Monthly Archives: September 2006

Value for value received

The other day, I was walking to work. I heard a tching! and noticed a quarter rolling around on the sidewalk. Looking up, I saw a crow (or a raven?) hopping on the telephone pole. I assume he must have dropped it from above. I picked up the quarter (Nebraska) and continued on to work.

At lunch, there was a (the?) crow hopping around on the steps by the canal. I fed him some of my sandwich. At least 25 cents worth.

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What I’ve been reading

THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR

I just finished reading The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil a couple of days ago. What a mind-trip that is! Kurzweil, a self-styled singularitarian, believes that current trends in technology will culminate, at some point (say 2040), in a technological singularity–measured, simply, by the creation of self-improving AI mentalities. Or something.

It sounds all very science fictional and bizarre (particularly when he talks about brain uploads and replacing the stomach with nano digestion machines), but he writes (and cites) very convincingly about the current state of technology and their eventual progression into mind-machine interface and AI.

I’d chalk him up to any other kind of crackpot prophet, only he’s very financially successful at parlaying his technological predictions into cold, hard cash via his various corporate entities. What can I say: it’s a fascinating book with nearly 150 pages of endnotes. I appreciated the book mostly for its big picture, holistic view on the current and near-future state of genetic, nano and robotic technologies. He lost me a little with the “what is consciousness?”, but I guess I don’t find that nearly as interesting.

WILLFUL CREATURES

Aimee Bender’s the dreamiest. By which I mean to say, that reading her is like dreaming awake. There’s the pumpkinheads who give birth to an ironhead, steam constantly rising round about. There’s the man who goes to the petstore and brings home a little man in a cage. He abuses the little man mercilessly, then sets him free. When he goes looking, all the other little people hide from the big man. But like a dream, these stories mostly fade from memory; I just can’t keep them in mind…

HAUNTED

Chuck Palahniuk’s newest: a grisly, modern day CANTERBURY TALES. The book is a collection of gruesome or weird stories surrounded by a framing device: the writer’s retreat from hell. In this case, though, the hell is entirely self-generated. It’s satire of the darkest order. If you like your humor grisly and deranged, I can’t think of a better book. Otherwise, not recommended to the faint at heart. One word of advice: don’t read “Guts” while eating breakfast…

SPIN

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo nominee–which is why I read it, initially. It was fun, but I don’t really have much to say about it. Science fictional premise: the earth is trapped in a sphere of unknown origin. Outside the sphere, time progresses normally. Inside, slow as molasses (actually, I can’t remember the exact ratio). Basically, because of the time discrepency, the people living on earth are faced with the destruction of the world when the sun explodes. The book is about the various ways in which people might react to their inevitable and (slowly) oncoming annihilation.

JUMPER

This novel by Steven Gould is a YA (that’s Young Adult) novel about a teenager who discovers that he has the power to teleport anywhere that he has visited and can visualize in enough detail. It’s fun, with a not entirely likeable protagonist–he’s believable as a self-centered adolescent with an extraordinary power. I think they’re making this into a movie with Hayden Christensen as the title character.

LIKE NEVER BEFORE

A collection of interconnected short stories (almost a novel, really) by Ehud Havazelet recommended by Cthulie and Meestagoat prior to their departure. (Cthulie texted the full citation of the book to me–I certainly would never have remembered the author’s name, otherwise.) The stories span 60-70 years of the members of one jewish family, as they fail and fail to connect with one another (particularly the men in the family). An excellent display of craft and a nice insight into a culture pretty alien to me. And yet there’s that heartwrenching theme of the harm caused to those closest just by living, either the mad flailing of adolescence or the well-meaning fumbling at understanding.

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Summertime reading

The very best thing about not being in school anymore is being able to read whatever I want… Since I’ve finished my program, I’ve read a rather strange mix of books:

In alphabetical order:

After the Plague by T.C. Boyle

A surprisingly grim little collection of short stories that I picked up after finishing The Magus. I read this one while on the island of Sifnos. They were well written, but I mostly just wanted to finish it so that I could move on to the next thing. I traded this book at a Sifnian hotel’s book exchange for Jack Maggs.

Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad

A science-fictional, psychedelic, sexual mind-trip. The premise: given infinite personal freedom, near instantaneous universal travel and no fear of personal want and deprivation–how might people behave? In a pan-galactic society with the Maslow’s deficiency needs fully met, how do individuals achieve self-actualization and self-transcendence? Spinrad is ultimately quite sceptical of artificial means of achieving these goals (drugs, electrical brain-feedback). The protagonist achieves actualization through the book just read.

A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark

Let me attempt to summarize the argument (and most likely fail):

1) There have been several historical class systems which drive each next stage of development. Capital as Land to Capital as Production to Capital as Information. The vectoral class is the monopolist of Capital as Information and its demesne is intellectual property, copyrights, patents, etc.

2) The hacker class (those who produce new ways of thinking, doing, etc) is uniquely powerfully situated, because without the products and cooperations of its efforts the vectoralist class would fail. The book calls for the hacker class to free information (the product of the “hack”) from its “commodity form”.

Oh, just go and read the summary…

Inside Job by Connie Willis

Short and sweet. It’s the story of a professional debunker of spiritualist scam artists, whose latest target becomes possessed by the ghost of HL Mencken. (Also, see the talk page for this entry.) I wasn’t very familiar with Mencken before this, so the book was a treat in that sense. Finished before I’d even started, it’s more like a long short story than anything else.

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

I found this book in a Sifnian hotel book exchange on my last day on the island. It’s brilliant. I read most of this book while sitting in the airpot at Heathrow during our five hour layover. S and I were sitting in the airport “Quiet Room”. I sat down to read, lost…track of time, closed the book, looked up and it was three hours later. Immensely satisfying. It’s a twist on Dickens’ Great Expectations, with the Magwitch character as the protagonist. Indeed, there’s even a Dickens-like writer character whose popular written sketches are derived from the strange and curious individuals he meets around London. Even the “villains” in the story are bizarrely sympathetic. The books ending is subtle and endearing.

King Rat by James Clavell

I traded The Pickwick Papers for this one at an The Matrix, an internet cafe on Naxos run by a charming Australian couple. Definitely a trade down though. I picked it up based upon a dim memory of someone recommending it to me, though I couldn’t remember who. It’s grim and disheartening and the prose is nearly unbearably clunky. Not much to say about this one, except I was glad to have finished it. I read Shogun in high school and enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would now, were I to re-read it.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

I might have read this one based upon a mention on BoingBoing. It’s a charming, YA novel about a young sceptic confronted with undeniable proof of the existence of magic via a doorway which links Sidney and New York. Sadly, part 1 of 3. Told from three POVs: two first-person Australian perspectives and a third-person limited American one. The culture/language/perceptual clash between the Australian and American girls is perhaps the most interesting thing about the book.

The Magus by John Fowles

B recommended this book to me prior to my trip to Greece. The book is set on a Greek island. It seemed appropriate. However, I couldn’t find this book at any of the used bookstores I went to here in Seattle. I picked up The Pickwick Paers instead. However, while strolling about the 12th century port town on Paros, I came across a tiny used bookstore with perhaps 200 English-language books. Imagine my surprise when one of them turned out to be this one! It was missing 4 pages, so I managed to talk the middle-aged Englishwoman at the counter down from 4 to 3 euros. “These pages missing: are they important?” I said. “Maybe,” she said, “I don’t know.” “Hmm,” I said, “don’t you think this should be 3 euros rather than 4? With the missing pages?” (I imagine S was smirking at me, at this point.) The cashier looked at me as if to say, “I can’t believe you’re quibbling over one euro…” but she said, “Okay. But don’t try to sell it back to me!” And I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t. Were you burned by this before?” She nodded and stuck my book in a plastic bag. Shortly after, power went out all over the city. S and I ate dinner at a garden restaurant in the dark, cats prowling about our feet.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

What can I say? I like Dickens. (Might as well say I like brussels sprouts, for some people.) The nice thing about Dickens, as travel reading, is that it has definite staying power. No finishing this one while sitting on the airplane, hours from any decent bookshop on either side. No trolling through depleted airport bookshops, despairing at the selection. Anyway, this is one of his earlier books. It’s rather episodic (having been written in serialized form, anyway) and follows the adventures of Pickwick, eponymous founder of his club, which is made up of ridiculous men–friends of Pickwick and basically failures at their chosen specialities, whether it be poet or sportsman or etc. The book is rather funny, but Pickwick’s imprisonment in the Fleet Prison is particularly moving. Specifically, his account of the poor debtors imprisoned there.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Near future science fiction which is, happily, not cyberpunky nor post-apocalyptic. A major theme is technology-induced generation gaps. That is, the kids are immersed in technology in ways in which the adults–particularly the elderly–find opaque and alien. More a showcase for pushing current technological trends out 15 years or so(?), Vinge does a nice job of exploring the social/societal ramifications of ubiquitous VR-esque computing; the threat of easily obtainable biological/chemical weapons; and the question of the library’s place in the future–perhaps the most overly optimistic piece of the book is that people would care so much about what happens to the printed books in libraries. Not the way things are trending, anyway. It was fun.

The Secret Society of Demolition Writers

I picked this up because of Aimee Bender. A pseudonymous collection of short stories. The book provided a list of its contributors, but neglected to indicate who wrote what. Hence, “secret”. The stories were fairly good. The two
memorable ones were about a safecracker who encounters the ghost of his future daughter and the story of a literary/academic rock star who induces one of her students to help her commit suicide.

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

I only wish I had read this sooner! The third book of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, this concludes the series nicely. There’s so much in this book, that I have trouble singling out specific things to mention. Collectively, these three books form an amazing piece of work in its ideationaly and historical breadth. Highly recommended.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Is Pratchett’s health failing? Is he losing his touch? This book felt tired, specifically the first half of the book was filled with what seemed like half-hearted gags and character tropes. Which is unfortunate, because the book deals with long-term, historical strife between trolls and dwarves. (Providing many easy real-life parallels.) I noticed on the verso page that he co-wrote this book with Lynn Pratchett. It made me wonder. By the end of the book, it had picked up a fair amount of steam, but I couldn’t shake my initial uneasiness.

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