Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig

June 30, 2013 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Literature, Mediocre Books, Music, Philosophy, Science and Technology) (, , )




There is a sort of schizophrenic veering between Lessig’s historical contextualising of the evolution and development of copyright law, and his impassioned denouncement of so-called ‘Big Media’. His attempts to draw a straight line between the two are not always entirely successful, and hostile readers might well suspect him of permitting his motives to lead him on an unwarranted crusade. Where he is successful, he is often convincing and guileless, and speaks with a great deal of conviction. His forays into historical documentation are amateur sketches of dogeared case-studies that have held his own attention for years, but are nevertheless interesting with only a few exceptions. His contemporary hectoring tends to be a lot more vibrant, and the autobiographical sections detailing his own Supreme Court case manages to be at the same time exciting and frustrating, bearing the fault that it has been trimmed down to a bare summary of the facts.

“The hard question is therefore not whether a culture is free. All cultures are free to some degree. The hard question instead is “How free is this culture?” How much, and how broadly, is the culture free for others to take and build upon? Is that freedom limited to party members? To members of the royal family? …To artists generally, whether affiliated with the Met or not? To musicians generally, whether white or not? To filmmakers generally, whether affiliated with a studio or not?”

-Free Culture

Lessig has the flaw of being needlessly paternalistic and pedagogical, particularly when describing the absolute worst-case scenarios that he anticipates. In spite of his flaws he is deeply passionate about his subject, and although it is this passion which often leads him astray it also breaks up the monotony of his drier material and lays his biases and motives fairly plainly out for all to see.

This is neither great literature nor a particularly cunning or sophisticated piece of work, but it is the work of a true believer with a strong argument to make. Doubtless there are more informative texts on the battle for copyright protection; also doubtless there are books written by men and women whose expertise on copyright history is a little more solidly defined. This is therefore a difficult book to recommend. It is a good book, but not a great book. It is a good entry-level text, but has faults that might deter further inquiry into the subject. It is easy to read, but it might have been both easier to read and less repetitive, with a more comprehensive exposition.

Read it, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to be the best or most scholarly piece of work available.

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The Case for Mars, by Robert Zubrin

June 23, 2011 at 14:40 (Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Science and Technology) (, , , , , )



Zubrin writes with apostolic fervour and the zeal of a true believer, swinging somewhat erratically between arguments calculated to win over the everyman reader, and compilations of scientific data and complex equations, graphs and diagrams intended for those closer to his own field. Simply from reading this book, it is difficult to tell whether Zubrin is a part of a lunatic fringe or if he is an industry insider peddling his wares. Through his careful name-dropping and occasional autobiographical references, it becomes steadily clearer that he is largely the latter, and his own podium of expertise (as well as frequent references to colleagues’ opinions) go a long way towards establishing his credibility.

His style is very informal for a scientific publication, but does little in the way of damaging his voice: indeed, it succeeds in captivating a cavalier attitude of adventurism and futurism. The dreariest part of this book is Zubrin’s tendency to exhaustively explore every potential option and every single theoretical objection. He is fighting for his case, and if it is a choice between an extra chapter of alternative means of martian exploration, or leaving an exploitable loophole for his enemies, there will be that extra chapter. This is tiresome but expected, in the same way that his apostolic zeal grows a little stale by the end of the book; not contrived, but a little wearying.

Nevertheless, if Zubrin’s goal was to convince a lay-reader that his plan (or even another plan!) is feasible, he succeeds admirably. His fundamentalism is matched by the utterly reasonable projects that he lays out, and paradoxically, the simplicity of his plan is this book’s chief selling point, even while the complexity of his reasoning is one of the weaker points. This is not the easiest book to read, but it is certainly worth the effort.

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