The Gift of a Book

When I was 20, my girlfriend’s brother bought me Bleak House for my birthday saying “I love buying books for people who will get pleasure from them.” I’ve flirted with Bleak House more times than I can remember but there is always some other book ready to steal my affections.

Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure
Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure

I’ve been through a substantial proportion of the Dickens canon in the last thirty years – and loved every one! – but, somehow, something about Bleak House keeps me from making that final commitment. But Colin! Believe me when I say that I am so grateful for your gift and your faith in me and, one day, I will prove myself worthy of your kindness.

I have been a committed reader since I first learned ITA and I formed the habit of keeping 5 or 6 books on the go soon after. I keep my active books in a pile by my nightstand, each waiting for the privilege of being the next to come to bed with me. I’ll sample a little of each until one seduces me, whispering I am the one, and commits me to reading on on on until the finish.

R. Dragon took me on flights of fantasy.

In the early days of my reading adventure, Green Smoke and The Little Wooden Horse and The Magic Faraway Tree were my night-time companions but, these days, Mr Bezos’s magical device sends me sample after sample to tease me and tempt me into making that brief, literary commitment. I do still have a few pre-electronic books on my nightstand, waiting for their turn to join me in bed and one of them is Bleak House, waiting longer than Pip waited for Estella – nearly 30 years now – for a turn under the covers.

On the RoadOther friends have had more luck giving me books. Matt currently holds the title Most likely to buy me a fantastic book, a title he first earned with On The Road, telling me “I hesitate to give you this, because you might just take off and leave me behind”. In the end, it was he that took off and I stayed put, probably to both our chagrin(s). Matt has since bought me several books out of the blue and every one was a winner. I have tried repaying his complement on more than one occasion, but I fully expect my attempts to settle the debt are still piled on his nightstand.

Another memorable book-shaped gift came from Colin’s (and therefore Fiona’s) brother-in-law Rod. I can’t tell you how many times I re-read Fungus the Bogeyman and I’d be more than a little ashamed to tell you how many times it made me cry.Fungus the Bogeyman

Perhaps the best ever surprise book came from an unusual source. When I was 15, my dad who, as far I know, never actually read a book, bought me Principles in Organic Chemistry, a second year (american) college textbook. I say my dad bought it for me, but what I almost certainly mean is that my stepmother bought it for me. Sue, if you are reading, I don’t know how you ever thought to buy me that book and I have been meaning to ask you since forever. That book was perfect for my fifteen-year-old self as, at the time, I loved chemistry and I read it over and over. I still remember all the methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- prefixes and the difference between an -ene and an -ane and how Americans had different names for everything (and still do!). I’ll forever be grateful. I wish I still possessed that book just as I wish I still possessed the Joy of Frogs (think: Joy of Sex but with frogs) that you bought me the year before.

Michael Freeman's 1000th book on photography.
Michael Freeman’s 1000th book on photography.

It’s a little bit sad that I have no one to buy books for these days. Mrs Clown reads occasionally, but not any book that I would ever think to buy for her. I have bought her many a book but our secret agreement is that I buy the book for her, read it myself and then tell her what’s in it. She particularly enjoyed me reading Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind.

My biggest little clown couldn’t get enough of books when he was an even littler clown but one too many deadly earnest Great American Novels For Children doused his passion for books in elementary school. I seem to recall that Little House on the Prairie provided the final bucket of water that killed the flame forever. The other little clown still enjoys reading in theory but, in practice, has too many electronic temptations to sit patiently with something so old-fashioned as a book and certainly wouldn’t let people from another generation recommend books for her.

It’s a great shame because I so desperately want them to love the books that I love. I am still able, across the vast generation gap that separates us, to choose a movie and force them to sit still (put that phone down!) through those crucial first 15 minutes until the plot grabs them and drives the electronic temptations from their minds but it’s a skill I have to use sparingly because, although my success rate is impressively high, I feel that a little of my influence drains away each time I use it.

Only for children who love dogs

One small clown still trusts me to recommend TV series for us to watch together despite the attempts at sabotage by the other two but my book-recommending mojo is, I fear, gone forever. I still have full confidence in my ability to choose a book for my little ones, but I have no confidence that they will actually open it and let the words cast their magic spell. One little clown, just last week, even made it all the way through one of my favourite books from my childhood but I have no evidence at all that the Call of the Wild was ever more than mere words on a page for her.

If I had a teenage daughter to recommend books for, I would certainly recommend that she read The Bell Jar. OK, maybe I’d wait until she was a little older so she could appreciate the wit and the delicious cynicism more completely, but I have no doubt that she would love it and that it would change the way she thinks about life. It’s always risky to recommend a book when you are only half way through but I am sufficiently moved by the first half that I wanted to put down my Kindle for long enough to write how much I’m enjoying it.

Sylvia Plath, for me, has always been a footnote in Ted Hughes’s biography. Mr Banks, my teacher for the last two years of primary school, was a Ted Hughes pusher and if we weren’t reading poems about attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn, we were making enormous collages about The Iron Man but I didn’t know anything about his wife, Sylvia Plath, except the thing with the oven. I understood that a certain kind of american feminist held Hughes responsible for her death but I never understood why they cared so much about her death in the first place. Now I do. She’s a brilliant writer.

I’m not much of a feminist myself – and I’m even less of one after the PyCon thing last week – but if I were a woman and a feminist, I think I’d want to be the kind who succeeds because she’s great at what she does, not because she’s a feminist and Plath was a great writer and she tells a story that I know well. I hear she’s pretty good at poetry too, and that’s where my reading adventure will take me next.

The Bell Jar

Google Makes Little Girls Cry

#occupygooglereader is a cry of from the heart of Reader readers everywhere who quietly enjoyed the trickle of articles shared by friends real and virtual on Google’s wonderful RSS Reader.

It was a a small feature and I bet no more than one in a hundred used it. I liked to tap the little share with note button at the bottom of articles that moved me in some small way. I had no idea whether anyone ever saw my notes but it felt good to write them. My notes were messages in bottles bobbing insignificantly in an ocean of comment but were terribly meaningful to the lonely guy who scrawled them and tossed the bottle into the retreating tide.

It was obvious the Google would do away with the share feature on Reader as soon as Google+ appeared on the horizon. I looked forward to it even. Bottles tossed in the ocean are romantic and all but how much efficient for the guy on the island to get a modern communications pipeline with hangouts and +1s and circles?

Long before circles were the preferred shape for social exchange, I had a little debating circle going with a small number of close friends. We covered many of the trending topics of the day – Invade Iraq? 3-1 against! Impeach Clinton? 3-1 against! – and we covered all the greatest topics in the history of thought. We covered philosophy, science, theology, economics, politics everything – intelligent design? 3-1 against! The Basis of a Sound Society? Ah! Sadly, we never resolved that one.

Come to think of it, we were often 3-1 against. The 1 once requested reinforcement from an old college buddy but we turned him down (3-1 against!). In the end, real Social Networking (capital S capital N) killed our little circle and after 6 or 7 years of passionate remonstrations, our clamour faded to silence.

Through an accident of history, my official social networks coalesced into very distinct circles. Twitter is all about software craftsmanship; Facebook is for long lost nieces, schoolmates and pirates; Linked In for former colleagues. I haven’t really figured out what Google Plus is for yet but I have a secret wish that it’s for serious debate. I even created a circle for it but my Debating Circle is so far unsullied by any actual debate.

Google+’s circles seem perfect for debates. If you debate on Twitter, who knows which frothing wingnut or moonbat will join in and no one wants to discuss moral philosophy with their crazy uncle on Facebook. I tried it once with the frothing wingnut sister-in-law of a friend of a wife in South Dakota (the sister-in-law, not the wife) but in the end the wingut’s head threatened to explode with anger and the friend shut down all the fun for fear of losing her inheritance.

It’s funny to watch debates on Facebook as it’s probably the only place in the world where wingnuts actually hang out with moon bats on a regular basis. The debates get quite surreal quite quickly. With just one Extropian or Randian on your friends list [and don’t we all have at least one of those? -ed] and the discussion will go asymptotic before it even gets started. Facebook is the new polite society where you can’t discuss sex, politics or religion and anyone who does is instantly flagged as moral leper to be shunned by the righteous and the clean. Google+, with its tidy little boundaries seems like the perfect breeding ground for a self organized leper colony and I live in hope that, one day, the disease will take hold.

I expect that much of the outrage among fans of the share with note button on Reader comes from the sense of loss of a safe place to talk passionately about important topics free from self-censorship for fear of offending someone. If we are all reading Conor Friedersdorf, there is a good chance that we have sympathy for his arguments or at least care enough to disagree passionately without causing or taking offense.

