Bill Gates on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”

Bill Gates took to Reddit this afternoon to do an “Ask me Anything.”  Here were a selection of my favorite questions and answers.

What do you give a man who can buy almost everything?

Q: What do people give you for your birthday, given that you can buy anything you want?

A: Free software. Just kidding.

Books actually.

On Windows…

Q: Windows 7 or Windows 8? Be honest Bill.

A: Higher is better.

And one more:

Q: Since becoming wealthy, what’s the cheapest thing that gives you the most pleasure?

A: Kids. Cheap cheeseburgers. Open Course Ware courses…

Cheap kids? Where is acquiring them from? Bill’s answer is hilarious.

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Bill Gates does a great job reviewing books on his Web site. Here are his favorite books from 2012, which I recommend perusing.

Alan Sepinwall on the Origins of LOST

Alan Sepinwall, writing for Grantland, recounts the origins of the hit TV show LOST, as told by the people who made it, in an exclusive first serial excerpt from The Revolution Was Televised:

On vacation with his family in Hawaii, Braun watched his network’s broadcast of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, then went down to the beach to watch the sunset and meet up with his wife and kids. As he waited, he began pondering the idea of doing Cast Awayas a TV show, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work with only one actor and one volleyball.

“And then the notion of Survivor popped into my head,” recalls Braun. “I don’t know why. And I put it all together: What if there was a plane that crashed and a dozen people survived, and nobody knew each other. Your past was almost irrelevant. You could reinvent who you were. You had to figure out — how do you survive? What do you use for shelter, for water? Is it like Lord of the Flies? How do we get off the island, how do you get home? And I start to get very excited about the idea, and I start thinking about the title Lost.”

Also interesting and surprising was how one of the writers of LOST, Damon Lindelof, reacted to the show’s premiere:

Lindelof, on the other hand? He describes his response to those huge premiere ratings as “Terror, depression, anxiety, anxiety attacks. I’m not exaggerating. Everybody who was around me at the time knows I pretty much wanted to die, and knowing that wasn’t going to happen unless I took matters into my hands, I just wanted to quit. But there was literally no one to quit to.”

Cuse says, “I remember [Lindelof] coming in with the ratings after the opening episode, and he looked completely miserable. He said, ‘Does this mean we have to keep fucking doing this?’ If you’re a producer in television, this is like getting a winning lottery ticket: having a show that’s not only critically acclaimed but gets big ratings. But it was daunting to have to sustain this thing.”

I’ve placed Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised on my Christmas wish-list.

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As some of you may know, LOST is my favorite TV show (to this day). Here was my reflection six months after the show ended.

(hat tip: Longreads)

The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2012

The New York Times Book Review just unveiled their list of 100 notable books of 2012. It’s well worth perusing. Here is their list of the best 2012 fiction/poetry:

ALIF THE UNSEEN. By G. Willow Wilson. (Grove, $25.) A young hacker on the run in the Mideast is the protagonist of this imaginative first novel.

ALMOST NEVER. By Daniel Sada. Translated by Katherine Silver. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) In this glorious satire of machismo, a Mexican agronomist simultaneously pursues a prostitute and an upright woman.

AN AMERICAN SPY. By Olen Steinhauer. (Minotaur, $25.99.) In a novel vividly evoking the multilayered world of espionage, Steinhauer’s hero fights back when his C.I.A. unit is nearly destroyed.

ARCADIA. By Lauren Groff. (Voice/Hyperion, $25.99.) Groff’s lush and visual second novel begins at a rural commune, and links that utopian past to a dystopian, post-global-warming future.

AT LAST. By Edward St. Aubyn. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) The final and most meditative of St. Aubyn’s brilliant Patrick Melrose novels is full of precise observations and glistening turns of phrase.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS. By Jess Walter. (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.99.) Walter’s witty sixth novel, set largely in Hollywood, reveals an American landscape of vice, addiction, loss and disappointed hopes.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK. By Ben Fountain. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.99.) The survivors of a fierce firefight in Iraq are whisked stateside for a brief victory tour in this satirical novel.

