E-readers Reading You?

Having never even considered using an e-reader for various good and bad reasons, I was not sure what kind of tracking they do.  I assumed they were just like every other “free” service—deeply intrusive.

An article in the NYT today reports that there are some businesses who are—wait for it—trying to make money tracking reader behavior.  Noting that the big distributors already collect a ton of data about you as you read, but now some smaller fry are experimenting with trying to sell the data to publishers and authors.

Let me get this straight.  I pay for the device (which I don’t need at all for print books), I pay to connect to services where I purchase content (which I can only used in very limited ways).  And the company collects and sells data about my personal behavior for whatever purpose it wants, more than once if it can.  Sigh.  Capitalism is great, at least for the owners.

The thing that really got me in this article was the notion that data on “how people read” is useful to writers.  One author is quoted to say, “What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?” (Quinn Loftus in NYT).

In fact, the data is about which pages were “read”, in what order, and so on.  If the data is aggregated (as it is said to be), then you actually get something like “4 in 10 readers finished the book”, “50% of readers skipped pages 110-130”, or similar data.  What this has to do with “reading”, I’m not sure. It’s not even necessarily valuable marketing information—it helps only if you can predict future behavior from this pretty coarse data.

Having this information is supposed to somehow make books better.  Seriously, both the companies and some customers actually claim that.  As far as I can tell, this must mean, it will help writers and publishers produce more of what (large numbers of) customers “want”.

Obviously, people have different notions of “success” here, and I have no quarrel with writers who want to sell a lot of books,  If this helps you pump out pot boilers, and feed your family, go to it. This data goes in your portfolio along with you blog and social media where you interact with your readers. Good luck with that.

But there are other kinds of success. Really great writing is based on ideas, and expresses the ideas “well”.  There are many different reasons for writing and reading, and therefore, many kinds of “success”.

A publisher once told me that a good book will be also be a big selling book. (He was arguing that there isn’t a conflict of interest between publishers and writers, he wanted his authors to write the best book they could, which would sell).  As he was implying, the reverse isn’t true, we all know of best sellers that were pretty poor books.

The point is, tracking data can’t possibly help you have better ideas, or come up with new creations.  I’m not sure it can help you express your ideas well, at least it can’t help much. In the best case, it will give you rough ideas how some audiences will react to what you create, and how you express your ideas. This intelligence might guide marketing.

However, if this data is used like most marketing data, it will aim for niche marketing—adapting the “product” to comfortably fit various target groups.  This will certainly not make books “better”, just more alike. More and more of less and less.  You know.  Like television.

Frankly, we already have too much “niche” writing these days.  We all have our favorites that we can’t get enough of, but we also get very tired of fads and herd behavior.  (I’ve been amused to watch “fifty shades” reverberate through the “romance” shelves, as authors work in scenes they scrupulously avoided just a few years ago.)  But, over and over, some the best books are the ones that surprise me, that I wouldn’t have thought I would like, but am very glad I tried.

And, of course, you might think about how happy you would be if the government  (or your employer or your ex) subpoena’s your data, so they can check out just which saucy and subversive passages you lingered over, and which pro-social messages you skipped.

I will continue to just say no to commercial e-readers, until my rights are recognized and paid for.

Thank You for Your Service Isn’t Enough

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (MacMillan, 2013).

This was a hard book to read.  It hurts too much.  But you must read it. It puts my small troubles in perspective. Thank you to Finkel and the people he writes about, of courss your stories matter. They matter a lot, don’t ever doubt it.

Finkel has reported on the real life of our soldiers in Iraq, and now the survivors are coming home.  Many, so many, are damaged physically and mentally. He recounts the lives of these families, as they struggle with the aftermath of our wars they did in our name.

It is difficult to know what to say.

These are our people, our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.  Many of them have been torn up by the brutal violence of war, and now are devastated byt the brutal psychological experience of war.  They are dealing with stuff I can’t barely imagine. I can only extrapolate from the young Viet Nam vets I used to drink with as a lad (we are all old now) and the (civilian) families shredded by depression, psychosis, and suicide.

