Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book A Month Challenge for March: Craft

Morris, William. 1894. The Wood Beyond the World. A facsimile of the Kelmscott Press ed. New York: Dover, 1972.

Although Morris was a late-Victorian contemporary of Conan Doyle and Kipling, he affected a 17th Century style of English in this romantic fantasy about a young man driven to a quest by misfortune at home and by visions of a beautiful Lady and her two mismatched servants.

Golden Walter, our Hero, is an honourable and handsome, but common, young man. Cursed at home by an unfaithful wife, he leaves on a trading ship to avoid causing a feud between his father's family and that of his estranged wife. While trading in far lands, he sees visions of the Lady, her beautiful maidservant, and an ugly dwarf, but resists the natural urge to hunt for the source of these visions out of his sense of duty to his father's ship. In the farthest reaches of the empire, he receives word that his attempts to avoid a feud have failed, and that his father has died, so he sets out to return home. Unfortunately, the elements conspire against his honour and drive him into strange heathen lands and the country ruled by the Lady of his visions and the maidservant with whom he falls in love. The novel has a strong episodic structure, with Walter moving (or being moved) from encounter to encounter, meeting all of the usual fairy tale tropes until the typical "happily ever after" ending.

A note on the edition: While many libraries have The Wood Beyond the World, my copy is a photo-facsimile of the Morris's original Kelmscott Press edition, which takes some time to get used to reading for the modern reader, but is very pleasing to the eye.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Social Aggregators

With Google's OpenSocial API, we're starting to see hints of the social networking interoperability I talked about a while ago, but the idea of "social aggregation" seems to accomplish some of the same goals. Feed aggregators, which gathering together information about updates to websites and present them all together for the reader's convenience have been around for a while, but these new social aggregation sites provide a simple way to gather together information about social network participation and online identity into one place.

There are two basic models of social aggregation services:

  • I aggregate my identities into a portal, which might be a public site I can share with friends as a "portal to all things David", or a private starting point for tracking and accessing my online activities;
  • I aggregate all my friends' identities into a portal, so I only have to go to one place to go to see what they're all up to, taking stalking to a whole new level.

(I came up with the name "social aggregators" independently, but it's pretty obvious terminology.)

Aggregating oneself seems to be a fairly basic way of handling online identity management, especially if one has a broad portfolio of online content and a common name (not a problem for me). The simplest example of this kind of aggregator is the site ClaimID, which doesn't provide information about updates to sites, but just gathers together all of your information into something like an online CV.

Aggregating all your friends is the more useful service: I don't have to go to every social network that my friends are on to find out what's going on with them. The service that provides the creepiest example of this is Spokeo. Once you create an account, you can either upload your address book, or, more simply but much less secure, give it your hotmail/yahoo/gmail userid and password and allow it to harvest your address book directly. Once it knows who's in your address book, Spokeo will go out and harvest all the social networks it knows about and reports to you what your contacts are doing on those networks. Spokeo goes to great lengths to explain that it is only accessing information that is publicly available on the net for anybody to see, and thus isn't an invasion of your privacy. But having Spokeo trawling the net for everything about oneself just feels qualitatively different from connecting with friends as one becomes aware of their activities in the various venues.

Between services like Spokeo and google alerts, the possibilities for Total Information Awareness aren't limited to just the government. Maybe privacy really is dead.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Keeping a Reading Journal

I'm usually not very good at keeping a journal or diary (see, for example, the regularity with which I write in this particular venue). I've tried several times over the years, because I think that I should, and I never last for very long. At the beginning of the year when so many blogger were posting various stats about their reading habits last year, I decided to keep a log of what I read. "Nothing could be simpler," I thought, "it's just data gathering!"

And so it is. I've got a spreadsheet on google docs. Whenever I start reading a book, I fill in the author and title, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, and the date I started reading. When I finish, I fill in the end date. And I get to do some simple spreadsheet programming to keep various statistics, which is always fun (no, that's not sarcastic, although some people may think it ironic).

There are some operational problems. Whenever I start reading a book, I have to remember to record it, at least within a day or so, so I get the start date right. For some reason, recording the end of a book is easier for me to remember. And, of course, I need to be near a computer; I foresee this causing problems during my summer reading binge, when there's not a computer in sight on the upper reaches of the Ottawa River.

More interesting than these mechanical issues, which are fairly obvious, I've already started to notice some effects on my reading behaviour. I normally read quickly: for my vacation I usually plan to read one book a day (if nothing else, that means I won't run out of books), but so far this year, it's taken an average of six days to finish a book (of those I've completed). The book I just finished yesterday took seventeen days to complete, but that has nothing to do with the difficulty of the book or my lack of interest in it, and everything to do with the fact that I've started a big project, and don't have as much spare time to devote to reading.

Which leads to the biggest effect of keeping a reading journal on my reading habits: I am loathe to start a new book until I know that I'll have time to devote to it. It seems that the incomplete books on my list (two right now, one dating from Christmas), impart a certain weight, and that, for me at least, recording data has moved me from "always have a book on the go" to "promptly finish the books I start." I suspect that I'll read the same number of books regardless, it's just that I won't start them until I have some spare time, so I'll have short reads with large "illiterate" gaps, rather than continuous slow reading.

Of course, if I really wanted to rack up the numbers, I'd just stop reading The Economist every week (but then, I'm falling behind on that too).

Saturday, March 01, 2008

BAM Challenge: Heart

Bennet, Alan. The Uncommon Reader. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Bennet starts with a simple premise: "What would happen if the Queen suddenly developed an interested in reading for pleasure?" This short novel, a mere 120 pages, is a light exploration of that question, and shows how reading leads to neglecting one's duties and avoiding human companionship.

But it also shows how she grows through her reading. The Queen, after even just a brief exposure to fiction, seems to think more about the people around her, and show genuine concern for her staff in small ways that she never did before: reading, and exposure to the human condition, has given the Queen more of a heart, made her more compassionate.

(Sometimes it can be a stretch to fit a book into the theme, but I know I can do it!)