Saturday, July 24, 2010

Truman Capote's famous book "in Cold Blood" is subject of a trial in CT

The books chosen from a prison library are now being considered as evidence in at least one trial, that of Steven J. Hayes for a home invasion and triple murder in 2007 on Chesire, Connecticut.

The defense attorneys have objected to this as leading, but prosecutors think there is similarity between this case and the events of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (Signet, 1965). The book depicts the attack on a Holcomb, Kansas family, the Cutters, by two drifters in a robbery gone bad. There was a black and white film from Columbia in 1968 from Richard Brooks, which I saw my first weekend on pass in downtown Columbia, SC near Fort Jackson. Two more recent films about the author of the book are “Capote” (Sony) and “Infamous” (WB).

William Glaberson has the New York Times story on July 21, 2010, here.

There was a “novel” by Meyer Levin, originally published in 1956, republished for collectors by Carroll and Graf in 1996, named “Compulsion”, loosely based on the 1920’s Leopold-Loeb case, but the book was sometimes viewed as a fictional precursor to the real life events that led to Capote’s book. I read the Levin book while in the Army. Leopold also became the subject of theplay "Never the Sinner" by John Logan.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Amazon says Kindle and e-book sales exceed conventional book sales

Bloomberg Business Week reports that Amazon now says it now sells more electronic books, for Kindle, than conventional printed books. The trend toward e-books seems to be returning: it was touted in the late 1990s (one of the COPA plaintiffs had an e-book innovation called SoftLock), dropped off, and seems to have returned.

The iPad certainly can also generate interest in eBooks, yet it’s hard to imagine that the appeal of a printed book, something you can take anywhere and out to the beach or on camping trips without worry about power, damage or Internet connections, would dwindle in comparison.

Kindle sales soared when Amazon cut its price.

Print-on-demand, popular with self-publishers, has not necessarily increased conventional printed book sales that much.

The BW story is here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Kirkpatrick: "The Facebook Effect"

Author: David Kirkpatrick

Title: "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that Is Connecting the World"

Publication: New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-0211-4, 372 pages, hardcover, Prologue and 17 chapters.  Amazon link.

I start this review with repeating an (apparently unrelated) old chestnut from my own political activity: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” To which history answers, “Facebook is incompatible with ‘don’t ask don’t tell’”. Military members do have Facebook pages, and some have outed themselves without consequences. But, innovated largely by a young man whose “personal” life appears to be heterosexual, Facebook may have done more to destroy the DADT policy than any politician, any judge or any advocacy organization (even SLDN). (Oh, well, there’s straight San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome’s support of gay marriage, too.)

Of course, what I’m hitting on goes back to the evolution of the Web, as “average people” starting using in the mid 1990s, before the first dot-com boom and bust, long before social media became fully established, when the Web was more like a self-publication platform (and e-commerce store). Anyone could make himself a celebrity with almost no capital, with the help of search engines, if he or she had something important to say.

With Facebook, as with other social networking sites, there has developed a fundamental dichotomy: is it about meeting and interacting with people, or is it about self-publication? Indeed, the book, as have others, traces the origins of “TheFaceBook” at Harvard, with the idea of facilitating connections with people whom you have a real chance of hooking up with. In time, however, it would go global. It had to, to make money, even as it was popular on campuses as a virtual “speed dating” prompt. It would become an incredibly effective tool for keeping up with people over long times and vast physical distances. As a mathematician puts things, it would create a new measure space for social interaction. It would provide an alternate universe with (as Clive Barker would call it) “Reconciliation”.

But as the Prologue of this book starts us with, Facebook has also provided a facile means of political protest, often in the Third World, overwhelming totalitarian attempts to put people down. Indeed, some governments like Pakistan have tried to disable it.

I take this back to the mid 1990s when I pondered and then wrote my self-published book on issues that concentrically surround the dilemmas posed by the “gays in the military” issue, as these issues related to my own past history. I followed up with a web presence, provocative enough to get involved with the litigation over COPA, and, particularly during my time in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, became a minor celebrity. Self-publication definitely did create desirable social contacts.

But in time an ethical question evolved, something I have called “The Privilege of Being Listened To” on my main “BillBoushka” blog. Should one definitely enter the world of social and family responsibility before being heard from? I had grown up in a culture that had good reasons to believe in that idea as a moral precept. This could have legal consequences. Web content could be seen as gratuitous, making the publisher morally and maybe legally responsible for putting others at risk if he did not have a clear motive from his self-broadcast other than to provoke others. In the COPA trial, this got called the “implicit content” problem. It then becomes possible to say that people in some workplace or familial situations don’t have the right to broadcast themselves under the Web’s “free entry” model at all.

But social media flip this content-driven question upside down, by starting with the precept that people should have an efficient medium (and topology) to initiate and maintain social contacts. Someday this could have a profound test in constitutional law. And Facebook, by growing from the bottom up from a social, almost dating service to a platform that can support self-publication, illustrates the dilemma perfectly.

That brings one to consider the role of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is a creation of “Our Kids”, but in fact it evolved from much more specific social applications envisioned by a number of people, including the Winkelvoss twins and Aaron Greenspan. Accounts of the history of this phenomenal site present Mark Zuckerberg as a kind of “chickenman” – I mean that in the sense of Army barracks jokes at Ft. Eustis around 1969 (even the Colonel watched the Saturday morning cartoons on the character), about “me”-- as an abstract person, “he’s everywhere”, omniscient, ready to drill through all the mannerisms of the world to some kernel of absolute truth and force everyone to see it. Kirkpatrick reports a lot of interviews with Mark, and describes him as somewhat absorbed in his own thoughts, ready to look right through someone until he hears something he connects with. In fact, he tends to behave that way even on the late 2007 CBS 60 Minutes (“toddler CEO”) interview I reported on in my “BillBoushka” blog on Dec. 6, 2009 (the “Is that a question?” moment in the video). Perhaps there was a body image issue at one time; Kirkpatrick, on p 20, describes him as “an intense introvert with curly brown hair whose fresh freckled face made him look closer to fifteen than the nineteen he was.” As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that his thought processes are a lot like mine (although I’m not sure I get his moral dilemma that leaves him in tears in the Accel offer situation). If I could have entered a time machine and become his age and become a student in Kirkland House, I probably would have related well to him and become involved in the project.

The book does not spend a lot of space on the legal controversies over the ownership of Facebook. I do know that ownership of software copyright can be a difficult subject, and a particular incident at NBC where I worked in a mainframe environment back in 1977 comes to mind. While companies guard their code and design even for inhouse applications, in fact programmers take what they learn and write similar code in other companies. The issue may be more testy with object oriented programming than older procedural programming. But to a reasonable person, Facebook sounds like it is quite different from the earlier services Mark had worked on, sometimes without pay. That's one thing about Internet innovation: underlying paradigms of consumer use keep shifting.

There’s another thing about the OOP: when teenagers (or preteens) learn it, they can get very fluent at it, which explains in part the ability of kids to make the intellectual connections it takes to come up with a Napster or a Facebook. It’s much harder for older people, trained in other thought patterns, to make the switch, just as it is harder to learn foreign languages at later ages. In the book, Kirkpatrick documents Facebook’s rather brazen preference for youth.

Zuckerberg’s “ideology” seemed to develop over time, inductively. It seems to me he would have become aware of Dean Elena Kagan’s opposition to the military gay ban while at Harvard in 2003, it must have occurred to him in time that his innovation was the antithesis of a social “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality in society that had tempered older generations and led to the current policy for gays in the military. Facebook insists that a person has only one “identity”, and denies the value of anonymity. Whether that “identity” should always be searchable for “everyone” is a major piece of the privacy debate.) Zuckerberg’s idea of radical social networking denies the idea that work identity and personal identity can any longer be kept apart (so much for “don’t ask don’t tell” indeed).

Mark's evolution of thought shows in the gradual evolution of Facebook from a campus-specific service to a facility for almost everyone. There was a period in late 2005 where high schools could become separate "facebooks". It was about the same time that the controversy over the public implications of my own website erupted when I was substitute teaching. In retrospect, I wonder if the schools were concerned about the sudden effect of social media on the security of their environment and then connected the dots incorrectly.

