I started reading Microserfs by Douglas Coupland once many years ago, but the borrowed copy I had got misplaced in a move and I never finished it. When I randomly encountered the paperback in a bookstore a few weeks ago, I grabbed it to find out how it ends.
Microserfs is written like a diary, of a programmer for Microsoft who leaves along with several of his closest coworkers and moves from Seattle down to Silicon Valley to start a new company. It's so believable, in its mundane and absurd details, that it's easy to mistake for non-fiction. It's also full of bits that are so hilarious, in a jaded-and-detatched-analysis-of-modern-culture way, that they make me want to read them out loud to anyone nearby.
The first time I read it, I had never been to Silicon Valley so the place names just seemed random; but this time, I was reading something set in my own neighborhood: "Hey, I know that intersection", or "I've been to that exact Fry's."
The book is set in 1993-1995, and became rightly famous for perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of that era when everybody was starting to install CD-ROM drives and bloviate about Generation X. But here's the really funny/sad thing: You could take the whole book and do a search-and-replace, to replace the Sega Genesis with an X-box 360 and the buzz-phrase "interactive multimedia" with the buzz-phrase "social networking", and it would be nearly indistinguishable from today. (For the full effect you'd have to make it a blog instead of a paper diary.)
Has Silicon Valley -- a place that prides itself on innovation -- really not changed one bit in fifteen years?
Dreaming in Code
I just finished Dreaming in Code. It is an excellent book. (Thanks for the recommendation, Ben (Beaty) -- so far 100% of the books you've recommended to me have been great.)
Dreaming in Code is the story of an ambitious, ill-fated software project called Chandler. Well, maybe "ill-fated" is too strong, but the fact is that the project went for years and years without ever producing a usable software product. Chandler (written in Python!) is supposed to be the ultimate personal-information-manager, that would handle your email and todo lists and addresses and calendar and so on. It was to do all this no "data silos" -- unlike most other software, it wouldn't force you to separate your information into arbitrary categories in order to fit the computer's data model.
Sounds great, but what does that actually mean? I don't know, and it sounds like the Chandler team didn't know either -- they had this incredibly vague ambition and they spent years trying to turn it into a usable spec so they could code something. Dreaming in Code follows them through all the twists and turns of this maddening process. It sounds like defining how Chandler should work was like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
Spurred on by a vision of revolutionizing the way people interact with computers, but frustrated by the enormity of the task and the lack of visible progress: I know exactly what this is like. I've worked on a project like this -- it was called Archy. Archy was going to do everything and be the most amazing software in the world. Maybe someday it still will. But we had the good sense to recognize what we were up against, and we chose to break off a managable chunk of functionality and turn that into Enso. Still, the dream of Archy informs our ideas about what user interfaces could be.
Ahh, over-ambitious, doomed software projects. Like Don Qixote, dreaming the impossible dream. The king of this type of software is Xanadu. It started in 1960 and it's still not ready. (Read all about the amazing epic tragedy here.)
Dreaming in Code ends a bit inconclusively, saying good-bye to the Chandler team in 2005. But Chandler development is still going on, and even now in 2008 nobody knows what will become of it. I personally saw Mitch Kapoor give a presentation about Chandler at Euro Python in Lithuania last summer, telling us how close it was to being ready and how awesome it was going to be. At this year's PyCon in Chicago, Aza got big LOLs from the audience just by name-dropping Chandler. Will Chandler someday prove the doubters wrong? Or will it become a laughingstock like Duke Nukem Forever?
Dreaming in Code is about more than just Chandler, though. It uses Chandler as a take-off point for discussions of the history of software development, the open-source ethic, the programmer lifestyle, and the eternal quest to make computers not suck so bad. It probes deeply into fundamental questions that confront all of us who work in the field: Why do so many software projects fail? Why is so much supposedly finished software such a pain to use? Why is programming hard? Will we ever discover a "silver bullet" that makes it easy? Why can't we write software the way we build bridges?
And it does all this in a way that I think will be very accessible for nontechnical readers. Most of the book's contents were already familiar to me, either from personal experience or from having read about them elsewhere. Most of it had me nodding along: yup! Yup! That's exactly what it's like! I found it a good read because it ties together so much of what's been said about software into one compelling and thought-provoking story. For people who have never written code, I think this book would be the perfect introduction to understanding what programmers do all day, what frustrates us, and why we love our jobs despite the frustration.
Technopoly by Neil Postman
Spending so much time on airplanes gives me a lot of time to read. In case you're wondering whether I only read comic books and fantasy trilogies, here's the first of a series of capsule reviews of some interesting nonfiction.
Technopoly:The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman, 1992
I picked up this book expecting to disagree with it. After all, if Neil Postman means what I think he does by that ominous subtitle, then the villains of the book are probably me and people like me. There's already a very strong "Science is bad! Technology is bad!" meme in our culture. Think of the way Science is portrayed by Hollywood sci-fi/action movies as little more than "a thing that creates monsters". Or hang around any group of college students for a few hours and you're likely to hear some poorly-researched rhapsodizing about how life was so much better when we were all hunter-gatherers, before civilization came along and corrupted everything. I happen to like science and technology, and I think that most of the arguments used by their detractors are pretty vapid.
So I approached Technopoly skeptically, but hopefully. I do actually enjoy reading things which challenge my preconceptions, give me a different way of looking at things, expand my view of the world, etc. etc. So I was hoping that the book would be well-argued, thought-provoking, and maybe a little scary. Maybe it would even give me cause to rethink my position on a few things.
In that, I was very disappointed. I found the book to be a poorly-argued, illogical mess, full of unsupported assertions, shaky generalizations, and equivalences drawn between disparate concepts based only on a vague notion of philosophical similarity.
The most solid part of the book is a sort of laundry list of complaints about modern life -- that hospitals are too quick to resort to expensive testing procedures, that computerized systems screw up a lot, that IQ tests are bogus, that a lot of social science research is insufficiently rigorous, that our education system sucks, and that bureaucratic methods are really bad for dealing with the complexity of actual human situations Few people who have experienced these things would argue that our social institutions have some pretty significant flaws. But where Neil Postman loses me is when he claims that all these problems are symptoms of a single insidious phenomenon he calls a "technopoly", where human judgment is abolished and machines start controlling the direction of culture.
Of course. The single-theory-to-explain-everything-that's-wrong-with-America is pretty much a requirement for this genre of nonfiction. And whatever the author thinks it is, it's inevitably a gross oversimplification. This strikes me as particularly ironic since it seems to me that oversimplified theories of a complex reality are the real culprit behind the very broken social institutions that Postman is railing against.
Ironies abound. In his chapter on standardized testing, he complains about the "reification" of intelligence -- that is to say, the process of taking a complex, fuzzy, multifaceted idea and encapsulating it as a single quality which is believed to be measurable on a single axis. I agree entirely with his point that IQ tests are bogus. But I find it pretty ironic that this sort of reficiation is exactly what happens to the words "culture" and "technology" as soon as Postman gets his hands on them.
It's really too bad that the book is so poorly argued, because the theme of the book is an important one, and it deserves a better treatment. Perhaps by an author who was willing to support his points using logic and evidence.
Then again, Neil Postman complains often and at length about how modern society puts too much faith in objective measurement, statistical analysis, and the scientific method as ways of revealing the truth. So maybe the reason he doesn't provide much supporting evidence in his book is that he distrusts the very concept of using verifiable observations of reality as evidence for a theory. Perhaps Postman, like Aristotle, prefers to rely on deductions from philosophical first principles, unencumbered by observation?
I suspect that's the case, given how many rhetorical tears Postman sheds for the end of the Aristotelean worldview. He blames mean ol' Kepler, and Galileo and his telescope, for starting us on the path to Technopoly. In his words:
The refinements of the telescope made their knowledge so precise that there followed a collapse... of the moral center of gravity of the West.
Kepler, quoted by Postman:
...but to me more sacred than all these is Truth, when I, with all respect for the doctors of the Church, demonstrate from philosophy that the earth is round, circumhabited by antipodes, of a most insignificant smallness, and a swift wanderer among the stars.
In expressing this idea, Kepler was taking the first significant step toward the conception of a technocracy...Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo put in place the dynamite that would blow up the theology and metaphysics of the medieval world. Newton lit the fuse. In the ensuing explosion, Aristotle's animism was destroyed, along with almost everything else in his Physics. Scripture lost much of its authority... Worst of all, the meaning of existence itself became an open question.
Hooray! That's why these men are some of my personal heroes. Oh, wait, Postman is saying all this like it's a bad thing. He calls it the first step towards technocracy, after all, which he's presumably against. Is Postman seriously saying that we should avoid trying to learn new truths about the universe, because they might make us uncomfortable?
One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information have broken down.... social institutions of all kinds function as control mechanisms... any decline in the force of institutions makes people vulnerable to information chaos...
Apparently so. Unless I'm reading this wrong, Postman is saying that "Technopoly" is bad because it doesn't have enough censorship. He's not being sarcastic here? Is he seriously saying that we need stronger institutions for thought control? He's in favor of unquestioned dogma?
...As a young man growing up in a Democratic household, I was provided with clear instructions on what value to assign to political events and commentary... The general principle was that information provided by Democrats was always to be taken seriously and, in all probability, was both true and useful... Information provided by Republicans was rubbish...
