Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This Week at the Library (12/11)

Books this Update:
I began this week with World Made By Hand, written by James Kunstler. Kunstler is a social critic who spoke at my university a few weeks back, and his lecture was on "Life After Peak Oil". Kunstler predicted all manner of dire things occurring to us after we ran out of oil, and his ideas are fairly reasonable in the event that we do run out of oil before we're able to find a new way of maintaining normalcy within a range. He's very big on the idea that we're not going to maintain normalcy, that our present society is doomed to collaspe and that this will happen in the next twenty to thirty years.

World Made By Hand is written in the kind of world where our society has vanished. War over what little oil is left destablizes the geopolitical scene. While Kunstler is not very specific about what exactly happens, we know that war comes to the so-called "Holy Land". Since humanity can no longer ship food, manufactured goods, or the supplies from which those goods are made across vast distances -- our transfer trucks and modern ships depending so much on oil -- globalization ends. Economies -- and life itself -- become more local. More of the population works on farms, people begin to become aristans again, and we find ourselves in a world that is somewhere between the high middle ages and the old American west. Disease has ravaged the population, ostensibly because innoculations are no longer available.

Kunstler's story is set in the small town of Union Grove, which is near Albany in what used to be known as New York. His main character is Robert Earle, a former executive who is now the town carpenter. Union Grove has three major population centers: the town itself with democratically-elected officials, a trailer park town surrounding the dump ruled by a criminal warlord who is a New York redneck, and Bullock's plantation. The beginning of the book sees a religious sect led by the charismatic and folksy Brother Jobe. The sect -- the "New Faithers" -- provide Union Grove's townsfolk with a lot of extra manpower something that's more important -- the willingness to do stuff. The New Faithers have seen the shape the rest of the country is in, and they plan to make Union Grove a "New Jerusalem". World Made By Hand is the story of these people during one long and particularly hot summer in their new world they are 'making by hand'.

Kunstler's world is...somewhat romantic, in that the people face a lot of adversity but make it through with hard work and stubborn effort. Does that really happen? Human beings are far from ideal creatures. I'd like to believe we could make it through such a new dark age, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it's an interesting read -- even if you think Kunstler is just using it to scare people into better urban planning.

Next I read a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, all featuring robots or computers. There were a number of repeats, but considering the author, I didn't really mind. Asimov begins the book with an introduction, saying that these stories were written in the 40s and 50s and thus may seem dated by contemporary standards -- although some of his predictions have come to past. In "The Martian Way", for instance, he writes about a spacewalk even though no one had ever walked -- or floated, rather -- in space before. A few favorites:
  • "The Feeling of Power" is one of my favorites. People have completely forgotten how to do ordinary math, so dependent on computers are they. Earth is at war with the planet Deneb, which is similarly addicted to computers and is probably settled by humans. Then a lowly technician realizes he can do math in his head, which has implications for the war effort.
  • "Little Lost Robot" deals with robots at a hyperstation. It features Susan Calvin, Asimov's first female and one of his most memorable characters. One robot with a superiority complex is told to "get lost" and promptly does so -- compromising the security of Earth's hyperspace program and possibly the future of robotics.
  • "Franchise" is one of the more interesting stories, because it predicts the importance of voting machines. Asimov wrote this in 1955, remember. In Asimov's future -- in our reality, November 2008 -- Multivac has come to control the elections by analyzing data and coming to a rational prediction about who the elecorate would vote for -- if they were in fact to vote. So complex has Multivac become by 2008 that it only needs to ask a few questions of one voter to come to its decision. This voter is apparantly chosen by Multivac to be the most represenative of all his citizens. He is informed thusly: "Mr. Norman Muller, it is necessary for me to inform you on the behalf of the President of the United States that you have been chosen to represent the American elecorate on Tuesday, November 4, 2008". Considering the week I happened to read this in, you can imagine what I found so interesting about it.
Robot Dreams was of course interesting. I enjoyed almost every story in it, with an exception or two. Even if you've read some of these before, I recommend the reading.

Having a pick of the week this week would be fairly pointless, as I only read two books. I still have papers to work on, so once again my weekly reading will be a bit...suppressed.

Next Week:
  • Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel : Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Possibly: it still hasn't shipped yet, even though I requested it on Friday.

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