Category Archives: toREAD

Getting Strossed

Almost through Charles Stross’ “Accelerando,” a fantastic singularity sci-fi novel. I’m really enjoying this book, to the point where I’ll likely start writing a slew of half-baked posts about the singularity. I guess I’ll hold back until I’m done. If you want to read along at home, which is totally in your interest, since the book is so good, find the entire thing here for free. (Open your heart to the free e-books, people.)

On Mr. Stross’s blog this week, he’s got some incredible material on the current thinking into the Fermi Paradox (i.e. we’re intelligent, and that means intelligence is possible, so how come can’t we observe evidence of alien intelligences?). Here’s one of the ideas he brings up:

But the Great Filter argument isn’t the only answer to the Fermi Paradox. More recently, Milan M. Ćirković has written a paper, Against the Empire, in which he criticizes the empire-state model of posthuman civilization that is implicit in many Fermi Paradox treatments. As he points out, for a civilization to be visible at interstellar distances it needs to be expanding and utilizing resources in certain ways. There is a widespread implicit belief among people who look at the topic [] in manifest destiny, expansion to fill all possible evolutionary niches, and the inevitability of any species that develops the technology to explore deep space using that technology to colonize it. As Ćirković points out, this model is based on a naive extrapolation of historical human models which may be utterly inapplicable to posthuman or postbiological societies.

In other words, the answer to Fermi is we don’t see evidence of other intelligences because advanced minds aren’t raw-material consumers like us primitives. When we project an idea of an advanced civilization, we make it look just like us but on space steroids. If getting advanced means using resources differently, which seems likely enough, all these projections based on human evolutionary history up to now may not be quite accurate.

Star Fish Is Superior

Believe me when I tell you to read this book. If you don’t believe me, ask Noah. You might think: But I don’t like sci-fi, and dear god look at the cover, man. Also, screw this Noah guy. Even if you don’t think you like sci-fi books per se, “Star Fish” still deserves your attention. In fact, I think it’s the perfect sort of sci-fi book to suggest to people who don’t read those books, because it doesn’t much follow the standard shapes and rhythms of the genre. Which is not to say it’s an easy read — far from it. “Star Fish” is a difficult book in a lot of ways. A hostile book, you could say. But the payoff is huge. Peter Watts’ debut novel is a fearsome thing, a really huge technical achievement. There is no skimping on science here, but it’s pretty seamless and important to the story.

This is not the first time I’ve hectored you to read “Star Fish.” It’s been free for a long while, but Tor is just hyping that fact now (on their excellent free e-book email list) presumably because the paperback reissue is due out. Hopefully, once you confirm the book’s quality, you’ll buy the other two novels in the Rifters trilogy. And “Blindsight,” which is also a killer book.

I Tell You, I Must Cranch

For my birthday, I received the big hardcover collection of Cordwainer Smith stories, The Rediscovery of Man from my siblings. (And also a board game about the Cold War.) I don’t know all that much about Mr. Smith, a sci-fi author from the 50s who seems to have written idiosyncratic far-future histories. Also he was, when not working under pen name, a well-regarded academic and the foremost expert on psychological warfare. I read an appreciation of his work some time back, googled around a bit, and found this story:Scanners Live in Vain.” Then I asked for the book.

The first paragraph is a real gem of speculative writing: a concise, swift dramatization of a life spent as a Scanner, a person with a nervous system modified to endure the Great Pain of Space…

Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Lûci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex and automatic. The inventory included his legs, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face, and back with the mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry. He talked with his voice, even though he knew that his wife hated its blare and preferred to have him write.

“I tell you, I must cranch. I have to cranch. It’s my worry, isn’t it?”

When Lûci answered, he saw only a part of her words as he read her lips: “Darling . . . you’re my husband . . . right to love you . . . dangerous . . . do it . . . dangerous . . . wait. . . .”

He faced her, but put sound in his voice, letting the blare hurt her again: “I tell you, I am going to cranch.”

Read the rest. It’s not all that long. Then we’ll discuss.

  • MORE: I’ve written about sf short stories before, and it’s something I aim to do more of starting now. Here’s a post about a truly great, very short Heinlein story about time travel.

Good Read: Digging a Hole to China

Firstly, a note: Good Read is a new semi-regular feature here at Office of Special Plans. Basically, I’ll be linking, along with an excerpt, to something I’ve read recently that I consider excellent. When you see the Good Read label, rest assured the linked article is a good use of your time. Importantly, this feature won’t take a lot of typing and novel thought on my end, since my not-for-profit writing time has been somewhat limited these days.

* * *

James Fallows is one my all-around favorite dudes working in journalism today, and his piece on the peculiar economic co-dependency between the U.S. and China in this month’s Atlantic is really wonderful. If you’ve been following the China story, there may not be a lot here that you don’t already basically know. But Fallows’s explanation of the phenomenon is impressively clear, readable and — most importantly, given the dry subject — colorful. And, to be frank, somewhat terrifying. Particularly towards the end.

Here’s a taste:

Let’s say you buy an Oral-B electric toothbrush for $30 at a CVS in the United States. I choose this example because I’ve seen a factory in China that probably made the toothbrush. Most of that $30 stays in America, with CVS, the distributors, and Oral-B itself. Eventually $3 or so—an average percentage for small consumer goods—makes its way back to southern China.

When the factory originally placed its bid for Oral-B’s business, it stated the price in dollars: X million toothbrushes for Y dollars each. But the Chinese manufacturer can’t use the dollars directly. It needs RMB—to pay the workers their 1,200-RMB ($160) monthly salary, to buy supplies from other factories in China, to pay its taxes. So it takes the dollars to the local commercial bank—let’s say the Shenzhen Development Bank. After showing receipts or waybills to prove that it earned the dollars in genuine trade, not as speculative inflow, the factory trades them for RMB.

This is where the first controls kick in. In other major countries, the counterparts to the Shenzhen Development Bank can decide for themselves what to do with the dollars they take in. Trade them for euros or yen on the foreign-exchange market? Invest them directly in America? Issue dollar loans? Whatever they think will bring the highest return. But under China’s “surrender requirements,” Chinese banks can’t do those things. They must treat the dollars, in effect, as contraband, and turn most or all of them (instructions vary from time to time) over to China’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank, the People’s Bank of China, for RMB at whatever is the official rate of exchange.

With thousands of transactions per day, the dollars pile up like crazy at the PBOC. More precisely, by more than a billion dollars per day. They pile up even faster than the trade surplus with America would indicate, because customers in many other countries settle their accounts in dollars, too.

The PBOC must do something with that money, and current Chinese doctrine allows it only one option: to give the dollars to another arm of the central government, the State Administration for Foreign Exchange. It is then SAFE’s job to figure out where to park the dollars for the best return: so much in U.S. stocks, so much shifted to euros, and the great majority left in the boring safety of U.S. Treasury notes.

And thus our dollar comes back home. Spent at CVS, passed to Oral-B, paid to the factory in southern China, traded for RMB at the Shenzhen bank, “surrendered” to the PBOC, passed to SAFE for investment, and then bid at auction for Treasury notes, it is ready to be reinjected into the U.S. money supply and spent again—ideally on Chinese-made goods.

At no point did an ordinary Chinese person decide to send so much money to America. In fact, at no point was most of this money at his or her disposal at all. These are in effect enforced savings.

Read the whole thing. And if the Atlantic’s firewall, which was just curtailed although not eliminated, proves an obstacle to your reading, drop me an email and I’ll see what can I do.

Ad-Supported Everything…OK!

I remember nearly paying for Wired luminary Kevin Kelly’s documentary cannon “True Films” some time back, when it surfaced as a cheap download on his website. Awed by the concept, won over by the sub-subtitle: “Perfect with Netflix.”

My failure of follow through has redounded to my benefit. The book, now in it’s third “edition,” is available as a free PDF download — and the very first real-world example I’ve yet encountered of Adobe’s move into ad-supported files, which I read about at work a while back. Here’s Mr. Kelly’s post about it.

I have to say, when I read about this whole PDFs-with-ads thing, despite my intense interest in authors and free e-books, I was pretty dismissive. Could it be lucrative? Do people actually respond to any of Google’s ubiquitous contextual ads? Isn’t it overkill? But now I’m starting to see how it makes a whole bunch of sense…

Funniest Thing I Read in 2007

‘Tis the season for sweeping superlatives and list-making, which is actually the only thing I like about the putrid month of December. I figure I’m good for a few, now that I’ve created this self-important self-publishing platform for myself.

Funniest Thing (Written):

This won’t be much of list since, in my book, there’s a hands-down winner: Simon Rich’s “The Wisdom of Children,” from the Shouts & Murmurs page of the March 26 New Yorker. And it’s brief. Even if you caught it on the first go-round, try it once more:

I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids’ Table

MOM: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.

DAD: O.K.

GRANDMOTHER: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.

DAD: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.

UNCLE: I’m having sex right now.

DAD: We all are.

MOM: Let’s talk about which kid I like the best.

DAD: (laughing) You know, but you won’t tell.

MOM: If they ask me again, I might tell.

FRIEND FROM WORK: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!

DAD: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren’t.

MOM: I’m angry! I’m angry all of a sudden!

DAD: I’m angry, too! We’re angry at each other!

MOM: Now everything is fine.

DAD: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.

MOM: There was a big sex.

FRIEND FROM WORK: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!

(Everybody laughs.)

MOM: I had a lot of wine, and now I’m crazy!

GRANDFATHER: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?

ALL: Yes.

GRANDFATHER: Don’t tell the kids.

There’s more at the link.

How’s the Unmarried Mother Racket?

I have not read very much Robert Heinlein, although “Stranger in a Strange Land” has been near the top of my to-read pile for a shamefully long time. But I have read this gem of a short-short story, “All You Zombies.” It’s written in the hard-nosed noir style of Dashiell Hammett and doesn’t involve any zombies in the George Romero sense of the word. Here a bit from the top with many pulp cliches arrayed like so many toy soldiers about to get jumbled up in Heinlein’s weird bag:

The Unmarried Mother was a man twenty–five years old, no taller than I am, childish features and a touchy temper. I didn’t like his looks—I never had—but he was a lad I was here to recruit, he was my boy. I gave him my best barkeep’s smile.

Maybe I’m too critical. He wasn’t swish; his nickname came from what he always said when some nosy type asked him his line: “I’m an unmarried mother.” If he felt less than murderous he would add: “at four cents a word. I write confession stories.”

If he felt nasty, he would wait for somebody to make something of it. He had a lethal style of infighting, like a female cop—reason I wanted him. Not the only one.

He had a load on, and his face showed that he despised people more than usual. Silently I poured a double shot of Old Underwear and left the bottle. He drank it, poured another.

I wiped the bar top. “How’s the ‘Unmarried Mother’ racket?”

His fingers tightened on the glass and he seemed about to throw it at me; I felt for the sap under the bar. In temporal manipulation you try to figure everything, but there are so many factors that you never take needless risks.

Read the whole thing, as they say.