Quarterly review: FY16Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

This month I technically completed my 2016 Goodreads Challenge — 16 books ahead of schedule. It is a little misleading, since of the 14 books I read this quarter 6 were graphic novels. This year I decided to try and read more comics at the long-time encouragement of The Incomparable, one of my all-time favourite podcasts. Hence why I set my Goodreads challenge so low. However, most of the graphic novels are on GR, so I am racking up points!

Also, I have been much better of making at least a note once I finish a book. Thus follows a list of everything I read this quarter, for probably the first time ever. Looking back, I would say that Debt, the First 5,000 Years is a must-read that I will recommend to everyone, and Alif the Unseen, though not perfect, certainly had me thinking and talking about it for days after reading it.

Graphic Novels

★★★★★ Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted

★★☆☆☆ Power Man and Iron Fist: The Comedy of Death

★★★★☆ Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu

★★★★☆ Batman: The Long Halloween

★★★★☆ Batman: The Killing Joke

★★★☆☆ Superman: Earth One, Vol. 1

“Real” Books

★★★★★ Debt: The First 5,000 Years

★★★☆☆ The Sword of Shannara

★★★☆☆ Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

★★★★☆ Devil You Know

★★★★☆ The Grace of Kings

★★★★☆ The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

★★★★☆ Mindfulness in Plain English (my 500th Goodreads book!)

★★★★☆ Alif the Unseen

Film

Pretty light on film this quarter. I was catching up a lot on TV, and found that graphic novels (as seen above) became my go to evening entertainment when I didn’t have the bandwidth to read a tract on Buddhism or debt.

★★½☆☆ The Good, The Bad, The Weird

★★★½☆ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Quarterly review: FY16Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

Two themes are pretty apparent: learning about the Syrian crisis and books about Buddhism and meditation, partially in preparation for my trip to Japan (somewhat rounded up in my post on Shinran). I would also highlight What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, which we read for my book club last month and sparked a very lively discussion.

★★★☆☆ Guided Mindfulness Meditation

★★★☆☆ The Amulet of Samarkand

★★★☆☆ The Great Courses: Great World Religions: Buddhism

★★★☆☆ This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

★★★★☆ Mindfulness for Beginners

★★★★☆ What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy

★★★★★ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

★★★☆☆ Buddha

★★★★☆ The Sparrow

★★★★☆ Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant

★★☆☆☆ The Second Arab Awakening

Film

I watched 11 films in March alone, and went on kind of an Oscar jag in late February (I particularly enjoyed Spotlight and last year’s winner Birdman). With my family in Japan, I was home alone and had lots of time to catch up on films, and even got in some TV like The Man in the High Castle series which I enjoyed. Of course, the highlight at the beginning of the year was The Force Awakens, which I saw twice in theatres, the second time with my 6 year old daughter who loved her first experience at a movie theatre and her first 3D experience.

★★★★☆ Captain America: The First Avenger

★★★★★ Citizenfour

★★☆☆☆ Spectre

★★☆☆☆ The Assassin

★★★☆☆ Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd

★★★★☆ Bridge of Spies

★★★½☆ Sicario

★★★☆☆ Deadpool

★★★★☆ The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

★★★★★ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The best of 2015

This year was one of community, organizing and living better. After breaking down my current interests in a recent post, a pattern of community organizing and social activity is apparent. 2015 was a year of solidifying my thinking on social issues, especially those beyond tech, which has consumed me for the past few years.

Besides winning a victory over Bell Mobility and getting a nice letter from prime ministerial hopeful Tom Mulcair, here are some highlights from 2015:

Posts

Early in the year my writing performance was strong but it tapered off towards the end. Disappointing, and understandable that my most memorable posts were from the first part of the year.

In January I did a Kelowna news media audit. Thanks to this post I was able to interview insiders in the industry here, and learned a lot about the attempt Kelowna.com made to unseat Castanet… and why it failed. The post even generated an invitation to talk on CBC Radio. Later there were communications with UBCO to host a panel discussion between journos and academics to talk about media and transparency with the public, but that went nowhere. Nobody else seems to want to tackle this problem.

In March the LRC published my review of Kitten Clone. That is my second piece with them, and it was a lot of fun working with their editor.

