Book Review: Today I Am Carey

Today I Am Carey (2019) – by Martin L. Shoemaker

Genre: Science Fiction – Hard (with slice-of-life elements)

320 Pages

Publisher Store PageAmazonKobo

Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…

Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.

Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.

If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.

In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.

Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.

Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.

Book Review: Addie Joss on Baseball

Joss on Baseball: Collected Newspaper Columns and World Series Reports, 1907- 1909  – By Addie Joss

Compiled and Annotated by Rich Blevins (2012)

349 Pages (including biography and appendices)

Publisher pageAmazon page (kindle version)

Or in truth, an expansion of my previous review of the book. I originally reviewed this collection of Addie Joss’s newspaper writings at Let’s Go Tribe in 2013, and all of my comments back then still hold true, but I want to dive in a bit deeper now that I have the leisure to spend more time on it.

Addie Joss has been a fascinating player to me in part because there is so little information about him. He died suddenly in 1911 at age 31, while professional baseball was still growing into the national pastime it later became. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a ground-breaking collection of reminiscences by former players that sparked a rush to record the history of early baseball, was first published in 1966. By that time practically all of Joss’s immediate family were no longer alive. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, but by that time, as Blevins writes in his preface, it was “almost like an afterthought.” His contributions had been recognized despite his brief career, but almost nothing of his personality could be passed down.

Joss was hired in 1906, without any previous writing experience, to be the Sunday edition sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee. Joss had moved to Toledo in 1900 when he signed with the Mud Hens, and still made the Northwest Ohio city his offseason home. The hiring was designed to help win readers over from the established Toledo Blade, and it paid off in spades. Joss not only wrote articles about baseball, but edited and wrote articles about other sports. That he was able to quickly learn a business he had no prior knowledge about was quite a feat, and that would lead to him writing a weekly column as well as covering covering three World Series (1907-1909) for the Cleveland Press. By the end of his brief writing career, he was known nationwide as not only a great pitcher, but also as a baseball columnist.

 The collected columns are arranged thematically, not chronologically. There is a chapter about Joss’s personal friendships in baseball, one entirely about humorous incidents on and off the baseball diamond, and one on great feats and plays. There are sections devoted to dealing with fans, “inside baseball” (or would be called strategy today), the way baseball was played in the decades before his time, and his game reports from the 1907-1909 World Series. The collection ends with some columns about larger issues within the sport.

You get a sense of Joss’s generosity and good nature through some subtle touches in his columns. For example, the first column in this collection deals with his debut, made in 1902 against the St. Louis Browns. After a couple of innings, the Browns hurled a series of insults (“long legged toothpick,” “human sign post,” et. al) his way, then later gave him looks that “would have made a saint want to fight.” But it was all a test, and Joss passed with flying colors. Later, after the game, Emmet Heidrick of the Browns shook hands and congratulated him on the well-pitched game. Joss ends the column with “And from that day to this I have not had better friends than that same bunch of ball players, the St. Louis Browns.”

Some of that generosity is only learned once you learn the context, which is why Blevins’ annotations are so valuable. He wrote two columns about his friend Win Mercer, who committed suicide while on the 1902-03 barnstorming tour of the West: the first of which talks about Mercer’s career as a star pitcher and “matinee idol,” and the second of which is about the events that took place just before his death. There were allegations that Mercer attempted to steal the barnstormer’s pot to pay back gambling debts, but Joss, who was on the tour, recounts a more generous version of those events, in which the note to the hotel clerk to send the money was not written by Mercer but was a forgery.

Source:Wikipedia/ Western Reserve Historical Society

Joss was a tall (6’3″), skinny (185 lbs) man with long arms, hence nicknames like the Human Hairpin and the other less generous ones noted above. His sidearm pitching motion, a delivery that hid the ball from hitters, his stuff, and impeccable control was why he was so successful as a pitcher, and Joss goes into some of these concepts in his columns, though never in a boastful fashion. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball by reading his columns. That even extends to the columns he wrote on his specific accomplishments, like his 1908 perfect game, in which he downplays as much as possible his role in it. Note the date from the article, which was one day after his masterpiece:

About the seventh inning I began to realize that not one of the [White] Sox had reached first base...I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago, for the game meant much to us, and [Ed] Walsh was pitching the game of his life. (10-3-1908)

Although Joss was writing in a time that we now might think as the distant past, there are many columns that have just as much relevance today as they did back then. Witness this piece of introspection:

One constant worry to a ball player is the fear he has of losing the strength of his arm. A ball player's arm is a peculiar thing. There is never any way of telling when it is liable to go back on him. (12-9-1908)

The section on “inside baseball” also has many timeless baseball thoughts. For instance:

Numberless instances could be related by all players who have been playing the game for any length of time, but they would only tend to strengthen the opinion that luck is an essential factor in a team's pennant aspirations (1-27-1907).

