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.

%d bloggers like this: