Sunday, 8 September 2019

Why anonymity and pseudonyms on the internet are so important

Anonymity and the use of pseudonyms on the internet has a bad reputation. It is seen merely as a cover for various forms of harassment. There have even been suggestions to entirely do away with it. Journalist Walter Isaacson is one person who argues for this. But this is a dangerous idea. Anonymity on the internet sometimes provides cover for harassment, but it also prevents it.

For this is a world full of cruelty and bigotry. Innocent people are regularly harassed, beaten or even killed for who they are or what they believe. The perpetrators have little need of hiding their identity and often commit acts of violence in broad daylight. They don't even hide their names online, as anyone who has used Facebook can attest to. But because of that violence and abuse, the victims often need to hide.

For them, the internet and the anonymity it provides is often the only way for them to talk to others about their experiences and thoughts without serious repercussions. It is not safe to be openly LGBT. Political dissidents in dictatorships can be punished for criticizing the government. Mental illness is still highly stigmatized and talking about having one is seen as shameful. Welfare bureaucracies often use posts on social media to deny disabled people their benefits  Workers have been fired by their employers or are never hired because of their social media posts. They are many, and who they are vary widely, but they all have a legitimate need for anonymity.

For them, an anonymous or pseudonymous social media presence is not cowardice, but a rational and prudent precaution. It frees them to talk openly about things that would be seriously punished in physical spaces. What they talk about can range from cathartic conversations about mental illness to serious political criticism of government and society to the joyous expression of their LGBT identities.

The suggestion that hiding one's legal name is necessarily an act of cowardly dishonesty is itself dishonest. On the contrary, doing so often enables honest self-expression. The name you give yourself online may even reveal more about yourself than your legal name.  For many trans people, the idea it would be more honest to use their "real" (i.e legal) name is a cruel joke.

To sneer at this reveals a privileged and ignorant mindset. It is the mindset of the rich, those who can say what they want without consequences. It is a viewpoint of wealthy bestseller authors like Isaacson mentioned above, "entrepreneurs" and columnists for major newspapers. The contempt they hold is ultimately that of the wealthy against the poor and disadvantaged.

It reeks of the "just-world fallacy". The people who hold it seems to believe that anyone who has something to hide out of fear of the consequences is necessarily hiding something bad. But that is not the case. Often people hide innocent things out of fear for being abused for it. And to deprive them of online anonymity is a cruel way to deny what is often their only way of express themselves.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Streaming media services are a racket

That title is a strong statement, but I stand by it. Streaming services are a corporate racket that steals from you as a consumer and diminishes our culture. It may be convenient for now, but it has unfortunate long term side-effects. I myself use streaming services myself for music, but it is bad for both the individual consumer and cultural preservation, in ways that physical media of old wasn't.

When you buy a physical copy of something, it is yours to keep. It is of course possible for the work, whether in the form of a book, DVD or record, to go out of print. In fact, this happens all the time. Most books that were ever written are now out of print.

But in that case, the work still survives in the form of existing physical copies or through piracy. The copy you bought is still available for you as long as you can personally preserve it. Your copy might break. but you are legally allowed to make copies for your own personal use. Spreading those copies can be illegal, but you shouldn't really care about that. Piracy of Out-of-print or otherwise commercially unavailable works is absolutely no crime from a moral perspective. It might be illegal, but it is often the only way to make such works available to a new audience.

With streaming, you don't get that. The consumer continually pays for access to a collection of works over the internet. And it is the corporate owners who decides what is included in that collection. They can take away anything of what you paid for, and there is nothing you can do about that. You pay and you pay the corporations and in the end you own nothing. Streaming media is inherently impermanent.

It is especially bad with streaming film and TV. Film and TV shows disappear all the time from streaming services, often because of expired license agreements that were not renewed. And if a work is removed from a media streaming service, it will ordinarily not leave a copy behind.

This is terrible for the individual consumer, who will lose access to the work despite making regular payments for it. And it is frightening from a cultural preservation and accessibility perspective. Films and music are art and as such should be preserved. Artistic works of the past provide invaluable insight on our past and are capable of inspiring us today. Streaming will hamper our future ability to preserve and access artistic works.

If you want another but similar perspective on this problem, I recommend the video essayist Kyle Kallgren. He speaks far more eloquently that I about the preservation aspect and the general problems with streaming media services in his vlog on the demise of the film service Filmstruck. 

