Books in Browsers

The 2012 Books in Browsers was held at the Internet Archive and provided my first chance to explore the church purchased to house the Archive. The talks were held upstairs in the “Great Room,” previously the church’s sanctuary. This meant hours of sitting on hard wooden pews while filling our brains with the latest developments on digital books.
Among the pews in the back loom stacks of sleek black servers humming with activity, and the daily hymn notation has the numbers for pi (314 stacked upon 159 upon 265) and the Golden Ratio. A pendulum attached to the high ceiling is used to alert of any seismic activity. The pews on the rightmost and leftmost sides are filled with terracotta archivists, tiny reproductions of volunteers. Throughout the conference, we were entertained during breaks by a bluegrass band named The Packet Sniffers.
Personal favorites:
* Mary Lou Jepsen (Pixel Qi) was fascinating. She started One Laptop per Child and has been passionately working with screen technology to drive better readability and less power consumption. 100% of screen manufacturers are losing money. There’s a lack of innovation in screen technology b/c consolidated market dominated by Samsung, Foxconn. She also hipped us to this must-read slideshare on what’s wrong with online reading.
* Liza Daly & Keith Fahlgren (Safari Books Online) demoed a cool technology that used voice recognition of Liza’s talk to generate Google Docs that audience members could add their commentary to (and consolidated our twitter feed using timestamps).
* Maureen & Blaine (Poeti.ca) unveiled an AWESOME online editing tool. Tracked changes in a Word document will be dead forever with this innovation.
* Adam Witwer (O’Reilly Media) suggesting that authors can use GitHub to build a community around a book, to collaborate and manage content.
* Craig Mod on subcompact publishing, touting the wild success of “The Magazine” that was profitable two hours after launching.
* Hugh McGuire (Pressbooks) pressing his case for webbooks in addition to ebooks and pbooks. Google Analytics available for webbooks, can more easily share the content.
* Ricky Wong (MobNotate) with a killer tool for cross-ebook linking to make souped up footnotes.
* Michael Tamblyn (Kobo Books) sharing the average price of self published books (by language: English $3.40, French $2.51, Spanish $1.70, Dutch $6.68, German $3.47). Kobo has found the sweet spot at $4.99
* Ben Moskowitz (Mozilla) demonstrating Mozilla Popcorn – supplementing video & audio with web content.
* Ron Martinez (Aerbook) giving us a number to send a text to in order to receive a chapter of the book. (To give it a try: text ‘bib’ to 415.800.3815)
* Part of the fun was following the #bib12 hashtag, which is where I discovered this terrific article about the book discovery problem.

A day behind the scenes at a winery

As a tech worker living in the city, I am always on the lookout for real-world activities that bring me in closer contact with the land. Last weekend I heeded a call for volunteers to help bring in the last harvest of the year at a local vineyard. Thoroughly mesmerized by the experience, I wrote up my thoughts. Teaser below:

I grab a bin and start grappling with the grapes. Some pluck off easily just using my hands, other bunches need to be extricated with a few swift knife strokes. The crew leader is Pedro, in charge of driving the tractor and herding us from one section of vines to the next. Pedro is a grape picking machine, reaching into the vines and rat-a-tat filling his bin. My progress is weak in comparison, but I pick up the pace and get into a zen state. We are peaceful locusts, swarming the vines and leaving leaf bits and vine twigs in our wake.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

Reading any biography on the heels of Caro’s LBJ series is a death knell for the follow-up author. I had been looking forward to peeking into the kimono of DFW’s life, but Max’s treatment feels almost hollow in comparison to the decades Caro pours into each volume of LBJ’s life. I put this down in frustration, and eventually picked it back up, not having anything else to replace it with at the moment. All the skeletons in DFW’s closet come out: depression, epic quantities of flings with random ladies, drugs, alcohol, egoism and doubt. Yes, he is brilliant, but he knows it, which tamps down the effect. Careening between the Midwest and Amherst (college) and Arizona (MFA grad school) then Harvard (PhD in philosophy quickly abandoned) then rehab and halfway houses and finally Bloomington for a productive stretch, and then Pomona State college (California) for the final chapter before he hung himself. He is a dedicated teacher, but realizes that he cannot teach and write, there is not enough energy. My favorite scene unearthed might have been the classroom scene where he writes these words on the chalkboard and asks the class what they have in common: pulchritude, big, miniscule, misspelled. <-- They're all the opposite of how they appear. Lots of words on Infinite Jest, his most widely recognized success. I prefer the non-fiction at the moment, but reserve the right to recast my vote once I attempt to once more into the breach with IJ.

