Friday, August 31, 2018

The Believing Brain

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths
© 2011 Michael Shermer
400 pages

The human brain is an incredible organ, capable of storing vast amounts of information and using that information creativity, to change the world and to fascinate itself.  It is also a belief-making engine. In The Believing Brain, psychologist and skeptic Michael Shermer examines the nature of belief and the biology which sustains it. He then applies lessons learned there to evaluate human beliefs in politics, religion,  and the paranormal.

Most readers will have heard the expression that there is a thin line between genius and insanity. The Believing Brain bears this out, because the same abilities of the brain that allow for creativity, insight, and wisdom can lead to conspiracies and schizophrenia.  Human intelligence is based on the ability of our brains to discern patterns:  to associate a noise or a smell in the wild with a looming predator, to interpret behavior as safe or hostile. Because the biological incentives for robust pattern-detection are great -- literally life and death  -- humans are extraordinarily good at it, to the point that we see things that aren't there, like human faces in Mars or in whorls in wood.  The same pattern-making ability that allowed early farmers to plan their labors by the seasons also led them to believing the position of the sun in the sky at the time of their birth meant good or ill.

Another key concept of the early book is the pervasive tendency for humans to believe there's a force behind the patterns -- an agent.  Early on Shermer addressees dualism, which in this context refers to a divide between the mind and the body.   Shermer's most recent publication, Heavens on Earth, rebukes (among other things) the transhumanist fantasy of downloading brains into computers and achieving life eternal.   The brain and our minds are inseparable, Shermer states; every aspect of our personalities has a physical cause within the cranium, and it's a little disconcerting to realize at first.  Just as we think of a ghost in the machine -- a discrete Mind controlling the body -- we tend to look for a purpose behind the connections we see, inventing conspiracies . We all experience this -- a stray thought that the universe is plotting against us when the traffic lights are all red during a trip made in haste.  Our brains continually invent stories to explain what happens; even if a person's nervous system is manipulated by outside lab equipment,  prompting them to suddenly stand up,  the subject will instantly invent a reason why he stood up -- "I wanted to get a Coke".

Shermer has previously examined beliefs like alien abductions, conspiracies, etc. in detail, using books like Why People Believe Weird Things. Here he dissects them again in brief, but chiefly as as an extension of the aforementioned discussion on patterns and agency.  Shermer believes that alien abductions and conspiracies have erupted in part to fill the vacuum created by secularization.  Societies were once bound together by religions which gave the cosmos and the beings within it meaning; now, many people are led to recreate that sense of meaning  by attaching themselves to causes which are part of a grand narrative of the world.

Crucial to understanding belief -- any belief -- is that emotions precede reason.   Whatever our pretensions, human beings are not rational creatures who approach a subject, collect facts, and then determine whether this or that policy is effective, or this suspicion is valid.   Instead, we lean in toward ideas; we attach ourselves to things that sound good, and then support them with facts.  A disciplined mind can then correct itself  -- but we're inherently believers.  The more emotionally active our brain is at the time of encountering an idea, the less likely we are to make a rational decision.

There's an enormous amount to process in a book like this, and it recommends itself to those with an interest in lucid thinking.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Agent to the Stars

Agent to the Stars
© 1997, 2005 John Scalzi
286 pages

They're heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere.  Extraterrestrials exist, and they've been watching our television.  The good news is they don't hold it against us -- though they don't want to meet any of our politicians.  They've seen the debates.   Who are they? They are the Yherjak, an amiable race of aliens who have the misfortune of looking like giant mounds of snot. They smell like fish. And...they're aware that this will cause a little image problem in a first contact situation.   Obviously, they need a good agent to finesse things -- to maybe use Hollywood to introduce the planet the idea of repulsive-but-friendly aliens.   Such is the setup for Agent to the Stars, a wonderfully funny  light-SF tale that features sarcastic aliens,  talking dogs,  and a little Hollywood drama, including abducted paparazzi.

After reveling in the Star Trek spiff that was Redshirts,  and especially in the codas which so transformed a comic novel into something seriously touching, I looked forward to this on its premise alone. Scalzi doesn't disappoint. This is not 'serious' science fiction, or anything close to it;  our aliens are smelly blobs of goo that have learned everything they know on Earth by watching TV, and their language is laced with culture references and sitcom quips.  Their interactions with humans --  main character Tom Stein, rising talent agent, is not the first -- have helped them put things into perspective, and to realize that  people don't spontaneously have conversations in which they recommend laxatives to one another while watching TV --  but  their fanboy passion for television makes them goofy fun to hang around.

This is not purely a comedic novel; as with Redshirts there are serious moments, developing late in the novel when one character is involved in a serious accident that, tragic as it is, presents an opportunity if the morality of it can be worked through.  Tangentially connected to the main story is Stein's well-meaning attempt to help one of his starlets branch out by landing her a serious role as a Holocaust survivor who later becomes a civil rights activist in the US's turbulent sixties.  The movie is a biopic about a real-world survivor-activist, and her efforts to help people see the essential humanity of one another, looking past differences in appearance and culture, obviously gives the aliens' desire to contact humanity and be received in brotherhood a little more oomph.

That aside, the novel is consistently funny throughout, and I'm going to keep poking around for more by Scalzi.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Death of a Reader

This is why I keep mine in multiple, short stacks that support each other like bricks.  

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Real Dissent

Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion
© 2014 Tom Woods
356 pages

Note: I read this in August 2016, but the review of it languished as a draft.