One thing that has changed considerably since the first decade of the 20th century are the baseball terms used, and that did take some getting used to. Joss uses “twirler” often in place of “pitcher” and “sphere” as often as he uses “ball,” and though at first those terms seemed rather bizarre and forced, after a while they started to become familiar, and I could begin to understand why they were so popular. Heck, I’ll probably start referring to pitchers as twirlers here and there just to liven things up.

Joss loved to relate humorous anecdotes in his columns, including one about how Connie Mack once had to resort to tricking Rube Wadell (who was famous for being…um…eccentric) to stop throwing his “slow ball” back when they were both in Milwaukee:

Mack realizing the probable result became desperate and leaving the bench went over to a policeman on the bleachers and held a whispered conversation with him....

.....Just as the big fellow was winding up to pitch the next one, a fog horn voice shouted: "Get out of there you big stiff, you're all in! You've lost your arm."

You can well guess how Rube responded to this heckle, which played right into Mack’s hands.

Joss stopped writing for the News-Bee in early 1909, instead choosing to spend his winters running a pool hall and singing in a vaudeville quartet. He still would pop by his old workplace from time to time, and that he was still beloved by his former co-workers is evident by the way the paper covered his death.

Toledo people will feel a keener loss, for they knew Joss as a man and a citizen and knew nothing but good of him. His personal friends will long miss the ready smile, the kindly word, the cheerful optimism that were his constant companions and made his company a delight. He was a big man, mentally, morally, professionally. (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 8)

Tributes also poured in from around baseball, one of which captures exactly the impression that I got from reading his columns:

"He was studious and ambitious and serious, but when I say serious I do not mean sober, for had that rare and divine gift, a sense of humor. He was always cheerful. He seemed always to have some good news for you. He never whimpered or complained; he could smile even over the injury to his right arm last season - the arm that meant so much to him."
- Brand Whitlock (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 1)

His teammates threatened a strike if their game in Detroit was not postponed so that they could attend his funeral in Toledo. And there was the proto-All Star game held in Cleveland later that year to raise money for his widow, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

There are biographical profiles on Joss, such as the one in the Deadball Stars of the American League, and there is one full-length biography of Joss available (Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers). But this collection of columns is the closest we’re going to get to any sort of understanding about Joss the person, as it’s written in his own words. Blevins writes in his preface:

I like to think Addie's baseball writing as our own direct line to one of Cooperstown's most disappeared inductees. The extant articles are Addie's first-person observations of the game and its players, many of them baseball immortals and most of them his good friends, from the first decade of the American League.

Book Review: Empire of Silence

Empire of Silence (2018) – by Christopher Ruocchio
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy – Space Opera
612 Pages (including appendices)

Publisher page (with links to various sellers)

 

 

Back in my high school days, which was more decades ago than I’d care to admit, I was a regular at  the tiny Waldenbooks at my hometown mall. I worked a couple doors down at a soon-to-be defunct department store, and so spent a portion of my new-found riches on books, particularly in the science fiction section (which consisted of one shelf). It was there I discovered Dune, Hyperion, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Asimov’s space and robot stories, among others. But that was the last time I spent a considerable amount of my reading attention on that genre, so take what follows with that in mind.


Spoiler-Free Review (may add a spoilertastic addendum in the future)

Empire of Silence (the first in a multi-volume series) takes place in a far future in which humanity has expanded into a considerable portion of the Milky Way. There are several polities in inhabited space, the largest of which is the Sollan Empire. This Empire and its war with an alien species is the backdrop for the events of the book.

The narrator begins his tale with a rather unendearing statement: it was he that destroyed a star, and with it billions of lives. In his advanced age, he is known as both a hero and a villain, and as he assumes the reader knows the basic history of the major events he was involved in, he is content to tell us the story of his life instead, beginning with his formative years. So while this book fits very comfortably into the space opera subgenre, it does not flit between characters and places willy-nilly. The only places you visit in Empire of Silence are the places that the narrator visits, which may seem like it narrows the scope too much, but I appreciated that by the end of the volume.

