Archive for December, 2016

Review: Networks of New York

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York combines accessible technical descriptions, aggressive journalism, and a subversive bent into an atlas of New York City’s informational and surveillance nervous system. She starts from a simple enough sounding question – “What does the Internet look like?” – and takes off into a city-wide census of construction sites and corporate history.  It’s engaging and enlightening, even if you know what the Internet looks like.

She starts from the very basics, the wires and fibers that pump our informational lifeblood.  Her approach is instructional.  There’s no easily accessible public map – if there is such a map at all – so she shows us how to infer one.  Construction sites mark the routes of the conduits, and she provides a key to interpreting them that lets the interested track the content and affiliation of the pathways.  The primer to this telecom argot opens the door to exploration in ways that a map would not.

The whole book is that way.  It’s both an informative tour the infrastructure and a HOWTO for exploring it yourself.  Along the way she expands her mandate from mapping the informational tubes to a bestiary of the data collection systems connected to it, from license plate detecting cameras to intriguingly located intelligence offices.

Networks is both an exportation and an invitation to other people and cities to explore their versions.

A must.

Review: Cholo Writing

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

François Chastanet has curated an vibrant set of images of a unique LA street expression.  As I bike around LA, I’m becoming more and more interested in the graffiti and street art of LA.  Some of it is clearly people shouting to the world, but some of it looks like coded messages.  I love argot and secret languages, so it’s fascinating to get a look under the covers.

Cholo Writing is primarily a collection of photos of latino territory markings.  The work includes two excellent essays on the content and significance of the markings.  The whole thing is engaging and interesting.

Review: But What If We’re Wrong

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Ah, Chuck Klosterman, how I love your mind.  I love watching a deep and brilliant analyst apply his considerable intelligence and skill to nigh pointless issues in popular culture.  I spend way too much time doing this myself, and it’s delightful to bask in Klosterman’s pop culture nature walks.  Better than that, I generally get a new insight from it.

Klosterman’s organizing issue in But What If We’re Wrong is how much predicting the future successfully depends on absolutely invalidating a fundamental assumption or two.  Researchers and pundits try to do this all the time, of course, but what sets Klosterman apart is how both how powerfully he buys into the premise and how he applies it to pop culture. He aggressively looks for fundamental bases to negate rather than surface distinctions to poke at. Serious futurists should take note.  As should I.

Then he points that basic principled analysis at rock music, for example.

The result is good fun – for me and Klosterman, I suppose.  He writes brilliantly and insightfully but there’s no risk of AbyssGaze.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Before LA

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

One of my passtimes these days is researching the local history of the SoCal area I’ve adopted as my home.  It’s pretty difficult to get a handle on in many ways.  I’ve never lived in a place that seems to live so much in the present as this one.  That may be due to my limitations in finding sources as well as not getting immersed in the stuff through elementary education.

David Samuel Torres-Rouff has fleshed out some more parts of the puzzle.  Before LA is a scholarly exploration of the history of settlement in the LA basin from the early Spanish land grants until the late 1800s.  Torres-Rouff is focused on the relationships between the ethnic and political groups that clashed and blended here.

I find that choice very enlightening.  Torres-Rouff tracks the give and take of (at least) the Spanish ranchers, Mexican workers, indigenous people, Chinese workers,  and American immigrants (black and white).  His focus is on the political machinations rather than the cultural blending, which defines significant eras pretty well.  Up until the American immigrants uneasily (and coercively) unify the various classes into a more monocultural city in the late 1800s, the various groups push and pull on one another.  The push and pull is a usually motivated by a new group appearing and exerting claims on the power structure of the area.  Sadly but tellingly, the unification of the existing groups is often punctuated by the lynching of a newcomer.

Before LA has a scholarly bent and is easy to follow, though somewhat dry in presentation.  The presentation does maintain a useful distance in assessing the facts.  A scholarly mien is an asset when tracking a history so punctuated with racial violence.


Review: Tam Lin

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is slippery and solid at the same time.  As an interpretation of a ballad about Faerie, that’s delightful.

I found my way to it by way of Jo Walton’s glowing review in her excellent What Makes This Book So Great, a gift that keeps on giving.  That collection of reviews is well worth reading.  Tam Lin seems hard to come by electronically, which also delayed me.  The LA Public Library has a solid electronic version.  Now that my hat tipping is done, let me talk about Tam Lin.

Tam Lin is  part of a series of fairy tales re-imagined, and much of the introductory and other supporting materials in my edition describe that clearly.  It would be interesting to spring Tam Lin on someone without that warning. For much, if not most, of the telling the book is a sweet coming-of-age story set at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota in the early 1970’s. The narrator is a winning young woman, Janet Carter.

As a character, she’s tough to beat.  She’s universal enough that anyone can relate to her – including a male hillbilly from Western New York born a decade later – but specific enough to be instantly memorable and recognizable. The rest of the cast is equally well-realized. I love the idea of spending time with her and her literary, witty, quirky, friends.

Most of Tam Lin follows Janet and her compatriots through almost 4 years of school, with the shifting alliances, hard work, incongruous moments, and other excitement of that thrilling time.  I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stuff, and this is brilliant.

All that was such good stuff that without the introductory materials, I wouldn’t have noticed the fantastic elements coalescing.  When they do, the world cants in exactly the way it would if one woke up in a horror movie.  Janet doesn’t let us down in any way: she’s resourceful, intelligent, and every inch the capable hero.  The world she’s in changes its details and fundamentals – a literary world becomes a genre-based one – but she’s constant.  New rules, but everyone stays who they are.

As is my wont, I’ve talked about the details and features I liked about Tam Lin, but forget all that.  Tam Lin is a great story well told.

A must.