Friday, September 15, 2017

Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout updated, EPUB added

All 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. I am now returning to the earlier novels, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in recent years. The fifth novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, has now been updated. Several typographical errors in the original edition have been corrected, Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes, and the HTML version is now XHTML 1.0 Strict.

An EPUB edition of this novel is now available which may be downloaded to compatible reader devices; the details of how to do this differ from device to device—please consult the documentation for your reader for details.

Tom Swift's electric car, described in this 1910 novel, compares quite favourably with those on the market more than a century later. Top speed was one hundred miles an hour, and in chapter four Tom says of range on a battery charge, “Well, if I can make it do three hundred miles I'll be satisfied, but I'm going to try for four hundred.” But in case the battery runs down and there's no charging station nearby, Tom has a trick up his sleeve even Elon Musk can't exploit. Asked by his father, “Suppose you're not near a charging station?”, Tom replies, “…I'm going to have it fixed so I can take current from any trolley line, as well as from a regular charging station. My battery will be capable of being recharged very quickly, or, in case of need, I can take out the old cells and put in new ones.”

In 1910, interurban trolley lines were ubiquitous in the eastern United States, so the intrepid motorist, seeing the charge gauge creeping down toward zero, need only divert to the nearest trolley line, hook up to the rail and overhead wire or third rail, and before long everything would be just tickey-boo. No thief, the young Swift remarks, “ ‘I'm going to pay for the current I use,’ explained the young inventor. ‘I have a meter which tells how much I take.’ ”

Posted at 13:58 Permalink

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

UNUM Updated to Unicode 10, HTML5

I have just posted version 2.1 of UNUM. This update, the first since 2006, updates the database of Unicode characters to Unicode version 10.0.0 (June 2017) and adds, for the first time, full support for the entire set of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) ideographic characters, for a total of 136,755 characters in all. CJK characters are identified by their nomenclature in commonly used lexicons, and, where specified in the Unicode database, English definitions.

The table of HTML named character references (the sequences like “<” you use in HTML source code when you need to represent a character which has a syntactic meaning in HTML or which can't be directly included in a file with the character encoding you're using to write it) has been updated to the list published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for HTML5.

It used to be that HTML named character references were a convenient text-based shorthand so that, for example, if your keyboard or content management system didn't have a direct way to specify the Unicode character for a right single quote, you could write “’” instead of “’”, the numeric code for the character. This was handy, made the HTML easier to understand, and made perfect sense and so, of course, it had to be “improved”. Now, you can specify the same character as either “’”, “’”, or “’” as well. “Close Curly Quote”—are there also Larry and Moe quotes? Now, apparently to accommodate dim people who can't remember or be bothered to look up the standard character references which have been in use for more than a decade (and how many of them are writing HTML, anyway?), we have lost the ability to provide a unique HTML character reference for Unicode code points which have them. In other words, the mapping from code points to named character references has gone from one-to-one to one-to-many.

Further, named character references have been extended from a symbolic nomenclature for Unicode code points to specify logical character definitions which are composed of multiple (all the current ones specify only two) code points which are combined to generate the character. For example, the character reference “≫̸”, which stands for the mathematical symbol “not much greater than”, is actually composed of code points U+226B (MUCH GREATER-THAN) and U+0338 (COMBINING LONG SOLIDUS OVERLAY).

Previously, UNUM could assume a one-to-one mapping between HTML character references and Unicode code points, but thanks to these innovations this is no longer the case. Now, when a character is displayed, if it has more than one HTML name, they are all displayed in the HTML column, separated by commas. If the user looks up a composite character reference, all of the Unicode code points which make it up are displayed, one per line, in the order specified in the W3C specification.

The addition of the CJK characters makes the code point definition table, which was already large, simply colossal. The Perl code for UNUM including this table is now almost eight megabytes. To cope with this, there is now a compressed version of UNUM in which the table is compressed with the bzip2 utility, which reduces the size of the program to less than a megabyte. This requires a modern version of Perl and a Unix-like system on which bzip2 is installed. Users who lack these prerequisites may download an uncompressed version of UNUM, which will work in almost any environment which can run Perl.

UNUM Documentation and Download Page

Posted at 23:35 Permalink

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Floating Point Benchmark: Scala Language Added

I have posted an update to my trigonometry-intense floating point benchmark which adds Scala to the list of languages in which the benchmark is implemented. A new release of the benchmark collection including Scala is now available for downloading.

Scala is a general purpose programming language originally developed at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland. Scala combines the paradigm of functional programming with support for conventional object-oriented imperative programming, allowing the programmer to choose whichever style is most expressive of the algorithm being implemented. Unlike Haskell, which forces the programmer into a strict functional style, Scala contains control structures for iteration, mutable variables, and a syntax which C and Java programmers will find familiar. Scala runs on the Java virtual machine, and Scala and Java code can interoperate, which provides Scala access to all existing Java libraries.

The Scala version of the benchmark was developed and tested using Scala 2.12.3 on an x86_64 machine running Xubuntu 16.04 kernel 4.4.0-93. In order to compile and run this program you must install Scala on your computer.

Scala programs compile to byte code which is executed by an implementation of the Java virtual machine. I ran these tests using:

openjdk version "9-internal"
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (build 9-internal+0-2016-04-14-195246.buildd.src)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (build 9-internal+0-2016-04-14-195246.buildd.src, mixed mode)

The Scala implementation of the floating point benchmark is written mostly in a pure functional style, but I did use mutable variables and iteration where it made the code more readable. Scala does not optimise tail recursion as aggressively as Haskell, so iteration may be more efficient in heavily-used code.

At the time I developed this benchmark, a recent release of the GNU C mathematical function library had been issued which halved the mean execution speed of trigonometric functions. This made all comparisons of run time against the C reference implementation of the benchmark using the earlier, more efficient libraries, invalid. (It's said that the performance hit was done in the interest of improved accuracy, but it made no difference in the computations of the floating point benchmark, which are checked to 13 significant digits.) Consequently, I compared the execution speed of the Scala implementation against that of the Java version, then computed the speed relative to the original C version with the old libraries by multiplying the relative speed of Java vs. C and Scala vs. Java.

The relative performance of the various language implementations (with C taken as 1) is as follows. All language implementations of the benchmark listed below produced identical results to the last (11th) decimal place.

