Archive for September, 2008

Sep 29 2008

Inversions

Published by under Books

Iain M. Banks (1998)

My initial reaction when I started reading this book was negative since it is superficially a book about knights in armor, but despite a medieval like setting on a distant not yet developed planet, it turned out to be interesting story well told. Actually two stories set on two sides of a latent conflict. The two stories relate to each other but don’t directly interact. Two main characters; a bodyguard to a ‘Protector’ (President) and a doctor to a king in different countries on the same planet in a time of mostly swords, castles, sieges, horses, and sailing ships.
While there some violence described, the story is mainly about influence. Nothing is explicitly said about “The Culture” or its technology, but it is apparent that the two leading characters are agents being used by The Culture to influence the development of societies on the imaginary planet. In several instances the Cultures very advanced technology plays an implied role in developments but is not talked about or described; no computers, no minds, etc.. It is a tale in a medieval setting with a very thin overlay. Nicely done.
I wouldn’t even call this book speculative or science fiction. It is part of the culture series and implies details about how The Culture’s operatives worked. Thus, it fills in another facet of the description told from the point of view of those being manipulated, unknowingly, by The Culture. The story makes sense as part of the series, but I think it would be a little baffling without having read some of the prior books. The un-detailed uses of technology would, and should, seem like magic.
The writing is excellent. It includes a well written condemnation of war and an implied criticism of the influence the Culture is wielding. One of the two main characters ‘goes native’ at the end of the story. Interesting.

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Sep 22 2008

Investment Banks are retro (as in gone!)

Published by under retro

Seems amazing that all the major U.S. based investment banks will have disappeared in a period of a few short months. Victims of their own imaginative financing vehicles. Unfortunately, the crisis of confidence that has resulted from all the “un able to be valued” but not all valueless paper they produced is having massive impacts whose extent is still not known. Uncertainty and its associated fear is the major problem. Uncertainty about who is holding how much in the way of bad assets has undermined markets functioning.

Ultimately, whenever that is, I expect the write downs of paper (securities) to be excessive and the underlying assets worth more than is thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know when or at what price level that will be reached! If I did ……..

I wonder what companies or mechanisms will eventually provide the functions that those banks provided. Fully private pools of money, I suppose.

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Sep 22 2008

Excession

Published by under Books

Speculative Fiction by Iain M. Banks (1996)

This the fourth book in the culture series appeared six years after “The Use of Weapons” and is definitely a Space Opera on a grand scale. A little too spacy for me, however. Most of the characters in the story are hyper intelligent minds who don’t act very intelligent. The human characters which get a lot of page time seem just along for the ride, and while part of the story, only a minor part.

An “Excession”, of the title, something out of context, unexpected, and extreme appears in the galaxy, and civilizations, including The Culture, want to investigate, understand, and if possible use it. This excession is a big black sphere which is mostly inactive (c.f. the black rectangular object in 2001; but different), is more capable and powerful than the Culture’s best minds and machines. In the culture, a clique among the minds try to use its appearance to start a war with an aggressive civilization called the “Affront”. A different clique is trying to find out what the Excession is and suspects a group is trying to start a war. Overlayed on this situation is a diplomat from the Culture to the Affront and his former lover that have only a loose connection to the war. Good bits of story telling pop up at points, but overall I found it unsatisfying. Others view it more favorably.

A couple of interesting gimmicks are the hyper slow motion description that supposedly arise due to the hyper fast ability of the ship born minds to think and sense. Makes for some interesting descriptions of complex events all of which take place in a second or two.

The story is partially told in email like communications between ship minds complete with headers, time stamps, etc.. That adds a little color, but unfortunately, that doesn’t help the story move along.

I’ll read the fifth and next in the series since I’ve already reserved it at the library. At least I’ll start it and then we’ll see. Like many series, this one seem in danger of losing my interest.

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Sep 15 2008

Use of Weapons

Published by under Books

Speculative Fiction by Iain M. Banks (1990)
(The third book in the culture series)

