Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster (1994)

, 23 Sep 2015

Paul Auster is one of my favourite writers, and I have read a good deal of his books. This is the favourite of one of my friends so I got it from my public library basically because of his insistence I would love it. Yes, I did love it. I was  mesmerised, once again, by Auster's mastery.

Unlike many of Auster's books, this story is not contemporary or fresh, immediate or "abstract". However, the book shares with other books the quality of the writing, the importance of Magic Realism (Auster is a master at creating a distinctively American magic realism), his use of the English language, and the brilliant way in which he builds his characters and stories to make them utterly realistic and believable no matter how outrageous the premises are.

Mr Vertigo is a delightful entertaining reading, full of adventure, fun and surrealism. It is also a lesson on how to write an a-priory fantastic story in a believable way, and on how to write a historical novel without writing one, yet capturing the events of a decade with freshness, verisimilitude, accuracy and respect.

Have you ever dreamt of levitating? Do you recall the feeling in the dream? I do, and I felt that part of those sensations, feelings and experiences were captured in the levitation phase of the book. The childhood and circus years are infused, to me, in an end-of-the-19th century feeling, perhaps because there is a transitional mood from an old era to a new one in these pages. This part is, indeed, my favourite. I felt that Walter's adult years, despite being greatly narrated, didn't have that enthralling magic feeling that the first part of the book had; in that regard, the mood of the book is uneven. 

Walter's life is full of wonder and you want be part of it. Levitate!

The Internet Of Garbage by Sarah Jeong (2015)

, 17 Sep 2015

The Internet of Garbage is a personal reading for me because many of the issues discussed in the book have affected me personally, directly, in my online life, and too often to consider them isolated incidents. Herewith just three examples of a long list of personal examples of vilification due, mostly, to me being a woman.

***

Long ago I was in Flicker. My nick didn't show my gender. A contact used to praise my photos to the heavens. That was until he called me "man" and I told him that I was a woman. He started visiting my photo stream to abuse me, not my photos. From great photo to you are mentally disabled by making this photo, from a comment on my photo, you are an idiot. I ended blocking him because his vilification seemed to have no stop. In real life he seemed to be a normal guy, newly-married, happy, very social. That was his mask. With me he showed his real self. The abusive sexist prick he really is.

 ***
Long ago, I visited one of the Whirlpool forums to comment on an online company's misleading info about one of the products I had purchased from them. There was a representative of the company in the thread. He was the only person who treated me with respect and didn't bully me for just posting a post that wasn't offensive. I ignored the pricks. Yet, when I left, the bullying was in crescendo for no reason. My nick was female.

***
I gave two stars to a pitiful, with capitals, book on Amazon. My review mentioned good and bad points, no insult or vilification, just the fact that is summarised a well-known book without saying that, and this "book" was being sold on Amazon even if for 2 bucks. A guy posted a comment to my review. He insulted me and attributed my poor rating and review to me being a woman and my reasoning being affected by my menstruation (yes, that is right!). I replied to this guy without insulting him, just calling his attention on the crap coming out out of his mouth. Then, I reported the comment to Amazon. What I got was that my reply to this insulting comment was removed, despite not being insulting at all! The sexist comment was left there. Still is. I contacted again the moderation team calling their attention on the fact that they were not moderating openly sexist comments. No reply or action taken. I came to realise that this prick could be one of the moderators of the site. I was insulted for no reason, twice, by this subnormal and by Amazon's "moderation" team, who decided that it is OK to allow sexist comments to be left there and non-abusive replies to be removed. Isn't that a talibanic-ish sort of attitude?

 ***

The Internet of Garbage is a short book, (or rather booklet) on different issues related to the garbage invading the Internet. The book is a very honest in-depth approach to the Internet on areas like gender harassment and vilification, doxing, SWATing, trolling, moderation, free speech and spam from a person who knows, inside out, how social networks and online platforms work and their legal and technical intricacies.

What is garbage? What does constitute spam? What does spam and harassment have in common? How does garbage present itself online? What we do with it? What should we do with it? Are the procedures to control online garbage working or not, and why? Moderation or blocking? Free speech or banning? Which groups are more likely to be harassed? Which groups are more likely to take the case to the Police and Court? Is harassment gendered or coloured? Why is online harassment so scary? Does harassment occur because the Internet is too big or too small? These are some of the questions that Jeong tackles and replies to in this book.

What I like the most about this book is not the focus on issues that are of great interest to me, or the knowledge on the area Jeong has, but the fact that she has a natural tendency to balance her own discourse, to see the pros and cons of anything she says, and to analyse any given aspect from different sides, never in a monolithic way. You have to praise that sort of old-school savoir fair because it is a rara avis nowadays.