BLASPHEMY. By Sherman Alexie. (Grove, $27.) The best stories in Alexie’s collection of new and selected works are moving and funny, bringing together the embittered critic and the yearning dreamer.

THE BOOK OF MISCHIEF: New and Selected Stories. By Steve Stern. (Graywolf, $26.) Jewish immigrant lives observed with effusive nostalgia.

BRING UP THE BODIES. By Hilary Mantel. (Macrae/Holt, $28.) Mantel’s sequel to “Wolf Hall” traces the fall of Anne Boleyn, and makes the familiar story fascinating and suspenseful again.

BUILDING STORIES. By Chris Ware. (Pantheon, $50.) A big, sturdy box containing hard-bound volumes, pamphlets and a tabloid houses Ware’s demanding, melancholy and magnificent graphic novel about the inhabitants of a Chicago building.

BY BLOOD. By Ellen Ullman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) This smart, slippery novel is a narrative striptease, as a professor listens in on the sessions between the therapist next door and her patients.

CANADA. By Richard Ford. (Ecco/Har­perCollins, $27.99.) A boy whose parents rob a bank in Montana in 1960 takes refuge across the border in this mesmerizing novel, driven by fully realized characters and an accomplished prose style.

CARRY THE ONE. By Carol Anshaw. (Simon & Schuster, $25.) Anshaw pays close attention to the lives of a group of friends bound together by a fatal accident in this wry, humane novel, her fourth.

CITY OF BOHANE. By Kevin Barry. (Graywolf, $25.) Somewhere in Ireland in 2053, people are haunted by a “lost time,” when something calamitous happened, and hope to reclaim the past. Barry’s extraordinary, exuberant first novel is full of inventive language.

COLLECTED POEMS. By Jack Gilbert. (Knopf, $35.) In orderly free verse constructions, Gilbert deals plainly with grief, love, marriage, betrayal and lust.

DEAR LIFE: Stories. By Alice Munro. (Knopf, $26.95.) This volume offers further proof of Munro’s mastery, and shows her striking out in the direction of a new, late style that sums up her whole career.

THE DEVIL IN SILVER. By Victor LaValle. (Spiegel & Grau, $27.) LaValle’s culturally observant third novel is set in a shabby urban mental hospital.

ENCHANTMENTS. By Kathryn Harrison. (Random House, $27.) Harrison’s splendid and surprising novel of late imperial Russia centers on Rasputin’s daughter Masha and the hemophiliac ­czarevitch Alyosha.

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. By Barbara Kingsolver. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) An Appalachian woman becomes involved in an effort to save monarch butterflies in this brave and majestic novel.

FOBBIT. By David Abrams. (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, paper, $15.) Clerks, cooks and lawyers at a forward operating base in Iraq populate this first novel.

THE FORGETTING TREE. By Tatjana Soli. (St. Martin’s, $25.99.) In Soli’s haunting second novel, a mysterious Caribbean woman cares for a cancer patient on an isolated California ranch.

GATHERING OF WATERS. By Bernice L. McFadden. (Akashic, $24.95.) Three generations of black women confront floods and murder in Mississippi.

GODS WITHOUT MEN. By Hari Kunzru. (Knopf, $26.95.) Related stories, spanning centuries and continents, and all tethered to a desert rock formation, emphasize interconnectivity across time and space in Kunzru’s relentlessly modern fourth novel.

HHhH. By Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.)This gripping novel examines both the killing of an SS general in Prague in 1942 and Binet’s experience in writing about it.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. By Dave Eggers. (McSweeney’s, $25.) Eg­gers’s novel is a haunting and supremely readable parable of America in the global economy, a nostalgic lament for a time when life had stakes and people worked with their hands.

HOME. By Toni Morrison. (Knopf, $24.) A black Korean War veteran, discharged from an integrated Army into a segregated homeland, makes a reluctant journey back to Georgia in a novel engaged with themes that have long haunted Morrison.

