Book Report: Down at the Docks

Back in 1999, I traveled in New England. I told intrepid traveler Tom Manshreck that I was going to visit New Bedford. He said ""Yeah, man--New Bedford used to be a good place to go to--to get shot!" but that it was better now. The book Down at the Docks is about those aspects of New Bedford which made it a good place to get shot.

This book is... it talks about the people of New Bedford. There are a few, uhm, protagonists, locals who the author talks to. The book has slices-of-life from these folks. It also has swaths of city history. These are not nice people. These people are scary. New Bedford used to be a good place to go to to get shot. Murder, you bet. Rape--famous for rape. (And, in one incident, a rally in support of some rapists.) Junkies stealing anything that's not nailed down. Non-junkies stealing plenty, too. Sinking boats for insurance fraud. Setting fire to factories for insurance fraud.

Along the way, some darned good writing about some darned interesting people. Terrible things happen, but you can't look away, the book carries you along. Very recommended, but it helps if you have a strong stomach.

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Book Report: Oil!

This is the book that the movie "There Will Be Blood" was based on. But that's not how I heard of this book. I saw Word for Word perform the first chapter. This group acts out short stories and stuff--but instead of just giving the dialog, they give all the words from the book. It sounds like a stupid idea, but it turns out to be pretty darned good. Probably because they choose material that works well. And are good actors.

Anyhow, I was in Chicago and needed a book to keep me from going insane on the flight back home. At the IIT bookstore, they had a lot of books about architecture and engineering and not much else. This was one of the books in the "else" category. I didn't have high hopes. But this book was pretty good!

It's a story of oil and moviemaking in Southern California. It shows you how the Southern California economy works--that is, largely through bribery. (It doesn't really talk about water rights... but it talks about enough.) It's sorta like Candide set in SoCal--the son of an oil magnate grows up with good intentions, and gradually figures out why society's machinations cause so many people to have rough lives. The sad part about this book is that it holds up Communist Russia as the system that would save the people from their misery. But... this book was written back before WWII, and word hadn't gotten back that the Commies were just as corrupt as the capitalists.

Ah, corruption. There's the old saying that an honest politician is one who stays bought. This book had a variation.

Now [the politician] was to give the oil men a whole string of valuable leases for practically nothing; but he had to have more money. That was the trouble in dealing with politicians; you bought them before election, and then you had to buy them again after the election, they wouldn't "stay put," like business men.

When I go back and re-read that paragraph, it sounds like the book is a total downer. But it's funny. I meant what I said about Candide--this book is has bleak humor. It's good. Check it out.

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Book Report: The Great Gamble

It's a book about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, telling it from the Soviet point of view, based on interviews with Soviet soldiers. It's like a horror movie where you want to yell at the characters, "No! Don't go in there! Haven't you studied the genre?" But this is one of those stories that defined its genre.

The Soviet Army went in without a goal. It's not clear that they ever really declared war against Afghanistan. Just started moving troops in, took some territory over. They thought they'd be welcomed as folks replacing corrupt leaders with good government, but it didn't work out that way.

Suppliers were supposed to supply the Soviet troops. But suppliers were corrupt and those supplies went elsewhere. Starving, the Soviet troops stole from the locals. Theft did not convince the locals that this was a liberating army... more like a looting horde.

The war dragged on. At first, the Soviet tactics failed them when they went up out of the valleys, into the mountains. They had tanks, good for flat land. Eventually, as the war dragged on, the Soviets got better at dealing with the mountains. But it still wasn't clear why they were there, what they were trying to accomplish, when it would be time for them to go home. The local army wasn't eager to fight the mountain rebels.

Other countries gleefully sent weapons into the area. The USA Stinger anti-aircraft weapons took out many helicopters.

There was death, there was betrayal. There were good things, too.

Eventually, the Soviets pulled out. The war veterans were treated like heroes... for a little while, until the USSR fell apart. Plenty of them were pretty messed up physically, mentally.

It's a sad story.

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Book Report: Killing Neighbors

I used to work for a lady named Lee Ann Fujii. She was pretty cool, so when I heard that she wrote a book, I figured I'd read it to see what she's been up to. She's now a foreign policy wonk specializing in Rwanda... so this was an intense read.

