Category Books

Amazon and the Kindle: A customer service tale…

Early in my experience with the Kindle DX, which I love and use constantly, I put the default Amazon case or cover on it. The cover attaches to the Kindle through two metal tabs that engage in the side of the Kindle’s plastic case. It’s not a bad cover, but it turns out that if you open the cover upside down accidentally (easy to do since the nondescript black leatherette looks about the same apart from the Amazon logo), the metal tabs flex the Kindle’s case and it can become cracked. Mine was within 2 weeks of getting the device, but without any real damage. I kept using the Kindle since I didn’t want to hassle with returns, migrating content, or being without my Kindle.

Last Friday night, I open an email from Amazon, and it contains a friendly reminder about my Kindle warranty and what it provides me. And in the middle, a little paragraph precisely describing what can happen if you open the default cover/case backwards — describing the cracking I’ve got. And the email encourages you to get in touch with Support.

Of Paradise Terrestre, Two Years Hence

Next Monday — Bastille Day — marks two years since I packed up and moved north to San Juan Island. Much has changed in my life in the ensuing two years, but much that is important to me has stayed the same. Indeed, I feel increasingly as if I live and belong here, at long last.

Each spring, as I have for years now, I re-read Lawrence Durrell’s Reflections of a Marine Venus, whose opening page speaks so directly to me:

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irrestistable. The mere knowledge that the are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’

Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus

As I said, though the island provides constancy, friendship, and an abiding sense of peace and belonging, much has changed. I now travel down to Seattle on a weekly basis, to work at Gridnetworks and the UW campus. I gladly spend time in Seattle when it means I can see friends, family, and most especially T.

This weekend, in celebration of this anniversary in my life, I’ve invited friends and family to come up to the island, mingle with new Island friends, and eat terrific food and drink good wine. July in the islands seems to call for outdoor living and dining on the deck, as well as greater-than-ordinary culinary efforts. So I’m smoking and grilling a whole wild boar, from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas, Cuban-style, and serving it with cuban black beans, rice, and fried plantains, accompanied by good rose, Chablis, and various red wines. I finished the fire pit for the boar roast today, and I’ll post pictures later this weekend. More soon.

Sunday Night Windstorm, and What I’m Doing and Studying

I just came in from standing on the deck, under clear skies, a partial moon, and the most amazing windstorm. The moon made visible the big waves crashing on the rocks below me, and the whitecaps out in the channel. It’s been blowing hard all day, without cease, and I’m happy to be inside with a wood stove and food on the stove. A brief respite at home before another stretch at the office. I haven’t quite figured out the optimal amount of time to spend down in Seattle, but I’m pretty sure it’s shorter than I’ve been spending as things heat up at work. Seeing friends and doing things in Seattle is great, but I miss the island. The slow process of meeting people and “becoming a local” has all but stopped as I commute back and forth.

I haven’t written much here since late December, but only because life has reached a fever pitch again, and the brief times I have free away from a full schedule need to be devoted to research and my dissertation, not idle contemplation for my website. But we’re in the thick swamp of an election season, unseasonably early of course, and I haven’t written anything about the candidates, the primaries, the debates, as I did for much of 2004. I can’t promise to get back to regular posting before Super Tuesday, but I hope to soon thereafter. Or as soon as I can get my two projects more firmly underway (one paper, one poster) for the SAA (Society for American Archaeology) meetings in late March in Vancouver. Both are co-authored with Alex Bentley and Carl Lipo, and we’re working on the statistical consequences of expressing formal models of cultural transmission within realistic social networks.

For those unfamiliar with cultural transmission, this is the observation that humans are not born with a hard-coded set of cultural behaviors (in the sense of genetically transmitted) but learn, over the course of child development and throughout life, ways of behaving and believing and thinking through interaction with others in our social groups. In a formal sense, cultural transmission is modeled mathematically through analogues of haploid population genetics models (Wright-Fisher and Moran processes), replicator dynamics and allied models from evolutionary game theory, and the contact and voter models in the study of “interacting particle systems” or spatial stochastic processes by probability theorists and statistical physicists. An open question, whose likely answer is “yes,” is that these methods of modeling cultural learning and transmission are formally equivalent, given appropriate variations of population structure and the focus on deterministic versus stochastic models. But more of that in future posts, hopefully.