HOPE: A TRAGEDY. By Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $26.95.) Hilarity alternates with pain in this novel about a Jewish man seeking peace in upstate New York who discovers Anne Frank in his ­attic.

HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? By Sheila Heti. (Holt, $25.) The narrator (also named Sheila) and her friends try to answer the question in this novel’s title.

IN ONE PERSON. By John Irving. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) Irving’s funny, risky new novel about an aspiring writer struggling with his sexuality examines what happens when we face our desires honestly.

A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME. By Wiley Cash. (Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.99.) An evil pastor dominates Cash’s mesmerizing first novel.

MARRIED LOVE: And Other Stories. By Tessa Hadley. (Harper Perennial, paper, $14.99.) Hadley’s understatedly beautiful collection is filled with exquisitely calibrated gradations and expressions of class.

NW. By Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $26.95.) The lives of two friends who grew up in a northwest London housing project diverge, illuminating questions of race, class, sexual identity and personal choice, in Smith’s energetic modernist novel.

ON THE SPECTRUM OF POSSIBLE DEATHS. By Lucia Perillo. (Copper Canyon, $22.) Taut, lucid poems filled with complex emotional reflection.

PURE. By Julianna Baggott. (Grand Central, $25.99.) Children battle for the planet’s redemption in this precisely written postapocalyptic adventure story.

THE RIGHT-HAND SHORE. By Christopher Tilghman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) A dark, magisterial novel set on a Chesapeake Bay estate.

THE ROUND HOUSE. By Louise Erdrich. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) In this novel, an American Indian family faces the ramifications of a vicious crime.

SALVAGE THE BONES. By Jesmyn Ward. (Bloomsbury, $24.) A pregnant 15-year-old and her family await Hurricane Katrina in this lushly written novel.

SAN MIGUEL. By T. Coraghessan Boyle. (Viking, $27.95.) Two utopians from different eras establish private idylls on California’s desolate Channel Islands; this novel preserves their tantalizing dreams.

SHINE SHINE SHINE. By Lydia Netzer. (St. Martin’s, $24.99.) This thought-provoking debut novel presents a geeky astronaut and his pregnant wife.

SHOUT HER LOVELY NAME. By Natalie Serber. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.)The stories in Serber’s first collection are smart and nuanced.

SILENT HOUSE. By Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Robert Finn. (Knopf, $26.95.) A family is a microcosm of a country on the verge of a coup in this intense, foreboding novel, first published in Turkey in 1983.

THE STARBOARD SEA. By Amber Dermont. (St. Martin’s, $24.99.) Dermont’s captivating debut novel, whose narrator is a boarding school student and a sailor, takes pleasure in the sea and in the exhilarating freedom of being young.

SWEET TOOTH. By Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95.) The true subject of this smart and tricky novel, set inside a cold war espionage operation, is the border between make-believe and reality.

SWIMMING HOME. By Deborah Levy. (Bloomsbury, paper, $14.) In this spare, disturbing and frequently funny novel, a troubled young woman tests the marriages of two couples.

TELEGRAPH AVENUE. By Michael Chabon. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.)Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY. By Colm Toibin. (Scribner, $19.99.) This beautiful work takes power from the surprises of its language and its almost shocking characterization of Mary, mother of Jesus.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. By Junot Díaz. (Riverhead, $26.95.) The stories in this collection are about love, but they’re also about the undertow of family history and cultural mores, presented in Díaz’s exciting, irresistible and entertaining prose.

THREE STRONG WOMEN. By Marie NDiaye. Translated by John Fletcher. (Knopf, $25.95.) In loosely linked narratives, three women from Senegal struggle with fathers and husbands in France. This subtle, hypnotic novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2009.

TOBY’S ROOM. By Pat Barker. (Doubleday, $25.95.) This novel, a sequel to “Life Class,” delves further into the lives of an English family torn apart by World War I.

