I can’t shake Charles Stross’s The Annihilation Score; what happens when James Bond is married? How does he deal with office politics when he has a license to solve problems with extreme prejudice? What if he were a she – where gray hair and distinguished are never used to describe her?

Imagine Lord of the Rings, but if everyone worked for the DMV, with the office politics of The Office. The name of the game is that higher mathematics result in invocations that summon demons (i.e.  “computational demonology”). The consequence is that any sort of algorithms and programs that run in silico and in vivo might end up with big bites out of the machines or the unfortunate human who thought deep thoughts. What has always been fantastic about this series is as much time is focused on the minutiae of form filling as it does on translating Tolkien onto LEAN project management speak. Probably the epitome of this came in the previous book, The Rhesus Chart, where a high-powered scrum ops manager was let loose into the Laundry, possessing the corpus of a sub-committee as smoothly as a demon summoned without the requisite containment wards.

In this novel, we get something even more unique: a woman who is having a midlife crisis. The combination of wielding a demonic weapon, doubting her choice in life partner, being the ace assassin/fixer for the Laundry, and being saddled with greater responsibilities as part of her leveling up – this is all enough to induce a nervous breakdown.

About that part of her being an assassin: her name is Dominique “Mo” O’Brien. She was a tenure track academic in music. Her ability to parse music at both the technical level and at the multiverse level (imagine music as a platform for emotional, reptilian brain programming, and what did we say about programs?), coupled with reasonable skills with a violin, made her an obvious choice to wield a powerful asset possessed by the Laundry: an Erich Zahn violin, which is made from human bones and infused with a demon as its power source.

Her husband, Bob Howard, has been the only protagonist in this series, until now. We see Mo’s side of her life. Before we get there, we should digress into Bob’s background.

Bob is the prototypical nerd made good. He has the usual toolkit of being fairly attentive to technical details, a deep understand of IT arcana, lacks social skills, and did well enough to be promoted to assistant to the demon known as Eater of Souls. Luckily, that guy has decided he rather be on Team Flesh during the upcoming apocalypse, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. In this world, algorithms are the key to summoning big nasties in a multiverse. In the modern world, the population growth and Moore’s Law basically means that computational power is increasing towards a singularity. As more and more computers come online, the natural process of thinking will result in more and more breaches across the walls that segment the multiverse. Coupled with the looming spectre of the stars coming right, resulting in the fabric of our reality thinning and opening into other worlds. Score one for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics! You won’t have time to collect the Nobel as multi-eyed, tentacled nasty burst forth to eat you.

 

The image we have so far is that of the poor-sod Bob. The put upon IT guy who basically does support well. Lacks motivation to move up the career ladder, but through sheer competence, people just hand him jobs of increasing responsibility. We see him as the nerd who lucked out and wound up with a first class mate: brilliant, witty, beautiful woman who, again, is one of the top assassins in the organization (she would be a double-O). But, he does nerd things; goofy side projects, never really separating play from work, fairly focused on the task at hand, definitely closer to the Asperger end of the spectrum – you get the idea.

Except, by focusing on Mo in this novel, Stross has the opportunity to retcon the entirety of Mo and Bob’s marriage. In the past, we see Bob as a fairly nice guy. Mo’s assignments is to meet horrors and then commit even ones in the name of protecting Her Majesty’s Government. When Mo comes home from one of these missions, Bob picks up the psychic pieces. These novels also have the conceit of being after-action reports, written to build up the institutional knowledge base. As far as these reports go, Bob writes about his mission, the fallout from Mo’s secretive missions (which we may or may not hear about), and Bob making tea and holding Mo if she breaks down following a rather trying mission.

Let’s just say that Mo has different thoughts on the marriage.

Cracks can always be seen, albeit from Bob’s view. The superficial reading, before The Apocalypse Score, is that Mo has been fairly condescending to Bob, especially in how an argument about the potential for vampires played out in the The Rhesus Chart. But I thought that was likely due to the difference in rank, responsibilities and backgrounds of the pair. At any rate, I did not think too much of it.

By the end of the book, it is clear that Bob has done some personally questionable things: to wit, he realizes the optics of having an ex come back into his life and then working rather closely with her. Remember that high-powered ops manager? Mhari happens to also be Bob’s ex (from hell). The whole thing seems rather muted; not much was said about whether Mo had issues or not. As a matter of fact, it seemed implicit that Mo did not see this as a threat. Let’s just conclude that Bob is  capable of self-delusion and, in Charles Stross own comments on his blog, Bob might be classified as an unreliable narrator.

That’s the long way of saying that, Bob glossed over whatever comments and feelings Mo may have had, about Mhari coming back to The Laundry, and possibly about how his and Mo’s conversations played out. Considering how readily Mo drew her weapon on Mhari, near the end of The Rhesus Chart, it’s clear that something was festering and that Bob just might have elided.

Now, there was a perfectly good reason why one might stash a beautiful blonde in one’s home. Mo’s and Bob’s home is an official safehouse. Given the infiltration of Laundry HQ, and a subsequent plan to use the vampiric assets as bait, leftover vampires were sent packing to simplify the field op. Since Mhari was not used as bait, Bob decided to send Mhari to his house.

But considering that a) Bob did not let Mo know, b) Mhari is pretty and c) one of the benefits of being a vampire is having charisma and glamour that can’t be turned off and Mhari now would make supermodels feel like they should hide from cameras, optics might be murky. Especially if the wife gets an emergency call for extraction from her mission, is worried about an infiltration of HQ, this action takes place late night, and having been dismissed as everything was “under control”, she goes home to find… a gorgeous woman in her home.

