Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This book was a bestseller and reviewed/talked about a lot -- so there's a very good chance you're not hearing about it for the first time from me. In fact, this paperback edition is already a year old itself.

More importantly, Stephens-Davidowitz's central point -- that there are now large datasets, mostly around Internet usage, which can be used by social scientists and other researchers to get closer to the truth about what people really think and feel about taboo or contentious subjects -- might be news in a lot of circles, but not to anyone who's been paying attention for the last decade or so.

(Admittedly, a lot of people don't pay attention. People are the worst, as we can also learn from this book.)

So. We have the usual punchy, expansive title: Everybody Lies. And the equally usual descriptive subtitle that claims even more territory: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. So far, so much like a million other non-fiction bestsellers and would-be bestsellers since bookselling became a regular racket. We expect a quick, punchy read that makes big claims in a lot of areas, backs up at least some of them at least some of the time, and gives us a few facts which we can use to sound smart at a cocktail party or on the Internet.

Everybody Lies is a bit better than that, actually, but it follows that model pretty closely. Again, if you're in any data-driven field, it won't particularly shocking. (In Chapter 6, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Stephens-Davidowitz spends several pages explaining what A/B tests are -- I, and I hope every other marketing person currently in existence, have been doing A/B tests for probably a decade now. Not as often or as rigorously as I might like, true, but it's not a new concept for that many people, I hope.)

Stephens-Davidowitz (can I call him SSD from here, for short?) starts off with sex, because he is not at all stupid. He doesn't really note that one of the great precursors of this book are the occasional posts by the data scientists of (of all places) PornHub, delving into questions like whether porn viewing dips on Super Bowl Sunday and what the most popular kinds of entertainment are in different nations. But who ever wants to emphasize that other people have been doing the same thing, in more depth and sometimes better?

SSD was a data scientist for Google, and it seems that the best data he has to work with is still mostly from Google, so that informs what he's been looking at and researching. (Admittedly, I expect Google would be the best Internet data anyone could have to work with in most cases, given their size and ubiquity.) I do wonder what a similar book by a Facebook expert would say -- SSD is mostly looking at individual behavior and attitudes, as seen by searches, and a Facebook-centric (or even just social-media-focused) project would be much more about social maps, how ideas spread, which ideas spread, and the contagiousness of various things. [1]

Everybody Lies starts out with sex and racism -- it is a book by an American, for Americans, after all -- and then moves on to less immediately juicy topics and then to general issues raised by the existence of these tools and research techniques, as it tries to cover everything a general reader might want to know about Big Data and its uses.

I don't want to be flippant, because SSD has a fairly rigorous academic background, and he's clearly brought that to his data-science work and the original research that underpins a lot of this book. A lot of what he's doing here is simplifying complex data-analysis concepts to explain them to a mass audience -- but that's what a mass audience needs. Everybody Lies does a good job of summarizing both what we can know about (mostly American) mass culture and attitudes from Internet data, and at examining some particular examples of that data.

I personally would like a book with even more charts and detail, but that's me. This is probably more chart-heavy than the average reader wants to begin with.

[1] That book might exist -- let me know if anyone out there has read or seen it.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Not Reviewing the Mail

I don't know if you are as annoyed with my stream of "I said I'd do this thing, so here I am to say I have nothing to say" posts as I am, but I'm trying to stop them.

So I'm explicitly saying what might have been implicit: I'm only going to do the things I semi-jokingly refer to as "obligatory" posts when I actually have something to say about the thing the post is supposedly about.

e.g.: when I don't have any new books to write about any given week, I will not have a Reviewing the Mail post.

Inference beyond that point is left to the reader.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Some novels are about story, a narrative that moves forward and goes from Point A to Point B. Those kind of books can range from the most relentless chase thrillers to discursive books like Dickens's and across several dozen other variations. Frankly, that's what most people would think of as "a novel" to begin with.

Steve Erickson doesn't play that game.

Shadowbahn is not his least narrative novel -- I think that's still Amnesiascope -- but it's not a story of things that happen in a certain order. It's a collection of things that did happen, or are happening, or that no one can stop happening, or that we wish happened, or dream that they didn't happen. It's the kind of book that reviewers call a meditation or a fantasia or other fanciful terms: a book loosely about things rather than telling the story of them.

