« June 2011 |
| August 2011 »
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Reading List: Accelerando
- Stross, Charles.
New York: Ace, 2005.
Some people complain that few contemporary science fiction
authors work on the grand scale of the masters of yore.
Nobody can say that about Charles Stross, who in
this novel tells the story of the human species'
transcendence as it passes through a
technological singularity caused by the
continued exponential growth of computational power to
the point where a substantial fraction of the mass of the
solar system is transformed from “dumb matter”
engineered through molecular nanotechnology to perform the
maximum amount of computation given its mass and the free
energy of its environment. The scenario which plays out in
the 21st century envisioned here is essentially that
of Ray Kurzweil's
The Age of Spiritual Machines (June 2011)
with additions by the author to make things more
The story is told as the chronicle of the (very) extended family
of Manfred Macx, who starts as a “venture altruist”
in the early years of the century, as the rising curve of
computation begins to supplant economics
(the study of the use of scarce resources)
with “agalmics”: the allocation of abundant resources.
As the century progresses, things get sufficiently weird that
even massively augmented human intelligences can perceive
them only dimly from a distance, and the human, transhuman,
posthuman, emulated, resurrected, and multithreaded
members of the Macx family provide our viewpoint on what's
happening, as they try to figure it all out for themselves.
And then there's the family cat….
Forecasts of future technologies often overlook consequences which
seem obvious in retrospect. For example, many people predicted
electronic mail, but how many envisioned spam? Stross goes to some
lengths here to imagine the unintended consequences of a technological
singularity. You think giant corporations and financial derivatives
are bad? Wait until they become sentient, with superhuman
intelligence and the ability to reproduce!
The novel was assembled from nine short stories, and in some
cases this is apparent, but it didn't detract from this
reader's enjoyment. For readers “briefed in” on
the whole singularity/nanotechnology/extropian/posthuman
meme bundle, this work is a pure delight—there's
something for everybody, even a
If you're one of those folks who haven't yet acquired a
taste for treats which
“taste like (mambo) chicken”, plan to
read this book with a search box open and look up the multitude of
terms which are dropped without any explanation and which will send
you off into the depths of the weird as you research them. An
excellent Kindle edition is available which
makes this easy.
Reading “big idea” science fiction may cause you to have
big ideas of your own—that's why we read it, right? Anyway,
this isn't in the book, so I don't consider talking about it a spoiler,
but what occurred to me whilst reading the novel is that transcendence
of naturally-evolved (or were they…?) species into engineered
computational substrates might explain some of the puzzles of cosmology
with which we're presently confronted. Suppose transcendent
super-intelligences which evolved earlier in the universe have already
ported themselves from crude molecular structures to the underlying
structure of the quantum vacuum. The by-product of their computation
might be the
which has so recently (in terms of the history of the universe)
caused the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The “coincidence
problem” is why we, as unprivileged observers in the universe,
should be living so close to the moment at which the acceleration began.
Well, if it's caused by other beings who happened to evolve to their
moment of transcendence a few billion years before us, it
makes perfect sense, and we'll get into the act ourselves before too long.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Reading List: How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It
- Rawles, James Wesley.
How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It.
New York: Plume, 2009.
As I write these comments in July of 2011, the legacy media and much
of the “new” media are focussed on the sovereign debt
crises in Europe and the United States, with partisans on
every side of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic predicting
apocalyptic consequences if their policy prescriptions are not
promptly enacted. While much of the rhetoric is overblown and
many of the “deadlines” artificial constructs created
for political purposes, the situation cannot help but remind one of
just how vulnerable the infrastructure of civilisation in developed
nations has become to disruptions which, even a few decades ago,
would have been something a resilient populace could ride out (consider
civilian populations during World War II as an example).