I let loose freely on my blog but, even here, there’s always a nagging doubt that someone will take umbrage at an overlooked subtlety or you’ll cause outrage in an over-sensitive boss or sister-in-law when they find out that you are a secret pirate [present bosses and sisters-in-law excepted of course! -ed].

It’s not just that Google deleted a safe venue for debate that causes the sense of loss that the#OccupyGoogleReader people are feeling. It’s the fact that Google has snuffed out countless little debating circles that have grown organically over the years. They can reform their networks on Google+ but they won’t be the same. Even switching from one Google+ account to another, I will probably lose about half of my network. My new network will be more refined of course, without the tyre-kickers and the people that added me to their circles before they got bored with clicking the you might know these people button but I still resent Google a little bit more today than I did yesterday.

But I don’t resent Google nearly as much as the next group of aggrieved netizens that I’ll mention here.

Imagine yourself as an eleven year old girl.

You’ve been flirting with and over GMail and Buzz for a couple of years now. You have just started middle school and your real life social network just got much bigger and more exciting. Girls in middle school represent the very pinnacle of human social interaction and you are a child of the cyber age so it’s natural that your virtual life would reflect the one you live in meat-space. Your killjoy parents think you are not ready for Facebook so gmail and Buzz are the only social games in town.

One day you come home from school for a fresh round of flirting and middle school bitchery on the interwebs and you notice – quelle horreur! – that Buzz is gone!!! OMG!!1! :(((((((((((( What’s a modern little girl to do??!

But wait! What silver lining is this? Google wants me to join Google Plus!!! There’s a banner right there that says so!! Oh happy day!! :-))))))

My dad has told me a 100 times that I shouldn’t enter personal information on the interwebs. He even has a fake birthday for that very purpose [29 feb on a leap year. It’s surprising how many sites that breaks! Even my own employer’s! – ed]. But this is Google. They have a very important looking notice that says I mustn’t lie or bad things will happen. What can it hurt to break my daddy’s rules just this one time and type my real date of birth just once…..?

This is what happens.

You get a scary notice that Google has taken away all of your friends. All of your fun; all of your LIFE. All gone. If you were an eleven year old girl and Google just shut down your social life, what’s the first thing that you would do?

You would cry.

Can you imagine what it’s like for a girl just starting middle school to lose her online presence? Ever had your WoW account hacked and lost everything? Ever lent your gameboy to a cute little mexican girl at a football game and have her delete 6 months worth of your pokemon adventure? What if your Flickr account got deleted? I was eleven-years once. I would’ve been devastated and I wasn’t even an eleven-year old girl.

Google is in a tough spot. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t allow web sites to collect data from kids under 13 but, as surely everyone except the congress-critters who passed the law knows, the law is a nonsense.

In fact CR found that over 5 million of Facebook’s 7.5 million-plus underage were as young as “10 and under.” … That’s not the worst of it. CR also found that underage kids using Facebook were unsupervised by parents. The site claims ‘not wrongly’ that this exposes them to “malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.”


Telling middle school kids that they can’t interact with their friends online is like telling the tide not to come in. King Canute himself would have known better.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people wanted that law.

“We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective age-verification methods for users signing up for new accounts,” Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

We need a modern Canute to demonstrate the futility of ineffective laws. They are worse than futile. They teach kids that the law is to be laughed at. Everyone else already knows.

Google could have done better though.

Their message doesn’t say

We are sorry but those nasty democrats in Washington made us forbid you from using Google+… but carry on using Gmail which you and 99% of your eleven-your old friends have been using for years to communicate with each other and with your teachers and soccer coach and piano instructors.

It doesn’t say

We are taking away GMail and Google Docs but we’ll give you half an hour to download your contact lists and your homework projects so you don’t have to cry some more on Monday morning when you explain to your teacher that Google ate your homework.

Wait! What? You didn’t read the terms and conditions? What are you? Eleven-years old?


It says

You do not meet the age requirements for a Google Account. This account will be deleted in 28 days unless the birthday you entered was incorrect and you submit proof that you are 13 years old or older.

Forget the sugar and spice. Little girls these days are 90% social networking and 10% pictures of ponies. Google just cut out a big chunk of their hearts.

Google, like most technology companies, probably has little designer teams with persona profiles pinned to the wall. Personas, for the uninitiated, are representative archetypes of a user population.