In this case, it's rock 'n roll, Elvis, the Beatles, American music in general, the late twentieth century, and, looming over all of that like some Tolkienian Shadow, 9/11. Erickson will not tell us clearly what the one has to do with the other: he's not a writer to draw straight, crisp lines.

So let me sketch some of the things that happen, or appear, in Shadowbahn. They will be in no particular order.

  • Off Highway 44 in the South Dakota badlands, in what seems to be 2021, two matching blocky skyscrapers appear mysteriously. Those two matching blocky skyscrapers, the ones violently destroyed twenty years before.
  • Parker and Zima, twentysomething white brother and teen black sister, are driving cross-country, from one side of their family to another, when this happens. Their car is soon the only place in the country where music still plays.
    • That music seems to come from Zima herself, and may be entirely from the massive number of playlists compiled by their obsessive father.
      • That father, who never appears on-stage in Shadowbahn, is pretty obviously a 
      • version or self-insert for Erickson.
      • He, and Parker/Zima, have appeared in Erickson's novels before, notably in These Dreams of You.
  • Jesse Garon Presley wakes up near the top of one of those towers, somewhere in his middle years -- not young, but not as old as a man born in 1935 should be. He is alone there.
    • His twin brother died at birth. We are to presume something has shifted the universe so that we got this Presley rather than another, and probably all of the other changes we see. 
    • Presley had a minor career as a male model and hanger-on in Warhol's Factory, then increasingly became obsessed by his dead/non-existent twin, symbolized by one 45 by that twin.
    • This Presley cannot sing at all.
    • He knows -- and many people around him know -- that he was supposed to die, that the world they live in is the wrong one, and that it is Presley's fault.
    • Rock 'n roll basically died out by the early '60s. The Beatles were never famous. We may presume that American popular music either was locked into sever-duller iterations of The Great American Songbook [1] or that music stopped being a serious cultural influence at all, as we choose. The latter seems more likely, given the silence in the Parker/Zima sections. 
The narrative bounces from Parker/Zima to Presley and back, looping around that car trip, Presley in the tower, and Presley in the '60s and '70s. Again, Erickson is not telling a story here. Maybe he's constructing a mosaic, or painting a picture, of an America without something central and foundational -- showing us a society shattered at its center, broken and jagged with pain in the broken places. That's Shadowbahn.

As always, Erickson writes compellingly. He's a masterful prose stylist, with sentences that sing and characters that appear full-formed immediately. This book is structured into single-page pseudo-chapters (or vignettes), each one with a "title" that is often just the first words of the first sentence, rolling up into several large sections that mostly focus on either Parker/Zima or Presley.

Most readers don't want a novel like Shadowbahn. That's fine. But one sign I have that we don't live in a broken, shattered world -- maybe one of the few, these days -- is that Erickson is out there, writing novels like this.

[1] Amusingly, this could connect to another one of my obsessions: the Fallout video game series. Those are set in a world without rock 'n roll, a world devastated by a massive nuclear war in the late 21st century, a world crueler and nastier than our own. Shadowbahn, if you squint, could almost be a prequel to those games.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Quote of the Week

He doesn't like police, and on the relatively rare occasion that he crosses paths with them, he has come to realize -- with a stumble into that old mischief maker called greater maturity -- that he talks himself into trouble. He almost got into it with the cop at the border a few hours back, before downshifting into deference, when the officer stared at him long and hard before waving him into West Texas. Parker's father was the same when he was younger, with no respect for any authority that was arbitrary, naively figuring that if he was in the right, he was untouchable. "You need to get over that notion," he later informed his son.
 - Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, p.82

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

The thing about the end of the world is that worlds end every day. And not just in the teenage-drama sense, either: every death is the end of the world for at least one person. Usually more than that.

So Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series continues in The Labyrinth Index, the ninth novel, even though its world -- at least as much as the series started out as a secret history -- has definitely ended. The Lovecraftian Singularity is continuing, with an avatar of Nyarlathotep as the Prime Minister of the UK and other players assembling around the world.

But humans are still around and mostly unchanged -- the PM in particular has a soft spot for them, though perhaps primarily because he wants masses to worship him -- and so human stories go on, after the end of what used to be their world.

