Your first shell account

USF account
My first shell account.

You find the oddest things when you’re cleaning out old files. Like a printout for your first shell account. Mine dates from August 30th, 1993–only a short time after my arrival at New College (then part of the University of South Florida, they’ve since sensibly seceded). It was also only a few months after the 1.0 release of NCSA Mosaic, although I’m not sure I actually saw a web page in Mosaic until a few months later.

I don’t think still exists. I know my account doesn’t.

When & where was your first shell account?

Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.

Let’s talk unicorns.

And I’m not thinking of Twilight Sparkle. Legends about the unicorn differ, as is typical with mythical beasts. Some tales describe interaction designers who are also talented visual designers. Others carry news of the rare designer who can also code. And the wildest tales of all describe a designer who is supernaturally capable of anything. These conflicting tales confuse those seeking to hire designers. And of course designers may be asking themselves: “Am I a unicorn, or not?” And since all designers consider themselves magical, if not actually sparkly, the potential for an identity crisis is acute.

A Designer Bestiary

But fret not! Found in a dusty library in a long-forgotten corner of the Bay Area, a tome once thought lost to the centuries has now been found. (It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard”.) Within it’s pages lie descriptions of a vast assortment of legendary creatures. In a Medieval Bestiary, each entry would describe the characteristics, habits, and nature of a type of creature. Creatures were understood to be both real (if you sailed far enough you might meet one) and allegorical (the story of the Pelican echoes the Bible). Whether the descriptions within A Designer Bestiary are similarly allegorical is disputed by historians and Human Resources professionals alike.

Continue reading Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

Reading #57: War, Utopias, and the Renaissance


Just And Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical IllustrationsJust And Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations
by Michael Walzer

This isn’t an easy book to read, although it isn’t quite as dry as the title suggests. I imagine (I hope?) that it is taught in military academies and other places where the morality of war is seriously debated. For me, it helped address a frustration I’ve had for years during debates–often online, sometimes in person–about the morality of going to war or of a particular conduct within a war. Walzer shows that rational discussion of war can happen, that can be worthwhile to do so, and gives template for how to do it. How does he do it? First he clears away the two opposite and equally useless positions that are always used: that, on one hand, war is always immoral, and therefore all wars and all conduct within wars are equally moral, and on the other, that once you’re in a war, anything is permitted to win it (the ‘war is hell’ theory) and that any discussion of morality is pointless. Walzer argues effectively that both of these positions are dangerous fallacies, and moves on to show how to, using a combination of moral intuition, historical example, and reasoning, make a moral judgement about any and all situations of war. You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions (although I mostly do) to admire the careful way he constructs his argument in each case. It’s a hard example to follow, but we’d do a lot better if we tried to follow it, rather than the simplistic “terrorists bad” or “drones scary” discussions that tend to dominate our discourse.

Infinite City: A San Francisco AtlasInfinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
by Rebecca Solnit

This is a delicious book. It’s an artistic and historical atlas, with essays by Solnit and other authors, all focused on San Francisco and the different layers of people, culture, and history that exist in this city. Each essay is paired with a map–some of which are carefully detailed, some more artistically interpreted. Since I’m pretty attached to San Francisco and I’m a sucker for imaginative maps, this was a lot of fun to flip through. The highlights for me included a map of coffeehouses (necessarily incomplete, though I was startled by how many I had visited), a map that combined a history of Muybridge’s early photography work with te filming of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and a map that overlays salmon migration paths in the Bay Area with the locations of Zen centers. From the essays, the standout was the history of South of Market residences before the 1960s redevelopment that gave us the Moscone Center.

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve is a short book about a big subject: the resurrection of ideas that had been present and discussed in the West in the Greek and Roman eras, and lost (or, at least, strongly ignored) for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome. This idea of lost knowledge has been part of our conception of the Renaissance since the Renaissance, and while things are always a little more complicated than that, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Greenblatt uses the story of one book hunter’s rediscovery of one work of Roman philosophy (Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things) to illustrate it. The story of Bracciolini’s 15th century discovery of the manuscript is fascinating, and Greenblatt sets the overall parameters of the civilization change that was about to happen … and then he sort of stops, and never quite makes the argument I was hoping he’d make, of exactly how those old/new ideas transformed things. It’s a fine book as far as it goes, but I wish he’d gone a little further.

Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages ReconsideredBarbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered
by Peter S. Wells

I read this book, somewhat coincidentally, just after The Swerve. It’s another book I wish went further than it did. Like a few other recent works on the early Medieval period, it’s setting up an argument against the unsubtle view that after  the Western Roman Empire fell, everything went completely to hell in a handbasket and there wasn’t any real progress again until the Renaissance. Well, that’s an unsubtle view (and tends to ignore anything happening elsewhere in the world), and Wells argues against it. I don’t hink he does it very well, though–Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome did it much more comprehensively and carefully. One example which stood out for me was Wells arguing that the huge drop-off in sophisticated stone building work in Britain after the Romans left wasn’t a sign of technological decline, just different cultural choices. Ummm … no. Anyway, read the Wickham book instead, as huge as it is.

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal ComputerIndustry

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
by John Markoff

Early West-coast computer nerdery! Robots roaming the streets of Palo Alto! Sex and drugs! What’s not to like? When I first got access to the Internet back in the early 90s, I spent hours reading through resources like the Jargon File which told the unofficial (and usually funny and/or scandalous) stories of the early computer era. This is like that, only a little better researched. It’s a little difficult to follow at times, since it is trying to simultaneously follow a bunch of different kinds of connections: academic, corporate, countercultural, EST stuff, etc. You do get a pretty decent sense of what Doug Englebart was up to at different times, though, and that alone makes it worth reading.

Graphic Novels

Are You My Mother?Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
by Alison Bechdel

This is Bechdel’s second autobiographical work, after Fun Home. Fun Home focused on her (not very good) relationship with her father, this concentrates on her relationship with her mother. It spends a lot of time talking about psychoanalysis and different psychoanalytic theories, which … it makes sense contextually (for one thing she keeps relating to her therapists as mother figures), but it’s really not my thing. It’s a fine book, but I think it works better as an adjunct to Fun Home than on its own.


Against A Dark BackgroundAgainst A Dark Background
by Iain M. Banks

Rereading this one. It’s good, but I’d forgotten it wasn’t a Culture novel and kept waiting for the Culture penny to drop, which it didn’t. It’s a vengeance novel (on multiple levels), so it starts out bloody and gets bloodier. There’s a lot of good weirdness in here (like the Lazy Guns, pieces of old technology that can destroy anything you want them to, in completely unpredictable ways), but the overall tone is a little too dark. Which, well, is in the title I guess.

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions
by Ken Macleod

Oh, Mr. Macleod. This is a detective novel, and the detective part is perfectly fine. But it’s set in a world in which all religions have been ruthlessly, violently, and for the most part successfully repressed. Which is both the core of the novel and somehow not sufficiently appalling as rendered. I also question whether any of the plot points that rely on theological questions from Scottish history (and there are a ton of these) make any damn sense at all to someone unfamiliar with that history. Maybe that’s part of the point, I’m not sure.

The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations

The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations
by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Truly, epically awful. I struggled through it to the end and I’m not really sure why. I like Doctorow and Stross when they keep a careful reign on their tendency to get cutesy. This book is the unholy combination of their cutesy Ids given free reign, to the total detriment of plot, characterization, coherent worldbuilding, or coherent anything else. At best, I guess, they were trying to convey the cultural confusion that anything like a technological singularity would produce, in a lighthearted way. Instead, it’s all a muddle.


by Terry Pratchett

Light, and non- Discworld, story set in Dickensian London. With mostly-historical characters (Dickens himself, Disraeli, Robert Peel) mixed up with partially fictional ones (the Dodger himself). A lot of fun.

Fifteen years in San Francisco

Postcard from San Francisco, with cable cars
My grandfather sent me this postcard from San Francisco in 1981.

Fifteen years ago today I arrived in San Francisco. Not for the first time–I’d been here once as a kid on summer vacation–but this time I intended to stay, at least for a little while. The plan (such as it was) was to get some sort of a job, attach myself somehow to Internet culture (as conveyed by Mondo 2000), and maybe go to this new graduate program I’d heard about from my Anthropology professor, who had it turn heard about from Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0 newsletter. It was going to be extremelycyber.

My plan arrived in the evening, and I was whisked into the city and to my room in a rickety South of Market Victorian rented by a friend who had arrived only a few months earlier (thus saving me the trauma of the early Internet bubble apartment hunt).

The next day I sent this email to the woman who I had not yet figured out I was going to marry. When I tell this story to my grandchildren, I’ll need to explain to them about Internet cafes.

Got here late last night. Wandering around all morning. House is lovely, neighborhood is questionable.

Other than being dazed, confused, unemployed, alone, and feeling so far out of my depth it’s not even funny, I’m doing fine. :)

Fifteen years later, the neighborhood is still questionable, but a room in that lovely Victorian will cost you $300 a night. I did eventually go to grad school. I did become involved in Internet culture, although not in the way I expected. I now live on the far west side of the same city with my wife and our two children, who were born and are being raised in this city.

My life shifted the night I first arrived here. Fifteen years later I’m still living that shift. I’m not alone, I’m only a little dazed and confused, but I’m still completely out of my depth, and I’m still doing fine.

Reading #56: Elites, Apocalypses, and Tentacle Noir

There are some damn good books in this one.


Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

Twilight Of the Elites: America after Meritocracy – Christopher Hayes
Hayes  (aka “the host of that show on cable news where people don’t yell”) has one clear and central argument: the culture of meritocracy in this country is both ineffective and actively harmful. He argues this convincingly, both from theory (this is why meritocracies fail us) and recent political history (here are a bunch of meritocratic systems which failed us). The crux:

The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes will make equal opportunity impossible…. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy. (p. 57)

I find it pretty convincing. I’d recommend this book to anyone frustrated with the current state of politics in this country–but also to academics, teachers, and folks who work in that most meritocratic of cultures (in theory at least), Silicon Valley. It might change your mind about some things.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations – Norman Davies
Vanished Kingdoms tells the story of nation-states that are no longer with us. They range from the recent and well-known (the Soviet Union) to the ancient and fairly obscure (Alt Clud). As history, it’s a mixed bag–Davies makes a strong narrative out of the history of some kingdoms, even when there’s little documentary evidence (like the aforementioned Alt Clud, or Kingdom of Strathclyde) but others, like the various Burgundies, seem more like lists of genealogies. Davies pokes some fun at himself for the last, but less defensible is his decision to promote Byzantium as the most important vanished kingdom of all–only to state that it’s too important to give us only a chapter about and move abruptly on to the next kingdom. Maybe his next book will be on Byzantium? Also, he really hates the British Royal Family. Not sure why, but man, he hates them.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home – Lucy Worsely
Worsley hosted the BBC television series of the same name, and my main problem with this book is the same problem I have with a lot of TV history: they tend to vaguely thematic historical trivia rather than strong narratives or coherent arguments. Worsley is trying to give us a sense of how different uses of our homes, and rooms dedicated to those uses, have changed over time. She succeeds in bits and pieces–there are some lovely descriptions–but the overall effect is factoids, and those most relating to the British aristocracy. If you want to know a bunch of details about Royal beds this is your book–only not, because you get only a tease. On the other hand, I will always be grateful to this book for introducing me to that sadly-extinct breed of dog, the turnspit dog.


Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
There’s a movie coming out, and I’m worried about it. Tom Hanks? Close to 3 hours in length? Dressing white actors up as Asian? Could be horrific. But give the movie credit: it was a trailer for the movie that reminded me to read the book, which I’d vaguely heard about without knowing much.

Man, this is a good book. Very few novels manage to be ambitious in ways literary audiences and genre audiences will both recognize. Even fewer novels succeed. So, take 6 stories, each set in a different time period and each in a different genre. You have a 19th century story (adventures on ships!) told through letters, another epistolary novel set in the 1930s about a composer, a 1970s crime thriller, a modern day satire, a near-future dystopia, and a far-future post-apocalyptic tale. Just making each of these good would be tricky, but Mitchell breaks five of them in half and orders them so forst you travel forward in time, then back again. And then there are the recurring characters, themes, stories commenting on other stories … it all sounds horrifically complicated but the beauty of this is that it isn’t. I had a little trouble with the first half of the 19th century story (my least favorite character, though the second half is better) but after that the whole thing just flows.

Part of what makes it works–and this is in comparison to many novels where (for example) a literary author tries his or her hand at genre fiction–is that Mitchell clearly knows and respects his inspirations. The best example is the postapocalyptic novel, which is an easy one to do badly. He nods to my favorite pos-apocalyptic novel, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, avoids (or toys with) the common cliches, and by setting it on Hawaii’s Big Island, gives it a novel setting.