The survivors now face a bewildering combination of ignorance, neglect, and sheer helplessness. Even those who try hard to help have little idea what to do that can make a difference. Much of the time the vets and their families are on their own, trying to somehow find a way out, a way to a decent life, a way home. Peace, maybe.

I was a bit distressed by the cluelessness of some of the “caregivers”.   But I was even more impressed by the few shining lights, those who are giving their all, saving lives and families.

I don’t know how Finkel managed this book. I couldn’t have done it, the pain would have crushed me.

It tore me up to read the story of these guys and their families, and to know there are many thousands more out there.  It tears me up even more to not know what I can do.  Perhaps various forms of helpless guilt is something I share with the vets.

Saying “Thank You For Your Service” isn’t enough, though I don’t know what would be enough.

And if we figure this out here, there are hundreds of thousands of others around the world who have been shattered by war.

War is hell, and there really isn’t anywhere to hide.

Bitcoin Value Thrashes Everywhere After Chinese Regulation

As I predicted more than once, Bitcoin is thrashing madly, going up and down for reasons that have nothing to do with any fundamental economics. This week, Chinese regulators (they have regulators in China?  Wow!) have precipitated yet another sudden drop in the value of Bitcoins

OK, I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of Chinese political economics–I know less about that than about, say, canon law.

But obviously, any market that is driven by mass speculation coming out of China is going to be crazy volatile.

Obviously, this isn’t a “Chinese problem”.  This will happen again and again.  This is how unregulated, opaque markets work.  It is also why we invented heavily regulated banks and currencies, so we have some chance to keep things stable and honest.

I’m not sure I would touch a deal involving Bitcoins, no matter what.  “Repository of value” my foot.

December Fiction Roundup: the Puppetmaster Meme

There is a secret war on Earth, alien puppetmasters hidden amongst us running the show. At least that is what I have been reading.

Let us all pause to thank our great sensei Robert Heinlein for popularizing the term.

Secret forces control our lives.  This theme has been popular for a very long time. Tales of demons and angels among us probably date to the first humans. The concept also permeate public discourse, in various guises:  Zionist, Muslim, Papist, Masonic, Communist, Wall Street, etc., conspiracies abound in people’s imagination.

The “puppetmaster” theme puts a particular spin on this:  aliens secretly live among us, sometimes disguised as us, sometimes inhabiting helpless human shells.  They manipulate our lives for their own ends.  Long ago the aliens were gods, devils, demons and angels (many of your neighbors still believe in these visitors), in bad times they are agents of human powers (Communist infiltrators, Zionist spies, CIA moles, Black Helicopters), and nowadays we have a variety of pseudoscientific beings to worry about, androids, energy beings, ETs, and so on.

The appeal of this narrative is pretty clear.

  1. It’s not my fault.  All this bad, crazy, stuff is part of a hidden plan.
  2. The enemy is not human (even if they seem to be). Any and all action is moral.

I am absolved from “we have met the enemy, and he is us”, not to mention any namby-pamby Miranda rights or Geneva accords.

Perhaps this theme is popular today because, more than ever, nothing is really hidden.  Even stuff like the personal lives of Kardashians that really should be hidden  We have far more information than we need, and it all tells us that terrible things are happening mainly because we are all greedy and stupid, and thinking with our gonads.

Exhibit 1: the Internet.  Prosecution rests.

Far better to dream that we are absolved from responsibility, and that the only moral thing to do is blow ‘em away.  Quite an understandable fantasy, if you are an emotional six year old, such as, well, pretty much all of us.

[Don’t even get me started on Zombies.  The most idiotic cultural creation of the fin-de-century, popular mainly because it is so easy to play along.]

Let’s get to business here, with three recent novels that play on this theme.