I expected this to be followed by a description of how he later grew up and realized that one should evaluate information by whether it matches up to reality, not by whether it supports your existing preconceptions. But no! Postman is seriously and unironically trying to contend that this sort of unquestioned dogma is a good thing. He calls it "a culture's informational immune system".
Up until this point in the book, I thought it was little more than a pessimistic and curmudgeonly old man ranting about how much better things were in the old days. But then I realized it was something much worse than that: it's nostalgia for medieval authoritarianism, dogma, and thought-control. Postman keeps saying how overreliance on technology is destroying "culture", but if this is what he means by "culture", then I say good riddance.
Drawn-on-the-airplane comics theater presents...
Not a Yuki Hoshigawa comic; just a random thought I had on the airplane that I decided to comicify with no regard for quality.
The Naughty Librarian
Fear our big ornate letter M!
As I predicted, the Golden Compass movie was an embarrassment. I was in a mall with Andrew and Atul on our way back from the airport yesterday and we saw a poster for it and all said "Yeah, I know it's probably going to be bad, but we're here, so I wouldn't mind seeing it." Big mistake. Blah. Do not watch this movie.
They removed all reference to anything remotely religious; the bad guys are simply "The Magisterium". Not the Church. Oh, no, definitely not the Church, nothing to do with the Church, goodness me. Apparently the Magisterium likes to put big, cheesy, ornate, golden, capital letter "M"s on everything they own -- buildings, vehicles, jewelery, etc -- to identify it for the audience. It reminded me of how Dr. Wily in the Mega Man games puts his big "W" logo on all his stuff. It was very silly and cartoonish. I guess the director wanted a prominent logo which was Definitely Not A Cross.
The servants of the Church, in the book, are morally ambiguous and tormented men, wanting to protect people from the effects of sin, but trapped in a misguided ideology that makes them go too far in trying to do so. To say these nuances were lost is an understatement. The servants of the Magisterium in the movie are saturday-morning cartoon villains; they might as well be rubbing their hands together and cackling about how much they love being EVIL.
Even worse, though, was that the movie ends before the final, critical scene of the first book. It was a strange choice to say the least; I guess they didn't want to end on a cliffhanger the way the book does? Which makes no sense, because if they're intending to film the next book than a cliffhanger is exactly where they'd want to end, and if they're not intending to film the next book, then their story simply ends with most of its plot threads unresolved and its main characters riding north in Lee Scoresby's balloon. Their ending robs the story of much of its power, as the audience is allowed to walk away still thinking that [CERTAIN CHARACTER] is a good guy, and that [CERTAIN OTHER CHARACTER] is safe from harm.
Maybe they just wanted a "happy" ending, and didn't care what they had to leave out to get one? The irony is that the audience is in for Quite A Shock at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, assuming that The Subtle Knife ever gets made and that its plot is not so divergent as to be a different story entirely.
The fight between Iorek and Iofur also missed the point entirely. (Iofur is named Ragnar in the movie, and this change is one I can buy, as the original names were confusingly similar.) In the book, this duel is a fight between two ideologies for the soul and future of the bear culture. Will the bears maintain their traditions and be bears, or will they imitate human civilization and assimilate? In the movie, all that motivation was skimmed over, and it was just a brawl between two bears who want to be king.
Missing the point, missing the point, missing the point. I can accept that some things have to be changed or left out to make a movie, but geez, the movie spent like five minutes on the scene of Lyra crossing the crumbling ice bridge, which has no effect on the plot and could easily have been replaced with more character development. The fight with the Tartars dragged on and on, because the movie for some reason felt the need to show us the death of every single nameless Tartar. I started feeling bad for them, even though they were just supposed to be mooks. That's more time that should have been spent on making the bear-fight matter or making the Magisterium into better villians or showing us the proper climax of the story.
Or they could have dropped the witches. All their important lines were already cut, so the story wouldn't have lost anything further by having the witches left out entirely. I found myself wondering why they were there at all, since they added so little; they were there because they looked cool, I guess. Even Lord Asriel had his scenes cut down to the point where his reason for being in the story was unclear.
I can accept a story being changed and simplified for cross-medium translation, but what's left of it has to make sense and stand on its own. The Golden Compass movie fails, in all aspects except special effects, which seem to be the only thing that Hollywood cares enough about to put any effort into.
In conclusion: I am a grumpy old curmudgeon who hates movies and cares way too much about children's fantasy novels.
P.S. I just remembered what this movie reminded me of most:
this tongue-in-cheek article about "Hecksing".
Chance Encounters in Nihon-machi
Yesterday me and Sushu went to Japan Town in San Francisco to shop for cool stuff to wear to the wedding after-party.
I got these awesome geta:
I have been clomping around in them all day. They make walking slightly harder, but more fun! And noisier.
I got them from a small, quiet kimono shop which is built on the bridge between two mall-type buildings. The shopkeeper was a quiet, fragile-looking old Japanese man.
Me and Sushu were going back and forth between the Chinese and Japanese readings of the inscriptions on various items in the shop, like "Spring summer winter fall:"
"haru-natsu-aki-fuyu" in Japanese, "chwen(1)-xia(4)-qio(1)-dong(3)" in Chinese. The shop guy overheard us so he asked if I read Japanese, so we started talking in Japanese. I told him I had lived in Iwate for three years.
He looked shocked and said "Iwate? I'm from Iwate! What city?"
I said "Kamaishi" and he said "I'm from Miyako!"
Miyako is, like, the next town over. Map:
He was suddenly much friendlier. I told him I was going back to Iwate in a few weeks as part of my honeymoon travels. We had a pretty good conversation.
That made my day. Man, Miyako! Who would have guessed?
We also browsed through a much larger antique-furniture and clothing store, where we made a cool discovery. There was a shelf with a bunch of old papers, books, and writings. On closer examination, some of them turned out to be very old indeed. It was all pre-war; some was early Showa period, some was Taisho and some was even from the Meiji era. There was a Japanese literature textbook, a book of lyrics to a Noh play, and a bunch of other things we couldn't identify.
What was it all doing on that shelf? Was it to be sold as knick-knacks to people who just wanted to decorate with random japanese written material they couldn't read? The thought made me very sad. It seemed like they should be in a museum or a library or something.
The shop lady didn't know anything about where the books had come from. We ended up buying a bunch of them to take home and analyze. I'll blog about them more once we've gone over them and deduced what we can.
I finished Book 1 of Integrated Chinese on the airplane home. I bought this book waaaaay back in like my first year at U of C, before I even met Sushu, just because learning Chinese was something I felt like doing. I bought the Traditional Character edition because I didn't know any better; it would have been great if I was going to Taiwan, but for mainland China the Simplified Character one would have been the way to go.
When I say learning Chinese was something I "felt like" doing, that means "enough motivation to buy some books, but not strong enough to go through with the hard work of studying", so the textbook languished on my shelf until just recently.
But on the honeymoon trip, whenever we had downtime and were sitting around in lobbies or on trains or in people's living rooms, I'd bust out the textbook and work through a chapter. Sushu was my Tone Police and made sure my pronunciation was OK. She is strict but patient, like Mary Poppins.
If you're looking for a textbook, Integrated Chinese is pretty decent, although it doesn't include writing practice (they might sell a separate workbook for that).
I'm now at that awkward stage in my Chinese learning where I know enough to ask many of the questions that I want to ask people, but not enough to understand their replies. This is about where my Japanese was when I first went to Japan; maybe my Japanese vocabulary was a little bigger than my Chinese is now.
But the good thing is that from here on, the learning starts to get easier; I have enough of a framework in place now that when I learn new words, I can slot them into place and relate them to words I already know, instead of just having a bunch of arbitrary sounds to memorize. Plus I can hear other people using words, and ask what they mean, and thereby start to learn new words by listening to people. I remember this stage from learning Japanese, and I'm excited to be getting there in Chinese.
I found out via Stephen Colbert last night that one of my senators, Barbara Boxer, writes political thrillers. She just published a sequel called Blind Trust in which a thinly-veiled version of herself, "Ellen Fisher", goes up against a thinly-veiled version of Dick Cheney.
Blind Trust has two stars on Amazon.
Boxer insisted to Colbert that Ellen Fisher is not herself but rather "her ideal". Great, so she's a Mary Sue.
I'm represented by somebody who spends her time writing crappy self-insertion fanfics about the Senate.
I... I just don't know what to say.
Books I'm reading
- Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. It's a collection of essays covering everything from tabletop RPGs to LARPs to interactive-fiction to MMOs and strange social experiments. They vary widely in length, quality, and level of academic-ness. I'm borrowing this from Cat. (Thanks Cat!)
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It's a true story, heavily dramatized, about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 — which was a pretty amazing time and place, and probably the closest thing to a steampunk fantasy setting that you'll find in real history — and about this really freaking scary serial-killer who haunted the area for years, a handsome and charismatic man who married rich gullible women and then made them disappear.
- The Art of Wargaming by Peter P. Perla. It traces the roots of wargaming from Napoleonic-era Prussia to the modern day, covering both hex-and-counter type hobbyist wargaming AND the deadly serious, realistic scenario-based type of wargaming used by the military for training and planning purposes. It's the only book I know of to draw the connections between these two different worlds of wargames. This book was a present from Ben Beaty (Thanks Ben!)
Books I recently finished reading:
- God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. An atheist tract, it got so ranty at some points that it prompted me to nickname the author "Christopher Bitchin's"
- The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain. An important and thought-provoking book, with a lot of relevance to what I do at Moz. I'm going to blog about this one at length.
- Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. About the harm that is done to creativity and culture by the current U.S. copyright system, by a law professor who has been personally involved in trying to change copyright law. I expected this book to be as ranty as the one above, but it's actually surprisingly moderate and level-headed, proposing small and reasonable modifications to the system.
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster. Ranges from math to evolutionary psychology to ethics in order to support the thesis that the sensation we call "fun" is actually a specific type of learning, one that is neither hard enough to be frustrating nor easy enough to be boring, and that good games are extremely focused teaching tools, even if we're not used to thinking of them that way, even if the skills being taught are entirely useless.
Just finished Assassin's Apprentice, which is the first book in the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. I had heard this series mentioned in the same sentence with George R. R. Martin's stuff as "non-crappy fantasy" so when I randomly saw the paperbacks for sale cheap at a bookstore, I grabbed them.
The first book had me losing sleep last week to stay up late reading it. It's been a while since a book has done that to me.
No "motley team of elves and dwarves is chosen by the Prophecy of the Plot to journey to the other end of the map inside the front cover to do arbitrary actions with magical jewelry" plotlines here. Much like Westeros in the Song of Ice and Fire series, the Farseer trilogy's setting is a realistic medieval world with just the slightest touch of magic - mostly telepathy. But the story is mostly about the narrator, a royal bastard who doesn't even have a name for the first half of the book (everyone just calls him 'boy'), and the web of court intrigue that he is inevitably pulled into as he grows from a boy into a man.
The fantasy politics angle is well-done. Like the setting, it reminds me of Song of Ice and Fire, except somewhat more sedate (as Robin Hobb doesn't seem to have the same need as Martin does to turn the whole kingdom upside-down every other chapter.) It's on a more personal level, as much of the focus is on the evolving relationships between the main character and a large cast of royalty, townsfolk, and teachers. The king thinks the best use for the kid is to make him into a weapon for 'the dark side of diplomacy', an assassin who can be used with plausible deniability by the kingdom. He doesn't have much choice in the matter so he spends most of the first book being trained in the various skills that he'll need. It actually reminded me a little bit of Harry Potter just because the personalities of his teachers, both good and bad, loom so large in this first volume.
He also goes on his first couple of missions, and discovers the nature of dark threats against the kingdom. In less talented hands this setup could have degenerated into a very silly story of medieval James Bond stuff, but it doesn't. One reason why is that the narrator, despite being called an assassin, cares a whole lot about people and their lives. He spends much time torn between duty to his superiors and his distaste for killing. In fact he goes to great lengths to avoid killing anybody and to come up with alternate solutions to some pretty knotted dilemmas. When I was reading this, Sushu kept asking me: "Has he assassinated anybody yet?" and I kept answering "Not yet. Maybe he's not gonna." and she kept saying "Worst Assassin Ever!". (Finally she went and read spoilers on Wikipedia.)
One of the things that made it a fun read is how the main character's point of view colors everything he describes. He's not an unreliable narrator, but he'll often describe something while completely missing the implications. Sometimes it's obvious to the reader that he's getting played, but he has no idea. The boy is really perceptive in some ways but has a lack of common sense that's realistic for someone his age.
Also, he's got a certain amount of untrained telepathic talent (this is not a spoiler as it is given away in the blurb on the back of the book) but at first he doesn't realize that he has anything unusual. He'll walk into, like, a stable, and as part of describing it he'll mention what all the horses are thinking and what the dogs are smelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to know that. It only slowly dawns on him that other people can't sense these things.
This is the kind of fantasy I like: Relatable, believable human conflicts, moral ambiguity and psychological richness, with an extra layer of resonance and wonder added by a few well-chosen fantastic elements. I hope the second and third books live up to the promise laid out in the first one!
So after I finished Assassin's Apprentice I was real excited to read the 2nd book in the series, Royal Assassin.
But it's disappointing so far. All the narrative momentum that the series had built up in the ending of the first book has been wadded up into a ball and thrown down a bottomless pit. And the name of that pit is "Teen angst". The first several chapters are all "Waa, waa, I'm a teenager now, my life sucks". I'm 50 pages in and the plot has gone basically nowhere. Not promising.
I, Will Smithbot
The cover on the new edition of I, Robot makes me sad.
Not even that it was a bad movie, but that it was an almost completely unrelated movie. I surmise it was one of those dealies where the only reason the movie was called "I, Robot" and used the Three Laws was because the studio noticed a similarity between their original script and an unrelated novel, and decided to buy the rights and slap them on, rather than risk any kind of lawsuit. I heard Starship Troopers happened the same way.
The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss, is a good book. I started it on Stephen's recommendation, and finished it on the airplane today.
It's not your typical fantasy novel. It's a funny, sad, and most of all very personal story. There's not a world at stake, or even a kingdom; there's a map inside the front cover but it never really matters because this story is not about world-building or about getting from point A to point B. It's just this dude Kvothe, telling the story of his life, the choices he made, the risks he took, the tragedies he suffered, the things he learned. It's not an ensemble cast: it's a fantasy biography, all about one single character, and getting really deep into his head.
And it works because Kvothe is such an interesting character. He's far from noble, and he's not out to save the world. Most of the things he does are motivated by either petty revenge, trying to impress the ladies, or trying to scrape together enough money to buy a decent meal and a pair of shoes. He's endlessly curious about everything and has a brilliant mind, able to quickly master just about any skill he applies it to. He's also proud, arrogant, has no common sense, and doesn't know when to quit, so of course he's constantly biting off more than he can chew. Every time the odds are against him, he just raises the stakes. This makes him an immensely fun character to read about; he's not the type to sit around waiting for adventure to happen. Reading this book I was constantly slapping myself on the head and saying "Kvothe, you idiot, this is SUCH a bad idea..." but I had to turn the page and find out what would happen.
In fact Kvothe reminds me of nobody so much as a fantasy-world version of Richard Feynman. They both hang around universities picking locks, playing music, infuriating the authorities, following their scientific curiosity, and messing around with the building blocks of matter and energy.
And the magic Kvothe studies is so logical and predictable that it might as well be the physics of an alternate universe. Sympathy, as in "sympathetic magic", involves using willpower to create bonds between similar objects and then manipulating the bonds to effect transfers of energy. It's reliable and well-understood; "arcanists" speak of energy conservation laws, they calculate the percentage efficiency of energy transfers, they build user-friendly artifacts, and so on. When he first makes it work, Kvothe is almost disappointed at how non-magical and utilitarian it feels.
There's another kind of magic, though; one who knows the true Names of things, can call them and they will obey. Basically nobody in the book understands how Naming works, but people who study it too much have a tendency to go insane. That's not enough to scare off Kvothe, who spends much of the book seeking the eponyous Name of the Wind anyway.
Kvothe, being raised in a troupe of traveling entertainers, is well aware of the power of stories. His thorough knowledge of typical fantasy tropes makes him Dangerously Genre-Savvy. He often contrasts "what would have happened in a fairy tale" against what actually did happen; meanwhile the stories told about Kvothe's exploits grow ever more embellished and further removed from anything he actually did. There are stories within stories in this book, as well as competing versions of the same tale; the versions of stories told by different nations and religions both illustrate the differences in their cultures and hint at a common history whose details are long forgotten. It's like a thesis on how traveling minstrels served to transmit and preserve culture in a world before printing presses.
I loved the writing style. It's not in-your-face "Look at me, I am a WRITING STYLE!" but it's not the typical fantasy schlock either. It's subtle, thoughtful, meditative. Poetically pessimistic. Serene. Sprinkled with very dry humor, and shot through with genuine emotion. The tragic parts are told with the distinct voice of one who has lived through them. I was sucked in from the very first page, where a silence is described as "..the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."
The book makes skillful use of foreshadowing. We know from the beginning that Kvothe is going to get kicked out of the University, and that something bad is going to happen involving a woman, because he tells us right up front. You might think this would kill the tension, but it actually raises it, because every woman he meets, we're like: Is this "THE" woman? And every time he goes off following another terrible idea, we're like: Is this going to be the one that gets him expelled?
I can't remember the last time the same book had me laughing out loud, and then a chapter later, had me choking back actual tears. But The Name Of The Wind did.
Book 2 of the inevitable trilogy is supposed to come out soon, I hear...
Dance with Dragons for real this time?
Huzzah! Dance with Dragons has a concrete release date: Tuesday July 12, 2011!
Just finished this book: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History.
It took us a while since we were taking turns reading it out loud to each other at bedtime. It's a very slow way to get through a book but it's a fun couple activity.
It's an absolutely fascinating book that combines chemistry and history in a unique way. Each chapter focuses on one compound or family of compounds and explains what it is about the molecular structure that gives that compound its special properties, and then explains the molecule's effect on history.
The title comes from the fact that Napoleon's army wore buttons made of tin, and tin gets brittle at low temperatures, which meant that when they tried to invade Russia in winter their buttons were disintegrating and they couldn't keep their coats on properly. Not that invading Russia in winter would have been a great idea even with better buttons, but it's just one example of how a small difference in the properties of a molecule can have a huge effect on history.
Further chapters explore...
- Piperine, the molecule that gives pepper its taste, and how pepper drove Europe's age of expansion. ("Curses! There's this huge, useless, pepper-less continent blocking our route to Indonesia!")
