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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading List: Accelerando

Stross, Charles. Accelerando. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01415-6.
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” into computronium, 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 interesting.

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 dine-in-saur! 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 dark energy 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. Accelerando!

Posted at 21:26 Permalink

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. ISBN 978-0-452-29583-4.
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 essential SurvivalBlog 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 SurvivalBlog.

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 novel Patriots (December 2008).

Posted at 22:06 Permalink

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading List: Panic in Level 4

Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. New York: Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8129-7560-4.
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 Chudnovsky brothers, 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 The 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 Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, 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 to them.

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.

Posted at 21:23 Permalink

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reading List: Slide Rule

Shute, Nevil [Nevil Shute Norway]. Slide Rule. Kelly Bray, UK: House of Stratus, [1954] 2000. ISBN 978-1-84232-291-8.
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 full-time writer.)

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 R.101, designed 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, Airspeed Ltd., 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 founders.

An excellent Kindle edition is available.

Posted at 23:22 Permalink

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reading List: Demonic

Coulter, Ann. Demonic. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1.
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 day.

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, the enemy, and deal with it appropriately, the entire heritage of civilisation will remain in peril.

Posted at 23:29 Permalink