In most presidential elections, 2016 being an obvious outlier, Americans are presented with that most exhilarating of choices: a career bureaucrat-politician wearing a red tie, and a career bureaucrat-politician wearing a blue tie. Coke or Pepsi,  behold the variety! Tom Woods contends that the range of media-approved opinion available to Americans today is small enough to fit on an index card -- one that should be set fire to. Real Dissent is written as the match.  The book collects over a decade's worth of Woods' political debate and writing, organized into categories on war, markets, monetary policy, and other material, chosen with an eye for conversations and opinions that push the envelope -- and addressed to Americans of all political stripes.

Although the political parties gamely put on a show every two years about social issues and spending, in practice little changes regardless of who is in power. Both parties reliably support military excursions abroad, resulting in a state pf permanent war and an omnipresent surveillance state. Both are enthusiastic proponents of regulating every facet of American lives, increasing  costs and frustration, but despite their track record will still announce themselves champions of the people.   The problem goes beyond politics, however, as the traditional media tends to walk hand in hand with DC. The wars which have permanently mired American lives and resources in the middle east were promoted by the media, and views outside the establishment are only mentioned to quickly dismissed so the grey-suited grownups and go back to whether DC should bomb the Iranians or just starve them.

Woods' declared goal in destroying imposed restrictions on thought implies that he isn't merely writing to libertarians. He frequently highlights books that transcend party lines, and gives special place to Bill Kauffman, whose screenplay of Copperhead  saw a community stressed and destroyed by a feud between  two good if disagreeable men. The tragedy of of Copperhead was born because those men placed ideology above their relationship to one another as neighbors. Woods' section on the Federal Reserve includes many overtures to progressives,  as do his writings on the problems of centralization in general. He also attempts to appeal to conservatives' better angels, using the anti-war writings of the traditionalist godfather, Russell Kirk, to offer reproach..

Although the last American election saw two populist candidates challenge and -- in Trump's case, rout -- the establishment candidates,  neither of the populist figures is particularly promising  for the future of American politics given the short-lived nature of populist movements.    Personally, as much as I dislike the establishment, I don't like its present challengers much better. In a culture flooded with toxic politics, the peaceful clarity of libertarianism, rooted in as sensible and humane a conviction as we can ask for --  the golden rule --   would be welcome.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Finding My Antonia

This morning I spotted a used copy of my Antonia in a used bookstore and picked it up for the daunting price of $0.25,   having previously enjoyed Cather's works in O Pioneers! and Death Comes For the Archbishop.   Seeing it reminded me that I'd seen a news headline about the anniversary of the book's publication, and I looked it  up.   Based on the description below, it sounds promising:

My Àntonia is an antidote for much that ails the exhausted West. How is it that with our enormous wealth and comfort we are still unhappy, witnessed by the rising drug and suicide problems?  Àntonia is not a self-creator, a cosmopolitan, a world-traveler, and she is quite poor.  She ages before her time, taking on a haggard look, missing some of her teeth.  But she is happy.  With Àntonia as a model we can see that loving the place you are is essential to happiness.  The vice of acedia is not just that of “sloth” as defined by laziness or lethargy, but that of being unable, in the words of Peter Lawler, to be at home with one’s homelessness.  It is a kind of restlessness that Tocqueville put at the heart of the American condition. Flannery O’Connor opined that it is better to be someplace rather than no place. Making the best of our locale, trying to improve it, truly loving it and the people who are our neighbors, makes for a more fulfilled, contented life than one of rootless ambition.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Distractions old and new

One of Isaac Asimov's robots short stories features a curious problem:  a robot is running in circles, unresponsive to commands. The troubleshooters who feature in the story quickly realize that there's a logic conflict:  the robot's in-built orders, both to save humans and to preserve itself, cause it to advance in one direction, then retreat as the danger grows.  I've been running in circles the past week or so myself, with an array of really promising books before me --  all enticing, but none so compelling that I can fight the distraction to dabble in the others.   On the table are The Believing Brain; Where Wizards Stay Up Late-- The Origins of the Internet;  Flygirls;  Ravensbrück, Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women;  Our Only World;  and The Moral Animal. And there are more inbound, because when you can't get into what you're reading the obvious solution is more things.  It's the American way.

Speaking of buying things,  I finally succumbed to the temptation to acquire a Windows 98 retro-gaming rig.   My original intent was to re-format an old machine, but while trying  in vain to find appropriate software,  I saw someone selling a refurbished Dell for a pretty good price.  It boasts 100 GBs of hard drive space and 512 MB/RAM.  (Laughable now, but  ten times the resources of my first Windows machine.)  It booted to an error screen because the shipper inserted a floppy disk, which gave me a laugh.  Once the empty floppy was removed, I was in business. I bought the machine solely to play Star Trek Elite Force, Star Trek Armada, and Star Trek Away Team, all of which are now installed and running. Since I still have the hard drive from my defunct 2004 computer, I've imported old custom maps that can't be found online anymore..  I suppose this is the 21st equivalent of someone digging around in their attic, finding boxes of records from high school, and then buying a record player to relive their salad days.

 I've forgotten surprisingly little Windows 98 navigation, in part I think because I learned to use computers on a Windows 95 system, and my 'formative years' so to speak were using it at school and then Windows 98 at home.  It wasn't until 2004 that I began using an XP, and I didn't stop thinking outside of 9x's architecture until Windows 10 made it possible to access everything on the PC via the search bar.  That was also possible on Windows 8, but I really did not like the tiles system.  It's fine on a phone, but when I'm in front of a desktop computer, I want my DESKTOP. 

My only problem so far is finding utilities that will actually install and run: even finding files published in 97-99 which say they're compatible hasn't produced any which will run.  The lack of Winzip I can live with, and even Winamp.  Not being able to take screenshots, though, is grating. The two shots above were taken with my camera.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pirate Cinema

Pirate Cinema
© 2012 Cory Doctorow
384 pages

All Cecil B. DeVille wanted to do was make movies. He didn't mean to ruin his family's lives or start a revolution. In the not-too-distant future,  consumer electronics have concealed chips which monitor and report web activity, and when that involves streaming or downloading copyrighted material,  the reprisal is extreme: three-time offenders have their household internet connection terminated for a year.  When Cecil's hobby of downloading movies and remixing their scenes to make new stories  catches the attention of the authorities and his home loses connection, the results are devastating:  Cecil's father loses his job and his sister begins sliding into academic failure. Horrified by the repercussions, Cecil flees to the streets, there to befriend eccentrics who have dropped out of society.  Raiding dumpsters for food and living in an abandoned bar,  Cecil finds the knowledge, the tools,  the will, and the friends that he needs to fight back.

At the heart of this teen political thriller is the debate over intellectual property. This is a recurring theme in Doctorow's work, but the center of everything here. In the book's world, the American entertainment/recording industry has essentially captured Parliament:  both of the major party-alliances pass whatever bill it urges.  While attending an illicit screening of remix films,  Cecil learns that a bill is heading toward Parliament which will allow for the incarceration of anyone -- even minors -- who breach very broadly-defined copyright laws.  Even excerpting scenes for use in a YouTube movie review could land a kid in serious jail time.   Armed with a self-built laptop sans corporate spyware, Cecil and friends launch an agitation campaign to spread the word and hopefully force an upset.   As with Little Brother,  Doctorow uses the novel to debate an issue.  Doctorow's publication history indicates that while he's  a proponent of looser copyright laws,  there are limits to how far that can be taken.  Here,  the moments of nuance as  other characters challenge Cecil's  presumptions are overshadowed by the flagrant bullying of the entertainment industry, who divide their time between creating garbage films and  bankrupting or jailing kids.

I found Pirate Cinema interesting from every angle;  from  Cecil's  obsessive interest in producing films by creatively remixing scenes from one particular actor's vast corpus of works, to his exploration of an illicit society --  living in abandoned buildings, exploring underground London and looking for places to host film screenings,   finding technological workarounds to counter technological surveillance, and  of course the debate itself.  Because his story is set in London, Doctorow also unleashes the full power of British English.   Doctorow's other novels set in America were written or edited so well to match an American voice that the hurricane of British lingo took me by surprise. I'd be really curious about a Brit's perspective, whether his use of slang flows well or if its just a little much.  (Imagine a narrator who sounds like Eggsy from Kingsman: The Secret Service, prior to  wearing suits and speaking RP.)  My used copy of the book is  a discard from a Canadian library, though, so there may be an American edition out there that refers to dumpsters and drugs instead of skips and sugar.

Although part of the novel are unrealistic -- the lack of dangerous and seriously disturbed people among the homeless who Cecil meets, for instance,  and the over-the-top villainy --  I found Pirate Cinema both clever and fun. Intellectual property and copyright issues are an on-going issue as we find ourselves more and more immersed in an ocean of content.  What makes this novel especially interesting is that people really do edit films the way Doctorow describes; I've seen trailers made for movies that don't exist (Titanic 2: Jack's Back) ,witnessed the crew of Deep Space Nine react to Star Trek 2009, (they disapproved), and watched 'movies' that used footage from video-games, sometimes edited or framed to make it more cinematic.  Improvisation with already-existing materials is the basis of culture and innovation: even  at a professional level. I can't help but think of John Carmack of ID Software  creating a way to have side-scrolling PC games by using the first level of Mario as his subject.   Cecil's is a case that's more troublesome: while he IS using footage in original ways, the film itself is someone else's product, and it cost them to produce it. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

E-Readers, 1990s style

Tonight while checking one of the retro-tech YouTube channels I follow, I spotted an interesting, recent upload about the Sony Data Discman (1992), which was an attempt to sell books as discs.  The discs themselves seem to have the same capacity as ordinary CD-ROMS, roughly 400 MBs or so, and the awkward size meant they were ill-suited as carriers of just one book. The books in the catalog appear to be mostly larger reference books -- encyclopedias, telephone directories,  and dictionaries.  ("Internet" is not an entry in one of the encyclopedias,  which is not surprising given that popular access to the internet didn't really take off until late '93...)  The device could also play mini-discs (also demonstrated). The device seemed as though it would only attract dedicated first-adopters, since even the discs required manuals.  Not a manual for the device itself, a manual for the book

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The New Tsar

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin
© 2012 Steven Lee Myers

When the Soviet Union collapsed abruptly at the dawn of the 1990s, the world order changed overnight. Optimists predicted the 'end of history'.   Such an end wasn't kind to Russia, which faced a sinking economy,  dysfunctional attempts at democratic governance, and evaporating infrastructure. It could only watch in frustration as its former adversaries in the west made geopolitical moves in its backyard,  like attacking Serbia to help a breakaway province gain independence. That began to change in 2000, however, when a largely unknown spy-turned-administrator became president, and the oil crunch jump-started the Russian economy.  Vladimir Putin has been at the center of Russian politics ever since,  slowly becoming a bête noire to the power-circles in DC and Brussels.    Although his administration was initially known for an imposition of order and a revival of Russian interests abroad,   in twenty years Putin has  become more inflexible and less effective.   The new order has been built around the man, and even if he wanted to leave, it's an open question as to whether could survive the sudden vacuum.