Mhari Murphy is arguably not a human anymore, but she looks like one, so let's give her the benefit of the doubt. She's a vampire, which is to say the carrier of a nasty but beneficial supernatural parasite: as long as she keeps it fed through a blood-link with other minds it can eat, it won't eat her mind. She's also, because of that fairly recent state and a history with the Laundry, now the Baroness Karnstein, a member of the House of Lords, and head of that house's Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs -- which is to say she's responsible for ensuring the rest of Britain's useful vampires continue to be fed from the blood of unfortunate others so that they can continue to do the work the PM and Laundry need them to do.

(If you're lost -- and you easily could well be with the ninth book in even a loose, mostly new-reader-friendly series like this one -- you could see what I wrote about the previous book, The Delirium Brief, and from there follow links further back for as much more depth as you feel inclined to chase.)

But Mhari is about to get a more difficult job, from that creepy, vastly-less-human PM. You see, the UK's traditional closest ally has been acting strange and distant recently -- even more so than usual. The PM thinks that country has been captured by its own Laundry-style agency, which has thrown in its lot with a much nastier and more dangerous Elder God than himself.

(Those comparatives of "dangerous" and "nasty" here are being used in a way pretty far beyond human norms, I admit.)

And so Mhari has to assemble a team quickly, entirely from a list that PM gives her, infiltrate a foreign country as secretly as possible, so she can find and extract the missing President of the USA. Although, when her team arrives in the States, they find that no American can even remember that they ever had a President....

The Laundry series has always had a whistling-past-the-graveyard appeal, but that's been sharpening with the last couple of books, as the real world has itself gone traipsing through some more boring graveyards. Stross's twisted mirror of our own world has become even more shattered as we've all seen just how horrible, stupid and dysfunctional our governments really can be. And it's culminated here: where the Deep State is not only a real thing, but actually in the thrall of the dread lord Cthulhu.

Labryinth Index will be a slightly odd read for most Americans, since it's inherently about the USA from an outside viewpoint. That viewpoint is generally admiring -- well, as much as you can admire your friend who has become captured by a Cthulhu death-cult -- but it is definitely distanced, and the America in Labyrinth Index is a foreign land not just for Mhari and her band of oddball agents, but for the few beleaguered Americans who remember what a President was.

I wouldn't start the series with this book: they generally stand alone, but too much has gone before, and we're deep into the apocalypse at this point. But it's a great series, full of compelling voices, written straight down the middle of that dark no-man's-land among SF, fantasy, and horror. If any of the above sounds intriguing, find yourself a copy of The Atrocity Archives and start there.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/9/19

To get it out of the way first: nope. No new books, and I haven't managed to finish the one book I'm slowly reading. (Kevin Young's big, interesting Bunk.)

I did, though, finish up two book-review posts, which will roll out over over the next couple of weeks. So content will still be scattered, but maybe slightly less so.

I do need to figure out a time and place to read: that's what I'm missing in my life right now. And the many shelves of books behind me are mocking me for it.

It'll happen eventually. If it doesn't happen right now, while I have one son about to graduate college, another about to graduate high school, and I'm figuring out a very different new job...well, that's not surprising, is it?

Monday, March 04, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/2/19

The drought has lifted, at least for this week; I have two brand-new books to tell you about. Both are trade paperbacks from the fine folks at Tachyon Publications.

First up is The Last Tsar's Dragons by Jane Yolen and  Adam Stemple, a short novel of historical fantasy. (Yes Tsar Nicholas, yes the Russian Revolution, yes actual fire-breathing dragons.) It's coming on June 19th, and I wonder how much Game of Thrones backstory contributed to the idea -- I can see a reaction like "you think that's an evil king? I could name five worse examples from Russia alone" possibly sparking the idea. Anyway: it looks interesting, and it starts with a compelling, grumpy voice -- always a plus for me.

Available now from Tachyon is The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, a collection of twenty stories originally published between 2003 and 2017. (I suspect it collects the expensive small-press hardcovers Two Worlds and in Between and Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, but the copy doesn't quite say that.) Kiernan writes fine, creepy stories, which tend to appear in expensive limited editions, so it's nice to have a big book of her work widely available like this. I hope it lands in a lot of libraries, in particular.