DVDs are still made, but they're a dying medium. It is increasingly common for some works such as TV-shows to only be available via streaming. When they get removed from those services, they will leave no physical copies and perhaps only exists as memory or in some corporate vault.

Sure, some of the losses of works that for example Netflix have suffered from is due to the media conglomerates wanting to put their works on their own streaming platform. Disney has done just that and created Disney Plus. Other corporations are doing the same. But that is also bad from an accessibility standpoint.

Cinema and DVD stores show and sell movies from a variety of producers. The consumer can pick and choose the movies they were interested in and don't need to care which studio made them. You buy individual movies in such a market. You can't do that with streaming.

In the streaming future that will soon be a reality, you'll need to buy access to an entire streaming service in order to see any single film offered. No picking and choosing from multiple studios, unless you're prepared to pay multiple subscriptions. This will have the sinister effect of encouraging consumer loyalty to the corporations whose services they use. Not that some kind of streaming monopoly would be any better. Private monopolies are terrible for the consumer for reasons I don't even need to explain.

And there is still many examples of works being removed from the market and put in a corporate vault. That word "vault" might sound safe. At least the work is preserved for a future return to the market, right? But those vaults are not safe at all. The hard truth is that corporations don't care about preservation of the works they own the copyright to. Preservation can be costly and it seldom generates immediate profits. Most corporations view things like preserving film reels and music tapes as a drain on their resources. This leads to carelessness or even outright destruction of what they deem valueless. The 2008 Universal fire is a dramatic example of what such carelessness can lead to.

The only bright spot is that there are ways to make copies of streaming film or music by recording it. The streaming services try to prevent it, but frankly you should record things. Record and make copies of everything you want to keep. In the future, piracy of such recordings might be the only way the works are still available. Pirates are often doing the preservation work that the actual copyright owners won't do.

There are plans from gaming companies to make streaming video games a thing, such as Google Stadia. And that is terrifying, for there is no way to make copies of a streamed game, for you won't have access to the code. A game that is only available via streaming will eventually be unavailable completely, for you won't be able to pirate it. The consumer won't even have any personal purchased to pirate.

There are existing cases of games that no one can play any more because of so-called always-online DRM. Video creator Ross Scott is probably the expert on this unfortunate phenomenon. He started with his video on the dead game Battleforge and his videos on this topic eventually culminated in his very long video essay on why "Games as a service is fraud". Go watch him, but I'll give a short summary of the problem here.

Games with always-online requirements require the player to have a connection to a central server in order to play them. This is in order to prevent piracy. And when that server is shutdown, the game is completely unplayable. Such cases are sobering hints of a future where artistic works can be lost forever due to corporate greed.

I don't think streaming media is inherently bad. It is a technology that can be used for good or for evil. Sadly, in the world as it is, it is a tool which enables corporations to further harm our culture in the pursuit of profit.

Yet, it doesn't have to be like this. If we use it with care, the internet and streaming can be used to improve access to art and culture, without harming its preservation. In a sensible world, the preservation of art and culture should be a task given to publicly funded institutions such as libraries and museums. They should be given all the funding necessary for such a monumental task.

And our artistic and scientific creations should be made as freely and as widely available as possible, including via the Internet and streaming. The arts should also be publicly funded instead of left to the whims of the market and the corporations which control it.

It may sound utopian, but such a world is entirely possible. Libraries already provide literature, art and education for free. This has enriched the lives of many who can not otherwise afford such things.
Classical music and opera in Europe are already heavily dependent on public funding. For if the market decided such things, we would not be able to hear Mozart performed live.

The creation of such a world will of course require serious reforms. We need the political will to take back our culture from the death grip of the market economy. We must reform copyright law, so it doesn't hamper the ability of libraries to provide digital materials. And it requires money, money that must be taken from those corporations that now control our lives and will fight fiercely to keep that control. It will be difficult, but if corporate rule is not resisted, they will eventually create a cultural wasteland. Fighting that hard struggle against them will be our only hope of preventing it.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur is an novel by American author Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938), first published in 1980.

The novel is about the Bellefleurs,a wealthy American family of French origins. They live in a veritable castle in Upstate New York. But this is not merely realistic family saga, although it has elements of that, but a novel of supernatural gothic horror with a magic realist. Strange, obviously supernatural things happen to the family, which is said to be cursed. Their gothic castle mansion and the land surrounding is clearly a eldritch location of some kind. 