- DDT, how it kills mosquitoes, how it helped wipe out malaria throughout much of the world before we realized its side effects and stopped using it.
- Sugar, why it tastes sweet, how our body processes it, and how it drove the plantation system and thereby the Atlantic slave trade.
- Vitamin C, why our bodies need it and why we die from scurvey if we don't get it, and why it took sailors so long to figure out that they needed to be eating some fresh fruit once in a while.
- Silk, the molecular structure that gives it its amazing softness and durability, and the lengths people went to trying to break China's monopoly on it by smuggling live silkworms out of the country in what must have been history's earliest example of industrial espionage.
- Isoeugenol, the active ingredient in nutmeg, its medicinal properties (people wore it around their necks to ward off the Black Death - it's a natural insecticide so it may have been killing the fleas that carried the plague!). Growing naturally on a few islands in Indonesia, nutmeg was once more valuable than gold, and the Dutch colonialists burned down nutmeg groves rather than let anyone challenge their monopoly.
And then there's plastics, dyes, explosives, disinfectants, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, rubber, salt, norethindrone (the active ingredient in the birth control pill)...
Each of these molecules had an enormous effect on human history, either because of the technologies it enabled, the social changes it instigated, or in some cases because of the journeys undertaken and the battles fought over the limited supply of a highly desired substance.
Each of these molecules, compounds that we take for granted today, had to be either discovered in nature, or invented. Often the difference between a useful substance and a useless one, or between a chemical vital to life and a deadly poison, is often something tiny like an OH group being on the other side of a carbon ring.
But maybe my favorite thing that I learned from this book is that the name "Heroin" is actually a trademark of the Bayer corporation!
Bayer wanted to follow up on the phenomenal success they had had with aspirin (originally refined from willow bark). So Bayer took morphine and tried to chemically alter it to remove its harmful side effects and make it less addictive. What they came up with was heroin. They made up the name "hero-in" because it was a "hero" drug! From 1898 - 1910 it was sold over the counter as a pain reliever and cough suppressant.
Just think about that image for a second. Rows of little bottles next to the aspirin in the grocery store, cheerfully labeled "Bayer brand Heroin, cough suppressant"!
It took them that long to realize that their experiments had backfired and that instead of making morphine less addictive, they had in fact created the most addictive molecule known to man. Oops.
Anyway, Napoleon's Buttons. Great read, very informative, highly recommended.
Palo Alto library
It's been raining all week and will likely continue raining until the beginning of April. Went for a walk with Sushu anyway today; turns out there's a lot of cool stuff just on the other side of Middlefield road: a park, a swimming pool, a small children's museum and zoo, and a library.
A kindly old man at the library saw us examining an old aerial black-and-white photo of the peninsula, so he asked if we wanted a copy. He pulled out a poster-size print and said he'd give it to us only on the condition that we don't bring it back, and that if we leave town we give it to somebody else. It was a little strange, but cool.
Got a library card for the Palo Alto system. It was good to be in a library again, for the first time in years, and be reminded that they still exist. To be reminded that there is a place where long-form writing on significant ideas is organized by subject by people who expect it to still be referenced decades or centuries after it was written. A library is like the exact opposite of Twitter.
I picked up some intro statistics books so I can try to teach myself all the stuff that went right over my head when I attempted to do Stats 315a at Stanford.
How to make up bullshit about China and get it published
On the flight back from Brazil Sushu was reading (and I was reading over her shoulder) Malcom Gladwell's latest collection-of-vaguely-related-anecdotes. It's called "Outliers", but I don't know what the title has to do with the main thesis, which is basically "the culture you're raised in influences your chances of future success". Not exactly a shocking idea there.
Anyway we hit the inevitable chapter about China and Sushu's eyebrows got lower and lower as Gladwell asserted the following dubious theories:
1. Chinese people have a stronger work ethic than westerners due to their history of rice-harvesting, which is an extremely labor-intensive form of agriculture. (Funny, I never heard anybody attempt to explain European culture as a side-effect of wheat cultivation.)
2. Chinese people are better at math because the words for numbers are shorter in Chinese, which means you can say more of them in the same amount of time and therefore memorize longer numbers.
If you doubt these statements, remember that like everything Malcom Gladwell says they are grounded in a firm foundation of anecdotes, appeals to proverbial sayings, and the occasional lonely out-of-context percentage.
It reminded me of Jared Diamond's description of China's "cultural, linguistic, and political unity". I don't know how you could ever make a statement like that unless you've never, like, talked to a single Chinese person about their country for ten minutes.
So now I'm thinking about how in the current American political climate, where China is the big boogeyman of both parties (a "boogeyman" who is nice enough to lend us trillions of dollars every time we ask), Americans seem to be able get away with writing any ignorant nonsense about China they feel like making up. It's easy! Just follow these steps:
1. Take a single actually true micro-factoid about Chinese people, language, art, history, or politics.
2. With your feet planted firmly in an America-centric reference frame, extrapolate wildly! Draw inferences from a single data point like a conspiracy theorist poring over two seconds of 9/11 footage.
3. Don't bias your brilliant theory by asking any Chinese people about it; I mean to do that you might have to drive 30 minutes to your nearest Chinese-American immigrant population center and make friends with one or something.
4. (The most important part) Be sure to tie your theory into the dominant crypto-racist cultural narratives of Chinese people as fundamentally Foreign and Other, and imply that their current relative economic success is due to some kind of Unfair Advantage stemming from their Ant-Like Conformity and Obedience.
5. Tie it all together with a grand theory that explains away thousands of years of history and over a billion people in a single glib sentence.
6. Publish a hardcover aimed at the airport-bookstore market with your name in really big letters on the cover, go on the talk-show circuit, and profit!
Ooh, I can't wait to try it myself. Here goes:
1. Actually true micro-factoid: Chinese languages use tones to distinguish otherwise phonetically-identical words.
2. Extrapolate wildly: You can't use just any pitch modulation you feel like when speaking Chinese. Pitch modulation is how I express my feelings when speaking English. So I guess that means you can't express any feelings when speaking Chinese!
3. I can't think of any other way to express emotions besides pitch modulation, and I'm not going to ask a Chinese person about it, so I'm just going to assume there isn't any.
4. A lifetime of not expressing themselves verbally makes Chinese people into emotionless automatons easily controlled by their Communist masters! They're stealing our jobs because they can work all day and night like robots!
5. Tonal language = Job-stealing robots. QED.
See, it's easy! Maybe you can come up with one about how eating with chopsticks makes people genetically predisposed to oppress Tibet.
Just make sure that you don't talk about boring stuff like the importance of family dinner time in Chinese households. Or the great diversity of local cultures in China's various provinces. Or the huge economic divide between urban and rural China. Or China's fifty-odd ethnic minority groups. Or that it's a family duty to respect and take care of elderly relatives instead of shipping them off to nursing homes. Americans don't want to read boring facts that make Chinese people sound not so different from us! We have a resentment to nurse, here.
Definitely, definitely don't talk about the phenomenon Sushu describes as "Chinese sketchiness", which is to say that Chinese people often don't give a damn about the official bureaucratic procedures or the way you're "supposed" to do something, and will circumvent odious laws and restrictions by dealing with each other directly, under the table, based on personal relationships and favors owed.
Because "Chinese sketchiness" directly contradicts the prevailing American image of China as a vast army of obedient Communist soldiers marching in lockstep. Americans want to think we've lost our manufacturing jobs because the Chinese "stole" them via some kind of Modron-like efficiency. We don't want to have to think that it might have been because of our own insatiable desire for plastic crap at rock-bottom prices or our ambivalence towards worker and environmental protections. And we definitely don't want to acknowledge the fact that we're trillions of dollars in debt to a country where men feel comfortable hanging out on the sidewalk in their pajamas all day long playing mahjong and chain-smoking. Much easier on our egos to imagine them as scary Borg.
Back, again, and hey what's this book here?
I'm back from Turkey, after an exhausting 36 hours of airplanes and airports and crappy overpriced airport hotels ($200 for a room with no windows and a 4:30am wakeup call? Blargh.) Izmir to Istanbul, Istanbul to Madrid, Madrid to Chicago, Chicago to San Francisco. By the end I was out of laptop battery and out of books to read and there weren't even crappy airplane movies to keep me company and I was slowly going stir crazy.
I crossed eleven time zones by my count so I've got that special kind of jet lag where it's almost perfect mirror-universe: I just want to sleep all day and stay awake all night.
Books I read on airplanes during this trip: 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus (recommended by John); Reality is Broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world (recommended by Atul); and Program or Be Programmed: Ten commands for a digital age (also recommended by Atul).
So I owe you blog posts on all of those, as well as a mega-post about Turkey, which was totally amazing. And I still owe you mega-posts about Brazil. And, um, Japan from last year. (I should probably add a "below the fold" feature to this site before I go posting any more giganto-mega-posts... hmmm...)
But right now I have in my hands, after a five-year wait, a certain thousand-page doorstopper, so over the next several days I will be spending my jet-lagged, sleepless nights vanishing into a magical world where I expect all my favorite characters will die in horrible ways. Huzzah!
Dance with Dragons was disappointing...
...but this handmade House Targaryen banner hanging outside my local bookstore is still pretty cool. I guess we can tell what side these guys are rooting for.
Why was it disappointing? To try to describe this without spoilers... it felt like a thousand pages of setup and no resolution. Which is weird, for the fifth book in a series! There were two big events he seemed to be building towards, and I couldn't wait to read about them... and then they don't happen. Although they still might happen in book 6, I guess. (But how long is it going to be before book 6, and can he stay alive long enough to finish book 7?)
I think the reason there was so much build-up in this book is the same as the reason for the delay. I feel like book 3 was so cataclysmic that it resolved most of the big plot and character arcs that had been in play up until then. The War of Five Kings was over, and Westeros wasn't exactly happy but it had settled into a new status quo that was fairly stable. However, it was still far away from where he wanted to end the series.
Which would explain why book 4 felt like so much filler and side-plots and "setting tourism" (i.e. "Hey, we haven't seen much of Dorne yet! Let's set some chapters there!"). The main plot was out of momentum, and Martin didn't know how to get the main characters from where they were at to where he needed them for the conclusion. So he just kind of set the main characters aside for a book.
And then during the 5-year delay I imagine him throwing away a lot of possibilities that didn't quite work. I remember at one point he was talking about doing a time skip, but that hasn't happened so I think he abandoned the idea. Reading book 5 I felt like he had finally come up with something satisfactory for the ending of the series; but it was so different from what he had been planning up until then, that he needed a whole book to spin everything up for the new direction. I think when the series is done it will feel like books 1-3 were one trilogy, 4 was filler, and 5-7 were a second trilogy. That's my theory anyway.
Aside from the structural problems there were a whole lot of really great individual scenes and plot twists and character moments in the book. In particular, Jon and Daenerys, who both started the series at the bottom of the totem pole getting kicked around by fate, reach book 5 in positions of substantial power, and then spend the book having to make one really tough decision after another. The problem with being the one calling the shots is you're also the one to blame when things go wrong, and often there's no decision you can make without pissing off a substantial power block. So both Jon and Daenerys are faced with a series of really gnarly moral and political dilemmas. They both want to do the right thing, but what they consider the right thing goes against the culture of the people they're trying to lead, and they've both got enemies who will take advantage of any signs of weakness. Both of these plotlines lead to some really juicy character decisions.
Tyrion's story is a lot less satisfying. He spends most of it in chains, slung over somebody's shoulder, or riding on a boat. Seriously there was a lot of boat-riding. Some of those chapters could have been cut out without losing much.
Also: the Boltons are incredibly sick fucks. The storyline involving them is gross and disturbing.
All in all, there was just enough good stuff in the book that I haven't given up on the series yet. But the weakness of the ending made me angry.
(And not once during the whole book did anybody dance with any dragons. What the heck!)
Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics
Speaking of math education...
Sushu's mom is the author of a book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. The other night I decided I should try reading it and find out what the deal is.
She was interested in the question of why American kids score so much lower on math than Chinese kids do, despite American math teachers having more years of college and formal training. So she went out and did original research, interviewing American and Chinese teachers of elementary-school math to compare their methods.
Again and again, what she found out is that the difference was not in the children, nor in the teaching methods, but in how deep the teacher's understanding was of the material. The Chinese teachers had "a profound understanding of elementary mathematics"; they knew arithmetic backwards and forwards and were able to demonstrate lots of alternate methods of reaching the same answer, to invent lots of real-world examples, and to prove mathematically why a certain procedure worked.
The American teachers had only a shallow understanding focused on rote procedure. E.g. they could tell a kid what to write down in order to multiply two three-digit numbers, but they couldn't explain why executing those steps produces a correct answer. So no wonder they would run into trouble as soon as students started asking questions or showing signs of misunderstanding. No wonder so many kids grow up dreading e.g. long division -- they experience it as an arbitrary algorithm they are made to execute, without rhyme or reason or internal logic.
The most head-slappingly awful bit was when Liping asked teachers to demonstrate how they would teach division of one fraction by another fraction. (One and three quarters divided by one half = ?)
Only 9 out of 21 American math teachers could even do the problem correctly themselves! And only one out of those 21 was able to come up with a story or real-world example that correctly demonstrated the meaning of dividing by one-half. The rest of the teachers were hopelessly confused and started talking about dividing one-and-three-quarters pizzas between two people or something similar. That's not division by 1/2, that's division by 2 or multiplication by 1/2.
Twenty out of twenty-one American elementary school teachers didn't know the difference between dividing by 1/2 and dividing by 2! This was just one of several places in this book that made my jaw drop.
TL;DR: American kids suck at math because their teachers suck at math.
The Story of Thanksgiving
Gather round, let me tell you a story for Thanksgiving.
So you may have heard of this Indian dude named "Squanto" who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn or something. Right?
He had a fascinating and tragic life. First of all, "Squanto" wasn't his real name; it was short for Tisquantum, which in Algonkian means something like "Wrath of God", or more specifically the wrath of Manitou. One of John Smith's minions lured Tisquantum and several of his friends on board their ship, then kidnapped them at gunpoint and took them across the Atlantic with the intent of selling them as slaves in Spain. Tisquantum escaped to England, learned English, gained his freedom, and spent about five years finding his way back across the ocean to Newfoundland and then hitchhiking south to Massachusetts Bay.
When he finally came home he discovered that all his friends and family were dead, his entire Patuxet tribe wiped out by European diseases to which they had no immunity. His village had been destroyed, and the Pilgrims had built Plymouth on top of the ruins.
For all the terrible things that the colonizers did on purpose -- enslavement, genocide, forced religious conversions, and treaty breaking -- possibly the worst thing was what they did by accident: bring their germs across the sea. An estimated 90% of the population of the Americas died between the time of Columbus and the time of the Pilgrims, wiped out by wave after unstoppable wave of smallpox, hepatitis, measles, bubonic plague, and tuberculosis. Every disease that the European gene pool had gradually built up resistances to got dumped into the unprepared American gene pool all at once. It was probably the biggest single mass die-off in human history.
Those tribes of nomadic plains hunters so romanticized in modern depictions? Their lifestyle was probably very different from the lifestyle of their ancestors a few generations earlier. There's evidence that before Columbus most of the indigenous population of the Americas grew crops and lived in villages. The nomadic plains hunters were the scattered few who had survived the pandemic; they were survivors of the apocalypse, roaming the landscape like Mad Max or something. Their technology level had been significantly higher before the pandemic wiped out their villages and towns. In fact, there's evidence that much of the American landscape was the result of human intervention (e.g. the Plains Indians had used controlled forest burning to artificially expand the Great Plains, in order to increase the range of the bison.)
Back to Tisquantum. Given that the English had 1. kidnapped him, 2. tried to sell him into slavery, 3. wiped out his entire tribe between the ones they murdered directly and the ones they infected with their mystery plagues, and 4. moved in on top of their unmarked graves, why did he decide to help the Pilgrims survive the winter?
I think it's safe to say it wasn't because he liked them; instead it was because he needed their guns. The Wampanoag confederation, of which the Patuxet tribe had been a part, had been nearly wiped out and the surviving members were too few in number to defend themselves against their old enemies, the Narraganset alliance to the west. The Wampanoag survivors allowed the Pilgrims to stay only provided the Pilgrims allied with them against the Narraganset; Massasoit, the sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag survivors, sent the English-speaking Tisquantum to make the deal and secure the Pilgrims' superior firepower. Meanwhile Tisquantum had his own agenda, planning to overthrow Massasoit and become sachem himself by playing the Pilgrims and Wampanoag against each other.
The Wampanoag survivors made a critical miscalculation: They feared subjugation by the Narragansett more than they feared the strangely-dressed, sickly strangers with their tall ships and metal weapons. They didn't yet realize that these Pilgrims were the thin end of a wedge that would end their civilization.
This is a pattern that happened again and again in first contact between Europeans and American Indians -- a tribe or nation would try to ally with the newcomers, seeing the Europeans' superior weapons as an opportunity to gain the advantage over some ancient enemy. Then they'd start dying of mysterious diseases. As soon as they were weakened, the Europeans would betray their alliance, kill or enslave everyone, and take over the land.
The Pilgrims that Tisquantum was negotiating with were extremely poorly prepared for living in America. They apparently didn't bring any farm animals or proper fishing equipment, they didn't know how to grow New World crops, and they were unprepared for Massachusetts winters, colder and snowier than England's. They were a group of religious extremists; maybe they though God would provide everything for them if they prayed hard enough. Their leaders made a bunch of stupid decisions which would have resulted in everyone's deaths. If it hadn't been for the Wampanoag going "no, you idiots, look, THIS is how you grow maize, now shoot some Narragansetts for us please", the Pilgrims would be remembered as a cult that led its followers on a suicide mission -- a 17th century version of Heaven's Gate or James Jones's kool-aid drinkers.
Maize, by the way, was domesticated somewhere in central Mexico, and a funny thing is that modern botanists are still not sure how the ancient Mesoamericans did it. The closest surviving wild relative of maize is a grass called teosinte which has tiny, inedible cobs and reproduces in a way that makes it hard to breed selectively. Ancient Mesoamerican farmers apparently knew something that modern botanical science still doesn't. They also figured out a technique to keep the soil fertile indefinitely by growing maize in the same field with beans and squash. The three crops form a sustainable nutrient cycle (e.g. the beans fix nitrogen into the soil as fast as the maize and squash draw it out) so they could farm the same plot of land continuously for generations.