The narrator, Hadrian Marlowe, is born a noble (or palatine, to use the book’s parlance), a potential heir to a prefecture within a planetary duchy (there are a quarter-billion inhabited planets in the Empire). But while on the surface this minor fiefdom wouldn’t seem to be that important in terms of the Empire itself, this prefecture controls a rich source of uranium, the fuel that drives interplanetary vessels, and as the Empire is in the midst of a bloody war with the Cielcin, the only other advanced species in the galaxy, the control over the prefecture and therefore the uranium is an important goal for the various palatine houses of the Empire.

Empire of Silence delves into this complex political environment in its first section (almost a prologue), and during it you’ll be tempted to thumb your way to the appendices often, trying to wrap your mind around the all the players, the positions, and the relationships among the palatine of House Marlowe. There is a lot of world building throughout the book, especially in the first section, but it never ceased to be boring, as it was embedded in the story and characters, almost never force-fed to the reader via long info-dumps of dialogue within the story. For those who want to fully and quickly grasp the world the book takes place in, the appendices will serve that purpose, but you can also get that sense of the world gradually by ignoring the appendices and just reading the book itself. After finishing the book I read through the appendices in detail, and found that very little of what I gleaned through context differed from canon.

But at its heart Empire of Silence is a character-driven story, dealing with Hadrian’s conflicts with the world around him and, more importantly, within himself. Although this tale is set in the far future, with all the biological and technological changes that come with it, the dilemmas Hadrian faces are very familiar ones. The yearning for freedom in a strict hierarchical society, the question of whether duty should override ones personal moral code, and if one’s honor should override the optimal political strategy are questions that people have asked throughout history. Even the world itself, while on the surface completely alien, contains many echoes from past and present civilizations, be they names, concepts, or even government types.

This being book one in a series, many plot-related things are not explained. That goes with the territory, though I would have liked to have had one “section transition” (euphemism to avoid spoilers) be a bit less jarring. Thankfully, the second book in the series, along with a stand-alone novella, will be released soon, so perhaps some details will be forthcoming there. As for the other unknowns, be they related to the mystery hinted at towards the end of the book, or the other details of the world of the series, I’m more than happy to let those be slowly revealed as the series progresses.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I enjoyed this book. There were some spots that dragged a bit, and as mentioned above, some of the transitions were more abrupt than they needed to be. But I adored the world-building, and can’t wait to dive into future stories.

 

 

 

 

 

10 minutes of a Haydn oratorio

And now for something completely different.

There’s a good chance you couldn’t name more than a couple of works written by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and probably not this particular one.  That’s perfectly fine. Before I go into any more detail, I’d invite you to listen to the first ten minutes of the piece, (until the video reaches the 10:49 mark). An embedded version can also be found at bottom of this post. You’re more than welcome to listen past that point, as it’s an incredible work, but what I have to say afterwards only concerns those first 10 minutes.


You’re back? Awesome, wasn’t it?

It’s extremely difficult to describe a piece of music with words, much less how that music affects you. Music is a language that is universally intelligible, but it is very hard to capture its effects in other languages, whether spoken or written. But I’m going try anyway, because it’s well worth the effort. The Internet allows me to illuminate this post with both visual and auditory aids, so I’ll add links to certain places in the recording or refer to the score as needed.

I’ve listened to the first 10 minutes of The Creation 25-30 times, with most of those times happening while preparing this post, and still get chills down my back every time the words “and there was light” is sung. It could be a different version (there are many others on YouTube), or it could be playing on my potato laptop speakers; just hearing that stretch of music ending with that C-major chord is enough to have a physiological and emotional effect.

I’ll go over the music itself later on, and why I think Haydn was so effective in eliciting that feeling, as well as provide a bit more historical context, but for now I’ll use more descriptive language. After all, even the most analytical of baseball fans don’t immediately go to Statcast data to describe a dramatic home run or strikeout just after it happened.