The bulk of the novel concerns itself with Leah and Gideon, the couple who lead the family somewhere the first half of the 20th century (Time is vague overall in this novel). Leah becomes pregnant with a child, who has obvious psychic abilities (which Leah share during the frightening pregnancy) among other peculiarities. The child who is named Germaine is implied to have been fathered by the cat Mahalalel, who is obviously not a cat, but a shapeshifting supernatural creature of some kind.  As a baby, Germaine telepathically convinces her mother to regain all the land the family founder Jean-Pierre Bellefleur once owned but which they eventually lost.

The novel also tells the stories of the extended Bellefleur family and has frequent flashbacks to their strange history. A running thread is the story of Jebediah, who in 1806 becomes a mountain hermit to find God.  But there are many strange persons with strange fates among the Bellefleurs. A man who just disappeared inside the castle. A spinster aunt who became a vampire after a love affair with european aristocrat. The man whose skin was made into a drum when he died. Jean-Pierre Bellefleur II who is haunted by irrational urges to commit murder. The girl who married a man who turns into a bear. Nightshade, the troll who becomes Leah's manservant. The land surrounding the castle is the hunting ground of a bird-monster called the Noir Vulture who is capable of stealing human babies. In the early 19th century, the wealthy Bellefleurs begin a feud with poor Varrell family. This culminates in a 1825 massacre which kills most of the Bellefleurs, including the founder Jean-Pierre and almost causes their line to go extinct.

 It's difficult to find a theme or even a plot that unites this long, sprawling and surreal novel. Oates herself has said that Gothic literature move us because it is rooted in how we psychologically and emotionally perceive the world. The supernatural elements in such stories mirror our emotional states or attempts to superstitiously explain a chaotic world Or in her words "we have known people who want to suck our life’s blood from us, like vampires; we feel haunted by the dead—if not precisely by the dead then by thoughts of them."

And such connections can also be made between our subjective experiences and the supernatural and surreal elements of this book. Indeed, the surrealism of the story reminds us of the chaos of our own world. The noir vulture is a symbol of our fear of nature and loss. Leah's supernatural pregnancy with Germaine has overtones of body horror which reflects the horror real-life pregnancies can inspire.

Afterwards, in a very interesting scene, Germaine is born as a "well-formed... baby girl". But growing out her abdomen is a "part of another embryo" with male genitalia, legs and its own abdomen. Perhaps a male twin half-absorbed in the womb by his sister. Her grandmother then cuts this male part away with "three skillful chops of the knife". This scene is very interesting from a gender perspective. It could symbolize how children are raised to "cut away" or suppress the parts of themselves that don't fit their prescribed gender role. Or more directly, the operations intersex children are subjected to after being born.

A recurring theme in the book are obsessions, which can entirely consume a person in a self-destructive manner, which in this book becomes literal. A boy becomes obsessed with a decaying pond until he eventually disappears with it. A man literally lays his soul and body into the clavichord he makes. He has an emotional affair with the Bellefleur woman he makes it for and the possessed clavichord becomes not only a symbol but a conduit for their relationship,

Oates has also said the novel is "a critique of America". And the supernatural horror of the book often mirror real horrors of American history. The Bellefleur castle itself is a symbol of inequality, proof that the class system of the old world has duplicated itself in the new, gothic castles and all. In a shocking scene reminiscent of historical violence in labour disputes, Jean-Pierre II lets his murderous urges loose on striking workers,

Ultimately, the cruel, greedy and monstrous nature of most Bellefleurs exemplify capitalism. Their greed and cruelty often leads to their own downfall, as in the climax of the book. The phrase, "The jaws devour, the jaws are devoured" is a mantra often repeated through this book that describes this. One of the final revelations in the story is that the founder Jean-Pierre Bellefleur through one of his many extramarital affairs fathered many of the Varrell family who would later kill him and most of the Bellefleurs in a massacre. Through his own unfaithful actions, he has literally created his own doom, a story his descendants would often repeat.

There is however hope. Many of the Bellefleur children have by the end of the novel left the castle and found happiness elsewhere. They thereby escape the frightening fate that befalls the castle and their parents in the climax of the book. For the author has a " vision of America that stresses, for all its pessimism, the ultimate freedom of the individual".

