Sunday, June 29, 2008

Charles Stross "Glasshouse": FACT reading group discussion

13 people attended the FACT reading group discussion of "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross. Everybody but 1 person has read Stross before. 11 people started the book, about half of the people finished it.

"Glasshouse" is set in the same universe as Stross' earlier far-future novel "Accelerando". To quote an review, the protagonist Robin "is one of millions who have had a mind wipe, to forget wartime memories that are too painful -- or too dangerously inconvenient for someone else. To evade the enemies who don't think his mind wipe was enough, Robin volunteers to live in the experimental Glasshouse, a former prison for deranged war criminals that will recreate Earth's "dark ages" (c. 1950 -- 2040). Entering the community as a female, Robin is initially appalled by life as a suburban housewife, then he realizes the other participants are all either retired spies or soldiers. Worse yet, fragments of old memories return, extremely dangerous in the Glasshouse, where the experimenters' intentions are as murky as Robin's grasp of his own identity."

Future shock -- from uncomfortable to hilarious

Since all the characters participate in a full-time social experiment, the readers thought the setting resembled Big Brother, The Prisoner, and The Sims game.

One reader called this plot device Gulliver travel. Just like an Englishman Gulliver traveled into the Lilliputian lands and put his experiences with them into a framework we can understand, a far future person (Robin) traveled into the past (our world) and told us how it looks like from his perspective. Robin / Reeve was more than a bit shocked by our reality, and it was amusing to see what shocked him / her. Stross does a good job to make the reader feel strange about things we've been taking for granted. For example, Reeve's first look at the bathroom in her 20th century-style house makes her think that the bathroom has crashed, because all the appliances remain extruded. Apparently in the far future appliances retract into the walls when not in use. Some readers found this scene hilarious. Also, Robin / Reeve's perspective made me feel abnormal to have an "ortho" body that can't take different shapes, the way far future humans' bodies do.

Not everybody felt that way, though. Some readers didn't like it that the characters switched their gender "all the time" (twice, actually, but that was two times too many for some people), or were dubious that the characters would be as comfortable in the body of opposite sex as they were in their originally chosen sex.

Others liked the ramifications of gender switching. A reader said: "if I'm in the universe where bodies are malleable, and I fall in love with you, to what degree it's mental chemistry and to what degree it's physical chemistry? I found that thing highly entertaining." She was also entertained by Robin / Reeve's outrage at discovering that an orthohuman female body she was given had no upper body strength.

In any case, the characters of "Glasshouse" are likeable and transparent. I'm not sure, though, if "Glasshouse" doesn't seem too simple to me, compared to the strangeness of "Singularity Sky" or the far-reaching ideas of "Accelerando". While "Glasshouse" uses the technology described in "Accelerando", in this book it is merely a backdrop or furniture. On the other hand, this book actually reads like a novel, with real characters, as opposed to popular science essay collection with talking puppets, like "Accelerando".

Sheds the light on mechanics of a totalitarian state

Some people who lived in the 50s were impressed how Stross got many things right about the 50s, especially considering he wasn't alive back then. "He really nailed the small town, neo-Victoriana fundamentalist mind set of the 50s," said a reader. "To me, the 1950s were not a time of jolliness and fun, they were time of being afraid of the government. And having a lot of nosy adults sticking their noses into my affairs".

I don't know about the 50s, but I can say that "Glasshouse" painted a very convincing picture of how an authoritarian state comes into being. The social engineering by which peer pressure works to support a dictatorship, causing even well-meaning people to become enforcers of an authoritarian government, was portrayed brilliantly. The "Church" in the novel serves no other purpose than to keep people in line, and a reader observed that that's exactly what the purpose of real-life churches in small towns seems to be. The same reader also praised Stross for noting how certain parts of Christian liturgy can be very frightening to someone looking at it from an outside.

Some people said "Glasshouse" took them a while to get into. Some futuristic details, such as time measured in kiloseconds, megaseconds, etc., slowed down some readers' progress. One reader was nearly ready to give up after having to interrupt the story again and again to convert megaseconds or gigaseconds into our conventional units of time (even though a conversion table is provided in the book).

