Mini-reviews of books I read last month. In some ways it was a month of manifestos, with a Murakami novel thrown into the mix... 1. "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier <http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Not-Gadget/dp/0307389979> This attack on the state of the Web was written by a bohemian pioneer of virtual reality technology in the 1980s. He's also a composer, visual artist, and author. He isn't anti-Web, just opposed to the way many sites and technologies try to commoditise us. He believes the internet should be a place where individuals can flourish, and not a tarpit of mediocrity that it has become: Web 2.0 or the social web is dominated by trolling, trivialisation, low quality content and outright lies. There are damning critiques of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, among others. I have to say I agree with many of his points. He concludes the manifesto with proposals for an alternative model for technology and the Web. In an age where some multinational corporations try to con(vince) us that they are paragons of openness and freedom, this book is a timely reminder that all is not what it seems. The book's website: <http://www.jaronlanier.com/gadgetwebresources.html> BTW when I saw the book at the library, its title reminded me of this interesting observation: "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." <http://www.metafilter.com/95152/Userdriven-discontent> While this was in response to criticism of social news site Digg's redesign, it has general application, for example to companies that provide "free" stuff so that they can sell your eyeballs to the highest bidder, er, advertiser. "Beware of geeks bearing gifts". 2. "The Cult of the Amateur" by Andrew Keen <http://www.amazon.com/Cult-Amateur/dp/0385520816> This book has similar themes ands criticisms to Lanier's, but frames the arguments more from an economic than a philosophical perspective. Keen argues that the "wisdom of the crowd" in the form of amateur bloggers, musicians and moviemakers doesn't always result in quality. The book's provocative subtitle is "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy". Quality content takes time and money to make, and traditional producers are having their content devalued and their businesses threatened by low-quality content. I don't completely accept the last point: maybe "old media" deserves a shake-up, but he does make some valid points. He also cites addiction, online gambling, file-sharing and plagiarism as nasty side-effects of the new world order. He's particularly damning of Google: "they have figured out how to magically transform other people's free content into a multi-billion-dollar advertising machine." He concludes by proposing some solutions: curation of content, regulation and enforcement. Of course these suggestions will never fly with those who demand unfettered openness as a means to "democritisation". But then it's easy living in an idealised world. Irony? In true Web 2.0 fashion, the book been uploaded by someone: <http://www.scribd.com/doc/47721560/Keen-Andrew-The-Cult-of-the-Amateur> and Google's index helped me find it. 3. "The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets" by Aldo Buzzi <http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Egg-Other-Secrets/dp/074757930X> This is a great little collection of food-related essays by late Italian architect/screen writer/author Aldo Buzzi. The first part of the book gathers together recipes from the author's travels around the world. I guess you need a bit of an open mind as to what other cultures consider delicacies, e.g. pigeons and crows. Each brief chapter presents a recipe as well as some related anecdotes, trivia and cultural notes. The second part concentrates on the home cooking of the author's German- born mother. Overall another entertaining read, especially if you're interested in food and cooking. 4. "Sputnik Sweetheart" by Haruki Murakami <http://www.amazon.com/Sputnik-Sweetheart/dp/0375726055> In this Murakami novel the main character is a young teacher who finds that his love for his friend Sumire, a wannabe writer, is unrequited. In fact, she has become infatuated with her new boss, Miu, a prominent and married businesswoman. The first part of the novel sets the scene and establishes these three characters. I don't want to say much more about the actual plot to avoid spoilers. I'll just say there is a major turning point midway through, and the second half becomes an interesting look at loneliness. Towards the end the main character, when counselling a young pupil, describes being all alone as "the feeling you get when you stand at the mouth of a large river on a rainy evening and watch the water flow into the sea". He also warns that thinking just by yourself for too long can hold you back, can keep you to a single viewpoint. It almost wouldn't be a Murakami story without the presence of cats, wells, music and cooking, all with a hint of the supernatural. These elements all make an appearance, but as usual it's the characters, themes and plot which carry the story. Overall, another excellent novel, confirming Murakami as my favourite Japanese author. 5. "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto" by Anneli Rufus <http://www.amazon.com/Party-One/dp/1569245134> The author is a confessed and proud loner. She argues that the term "loner" has become a negative label, when in fact some types of people actually need some "alone" time. She notes that many great writers, artists and inventors were loners, and we benefit from the fruits of their solitude. She contrasts the voluntary "loner" with the involuntary "outcast", and points out that many notorious loners were actually social people who were rejected. These "pseudoloners" often did drastic things to take revenge or seek notoriety. As an introvert who requires alone time, I found this book refreshing and reassuring. Not everyone is a social butterfly, and there's nothing wrong with shutting yourself off occasionally to get some peace and quiet. In fact, in appropriate doses it can help keep you sane. Extroverts should read this book too, so they can better understand the rest of us. 6. "The Four Agreements" by don Miguel Ruiz <http://www.amazon.com/Four-Agreements/dp/1878424505> As the subtitle mentions, this book is a "practical guide to personal freedom". It is based on the Wisdom of the Toltec. The four agreements are straight-forward and hard to fault: (1) Be impeccable with your word. (2) Don't take anything personally. (3) Don't make assumptions. (4) Always do your best. The author argues that we can achieve personal freedom and happiness if we make and hold these agreements. There's much in common with other moral codes and philosophies, so it's hard to argue against them. I guess one criticism is that these agreements, like any moral codes, beliefs and principles, are also subject to the environment we live in.