Bellefleur is a very good novel, if even if it can often feel sprawling and disjointed as a whole.  It can sometimes feel like a collection of short stories with no real overarching plot or theme to tie them all together, except the blood ties of the characters. But the sheer imagination on display and the strength of the writing in most chapters make for a engaging reading experience. That so many of the individual ideas are strong enough to be developed into their own short stories is ultimately a virtue.  And eventually connecting thematic threads can be glimpsed. The prose itself is a delight, with the story being told in beautifully long and complex sentences.

This is a novel that goes against the grain in almost every way. Fashionable literary taste has for almost a century dismissed supernatural horror and long sentences in favor of realism and Hemingwayesque minimalist prose. Joyce Carol Oates has however always rejected these dominant opinions and instead argued for the power of gothic horror and the supernatural in literature. It is a defiant stance that made me interested in her as an author.  And Bellefleur is despite its flaws ultimately a triumphant vindication of her belief in the gothic.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Celeste (2018)

Celeste is a 2018 platform game, written and directed by Matt Thorson, namesake of his developing studio Matt Makes Games. It has been released for several platforms and I played the release for Nintendo Switch.

Celeste is a story about a young woman named Madeline who is trying to climb the mountain Celeste(*) of the title. It is a difficult climb, but she is determined to succeed. She is however haunted by mental health problems, with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. It turns out that Celeste mountain has mysterious supernatural powers. It makes her negative emotions manifest in "Part of Madeline" (unofficially called Badeline), a dark reflection of her which has its own body. This entity tries to keep Madeline from climbing the mountain. Thus in order to reach the summit, Madeline must face her own emotions.

* (Mount Celeste is incidentally the name of a real mountain in Canada (which is the homeland of the developers), but I doubt it is anything like the supernatural mountain portrayed in the game.)
Celeste is an oldfashioned 2d platformer. The player controls Madeline who can walk, jump, dash and climb walls. She can dash in mid-air in eight directions, but only once before she must recharge her energy by standing on a flat surface or through certains items. Her ability to hold to and climb walls is limited by her stamina, which also must be refilled in the same way.

                                         Gorgeous graphics, but so many ways to die. The purple spikes
                                         will kill you instantly. Screenshot from the game's official site.

These controls are simple, but the game is very difficult. This is the kind of game that demands precision movements and where nearly every mistake will kill your character. Each level in this game is full of potential for Madeline's death, such as bottomless pits and spikes. The game has a helpful counter that keeps tracks of your deaths. When I finished the game, mine was at 4895 deaths. That says a lot, really.

The game however has a very friendly attitude about its difficulty. It is very easy to make mistakes, but the game doesn't punish mistakes that severely. Each level in this game is divided into fairly short sections. And when you die in the game, you immediately start over within seconds at the start of the section. This makes dying in this game a very minor setback. It feels like a natural part of learning to play the game. Before you start a certain level, you even get a message in text saying "Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you're learning. Keep going". It is a very encouraging and uplifting attitude.

By dividing the levels in sections, most of which are rather short, the game makes each challenge feels manageable. The player can save and quit the game at any point and then start again at the beginning of the section where they left off.

Most of the most difficult parts of this game are optional.  There are strawberries you can collect in each level and getting those are usually the hardest parts. But the game explicitly tells you that they are optional, collecting them "will only impress your friends".  And the truly hard levels are bonus levels, called "B-sides", which don't affect the story.

There is even an "Assist mode", which tweaks the game to make it much easier. I didn't use it, but the game doesn't shame the player for using it either, which is very commendable.

The reason I didn't use that mode was because I found the platforming challenges in this game very compelling. They are not just about reflexes and precision, but also challenge your brain. Each level section in this game feels like a puzzle, built around Madeline's limited stamina. You have to figure out a way to get through the section without running out stamina and dying. This makes for very cerebral gameplay for a platformer, which I really liked.

And this is the rare platformer that has a well-written story with emotional power. The story is about dealing with negative emotions and mental illness. Climbing the mountain is a metaphor for the struggles of life. And it makes it's metaphors very explicit.  Madeline's negative emotions literally manifest as a separate entity that tries to keep her from climbing the mountain. That part of her is motivated by fear that Madeline will fail; she thinks it is best to play it safe and return home.

But the game refreshingly doesn't traffic in any simplistic notions about overcoming mental illness. Instead, it is about accepting them as part of yourself. Your negative emotions such as anxiety will always be there, you can't get rid of them, so the only way to cope is to accept them. It is the only way to gain some control over these emotions. This game is of course not the first time I've been given this advice, but it is welcome nevertheless.

