Monday, February 28, 2011

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

This is the second book I've read recently that made me feel optimistic about the future. We get a good healthy dose of pessimism from the newspaper everyday, I think this makes a nice counterpoint.

The book starts with Kelly exploring his own relationship with technology. The attempt to figure out which pieces to use, and which to avoid. He points out that it just isn't possible to live without technology, because it isn't just what I think of as "high tech" like computers, cars, and cell phones. Kelly points out that as a species we've been using technology since the stone age, and that it is what has allowed us to succeed in a variety of inhospitable environments. He points out that humans are the reproductive organs of technology. Barring some sort of catastrophe, we are going to continue co-evolving with our technology. We're already way past the point where one single person can make everything they require for their day to day life. Even Mennonites who lag 50 years behind the curve in terms of acquiring new technology aren't entirely self sufficient.

Kelly argues that "The Technium" (sphere of technology comprising things which are made rather than born) is the 7th kingdom of life, and that it is co-evolving with us. Parts can migrate from one tool to another, things made for one purpose gain new and previously unimaginable uses. Attempting to ban technologies doesn't work in the long run. The more technology we have, the more choices are available, and that choice needs to be added to the positive side of the balance sheet when it comes to deciding whether a particular technology is a benefit to society or not. He concludes that we have a moral responsibility to create as many new things as possible, and to embrace our relationship with technology as that is the best way to increase the number of choices available to everyone. That refusing to use something simply because it is new and may cause unanticipated problems is selfish and backward thinking.

I really do like the idea that our goal should be to increase the number of choices available. In the world of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station the worst crime possible is choice theft, and I was found that perspective to be very illuminating. Increasing the amount of technology available isn't the only way of increasing the number of choices available in the world, trying to make sure everyone on the planet has enough to eat strikes me as something that would increase choices too, but I think it is a good one.

It has been argued that we have so many choices these days that it has become overwhelming. That people were happier when the course of their lives were laid out before them, and they could simply live their lives content in the knowledge that they weren't missing out on anything. The more I think about this, the more I agree that it is false. Having too many choices of breakfast cereal can be daunting, but learning to cope with choice is something we can learn to do. In fact, it is something that technology can help us with.

I really do like the vision of the world that Kelly offers here. I'm not convinced by his arguments that the evolution of technology is inevitable, but thinking about the Technium as a kingdom of life which is evolving and with which we have a symbiotic relationship is interesting and I think it is useful. It is easy to feel that technology is bad, that new 'improvements' are actually making our lives worse, but I'm definitely finding myself convinced otherwise. Especially watching the situation at the moment in various countries around the world as they use social networks to organize demonstrations against oppressive regimes I'm seeing the dramatic increase in choices as a direct result of technology.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Companion to Wolves - Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

This originally started out as an attempt to mock the "people with animal companions" fantasy sub-genre, and then turned into something so fabulous that they decided to publish it and I'm so glad they did. Humans bonding with dragons or wolves, and then being affected by their companion's emotions...especially mating urges...has been done. It is really easy to do badly. Monette & Bear do it really well. Rolled up into a great fantasy story is a critique of society's attitudes towards sex (specifically homosexuality), and gender roles.

Usually in these sorts of stories people who bond with animals are very highly thought of. Also, in fantasy stories there is a tendency towards gender equality, especially with the whole bonding with animals thing you like to have female animals bonding with females, and males with males, so the whole "mating frenzy" thing works out in a relatively palatable way. Here, the wolves are fighting animals, the female wolves are the leaders of the pack, only men bond with wolves, and the wolf-halls are viewed practically with contempt - who would want to live with animals? Yet, they used to fill a vital role in protecting villages from the trolls, who now haven't been seen in a generation, so there is grumbling about needing to have them around, especially when they show up to collect young boys in the hopes that they will bond with the wolf-pups.

