Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Turn of Mind

A good mystery unfolds in bits and pieces, tantalizing the reader with ambiguous clues and tangential meanderings.  The devious author sets out to confuse the reader and to obfuscate the ultimate destination.

This is exactly what the devilish disease Alzheimer's does to its victims.  It makes a mockery of their mind, offering only disconnected and sporadic memories.  It can leave them standing on a familiar street unsure of the way home to their own house.  What a clever device to write a mystery in the voice of someone suffering from dementia, using her aide-memoire journals as the text of the novel.  This is exactly what Alice LaPlante has done in Turn of Mind.  Jennifer White was a skilled orthopedic surgeon before Alzheimer's forced her to retire. Now her best friend Amanda is dead, her fingers cut off with surgical  precision, and Jennifer is the prime suspect.  She herself can't recall if she murdered her friend or not.  The novel lurches forward in fits and starts, taking the reader along on the patchy path of White's brain.  White is lost in the present, but relevant memories sporadically surface to fill in the back story.  It was a fascinating read, although I found the abrupt ending a bit unsatisfying.  (That's the second time in as many books where I've complained about the ending!)

Alice LaPlante teaches creative writing at Stanford, and Turn of Mind is her impressive first novel.  I would  recommend it. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Steve Jobs

How sad to see Steve Jobs unable to continue at Apple.  From when he was very young, Jobs has broken all the rules and made it work for him.  I wonder how many university drop-outs have used him as a justification for their actions.

And so the speculation swirls as to what will happen with Apple.  Tim Cook, Jobs' successor, has been written about in very flattering terms, but he's all about how to do business: he's fixed various supply chain problems and been critical to Apple's success in bringing products to market.  Jonathon Ives, Apple's famous and revered designer, is all about how to design obscenely beautiful and usable products.  But Jobs is the one who has decided what to do.  His vision, his passion, his uncompromising expectations, and his micromanaging attention to detail have pushed Apple to deliver only the best.  How do you replace an influence like that?

There's been a lot written about Steve Jobs this week - almost like eulogies while he's still alive, although deeply imperilled.  He's certainly been a significant force in society beyond just business.  He came full circle at Stanford when he gave the commencement speech in 2005.  It's worth listening here for his take on life in general.  You've probably heard the value of telling stories as a way of making your point.  Jobs' three stories prove the point.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Secret Speech

The Krushchev Thaw refers to a period in the mid-fifties to early sixties, right after Stalin's death, when Krushchev denounced Stalin and the atrocities committed under his regime.  This ushered in a fleeting period of openness and relative freedom in the Soviet regime.  Krushchev first signalled this movement in The Secret Speech, delivered behind closed doors to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. 

The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith, swirls around the events sparked by the speech -  the dissemination of the speech in printed form*, the political upheaval in Moscow as power shifted and the old hardliners ran scared, life in the Siberian Gulags and the Hungarian revolution**.  It takes considerable, and not very believable, contortions to steer the plot through all these events.

Former state security officer Leo Demidov returns from his appearance in Smith's first book, Child 44.  Demidov is the head of a homicide department in Russia; a rather unpopular position, because authorities do not want to acknowledge that there is such a thing as murder in the Soviet Union.  Demidov is trying to be a good man, after his murky past when he arrested many civilians based on nothing more than typed lists of names.  These days, he pursues 'evidential truth , not a politicized one" as he seeks to solve crimes.  It's a precarious job because the truth is not always what the authorities want, especially in a country where it's an embarrassment to even acknowledge murder takes place.

I chose The Secret Speech because I'd enjoyed Child 44 by Smith, which also features Leo Demidov as the key character.  But this plot was just too far fetched for me.  One star.

*I don't know enough about Russian history to know if this wide dissemination is totally fictional.  Wikipedia says it was only distributed to select Communist Party members in Russia, before widespread dissemination internationally.

** The book portrays the Hungarian Revolution of '56 as having been sparked by Soviet agents provocateurs.  This was to give the Soviets an excuse for massive retaliation.  Brutally crushing the uprising was to send a message that despite Krushchev's speech, the Soviets hadn't gone soft.  Again, in my limited research, I found no corroboration for this analysis.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Super Legs

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about two extraordinary women who spoke at TED.  These women were living without limbs.  Of the two, Aimee Mullins made the biggest impression on me: she was not just tolerating her prosthetic legs, but reveling in them.  There are some great pictures in that post if you want to revisit it here.  Among them is a picture of Mullins showing off her 'Cheetah legs';  she raves about the running power they give her. 