I really enjoyed my second trip to the annual LinuxFest Northwest in April. My first experience was good, but this one had a lot of political events that I found very interesting. See More than computers — A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015.

For summer holidays we visited Japan, which made me think deeply about the sense of belonging that I have been building up in Canada — maybe for the first time. Check out the post In between worlds — thoughts from a short trip to Japan.

Media

I logged 47 films and 55 books this year. Only 6 were by women authors… :-/ Hmmmm… Of the 55, 42 were audiobooks. This is out of balance compared to years before. One reason is that I have been “reading” Infinite Jest … for 6 months. The “Infinite Summer” has certainly run long, but I am back on the horse and hopefully can finish in the next quarter. My GoodReads Challenge this year was 110%. Next year I will probably tone this down a little and listen to more Great Courses from The Teaching Company and history/education podcasts.

Books and film consumption by year, 2010 to 2015
Books and film consumption by year, 2010 to 2015

Probably the most influential book I read this year was Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I read it early in the year and it guided a lot of my subsequent reading. Highly thought-provoking and highly recommended. For fiction, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin was a breakout book. It was my first foray into Chinese science fiction, and hard sci-fi at that — super mind-bendy. I look forward to the rest of the series.

For film, I would be remiss not to mention Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Maybe not the most technical film, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. I now know how real pop-culture fans feel about their respective fandoms. Going again this week. The Martian was another impressive film. I only saw it once in the theatre, but will watch it again as soon as I can get it in my house. I finally watched 2013’s Her (just yesterday in fact) and it blew me away. Finally, The Lego Movie and Big Hero 6 were the winners in Family Film this year.

Those are fun, blockbuster-type movie “experiences”, but for more hard-hitting media I consumed this year there are a few standouts: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a documentary series from 2011 was very influential; as was Under the Dome, a documentary on China’s disastrous environmental record (see my full review here). The first few episodes of the summer television series Mr Robot had some great social commentary on tech. Even though the series was very enjoyable, it was a little disappointing that they did not more deeply explore the show’s early critiques.

Upcoming in 2016

Next year will see more learning/media focus on the Syrian refugee crisis as I work more with ORCA. There is also a fun secret project that will be done during Q1 (expect a post then). In the spring there is another trip to Japan planned, and in the summer a second wedding (my wife and I are renewing our vows for our tenth wedding anniversary). 2016 will also be a breakout year for my company. So, lots of positive stuff coming up.


See previous entries:

Quarterly review: FY15Q4

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Two trends you may detect are “Syria” and “Star Wars”.

Books

I have been doing better at making sure I write a few notes for each book I read on GoodReads. Some of these “off-the-cuff” reviews are pretty long.

★★☆☆☆ Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years

★★★★☆ The Egg

★★★★☆ And Yet…: Essays

★★★★☆ Broken Homes

★★☆☆☆ Syria and the Assad Family: The History Behind Bashar al-Assad’s Rise to Power and the Civil War

★★★☆☆ Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company

★★★★☆ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

★★★☆☆ Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles

★★★★★ Pawn of Prophecy

★★★★★ The Three-Body Problem

★★★★☆ Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

Film

★★★★★ Her

★★★★☆ Ex Machina

★★★★★ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

★★★★☆ Inside Out

★★★★½ The Martian

Quarterly review: FY15Q3

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

Currently at 37 of 50 books in my 2015 Goodreads challenge, my pace this quarter dropped significantly since reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and starting Infinite Jest, both which are over a thousand pages. Yes, the Infinite Summer is not over for me and looks to last into winter. I should be able to polish off this year’s particularly ambitious challenge. In the meantime, here are some of my shorter reviews:

★★★☆☆ Nine Princes in Amber

★★★★☆ Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

★★★★☆ Whispers Under Ground

★★★★★ Understanding Cultural and Human Geography

★★★☆☆ The Goblin Emperor

Film

This quarter I have been watching a lot of TV — at least, a lot for me. Mr Robot and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell were highlights.

Mr Robot has fueled much discussion at my office. Although I generally liked it, I think the conversations afterward are even more interesting than the show itself. I hope other — especially non-tech people — are also talking about the issues brought up in the show, and are not sidetracked by the (undermining in my opinion) sensationalism around drugs and sex (a particular obsession of the USA network?).