Basically, I’m working with some collaborators studying models of social learning and communication, for predictive ensemble or spatial statistical “signatures” in cultural data which are mapped spatially and dated temporally. A “signature” would be a unique pattern of statistical properties which tells us how a given population was structured (in terms of social networks) given the results of how cultural information flowed within the population, and came to be reflected in material objects or artifacts. An example would be a model in which we learn about, and adopt, preferences for songs and music from our social network of friends, but in an unbiased fashion — we occasionally adopt the preferences of a colleague or associate. What statistical properties does this local process of imitation have, when projected into a “global” perspective — statistical patterns within a population, spatial patterns in kinds of data we can map and chart?

Of course, we all know that the model I just described is pretty simplistic. Nobody “just copies” their friends, let alone doing so without any filters, biases, and on a strict “coin flip” or probabilistic basis. But it turns out it sure can look that way when you aggregate the results of many people imitating, choosing, learning, and adopting ideas. So this kind of model is a good “null hypothesis” for a simplistic kind of cultural communication — anything more realistic will have to depart from this simple random model in striking, hopefully unique ways.

Being able to find unique, predictive patterns from more complex models of cultural learning and communication is possible, but not guaranteed — it is easily possible (maybe even likely) that several different kinds of social situations could lead to the same overall patterns at a local, regional, or even global level. We call this problem “equifinality” — the data we have are insufficient to distinguish between several possible processes, so given our models and data, each process is “equally likely” to have caused the observed pattern.

This type of research is what I’ve been engaged in for a long time — at least since 1995, with conference papers, publications, and Carl Lipo’s dissertation research covering some of the results. Now I’m extending our previous work and learning a lot of math, probability, and population genetics in the process. It’s fascinating stuff, but in addition to the job at GridNetworks the work keeps me pretty busy.

This is all by way of explanation for my longish absences from writing something here. I hope to remedy that, as I said, but there’s some serious work between now and then.

Harry Potter and Everyman as Hero

One last post on the now-completed Harry Potter series and then I’ll shut up; after all, Congress has just issued contempt subpoenas and it’s time for the next act in the Constitutional kabuki being played out in ultra-slow motion in Washington, D.C.

Among the more obtuse commentaries on the wrap-up of Harry Potter 7 is Will Leitch, on Slate this week, who hated the Epilogue for its ordinariness, domesticity, and its lack of apparent grandeur, calling it an “apparent waste.” Leitch asks, “Did we really go through all this just to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione take up residence on a cul-de-sac?

Well, Mr. Leitch – yes we did. And anything else would have been very disappointing, given the previous six books.

I believe Rowling brought us full circle to reinforce a central theme of the series. Aside from Voldemort, who until the final pages is superhuman, good and evil in the series are fought over by very ordinary people. Those who fight on both sides, with the exception of the sociopathic Bellatrix Lestrange, are relatively normal (apart from being magical, of course), with ordinary concerns and fears. Even the Malfoys, long a focus of evil deeds in the series, are revealed as being not that different than you or I. The Malfoys appear to welcome Voldemort’s return, but everyone (including the Dark Lord) can tell that they’d be just as happy if the past had stayed safely buried and Lucius could continue cashing in on his reputation as a former badass, instead of subjecting his wife and son to the realities of being part of the inner circle of Death Eaters once more. Ditto with his wife and son. There’s barely a scene in Book Seven where Draco doesn’t look sick at how this long-imagined power and freedom from morality really turned out.

On the side of good in the series, our combatants are — if anything — even more ordinary. Harry is revealed in Book Six as the purely accidental focus of Voldemort’s grand plans. His greatness stems not from his parentage (though of course some of his protection does), but from his need to deal with the consequences of that accident of history. Dumbledore himself has a complex past, revealed for the first time only in Book Seven, but capable of mistakes and hubris and miscalculation as any ordinary person is. Snape’s motivation in playing double-agent and protecting Harry turns out to be the oldest and simplest motivation around: love. Nor does life stop being lived: even as the final battle between good and evil approaches, Remus and Tonks have a son, Bill and Fleur are married, and our protagonists finally reach the age where romance is nearly as important as the location of the Horcruxes. Ordinariness permeates even the final showdown: Mrs. Weasley launches into battle with the purely evil Bellatrix, with the war cry of a mother defending her young: “Not my daughter, you b*tch!” The casualties, unlike the largely nameless dead of Tolkien’s classic battles, are friends, family, loved ones.