As a little boy, Vladimir Putin didn't want to grow up to be a global leader.  He was more interested in being a spy.  He said as much when he walked into a KGB office and asked for employment. While they turned him down -- a literal case of don't call us, we'll call you -- the officer in charge suggested what academic credentials might serve Putin will in the future.  In 1975, the KGB did come a-calling, eventually stationing Putin in Eastern Germany. That's where Putin was when the Berlin wall fell and the DDR disappeared. With a mob gathering around the Soviet embassy, and no word from Moscow despite repeated signals for instructions, Putin confronted the mob alone.   Myers suggests that that silence from Moscow -- the lack of authority in the face of mounting chaos -- haunted Putin and strongly influenced his political career.  That career began when the mayor of St. Petersburg needed a liason with the state security forces; from there Putin would become a deputy mayor, and serve two key men so efficiently that at the end of the nineties, he was a deputy in the national government.  A sick and ailing Boris Yeltsin thought his quietly efficient, politically un-connected lieutenant would be an able successor to continue guiding Russia closer toward concord with the west, complete with a growing economy and growing democracy.  Well...nyet.

It is fascinating to learn that Putin's rise to power came through his decision to support the liberal, democratic forces within Russia, and particularly when he backed the nascent government against an attempted old-order coup.   We in the west tend to think of Putin as more authoritarian and un-democratic, and by our standards he certainly is.  In his twenty-year reign,  regional democracy has faded away, replaced by appointed governors;   at least two dissident journalists have died , and activists who stage protests seem to find security waiting for them before they begin.   Most of the domestic criticism around Putin's administration erupted during the 'tandem' period: the Russian constitution forbids more than two consecutive terms,  but Putin effectively remained in power despite that limitation by stepping down,  championing a supporter as his successor, and then doing much of the same job from a different office for four years, overshadowing his official boss.  When Putin re-assumed the presidency, Russians objected to the transparent self-serving operation.

I read this primarily to understand more about Russia and the west's inability to maintain any kind of amicable relationship.  Both American presidents covered in this book approached  Putin hoping for amity and a reset, but each sides' foreign adventures have undermined those efforts.  Russia's attempts to maintain its influence in Crimea and the Ukraine, resisting the  latter's courting by the west, have succeeded only in alienating Ukrainians further and making Europe regard Putin with fearful hostility.  The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and western adventures in regime-toppling with subsequent  chaos and monsters like ISIS,  have led Putin to regard the west as irresponsible fools.  As the west continues to try to contain Russia, Russia continues to boil with predictable resentment about being encircled with  bases and missiles.   Over time,  a desire for respect and legitimacy in Putin's first two terms has slowly grown into a cool contempt --  while Yelstin wanted to move Russia closer towards the west, Putin's Russia is increasingly removed from it.

The New Tsar is compelling reading for those interested in Russia's role or the man himself.  Myers  does a fairly good job at keeping himself out of the text and focusing on how the subject himself came to power and how the position has changed both him and Russia.   Putin is not villainized and turned into a monster-in-the-making,  but he isn't admired either. Instead, readers are allowed to see why different Russians can value Putin's  emphasis on strength and stability, or lament his lack of support -- and resistance to --  democracy.    Putin has indicated as recently as May 2018 that he plans to step down as president in 2024,     but  his quarter-century of power will cast a long shadow over where Russia goes from there -- even assuming he doesn't exercise influence from semi-retirement, a grey eminence pulling the strings from behind the curtain.  He is a figure well worth understanding.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
© 1971 Corrie ten Boom,  John and Elizabeth Sherrill

You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalms 32

When Corrie ten Boom turned in her family radio to the Nazi officials who had taken control of her town and her country and was asked if anyone else in the home had another set, she looked him square in the face and said "No".  As she departed, she shuddered -- not from the fear of encountering an agent of tyranny, but from how easy it was to lie.    The ten Booms were a deeply religious family whose watchmaking business opened and closed it day with the reading of Scripture, and even lying for the good did not come easy to the ten Boom sisters.  But it would have to, because as the Nazi consolidation of power in the Netherlands began, and their Jewish friends fell under duress, the tiny watchmaking-shop became the hiding place for a group of resistance fighters and Jewish citizens seeking refuge from the government.    It was last until late 1944, but even when the family had been seized by the SS and imprisoned in camps, there still remained one hiding place more.  The Hiding Place is both a wartime memoir and a work of Christian testimony, declaring and demonstrating that light can shine in the darkness.

From the beginning, the hiding place was not a great secret. The hidden compartment was physically well-concealed, but  no one could miss the sheer amount of people entering and exiting the building, and the neighbors had to ask (very quietly)  if they couldn't keep the Hanukkah singing down just a little bit.  The local police also knew, but had no interest in helping their grey-uniformed bosses in persecuting the innocents.   Someone did want to help the Germans, however,  as the family was betrayed and imprisoned. (Their wards, however, escaped notice!)  Eventually Corrie herself would travel to  Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp.  But that's where the memoir comes something else altogether, as the ten Boom sisters are isolated from one another and forced to rely on nothing but their faith to keep them sane -- and not just sane, but human.  The Gospel stories kept hope alive in the face of brutality -- and kept  them from sinking into despair and deadened souls. The camps destroyed many who survived, inflicting long-lasting psychological trauma, but ten Boom emerged from the war as a more fervent Christian missionary.   Remarkably, she and her sister refused to hate those who abused and humiliated them, and killed their father; they constantly expressed thanks for whatever small mercies they can see, and even when Corrie is being interrogated by an SS official, his skull-and-crossbones staring her down,  she urges him to turn away from the darkness and look to the light.   

In their darkest hours, the ten Boom sisters shared hope for the future -- dreams of what they would do when they were released.  They wanted to turn their home into a refuge for those who had been crippled by it. This was not new to the ten Booms: even during the war they sought to shelter and teach the mentally infirm, who were left without resources by the Nazis and threatened with euthanasia.    ten Boom shared a vision of having a place where former collaborators could redeem themselves  by serving those whom they'd previously oppressed. This, she admits, did not work out well: there were too many fights between both sides, each holding the other in resentment.  Even so, her shelter was one of the few places open to homeless former collaborators.   The ten Booms' refusal to give in to hate is utterly inspiring in a day when  spite and contempt saturate every political argument, when old hatreds are constantly given new life and the bleeding sores of politics never allowed to heal.

"It was a day for memories. A day for calling up the past. How could have guessed as we sat there -- to middle-aged spinsters and an old man -- that in place of memories we were about to be given adventure such as we had never dreamed of. Adventure and anguish, horror and heaven were just around the corner, and we did not know.
Oh Father! Betsie! If I had known would I have gone ahead? Could I have done the things I did?

p. 12

And now, the News (2)

Back when I read Alain de Botton's The News: A  User's Manual, I shared an excerpt from it.  While poking through my draft posts I found another quotation I'd jotted down that remains worth sharing.

Herein lies a central paradox of the news: it gives us the tools to develop views on serious and consequential decisions which have a direct impact on our lives. It invites us to the conference table and into the parliament, it introduces us to the key players, then it shows us nothing but inexplicable delays, strange compromises and maddening evasions. It can feel as though we are daily being invited to watch helplessly while a close friend drowns behind a plate-glass window.
The news routinely tantalizes us with the promise of drastic change and improvement. It anoints certain politicians as visionaries and expresses confidence they can fundamentally transform the nations within a few months of attaining office. Then everything falls apart. The politician turns out to be a fool and is dismissed as shallow and complacent, the central bank governor cites the behavior of the bond market as the reason for renewed caution, the conferences get bogged down in petty squabbling...
What the  news seldom bothers to mention is why things don't change very much; why great power and resources can't solve our difficulties, at a stroke.  It leaves us to assume with mounting fury that every ongoing problem can only be the result of laziness, stupidity, or malevolence -- and could be solved in a few relatively decisive and simple steps by someone intelligent and ingenius.

p. 53-54, The News: A User's Manual. Alain de Botton.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Broad Band

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet 
© 2018 Claire Evans
288 pages

When the ENIAC was first displayed for the public, its proponents bragged that it could do complex mathematical calculations in seconds which would have taken a skilled man hours upon hours.   Well...baloney. The ENIAC was an admirably complex array of metal, but without the human beings who had pored over its every component, turning their brains into maps of circuit boards,  creating the very language that was needed to put that array of metal to work -- it was useless. Hours and hours of human effort had gone into that little calculation, but they weren't man-hours.   The programmers of the ENIAC were six women, descendants of the calculating computer pools of the late 19th century. Broad Band is their story, and the story of other lady pioneers of the computer age.

I'll admit that I had no idea any of these women existed. Histories of of early computing and the internet are a favorite of mine, but I usually begin further along in the story, with more user-friendly machines like the PDP-10 and the advent of networks. I was a little leery of the book given the asinine blurb on the back -- "alpha nerds and brogrammers"?  Really?  Thankfully, the funny title brought me, and glad I am because I never heard of these women...and some of them are really worth knowing.   Grace Hopper, for instance, was deeply involved in the Harvard Mark-1 and the UNIVAC, and she pionered the use of subroutines to speed up coding, as well as created the first compilers.    COBOL, which at one time was the language of 80% of existing code,  was based on her work.  A woman once refused admittance to the services during World War 2 because of her age would become a Rear Admiral before her life's computing work was done. Another remarkable subject here is Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler,  whose Network Information Office created and maintained a directory of...the internet.  Working for the still-nascent ARPANet, Feinler was the master of all information about it. Her team also created many basic protocols, both under-the-hood things most users wouldn't recognize as well as creating the original web extension: ".com".   The women who follow were also trail-blazers, experimenting with social networks (New York's "ECHO" bbs,  which could boast a  40% female population), as well as digital magazines distributed on floppy disks.  Surprisingly, ECHO is still around, though other projects like Word magazine are long gone. 

Broad Band effectively mixes biography and tech history, and the goal from the start doesn't overshadow the actual content.  That is,   most of the subjects should be included in histories of web regardless of their sex, given their importance. I say most because I'm not sure about the website creators of the nineties; I don't know enough about the web at that transitional moment to read Broad Band in context.  There were some claims that seemed specious, like references to Al Gore being the key player in making the internet a thing known to the public, and  there's a huge discrepancy in the estimate given for ECHO membership. Evans says it peaked at 40,000, while The Atlantic marks the peak as...2,000.  There's no way of knowing which is more accurate,  but given that it was only accessible via a paid membership,  I'm tempted to think Evans' is closer -- she interviewed the ECHO host herself.   The meat of the book seems to get leaner and leaner as it wears on, until at the end we're reading about how computers are couched in "masculine" language like..."crash" and "execute".    Despite the late-game weaknesses, there's a lot of fun information here about how the web as we know it evolved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Force and Motion

 ST DS9: Force and Motion
© 2016 Jeffrey Lang
352 pages

All Miles O'Brien wanted to do was visit a research lab and catch up with an old friend, along with his engineering chum Nog.  He didn't expect to be thrown into a fight for his life, one involving giant robotic spiders and a massive blob of organic materials using a dead engineer's head as a sock puppet. But that's a day in the life of Miles Edward O'Brien.

