August 2004

Halperin, James L. The First Immortal. New York: Del Rey, 1998. ISBN 0-345-542182-5.
As Yogi Berra said, “It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” In this novel, the author tackles one of the most daunting challenges in science fiction: the multi-generation saga which spans its publication date. There are really only two ways to approach this problem: show the near future in soft focus, concentrating on characters and avoiding any mention of news and current events, or boldly predict and take your lumps when you inevitably get it wrong. Hey, even if you do, odds are the books will either be on readers' shelves or in the remainder bins by the time reality diverges too far from the story line. Halperin opts for the latter approach. Preachy novels with an agenda have a tendency to sit on my shelf quite a while until I get around to them—in this case six years. (The hardcover I bought in 1998 is out of print, so I've linked to the paperback which remains available.) The agenda here is cryonics, the resurrection myth of the secular humanists, presented in full dogmatic form: vitrification, cryogenic storage of the dead (or their heads, for the budget-conscious), nanotechnological restoration of damage due to freezing, repair of disease damage and genetic defects, reversal of aging, organ and eventually full body cloning, brain state backup and uploading, etc.—the full mambo chicken meme-bag. The book gets just about everything predicted for the years after its publication as wrong as possible: Xanadu-style back-links in Netscape, the Gore administration, etc. Fine—all were reasonable extrapolations when the first draft was written in 1996. My problem is that the further-out stuff seems, if anything, even less plausible than the near term predictions have proved to be. How likely is it that artificial intelligences with a hundred times the power of the human brain will remain subservient, obedient slaves of their creators? Or that a society with full-on Drexler nanotechnology and space stations outside the orbit of Pluto would be gripped by mass hysteria upon learning of a rain of comets due a hundred years hence? Or that a quasi-socialist U.N. style World Government would spontaneously devolve freedom to its subjects and reduce tax rates to 9.5%? And doesn't the requirement that individuals brought back from the freezer be sponsored by a living person (and hence remain on ice indefinitely if nobody steps up as a sponsor) represent an immoral inter-generational breach of contract with those who paid to be frozen and brought back to life under circumstances they prescribed? The novel is well-written and presents the views of the cryonicists faithfully and effectively. Still, you're left with the sense of having read an advocacy document where story and characters are subordinate to the pitch.

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Novak, David P. DownTime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration. Vancouver, WA: Davrie Communications, 2002. ISBN 0-9710306-0-X.
I read this book in the interest of research, not career planning, although in these days when simply looking askance at some badge-wearing pithecanthropoid thug in a U.S. airport can land you in Club Fed, it's information those travelling to that country might be wise to take on board before getting on board. This is a 170 page letter-size comb bound book whose camera-ready copy appears to have been printed on a daisy wheel printer. I bought my copy through Amazon, but the publisher appears to have removed the book from the general distribution channels; you can order it directly from the publisher. My comments are based upon the March 2002 edition. According to the publisher's Web site, the book was completely rewritten in January 2004, which edition I've not seen.

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Beckerman, Marty. Generation S.L.U.T.. New York: MTV Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7109-1.
I bought this book based on a recommendation by Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know what the good doctor was smoking—he rarely knows what he's smoking—but this is one messed up, incoherent, choppy, gratuitously obscene, utterly amoral mix of fiction, autobiography, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and statistical factoids seemingly aimed at an audience with an attention span measured in seconds. All together now, “Well, what did you expect from something published by MTV Books?” The “S.L.U.T.” in the title stands for “Sexually Liberated Urban Teens”, and the book purports to be a view from the inside (the author turned 20 while writing the book) of contemporary teenage culture in the United States. One can only consider the word “Liberated” here in a Newspeak sense—the picture painted is of a generation enslaved to hormones and hedonism so banal it brings no pleasure to those who so mindlessly pursue it. The cartoons which break up the fictional thread into blocks of text short enough for MTV zombies are cheaply produced—they re-use a few line drawings of the characters, scaled, mirrored, and with different backgrounds, changing only the text in the balloon. The Addendum by the author is a straight rip-off of Hunter Thompson's style, right down the signature capitalisation of nouns for emphasis. The reader is bludgeoned with a relentless vulgarity which ultimately leaves one numb (and I say this as a fan of both Thompson and South Park). I found myself saying, again and again, “Teenagers in the U.S. can't possibly be this vapid, dissolute, and depraved, can they? Can they?” Er, maybe so, if this Teenwire site, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is any indication. (You may be shocked, dismayed, and disgusted by the content of this site. I would not normally link to such material, but seeing as how it's deliberately directed at teenagers, I do so in the interest of showing parents how their kids are are being indoctrinated. Note how the welcome page takes you into the main site even if you don't click “Enter”, and that there is no disclaimer whatsoever regarding the site's suitability for children of any age.)

