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Day March 14, 2005

Book #14: A Place So Foreign, and Eight More, by Cory Doctorow

I needed a bit more relaxation this weekend, after struggling through some of the more abstract chapters of math background in Penrose’s Road to Reality. So I grabbed Cory Doctorow’s A Place So Foreign and Eight More from its sad, neglected place in my “incoming” stacks. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’d been intrigued but ultimately unsatisfied by Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s first novel and the source of much Net fascination over “whuffie” economics. I think my mediocre reaction to D&O ultimately led to Place So Foreign languishing in the to-do pile for so long (Amazon reports that I bought the book in Oct 2003, so that’ll tell you how big the “incoming” stack has gotten…).

Not all of these short stories grabbed my attention, but at least two are gems. “To Market, To Market: The Re-branding of Billy Bailey” is a superb story about a world where elementary school kids fashion self-images as “brands,” seeking sponsorships from companies who get the benefits of viral marketing. Fasincating — though scary — idea, and incredibly well done.

But the best story of the lot is “0wnzored” (with zeros, in case your font doesn’t show the difference). A fast-paced tale of bioengineering and the frontiers of hacking, the story immerses you in Silicon Valley/tech industry geek culture. I felt overwhelmingly nostalgic for 1996 reading it.

OK. Back to serious reading, including Levy’s Original Intent and the Founder’s Constitution, as well as finally getting to the physics chapters in Penrose….

Book #13: Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties, by David Kusnet

I picked up Kusnet’s book after reading his New Republic article on the Inaugural speech. Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Clinton, Dukakis, and Mondale, is well-placed to comment on how Democrats continue to “get it wrong” when speaking on the issues. Speaking American is an older book, from right before the 1992 elections, and this was the book’s real attraction. Kusnet was writing at a time when Democrats had last won the White House in 1976, and had fielded two lackluster candidates in a row. Clinton’s magical ability to connect with people on both sides of the aisle was yet unknown to most of us.

And Kusnet’s message was that Democrats had been getting away from their roots, and were losing the middle class through a lack of populism. Dukakis was the epitome of this problem — perceived widely as an Eastern elitist, he failed to convince the middle class that he firmly grasped their interests, mostly because the rhetoric of the Democrats since McGovern had drifted towards talk of the poor, rather than the working middle class.

I won’t go through the details here, because in fact I read the book to anchor some thoughts I hope to post on Progressive Commons. Suffice it to say that in looking at a wholly unrepresentative sample of Democratic speeches from the 2004 campaign, I think we’ve learned some of the lessons Kusnet discusses but not all, and Kerry in particular was unable to project the right image even though he said many of the right words.