography than an account of the intellectual history of Christopher Hitchens. Great events of history are weaved with the telling of his relationship with the capital-L “Left” (of them, but not of them). As with most of his work, this one was very engaging and having watched plenty of Hitch’s speeches and debates that I feel I could clearly hear his voice sub-vocalized as I read the words on the page.

In a sentence: the book is about his journey learning how to think for himself rather than aligning with allegiances, or taking “the party line.” To change one’s mind is not hypocrisy — it is a willingness to be informed. Hitch brings up John Maynard Keynes’s question: “When the facts change then my opinion changes: and you, sir?” This of course is given that the cause of change is based on reasoned evidence and not political convenience.

However, it does not end there. Once one has taken “some kind of intelligibly vertebrate position” one must speak up. Thus the meaning of the phrase “Hitch-22”: to reject literalism and those that deal in absolutes, yet argue forcefully for a concrete wrong and right. Hitch uses dichotomy as a device throughout the book, and successfully demonstrates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” And boy, could he function.

It makes me reflect on my own intellectual history: from pseudo-socialist punk rock teenager to The Economist-fed centre-right internationalist realist and most recently a principled constructivist. I too have veered from one alignment to another, finally finding my own path, one that I am still forging.

In 2010 I started a note called “My philosophical interests and positions” in which I tried to hash out my own opinions on such topics as:

  • Philosophy of religion (atheist and humanist)
  • Ethics (consequentialist)
  • Epistemology (critical rationalism)
  • Positivism (Khun) I am sometimes asked about the concept or definition of a “public intellectual,” and though I find the whole idea faintly silly, I believe it should ideally mean that the person so identified is self-sustaining and autonomously financed.

Hitch gave the example of Susan Sontag as an ideal public intellectual. I believe the above passage reflects my own distinction between public intellectual and pundit.

The usual duty of the “intellectual” is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae. But there is another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated …

Ah, another Hitch-22.

He was an intellectual powerhouse, prolific and a polymath. All the things we wish in a public intellectual. Although he declined the designation of brave or courageous, I think the following shows the kind of selfless dedication to his craft and audience.

On the morning of July 8 2010 he found out about his cancer. It was the first day of his national book tour for Hitch-22. He had an appointment with Salman Rushdie for a conversation at the 92nd St Y in New York (where I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Kaplan), and an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He pulled off both flawlessly, with none the wiser. I feel it is somewhat poignant to watch the interview with Jon Stewart knowing what we know now. All class.

The untapped talent well in Kelowna

In a constrained startup environment pushing for change it is important to identify and connect the “capable” members of a community. What I mean by “capable” is a bit nuanced, but effectively they are the “DO-ers” of society. If given the proper opportunity, these people could do great things, whether that means community engagement, creating new product ideas, or designing and developing the next big thing.

Attempting to drive all felines in the same direction typically results in a chaotic, leaderless mess. The best way to get action in a distributed environment is to find the do-ers and let them lead. The followers will follow. The community will become stronger. In his book Startup Communities Brad Feld estimates the number of true do-ers as 25% of volunteers — never mind the population at large. I will set an arbitrary (if optimistic) number of 10% of any given population. In our small startup community 10% is still too small to effect big, long-lasting change. Thus we must look to recruit other do-ers from other population pools. I have been considering a list of these pools for some time now, and so far have come up with:

  1. Those currently engaged in the startup community (us, as it stands);
  2. Those in the established tech companies (eg. Club Penguin, QHR, Vineyard, Vericorder) that for one reason or another do not interact with the community at present;
  3. Those rotting in dead-end web design jobs (you know who you are!);
  4. Those outside of tech, looking in (call them nontrepreneurs, wantrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs);
  5. Students, whether they are college/university grads or even promising high schoolers (we need to get them before they leave);
  6. Developers and other startup people from other communities (Kelowna has lots to offer, especially considering the progress in the past year);
  7. and, the immigrant community.

The final one is close to my heart, as someone who is married to an immigrant and who has lived most of his adult life as an expat in a foreign land. Immigrant communities are typically disconnected from regular economic activity but they don’t have to be. In four months of living here I have already met foreign-trained architects, engineers and nurses that do not have the local social connections to get jobs in their industry. I have been approached by one immigrant web-designer and my wife met an unemployed programmer in her ESL class.

Kelowna is still predominantly “old and white” but the immigration population has been rising in the past few years with the rise in education opportunities here, and the deterrent rise of living expenses in the traditional immigrant hub of Vancouver. There is a growing talent pool here that remains overlooked. These people are already trying to build something for themselves here. Why not get their help on building a new economic engine for the benefit of themselves and the city?

Our startup community has been using events organized through tools like Meetup.com and Twitter, as well as through the activities of Digital Okanagan and Accelerate Okanagan. We cannot expect a newly landed programmer to know about these resources. Yet to my knowledge Kelowna has no central clearing house for immigrant-related information that we can hook in to. I cannot begin to estimate the depth of the untapped talent well Kelowna’s immigrant population has to offer. We must find ways to reach out, and make newcomers to our country and city have the opportunity to plug in and offer their skills and experience. Our community will be better for it.

How I read

After listening to The Incomparable #116 (“Very Well-Read Hobos”) I was surprised that the panel did not mention — what is to my mind — the greatest appeal for reading digital books: guilt-free, searchable annotations.

While toiling away on my master’s thesis I had to travel to and from Japan (for family reasons). I did not want to shlep all my source material (stacks of books, journals, photocopies, printouts of articles and the like) back and forth over the Pacific Ocean. So I tried my best to keep all my research digital. It was brilliant. eBooks have a distinct advantage over paper books: they have no margin. You can scribble as much as you like in the virtual margins of an eBook — write a whole other book there if you like! Plus, and here is the best part, it is all searchable! I watched my fellows at the university scrabbling through piles of paper searching for that one footnote. For me, it was a short, typed query away.

I still annotate books all the time. If there is ever an interesting fact, or a clever turn of phrase, whether the book is fiction or not I highlight away — guilt free.

It was also during my time as a graduate that I discovered audiobooks. Hour long commutes and the self-doubt that accompanies writing a thesis (“I don’t know anything!”) made me want to pack every minute of my day with research. A couple of years later, while on paternity leave taking care of my newborn, I found another good use case for audio. So: washing dishes, gardening, commuting… and parenting. My Audible library contains 135 books.

Paper books I barely read anymore. They are far too inconvenient. Not only do I have to be careful while making notes (not to mention the limited space and that they are unsearchable), I need to create the right reading ambience to make any headway. I much prefer an eBook.

Serenity Caldwell reads many of her books on her iPhone (cf. #117: Intergalactic FedEx). I used to do that, but after reading on an iPad I began to appreciate having a larger screen. It is one of the reasons I bought a Galaxy SIII (and one of the few positives of owning an Android). The large display is great for reading. The iPhone 5 did get a longer screen, but I find it is still too narrow for comfortable reading. Hopefully the next version widens out a bit, or I might have to go for an iPad mini.

Yes, I have a Kindle. I got the first batch of international ones to Japan (see my original review here). But the convenience of my phone has relegated my Kindle to the old junk tech pile. It isn’t only the portability, I often read at night in bed and a book light it too clunky.

To sum up: mobile phone or iPad plus audiobooks — that is how I read. Soon I would like to post on what I read, and how it will change in the year 2013.