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Carr, Nicholas G. Does IT Matter? Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59139-444-9.
This is an expanded version of the author's May 2003 Harvard Business Review paper titled “IT Doesn't Matter”, which sparked a vituperous ongoing debate about the rôle of information technology (IT) in modern business and its potential for further increases in productivity and competitive advantage for companies who aggressively adopt and deploy it. In this book, he provides additional historical context, attempts to clear up common misperceptions of readers of the original article, and responds to its critics. The essence of Carr's argument is that information technology (computer hardware, software, and networks) will follow the same trajectory as other technologies which transformed business in the past: railroads, machine tools, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, and air transport. Each of these technologies combined high risk with the potential for great near-term competitive advantage for their early adopters, but eventually became standardised “commodity inputs” which all participants in the market employ in much the same manner. Each saw a furious initial period of innovation, emergence of standards to permit interoperability (which, at the same time, made suppliers interchangeable and the commodity fungible), followed by a rapid “build-out” of the technological infrastructure, usually accompanied by over-optimistic hype from its boosters and an investment bubble and the inevitable crash. Eventually, the infrastructure is in place, standards have been set, and a consensus reached as to how best to use the technology in each industry, at which point it's unlikely any player in the market will be able to gain advantage over another by, say, finding a clever new way to use railroads, electricity, or telephones. At this point the technology becomes a commodity input to all businesses, and largely disappears off the strategic planning agenda. Carr believes that with the emergence of low-cost commodity computers adequate for the overwhelming majority of business needs, and the widespread adoption of standard vendor-supplied software such as office suites, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM) packages, corporate information technology has reached this level of maturity, where senior management should focus on cost-cutting, security, and maintainability rather than seeking competitive advantage through innovation. Increasingly, companies adapt their own operations to fit the ERP software they run, as opposed to customising the software for their particular needs. While such procrusteanism was decried in the IBM mainframe era, today it's touted as deploying “industry best practices” throughout the economy, tidily packaged as a “company in a box”. (Still, one worries about the consequences for innovation.) My reaction to Carr's argument is, “How can anybody find this remotely controversial?” Not only do we have a dozen or so historical examples of the adoption of new technologies, the evidence for the maturity of corporate information technology is there for anybody to see. In fact, in February 1997, I predicted that Microsoft's ability to grow by adding functionality to its products was about to reach the limit, and looking back, it was with Office 97 that customers started to push back, feeling the added “features” (such as the notorious talking paper clip) and initial lack of downward compatibility with earlier versions was for Microsoft's benefit, not their own. How can one view Microsoft's giving back half its cash hoard to shareholders in a special dividend in 2004 (and doubling its regular dividend, along with massive stock buybacks), as anything other than acknowledgement of this reality. You only give your cash back to the investors (or buy your own stock), when you can't think of anything else to do with it which will generate a better return. So, if there's to be a a “next big thing”, Microsoft do not anticipate it coming from them.

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Ryn, Claes G. America the Virtuous. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7658-0219-8.
If you've been following political commentary of the more cerebral kind recently, you may have come across the term “neo-Jacobin” and thought “Whuzzat? I thought those guys went out with the tumbrels and guillotines.” Claes Ryn coined the term “neo-Jacobin” more than decade ago, and in this book explains the philosophical foundation, historical evolution, and potential consequences of that tendency for the U.S. and other Western societies. A neo-Jacobin is one who believes that present-day Western civilisation is based on abstract principles, knowable through pure reason, which are virtuous, right, and applicable to all societies at all times. This is precisely what the original Jacobins believed, with Jacobins old and new drawing their inspiration from Rousseau and John Locke. The claim of superiority of Western civilisation makes the neo-Jacobin position superficially attractive to conservatives, who find it more congenial than post-modernist villification of Western civilisation as the source of all evil in the world. But true conservatism, and the philosophy shared by most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, rejects abstract theories and utopian promises in favour of time-proven solutions which take into account the imperfections of human beings and the institutions they create. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6, “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape.” Sadly, we have not, and are unlikely to ever see the end of such theories as long as pointy-heads with no practical experience, but armed with intimidating prose, are able to persuade true believers they've come up with something better than the collective experience of every human who's ever lived on this planet before them. The French Revolution was the first modern attempt to discard history and remake the world based on rationality, but its lessons failed to deter numerous subsequent attempts, at an enormous cost in human life and misery, the most recently concluded such experiment being Soviet Communism. They all end badly. Ryn believes the United States is embarking on the next such foredoomed adventure, declaring its “universal values” (however much at variance with those of its founders) to be applicable everywhere, and increasingly willing to impose them by the sword “in the interest of the people” where persuasion proves inadequate. Although there is some mention of contemporary political figures, this is not at all a partisan argument, nor does it advocate (nor even present) an alternative agenda. Ryn believes the neo-Jacobin viewpoint so deeply entrenched in both U.S. political parties, media, think tanks, and academia that the choice of a candidate or outcome of an election is unlikely to make much difference. Although the focus is primarily on the U.S. (and rightly so, because only in the U.S. do the neo-Jacobins have access to the military might to impose their will on the rest of the world), precisely the same philosophy can be seen in the ongoing process of “European integration”, where a small group of unelected elite theorists are positioning themselves to dictate the “one best way” hundreds of millions of people in dozens of diverse cultures with thousands of years of history should live their lives. For example, take a look at the hideous draft “constitution” (PDF) for the European Union: such a charter of liberty and democracy that those attemping to put it into effect are doing everything in their power to deprive those who will be its subjects the chance to vote upon it. As Michael Müller, Social Democrat member of parliament in Germany said, “Sometimes the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.” The original Jacobins had their ways, as well.

