HOLT UNCENSORED #32
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, January 26, 1999
FRIGHTENING BUT OPTIMISTIC: RAY KURZWEIL
MORE THAN A BOO-BOO AT BARNES & NOBLE
ENTER THE 'NEW NOIR': 'EASY MONEY'
STACEY'S SPEAKS: 'STANDING AT THE SCRATCH LINE'
GAIA VS. AMAZON: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
FRIGHTENING BUT OPTIMISTIC: RAY KURZWEIL
Let's go have coffee with Ray Kurzweil, the computer genius who's perhaps most famous for inventing music synthesizers, reading machines for the blind and voice-activated word processors, to name just a few of his creations.
Kurzweil's latest book, THE AGE OF SPIRITUAL MACHINES (Viking; 388 pages; $25.95), is full of the kind of breakthrough predictions that (for him) are both optimistic and realistic. For me, it's a bit frightening, but more about that later.
In fact, it's thrilling to meet Kurzweil. One of the most exciting interviews I ever conducted took place 16 years ago with a blind man who had just discovered the KRM (Kurzweil Reading Machine) at the Oakland (Calif.) Public Library.
This man could hardly contain his excitement. Of course, selected books and magazines had long been recorded for sight-impaired readers, and even then, a few computers could "read" certain texts. But the big breakthrough of the KRM, he explained, was that users could now plunk ANY piece of print down on the windowed face of the machine and - voila! - hear it read back to them within seconds.
True, the tinny voice emerging from the KRM sounded like a Conehead on drugs. "Now. Izz. Da. Winteh. Uff. Ur. Dizcontent." But he didn't care. For the first time in his life, he "saw" the library for what it could be: Every book, every new journal and every just-arrived magazine was finally his for the listening.
Kurzweil smiles at the mention of the early KRM and its huge, grateful audience. "People think I had a blind cousin in the family to have created a machine like that," he says. An affable man with a friendly grin and fearless demeanor, he explains that in 1974, he discovered a way to expand OCR (optical character recognition), but didn't know what to do with it. "It started with abstract mathematical formulas on a blackboard, then became a solution in search of a problem."
Lucky for Kurzweil, a blind man happened to sit next to him on a plane flight and mentioned "his only real handicap - his inability to read ordinary printed material." At that moment, Kurzweil realized, "I found the problem I'd been looking for," and the KRM (actually three new technologies he had invented) was born.
Kurzweil sold his KRM company to Xerox, then went on to build and sell three other companies with similar inventions. In 1988 he wrote a groundbreaking book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines," in which he predicted everything from the emergence of the World Wide Web to digital imaging on the battlefront, self-driving cars, the replacement of locks and keys with computer-recognized speech and facial patterns and a computer chess-playing machine that would defeat the human champion.
Now in "The Age of Spiritual Machines," Kurzweil predicts that blind people will be able to see with the help of neural implants, just as paraplegics will be able to walk through computer-controlled nerve simulation and robotic devices. In fact, we'll all be able to plant teensy computers in our brains to improve memory, skills, and so many forms of thinking that eventually humans might just rebuild themselves right into robots and cease being "human" at all (this is the frightening part, in case you haven't noticed).
Much of the book explores Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating Returns," his declaration that technology is speeding up exponentially ("computers are currently doubling in power every 12 months") and will one day bypass human intelligence. "The nature of the Web by 2020 will be a virtual reality environment," he says, "in which I could be in Boston and you here in San Francisco, and we could still meet in this cafe, or maybe pick out some exotic place, like a Mozambique game preserve, and meet in virtual reality."
Yeah, sure, you may think: Computer "experts" like Nicholas Negraponte already said all this. Well, others may guess about the future, but Kurzweil knows what's coming because he's going to invent half of it. He doesn't shy away from talking about the downside, either. "I'm not completely sanguine about the future. Computer viruses are a nuisance today, but as everything becomes software, self-replicating nanobots are going to be a real danger, possibly turning into an inorganic form of cancer.
