Book Review: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our HeadsThe Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating history of the industry, people, and tactics that relentlessly pursue your attention. The book covers the advances of this industry as it keeps pace with advancing technology, from propaganda posters, radio, movies, television, email, the web, and most recently on social media and to the ‘fourth screen’ the mobile devices that rarely leave our grip. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that you are constantly being advertised to, but it’s still very eye opening to learn the history and evolution of the efforts to get inside your head, eye opening and unnerving.

I began reading this book the weekend before Thanksgiving. And on an unrelated whim, on Thanksgiving Eve, I decided I would focus on enjoying the company of having my kids home for the holiday, and take a ‘Facebook Fast’ for three days. I’m guilty of being pretty much addicted to Facebook, obsessively checking in, sharing another selfie, forwarding a ‘real’ news article, and liking and commenting on the sharing by others. The notion of opting out of Facebook for three days felt much like a drinker’s (which I am) going on the wagon for a few days, just to prove to themselves that they can. Well, I did, and it was find. I should have turned off the notifications from Facebook on my phone, which worked to suck me back in, but I resisted.

And being off of Facebook, helped allow me to more quickly tear through this engaging book, which coincidentally, in it’s final lines, advised doing exactly what I had done,

“If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”

My only wish for improvement would have been if the book had included a section of photos and illustrations. Frequently when reading, I couldn’t help but tear my attention from the deep reading I was enjoying in order to Google a wartime poster, or a person, or breakthrough advertising campaign in order to better know and appreciate what I was reading about. All things which should have been included in the book.

Despite that minor quibble, I recommend this book highly. And I expect that my successful experiment of a Facebook Fast is one that I’ll repeat. Not just to prove that I can. But to reclaim ownership of MY very experience of living.

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Boardwalk Empire at the National Archives

So a few months back, talking TV shows over a few beers, my buddy TJ recommended the HBO Series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ to me. I had a vague notion it was a period gangster type of thing, and having recently read a few good books about the prohibition era, TJ’s endorsement pushed me over the edge to check it out. Because who doesn’t have time for another TV show in their life? Fortunately, modern life means missing a show doesn’t mean missing it forever, or even waiting for reruns. We can consume our TV on demand. And so I’ve been binging on Boardwalk Empire lately. No one else in the family is watching it, so it’s either late night solo shows, or commuter episodes snuck in on my iPhone on the bus (thank you grandfathered unlimited data plan!).

Anyway, I’m halfway through season 4 of the 5 season show and really loving it, when I got an email from the National Archives about a free ‘behind the scenes’ discussion with the author of the book that inspired the series, the writer who developed it for HBO, two actors from the show, and the visual effects supervisor from the show. It was a very interesting and entertaining event, and much to the Archives credit, the whole thing was live on YouTube and remains there now. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll really enjoy watching this. But you had to be there to get a signed copy of the book ­čÖé

Book Review: The Great Agnostic

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American FreethoughtThe Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first learned about the American politician, orator and ‘great agnostic’ Robert Ingersoll after reading a couple of books about American Freethinkers back in 2005 and 2006. I similarly enjoyed this biography about him, a book which now has many dog eared pages for particularly noteworthy quotes or passages. Among my favorites from Ingersoll is his creed,

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

It’s opportune that I finished this book while near Peoria, I will try and pay a visit to his statue in Glen Oak Park while I’m here, and must later visit his resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Robert, you have a standing invite to attend ‘Chris’ Afterlife Dream Party of Historical Figures’. I hope you’ll be there, oh wait… nevermind.

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UPDATE: We made our visit to Glen Oak Park and paid homage to Ingersoll!



The 80s

I entered the 80s as a high school freshman. I exited them a married homeowner awaiting the birth of my first child. In between came those formative years of education; high school, college, and a trip to Europe where I met the wonderful woman that I married. It’s safe to say it was a formative decade for me. So when I saw that National Geographic had a six-part program called,┬áThe 80s: The Decade that Made Us┬ácoming up, I was quick to turn to my iPad and add it to my DVR schedule. My interest only grew when I learned the program was based on a book written by a friend and former (90s) intern of mine from days in the US Senate, David Sirota. Hurry now and buy your copy here like I did…Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything

Thinking about ‘decades’, it can be tricky. To me, the 80s feel like they just happened. They are a very recent part of my personal history. My three kids were all born in the 90s. The 80s are to them, what the 50s are to me. Weird. My kids aren’t as old as me. I expect my parents have an even thinner connection to the 20s.

So yeah, the 80s, I lived them. And I’m enjoying the flashback from the show, and looking forward to reading David’s book. I bought it online tonight and faced a dilemma. The book’s available for $14.99 as an iPad edition, cheaper than a print version. But I’m old school enough to hope someday I might get David to sign my copy, and that can get messy on an iPad. I’m buying the hardcover.


Roald Dahl

roald_dahl.jpgRecently, the topic of ‘Roald Dahl‘ came up in conversation in my house, in reference to a children’s book of his titled ‘The Twits’, with which I am unfamiliar. And that surprised me, because I considered myself a fan who grew up loving Dahl’s books; James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the epic sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. And a particular favorite, Danny the Champion of the World (published in 1975 when I was 10, I still have the copy I received for Christmas that year).

My daughter Colleen, also a huge Dahl fan, ran up to her room and returned with an armful of his books that I have never read including George’s Marvelous Medicine, The BFG, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, Matilda, and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.

I tweeted my surprise, and started reading. In the Wikipedia article on Roald Dahl, I found my explanation as to how I had missed these books. Each of them had been published after 1980, by which point I was in high school and I had seemingly turned to more age appropriate reading. Just once since then had I read a Dahl book, this one written for adults, My Uncle Oswald, a bawdy tale that predicts Viagara and sperm banks. It was a fun read, but I didn’t explore his adult books any further.