This is portrayed in the story very well. Madeline first tries to run away from Badeline (her negative emotions) and tries to get rid of her, but that proves to be impossible. Eventually Madeline comes to accept that part of herself. This makes her more powerful in game. She is now able to dash twice in mid-air. The story effects the gameplay, which is sadly rare in video games, but this is an welcome exception.

The difficulty of the game strengthens the central idea climbing the mountain as a metaphor for the challenges of life. The aforementioned amiable attitude the game has towards the player is part of the message. The game presents you with difficult challenges, but it has a forgiving attitude towards mistakes. It is essentially saying that life is hard, but it is Ok to make mistakes.

In addition to this gameplay and story, there is the graphics and music, which are both wonderful. The retro-graphics are gorgeous, the result of great art design. And the music by electronic composer Lena Raine is really powerful.

Celeste is a masterpiece of a game, in which every element from music to gameplay come together to tell an emotionally moving story with an important message.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Koyaanisqatsi, a film by Godfrey Reggio

Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental documentary film from 1982, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with cinematography by Ron Fricke and music by Phillip Glass.

The film has no conventional story and no narrator or spoken dialogue. The meaning of the footage shown in this film is thus not explicitly explained, yet the result is surprisingly coherent. The film begins with beautiful images of unspoilt natural landscapes. Yet we soon see the human impact on the environment, ranging from mining operations to power plants to nuclear explosions. And the film shifts to depict the ultimate product of human technology: the city. It is shown primarily through sped-up, time lapsed footage of ordinary people walking and driving through the city, working in factories, eating and having fun. In the end, we see footage of a rocket exploding shortly after take-off.

The film ends with an intertile, which explains the title of the film. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a word from the language of the Native American Hopi tribe. The film gives several translations for this word. It can be translated as "life out of balance" or my favourite, "a state of life that calls for another way of living". Prophecies of the Hopi language are also sung as part of the soundtrack.

Due to the title, the film is most often interpreted as a criticism of modern technological civilization. Images of natural beauty are contrasted with images of technological destruction. The images of modern urban life are sped-up or time-lapsed, which defamiliarizes the viewer to those images. The footage becomes alien, unnatural and disturbing. The quickened pace of the footage is perhaps a comment on the hectic pace of modern life.  The film uses montage techniques to make sardonic comparisons. A good example is a cut between footage of people on an escalator to sausages in a factory. The layout of cities are similarly compared to circuit boards. In this context, the explosion of the rocket that ends the film becomes an image of man's hubris.

Of course, this is a purely romantic and emotional argument. There are valid and intellectual criticisms to make against technology and modern civilization, but the form director Godfrey Reggio has chosen precludes him from making them. By foregoing language, the film can't make any real intellectual arguments, only sentimental ones.

Yet the film remains emotionally and aesthetically very compelling. The cinematography by Ron Fricke is very impressive. The images are awe-inspiring and hauntingly beautiful. And  these images are masterfully edited and combined into a coherent and affecting sequence. The music by Phillip Glass doesn't just complement the imagery, but is an integral part of making the film so emotionally powerful. I was privileged to have the opportunity to see in the film in a cinema, which is perhaps the best way to experience it. It may not be a compelling argument to abandon industrial civilization, but is still a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables is a novel by French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885), first published in 1862. I read it in a unabridged English translation by Charles Wilbour, thoroughly revised by Lee Fahnestock and Norman Mcafee. Wilbour was a contemporary of Hugo and actually released his English edition the same year as original French edition. This translation was later revised by Fahnestock and Mcafee in 1987.

Les Misérables (the title can be translated as The Wretched) is of course the story of Jean Valjean, a poor man condemned to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her children. He is released in the year of the restoration, 1815, full of bitterness for his fate. But he is shown kindness by the saintly Bishop of Digne. This convinces Valjean to live a life of compassion. He becomes a hero, improving and saving the lives of many. Most important to him is the orphan girl Cosette, who he saves from the abusive home of the villainous Thenardier. But Jean Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the police officer Javert, whose Manichean and rigid view of law and justice sees in Valjean only a criminal to be arrested. This is the main, but far from the only plotline in this epic novel, which has its climax in the failed French revolt of 1832.

