Sunday, November 30, 2008

Charles Murray: Human Accomplishment

Human Accomplishment is Charles Murray's attempt to catalog and explain the highest achievements in the arts and sciences that people have produced. He says his yardstick is the things that humanity would be able to brag about if we were putting together a resume, but he includes scientific discoveries which any advanced species would have made along with the heights of poetry, composition, and painting.

The book quantifies and compares the contributions of individuals, fields of endeavor, countries, and regions, and points out some consistent features of the data like the prominence of men and the paucity of identifiable contributions from Asia. At the end of the book he makes some generalizations about what kinds of environments led to increases and decreases in the amount of great work that was done.

While the book is nearly 700 pages, more than 200 pages of it is contributed by the appendices, notes, index, and front-matter. At least another 75 pages are made up by tables and itemized listings of major contributions by field. In addition, the prose is scattered with frequent tables, graphs and asides (in white text on dark blue so you can't miss the fact that you are welcome to skip them.) So it's not as long a read as it appears, but it's still substantial.

Murray's methodology in identifying the accomplishments that stand out was to survey many encyclopedic works. For the most part, he found in nearly all fields which were covered by a substantial number of such books that there was a lot of overlap and consistency among them. This allowed him to declare that he would only include in his survey achievements that were recognized widely, that he would exclude compendiums that didn't overlap substantially with other works purporting to be in the same field, and that fields that weren't covered by at least a handful of broad overlapping surveys would be omitted from the results.

He ends up with substantial reviews of 8 fields in science and technology; separate inventories for philosophy from China, India, and the West; for the visual arts from China, Japan, and the West, and for Literature from the Arab world in addition to the four regions mentioned previously. The arts are divided regionally because otherwise the contributions from the Arabs or the East would be swamped by those of the West. In each of the regional breakdowns, the West contributed substantially more (4x-10x) than any other region. Murray spends some time showing that this probably isn't due to his lack of familiarity with these regions or the languages in which the histories are written. (Part of the justification is that the disparity holds similarly in the scientific inventory for which there are firmer criteria for inclusion and a general agreement about which accomplishments count, even among those who want to claim minorities are under-represented in the listings.) Murray also spends some time speculating about why there's such a disparity in contributions.

There were few surprises for me in the actual lists. There were only a couple of cases where I didn't recognize one of the top few contributors in a scientific field, even though there were many cases where I wouldn't have been able to name their contribution. There have been a couple of occasions to cross-reference names I've come across in recent reading. For instance, Lope de Vega was a prominent character in Harry Turtledove's Rule Brittania, which I reviewed recently. I didn't realize until I was reading Murray's 1-page summary of the heights of Western literature that de Vega was based on a real author from that period (though not quite significant enough to make the list of Significant Figures in Western literature in Appendix 5.) I also referred to the lists of Chinese notables while reading The Early Chinese Empires.

The most important conclusion to draw from the book is that accomplishment is unevenly spread. Most people who have given even cursory thought to the subject have noticed that there's an exponential distribution of achievements across fields and across time. Practically no matter what criteria you come up with to measure achievement, you'll find there's a high peak and a consistent, rapid drop-off in people's abilities. The best athletes are as much above their competitors as the best scientists and the best writers.

Murray's book gives us the opportunity to savor the best and the brightest.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Allen Steele: Coyote

Allen Steele's Coyote was nominated for the Prometheus award when it appeared in 2002, but somehow I missed reading it at the time. This year, it was nominated for the Hall of Fame award, which gave me a second chance to read it. Since I had read the follow-up novel Coyote Rising when it came out in 2004, I already knew something about how things turn out, but Coyote Rising takes place long enough afterward that only a couple of characters carry over, and they have a lifetime of hardship between their two appearances. The story appeared as a series of short stories before publication as a novel, but for the most part this isn't very noticeable since the story proceeds reasonably through quite different venues, and the character continuity is unbroken.

In Coyote, the US has become the totalitarian United Republic of America, and a race is on to colonize the planets circling a nearby star. When the URS Alabama is ready for launch, the captain and most of the crew conspire to hijack the ship. They don't change the destination, so the hijacking consists of replacing loyal intended crew-members with families and other folks that the URS regime had considered to be subversives.

