Books and assorted rantings (a post not about work!), part 1

It is no secret that reading can serve as a great escape from the worries and frustrations of everyday life (e.g., work). I have always read a lot, since I was a kid, and in 2011 I certainly pored through more than my yearly average number of books. (What does that say about my everyday life?) But I have never kept a log of the books I read, probably because I was too busy reading them. Now I have decided to change this. So, in no particular order, not even chronological, here is a partial list of titles, with comments.

  • Books by Cory Doctorow (all of them available for download at http://craphound.com/  via a CC license). This is a young Canadian scifi author who also writes eloquently about issues related to copyright and the impact of technology on society. I have read a few of his fiction and nonfiction books:
    • Eastern Standard Tribe: for some reason, the chat transcripts in some passages stuck to my mind. To be honest, I haven’t read this one, but rather listened to an unabridged audiobook version read by the author himself.
    • For the Win: a novel about gold mining in online games which also does a great job explaining what makes the economy run, from a behavioral perspective. This is a so-called book for “young adults”. I have enjoyed it and learned a lot from it.
    • Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present: my favorites were “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” and “I, Row-Boat”. (Much in the “remixing” spirit that he advocates, Doctorow is in the habit of writing stories that have their titles borrowed from or inspired by work from classical scifi writers such as Asimov.)
    • Some of his short stories have been turned into comics and made available as a collection titled Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now.
    • The volume Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future and the volume Context: Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century are great collections of essays, most of them bearing provocative titles such as “Writing in the Age of Distraction”, “When I’m Dead, How Will My Loved Ones Break My Password?”, “‘Intellectual Property’ Is a Silly Euphemism”, and “Why I Won’t Buy an iPad (and Think You Shouldn’t, Either)”. Two of my favorites are “A Cosmopolitan Literature for the Cosmopolitan Web” (which I read in “symultaneous” translation for my undergrad students some months ago) and “Microsoft Research DRM Talk”, a talk by Doctorow originally given to Microsoft’s Research Group and other interested parties from within the company at their Redmond offices in 2004, in which he starts

      Greetings fellow pirates! Arrrrr!

      I’m here today to talk to you about copyright, technology and DRM, I work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation on copyright stuff (mostly), and I live in London. I’m not a lawyer — I’m a kind of mouthpiece/activist type, though occasionally they shave me and stuff me into my Bar Mitzvah suit and send me to a standards body or the UN to stir up trouble. I spend about three weeks a month on the road doing completely weird stuff like going to Microsoft to talk about DRM.

      I lead a double life: I’m also a science fiction writer. That means I’ve got a dog in this fight, because I’ve been dreaming of making my living from writing since I was 12 years old. Admittedly, my IP-based biz isn’t as big as yours, but I guarantee you that it’s every bit as important to me as yours is to you.

      Here’s what I’m here to convince you of:

      1. That DRM systems don’t work
      2. That DRM systems are bad for society
      3. That DRM systems are bad for business
      4. That DRM systems are bad for artists
      5. That DRM is a bad business-move for MSFT

    Now, most computer science people do not worry about such issues, especially at second-rate universities in third-world countries such as the one where I teach. My life at work would be much more pleasant if I didn’t have to put up with narrow-minded CompSci colleagues who are actually afraid to consider such supposedly nontechnical problems, and who gladly and blindly lend themselves to all kinds of evil manipulations by the government and by big business.

    But this is not a post about work, is it?

  • Books by Italian authors Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. There is some sort of cultural/linguistic connection between Italians and Brazilians. I have read Portuguese translations of books by these authors (with the exception of Eco’s Turning Back the Clock, which I read in English), as their styles are more faithfully translated to another Latin language than to English. And these Italians can write in great style. Better still, they can think in great style.
    • Semibiographical stories like those in Levi’s Il Sistema Periodico transport us to the world of the Italian Alps before and during WW2. Although that world is unimaginable for most people my age today, Levi’s writing makes everything come alive, and we can feel what it was like to live then and there, and in those stories we can recognize experiences and ideas that are universal (i.e., independent of place and time); isn’t that the stuff of great literature?
    • I also enjoyed reading Levi’s excursions in scifi (a Brazilian edition containing the material originally published in Storie Naturali, Vizio di Forma, and La Chiave a Stella). Again, the intriguing phenomenon where Levi is able to make us feel at home in the alien worlds of his stories. My favorite is the one where a team of celestial bureaucrats engages in endless discussions at a formal meeting to decide on the anatomical and physiological details of God’s next and most important creation, Man. Which reminded me of the numerous pointless meetings which I am often forced to attend at the university, where mindless professors find it easier to ruminate on sterile, immaterial rules and regulations than to do real academic work.

      Oh, but this is not a post about work.

    • I have yet to gather enough courage to read Levi’s most famous books, Se Questo È un Uomo and La Tregua, which narrate in detail his nightmarish experiences at Auschwitz and his long trip back home after the war ended. I think everybody should read books like these, if only to stop believing the rubbish that politicians and marketing professionals try to sell us. In reality, people are mostly either evil or just plain apathetic (which makes them easily controllable by evil people). But nowadays I don’t have to be reminded of that, as most of my colleagues at work are living proof.

      But I’m not writing about work here.

    • Italo Calvino’s Prima che Tu dica ‘Pronto’ and Gli Amori Difficili are collections of short stories, some of them impressive. One of my favorites is “The Flash” (couldn’t find the Italian title), which is only a couple of pages long and depicts the narrator’s sudden confusion (or is it a flash of deep understanding?) when he suddenly becomes aware of how senseless the world around him is.
  • The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Two volumes of comics narrating the story of the author’s Jewish family during WW2. In these comics, people of different races or nationalities are represented by different animals: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, and Swedes are deers. The graphical nature of the comics and the  cute animal metaphor could be expected to make for a light rendition of such a heavy subject matter — the Holocaust —, but the result is just the opposite. The Jewish mice look more strikingly miserable, the German cats look more fiercely mean.

    Again, it is very hard for my generation to accept — I mean really accept — that such terrible episodes actually happened, and that real people like you and me could perpetrate them or just turn a blind eye to them. It is also very sad to realize that  my generation hasn’t learned much from the experience. In the story, even Spiegelman’s father, an Auschwitz survivor (barely), is sent into a racist tantrum decades after the war when his daughter-in-law picks up a black hitchhiker on the road (“Oy — it’s a colored guy, a shvartser! Push quick on the gas!”).Again, evil combined with apathy wreaks havoc. When will we ever learn?

Well, I still have quite a few more titles to cover. Expect more posts like this. Part 2 to come soon.

It’s so much fun not to write about work.

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