Having only men bonded to wolves allowed them to put in what is basically a rape scene without the usual attendant baggage of "poor weak woman who just can't cope with sex". You also wind up with a man, who is definitely interested in women, in a position of having to have sex with other men (which he has been brought up to think of as abhorrent), and coming to realize that sex doesn't have to define you, and that there are many different faces to love. I kept imagining what the book would be like if Isolfr (the main character, who happens to be bonded to a dominant female wolf) were a woman, and it would have masked the issues as women's issues rather than something which would be difficult for anyone to cope with.

This was a fabulous story, definitely intended for adults rather than children, one of those amazing books that helps you to look at the world in new ways. The only problem is with the character names. There are tons of characters, their names are all Norse-sounding, and far too many of them end in fr and are hard to distinguish. Also the young boys change their names once they bond with a wolf, so you have to keep track of what someone used to be called. Then there are the wolf names, and you need to track which wolf is bonded with which man. I think re-reading it will be no problem, but the first time through was pretty rough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Guide to the Good Life - William B. Irvine

I found out about this via BoingBoing, shortly after I had read a few of Seneca's essays. It sounded interesting, and I'm really glad I picked it up.

Apparently the ancient Greek & Roman philosophers thought that the whole point of philosophy was to develop a "Philosophy of Life". Basically an overarching goal, and a strategy for attaining that goal. Irvine has recently adopted Stoicism, or at least his own particular brand of Stoicism, as his philosophy of life and has written this book to help anyone else who wants to do something similar.

The Stoics' ultimate goal was to attain virtue, thereby achieving "tranquility", a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions. When you're in a state of tranquility it is easy base our decisions on logic rather than emotion, and lead a more virtuous life.

In order to achieve tranquility, the Stoics advocate several techniques. The first is negative visualization -where you imagine what would happen if you were to lose something you value; your job, your house, your partner, your child, your health. The goal of this is to help you appreciate what you have, as well as develop strategies to cope with a tragedy should it occur. The second technique is to stop worrying about things over which you do not have complete control, and to reframe your goals so that they are under your control. For example, if your goal in playing a game of tennis is to win, this will be affected by how well your partner plays. If instead your goal is to play your best, you can achieve this even if you don't win the game. Finally, the Stoics give a lot of fairly specific advice about how to deal with insults, cope with grief, and avoid envy.

The goal is to attain virtue or tranquility, not wealth. Stoics didn't have a problem with being wealthy, and certainly advocated enjoying your wealth and the things money could buy if you happened to have it, but recommended that you not become too attached to possessions.

Irvine goes into the history of Stoicism in a bit more detail, talking about several eminent Stoic philosophers, specifically Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius, and Marcus Aurelius. He also spends rather a lot of time worrying about how to cope with other people's opinion of your new Stoic lifestyle, and advocates not actually telling anyone that you're converting to Stoicism, which I found pretty hilarious. I suspect his target audience is relatively wealthy and running happily along on the hedonic treadmill, where you just keep buying more and better and fancier things in an attempt to make yourself happy. Their friends are all still on this treadmill and are going to give them a hard time if they don't acquire the latest gadgets and fanciest cars available, or wear clothing that is out of style.

While I was a bit irritated by the approach Irvine takes, since it is aimed at someone with a lifestyle very different than mine, I really appreciate his description of the Stoic philosophy of life. I had already adopted a lot of the strategies they advocate, but I think that doing them deliberately will help. I've been working to reframe my goals in terms of things I have control over (having a goal of getting my advisor to praise me is just silly...and hasn't been getting me anywhere). I really like the idea that I should be happy with my life, and that I don't need a giant pile of money and things. Helps to validate the decisions we've made over the past few years which overall I'm very happy about, but occasionally get pangs of envy when we visit friends who have made drastically different decisions, and now live in fancy houses with cars and gadgets and jet-setting lifestyles.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dreaming Jewels - Theodore Sturgeon

The Dreaming Jewels was another re-read by Jo Walton. I was intrigued by the first paragraph which she posted
They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.
which is a wonderful hook, but then once I found out what it was he'd been doing...well, gross sure, but disgusting? It was a bit of a let-down. I guess I'd been assuming that he was doing something that I would find disgusting. It wound up making me even more sympathetic towards Horty, which isn't a bad thing, but it made the world feel less familiar.

Theodore Sturgeon has been on my list of SF authors I should be at least remotely familiar with, which is the main reason I picked this up (also that first paragraph...I really really wanted to know what he'd been doing under the bleachers!). I've had trouble trying to read older SF before. Harlan Ellison is another one I keep trying to like and failing at. Ray Bradbury. I think there are a whole pile of things giving me trouble. First off there's the really gritty feel to a lot of these. The future they're writing about tends to be dystopic, overpopulated and dirty. The characters tend to be very lonely. Key bits of technology are missing, while fancy things that we don't have yet are commonplace. They wind up feeling unanchored in time - set simultaneously in the future and in the past. A large part of the story is set in the circus - which doesn't mean the same thing anymore thanks to Cirque du Soleil. I can cope with Enid Blyton characters running away to join the circus because they're set so solidly in the past, but here it just doesn't resonate for me at all. Then there's the blend of SF and horror that I think is becoming less common these days. I really don't enjoy horror, but I suspect that most SF fans do. I can handle evil characters, but I don't like creeping blackness and an overall atmosphere of depression. The stories tend to be shorter than what I'm used to - short stories have always been more difficult for me to read, maybe they just take more concentration, maybe I just need more practice, but a short story seems to leave less space for the people. Finally people's names in these old stories just seem wrong. Horty is a horrible nickname. It is short for Horton - who in my mind is an elephant sitting up in a tree hatching an egg. Zena is a warrior princess, not a midget in a circus. It makes the world feel even more thin and flimsy than it already did. I'm having to put so much effort into believing in the story that I don't have any energy left to care about the characters. Maybe I just need to take a deep breath and start reading these like SF set in some alternate past in order to cope with the cognitive dissonance these seem to generate.

All of this is a real shame, because the story is quite good. There's a lot of character development, a real examination of what makes someone human. The ending was great, and so was the love story running through it. Having Jo's write-ups and the comments to help guide me to the bits of the story that really matter are definitely helping me enjoy some of these stories more than I would manage on my own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I don't remember who recommended this, but several people told me "You must read The Hunger Games!" and now I'm going to be saying the same thing to anyone I know who likes Young Adult fiction.

Hunger Games is reminiscent of The Running Man by Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman), but the games themselves are more akin to Survivor. In a dystopian future Katniss Everdeen becomes one of 24 competitors in the Hunger Games - the annual display of power by the current rulers of Panem which used to be North America. Two children from each district between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to participate in the annual fight to the death. Since you are allowed to put your name into the lottery more than once in order to receive an annual allotment of food, the poorer folks are much more likely to be selected. In richer districts there are often volunteers, since the reward for winning the games is to be set for life, but in the poorer districts "winning" the lottery is a death sentence.

Katniss is an awesome main character. She's strong and independent. Not inclined to trust anyone, and yet extremely loyal and caring once she has placed her trust. I thought Collins did a fabulous job of making Katniss's motivations clear. Every decision she makes is based on her experience and personality. She is a very real character and very easy to empathize with even though she is so independent.

The focus of this book is the Hunger Games, and that is Katniss's focus as well since she doesn't expect to survive, but the best moment for me was when I came to the very last sentence and saw the words "end of Book One" - and understood the implication that this was only the beginning! Even if the follow-up was only going to be Katniss heading home to her district and living in a nice house with her mother and sister, I want to know what happens! She isn't a simple person, and there's no way she could just adapt to a life of relative luxury. She's a fighter and a survivor, and has just been given access to a larger world. She's about to become a player in a much bigger game, with much bigger stakes and I can't wait to find out how she's going to cope with it!

This was totally fabulous. Super quick to read, incredibly hard to put down. Definitely violent a points, but not at all in a dehumanizing way. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a teenager. In fact, I think I will go do that now :)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dying of the Light - George R. R. Martin

Yet another re-read by Jo Walton over at Her write-up fascinated me, and I'm already a fan of GRRM, so this one definitely belonged on my reading list.

Within the first few chapters I'd fallen in love with the setting. Jo says:
the planet itself is certainly one of the protagonists
and I know what she means, but I'm not sure I would phrase it that way. The setting is totally unique, and I found myself wondering whether GRRM had dreamed up the story and then created the setting in order to make the story work, or if the setting came first and he dropped the story in. Honestly I suspect they were both independent creations which he fiddled with to make them work together, because both setting and story are totally awesome.

Worlorn is a wandering planet which recently wandered close enough to a star-cluster to warm up enough to terraform. Folks from the Fringe planets decided to hold a years-long festival there with each planet contributing a city as well as plants & animals to help form the ecology. There are probably a million stories you could write, set during the Fringe Festival, yet this story is set following the festival as the planet moves further and further from the light, and every day is colder and darker than the previous.

Layered on top of this is the story of Dirk t'Larion and Gwen Delvado, and their interactions with the culture of High Kavalaar. High Kavalaar also seems like it could totally be the setting of a million fascinating little stories and explorations of a very unusual culture. Instead we just see the fringes of that culture, and the impact of its interactions with other human cultures.

There are so many awesome little bits. The power of naming something. What you need to do in order to respect yourself. How much our decisions depend on the people they will impact - you do things differently when your actions will affect someone you love. The role of violence. Whether refusing to react violently is a good idea or not. Learning to respect someone who is completely different and has totally different values.

But mostly what was awesome about this story, was that I had no idea where it was going most of the time. Done poorly this would have left me feeling very frustrated and unable to connect with the characters, but GRRM is awesome. Initially it seemed like a fairly straightforward setup. Gwen had sent for Dirk, he was going to show up and rescue her from whatever weird situation she had gotten herself involved in, they would travel off into the sunset. Then things got weird - people's reactions weren't quite right, you really couldn't imagine Gwen wanting to leave the guy she's obviously in love with for Dirk, and it because obvious very quickly that Dirk wasn't at all in love with Gwen. By about half-way through the book I had no idea where anything was going and couldn't really imagine a situation where Gwen & Dirk were going to survive the night, let alone get through another hundred pages. Then things started to get really interesting.

In most fantasy things are black and white. GRRM really excels at writing stories where the right choice just isn't clear, and often coming up with circumstances where there isn't actually a right choice. This is a story about how we often see the person we want to exist rather than the person who is actually there, and how we try to be the person who is being reflected back at us. The answer this story has come up with is that just being yourself won't necessarily work - what you really need to do is to find the right person to reflect you back at yourself.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves - Matt Ridley

I've always enjoyed Matt Ridley's books on biology, so I was looking forward to this one.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book. I went through a phase several years ago of feeling like the world was becoming more crowded, and more polluted, and worse, and worse, and that if I were to ever have a child their quality of life couldn't possibly be even remotely equivalent to my own, so it would be a total disaster and irresponsible to have children since the future was so incredibly hopeless. Sky did manage to talk me out of this by pointing out that people tend towards a certain level of happiness no matter what their physical surroundings, and that you don't need to guarantee perfection prior to having kids. Ironically this was right about the time he decided he didn't necessarily want to have children himself, and now I did want to have one, and many discussions were had, eventually resulting in Elli - who appears to be quite happy. Matt Ridley covers the other side of the argument - the one Sky totally ignored - that it is quite common to feel that the current situation is as good as things can possibly get, since the future can't improve it must be about to start heading downhill, and that this point of view is totally inaccurate if you're looking at the world as a whole. It is possible that in some small corners the world is getting worse. Wars break out, some places are unreasonably prosperous for a while and then suffer a reverse, there are housing bubbles and depressions. But overall the average living conditions for everyone in the world are improving. The number of people living in poverty may be increasing, but the percentage is decreasing - maybe not today in particular, but on average. Decreasing child mortality actually causes populations to decrease rather than increase, so overpopulation doesn't look like the enormous problem it once did. Change happens slowly and can take generations, but attitudes can change, and they do change. There are problems, but humans have a track record of innovating their way around these problems, so that something which seems insurmountable today may prove to not even be an issue at all tomorrow.