Language Relative
C 1 GCC 3.2.3 -O3, Linux
Visual Basic .NET 0.866 All optimisations, Windows XP
FORTRAN 1.008 GNU Fortran (g77) 3.2.3 -O3, Linux
Pascal 1.027
Free Pascal 2.2.0 -O3, Linux
GNU Pascal 2.1 (GCC 2.95.2) -O3, Linux
Swift 1.054 Swift 3.0.1, -O, Linux
Rust 1.077 Rust 0.13.0, --release, Linux
Java 1.121 Sun JDK 1.5.0_04-b05, Linux
Visual Basic 6 1.132 All optimisations, Windows XP
Haskell 1.223 GHC 7.4.1-O2 -funbox-strict-fields, Linux
Scala 1.263 Scala 2.12.3, OpenJDK 9, Linux
Ada 1.401 GNAT/GCC 3.4.4 -O3, Linux
Go 1.481 Go version go1.1.1 linux/amd64, Linux
Simula 2.099 GNU Cim 5.1, GCC 4.8.1 -O2, Linux
Lua 2.515
LuaJIT 2.0.3, Linux
Lua 5.2.3, Linux
Python 2.633
PyPy 2.2.1 (Python 2.7.3), Linux
Python 2.7.6, Linux
Erlang 3.663
Erlang/OTP 17, emulator 6.0, HiPE [native, {hipe, [o3]}]
Byte code (BEAM), Linux
ALGOL 60 3.951 MARST 2.7, GCC 4.8.1 -O3, Linux
Lisp 7.41
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Compiled, Linux
GNU Common Lisp 2.6.7, Interpreted
Smalltalk 7.59 GNU Smalltalk 2.3.5, Linux
Forth 9.92 Gforth 0.7.0, Linux
COBOL 12.5
Micro Focus Visual COBOL 2010, Windows 7
Fixed decimal instead of computational-2
Algol 68 15.2 Algol 68 Genie 2.4.1 -O3, Linux
Perl 23.6 Perl v5.8.0, Linux
Ruby 26.1 Ruby 1.8.3, Linux
JavaScript 27.6
Opera 8.0, Linux
Internet Explorer 6.0.2900, Windows XP
Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Linux
QBasic 148.3 MS-DOS QBasic 1.1, Windows XP Console
Mathematica 391.6 Mathematica, Raspberry Pi 3, Raspbian

Posted at 13:38 Permalink

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Reading List: Making Contact

Scoles, Sarah. Making Contact. New York: Pegasus Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-68177-441-1.
There are few questions in our scientific inquiry into the universe and our place within it more profound than “are we alone?” As we have learned more about our world and the larger universe in which it exists, this question has become ever more fascinating. We now know that our planet, once thought the centre of the universe, is but one of what may be hundreds of billions of planets in our own galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Not long ago, we knew only of the planets in our own solar system, and some astronomers believed planetary systems were rare, perhaps formed by freak encounters between two stars following their orbits around the galaxy. But now, thanks to exoplanet hunters and, especially, the Kepler spacecraft, we know that it's “planets, planets, everywhere”—most stars have planets, and many stars have planets where conditions may be suitable for the origin of life.

If this be the case, then when we gaze upward at the myriad stars in the heavens, might there be other eyes (or whatever sense organs they use for the optical spectrum) looking back from planets of those stars toward our Sun, wondering if they are alone? Many are the children, and adults, who have asked themselves that question when standing under a pristine sky. For the ten year old Jill Tarter, it set her on a path toward a career which has been almost coterminous with humanity's efforts to discover communications from extraterrestrial civilisations—an effort which continues today, benefitting from advances in technology unimagined when she undertook the quest.

World War II had seen tremendous advancements in radio communications, in particular the short wavelengths (“microwaves”) used by radar to detect enemy aircraft and submarines. After the war, this technology provided the foundation for the new field of radio astronomy, which expanded astronomers' window on the universe from the traditional optical spectrum into wavelengths that revealed phenomena never before observed nor, indeed, imagined, and hinted at a universe which was much larger, complicated, and violent than previously envisioned.

In 1959, Philip Morrison and Guiseppe Cocconi published a paper in Nature in which they calculated that using only technologies and instruments already existing on the Earth, intelligent extraterrestrials could send radio messages across the distances to the nearby stars, and that these messages could be received, detected, and decoded by terrestrial observers. This was the origin of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In 1960, Frank Drake used a radio telescope to search for signals from two nearby star systems; he heard nothing.

As they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and this is acutely the case in SETI. First of all, consider that you must first decide what kind of signal aliens might send. If it's something which can't be distinguished from natural sources, there's little hope you'll be able to tease it out of the cacophony which is the radio spectrum. So we must assume they're sending something that doesn't appear natural. But what is the variety of natural sources? There's a dozen or so Ph.D. projects just answering that question, including some surprising discoveries of natural sources nobody imagined, such as pulsars, which were sufficiently strange that when first observed they were called “LGM” sources for “Little Green Men”. On what frequency are they sending (in other words, where do we have to turn our dial to receive them, for those geezers who remember radios with dials)? The most efficient signals will be those with a very narrow frequency range, and there are billions of possible frequencies the aliens might choose. We could be pointed in the right place, at the right time, and simply be tuned to the wrong station.

Then there's that question of “the right time”. It would be absurdly costly to broadcast a beacon signal in all directions at all times: that would require energy comparable to that emitted by a star (which, if you think about it, does precisely that). So it's likely that any civilisation with energy resources comparable to our own would transmit in a narrow beam to specific targets, switching among them over time. If we didn't happen to be listening when they were sending, we'd never know they were calling.

If you put all of these constraints together, you come up with what's called an “observational phase space”—a multidimensional space of frequency, intensity, duration of transmission, angular extent of transmission, bandwidth, and other parameters which determine whether you'll detect the signal. And that assumes you're listening at all, which depends upon people coming up with the money to fund the effort and pursue it over the years.

It's beyond daunting. The space to be searched is so large, and our ability to search it so limited, that negative results, even after decades of observation, are equivalent to walking down to the seashore, sampling a glass of ocean water, and concluding that based on the absence of fish, the ocean contained no higher life forms. But suppose you find a fish? That would change everything.

Jill Tarter began her career in the mainstream of astronomy. Her Ph.D. research at the University of California, Berkeley was on brown dwarfs (bodies more massive than gas giant planets but too small to sustain the nuclear fusion reactions which cause stars to shine—a brown dwarf emits weakly in the infrared as it slowly radiates away the heat from the gravitational contraction which formed it). Her work was supported by a federal grant, which made her uncomfortable—what relevance did brown dwarfs have to those compelled to pay taxes to fund investigating them? During her Ph.D. work, she was asked by a professor in the department to help with an aged computer she'd used in an earlier project. To acquaint her with the project, the professor asked her to read the Project Cyclops report. It was a conversion experience.