Graphic novels

Fatale Volume 1: Death Chases Me

Fatale – Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
San Francisco Noir, with additional tentacle monsters. If that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this–and the cover art gives you a good idea of what to expect. It is the sort of thing I like. Brubaker’s dialogue is noir-ish without being too self-parodic, the plotting decent enough, the setting glorious. I am a sucker for old spooky San Francisco (and modern spooky San Francisco, and future spooky San Francisco …) and this gives me multiple eras happily. Or unhappily for the characters, who mostly come to tragic ends, as is only appropriate. San Phillips’s art evokes classic noir films without being cheesy, and his use of color is breathtaking.

Stamen design & why my commute used to suck


First, go look at this Stamen Design project. Here's how they describe it:

Historically, workers have lived in residential suburbs while commuting to work in the city. For Silicon Valley, however, the situation is reversed: many of the largest technology companies are based in suburbs, but look to recruit younger knowledge workers who are more likely to dwell in the city.

An alternate transportation network of private buses—fully equipped with wifi—thus threads daily through San Francisco, picking up workers at unmarked bus stops(though many coexist in digital space), carrying them southward via the commuter lanes of the 101 and 280 freeways, and eventually delivers them to their campuses. 

It's a pretty neat project. I have a few questions in response, and one big reaction.

The questions:

  1. How similar or different would this look if other industries were represented? I know that Genentech has shuttles. Beyond tech, are there other industries moving their workers around l like this? If you did an equivalent map of construction job sites and the day worker centers (formal and informal) where workers hop on trucks for a days pay, how different would the streams be?
  2. Private bus systems are interesting. The biggest factor here is public transportation not cutting it for these workers and these routes–but do the big tech companies really want their workers sitting next to workers from other companies anyway? I know from the Y! shuttle that the commute was culturally considered part of the workday in ways time on public transport usually isn't.

My main reaction, though, was more visceral. I took one of these shuttles while working at Yahoo for two years–starting at one of the 19th Avenue stops. It seemed like a good idea at the time: I'd been doing car commutes previously, some of them pretty long, so a shuttle ride seemed like a great deal. It took me two years to figure out that the problem was the commute, not the car.

(You know your commute is killing you, right? It causes physiological damage, increases stress, decreases happiness, and harms your relationships. Transit commutes, public or private, are probably better than driving yourself, but commutes of over one hour are going to be a bad deal no matter what.) 

I might have been fine if I'd lived in the Mission and worked at the closer of Yahoo's then-multiple campuses, but as it was I spent 15-20 hours a week in a van each week. Not good, and worse: as my first child became a toddler and started sleeping through the night, I started going two or three days in a row without seeing her awake. That was completely unacceptable. I needed to either move south or move my job north.

I did the latter–joined a startup in the city. That brought my commute down to less than an hour, and more, I could bike it in good weather (and once I got over my fears of bike commuting in the city). Of course then my startup was acquired and I ended up driving to the Peninsula again for a while. But my goal had been formed–work near my home, here in San Francisco, in the Outer Sunset, near Ocean Beach, on the Western edge of the world. Where my children go to school, and where I can get a damn good cup of coffee with toast and a coconut. And that's what I'm doing now.

Looking back at Stamen's map, I see that not only are there no stops shown for the western 1/4 of the city–the private shuttles don't even cut through here on the way to somewhere else. That may change–I know more than a few folks out here who work in the Valley, but wanted to raise their kids in the city. But for now, they're almost separate worlds. And as much as I love the Silicon Valley tech world (and as much as I intend to continue working within it), that seems appropriate.  

A life lesson, or, what is seen cannot be unseen.


It was a lesson I should already have learned. I had learned it.

Many years ago, as a teenager growing up in Washington D.C., I worked a summer job at Reiter's Books on K Street. Reiter's was and remains one of the finest science & technology bookstores in the world. It was a great job, as long as I was allowed to avoid working the register (I was terrified of ringing up someone incorrectly) and avoid answering the phones (I was phone-phobic to a paralyzing degree).[1]  I did odd jobs like sweeping and taking out the trash, but mostly I unpacked books and shelved them. 