But when the book got going, it became fun, people said. The ending was thought to be brilliant by some, and cheesy by others.

A controversial ending, and other SPOILERS!!!

One reader said the last 60 pages where everything changed blew her brain. "I thought it was really terrific," she said. "I reread that whole section twice. I think it takes a real skill for a writer to pull a rug from under the reader." Another reader wasn't too impressed. She said "the end just made me laugh. How cheesy is this! It turned into romance. I was totally shocked and entertained by this. I think Stross has a really twisted sense of humor." She refers to the twist at the end where a certain character sacrifices his / her life, and then it turns out that the character backed themselves up beforehand, so the whole idea of their sacrifice is turned on its head.

I liked the ending; I thought Stross struck a perfect balance between happy and realistic. The resolution is not what an optimist would expect, but neither does it end badly. One reader had an hypothesis, that the whole Glasshouse experiment might actually have been a front for a therapy session, because everybody in the Glasshouse was very damaged from the war. That's an interesting idea, since it would explain the cheesy ending, but I'm not sure the rest of the book supports it.

While the plot of "Glasshouse" kept me engaged, in some places it suffers from a weakness that's sometimes referred to "a plot that only succeeds because everyone acts like an idiot". Well, not everyone. Just the rulers of the Glasshouse. Why did they put the T-gate (or A-gate, whatever that thing in the library was called), under so little security that Robin could discover it by simply making a copy of a key? Why did the really important stuff have to be stored in the library, where the Glasshouse inhabitants could stumble upon it? The rulers could have just as easily stored in a place no one except them knew about. Robin's gaining access to special technology seemed too easy.

On the plus side, there is a plot twist in "Glasshouse" that showcases an interesting storytelling technique. At first, Robin / Reeve is the only person person in Glasshouse who understands what's going on. I got so used to her competence and her firm grasp of reality, that when she became brainwashed, I did not immediately understand that brainwashing occurred; I started to wonder if perhaps she gained some different insight that showed her that cooperation, not fight, is best. So Stross really fooled me by suddenly making Reeve an unreliable narrator. (Later, of course, everything returns to their proper places. :-))

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A brief fantasy of a web application

that I might like to write as a hobby if my day was three times as long...

If your spouse thinks your child is poorly behaved, while you think your child's behavior is fairly good for her age, how do you decide where the truth lies? Is one of you too lax, or does the other has unrealistic expectations for a 3-year-old? The truth may lie in a large scale study that would let one compare their child's behavior against that of thousands of other children of the same age. Where would one easily come across such data? Why, that's where internet and social networks come into play.

There could be a web-based application that allowed a parent to record a child's daily tantrums, as well as episodes of good behavior. Then it could draw various statistical conclusions from those numbers. At the very least it would let a parent to discover where their child falls on the curve of his or her peers. This would, of course, require many parents' participation. They would need to track every instance of their offspring's good or bad behavior: every tantrum, every "please" and "thank you", and so on.

Mind-numbingly tedious? You bet. But, if the latest explosion of social web applications is any indication, people like to do mind-numbingly tedious things, as long as they get to do them on the internet. :-) Well, a certain category of people do. Witness the popularity of Twitter. If people don't get tired of posting what they ate for lunch, some of the same people might become just as obsessive about posting their child's behavioral microupdates. And of course they don't have to be at a computer for that. A text messaging-enabled cell phone is enough.

The internet indeed has a way of converting tedious chores into games. It's a quality that's already been leveraged by such applications as Chore Wars, where players get points for chores they do. Once you get stoked about beating fellow players, you don't even notice that you've finished cleaning your kitchen! Indeed humans (or a certain category of humans) are all about keeping scores. So an application that exploits this urge has a potential to do well.

And let's not forget that parenting is a competitive sport anyway -- so if anyone is inclined to keep scores, parents would be among those people! :-)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

My new teh shiny!

A month ago I bought my first smartphone, an AT&T Tilt. I've been enjoying it so far, despite having a bit of a rough start with it.

