Archive for August, 2008

Aug 28 2008

HaltinG StatE

Published by under Books

‘Extropolative(?)’ Fiction by Charles Stross (odd capitalization is from the book cover)

It is vacation season and for my vacation I’ve been escaping to fiction. First with “Consider Phlebas” and now with “Halting State”. I plan to continue escaping with my next book.

“Halting State” is a mystery or detective story placed against a background of an imagined 2018 Edinburgh Scotland. Technology plays a large part in the story and a lot of the book describes a future Scotland with tight controls, ubiquitous surveillance, and massive computing networks which are part of a highly network world. But, the world is not a friendly utopia and the usual national rivalries, spies, etc. retain a dominant role. Essentially “today” laid on a different technological background which emphasizes massively parallel computer games; cooperative games played by many people using computers over networks. Such games play a major role in the story and the incident that starts the story and drives the plot is a ‘robbery’ in one of those games.

Real and potential security issues are described and made part of the story. The dependence of the world on computer networks most obviously. What would happen if a nasty guy or nation could get control of a countries networks. Chaos would ensue even today. Banks, big stores, governments would come nearly to a halt. Somewhat more esoteric is games even in the form they exist today. They allow private groups to form and communicate for game playing purposes, but there is nothing to prevent them from being used to communicate about nasty deeds. Halting State puts several similar threat on a big screen!

I was first attracted to Halting State by the title which has echoes of computer Science in it, but I didn’t see any connection between the title and the story except maybe a pun: Scotland a state nearly brought to a halt?

A good summer or airplane read. A fast moving story set against the background of one possible near term future. But, if you don’t have a more than superficial knowledge of computing technology, much of the “local color” that makes mysteries interesting could be missed.

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Aug 23 2008


Published by under Books

Non fiction by Jared Diamond

This is a book many people should read and, fortunately, it is mostly enjoyable reading. Enjoyable should be qualified since the title’s negative implications are mostly not pleasant to think about. It is a very well written analysis of the causes of the collapse of civilizations and what that has to say about our current situation. The emphasis is on “current” and “Our” as it should be. “Our” could be taken to refer to the U.S., and more importantly it could be all of humanity. So maybe enjoyable is the wrong word.

Diamond selects five factors that he then uses to analyze a collection of collapsed historic civilizations (Easter Island, Mayan, etc.) and current situations (Rwanda, Australia, etc.). The analyses seem to be well researched and well grounded. There is a long list of further reading for those so inclined. The five factors are the general categories of environment, climate change (small fluctuations), external enemies, trading relationships, and cultural responses, but for the examples chosen, external enemies and trading partners are given less emphasis. The primary focus is on the impact of environment on civilizations and vice versa. Starting with and often returning to the basic truth that people need food and agriculture produces it. Easy to over look that in our society.

The descriptions of defunct civilizations read like mysteries and are more ‘fun’ for that reason. As the situations being analyzed get closer to our place and time they become more stressful. Somewhat illuminating to me was the case Diamond made for population pressures as one underlying cause or exacerbating pressures behind the recent genocide in Rwanda. If not a cause, it at least made its intensity worse. Rwanda was and remains even after the genocide a very densely populated country and significant savagery and deaths occurred in entirely Hutu areas. Population pressure on limited land provided a potential personal incentive to those being urged to kill for political or racial reasons.

Overall, this is a book that should be read (to repeat). It is a well reasoned, convincing case for more responsible planning and action by all participants: individuals, corporations, and governments. The book’s subtitle is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. The ability to choose and affect outcomes is the source of optimism. Success is possible.

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Aug 23 2008

Consider Phlebas

Published by under Books

Speculative fiction by Iain M. Banks

This is the first book in Banks’ Culture series and the only one I have read. It is an excellent “space opera”: a grand adventure moving among the stars of our galaxy with ease, describing immense constructions, and including action on both a grand and a small scale. The story was fun and moved alone at a good pace with surprises, near misses, and almost resurrections from impossible circumstances. I was quickly drawn into the story. As is typical, the “people” are only sketched as needed for the plot, but the main characters were sufficiently described to be interesting. Somewhat atypically, most all of the important` characters do not thrive or survive.

From an ideas point of view, “The Culture” is the name given to Banks’ imagined society which is really the main “character” in the series but it is only slightly sketched out in this book the main protagonist of which is fighting against The Culture. The future portrayed is distant with many massive changes (improvement?) from today. Rapid space travel is possible and there are many worlds and stars that can be exploited. Energy and resources are abundant and readily available. “People” and other beings have evolved or been engineered, not clear which, to have a variety of capabilities, and there are also many non human species in the galaxy. So a lot of ‘oddities’.