"I also think the accelerating pace of change is extremely strenuous. As human beings we've not evolved to change that quickly." When developing countries find it just as easy to "skip the whole industrialization stage and go right to information technology - for example never put in a wired phone system and go right to cellular telephones" - you can bet a whole lot of shaking will be going on, adjustment wise.
But say, is that it? That's all the "downside" Kurzweil can come up with? What about the potential for some futuristic dictator to mobilize all this power and take over the world? At the same time that decentralization on the Internet allows every person with a computer to be equal to every other person with a computer, global conglomeritization (excuse the "ization" shorthand) is speeding up with such companies as Microsoft and (in our field) Bertelsmann/Barnes & Noble/Ingram.
Well, yes, says Kurzweil, that is happening. But it can't go too far because nobody can ever again control communication. "In a sense, you could say the Soviet Union collapsed because of decentralized communication - the government no longer had the means of locking up information. Enough technology got out so that the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was undone in a matter of days, not so much by Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank but by cell phones and fax machines and early forms of email."
Huh. Well, the great thing about "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is that Kurzweil puts such notions in very dense language that mathematicians will enjoy (his "Law of Time and Chaos" will inspire some, frustrate many) and also creates a funny and accessible dialogue with a very intelligent, often witty and sometimes cantankerous student named Molly.
Of course if you have trouble understanding Kurzweil, wait a little while. Maybe when the paperback comes out, Viking will sell for neural implants that will help us all decipher it.
MORE THAN A BOO-BOO AT BARNES & NOBLE
Whoops, it appears that somebody made a boo-boo in Internet World's recent interview with Jonathan Bulkeley, CEO of barnesandnoble.com. Discussing changes at B&N online, Bulkeley describes "adding out-of-print and used books to the site [through a deal with the American Booksellers Association]. That's 2.6 million titles of out-of-print and used books--a dealer network of independent dealers publishing their stock on our site."
Well, one hopes whoever added that comment in brackets didn't mean the ABA, which is currently trying to sue the stuffing out of Barnes & Noble, and meant instead ABE, the Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com), which serves used book dealers. "I haven't seen the article you're referring to," emails Len Vlahos of the ABA, "but it [the reference to ABA] is DEFINITELY a typo. I imagine that you're right, the writer probably meant ABE. We have had no dealing with B&N outside of the lawsuit against B&N and Borders, and our objections to the FTC and Congress in regard to the B&N/Ingram deal."
But talk about frightenng: What's this about barnesandnoble using its competitors, used-book dealers, to sell "millions" of used and out-of-print [OP] books? Perhaps there's nothing wrong with making money off the enemy, but if the enemy is stockpiling books to drive its supplier/competitiors out of business, that's another story.
A number of people have written to express their concern about this issue, among them a most articulate used book dealer named Julie Stein, who says she worries about "Barnes and Noble's current efforts to establish themselves in (and no doubt ultimately control) the used, rare and out-of-print book business. They have teamed up with the Advanced Book Exchange to lure used book dealers into posting their books with B&N.
"As of now, B&N is listing 'associated' book dealers' names (though without contact info or URLs) on their web site where the OP books are listed, but this is obviously a case of the fox in the henhouse and just a first step in their plan to take over the used book world as well. Unfortunately, used book dealers trying to make a living are selling their books to the enemy, and are seemingly unaware of the grave consequences."
How could this situation have come about?
Julie: : "I am a subscriber to ABE and know many savvy dealers who have agreed, simply for short-sighted financial reasons, to the contract with Barnes & Noble (the agreement is listed on the ABE site, though you may need to be a member to read it). Originally, the deal between ABE and Barnes & Noble required that dealers give Barnes & Noble a 20% discount. Apparently enough dealers didn't go for this, so they recently removed the required discount, which has enticed many more dealers to join. If you compare the price listings between Barnes & Noble and the original dealer on ABE, you will see the markup is sometimes double."