A Description

The Creation/Die Schöpfung by Joseph Haydn – Hob. XXI:2 (written 1797-1798, published 1800)

Selected sections:

2:05 The Representation of Chaos (instrumental overture)

7:47In the Beginning” (accompanied recitative)

10:15 “And there was light” (the resolution)

The first section of The Creation is called (roughly translated) “The Representation of Chaos”. As you might suspect, the ultimate source material is the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, and the oratorio’s overture is meant to evoke a feeling of nothingness before the first chapter begins. After the initial fanfare, the music subsides to a slow, discordant section with no musical resolution. Let me explain: when you listen to a piece of music, whether from this period or something released last week, you subconsciously expect the music to progress in a certain way, whether through consistency in tone, in melody, in dynamics (loud/soft), or in its ending. This overture does none of these things, and so creates a feeling of discontentment, of uncomfortableness because there is seemingly no direction to it. At times there are a couple points in which you think the mood will change (which I’ll go into below), but immediately the music reverses course. The section ends much as it begins, with a soft and depressing whimper. Even to our modern ears, the entire overture is strange and weird; just think what the first audiences, long accustomed to the Classical ideal of “melody first” (think of examples like this and this) thought while listening to it.

You have doubtless noticed how I have avoided the resolutions that one most expects. That is because nothing has yet assumed form.

-Haydn, on the Representation of Chaos

The recitative (a type of choral music in which a singer half-sings/half-speaks the lines) begins in much the same way as the overture ended: in a minor key, with the orchestra providing discordant accompaniment. But when the full chorus comes in (9:21), you finally have the first inkling of a resolution, which in my mind makes the payoff that much better; it’s not a sudden change from chaos to order, but a gradual buildup to it. The combination of the ethereal voices with the pulsing orchestra is a fantastic effect, giving you a sense of expectancy even if you’ve never heard the piece before. But Haydn doesn’t give it completely away, because there is no dynamic change leading to the final resolution, just a tone shift.

When the resolution happens (10:15), you get blindsided by three different changes: (1) minor to major key change, (2) a dynamic change (very soft to very loud), and (3) and, most importantly, the sudden appearance of a strong melody. Also, some performances will speed up the tempo, which gives it that extra bit of impact. It is then that you realize the previous 8-9 minutes of uncomfortable music was absolutely necessary for this moment. Had Haydn started the piece without the dark and ominous overture, the “let there be light” line wouldn’t have near the impact on the listener.

How can a concourse of sounds correspond to an emotion? That last word is not the right one. For example, in Haydn’s Creation there is a strong modulation to C major on the the words “Let there be light.” The notes as such have nothing to do with light. But the change of key – and to that key – produces a visceral sensation (for want of a better word), a sensation of discovery, of openness, release, relief – it has no name; it is not one of the emotions.

-Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence


Historical notes

Haydn was already the most famous composer in Europe when he wrote The Creation. While on his second trip to England, he had heard several of Handel’s (he composed Messiahamong many others) oratorios, and contemplated composing an oratorio of his own in Handel’s style. This marked a new challenge for the 66-year-old Haydn, who had excelled in (heck, practically invented) many other musical genres (the symphony, the string quartet, just to name a few) during his long career as a composer. The libretto (or text of the oratorio) originally came from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and was originally intended for Handel himself to use. The libretto was translated into German for its debut, though it would be published in both English and German shortly thereafter (the English version is considered subpar, so that’s why you’ll often see it performed in German even in front of English-speaking audiences). The Creation premiered in Vienna in 1798, and quickly became an international hit.

The work as a whole is optimistic in tone, a marriage of Haydn’s deeply religious beliefs with the Enlightenment values of his era.


An Analysis

Now to do the unpleasant but necessary task of breaking down a piece of music into its component parts in order to better understand why this first part of The Creation has such an emotional impact. It is difficult to quantify the emotional effect music has on an individual person, never mind all of humanity (or even just cross-section of it). However, there are some general effects that music tends to have on people. For example, a piece played in a minor key is considered “sad” music, while music in a major key is more closely associated with happiness. There are other structural components that have similar impacts. I’ve listed them below, along with a comparison how the overture and the resolution are structured.

Tempo (speed or pace of the music) 

Representation of Chaos: Lento/Very slow (sadness)

And there was light”: Adagio/Slow (in some versions) (more happiness)

For reference, Lento is generally understood to be 40-60 beats per minute. In the version I’ve linked the tempo is about 50-52 beats per minute for the overture, with the music speeding up after the resolution. The tempo is still on the slower side, but the accelerando (speeding up) of the music does have an impact.