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight another (documentary) series I watched this quarter and thought was excellent: Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. This film encapsulates much of my observations and concerns about technology, politics and society over the last three years, but was released in 2011. The first two episodes are particularly recommended.

As for Strange & Norrell, I read it a few years back and rated it 5 stars. I love this book. The TV show was not as satisfying, but I think that was mostly a function of length. The sets, costume and acting were brilliant. And even though I could only inhabit this world for 7 hours (compared to the 32 hour audiobook), I think the abridgement actually cleared up a few plot points for me. Regardless, I am sure glad that they didn’t try to squeeze it into a 2 hour movie.

As for movies, I watched quite a few while my kids were in Japan, but the rate tapered off dramatically once they returned (and once I got into the above-mentioned television series). Only 3 micro-reviews:

★★★★☆ Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

★★★★☆ 12 Years a Slave

★★½☆☆ Lone Survivor

A slim crisis — a review of Disruptive Power

cover of Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age by Taylor Owen

From the book:

Coupled with the power that is derived by the state’s increasing sophistication in this space — whether through automation, biometrics, or the new forms of social control and the violence they enable — there is reason to question the narrative of empowerment that has been explored throughout this book.

Emphasis added. This quote comes from page 184 (of 210). That is 88% of the way into the book. It reflects my frustration with this book, as I spent much of my time questioning the “narrative of empowerment.”

Owen does a good job giving an overview of the state of tech and the state. Each chapter tackles big issues in tech and the way we govern ourselves: “activists, humanitarians, journalists, … terrorists”. All the usual suspects make an appearance — Anonymous, Bitcoin, Ushahidi — and the tried and true analysts like Shirky, Benkler, and Castells are cited at length.

But there is a shocking lack of critique.

A simple example:

Anyone can now disseminate information on a new media infrastructure. Blogs, social networks, and the wider Internet all allow people to self-publish and have the capacity to reach most people around the globe.

This completely ignores the inherent power imbalances the incumbents have (ie. talent pools, media relationships, existing audiences etc). Joe Sixpack blogger != CNN. This kind of statement has been debunked time and again. Throughout Disruptive Power there are a number of these observations which are seated more in the cyberutopian wishful thinking of the 1990s, than the analyses bourne out in the past few years.

Throughout the book Owen derides hierarchy, lauding liquid democracy and the “flat” structure of Occupy Wall Street. This belies how fractured and terrible the decision-making was/is in OWS and the Pirate Party. Owen pits hierarchy against networked organizations — yet, hierarchy is simply a type of network architecture. The book is riddled with such simplifications, and it detracts from his overall argument.

Owen cites tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, so he is surely aware of the negative aspects of the tech-boosterism he seems engaged in. His Twitter activity is also evidence of this. So why is this book so one-sided? Later in the book Owen takes on a more critical tone, and these chapters are much more satisfying. It is almost like this book was written in the same order it is presented, and the longer he researched, the more nuanced his opinion became.

A more likely hypothesis is length: Disruptive Power is a mere 210 pages (plus endnotes), and gives a whirlwind tour of some very large trends. Books have been written on each of the chapter topics. Owen barely scratches the surface. I would have liked him to add another 120 or so pages and include a more rounded-out argument. Disruptive Power may be a good primer on these topics, but it is not a thorough critical analysis. Read it as the beginning of a journey into this topic, not to get caught up on the current state of affairs.

Quarterly review: FY15Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am still a couple of books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge, for which I am grateful since I recently started reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Infinite Jest, both which are over a thousand pages. Yes, finally I am doing an Infinite Summer, which is a sort of summer reading/support group to get through this challenging but worthy novel. I am already way behind, but the book is amazing so far.

Other than Tehanu (★★★★☆) I did not write any short reviews this quarter.

It was a strange month, with some strange books, including Iterating Grace — a short, fun read with an interesting mystery behind it.