Before I ever heard from LAFujii about this stuff, I knew what "everybody knows": the Rwandan genocide was the result of ancient tribal conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi once again boiling over. Except, it turns out, that's not quite right.

Back when Belgium had a big colonial empire, they spread that story of the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. But those weren't ancient tribes. They were recent creations--but it was convenient for the Belgians to say that they just wanted to deal with the Tutsi. So they kept re-telling the Hutu/Tutsi/Twa thing until it seemed natural.

But that's stuff that I'd heard years ago. There's more in this book. In this intense book.

This book has interviews with folks who were there during the killings. This book has interviews with witnesses. This book has interviews with killers.

The book has a thesis. These killings--they weren't really a genocide. This was mass murder, but not necessarily directed at a tribe. If a local gang leader wanted someone killed, they could probably have that person killed, no matter what tribe that person was in. It was easier if that person was Tutsi, but... But people switched tribes. If you were a Tutsi, you could follow the survival strategy of saying your were Hutu and, you know, go find some Tutsis to kill. Or you could just bribe gang leaders to overlook you. The official story was racial conflict--but when you looked deeper, it seemed more like killers used racial conflict as an excuse to kill enemies, to boost prestige, to pillage. There was even a, uhm, community-building aspect--one way to build community is to share experience--like, say, killing your neighbors.

So... that was bleak and cynical.

But it gets more intense than that.


Because when you look at the details, it seems like something that could happen here. It seems like something that could happen anywhere. If you say "ancient ethnic hatred", that sounds unlike where I live. But when you break it down into cases, and you see how killers can talk themselves into killing.

On 9/11 2001, Islamic fundie terrorists killed many Americans. Some Americans responded by attacking Sikhs. That was tragic, ignorant, and awful. It stopped. What if it had kept going. What if local leaders had seen a way to consolidate their power by demonizing "towelheads"? What if our government had spread rumors that secret cells of turbaned terrorists were plotting to aid an immanent invasion?

That didn't happen. But when you see how it went down in Rwanda, you think "Yeah, I can see how people would react that way. Yeah, and I can see how that could lead to that." All the way up to killings.

Read it on a day when you'll be out with friends later so that they can cheer you back up again.

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Book Report: Designing Web Usability

This book is about web usability. It's kinda old, from the year 2000.

Reading it with this historical hindsight was somewhat discouraging. Apparently, webmasters have made the same mistakes for several years.

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Book Report: Spin State

I liked Spin State, a science fiction novel by Chris Moriarty. It's science fiction but with a story in which the characters make mistakes. That's a good thing. I actually found myself thinking literature-ish thoughts, all mixed up in there with the quantum entanglement. It's good to think about quantum entanglement and human frailty at the same time. Plenty of the action takes place in a claustrophobia-inducing mine. Well, I don't think that the characters were getting claustrophobic, but I was. A tense book.

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Book Report: DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC

This is a book about DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, a start up that grew big. The author argues that some of the things that made it a great start-up, a great place to work... these things also were the seeds of DEC's destruction. The company believed in innovation and shipped many products. But it never had a good way to figure out which of these products made money and which were a drain. And there were plenty of drains. Similarly, the company trusted its people to do great work and didn't waste time trying to monitor people. But there were some people who weren't doing great work and some people working on useless things. There was no way to detect these people. The company used the honor system, and it's quicker+easier to get a picture of what the company is doing if you trust the reports of a few managers instead of putting a lot of effort into cross-checking. But once some manager started distorting facts, trust backfired.

While the company did well, these problems weren't serious. The products that did well financed the others. But as microcomputers chased out DEC's minicomputers and the company needed to change, these problems became more important. The lack of clarity about which parts of the company were doing well made it difficult to steer the company towards survival.

This was a discouraging book. It suggests that a company that grows past a certain point runs into some awful problems--problems whose solutions are only mildly better than the problems. I work at a big company. I don't want to spend a lot of time reporting on what I do; just to help fact-check. I don't want to be limited to projects that fit a certain mold so that higher-ups have an easier time keeping track of what the company overall is doing. This book suggests that my attitude might doom my company. I hope it's wrong.

