November 2015 Media Round-Up (Books)



The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson


So I majored in computer science in college, but I’ve never been much of a tech geek. I have probably not even bothered feigning interest in just, like, so many conversations about the newest iPhone or the merits of Ubuntu or the latest software industry controversy or whatever the fuck. Some of the super early stuff is maybe interesting; I do love that the jacquard loom served as a precursor to the punch card mechanism used for programming computers, but that’s mostly because I fucking love textiles. And the Ada Lovelace-Lord Byron connection is, of course, delightful, although as a female computer scientist, one begins to tire of the Ada Lovelace hype (the selected quote below addresses this nicely).

Given a historical apathy regarding the subject matter and a general preference for fiction over non-fiction, why even read this book at all? Well, I saw Steve Jobs. Then I read about Steve Jobs on Wikipedia, as one does. Then I read about Walter Isaacson, author of the official Jobs biography and, as it happens, 2013 commencement speaker at my college, on Wikipedia; again, as one does. And because I was:

  1. having lingering computer Feels from Steve Jobs
  2. remembering how surprisingly not boring Isaacson’s commencement speech was, especially compared to the one given at my own commencement the next year (ugh, Valerie Jarrett)
  3. realizing that I really don’t have a good sense of when computers and/or the Internet started being A Thing and that perhaps those are things that I should know in order to be not a complete failure of a CS major
  4. watching a lot of Jeopardy! and thus trying to amass trivia knowledge

I bought this book.

And it was excellent! I think Isaacson managed to incorporate a good blend of technical information and fun anecdotes/personal information about the subjects, without pandering too obviously to either the hardcore geeks or the non-technical pop science readers. That’s probably a hard balance to achieve, and there was a tiny bit too much repetition of what I think was meant to be his thesis, i.e “[The] main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources.”, but that’s kind of fine—it’s a solid thesis.

Selected quote:

Over the years, Ada Lovelace has been celebrated as a feminist icon and a computer pioneer. For example, the U.S. Defense Department named its high-level object-oriented programming language Ada. However, she has also been ridiculed as delusional, flighty, and only a minor contributor to the “Notes” that bear her initials. As she herself wrote in those “Notes,” referring to the Analytical Engine but in words that also describe her fluctuating reputation, “In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case.”


Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh


It’s possible that this is a little bit too much Of Its Time to fully connect with a modern reader whose knowledge of the set Waugh’s satirising is almost entirely derived from Downton Abbey. Which isn’t really a criticism—satire needs to be super specific to work, and that also means it won’t (and shouldn’t) age that well. And there are some bits in Vile Bodies that are still relevant to society today, as well as some passages that were funny/clever/interesting regardless, but I definitely felt like I was missing something and not enjoying it to the extent that contemporary readers would have, which is frustrating.

Selected quote:

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. … Those vile bodies …)


Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell


No longer as charmed by Vowell’s writing voice as I used to be–not sure if this is a change in her style over time, or a change in myself, or both. I knew approximately zero about the history of Hawaii beforehand, though, so I did learn something, but the organization and delivery of the information makes me dubious about my future retention of this knowledge. Just kind of a whatever read.

Selected quote:

Yale was founded by finicky Protestants who worried that the Puritans at Harvard weren’t puritanical enough. But the Revolutionary War brought the Age of Reason to New Haven, and [Timothy] Dwight inherited a student body full of deist beatniks on the Enlightenment highway to hell, which is to say, France. This generation did not just read Voltaire; they literally addressed each other as “Voltaire” the way kids today call one another dude. Like, “Voltaire, I’m so high right now.”

So I read JPod right after finishing my first and, well, last year of grad school, and at some point afterwards decided it would be a great idea to read Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland’s entire novelistic output in that weird period of “oh god let’s hope quitting my PhD program wasn’t a terrible idea” unemployment. These were the two Coupland novels that I had left, and I started work in December, so: mission accomplished! Not much to say about either novel individually, so let’s just have some good quotes and a half-assed ranking.

All Families are Psychotic, Douglas Coupland

Selected quote:

She was angry because she was unable to remember and reexperience her life as a continuous movie-like event. There were only bits of punctuation here and there—the kiss, the jam, the dried flowers—which, when assembled, made Janet who she was—yet there seemed to be no divine logic behind the assemblage. Or any flow. All those bits were merely…bits.

Hey Nostradamus!, Douglas Coupland

Selected quote:

I am not a stupid woman, I am aware that there is a world out there that functions without regard to me. There are wars and budgets and bombings and vast dimensions of wealth and greed and ambition and corruption. And yet I don’t feel a part of that world, and I wouldn’t know how to join if I tried. I live in a condo in a remote suburb of a remote city. It rains a lot here. I need groceries and I go to the shopping center. Sometimes they’ll be rebuilding a road and putting those bright blue plastic pipes down in holes; there’ll be various grades of gravel in conical piles, and I almost short-circuit when I think of all the systems that are in place to keep our world moving. Where does all the gravel come from? Where do they make blue plastic pipes? Who dug the holes? How did it reach the point where everyone agreed to be doing this? Airports almost make me speechless, what with all of those people in little jumpsuits eagerly bopping about doing some highly qualified task. I don’t know how the world works, only that it seems to do so, and I leave it at that.

A Half-Assed Ranking of Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland’s Novelistic Output (Except for That One Novel That Was Only Published in Japan, Apparently):

  1. Generation A
  2. jPod
  3. Eleanor Rigby
  4. Microserfs
  5. The Gum Thief
  6. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
  7. Worst. Person. Ever
  8. Player One
  9. Miss Wyoming
  10. Shampoo Planet
  11. All Families Are Psychotic
  12. Hey Nostradamus!
  13. Girlfriend in a Coma



Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, Douglas Coupland


But wait! What about Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland’s non-novelistic output?

Yep, so I read this biography of a dude I’ve never heard of—although actually I think he did get name-dropped in the Isaacson book. And would it have helped to have come into this with a sense of what McLuhan actually did? Maybe. But whatever, it was still pretty readable, obviously, given the author, and the footnotes were delightful. Not at all surprisingly, Coupland has a really solid perspective on biography and innovation. Also some interesting theories about the relationship between Canada’s geography/history and mass communication.

Selected quote:

From footnotes:

I sometimes feel like an android from Mars when reading about what people in the past read, studied, and thought—to see what they were inflamed by, to see what they valued. The only rule of thumb is that academic regimes invariably come and go, denunciations are made, careers are destroyed, scores are settled, people die, someone’s book gets made into a movie, vogues come and go, biographies mildew. Meanwhile, each new generation approaches the past like a box of Christmas decorations brought down from the attic: the curation of what survives operated by chains of events that rival the arbitrary selection and deletion processes used to assemble team members on TV reality show.

From actual text:

Okay. The thing about a genius idea is that, the moment someone hears it, they say, “Well that’s obvious.”

When hit with a genius idea, people also tend to say, “Well, if I sat down in a chair and really thought about it, I could have had that genius idea, too.” But they didn’t—and even if they’d wanted to, it could never have happened. For a person to have a genius idea, millions of biographical factors need to be in place, and if even one of those factors is missing, well, there goes the genius idea.


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