So, the first half of the book was totally wonderful, and I felt so much better about the world and people in general having read it. The second half was fascinating, but I'm not quite as sure how I feel about it. The basic premise was that we need to keep consuming energy at pretty close to the current rate, and that our energy consumption is probably going to have to go up. And that renewable sources of energy really aren't the way to go. And that burning fossil fuels isn't nearly as bad as everyone has been making it out to be.

All of his arguments made sense to me while I was reading the book. Hydro-electricity is a great source of power, but you have to flood a huge area when you're creating the dam, and the people living there aren't necessarily going to be happy about it, and it isn't necessarily a clean or green process. Plus the dam can be an eyesore. Windmills take up huge amounts of space, they're ugly and noisy, and can cause all sorts of problems of their own. Solar power also takes up lots of space and isn't going to be very reliable if you happen to want power at night or on a cloudy day. Biodiesel is an environmental disaster (it is awesome if you happen to own the only converted van in the province, and are using left-over french fry oil that was just going to get thrown out. Growing corn simply to process it into oil in order to fuel cars is a net loss even if you don't count the environmental just happens to be very pretty politically.) So he's arguing that burning fossil fuels is totally necessary, and actually has a smaller environmental impact per unit of energy than the so called renewables. And I think he's right...but it is the sort of argument that you're always wondering what sort of hidden agenda the person writing has that honestly I'm scared of just taking this information at face value, and yet I don't know where to go for an unbiased opinion. I'm not even sure that an unbiased opinion exists. But I do think that I agree with his argument that turning farmland into a windfarm instead of returning it to a "natural" state isn't necessarily an improvement, and that if you need to cut down a forest in order to create new farmland to replace the land that is now sprouting windmills...that is taking a step backwards. But I think there's a degree of integration that he's missing out on. A single windmill in the middle of a farmer's field probably isn't reducing the amount of food grown significantly. And putting solar panels on your roof doesn't take space away from a forest, and it will help reduce temperatures in a city. I think he's also underestimating the impact of things like strip-mining. On the other hand, his point that the entire world needs access to cheap energy - it isn't fair for those of us living in first world countries to tell people in third world countries that they aren't allowed to burn fossil fuels because it is bad for the environment. People need to have a certain amount of wealth before they are really able to care about the environment, so the best solution is to help everyone all over the world be rich enough that we can all afford to care about the environment. After all, if your child is starving you don't particularly care whether or not their chance of getting cancer over the next 60 years has gone up by just isn't immediate enough. But when you expect them to live until at least 80...all of a sudden it becomes quite relevant and worth fighting for.

Overall I think this was a fabulous book and extremely well written. I find all of Ridley's work very easy to read, so even though it is long it wasn't hard to finish. I found the degree of optimism extremely refreshing, and I certainly slept better at night while reading this. I didn't love the "down with green energy, fossil fuels are wonderful" attitude towards the end of the book, but it did make an interesting change in perspective. I just worry that everything has gotten so black and white that no opinion can possibly be balanced anymore.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wesley the Owl - Stacey O'Brien

Lovely true story about raising Wesley the barn owl. His wing was injured very young and he was never going to have the stamina to live on his own in the wild, so Stacey O'Brien took responsibility for bringing him up. She was trained as a biologist and working full-time with owls, so she did know what she was getting herself in for, but for me it was a really vivid lesson in the difference between domesticated and wild animals. Agreeing to raise Wesley was making a years-long commitment. When he was young she couldn't leave him alone at all (mother owls don't leave the nest for several months after their eggs hatch, the fathers are in charge of fetching food for the family), and even once he was older and could be left at home during the day, getting someone to look after him if she ever wanted to travel was a major undertaking. His food needed to be fresh (or at least fresh frozen) mice, fed several times a day. If it was someone other than Stacey doing the feeding they could not actually come into the room with Wesley as he would attack them, and had to wear protective gear to even come to the door and give him his mice. Taking care of Wesley required a level of commitment that I doubt most people could handle. On the other hand, Wesley sounds like he was an incredibly devoted, and very unique little companion. Owls mate for life, and he decided that Stacey was his mate - even attempted to feed her mice and got extremely upset when she declined to eat them (she eventually got really good at pretending). He sounds like a wonderful character, and I really enjoyed reading about him, but I can't imagine adopting an owl. I can't even imagine putting that much effort into a relationship with another person!