Double! Unbelievable! What about Amazon's service?
"Amazon.com has been selling out of print books for a couple of years at least, by offering an OP search service on their site. When they receive a request, they simply search ABE, Bookfinder, Bibliofind, etc, buy the book from a dealer and then mark up the book for the customer. They have been very successful at this (I regularly receive requests from them), even though the people who are using their service are obviously online, and have access to the same searches. These customers just don't know.
"Imagine the advantage Barnes & Noble has by offering the search service not only on their website, where it already exists, but also in their stores - full of customers who don't use the Internet. This is clearly just the beginning."
Well, that's terrifying. If ever an educational campaign were needed to show customers they're paying MORE for books at Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble, this is it! Surely a poster or two, or handouts at the cash register, would be appreciated by those customers who, as Julie points out, "just don't know."
ENTER THE NEW NOIR: 'EASY MONEY'
Is it me or have you noticed a new category in crime fiction emerging - call it maybe the New Noir - in which women are so removed from the classic pretty-damsel-in-distress model that they resemble the tough-but-weary embattled souls we used to find in Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet?
The latest example is EASY MONEY by Jenny Siler (Henry Holt; 262 pages; $24), in which the protagonist, a recovering cocaine addict named Allie Kerry, has been employed for some time as a "courier" of packages, each containing some sort of illegal thang - drugs, diskettes, weapons, body parts - she doesn't know and doesn't ask.
Allie is one tough number. As a little girl in Key West, she had fun catching scorpions under the house, a childhood memory that comes roaring back to mind when she beats the stuffing out of a would-be assailant, whom she leaves barely conscious on the ground. "The man's uneven breathing echoes across the darkened parking lot like the scratch and rattle of a tiny exoskeleton on hardwood, like that scorpion sliding back into the shadowed corners of our old house."
Allie grew up assisting her father on a small boat that regularly ran guns and drugs and information from Cuba to the labyrinthine channels of South Florida. "In the Keys," she explains, "smuggling has always been a kind of family business, like farming in the Midwest. I knew several boys my age who helped their fathers or uncles on runs. None of my friends had paper routes or summer jobs bussing tables. We learned early where the real money was to be made."
Her tomboy manner of identifying with boys leads Allie to learn the ways of men who used to be heroes in novels like this. She fights and smokes and drinks like the tough guys of the Old Noir, only occasionally lapsing into silly cliches, like diving onto the ground with gun in hand and shooting out a faraway lightbulb at the same time. And as is typical of the genre, her romantic side may prove her undoing.
Best of all, Allie views the American landscape through an outsider's lens. "The most difficult thing for me is the American family," she explains. "Once you leave the coasts and enter the belly of the country, the great blind central states with their barn-sized churches and bland food, it is difficult to escape the ubiquitous maw of their distressing normality . . . I picture myself in a spacious suburban kitchen pulling tuna casserole out of a clean oven, going to a hateful job, letting a man I don't desire into my body, and I know I have made the right choice. I have learned to glide anonymously among them, invisible."
Not quite, of course, because in the New Noir novel, every character is a mess. Allie's alcoholic father appears to have killed himself as the book begins. His best friend from the war in Vietnam - now a cross-dressing heroin addict calling herself Miss Darwin - lives with her prostitute girlfriend in Colorado where they are both committing slow suicide with drugs.
Darwin's neighbors are Hmong refugees who use their farming skills as a front for a drug-import business, through which "the feds [meaning CIA] are still making money off Southeast Asia," one character insists. This present-day version of Air America (the U.S. government's now-legendary method of raising money for covert operations during the Vietnam War) is portrayed so convincingly that we wonder if author Siler has an "in" with the Pentagon.
Siler's brutish but poetic language allows for startling images we can smell, feel in our hands and see vividly. An older man suddenly remembers how it felt going swimming at 13, "hanging from a thick strand of rope over the green surface of a pond. He felt the bristling rake of the twine against his palm, the second of weightlessness as his body reached the top of the swinging arc, the exhilaration of release, and the long fall through the air." It's an old and much overworked image, but freshly rendered and long remembered after book's end.