Mode (the type of scale – major/minor)

Representation of Chaos: c minor (sadness)

“And there was light”: C major (joy)

Tones that are closer together sound more dissonant, creating tension. The minor scale’s third tone is a half-step lower than its major scale analogue. In this case, the third tone for the opening key (c minor) is E-flat, while the third tone for the resolution key signature is E-natural (C major). You can see this in the score (which I’ve added in a later section).

Loudness/Softness of the music

  Representation of Chaos: generally soft (torpor)

“And there was light”: very loud (excitement)

In the overture, there are some small loud sections, but for the most part the music is marked as p (piano/soft) or even pp (pianissimo/very soft). The section just before the resolution (where the chorus come in) is marked pp, while the resolution is marked fff (fortississimo/very very loud), which is basically as large a dynamic change as you can have in music.

Melody (complementary or clashing)

Representation of Chaos: clashing (unpleasantness)

“And there was light”: complementary (peaceful)

In the Classical era, melody came before just about anything else. So to contemporary audiences, the lack of a coherent melody (which was by design) had to be the most jarring facet of the overture. It is only when the chorus enters (9:18) that you get any kind of melodic structure that Haydn’s contemporaries would recognize.

Rhythm (regular/smooth vs. irregular/rough)

Representation of Chaos: irregular (uneasiness)

“And there was light”: regular (happiness)

Haydn used a number of rhythms in his overture, often playing them off against one another. For example, in measures 6-8 (see below for the score), he used three consecutive runs of triplets offsetting longer notes elsewhere in the orchestra. But once the chorus comes in, everything in is lock step.

Programmatic Features

Program Music, or music composed with an extra-music theme in mind, really didn’t become widespread until the later Romantic era, but works like this do I think qualify as such. It has a specific theme, and the music is obviously written in a way to capture both the overall theme as well as the words sung. The audience would have known the subject matter forwards and backwards, and that would have added to the emotional payoff at many points, particularly at the resolution.


Conclusion

This is a vast departure from what I’ve written before, though in some aspects there are some parallels. Like with baseball, music can be enjoyed by anyone, even those with no real prior knowledge. You don’t need to know any music theory or historical background to be moved by a masterpiece like The Creation, but even a bit of deeper understanding makes it a much more rewarding experience. I’ll be back with a regularly-scheduled Indians post next Monday.

Below: The score, and some resources for further reading/listening.

Continue reading “10 minutes of a Haydn oratorio”

In Search Of…

The Internet to me is an almost magical place because I lived a significant portion of my life without it. I learned to write letters (as in pieces of paper that you sent to other people via the Postal Service) in school because that was a key form of communication, went to the public library to research for school projects, and watched (grainy) television or rented videos at physical stores for entertainment. Nowadays you may think about these things as hardships, but 20-25 years ago they were the best technology we had at the time and were not thought of negatively. In fact, things like going to the rental store for a weekend movie was quite a novelty, at least where I lived.

By the time I reached high school, I had access to dial-up internet, and there were a couple of a computers at school connected to the Internet, but it wasn’t really until I got to college that I experienced anything like the Internet we have today. The ability to have your own constantly-connected high-speed portal to the Web was an exhilarating experience, my generation’s version of experiencing the widespread availability of electricity.

The delivery mechanism was the revolution that came with the Internet. We still communicate, we still research, and we still consume entertainment, it’s just that now we do these things from our computers instead of through physical means. Time and distance no longer matters; all you need is an Internet-connected device. That device allows anyone in the world to access the same information that a couple of decades ago was only available to people in universities or in large, wealthy cities. This democratization of access is one of the major breakthroughs of the last century, and we see the effects of that unfolding before our eyes every day. No longer does the average man or woman just consume information, but contributes it as well.

Surfing the web was the main pastime for me in the early days on the Internet. The joy was in the search, and occasionally you’d find a gem. The Internet, even in those days, was a massive, massive place, and although you rarely found exactly what you were looking for, you’d often find something that you weren’t looking for but was interesting nonetheless. Many of the sites that I follow to this day I found unintentionally, usually while I was searching for something completely different. Some I found because someone I regularly read recommended them.

When I first started this site, a huge chunk of my time and energy was spent figuring out how to be seen by other Indians fans. There were portal sites that you could submit your blog to, and ways to get noticed by the search engine spiders, but the more effective way was simply trading links with other sites; someone e-mailed you about their blog, you checked it out, then you posted a link on your site to his blog and he posted a link to you on his blog. In that way you created a connected community of readers, in this case Indians fans.

