Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #6)The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was completely unaware that this was the 6th book of a series. I don’t think that really hurt my understanding of the expertly crafted world. This book explores, race, the sexes, sexuality, and the meaning of being human. Int his universe there are a number of worlds where humans live, at least 84, there could be more, but we only know of 83, plus the planet of Winter, where the story takes place.

The world is interesting for two main reasons. First, it takes place on a planet that has been in an iceage for millennia. Second, humans don’t have the two obvious genders, male and female. The humans on this planet are able to, and do, switch between the two during their “kemmering” whichis the ONLY time there are any sexes on the planet. In fact, the rest of the time they are essentially eunuchs. Technically having both male and female sex organs at this point. The book is interesting, because it’s a study of what life could be like without the duality of male/female. These discussions are important in this day and age, given importance of Trans rights in the political discourse and the general transphobia in parts of the polity (I literally looked at my twitter feed and the ACLU had just posted an article about a trans girl in Texas).

The book is, generally, written from the perspective of an Earth human, a young black man named Genly Ai. Which allows us to feel very connected to this book. The character struggles with handling the lack of duality and continually assigns maleness or femaleness to characters. He often gets them very wrong, especially in the case of his “Landlady.” Who looks more feminine to Genly Ai than many of the other humans on this planet. However, whenever he asked, he learned that the Landlady had never had any children of the flesh but had many children overall (essentially meaning the Landlady had never gotten pregnant but had gotten a number of other people pregnant).

Aside from the obvious relevance of the topic related to Trans rights, the book looks at how politics can change when a leader changes. How a peaceful country that has never known war, can create an otherness out of their neighbor and begin down the path of war. You can see through the action of people the impact of rhetoric of their leaders. This was written at the beginning of the Nixon administration and the end of the Johnson administration. But I think it still rings true given the Trump administration today. Our sense of otherness has moved from outside of our boarders to within our boarders in a terrifying way.

I really enjoyed this book. It was very thought provoking and definitely something worth checking out.

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Review of Oathbringer by Brand Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was definitely ok. It was a good way to pass time, but I don’t think this book is nearly as good as some of Sanderson’s other writing. I find these books to be bloated, take an overly long time for events to happen, and for there to be a general lack of emotional depth for many of the characters. The story progresses along a somewhat predictable path with a few minor twists and turns that feel like they come out of no where, but it doesn’t really matter. The twists don’t really feel like they materially change the general direction of the story.

The author tried to add a great deal of tension throughout the story, but I never felt that the important characters were really ever at a real threat to being killed. I also didn’t feel like there was a threat to them being removed from the real important battle in a meaningful way. This was basically accurate throughout the story.

I also felt that many of the characters still seemed two dimensional even though we’ve now been with them for three books. This was simply confounded by the fact that no one truly grieved when an important (but not a main) character was killed. I couldn’t help but compare the death of this character to my reactions to characters that were significanly more minor or insignificant generally to the story, but we learned more about them in series like Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This was a good entertaining book, it’s not the best fantasy out there. It’s good enough to get you through to a better series though.

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The Innovation machine – This is a “how to” guide for Innovation management

As many of my blog readers know I’m an innovation reading junky. I’ve read many of the books on how to manage, from a individual’s perspective, creating an innovation or even at a high level how to run an innovation project. However, this if the first book that looks at things in a very systematic manner utilizing a lot of case studies. The Innovation Machine by Rolf-Christian Wentz is a fantastic introduction into a series of case studies of the most innovative companies in the world.

Books like the Innovator’s Dilemma are a lot more prescriptive in what a business should do or how a given business has been disrupted. Typically they focus on the smaller entrants that enter a market and beat the incumbents. The Innovation Machine on the other hand looks at the incumbents and analyzes what the organization did culturally to enable innovation. I believe books like Innovator’s Method and the Lean Startup address a different need: how to take an innovative idea to market. This book touches on those things, but looks at how the whole organization can enable those Lean startups within the organization and use it’s size to maximize the results.

The Innovation Machine also touches on the portfolio management aspect as well as some of the best ways to fund projects, staff projects (2 is best, a small room is next, anything else is doomed to fail), and finally how to integrate the project teams back into the larger business as a whole. No book that I’ve read has really discussed how to do this. All these topics are covered with clear case studies of some of the most innovative companies. He includes discussions of Google, Toyota, GE, P&G, SC Johnson, BMW, Microsoft, Whirlpool, and a litany of others. The stories are referenced as he details the concepts that were leveraged by the companies in his case study.

I believe that this book is a must read for a CEO or a leader that values innovation. Especially since he calls out the massive differences between managing Incremental Innovation and Disruptive Innovation – he gives very clear practical examples and methods for managing them separately. I believe these are powerful and will help me identify projects I work on more easily as disruptive or incremental.

Book review: Enchanted objects

In my last post I briefly mentioned the book Enchanted Objects which is an interesting book about how the future of technology might go. I’ll tell you this up front, the book is biased without a doubt. You can tell this from the beginning. That being said, I think the bias is a fair one and not subtle and really, if you’re reading a pop technology book and you don’t expect bias, then you’re kind of an idiot. This book is pretty full of technoptimism, which if that’s you’re thing you’re going to absolutely love this book. I mean, it really gives some great ideas about how to take an ordinary object add an app to it, connect it to the cloud and other devices and it will realyl solve a lot of problems.

I think this is a really great approach for a limited scope of objects. Not to say that the scope of objects is small, but more that it’s limited to the scope of objects. In some ways, it’s small thinking. I don’t think that’s a limitation on the potential. No, David Rose (the Author) actually does a good job making arguments that this could be a massively connected network that could be part of an even larger network. He envisions using enchanted objects to help manage diabetes care in such a way that it continually informs doctors, patients, hospitals, and insurers of the status and well being of the patient. Even so far as to tell the patient what foods to eat when in the event of a diabetic shock.

The big holistic vision is there, but I really can’t but think that a lot of these ideas he covers, Ambient Orb for example, are really first world problem solving tools. His idea around a garbage can that will automatically reorder a good when you throw it out seems to push consumerism rather than conservation (to be fair he does talk about trying to turn the garbage cans in a neighborhood into a game where the “greenest” or smallest waste house wins).

The major problem I see with these enchanted objects, isn’t that there’s a lot of potential to make them, it’s more what is the additional value gained to the consumer by having these enchanted objects? Rose argues that we need to move away from the swiss army type devices, like a tablet which is an attempt to do everything, towards more specialized devices. For example an umbrella that connects to the local weather to glow and recommend taking it with you when you head out the door. I could see some value in this, living in Portland, Oregon, but I hate umbrellas so I’d never use it (too many of them have hit me in the eye, so i think they should all be destroyed). Other people likely will find value in this product. However, is that enough to make you buy the special one, or do you think that you’d just still buy the $10 one that when you lose it, you won’t morn its demise? Maybe a connected umbrella stand would be more appropriate.

I think the biggest problem with this book, isn’t the general idea. I think connected objects will happen and I think there is something of an air of inevitability around them. My largest concern, however, is the lack of concern over safety and privacy within these applications. It’s likely that this umbrella will have to have a GPS radio in it. Which suddenly means, I’m carrying about multiple GPS radios. My phone, my tablet, my umbrella, my watch, and probably my running shoes (so I can share my results on mapmyrun and then Facebook, of course!). All of these devices will likely end up following under the purview of law that will require them to store that data for some amount of time. In many cases, App designers also tend to requet access to a larger portion of a phone or tablet than they strictly need. This opens end users up to greater risk than really neccessary. If I bought a product, shouldn’t that information be under my control? If it’s free how is that company using my data once they requested access for it?

These answers are lacking. I don’t really believe it’s because the author doesn’t think they are important questions. I think he just doesn’t know how to answer them. He actually mentions some of these topics in the book, but doesn’t have a statisfactory answer to them. I would like to see him work with Evgeny Morozov to answer many of these questions. I think then, I’d feel more comfortable purchasing these enchanted objects.

I’d recommend this book to anyone in design, aspiring to be an entrepreneur, or that really loves technology. It’s not as blind in its faith in technology the way that “What technology wants” but it has the right level of optimism to help keep someone that is trying to change the world keep trying and to hopefully make the design of that product just a little bit more magical. I do plan on using what I’ve learned in this book to help with my projects and any sensor based device my wife designs on her side projects.

Overall, I give this book a 4/5 

Review: Dealers of Lightning Story of Xerox PARC

This is the Third historical book written about a business. The first was the history of Bell Labs and compared to that book, this was a wild ride in terms of organization. It would bounce back and forth over the span of ten years, while Idea Factory (Bell Labs book) was a stately possession moving forward with time. I believe that the major difference was that while a lot was happening at Bell Labs, it wasn’t crammed into 10 years. It occurred over 40 years or more, which allowed the author to pick and choose the people to follow. In Dealers of Lightning so much was happening at the same time with the same people and unique people that it forced the author to jump backwards and forwards through time.

Despite that, it really made me realize how much we owe to PARC researchers in the 70’s for technology we have today. If you’re using a tablet, one of the very first visionaries that created that concept was Alan Kay, he first envisioned it in the 60’s and from what was described in the book, the iPad is pretty much true to his vision. Amazing to be honest.

Here’s a list of things they made:
Object Oriented Programming
Ethernet
The First mass produced PC
The predecessor to Word
The original Desktop
VLSI, what has enabled the development of basically every semiconductor chip
The first Graphics Chip
Copy, Cut, and Paste
The right click
First Laser Printer
The predecessor to Postscript (Adobe)
A piece of software where you could edit text and pictures at the same time
A computer in 1982 that had 6000 Japanese characters and could type in 100+ languages and it’s capabilities wouldn’t be match again until the 90’s

Dramatically influenced Apple, Microsoft, 3Com (Metcalfe founded this after leaving PARC), Adobe (2 PARC researchers founded this), and many other companies.

Xerox was a visionary company to fund a research agency like PARC. PARC was likely one of the last of its kind as well. There are very few companies that have a similar branch of research facilities that push basic and applied scientific research. I suggest reading this book, just so it helps you understand where the technology we all use and love came from.

I give this book 4/5. Well researched, great topic, difficult to write because of the concurrent activities.

Book review: Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon

I just finished Consent of the Networked today. This title, of course, is a play on the idea of the consent of the governed. Where governments are only able to govern with the express permission of the people it governs. We have seen recently with the Arab spring that it is possible to reject the govdrnment and show that the governed do not consent.

The book starts with a discussion of how the internet is different than traditional governments. As, most people are aware the internet is international, operated by many different actors including individuals governments and companies, and is not has some of its own rules and norms which are different than the physical world.

Because of the diverse set of stakeholders for the internet the way we (an average person) is different based on the country you live in, the network you are using and the relationship between your government and businesses from other countries. Then toss in advocates that use the internet to promote democracy (or are progovernment) and human rights experts and we have a very messy situation that will likely lead to more and more conflict.

Some of these conflicts are unsurprising, such as countriess like China, Iran and prefall Egypt and Tunisia want greater and greater control of their internet and networks. Which the US State department doesn’t want and puts the countries in great disagreement over the future of the internet. However this is not the only source of conflicts. There is conflict in the US itself.

The State department is pushing for more circumvention tools and techniques to make it possible to get around firwalls. TOR is one of these I’ve talked about in the past. However, the US legislature is pushing for more control and better access to what data is flowing and ways to block it. These laws, SOPA, PIPA and now CISPA all attempt to contol the internet in the name of IP or cybersecurity. However, they are methods that allow censorship and control over the internet. The US is not the only country implementing these laws, the UK has and the EU parliment is still considering ACTA.

MacKinnon also indicates that these actions help to validate countries like China. In some cases the support comes from artists like Bono or the RIAA when they say they want the same abilities as China for blocking access to content. However, the laws can only do what companies are capable of providing to governments and consumers and other agencies.

Copyright laws would be useless if companies had not created ways to inspect data and then stop the transfer. Some of this comes in tne form of filters and blockers for parents. These can be applied at the national level. Cisco and other major western comoanies provide equipment through sales to countries like China for the firewalls and censorship abilities.

These are not the only way businesses are complicit with repressive regimes (in many cases the equipment is essentially off the shelf), MacKinnon also describes the cases of Yahoo and other companies where they hand personal information over to the regimes. In some cases this has led to death for the person whose information was requested. Of course this isn’t just in China, but the same companies hand data over in the US and other democracies.

At this point human rights groups and other rights groups have become more active around the world on matters of the internet. A large portion of her book deals with these problems with through a human rights perspective. I believe that this is a good way to look at these problems. This levels the field across socio-economic levels. It begins with the assumption that protection of data should be universal. It frames the perspective that she argues for netizens to engage and to be active in address these issues.

She argues that we can’t expect the next CEO of Facebook to be benevolent as Zuckerberg has sort of been. The netizens need to pressure companies and governments for better clarity of what our data is being used for, how long it is stored and why it is collected. This important, because we “consent” by clicking I accept without reading and with no control over a change in contract. Anger at changes Facebook has made lead to changes, so as a group we have the ability to effect change at companies. We have also seen what collective action can do to government in light of the SOPA and ACTA discussions.

These matters are important because they affect all of us. This book does an excellent job explaining what is at stake. It provides a perspective from the developing world and the people under dictatorships. It highlights the fine line we are currently treading and that countries like the US and UK could easily slip from democracy into digital dictatorships where the views of a select few are paid a great deal of attention and the rest are ignore and censored.

Over all i give this book 4/5. At times the book was somewhat repetitive but it was to ensure the point was made. This book should be read by any cyber activist, developmental scholar and student of dictatorships.

Review: Republic Lost. Or the hand book for OWS

I just finished Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig last night. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Lessig fan. I find his work extremely interesting and relevant to the changing world. It is a bit dry to be honest, all of his writings deal with how society, the market and laws interact.

In my opinion this book should be the handbook for anyone interested in the Occupy movement. I’ll explain why in a few steps. First, he mentions various different cases of inequity which are highly promenient in the US. He specifically addresses the 99% argument and does it a great deal of good. He fully explains what it means to be in the 99% in a way that has been missing in the dialogue. He actually says that the 1% isn’t the biggest problem it’s actually a much smaller percentage, but the 1% can cause a lot of damage as well.

In the book he systematically explains how and why money is a problem in the system. In many cases it’s not that there is quid pro quo corruption going on. More that it seems like there is corruption going on because of the money involved. As an outsider it’s hard to trust a system where the Teachers union (or wall street or exxon) can say I will give $1 million dollars to any candidate that supports tenure (or bail outs or deep water drilling). This is an implicit threat because if you don’t support these topics your opponent will, because it will give them campaign donations. As donations play a huge amount of time for a congressman (30-70%) anything that makes it easier to get money the congressmen will campaign to support.

There have been studies that question if these gifts actively change legislative voting behavior, but many quotes from former congressmen explaining that there is a sense of obligation to the donor. This isn’t a tit for tat type exchange, Lessig argues it’s more of a gift economy. Like what buy a round of beers for your friends, you don’t want money for it, you want them to buy you the next round. The fact that you bought instills (in most people) a sense of obligation to buy the next round. This analogue is perfect in fact, as Lessig argues that congress is dependent on these funds like an alcoholic. This is an illicit dependency as he shows that Congress should be “dependent on the People alone.”

Lessig builds an extremely will supported case that donations impact the legislative process by impacting what congressional leaders allow debate on. Even if it doesn’t impact votes, it impacts what is considered important by the congress. This is one of the ways that congress seems out of touch with regular people. I believe Lessig builds a strong enough case to demonstrate that something must be done. He actually has a few suggestions on how to deal with the problem.

The first is the old fashioned way of trying to build support through congress to enact real campaign reform. Lessig doesn’t believe this is realistic and gives it about a 0% chance of success. His next idea is to get about 300 well known people to run as super candidate to force the issues. Have these people run in multiple different districts (it’s legal) and garner enough attention to force the politicians to say they will vote for reform. Do this in enough state and in the right states and it might work. He calls this a kind of political terrorism. He gives it a 5% chance of working once you get started.

His next idea is to have one of those types candidates run for the of president making the promise to hold congress hostage until the reforms are made, BUT resign as soon as the reforms are completed. He argues that this is required for people to honestly believe that the changes would happen and for congress to actually enact the changes. There would be no negotiations other than making sure all the normal people get paid and services don’t impact most business. He also gives this one a 5% chance of working.

The final suggestion is to push for a constitutional convention. This would require 38/50 states to OK the convention. He, at length, describes all the potential problems and legal issues with the convention, which matter once the ball gets rolling. In addition to this he suggests creating about 300 shadow conventions where regular people are given the opportunity to make constitutional amendments. These could then be the basis for what is sent to congress.

In total, if you are part of the OWS movement you need to read this book. It will help give more firepower for your arguments against the 1% and it will give some guidance on what the first priority should be. I agree with Lessig that until we get money out of the system no other reforms are possible. We will not have a function government until the People are the only thing the government relies on for choices of legislature.