Force and Motion had two immediate lures for me: first, the friend O'Brien is visiting is none other than Benjamin Maxwell, the captain who went 'rogue' in TNG's "The Wounded", insisting the Cardassians were re-arming and launching a one-man war to stop them.  Maxwell  was cashiered and imprisoned after that,  but it's been twenty years and now he's out and about, actively avoiding any serious responsibilities.  He just wants to serve, why is why a twice-decorated captain is now the maintenance engineer of a private space station.  No one watches "The Wounded" and regards Maxwell as villainous; by the end we know perfectly well the Cardassians are up to mischief, and Maxwell had lost so much at their hands -- his wife and children -- that he was determined they'd never ambush the Federation again.  Maxwell was a good man, merely one who had made an error in judgement, and I was eager to know him better.

The space station was the other lure for me: it's a privately-owned science station. Star Trek and economics are like reality and political rhetoric; they never intersect.  The show writers invariably portrayed business owners as rats and pirates, so I was hoping that a novelist might produce a...well, novel approach.  A privately owned research station,  home to fringe scientists and the hub for otherwise outlawed genetic engineering? Cool!  But....the premise fails to launch.  Our enterprising private-owner-of-a-space-station is not a visionary trying to push science outside the smothering watch of a Federation bureaucracy; he's just an amoral eccentric whose self-absorption gets people killed and absolutely ruins O'Brien and Nog's day off.   We don't learn too much about the kinds of science and tinkering being done, besides (1) bacteria-eating bacteria (2) robot spiders and (3)..rumors of a shrink ray.  

What Force and Motion delivers is good content on the growing friendship between O'Brien and Nog, both of whom have seen their friends drift away.  Maxwell himself is a central character, but mostly we find him in flashbacks, brooding with his shrink and doing things like building robotic legs to amuse himself.  At the end he takes charge of a crisis and earns redemption, which is nice -- but the book's promise never catches fire and delivers for me.

My introduction to Maxwell, with he and O'Brien singing "The Minstrel Boy". Star Trek has introduced me to so much good music over the years...

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cloud from the Machine

"The Internet is a funny thing.Then and now, it has been a thing: an infrastructural backbone of immeasurable complexity, a scaffolding over modern life that has grown stronger than the building itself, which seems to have crumbled under its weight. And yet despite its inherent physicality -- the routers, the interchanges, the telephone poles strung with wires, and the fiber optic cables crossing the sea -- we persist in our belief that the Internet is inchoate, a cloud. The phenomenon can be traced back to its origins, to Jake's time. The hardware was built with a purpose, to share computing resources across universities and labs. But the Internet as a communications medium practically willed itself into being, transforming the computer fro ma calculator to a box full of voices. Jake, catching up on emails from the very beginning, could only perceive the future as it was: an information age.

pp. 199 - 200, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Inside the mind of a thief

This is a related video for A Burglar's Guide to the City. It's an interview between a Plano City police officer and a three-time offender (Michael Durden) about his experience breaking into homes.  According to the interview,  Duren was a 'thief' and not a home invader -- he avoided running into people, carefully casing homes and limiting his time there to five to seven minutes.  In the video he answers questions about what attracts or deters him from a home,  how he might obtain entry, and how he prioritized targets inside.   I took some notes for those who are curious but not interested enough to watch a 40 minute video.  (I live in high-crime county, so  security issues are never far from my head!)  

 A news story about the interview can be read here.  


  • A well-kept home with a nice fence indicates a target worth robbing.  Durden avoided poorly-kept or ill-maintained homes.
  • Older burglar alarms rely on a wired connection to the telephone system which can be easily cut. Wireless or cellular systems are a stronger deterrent.
  • Simple devices that remotely turn on lights or play sounds on certain triggers (like someone knocking on the door) are a deterrent.
  • Cameras which face down at an angle can be defeated with a cap;  cameras at face level are better for identification, but should be concealed. 
  • Active, nosy neighbors can deter a would-be burglar, as can a car left parked in the driveway.
  • Speaking of neighbors, if  you're out of town for a few days you should ask one to collect your papers/mail. A full mailbox and a driveway littered with papers are an obvious sign that no one is home. A poorly-kept house in a wealthy neighborhood may also give away the fact that its owners are on vacation.
  • Burglars or package thieves can  case neighborhoods by jogging or walking. 
  • Cul de sacs are generally harder for a burglar to operate in: with no through traffic, he's more likely to be spotted as a nonresident. 
  • Transparent doors that allow a good view of the home are attractive but incredibly foolish. Would be thieves can case the inside, looking for  potential entrypoints, the presence of people, or the alarm system, simply by approaching the home and knocking. 
  • For the same reason, windows should be closed and shuttered if no one is at home, as they allow for studied surveillance of the interior.  
  • Lights left on when no one is at home might deter a potential thief,  but said lights should not be left on in the rooms near front/back entries, as they make it easier for thieves to look for security vulnerabilities. 
  • Small dogs, even the yappy kind, won't stop a home invader. Larger dogs probably will. Interestingly, dogs often give away the presence of an owner by looking for them once they become alarmed. 
  • Inside the home, the primary target for Durden was the master bedroom, as he focused on jewelry and cash.  If the home was obviously expensive but little jewelry was out, that indicated the presence of a safe.  Safes are often 'hidden' in the closet. A better place would be the attic or garage, hidden among tools. 
  • Care should be taken about personal information, like drivers' licenses,  checkbooks, etc;  a passing-through thief can use the documents or the information in them to committ identity theft later. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018


© 2017 Andy Weir
320 pages

"This is a results-oriented profession. The moon's a mean old bitch. She doesn't care why your suit fails. She just kills you when it does."

Jazz Bashara only wanted to engage in a little industrial sabotage to make a quick buck. She didn't intend to poison her entire hometown.  But that's the Moon for ya.    Andy Weir's potent mix of hard science, space exploration, and a smart-aleck central character make a return with Artemis,  in which a perfectly innocent criminal enterprise leads to a mob war. A heist novel in space,  Artemis'  most attractive element is right there in the title: the city of Artemis,  whose technical designs and economy Weir planned out before he wrote the novel.  Artemis is an intriguing look what an established lunar colony might actually look like, and readers explore it through the eyes of a young petty criminal, a woman named Jasmine ("Jazz") Bashara, who knows its systems as well as she knows its underbelly.

Jazz is an interesting character in her own right, an Arabian near-native of the moon.  Artemis restricts immigration by age,  but she arrived at age six with her master-welder father and together they forged a new life for themselves. Although Jazz didn't follow in her father's footsteps -- she accidentally destroyed his shop and livelihood, long story  -- her welding background proves useful when she escalates from smuggling to sabotage. The book's plot is inseparable from science and technical reality,   but Weir also explore social structures.  There's no police force or prisons,  just a constable, but  ne'er do wells do meet retaliatory justice: a pedophile might be beaten by a crowd of incensed parents, for instance, or a wife-beater might have every blow inflicted on his wife imposed on him by the constable. Although I doubt I'll see a lunar colony in my lifetime,  the amount of imaginative and detailed knowledge that went into Artemis made it a fascinating place to explore and accidentally cripple.

Readers of both novels may grouse that Jazz sounds a little too much like Mark Watney.   That's actually fine by me, because they're both amusing to spend time with. Besides, Jazz moved to a frontier town when she was six,  she was raised by a single father and spent her youth working with him in his welding shop, and all of her friends are working-class guys.  Is it really that shocking that she sounds like a guy?

I enjoyed Artemis completely, and if they make a movie of it  I'll be there when it opens.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein.  Another lunar-colony story, this one inspired by the American revolution.
The Martian, Andy Weir.  A favorite read from 2014.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Versatile Blogging Award

Sarah of All the Book Blog Names Are Taken has nominated me for a Versatile Blogger's Award, the acceptance of which means I have to share seven facts about myself and then nominate seven other people.   Strangely enough when this award was making the rounds ten years ago I was tagged then, too,  and since I've kind of done it before I'm just going to list facts about myself  and...not nominate anyone.  Vive l'anarchie!

1. Despite being a lifetime resident of a very deep-south state, I don't have a southern accent. At least, not in public. At home the drawl surfaces, but then it's competing with whatever voice I'm playing with at the moment. Certain potable beverages may also illicit a drawl.

2. I've been fascinated by language in general since I was a kid, and somewhat comically tried to teach myself Italian from a book in 2nd grade. My childhood library still has that same book.  While I've never learned Italian, I have a good elementary Spanish and still retain a little of my college German. I'm currently working on the Spanish with DuoLingo.

3. One of my stranger hobbies is collecting, listening, and memorizing folk music. For obvious reasons I tend to focus on the Anglo-American traditions.  This hobby came from my being exposed to and enchanted by the music of the American Civil War at reenactments.

4. I can't swim. The first time I ever went to a beach was in May 2017, when I stood in the surf of St. Augustine, feeling the sand shift beneath my feet and thinking I get why people become beachcombers now.

5. I've been a Trekkie since I spent three weeks in traction at age 7, unable to read and consigned to watch television all day long from my hospital bed. My favorite series is Deep Space Nine, unrivaled for grand storytelling after the first couple of seasons. Back in the early 2000s my interests in PC gaming and Trek converged to make me the member of a trek-themed gaming clan, StarFleet.   I still have a few friends from those nights -- nearly  twenty years ago now -- when we'd stay up late fighting ship-to-ship battles in ST: Armada.  The game had a sequel made,but

This is an actual screenshot from a buddy of mine and I winning a match of Armada against two other players. Judging by the in-screen chat,  we must have been up to mischief. (I was using the handle, "InnocentBrownBag".)   This would be circa...2001/2002.   

6. I'm a lifelong shutterbug, something that runs in the family.  When I began using reddit last year, it was its user-contributed photographs which drew me in. 

7. I'm an active PC gamer, and have been since I saw a display computer at WalMart running SimCity 2000.    I mostly play older games, however, with the exceptions of The Sims 4 and GTA V.    I have two gaming computers (for different generations of games) and have considered finding a 32-bit Windows 98/XP machine to run legacy titles, but I don't have desk space currently.  My 'favorite' titles are varied, but the most surprising would be Star Trek Away Team (2001). It was not a ground-breaking game, or one with remarkable production quality, but as a young Trek fan the ability to choose my own away team, with different mission developments depending on the people I chose,  was extremely fun.  I was used to the squad-based strategy from Commandoes,  and can still remember  sequences of actions needed to play mission ten successfully. (That mission could be unwinnable based on the order in which you chose your team, because the first two members were instantly separated from the rest, forcing you to solve the first part with your third and fourth choices, and specific gear was needed to rescue them.) I was so into this game I used to write fanfiction about the crew.