Today, however, delivery of food, clean water, energy, life-sustaining
pharmaceuticals, and a multitude of other necessities of life to
populations increasingly concentrated in cities and suburbs is a
“just in time” process, optimised to reduce inventory
all along the chain from primary producer to consumer and itself
dependent upon the infrastructure for its own operation. For
example, a failure of the electrical power grid in a region not
only affects home and business use of electricity, but will quickly
take down delivery of fresh water; removal and processing of
sewage; heating for buildings which rely on electrically powered
air or water circulation systems and furnace burners; and
telephone, Internet, radio, and television communication once
the emergency generators which back up these facilities exhaust their
fuel supplies (usually in a matter of days). Further, with
communications down, inventory control systems all along
the food supply chain will be inoperable, and individuals in the region will
be unable to either pay with credit or debit cards or obtain cash
from automatic teller machines. This only scratches the surface of
the consequences of a “grid down” scenario, and it
takes but a little reflection to imagine how a failure in any one part
of the infrastructure can bring the rest down.
One needn't envision a continental- or global-scale financial
collapse to imagine how you might find yourself on your own for
a period of days to weeks: simply review the aftermath of
earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornado swarms, and large-scale
flooding in recent years to appreciate how events which, while
inevitable in the long term but unanticipated until too short
a time before they happened to effectively prepare for, can
strike. The great advantage of preparing for the apocalypse is
that when something on a smaller scale happens, you can ride it
out and help your neighbours get through the difficult times
without being a burden on stretched-thin emergency services
trying to cope with the needs of those with less foresight.
This book, whose author is the founder of the
site, is a gentle introduction to (quoting the
subtitle) “tactics, techniques, and technologies
for uncertain times”. By “gentle”, I mean
that there is little or no strident doom-saying here; instead,
the reader is encouraged to ask, “What if?”,
then “What then?”, and so on until an appreciation
of what it really means when the power is off, the furnace is
dead, the tap is dry, the toilet doesn't flush, the refrigerator
and freezer are coming to room temperature, and you don't have
any food in the pantry.
The bulk of the book describes steps you can take, regardless of
how modest your financial means, free time, and physical
capacity, to prepare for such exigencies. In many cases,
the cost of such common-sense preparations is negative:
if you buy storable food in bulk and rotate your storage by
regularly eating what you've stored, you'll save money when
buying through quantity discounts (and/or buying when prices
are low or there's a special deal at the store), and in an
inflationary era, by buying before prices rise.
The same applies to fuel, ammunition, low-tech workshop and
gardening tools, and many other necessities when civilisation
goes south for a while. Those seeking to expand their preparations
beyond the basics will find a wealth of references here, and
will find a vast trove of information on the author's
The author repeatedly emphasises that the most
important survival equipment is stored between your
ears, and readers are directed to sources of information and
training in a variety of fields. The long chapter on medical
and dental care in exigent circumstances is alone almost worth
the price of the book. For a fictional treatment of survival
in an extreme grid-down societal collapse, see the author's
Patriots (December 2008).
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Reading List: Panic in Level 4
- Preston, Richard.
Panic in Level 4.
New York: Random House, 2008.
The New Yorker is one of the few remaining
markets for long-form reportage of specialised topics
directed at an intelligent general audience, and Richard
Preston is one of the preeminent practitioners of that
craft working today. This book collects six essays
originally published in that magazine along with a
new introduction as long as some of the chapters which describes
the title incident in which the author found himself standing
space-suit to protein coat of a potentially
unknown hæmorrhagic fever virus in a U.S. Army hot lab.
He also provides tips on his style of in-depth, close and
personal journalism (which he likens to “climb[ing] into
the soup”), which aspiring writers may find enlightening.
In subsequent chapters we encounter the
émigré number theorists from the Ukraine (then part of the
Soviet Union), who built a supercomputer in their New York
apartment from mail-order components to search for structure
in the digits of π, and later used their mathematical
prowess and computing resources to digitally “stitch”
together and thereby make a backup copy of
Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries; the mercurial Craig Venter in
the midst of the genome war in the 1990s; arborists and entomologists
tracing the destruction of the great hemlock forests of the eastern
U.S. by invasive parasites; and heroic medical personnel treating the
victims of an Ebola outbreak in unspeakable conditions in Africa.