Project Cyclops was a NASA study conducted in 1971 on how to perform a definitive search for radio communications from intelligent extraterrestrials. Its report [18.2 Mb PDF], issued in 1972, remains the “bible” for radio SETI, although advances in technology, particularly in computing, have rendered some of its recommendations obsolete. The product of a NASA which was still conducting missions to the Moon, it was grandiose in scale, envisioning a large array of radio telescope dishes able to search for signals from stars up to 1000 light years in distance (note that this is still a tiny fraction of the stars in the galaxy, which is around 150,000 light years in diameter). The estimated budget for the project was between 6 and 10 billion dollars (multiply those numbers by around six to get present-day funny money) spent over a period of ten to fifteen years. The report cautioned that there was no guarantee of success during that period, and that the project should be viewed as a long-term endeavour with ongoing funding to operate the system and continue the search.

The Cyclops report arrived at a time when NASA was downsizing and scaling back its ambitions: the final three planned lunar landing missions had been cancelled in 1970, and production of additional Saturn V launch vehicles had been terminated the previous year. The budget climate wasn't hospitable to Apollo-scale projects of any description, especially those which wouldn't support lots of civil service and contractor jobs in the districts and states of NASA's patrons in congress. Unsurprisingly, Project Cyclops simply landed on the pile of ambitious NASA studies that went nowhere. But to some who read it, it was an inspiration. Tarter thought, “This is the first time in history when we don't just have to believe or not believe. Instead of just asking the priests and philosophers, we can try to find an answer. This is an old and important question, and I have the opportunity to change how we try to answer it.” While some might consider searching the sky for “little green men” frivolous and/or absurd, to Tarter this, not the arcana of brown dwarfs, was something worthy of support, and of her time and intellectual effort, “something that could impact people's lives profoundly in a short period of time.”

The project to which Tarter had been asked to contribute, Project SERENDIP (a painful acronym of Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations) was extremely modest compared to Cyclops. It had no dedicated radio telescopes at all, nor even dedicated time on existing observatories. Instead, it would “piggyback” on observations made for other purposes, listening to the feed from the telescope with an instrument designed to detect the kind of narrow-band beacons envisioned by Cyclops. To cope with the problem of not knowing the frequency on which to listen, the receiver would monitor 100 channels simultaneously. Tarter's job was programming the PDP 8/S computer to monitor the receiver's output and search for candidate signals. (Project SERENDIP is still in operation today, employing hardware able to simultaneously monitor 128 million channels.)

From this humble start, Tarter's career direction was set. All of her subsequent work was in SETI. It would be a roller-coaster ride all the way. In 1975, NASA had started a modest study to research (but not build) technologies for microwave SETI searches. In 1978, the program came into the sights of senator William Proxmire, who bestowed upon it his “Golden Fleece” award. The program initially survived his ridicule, but in 1982, the budget zeroed out the project. Carl Sagan personally intervened with Proxmire, and in 1983 the funding was reinstated, continuing work on a more capable spectral analyser which could be used with existing radio telescopes.

Buffeted by the start-stop support from NASA and encouraged by Hewlett-Packard executive Bernard Oliver, a supporter of SETI from its inception, Tarter decided that SETI needed its own institutional home, one dedicated to the mission and able to seek its own funding independent of the whims of congressmen and bureaucrats. In 1984, the SETI Institute was incorporated in California. Initially funded by Oliver, over the years major contributions have been made by technology moguls including William Hewlett, David Packard, Paul Allen, Gordon Moore, and Nathan Myhrvold. The SETI Institute receives no government funding whatsoever, although some researchers in its employ, mostly those working on astrobiology, exoplanets, and other topics not directly related to SETI, are supported by research grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation. Fund raising was a skill which did not come naturally to Tarter, but it was mission critical, and so she mastered the art. Today, the SETI Institute is considered one of the most savvy privately-funded research institutions, both in seeking large donations and in grass-roots fundraising.

By the early 1990s, it appeared the pendulum had swung once again, and NASA was back in the SETI game. In 1992, a program was funded to conduct a two-pronged effort: a targeted search of 800 nearby stars, and an all-sky survey looking for stronger beacons. Both would employ what were then state-of-the-art spectrum analysers able to monitor 15 million channels simultaneously. After just a year of observations, congress once again pulled the plug. The SETI Institute would have to go it alone.

Tarter launched Project Phoenix, to continue the NASA targeted search program using the orphaned NASA spectrometer hardware and whatever telescope time could be purchased from donations to the SETI Institute. In 1995, observations resumed at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, and subsequently a telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and the 300 metre dish at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The project continued through 2004.

What should SETI look like in the 21st century? Much had changed since the early days in the 1960s and 1970s. Digital electronics and computers had increased in power a billionfold, not only making it possible to scan a billion channels simultaneously and automatically search for candidate signals, but to combine the signals from a large number of independent, inexpensive antennas (essentially, glorified satellite television dishes), synthesising the aperture of a huge, budget-busting radio telescope. With progress in electronics expected to continue in the coming decades, any capital investment in antenna hardware would yield an exponentially growing science harvest as the ability to analyse its output grew over time. But to take advantage of this technological revolution, SETI could no longer rely on piggyback observations, purchased telescope time, or allocations at the whim of research institutions: “SETI needs its own telescope”—one optimised for the mission and designed to benefit from advances in electronics over its lifetime.

In a series of meetings from 1998 to 2000, the specifications of such an instrument were drawn up: 350 small antennas, each 6 metres in diameter, independently steerable (and thus able to be used all together, or in segments to simultaneously observe different targets), with electronics to combine the signals, providing an effective aperture of 900 metres with all dishes operating. With initial funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (and with his name on the project, the Allen Telescope Array), the project began construction in 2004. In 2007, observations began with the first 42 dishes. By that time, Paul Allen had lost interest in the project, and construction of additional dishes was placed on hold until a new benefactor could be found. In 2011, a funding crisis caused the facility to be placed in hibernation, and the observatory was sold to SRI International for US$ 1. Following a crowdfunding effort led by the SETI Institute, the observatory was re-opened later that year, and continues operations to this date. No additional dishes have been installed: current work concentrates on upgrading the electronics of the existing antennas to increase sensitivity.