Now I've just happened across an article on Singularity Hub about Oscar Pistorius, known as the 'fastest man on no legs'.  He had the same problem as Mullin, having been born with congenital absence of fibulae and having amputations below the knee in both legs at an early age.  And now Pistorius, also known as the Blade Runner, has qualified for the London 2012 Olympics on the South African team, running with Cheetah Flex-Foot, as shown below.  

Oscar Pistorius
In my original post, I posed the question of whether disabled athletes, empowered by prosthetics such as the Cheetah Flex-Foot, would eventually be considered to hold an unfair advantage over their two-legged competitors. 

Cheetah Flex Foot
The Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre devices by Ossur of Iceland are designed to absorb shock and transfer energy into forward momentum.  That sounds on the surface like a considerable advantage and has sparked considerable controversy, but then, on second thought, that's exactly what feet do for us.  So, is it just a matter of degree?  Where does a double amputee athlete stop suffering a disability and start enjoying a competitive edge?

Pistorius was originally banned from competing in the 2008 Olympics on the grounds that he had an unfair advantage, a decision later reversed.  But he failed to make the time requirement to join the South African team, so that was a moot point.  This time, he has a favourable ruling from the Olympic committee and he's made the necessary time cut-off.  So he's off to London next year.  If you think that Pistorius is not a true athlete, just a guy trying to take advantage of these fabulous prosthetics in the one sport where they pay off, think again.  Pistorius participated in athletics all through high school, at the provincial level in water polo and tennis, as well as in wrestling and rugby union (ouch).

I sit on the board of West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto, a preeminent rehabilitation and complex continuing care hospital (this post talks about one of West Park's innovative programs).  I get so excited about what we'll be able to do in the future through the use of powerful prosthetics and movement-assisting robots (see the post about the TED talk about exo-skeletal robot enabling a paraplegic to walk). 

But what if you're an athlete targeting the 2020 Olympics and you start to imagine what such prosthetics could be like by then?  Would you start to feel it was unfair?  Will some determined but misguided athlete in the future voluntarily undergo amputation so s/he can enjoy such prosthetics?  Science fiction certainly foresees such possibilities.

What do you think?  Should Pistorius be allowed to compete?  Or is this acceptance just a slippery slope to the time when Olympic winners will all have such prostheses? 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

 David Mitchell is a British novelist whose novels number9dream and Cloud Atlas have been shortlisted for the Booker prize.  I struggled to like Cloud Atlas.  I knew I should like it.  After all, it was nominated for the Booker.  But I couldn't quite make it.   As a result I didn't attempt number9dream either.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was another matter.  After my post reviewing The Makioka Sisters, another book about Japan, my friend Henri suggested I would like this book.  (I seem to have had a run on books set in Japan, with a review of The Housekeeper and The Professor being another recent post.)  Then I discovered my friend Eva was in the midst of reading it.  Well, that settled it and I decided to give it a try.  And I really liked this book.   Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years and married a Japanese woman.  His insights into Japanese society enrich this book.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in 1799. The religious and somewhat naive Jacob de Zoet has arrived to work on Dejima, a man-made island off Nagasaki where the Dutch East India Company has a trading post.

de Zoet is essentially an internal auditor, charged with sniffing out corruption and double dealing by the employees of the company who are determined to go home to the Netherlands rich men.   de Zoet also needs to get rich so he can win approval to marry his sweetheart back at home. It's hard to be an honest man in an enclave of thieves and de Zoet struggles against the venality and suspicions of his fellow countrymen, while maintaining his dream of getting rich.

Dejima is a totally encapsulated island.  The one land gate to mainland Japan symbolizes the limited contact between the two civilizations, with interactions between the Japanese and the Dutch rigidly controlled.   It may be the Dutch who are caged on an island, but it is the mainland that is insular, stubbornly resisting input from the outside world. The Dutch are prohibited from learning Japanese, and the interface between Dutch and Japanese is a coterie of Interpreters, a post of some distinction and status.

Against this backdrop of rigid separation of the races, Jacob de Zoet falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a beautiful, intelligent, but disfigured midwife and daughter of a samurai.  Aibagawa visits the restricted island because she is studying European medical methods from the curmudgeonly but kind Dutch doctor.  de Zoet attempts to carry on a covert courtship with the meagre aid of the doctor and one of the Japanese translators who also loves her.  Orito's story takes her off the island, onto the mainland and into the hands of de Zoet's enemy Enomoto, and illuminates a major struggle between good and evil.

This book has it all.  Gorgeous language.  Interesting plot.  Forbidden love.  Honour.  Betrayal.  Morality.  Deceit.  Loyalty.  Treachery.  Righteousness.  Evil.  East. West.  

It was hard to put down right to the end (which was rather unsatisfying I must admit).  I highly recommend this book.

