September-October 2015 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


As observant readers will have noticed, this issue of TWD spans two months, rather than the usual one (although the most recent issue was also a two-monther, and a bit late to boot, as is this one). I apologize for the delay, but my MS has made my vision very unreliable lately, making getting anything done quite difficult. On a good day, my visual field resembles an old analog TV with bad reception: constant visual “noise” and fluctuating sharpness. On a bad day it’s all that plus flashing lights at the edges and big patches of fog or (my fave) total blackness drifting across my field of view. My eye-hand coordination has also decreased to the point where I make constant typos even with my new two-finger hunt-and-peck.

To be honest, I might very well stop writing these columns if we weren’t so dependent on the small income from donations and subscriptions. Nah, I kid. Sort of.

Onward. The easiest way for me to read something, oddly enough, is to take off my glasses (I am very myopic) and hold the material about four inches from my eyes. This does not work well with computers, but it’s great with my little old Simple Nook reader, especially if I’m lying in bed. The Nook also makes it easy to read very long books that would test the strength of my wrists (which isn’t great) in even paperback editions.

So lately I’ve been reading The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which is a ginormous (580 pages) novel about a writer, also named Joshua Cohen, who is ghostwriting the autobiography of a tech billionaire, also named Joshua Cohen (who is clearly modeled on Steve Jobs, though this Cohen has developed something very like Google). The name thing is the least consequential part of the book (and the Cohen-Jobs figure is, thankfully, referred to as “the Principal” throughout).

Reviewers seem a bit flummoxed, especially by the long mid-section consisting of transcripts of Cohen’s interviews with the Principal about the origins and development of the company and the technology (“algys,” i.e., algorithms) behind it. Enough of them are puzzled by such terms as “octalfortied” to make me wonder if they find some of the tech jargon (and Principal’s neologisms, such as “cur” for “curious”) off-putting and annoying. But there’s this thing called Google for that, and the middle section actually does a good job of filling out the Jobs/Principal figure as a weirdo wunderkind naif swept along by both the implacable world of venture capital and the moronic inferno of the internet.

Parts of this are very funny, including pages of Cohen’s manuscript complete with large blocks of struck-through text punctuated by the author’s all-caps-swearing frustrated rages. There’s a very sharp bit about a ludicrously pointless (but entirely plausible) home backup server concocted and marketed to take advantage of the Y2K panic, and the brilliant but doomed engineer named Moe, from Goa, who is forced by the VCs to debase his talents by supervising its development. It’s also a nice touch that the climactic scene of the book takes place at the Frankfurt Book Fair and involves a thug apparently inspired by Julian Assange. And what’s not to like in a book that sends a clueless sorta-Steve-Jobs into a backroom poker game to fleece (under the guidance of Moe) Keanu Reeves and Ben Affleck?

Cohen (the non-fictional one) has been compared to Pynchon, and The Book of Numbers did remind me of Gravity’s Rainbow in its form as a bizarre and confounding odyssey, but it’s far better than Pynchon’s own stab at exploring the internet in 2013, Bleeding Edge, which was a painfully prolonged damp squib reeking of geezer.

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