STACEY'S SPEAKS: 'STANDING AT THE SCRATCH LINE'
I can't remember a more riveting opener to a novel than the deadly swamp scene that begins STANDING AT THE SCRATCH LINE by Guy Johnson (Random House; 548 pages; $24.95). Here an idealistic young man - already a killing machine at 17 - silently stalks his enemy, who on a hunting platform in the trees above him.
"Dropping down into the water until only his head was above its dark surface, LeRoi began his noiseless approach. In the surreal landscape of gray and white vapor under the trees overhanging shadowy presences, only the boat had movement as the pull of the current caused it to bump against projecting roots. . . . When [LeRoi] rose out of the water, the bow was already stretched taut with an arrow. The bow had a sweet, bass twang as the arrow was loosed."
Colleen Lindsay of Stacey's Books writes: " 'Standing at the Scratch Line' is an unforgettable history/adventure tale of one African-American family. It reaches from the bayous of Louisiana to the trenches of World War I in France and into Jazz Age Harlem. It is as epic in size and scope as Mario Puzo's 'The Godfather' and filled with as much rage and empathy as Alex Haley's 'Roots.'
"The central character in the story is LeRoi 'King' Tremain, a young black man who - fleeing from a corrupt Louisiana legal system - rises to eventually become the patriarch of a powerful black family. It is an amazing testament to one man's place in history, and it is one of the Stacey's staff favorite new books of the year!"
GAIA VS. AMAZON: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
In an attempt to educate everyone from customers to planning commissioners and city council members on reasons to support independent bookstores, Patrice Wynne of GAIA Bookstore in Berkeley has compiled a list of "the social and personal costs" that local communities pay when they support "corporate chains and Internet booksellers rather than local independent bookstores."
Adding up numbers that are too often are never counted yet profoundly strengthen communities in a variety of ways, Wynne believes compares the local contributions of a store like GAIA with those of amazon.com, as follows:
**Number of author readings, community and cultural events held by GAIA: 1,863; by amazon.com: 0.
**Number of people who have participated in educational programs at GAIA: 853,462; at amazon.com: 0.
**Number of commuity organizations given free publicity and advertising for their events via store displays, newsletters, postings at GAIA: 12,240; at amazon.com: 0.
**Number of books donated to local schools, social services and public agencies by GAIA: 10,075; by amazon.com: 0.
**Local taxes paid to support schools social services and public agencies by GAIA: $1,543,018; by amazon.com: 0.
You can't read the whole list without realizing how much independent bookstores do invest in the local scene and how important it is that community leaders help them survive. Conversely, when Wynne reveals that "community capital investment" in GAIA has been zero while Wall Street investment in amazon.com has been $1.6 billion, you can't help but marvel at the imbalance that keeps independents struggling so hard simply to tread water.
No one is asking for a handout from city governments, Wynne makes clear. But when cities bemoan the gutting of downtown areas for distant malls or the degeneration of streets that could "come back" through small businesses and stores, it may be too late for independent bookstores to be considered even as candidates.
GAIA does have a chance in the year 2000 to return, with the help of Berkeley redevelopment funds, as a community center. But an earlier announcement that it will have to close in the meantime has touched a nerve with many customers. One anonymous donor has offered a matching gift of $200,000 if an equal amount can be raised by the end of February, and customers and authors have rallied to produce an all-day celebration, "Honoring GAIA," this Sunday (January 31) from noon to 9 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St. at Rose in Berkeley. Admission is $10 or purchase of any book from GAIA on Jan 31st.
With an author speaking every 15 minutes (Suze Orman, Robert Hass, Wayne Muller, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Rachel Naomi Remen, Rick Fields, Starhawk, Ted Roszak, Danielle Ellsberg and Joanna Macy are just a few), this should be quite a Super Sunday. For questions, call 510 548-4172.