Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World

Morozov is debunking the notion that internet access = internet freedom. In fact, he tells us that internet "freedom" is a term with no meaning in the conventional sense since it implies that users are free to say what they like and use the technology for their own ends. But, his argument goes, if one user (an authoritarian regime, say, with a reason to dampen enthusiasm for democratic reforms) controls any points of internet access, or subverts the open sharing of ideas on social networking platforms to their own ends, "freedom" immediately becomes compromised.

Morozov compiles an extraordinary collection of examples from around the world of how this is happening now, and challenges (especially U.S.) policy makers to acknowledge that funding bloggers or promoting social networking sites is not an adequate response in and of itself to authoritarian regimes and/or dictatorships. He argues persuasively that U.S. Secretary of State Clinton’s speeches on Internet freedom do not adequately address the issues of authoritarian control, and suggests that only by closely aligning stated country-specific political policies with the promotion of Internet access in these same countries will produce the results the U.S. government seeks.

In other words, we have to stop talking out of both sides of our face. We can’t suppose that financing a corrupt regime on the one hand and supplying financing for anti-regime bloggers on the other is going to produce creditable results. And when it comes to Internet freedoms, one size does not fit in all cases. Some governments have embraced the Internet revolution so thoroughly that they are closely intertwined in the social networking sites, uncovering dissidents and following their adherents. Some have only the crudest knowledge of and reaction to social networking: witness the Internet shutdown for several days during the protests against Egyptian government.

At first I thought Morozov was arguing for international regulation of the Internet and perhaps even self-policing by internet services providers. But I realized he is far too realist to imagine that international regulation (were it even possible) would be practically effective and that asking internet service providers to police is even more frightening than the authoritarian regimes he opposes. But his contention that the Internet too often “empowers the strong and disempowers the weak” is probably true. However, adding even fractionally to the access of the disempowered means proportionally huge gains in their knowledge and connectivity with ideas and others sharing their beliefs. As messy and inadequate a poorly-regulated Internet may be, it has undoubtedly had some effect on information dissemination to good effect. It is now up to those shackled masses to bend their minds to the task of building better governance than that which they have had to suffer in the past.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sweet Jiminy by Kristin Gore

Sweet Jiminy

Kristin Gore sold me a Blackberry. When I read Sammy's House I wanted a Blackberry more than anything else: Blackberry was the word in connectedness, front-line communication, and edginess. You could even use it to extend your lovemaking! Washington never looked so interesting.

Sweet Jiminy is a different type of book altogether. Although Washington doesn't feature prominently, the main character is training to be a lawyer, and the person of interest in her love life is training to be a doctor. But these two aspiring professionals have a problem: they live in the south and they are a mixed-race couple. When Jiminy uncovers an old, unsolved murder involving her boyfriend's relatives, the townspeople have different reactions. Some want to suppress the knowledge, some want to reveal it. No matter what, it is painful for all.

Readers who liked Stockett's The Help may like to take another walk in similar territory. The author doesn't solve the problems of race in the south, but she illuminates some corner of the issues while telling us of the love which overcomes hate.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

The Broken Shore: A Novel

Australia shows up strongly in these pages, in the characters, in the vernacular. Detective Joe Cachin has seen a bit too much, but still has room in his heart for bad kids wrongly charged. When he pursues an open-and-shut case he uncovers horrors a small town has hidden a lifetime. Several lifetimes, it turns out.

The clipped style of short sentences and scraps of thought work well here with a busy, distracted cop allowing the case to build itself. Things seen and heard out of context begin to take on new meaning as the bits of information accumulate. Below I give you Peter Temple talking about his work, and American influences:
"I like American writing, in general. I'm an enthusiast for [Don] DeLillo, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy. And I grew up on James Hadley Chase, [Raymond] Chandler, Ross Macdonald. I've always loved the plots, the interest in the unveiling of secrets from the past and in the intricacies of families, which is distinctively American, invented by American writers. [I love] the gradual unearthing of things and the plodding from one thing to another that those writers, Macdonald in particular, did so well. And also, of course, there is the tradition of loner heroes, dysfunctionals who don't connect fully with society, who do what they do or they wouldn't get up in the morning." The full article can be read here.

Peter Temple is not well-known in the United States, but he has long sought a wider audience. Apparently his editors told him his work was "too Australian." I am here to say that can never be the case--the difference is the cachet, especially in this time of interconnectedness. If mysteries are your thing, and you have wondered about Australia, try this wonderful addition to the genre.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

Years ago I lived a long time in a populous third-world country. I remember saying to a friend living in the U.S. that a focus on animal rights seemed a distraction in view of human living conditions around the globe. She gave me a look I can still see to this day and have thought about many times since. "Why are we more important than every other living species?" and "What would our lives be like without other species?" she could have asked. There is no doubt in my mind that we must be more mindful of species living on the planet around us and treat each with great care and respect. That is also the theme of this fine documentary about research chimps living out their final days on a farm in Canada.

