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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books of the year: 2013

Here are my picks for the best books of 2013, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read in the last twelvemonth. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author's surname.


Winner: Runners up:


Winner: Runners up:

Posted at 16:54 Permalink

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reading List: The Eye of Moloch

Beck, Glenn with Jack Henderson. The Eye of Moloch. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-3584-3.
I have a terrible record of reading a book, saying I don't intend to read the inevitable sequel, and then once again, finding my bandaged finger wabbling back to the Fire. This novel is a sequel to The Overton Window (June 2010) which I found to be a respectable but less than gripping thriller with an unsatisfying conclusion. The present volume continues the story, but still leaves much up in the air at its end. As a sequel to The Overton Window, it assumes the reader has previously read that book; little or no effort is made to bring readers who start here up to speed, and they will find themselves without any idea who the principal characters are, the circumstances they find themselves in, and why they are acting as they do.

The grand plot to use public relations to manipulate the U.S. population into welcoming the imposition of tyranny by a small group of insiders is proceeding. Noah Gardner, son of one of the key players in the conspiracy and former worker in its inner circle, has switched sides and now supports the small band called Founders' Keepers, which, led by Molly Ross, strives to bring the message of the country's founding principles to the citizens before the situation reaches the state of outright revolt. But the regime views any form of dissent as a threat, and has escalated the conflict into overt violence, deploying private contractors, high-tech weapons, and intrusive and ubiquitous surveillance, so well proven in overseas wars, against its domestic opponents.

As the U.S. crumbles, fringe groups of all kinds begin to organise and pursue their own agendas. The conspirators play them against one another, seeking to let them do the dirty work, while creating an environment of fear of “domestic terrorists” which will make the general population welcome the further erosion of liberty. With the news media completely aligned with the regime and the Internet beginning to succumb to filtering and censorship, there seems little hope of getting the truth out to the people.

Molly Ross seizes upon a bold stroke which will expose the extent to which the central planners intend to deliver Americans into serfdom. Certainly if Americans were aware of how their every act was monitored, correlated, and used to control them, they would rise up. But this requires a complicated plan which puts the resources of her small group and courageous allies on the line.

Like its predecessor, this book, taken as a pure thriller, doesn't come up to the standard set by the masters of the genre. There are many characters with complex back-stories and interactions, and at times it's difficult to remember who's who and what side they're currently on. The one thing which is very effective is that throughout the novel we encounter references to weapons, surveillance technologies, domestic government programs which trample upon the rights of citizens, media bias and overt propaganda, and other horrors which sketch how liberty is shrinking in the face of a centralised, coercive, and lawless state. Then in the afterword, most of these programs are documented as already existing in the U.S., complete with citations to source documents on the Web. But then one wonders: in 2013 the U.S. National Security Agency has been revealed as spying on U.S. citizens in ways just as extreme as the surveillance Molly hoped to expose here, and only a small percentage of the population seems to care.

Perhaps what works best is that the novel evokes a society near that tipping point where, in the words of Claire Wolfe, “It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” We have many novels and manifestos of political turnaround before liberty is totally lost, and huge stacks of post-apocalyptic fiction set after the evil and corrupt system has collapsed under its own weight, but this is one of the few novels you'll read set in that difficult in-between time. The thing about a tipping point is that individuals, small groups, and ideas can have a disproportionate influence on outcomes, whereas near equilibrium the system is difficult to perturb. This book invites the reader to ask, in a situation as described, which side they would choose, and what would they do, and risk, for what they believe.

Posted at 01:19 Permalink

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive Now Online

The twenty-fifth installment of the Tom Swift saga, Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.

In the 1920s, most railroads in the United States used coal-fired steam locomotives. While these engines got the job done, they were very inefficient and the logistics of hauling coal and water to depots to support them were complicated and costly, especially in the American west where distances are long and water is often scarce.

In this novel, the president of a regional railroad “out west” approaches Tom Swift and his father with an intriguing proposition. The railroad, long-established and with an effective monopoly in its territory, will soon face competition from a well-funded and ambitious competitor, already laying rails along routes potentially more profitable than those of the existing line. The only way to compete, the president argues, is to reduce operating costs and increase speed on his railroad, and the way to accomplish that is to electrify the line (he has already secured access to cheap hydroelectric power). He offers the Swift Construction Company a contract which will fund development of an electric locomotive capable of hauling freight and passengers at 120 miles per hour on straight and level tracks, and able to mount steep grades faster than any existing locomotive. If the Swifts deliver a prototype which meets the specifications, a large bonus will be paid, with orders for serially produced locomotives to follow.

The unscrupulous chief of the upstart railroad has no intention of allowing this threat to materialise, and deploys shady minions to spy upon, and then sabotage, the Swifts' project, heedless of risk to life and limb. Tom and the crew (in addition to his father, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson, Koku the giant, and the excitable Mr. Wakefield Damon all play parts in the adventure) must defeat the malefactors while solving the formidable engineering challenges of building the locomotive.