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Book Report: Deliver the Vote

Deliver the Vote is a history of crooked elections in the U.S. of A. It doesn't try to describe all crooked elections. Just some good stories, just enough to fill up a few hundred pages.

George Washington bought booze for voters. As far as corrupt electioneering goes, this was pretty benign--Washington wasn't having anybody beat up, shot, or what-have-you. He was just handing out alcohol. Our elections nowadays are fairly harmless--the theft is done through miscounting, not through violence. But there's been a constant theme of theft. If anyone tells you that the 2000 election was an anomaly, laugh at them.

Bleeding Kansas.

Rutherfraud Hayes.

In the late 1800s, Southern Democrats weren't happy about black folks, generally Republicans, getting the vote. So the Democrats used violence and ballot-stuffing to wipe out those votes. When you hear about civil rights folks heading South, risking harm at the hands of violent racist Southerners, it's easy to think, "Well, that violence happened because these 'invaders' riled them up." But the violence had been going on the whole time.

A polling place gets moved to a place where some uppity neighborhood's residents can't find it. Mysterious boxes of votes are "found" late on election night. When the women of Texas wanted suffrage, it was once voted down, with most of the votes coming from mysterious precincts whose polls had never opened.

Bush/Gore does get a mention--the overseas absentee ballots that arrived after the election ended, many without postmarks, but which were nonetheless counted.

Maybe we get the government we deserve, but we don't necessarily get the government we mostly ask for.

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Book Report: A Far Country

Scouting game locations for a puzzle hunt, e.g. BANG 19, is time-consuming but fun. It's a good excuse to go out on a tour of not-in-front-of-your-computer. Plus, since you're trying to find places that are good for puzzle-solving, you spend most of your time in comfortable places, carefully observing: is this place quite comfortable enough for puzzle-solving? Is it perhaps even more comfortable than that previous place? Don't rush to any conclusions, now. Loiter a little longer if you have to. Not all places are so comfortable, of course. These places are not so good for puzzling and/or visiting; you might want to read about them, though.

You saw my book reports about Shadow Cities and Planet of Slums and thought, "I dunno if I want to read some rant about mass migrations of third-worlders from rural land to urban slums... maybe I'll just wait for the novel." Your wait is over, Daniel "The Piano Tuner" Mason has written that novel; it's named A Far Country. A family is torn apart, clings together. Country folks make their way through a city which works by its own rules. Life in a shantytown. Bleak, bleak, bleak. People take risks and harm passes over them. People play it safe and fate crushes them. And yet... the story is compelling. I read it through, not even put off when Magical Realism reared its ugly head.

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Book Report: The Next Catastrophe

I'm going to Jury Duty today. Oh, gee. What if I get picked for a trial that goes on for three years? What if I'm sequestered? Does that mean no internet? What a catastrophe that would be. Oh hey, segue for The Next Catastrophe.

Why are we, as a nation, so unprepared for catastrophes? Why is FEMA riddled with incompetent political cronies? Why is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission slow to shut down poorly-managed nuclear reactors? The book The Next Catastrophe explains why we are doomed. It's difficult to tax people for a disaster-readiness organization. It's not "sexy". On the other hand, it's easy to pass yet another emergency aid bill for whichever region got hit by a major storm this year. Also, our recent government insists on spending money invading Iraq instead of on, say, setting up better fences around our local chemical plants.

This was a discouraging book. It probably won't do much good--the people who need to act aren't paying attention.

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Book Report: China: Fragile Superpower

This book is about China.

This book makes me want to hide my eyes and say "I hope you're wrong." It paints a discouraging picture.

The Chinese government fears overthrow by popular uprising. The government quashes dissent. The government's propaganda arm, an especially conservative group, demonizes Japan, America, and Taiwan. That's pretty much all of what the citizens hear about the world outside of China: just about three countries, and they're all awful. Students who want to become political--they know that if they protest their own government, they'll be stopped. So they protest America, Japan, or Taiwan.

The government tends to overreact in crises, painting itself into corners. When the world spotlight is on China, the China government rattles sabers--because it needs to appear strong to the people, too strong to overthrow. Saber-rattling has been pretty harmless so far, because China hasn't had the military strength to plausibly do much. But China's becoming more powerful. Japan is re-arming.