This is a novel about the evil of poverty and inequality, the degradation of which is depicted in horrific detail. It is an evil that can make good men like Valjean turn to crime and good women like Cosette's mother Fantine turn to prostitution. The legal system, embodied by the narrowminded Javert, harshly condemns such crimes, but condones the greater disaster of poverty.
Most importanly, it is a problem that can be solved. A solution is glimpsed in the noble, but failed revolution of 1832. It attempted to create a new French republic based on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity by overthrowing the July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe (itself established in response to the revolution  of 1830). The 1832 revolt was crushed within days, but the novel depicts the revolutionaries in heroic terms.

It is also a novel about the importance and redemptive power of love and compassion. A single act of compassion is enough to put Jean Valjean on the albeit painful road to a life of selfless kindness. The redemptive power of love was of course a common theme in the romantic era.
The novel takes on real-life social issues and historical events, yet the tone is completely romantic.    The emotions expressed by both the prose and the characters are overwhelmingly strong. The plot is a grand adventure story exemplary of romantic era prose, which often relies on coincidence. Characters and situations are delineated with broad and vivid strokes, although not without subtlety.

A considerable part of the book consists of essayistic digressions by Hugo on various topics. The subjects include the battle of Waterloo, revolutions in general, the Paris Sewer system, monasteries, Parisian street urchins and argot (slang) among criminals. In most cases these are pure digressions that don't develop the plot or characters. The wide variety of topics discussed gives the novel almost an encyclopedic nature. Indeed, this novel might be a rare example of the encyclopedic narrative, a genre category proposed by literary theorist Edward Mendelson.

These digressions are major reason for why the novel is so long (1460 pages in my edition). This length is why there are many abridged versions of Les Misérables.  The editions I could find in my native language, Swedish, were all abridged, which is why I resorted to reading this novel in English. As mentioned above, the translation I read was by Charles Wilbour, revised by Fahnestock and Mcafee. I found it to be a fine translation, although the language is quite archaic because of the age of the original translation, despite the changes made by Fahnestock/Mcafee.

No matter the minor faults of the translation, it made me understand why Les Misérables is  considered one of greatest novels ever written. Hugo's concerns of inequality, poverty, social justice, compassion and revolution are of course still relevant today. The book demonstrated the ability of literary romanticism to take on real life issues in a convincing manner.

The plot relies too much on coincidence to be realistic, but the story told is still suspenseful and moving. Hugo's characterizations may not be as subtle as that of the great realist writers like Tolstoy, but still a grand example of the romantic style. The characters are vivid, interesting and memorable. And that is why the story is so moving, despite occasional moments of emotional excess.

The essayistic digressions can also be excessive, at least in length. Yet Hugo was a fine essayist and they often make for interesting reading. There are often moments of brilliant writing to be found in them. That's why my advice is to read an unabridged version of this novel, despite the length and the many abridged versions that exist.

Hugo's preface to Les Misérables may have best explained the reason why the novel is still read today: " long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be need for books such as this".

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The book Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is, as the title promises, a retelling of the Norse myths by the author in question.

We begin with Ymir and the creation of the world, we met the gods, including Odin, Thor and Loki  and learn their stories. Everything of course ends with Ragnarok, the end of the world and it's rebirth.

In his introduction, Gaiman states "I've tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can." And this is indeed a very faithful re-telling of the stories from the Eddas. Small details are different, but nothing of major importance is changed. The most important change from the Eddas is that Gaiman arranges the stories in some kind of chronological order, so that the book goes from creation to apocalypse. But Gaiman doesn't try to impose some overarching plot of his own. He doesn't even try to resolve the small contradictions that exist between the different myths..

Of course the myths are such powerful stories already that they don't need changing. And Gaiman tells them well. This is simply a well-written book. Gaiman knows how to make effective use of the inherent dramatic and comedic qualities of these stories.
However, his faithfulness to the Eddas make this book somewhat redundant. If you have read the Eddas, there is really no need for you to read Gaiman's version of the same stories. The Eddas can in translation be perfectly enjoyable reading despite their age. And if you want a more accessible re-telling, there are many other faithful literary adaptations which serve the same function as Gaiman's book.

Of course, there are always people who are new to Norse mythology and in Gaiman's book they will find an accessible and well-written introduction to the stories. And for those who already know these stories, this is a fine, albeit non-essential way of re-experiencing these evergreen stories