Monday, December 30, 2013

Python and JavaScript

Watching a relative of mine (who wishes to stay Internet-anonymous) crank out hundreds of lines of JavaScript in four hours for the FFM questionnaire, I was able to reassess my views of the relative merits of JavaScript and Python. My intention is to produce non-trivial (AI) software which can animate agents for consumers such as yourself across the Internet (this really means games). So three requirements:

1. A real language, not a toy. I had previously believed JavaScript was a toy language but now I've had a look, I guess not (at least as far as expressive power goes, I'm not talking commercial scalability).

2. Ability to serve Internet clients. With Python this is quite hard as it runs within its own development/interpreter environment. JavaScript - in its client-side mode - is perfect.

3. Graphics. I've looked at Pygame with Python but it's not well-integrated with the Python distribution and seems hard to deploy in an Internet-client mode. JavaScript is hardly the world's best user-interface programming language but even here there seems to be progress. 

A difficulty with JavaScript which my anonymous developer highlighted was its brittleness and primitive development environment (we were using Notepad++).

I have ordered "Sams Teach Yourself JQuery and JavaScript in 24 Hours" and we shall see.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Five-Factor Model Questionnaire

The Newcastle Personality Assessor (NPA) from "Personality" by Daniel Nettle.

To understand the purpose of this questionnaire refer to my review of Daniel Nettle's book. For more on the Five-Factor Model see the Wikipedia article.


Gender?
            Not me Not very me Me-ish Somewhat me Very me
Q1: Starting a conversation with a stranger
Q2: Making sure others are comfortable and happy
Q3: Creating an artwork, piece of writing, or piece of music
Q4: Preparing for things well in advance
Q5: Feeling blue or depressed
Q6: Planning parties or social events
Q7: Insulting people
Q8: Thinking about philoophical or spiritual questions
Q9: Letting things get into a mess
Q10: Feeling stressed or worried
Q11: Using difficult words
Q12: Sympathizing with others' feelings
     


Your personality assessment
                
Openness
Conscientiousness
Extraversion
Agreeableness
Neuroticism


Now you have your assessment, what does it mean? You should read Daniel Nettle's book (or the Wikipedia article for a fast review) but just to give you a flavour, here is what your score might suggest about yourself.

Interpreting your FFM personality assessment

“Personality” by Daniel Nettle

A rather excellent book: "Personality" by Daniel Nettle.

Suppose you ask people to rate their interest in such things as social activities, travel, competitive success and sex. Perhaps not surprisingly, their separate scores will correlate with each other (0.1 – 0.3). If you now ask them whether they ever feel depressed or ‘blue’, or whether they have sought help for anxiety, their scores for these two items also positively correlate with each other. But the first four sets and the second two sets don't cross correlate at all. This suggests there are deeper traits at work. A technique called factor analysis identifies Extraversion as the common factor in the first set, and Neuroticism as the common factor for the second. These two factors are independent.

When a wide variety of personality-relevant items are rated for large samples of people, factor analysis reliably and repeatedly confirms that there are five underlying, independent personality traits: Extraversion and Neuroticism as already describerelatesscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. Each will get a chapter to itself.

The Five Factor Model of personality is often accused of shallowness, and of being atheoretic as the factors simply emerge from statistical processing (in fact just the same factoring procedure generates the g-factor – general intelligence – as measured through IQ tests). The great strength of Nettle’s book is that he can link individual variation within each of the five factors to differences in brain anatomy and metabolism as captured by MRI scanners and then with genetic differences. The five traits seem to be capturing something real about genetically-determined brain variation.

Common observation confirms that we are surrounded by different personalities. If personality is heavily determined by our genes, as it appears, then why haven't we all converged on an ideal personality? You can, of course, ask the same question about any continuously-varying trait which still exhibits variation, such as height or intelligence. The answer seems to be a combination of environmental instability (rewarding different parts of the variability-spectrum in different circumstances) and frequency-dependent selection (as in the way a few rather nasty people can take advantage of the many nice-but-gullible). Nettle discusses this in detail – it will be a recurring point that all positions in personality space help in some circumstances but hinder in others.

The chapter on Extraversion, setting a pattern for those to come on the other traits, links the behavioural attributes of extraverts with brain imaging and genetic studies. Extraversion, it turns out, comes down to a strong reaction to positive emotions – those feelings we find rewarding; introverts just don’t seem to care so much, conserving their energy. There seems to be a link between extraversion and genetic variation in sensitivity to dopamine.

Neuroticism, by contrast, relates to sensitivity to negative emotions: to score highly on this dimension is to be a worrier. The associated brain chemistry seems to involve the neurotransmitter serotonin: inhibitors such as Prozac seem to make us less worried about life’s many sources of anxiety.

Conscientiousness, the third trait to be analysed, seems at first sight a pretty good trait to score highly on. It’s the most reliable predictor of occupational success across the board. Conscientiousness is particularly valuable in structured, rule-based environments such as we find in advanced technological societies. Change the situation to one of unpredictable, fast-changing circumstance however, and the rule-bound are at a disadvantage. The army, for example, has a continual internal conflict as it needs both sorts, but they continually rub each other up the wrong way.

Agreeableness, the fourth dimension, sounds like a trait well-worth having. Who could fault being nice? Perhaps not so strangely, success in business correlates with low scores on this trait. Something about putting other people first and a degree of self-effacement doesn’t sit easily with tough, mission-oriented leadership. This is the one trait where female and male scores are clearly distinct, with women scoring more than half a standard deviation higher in agreeableness. There is a ready evolutionary explanation in the pre-modern sexual division of labour.

The final dimension is Openness to Experience. This is a hard dimension to pin down. Some people equate it with intelligence, but the author is of the opinion that intelligence is a kind of whole-brain efficiency measure implicated across all areas of neural functioning including such non-intellectual tasks as pure reaction times. Nettle believes high-scorers on Openness are artistic, creative people capable of making associations between different – and perhaps surprising – kinds of things. Intellectuals on the science, technology, engineering and maths front don’t look much like famous poets and acclaimed authors. Wherein lies the difference? For once the author doesn’t have good answers, believing the key to excellence in these STEM subjects is more down to general intelligence. But clearly that can't be the whole story.

In the final part of the book the author reviews the evidence for ‘environmental’ influences determining personality and finds they are few and hard to find. Family and parental input (if non-abusive) has been carefully measured to have exactly zero impact: you can't change your child’s personality. Does this give people a deterministic get-out - my genes made me do it? In the final chapter Nettle carefully demolishes this view, showing that dispositions are one thing, but the life choices you make to go with or against the flow of your dispositions are something else.

In summary, this book is a wonderfully accessible and profound exploration of the concept of personality. Everyone will learn something about themselves from reading it and it conclusively takes us beyond the limitations of the Jungian approach as in Myers-Briggs theory. There is a short 12 item questionnaire which you are encouraged to complete before reading (which you can take online here).

Your reviewer scored:

Openness:              HIGH;
Conscientiousness:  HIGH;
Extraversion:          LOW;
Agreeableness:       MED-HIGH;
Neuroticism:          LOW.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dorsai! - Gordon R. Dickson

Plot summary for Dorsai! from Wikipedia.
"The book is about Donal Graeme, warrior extraordinaire. In the Childe Cycle universe, the human race has split into a number of splinter cultures. Donal is a member of the Dorsai, a splinter culture based on the planet of the same name, which has specialized in producing the very best soldiers. Since each splinter culture specializes in a specific area of expertise, a system of trade labour contracts between the cultures allows each planet to hire the expertise they need. 

"The Dorsai, inhabiting a resource-poor world, hire themselves out as mercenaries to other planetary governments. Donal has great ambitions, and the book follows his rise in an episodic nature. The book begins as a straightforward tale of his career and then becomes something else, as it becomes clear there is something different about Donal Graeme himself."
The chronology goes: Tactics of MistakeSoldier, Ask Not, and then Dorsai!  but the novels were written in the reverse order with Dorsai! dating from 1959 while Tactics of Mistake was written twelve years later in 1971.