USA senators have an interesting way of encouraging China to be more humane: when China does something inhumane, punish China; when China does something humane, punish China. This makes it hard to nudge China towards being more humane.

We're all doomed. I want a cookie.

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Book Report: Invisible Man

Yesterday, I went to a game party at work. I won a couple of games, which was more than my share. You might think that means I'm a brilliant strategist, until you find out what games I won (and how). There was Syzygy, where I drew many many wildcard tiles. Lucky, lucky. And there was The Great Dalmuti, wherein I won the original low-card draw, thus setting myself up for a big advantage in the game proper. Lucky, lucky. Maybe I'm a lucky person. When people ask me if I really believe I'm a lucky person, I point out that I was born a white male in the USA; then they don't know what to think. So that makes two of us. Ah, race. Race race race.

As I started reading The Invisible Man, I thought I knew the gimmick: a story about an invisible man which pokes fun at the social invisibility of African Americans at the time. But that wasn't it. This book is about the politics of race. It doesn't even seem to be about invisibility--its protagonist is a public speaker; people act on his suggestions.

In the end, I enjoyed this book but it took a while after I finished it to figure that out. As I read it, I waited for it to turn into a book that matched its title. When the protagonist goes to work in a paint factory and works with chemicals he doesn't understand, I was so ready for the mysterious accident which would... Don't trust the title; don't trust the prologue; they seem like foreshadowing; they are not really, not unless you're willing to jump through some hoops. There is "invisibility" in that people care more about the protagonist's roles than about him as a person--but that's not the main thing going on in the book.


It's funny in places, sad in others. It is nightmarish in places and it achieves some of that nightmarish effect by lingering overlong in scenes; those bog down, but you can skim them. It talks about politics, about great causes pulled down by petty squabbles. If you're in the mood to read an Important Book, this would be a good one; don't worry that you'll miss things if you skim the horror-ish bits.

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Book Report: The Boys

I'm not at Comic-con this weekend. I just read comics, but I don't especially want to meet their creators. I especially don't especially want to meet the creators of "The Boys." "The Boys" is perhaps the most cynical superhero comic book I've ever read. Maybe it's a little too cynical. It revels in brutality. It's just interesting enough to get me to keep reading. Which is more than you can say for most comics.

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Book Report: The Wonga Coup

Some people worry that laryngitis might interfere with their opera singing. Me, I spent the day at home trying to recover from laryngitis, listening to operetta. And I'm glad that I don't rely on my voice as much as I do on, say, my typing. And I'm glad I don't live in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea is ruled by brutal dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who came to power by bringing in mercenaries. That's not this book's story. This book tells the story of a 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in which another band of mercenaries fails to take over the country. It's a story of furtive troop movements, unconvincing lies, less convincing confessions made under torture, and corruption. On the one hand it's heartening--many people who heard about the 2004 coup attempt moved to stop it. On the other hand, it's not like preserving the current regime is so wonderful.

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Book Report: Goodbye Darkness

This memoir of the Pacific in WWII is pretty disturbing. I suspect that William Manchester was pulling punches, but his story still has plenty of punch. People got blown up. People fought at close quarters. People convinced themselves to run into harm's way. People were foolish and died of it; people weren't foolish and died anyhow. Years later, most had forgotten about the fighting, leaving the veterans un-lionized. I recommend this book; it made me think.

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Book Report: How I Came into my Inheritance (and other true stories)

'Lene is out of the hospital. Meanwhile, Alexandra says that her mother is sick; Team Mystic Fish might be on shaky ground this weekend. I have no health problems myself; in theory I have no cause for complaint. But I do complain: will you people please stop having health problems? It's interfering with my leisure. Please consider this request with the weight it deserves.

Right, right so I'm supposed to be talking about How I Came into My Inheritance. This is a collection of short family stories by Dorothy Gallagher. Her family had the ill fortune to be Jewish in Russia. Some got out to the USA in time to experience the depression as others stayed in Russia to be starved by Stalin. These people squabble and don't seem to help each other much. It's interesting to watch Communists come to terms with how Stalinism turned out. This book is bleak, but funny in the way that reading about other peoples' problems can be funny. As long as you don't know those other people or their relatives.