In short, Rowling shows us how we would fight (and hopefully defeat) tyranny and evil — not as professionals, not as superheroes — but just as normal people like you and I. Even the worst threat to our way of life requires nothing more than mobilizing ourselves, recognizing the threats, and organizing to meet them, or so I think Rowling would have us believe. Unlike the Lord of the Rings — from which Rowling seems to take inspiration in many ways, but in which humble Strider turns out to be King Aragorn, destined to rule all Middle-Earth, and the Ring-bearing hobbits are granted eternal life — Rowling shows us that ordinary people can act in extraordinary ways to stop extraordinary evil, and yet desire nothing more as reward than the return of normalcy. The cozy domesticity of the epilogue is thus critical to the entire series. Harry, for all his strength and eventual wisdom, gets precisely what he’s always wanted: a normal life, with the ability to send his children off to school knowing they’ll be safe, returning with Ginny to their house on Leitch’s imagined cul-de-sac.

We used to call that kind of ending “living happily ever after.”

J.K. Rowling and a Morality Tale for Modernity

Having just finished the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, I want to record some thoughts about the “shape” the series has taken, and how Rowling’s work fits into, and comments upon, the modern condition. I’ll try to do so without “spoilers,” since I know many folks haven’t read book 7 yet or at least haven’t finished it.

It seems clear to me that Rowling’s series will have an enduring place in both the fantasy and children’s canons, in much the same way that Tolkien does, and for many of the same reasons. Naysayers aside, Rowling has created a deeply imagined world, and although she may not have actually written a grammar for Parseltongue or endless volumes of back history notes, the world itself is rich enough to interest children and adults alike as long as the genre itself remains part of our shared cultural heritage.

Her legacy as more than fantasy, more than children’s literature, however, depends entirely upon the relevance of her themes to the concerns adults face in our society — as with so much literature. And I need to add that I discuss Rowling along these lines only because she herself appears to have invited such comparisons by writing a series rich in historical parallels; by writing a morality tale steeped in modern life.

As I finished Rowling’s final book in the series, I was reminded immediately of Richard Rorty’s commentary upon Orwell’s historical legacy:

Orwell’s best novels will be widely read only as long as we describe the politics of the twentieth century as Orwell did. How long that will be will depend on the contingencies of our political future: on what sort of people will be looking back on ours, on how events in the next century will reflect back on ours, on how people will describe the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cold War…..Someday this description of our century may come to seem blinkered or shortsighted….Our descendants will read him as we read Swift — with admiration for a man who served human liberty, but with little inclination to adopt his classification of political tendencies or his vocabulary of moral and political deliberation….In the forty years since Orwell wrote, as far as I can see, nobody has come up with a better way of setting out the political alternatives which confront us. Taking his earlier warnings against the greedy and stupid conservatives together with his warnings against the Communist oligarchs, his description of our political situation — of the dangers and options at hand — remains as useful as any we possess. (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 169-170).

One need not have read the seventh and final book to understand the shape of Rowling’s allegory (but naturally, the force of it becomes much clearer as one sees the details of Voldemort’s return and rise to power). I do claim, though, that Rowling has done a superb job in describing a particular phenomenon: the ordinariness and mundanity of tyranny’s origins.

The Lord of the Rings may inspire us, and we may see in it the quintessential struggle between good and evil, but very little of Tolkien’s morality tale is of much use to us today. We simply do not describe modern life the way Tolkien did, and thus in Rorty’s words we read him as we read Swift. Rowling’s tale, on the other hand, was crafted precisely to describe us. The Wizarding world is palpably our own, with an overlay of magic — but even the magic is law-like and “ordinary” (i.e., wizards must work for basic necessities, and cannot simply conjure food or shelter).