The activation was a bit confusing. The box contains generic instructions for activating any AT&T phone, but not specifically the Tilt, and it does not contain separate instructions for activating an upgrade phone for those who already have AT&T wireless service and are keeping their old phone number. So I tried to activate it online, and got a message that it's already activated. But I couldn't make phone calls. So I had to call AT&T customer service, to have them activate it, which they promptly did.

Once activated, it worked like a charm

And it worked -- not just the ability to make phone calls, but also internet access and multimedia messaging. This is a big improvement over my earlier phone, a Nokia. The Nokia phone was theoretically able to send multimedia messages, but very few of them ever arrived. :-) With this one, no messages have got lost so far. Also internet access was very slow with my Nokia phone. Most pages never loaded. With this phone it's fast. It connects to 3G networks where they are available (and as far as I can tell, in Austin that's almost everywhere) and to AT&T's Edge network where 3G is not available.

The phone functionality works like a regular phone, so I won't talk much about it.

The interface is intuitive and user-friendly

The interface is intuitive and user-friendly. Any action I've wanted to do so far has been completely obvious. Partly it's because this phone uses Windows Mobile operating system; I should probably be ashamed of myself for using Windows, but I could not find any other phone that had all the functionality Tilt has, and didn't cost an arm and a leg. (Since I got a refurbished Tilt, it cost me less than $200.) As much as it is fashionable to hate Windows, this phone Just Works. :-)

The only learning curve that this phone has imposed on me is finding out is how to perform most operations with the keyboard instead of a stylus. I don't like using a stylus much: alternate between tapping the stylus and pressing keys is not very ergonomic and slows me down. (The same way it is inefficient to alternate between keyboard and mouse of a regular computer, which is why I'm big on keyboard shortcuts). Plus, styluses get lost so easily. You can't hold one in your hand when you type: you have to find a place to put it down. And that's how they get easily lost.

WiFi and camera

In addition to 3G connectivity, AT&T Tilt also has WiFi. So far I have only tried to connect to wireless access points that don't require encryption. If I were to connect to a password-protected access point, it shouldn't be a problem, since a new connection screen gives you an option to enter a password. However, my wireless router at home requires a MAC address of a device in order to allow it to connect. If I needed a MAC address of my Tilt, I would have to do some research to find it (perhaps only as far as the user manual -- I don't know. I haven't had much need to connect to an encrypted access point. At home, after all, I can use my regular laptop.)

The camera is adequate, for a cell phone. It's slow; as a result, pictures are blurry. The shutter lag is huge; it also seems to take an eternity to focus on the subject. At least it is like that with default settings. I twiddled with settings a bit, but it did not improve. And I don't think I'll twiddle more, because I've just bought a new digital camera and won't be using my phone camera much. I noticed, though, that the Tilt camera has a burst mode, among other things; that's nice, but the pictures in the burst mode come out nearly postage stamp-sized (320x240) and even more blurry than in the "regular" mode. I was a bit more satisfied with the Sports mode. It lets you take pictures in quick succession, like the Burst mode, but the pictures are 640 x 480 and about the same quality as regular.

Miscellaneous quibbles

I haven't tried some of the features of this phone that may be very important for people who use it for work. It's supposed to be able to access your mail, calendar, contacts, etc. from your corporate Exchange server, but I only use it for personal use, so I'll never know.

Synchronization between Tilt and a Windows computer works well, although initial instructions on how to set it up are a bit confusing.

