Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for February, 2018

Corridors of the Night

Posted by nliakos on February 21, 2018

by Anne Perry (Ballantine 2015)

This is my first encounter with Anne Perry, and the characters in this suspense novel–William Monk, head of the Thames River Police; his wife Hester, a nurse; their adopted son, Scuff (presumably a nickname); and various other people that play roles in the story–must all be familiar to most readers of this book. To me, they were not, so I was a little confused, but after several chapters I was on board and following the plot. The story is set in London in the nineteenth century, some time after the Crimean War, in which Hester served alongside the famed Florence Nightingale. There is a crazed chemist, enabled by his brother, a doctor, who is obsessed with finding a way to transfuse human blood from one person to another without killing the patient. The reader wants to shout, “BLOOD TYPES!”, but the discovery and understanding of these will not happen in the time frame of this novel.

The chemist, Hamilton Rand, has discovered some poor children whose blood does not cause patients to die (presumably they all have Type O blood). He purchases them from their father, who has no clue as to the use to which they will be put. Hester figures out what is being done just in time to be kidnapped and taken to a remote country house where she is expected to assist in the diabolical (but professionally intriguing) experiment. I assumed that her rescue would be the book’s climax, but it goes on for several chapters after Monk successfully rescues her and the three children–through two trials and two murders!

The story got me thinking about what a medical breakthrough safe blood transfusions were, and made me curious to read about how it actually happened here. (The discovery of blood types was not made until 1901 by the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, and much progress was made during the First World War.) So the story of Hamilton Rand and his diabolical experiment, set thirty  or forty years earlier, makes sense.

I liked Monk and Hester, and will perhaps seek out some of the earlier books in the series to find out how they met and fell in love. Thanks to my dear friend Carol for this book!

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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Before I Fall

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2018

by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2010)

I’m not sure how to categorize this novel about a high school student caught up in a time loop where, Groundhog-Day-like, she relives the day of her death seven times. It’s not a fantasy exactly, but it’s not realism either. Call it imaginings about death. (Roger Ebert called the 2017 film a “supernatural melodrama”.)

Samantha Kingston wakes up seven times on February 12, “Cupid Day” at her Connecticut high school. She interacts with her parents and sister, goes to school (or doesn’t) with her three best friends, attends a party at the home of a boy in her class who has been infatuated with her since third grade, and dies (or doesn’t) in a horrific car crash. Then she wakes up again on the same day and does it all over again, changing certain aspects of her behavior. She starts out trying to save her own life and finishes by saving the life of a despised, bullied classmate. Over the seven days, Sam is transformed from a shallow, feckless enabler to a (more) mature, much kinder person. She ends an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend Rob and begins a beautiful relationship with her childhood friend, Kent–despite knowing that it cannot endure.

In a way, Before I Fall is a meditation on popularity, and the high price it exacts from Sam. When she was younger, she was the one with few friends, the one who was made fun of. Then, inexplicably, the most popular girl in the class, Lindsay Edgecombe, offers Sam friendship. But Lindsay has some ugly secrets, and she is not a kind person. Thrilled to be seen as part of Lindsay’s intimate circle, Sam looks the other way (or participates actively) when Lindsay is cruel to her former friend, Juliet. She also laughs off Lindsay’s mean remarks when they are directed at her, feeling secure in her role as one of the popular girls. But she learns, by living this fateful day over and over, that kindness trumps cruelty, and eventually she is able to stand up to Lindsay (although she never rejects her outright).

It’s an intriguing idea. I am left wondering which day will endure in the memories of Sam’s friends and family: only the last one?

 

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Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!

 

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