The best of 2013

See last year’s roundup.

Besides work and family, I get enjoyment out of books and film. In terms of books, this year was a pretty serious one for me.

Goodreads Challenge 2013

I was able to acheive my Goodreads goal (again). It says 50, but if you minus off the graphic novels, coursework and essays it is more like 44. Considering my family was in Japan for a total of 13 weeks, I probably should have read more. I did spend quite a bit of time reading D&D and Shadowrun rulebooks… so… there’s that.

Looking back, my overall reading theme was “internet theory” — including cypherpunks, hackers, anonymous and the like. This trend started before the Snowden revelations, but picked up halfway through the year. Since reading Future Perfect last year, and thinking about information politics I have been diving deep into the internet and politics. I suspect that trend to continue in 2014.

The best book of 2013 I read was This Machine Kills Secrets. I highly recommend it. Furthermore I would recommend Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking if you want to learn more about the ethics of computing. From those two books you can go many directions. I listen to the Suprisingly Free podcast to get ideas.

Audio vs Text

Last year I set the goal of reading more books rather than listening to them. I wanted to push down the ratio of audiobooks from 75% to half. I almost achieved that:

  • Audio 25 = 56%
  • Text 12 = 27%
  • Both audio and text 7 = 16%

With Amazon’s new Whispersync technology and strategy of bundling of Audible and Kindle books, I have been getting both versions for books that I want to get through quickly but still need to take lots of annotations. I still would like to read more, but audio fits into my daily life better.

Next year’s goal

I set the goal of getting into “deeper” books last year. Althought I was able read some classics. like Crime and Punishment, I strayed quite a bit. I feel that grasping the “classics” properly requires me to read them, yet I read fiction mainly for relaxationa and entertainment, and thus tend to use the audio medium. In order to read more classics, I need to change my reading habits, and I am not sure if I am ready to do that. Interesting to think that the medium determines the “quality” of books I am reading.

Next year I will probably continue reading non-fic about internet politics. I would like to try to go back and re-read some books from the past, both non-fic and fic. That and I have a few series that I started this year that I can continue reading (Vorkosigan Saga, Oxford Time Travelers, Small Change, etc.) Plus I am looking forward to more Hawkeye and Saga! In all, I do not plan to be buying a ton of books in 2014.

A note about film

Last year I dedicated a whole post to film. This time I just thought I would note the highlights of the 47 films I saw. The following garnered 5 and 4.5 stars:

As you can see, I was catching up on some films from the past. As for new films, although I enjoyed the spectacle of The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity was probably the best film of the year from a critical perspective.

Quarterly review: FY13Q4

Below are links to all the off-the-cuff reviews of books and film from this quarter. I didn’t add to my list of more in depth reviews.

Reviews from Goodreads (2013)

★★★★☆ Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

★★★☆☆ Writing on the Wall

★★★★★ To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last

★★★★☆ Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

★★☆☆☆ I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

From my Letterboxd film diary:

★★★★½ Gravity

Cited — A review of Consent of the Networked

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon

I have owned this book for more than a year, and now that I have finally read it I have to say it was pretty boring. Wait! I am not saying it is a bad book, not by any means! Overall it is excellent and a must read for anyone interested in “internet theory”. The reason it might come off as boring is that it is one of the most cited books on internet freedom. In my last year of reading I have read so many citations of MacKinnon’s work that there was barely anything left! That says a lot about the importance of this book (whether you agree with its premise or not).

Not everything was old news to me, but with the Snowden leaks I feel like this book needs an update soon. The core of the book can be summed up an early quote:

we cannot understand how the Internet is used unless we first understand the ways in which the Internet itself has become a highly contested political space.

MacKinnon demonstrates how the internet is politicized in a number of different spheres including free speech and censorship, civil rights, surveillance, etc. She states:

political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.

That is an important perspective, one that I have came to independently as outlined in my essay on information-centric political philosophy. Although most of the book documents how governments, corporations, the public and activists use the internet, her final chapter outlines what needs to be done politically.

She illustrates the internet as being dominated by two powers: government and corporate. MacKinnon espoused the need for a third actor, a “digital commons” where individuals and activists can operate freely, without the influence of “digital sovereigns.” She quotes Eliot Noss, CEO of Tucows:

if you’re talking about the Internet, nations and nation states are just actors at the table, not predominant.

This does not mean she is pining for a UN-style internet government. Quite the opposite actually. MacKinnon argues against a UN-led organization and is looking for a multi-stakeholder organization including representatives from government, corporations, civil liberties groups and the public at the table. And the table is an important one. These sovereigns are not just offering another product:

Unlike companies that produce sportswear or toothpaste, the value proposition of Internet-related companies relates directly to the empowerment of citizens.