The presence of maize and related agricultural techniques in what is now called New England is evidence of a continent-wide network of trade and communication. Which would have been a pretty interesting thing to learn about; too bad we have to reconstruct it from archaeology because European colonists killed most of the people who could have told us about it.
I learned all this stuff from a book called 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. I started reading it on the plane to Turkey and I could barely put down until I was done. It puts together the last several decades of archaeological and anthropological research to form an absolutely fascinating picture of North and South America before and during the European invasion. (The chapters about the Incas and their knot-based writing system are particularly cool.) I recommend getting the book, but you can also read a short version of the Tisquantum chapter on the Smithsonian magazine website.
Actual history is messy, complicated, fascinating, and often horribly tragic. The true history of first contact bears little resemblance to the bowdlerized fairy-tale version of the Thanksgiving story we tell kids.
In that version, "Friendly Indians" have no history of their own: just appear out of the woods like magical fairies to reward white colonists with goodies. Everybody is friends and has a good meal, yayyyy! Both groups have funny hats appropriate for construction-paper craft projects. Then the Indians conveniently sort of vanish from the story when the white colonists want to take all the land.
The whitewashed Thanksgiving story is just one example of the disgraceful way Native Americans are treated in the cultural mythology of mainstream modern America -- they're either savages or they're helpless victims, but either way they're NPCs in a story where the white colonizers are the protagonists.
The modern, white-liberal-guilt stereotype has them as wise, mystical, inherently peaceful, environmentally conscious, living in harmony with nature, but ultimately innocent and helpless children doomed to be slaughtered and be replaced by a more "advanced" culture. Elves, basically. Or maybe you could call it a myth of mankind in its pre-fallen state: pre-Columbian America as Garden of Eden.
I mean yes, OK, this is a more positive stereotype than the one we used to have, the stereotype of the primitive and bloodthirsty savage that was used as a propaganda tool to promote genocide. But it's still deeply problematic in several ways. To pretend the American Indians were these perfect pacifistic nature children denies them human agency, makes them props in somebody else's morality play. There's also a weird subtext, like, what, genocide is only wrong if the victims are cute and cuddly? Finally, the "Garden of Eden" type narrative renders invisible the continued existence of over 4 million people (1.5% of the US population) in the "American Indian or Alaska Native" Census category. Parents telling their kids about the origin of Thanksgiving don't want to have to connect it to the reservation down the road where people live today in poverty on the worst possible land, with rampant unemployment and alcoholism, as a result of the U.S. government repeatedly breaking treaties for hundreds of years. Easier to pretend the Indians are a vanished people and it was all very tragic but it happened a long time ago and has nothing to do with us, right?
What I really liked about reading 1491 was that it let the people and nations it covered be the protagonists of their own stories. The Wampanoag and the Narragansett (and the Mayans, Navajo, Amazonians, and many other nations covered) were not hapless children, bloodthirsty savages, or magic forest elves. They were human cultures with plans of their own. They were going places before their history was interrupted by the European invasion. They had both wise and foolish individuals. They were more populous, more technologically advanced, and had more of an impact on the land than we used to think. They had their own agendas, their own motives, their own inventions, languages, philosophies, wise and foolish decisions and everything else, good and bad, that defines human culture. The book really let me see things from their point of view, as best it could be reconstructed from archaeological evidence and interviews with their descendents.
What the white man did to them is a horrible, tragic story, but it's one that needs to be told, not glossed over or whitewashed.
Godel, Escher, Bach
I just finished it and I looooooove this book. Love it! It has earned a place as one of my top three or four favorite books ever, for sure.
The cover of my edition says Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid: A metaphorical fugue on on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carrol by Douglas Hofstadter. What a mouthful! What a pretentious title! What the hell is this book, anyway?
The title is three dudes' names, so I opened the book thinking it was going to be some kind of triple biography. Nope. It's... something else. A very strange book, not like anything else I've ever read. There's not an easy word to describe GEB, either its structure or its subject matter.
I started the book years ago. 2008, I think, and I just finished it today. This is not the kind of book you try to tackle in one sitting. It is thick, dense, demanding. It is for math/computer-science geeks what Ulysses is for literature geeks. It's like a whole year of college squeezed between two covers.
My favorite books are often the ones that feel like an invitation to come live inside the author's brain for a while. GEB is certainly one of these: not so much a single-subject book of nonfiction as it is a tour through Douglas Hofstadter's obsessions, following the connections that he sees between seemingly unrelated topics.
Specifically: GEB is about the deep connections between mathematics, music, and art. It's focused on concepts of formal systems, self-referentiality, self-contradiction, infinite loops, and paradoxes, and how they're expressed in math by Gödel, drawings by Escher, and music by Bach.
Along the way, there's a series of puzzles, exercises, brain-teasers, and Zen koans to ponder; this book is very interactive. If you're into that kind of thing, you don't just read this book, you do it, like a kind of Activity Book for grown-ups. All of these exercises tie back into number theory and the proof of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (yes, even the koans!) So do the music and the art - he's not just throwing in Escher drawings and Bach fugues because he thinks they're cool, but in order to draw analogies with the mathematics, shine a light on it from many different angles, get you to think about it in a creative and intuitive way and not just a mechanistic logical way.
Structurally, GEB alternates between nonfiction "chapters" and fictional "dialogues". The chapters teach you about math, music, and art in a rambling, digressionary, conversational, but basically straightforward way. The dialogues are something else. They star Achilles and the Tortoise (borrowed from Zeno's Paradox) and occasionally also a crab, a sloth, and an ant colony, having absurdist adventures and arguing about logical paradoxes.
Some of these dialogues structurally replicate certain musical forms, such as a six-voice fugue or a "crab canon" (a piece of music that harmonizes with itself when played upside-down and backwards). Most of the dialogues involve seriously lateral thinking; some are shaggy dog stories; some are setups for elaborate multilevel puns; usually the content of the dialogue reflects somehow on the structure of the dialogue or of the book as a whole -- this is a self-referential book about self-referentiality.
The dialogues are kind of like the Shadow Play Girls in episodes of Shojo Kakumei Utena, that seem nonsensical on the surface but serve to cast some metaphorical light on the meaning of the other events in the episode. When you get to each Chapter of GEB you're ready to learn a new math concept because you've already been primed for it by some completely ridiculous Tortoise/Achilles shenanigans.
Hofstadter really wants you to understand Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem - not just in an approximate and hand-wavy way, and not just in a rote mathematical recitation way. He wants you to understand it on a deep and intuitive level. He wants this so badly that he's willing to spend seven hundred pages on math lessons, music theory lessons, thought experiments, riddles, and bizarre digressions about a smartass tortoise all in order to build up your intuition about number theory, just so that when you finally get to Gödel's proof you will have the background you need to get your mind COMPLETELY FUCKING BLOWN by it.
And it's pretty mind-blowing stuff. By encoding a self-referential paradox into a mathematical theorem, Gödel proved that any sufficiently complex system of mathematics will contain statements which are true, but can never be proven within that system. Gödel destroyed every other mathematicians' dream of ever having a perfectly complete and consistent theory of mathematics. He did it in the 1930s, so it was around the same time as the quantum mechanics gave us the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; it was a time when humanity discovered that there are limits to our knowledge, certain things the universe just doesn't allow us to know completely. Western philosophy is still trying to recover.
Hofstadter has a lot of thoughts about how the Incompleteness theorem applies to other areas. Art and music, of course, but also computer science - there's a lot in here about computability and the Halting Problem. There's a chapter on genetics: is the genetic code a "sufficiently complex system of mathematics"? There's a bunch of stuff about the meaning of "meaning" -- how much of a proof's meaning is in the symbols of the proof, and how much is in the mind interpreting those symbols? How about the meaning of a painting, or a symphony? But mostly, he wants to talk about how the Incompleteness theorem relates to artificial intelligence and human consciousness. It seems that formal rule-based systems like computer programs and mathematical proofs are vulnerable to getting caught in paradoxes like the one in Gödel's proof, or infinite loops like Turing discovered. Yet humans have the ability to deal with infinite loops and paradoxes -- we can recognize when we're caught in one, and make a creative out of the rule system to resolve it.
Does this ability to leap outside of a rule system mean that the human mind is fundamentally different from a computer program? And does that mean that AI is impossible? But how can that be, when the brain is made of neurons which operate according to predictable physical laws? Or is our mind governed by a higher-level rule system that gives us the ability to leap outside of lesser rule systems? If so, what happens when we try to leap outside of that one? Are the sensations of consciousness and free will related to the brain's capacity for self-referential thoughts? What is the equivalent of Gödel for the brain - are there things we're not allowed to know about ourselves, or thoughts we're incapable of thinking?
Central to Hofstadter's thesis is the difference between logical, mechanistic thought and creative, intuitive leaps. So it's appropriate that he leads you to his point using both methods. The chapters walk you through the logical explanation while the dialogues encourage you to make the leaps of intuition for yourself. Again, it's a self-referential book about self-reference: the form reflects the content.
I don't know any other book that has blown my mind so many times.
Crowdfunding vs. DRM as the future of publishing
None of the songs I bought from the iTunes store will play any more because Apple thinks I've authorized them on too many computers; and I can't remember my Battle.net password so as far as Blizzard's concerned I no longer own that copy of Starcraft 2 I paid $60 for.
It used to be I only had to worry about losing my digital "posessions" when a magnet got near my disk drive or when an OS upgrade made my old data formats obsolete, but now... well, let's say I'm very reluctant to pay real money for an intangible electronic "product" when it can be taken away from me any time at the whim of an overzealous and glitchy DRM scheme.
This is why I'm not real keen on the idea of e-books; I like books that I can trust to stay on my shelf and continue existing even if the publisher changes their mind. Sushu's got several Kindles and was telling me about how you can now "loan" e-books to other people - the book is gone from your own Kindle for two weeks, then it comes back. (She likes this because books that she loans out the old-fashioned way pretty much never come back to her, she says.)
It's weird to think that some programmer had to write code whose sole function is to take a file that's still there on your Kindle and lock you out of it for two weeks. I imagine him at a Starbucks, swapping tips with the programmer from Blizzard who prevents users from playing Diablo 3 single-player without a connection to Blizzard's servers.
On a computer, every "move file" operation on a computer is actually a "copy file" followed by a "delete original". The "delete original" step is optional. The default state is for everybody to have as many copies of a file as they want; to reproduce the scarcity of the physical world takes work. Companies are paying workers to make there be less of their products.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. If we let everybody have copies of all the books they wanted for free, then writers couldn't get paid, and we wouldn't have any new books at all. I get that. It's just that, as people have been saying since at least the 90s, the publishing industry should really be coming up with new business models instead of trying to fight technological progress.
For a while we thought that new business model would be advertising. But web advertising has mutated into a creepy track-you-everywhere commercial panopticon, even as advertising fails to sustain print media. The value of web advertising is dropping as well. Advertisers can now see exactly how few people are clicking on their ads, and offer prices accordingly. Besides, I think relying on advertising too much puts the creators into an unhealthy relationship with readers: if the advertiser, rather than the reader, is the one paying your rent, then you have the incentive to do what the advertiser wants, even if the reader doesn't want it.
Lots of creative people on the web have moved to merchandise-supported model. That's great if it works for them, but many types of work (say, non-fiction books) that don't lend themselves to merchandise at all. And besides, there's only so many T-shirts the average comic-reading nerd can fit in their closet. Mechandise seems very limiting.
I donated to my first project thinking "huh, one of those ransom model things? OK, well, they won't take my money unless funding succeeds, so there's not much to lose; let's try it". I didn't think much more about it at the time. But as I've watched Kickstarters get more and more attention over the past few months I'm starting to think Kickstarter, or something like it, might be the answer.
(Obviously Kickstarter did not invent the ransom model of publishing; I know Stephen King did a book that way over ten years ago.)
But here's the thing: Kickstarter-style crowd-funding is one of the very few ways where the creator is actually getting paid for doing the work of creation. With advertising you get paid for delivering customer eyeballs to advertising, and that indirectly funds the creation of the work. Even with traditional publishing, the money comes from rectangular masses of dead tree pulp being shipped around to stores, and the sales of these objects refund the publisher for the advance they gave the author for work already completed.
The work of a creator is to make a thing exist which never existed before. Kickstarter relates this to money in a very direct way: if enough fans say "Yes, I am a potential audience member, and it's worth $X to me for this thing to exist", then they pool their money and the creator gets it. And the successful Kickstarters generally seem to be the ones where the creator explains why they need that amount of money, and what exactly it will be put towards -- the ones where the costs are transparent and justifiable, in other words.
I could even see somebody in the future making a living off of one crowd-funded project after another, setting the funding targets of the projects to cover all their living costs, and not even having to care about piracy or DRM or artificial scarcity. Who cares if some people get a pirate copy, if you've already been paid the value of your time and labor for making the thing exist?
Maybe the bigger risk is that a "creator" will take everybody's money and then never deliver the work. There has been at least one high-profile attempted Kickstarter scam already, but people got wise to it before it was funded and it got taken down. Sooner or later somebody will do a scam competent enough to succeed. It will be interesting to see what happens to Kickstarter then.
I read this interesting article today about how the Kickstarter website doesn't show you the 56% of projects that fail to meet their funding target. He says 56% like it's a bad thing. A 44% success rate is amazing, far higher than I imagined. And it's good that some projects don't get funded. The funding process is a way of gauging interest. If the interest isn't there, won't you be glad to find that out up front? You don't waste time making the thing and you don't go into debt financing it.
So yeah, projects fail. There are still no guarantees of success. Getting publicity for your kickstarter is still hard. There is only a finite amount of donor money out there, and a finite amount of donor attention. (Attention may be even scarcer than money). People who are already famous from other projects have a huge advantage getting attention for their Kickstarter campaign.
But none of those problems are new. It's always been hard for first-time creators to get attention for their work. There's always been competition for a limited number of audience dollars. That's part of the service that publishers provide - they know how to generate publicity. In fact, generating publicity may soon be the only function of publishers that technology does not render obsolete. (Well, that and editing. Editing is a valuable service and most stuff published on the internet would be a lot better if it had some!)
Maybe in the future, a "publisher" will be somebody you hire to manage your crowd-funding campaign for you? And the trustworthiness of the publisher's brand will be part of what convinces potential donors that you're not a scam -- that they can trust you to actually finish making the thing. It's also a reassurance that you meet somebody's standard of quality.
After all, there may be no limits on file duplication, but there are still limits on audience attention span, so that's the resource we need to pay attention to. The future will be interesting!
Guess what! Apparently the really, actually finally (posthumously) last book in the Wheel of Time series is nearly done and has a release date of January. So that's good, I guess! I'm glad the fans who were dismayed by Robert Jordan's untimely death will finally get the conclusion they've been waiting for.
I wonder if I should read the series now?
I have some friends who were big fans, but I never got into it because it looked like it was never going to end. I didn't want to get invested in such a long series without some promise of resolution. But now that the end is in sight, maybe I should give it a chance? (perhaps skipping Book Ten, "Crossroads of Twilight", which is infamous among fans as the book where the plot progression slows down so much it actually moves backwards.)
Oh hey what's this? It's a chapter-by-chapter re-read of Wheel of Time, recapped by mega-fan Leigh Butler. I will read a bit of this recap and see if it seems interesting enough to pick up the first book.
And... wow. The recap of the first book is enough to confirm my suspicion that the series is Not For Me, after all. Even in summary form, the plot moves too slow for my liking!
It's not just the endless traveling scenes, the scenes where characters describe stuff we've already seen to other characters, the angsty interior monologues, or the constant prophetic visions of doom. (If you read fantasy, you get used to dealing with a certain amount of padding.) It's not even the cornucopia of Tolkien-esque high fantasy cliches. I can deal with those.
What's frustrating me about this recap is the constant backing-down from conflict. Every time conflict starts building up towards something interesting, just as it looks like things are going to get good, somebody backs down or sneaks out of town, or some powerful magic woman shows up to rescue the heroes, heal their wounds and make everything better. The resolution is pushed off for later. It's a constant tease: "This is going to be a really cool confrontation when it happens! ...but it's not time for it to happen yet, not in this book anyway." Things revert to the status quo and the journey continues.
Contrast with Game of Thrones. Though I've got problems with GoT too (especially the last two books) -- at least it's a series that gets shit done. Conflicts ignite, escalate, explode, somebody wins, somebody loses (and probably dies) and as a result the balance of power in Westeros is transformed. Several times per book, at least. And no magic lady shows up to rescue the heroes. Everybody has to live with their mistakes. Every choice has consequences, and the consequences are usually deadly.
In Wheel of Time, the bad stuff is mostly teased - warnings about what will happen if somebody fails, prophetic dreams, various characters angsting about their dark fates, etc. But it seems like a safe bet that all the main characters will make it to the end to play their assigned roles in the final battle. In Game of Thrones the bad stuff happens to people, brutally, on-screen. Sometimes with build-up, sometimes by surprise. Sometimes you cheer, sometimes you curse. Either way, something changed. The plot has irrevocably progressed. Things at the end of the chapter are different from how they were at the beginning.
I'm not saying nothing happens in Wheel of Time. From the summaries, there's some parts that sound pretty cool. Obviously things happen, or the fans wouldn't have stuck with it; but nothing happens without hundreds of pages of buildup first. It's a certain type of fantasy that I guess appeals to a certain type of reader - people who really enjoy immersion. If your primary enjoyment comes from just spending time in your favorite imaginary world, with your favorite imaginary characters, then maybe you don't need the plot to move forward at a rapid pace.
They're two very different approaches to plotting.
Oh, one more thing I gotta point out. Wheel of Time has this concept called "ta'veren". I find it absolutely hilarious. "Ta'veren" are people who are sacred to destiny; their lives are the most important threads of The Pattern of fate, which is "woven" by The Wheel of Time. Their very presence causes improbable coincidences to happen around them, in order to make stuff work out the way fate requires.
The Pattern pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta’veren. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly ta’veren. The Wheel will weave the Pattern around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
(The Great Hunt, chap 5)
Let's try replacing a few key words:
Pattern Plot pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta'veren The Main Character. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly Ta'veren a Main Character. The Wheel Author will weave the Pattern Plot around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
Yeah... these characters are basically admitting that they're trapped in a fantasy novel plot, and complaining that the main character is a Mary Sue. Terry Pratchett plays this kind of stuff for laughs; in Wheel of Time it's SERIOUS BUSINESS.
In early drafts of Yuki Hoshigawa I had a conceit that she was a "weirdness magnet" who would attract strange events. I dropped this idea when I realized it's redundant -- every fictional protagonist has the "weirdness magnet" ability just by virtue of being a fictional protagonist. No need to hang a lampshade on it.
Journey to the West: where death is no match for guanxi
I'm reading Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel, or rather I'm reading the abridged translation of it by Anthony C. Yu.
(If you're not familiar: Journey to the West is based on the true story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, named Xuanzang or Tripitaka, who journeyed to India in order to bring a copy of the original Buddhist scriptures back to China during the Tang dynasty, ~800s AD. But over the centuries it's been embellished into a mythological fantasy, starring Tripitaka's companion, Sun Wukong the Monkey King, who steals the spotlight for much of the story. Sun Wukong is the inspiration for Goku in Dragonball and numerous other adaptations in Asian pop culture as well.)
Since it's Significant Cultural Literature and also hella old, I expected it to be somewhat dry. But it's fun! It's totally whimsical and humorous. The irrepressible Sun Wukong basically wages a prank war against heaven, running rampant through the pantheons of three religions, extorting tribute from the Dragons of the Four Seas, stealing the Peaches of Immortality and beating up the Ten Kings of the Underworld with his superior kung-fu, before he's finally out-pranked by the Buddha himself. Buddha imprisons him in a mountain for 500 years and then binds him into Tripitaka's service.
The story is told in this digressionary style that keeps going off on random tangents. Even the tangents have tangents. It takes fourteen chapters before anybody even starts journeying west! And that's in the abridged version! I hate to think how many side-quests the full version has. It's also constantly busting out poetry. When they cross a mountain there's poetry about how scary the mountain is; when they put on armor there's poetry about how cool the armor looks; when they fight there's poetry about how fierce the battle is. There's more poetic interruptions than Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I wanted to share a quotation with you because I think it says something interesting about Chinese culture. This bit is from a tangent within a tangent. Taizong, the Tang Emperor, is dying due to a curse. The ministers and the Queen Mother are already arranging his funeral. But his loyal advisor Wei Zheng has a plan. Wei Zheng says:
"Let Your Majesty be relieved. Your subject knows something which will guarantee long life for Your Majesty."
"My illness", said Taizong, "has reached the irremediable stage; my life is in danger. How can you preserve it?"
"Your subject has a letter here", said Wei, "which I submit to Your Majesty to take with you to Hell and give to the Judge of the Underworld, Jue."
"Who is Cui Jue?", asked Taizong.
"Cui Jue", said Wei, "was the subject of the deceased emperor, your father: at first he was the district magistrate of Cihou, and subsequently he was promoted to vice-president of the Board of Rites. When he was alive, he was an intimate friend and sworn brother of your subject. Now that he is dead, he has become a judge in the capital of the Underworld, having in his charge the chronicles of life and death in the region of darkness. He meets with me frequently, however, in my dreams. If you go there presently and hand this letter to him, he will certainly remember his obligation toward your lowly subject and allow Your Majesty to return here. Surely your soul will return to the human world, and your royal countenance will once more grace the capital."
When Taizong heard these words, he took the letter in his hands and put it in his sleeve; with that, he closed his eyes and died.
I love the idea that dying is just another formality which you can easily work around if you have connections in the underworld bureaucracy. Also, your bros are so important that a little thing like being dead won't stop you from paying back a favor. Such is the power of guanxi.
Lessons from Martin Luther King
I've been reading A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It tells the story of the USA from Columbus to the War on Terror, from the perspective of the downtrodden: Indians, slaves, women, poor tenant farmers, immigrants, factory workers, etc. It contrasts the "official" story, the one based on presidents and other powerful people, with the first-hand accounts of the people on the bottom who lived through these events.
What I like about the book is that most of it is quotations from original sources. So even if you don't like Zinn's commentary, you can read for yourself what people were saying about the times they lived in, and draw your own conclusions. There is a lot of powerful, defiant, inspiring stuff written by people who were ground down for centuries.
I spent most of yesterday on buses and airplanes, so I had a lot of time to read. Since it was MLK day I decided to flip forward to Zinn's chapter about the Civil Rights movement.
Confession time: When I was younger I was one of those sheltered white kids who didn't really understand why Martin Luther King was such a big deal. The story we hear in school is heavily sanitized: The south had segregation, it was unfair, but then MLK made a lot of inspiring speeches, and now there's no segregation anymore, hooray!
To understand the true extent of Dr. King's heroism you have to understand the evil and brutality of the entrenched power structure the Civil Rights movement was working against.
Zinn analyzes the roots of racism as a strategy by elites in the early days of American colonization: plantation owners knew that if poor whites ever teamed up with slaves, they'd have the strength to overthrow the aristocracy. By teaching poor whites to hate blacks, the elites pitted the two groups against each other and secured their own position on top. Not sure that's the only explanation, but it sure is thought-provoking.
By winning the Civil War, the North could force the South to end official slavery, but it couldn't end the hatred of black people that whites had had drilled into them for centuries. The Fifteenth Amendment could guarantee voting rights to blacks on paper, but without sustained federal intervention it couldn't guarantee them in practice: As soon as the Reconstruction governments went home, whites started using mob violence to stop blacks from voting (this was the period when the Klu Klux Klan was first formed) and southern state governments went to work re-implementing every part of the white-supremacist power structure except slavery.
(Sad fact I discovered: California voted against ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, because it was afraid of having to give the vote to Chinese immigrants. True story. Shame on you, California!)
And this system of white supremacy, enforced by violence, was still in force by Dr. King's time. Jim Crow wasn't just about having to go to different schools and drink out of different water fountains: it was about the fact that a mob of white vigilantes would beat you up, or lynch you and hang you, if you were a black person trying to claim your equal rights. And the police would watch and do nothing. Or join in the violence. Or arrest the victims. And the courts (where you weren't allowed to serve on a jury) would acquit the murderers.
So the story of the Civil Rights movement is the story of standing up to this violence. When activists peacefully staged sit-ins at the counters of whites-only diners, they were beaten and arrested. When activists boycotted segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, white supremacists firebombed Martin Luther King's house. When activists registered black people to vote in the summer of 1964, white supremacists murdered them. When the Freedom Riders rode through Birmingham, the white local police joined with the KKK in attacking them. When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington, white supremacists retaliated by bombing a church, killing four innocent girls.
And the Civil Rights movement appealed to the federal government to protect them from racist violence, and the federal government paid lip service to the idea, but they had the FBI infiltrate and subvert Civil Rights groups. They put Martin Luther King under illegal FBI surveillance, all as part of a heavily-classified program called COINTELPRO, under the pretense of suppressing Communist activity. Meanwhile conservatives in Congress staged the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights bill.
Somehow the version of Civil Rights history we got in school glossed over the extent of the murderous evil they were up against. Possibly on purpose, to avoid offending the powerful.
Against all this evil, Dr. King didn't just have courage, moral imagination, charisma, and inspiring speeches. Those are all important, but they're not enough to end a system of oppression as entrenched as Jim Crow. But Dr. King had something else: He had a strategy. A smart one.
The strategy was to, by peaceably demanding their rights, provoke a violent backlash from white supremacists, and then to turn the other cheek and maintain the moral high ground. Thus they'd show to the world the violence, brutality, injustice, and evil of the forces maintaining the status quo. And by so doing, get public opinion on their side, in order to create the needed political pressure to get civil rights legislation passed and (more importantly) actually enforced by the national government.
In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King says:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored...
...and then later...
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Some say this was naiive, that non-violent resistance alone would have led only to more lip-service (e.g. the earlier civil rights acts which congress had passed but were not enforced at the state level) without Malcom X and the Black Panthers to be the "bad cops" and show America that black people were ready to fight violence with violence for their equality if they couldn't get it through nonviolent pressure.
Nevertheless, Dr. King kept going out in public and organizing and making speeches and doing his thing even though he knew people were literally gunning for him. When your strategy involves provoking a violent reaction from the forces of evil, you have to be prepared to get beat up, to go to jail, to get shot. Dr. King was ready to die for his cause, and he would not be intimidated into giving up, because he wasn't going to let the terrorists win. (Yes, terrorists. White supremacists were using murder and assassination to scare black people away from political action: that's the definition of terrorism.)
Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and if you really want to change the power structure, you're going to be looking down the barrel of that gun sooner or later. The American power structure talks a nice game about equality and peace and democracy but when it feels itself being seriously challenged, the velvet gloves come off and the iron fist comes out, just like any other government.
It's interesting to contrast the civil rights movement against, say, Occupy Wall Street. The civil rights movement, at great cost, achieved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. (not to say that prejudice is over or that everyone has equality of opportunity - there's clearly far to go.) Occupy may have injected some much-needed ideas back into the national conversation, but it didn't exactly accomplish concrete political goals.
I'm not sure anybody knew what its goals were. Lots of people agree that banks have too much influence over the government; but what, exactly, do you want us to do about it? There was a moment when I think a lot of people had sympathy for Occupy (Something about passively resisting students getting pepper-sprayed in the face by cops). But unlike Civil Rights, Occupy wasn't able to channel that sympathy into anything. It lacked a strategic and charismatic leader like Dr. King. It lacked a forceful message like "End Segregation" to rally people behind.
Occupy Wall Street really should have learned more lessons from Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. (It's not like this is ancient history: there are still Civil Rights veterans alive to learn from, if Occupy was willing to listen.) Anybody who wants to change the world today should study these lessons intently.
One more quotation from Birmingham Jail:
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation....We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.