Monday, September 29, 2008

John Scalzi "Old Man's War": book review

People in the FACT reading group had said "Old Man's War" is like Heinlein with serial numbers filed off. I have read some Heinlein, but perhaps the wrong novels, because I found no similarity between Scalzi and Heinlein. If anything, I like Scalzi better because he writes characters that feel real, not walking puppets playing roles pre-assigned to them by the author. I guess the similarities must lie in the military theme? I haven't read "Starship Troopers", but I bet it's not as funny as "Old Man's War". And the latter does not have a political agenda, unlike anything I would expect from Heinlein. Scalzi's dry wit shines from the very opening scene in the military recruiter's office, and it immediately inspired me to get to know the protagonist better. John Perry is a 70-something man who enrolled in the military to fight a war in the Colonies. He knows very well that once he leaves Earth, he'll never be able to come back, nor to send a message to his loved ones. For all purposes, military recruits are considered dead by the Earth society. More than that, nobody on Earth has any idea what the Colony worlds are like. At best, they suspect there are alien races and unimaginably advanced technologies. The only reason huge numbers of 70-somethings venture into the complete unknown is because they are convinced the technology of the Colonies will give them new bodies and significantly extend their life span. They figure it has to be true because an ordinary 70-year-old is not too fit to be a warrior.

The beginning of the novel does a good job of drawing you in. I was hooked at the point where the John and his friends reasoned out, from hints and glimpses and inconsistencies, that the world in the Colonies must be stranger than they imagine. At that realization I was rearing to go along for a ride with the protagonist.

The world out there turns out be strange, but unfortunately not in very interesting or profound ways. Sure, the rejuvenating treatment the new recruits undergo is quite shocking, but perhaps it would have been less so if they had read more science fiction ;-) It's not entirely original. Other than that, the strangeness of the Colonies comes mostly from all sorts of bizarre alien species living out there. The middle third of the book describes John's romp through all those alien worlds and species. Obviously he goes there not as a tourist but a soldier, and his exposure to alien cultures consists mostly of blowing them up. By his nature he's not very happy to do that, or to see his friends getting killed. But this inner dissonance does not do very much to advance the story. It still feels like some kind of Gulliver's travels-kind of tour of the bizarre, only without the satire. At that point the story stagnated and I wasn't very sure if it will take off again.

Towards the end the story regains its momentum when John meets Jane Sagan and forms an unusual, tension-fraught relationship with her. An interesting aspect to Jane's character is that despite being physically an adult, she, like other Special Forces members, is technically only 6 years old (she was born in an adult body). Thus, some of her emotional responses are like a 6-year-old's. I have to say I found it a bit illogical that individuals with emotional maturity of children would be trained to have the lethal superpowers, such as Special Forces members. Still, it's an interesting point to ponder. Another thing about the warriors of the Ghost Brigades that rang fake to me was that they secrectly longed for birth families they never had and fantasized about what their childhoods might have been like. They felt inferior for not having grown up the ordinary way. I did not find that believable. To be curious about what it's like to grow up in a family -- sure; but to feel inadequate for having missed that -- hardly. It reminded me of many classic SF stories where robots, despite being smarter and more capable than humans, wanted nothing more than to actually be human. Because you know, being human is by default superior to any mode of existence. Jane's predicament seemed similarly disingenuous.

Regardless, "Old Man's War" is a fun read, if you don't expect much depth from it.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Joe Haldeman "Forever Peace": book review

I read this book because Joe Haldeman was a special guest at the ArmadilloCon 2008. I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise, because I wasn't too impressed with his much better known novel, "Forever War". Yet I was pleasantly surprised.

Not only "Forever Peace" is not a sequel to "Forever War": it's not even set in the same future. The only thing they have in common is that there is an endless war going on in both, but in "Peace" it's confined to Earth. Oh, and "Forever Peace" actually has a plot, which alone puts it head and shoulders above "Forever War". It's also not ridden with anachronisms. More than that, the political and cultural picture of the world portrayed in "Forever Peace" feels so much like our own it's hard to believe it was written before some key events that defined the current political climate. There is an amorphous war against ill-defined "rebels"; there are religious fanatics hoping to bring about the end of the world; there is even a high energy particle accelerator, which prompts fears that it will destroy the universe by accidentally creating an exotic form of matter that would swallow all conventional matter. It's as if Joe Haldeman was peering through a magic looking glass into our decade.

Well, not quite, since the particle collider is in Jupiter's orbit.