Wuthering Heights

I finally encountered a book that uses one of my favorite words: bathos, in Chapter 21. This dusty classic turned up at a friends of the library book sale, so I grabbed a copy, knowing it was a favorite of Hemmingway. (He listed it alongside 16 others as books he’d rather read again for the first time rather than have a $1M income.)
The story unfolds through various layers of narration, mostly from the voice of the housekeeper Ellen “Nelly” Dean, poured into the ear of a new tenant who desires to know more about his landlord, Heathcliff. It’s filled with ghosts, domestic violence, local dialect nearly impossible to translate, young love, young torment. Set in the early 19th century on an estate in Yorkshire near the moors. The main thread of the story is the doomed love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw.

Essays of E.B. White

It’s fascinating to see your personal superpower reflected in someone else, something you were unaware of having until you recognize it elsewhere. In White’s essays, I see my own meandering word play, my mental jalopy rides through the countryside. I am released from the trap of writing stale, lifeless fiction and allowed to romp and frolic in my headspace if I glom on to the essay format! But on to the review.
I was especially fond of the pieces in The Farm section, where White describes life on the farm with wit and humor. He treats raccoons, geese, dogs, and pigs as characters in the grand story of life, imbuing them with feelings that get hurt, sicknesses that get healed, unwitting participation in the comedy of daily acts. Life in rural Maine is lain out before us in great detail, we see how weather forecasters are hours ahead of Maine when screeching about the hurricane, and power has been out for a few hours before the brunt of the storm hits the Whites.
I loved the first essay in the Diversions and Obsessions section, The Sea and the Wind that Blows, wherein White admits to a lifelong daydream of boating. I cannot resist massive quoting:

Men who ache all over for tidiness and compactness in their lives often find relief for their pain in the cabin of a thirty-foot sailboat at anchor in a sheltered cove. Here the sprawling panoply of The Home is compressed in orderly miniature and liquid delirium, suspended between the bottom of the sea and the top of the sky, ready to move on in the morning by the miracle of canvas and the witchcraft of rope. It is small wonder that men hold boats in the secret place of their mind, almost from the cradle to the grave.

Also some prescient thoughts about New York City decades before 9/11:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

This book is a stunning look at the five years between 1958 to the seven weeks after JFK’s assassination and the remarkable, masterful transition into the Presidency by LBJ. Tremendously well researched, carefully crafted, I am now going to dive back into the first three volumes of Caro’s detailed assessment of this pivotal American president. Enormously, powerfully recommended.
“President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.”
Johnson was a man with a single mission in life, to become President. Growing up poor in rural Texas, he ascended by whatever means necessary (talk of the 200 “found” ballots all in same handwriting and alphabetical by name) first to the House of Reps and then to the Senate. He quickly took the reins there as well, becoming the Senate Leader and the most effective legislator in modern time, knowing exactly who to push and how to get legislation passed. At the height of his powers in Washington, he ran for the 1960 Democratic ticket, losing to Kennedy and being offered the VP role. Upon consideration of stats like “how many VPs became President” and “how many Presidents died in office”, he decided his best chance at becoming Prez was to accept the humble office of VP, essentially stripping away all power and being a figurehead with nothing to do, no influence. All of that changed in Dallas in Nov 1963.
The first hours, then days of his transition, were a masterstroke of command and restraint. Retaining key Kennedy staff in order to show the American people an image of continuity, convincing Warren and Russell to sit on the commission to study the assassination, beginning to get the logjam in Congress moving with the tax cut bill and the civil rights bill. When counseled not to press on the civil rights issue because it was a lost cause, Johnson wins my heart with, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”