Overall a fabulous book. I picked it up because I loved Daily Coyote so much, and the story is even more incredible, but O'Brien isn't a professional writer or photographer, and so the book doesn't hold together quite as well as it should. On the other hand, she is a biologist, and the insights into barn owls that she acquires are just fabulous. I wish this had been written from a more scientific and less emotional/religious experience perspective...but that may just be me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

I've been excited about reading this since I first heard it was coming out, and it definitely lived up to expectations. It is fantastical history which is a genre all of its own as far as I know. There are lots of people who do historical retellings, but GGK throws in a touch or more of fantasy which makes it extra-special. I think it would be really easy to do this wrong, but the fantastical bits just slip right in and make the fact that the whole world is unfamiliar seem easier to deal with. At least to me. I know how to go about reading fantasy, and I know that I'm not required to have any extra knowledge to make things work.

Under Heaven is wonderful. I've read a bit of the jacket quote to several people, and it is a fabulous bit that just grabbed me right away, let me know I was going to love the book, and was a great intro to the story without giving any of the action away, Tai is informed that he is to be presented with 250 Sardian horses:

You give a man one of the legendary Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propelling him toward rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Giving two hundred and fifty is unthinkable - a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Tai realizes some of the implications this gift will have, and tries to prepare himself to cope, but he doesn't have the imagination or the experience to prepare him for everything to come.

This is the retelling of a moment in the history of the Tang dynasty in China, and while some of the details have been altered slightly (at any rate, they're different from what I found on Wikipedia - and who knows how accurate that might be), it is a wonderful story and makes me feel like I really understand what happened back then. GGK also has this wonderful way of showing you how events will appear to someone reading about them in a history book, which simultaneously makes it easier for him to get away with changing some of the details - because who really knows what actually happened after all - and helping you realize how the world works.

One of my favorite bits happened near the beginning of the book when Tai is stopping at a Pleasure Palace on his way back to civilization, and enters the room to find one of his favorite poets, the Banished Immortal, holding court. This man is renowned for his poetry, considered one of the greatest living poets, and Tai is just completely overawed to be in his presence. Yet the scene is told from the first person perspective of a young, foreign courtesan, who is hideously bored by poetry, and incredibly irritated that this disgusting, drunken, obnoxious and filthy man is the centre of attention. At first I couldn't fathom why we were seeing the world through her eyes, but then I realized that it was giving me a much better perspective on this character, who was to be very important throughout the story, and was in fact an important historical figure, than I could possibly have gotten looking through the eyes of someone who already loved him and his poetry. The rest of the book would show him through rose-coloured glasses, but this small glimpse of another facet was just amazing. There is always more than one side to a story.

The other thing I love about this, and pretty much every book of GGK's I've ever read - he writes wonderful female characters. They're real people, not just love interests. Even when their role in the story is, or should be, primarily a love interest, they're always so much more than that. The Emperor's concubine who could so easily have no personality at all is a major political player, Tai's sister is incredibly courageous even when she thinks all possible hope is lost, the courtesan he loves is an amazingly strong and intelligent woman, and the Kanlin Warrior who travels with him is also quite a character.

While I have enjoyed all of GGK's books, this one is special. The story is fabulous, the characters are amazing, and I think he really nailed the ending. I'm waiting for Sky to read it, because I want to know what he thinks - there's a chance he'll hate this ending, because it does have that element of randomness that real life tends to have - but I think the randomness is handled beautifully, and that it highlights the fact that there are many possible happy endings. In fact, most people will find happiness in whatever ending finds them.