The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013)

The second book about a long running wars among the invisible alien puppet masters who control not only humans but actually created the species through directed evolution. (No really, it isn’t as bad as it sounds) (The first book, Lives of Tao, was mentioned here).

In this story, not only are the alien puppetmasters manipulating human history (and evolution), there are two warring factions.  Most of the last 500 years of history reflect this conflict.

Chu’s background in martial arts is on display, with considerably more detail about fighting than I really need, though I’m sure some will be pleased to read this. I especially could have done without so many details about practice workouts.  (One writes what one knows.)

The book develops the back story—the  “true history” of human evolution and history—in asides, while all kinds of bad things happen in the world.

One of the intriguing ideas in this story is the notion that human generated climate change is essentially terraforming Earth, though it is transforming the planet to an environment favorable to non-Earth, and certainly non-human life.  An interesting, if terrifying, take on climate change.

Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Wiliams (Daw Books, 2013)

His second book about the invisible wars on Earth between Heaven and Hell (no really, it isn’t as bad as it sounds).  The third and maybe final book in the story has been announced.

Williams has written many books, these are apparently his first foray into “fantasy noir”. I like it.

In this story, some classic religious fantasies (immortal souls, Heaven, Hell, Demons, Angels) are taken as literally true, as is the competition between Heaven and Hell for the souls of the dead.  This conflict takes place, in secret, on Earth in our familiar physical world.

Bobby Dollar is an angel living on Earth, sort of hard-boiled noir guy, though his actual job is essentially public defender, assigned to individual cases as each soul is judged just after death. When he wins, the soul goes to heaven, if the prosecution wins, the soul goes to hell.

Stuff happens around Bobby.  Lots and lots of stuff.  And—you’ll be shocked to learn—neither Heaven nor Hell are free of conflict, intrigue, and screw ups.  Earth is the neutral battleground for all this and, in addition to mortal humans, angels and demons, there trun out to be quite a few in-betweens.

This whole thing makes no sense, really.  In fact, unease underlies the whole story, as more and more details of how this all works leave us more and more astounded and appalled.  If there is a divine plan at work—which there is supposed to be—it’s not clear what the purpose is.  And it is very, very clear that it is not in any way moral, as we mere humans would view it.  Inevitably, rebellion is brewing in both Heaven and Hell, though prospects appear dim (but hope always dies last).

Anyone who has attempted to understand contemporary religious creeds has encountered many of these issues.  Of course, poor Bobby and others are dealing with them concretely and very painfully.

This volume ups the ante, sending Bobby Dollar down into Hell, for reasons that seem nothing short of insane, though that’s par for the course when you are in love.  We are treated to a detailed travelogue of Hell, which is not easy to read.  But every author should do this, and Williams does a great job with this classic theme.

Stay tuned for book three, maybe there will be some resolution and healing.  I hope.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor Books, 2013)

This latest from Wilson is about, wait for it, an alternative history manipulated by secret puppetmasters.  (I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, huh.)

Wilson has written a number of imaginative books, usually involving astronomy and extraterrestrials, including one of the greatest ever fiction depictions of machine learning algorithms (the interstellar probe in Blind Lake (Tor Books, New York, 2003))

In this story, the ETs have manipulated human society, subtly and mostly secretly.  The manipulations are apparently benign, as they have suppressed war and violence, and stabilizing societies around the world.  This is particularly to we in this historical time line, comparing their twentieth century with ours.

Nevertheless, some humans are attempting to resist the aliens, though it is far from clear whether the resistance has even a chance to succeed.

As the story unfolds, much hinges on what the goals of the ETs may be, and the possibility that there are more than one group of ETs.  We come to view them as interstellar parasites, commandeering the behavior of the host to enable their own reproduction.  If so, do they have any “goal” at all? Are they really benign?  What happens when the parasites die or depart?  What if there really are more than one species of parasite?

