I’m currently reading (well, listening to) Super Freakonomics, the Gladwellian sequel to Freakonomics. It’s full of dinner conversation-friendly factoids like “more US military personnel died in the 1980s than in the 2000s”.
The authors discuss whether the same algorithms that banks use to find fraudsters could be used to uncover terrorists. They provide this profile of the 19 terrorists who participated in the September 11 attacks. To paraphrase the terrorists’ characteristics slightly:
Some of them regularly sent and received wire transfers to and from other countries.
They tended to make one large deposit and then withdrew cash in small amounts over time.
They typically used a P.O. box as an address, and the addresses changed frequently.
Their banking didn’t reflect normal living expenses like rent, utilities, auto payments, insurance and so on.
There was no typical monthly consistency in the timing of their deposits or withdrawals.
They didn’t use savings accounts or safe-deposit boxes.
The ratio of cash withdrawals to cheques written was unusually high.
Hmm…that feels a little too familiar.
Just last night, after buying some flights from a major airline, I received an automated call from the Royal Bank. I use a voice-to-text voicemail service, so here’s the transcript:
This call is for Darren Barefoot from the Royal Bank Security Department. In order to prevent possible difficulties using your card, it is important that you call us back immediately toll-free at 800-711-9946 to verify activity. You may call us back 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is important we speak with you. The number again is 800-711-9946. Thank you for choosing Royal Bank. Goodbye.
Side note: That’s one computer talking to another computer. The latter computer transcribed the call perfectly, including my name. Impressive, yet slightly creepy.
Not for the first time, I had to call the bank to confirm that I had, in fact, bought something online. On other occasions, I’ve had my bank card summarily deactivated by the bank, and been forced to go get a new card.
The bank, of course, claims that it’s entirely for my protection. I suspect that their actions are, in fact, much more in their own interests, and they’re happy to inconvenience me when an algorithm tells them to.
I appreciate that this is a very first world problem, but at least now I have a possible explanation: the Royal Bank thinks I’m a terrorist.
I recently finished reading Michael Ondaatje’s excellent The Cat’s Table. It tells the story of a boy’s journey (ostensibly, but not actually, Ondaatje himself–he’s a notorious liar in such things) by ocean liner from Colombo, Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka) to London, England. I quite enjoyed the novel–much more than Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero, and would recommend it.
This was the first ebook I’d ever read, as it happens. I read it on the iPad, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to include an annotated map with the text. There are some standard ‘extras’ that you get with the Kindle app–lists of characters and memorable quotes, example. The ebook actually included a section entitled “Setting & Places”, but it seems like it’s generated algorithmically, not curated by an actual human. How do I know this? The terms “Cat” and “Hyderabad Mind” (the latter is the name of a circus performer in the book) are listed as settings or places. The Kindle app notes that this content comes courtesy of Shelfari.
I was curious about the route the Oronsay, Ondaatje’s ocean liner, took. So, I plotted the locations where the boat put into port, and made a quick custom Google map:
While eating lunch on Tuesday, James Erwin noticed a question in the AskReddit section of Reddit.com, the popular social news site, that struck his fancy. Another user asked: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion?”
Drawing on a degree in History–he recently finished an encyclopedia of US military actions–he began writing this piece of fiction under his Reddit user name, Prufrock451:
The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes.
The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot – nearly all of the MEU’s vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake.
Erwin wrote 3000 words over the next two hours. They read like the first chapter of a novel, a kind of Romans vs. Marines companion piece to World War Z.
Reddit goes nuts. Reflecting the opinions of many, one Reddit user asked Erwin, “Do you have a job? Because this should be your job.”
Within hours of his first post, Erwin was the star of a ‘sub-Reddit’–a categorized section of Reddit.com–and now has nearly 7000 readers clamouring for the next installment of his work.
Erwin, a technical writer from Des Moines, Iowa, tells me that he’s overwhelmed by the response. “I’m astounded that something I churned out over my lunch hour turned into this,” he writes in an email interview. “I’m excited and very grateful and a little terrified.”
What’s most striking about Erwin’s story is the speed with which he accidentally assembled a readership that any writer would envy. However, as my publishing-savvy friend Monique Trottier points out, the trick is capitalizing on this burst of interest. “Really good publishers are looking for this exact sort of untapped talent–particular someone who is able to build an audience.”
Traditionally, publishers would rush to have the author write and produce the hardcopy book, a process that can take six months to a year. Instead, Trottier recommends that Erwin self-publish an ebook. “The period of time when you can make money off a book is shrinking. Ebooks obviously offer a much faster production cycle, and they work particularly well in the fantasy and science-fiction genres”.
Erwin plans on turning his instant fame into some kind of published work. “When people are literally demanding to give you money, that’s a no-brainer. But I’m carefully weighing my options on when and how. In the meantime, I appear to have a winning formula, so I’ll try to push it forward a bit and provide some meagre reward to my readers.”