This is an interesting Tom Swift yarn in that the technology, considered as far-out as any of Tom's other adventures at the time, has become commonplace today, where electric locomotives routinely haul passengers at 120 miles per hour and faster. (The sweet spot for freight remains slower: rail is used for transport of bulky and heavy items, while time-sensitive traffic of smaller goods goes by air.) Curiously, apart from some densely populated metropolitan corridors, the United States has little electrified track, continuing to rely upon diesel-electric locomotives for the bulk of rail traffic.

This is the final public domain Tom Swift novel posted in this long-term project which began in 2004. The remaining novels, having been published in 1923 and later, are subject to the absurd U.S. copyright law which grants copyright for work-for-hire publications for a term of 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. The next Tom Swift novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Flying Boat, published in 1923, will not enter the public domain until 2018. (I have absolutely no interest in debating the details or propriety of copyright law; feedback on this topic will be neither read nor responded to.)

Now that all of the public domain novels have been posted, I will revise the already-posted books on a time-available basis, bringing their production standards up to those of the more recent postings and incorporating corrections to typographical errors spotted by readers.

Posted at 18:08 Permalink

Monday, December 16, 2013

Reading List: Our Final Invention

Barrat, James. Our Final Invention. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-312-62237-4.
As a member of that crusty generation who began programming mainframe computers with punch cards in the 1960s, the phrase “artificial intelligence” evokes an almost visceral response of scepticism. Since its origin in the 1950s, the field has been a hotbed of wildly over-optimistic enthusiasts, predictions of breakthroughs which never happened, and some outright confidence men preying on investors and institutions making research grants. John McCarthy, who organised the first international conference on artificial intelligence (a term he coined), predicted at the time that computers would achieve human-level general intelligence within six months of concerted research toward that goal. In 1970 Marvin Minsky said “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.” And these were serious scientists and pioneers of the field; the charlatans and hucksters were even more absurd in their predictions.

And yet, and yet…. The exponential growth in computing power available at constant cost has allowed us to “brute force” numerous problems once considered within the domain of artificial intelligence. Optical character recognition (machine reading), language translation, voice recognition, natural language query, facial recognition, chess playing at the grandmaster level, and self-driving automobiles were all once thought to be things a computer could never do unless it vaulted to the level of human intelligence, yet now most have become commonplace or are on the way to becoming so. Might we, in the foreseeable future, be able to brute force human-level general intelligence?

Let's step back and define some terms. “Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) means a machine with intelligence comparable to that of a human across all of the domains of human intelligence (and not limited, say, to playing chess or driving a vehicle), with self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes and improve its performance. It need not be embodied in a robot form (although some argue it would have to be to achieve human-level performance), but could certainly pass the Turing test: a human communicating with it over whatever channels of communication are available (in the original formulation of the test, a text-only teleprinter) would not be able to determine whether he or she were communicating with a machine or another human. “Artificial Super Intelligence” (ASI) denotes a machine whose intelligence exceeds that of the most intelligent human. Since a self-aware intelligent machine will be able to modify its own programming, with immediate effect, as opposed to biological organisms which must rely upon the achingly slow mechanism of evolution, an AGI might evolve into an ASI in an eyeblink: arriving at intelligence a million times or more greater than that of any human, a process which I. J. Good called an “intelligence explosion”.

What will it be like when, for the first time in the history of our species, we share the planet with an intelligence greater than our own? History is less than encouraging. All members of genus Homo which were less intelligent than modern humans (inferring from cranial capacity and artifacts, although one can argue about Neanderthals) are extinct. Will that be the fate of our species once we create a super intelligence? This book presents the case that not only will the construction of an ASI be the final invention we need to make, since it will be able to anticipate anything we might invent long before we can ourselves, but also our final invention because we won't be around to make any more.

What will be the motivations of a machine a million times more intelligent than a human? Could humans understand such motivations any more than brewer's yeast could understand ours? As Eliezer Yudkowsky observed, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” Indeed, when humans plan to construct a building, do they take into account the wishes of bacteria in soil upon which the structure will be built? The gap between humans and ASI will be as great. The consequences of creating ASI may extend far beyond the Earth. A super intelligence may decide to propagate itself throughout the galaxy and even beyond: with immortality and the ability to create perfect copies of itself, even travelling at a fraction of the speed of light it could spread itself into all viable habitats in the galaxy in a few hundreds of millions of years—a small fraction of the billions of years life has existed on Earth. Perhaps ASI probes from other extinct biological civilisations foolish enough to build them are already headed our way.

People are presently working toward achieving AGI. Some are in the academic and commercial spheres, with their work reasonably transparent and reported in public venues. Others are “stealth companies” or divisions within companies (does anybody doubt that Google's achieving an AGI level of understanding of the information it Hoovers up from the Web wouldn't be a overwhelming competitive advantage?). Still others are funded by government agencies or operate within the black world: certainly players such as NSA dream of being able to understand all of the information they intercept and cross-correlate it. There is a powerful “first mover” advantage in developing AGI and ASI. The first who obtains it will be able to exploit its capability against those who haven't yet achieved it. Consequently, notwithstanding the worries about loss of control of the technology, players will be motivated to support its development for fear their adversaries might get there first.

This is a well-researched and extensively documented examination of the state of artificial intelligence and assessment of its risks. There are extensive end notes including references to documents on the Web which, in the Kindle edition, are linked directly to their sources. In the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of “searchable terms”, not linked to references in the text. There are a few goofs, as you might expect for a documentary film maker writing about technology (“Newton's second law of thermodynamics”), but nothing which invalidates the argument made herein.

I find myself oddly ambivalent about the whole thing. When I hear “artificial intelligence” what flashes through my mind remains that dielectric material I step in when I'm insufficiently vigilant crossing pastures in Switzerland. Yet with the pure increase in computing power, many things previously considered AI have been achieved, so it's not implausible that, should this exponential increase continue, human-level machine intelligence will be achieved either through massive computing power applied to cognitive algorithms or direct emulation of the structure of the human brain. If and when that happens, it is difficult to see why an “intelligence explosion” will not occur. And once that happens, humans will be faced with an intelligence that dwarfs that of their entire species; which will have already penetrated every last corner of its infrastructure; read every word available online written by every human; and which will deal with its human interlocutors after gaming trillions of scenarios on cloud computing resources it has co-opted.

And still we advance the cause of artificial intelligence every day. Sleep well.

Posted at 22:43 Permalink

Monday, December 9, 2013

Reading List: Podkayne of Mars

Heinlein, Robert A. Podkayne of Mars. New York: Ace, [1963] 2010. ISBN 978-0-441-01834-5.
This novel had an interesting genesis. Robert Heinlein, who always considered writing a business—he had things to say, but it had to pay—paid attention when his editor at Scribner's pointed out to him that his work was selling well in the young male demographic and observed that if he could write for girls as well he could double the size of his market. Heinlein took this as both a challenge and opportunity, and created the character of “Puddin'” (Maureen), who appeared in three short stories in the magazine Calling All Girls, the most memorable of which is “Cliff and the Calories”.

Heinlein was so fond of Puddin' that he later decided to move her to Mars, change her name to Podkayne, after an ancient Martian saint, and launch her into interplanetary intrigue along with her insufferable and cataclysmically clever younger brother, Clark. This novel was written just as the original romantic conception of the solar system was confronted with the depressing reality from the first interplanetary probes. Mars was not the home of ancients, but an arid desert with a thin atmosphere where, at best, microbes might survive. Venus was not a swampy jungle world but a hellish furnace hot enough to melt lead. But when Heinlein was writing this book, we could still dream.

Podkayne was the prototype of the strong female characters which would populate Heinlein's subsequent work. She aspired to captain an exploration starship, and wasn't averse to using her emerging feminine wiles to achieving her goals. When, after a mix-up in Mars family planning grounded her parents, depriving her and deplorable brother Clark of the opportunity to take the triplanetary grand tour, her Uncle Tom, a Mars revolutionary, arranges to take them on a trip to Earth via Venus on the luxury liner Tricorn. On board and at Venus, Podkayne discovers the clash of cultures as planetary civilisations have begun to diverge, and the conflict between those who celebrate their uniqueness formed from their environments and those who would coerce them into uniformity.

When brother Clark vanishes, Podkayne discovers that Uncle Tom's trip is not a tourist jaunt but rather a high stakes mission, and that the independence of Mars may depend upon the her resourcefulness and that of her detestable brother.

There are two endings to this novel. Readers detested the original and, under protest, Heinlein wrote an alternative which appears in this edition. This is often classified as a Heinlein juvenile because the protagonist is a young adult, but Heinlein did not consider it among his juvenile works.

Is there anybody who does not admire Poddy and simultaneously detest and respect Clark? This is a great story, which may have made young women of my generation aspire to fly in space. Many did.

Posted at 23:04 Permalink

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reading List: The Athena Project

Thor, Brad. The Athena Project. New York: Pocket Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-9297-9.
This is the tenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel Harvath has only a walk-on rôle, while centre stage is occupied by the all-woman Athena Team of special operators we first encountered in the previous novel in the series, Foreign Influence (July 2010). These women, recruited from top competitors in extreme sports, are not only formidable at shooting, fighting, parachuting, underwater operations, and the rest of the panoply of skills of their male counterparts, they are able to blend in more easily in many contexts than their burly, buzz-cut colleagues and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to disarm (sometimes literally) the adversary.