Jill Tarter retired as co-director of the SETI Institute in 2012, but remains active in its scientific, fundraising, and outreach programs. There has never been more work in SETI underway than at the present. In addition to observations with the Allen Telescope Array, the Breakthrough Listen project, funded at US$ 100 million over ten years by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, is using thousands of hours of time on large radio telescopes, with a goal of observing a million nearby stars and the centres of a hundred galaxies. All data are available to the public for analysis. A new frontier, unimagined in the early days of SETI, is optical SETI. A pulsed laser, focused through a telescope of modest aperture, is able to easily outshine the Sun in a detector sensitive to its wavelength and pulse duration. In the optical spectrum, there's no need for fancy electronics to monitor a wide variety of wavelengths: all you need is a prism or diffraction grating. The SETI Institute has just successfully completed a US$ 100,000 Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the first phase of the Laser SETI project, which has as its ultimate goal an all-sky, all-the-time search for short pulses of light which may be signals from extraterrestrials or new natural phenomena to which no existing astronomical instrument is sensitive.

People often ask Jill Tarter what it's like to spend your entire career looking for something and not finding it. But she, and everybody involved in SETI, always knew the search would not be easy, nor likely to succeed in the short term. The reward for engaging in it is being involved in founding a new field of scientific inquiry and inventing and building the tools which allow exploring this new domain. The search is vast, and to date we have barely scratched the surface. About all we can rule out, after more than half a century, is a Star Trek-like universe where almost every star system is populated by aliens chattering away on the radio. Today, the SETI enterprise, entirely privately funded and minuscule by the standards of “big science”, is strongly coupled to the exponential growth in computing power and hence, roughly doubles its ability to search around every two years.

The question “are we alone?” is one which has profound implications either way it is answered. If we discover one or more advanced technological civilisations (and they will almost certainly be more advanced than we—we've only had radio for a little more than a century, and there are stars and planets in the galaxy billions of years older than ours), it will mean it's possible to grow out of the daunting problems we face in the adolescence of our species and look forward to an exciting and potentially unbounded future. If, after exhaustive searches (which will take at least another fifty years of continued progress in expanding the search space), it looks like we're alone, then intelligent life is so rare that we may be its only exemplar in the galaxy and, perhaps, the universe. Then, it's up to us. Our destiny, and duty, is to ensure that this spark, lit within us, will never be extinguished.

Posted at 23:46 Permalink

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reading List: Drug Lord

Casey, Doug and John Hunt. Drug Lord. Charlottesville, VA: HighGround Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-947449-07-7.
This is the second novel in the authors' “High Ground” series, chronicling the exploits of Charles Knight, an entrepreneur and adventurer determined to live his life according to his own moral code, constrained as little as possible by the rules and regulations of coercive and corrupt governments. The first novel, Speculator (October 2016), follows Charles's adventures in Africa as an investor in a junior gold exploration company which just might have made the discovery of the century, and in the financial markets as he seeks to profit from what he's learned digging into the details. Charles comes onto the radar of ambitious government agents seeking to advance their careers by collecting his scalp.

Charles ends up escaping with his freedom and ethics intact, but with much of his fortune forfeit. He decides he's had enough of “the land of the free” and sets out on his sailboat to explore the world and sample the pleasures and opportunities it holds for one who thinks for himself. Having survived several attempts on his life and prevented a war in Africa in the previous novel, seven years later he returns to a really dangerous place, Washington DC, populated by the Morlocks of Mordor.

Charles has an idea for a new business. The crony capitalism of the U.S. pharmaceutical-regulatory complex has inflated the price of widely-used prescription drugs to many times that paid outside the U.S., where these drugs, whose patents have expired under legal regimes less easily manipulated than that of the U.S., are manufactured in a chemically-identical form by thoroughly professional generic drug producers. Charles understands, as fully as any engineer, that wherever there is nonlinearity the possibility for gain exists, and when that nonlinearity is the result of the action of coercive government, the potential profits from circumventing its grasp on the throat of the free market can be very large, indeed.

When Charles's boat docked in the U.S., he had an undeclared cargo: a large number of those little blue pills much in demand by men of a certain age, purchased for pennies from a factory in India through a cut-out in Africa he met on his previous adventure. He has the product, and a supplier able to obtain much more. Now, all he needs is distribution. He must venture into the dark underside of DC to make the connections that can get the product to the customers, and persuade potential partners that they can make much more and far more safely by distributing his products (which don't fall under the purview of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and to which local cops not only don't pay much attention, but may be potential customers).

Meanwhile, Charles's uncle Maurice, who has been managing what was left of his fortune during his absence, has made an investment in a start-up pharmaceutical company, Visioryme, whose first product, VR-210, or Sybillene, is threading its way through the FDA regulatory gauntlet toward approval for use as an antidepressant. Sybillene works through a novel neurochemical pathway, and promises to be an effective treatment for clinical depression while avoiding the many deleterious side effects of other drugs. In fact, Sybillene doesn't appear to have any side effects at all—or hardly any—there's that one curious thing that happened in animal testing, but not wishing to commit corporate seppuku, Visioryme hasn't mentioned it to the regulators or even their major investor, Charles.

Charles pursues his two pharmaceutical ventures in parallel: one in the DC ghetto and Africa; the other in the tidy suburban office park where Visioryme is headquartered. The first business begins to prosper, and Charles must turn his ingenuity to solving the problems attendant to any burgeoning enterprise: supply, transportation, relations with competitors (who, in this sector of the economy, not only are often armed but inclined to shoot first), expanding the product offerings, growing the distribution channels, and dealing with all of the money that's coming in, entirely in cash, without coming onto the radar of any of the organs of the slavers and their pervasive snooper-state.

Meanwhile, Sybillene finally obtains FDA approval, and Visioryme begins to take off and ramp up production. Charles's connections in Africa help the company obtain the supplies of bamboo required in production of the drug. It seems like he now has two successful ventures, on the dark and light sides, respectively, of the pharmaceutical business (which is dark and which is light depending on your view of the FDA).

Then, curious reports start to come in about doctors prescribing Sybillene off-label in large doses to their well-heeled patients. Off-label prescription is completely legal and not uncommon, but one wonders what's going on. Then there's the talk Charles is picking up from his other venture of demand for a new drug on the street: Sybillene, which goes under names such as Fey, Vatic, Augur, Covfefe, and most commonly, Naked Emperor. Charles's lead distributor reports, “It helps people see lies for what they are, and liars too. I dunno. I never tried it. Lots of people are asking though. Society types. Lawyers, businessmen, doctors, even cops.” It appears that Sybillene, or Naked Emperor, taken in a high dose, is a powerful nootropic which doesn't so much increase intelligence as, the opposite of most psychoactive drugs, allows the user to think more clearly, and see through the deception that pollutes the intellectual landscape of a modern, “developed”, society.

In that fœtid city by the Potomac, the threat posed by such clear thinking dwarfs that of other “controlled substances” which merely turn their users into zombies. Those atop an empire built on deceit, deficits, and debt cannot run the risk of a growing fraction of the population beginning to see through the funny money, Ponzi financing, Potemkin military, manipulation of public opinion, erosion of the natural rights of citizens, and the sham which is replacing the last vestiges of consensual government. Perforce, Sybillene must become Public Enemy Number One, and if a bit of lying and even murder is required, well, that's the price of preserving the government's ability to lie and murder.

Suddenly, Charles is involved in two illegal pharmaceutical ventures. As any wise entrepreneur would immediately ask himself, “might there be synergies?”

Thus begins a compelling, instructive, and inspiring tale of entrepreneurship and morality confronted with dark forces constrained by no limits whatsoever. We encounter friends and foes from the first novel, as once again Charles finds himself on point position defending those in the enterprises he has created. As I said in my review of Speculator, this book reminds me of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, but it is even more effective because Charles Knight is not a super-hero but rather a person with a strong sense of right and wrong who is making up his life as he goes along and learning from the experiences he has: good and bad, success and failure. Charles Knight, even without Naked Emperor, has that gift of seeing things precisely as they are, unobscured by the fog, cant, spin, and lies which are the principal products of the city in which it is set.

These novels are not just page-turning thrillers, they're simultaneously an introductory course in becoming an international man (or woman), transcending the lies of the increasingly obsolescent nation-state, and finding the liberty that comes from seizing control of one's own destiny. They may be the most powerful fictional recruiting tool for the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist world view since the works of Ayn Rand and L. Neil Smith. Speculator was my fiction book of the year for 2016, and this sequel is in the running for 2017.

Posted at 22:20 Permalink

Monday, August 28, 2017

Flash, Bang!

Last Thursday, 2017-08-24, was interesting. I was programming away when, as often occurs in the mid-afternoon here in the summer, thunderheads boiled up above the Jura, the sky darkened, and before long a full-on thunderboomer complete with high winds, torrential rain, and plenty of flashes and bangs was underway.

Then, flash, bang!  When you perceive them at exactly the same time, it's never a good sign. Instantaneously, the auxiliary monitor on my development machine emitted a crack and went black. The UPS units all went on battery, but quickly came back on line. I suspect the event they detected was not a power outage but a transient due to the lightning strike. After about five seconds, the monitor lit back up as if nothing had happened.

So far, so good. Further along, not so good. The phone next to the computer, which is connected to Fourmilab's Alcatel OmniPCX phone central was completely dead: even the LCD display was blank. All of the other phones connected to the central were equally hors de combat. The main Fourmilab fibre optic connection to the Internet wasn't perturbed at all, but the backup Swisscom ADSL connection was dead, and its router responded by butting in to new connections and diverting them to its "landing page" until I pulled the plug.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. When you live on a plateau 806 metres above sea level just downwind of the first serious mountain range moist air encounters after crossing France and being heated, summer thunderstorms are part of the deal. (Although I don't keep detailed records, I think this is about the eighth time Fourmilab has been struck by lightning resulting in damage to electronics. Once is chance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action; —eight— you must've really made old thunderhammer quite irate.)

All of the power and telephone lines are buried, and protected with state of the art lightning arrestors, and all non-resistive electrical loads are connected to UPS units. The problem is nearby strikes which are conducted to ground by the protection, but which, in doing so, induce currents in data cables parallel to them. You can do everything right, but when you're talking about hundreds of thousands of amperes, all of your remediation does about as much good as a tinfoil hat.

Lightning rods on buildings don't help. They may protect the building, but the cone of protection doesn't extend sufficiently far to guard against ground strikes which get into telephone wires. You could put up lightning protection masts like they use around rocket launch pads, but it would be difficult to get the neighbours to approve.

Here is what happens when lightning gets into a data cable between two buildings. First. here's the connector into which the cable was plugged.


It was port 2 that was hit. Note how the metal at the top of the connector has been melted and the conductors blackened by smoke. The smoke above the connector was the tip-off, and more visible to the eye than in this picture.

Here's the cable:


You can see the smoke staining the plastic of the connector. There are also smoke stains on the metal sides of the connector, but they don't show up well since it's a specular reflector.

I'd like to say that everything has been resolved and all is well, but it's not. There's a lot more time to be consumed in remediation of this event. What can you do to keep this from happening to you? Don't get struck by lightning!  Other than moving to somewhere the risk is lower, there's little more that can be done.

Posted at 23:50 Permalink

Thursday, August 24, 2017

RandomX Java Package Updated

The randomX package for Java implements an abstract (pseudo)random number generator which allows, by plugging in specific generators derived from it, a program to use a variety of random number sources, including Fourmilab's HotBits radioactive random number generator.

At the start of July 2017, HotBits began to require an API Key to obtain truly random data from radioactive decay. This was necessary to prevent abuse and distributed denial of service attacks against the generator, whose capacity is limited due to the technology it employs. (Users can request an arbitrary amount of pseudorandom data, produced by a cryptographic-grade algorithm seeded with HotBits-generated data, without the need for an API Key.)

I have just posted an updated version of the randomX package which adds the ability to specify an API Key when calling the randomHotBits constructor to create a new HotBits generator. If no API Key is specified, pseudorandom data will be returned. This update improves error diagnosis and reporting. If a request fails, for example due to an invalid API Key or the user having exceeded the daily quota for true random data, an HTML error page is returned. Previously, this resulted in an obscure error message from the generator method call. Now, the HTML error page is printed on standard error (admittedly, a bit arcane, but at least the reason for the error is primate-readable), and a RuntimeException is thrown.

Posted at 22:05 Permalink

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reading List: Dichronauts

Egan, Greg. Dichronauts. New York: Night Shade Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-59780-892-7.
One of the more fascinating sub-genres of science fiction is “world building”: creating the setting in which a story takes place by imagining an environment radically different from any in the human experience. This can run the gamut from life in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet (Saturn Rukh), on the surface of a neutron star (Dragon's Egg), or on an enormous alien-engineered wheel surrounding a star (Ringworld). When done well, the environment becomes an integral part of the tale, shaping the characters and driving the plot. Greg Egan is one of the most accomplished of world builders. His fiction includes numerous examples of alien environments, with the consequences worked out and woven into the story.