Image by Reddit user JamieTeamCool. Used with his permission.
It’s easy to imagine a home in 2030 that contains no books, CDs or DVDs. In terms of cultural objects, that pretty much leaves visual art (and, I suppose, tchotchke and knickknacks), doesn’t it? What’s the future of paintings and sculpture? Science-fiction movies would have us believe that our television and walls are converging, so that any vertical surface will become a display. Will that happen? Will we just display, say, a rotating gallery of Picassos on our walls? Or maybe walls will host loops of family videos, or some future version of Facebook, so that the fall is awash in video, photos and text updates from friends and family?
I’d be more confident in that prediction if those digital picture frames had really caught on in a serious way, or if more of our fridges and bathroom mirrors already had video displays embedded in them. But, as they say, the future is always just around the corner.
In the future, will the amount of cultural detritus in a house reflect its owner’s age?
I, for one, really like how our books look in our bookcase. I’m loathe to thin them out when we move, or the bookcase gets too full. They are, as a friend says, excellent wallpaper.
Will your home still have cultural objects in it in 20 years?
I was oddly delighted the other day to receive a copy of our book translated into Brazilian Portuguese. I see that they didn’t try to translate the punny title “Friends With Benefits”, but went with “Handbook of Marketing in Social Media”. I actually like the form factor this version better than the original.
We also recently heard that our book is going to be translated into Polish. What’s next? Piedmontese? Pashto?
Could that title sound less enticing? A quick rundown of stuff I’ve seen, read, heard or otherwise ingested.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – I’m not an avid reader of high-brow game criticism, but Tom Bissell’s book is a thoughtful exploration of the philosophy, art and design of video games. It’s also one intellectual’s struggle to reconcile his love of the form with its many, er, infantile aspects. It’s full of insights, and if you live with a non-gamer, I’d offer it to them to explain your hobby.
Rework – A manifesto-style business book from the smart guys at 37Signals. It’s long on illustrations and pat advice, and short on evidence and style. I was familiar with the books’ lessons-stay small, eschew meetings, planning is guessing and so forth–because at Capulet we’ve reached the same conclusions. Others might realize more value from the book, but I was underwhelmed.
The Passage – A nearly-800 page dystopian vampire/zombie tale of adventure set in the future by Justin Cronin. I’d compare this book to early Stephen King–readable, entertaining, schlocky in places and some really terrible metaphors. There are some terrific set pieces in the book, which Ridley Scott may bring to life, as he owns the film rights.
The American – Don’t be deceived by the trailer. This is an austere movie, unencumbered by Hollywood pacing and utterly uncharmed by the Italian countryside where it’s set. In its plotting and slowness, it feels very like a movie from another era. But, thanks to George Clooney’s glowering presence, I really enjoyed it. When I left the busy cinema, however, I mostly heard complaints about the movie’s sedate pace.
A Life in the Theatre – I caught a preview of this Fringe-style production at the Vancouver Playhouse. It’s set in this charmingly weird room with a blue, peaked ceiling in the basement of the theatre. Which is appropriate, actually, as it’s David Mamet’s treatise on acting and the life of the actor. It’s essentially art about art, which never excites me, but if you have a love of the stage, then you could do worse than this show. Hurry, though, as it closes this Sunday.
Apologies for the light posting–it’s been a busy week. I flew to Edmonton and back. It was what I call a ‘no coat trip’. It goes: apartment –> SkyTrain –> airport –> plane –> taxi –> hotel –> taxi –> client’s offices –> taxi –> airport –> SkyTrain –> apartment. I’m basically never outside for more than a minute, so I don’t bring a coat.
In any case, I’ve recently finished several books, so here are some quick reviews.
Under the Dome by Steven King – This was touted as a return to form after several lousy books, and I’d tend to agree. It’s a close cousin to “The Stand”, in that it’s a long (nearly 1100 pages), sprawling narrative with huge cast of characters. It’s typical King, so if you like his approach–one friend who’s new to King aptly called him “merciless”–then you’ll like this book. I actually listened to it as an audio book, expertly read by stage actor RaÃƒÂºl Esparza. Esparza’s use of character voices in his reading simplified the problem of keeping all the characters straight.
Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne – A meandering book about Byrne’s experiences of art, architecture and cycling through the cities of the world. It’s taken largely from his online journal, I gather. It’s moderately interesting if you’re into Byrne’s artwork and music, or like to travel.
The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge – A friend recommended this slim little novel to me as the funniest book she’d ever read. I can’t get behind that assessment, but it’s definitely in my top twenty. Written in 1965, it recounts the day in the life of a struggling Catholic academic. That doesn’t sound all that promising, but our hero, Arthur Appleby, is the mincing uncle to Adrian Mole and Arthur Dent. It’s a little strawberry tart of a book at 160 pages, but well worth it if you like dry British humour.