Jeong offers a deep analysis that is missing from many books on the Internet, which can pinpoint and whine about the flaws of the system but aren't able to propose solutions to tackle situations for very difficult online issues. Some of the stuff Jeong discusses is very technical, with legal implications, but it is presented in an approachable language.

Jeong makes terrific points about how to deal with the crap on the Internet. She is convinced that the architecture of the Internet and the focus on behaviour (and not content) in my site's  conduct codes and policies are the key to curb down the volume and nastiness of online garbage. You cannot solve the problem of harassment, threats and abuse on the Internet by focusing just on the content posted, but by focusing on and addressing the behaviour that generates it. You can remove all the nasty comments manually but you aren't really creating a well-behaved online community that promotes healthy behaviour and excludes the usual mob of sociopathic misogynists and those who befriend them. She shows how functional platforms can be built and structured to promote a flow of  information, code of conduct and self-regulatory rules that promote healthy behaviour and naturally shred the garbage. Banning, blocking, filtering are just small tools that won't solve the problem, just give relief to the victims. Code is never neutral, the architecture of the Internet matters enormously.

 I find this very important, personally. I was recently insulted for a review that has 3.5 stars and the troll thought it was too low. He didn't uttered a swear word, but insulted me upfront, obvious to anybody who can read. I contacted the moderation team, as this troll is not a regular reviewer, and every time he comes to the site is to annoy me. The moderator told me that, unless the comment is explicitly racist or contains profanity (something very subjective as it varies from culture to culture, religion to religion), they cannot erase his comments. I deleted them myself. His activity in the the site is being tracked by the moderation team.  Even if he is eventually banned, he could reappear using another email address and nick and nothing would be solved. That is so because bad behaviour is not tackled by the moderation policies of the site. I  mentioned this book to the lovely guy who attended my complaint. Oh, Yes!

Although Jeong focus a good deal on well-known cases of female harassment (Caroline Criado Pérez, Anita Sarkeesian, Amanda Hess, Zoe Quinn, and Kathy Sierra), she calls the attention on the fact that not only women are targeted. independent male thinkers also are. And, of course, Afro-Americans, Latinos, gays, immigrants, and any 'minority' who are not in the media often because, at least in the States, they think it twice before going to the Police to complain about any issue, not just about online harassment.

I love Jeong's analysis on how online sites deal with spam detection, deletion and control, ad extracts positive conclusions that could be applied to the fight against online harassment. Also inspired is her discourse on the relation between discourses of free speech on the internet, banning and the USA's First Amendment to the Constitution. 

Jeong is also great at showing how the inadequacy and inefficiency of the system lead people who suffer from severe harassment, doxing, SWATing and physical attacks included, to retort to intricate legal  openings, like Copyright Laws, to find a way to deal with their issue (García v. Google).

Despite this being a great book, the language used is dry, clinical and a bit uninspired for the general public. It is jargon-free, that is great, but also a bit aseptic. I understand that, for a lawyer, the definition of what a word means is utterly important, that matters in Court, as much as the punctuation or tone of a given text. Yet, unless you are in Court or writing and targeting a specific group of readers, you don't need to define what spam is or what garbage is. My opinion.

A typo correction. Please, write Spanish surnames with their proper accent, Pérez and García are not accented throughout the book.

The title doesn't make any favour to the book as it is misleading. It seems to imply that all Internet is crap, while, in fact, the book focus on how much garbage the Internet has, and the need to clean it up and how to do this. One day Internet and garbage might be synonyms but, they are not so as yet.  

The Internet of Garbage is a great reading, a very thought-provoking book with a babble-free crappola-free discourse. This is also a great book to quote when we deal with moderation teams that adduce obsolete codes of conduct that focus on content not on behaviour to leave trolls and pathological misogynists camp at will in our space. 

Ayurveda For Dummies by Angela Hope Murray (2013)

, 4 Sep 2015

Ayurveda for Dummies is a basic approach to what Ayurveda holistic medicine is, its origins, principles, practices, beliefs, ways to incorporate it into your life, and traditional remedies. 

I didn't know much about Ayurveda, beyond Ayurveda beauty and relaxing treatments, so it is great putting things into perspective to  understand how a whole continent and culture approaches health, wellness, disease and healing.

