Browsed by
Category: Book Review

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

One would think, now that we are in lockdown, that I would be making better progress on my 2020 Reading Challenge than I am. I’m actually very busy at work, what with my info tech WFH privilege, and aside from that there are duties to household and family. Not to mention all the streaming video to keep up with. Nonetheless, I have been reading when I can, and generally reviewing every book that I do finish.

I recently finished Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, published in 2009, about the crash of the record industry. I thought I would reproduce my Goodreads review here, and add some thoughts. First the review:

It’s interesting to read a book about the music industry that was published just as the smartphone and subscription streaming services were taking off. Reading it after ten years have passed is like looking back at a distant era. There actually was a time in the misty past when music publishers made tons of money selling plastic discs to eager consumers, and there were even brick and mortar retail outlets dedicated to just that product. It was the most lucrative period in the music industry’s history, running from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. And then it all went up in smoke with the introduction of mp3s and the easy sharing capabilities provided by the Internet. But even the days of ripping CDs and building libraries of music files seem distant, when today we plug our earbuds into our phones to access vast musical archives for a low monthly fee.

Knopper’s book is full of personal stories from entrepreneurs and business leaders in both the music and technology industries, much of it gleaned from interviews. You get a nice history of both of those industries, focusing on the years from the death of disco in the early 1980s to the end of 2008. Some of the stories told are one-sided, because important players declined to be interviewed, and so their perspective is missing. There is some sensitivity regarding the decisions made and the issues at stake. But what you get is well written and informative; Knopper is a Rolling Stone editor and brings his journalistic talent to bear in telling the tale of the implosion of the music industry.

Knopper lists a number of mistakes the major labels made as digital online music took off, but marks the big one as instinctively going after Napster instead of making a deal with them, at the very end of the 1990s. Even worse, they went after consumers – their own customer base – suing individual filesharers for copyright infringement. There were other fumbles and missed opportunities, and the irrestible conclusion is that the generation of leadership at the labels just wasn’t ready to make the leap from the tried and true model of selling individual records in the millions at high profit margins, to the new models that the Internet and compressed digital music formats were making possible. They missed the boat, and it sailed on without them.

Some additional thoughts: I don’t think consumers as a whole wanted to play the role of renegade pirates during the decade or so that file sharing was a big thing. It was just too easy to do; and people saw how much more music they could have access to that would have cost a fortune to purchase in CD form. But once an option was provided that was both legal and affordable – subscription services like Spotify or Pandora – consumers flocked to that. People in general want to be honest and play by the rules.

I suppose you could even think of the transition from the the filesharing era of the early 2000s to the streaming era of the 2010s as part of the transition from the Gen-X driven pre-Crisis era to the Millennial driven Crisis era. It’s an early example of the formation of a new institution; we may not have the new order figured out completely, but at least we have the soundtrack ready. Something to listen to in our earbuds while the apocalypse is raging.

On a final note, I still buy CDs. I like owning the discs with the liner notes and the art, and like collecting particular artists. I dig up obscure singles available only in Japan and pay 30 bucks for them on Amazon. Drives my girlfriend up the wall. And then I rip them to my laptop and shelve them. You know, for looking at. But my .mp3 player sits in a drawer, along with my digital camera, because now the smartphone does everything. Times, they are always a changin’.

The Long Road to Freedom

The Long Road to Freedom

I’ve been struggling to write a blog post about the events of this past week. It’s been such a difficult time, and my heart is troubled and my mind scattered. So while I’m trying to get that together, I’m just going to share my goodreads review of a book I just finished reading. It’s Howard Fast’s Freedom Road, set in the Reconstruction South. I picked it up off my shelf of unread books mainly because it’s a small paperback suitable for carrying around at the office, so I could read it at lunch or on breaks. But of course I haven’t been at the office in months so I finished it at home.

Here is the review:

Howard Fast dedicates this novel to all those, of every race, who have died in the fight against fascism. It was written during the Second World War, when America was fighting fascism abroad. At once hopeful and harrowing, it tells a story of progress and setbacks for African-Americans living on a former plantation in South Carolina during Reconstruction. The fascism they fight is that of the white supremacist terrorists who erased the progress made in the immediate years after the Civil War, after the Union pulled their forces out of the South as part of the Tilden Compromise.