Along with “radical social networking” (and probably “radical self-publication” as in my own 1997-or-so “innovation”), comes all the new problems of online reputation (enough to inspire Michael Fertik and others to start companies defending online reputations). Kirkpatrick documents numerous cases of lost jobs and broken relationships because of unexpected anomalies that can occur with Facebook use (including the entire photo tagging facility). But many of these had started happening before with convention Internet blogging and forum posting (again, my “BillBoushka” blog July 27, 2007 documents my own mishap with this). But Kirkpatrick’s chapter on Privacy is a valuable addition to the literature on the problem by other authors like law professor Daniel Solove. Facebook is becoming particularly a trove for divorce lawyers.

The other “ideological innovation” is Zuckerberg’s particular idea of a “gift economy” although it’s rather like the thinking of Bill Gates. Sometimes “pay it forward” really does make economic sense. Since the company is privately held (so far), with Zuckerberg having a lot of control, it has been able to approach monetization (such as advertising based on the visitor's profile and subsequent cross-sharing) based on philosophical ideas as well as short-tern results. That in turn would raise interesting legal questions were it a publicly traded company and does raise questions with investors.

Here is a YouTube interview with author David Kirkpatrick from Thomas Crampton.  Note that he says that Facebook doesn't see itself as a website, but as a paradigm for the structure of the Internet. It is almost like a "government."  We might use a Facebook ID as a social security number some day.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A novelist must ponder his "point of view": no one really is an "omniscient observer" in "real life"

It’s a little presumptuous (though not delinquent) to talk about one’s own writing on a books blog, although I see that I did this on June 5, where I used Amazon’s widget for my own book. And I outlined some plans for my novel on Dec 24, 2009 on my “BillBoushka” blog.

I’ve prepared an outline for the novel (tentatively called “Brothers” although I’m thinking more about “The Brothers’ Triangles” now), and shortened it from 140000 words to about 90000, I think.

One idea that I come back to is character perspective. Most of the time, novelists jump in on the first page, when “it started”, with inconspicuous events that are about to blow up. I know that there are writing coaches who preach the beginning-middle-end paradigm and say you need a crisis on page 1 to keep the reader engaged (remember how the movie “Vertigo” begins, and then where it goes). But typically, you have an “omniscient author” introducing his characters, who seem to be rediscovering themselves as much as they discover each other.

The first person view is more like real life. How often in my own life have I emulated someone, and imagined what discovering the person’s life would be like, and dreaded the possible perils that could come along the way. (This all came to a head with a particular matter in New York in 1978, but that’s for another post some day.) But a first-person viewpoint can be limited by its own logic (as taught in English classes); one viewer doesn’t really experience enough. A bigger problem comes if the first person narrator does not come across as a role model or inspire sympathy. The writing can become perfunctory and self-indulgent (feminine!)

So established novelists often tend to put vulnerable but likeable protagonists on stage and let them discover themselves – or rediscover themselves, more likely, the former selves that they have forgotten – by new, previously unthinkable, challenges.

So it is with my character Randy, the 30-something CIA agent who bluffs his students (but not his administration) and even his own wife and kids (aka “natural family”) to some extent as a good history teacher. (Yup, he makes his exams all essay.) He left the Army and did the same kind of work as a civilian, running around the world and checking for nuclear waste disposal. In the first chapter of the novel, where he has made a personal “pilgrimage” to the Auschwitz site by himself, and meets (and scopes) the mystery” college student Sal, whom he sees as a kind of paragon or “super ocelot” who won’t even develop the clay feet he is just starting to notice hanging from his own body. He is past summer. But, as novelist Clive Barker once pointed out, there is usually a third person, and usually one person at a time on stage. That may be the “life court reporter” and now super-blogger Bill (me), another aging ex-FBI agent Ali, whose physician ex-wife has discovered evidence of a previous unthinkable pandemic developing. Or it could be his own gifted middle school son, or the basketball-star-sized Matt, who see,s to have fallen to Earth. Randy realizes he looks forward to the “end of days” and a new kind of life, if only he can finish a rite out passage that he had missed out on in college and the Army.

Stephen King talks on ABC’s “The View” in November 2009 about keeping track of over 100 characters in “Under the Dome”. Remember, according to Barker, only three can interact at a time.

I'll have a new "real review" here soon, and I promise a humdinger. Happy Fourth!

Picture: Barker's "Second Dominion" ("Imajica") teaching from Pluthero Quexos in action.