I loved shelving. The backs of these books gave me windows into whole worlds of knowledge that were unknown to me, that I could envision someday being a master of. I developed strong opinions about whole fields based on the covers of their textbooks. Advanced math, as represented by the classic yellow Springer-Verlag books, was serious, imposing, monolithic, and impenetrable. Computers were a muddle of garish covers and unlikely promises (learn C in 3 weeks!), but also contained a placid island of well-designed, nicely bound books that paired engravings of unusual animals with intriguing UNIX terms (sed! awk!). Those, I lingered over, though not as much as I lingered over the tall stacks of Edward Tufte books  (only three at that time) placed at the entrance to the store. The Tufte books I returned to again and again as I replenished the stacks, and could even occasionally understand.[2]

And then there was the back of the store, which was a whole different beast. It primarily served the George Washington University School of Medicine, and stocked most if not all of the core course material. There was never any question of my being interested in medicine, though I flipped through the textbooks as frequently as any other. I didn't like shelving that section, though, for two reasons:

  1. Medical reference books are really, really heavy.
  2. Illustrated textbooks of skin diseases.

This was in 1991 or so, before the World Wide Web. Full-color illustrations of horrifying medical conditions and procedures were not mere clicks away, as they are now. There were no trolls gleefully linking to eye-bleeding visual experiences in innocent disguise just for laughs. There was no reason to see a closeup of some terrifying pustule unless you were a medical professional, or actually had it on your body. Or you were shelving books in the medical section.

I'm not actually that squeamish, but I do remember vividly the experience of idly flipping open one of these books and wincing at what I saw. (And looking again, and wincing, and looking again … I was 16.)

So you would think I would have learned.

Fast-forward 20 years. I'm about to undergo a fairly minor outpatient surgical procedure. The surgeon tells me that the procedure is a fairly new one for this condition, but that his own experiences and some solid studies hadve confirmed its effectiveness. Now, everyone handles these sorts of things differently: some people might pepper the doctor with questions, others might just take his word for it, still others might get a second opinion. Me? I read the study.

I am emphatically not a medical professional, or anything like, but I have the basic "evaluate a study" skills that to some extend go across disciplines. Who were the authors, what was the method, how many subjects, does the conclusion seem to follow from the results, that sort of thing. I don't really expect to find anything when I do this, it's largely a way of both educating and reassuring myself. And as far as those things go, everything looked perfectly fine. But (I was to discover), studies covering surgical methods tend to include one extra thing I wasn't expecting.

Step-by-step pictures of the surgical operation itself.  


In vivid color.

I should already have learned.

[1] I got over the phone thing, eventually. The register thing too, somewhat

[2] An observer could have predicted my non-humanities academic path by noticing my early bookstore preferences: a brief foray into math, a longer but incomplete journey through computer science, a final landing in the world design.

Reading #55

I've been keeping loose track of the books I read for a while now, on various platforms. I'm going to try doing it here for a while.


Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
Taras Grescoe really doesn't like cars: or rather, he really doesn't like what happens to cities when car-centric development is the dominant mode for decades or longer. I'm more or less in agreement with him on this, so I am a receptive audience for this book. In fact the arguments against car-centric development were for me the least enjoyable part of this book, as I've heard most of them before and agree with them. More interesting to me were the many different alternatives, from the supertrains of Tokyo to the success of Bus Rapid Transit in Bogota to the bike culture of Copenhagen, where a mindboggling 36% of citizens commute by bike. (For a U.S. comparison, even in enlightened Portland only about 6% commute by bike.) This is a polemical book, but its strength is in portraying the culture of each city through its transit. 

Graphic novels

Pyongyang: A Journey in North KoreaThe Invisibles, Vol. 1: Say You Want a RevolutionLocal

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle
Nonfiction: Guy Deslisle went to North Korea to work with an animation team there. He doesn't get much direct access to North Korean life and culture of course, so rather, the books is largely about the isolation of being in a tiny Western enclave walled off from the rest of the country for months on end, with occasional glimpses of the world beyond. Funny, and sinister.

The Invisibles Vol. 1: Say You Want a Revolution by Grant Morrison
I have the full run of the Invisibles in single issues, I'm starting to pick them up in graphic novel form so I can actually read them. Morrison is bonkers, but the pleasure of reading this first volume is the knowledge that he hasn't even really gotten going yet.

Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
Beautiful hardback collection of Wood and Kelly's Local. The conceit is that each story takes place in a different city (and, less obviously at first, over a span of many years) and stands alone, though the thread through all of them is one young woman, Megan. Not every story works well, and one (with the violent brothers) doesn't work at all with the rest, but many do, and the sum total is magnificent. It's a coming of age story done as elegantly as I've seen in comic form. Wood's prose and Kelly's art work perfectly together.