The writing is crisp and vibrant, the characters vivid and believable, and the plot dramatic, including action, romance, and political intrigue. As a good novel should, this one makes you feel like you are there in that place and time, living the characters’ lives along with them. The author does use dated language, including stereotypes and prolific use of a word forbidden to white people. This would probably get him canceled by today’s social justice warriors, which is ironic since he was blacklisted as a Communist in the McCarthy Era. I would hope that modern readers could look past that, since this story has so much say about the struggle for racial justice, and what the true stakes are in that ongoing conflict. It couldn’t be more relevant than it is right now.

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I started reviewing the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar, specifically attempting to tie the author’s thesis in with saecular theory. In that post I only got as far as the first technological wave, the telegraph. In this post I’ll cover the next two waves – radio and the late twentieth-century advancements in television. First, let’s recap the thesis of Spar’s book, summarized in my first post.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

Now, when looking at the telegraph, it was fairly easy to align the development of the technology with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum. The invention phase happens at the end of the second turning, the entrepreneurial and market free-for-all phases during the third turning leading up to the Civil War, and then the rule-making period comes with the rise of Western Union during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

The next two waves, as described by Spar, are a little more compressed in time. The story of radio comes in two halves. The first one is dominated by the best known figure in the history of radio, Guglielmo Marconi (b. 1874 – Missionary peer). He was not just an inventor, but also an entrepreneur, and managed not only to make radio a feasible technology, but also to completely control the market via his patents during the 1910s.

But Marconi’s dominance was undermined by two factors. The first was nation-state governments, which recognized the security implications of wireless communication and used their authority to constrain Marconi’s monopoly power. The second factor was the development of the next generation of radio technology. Marconi’s system used spark gaps to generatate pulses of electricity and transmit signals in Morse code – it was essentially wireless telegraphy. What was really wanted was a way to send signals on continuous waves. Then sound, even music, could be transmitted. It would transform radio into wireless phonography, which is how we experience it today.

This is the second half of the radio story, a sort of mini-wave of its own. The invention phase was primarily the work of an engineer named Reginald Fessenden (b. 1866 – Missionary), and occurred at the same time that Marconi’s creation was prominent. The entrepreneurial/creative anarchy phase took place in the first part of the 1920s. It was kicked off by an important development, the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. This was an innovation of its own in the commercialization of communications – RCA was an organization that controlled radio stations without controlling the technology of radio. This was the beginning of the broadcasting industry. Marconi’s system became obsolete and his patents worthless, and his empire crumbled.

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was in a period that definitely matches Spar’s creative anarchy phase in technology develoment. Small stations operated by amateurs – “radioheads” – sprung up everywhere, broadcasting whatever music they could get their hands on. This became too chaotic to be tenable, since by their very nature broadcast signals interfere with one another. Order came with laws passed in the late 1920s to regulate bandwidth, and with the emergence of broadcasting corporations which controlled networks of radio stations and could operate them in a coordinated fashion. The first of these was the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and before long ABC and CBS came along – the Big Three which moved on to the world of television broadcasting and which are still prominent today.

So Spar’s entire cycle of four phases of technology development can actually fit into the space of one decade. The fact that radio’s story is ensconced within the third turning of the Great Power saeculum fits that era’s heady, fast-paced reputation. The subsequent development of television takes place in the next first turning, but Spar actually skips over that entirely. Her example from the history of television specifically relates to the rise of satellite and digital TV.

This is another fast cycle, and takes place within the third turning of the current Millennial saeculum – in the 1990s, the last decade before the publication of Spar’s book. It starts with the rise of SkyTV, powered by the relentless ambition of Rupert Murdoch (b. 1931 – Silent). The new techonology in question was satellite broadcasting, and the key to SkyTV’s takeover of the British market was the fact that Britain’s tight television regulations did not cover this particular type of broadcasting.

By taking advantage of this regulatory gap, Murdoch was able to penetrate the British television market with a unique brand, one that threatened Britain’s conservative and cultured self-image with trashy “American-style” content. SkyTV quickly got into financial trouble, which Murdoch handled by bringing in legendary executive Sam Chisholm (b. 1939 – Silent peer). But no sooner had Chisholm straightened things out, than SkyTV was hit by a new wave of techonological innnovation and forced to adjust to that.

This new wave was digital broadcasting, which basically reimplements signal encoding in such a way that far more channels can fit within the same bandwidth of electromagetic radiation. Consequently, providers can offer more content and choices, to presumably leverage for more profit-making. You may remember this transistion, which for consumers was disruptive since it meant their old analog systems were going to become obsolete. You may remember complaining and a sense of consumer powerlessness in the face of inexorable progress. It’s a done deal now, but at the time that Spar’s book was published was an ongoing process of negotiation and new rulemaking.