Nowadays, the best way to get noticed quickly is to just stake out a spot in the walled gardens of the large social networks and try to play by their rules, because that’s where the readers are. If you’re a consumer of content, you’re going to go to one of the big sites, because that’s where the content is; you just have to allow these sites to know your search history and some personal information in exchange. This begins a positive feedback loop resulting in much of the content being concentrated in fewer and fewer places. For example, Vidme, one of the few competitors to YouTube, shut down last year, noting the extreme difficulty in monetizing user-generated video content. This comes in the form of the hardware needed to stream millions of videos concurrently, the algorithms needed to curate these videos, and catering to the needs of fickle advertisers. For a place like Facebook, you add the difficulty of poaching users: you can’t just convince individuals to jump to your platform, but entire circles of people, because people aren’t going to go somewhere new if their friends aren’t there.


A Sidebar: The Ad-Based Revenue Model

The modern digital currency is not the dollar, yuan, euro, or bitcoin, but personal information. This currency is the backbone of the ad-based Internet, and the reason why Google and Facebook are two of the largest companies in the world today.
When you visit any kind of website that is both free to the reader and has advertisements, you are the product. The content provider makes its money via advertisements, and they get more money with more impressions. The more people visit the site, the more impressions the advertisers get, and the more money the content creator gets. This model itself is not new, as newspapers, television, and radio all have operated under this for decades. The difference with this new medium is that advertisers have immediate feedback on how much traffic they received as a result of that ad. Instead of getting partial feedback (for instance, the prevalence of discount codes tied to specific advertising campaigns is an attempt for companies to judge its effectiveness), companies know exactly how many people clicked on that banner ad, plus perhaps other information on those people.

Digital content companies like Google and Facebook have taken this a step further. Because of the data they have on their users, they have the ability to place ads in front of the people who are the most likely to be interested in them. They have massive user bases, and more importantly information from those users to be able to tailor advertisements to them. This is accomplished through a computer algorithm, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself. In brief, these algorithms sift through the massive amount of content on a site like YouTube and determines what you see on the site based on the criteria they are given. For example, the YouTube algorithms could be operating with a goal of maximizing the average time spent on the site, and the algorithm takes it from there, even if it affects the makeup of the audience and the type of content that is preferredGoogle’s AdWords is the dominant advertiser on the Internet, with ad revenue accounting for $95.38B for the company in 2017.

Another important distinction between the “old” and “new” method of advertising is that the actual content on the “new” sites is not being created by the company, but by its users. Google/YouTube, for example, provides the infrastructure to handle streaming videos, as well as the algorithms that attempts to give people videos they want to see, but they (for the most part) don’t make the videos themselves. If the local newspaper followed the Google/Facebook model, they would own the printing equipment and the distribution network, but not write any of their stories.


I was one of the first people to adopt many Google products, including Blogspot (which Google had just purchased in 2003) and Gmail (which is the reason I have a rather unique e-mail address), but I have begun to recognize the downsides of the algorithmic ad-based model. Many YouTube content creators, stung by demonetization, have gone to Patreon or similar sites so that they can get  a consistent income without going behind a paywall. Some new sites, like The Athletic, have committed to a pure subscription model. There are also browser-based models being tried out, which shifts the walls from the site to the browser. I hope one of these competing models succeeds.

The algorithm is just a tool, neither inherently good nor bad.  But even if it works well, it still removes much of the agency of the user, and in order to fully utilize the algorithm, you need to provide these sites personal information you wouldn’t want anyone outside your family or close friends to have, never mind available to the Internet. There has always been a trade off in this arrangement, but over the past several years that trade off has become much less tenable to me. I’ll use these major sites as ways to find content, but once found, I’ll read/watch them via an RSS reader, which I think is a way to consolidate what you want to consume, rather than relying on a site telling you what it thinks you want to consume.

So if I’m not on  Facebook as much as I used to, or suddenly move this blog to a different platform, you’ll understand why.

While writing that last sentence, this popped up in my Facebook feed. Maybe the algorithm knew I was writing this post…..