They have names like Chuck and Beryl…

Chuck works at the hardware store and lost the use of both his thumbs in a bandsaw accident so he needs the channel selector to respond to a whack with his fist.

Beryl is forty two year old secretary who thinks an email is not a proper email unless you attach an Excel spreadsheet…

Personas are a great way to get inside the heads of your users and imagine how they see your products. Full-ceremony personas come with a life history and a profile photo and a list of their favourite charcuterie. Design teams have earnest conversations about how Jennifer will only click buttons with rounded corners because they remind her of that Laura Ashley dress she wore to Aunt Mathilda’s wedding.

Google needs a new persona. The profile picture will be of a little girl crying big, cheek-sopping tears because Google took away all her friends.

Chelsea used to be a fun-loving cherub but, these days, she just cries. Chelsea loves playing with dolls and talking with her friends about ponies. She doesn’t use gmail any more though because we took it away and made her cry.

They’ll update the persona over time. In 20 years, it will a picture of a bitter, thirty-something woman who still refuses to use Google+ because of that one time that Google took away all her friends. The marketing people will come up with some cheesy category for them like

generation lost – the generation who carry iPhones and use Bing and Facebook and drive Oracle self-driving cars because they still refuse to use Google products because they still remember that one time, 50 years ago, when Google ripped out a piece of their soul.

Maybe they could work it into one of those cute logos? The second ‘o’ could be a sobbing little girl in pigtails, the ‘e’ could be a teardrop and the descender of the ‘g’ could represent the happiness draining away from every little girl’s life.

In all fairness, I should note that Google did provide one way for our sad little girl to escape from social purgatory. If she can persuade her parents to lie about her age – and type in a credit card number for authentication – she can come back into the Google fold.

I swear the button to commit this sin was an eye, winking.

Have fun!

There is a beautiful, sprawling tree on top of a hill by our house. It has a rope swing and someone has nailed boards into the trunk to make it easy to get up to the crown where a splendid panorama of Almaden Valley awaits you.

The tree has a special place in clown family lore because, when we first moved in to this house 6 years ago, we went exploring and finding this delightful tree, we clambered joyfully to the top and enjoyed the view. We still call it the climbing tree.

The smallest clown – now 10 years old – loves to go visit the climbing tree and on our last expedition we ran into two girls from her school who love it too. “How wonderful to see kids out exploring like the thousands of generations of kids before them!” I thought.

So it was something of a mental challenge when the inevitable happened. The very next day, my little clown asked if she could go exploring the tree on her own. Gasp! Now I had a tricky choice to make: reckless parent or hypocritical coward. The coward on my shoulder made a persuasive case.

I have often wished – like many of my generation – that my kids could have the same experiences and freedom to wander as I had growing up. But let my little girl go climbing on her own? She could fall! Go wandering alone? Who knows who she might meet!

To be honest, I think I was more afraid of becoming America’s Worst Parent than of something happening to my daughter.

My angelic and devilish advisors found a compromise. Little clown can go exploring with a friend. Take your phone! Make sure we know where you are going! Don’t go up there if there are older kids! Make sure we know what time you’ll be back! Be safe! But most of all…

Have fun!


Where have all the children gone ?

I think Rob is letting fond memories of his childhood cloud his perception of the present:

The street I grew up on was what I imagine a typical suburban development looks like. I’ve seen it recently with new developments that friends and relatives have moved to as soon as they had kids. Inevitably, just outside the current suburbs, a developer will buy a bunch of undeveloped land and build a couple of “phases” of new affordable homes (“affordable” is a relative term, especially in the Bay Area). These new affordable homes attract young families with kids, so the neighborhood becomes a childhood utopia of bike riding, sports playing and swimming pool parties.

I live in the cheapest house in a newer phase in the same suburb that Rob grew up in and the only children I ever see are the ones being ferried backwards and forwards to karate/baseball/football by their parents.

I grew up on a Council Estate (what ‘mercans might call a Housing Project) and I have the same memories as Rob. On any given day, we could spontaneously start our own football league or host the olympics (which we actually did in ’76 – I won!). It’s the main reason I moved into my street. I wanted my kids to have the same experiences that I did. Apart from when they are going to/returning from school or adult-supervised sporting activities, the only sign of under-age life on my street is the sound of clicking coming from their bedrooms.

This is the first generation in 2 million years of human evolution to grow up indoors. I blame the parents.