The last, and most disturbing chapter (don't read it if you're
planning to go to sleep soon or, for that matter, sleep well anytime
in the next few days) describes
a rare genetic disease caused by a single nucleotide mutation in
the HPRT1 gene
located on the X chromosome. Those affected (almost all males, since
females have two X chromosomes and will exhibit symptoms only if both
contain the mutation) exhibit behaviour which, phenomenologically,
can be equally well described by possession by a demon which compels
them at random times to self-destructive behaviour as by biochemistry
and brain function. Sufferers chew their lips and tongues, often
destroying them entirely, and find their hands seemingly acting with a
will of their own to attack their faces, either with fingers or any
tool at hand. They often bite off flesh from their hands or
entire fingers, sometimes seemingly in an attempt to stop them
from inflicting further damage. Patients with the syndrome can
appear normal, fully engaged with the world and other individuals,
and intelligent, and yet when “possessed”, capable of
callous cruelty, both physical and emotional, toward those close
When you get beyond the symptoms and the tragic yet engaging
stories of those afflicted with the disease with whom the author
became friends, there is much to ponder in what all of this
means for free will and human identity. We are talking about
what amounts to a single typo in a genetic blueprint of three
billion letters which causes the most profound consequences
imaginable for the individual who carries it and perceives it
as an evil demon living within their mind. How many other
aspects of what we think of as our identity, whether for good
or ill, are actually expressions of our genetic programming?
To what extent is this true of our species as a whole? What
will we make of ourselves once we have the ability to manipulate
our genome at will? Sweet dreams….
Apart from the two chapters on the Chudnovskys, which have some
cross references, you can read the chapters in any order.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Reading List: Slide Rule
- Shute, Nevil [Nevil Shute Norway].
Kelly Bray, UK: House of Stratus,  2000.
The author is best known for his novels, several of which were
made into Hollywood movies, including
No Highway and
On the Beach.
In this book, he chronicles his “day job” as
an aeronautical engineer and aviation entrepreneur in what
he describes as the golden age of aviation: an epoch where a
small team of people could design and manufacture innovative
aircraft without the huge budgets, enormous bureaucratic
organisations, or intrusive regulation which overcame the
spirit of individual invention and enterprise as aviation
matured. (The author, fearing that being known as a
fictioneer might make him seem disreputable as an engineer,
published his books under the name “Nevil Shute”,
while using his full name, “Nevil Shute Norway”
in his technical and business career. He explains that
decision in this book, published after he had become a
This is a slim volume, but there is as much wisdom here as in
a dozen ordinary books this size, and the writing is
simultaneously straightforward and breathtakingly beautiful.
A substantial part of the book recounts the history of the
U.K. airship project, which pitted a private industry team in
which Shute played a major rôle building the
R.100 in competition
with a government-designed and -built ship, the
to the same specifications. Seldom in the modern history of
technology has there been such a clear-cut illustration of the
difference between private enterprise designing toward a
specification under a deadline and fixed budget and a government
project with unlimited funds, no oversight, and with
specifications and schedules at the whim of politicians with no
technical knowledge whatsoever. The messy triumph of the R.100 and the
tragedy of the R.101, recounted here by an insider, explains
the entire sordid history of NASA, the Concorde, and innumerable
other politically-driven technological boondoggles.
Had Shute brought the book to a close at the end of the airship
saga, it would be regarded as a masterpiece of reportage of
a now-forgotten episode in aviation history. But then he goes
on to describe his experience in founding, funding, and
operating a start-up aircraft manufacturer,
in the middle of the Great Depression. This is simply the best
first-person account of entrepreneurship and the difficult
decisions one must make in bringing a business into being
and keeping it going “whatever it takes”, and of
the true motivation of the entrepreneur (hint: money is
way down the list) that I have ever read, and I
speak as somebody who has
written one of my own.
Then, if that weren't enough, Shute sprinkles the narrative
with gems of insight aspiring writers may struggle years
trying to painfully figure out on their own, which are handed
to those seeking to master the craft almost in passing.