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Winchester, Simon. The Map that Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093180-9.
This is the story of William Smith, the son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith, who, with almost no formal education but keen powers of observation and deduction, essentially single-handedly created the modern science of geology in the last years of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, culminating in the 1815 publication of Smith's masterwork: a large scale map of the stratigraphy of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, which is virtually identical to the most modern geological maps. Although fossil collecting was a passion of the aristocracy in his time, Smith was the first to observe that particular fossil species were always associated with the same stratum of rock and hence, conversely, that rock containing the same population of fossils was the same stratum, wherever it was found. This permitted him to decode the layering of strata and their relative ages, and predict where coal and other minerals were likely to be found, which was a matter of great importance at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In his long life, in addition to inventing modern geology (he coined the word “stratigraphical”), he surveyed mines, built canals, operated a quarry, was the victim of plagiarism, designed a museum, served time in debtor's prison, was denied membership in the newly-formed Geological Society of London due to his humble origins, yet years later was the first recipient of its highest award, the Wollaston Medal, presented to him as the “Father of English Geology”. Smith's work transformed geology from a pastime for fossil collectors and spinners of fanciful theories to a rigorous empirical science and laid the bedrock (if you'll excuse the term) for Darwin and the modern picture of the history of the Earth. The author is very fond of superlatives. While Smith's discoveries, adventures, and misadventures certainly merit them, they get a little tedious after a hundred pages or so. Winchester seems to have been traumatised by his childhood experiences in a convent boarding-school (chapter 11), and he avails himself of every possible opportunity to express his disdain for religion, the religious, and those (the overwhelming majority of learned people in Smith's time) who believed in the Biblical account of creation and the flood. This is irrelevant to and a distraction from the story. Smith's career marked the very beginning of scientific investigation of natural history; when Smith's great geological map was published in 1815, Charles Darwin was six years old. Smith never suffered any kind of religious persecution or opposition to his work, and several of his colleagues in the dawning days of earth science were clergymen. Simon Winchester is also the author of The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Scott, David and Alexei Leonov with Christine Toomey. Two Sides of the Moon. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-3162-7.
Astronaut David Scott flew on the Gemini 8 mission which performed the first docking in space, Apollo 9, the first manned test of the Lunar Module, and commanded the Apollo 15 lunar landing, the first serious scientific exploration of the Moon (earlier Apollo landing missions had far less stay time and, with no lunar rover, limited mobility, and hence were much more “land, grab some rocks, and scoot” exercises). Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to walk in space on Voskhod 2, led the training of cosmonauts for lunar missions and later the Salyut space station program, and commanded the Soviet side of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Had the Soviet Union won the Moon race, Leonov might well have been first to walk on the Moon. This book recounts the history of the space race as interleaved autobiographies of two participants from contending sides, from their training as fighter pilots ready to kill one another in the skies over Europe in the 1950s to Leonov's handshake in space with an Apollo crew in 1975. This juxtaposition works very well, and writer Christine Toomey (you're not a “ghostwriter” when your name appears on the title page and the principals effusively praise your efforts) does a marvelous job in preserving the engaging conversational style of a one-on-one interview, which is even more an achievement when one considers that she interviewed Leonov through an interpreter, then wrote his contributions in English which was translated to Russian for Leonov's review, with his comments in Russian translated back to English for incorporation in the text. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in October 2004.

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Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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