Recently I have been doing some research on the plight of Canadians of Japanese heritage during WWII. Reading Obasan (★★★★★) I was exposed to a beautiful, sorrowful account of that dark stain on Canadian history. Typically assigned reading in high school, I somehow missed this book. Now, I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it is like to be treated as an “other”, even when you are in your own country. I will certainly encourage my kids (who are half-Japanese) to read it when they get older. Whether they realize it or not, it is part of their heritage.

Looking back on my reading this quarter I have learned is that I should be more diligent in writing little reviews. It helps me remember the book better, and justify the ratings I award them.

Film

My family has been away for the past 6 weeks, which means that the number of children’s movies I saw has dropped precipitously, which is unsurprising. More surprising, however, is how much my film viewing overall has dropped. Despite all my new-found spare time, I have only watched 5 films since my temporary bachelorhood, and written only three micro-reviews for the entire quarter:

★★★★☆ Avengers: Age of Ultron

★★★★☆ Mad Max: Fury Road

★☆☆☆☆ 47 Ronin

Most of my screentime went to catching up on TV shows: I finished off Agents of SHIELD, Arrow and enjoyed The Flash; Daredevil was fun and I even liked Agent Carter; lastly I started watching Vikings and am halfway through the second season.

I still need to get caught up on Game of Thrones. I still haven’t even seen Season 3 yet.

China’s Inconvenient Truth

A photo of pollution in Wuhan

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging — a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

Quarterly review: FY15Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am keeping 4 books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge so far, so that is good. I spend a lot of time reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Literary Review of Canada while I am at home so I am glad audiobooks help me keep pace. I would have finished 1 or 2 more, but I abandoned a couple of books this year. That is something I normally wouldn’t do… but life is short right? And there is too much worthy out there to read.

Here are the longer reviews from this quarter:

Probably the number one book of this quarter – and potentially of this year – is Piketty’s Capital. A very challenging book. I am aware of the criticism, but it has certainly affected the way I think about economic policy.

★★★★☆ The Once and Future King

★★★☆☆ The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics

★★★☆☆ The Republic of Thieves

★★★★½ Station Eleven

★★★☆☆ Ha’penny

★★★★★ Capital in the Twenty-First Century

★★★★☆ Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

★★★★☆ Half a Crown

Film

Out of the 10 films I saw this quarter (the highlight being The Grand Budapest Hotel) I only deigned to write a little something for the following:

★★★½☆ Like Father, Like Son

★★★☆☆ Attack the Block

★★☆☆☆ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Not a lot of insight there…

What is data doing to our species? — A review of Kitten Clone

My review in the Literary Review of Canada is finally released. It is behind a paywall now, but will open up in about a month or so. Or you could pick it up at your local magazine purveyor and support Canadian publishing!

The piece is mostly about “industrial innovation” and the wonderful (and forgotten?) legacy of Bell Labs. This is a common hobby horse of mine when debating innovation and startups (re: startups do not have a monopoly on innovation!). I hope you enjoy the review. In the meantime, I thought I would share some more thoughts on the visuals of this book, which I highlight in the review:

Writers in Residence partnered with Visual Editions to produce a book design that looks great and includes the unorthodox layout and typography that we have come to expect from Coupland’s books. Mere words are not enough for him. Like having a conversation with a high-spirited partner, Coupland uses visual clues to add emphasis to the content.

The book release was delayed for months and I can only imagine it had to do with the unorthodox layout and typography. Often when reading Coupland’s books, I use my smartphone camera to capture the unique layouts (I plan on putting together a few galleries in the future). Take the below page as an example: Coupland describes quantum computing in excruciating detail (qubits, integer factorization using Shor’s algorithm, the Church-Turing thesis, etc.). As the explanation descends into technical jargon, each line of the text becomes progressively smaller until it bleeds past the bottom margin of the page and to the edge of the page, continuing on into empty space beyond the authour’s (and presumably the reader’s) understanding. It is a cute trick.

Trailing off

In another example, he breaks line justification to emphasize the single word “bandwidth”. “Oh Douglas! I see what you did there! It is funny because the word is band ‘width’ and you make it cover the entire width of the page! You clever, cultural brain you!” I hope that doesn’t come off as too condescending… I like the idea of visual puns expressed in typography.

B-A-N-D-W-I-D-T-H