WATERGATE. By Thomas Mallon. (Pantheon, $26.95.) This novelistic re­imagining of the “third-rate burglary” proposes surprising motives for the break-in and the 18-minute gap, and has a sympathetic Nixon.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK: Stories.By Nathan Englander. (Knopf, $24.95.) Englander tackles large questions of morality and history in a masterly collection that manages to be both insightful and ­uproarious.

THE YELLOW BIRDS. By Kevin Powers. (Little, Brown, $24.99.) A young private and his platoon struggle through the war in Iraq but find no peace at home in this powerful and moving first novel about the frailty of man and the brutality of war.

Click through to see the non-fiction list.

On Twitter, The Expanse and Beauty of #NYTBooks

The best thing on Twitter today was the sudden proliferation of the #NYTbooks hashtag. I don’t know who started the tag, but I participated in the festivities and loved reading through what others had to share. Here were some of my favorites:

And a couple by yours truly:

Did I mention I love Twitter?

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Update (11/1/12): The #NYTBooks meme began by Mother Jones’s Timothy Murphy, according to Poynter.

The Worst of DRM

This blog post offers a cautionary story on how Amazon can wipe out your entire account:

As a long-term writer about technology, DRM, privacy and user rights, this Amazon example shows the very worst of DRM. If the retailer, in this case Amazon, thinks you’re a crook, they will throw you out and take away everything that you bought. And if you disagree, you’re totally outlawed. Not only is your account closed, all your books that you paid for are gone. With DRM, you don’t buy and own books, you merely rent them for as long as the retailer finds it convenient.

One reason I still prefer to own physical books versus e-books.

Mo Yan: Winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature

Mo Yan has won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. This NPR piece on Mo Yan’s writing caught my attention:

Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads, and Big Breasts & Wide Hips. As NPR’s Lynn Neary reports on Morning Edition, “He’s said to be so prolific that he wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out — which is a 500,000-word epic — in just 43 days. He wrote it with a brush — not a computer — because he says a computer would have slowed him down because he can’t control himself when he’s online; he always has to search up more information.”

I’ve placed Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out on my to-read list.

Want a Book Review? Hire Me.

The New York Times has a fascinating piece on people who write book reviews for cash. If the publishing industry isn’t a crapshoot as it is, people like Mr. Rutherford aren’t really helping the cause:

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

So why is Mr. Rutherford in this business?

Mr. Rutherford’s insight was that reviews had lost their traditional function. They were no longer there to evaluate the book or even to describe it but simply to vouch for its credibility, the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls. A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.

“I was creating reviews that pointed out the positive things, not the negative things,” Mr. Rutherford said. “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”

In essence, they were blurbs, the little puffs on the backs of books in the old days, when all books were physical objects and sold in stores. No one took blurbs very seriously, but books looked naked without them.

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

The most shocking statistic from the piece: about 1/3 of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. So I’m now going to be more vigilant than ever checking Amazon for glowing reviews.

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Also, I don’t mention this often, but yes, if you’re a publisher you can send me books for review.  There’s no guarantee that I will provide a positive review, however, since I do it for free.

 

A Physicist on Everest: How Body and Mind Break Down at High Elevation

In his new book, To The Last Breath, physicist Francis Slakey recounts the myriad of physical and mental challenges in summiting the world’s highest peak. The following is an excerpt from To The Last Breath, full of vivid detail:

I take my first step down the mountain and immediately feel depleted. Adrenaline is a direction-sensitive stimulant. My body has been producing gallons of it since I set out for the summit at midnight, but the moment I turned around to go back down the spigot went dry. I have felt this on every climb I have ever done and other climbers tell me they experience the same thing: adrenaline on the way up, an empty tank on the way down.

These are the moments when I have my greatest focus. It’s not that my mind is sharp; at this altitude, with this level of fatigue, I know that my mind is as thick as timber. And it’s not that I’m broadly aware of my circumstances.

In fact, now, at this moment, my world has become astonishingly small. It no longer consists of friends and family.  My hometown, the smell of coffee, the push and hustle of my job, the last book I read—all of that is distant and forgotten. 

