Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for October 2010

links for 2010-10-21

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 21, 2010 at 23:01

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links for 2010-10-20

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 20, 2010 at 23:02

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links for 2010-10-19

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 19, 2010 at 23:02

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links for 2010-10-18

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 18, 2010 at 23:01

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Review of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail CoverCritics are calling it “Singularity Punk” – stories about societies so advanced, even death becomes a lifestyle choice.

Imagine being able to copy, download and store a human mind – to be able to move it around like a computer program and run it inside a simulation that is absolutely indistinguishable from reality — a society where citizens are encouraged to “back themselves up” regularly so they can be resurrected in new bodies if they die.

If you had the power to store individuals in elaborate virtual environments, what would you do with it? Some societies in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have decided to create virtual Heavens to reward the faithful. But does a virtual Heaven need to be balanced with a virtual Hell?

That’s the argument at the core of “Surface Detail” – the 9th Culture novel — where these myriad artificial afterlives have divided themselves into pro and anti-hell factions and gone to war. In these vast technological utopias, politics continues after death.

The factions agree to settle their differences with a virtual war, arbitrated by a race of natural referees. But when the anti-hell side starts losing they decide to cheat. First they try hacking the simulation, and when that doesn’t work, they decide to build a fleet of warships and settle the question in Real Space, destroying the hardware that Hell runs on.

The dead come “back to life” and threaten to intrude on mortal politics, while the “Level 8” societies choose up sides. The Culture is determined to stay neutral in this conflict, even if their sympathies tend to lie with the anti-hell side.

Readers will find it impossible to stay neutral as Banks brings us into a virtual Hell and chronicles the depravity in soul-numbing detail. Banks has always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature. He has such a gift for observing and describing human evil, I can only assume he created the Culture as a Utopian antidote, to soothe the nightmares in his own brain.

This flair for darkness, this balancing of perfect good with unspeakable evil is what keeps these novels from descending into Roddenberry territory. The Culture is never too sweet, never too cute, never too simplistic to be overwhelmed by the requirements of mundane reality, even if they have abolished money and turned their society over to a ruling class of benevolent AIs.

The Culture is run by its Minds – artificial intelligences so advanced they are as far above “normal” AIs as a super-computer is from a Commodore 64. The machines are remarkably human — as quirky, emotional and flawed as the humans that spawned them, even if they do have the literal power of gods.

There’s something very Greek about The Culture – a feeling of wry anticipation as machines take on the roles of Athena, Zeus and Aphrodite – alternately tormenting, toying with and rescuing mortals from their folly.

The Minds may toy with their human instruments, but you know it’s ultimately for the best – that all wounds will be healed and all indignities will be rectified, if not quite in the way you’d expect.

Banks’ vision of The Culture is becoming more complex and more organized as his stories progress. What started as a vague technological utopia is becoming more accessible and more “realistic” as Banks nails down the details.

Surface Detail introduces us to a variety of Culture factions, each specializing in a different aspect of alien society; the way branches of the military specialize in different kinds of threats. And just like in a conventional military, inter-service rivalry can be the worst enemy.

Banks rebels against his own sickly-sweet Culture stereotype by focusing the action on the avatar of an Abominator-class warship – a kind of trickster Ares who maintains a core of decency, even as he torments and murders mortals who get in his way.

The ship’s avatar revels in destruction and cruelty the way a child enjoys burning ants with a magnifying glass, but always within the Culture’s benevolent framework.

The ship really is a god in the Greek sense, cheerfully explaining things to his human champion as he fits her with tools, weapons and magical armor for the fight ahead.

That’s what surprises me most about these novels. You’d expect the Culture to be a stagnant society, but there’s a real sense of technological progress here, as the Abominator explains why he’s superior to the poor old Torturer class he’s pretending to be.

Iain Banks is famous for his dark humor, emotional complexity and light-fingered social commentary, but there’s a bit of gadget porn thrown in here too. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of gelfield suits and intelligent tattoos?

There are plenty of sci-fi tropes in here, but the Culture books don’t read like space opera. They read like mythology, with technology filling in details that used to be described as magic. Surface Detail is an epic novel that actually seems more light-hearted and accessible than Banks’ previous efforts. This isn’t the first Culture novel you should read. (Start with The Player of Games.) But this is a fine sequel to Excession and Use of Weapons.

And yes, I’ll confess to making a little squee sound when I saw the first Mind-to-Mind email exchange in here. Banks may be stingy with the fanservice, but he gets to it eventually, if you wait long enough. He even gives us a solid ending, wrapping up the far flung plot threads in a way that doesn’t seem forced or tacked on.

If humans ever do figure out how to create a technological afterlife, I hope they will remember this book, and leave Hell on the drawing board.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 18, 2010 at 10:43

Posted in Books

links for 2010-10-17

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 17, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized

The end of cheap oil doesn’t have to be the end of the world

One of the guys at Zerohedge just bought a Nissan Leaf and was crowing about the possibility of driving 100 miles at 24 cents a gallon.

This created a fascinating conflict as the Utopian conspiracy nuts went to war with the angry cynics. This thread made me realize I’m a bit more optimistic about this whole “running out of oil” thing than most of my libertarian peers.

Not really fair to call this optimism. But in this day and age, I guess an absence of cynicism might as well be optimism.

The transition won’t be easy, cheap or fun but I think it can be done, and I don’t think the resulting “energy poor” world will be that awful to live in.