The way Bob wrote the Rhesus Chart report, of course it is favorable to him. He was somewhat busy and didn’t have a chance to call Mo; to be fair, nothing happened. Although Mhari did attempt to seduce Bob (magically, and by turning on the charms) as a way to recruit more vampires to help her execute a coup within the Laundry (or to at least clear the way for her to make bank before leaving). And somehow, Mhari was also somewhat confused by Bob’s insistence that she spend the night at his safehouse (there was one more vampire who needed sheltering). There was some canoodling attempted, but Bob put the kabosh on that. But the fact that it got that far is somewhat suspicious.

Mo was not in the mood to hear all that. All this is complicated by Mo’s weapon. The demonic violin has plans of its own. She might be losing control. Surprisingly, Bob was able to stop the demon in the violin. What’s strange is that Bob writes as if he was the wronged party and he was the one who needs protecting; he felt unsafe and decides to move out.

This is all important for The Apocalypse Score.

Mo apparently needed some time away from her work, and a diplomatic mission doubled as a much needed vacation. She did not really miss Bob, or wished they could share this moment. It was during this soiree that the events of The Rhesus Chart happened. While her first question is whether Mhari slept with Bob, it immediately becomes clear that things haven’t been right in the O’Brien-Howard household. Projecting back, it is unlikely that Mo took the re-appearance of Mhari in stride, in The Rhesus Chart. Bob probably played down drama.

Getting Mo’s point of view is therefore important.

This is the first Laundry novel narrated by someone other than Bob. Mo, at this point in the series, is an accomplished assassin of the possessed and the damned. Mo has never been anything less than stellar in her work. While we all show up to see how the world of the Laundry meshes with the world that we know, what moved me about this novel is that Stross focused on Mo’s unraveling: of her personal life, her ability to carry on her work, and the crisis of being an aging woman.

Now, I can’t say whether Stross portrayed a woman well; I have no experience. What I can say is the novel is sympathetic to Mo’s plight, presented her point of view in a fair way, and I can at least recognize that as a person, Mo seems to respond in a reasonable manner. At the least, it seems like her words and deeds had some consistency to expressed desires and motives, and possibly in the nebulous realm of inter-personal cost-benefit analysis. Stross successfully grounds Mo emotionally, but without lurches in action that might tempt some to say Mo behaved capriciously. Mo behaves like a rational and emotional adult, making choices that make sense.

If you can’t tell, I really liked what Stross did in The Apocalypse Score.

The slick thing about this novel is that it allows us to re-interpret previous novels (esp. with regard to Mo) with knowledge from Mo. In previous novels, Bob certainly appears to be your prototypical aging geek. He has enough toys at work and projects at home to keep him busy, but the impression is that the traditional home structure is inverted. Mo is the specialist; she’s called in to do the dirty work no one else can do. Bob naturally would feel subservient; what also comes across is that Mo might condescend to him and his little worries – as seen by Bob. Bob is a fairly simple guy. As the Laundry Files is written from the perspective of a narrative after-action debrief-slash-diary, we do get some sense that Bob generally is a straight-arrow. He has the usual self-deprecation of being a geek/IT guy. He does not do well in social settings.  While endearing to the presumed audience, look at it from Mo’s angle.

They are going on a decade of marriage. It isn’t obvious that their professional circumstances have changed all that much. Both note that their social circle is diminishing (but of course that’s fine by Bob). The routine seems to be, from Bob’s perspective, Mo comes home and decompresses. He’s there to listen, complain about the bosses together, and fetch her tea. Rinse, and repeat. It might be that the best way to sum up what Mo feels is that she needs to be a vibrant human, not someone who clocks-in and clocks-out. From that one simple idea, the complications of Mo’s life and personality follows.

Because I bought into the Bob as considerate geek trope, I fell into the wrong way of thinking about their relationship. If we take Bob’s point of view, it does seem Mo was unseemly fast in moving on from Bob. Again, since Stross is fair in his portrayal of Mo, we see that maybe, Bob isn’t offering much in the relationship department. She and Bob have been diverging for some time. In which case Mhari showing up in their home is simply the most recent insult.

 

You might ask, so what? Well, one can’t help but map the beats in the novel to one’s own relationship. In my case, my wife and I are going on 15 years of marriage. I can see myself in Bob, and most importantly, I don’t really want to fall into the standard geek trope of worrying more everything but people. While my wife and I are pretty solid in the family unit type of activities, it does take a bit more effort to that something extra into the marriage. That might be what people mean when they say the romance is gone. That extra bit of effort falls by the wayside, as family life takes over.

Bob clearly failed at that. At some point, standard doesn’t cut it. I think Stross did a fantastic job describing how the relationship is breaking apart, and that’s what stuck with me. It isn’t that Mo needed romance, but I can see why feeling wanted or special might be nice. The Bob mentality is selfish in the extreme; he has his work, and then his hobby – which looks a lot like work. I think it is supremely unfair to just assume that the spouse needs to dote on the geek, because geek hobbies can appear to be harmless. As a matter of fact, one might easily argue that some geek hobbies are actually productive. But that’s not the point. The phrases “golf widow” or “football widow” doesn’t refer to the jerk who fantasizes about being the jock:  it’s that the jerk indulges in his hobby to the exclusion of everything else. It just might be that Bob needs to stop taking Mo for granted.