The only thing that exists in my life right now is the square foot of snow directly in front of me where I will plant my next step. I can sense that spot with absolute clarity. I can see the bend of the snow, feel the weight of the falling flakes, sense the flakes settle on the ridge creating a new contour. The shadows and folds of a small patch of snow and rock are my entire world now.

I guide my foot to the spot I’ve been staring at and the metal claws of my crampon punch through the snow, gripping and taking my weight as I lean forward sinking deep into fresh powder. I take in three breaths before I’m ready for another step. I pull my boot out of the foot-deep hole of snow and plod forward. This descent is happening in slow motion, like walking through a vat of molasses.

My speed is limited by the intense fatigue and the layers of clothes I’m wearing to weather the twenty-below-zero temperature. I’m encased in a down suit, hands sealed in thick gloves, my face layered in a mask and goggles. Two days from now, when I’m back in Base Camp, I will discover that there was a small gap in all that wrapping. A square of flesh on my cheek, no bigger than a postage stamp, was exposed to the subzero chill. The result is a patch of thick blackened skin, crisped like a burnt marshmallow. It takes months for the skin to return but it forever remains sensitive to the cold.

On the final challenge of reaching the death zone:

As a climber goes up even higher in altitude, into the so-called death zone, the dangerously thin air above 26,000 feet, there is so little oxygen available that the body makes a desperate decision: it cuts off the digestive system. The body can no longer afford to direct oxygen to the stomach to help digest food because that would divert what precious little oxygen is available away from the brain. The body will retch back up anything the climber tries to eat, even if it’s as small as an M&M.

The consequence of shutting down the digestive system is, of course, that the body can no longer take in any calories. Lacking an external fuel source, the body has no choice but to turn on itself.  It now fuels itself by burning its own muscle—the very muscle needed to climb the mountain—at a rate of about two pounds per hour.

The climber’s body is now in total collapse. The respiratory system is working way beyond its tolerance at roughly four times above normal; the circulatory system is pumping at only 30 percent capacity; the digestive system has completely shut down; and the muscular system is eating away at itself. In short, the body is dying. Rapidly. 

Read the entire excerpt here. I’ve placed To The Last Breath in my reading queue.

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(hat tip: @travelreads)

Your E-Book Is Reading You

With the increased proliferation of e-books, publishers are using data analytics to determine what and how people are reading on their e-book devices. The Wall Street Journal provides some detail:

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers’ digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.

Some details on which books tend to get dropped by readers:

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

Those insights are already shaping the types of books that Barnes & Noble sells on its Nook. Mr. Hilt says that when the data showed that Nook readers routinely quit long works of nonfiction, the company began looking for ways to engage readers in nonfiction and long-form journalism. They decided to launch “Nook Snaps,” short works on topics ranging from weight loss and religion to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Not very surprising, I suppose. I’d be interested in finding out what the criteria for a drop are: is it starting to read another book? No change in page numbers in a week? Longer?

Another thing to consider: giving readers what they want based on analytics can backfire. Imagine someone who’s read a longer book than they otherwise would have and their sense of accomplishment after finishing versus a publisher that tells authors to limit how and what they put on the page. As one astute publisher noted: “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because someone didn’t finish it.”

The French Love Their Books

There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books.

That quote is from this New York Times piece detailing how books sales compare in the United States and France:

From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.

There’s also this:

A 59-page study by the Culture Ministry in March made recommendations to delay the decline of print sales, including limiting rent increases for bookstores, emergency funds for booksellers from the book industry and increased cooperation between the industry and government.

One tiny operation determined to preserve the printed book is Circul’livre. On the third Sunday of every month this organization takes over a corner of the Rue des Martyrs south of Montmartre. A small band of retirees classify used books by subject and display them in open crates.

The books are not for sale. Customers just take as many books as they want as long as they adhere to an informal code of honor neither to sell nor destroy their bounty. They are encouraged to drop off their old books, a system that keeps the stock replenished.