What’s interesting about these different techonological waves is that as they progress across the twentieth century, “ruling the wave” becomes as much a matter of navigating the regulatory environment as of pioneering a new techonological application. This comes with the growing sophistication of both corporate enterprise and government oversight. But even as the focus of the stories has shifted from individual inventors and entrepreneurs to giant corporations and milestone regulatory acts, there is still room for strong personalities to exert their influence.

The last part of the book covers computer and Internet technology. I will finish reading it and conclude these reviews in a future post.

A Book about a Crisis Era

A Book about a Crisis Era

Some time ago I started reading Citizens, by Simon Schama. I finally finished it and posted a review on Goodreads, as part of my reading challenge. Here is the review reproduced for this blog, as well as some additional thoughts on what lessons the French Revolution might have for our own time.

First, the review.

At 875 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), Simon Schama’s Citizens looks like a formidable work to tackle. But his eloquent prose and touching, personal approach to history make for an easy read. There is certainly enough to write about the French Revolution to fill 875 pages, covering the span of time from the Revolution’s origins in the Enlightenment Era, up to the dramatic events of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. I enjoyed it all; this book is, as they say, a real page-turner.

In his narrative, Schama focuses on the individuals whose stories comprise the overarching epic of France’s transformation from floundering Monarchy to militant Republic. These are his titular citizens, and theirs is a shared journey through the gates of history, in which their identities shift from that of their prescribed roles in the old regime, to that of free and equal members of a common fraternity, devoted to the fatherland. And woe to those whose devotion was found insufficient, as conflict and violence swept through French society like wildfire.

The brutality of the violence and the fervor of the mobs which challenged the authority of every French government of the period, monarchical and Republican alike, is the most startling aspect of the Revolution. Schama disavows the idea that this was class warfare brought about by the disaffection of France’s poor and underprivileged. Not that there were no disaffections; these were famously written down in the lists of grievances presented to the King at the fateful convening of the Estates-General. But the impetus for change came from all levels of society. Many aristocrats and episcopalians were pushing for reform; for a Constitutional Monarchy in line with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, inspired by philosphers like Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They did not anticipate that in a few short years their King would be dead and they would be fleeing the Terror of the radical Republicans.

Schama’s narrative shows a society consumed by a kind of madness for a new political identity and national rebirth. The French Revolution wasn’t a mechanical process of adjustment to modernity, driven by material circumstances. It was a conscious, creative effort of the human spirit. Material circumstances merely limited the scope of the change that Revolution could effect, particularly in economic conditions. And it was the limits of the human psyche itself that prevented the rapid succession of governments from ever establishing political order, without ultimately resorting to totalitarianism and mass murder, in an awful premonition of the horrors to come in a later century.

In this fascinating story of a nation’s struggle to redefine itself, we can detect lessons for our own time. In particular, the saga of the French Revolution warns of the dangers of partisanship, extremism, and the demand for ideological purity – all of which can sweep through a people like a tidal force, and drag them toward an unavoidable fate. It’s a warning we should well heed today.

Now for some additional thoughts on parallels between the French Revolution and our times.

There are two obvious rhymes between our time and that distant time in French history. One is the effects of extreme partisanship – how it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two sides, limiting people’s thinking to conform with their particular partisan view (we call it the “echo chamber” today), and how it completely disempowers political moderates (good luck, Joe Biden). The other effect, related to the first, is how easily misinformation spreads. The rumors that spread through French society, causing massive fear and anxiety, way back in the late 1700s, are no different than the “fake news” of today. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth.

As for the terrifying levels of violence, mentioned in the review, I will say that it is my great hope that we are past that. It was a more violent time back then. Life was cheap. But certainly there are violent, extremist elements in our society today, lurking in the background like the spectre of dangers past. And we are in dangerous times.

We are in a Crisis Era, like the one that France was in during the Revolution. Our society will – indeed, must – transform, just as France’s did, though it will not be the same kind of transformation. We have a mature Republic, not one that is or has just been formed, and though it is straining, it is still intact. Now we are in a great test to see if our institutions can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century – if we can muster our own spirit to face the great difficulties ahead.

A common practice

A common practice

I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!

The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.

A commonplace book from the mid 17th century

As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.

There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.

I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.

Some of my “commonplace” notebooks.

So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.