And there are other technological advances in "Forever Peace" that are way beyond our current state of technology (otherwise this wouldn't be science fiction). The most important of them, on which the premise of the book depends, is the concept of jacking, or brain-to-brain interfaces that allow people to exchange thoughts, emotions, memories, and all kinds of mental states. While this is nothing new in science fiction, this concept is explored more thoroughly in "Forever Peace" than I've seen in any other book (maybe I just don't read much? :-)). The book examines its impact on global scale (e.g. changing the way wars are conducted), and on the characters' personal lives. As the book goes on, the consequences of brain interfaces escalate beyond practical and into purely revolutionary. The main scientific innovation described in the book is also critical in resolution of the conflict on which the plot hinges. This is what I ideally expect from science fiction, and "Forever Peace" delivers.

The characters are interesting too. They cross typical gender, race, and occupation lines. There is a young black man who divides his time between teaching college physics AND fighting in the war against the "rebels". (He had the back luck to be drafted.) His girlfriend is a physics professor, a white woman 15 years his senior. Between the two of them and their friends, they are an interesting bunch. These are definitely some real, non-cookie-cutter people.

The only drawback of this book, in my opinion, that the plot arc takes too long to take off. It takes over a 100 pages for the main conflict to be set up. Not that those first 100 pages are boring -- they are full of interesting stuff that tells you a lot about the society the action takes place in. It's just at first you don't necessarily get a feeling that the book is going anywhere -- it's as if you are just watching characters living their lives.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Mamma Mia": movie impression

I saw "Mamma Mia". Don't know if I would side with the reviewers who said it was a stupid movie, or with those who found it great fun. ABBA's songs remain as catchy now as they were when I first heard them as a child. But the action between the songs is the problem. When I see people acting very stupid, I feel embarrassed for them. Well, unless they deliberately act stupid and I know I'm supposed to laugh at them, as in any Rowan Atkinson movie, then it's funny. But in "Mamma Mia" you were supposed not to laugh but to sympathize with them. And yet the antics of both the girl's and Meryl Streep characters made me cringe. And it doesn't matter that Steve said the only purpose of the characters' existence was to set up situations where they could break out into an appropriate ABBA song. I realize that. But when I see people on the screen, I can't help but judge them as if they are real and supposed to make sense. Unlike my 3-year-old, I can't tell myself "it's just fortend." :-)

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Friday, September 19, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Stump the Panel

Here is my last, stray post from ArmadilloCon 2008. On "Stump the Panel" the panelists are supposed to come up with mundane and science-fictional uses for objects supplied by the audience. Indeed, in Rhonda Eudaly's, S. Andrew Swann's, and Lou Antonelli's imagination things like a pen, a nail file, a little red thing that evaded detection, and a box of Tictacs become something completely different. Especially the nail file. Rhonda had to restrain her imagination regarding this object, because there were children in the audience. :-)

And here is an article about a "Stump the Panel" from the ArmadilloCon 2006. That one was longer, funnier and more imaginative, mostly thanks to James P. Hogan. Ah well, maybe we'll have one of those again some day.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Software to extract meaning out of life's trivia

Here's a very interesting article in Washington Post, that ties in to some degree with Clive Thompson's article on ambient awareness (discussed in my previous blog post):

Bytes of Life: For Every Move, Mood and Bodily Function, There's a Web Site to Help You Keep Track

It reflects a lot of my own thoughts about what part data plays in our lives, and how it could let us get much more out of life.

"In San Diego, statistics student David Horn [...] is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

I would like to have these guys' job. They want to track and record everything -- everything that happens in their lives, down to (or especially) the most mundane events.

It's been known for a long time, and a recent study confirmed, that keeping a diary recording every bite they ate helped people to lose weight. And therapists recommend people who have trouble sleeping to record what they ate, drank, and did before sleep, to see if a trend emerges that shows a correlation between certain foods / activities and insomnia. Also, keeping track of your time minute-by-minute -- writing down all activities, no matter how mundane -- may allow you to see where all your time goes, if you feel you have no time for anything in your life. So there is a well-established practical use for navel-gazing, that predates the internet. And the internet made it infinitely easier to record your daily events, both the kind you do consciously (Brightkite for tracking your location, for driving habits, to map food intake and calorie expenditure, for listening habits, and even BedPost for sex life), and the kind your body does autonomously (sites for tracking heart rate and blood glucose levels, or the self-explanatory :-))

But these two researchers want to take it much further.

Tracking not just what you did, but what you got out of it

[...] David Horn already belongs to BrightKite, and, which tracks his Internet usage. He's also experimented with to map food intake and calorie expenditure. It was satisfying for a while, but now he wants something bigger -- something simultaneously broader and more nitpicky -- to fill in the gaps that individual sites don't currently track.