Yesterday I finished the third of these new (to me) books on the bus home, The BFG (which is of course short for Big Friendly Giant). And then in my evening web surfing I stumbled onto a coincidence, September 13th (Dahl’s Birthday) is recognized as Roald Dahl Day in the U.K. and around the World. And a day’s not really enough, so Dahl’s own web site claims September as Roald Dahl Month!

I’m happy for the fortuitous timing of my rediscovery, and a new pile of books of his I get to explore more than 35 years after my original introduction and enjoyment of his writing. Happy Roald Dahl Month to all!

Update – With a week left to go in Roahl Dahl month, today’s Washington Post reviewed a new biography about him. It looks like a great read.

‘Storyteller,’ Donald Sturrock’s authorized biography of Roald Dahl
The Washington Posts, 9/23/10

Today in History – The Bill of Rights

On this day in 1791, Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights, becoming the 11th State to do so, and thus reaching the required 75% of states needed to ratify to make these first 10 amendments part of the Constitution. Well done founding fathers!

I recently read a great book about the drafting of the Constitution, Miracle at Philadelphia. There are many facts about our government that we learn and just take for granted, such as the formulas for representation in the House and Senate, and the inclusion of a ‘Bill of Rights. This book provided a fascinating look at the sausage making that took place as the Constitutional Convention WAY over-stepped their mandate by creating a whole new form of government, and how close they came to failing. Thanks to James Madison for taking such good notes during the process.

In 35 Days we’ll say good bye and good riddance to a President who has utterly failed in his job requirement to ‘preserve and protect The Constitution of the United States of America’. Thankfully, hopefully, the damage he’s done can be undone, and America will have learned how easily a government can undermine our guiding principles, and how vigilant we must remain to prevent it from happening.

The Other ‘Casey’ in Baseball

When thinking ‘Casey’ and ‘Baseball’, it would not be unexpected for most people to think of the slugger for Mudville from the famous poem, Casey at the Bat. But there is another Casey in baseball, whose words are better known and are sung at most games, but whose identity has been lost in the unknown verses. She shares my daughter’s name, Katie Casey. Here’s how it goes:

Katie Casey was baseball mad, Had the fever and had it bad; Just to root for the home town crew, ev’ry sou, Katie blew

On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go,
To see a show but Miss Katie said, “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do”:


Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack,
I don’t care if I never get back,

Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame
For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names;
Told the umpire he was wrong,
all along, good and strong

When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew just what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

Listen to the oldest known recording of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ recorded by Edward Meeker in 1908.

The song, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, was written and first became a hit in 1908, which happens to be the last time that the Cubs won the World Series. In 2008, we’re bringing Katie Casey back, and the Casey’s will help see the Cubs bring their own poetic ending to their 100-year championship drought. And though they lost a heartbreaker 4-3 in today’s opener with the Brewers, we don’t fret. This will be our year.

I am currently re-living the 1908 baseball season, and the Cubs last World Championship, with the help of the book, Crazy ’08 which I am enjoying greatly and highly recommend.

Set A Book Free

Passalong BookToday I had a good idea. A great idea really. I had just finished a really great book, and typically I would have happily shelved it, content to have another good book in my personal library. But having discussed this book with a friend, I thought to make it a gift to him, which is a nice thought. But I then imagined him finishing it, and happily shelving it with his books, rather than it being happily shelved with mine, and the thought had less appeal. I don’t know why, I guess I’m selfish. But here’s where the idea came in. What if I gave the book away, on the condition that the recipient would likewise give it away when he finished it? And here’s where the idea gets a cool, tech twist… what if you could track where it went?

Certainly such an idea can’t be that original I thought, and some searching online found that it was not. I found a few web sites that facilitate the free swapping of books by mail, but that’s not what I was looking for. I wanted to turn a book loose, to be found, read, tracked, and turned loose again. I found my idea, already in full fruition at The site offers all of the features I was looking for, and so I registered my book, and gave it to James. Tonight I printed up some labels to use for future releases, the first of which will be my own book, which will be set free in the wilds of Washington, DC tomorrow. May it find a good reader, and be passed along many times.

Five years ago, I entered five dollars into the Where’s George site. None have yet had any of their travels recorded. I hope the books I release do better.

The Road

I’m still working on getting caught up on my book reports. I’m not sure why, but sharing some brief comments of some sort about what I’ve read here in my blog has become an important last step in my reading process. Maybe I just home to actually refer enough sales to Amazon to someday actually see some small check from them. But whatever… I digress.

Anyone who pays any attention to my reading list knows that I tend heavily to non-fiction. History, biography, and current events are my typical staples. I make a conscious effort to read more fiction, but to me, actual people and events usually capture my attention first. Truth can truly be stranger than fiction. But a good review in the Washington Post had put The Road by Cormac McCarthy on my list of books to look out for. And Oprah almost knocked it off. Not that I don’t imagine that Oprah and I could enjoy the same book. But I wouldn’t want to count myself among those who turn to her to tell me what to read. Thankfully, when I did pick up my copy, the Oprah sticker peeled off easily.

This is a very fast and dark read. It follows the wanderings of a father and his son, known only to the reader as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ as they wander through the horrors of a post apocalyptic America. They have only each other, and the few items and what foot they can scavenge. They use their tattered scraps of map to lead them towards the ocean, for which they hold some thin hope might be somehow nicer. But nice things are few and far between in the grim world they wander, and they daily have to consider the question if there is any reason left to go on.

I recommend the book highly to anyone. It’s not a happy book, but still one that’s hard to put down, like not being able to help looking when you drive past a car wreck, looking for something horrible and then regretting it if you actually see it. Everyone should take such a look at what things could be like if we allowed things to go so horribly wrong.

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