I must say that the “parasite” theory is one of the most logical explanations for why “puppetmasters” might come to Earth.  I mean, it’s a lot of trouble hiding and pulling strings.  Why not just wipe us out and take over?  Parasitism is a familiar pattern on Earth, and has evolved many times in many forms.  So why not at a plantetary/interstellar scale.

Juliet Waters on Writing and Coding

A nice piece by Juliet Waters in the NYT today. I’m very pleased to read that she, a writer, for whatever reasons, actually spent some time and learned a bit about IT.

She gives us two really great reasons why this was a good thing to do.

She remarks on the personal empowerment this brought her, not because she “gets it” now, but because she is back in control of here interactions with technology. As a sophisticated selective-user, I’m glad to hear this.  We all need to be more Amish.

And second, she makes well considered remarks about technophobic writers (such as Mr Eggars, discussed here earlier). While I’m not as thrilled about “open source” folks as she is–programmers have to feed their families, just like writers do–she certainly understands the difference between the demands of technology and the demands of commerce.  (She and I apparently share a like for WordPress.)

Yet More “Stealth wear”: Face Camoflauge

Yet another entertaining technofashion concept: face camoflauge, specifically intended to defeat face recognition software. Like other “steathware“, CVDazzle plays on popular displeasure at ubiquitous surveillance, and provides supposed technical countermeasures based on classic stories from Art History class.

Fortunately, this is “art”, so all that matters it that it looks and sounds sexy.  In this case, a “participatory” aspect is included, offering you an opportunity to test your own camo against easily available civilian algorithms.

It’s all quite adorable, and perhaps some people will learn a little about face recognition from this. All to the good.

But this is certainly not going to make you invisible to electronic surveillance. Even if these techniques defeat some algorithms today, it will be very simple matter for them to learn your camo patterns–they are far easier to ID than your face.  Unless you have a new camo every hour or so, you are actually making it much easier to track you by your distinctive dazzle.

One thing to consider is what “threat” the camo is supposed to defeat.  Basically, you are trying to deal with someone tracking you in otherwise anonymous public spaces, such as crowds. The other case of interest is picking your face out of images on the internet.  In both these cases, your camo will only work until there is an online link between your name and your camo.  Once anyone, anywhere, tags your camoflauged image, you are known everywhere. I’d say the mean time to recognition could be minutes….

I would also point out some downsides to this concept. There are situations where you want to recognize you, for your own protection from fraud. Obviously, you are not trying to hide your ID from, say, and ATM machine where you are identifying yourself to it. In fact, you probably will be unhappy if your account is frozen because some wierdo with blue hair over his eyes tries to use your back card.

Oh well.  Anyone who expects to go mano-a-mano with extremely powerful bastards, wielding only Art, is fooling himself.

Internet Companies Call for “Principles”. Really?

This week we were treated to an interesting statement of “principles” from the major Internet companies.

Evidently motivated by press reports about NSA and other government data acquisition from these companies–very bad for their business–these companies presented a rare unified front.

There isn’t much meat here, it’s heavy on celebrity names and light on actual policy.  Pretty much what you expect from these political lightweights.  It’s not in any way clear how you would actually do what they ask for, if you wanted to.  Well, obviously, you could all say you follow the principles, and everything would be fine, right?

Can you tell I’m unimpressed?

Of course, the really irritating point is the unbelievable gall of these guys.  They criticize the government for doing what is, essentially, their own business model.  Apparently, Goo-hoo et al. have an inherent right to collect as much data for any reason without permission, but it is wrong for the government to do so?  Really?

The general goal is:

“ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action.”

I would certainly endorse a broader version of this principle:

ensuring that [companies and governments] are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on [companies and] governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action.

If you guys are serious, then take the first step:  implement these principles yourself. Now.  Give us complete control of our own data.  Stop exploiting us.  Be transparent.  If you don’t collect it, there won’t be anything to subpoena.

Honestly, this letter was a big mistake, it will be embarrassing for years to come.

A personal blog.

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