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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reading List: Drug Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted at 22:20 Permalink

Monday, August 28, 2017

Flash, Bang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

foudre_2017-08-28a.jpg

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

Here's the cable:

foudre_2017-08-28b.jpg

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

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

Posted at 23:50 Permalink

Thursday, August 24, 2017

RandomX Java Package Updated

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

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

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

Posted at 22:05 Permalink

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reading List: Dichronauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted at 22:42 Permalink

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading List: The Challenge of Dawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted at 22:23 Permalink

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading List: Ready Player One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted at 20:40 Permalink

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Reading List: Time Travel

Gleick, James. Time Travel. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016. ISBN 978-0-307-90879-7.
In 1895, a young struggling writer who earned his precarious living by writing short humorous pieces for London magazines, often published without a byline, buckled down and penned his first long work, a longish novella of some 33,000 words. When published, H. G. Wells's The Time Machine would not only help to found a new literary genre—science fiction, but would introduce a entirely new concept to storytelling: time travel. Many of the themes of modern fiction can be traced to the myths of antiquity, but here was something entirely new: imagining a voyage to the future to see how current trends would develop, or back into the past, perhaps not just to observe history unfold and resolve its persistent mysteries, but possibly to change the past, opening the door to paradoxes which have been the subject not only of a multitude of subsequent stories but theories and speculation by serious scientists. So new was the concept of travel through time that the phrase “time travel” first appeared in the English language only in 1914, in a reference to Wells's story.

For much of human history, there was little concept of a linear progression of time. People lived lives much the same as those of their ancestors, and expected their descendants to inhabit much the same kind of world. Their lives seemed to be governed by a series of cycles: day and night, the phases of the Moon, the seasons, planting and harvesting, and successive generations of humans, rather than the ticking of an inexorable clock. Even great disruptive events such as wars, plagues, and natural disasters seemed to recur over time, even if not on a regular, predictable schedule. This led to the philosophical view of “eternal return”, which appears in many ancient cultures and in Western philosophy from Pythagoras to Neitzsche. In mathematics, the Poincaré recurrence theorem formally demonstrated that an isolated finite system will eventually (although possibly only after a time much longer than the age of the universe), return to a given state and repeat its evolution an infinite number of times.

But nobody (except perhaps a philosopher) who had lived through the 19th century in Britain could really believe that. Over the space of a human lifetime, the world and the human condition had changed radically and seemed to be careening into a future difficult to envision. Steam power, railroads, industrialisation of manufacturing, the telegraph and telephone, electricity and the electric light, anaesthesia, antiseptics, steamships and global commerce, submarine cables and near-instantaneous international communications, had all remade the world. The idea of progress was not just an abstract concept of the Enlightenment, but something anybody could see all around them.

But progress through what? In the fin de siècle milieu that Wells inhabited, through time: a scroll of history being written continually by new ideas, inventions, creative works, and the social changes flowing from these events which changed the future in profound and often unknowable ways. The intellectual landscape was fertile for utopian ideas, many of which Wells championed. Among the intellectual élite, the fourth dimension was much in vogue, often a fourth spatial dimension but also the concept of time as a dimension comparable to those of space. This concept first appears in the work of Edgar Allan Poe in 1848, but was fully fleshed out by Wells in The Time Machine: “ ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.’ ” But if we can move freely through the three spatial directions (although less so in the vertical in Wells's day than the present), why cannot we also move back and forth in time, unshackling our consciousness and will from the tyranny of the timepiece just as the railroad, steamship, and telegraph had loosened the constraints of locality?

Just ten years after The Time Machine, Einstein's special theory of relativity resolved puzzles in electrodynamics and mechanics by demonstrating that time and space mixed depending upon the relative states of motion of observers. In 1908, Hermann Minkowski reformulated Einstein's theory in terms of a four dimensional space-time. He declared, “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” (Einstein was, initially, less than impressed with this view, calling it “überflüssige Gelehrsamkeit”: superfluous learnedness, but eventually accepted the perspective and made it central to his 1915 theory of gravitation.) But further, embedded within special relativity, was time travel—at least into the future.

According to the equations of special relativity, which have been experimentally verified as precisely as anything in science and are fundamental to the operation of everyday technologies such as the Global Positioning System, a moving observer will measure time to flow more slowly than a stationary observer. We don't observe this effect in everyday life because the phenomenon only becomes pronounced at velocities which are a substantial fraction of the speed of light, but even at the modest velocity of orbiting satellites, it cannot be neglected. Due to this effect of time dilation, if you had a space ship able to accelerate at a constant rate of one Earth gravity (people on board would experience the same gravity as they do while standing on the Earth's surface), you would be able to travel from the Earth to the Andromeda galaxy and back to Earth, a distance of around four million light years, in a time, measured by the ship's clock and your own subjective and biological perception of time, in less than six and a half years. But when you arrived back at the Earth, you'd discover that in its reference frame, more than four million years of time would have elapsed. What wonders would our descendants have accomplished in that distant future, or would they be digging for grubs with blunt sticks while living in a sustainable utopia having finally thrown off the shackles of race, class, and gender which make our present civilisation a living Hell?

This is genuine time travel into the future and, although it's far beyond our present technological capabilities, it violates no law of physics and, to a more modest yet still measurable degree, happens every time you travel in an automobile or airplane. But what about travel into the past? Travel into the future doesn't pose any potential paradoxes. It's entirely equivalent to going into hibernation and awaking after a long sleep—indeed, this is a frequently-used literary device in fiction depicting the future. Travel into the past is another thing entirely. For example, consider the grandfather paradox: suppose you have a time machine able to transport you into the past. You go back in time and kill your own grandfather (it's never the grandmother—beats me). Then who are you, and how did you come into existence in the first place? The grandfather paradox exists whenever altering an event in the past changes conditions in the future so as to be inconsistent with the alteration of that event.

Or consider the bootstrap paradox or causal loop. An elderly mathematician (say, age 39), having struggled for years and finally succeeded in proving a difficult theorem, travels back in time and provides a key hint to his twenty year old self to set him on the path to the proof—the same hint he remembers finding on his desk that morning so many years before. Where did the idea come from? In 1991, physicist David Deutsch demonstrated that a computer incorporating travel back in time (formally, a closed timelike curve) could solve NP problems in polynomial time. I wonder where he got that idea….

All of this would be academic were time travel into the past just a figment of fictioneers' imagination. This has been the view of many scientists, and the chronology protection conjecture asserts that the laws of physics conspire to prevent travel to the past which, in the words of a 1992 paper by Stephen Hawking, “makes the universe safe for historians.” But the laws of physics, as we understand them today, do not rule out travel into the past! Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, which so far has withstood every experimental test for over a century, admits solutions, such as the Gödel metric, discovered in 1949 by Einstein's friend and colleague Kurt Gödel, which contain closed timelike curves. In the Gödel universe, which consists of a homogeneous sea of dust particles, rotating around a centre point and with a nonzero cosmological constant, it is possible, by travelling on a closed path and never reaching or exceeding the speed of light, to return to a point in one's own past. Now, the Gödel solution is highly contrived, and there is no evidence that it describes the universe we actually inhabit, but the existence of such a solution leaves the door open that somewhere in the other exotica of general relativity such as spinning black holes, wormholes, naked singularities, or cosmic strings, there may be a loophole which allows travel into the past. If you discover one, could you please pop back and send me an E-mail about it before I finish this review?

This book is far more about the literary and cultural history of time travel than scientific explorations of its possibility and consequences. Thinking about time travel forces one to confront questions which can usually be swept under the rug: is the future ours to change, or do we inhabit a block universe where our perception of time is just a delusion as the cursor of our consciousness sweeps out a path in a space-time whose future is entirely determined by its past? If we have free will, where does it come from, when according to the laws of physics the future can be computed entirely from the past? If we can change the future, why not the past? If we changed the past, would it change the present for those living in it, or create a fork in the time line along which a different history would develop? All of these speculations are rich veins to be mined in literature and drama, and are explored here. Many technical topics are discussed only briefly, if at all, for example the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, which resolves a mystery in electrodynamics by positing a symmetrical solution to Maxwell's equations in which the future influences the past just as the present influences the future. Gleick doesn't go anywhere near my own experiments with retrocausality or the “presponse” experiments of investigators such as Dick Bierman and Dean Radin. I get it—pop culture beats woo-woo on the bestseller list.

The question of time has puzzled people for millennia. Only recently have we thought seriously about travel in time and its implications for our place in the universe. Time travel has been, and will doubtless continue to be the source of speculation and entertainment, and this book is an excellent survey of its short history as a genre of fiction and the science upon which its founded.

Posted at 19:33 Permalink

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Reading List: The Spartan Regime

Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-300-21901-2.
This thin volume (just 232 pages in the hardcover edition, only around 125 of which are the main text and appendices—the rest being extensive source citations, notes, and indices of subjects and people and place names) is intended as the introduction to an envisioned three volume work on Sparta covering its history from the archaic period through the second battle of Mantinea in 362 b.c. where defeat of a Sparta-led alliance at the hands of the Thebans paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of Sparta.

In this work, the author adopts the approach to political science used in antiquity by writers such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle: that the principal factor in determining the character of a political community is its constitution, or form of government, the rules which define membership in the community and which its members were expected to obey, their character being largely determined by the system of education and moral formation which shape the citizens of the community.

Discerning these characteristics in any ancient society is difficult, but especially so in the case of Sparta, which was a society of warriors, not philosophers and historians. Almost all of the contemporary information we have about Sparta comes from outsiders who either visited the city at various times in its history or based their work upon the accounts of others who had. Further, the Spartans were famously secretive about the details of their society, so when ancient accounts differ, it is difficult to determine which, if any, is correct. One gets the sense that all of the direct documentary information we have about Sparta would fit on one floppy disc: everything else is interpretations based upon that meagre foundation. In recent centuries, scholars studying Sparta have seen it as everything from the prototype of constitutional liberty to a precursor of modern day militaristic totalitarianism.

Another challenge facing the modern reader and, one suspects, many ancients, in understanding Sparta was how profoundly weird it was. On several occasions whilst reading the book, I was struck that rarely in science fiction does one encounter a description of a society so thoroughly alien to those with which we are accustomed from our own experience or a study of history. First of all, Sparta was tiny: there were never as many as ten thousand full-fledged citizens. These citizens were descended from Dorians who had invaded the Peloponnese in the archaic period and subjugated the original inhabitants, who became helots: essentially serfs who worked the estates of the Spartan aristocracy in return for half of the crops they produced (about the same fraction of the fruit of their labour the helots of our modern enlightened self-governing societies are allowed to retain for their own use). Every full citizen, or Spartiate, was a warrior, trained from boyhood to that end. Spartiates not only did not engage in trade or work as craftsmen: they were forbidden to do so—such work was performed by non-citizens. With the helots outnumbering Spartiates by a factor of from four to seven (and even more as the Spartan population shrunk toward the end), the fear of an uprising was ever-present, and required maintenance of martial prowess among the Spartiates and subjugation of the helots.

How were these warriors formed? Boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and placed in a barracks with others of their age. Henceforth, they would return to their families only as visitors. They were subjected to a regime of physical and mental training, including exercise, weapons training, athletics, mock warfare, plus music and dancing. They learned the poetry, legends, and history of the city. All learned to read and write. After intense scrutiny and regular tests, the young man would face a rite of passage, krupteίa, in which, for a full year, armed only with a dagger, he had to survive on his own in the wild, stealing what he needed, and instilling fear among the helots, who he was authorised to kill if found in violation of curfew. Only after surviving this ordeal would the young Spartan be admitted as a member of a sussιtίon, a combination of a men's club, a military mess, and the basic unit in the Spartan army. A Spartan would remain a member of this same group all his life and, even after marriage and fatherhood, would live and dine with them every day until the age of forty-five.

From the age of twelve, boys in training would usually have a patron, or surrogate father, who was expected to initiate him into the world of the warrior and instruct him in the duties of citizenship. It was expected that there would be a homosexual relationship between the two, and that this would further cement the bond of loyalty to his brothers in arms. Upon becoming a full citizen and warrior, the young man was expected to take on a boy and continue the tradition. As to many modern utopian social engineers, the family was seen as an obstacle to the citizen's identification with the community (or, in modern terminology, the state), and the entire process of raising citizens seems to have been designed to transfer this inherent biological solidarity with kin to peers in the army and the community as a whole.

The political structure which sustained and, in turn, was sustained by these cultural institutions was similarly alien and intricate—so much so that I found myself wishing that Professor Rahe had included a diagram to help readers understand all of the moving parts and how they interacted. After finishing the book, I found this one on Wikipedia.

Structure of Government in Sparta
Image by Wikipedia user Putinovac licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The actual relationships are even more complicated and subtle than expressed in this diagram, and given the extent to which scholars dispute the details of the Spartan political institutions (which occupy many pages in the end notes), it is likely the author may find fault with some aspects of this illustration. I present it purely because it provides a glimpse of the complexity and helped me organise my thoughts about the description in the text.

Start with the kings. That's right, “kings”—there were two of them—both traditionally descended from Hercules, but through different lineages. The kings shared power and acted as a check on each other. They were commanders of the army in time of war, and high priests in peace. The kingship was hereditary and for life.

Five overseers, or ephors were elected annually by the citizens as a whole. Scholars dispute whether ephors could serve more than one term, but the author notes that no ephor is known to have done so, and it is thus likely they were term limited to a single year. During their year in office, the board of five ephors (one from each of the villages of Sparta) exercised almost unlimited power in both domestic and foreign affairs. Even the kings were not immune to their power: the ephors could arrest a king and bring him to trial on a capital charge just like any other citizen, and this happened. On the other hand, at the end of their one year term, ephors were subject to a judicial examination of their acts in office and liable for misconduct. (Wouldn't be great if present-day “public servants” received the same kind of scrutiny at the end of their terms in office? It would be interesting to see what a prosecutor could discover about how so many of these solons manage to amass great personal fortunes incommensurate with their salaries.) And then there was the “fickle meteor of doom” rule.

Every ninth year, the five [ephors] chose a clear and moonless night and remained awake to watch the sky. If they saw a shooting star, they judged that one or both kings had acted against the law and suspended the man or men from office. Only the intervention of Delphi or Olympia could effect a restoration.

I can imagine the kings hoping they didn't pick a night in mid-August for their vigil!

The ephors could also summon the council of elders, or gerousίa, into session. This body was made up of thirty men: the two kings, plus twenty-eight others, all sixty years or older, who were elected for life by the citizens. They tended to be wealthy aristocrats from the oldest families, and were seen as protectors of the stability of the city from the passions of youth and the ambition of kings. They proposed legislation to the general assembly of all citizens, and could veto its actions. They also acted as a supreme court in capital cases. The general assembly of all citizens, which could also be summoned by the ephors, was restricted to an up or down vote on legislation proposed by the elders, and, perhaps, on sentences of death passed by the ephors and elders.

All of this may seem confusing, if not downright baroque, especially for a community which, in the modern world, would be considered a medium-sized town. Once again, it's something which, if you encountered it in a science fiction novel, you might expect the result of a Golden Age author, paid by the word, making ends meet by inventing fairy castles of politics. But this is how Sparta seems to have worked (again, within the limits of that single floppy disc we have to work with, and with almost every detail a matter of dispute among those who have spent their careers studying Sparta over the millennia). Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which was the product of a group of people toiling over a hot summer in Philadelphia, the Spartan constitution, like that of Britain, evolved organically over centuries, incorporating tradition, the consequences of events, experience, and cultural evolution. And, like the British constitution, it was unwritten. But it incorporated, among all its complexity and ambiguity, something very important, which can be seen as a milestone in humankind's millennia-long struggle against arbitrary authority and quest for individual liberty: the separation of powers. Unlike almost all other political systems in antiquity and all too many today, there was no pyramid with a king, priest, dictator, judge, or even popular assembly at the top. Instead, there was a complicated network of responsibility, in which any individual player or institution could be called to account by others. The regimentation, destruction of the family, obligatory homosexuality, indoctrination of the youth into identification with the collective, foundation of the society's economics on serfdom, suppression of individual initiative and innovation were, indeed, almost a model for the most dystopian of modern tyrannies, yet darned if they didn't get the separation of powers right! We owe much of what remains of our liberties to that heritage.

Although this is a short book and this is a lengthy review, there is much more here to merit your attention and consideration. It's a chore getting through the end notes, as much of them are source citations in the dense jargon of classical scholars, but embedded therein are interesting discussions and asides which expand upon the text.

In the Kindle edition, all of the citations and index references are properly linked to the text. Some Greek letters with double diacritical marks are rendered as images and look odd embedded in text; I don't know if they appear correctly in print editions.

Posted at 00:06 Permalink