Monday, August 8, 2011

TED Books: Media Makeover

Some people are dismayed by the prospect of delivering an 18 minute talk on a key idea.  "I couldn't possibly do that in less than 60 minutes!"  But with the right preparation, they are amazed that they can deliver even complex ideas powerfully in this short time capsule.   The patented 18-minute TED Talks have shown that you don't need a whole hour to explain and capture the imagination of an audience.

OK, so talks can be shorter than we thought.  Why can't books be shorter?  Is it sheer tradition?  Or the publishing business model?  The business model around physical books demands a minimum price to support publishing, marketing, distributing and selling a book.  For that price, the buyer wants a certain heft in a book.  (Have you ever been at an airport bookstore choosing some light reading for a long flight, and calculated the price per page as part of your purchase decision?  Perhaps I'm the only deranged soul that does that explicitly, but I think we all have an implicit size/value expectation in our heads.)

Now that we're solidly in the digital age, could we rethink the norm for what a book's length should be?  The folks at TED thought so when they launched TED Books, short nonfiction works that deliver "a powerful idea that can be absorbed in a single reading of an hour or so".  The books are offered in digital format, for $2.99.  In a time-pressed world, could these short books appeal to both readers who struggle to find time to read a full length book, and potential authors who struggle to find time to write a full length book?  TED Books are a great experiment on that path.

I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, my first TED Book, Media Makeover by Alisa Miller.  Alisa is one of those people you meet at TED who make attendance so invigorating.  CEO of Public Radio International, Alisa is a smart, forward-thinking strategist.  I've heard her lay out strategic alternatives for public broadcasting clearly and convincingly. Her short TED talk, about the US media's failure to cover important world events is one of my favourites.

I liked Media Makeover; it was tightly written and thought provoking.   Alisa lays out the problems with today's news media.  She is explicitly talking about the US, but treats this as a worldwide problem and brings in global examples.  (And she wrote this even before the Murdoch scandal.)

The media are not covering all the important news (further development of the theme from her TED talk).  We live in a land of plenty with respect to news, but we are offered and choose to ingest a diet of news impoverished in the vital nutrients of solid reporting and analysis and loaded up with the sugary sweets of vacuous celebrity gossip.

Behavioural psychology has shown that people have a strong confirmation bias, and crave supporting evidence for decisions they've already made.  Using powerful online tools, consumers of news can satisfy this craving by selecting categories and sources in a way that narrows our input stream, distorts our picture of the world,  and reinforces our existing points of view rather than supporting fact-based decision making on public affairs.  Furthermore, in trying to deliver to us what we want to hear, sites are personalizing the information we see, even without any intervention from us.

As advertisers divert their money from print newspapers to digital news, the overall spend goes from analog dollars to digital cents, undermining the business model for newspapers.  There is a large fixed cost associated with a strong investigative reporting team and international bureau coverage.  Good online news coverage requires that same quality of reportage, and yet digital revenue is much lower.  This deterioration in the business model has driven newspapers to bankruptcy, has led to considerable industry consolidation and to further narrowing of the sources of news.  The result of all this is the hobbling of traditional news media, and a public that is less informed than ever before.

I think there is another piece of the puzzle with regard to the newspaper business model that Alisa didn't mention.  In the heyday of print newspapers,  news coverage was cross-subsidized by other categories in the paper.  Many readers bought the paper because of its service information, such as weather forecasts, stock prices, movie listings, and classified advertising for jobs, real estate, autos and other miscellaneous items.  The classifieds were money spinners in their own right, and service information in general expanded newspaper readership and circulation thus justifying high advertising rates.  Newspapers ceded these categories to specialized online sites, shredding the newspaper business model.

Because the dilemma with the business model has eroded the quality of news coverage, the public trusts the media less than it used to and reads less news than they used to.  This is a vicious death spiral.  Less quality, less trust, less readership, less revenue, less quality. 

These problems are all apparent to thoughtful people, but Alisa does an excellent (footnote supported) job of laying out the issues with supporting facts and data.  She notes news organizations that get it, including among others The Globe and Mail; she points in particular to John Doyle's piece on "Sheen isn't Gadhafi, and Facebook isn't Journalism".

Alisa does have a proposal.   As people depend more on social media for news, this is both a threat and an opportunity.  The public should grasp the opportunity to get more aware, get active and take control.   We can become more astute in our news consumption and Alisa offers sites and tools that will help with that.  We can also become creators of news through the many environments that publish news and analysis from informed contributors - opportunities like the Huffington Post or The Mark News which assemble thoughtful pieces from experts in a wide range of fields.  Alisa details her call to action at the MediaMakeover web site.