Put it simply, Ayurveda is an alternative and millenarian medicine system born and widely practised in India, but with many devotees and practitioners all over the world. Many of the practices are common-sense ways of taking care of your body mixed with traditional herbology and Eastern philosophy and beliefs.The originality of Aryuveda resides in its integrative philosophy, in which body, mind, soul and energy are all interrelated and presented in your body; a system in which your lifestyle, diet, exercise, and spiritual practices are extremely important and clearly related. Yoga is an integral part of the system as well as herbal remedies. Also characteristic of Ayurveda is the classification of human beings into three basic doshas or types (these doshas have common traits regarding their physical constitution, temperament, psychology, levels of energy and ways in which the body reacts to food and healing). Aryuveda considers sickness an expression of lack of balance in the body. Aryuveda, as Western Medicine, has different branches and specialities.
The Ayurvedic mode of living aims to maximise your lifespan by optimising your health through interventions that care for your body, mind, spirit and environment. Ayurveda places a great emphasis on the prevention of disease and on health promotion, as well as on a comprehensive approach to treatment. (...) Ayurveda places great emphasis on the effects of the different seasons and your diet on the equilibrium of the body (...) Ayurveda recognises the importance of the environment to your health (...) addresses eating the best food to improve your immune system. (Locations 453-455, 484-485, 489-490 and 495)
Isn't that the aim of Western Medicine and dietetics? Ayurveda reminds me immensely of pre-modern Western Medicine, the one in which body and soul, mind and body were tightly linked, a Medicine based in the four temperaments-humours-elements minus the Yoga and the chakras.

However, I want to mention two things that caught my attention and I find utterly intriguing and specific to Ayurveda. The first is that Ayurveda cannot be separated from the Sanskrit word:
 The complexity of Sanskrit in its level of sophistication and scientific accuracy is only mirrored by mathematics. The process of perfecting the language has taken thousands of years. In the past, Sanskrit was the language used by all the sciences, which were all orientated towards the study of the self in all its aspects. The use of the language itself is an instrument for healing. Its beautiful resonances, which you can experience without even having to understand the meaning, can reach the very core of your being. All languages vibrate the being, but Sanskrit somehow enables you to keep currents of energy flowing so that you can enter into and maintain an inner harmony. I’ve used the Sanskrit terms for this reason throughout the book. (Kindle Locations 522-527). 


The second is the consideration of the individual as a part of a cosmic whole:
Commentators of Ayurveda, tells us that ‘Each individual is the unique expression of a recognisable finely tuned cosmic process occurring in space and time.’ (...) Because you are formed of the same substance as the creation, you are truly a microcosm of the universe.(Kindle Locations 575-580)
Explaining some of the concepts in Ayurveda is not easy, but Murry does a great job at introducing those concept for us, adding very useful explanatory tables and illustrations, and providing us with Western medicine terminology to match the one found in Ayurveda.

I am a fan of tables, Anything can be explained, clarified and organised in them. This being the case, I really like the many tables in this book, which are really helpful. They are great to discover what your dosha is, the best foods, exercises and medical approaches for every dosha, the characteristics of chakras and so on. The illustrations are also very helpful and simple to understand.

Many items of advice in the book can easily be incorporated into your daily routines if you feel like, even if you don't want to follow Ayurveda. Murray is keen to provide readers with simple remedies to be incorporated into our lifestyle, some of them might be for you while others might not.

I found very useful the glossary of Sanskrit words and the botanical glossary with equivalences between Sanskrit, Latin, Hindi and English names. If you are really into Ayurveda, the final appendix contains a list of links to suppliers of herbs, journals, organisations and institutes of Ayurvedic education that will come handy.  
 

Murray takes literally that she is writing for dummies and some of the writing is overly simplistic, repetitive, bloggish, and some of the content in the book a series of truisms that apply to the way of understanding well-being by your grandma or you if you have a minimum dose of common sense and are keen on keeping healthy. 

A huge amount of space is devoted to the description of some basic Yoga exercises. If I wanted a book on Yoga I would have bought another one. I  understand that this an integral part of Ayurveda, but describing an exercise is nothing I enjoy or find useful, even if it is accompanied by illustrations. Perhaps a link to videos with the exercises would have been more useful (to me). This is the 21st century after all. 
The formatting has too many headings and too large (some of them occupy the space of four lines, see photo), and to me this always feels as a naughty way of filling pages, not a way or making the headings and subheadings clearly visible.  

This book is an UK edition, although you won't find that clearly stated on the cover. Therefore, the bonuses and many of the general links as well as those on nearby practitioners refer to the UK.

***

Overall, this is a very educative and fun, enthusiastic and informative book to read, and good for a first approach to Ayurveda. It is a great bok for beginners but also overly simplistic and not well written and it has a bit of babble.