Inside one of my notebooks.
So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time

I’m way behind on my reading challenge so what do I do? I pick up a new book to read, of course. Actually, there is some logic to this decision – I tend to read ponderous works of nonfiction which means it takes a long time to get through a work. So I am adding a short piece of fiction to my list, which should increase my odds of finishing a book soon.

The fictional work is the novel Freedom Road, by Howard Fast. I didn’t know this before, but he is the same author who wrote the novel Spartacus, on which the film was based. And Freedom Road was also made into a TV mini-series, starring Muhammad Ali. So I’m going to look for that on streaming video once I’m done with the book.

I have small paperback edition I can carry with me at work in this odd little bag I bought, to read during my lunch breaks. Now that’s progress!

My 2020 Reading Challenge

My 2020 Reading Challenge

I have read a lot of books. I have been especially interested in reading history, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is how much there is that I don’t know. Of course, this drives me to read more, so now I have a fairly long reading list of books that I just haven’t gotten to quite yet.

This is not an uncommon thing; there is even a term for collecting unread books – tsundoku. A collection of unread books is called an antilibrary, and supposedly it’s good to have one, to remind oneself of the limits of one’s knowledge. My antilibrary, honestly, is actually not that large. But it’s large enough, possibly, to last me the rest of my life.

Between work, family, and other hobbies, I have not found much time to read lately. So, for 2020, I have decided to read more, and to track what I read on the social website Goodreads. My goal is simple – 20 books completed in 2020. And I plan to post reviews, some of which I may share on this blog.

Let’s see…20 books a year. If I live for 30 more years, which is plausible, that means 600 more books to read before I die. That’s it!?? There’s more than that many books in one aisle at the Barnes & Noble!

When will I have time enough? It almost makes me wish for the fate of Burgess Meredith’s character in the famous Twilight Zone episode. But of course, we know how that turns out. And even if I found time to read 6000 books, I would only scratch the surface of all that humanity has recorded.

Ah well. It’s still a joy to read a good book, despite the limitations of our mere mortal lives. I end with a quote from a great poet.

Knowledge is precious to us, because we shall never have time to
complete it.
All is done and finished in the eternal Heaven.

Rabindranath Tagore
A small sample of my library. There’s even more on my Kindle.
Ruling the Waves: A Saecular Breakdown

Ruling the Waves: A Saecular Breakdown

I’ve posted before about “books from the Third Turning that I didn’t get around to until the Fourth Turning.” Waiting on the bookshelf for some time has been Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This book is subtitled “a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier” and in the introduction discusses the Internet a bit. It was published in 2001 (pre-9/11!), when the commercial Internet was young and Web 2.0 was just getting going. The book was hoping, then, to shed some light on what was to come in the development of cyberspace.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

She goes through different waves of technology, and I was interested to see how what she describes compares to Strauss & Howe saecular theory. The first wave Spar analyzes is the wave of advancements that led to the Age of Discovery – but this happens over a long period of time (centuries) so bringing saecular theory into it seems difficult. The next technological wave was that of the telegraph, and here it is easier to do the analysis.

I was half-expecting to find that the Gilded generation were major players in the drama of the development of the telegraph, since they are the Nomad generation of the Civil War Saeculum. After all, the Nomad generation of the current saeculum, my generation, has had a big part to play in the rise of Internet technology. But what I found is that the the main players in the story (looking at the U.S. part of it) were all from two generations – Compromise and Transcendental. The Gilded are nowhere to be found, probably because they were too young.

The narrative of the development of the telegraph did track pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum, however. The invention period occurs at the end of the Transcendental Awakening, the 2nd turning. It involves two key players, Samuel Morse (b. 1791, Compromise Generation) of course, and Alfred Vail (b. 1807, Transcendental Generation), who worked closely with Morse. The idea of transmitting electricity over wires had been known about for decades; their genius was in combining the transmission with encoding, to create information. They managed to get some public backing through Congress to build a line, but the enterprise failed.

So then came the entrepreneurs to buy them out, and build a private enterprise instead. A key player was Amos Kendall (b. 1789, Compromise), a former postmaster general who left his position specifically for this purpose. He proved that it was possible to raise funds privately to build a telegraph line, and once the public caught on to what the technology made possible, the money started flowing into more and more companies building regional lines. Other big time entrepreneurs of this period included Henry O’Rielly (b. 1806, Transcendental) and Cyrus Field (b. 1819, Transcendental), who built the first trans-Atlantic line.

Without going into too much detail, the competition became fierce, as well as costly to the companies involved. In the period leading up to the Civil War, that is the 3rd turning in saecular terms, there was fighting over patent rights and access to markets, as well as confusion sowed by competing signal standards and encoding methods. This is the “creative anarchy” period in Spar’s terminology.