Horn is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

"I'd like to track the people I talk to," says Brewster, "and how inspired I am six hours later. And definitely location history -- where I am, what time -- "

"Correlated with weather history," interjects Horn. "And allergy data, pollen and mold in the air."

Plus, "Web sites I read and their effect," says Brewster. "If I spend a long time reading a blog, like TechCrunch, but I don't get noticeable output from it."

At first the author of this article is boggled by this level of self-indulgent navel-gazing, but then she seems to understand what it is about. The usefulness of tracking is of course not in the raw data (who would have the time to re-read their life at the same pace as they are living it? :-)) but in extracting trends that would help you correlate perceptions with facts.

Has it really been a month since you last had sex, or does it just feel like that? Did you really floss five times last week, or was it more like twice? Now that you realize that, are you a little less angry at your dentist for that painful last appointment?

Analysis of mundane events reveals profound trends in one's life

Self-tracking [...] is partly about the recording, but also as much about the analysis that goes on after the recording.

The apparent meaninglessness of data recorded over time is actually what makes it profound.

The problem with diaries and blogs, trackers say, is that people use them to record the events they think are meaningful. What they forget is that meaningful events are often a result of months of insignificance, a cause and effect not readily visible to the human eye but easily detected with the help of a computer program.

"Things that happen over time can lead up to bigger events," says Horn. "They may seem small by themselves, but looking at them as a whole I can see how they lead to a bigger theme or idea."

"I was always a terrible self-journaler," says Messina. "Every once in a while I'd write in a journal, but it was always a major, momentous event. 'Got to college.' 'Broke up with girlfriend.' You lose a lot of the nuance that caused that situation to come about."

Tracking can "zoom out over my entire life," he says. It could, for example, help him better understand the aforementioned breakup. "When you've self-documented the course of an entire relationship, trivia that doesn't seem like much could, over time," help him understand exactly what went wrong, and when.

Maybe, to extrapolate on Messina's idea, your weekly date night had been Friday. And maybe you were always in a tetchy mood on Fridays because you'd just come from chem lab, which you hated. Maybe the whole relationship could have been saved by switching date night to Sunday, after your endorphin-boosting yoga class. Maybe you just didn't realize the pattern, because you weren't tracking it. All the answers could be right there, in your life data.

We can extrapolate even further. Perhaps the tracking software, if it was sophisticated enough, could notice increasing frequency and viciousness of arguments between you and your significant other, increasing frequency and length of time spent apart, and things like that. The software could flag it to you as a warning sign that the relationship is in danger. Then you could take steps to get it back on track. You might say most people don't need software to tell them when their relationship is off track; however, I think people often ignore warning signs -- sometimes wilfully, sometimes out of inertia. Inertia certainly plays a huge part in everything we do. We would rather keep a mental image of things as they were at their most comfortable, or downplay the significance of worrisome events, than acknowledge the truth that something is going astray. Life-tracking software could point out discrepancies between our partner's words and actions. It could force us to pay attention to those signs before it is too late.

The software could also give us tools to defuse certain recurring arguments which, if unexamined, tend to pick up destructive strength like a hurricane crossing the Gulf of Mexico. :-) You could look at the software and say: "we've had this discussion before; here is what was said; here is the conclusion we have reached. Do you have any new information that would give us a reason to revisit this issue?"

Of course, there are a lot of people -- most people, perhaps -- who would hate the idea of having their every word or phrase recorded, and of those records being resurrected as evidence (even by people they trust). I'm sure some people might think it diminishes their relationship somehow. But how could truth diminish it? Anyway, that's a social engineering problem, though those are often harder than computer engineering. Among the latter, a major problem would be to find a way to structure the data so as to capture its essential qualities. For example, how would you compute the intensity of the four horsemen of Apocalypse (made famous by John Gottman): Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling? How do you quantify formless, deeply subjective data? How do you even decide what to measure? It would be a tough task, but one I would gladly spend years working on, if I didn't have to worry about making a living. :-)

In fact, if I had come of age at the time of Web 2.0., I would seriously consider going to grad school so that I could do this project as my thesis / dissertation. I would probably find a professor somewhere in some university who could get interested in this idea enough to serve as my advisor. (I've seen people in computer science departments doing stranger projects than that. Or if not in computer science, then surely in the interdisciplinary studies. :-))

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Ambient awareness, digital ESP

There is a great article by Clive Thompson in New York Times magazine:

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

that explains the appeal of Twitter. Like many people, when I first heard of Twitter, and even long after I signed up for it, I thought it was pretty useless. At the very least it seemed useless for verbose bloggers like me, who don't like to post mere facts or sound-bite opinions without context or analysis (and you can't provide much analysis in 140 characters). But, as Clive Thompson says, the constant stream of friends' tweets provides an "ambient awareness" of daily rhythms of friends' lives. To quote the article, "It is very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does -- body language, sighs, stray comments -- out of the corner of your eye."

Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends' updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like "I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus"; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich -- and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends' lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they'd scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update -- each individual bit of social information -- is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like "a type of E.S.P.," as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

I'm beginning to feel that way about it too. And it's good for those fleeting observations that are not meaty enough to warrant a blog post. I might even change my mind about whether such observations do not reveal someone's personality better than well-thought-out blog posts. (If anyone wonders, my Twitter ID is elze.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Campfire Stories

Joe Haldeman and Joe Lansdale told a few good stories ot the Campfire Stories panel, which took place on Saturday night in a darkened room. The four panelists were seated around a beautiful fake campfire. Joe Lansdale had entertained us Austin fans with his storytelling before at Nebula awards. The point of his Toastmaster's speech was how Texas is so weird it can't help but churn out great numbers of science fiction writers. He illustrated it with a story about the time an epileptic woman visited his house. It can be found in my article on Nebula wards ceremony. He recalled it here at the Campfire panel, as well as other incidents from his life. He shed some light on his family background, which kind of explained how he acquired all that colorful life experience. :-) Joe Haldeman was not to be outdone. I'll post only one of his stories here, as the other might contain a bit too many controversial details. ;-)

Joe Haldeman's story

One day Joe Haldeman was riding his bicycle home from a grocery store in his neighborhood in Florida. (I did not quite understand whether his neighborhood was in a "good" or "bad" part of town.) In these most mundane of circumstances (oh, and yay Joe for using a non-polluting form of transportation!) he got shot by a man in a passing car. The car sped away. The shot wounded him in the butt, but the wound wasn't very serious. He managed to bike home, then had his wife take him to the emergency room. The X-ray showed constellations of old schrapnel wounds. The X-ray technicians asked Haldeman: dude, which one is new? They couldn't tell, and neither could he. Thinking the wound wasn't serious, he declined surgery. He was afraid of surgeons more than of getting shot. The ER professionals replied: "dude, you don't know where that bullet is now! It went into your butt, by this time it can be in your brain!"

Once they figured out which of the multiple wounds showing up on the X-ray was the new one -- it looked round from several different angles -- the surgeon agreed it was better not to operate, since he would have to cut so deep into the flesh it would cause more harm than good. "But if you leave the bullet alone..." he gestured to the X-ray: "what's one more spot to a leopard?"

Joe Lansdale's story

Joe Lansdale's first experience with violence happened when he was 5. He had a little dog with who he bonded very deeply; they were like brothers, going everywhere together, and eating out of each other's dishes. A neighbor once saw Joe's dog digging in his flower bed, so he whacked the dog in the head with a pipe, grabbed him by hind legs and tossed him in a ditch -- all that while Joe was watching. Devastated, the boy went home and told his mother, who then went out, found a phone (they didn't have one at home) and called Joe's father. The father came home and headed straight to the neighbor's house. When the neighbor answered a knock on the door, Joe's father said nothing, just hit the guy really hard in the face. When the guy collapsed, the father took him by the ankles and swung him across the flower bed until the flower bed was completely flat. Then he tossed the guy in the ditch. His method of revenge was ironic, Joe said, because Joe had not told him that this was exactly what the guy did to the dog.

Surprisingly, the dog survived and lived until Joe was 17 years old. The neighbor survived too, but moved shortly afterwards. Back then people weren't so eager to sue as they are now, Joe said -- in fact, the neighbor would have been mortified to let the public know he had the hell beaten out of him. So he moved.

Joe Lansdale talked at length about his father, adding details that puts this story in context. His father was a carnival wrestler and boxer. He could bend coins with his bare hands. He could squeeze an apple with his hand to a pulp. People who tried to take advantage of him did not try to do it twice. One time, when he worked as an automechanic, a guy tried to take his car back without paying for the work; Joe's father knocked the guy out so badly, the guy forgot he had a car to begin with. Joe told of a few more episodes of his father solving conflicts with his fists, scaring poor Joe to death, and making even the local cops fear him. The only person he was scared of was Joe's mother.

After Haldeman and Lansdale spun their yarn, there was a moment of silence, until Bill Crider said: "I once stepped on a gum." He and Scott Cupp seemed a little embarrassed they did not have anything to top Haldeman's and Lansdale's tall tales.