The present novel may be his most ambitious yet: a world in which the fundamental properties of spacetime are different from those in our universe. Unfortunately, for this reader, the execution was unequal to the ambition and the result disappointing. I'll explain this in more detail, but let's start with the basics.

We inhabit a spacetime which is well-approximated by Minkowski space. (In regions where gravity is strong, spacetime curvature must be taken into account, but this can be neglected in most circumstances including those in this novel.) Minkowski space is a flat four-dimensional space where each point is identified by three space and one time coordinate. It is thus spoken of as a 3+1 dimensional space. The space and time dimensions are not interchangeable: when computing the spacetime separation of two events, their distance or spacetime interval is given by the the quantity −t²+x²+y²+z². Minkowski space is said to have a metric signature of (−,+,+,+), from the signs of the four coordinates in the distance (metric) equation.

Why does our universe have a dimensionality of 3+1? Nobody knows—string theorists who argue for a landscape of universes in an infinite multiverse speculate that the very dimensionality of a universe may be set randomly when the baby universe is created in its own big bang bubble. Max Tegmark has argued that universes with other dimensionalities would not permit the existence of observers such as us, so we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves in one of the universes which is compatible with our own existence, nor should we rule out a multitude of other universes with different dimensionalities, all of which may be devoid of observers.

But need they necessarily be barren? The premise of this novel is, “not necessarily so”, and Egan has created a universe with a metric signature of (−,−,+,+), a 2+2 dimensional spacetime with two spacelike dimensions and two timelike dimensions. Note that “timelike” refers to the sign of the dimension in the distance equation, and the presence of two timelike dimensions is not equivalent to two time dimensions. There is still a single dimension of time, t, in which events occur in a linear order just as in our universe. The second timelike dimension, which we'll call u, behaves like a spatial dimension in that objects can move within it as they can along the other x and y spacelike dimensions, but its contribution in the distance equation is negative: −t²−u²+x²+y². This results in a seriously weird, if not bizarre world.

From this point on, just about everything I'm going to say can be considered a spoiler if your intention is to read the book from front to back and not consult the extensive background information on the author's Web site. Conversely, I shall give away nothing regarding the plot or ending which is not disclosed in the background information or the technical afterword of the novel. I do not consider this material as spoilers; in fact, I believe that many readers who do not first understand the universe in which the story is set are likely to abandon the book as simply incomprehensible. Some of the masters of world building science fiction introduce the reader to the world as an ongoing puzzle as the story unfolds but, for whatever reason, Egan did not choose to do that here, or else he did so sufficiently poorly that this reader didn't even notice the attempt. I think the publisher made a serious mistake in not alerting the reader to the existence of the technical afterword, the reading of which I consider a barely sufficient prerequisite for understanding the setting in which the novel takes place.

In the Dichronauts universe, there is a “world” around which a smaller ”star” orbits (or maybe the other way around; it's just a coordinate transformation). The geometry of the spacetime dominates everything. While in our universe we're free to move in any of the three spatial dimensions, in this spacetime motion in the x and y dimensions is as for us, but if you're facing in the positive x dimension—let's call it east—you cannot rotate outside the wedge from northeast to southeast, and as you rotate the distance equation causes a stretching to occur, like the distortions in relativistic motion in special relativity. It is no more possible to turn all the way to the northeast than it is to attain the speed of light in our universe. If you were born east-facing, the only way you can see to the west is to bend over and look between your legs. The beings who inhabit this world seem to be born randomly east- or west-facing.

Light only propagates within the cone defined by the spacelike dimensions. Any light source has a “dark cone” defined by a 45° angle around the timelike u dimension. In this region, vision does not work, so beings are blind to their sides. The creatures who inhabit the world are symbionts of bipeds who call themselves “walkers” and slug-like creatures, “siders”, who live inside their skulls and receive their nutrients from the walker's bloodstream. Siders are equipped with “pingers”, which use echolocation like terrestrial bats to sense within the dark cone. While light cannot propagate there, physical objects can move in that direction, including the density waves which carry sound. Walkers and siders are linked at the brain level and can directly perceive each other's views of the world and communicate without speaking aloud. Both symbiotes are independently conscious, bonded at a young age, and can, like married couples, have acrimonious disputes. While walkers cannot turn outside the 90° cone, they can move in the timelike north-south direction by “sidling”, relying upon their siders to detect obstacles within their cone of blindness.

Due to details of the structure of their world, the walker/sider society, which seems to be at a pre-industrial level (perhaps due to the fact that many machines would not work in the weird geometry they inhabit), is forced to permanently migrate to stay within the habitable zone between latitudes which are seared by the rays of the star and those too cold for agriculture. For many generations, the town of Baharabad has migrated along a river, but now the river appears to be drying up, creating a crisis. Seth (walker) and Theo (sider), are surveyors, charged with charting the course of their community's migration. Now they are faced with the challenge of finding a new river to follow, one which has not already been claimed by another community. On an expedition to the limits of the habitable zone, they encounter what seems to be the edge of the world. Is it truly the edge, and if not what lies beyond? They join a small group of explorers who probe regions of their world never before seen, and discover clues to the origin of their species.

This didn't work for me. If you read all of the background information first (which, if you're going to dig into this novel, I strongly encourage you to do), you'll appreciate the effort the author went to in order to create a mathematically consistent universe with two timelike dimensions, and to work out the implications of this for a world within it and the beings who live there. But there is a tremendous amount of arm waving behind the curtain which, if you peek, subverts the plausibility of everything. For example, the walker/sider creatures are described as having what seems to be a relatively normal metabolism: they eat fruit, grow crops, breathe, eat, and drink, urinate and defecate, and otherwise behave as biological organisms. But biology as we know it, and all of these biological functions, requires the complex stereochemistry of the organic molecules upon which organisms are built. If the motion of molecules were constrained to a cone, and their shape stretched with rotation, the operation of enzymes and other biochemistry wouldn't work. And yet that doesn't seem to be a problem for these beings.

Finally, the story simply stops in the middle, with the great adventure and resolution of the central crisis unresolved. There will probably be a sequel. I shall not read it.

Posted at 22:42 Permalink

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading List: The Challenge of Dawa

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Challenge of Dawa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. In 1992 she was admitted to the Netherlands and granted political asylum on the basis of escaping an arranged marriage. She later obtained Dutch citizenship, and was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she served from 2001 through 2006. In 2004, she collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the short film Submission, about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. After release of the film, van Gogh was assassinated, with a note containing a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to his corpse with a knife. Thereupon, she went into hiding with a permanent security detail to protect her against ongoing threats. In 2006, she moved to the U.S., taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. She is currently a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In this short book (or long pamphlet: it is just 105 pages, with 70 pages of main text), Hirsi Ali argues that almost all Western commentators on the threat posed by Islam have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the challenge it poses to Western civilisation and the heritage of the Enlightenment, and, failing to understand the tactics of Islam's ambition to dominate the world, dating to Mohammed's revelations in Medina and his actions in that period of his life, have adopted strategies which are ineffective and in some cases counterproductive in confronting the present danger.

The usual picture of Islam presented by politicians and analysts in the West (at least those who admit there is any problem at all) is that most Muslims are peaceful, productive people who have no problems becoming integrated in Western societies, but there is a small minority, variously called “radical”, “militant”, “Islamist”, “fundamentalist”, or other names, who are bent on propagating their religion by means of violence, either in guerrilla or conventional wars, or by terror attacks on civilian populations. This view has led to involvement in foreign wars, domestic surveillance, and often intrusive internal security measures to counter the threat, which is often given the name of “jihad”. A dispassionate analysis of these policies over the last decade and a half must conclude that they are not working: despite trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, turning air travel into a humiliating and intimidating circus, and invading the privacy of people worldwide, the Islamic world seems to be, if anything, more chaotic than it was in the year 2000, and the frequency and seriousness of so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks against soft targets does not seem to be abating. What if we don't really understand what we're up against? What if jihad isn't the problem, or only a part of something much larger?

Dawa (or dawah, da'wah, daawa, daawah—there doesn't seem to be anything associated with this religion which isn't transliterated at least three different ways—the Arabic is “دعوة”) is an Arabic word which literally means “invitation”. In the context of Islam, it is usually translated as “proselytising” or spreading the religion by nonviolent means, as is done by missionaries of many other religions. But here, Hirsi Ali contends that dawa, which is grounded in the fundamental scripture of Islam: the Koran and Hadiths (sayings of Mohammed), is something very different when interpreted and implemented by what she calls “political Islam”. As opposed to a distinction between moderate and radical Islam, she argues that Islam is more accurately divided into “spiritual Islam” as revealed in the earlier Mecca suras of the Koran, and “political Islam”, embodied by those dating from Medina. Spiritual Islam defines a belief system, prayers, rituals, and duties of believers, but is largely confined to the bounds of other major religions. Political Islam, however, is a comprehensive system of politics, civil and criminal law, economics, the relationship with and treatment of nonbelievers, and military strategy, and imposes a duty to spread Islam into new territories.

Seen through the lens of political Islam, dawa and those engaged in it, often funded today by the deep coffers of petro-tyrannies, is nothing like the activities of, say, Roman Catholic or Mormon missionaries. Implemented through groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), centres on Islamic and Middle East studies on university campuses, mosques and Islamic centres in communities around the world, so-called “charities” and non-governmental organisations, all bankrolled by fundamentalist champions of political Islam, dawa in the West operates much like the apparatus of Communist subversion described almost sixty years ago by J. Edgar Hoover in Masters of Deceit. You have the same pattern of apparently nonviolent and innocuously-named front organisations, efforts to influence the influential (media figures, academics, politicians), infiltration of institutions along the lines of Antonio Gramsci's “long march”, exploitation of Western traditions such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion to achieve goals diametrically opposed to them, and redefinition of the vocabulary and intimidation of any who dare state self-evident facts (mustn't be called “islamophobic”!), all funded from abroad. Unlike communists in the heyday of the Comintern and afterward the Cold War, Islamic subversion is assisted by large scale migration of Muslims into Western countries, especially in Europe, where the organs of dawa encourage them to form their own separate communities, avoiding assimilation, and demanding the ability to implement their own sharia law and that others respect their customs. Dawa is directed at these immigrants as well, with the goal of increasing their commitment to Islam and recruiting them for its political agenda: the eventual replacement of Western institutions with sharia law and submission to a global Islamic caliphate. This may seem absurdly ambitious for communities which, in most countries, aren't much greater than 5% of the population, but they're patient: they've been at it for fourteen centuries, and they're out-breeding the native populations in almost every country where they've become established.

Hirsi Ali argues persuasively that the problem isn't jihad: jihad is a tactic which can be employed as part of dawa when persuasion, infiltration, and subversion prove insufficient, or as a final step to put the conquest over the top, but it's the commitment to global hegemony, baked right into the scriptures of Islam, which poses the most dire risk to the West, especially since so few decision makers seem to be aware of it or, if they are, dare not speak candidly of it lest they be called “islamophobes” or worse. This is something about which I don't need to be persuaded: I've been writing about it since 2015; see “Clash of Ideologies: Communism, Islam, and the West”. I sincerely hope that this work by an eloquent observer who has seen political Islam from the inside will open more eyes to the threat it poses to the West. A reasonable set of policy initiatives to confront the threat is presented at the end. The only factual error I noted is the claim on p. 57 that Joseph R. McCarthy was in charge of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—in fact, McCarthy, a Senator, presided over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

This is a publication of the Hoover Institution. It has no ISBN and cannot be purchased through usual booksellers. Here is the page for the book, whence you can download the PDF file for free.

Posted at 22:23 Permalink

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading List: Ready Player One

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-88744-3.
By the mid-21st century, the Internet has become largely subsumed as the transport layer for the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a massively multiuser online virtual reality environment originally developed as a multiplayer game, but which rapidly evolved into a platform for commerce, education, social interaction, and entertainment used by billions of people around the world. The OASIS supports immersive virtual reality, limited only by the user's budget for hardware used to access the network. With top-of-the-line visors and sound systems, body motion sensors, and haptic feedback, coupled to a powerful interface console, a highly faithful experience was possible. The OASIS was the creation of James Halliday, a legendary super-nerd who made his first fortune designing videogames for home computers in the 1980s, and then re-launched his company in 2012 as Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), with the OASIS as its sole product. The OASIS was entirely open source: users could change things within the multitude of worlds within the system (within the limits set by those who created them), or create their own new worlds. Using a distributed computing architecture which pushed much of the processing power to the edge of the network, on users' own consoles, the system was able to grow without bound without requiring commensurate growth in GSS data centres. And it was free, or almost so. To access the OASIS, you paid only a one-time lifetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, just like the quarter you used to drop into the slot of an arcade videogame. Users paid nothing to use the OASIS itself: their only costs were the hardware they used to connect (which varied widely in cost and quality of the experience) and the bandwidth to connect to the network. But since most of the processing was done locally, the latter cost was modest. GSS made its money selling or renting virtual real estate (“surreal estate”) within the simulation. If you wanted to open, say, a shopping mall or build your own Fortress of Solitude on an asteroid, you had to pay GSS for the territory. GSS also sold virtual goods: clothes, magical artefacts, weapons, vehicles of all kinds, and buildings. Most were modestly priced, but since they cost nothing to manufacture, were pure profit to the company.

As the OASIS permeated society, GSS prospered. Halliday remained the majority shareholder in the company, having bought back the share once owned by his co-founder and partner Ogden (“Og”) Morrow, after what was rumoured to be a dispute between the two the details of which had never been revealed. By 2040, Halliday's fortune, almost all in GSS stock, had grown to more than two hundred and forty billion dollars. And then, after fifteen years of self-imposed isolation which some said was due to insanity, Halliday died of cancer. He was a bachelor, with no living relatives, no heirs, and, it was said, no friends. His death was announced on the OASIS in a five minute video titled Anaorak's Invitation (“Anorak” was the name of Halliday's all-powerful avatar within the OASIS). In the film, Halliday announces that his will places his entire fortune in escrow until somebody completes the quest he has programmed within the OASIS:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates,
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits,
And those with the skill to survive these straits,
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.

The prize is Halliday's entire fortune and, with it, super-user control of the principal medium of human interaction, business, and even politics. Before fading out, Halliday shows three keys: copper, jade, and crystal, which must be obtained to open the three gates. Only after passing through the gates and passing the tests within them, will the intrepid paladin obtain the Easter egg hidden within the OASIS and gain control of it. Halliday provided a link to Anorak's Almanac, more than a thousand pages of journal entries made during his life, many of which reflect his obsession with 1980s popular culture, science fiction and fantasy, videogames, movies, music, and comic books. The clues to finding the keys and the Egg were widely believed to be within this rambling, disjointed document.

Given the stakes, and the contest's being open to anybody in the OASIS, what immediately came to be called the Hunt became a social phenomenon, all-consuming to some. Egg hunters, or “gunters”, immersed themselves in Halliday's journal and every pop culture reference within it, however obscure. All of this material was freely available on the OASIS, and gunters memorised every detail of anything which had caught Halliday's attention. As time passed, and nobody succeeded in finding even the copper key (Halliday's memorial site displayed a scoreboard of those who achieved goals in the Hunt, so far blank), many lost interest in the Hunt, but a dedicated hard core persisted, often to the exclusion of all other diversions. Some gunters banded together into “clans”, some very large, agreeing to exchange information and, if one found the Egg, to share the proceeds with all members. More sinister were the activities of Innovative Online Industries—IOI—a global Internet and communications company which controlled much of the backbone that underlay the OASIS. It had assembled a large team of paid employees, backed by the research and database facilities of IOI, with their sole mission to find the Egg and turn control of the OASIS over to IOI. These players, all with identical avatars and names consisting of their six-digit IOI employee numbers, all of which began with the digit “6”, were called “sixers” or, more often in the gunter argot, “Sux0rz”.

Gunters detested IOI and the sixers, because it was no secret that if they found the Egg, IOI's intention was to close the architecture of the OASIS, begin to charge fees for access, plaster everything with advertising, destroy anonymity, snoop indiscriminately, and use their monopoly power to put their thumb on the scale of all forms of communication including political discourse. (Fortunately, that couldn't happen to us with today's enlightened, progressive Silicon Valley overlords.) But IOI's financial resources were such that whenever a rare and powerful magical artefact (many of which had been created by Halliday in the original OASIS, usually requiring the completion of a quest to obtain, but freely transferrable thereafter) came up for auction, IOI was usually able to outbid even the largest gunter clans and add it to their arsenal.

Wade Watts, a lone gunter whose avatar is named Parzival, became obsessed with the Hunt on the day of Halliday's death, and, years later, devotes almost every minute of his life not spent sleeping or in school (like many, he attends school in the OASIS, and is now in the last year of high school) on the Hunt, reading and re-reading Anorak's Almanac, reading, listening to, playing, and viewing everything mentioned therein, to the extent he can recite the dialogue of the movies from memory. He makes copious notes in his “grail diary”, named after the one kept by Indiana Jones. His friends, none of whom he has ever met in person, are all gunters who congregate on-line in virtual reality chat rooms such as that run by his best friend, Aech.

Then, one day, bored to tears and daydreaming in Latin class, Parzival has a flash of insight. Putting together a message buried in the Almanac that he and many other gunters had discovered but failed to understand, with a bit of Latin and his encyclopedic knowledge of role playing games, he decodes the clue and, after a demanding test, finds himself in possession of the Copper Key. His name, alone, now appears at the top of the scoreboard, with 10,000 points. The path to the First Gate was now open.

Discovery of the Copper Key was a sensation: suddenly Parzival, a humble level 10 gunter, is a worldwide celebrity (although his real identity remains unknown, as he refuses all media offers which would reveal or compromise it). Knowing that the key can be found re-energises other gunters, not to speak of IOI, and Parzival's footprints in the OASIS are scrupulously examined for clues to his achievement. (Finding a key and opening a gate does not render it unavailable to others. Those who subsequently pass the tests will receive their own copies of the key, although there is a point bonus for finding it first.)

So begins an epic quest by Parzival and other gunters, contending with the evil minions of IOI, whose potential gain is so high and ethics so low that the risks may extend beyond the OASIS into the real world. For the reader, it is a nostalgic romp through every aspect of the popular culture of the 1980s: the formative era of personal computing and gaming. The level of detail is just staggering: this may be the geekiest nerdfest ever published. Heck, there's even a reference to an erstwhile Autodesk employee! The only goof I noted is a mention of the “screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence”. Three hundred baud modems did not have the characteristic squawk and screech sync-up of faster modems which employ trellis coding. While there are a multitude of references to details which will make people who were there, then, smile, readers who were not immersed in the 1980s and/or less familiar with its cultural minutiæ can still enjoy the challenges, puzzles solved, intrigue, action, and epic virtual reality battles which make up the chronicle of the Hunt. The conclusion is particularly satisfying: there may be a bigger world than even the OASIS.

A movie based upon the novel, directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled for release in March 2018.

Posted at 20:40 Permalink