One little quibble I have with this phone is that when its screen goes black (to conserve power), it does not respond to any key presses. You have to press the power button to "wake up" the phone, any other key will be just ignored. This was a problem for me when I was setting up my voice mailbox. Setting up a voice mailbox is a tedious task as you listen to pre-recorded instructions and press various keys in response to voice prompts. This process takes long enough that the screen goes black between one step and the next one. At some point the instructions ask you to enter your password. You start entering it and the screen goes black. You think that maybe pressing another key will light it up -- this would be only intuitive, no? I'm too used to "press any key" behavior of regular computers. :-) But no, it does not light up, and the keys you pressed have no effect; the phone does not recognize key presses when the screen is black. But the phone is not "asleep" (whatever that would mean), because your call does not get disconnected. The instruction robot keeps jabbering at you to enter your password. So there is this cognitive disconnect: you are still on a call, but your phone keys have stopped working. It did not immediately become clear to me that they stop working when the screen goes black, much less that the only way to get them working again is to press the power key. I was so confused by this at first that I called AT&T customer service to help me with this. Then I realized what I was doing wrong and unconfused myself. :-)

Speaking of AT&T customer service, I've had only good experiences with them (not just regarding Tilt, but throughout the 4 years of me being AT&T customer). They answer the call quickly, are polite, and make sure they resolved your problem to your satisfaction.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Alistair Reynolds "Revelation Space": book review

In short, it's a spectacular space opera. One of the best I've ever read. Actually, it was one of the most exciting SF books I've read in the last few years. Not the deepest or most original, but... exciting. A book that literally makes your heart race as you turn the pages!

Manipulative aliens in your mind...

Still, I believe that to get the most enjoyment out of it you have to be a fan of a particular set of science fictional tropes. If mysterious, super-powerful aliens who set up shop in people's heads and manipulate them to their own unfathomable purposes is your thing, you'll probably like this book. It is very much my thing, so this book was a feast for me. Extra points if the alien races have evocative, tantalizing names like Pattern Jugglers or Shrouders. Pattern Jugglers restructure your brain to make your thought patterns identical to those of another race. Shrouders... well, their function is more mysterious. You'll have to read the book to find out why they are called that.

I also like a coherent plot, where all subplots and threads come together in the end, everything happens for a reason, and all characters serve a purpose. "Revelation Space" is very tight in that respect. The tension did not let up throughout the book.

... which of them should you believe?

What kept me engaged with the story was that I didn't know until the very end which of the aliens could be trusted and which ones were to be feared. Actually, no: all of them were to be feared. None of them were really on the humanity's side. The only difference is whether they were willing to leave us alone, or not. It took me the length of the book to figure out who was plotting what against what. The human protagonists were just as confused as me. But unlike me, they had to figure stuff out while experiencing lethal attacks oh, about every five minutes! The aliens were none too gentle with the humans, shooting first and not even asking questions later.

As much as humans tried to puzzle out the intentions of their "puppetmasters", they still ended up mostly as puppets a lot of the time, though not for the lack of initiative. The characters were all very tough and smart, and did their best to play the game on their terms; however, intentions of superancient, superpowerful intelligences can be extremely difficult to fathom. In fact our characters got the only glimpse of those intentions when the superpowers decided to reveal some of the cards. The "puppetmasters" did that to convince their proteges to fight on their side, because apparently coercion alone didn't work as well. So we the readers find out the truth only from infodumps. Even then we can't possibly know whose infodump we can trust.

Tight plot, spectacular action

However, the convoluted plot in "Revelation Space" does not lead to frustration, but only makes the story more tantalizing. Probably because it hangs together by tight logic. I no longer take that for granted: I've read enough science fiction books lately where the vagaries of the plot betray the author's uncertainty of what the characters should do next. It made me more appreciative of books like "Revelation Space" where the plot seems very well thought out.

And even if it's a bit too twisted in some places, the action is so spectacular you can read this book purely for the visuals. :-) Very early into the book we find out how to kill a person using a spaceship flying at a near-relativistic speed as a weapon. No, it's not like using a nuclear missile to swat a fly. :-) The person to be killed is inside the spaceship. The murder is accomplished by placing the victim in an elevator shaft that goes along the length of the ship, and manipulating the physical characteristics of the flying ship to crush the victim. Quite impressive.

So -- mystery, intrigue, explosions, suspense, world-destroying weapons, the fate of the universe hanging by a thread, tough characters with posthuman enhancements (and 2 out of 3 main characters are women!) -- this book has it all. A very enjoyable, thrilling ride.