First, it won’t happen overnight. They’re not going to flip a switch and turn the oil off. Oil will slowly increase in price, providing incentives for people to use less and come up with alternatives.

Our electrical grid would collapse if everybody switched to electric cars overnight, but it won’t happen like that. Consumers will start with hybrids, early adopters will buy recharge stations and we’ll have a decade or so to improve the grid. It’s in terrible shape and needs to be reworked anyway. We just need an excuse to spend some of that teacher pension money on infrastructure. Skyrocketing oil prices will provide a lovely excuse.

Things aren’t likely to change until we see prices at the pump hover above $6 for a while but once that happens, it shouldn’t be hard to find the political will. Modern nuclear reactors and “clean coal” plants will spring up, while research into alternative energy and battery technology accelerates.

This will change consumer behavior, of course. I can imagine a world where families own electric cars for their daily city driving and rent vehicles for out of town trips. Suburbs will fragment into hub and spoke community structures and a lot of young people will move back downtown. Telecommuting could offer the best of both worlds for stay-at-home parents and video conferencing will replace a lot of recreational and business travel.

The biggest problem will be trucking, and the transport of basic goods in and out of cities. But we had a pretty good system for this before the internal combustion engine changed the world and I don’t see why we couldn’t go back to it, if the economic incentives were right. It’s hard to run an 18-wheeler on batteries, but why couldn’t we rebuild the railroads?

Electrified railways aren’t perfect, but they work. And let’s be honest. Do you really expect to see fewer government projects and infrastructure improvement programs in the next 20 years? Governments are bending over backwards trying to find big projects to spend stimulus money on. I don’t expect to see smaller government in a world of $10 gas.

Yes, fixing the electrical grid, building nuclear plants and installing new rail lines will be big jobs, but how long did it take us to wire our neighborhoods for Internet, cell phones and cable TV? How much did we spend on those projects, voluntarily, in our monthly entertainment and communications bills?

The point is, this is a world we can live in, and it doesn’t require any giant theoretical breakthroughs to make it work. We’ll have to consume less oil, of course, but we don’t have to go back to the dark ages. And if we do end up with a giant theoretical breakthough in the next 20 years, well, so much the better.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 17, 2010 at 19:02

Posted in Science

links for 2010-10-16

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 16, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized

links for 2010-10-15

  • Just got the new Iain M. Banks novel, so I hope you will excuse one rare "Squee!"
  • There’s no time to form a personal relationship with a writer; no time for any of that sentimental nonsense, in this brave new world of big ads and unique visitors. Nick Denton is at the mercy of his readers, and now so are we, as the “golden age” of blogging makes way for a new kind of industrial revolution.
  • You know what the world really needs? A Bioware-style RPG based on Matter. You play an SC agent uplifted from a primitive culture. You go on a series of missions, carefully working behind the scenes to manipulate events, or using the selective application of violence to influence the course of wars. Then you're called home to deal with some kind of personal tragedy, slowly traveling back to your home system through a variety of spectacular habitats. Of course, they have to "turn off" all your fancy SC gear for the trip home, leaving you vulnerable to kidnapping and assassination attempts… Please, somebody make this game. Apart from the awesomeness of the game itself, a CRPG could introduce thousands of players to The Culture an elevate the tastes of a generation of SciFi readers. Wish I had a couple million dollars so I could finance the damn thing myself.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 15, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized

links for 2010-10-14

  • "Since then, big banks such as Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, GMAC, PNC and others have suspended foreclosures or foreclosure sales. These banks are still claiming that the massive fraud they have perpetrated amounts to nothing more than a series of technical mistakes. This is absurd. This is deliberate, systemic fraud, and it is a crime."
  • Since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 Keynes' proposal is winning in importance: In a speech delivered in March 2009 entitled Reform the International Monetary System, Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of the People's Bank of China called Keynes' bancor approach "farsighted" and proposed the adoption of IMF SDRs as a global reserve currency as a response to the financial crisis of 2007–2010. He argued that a national currency was unsuitable as a global reserve currency because of the Triffin dilemma – the difficulty faced by reserve currency issuers in trying to simultaneously achieve their domestic monetary policy goals and meet other countries' demand for reserve currency.
  • Mr. T pities the fool who does not buy gold. And having been gobbling up the shiny metal since 1977, Mr T's cumulative return puts about 90% of the hedge fund managers currently in the business to shame, and proves, once and for all, that to be an uber-successful asset manager, a mohawk and a unique sense of jewelry is all that matters. No seriously, Mr T presents what is probably the best defense for gold we have ever heard (just be sure to ingest a lot to quite a lot of booze first), and why it is headed to 5, 6, and more digits very soon. That said, Mr. T, and Gold Promise, will gladly buy your gold.
  • The government, which says 1.23 million marchers took to the streets yesterday compared with union estimates of 3.5 million, said it would press ahead with a reform its says is needed to restore state finances to health and retain France's AAA credit rating.
  • Gold futures climbed Thursday in Asia's morning trading to touch a high of nearly $1,378 an ounce on Globex. Expectations for another round of quantitative easing from the U.S. Federal Reserve had fueled a rise in prices Wednesday in New York, which marked the 16th record high in five weeks. In Asia's morning trading, December gold was up $6.10 at $1,376.60 an ounce on Globex after trading as high as $1,377.90. On Wednesday in New York, it settled at $1,370.50, up $23.80.
    (tags: economics gold)

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 14, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized