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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.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Reading List: The Eye of Moloch
- Beck, Glenn with Jack Henderson.
The Eye of Moloch.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2013.
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
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
Perhaps what works best is that the novel evokes a society near that
tipping point where, in the words of
“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.
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
, 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.
Monday, December 16, 2013
Reading List: Our Final Invention
- Barrat, James.
Our Final Invention.
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013.
As a member of that crusty generation who began programming
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Reading List: Podkayne of Mars
- Heinlein, Robert A.
Podkayne of Mars.
New York: Ace,  2010.
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
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.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Reading List: The Athena Project
- Thor, Brad.
The Athena Project.
New York: Pocket Books, 2010.
This is the tenth in the author's
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.”
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.
- Financial collapse: Iceland
- Commercial collapse: The Russian Mafia
- Political collapse: The Pashtun
- Social collapse: The Roma
- Cultural collapse: The Ik