I’ll lead with my credentials: I was a library rat, in my youth. Yes, advanced reader and all that; I hated having a youth library card and went into the adults stacks as soon as I could. I willingly chose to spend time in the library. I collected library cards (using the home addresses of my various relatives). As I grew older, that love transferred to book stores. I will always have a soft spot for Barnes & Noble and Borders (R.I.P.). I loved living down the street from a used bookstore (McIntyre Booksellers), and fairly close to another (Lorem Ipsum). Yes, I did purchase books, but that was tempered by a lack of space (yes, my wife Maria Kondo’ed me before that was a thing: “Well, do you really need that? Do we have space? What would we get rid of to make space?”) When my wife went to Harvard Square, I loved bouncing between Harvard Booksellers and The Coop (who am I kidding, I still do). When I realized there is such a thing as the MIT Press bookstore, it really was akin to finding Shangri-La. Not to mention I would also browse the stacks in the Boston Public Library and then head over to Trident Booksellers. Now, it’s de rigeur to attach a cafe and a wine bar to a bookstore, but I like to think BPL and Trident was fairly ahead of the game. Nothing beats sipping a coffee, browsing a book, in the Italianate courtyard in the McKim Building of the BPL. And Trident! You can still have the joy of being alone, but with other people, and then browsing the stacks. And joy: another bookstore had sprung up in the next town over, in Belmont, with a founder who learned the trade at Porter Square Bookstore (whose bookstore I actually supply buy links to). I also had a book purchasing problem (despite my wife’s best efforts), probably spending ~$50 / mo., for several years. Not much, but it does add up. Now, I just channel my hoarding to ebooks (purchased from either B&N or Kobobooks.)

I’m sure the reader knows what’s coming: I wouldn’t say all that, unless I was about to utter some words that will make me sound like a Philistine: I actually liked the Amazon Bookstore.

What comes next will also be obvious: the qualifications as to why I like Amazon.

Believe it or not, my book reason is that it has fewer books than in a normal bookstore. Or rather, the face out approach is nice. Having fewer books actually encouraged me  to pick up books I other wise wouldn’t. I guess it makes some weird sense: I probably respond to a large search space by keying in on my main interests first (science, history, art, scifi, and graphic novels). Then I make my way things outside my sweet spot. I do like looking at the recommendations table, because serendipity. Because most bookstores do stock a reasonable amount of books, I can eat up a chunk of my time just looking at that narrow set of books. What struck me about the Amazon store is that it caters entirely to their sales analytics. I am guessing whatever is in there will move. And whatever surprises are in store, are all likely algorithmically determined to be the most popular “off-target” choices. And I bet that will get more precise over time. I’m sure that Amazon already knows how well products move online versus brick-and-mortar retail.  They will exploit those differences.

But, surprisingly, I find the book store part of it, compelling. I did feel that I got to crack open every book there, engaging with words that I normally would pass over. And I read prefaces, first chapters, prologues… all of which I probably wouldn’t have done. I think I do the same, with a smaller bookstore (like at an airport, or at a tourist town with high retail rents).  Basically, I spend the same amount of time, but I read more pages (and it felt like I made a dent in the surplus of everything that I could read!)

I doubt that was the goal of Amazon; my guess is that, they realized most people who go into a bookstore will not find what they are looking for. Sales are likely dominated by popularity. The long tail won’t matter, since a heavy reader will have specific needs, and it’s likely she will be deeply read within that tranche. There isn’t a IRL store large enough to hold everything, so, ironically, for a deep reader, she will likely not find what she’s looking for. So Amazon’s answer makes sense, and it’s a brutally efficient logic: stock the top 20 or so books in various genres. Assume the buyer will go online for everything else (and trust that they are well trained enough to go to Amazon.com).

Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy is not comforting nor uplifting. The feeling I got from his Three Body Problem trilogy is the same as how I felt after reading Stephen Baxter’s earlier stories (before he turned his attention to alternate history and near-future cli-fi.) It’s not a bad thing. Simply, it is a bracing experience.

First of all, I loved Liu’s trilogy; there is something different to like about each book. The tone of the Three-Body Problem differed so much from The Dark Forest and Death’s End. In Three-Body problem, it was pleasant to read about a female vantage point, but one whose personality was shaped by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The Dark Forest changed tone completely; once news of an impending invasion, it became a psychological thriller. How do humans deal with not only the end of science, but what it means to have a ceiling imposed on the technological heights one can achieve. It turned game theory and the derivation of the mathematics of alien contact into an exciting novel. That is a testament to the talent and work of Liu and his interpreter.  Death’s End changed tone yet again, and I suspect the most “western” in outlook. Comparisons are made between the Madonna and the heroine, time and again. In each instance, she was forced to make hard decisions, and in case, she chose a path that reaffirms a liberal humanist faith in the world. As Liu makes clear, it is likely the wrong choice, but it is one he sympathizes with, in the end. The blow is softened with a reasonably optimistic ending.

The centerpiece of this series is in the extrapolation of the technologies that humans create. At the end of The Dark Forest, detente is reached. The  alien race, Trisolarans,released the barriers to technological progress. The beginning of Death’s End, however, shows that this is but a ceasefire. The aliens had already sent another colonising wave. The threat remains.

What I want to most focus on is a fairly quiet moment. Prior to introducing various Deux ex machina to save the human race, there is a point in the novel when it is clear that Earth is lost. Humanity met the Trisolarans with a nascent starfleet, only to see it nearly destroyed. A few ships were able to escape. The fascinating point is in how Liu describes their response.

Each crew concludes that, given that there is no Earth to return to, they focus on the ships in near proximity. Resources are now finite. Entropy reigns and will grind down the sturdiest of spaceships. How to best ensure survival of one’s ship? Simply, by maximizing resources while minimizing use. And since there are other ships in the vicinity, with each ship being, presumably, resources relative to the others… But that is not where the novel ends.

The second novel ended when humans found out that the universe is red in tooth and claw. This is the meaning of the Dark Forest. Every civilization is a hunter and prey. Obscurity is the only defense. Once exposed, it is a matter of time before other hunters see the prey. And why do we see the universe as hunter prey, rather than as a Galactic Empire? Light speed, and time dilation. The speed of light limits communication. Even a “short” distance of several light years mean that information exchange takes place in the decades. Time dilation occurs during travel between the stars. While one can asymptotically reach light speed – and the crew experiences a reasonably short time span, the rest of the universe speeds by. The travelers’ technology remain static, while both the home and target worlds continue apace. By the time one arrives as the destination, they may be in for an unpleasant surprise as the inferior target civilization has surpassed technology of the invaders.

In this context, it seems easier to just shoot first.

That’s what it means to be in the Dark Forest. Communication takes too long; time dilation puts the traveler at a disadvantage. Assume exponential increase in technology base.

The way Liu constructed first contact is that the escaping spaceships are essentially separate civilizations. Each ship assumed that earth will be destroyed. Each ship is then the “flagship” of humanity. Coupled with finite resources, it is clear what they must do what they can to secure survival.

I thought the insight that surprised me most is that when a spaceship is cut off from humanity, it will become something different. The calculus is fundamentally changed when there is no home, no resources, no “future” back home.

I can’t say the rest of the novel held surprises, if one simply amps up one’s cynicism.

 

The humans were able to reach detente by threatening exposure of the location of the Trisolarans’ home system. Based on the nature of transmissions and the signatures of space-faring lifeforms, it is conceivable that other lifeforms will work out other systems that Trisolarans have an interest in, including Earth. By exposing one system, Earthers basically engaged in scorched Earth policy, rendering the planet undesirable. So the cold war idea of mutually assured destruction is resurrected and writ as universal law. For their own reasons, Trisolarans would prefer to colonise somewhere else, since there is a higher likelihood of destruction. From the Earth’s perspective, they could benefit. They traded in immediate domination for a threat in the indeterminate future.

Cixin Liu’s comments on herd psychology fits into a cynical world view. The MAD system depends on decision speed (no chain of authorization and relies on a set of “algorithms” in responding to a threat). Ruling out the committee, the decision to broadcast spatial coordinates fell to one man. One weakness is in the need to change the guard. How does one choose who we empower to destroy us all? What is interesting is that it is important the person in question is perceived, or analyzed, to be someone who will press the MAD button. The problem isn’t in the person, but the process by which one might decide who should be vested to make that decision. There is no guarantee that the right person will always be selected.

The author chooses to end on a fairly human focused view. Unlike Stephen Baxter, who in a similar circumstance chose to focus on how life, any kind of life, might create their future. But in both cases, it is a sobering display, as the goal is to survive until the heat death of the universe and to outlast all other lifeforms. To paraphrase Tolstoy, there are an infinity of ways to fail and very few to succeed.

 

 

Wow. One of the joys of literature is to meet others’ minds. I liked the first book in the trilogy, the Three Body Problem. In that story, it centered on a scientist who had to survive China’s Cultural Revolution. While the broad arcs and plot details are very similar to Western scifi, the points of view are refreshing.

In The Dark Forest, which I finished on a plane ride, the peculiarities of a Chinese protagonist recede.  It is more of a conventional ensemble thriller, closer to The Expanse than the Three Body Problem. At this stage, it is known that Earth will be invaded. Further, the enemy has sent a weapon that prevents a level of technology beyond theoretical quantum mechanics. This is crucial to resolving a dilemma in two competing interstellar civilizations.

It is in this hotbox that the story unfolds. Due to other machinations (such as use of quantum entanglement as a surveillance tool), humans have realized the only source of information that the aliens are not privy to are unspoken human thoughts. Thus they place their faith in 4 appointed “Wallfacers”, who have carte blanche in marshalling resources for a grand defense strategy. While the actions and technologies are laid bare for all observers, the idea is that the true stratagem will be unveiled at the Final Battle.

Despite the somewhat contrived circumstance, the story and character development do not feel cheap. Maybe the resolution is a tad rushed, but what is most memorable is that the people react in ways that make sense. So far, The Expanse and the Nexus Trilogy are recent series whose characters act true to life. Rightfully so, the scifi trappings are simply cladding to explore how humans react and behave. Of course, being scifi, the trappings do matter.

I will leave my thoughts on this somewhat vague. The game theory idea that serves as the plot device is somewhat bound with the denouement. It is as good as any an explanation for why the universe is so silent.

The best novels focus on true to life characters, who swim and thrive against the tide of events. What has been interesting is how limited the purview of modern literati is in terms of identifying novels of note. Books that step outside the boundaries of wringing the profound out of the mundane living  American Rural or the Big City tend to be scoffed at.

What I found so stunning and effective about Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy: Nexus, Crux, and Apex, is because of how recognizable the motivations and actions of his characters are. First and foremost, the series is a thriller that explores ideas about not yet existing technology that can very much arrive in the next few decades. But the novels encapsulate, more so than white papers, policy articles from think tanks, or academic research, the human tensions of a new telepathy/mind-link/brain control technology.

If one were to ask what humans would do with such new devices, one needs to look no further than Nexus in order to get a realistic snapshot.

What made the novel so thought provoking? Probably because Naam did not shy away from the abuses of the technology. Nexus, in this novel, is a nanoparticle computer network that one can inject into the brain. The idea is that the particles can monitor and influence neural networks. Coupled with wireless packet transmission, it effectively enables mind-to-mind linkage, and control.

Needless to say, abuses are nefarious; body hijackings, slavery, murder, rape, drug-like stimulatory usages – all are in the novel. The last point is probably the flavor most consistent with why such devices would be made: therapeutic purposes.

Presumably, if these particles can localize to the brain (and possible elsewhere in the body), the dream is to be able to perform fine-scale monitoring of aberrant body processes and deliver precise therapy. The mind-link capability could potentially be driven by new approaches in treating mental illness. Probably the most profound use might be for enabling normative ways of communicating between loved ones who have autistic family members. Another key reason might be to enable joining of minds to enhance performance; the simple case might be in sports or within an orchestra, but more likely, such direct networking can benefit the military and using groups of humans as massively powerful distributed computing network.

Although there have been great strides in brain-machine interfaces for vision, we are a ways away from being able to replace the eye.

However, my sense is that a true Nexus like technology can be immensely function to cause harm, as soon as the technology is released. It will probably be co-opted into tools for body control, torture and rape, just because it should be easier to cause paralysis and induce base emotions.

So, in these contexts, with the immense potential for abuse and nearly limitless potential, is it worth it to pursue this technology? Further, is it a meaningless question? The premise of human dignity tends to be a Western concept. In other cultures, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. That type of culture tends to respect the group, perhaps at the expense of the individual. In that context, can anyone reasonably expect a lack of research into such technologies, based on the concept of individual rights? If anything, there are more countries that are ostensibly authoritarian than not; I would not be surprised if the technology arose precisely because a government wishes to exert control, rather than from, say, the healthcare sector.

Naam has a distinct view; for one, his main characters, and generally what one attributes as the viewpoints with which an author is most aligned, tend to be more libertarian of the USA variety. It’s the usual gun lobby approach: the technology does not harm; humans do. There is a strong counter balance to this viewpoint, but what we are left with, in the novel, is a technology that is released into the wild, with no oversight, but dependent on most people doing “good”.

I’m not sure. Despite Naam’s ostensible viewpoint, I am left ambivalent. I’m not sure if this technology should develop, let alone be released, considering the potential for private, corporate and governmental abuse.

So what is the point of thinking about the Nexus Trilogy in the context of projecting what amounts to technology governance policy? Isn’t something like this best left to policy wonks?

Well, it goes back to my point: the best novels provoke thought. In this case, it isn’t so much the technology or how realistic the science is. The question remains, how will humans react/interact with the device or circumstance?

 

It is precisely the intersection of humans and technology that we should focus on. The response of humanity to technology is not written on a blank slate. Technology is introduced in the context of, first a few humans, and then society. We can draw from past examples to see how technology affects the economy. We can assess how technologies altered power relationships among different groups. These would of course be actual anthropological, archaeological, and historical studies.

Sometimes, however, a novel – even from genre fiction – that places realistic constraints on human reaction and motivations can cut through the noise and expose the heart of the problem.

 

I love Neal Stephenson; Cryptonomicon is one of my two favorite books (The Age of Innocence being the other). I really liked Anathem and Reamde. I like his essays; I like reading about his latest projects; I loved reading his essay, In the beginning was the command line.

I just could not get into Seveneves. I devoured it, of course. But it really just felt like Stephenson should have written an article – or even a futurist speculative/engineering extrapolation of how humans would survive an extinction event.

Stephenson is one of those authors with whom I willingly go down any rabbit hole. I don’t care if he gave us a novelized history of fiducial currency and the rise of modern economics or technical readings on operating systems. Usually, there is enough story to signify when we should care less about the background and more on the characters.

Well, that’s not fair; there’s a stream of thought in speculative fiction that social organization, structure and control are critical for long term survival, as important  as technological applications. In addition to descriptions of orbital mechanics and navigation, there is an effort to document the actual societal fallout of the survivors floating in space. But only a token effort is spared to focus on opposing efforts in organizing the survivors. We know, since we are mainly hearing the arguments discussed among our heroes, we know which viewpoints we are supposed sympathize with. It doesn’t help that when we next see the survivors… well, I’ll let you find out.

Most of the novel deals with the preparation for survival. Only in the last few pages (relatively speaking), does Stephenson address how society might organize in the interim. No surprises; of course humans will survive. This had the effect of glossing over how they did so. The book jumps five thousand years into the future, leaving behind both the biological and technological expansion that must have followed.

It is a credit to Stephenson that he writes in a way that, some times, makes you wish for a textbook as much as to know what happens next.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve found that I’ve lived up to my blog title.

In the past 2 years, real life got in the way. Looking for a job, making the transition out of academia, moving, and most importantly, helping my wife with her non-profit company: A2Empowerment.

A word about this company: she founded it in 2008 with her friend, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The PCV was stationed in Cameroon, and my wife was haunted by the stories she heard.

Here is a short description, from the website:

A2Empowerment is a non-profit company dedicated to empowering women through education. Since its founding in 2008, the company has awarded over 500 educational scholarships to young women in Cameroon. Recipients are chosen based on need and merit, with a priority placed on selecting girls in the later years of high school when they are at a higher risk of dropping out. This year approximately $75 USD will cover tuition, fees and books for a year of school. All company overhead costs have been covered by the company co- founders, so the full amount of all donations is put towards scholarships. The project is set up as a Peace Corps Partnership Project, so all funding is strictly monitored by the Peace Corps and A2Empowerment.

In 2014, a total of 217 recipients have been selected in seven of the ten regions of Cameroon. A2Empowerment coordinates this process with Peace Corps Volunteers. Scholarship recipients are expected to report on their progress to Peace Corps Volunteers and meet monthly with the other recipients in their area. In addition, the recipients serve as role models by volunteering to tutor younger students as part of the Community Contribution required for all Peace Corps Partnership Projects.

We plan to continue and improve this program in 2015, sustaining support for current recipients who qualify and expanding the program to additional students. In 2015, the tuition has increased to $75 per student.

I am extremely proud of my wife, and I am glad to help support her efforts.

Lolita it is not. Joel Dicker’s novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is an effective thriller. Its closest match, I think, is more a Law and Order episode, or even a video game, than a P.D. James novel. Naturally, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you are looking for in the read.

I will lead with some criticism, but honestly, I thought the book was a good, fun read.

Here is the bad: the novel is surprisingly without tension; sure, there is the matter of 15-year old Nola Kellergan’s death, but everything else that happens isn’t all that surprising. Take Marcus Goldman; he’s a young writer, looking to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. But he is having trouble starting his second novel. Considering that his mentor from college, Harry Quebert, is charged with Nola’s murder and that Quebert’s masterpiece happens to be about an illicit relationship, it takes him a surprisingly long time to be moved to write about this affair. Although Marcus’s investigation into the murder is a plot device to move the story forward, it still would have been nice to have the plot unfold and not feel like the writer is trying to hit all the right beats before the next commercial break.

There is a surprisingly lack of friction in the novel. It just feels like the story and twists will all unfold. That’s why I say it’s like a TV show; actually the pacing makes it like a game. Every interview with a witness, every scene with him looking around, reminds me of Sierra On-line games (wow… is that dating myself… games like King’s Quest, Gabriel Knight, and the whole genre of pixel-clicking adventure games). Because adventure games are generally not about reflexes, they generally let the player has as much time as she needs in the scene. Marcus gets to hang around until he extracts enough information.

One thing that will draw attention to the story is that before each chapter, we get treated to a scene where Quebert gives Marcus writing advice. The advice itself isn’t controversial, but the fact that these tips are here invites comparison to the actual writing in the story.

Yes, we are treated to a meta-story, and again, we are left to ruminate on the possibility that Mr. Dicker might have had a similar struggle, having achieved a measure of literary fame before The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The parts about writing as craft and as a calling are actually rather interesting.

And despite the lack of dramatic tension, the novel definitely has provenance.  I think the twists and turns are generally justified and logical. It does not feel like the twists come from nowhere. The novel has a fairly sunny disposition; it isn’t dark and moody. If anything, the most cynical parts of the book deal with commentary on public perception and not on human nature that seem extremely comfortable with crime.

 I was happily surprised that the novel did not veer into the salacious, despite the many ways in which it could have turned in that direction. All this is to say that the novel was rather enjoyable.

Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down is good survey of literature about the science of failing, resilience, and success. Books of this sort, written for popular consumption, generally suffers from the three ring binder effect; it’s a loose collection of research and interviews, organized by themes. In some cases, the research has been presented in other contexts, both by the researchers themselves (Daniel Gilbert and Jonathan Haidt) and by other popularizers of behaviorial science.

Luckily, Ms. McArdle’s approach is disarming and charmingly self-deprecating. Her binder, as it were, ties together her own failures to the research she presents. Her failure to find a job, her inability to move past a relationship, and her experience combating 9/11 Truthers provide a human face to the statistics of neuropsychology research. Most importantly, she demonstrates the power inherent in recognizing when a path is failing and taking action to shut it down. Loss aversion supplies a  motive in maintaining status quo, and variations on this theme are explored.

As with such popular science books, there is a hint of the prescriptive in her book. Ms. McArdle supports a more generous approach to mistakes and wishes that political forces would stop moving towards harsher punishment for any mistakes.

Despite the compelling theme, and one that I tend to agree with it, I find these books shallow. To Ms. McArdle’s credit, I would absolutely love for her to expand on just about every chapter. As it is, she combines general lessons learned from both investigators and from her life. It is effective. Take it for what you will; if you want more, follow up on her bibliography. The book is compelling.

I found useful lessons, especially with emphasizing the need to give kids a safe place to fail. Ever since I became aware of research regarding the contradictory effect of praising intelligence rather than effort (actually, pointing out anything aside from effort), I’ve focused on the process. (There’s actually new research suggesting that merely visualizing directions – up versus down, flying versus digging – might affect cognitive tasks due to the emotionality of the visualization.)  It’s actually nicer and easier in some ways, because it gives adults cues to talk about specific things about the child’s project (“Oooh! I like how you did the trees and arranged them according to perspective!”).

Ms. McArdle’s book reminds us that it is not only OK, but necessary to identify faults. Especially when younger and with lower stakes; the kids can immediately see where they went wrong and they can correct it. The key is to be gentle enough to call attention to the mistake but not dwell on it. Make it feel like a bump; comment and move on.

Although I wish Ms. McArdle spent more time on developing the idea and presenting more research, I agree with her that the ability to remain calm and not focus on the emotional sting of shame and feelings of failing is absolutely crucial to moving on. Perhaps becoming accustomed to the iterative process of failing/identify/improve will help desensitize kids to the emotional turmoil of being wrong so they eventually focus on the substance of criticisms.

I happen to think there’s a lot to learn from Ms. McArdle’s book, and I can draw many parallels to the process of science. My colleagues and I have joked that we are in an asymmetric relationship: the science has all the power. We work, but our feedback is generally negative. Our advisors and supervisors simply give comments for improvement (ask anyone about the process of writing a grant or manuscript), only to receive more feedback upon submission – the paper is rejected/won’t fit our journal. If accepted provisionally, we will get more feedback from reviewers. Grants also get scored and we receive comments.

But we all understand this is the process. The worse comment for a grant is no comment at all. The grant being so bad that it was not worth the reviewer’s time to improve on it.

And of course, a lot of our time is spent on dealing with no or opposite results: no change where change is expected. Change were stasis is expected. The effect is too small or opposite what you predicted. And things break and stop working all the time. A lot of these errors come down the the experiments and analysis (perhaps an incorrect baselining or normalization.)

But when experiments start pulling together and a paper is eventually accepted, it is exactly like the first sunlight after an arctic winter. The rest of the time, it’s that arctic darkness.

Sorry; do I sound bitter?

I’m sure authors/writers/reporters all have analogous stories. The point is that success is more about attrition and self-selection. The people who thrive and have careers all continue to produce and deal with failures as if they are minor. They integrate criticism, iterate, and improve. So yes, I pretty much buy into Ms. McArdle’s thesis.

One thing I like about the book is that she tackles the issue of normative errors and accidents. The distinction is important to make, even if the definitions are not necessarily clear cut. Accidents are events that occur and couldn’t really be accounted for in the planning and execution. The operative word is could. Many things can and do happen, but the definition of those accidents happening is that it is coincidental, with the unfortunate victim falling prey to a low probability event.

Normative errors arise during process and execution, due to missed steps. The word here is should. Generally, there are a few things that should have been done, but weren’t. The two seem separated by degree; I suppose if you find yourself linking a series of events – if only I had walked a few steps quicker or slower, I would have turned the corner and seen the the guys backing out with the large pane of glass instead of walking into the glass – this probably is an accident.

A mistake can probably be traced to something one did or didn’t do, and a compounded mistake just means many people failed down the line. I can see how some readers might want clearer explanations.

But the point of the book is not explicitly about mistakes, but how we recover from them.

Ms. McArdle put together a rather compelling book. She connects threads in research on attention, motivation, and economics and drew new observations. I especially liked her chapter on tunnel vision (“inattentional blindness”). She starts with the description of Daniel Simons’s and Christopher Chabris’s experiment with having students score the number of times a basketball team, in a video. Afterwards, they ask the students about the number of passes – and whether they saw a gorilla mascot run threw the middle of the court, between the players. She seques into an analysis on the Dan Rather/President G.W. Bush National Guard story that cost Mr. Rather his job. Dan Rather made the mistake of defending his decision, rather than simply working to figure out whether something went wrong.

There were apparently a whole chain of mistakes, but the point is that there is power to simply acknowledge he could have been at fault. The proper play would be along the lines of Ira Glass’s signing off on Mike Daisey’s Apple story, where Mr. Glass admitted he was wrong and then spent a subsequent hour on analyzing the mistakes he and his team made – while rectifying the original story. A hot-of-the-press example is in how Bill Simmons dealt with the Dr. V’s Magical Putter story.

I do hope people read Ms. McArdle’s book. I think she has a talent for providing proper context and tackling the best and most relevant arguments between opposing views (see her chapters on bankruptcy, welfare reform, and moral hazard.) For the short length of time reading the book, I think readers will gain an immeasurable sense of well-being as they learn to love mistakes.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers:  Congratulations! The writing style is evocative of the best elliptical, modern writing! I would peg the book somewhere in between David Foster Wallace (and Roberto Bolano – loved Infinite Jest and 2666) and Don DeLillo (I didn’t care much for Underworld). Although the plot is generally of the implied variety – forward movement is achieved by simply having historical events sweep over characters – Ms. Kushner does animate her protagonist. She doesn’t simply reacts – but her plans and personality does change in response to what happens around her.

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I read a really engaging book from Alan Sepinwall: The Revolution Was Televised. I became aware of his work through Grantland, which mixes up culture and sports in a fantastically smart and enjoyable way. The book is an ode to the current “Golden Age” of of television, exemplified by shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, where viewers are essentially treated to a unified form of story telling, over years, and that broke the convention of simply resetting the table after the episode ends.

In other words, the Golden Age is synonymous with the novelisation of television.

I never cared much for movies or shows, mostly because I am enamored of depth. My issue with television and movies as a medium to convey important information is best summed up by the criticism of Neil Postman. Visual medium appeals to emotions readily. Memorable images lingers; narrated text does not. The speed of the medium also discourages single, static shots. I mean, the most ludicrous example I can think of are the edits made to dance shows, like So You Think You Can Dance. By definition, dance is movement, and yet we are still subjected to dramatic cuts – different angles, facial shots, and different zooms – as if the very moves in the dance are not sufficient to maintain our interest.

Visual media are geared for high-impact by engaging multiple senses, in the shortest amount of time. Even in seminars, the advice I’ve received all suggest reducing the amount of information in slides. This either means editing out all the secondary points, or, in a much more difficult way, condense the information. The former everyone should be able to do; the latter practically merits a course – Or at least this set of books (1, 2, 3, 4). Verbally, we keep to the point, refer to the point, and ideally, repeat the point using simple language.

Each form of communication has its strengths and weaknesses. Postman’s criticism of television is nuanced: supposedly similar forms of media (like a YouTube video of a seminar) may not be so similar (i.e. the “real” seminar). Hijacking one medium known for short form, highly dynamic images and aural stimulation (i.e. TV) to engage in long form discussions about government policy or presenting scholarly works may actually lead both to suffer.

In other words, Postman felt that the real problems arose when we try “translating” the medium to do other things. Postman enjoyed television: as entertainment. He worried about the misguided attempts to make TV good by simply having it broadcast educational material. In this sense, he felt fine with arguing that, quite possibly one of the worse development for television is the rise of PBS. This allowed people to mistake TV as a medium for all purposes – from entertainment to a learning forum.