Wolf Hall2312For The WinThe Last Colony (Old Man's War, #3)

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel

If you've seen A Man for all Seasons, you can think of this novel as a response of sorts. It's a historical novel, with the general setting being the English Reformation, King Henry VIII and his wives, and all that. (Henry VIII wife mnemonic: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived — which is only sorta accurate but is memorable.) It's seen through Thomas Cromwell, commonly seen as a sinister manipulator — and he still is, in this novel, except you have a bit more sympathy for his sinister manipulations. Mantel has a very odd style for the narration which threw me off the first go at reading it, but it grew on me.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Set in a future history that's sort of but not really the same as his Mars trilogy, Robinson is writing a love story with a little spy action and a lot of world-building and future history telling. The love story is between a mercurial woman from Mercury (-ish, Robinson's future people have some creative gender options and do take advantage of them) and a saturnine man from Saturn. They fall in love in a crisis, fall apart, and fall back together again, while getting to tour some of the bits of the future Solar System that Robinson hasn't had a chance to do yet, and pulls back to Earth again and again. (KSR is trying to make the point to his space-happy fans that Earth is, should be, and always will be the main event, even if humanity does every spread beyond it.) It's good, read it.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow
At some point I'm going to figure out why so many science fiction authors felt they had to write a MMO book. Possibly they all lost a year to World of Warcraft and had to justify it to themselves. This is Doctorow's, and it's pretty good. Young people across the globe, involved in MMOs in one way or another, are oppressed, become radicalized, and organize to protect themselves.

The Last Colony by John Scalzi
I read this thinking I hadn't before; I had. This happens. It's a fine follow-up to The Old Man's War, but not nearly as strong. I am looking forward to the serial novel he has in mind next, I think it's high time more writers experimented with writing for digital devices.


RedshirtsNeuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Count Zero (Sprawl, #2)Mona Lisa Overdrive (Sprawl, #3)


Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
Clever Star Trek parody wrapped around a mild philosophical puzzle with some sentiment tagged on. Fine, but I hoped for a bit more.

The Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer / Count Zero / Mona Lisa Overdrive) by William Gibson
Rereading these for the nth time. My preferences have slowly changed: I would have said a few years ago that Count Zero was the best of the three, now I prefer Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Drones and Automated Trading Systems

This week I reread William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive for the umpteenth time. It’s the final book of the Sprawl trilogy which started with the more famous Neuromancer. This time, there were some lovely resonances between the books and the world of today, almost 25 years after it was published.

One detail that jumped out at me was the emotional resonance of drone surveillance:

She was accompanied, on these walks, by an armed remote, a tiny Dornier helicopter that rose from its unseen rooftop next when she stepped down from the deck. It could hover almost silently, and was programmed to avoid her line of sight. There was something wistful about the way it followed her, as though it we5re an expensive but unappreciated Christmas gift.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), pps 14-15

 A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market.

“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

— A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away, The New York Times, July 29th, 2012

And while we don’t yet live in a world where Artificial Intelligences control major corporations, we have started talking about things as if we do:

She remembered Porphyre once maintaining that major corporations were entirely independent of the human beings who composed the body corporate. This had seemed patently obvious to Angie, but the hairdresser had insisted that she’d failed to grasp his basic premise. Swift was Sense/Net’s most important human decision-maker.- Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), page 123

An automated stock trading program suddenly flooded the market with millions of trades Wednesday morning, spreading turmoil across Wall Street and drawing renewed attention to the fragility and instability of the nation’s stock market.

Traders on Wednesday said that a rogue algorithm repeatedly bought and sold millions of shares of companies like RadioShack, Best Buy, Bank of America and American Airlines, sending trading volume surging. While the trading firm involved blamed a “technology issue,” the company and regulators were still trying to understand what went wrong.

“The machines have taken over, right?” said Patrick Healy, the chief executive of the Issuer Advisory Group, a capital markets consulting firm.

Flood of Errant Trades Is a Black Eye for Wall Street, The New York Times, August 1, 2012

Science fiction isn’t terribly reliable at predicting the future, exactly. But sometimes it does a nice job of predictng what the future will feel like.

“Any sufficiently advanced civilization is … “

Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

— Wikipedia, Clarke's Three Laws

So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

— Karl Schroeder, The Deepening Paradox