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Book Report: Malcolm X

Here I sit in a dark train somewhere in the vicinity of Menlo Park. The train is dark and stopped. An alarm bell rings constantly. We have stopped because we hit a car. At first, this was a sad scary thing to have done--until we heard that there wasn't anyone in the car. Now we sit and wait for a tow truck to tug away the car, wait for track inspectors to give us the all-clear to move forward again. I suppose I'll get home tonight, but not as early as I'd hoped. I'm learning to ignore the bell. I could try to convince you that this was a major ordeal, but I don't think you'd believe me, nor should you. I've had an easy life. Not like Malcolm X. I read a comic book about him.

It's a comic book biography by Andrew Helfer and Randy deBurke. It's pretty good. I'd read a couple of not-so-interesting short biographies of Malcolm X. So I decided that his life was not-so-interesting. I picked up this comic because it had pretty art. And I read it. And it was interesting. So maybe I should read a longer biography.

The short biographies I'd read glossed over X's criminal years. But even then, there were signs of charisma, of creativity. The comic book is a good way to show the people who appear only at scattered times across a life--though I might not remember the name, I remember the face.

[10:15pm update: the train is moving again, limping along towards civilization. I'll get home eventually. Maybe it's a good thing I won't get much sleep tonight. Tomorrow is BANG 17, and if my team were to win that, we'd have to host a BANG ourselves. Maybe I can arrange to doze off halfway through, forcing my team to drag me through the streets of Berkeley...]

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Book Report: Heat

Bill Buford's previous book Among the Thugs was wonderfully brutal and scary, so I figured I'd like this book about restaurant kitchens and butchery. It's fascinating. He talks about how chefs learn, how they pick up muscle memory, how they slave for each other so they can watch and steal secrets. He talks about butchery of all nations, how the Italians have words for pieces of a pig that folks from other countries wouldn't think of as a distinct pig part. There are kitchen politics, nasty petty fights between people who spend hours working side by side. GoReadNow.

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Book Report: The Railway Man

The good news is that Gene Wolfe has a new book coming out with "Pirate" in the title: Pirate Freedom. The bad news is that book isn't scheduled to emerge until November, months after the pirate-themed BATH3 game. So I guess I can't use it as the basis for a Beale cipher, forcing each team to buy copies of the book and support one of my favorite authors, the guy who wrote Shadow of the Torturer. Speaking of torture, how about a book report?

Torture is wrong, and yet it is also stupid and useless. If you notice someone forgetting this, you might encourage them to read The Railway Man, the autobiography of Eric Lomax. He was a prisoner of war during WWII. He was tortured, but it didn't help his torturers.

If you already realize that torture is useless, this book probably won't help so much. But it is short and has some jokes in it, so you might pick it up anyhow. When you're done, you can say that you read an Important Book and impress all of your friends who listen to public radio.

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Book Report: Shadow Cities

This book, by Robert Neuwirth, changed the way I think about the world. It's about slums, squatter cities, shanty towns, favelas. It's about people who build on land they don't own. It's about people who rent land from people who don't own that land. It's about governments trying to help homeless people--things that work, things that don't. If people are living in shanties without sewer connections or electricity and you kick them out--are you helping them or harming them? Before I read this book, I would have said "You are helping them, in the long run." Now--now I don't know what I think. This book shows you the way that people live in communities governed, not by title deeds, but by anarchic agreement. This book talks about property versus possession. This book made me think.

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Book Report: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

I've read several books about the Manhattan Project. They all had a focus. New documents that had come to light. Focusing on one of the minor players. Family life. Now I realize why all of those books thought that they needed to focus on something, couldn't just provide the big picture. They assumed that I'd already read Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. As well they should. It's a standard, it won the Pulitzer--and yet somehow it's also a good book. It's that same story of scientists able to see a few months ahead of their time--but, tragically, not a few years ahead of their time.

