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.

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