She spends a lot of time talking about social media. One interviewee argues that Facebook has become a public square of the internet. Facebook!? What a shame. Why can’t the “Internet” be the “public square” of the Internet?

A few times I found that MacKinnon did not give very clear definitions of open source, sharing economy and digital commons, which she tended to conflate (cf. loc 541). Furthermore, she doesn’t really talk about the non-financial costs of using “free” (ie. gratis rather than libré) web platforms for activism. Though, we have other authors that cover that particular topic.

Furthermore, there is a lot of talk about “social justice” and working to “maximize the chances that [internet] businesses will genuinely improve the world”. Her anti-corporatism goes a bit far for me. She says that the “point of activism is to reach, convince, and engage the largest number of people” to which my inner-cynic says: “and not to actually provide solutions?!”

A final criticism is to ask if this book is really about the internet at all. It certainly is about free speech and censorship, surveillance and corporate exploitation of private information. I agree that “People need to stop thinking of themselves as passive ‘users’ and ‘customers,’ and start acting like citizens” but it does not mean we need the new classification of “netizen.” Discourse between citizens should be protected whether it is “digital” or not. Still, outlining how digital discourse is particularly vulnerable is an important contribution, and I applaud her wish to build “a more citizen-centric and citizen-driven information environment.”

After action: 1 month in San Francisco

Our one month trip to San Francisco to work on our new startup has been very busy and fruitful. Besides hanging out at the German Startup Haus and going to work every day at Runway, we occasionally did get to do some things around the city like visit the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown, froze our butts off at Alcatraz, spent an evening with hipsters at IgniteSF, watched The Desolation of Smaug at the IMAX, toured the EFF and the Internet Archive, and generally walked around SF. A highlight for me was meeting up with some of the cast of The Incomparable, one of my favourite podcasts.

The last time I was in SF I was struck by how old everything was. This time I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Luckily I have some friends here that are outside of the tech community so I was able to get a bit more of a balanced view. As I commented on Twitter:

One thing I’ve learned while in SF: just like tech can leave behind whole industries, tech can leave behind whole cities.

Those in tech/startups understand the mechanics of disruption in a competitive market: if a new technology makes it to the mass market, tough for the buggy-whip makers and whale-fat farmers. Their time is over and they will have to find new jobs. The market is never static — it is the circle of life.

However, cities are not markets. At least, many people do not expect cities to act like markets. We often hear of large companies folding or shutting down factories, leaving a shell of a city behind in the wake of unemployment. But SF is an inverted case where there is much wealth being attracted (and generated) here, raising the cost of living so high that longtime residents are turned out of their homes.

So what happens when a city leaves behind its residents? In other words, what responsibility does a city have to its residents? The opposing viewpoints of whether a city is a competitive market or not underlies the tension in SF. I cannot offer any solutions, but I would be interested in hearing any historical comparisons if you know of any.

Despite this, our trip was fruitful. I write this post on the plane northward and look forward to reconnecting with the rest of our team in Kelowna to work on the next leg of our project. Exciting times!

The Internet Archive

See all photos

For our final night in San Francisco before heading back to Canada, we saw the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show which was put on to benefit the Internet Archive which suffered from a fire recently. The showing was inside the Archive and featured footage of SF from the 1920s to 1980s. The soundtrack was simply the crowd, as they yell out recognized locations and ask questions, etc. It was very fun and interesting to see places that we had been to over the past month, but in a different era.

The Internet Archive (which has the Wayback Machine) is located in a former church. The grand hall is where the show was held, and you can see from the pictures, the church pews are still intact. In the alcoves at the back are two server racks which store the master copy of the Archive. Along the sides of the church are little statues. These are representations of people who dedicated many hours volunteering for the archive. The one I happened to photograph is Aaron Swartz.

Visiting the EFF

This week I had the privilege of visiting the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization I am a member of. I reached out to them and asked for a tour. While they were a bit surprised, they gracious showed me around their new three story building on Eddy Street. The EFF used to rent a small office in the Mission for about the last 20 years. Then this year, they actually purchased a building from Planned Parenthood. It is really nice, filled with wood and glass office spaces and conference rooms where their 50 staff, lawyers, activists and analysts do their work.

The internet is global but so much of our communication and technology passes through or comes from the US, it is important that non-Americans like myself support the EFF too. Around 10% of the EFF’s 25,000 members are from outside the US. I asked how I could help when I go back to Canada. Besides raising awareness of the EFF itself amongst Canadian citizens and developers, I promised to connect them to similar organizations in Canada that I know such as the BC Civil Liberties Association and OpenMedia.ca. If you have any other organizations in mind, please let me know, or encourage them to reach out to the EFF for partnership.

And if you aren’t already, please become a member.

EFF Member