Deployed on a mission to seize and exfiltrate an arms merchant involved in a terrorist attack on U.S. civilians in Europe, the team ends up in a James Bond style shoot-out and chase through the canals of Venice. Meanwhile, grisly evidence in the Paraguayan jungle indicates that persons unknown may have come into possession of a Nazi wonder weapon from the last days of World War II and are bent on using it with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Athena Team must insinuate themselves into an underground redoubt in Eastern Europe, discover its mysteries, and figure out the connections to the actors plotting mass destruction, then neutralise them.

I've enjoyed all the Brad Thor novels I've read so far, but this one, in my opinion, doesn't measure up to the standard of those earlier in the series. First of all, the fundamental premise of the super-weapon at the centre of the plot is physically absurd, and all the arm-waving in the world can't make it plausible. Also, as Larry Niven observed, any society which develops such a technology will quickly self-destruct (which doesn't mean it's impossible, but may explain why we do not observe intelligent aliens in the universe). I found the banter among the team members and with their male colleagues contrived and tedious: I don't think such consummate professionals would behave in such a manner, especially while on the clock. Attention to detail on the little things is excellent, although that Air Force base in the Florida panhandle is “Eglin”, not “Elgin” (p. 202).

This is a well-crafted thriller and enjoyable “airplane book”. Once you get past the implausibility of the super-weapon (as many readers who have only heard of such concepts in the popular press will), the story moves right along. It's substantially harder to tell a story involving a team of four equals (albeit with different talents) than one with a central character such as Scot Harvath, and I don't think the author completely pulls it off: the women are not sufficiently distinguished from one another and tend to blend together as team members rather than be identified with their individual characteristics.

Posted at 21:52 Permalink

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading List: The Five Stages of Collapse

Orlov, Dmitry. The Five Stages of Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2013. ISBN 978-0-86571-736-7.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse (April 2009) he described the Soviet collapse and assessed the probability of a collapse of the United States, concluding such a collapse was inevitable.

In the present book, he steps back from the specifics of the collapse of overextended superpowers to examine the process of collapse as it has played out in a multitude of human societies since the beginning of civilisation. The author argues that collapse occurs in five stages, with each stage creating the preconditions for the next.

  1. Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.
  2. Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.
  3. Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
  4. Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.
  5. Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources, The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.”

Orlov argues that our current globalised society is the product of innovations at variance with ancestral human society which are not sustainable: in particular the exponentially growing consumption of a finite source of energy from fossil fuels and an economy based upon exponentially growing levels of debt: government, corporate, and individual. Exponential growth with finite resources cannot go on forever, and what cannot go on forever is certain to eventually end. He argues that we are already seeing the first symptoms of the end of the order which began with the industrial revolution.

While each stage of collapse sows the seeds of the next, the progression is not inevitable. In post-Soviet Russia, for example, the collapse progressed into stage 3 (political collapse), but was then arrested by the re-assertion of government authority. While the Putin regime may have many bad aspects, it may produce better outcomes for the Russian people than progression into a stage 4 or 5 collapse.

In each stage of collapse, there are societies and cultures which are resilient against the collapse around them and ride it out. In some cases, it's because they have survived many collapses before and have evolved not to buy into the fragile institutions which are tumbling down and in others it's older human forms of organisation re-asserting themselves as newfangled innovations founder. The author cites these collapse survivors:

  1. Financial collapse: Iceland
  2. Commercial collapse: The Russian Mafia
  3. Political collapse: The Pashtun
  4. Social collapse: The Roma
  5. Cultural collapse: The Ik

This is a simultaneously enlightening and infuriating book. While the author has deep insights into how fragile our societies are and how older forms of society emerge after they collapse, I think he may make the error of assuming that we are living at the end of history and that regression to the mean is the only possible outcome. People at every stage of the development of society which brought us to the present point doubtless argued the same. “When we've cut down all the forests for firewood, what shall we do?” they said, before the discovery of coal. “When the coal seams are mined out, what will happen?” they said, before petroleum was discovered to be a resource, not a nuisance seeping from the ground. I agree with Orlov that our civilisation has been founded on abundant cheap energy and resources, but there are several orders of magnitude more energy and resources available for our taking in the solar system, and we already have the technology, if not the imagination and will, to employ them to enrich all of the people of Earth and beyond.

If collapse be our destiny, I believe our epitaph will read “Lack of imagination and courage”. Sadly, this may be the way to bet. Had we not turned inward in the 1970s and squandered our wealth on a futile military competition and petroleum, Earth would now be receiving most of its energy from solar power satellites and futurists would be projecting the date at which the population off-planet exceeded the mudboots deep down in the gravity well. Collapse is an option—let's hope we do not choose it.

Here is a talk by the author, as rambling as this book, about the issues discussed therein.

Posted at 23:01 Permalink