No, not a manual on how to use exotic weapons, but rather the story of one mercenary used by The Culture as it influences, or manipulates, events on various worlds; an imaginary biography of a mercenary. Why would a ‘person’ work for and be manipulated by the Culture which is smarter and more powerful by a long shot. What kind of person, what personal history. The mercenary is the weapon being used.
As in the two prior culture books, Banks uses The Culture as a background and vehicle to move people around but doesn’t spend a lot of effort elaborating then nature of The Culture. Using the aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic, actions and devices that seem like magic are used to move the story along and by implication describe what the Culture is like. It’s most obvious characteristic is the coexistence of people (humanoids; not exactly people) and extremely smart, sentient machines.
Somewhat like Star Trek The Culture is exploring parts of the galaxy it doesn’t inhabit, but it is exploring without the ‘no interference’ clause that was part of the Star Trek saga. The Culture explores with an ‘interfere to improve the outcome but don’t get noticed’ strategy. This story is an example of that process but no outcome is reached. The mercenary is used in the Culture’s attempt to influence the outcome of a conflict between “humanists” (who believe human like people are special) and ‘consolidationists’ (who believe all species and machine intelligences count equally). A small war on the periphery is the specific context into which a mercenary is introduced to assist one side. The mercenary’s life history is then interwoven with the telling of his role in the conflict. The two tales are told in parallel unlike the prior two books which had a single straight time line. Overall, more complex, less preachy, and a good story with surprises.

As a odd side note, this particular book from the Culture series is in much demand at the SF library with a fairly long list of people waiting for it, but the other books in this series are readily available. A misunderstanding of the title?

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Sep 15 2008

Paper

Published by under General,retro

At the beginning of 2000, we wrote about 35 paper checks per month. For the most recent four months, we’ve averaged about 9 per month with a high of 11 and only 6 last month. We don’t live much differently in most regards, but use electronic bill payment services and credit cards more. A significant portion of the remaining checks are charitable contributions for which the IRS requires a paper trail; more paper than before since acknowledgment letters need to be kept.
Additionally, more credit card statements, bank statements are provided electronically. They can be printed as needed, but why keep a moldering pile of paper?
Newspaper readership is shrinking. Want ads are moving to Craig’s list or equivalent.
Paper books are still useful to use and nice to read, but a gradually increasing portion of our reading is done on a screen. Nice paper used in invitations, etc. still looks and feels good (at least to my generation).
Overall, we seem to be making some progress toward chopping up fewer trees to make paper.

PS. A New York Times artivle on the paper usage from earlier this year.

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Sep 05 2008

The Player of Games

Published by under Books

speculative fiction by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games is very different from and better than its predecessor in the Culture series, Consider Phlebas, which I also enjoyed. While Player is certainly speculative fiction, it is unusual in that it focuses on one ‘person’. Definitely not a space Opera like its predecessor and a very enjoyable read.

The nature and structure of the Culture is amorphous and never really described in detail, but is based on the proposition that energy and materials are plentiful and ‘computers’ have become sentient. These sentient machines perform many activities and responsibilities (seemingly?) in support of the humanoid people that make up the Culture. As a result, the people of the culture are very comfortable and all their basic needs are easily satisfied. They live on gigantic ‘orbitals’ and on gigantic space ships (+/- 1 billion per ship!) both of which are run by the intelligent machines. “Run by” is not quite right in that they ‘are’ intelligent machines with controlling ‘minds’ (computers). Property is not owned, just used as a person needs it. Clearly Utopian in this regard.

‘People’ remain at least somewhat relevant, but most pursue their interests be they scholarly, musical, artistic, or games (cerebral or physical, organized or not). People have been augmented biologically to have advanced capabilities, but are very recognizably human (can’t fly, can’t leap tall building, etc.). The intelligent machines which are treated as sentient each have a level of intelligence suitable to their job or role and some mingle socially with people. All information is available to everybody with the exception that what is in a brain or a mind is ‘private’ but all else is public. Pretty much egalitarian and non-militaristic. The Culture does have a “contact” organization that explores the galaxy in which the culture is located and both of the books have involved that organization.

So, the story: Culture meets “The Empire”. Empire is hierarchical, brutal, militaristic and somewhat less advanced; ownership is a key relationship; and a large divergence wealth and ‘comfort’ between the rulers and the ruled. Generally a grim place unless you are at the top. The Culture has been in very limited contact with the Empire and would like to see it fall apart or change but has apparently not acted to achieve that end.

This Empire uses a periodical tournament of an elaborate and complex game to determine who will be the emperor for the next six years (Sounds like the recent primaries, but the book was written in 1988). While the Culture has had contact with the Empire for some time, their exploratory arm has kept this contact secret (so much for everything is public knowledge). An expert game player is induced to learn this game and travel to the Empires capital and participate in such a tournament. That tournament and its surroundings is the heart of this tale. Doesn’t sound like much but it is.

The writing is excellent. At times, I was reminded of Gulliver’s Travels and once or twice a section reads like Dickens or Upton Sinclair. It also brought to mind Asimov’s Foundation series. One can imagine many analogies to the cold war; the “Free World” (remember that phrase) vs Communism. Or it could be utopia vs reality. Sufficiently ambiguous to be interesting.

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