The winner of this period of conflict turned out to be Western Union, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hiram Sibley (b. 1807, Transcendental), who led it in its transformation into a telegraph company, eventually establishing the first transcontinental line. With this consolidation came standardization – the rulemaking period. After the Civil War, in the 1st turning of the next saeculum, Western Union became a huge and powerful monopoly, enough to worry people into pressuring the government to regulate it, though not much was done in the Gilded Age.

I just find it fascinating that the so many of the key players in the development of the telegraph were from the Transcendental generation, the Prophet archetype of the Civil War Saeculum. They were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs equivalents of their time, and of this technological wave.

It wasn’t until the end of the new saeculum, with the founding of the FCC, that private communication networks became thoroughly regulated. That was during the era of radio, which is actually the next technology covered by Spar’s book. So I will continue reading Ruling the Waves, and report in another post what I discover.

Book Review: Stoned Apocalypse

Book Review: Stoned Apocalypse

I walked into a weird little store in Cleveland a few weeks ago, and saw this book. I think I was drawn to it because of all the apocalypse culture in my life lately, so I bought the book. It turns out to be an autobiographical account of two years in the life of the author in the late 1960s. The author, Marco Vassi, is Silent Generation (b. 1937) and what he did in those two years is leave New York City for the West Coast, mainly San Francisco and environs, where he was caught up in the student revolution and hippie life in general.

The book beautifully captures the spirit of an Awakening social era. The author is searching for a new way of life, seeking to defy social conventions and live spontaneously in the moment. He wanders from scene to scene, never staying with one particular group of people in one particular place for very long. All the familiar baggage of the 60s is there in the account – drugs, orgiastic sex, weird cults and communes – even the Grateful Dead. Vassi writes well, and is clearly very intelligent and well educated, describing his wild and decadent experiences with literary flair.

It is astonishing to read this book, describing real life events (we must assume) from fifty years ago, in light of the current hashtag era. It really highlights how much our society and its priorities have changed. No one today would admit to the things that Vassi does so explicitly, or even approach living with the same questioning, wandering spirit. The author’s career and reputation could not possibly survive the me too movement, but he is off the hook on that, having died from AIDS in the late 1980s. If you read the book, you’ll understand how that could have happened.

In the end, Vassi abandons his search and returns to New York and the life of a publisher. Whether in an individual or a society, there is only so long that the Awakening spirit can be maintained before sober matters of reality take over. Not that he led a particularly sober life afterwards, as you can tell from his page on Wikipedia. But I enjoyed this book as direct evidence of what life during the Consciousness Revolution was like – at least for the young adult generation.

Here’s a link to the book on Good Reads in case you feel inclined to try to find a copy – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1146089.The_Stoned_Apocalypse

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

I’m re-reading one of my old sci fi books that was published in 1972. There is this xeno-anthropoligist on another planet that was colonized by Earth, and he is looking for the original humanoid lifeforms that were supposedly on the planet but no one has seen for a few generations. But what’s great is that when he is inventorying his equipment as he sets out on his expedition, he includes tape recorders. And film for his camera.

Because the author did not predict that neither tape nor film would be used any more in the near future, long before humans ever colonize another planet. Assuming we ever do, though I suppose I shouldn’t make any assumptions there. Who knows what technological change awaits us, and how different our world will be decades to come? After all, no one predicted the ubiquitous smart phone, at least not in the form that it exists today.

Science fiction ends up with these fun kinds of anachronisms because of its efforts to extrapolate the unknown future from the known present. It ends up overconfident about some trends, and misses others completely. My favorite anachronism from sci-fi is from the movie A.I. which is set in a future after the ocean levels rise. In a scene where the main characters fly into the submerged city of Manhattan, the World Trade Center twin towers are visible, jutting out of the water.

Because the film was released just before the destruction of the twin towers. That’s something that actually happened, though the oceans have been slow to rise up to the point of submerging our coastal skylines, if they ever do. There is even something of a double anachronism in this depiction, in that the short story on which the film is based was published before the twin towers were raised, and so would not have been a part of the story originally. They appear in the movie as a strangely out of time anomaly.

For more ruminations on this, check out this older blog post of mine. Meanwhile, I will keep re-reading my old sci-fi books, and enjoying the anachronistic details. Which honestly are incidental, since sci-fi is really about humanity confronting itself, trying to understand its place in time.