Actual screenshot from mission ten of ST Away Team.  

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Machine Man

Machine Man
© 2009 Max Barry
277 pages

Who knew crushing your limbs in the industrial machinery at work could be so addictive?  When Charlie Neumann accidentally crushed his leg in a fit of absentmindedness and was fitted with state-of-the-art prosthesis, he could only stare in dismay. This was state of the art?  Combing his engineering mind, his company's resources, and his ability to fixate on a project beyond all reason, Neumann promptly built a better leg. Then, realizing it would work better as a pair, he decided to recreate his accident and crush the other leg.  When his employer, a research-and-production firm caught on, they didn't fire him and sue him for abusing his insurance and using company materials to make himself a pair of super-legs. Instead, they promoted him.   This has potential, they said. An entire product line. Better Legs! Better Skin! Better Eyes!   We can rebuild him, WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY!

Too bad they were kind of evil.  Machine Man is the fourth book by satirist Max Barry, who has previously had fun with novels mocking corporate culture and advertising.  Machine Man definitely has humor, primarily in its main characters' utter obliviousness to social cues and his often deadpan responses,  but it's not absurdist fiction like that that PG Wodehouse. Instead the humor softens what otherwise might be a somewhat horrifying tale of a man who serially butchers himself, awakening the interest in a morally dubious company and empowering them to get even more dubious. Things get rather out of end, with one of the endgame chapters involving a fight to the death between two cyborgs, both of whom are increasingly schizophrenic.  One character winds up as a brain-in-a-box, which takes us to "I have no mouth and I must scream" territory.  While I'm labeling this science fiction, given the contents and transhumanist interest,   I don't know if the nerve interfaces mentioned here were based on any then-current research;  the first that I know of was announced in 2016.

All in all,  I enjoyed this. Of course, I like the author -- I've read most of his previous novels, albiet ten years ago.  I have a certain fascination with the idea of 'augmented humanity', even as most of my being recoils at the idea of it. Barry's combination of humor, emotional drama, and the able use of the company as an amiable villain made it a swift and engaging read. 

Latest developments in prosthetics, from The Independent

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Reads to Reels: Ready Player One

The Redbox technician hadn't long placed copies of Ready Player One in my local machine before I eagerly rented one. I experienced the  book a few weeks back, enthralled by the story and Wil Wheaton's delivery of it,  and so launched into this with a stupid grin on my face as the move rolled to Van Halen's "Jump". It didn't take me long to realize this wasn't the story I'd  experienced, but knowing that adjustments have to made for the sake of different mediums, I  resolved to enjoy it nontheless. 

  As a movie it's a perfectly fun action-adventure thriller with a bounty of pop-culture references.  The acting is fine, and the production seamessly integrates live-action scenes and characters with pure-CGI ones, since the characters themselves spend most of their time within a computer-generated gameworld called the Oasis.  For those who haven't read the book,  Ready Player One is set in the near fuure in which everything has gotten worse: poverty, unemployment, the environment, pick your poison. What has improved is massively multiplayer online games, and the only one that matters is the Oasis.  There players can appear  however they like, and visit planet after planet of adventures and activities.   Aside from eating, sleeping, and excretion, everything is done in the Oasis.     When the creator of the Oasis dies, his will invites the entire world to a treasure hunt. He's hidden an Easter egg somewhere in the Oasis,  accessible only to those who find three concealed keys guarded by riddles and challenges.  The reward? Control of the Oasis and trillions of dollars.  Not bad.

While I'm actively resisting the urge to compare the movie too much for the book,  that is in fact the whole purpose of Reads to Reels: to comment both on adaptions' worth in themselves and as re-tellings of literary originals.  The broad outline of the RPO novel and movie are the same, as are its characters -- but the story told is much different. The movie opens with a drag race,  something oddly out of place in the novel's  fantasy-questing theme. The entire atmosphere of the book -- the massive revival of eighties culture inspired by global study of Halliday's own fixation on his childhood -- just isn't there.  Those who watch the movie without reading the book will probably find the eighties soundtrack a little odd, because there's nothing to explain it.

In fairness to the movie, though, the author helped with this screenplay and the mediums of book and cinema have different demands. A big-budget production couldn't have a plot with a lot of pondering over intricate riddles and fooling with text-based games, let alone a sequence where a character has to log into a TRS-180 and play Zork. It's a lot easier to sell a race laden with T-Rex and King Kong as obstacles instead of an eight-bit arcade game as the challenge, I get it.  Ditto for the emphasis on action drama (the lead characters are in mortal peril for pretty much the entire movie), instead of Parzival's  relationships with his friends, the turmoil their bonds undergo, and the growing realization that a planet lost in the Oasis is just..wrong.  Instead we get action-adventure and then we're hit with the reality/unreality moral  with all the subtly of a baseball bat.

While Ready Player One is a fun action movie, one I wouldn't mind watching again,  it doesn't succeed as an adaptation of the original for me.

On a side note,  I was amused that my mental image of the villain, casting him as Ben Mendelsohn, proved to be on the nose, as he appears here as the big bad. (I was mostly inspired by his performance in The Dark Knight Rises.) I didn't care for the characters in-game avatars, particularly Art3mis, but that's subjective. I imagined her as the hero of Dungeon Siege: 

 The producers went a...different direction. 

 That's not a cartoon of the character, that's how the character actually looks  Kind of like a cat.