Most importantly, over the course of the series, but especially from book 4 onwards, we are treated to a compressed history of 20th century absolutisms. Dark power has reigned in the past, but was conquered by an alliance of the good. Years later, people are tired of grand struggles and appear more than ready to dismiss all the signs of evil’s return. Vested interests combine with those who simply wish to protect their skins (e.g., the Malfoys), or are in denial (e.g., early Dolores Umbridge?) to wield the power of media, the state, and peer pressure to deny that anything is amiss. Those who preach vigilence against the return of evil are dismissed as fools or worse. Only a few are truly committed — either to evil or to fighting its return. And because most are simply seeking “the quiet life,” the actual battles, when fought, are the province of a tiny minority who fight on behalf of their different visions of society.

I’m not claiming that Rowling literally replays the history of the 20th century for us in the Harry Potter books. She doesn’t. But, at least to me, there are elements (especially in the final book, which I won’t spoil) which recall the Nuremburg Laws, Hitler’s rise to power, and to look for wider parallels, the search for “purity,” whether racial or national. Nor are the triumphs of the left ignored: Hermione’s long-standing crusade on behalf of house-elves (even more critical in the last book) mirrors the 20th century civil rights movements and its cultural offspring, with the message that democracy and freedom depend upon equality and inclusiveness. The latter point will sound like a bit of a stretch, until Book Seven.

Clearly it’s possible to read the Harry Potter series without hearing serious echoes of Kristallnacht. But for an adult, with basic familiarity with 20th century history, it seems difficult to read the series and ignore its essential point: our vulnerability comes from complacency and comfort, but so does our security, because only our relative abundance and our freedom of speech allows us to expand our moral universe to include those traditionally excluded: the Muggle-born, house-elves, goblins, and giants, and in our world, those of different colors, beliefs, and cultures.

Rowling has written the morality tale for modernity, and indeed likely for our “post-modern” century as well, because “evil” in our world tends to come in the same form as hers: the belief that purity — of one sort or another — is the cure for our dissatisfaction, and that diversity, hybridity, and difference are weakness. As long as we continue to describe our struggles and dangers in the same way, as long as those who seek to destroy liberal democracy (in the broadest sense of the term) do so in the name of a hypothetical, “pure” state of religion, culture, or race, we will still have much to learn from J.K. Rowling.

Of Paradise Terrestre, A Year Hence

A year ago this weekend, I moved north from Seattle to my new home on San Juan Island. The past year has been both quiet and eventful, which was pretty much the mixture I was seeking, given that the previous decade was merely eventful, with only brief moments of relaxation. I returned this morning from a week in Seattle, dealing with personal errands, seeing friends, and attending a wedding reception, and as always, stress and anxiety bleed away once past the kiosk at the Anacortes ferry dock. Once I’ve made the ferry, I have only to sit back, read or study, and very soon I’m watching green and brown island slopes slide past, mountains in distant background glimpses, occasionally an eagle or seal.

After a week or so in the city, I’m always blown away when I return home, particularly to my little corner of the islands: the expansive meeting place of San Juan Channel, President’s Channel, Rocky Bay, and the more distant Haro Strait. As I sit here, after a nice dinner out on the deck (roasted chicken and potatoes, greek salad, Bandol rose), the cooling weather brings up a salty, seaweedy breeze from the water — amazingly refreshing after a week of unreasonably hot weather in Seattle.

As every summer, but especially these last two years, I recall Durrell’s opening lines in my favorite “travel” book:

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’

Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus

I barely recall the thought process that seized me in the winter of 2006, and set me on the path to this gorgeous spot: closing the doors at Network Clarity, losing my mother and aunt in the same year, the drive every day from Seattle to Redmond….and the urge to simply flee. Originally I thought about Saltspring Island, to be closer to friends up there, but I have no regrets that I stayed this side of the border. The border which I look out upon in Haro Straight, just past Spieden and Flattop Islands.

Last night I talked with a friend at a wedding reception, and it turned out we’d both rented the same villa in Bandol, in Provence. We shared some memories of sitting on the deck there, overlooking the Mediterranean and within a few minutes of the Tempier vineyards to the north. My friend is considering looking for property in Bandol, and for the briefest moment last night I thought….maybe. Those thoughts were banished by the ferry ride today, the sea air tonight, and the upcoming sunset. Wherever else I may visit, I really have found my Paradise Terrestre. I have no regrets and regard myself lucky beyond measure.