Westoll was a scientist first, but changed his focus to writing later in his career. He urges us to look at the evidence and acknowledge that we have a duty to restrict testing of animals in the name of science. And he urges us to insist Congress pass the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) which has been on the roster for discussion and passage for years now. Once again we lag behind other Western nations who long ago restricted the use of primates for research. Apparently studies using primates have determined that primates are sufficiently different from humans as not to be of great use in providing useful information for medical use. But the studies continue, Westoll suggests, perhaps because they are so lucrative to the grantees receiving federal monies.

In the meantime, social animals of great intelligence and emotional range are subjected to lives of captivity and the cruelties of isolation; are introduced to disease and treated with disregard. This story tells us mostly of what it is like to live with the animals now, their research days behind them (several were smuggled out of research facilities by sympathetic caregiver scientists). One is struck anew how little we know, and how barbaric we seem. Surely the rights demanded by groups of the disenfranchized over the years should have taught us how cruel and thoughtless we seemed before finally recognizing the rights of different groups (the poor, women, blacks). This is not a screed, nor a diatribe. It is a man reflecting on meeting some unusual characters who have a history, and with our help, a future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

Beast of Burden (Cal Innes, #4)

Ray Banks is some kinda guy. I'd never read any of his books before, so it comes as a real pleasure to walk the fine line he's drawn between flat-out farce and literature. Living on "the wrong side of town" doesn't come close to covering living by one's wits among the criminal class in Manchester, England. The police investigator, Donkin, is hapless: mentally out-manned by the criminals he seeks and by his colleagues, he resorts to lashing out in frustration at anyone within reach. He strives to reform, to control his fear and anger, and only succeeds in bottling it up to explode in rage again when events outstrip his understanding. It's when he sits outside a stakeout and reminds himself "got to be smart about this" that our hearts become engaged.

This is the fourth book in the Cal Innes series, and lots of history has passed between Donkin and Innes before now. Each man has been bloodied--damaged, if you will--by contact with the other, and yet they will have just one more dance. How does one make a petty criminal and a corrupt policeman, both of whom are always looking for the main chance, into characters whose motivations we recognize and, if not respect, at least acknowledge to be true, even worthy? The language is crusty, the neighborhoods rough, and the people distrusting. And it is a real breath of fresh air. Kudos, Banks.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey

The Last Detective

The Inspector Peter Diamond mystery series by Peter Lovesey has been on my reading list for some time. I am pleased to discover that The Last Detective turns out to be the first in the series. As I read, I was struck with the obvious erudition of the author, the complex and somewhat daring change of voice throughout the narrative, the presentation of fine moral and ethical questions, and the unsettling ambiguity of the ending. The main character, Peter Diamond, is meant to be a "diamond in the rough." He may be overbearing and critical with his associates at the police force, but he is unerring in sensing discrepancies between suspects' statements and their deeds. He is not above taking pride in finding a piece of evidence that disproves his colleagues' assumptions.

In this, the first in the mystery series, the characterizations are finely wrought and suprisingly sympathetic. One finds oneself shifting allegiances with each chapter. All the characters have failings, but each have redeeming features which impel our interest. The ending is both heartbreaking and shocking and open-ended as regards the fate of our chief investigator. A fine addition to British mystery.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy by the Staff of the New York Times

Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy

An astonishing collection of articles, cables, photos, and references to the Wikileaks cable dump of U.S. secrets, all hyperlinked for easy navigation in an ebook format. I wasn't able to keep up with the wiki-secrets when they came out, but time has shown the extraordinary impact they have had on foreign affairs and inter-country relations. The NYT magazine cover article for January 26, 2011 gives an abridged version of the introduction to Open Secrets but it is the referenced material that makes this such a great volume. Finally I get to see the cables that everyone talked about, without searching them out for myself. Novelists and reporters are going to be using the source materials shown here for many years, I expect.

What I especially liked is hearing what the editors and reporters at the NYTimes thought when they were landed with the opportunity to print U.S. government secrets, what they did, and how they proceeded, given the extraordinary circumstances: two wars, an unstable (possibly unhinged) source, and the inflammatory nature of the documents themselves.

Finally we have an ebook worthy of the name. Material is hyperlinked forward and backward, so checking cable sources and references is relatively easy. At least two videos (of U.S. helicopters firing on a crowd and a building in Baghdad in 2007), full and edited verison, are embedded with links. The best way to read this would be on a computer, but I used a NOOKcolor and it worked well (no video, alas). I might remind those of you interested in having this ebook stored on your computer that the software to read this is free and a quick and easy download from the site.