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Book Report: Re/Search Pranks 2

I had an interesting phone conversation a few weeks ago. I responded to some spam email offering to optimize my web site so that it would rank higher on web site searches. There are legitimate ways to do this and illegitimate ways. A firm seeking business via spam probably favored the illegitimate. I called up and asked for details. The nice saleslady described their techniques--and they sounded pretty shady. She didn't tell me that their techniques were shady and that, if detected, were likely to backfire. I didn't tell her where I work.

This may sound all detective-y and investigative-ish, but at the time, it was just fun and silly. The idea of optimizing my website is pretty absurd. I write puzzle hunt reports, probably just a few people read each of them--and yet I claim that I already reach a major part of that... uhm... demographic. What's the big draw on this site? It's the Japanese ska band reviews, of course. English-language reviews of Japanese ska bands. It's a niche. You wouldn't spend hundreds of dollars to make your site the highest-ranking site for English-language Japanese ska band reviews, because that would mean that you'd get... five more visitors per week. Somehow, this made the conversation funny.

Her: Say for instance--now, assuming, OK, actually, tell me what you do. Let's start there.

Me: Oh, uhm, well, I've got a page, well I've got a few pages uhm about Japanese ska bands

Her: OK. OK, so say one of your major keywords is "Japanese ska bands". When somebody types that in to Yahoo or Google, you would want your hits to be close up there to the top.

Me: right. Right now there's someone from the University of Ohio who's up higher than I am.

Her: Right, so since he's one of your competitors, eventually you'd like to be before him.

It felt like a joke, a hoax--up until the point when I typed up her list of techniques and addresses of satisfied customers and sent it to Google, Yahoo, and MSN Live. It wasn't exactly a prank, but I'm still glad it happened.

Re/Search Pranks 2 isn't all about pranks, but you'll still be glad you read it. If I said flat-out how great the book Re/Search Pranks 2 is, you'd think I was just spouting hyperbole. Instead, I'll just say that if you liked Re/Search Pranks, you'll like Re/Search Pranks 2 as much.

This is another connection of interviews with various underground arts types on the subject of pranks. Some of the interviews fall flat; some are transcendantly wonderful. From the Al Jourgensen (Ministry) interview, I learned of no clever pranks--I only learned that I never, ever want to work with Al Jourgensen, to do business with Al Jourgensen, or to have Al Jourgensen think (rightly or wrongly) that I may have cheated him out of money. It was not interesting to read about him crapping on a desk; the effectiveness thereof as a bargaining technique etc. etc.

Once you get past the first few interviews, things get more interesting.

There's an interview with the Yes Men. There are interviews with members of the Suicide Club, a San Francisco precursor of the Cacophony Society. And there are interviews with the Cacophony Society as well. The Billboard Liberation Front, Ron English, Joey Skaggs...

My favorite interview was with Julia Solis about her activities with Dark Passage. This group mixes together urban exploration, Alternate Reality Gaming, and art. She talks about running a game which ended up with a big party in a chamber hidden under the streets of New York. She talks about stranger things.

Oh and Lydia Lunch and Monte Cazazza... Oh, just go read it already.

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Book Report: Maximum City

I hear wild cheering outside. Does that mean that the USA scored a goal in the World Cup match just now? Maybe I should care, but I don't. Which reminds me of Maximum City.

I only made it partway through this book. It's about Mumbai. Author Suketu Mehta talks to thugs, mobsters, and politicians. These are all the same people. We learn that life is worth very little in Mumbai. He talks to a policeman who hunted criminals despite a corrupt political system.

It's interesting, but I guess I didn't want to read that many variations on the talks-with-remorseless-killers theme. So I stopped.

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Book Report: People's History of the United States

Reading Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is hard work.

He writes about some parts of USA history which I didn't know about. Some of these pieces of history were pretty disturbing.

He also describes some Large Movements which, when you look more closely at the description, sound like small movements. If a government figures out a way to give free milkshakes and pony rides to everyone, you can bet that some people including a couple of semi-famous artists will protest. If a government oppresses its people, you can bet that more people will protest. Zinn writes about both sizes of protests, and you need to pay close attention to figure out when he describes a popular movement vs. a few looney-tunes.

Anyhow, it's an interesting book, but be sure to keep your wits about you when you read it. You always do that when reading non-fiction, of course. I'm just saying you want to gird your loins for a lot of critical thinking.

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