The best of 2014

I logged 40 films and read 57 books in the year 2014. That is really 50 books when you remove the graphic novels, essays and lecture series. Considering my GoodReads Challenge this year was 45 books, I did well. Next year I am setting it to 50. Why not?

I did two reviews for the Literary Review of Canada this year (one to be published early 2015), which meant a lot of background reading and research. Plus, for a few months I attended a book club, which meant an extra book each month, but it wasn’t that difficult. Probably because of how I consume books: 72% of my read books were in audio format. Considering how many podcasts I listen to, that is a lot of media consumption through the ears.

The fiction to non-fic split was 28 to 22. Seems like a pretty good balance. Almost half and half.

8 books got 5 stars from me. Here is the quick list:

The first two, Origins and To Save Everything probably influenced me the most this year. I would also like to give special mention to The Circle (4 stars), which was problematic in execution, but sparked a lot of excellent conversation.

Politics was a big theme for me this year. I spent a lot of time thinking about how so much of our tech is about facilitating social interaction, and how social interaction is governed by politics. It has shifted my focus to thinking more about the underlying political infrastructure of our technology, instead of the technological infrastructure of our politics. The result so far has been a sidelining of technology per se, at least from my perspective. I am getting re-acquainted with political theory again. More on this in the future I’m sure.

Another highlight of the year was being introduced to the excellent Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin. I don’t know why I had never read them before, but I plan on reading more.

On film

12 of the 40 films I logged were watched with my kids. I only watched Frozen once, even though my kids could have logged it 40 times. Anyways, my top films of 2014 were:

I guess my theme in film this year was “captains”…? Or maybe, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, which is funny because a lot of the books I read this year were much the opposite!


See previous entries:

Disruptive politics

As Silicon Valley becomes the economic and cultural center of the US (and everywhere else, considering how “software is eating the world”) it is only natural that it will seek to become a political center. Hiring lobbyists — like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber (and Netflix in Canada) have — is just the first step. In fact, since that is an attempt to work inside of the existing system, those big companies are stuck within the innovator’s dilemma. For some in Silicon Valley, what is needed is disruptive innovation.

In Come With Us If You Want to Live: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley, Sam Frank takes us on a networking spree with transhumanists, singularitarians, panpsychists, and negative hedonic utilitarians; all seeking to “change the world” in a much larger sense than Facebook or Whatsapp. The article “investigates the sometimes elitist, anti-democratic, utopian, and millenarian politics of Silicon Valley” and in it Frank relates a number of apocalyptic scenarios. Here is one that I think outlines the logic quite succinctly (or, at least how Frank sees it):

In five years an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive good anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, grid-locked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up.

The rhetoric is great, I love the term “customer-citizens” in particular. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, but you can get a taste with the online supplemental: Battlefield Worth: Occupy goes to TechCrunch Disrupt.

Sam Frank’s take is by no means even-handed. He opens his article with a visit to Zucotti Park and self-identifies as a “democratic-socialist introvert” and a Gramsci-ite. Frank’s interactions with the “libertarians” are a pastiche, with myriad quotes entirely out-of-context and comes off not thoroughly representative. Although that seems like a weakness, it actually turns out to be a strength. Through this whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley’s fringe politics we get a snapshot of the primordial ooze of political thought there — all seeking to disrupt politics as we know it, even seeking “post-politics” as Frank puts it.

The political spectrum of Silicon Valley is wide and varied. First there are the engaged politics which span the traditional right and left. For example: hyper-capitalist libertarians like Peter Thiel (“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”); neoreactionaries which pine for a technocratic aristocracy; political activists like Aaron Swartz; or techno-socialists like Astra Taylor that want to shake up the system as it is. Then there is the more sinister, underlying ideology of the system of the type that Evgeny Morozov tries to expose and attack when he rails against cyber-utopianism and the “de-institutionalization of society.” I would love to see a catalogue of political ideology in Silicon Valley by someone like Mike Bulajewski or a working academic like Michael Sacasas. An impossible task maybe. But the next disruptive politics — the next Marx or Hobbes — could be in there somewhere.

In the meantime, explore one section of the spectrum with Sam Frank’s enjoyable piece.

Quarterly review: FY14Q4

[Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site.]

Books

The first book I completed this quarter was Douglas Coupland’s new Kitten Clone: The History of the Future at Bell Labs for which I have a review forthcoming in the Literary Review of Canada. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here are some off-the-cuff reviews from other books this quarter.

★★★★☆ Midnight Riot

★★★★☆ Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

★★★☆☆ Leviathan Wakes

★★★★★ Superman: Red Son

★★★★☆ You Have to F–king Eat

★★★★☆ The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

★★★★★ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

★★★☆☆ Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

Film

Wow. I only watched 7 films this quarter, 2 of them rewatches. Not a lot of activity. The best film I saw was made in 1976. The only review I had was this line for my 3-star review of Rise of the Guardians:

I love the fact that my kids now imagine Santa Claus as a heavily tattooed Russian wielding dual broadswords!

Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us

cover-without_you_there_is_no_us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

After listening to her emotional interview on CBC’s The Current I quickly bought Suki Kim’s memoir of her two semesters teaching English in North Korea Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
Continue reading “Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us”

Local startups! Protect our shared resource!

The internet is like the sea, a vast and shared resource that we all depend on. Unfortunately we do not have anything like UNCLOS to help protect that resource from the countries and companies that threaten it. So much of the innovation and content on the internet is the result of individual users like us. Well, so is the responsibility to protect it.

Luckily we have some grassroots organizations to help coordinate individual efforts. Here in Canada we have OpenMedia, which I have mentioned before and you have probably seen me tweet about. I’ve been a member for a couple of years.

This month they are reaching out to fellow tech companies, whose businesses are all enabled by a free and open internet, to step up and contribute to the protection of that precious resource. The amazing thing they have done is got together a bunch of tech organizations to match all donations. This is the best time to get the most bang for your buck.

The campaign is called #StepUp4Net.

StepUpForNet_donate_banner

This is a grassroots campaign, led by local tech leaders. My pal Boris Mann has been working hard with cool people like Michael Tippet and Tim Bray to activate the YVR community, and I hear from OpenMedia that donations are coming in from Toronto. I would love to see some of our community members in the Okanagan and Thompson regions also contribute to this campaign.

For each one of you in your respective geographic areas, please reach out to find companies around you that are able to help. We are trying to get a couple hundred businesses to step up. Connect them directly to Open Media or even to me if they have questions. The campaign link is:

https://openmedia.org/stepup

2015 is going to be a big year with all kinds of legislation on the table regarding net neutrality, the TPP, surveillance, and lots of other issues. We need orgs like OpenMedia to augment our voice in Ottawa and elsewhere both as businesses and citizens. There is no better time to step up!

And don’t forget, you can still donate individually. Check out OpenMedia’s Donate page.