I could quote dozens of lengthy passages from this book
which almost made me shiver when I read them from the sheer life-tested
insight distilled into so few words. But I'm not going to, because
what you need to do is go and get this book, right now (see
below for an electronic edition), and drop whatever you're doing
and read it cover to cover. I have had several wise people counsel me
to do the same over the years and, for whatever reason, never seemed
to find the time. How I wish I had read this book before I embarked
upon my career in business, and how much comfort and confidence it
would have given me upon reaching the difficult point where a
business has outgrown the capabilities and interests of its
An excellent Kindle edition is available.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Reading List: Demonic
- Coulter, Ann.
New York: Crown Forum, 2011.
The author has a well-deserved reputation as thriving on
controversy and not hesitating to incite her intellectual
adversaries to paroxysms of spittle-spewing rage by
patiently demonstrating their hypocrisy and irrationality.
In the present volume, we have something substantially
different from Coulter's earlier work. Drawing upon
Gustave Le Bon's 1895 classic
The Crowd, Coulter
traces the behaviour of mobs and their influence upon
societies and history from classical times to the present
The leaders of the American revolution and founders of the
American republic were steeped in the history of mob behaviour
in ancient Greece and Rome, and how it ultimately led to the
downfall of consensual self-government in both of these polities.
They were acutely aware that many of their contemporaries,
in particular Montesquieu, argued that
self-governance was not possible on a scale larger than that
of a city-state. The structure devised for the new republic in
North America was deliberately crafted to channel the
enthusiasms of the citizenry into considered actions by a
distributed set of institutions which set ambition against
ambition in the interest of stability, protection of
individual liberty, and defence of civil society against
the will of a moment's majority.
By contrast to the American Secession from the British Empire
(I deem it a secession since the main issue at dispute was
the sovereignty of the King and Parliament over the
colonies—after the conclusion of the conflict, the
newly-independent colonies continued to govern themselves
much as before, under the tradition of English common law),
the French Revolution a few years later was a mob unleashed
against the institutions of a society. In two well crafted
chapters Coulter sketches the tragic and tawdry history of
that episode which is often known to people today only from
romantic accounts which elide the absurdity, collective
insanity, and rivers of blood occasioned by the actual events.
(For more details, see
Citizens [October 2004], which
is cited here as a source.)
The French Revolution was the prototype of all the mob
revolutions which followed. Whether they called themselves
Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoists, or Khmer Rouge, their
goal was to create heaven on Earth
and if the flawed humans they hoped to forge into their
bright shining utopia were unworthy, well then certainly
killing off enough of those recalcitrant dissenters would
do the trick.
Bringing this home to America, Coulter argues that although mob
politics is hardly new to America, for the first time it is
approaching a tipping point in having a near majority which pays
no Federal income tax and whose net income consists of transfer
payments from others. Further, the mob is embodied in an institution, the
Democratic party, which, with its enablers in the legacy media,
academia, labour unions, ethnic grievance groups, and other
constituencies, is not only able to turn out the vote but also
to bring mobs into the street whenever it doesn't get its way
through the institutions of self-governance. As the (bare)
majority of productive citizens attempt to stem the slide into
the abyss, they will be pitted against the mob, aroused by
the Democrat political apparatus, supported by the legacy
media (which covers up their offences, while accusing orderly
citizens defending their rights of imagined crimes), and
left undefended by “law enforcement”, which has
been captured by “public employee unions” which are
an integral part of the mob.
Coulter focuses primarily on the U.S., but the phenomenon she
describes is global in scope: one need only see the news from
Athens, London, Madrid, Paris, or any number of less visible
venues to see the savage beast of the mob baring its teeth against
the cowering guardians of civilisation. Until decent,
productive people who, just two generations ago, had the self-confidence
not only to assume the progress to which they were the heirs
would continue into the indefinite future but, just for a lark,
go and visit the Moon, see the mob for what it is,
and deal with it appropriately, the entire heritage of civilisation
will remain in peril.