It shows. Dorsai!  is as much a page-turner as the others but it's undeniably cruder, with more 'tell-not-show' episodes and a degree of background-repetition. It also has the feel of 'young adult', or at least more so than the others. Readers will also note significant plot similarities between Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake.

Nevertheless, the novel amply repays the reader's investment and its exploration of history and even eugenics shows an intellectual ambition largely lacking from contemporary SF.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Smart Grammar School kids?

In the fifties and sixties about a quarter of school kids passed  the 11+ and went to grammar school. So what was the IQ threshold?

Based on a normal distribution with mean IQ 100 and standard deviation 15, this equates to an IQ of 110 to get into grammar school. To get into the top 20% of the grammar school you would need an IQ of 125.

With 40% of eighteen year olds going to university, that IQ threshold is just 104.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Xmas presents 2013

This creature from my mother - now put to good work.

The badger guards the door

This video documents the start of our present-unwrapping ...

... and this video continues the process; videos streamed from DropBox.

Thanks to my mother Beryl Seel and Elaine & Mike for particularly creative efforts; score 10-0 to you guys!

Solar panel financial model

Based on the quote from IKEA/Hanergy I put together the following spreadsheet to model the finances in their first quote. Based on a Google Earth view of our property, the Hanergy team suggested 24 120 watt panels producing 2.88 kW. This produces 2,601 kWh annually.

How does this translate into revenues? We are treated as a power station and those 2,601 kWh are bought from us by our power utility at the index-linked feed-in tariff of 14.9p per kWh.

In addition, it's assumed that we only use half the power domestically so half of the 2,601 kWh is assumed exported to the grid for which we are paid an additional 4.6p per kWh (the export-tariff).

Going with their assumption that we use half the power generated by the panels, we are thus saved 1,301 kWh at our supplier's rate of 14.7p per kWh. This is therefore a saving on our electricity bill of 1,301 * £0.14.7 = £191 - electricity we no longer have to buy.

Taking these three revenues into account, the net annual return comes to £638. As the first installed cost is £5,100, this is a yearly return on investment of 638/5,100 = 12.5%. Equivalently, the break-even period is 8 years.

Here's the spreadsheet.

Solar panel financial model

A more complex model (discounted cash flow) would factor in the present value of the future revenues shown above, using perhaps an annual discount factor of 0.975, together with an inflation factor for electricity costs (kWh), perhaps 1.03 per year.

To an extent, these two factors counteract each other.

When the surveyor arrives in early January, we expect the number of panels and the costs to be reviewed. Our yearly usage of electricity is (according to our supplier) around 4,100 kWh so there is ample scope - if we can - to increase the amount we get from solar, given the RoI indicated.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fermi problems and the existence of God

In his or her article "The Math Sex Gap Revisited: a Theory of Everyone", famed scholar La Griffe du Lion writes:
"Good evening ladies. I am truly honored to be invited to the annual meeting of Women Against the Gap and even more so to be your featured speaker. I always enjoy visiting La La Land where a gap-free society defines the goal of human striving. Thank you for the invitation and for your hospitality. I confess to some initial misgivings -- after all, hundreds of WAGs in a single room can be intimidating -- but your gracious welcome quickly put an end to my fears. So, as a much-relieved featured speaker, I look forward to sharing with you a new analysis of the mathematics gender gap, which, if psychologists could do Fermi problems, would be largely unnecessary."
So what is a Fermi problem? Here is how the Wikipedia article starts.
"In Physics or engineering education, a Fermi problem, Fermi question, or Fermi estimate is an estimation problem designed to teach ... the importance of clearly identifying one's assumptions. Named after physicist Enrico Fermi, such problems typically involve making justified guesses about quantities that seem impossible to compute given limited available information.

Fermi was known for his intelligent ability to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data, hence the name. One example is his estimate of the strength of the atomic bomb detonated at the Trinity test, based on the distance travelled by pieces of paper dropped from his hand during the blast. Fermi's estimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-accepted value of around 20 kilotons."
An example of a Fermi problem occurred to me in the context of Christmas. What would be the consequences if God actually existed?

I know a lot of people are believers, but here I'm talking about the discovery of hard evidence that a supernatural, universe-spanning, guiding intelligence actually existed. This would surely be the ultimate intelligent alien scenario.

Don't you think that a good proportion of the Earth's R&D budget wouldn't immediately be diverted to God research? The Department of Pure and Applied Theology would surely be a branch of the Physics faculty.

I know of no country in the world, no matter how devout, where such a situation obtains.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Assortative Mating

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have an interesting post at their blog West Hunter on human assortative mating. This means the tendency for like to marry like (i.e. mate with & produce offspring) on some trait. The heritable traits people care about tend to be those which reproduce a pleasant, technologically-advanced civilization: attributes such as an IQ above 105, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

The authors have a blog post on this topic from a few years back and a new PDF in draft (which uses some technical language but is not too technical in content). The results are that if the right and left population-segments of the bell curve (for that heritable trait) mate assortatively - largely amongst themselves - then a caste system (high-merit vs. low-merit) emerges within one generation and then consolidates. They speculate that with mass university-level education, we're already doing this experiment for the trait of intelligence.

The result? Perhaps a hollowed out middle in our society.

Friday, December 20, 2013

IKEA magic

Twenty five seconds into IKEA and we're already two purchases up; at the one minute point there are three items in the yellow raffia bag.

Being part of the IKEA family means you will never be short of scented candles,  stylish candle holders and those special Swedish crispy biscuits which promise to go well with coffee.

IKEA candles on the mantelpiece and hearth

On the way out (fully loaded) we noticed a full-sized solar panel mock-up. Yes,  the roll-out has come to Bristol and we're now signed up. We expect a call as soon as next week to arrange a survey.

'Frozen' - (film)

Frozen's target audience: ten year old girls who know they are princesses-to-be while modelling themselves on north-american rock chicks.

A north-american rock chick

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is here transmogrified to a tale of two sisters, one fun-loving and feisty (Anna) and the elder (Elsa) a possessor of dangerous powers: frightened, introverted and closed up. Elsa, at her coronation as queen, is scared into lashing out and the kingdom freezes. The new queen flees into the arctic wilderness where she magicks up an ice palace: free at last! Feisty Anna follows to persuade her to .. well, unfreeze stuff.

Interspersed we have a dubious prince, a brave-hearted lunk and a cutesy magic snowman (the lunk has a lunky reindeer - see below). The gags are good, the songs fun and the 3D CGI scenery awesome.

So lots of fun for children of all ages, as they say, and my only criticism is that the bad guy should have been subtly telegraphed as such from the very beginning. You can't have leading characters suddenly changing their character without warning or indication - it confuses the children.

A wise reindeer

Princess and ice queen

I was particularly impressed by the near-reality of the animation. I haven't been keeping track so I guess the trend is entirely obvious to most film-goers, but (banal thought) this stuff is going to be indistinguishable from real actors pretty soon.

Both Clare and myself noticed that as the 3D big freeze spread like a nuclear shockwave on the screen, we felt visceral shivers in the cinema. This stuff really works!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In which our house is finally fixed ..

The scaffolders came yesterday to remove same, followed by the roofers from S&S Hancock (who have project managed) to clean up and make good.

It's good to get our house back. The rendering is in cement and will need to be painted at some point.

New roof tile; new cladding

Wells has its traditional Christmas scenes - I particularly like the owl (if you can drag your attention from Wells Cathedral).

The owl to the left

I wonder what the elves and reindeer from Amazon will bring today?

'Soldier, Ask Not' by Gordon R. Dickson

From the Wikipedia entry.
"Soldier, Ask Not is part of Dickson's Childe Cycle series, in which mankind has reached the stars and divided into specialized splinter groups. It takes place at roughly the same time as Dorsai! and a few characters appear in both books. Themes from the rest of the cycle are echoed here, particularly the actions of a key person, like Paul Formain, Cletus Grahame and Donal Graeme in the other novels, who can drastically affect history due to his ability to analyze and influence the behavior of others. Unlike the other protagonists, however, Tam Olyn is no hero."
In my naive youth I first read this second novel in the Dorsai trilogy immediately after 'Tactics of Mistake'. I was expecting new military exploits from the ultra-smart and super-efficient Dorsai mercenaries. Boy, was I disappointed!

The story is told in first-person, Tam Olyn's point of view, and what a nasty piece of work he is: arrogant, selfish and manipulative. He takes a strong dislike to The Friendlies, Calvinist inhabitants of two poor worlds who hire themselves out as cannon fodder, and determines to destroy them. In my ignorance I figured we were seeing way too much of faith-ridden bigots (actually Olyn's view) and not nearly enough Dorsai. (This would be rectified in the third volume, Dorsai!, of course).

But what did I know?

The brilliance of 'Soldier Ask Not' is its careful portrayal of a man warped by his upbringing who causes great damage. But there are people around Olyn who can 'nudge' him in the subtlest of ways, bring him to his own personal crisis and show him the possibilities of redemption. If 'Tactics of Mistake' is centred on military doctrines, then 'Solder, Ask Not' uses the paradigm of Jungian psychotherapy. The author's brilliance is in making the character-evolution of Tam Olyn completely compelling.

The other preoccupation of the book is its penetrating analysis of the power, attractiveness and danger of faith. In the best case wholly admirable in giving form to duty and self-sacrifice, faith can also be a motor for atrocity. Since the book was written, we've become all-too-familiar with the latter case; in 'Soldier, Ask Not' we are immersed in both sides to our greater insight (and that of the main protagonist).

I mentioned in a previous post the importance of dialectics in understanding the Childe Cycle. Dickson's model of a full-spectrum Earth culture fracturing into superior but partial 'splinter cultures' under the impact of interstellar travel (thesis-antithesis) and seeking a resolution in a higher unity (synthesis) is one example. Another is the battle for Olyn's soul: his malevolent and evil initial persona creating forces which react against his destructive actions (thesis-antithesis) which could lead finally to a transformative resolution (synthesis).

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dialectics and the Dorsai

Somewhere Marx wrote that the king believes his subjects bow to him because he's king; in fact it's the other way round - it's because people bow to him that they become subjects and he becomes king.

This simple example is to Marxism as the double-slit experiment is to the essence of quantum mechanics.

Most people - ordinary folk, politicians and academics - look at a society as a nested set of institutions: parliament, government, the legal system, the armed forces, the health system and so on. If you think this way you can never be a revolutionary.

The Marxist looks at these 'structures' and sees only recurrent patterns of human behaviour. If one day people were to behave differently, all those 'structures' would vanish like early morning haze: the king would be revealed as just another bloke with a back-story. Think about it.

The Marxist holds just such a vision of an alternate organising pattern for society, one which will manifest in the overcoming of this one. And so to the famous Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

As the terms suggest, for Hegel the thesis is a founding idea; the antithesis a rebuttal which seeks out the contradictions in the original; and then through a process of dialogue and struggle emerges the synthesis - something genuinely new, deeper and more profound.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Marx thought that Hegel had this upside down as regards history. For Marx the thesis was that set of social processes we call capitalism; the antithesis was the revolutionary response invoked by the failures ('contradictions') of capitalism - such things as the revolutionary party, workers' councils (soviets), the general strike; the synthesis - emerging through the mass, self-organised revolution - was a new kind of society, post-capitalist and in transition  to communism.

Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all stressed the term 'dialectic materialism' as a synonym for Marxism; their opponents accused them of mysticism. Yet without seeing the 'structures' of the present as merely contingent shadows of conventional behaviour, there is no possibility of envisioning or bringing about a genuinely new kind of society. To reject dialectics was to reject the revolution, and to accept that the king was the king because he was king - end of story.

Why do I tell you all this? Because it's going to feed into my review of Gordon R. Dickson's second Dorsai volume, 'Soldier, Ask Not'. The author isn't a Marxist, far from it, yet he has a similar overarching concept of human history and destiny. Dickson's driving force is rather mystical - a Jungian concept of the collective unconscious - but dialectical the vision certainly is.

More here.

Oh, and Marxism? E. O. Wilson had it right.

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Mass in B minor' - J. S. Bach

Bach wrote the first version of this as a job application in 1733 (from Wikipedia).
"On February 1, 1733 Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making was suspended. Bach used the opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites. His aim was to dedicate the work to the new sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic, with the hope of obtaining the title "Electoral Saxon Court Composer".

Upon its completion, Bach visited Augustus III and presented him with a copy of the Missa, together with a petition to be given a court title, dated July 27, 1733; in the accompanying inscription on the wrapper of the mass he complains that he had "innocently suffered one injury or another" in Leipzig. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach eventually got his title; he was made court composer to Augustus III in 1736."
The full work was completed just before Bach died.
"In the last years of his life, Bach expanded the Missa into a complete setting of the Latin Ordinary. It is not known what prompted this creative effort. Wolfgang Osthoff and other scholars have suggested that Bach intended the completed Mass in B minor for performance at the dedication of the new Hofkirche in Dresden, which was begun in 1738 and was nearing completion by the late 1740s. However, the building was not completed until 1751, and Bach's death in July, 1750 prevented his Mass from being submitted for use at the dedication. Instead, Johann Adolph Hasse's Mass in D minor was performed, a work with many similarities to Bach's Mass (the Credo movements in both works feature chant over a walking bass line, for example).

Other explanations are less event-specific, involving Bach's interest in "encyclopedic" projects (like the Art of Fugue) that display a wide range of styles, and Bach's desire to preserve some of his best vocal music in a format with wider potential future use than the church cantatas they originated in."
The Beaumont Singers and Orchestra were excellent last night: my favourite parts of the work are the quieter sections, where the violins and counterpoint base are in dialogue with the soloists.

The poster

The Orchestra with Singers



Here is the Mass in B minor, starting with the Kyrie Eleison - the Capella Amsterdam recorded at the Jacobi church, Utrech.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Tactics of Mistake" - Gordon R. Dickson

Just reread this military-SF classic, the first volume of the justly-famous Dorsai trilogy. And this time I read a little more analytically.

The novel tells the story of Cletus Grahame,  initially a tactics officer with the "Allied" forces, later the leader of the Dorsai mercenaries in a great conflict between the colony worlds and the Alliance-Coalition forces of an imperialist Earth. See the plot summary here.

The story weaves a number of strands:

  • the personal conflict between Grahame and Coalition leader deCastries;
  • the claustrophobic atmosphere of political and military culture within which most of the action plays out - in this it is rather like Frank Herbert's Dune;
  • Cletus's romantic entanglement with headstrong and idealistic Melissa Khan - a classic ENTJ-ENFJ engagement; 
  • the unique take on military tactics and strategy which Grahame deploys to outwit his opponents again and again;
  • the mystical underpinning of the Exotics, with their Buddhist-like sense of destiny.

With a critical eye,  it seems impossible that Grahame's informed military guesses would turn out so consistently accurate,  while the plot depends upon them so doing. Yet the author has not conjured Cletus's doctrines from thin air - his Dorsai troops execute as classic special forces.

The novel's brilliance lies in the pacy, balanced writing together with interesting and plausible characters, the reader's inability to second-guess Grahame's brilliance plus a natural sympathy with the essential rightness of his cause.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The ghost of cricket future

It was in 2015, after the first powered exo-skeletons were permitted, that fast bowling began to regularly exceed 200 mph.

Batsmen increasingly resembled medieval knights in their kevlar-titanium armour, but their own powered augmentation meant they could run between the wickets even faster than before.

Soon, test match cricket became too fast for unaided human vision to follow and Sky resorted to broadcasting in ultra slo-mo.

A crisis, however, ensued when both bowling and running exceeded Mach one and stadiums had to be evacuated due to the dangerous shock waves. There was a proposal to move the 2020 test to the vacuum of the Moon, but this was rejected as making sledging too difficult ..

Friday, December 06, 2013

Christmas Cards

Well, that's the Christmas cards sent. I still remember the ancient injunction to "post early for Christmas" and God knows we're keeping Amazon busy enough. And then, to be honest,  it's a bit of a chore isn't it? Best to get it over with.

I can't avoid a feeling though that I'm a bit early. It is only the sixth today. Perhaps the recipients will scratch their heads, look at the date and murmur "What an idiot!"

Yeah,  I guess that could happen ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

"Singularity Sky" - Charles Stross

Charles Stross is comically left-wing in his private writing (his blog). His novels, however, are imaginative, sophisticated deconstructions of received wisdom on both left and right .. and so to 'Singularity Sky'.

 I had a notion that this was going to be a black hole story - some orbital plot. But that's just my physics prejudice: the singularity here is that of AI and information transcendence - specifically what happens when post-singularity culture meets a rather nasty stalinist police state head-on.

 Leon Trotsky makes a lightly-disguised appearance as the domestic revolutionary leader but the heroes (Martin and Rachel) are Culture-like representatives of future-modernity. As in "Halting State", love soon blooms - I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"Parasite Positive" - Scott Westerfeld

So here's a review of "Parasite Positive" by Scott Westerfeld excerpted from here:
The book follows nineteen year old Cal, as he is on the tail of Sarah, the last of his girlfriends he has infected with the parasite (while not a full blown vampire he is a carrier). Once he has caught her, he can go after his progenitor, Morgan, the girl he lost his virginity to and caught it from.

You see, Cal now works for the Night Watch, and it’s their job to keep New York safe from rabid vampires and stop the spread of the disease.

Only this is much, much bigger that just that; something even worse than an out-break of blood suckers is lurking beneath the New York streets, and secrets centuries old are about to come to the surface, and Cal is going to be right in the middle of it.

I really liked Cal as a character and his developing relationship (and cluelessness) with Lacy a trainee reporter he meets in his search for Morgan, and while this is Cal’s show in regards starring roles, the rest of the supporting cast do an admirable job in keeping the plot moving and dialogue zippy and entertaining

We also get to learn more about parasites than I could ever hope to want to know. Each chapter is intermingled with sections where Cal explains about various parasites, and their particular foibles and reasons for existence. These sections are not just there to make your skin crawl – and they most certainly will do that! – but Cal is using them to illustrate the reasons for the existence of Vampires, and why they are the good guys.

All, in all an excellent read, your skin will crawl and your blood will race, and the next time your cat looks oddly at you, you may just shudder a little!

Scott is a natural SF-thriller writer and this is perfectly pitched for the male adolescent audience (what we call 'young adult'). So having admitted that I enjoyed the book and that the pages turned perfectly adequately, let me make a couple of criticisms.

1. The setting, Manhattan, (and frequently underground Manhattan) is rather claustrophobic - even a writer of Westerfeld's talent struggles to keep yet another case of the hero being chased through dank and dark tunnels fresh and interesting.

2. More importantly, the central premise of the novel is hard to take seriously. Without too many spoilers, we are led to believe that vampirism has something to do with defending humanity against nameless horrors from the deep, barely remembered in ancient legends. The thing is, those evil things just aren't scary enough. Anything a souped-up vampire could do, a tooled up special-forces team could easily surpass. Technology trumps raw evolution.

However, if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, the story is well told and fun.

NB: there is a 'sequel' but reviews suggest that it adds little value.

Our roof problem escalates

As mentioned here, we are in the process of having the front (gable-end) roof fixed. Today it turns out that fifty years ago the original builders used the wrong kind of sand to mix the cladding: it has turned into flimsy tat, incapable of holding even its own weight. It will all have to be replaced - a day or two's work has turned into over a week.

We were going to repaint the house at some point so our cognitive frame for this new paradigm is that it's early additional investment rather than a project spiralling into the heart of darkness.

We thought it was straightforward ...

Until the cladding started to fall off.

This Confucian refugee from Alice in Wonderland spooked us ...

And then this cat appeared, overlooking our back garden ...