See below for videos mentioned in this post:

Continue reading “In Search Of…”

Book Review: The Aeneid

(first published on 10-22-2004 at this location)

The Aeneid – Virgil (70-19 BC)

Original Language: Latin
Genre: Epic
Written: 29-19 BC
Edition: Penguin Classics (1956)
Translator: W.F. Jackson Knight

Widely considered one of the pillars of Western Literature, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who escapes the sack of Troy and finds a new home in Italy. He is sidetracked often on his journey, mostly by divine intervention. Virgil portrays the Roman gods as interested in mankind, and each god or goddess has their favorite. Aeneas’ nemesis is Juno, who was for the Greeks in the Trojan War; she delays or hinders his travels many times. When Aeneas and his followers finally arrive in Italy, they becomes embroiled (thanks to the design of Juno) in a bloody conflict between the Trojans and the Rutulians, headed by Turnus. The last six books of the Aeineid resembles the Iliad with its descriptions of battle and conflict.

Virgil died before completing the Aeneid, but even so, it is a masterpiece of literature. If you have any designs of reading the best of ancient literature, this is one work you cannot miss. The edition I read contains a very nice prose translation by Knight, and also contains a very helpful glossary of names and locations. Obviously the best reading of the Aeneid will come in Latin, where Virgil’s poetic genius truly shines, but I like the prose translation mainly because the translator was not bound by the limitations of a verse translation.

Book Review: Lord Jim (1900)

(first published on 9-11-2004) at this location

Lord Jim – Jospeh Conrad (1857-1924)

Original Language: English
Published: 1899-1900 (in serial form)
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (1986); includes an Introduction written by Cedric Watts, as well as notes, a glossary, a timeline concerning the events of the novel, and a map of Southeast Asia
Pages: 307

That Joseph Conrad is recognized as one of the 20th Century’s best authors is quite an achievement, given that English was not his native tongue. His first language was Polish, and his second was French, but to readers of the English language, we are fortunate indeed that he chose to write in his third language. Lord Jim is on the surface a tale of adventure, but lurking not far beneath is a character study that delves deep into the mind of its young protagonist, Jim.

The telling of the story is not linear; that is to say; we learn facets of Jim’s life in bits, skipping time and place. Furthermore, most of Jim’s story is told by Marlowe, his confidant and friend, who also makes appearances in several other of Conrad’s works (including Heart of Darkness). So suffice to say, you may be confused at several points in the reading, but I believe that this method makes the novel much more interesting and thought-provoking; I simply can’t imagine Lord Jim being as effective if it was written in a linear fashion. We start with a view of a simple water-clerk, and over the next 300 or so pages learn bits about his compelling experiences along the way, and are so deftly let into Jim’s mind, that, by the end of the novel, can almost predict his reactions, and ultimately, his fate.

Conrad is viewed as a bridge between the classical and modernist schools of writing, which makes him such a unique literary figure. His enigmatic Heart of Darkness is justifiably known as his greatest work, but Lord Jim is also an outstanding literary achievement for the same reasons; in fact, Conrad had intended for Lord Jim to be a counterpoint to Heart of Darkness and had wanted both to published together along Youth. 

Book Review: The Histories

(first published on 8-20-2004) at this location

The Histories – Herodotus (484-428 BC)

Original Language: Greek

Written: 5th century BC

Genre: History

Translation: George Rawlinson

Volume: Great Books of the Western World, Volume 6 (copy. 1952)

Pages: 314 (roughly 700 paperback-sized pages, as the text is condensed)

Difficulty (from 1 to 10, with 1 being the easiest): 4

This work is considered the world’s first work of history, and is a fantastic introduction to Ancient Greek literature. This isn’t your standard academic history book, however; Herodotus gives very interesting accounts of the various cultures spread across Europe and Asia along the way.

I heartily recommend having a map of the known world circa 450 BC handy when reading The Histories, as you may become lost in some places. Most editions include maps of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Africa with the text, which help immensely with the myriad of place names mentioned by Herodotus. Besides that, the book is pretty accessible without any prior knowledge of ancient history. The book relates mainly the histories of the Greeks and the Persians, with the climax being the two crucial battles between the two; The Battle of Marathon, and the Battle of Salamis. The last three “books” are the most entertaining of the work, as it concerns the clash between the clash of Xerxes’ great invasion force with the (mostly) united Greeks in one of the most pivotal times in the history of civilization. After the conflict with the Persian Empire ended, one of the most remarkable intellectual periods in history began in Athens, judging by who followed Herodotus on my list.

The major difficulty in reading this book is keeping track of place names and people (this site should help). Herodotus sometimes shuttles people in and out and leaves the main storyline for pages at a time in examining side stories. But if you contain your frustrations, by the last third of The Histories, you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.