Machines have developed past the point at which they can think better and faster than people is most ways. Machines are portrayed as sentient with desires, goals etc. Some are super smart and some are less capable and do simpler tasks, but all are self aware and treated by The Culture as beings. Fortunately for the story, these super capable machines work with other beings and the story of The Culture seems to be the story of a society with abundant energy, abundant resources and abundant brain power (That’s sure not where we are now). So where will the series go with these main problems solved?

These books were written before the currently popular concept of a knowledge “singularity”; a time at which increasing computer power overtakes human capability, but the Culture and its artificially intelligent machines sound like an attempt to describe a situation long after such a singularity occurs.

I intend to read at least the next book in the series and see how it develops.

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Aug 15 2008

Prematurely retro?

Published by under retro

The drillSomewhat shocking to me, but this drill which I acquired some years ago is now retro. Maybe it has been retro for a decade but I didn’t notice till now. It was not inherited from my father, it is not the first drill I bought as an adult but it seems it has still achieved retro status. I would have gone on thinking it was a reasonable electric drill but recently used a “current” model which had a battery pack instead of power cord, a built in chuck (no separate ‘key’ to lose), was easily reversible, and had numerous speed adjustments. Oh well.

I did look to see if the “Skil” brand was still sold and it is in the newer, battery powered configurations. Skil seems to be part of the Bosch conglomerate. I think it used to be an independent American power tool company, but it is probably just a brand name now.

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Aug 09 2008

Future of Buildings?

Published by under Books,Speculative

One of the interesting ideas in “Rainbows End” was buildings that were computerized (computer controlled?) and could reconfigure themselves. Now I see in this post that this concept is being worked on actively by NASA and others. If one could marry these malleable buildings with a machine that could make the components on demand from available resources it would be a very interesting “thing”.

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Aug 04 2008

Two Books Set in California

Published by under Books

A few months ago, I read two novels by reasonably well established science fiction writers. Neither story was set far away in space or time. No aliens. No space travel. One was set in a recognizable future San Diego and the other in present day San Francisco. One main character is elderly alzheimer patient and the other a brash teenager.

Rainbow’s End
Vernor Vinge

This is the old man’s story which has an interesting premise: in a future, a cure for Alzheimer’s disease is found which restores memory capability, but doesn’t restore all lost memories and mental capabilities. What happens when you have a recovered old person with some but not all of his memories and mental skills? In this story, they remember what they formerly were capable of doing but can no longer do it. They know what skills that had, but don’t have them to the same extent. So, they are sent back to high school to start to be re-educated and to catch up with the changes that happened while they were suffering Alzheimer’s. Naturally, they don’t fit in with teenagers and form a second caste.

As in much ‘science’ (more accurately: speculative) fiction, all the important characters are essentially geniuses. The recovered Alzheimer’s victim who is the main character was a world renowned poet whose son and daughter in law routinely save the world against various threats (only a side plot). The world in this story is full of computers and sensors that communicate with and for you, tell you where things are located, and what is happening around you or elsewhere it if is likely to interest you. They will even allow you to see the world with a visual overlay of your choosing; medieval European town, forest, etc.

The poet is not very happy in this sort of work, but adapts to an extent and eventually participates in a plot which intends to stop the shredding of library books that are being shredded so that they can be more easily scanned and digitized (clever) and inadvertently saving the world from saving the world from a mind control drug. Nice days work.

Clever writing, good imagining of what such a world might be like, but a pretty silly plot. Readable and sometimes interesting, but I expected more. Vinge is also a mathematician/computer scientist who has identified or at least popularized several important Internet and computing ideas. First, in a story entitled “True Names” the impact of multiple and false names as used electronically. Secondly, the currently much discussed idea of a “Singularity” a time at which machines become more intelligent than humans and take off on their own evolutionary path.

Little Brother
Cory Doctorow

“Little Brother” set in San Francisco is not at all science fiction. Not even very speculative fiction. It is a story for “young adults” (very definitely not me!) set in a very near future San Francisco. Some terrorists blows of the Bay Bridge and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security takes control of the San Francisco with a very heavy hand. The story then tells of a group of teens who are inadvertently caught up in the aftermath of the attack on the bridge, how they are oppressed and eventually triumph.

One teen aged boy in particular it taken away by the DHS and eventually released. The story then tell how he mobilizes other teens to ‘take back’ their city and they do. The story is again pretty straight forward and arbitrary. Its main function if to provide a collection of simple explanations of computer related technologies and how to get around oppressive surveillance and security systems. Of course it is not specific on instructions. Maybe a good book for kids that didn’t take long to read (especially if you skip the side expositions).

I was curious about this book, but clearly am not in its intended audience. Didn’t take much time.

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