I think the issue is even more nuanced than how Postman described it. I think he focused too much on how medium limits the audience, but ignored the adaptability of the viewer. For a start, the viewer can just select another medium. He can pick up a book. While TV (and movies, and music) implies a broadcast, with a single emitter but multiple receivers, we, as the audience, might become amenable to altering our expectations. It may be that, properly done, there is no such thing as too long (the trick is editing down to the proper length).

It wasn’t until I was moved to think about Sepinwall’s observation that I began to appreciate how different the current television landscape is from when Postman made his criticisms. Sepinwall points out that over the past 10 years, the audience and television writers have implicitly altered their viewership/producer pact. Instead of expecting things to reset week after week, with no overarching development of characters, the audience now is willing to accept more openness and lack of episodic resolution – in expectation of a payoff for the story. It is now de rigeur for shows to tackle big ideas, or at least have complicated plots, to make things interesting. As many writers have noted, what we saw in Breaking Bad is really a 13 hour miniseries, broken up into 1 hour bits. The seasons are really chapters in the story of Walter White.

By altering TV in this way, television can in fact invade the space occupied by writers: we can know what the characters are thinking.

The sea-change is that we get to know what they are thinking the same way that humans understand and empathize with one another: by inference of intent from word and deeds, a bit at a time. Isn’t the hourly appointment viewing almost like seeing a friend once a week and catching up?

The novel does not work like that. Its form is highly stylized, where the novelist needs to specify much more information to build the world-context so that she can put forth her true point. Gorgeous verbosity continues to appeal to me, but dramatic depth is no longer owned by novels.

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On Salon, Laura Miller writes about “What makes a book a classic“. The “problem” Ms. Miller describes is an old one, and is certainly not resolved in her essay: No one argues that there is such a thing as a classic, but issues arise when your classics do not match my classics.

I wish she spent a bit more time developing the throwaway comment that books may remain a classic even if a large minority (or perhaps even a majority) of readers do not like it. That, I think, sums up the disagreement between the popular sentiment (i.e. sales) and the critical and historical context that surrounds a book.

Recent, visible battles between Jonathan Franzen and the duo of Jennifer Egan and Jodi Picoult. Frankly, each camp has a point: good books need not imply a poor sales record, nor is every novel penned by a Brooklyn resident an instant classic.

I generally see arguments boil down to “sales should at least allow me to enter the conversation” and “proles are the worse judge of quality”.  Both arguments – and I wouldn’t even call them that – are bad, arrogant, and lacking sufficient humility.

The difficulty isn’t trashing something; it is much more difficult to defend an affirmative statement. What makes something good despite flaws? Why, despite the imperfections, should we continue nurturing an audience for that book?This is inherently an uphill battle, because the marginal effect of finding something bad in the good is greater than finding something good in the bad. This asymmetry in value perception comes about because in the former case, we start at what we term the summit and move away from it, with every flaw. In the latter approach, we are literally trying to bring something closer to “good”.

To actually write a compelling piece supporting the value of a good book means that we need to expend energy on salesmanship. Um… and no, a cluster of adjectives and superlatives does not cut it. I’m looking for detailed contextual arguments (how it relates to contemporary literature), how it extends and responds to previous works (i.e. the historical arguments), and, frankly, how well it reads. Sorry: this isn’t Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where, to hijack his satirical comment, every (“literary”) writer is above average. The understanding that, even if we gave it our best, some readers will simply not agree, and I will guarantee that their reasons will not be objective.

It is that element of salesmanship that must be borne by critics, authors and those who are forever trying to define a Hall of Fame for books. What? Muck around, perhaps even beg for attention, so that you can convince the unwashed masses why they ought to put down their JD Robb, Danielle Steele, James Patterson, and Robert Ludlum? Precisely. Because, as I keep pointing out, we aren’t a literary culture. We expend more energy reading about starlets entering rehab and not novels about our humanity, discussing the artistry in computer games and movies, and most distressing for the literary novelists – having our brilliant critics devote their time to wax eloquently about the prestige, televised “novels” than on the latest from authors who are on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Going back to Grantland, it is telling that they find the intersection of sports and culture to include movies, television, music and games. Sure, these guys are fantastic writers who love to read, but they talk about books peripherally, in support of their social commentary and critical efforts*.

*By the way: read this “mailbag” feature by Andy Greenwald at Grantland. One reader asks

During the first season of The Bridge, I devoured Charles Bowden’s Murder City (on your very astute recommendation) and so I was wondering what novel/work of nonfiction might pair well with the upcoming second season of The Americans? For context, I am about to begin Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, which I hope pairs well with True Detective. In the past, I barreled through the A Song of Ice and Fire series and two of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan novels for Game of Thrones and Justified, respectively, so I’m eager to hear your take on the issue of book/TV pairings.

To me, the question and Mr. Greenwald’s answer exude a healthy love and appreciation for print and other media. This is what I want my book culture to look like, integrated into readers’ lives and not set off in an increasingly distressed mansion on a hill.

Why am I harping on this? Grantland is bait for the coveted male, 18-42 demographic. Where they go, so goes the money. People like Franzen can continue to live in a bubble, pissing on people who dare to sell things and make money so they can support the cozy, insular culture of the dwindling number of editors, publishers and authors. Where is the value in literary novels about a family of assholes?

The literary authors’ competition isn’t the group of top-15 Amazon bestselling authors: their lot is competing with documentarians and longform article writers. What conceivable value is there in reading characters in invented, mundane problems passing for insight into the human condition? I’d rather focus on real people.

And Ms. Egan and Ms. Picoult don’t have to worry: they write books people enjoy reading. Even though I haven’t read them, how do I know? Because people keep buying their books despite the finger-wagging critics.

 

 

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