The first story covers the theft of the Alabama, and most of the political content appears here in the presentation of the regime's repressive tactics. Most of what we see directly concerns people whose friends or acquaintances have been taken off to the camps, and Steele gives the impression, without saying anything very explicit that minor transgressions against local authority explain most of the incidents rather than anything that would look like true rebellion or protest. The only other time politics comes up is when the crew of the Plymouth (Alabama was renamed upon landing) decides how to arrange their colony. The results are quite pedestrian, and we see the process through the official records of the colony's Secretary. The Ship's captain is elected chair of the Town Council, with a little dissent by people who were hoping for a continuation of military formality.

The rest of the story is pretty standard colonizing-a-new-planet material. The characterization, conflicts, and scenery is reasonably interesting and well-written, but there's nothing of deeper significance to recommend it. The coming of age sub-plots are well-developed, and the conflicts are real; colonists die when they're careless while exploring the new environment. The native flora and fauna have plenty of surprises in store. As I recall, some of them continued to be crucial plot elements in Coyote Rising.

Overall, I'd summarize it as a decent read, but I don't disagree with the decision to not give an award when it first appeared. I can think of several perennial nominees for the Hall of Fame that are more deserving, as well as a few that have recently been nominated for the first time.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Harry Turtledove: Noninterference

Harry Turtledove's Noninterference explores the consequences of violating the noninterference principal when exploring a world that hasn't achieved contact with other societies. Turtledove takes the best possible example of a minor intervention that goes awry with beneficial consequences that persist through the ages on a developing planet and extrapolates the possibilities. As articulated in Star Trek's Prime Directive, there is something sacrosanct about allowing each civilization to find its own way. In this case, the actual effects on the subject planet appear benign, though extensive. But benevolent consequences are no defense against violations of the Prime Directive. In any case, Turtledove focuses on the effects in the exploring (and interfering) civilization.

The Federacy's Survey Service is responsible for exploring newly discovered planets and making occasional visits to developing worlds. They're in a constant battle with the private Noninterference Foundation, whose Purists argue that it should be disbanded and no contact should be allowed with pre-technological civilizations. In this environment, when news comes back of the effects of the prior interference, the head of the service tries to cover up all the evidence, even stooping to violence when necessary. She convinces herself that it's for the protection of the important work the Survey Service, and therefore justified.

Given all this context, we get to see chase scenes, violence, narrow escapes, bureaucratic bungling, the power of the press, and the importance of independent parties monitoring everything the government does. Turtledove (co-)won the Prometheus award this year for The Gladiator, and his libertarian tendencies show clearly here. He isn't actually very concerned about the Prime Directive—If he were, he could have easily manufactured a simple intervention with disastrous consequences, rather than one with pervasive, long-term, apparently favorable effects. His focus is really on exposing the incentives of bureaucrats to cover up their mistakes, and the unlimited power they draw on because they have access to the public purse.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cory Doctorow: Eastern Standard Tribe

Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe takes place in a high-speed near future of advanced technology. It jumps around in time, with flashes back and forward getting about equal time.

Art Berry is a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe, a granfaloon of people synchronized to Eastern Standard Time, regardless of where they live. Art has been serving EST as a double agent working for the Greenwich 0 Tribe in London, but his erstwhile partner and his paramour have conspired to get him committed to an asylum so they can exploit his latest invention unhindered.

Art feels very similar to Charles Stross' Manfred Macx from Accelerando: a high tech entrepreneur living a life two sigmas faster than those around him, inventing constantly, and caught up in other people's conspiracies. Art is a human factors designer who has a good feel for the zeitgeist, and enough reputation that he has no trouble getting backing to implement outlandish ideas and see whether they'll catch on quickly.

The plot-line associated with the asylum has the paranoid feeling of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". On one hand, Art's friends really were out to get him, but on the other hand, once you're sent to an asylum, there's no way to convince the doctors that you're sane, especially if you try to ask them how to prove you're not crazy. Art's inventiveness serves him in good stead here, as he manages to find a way to cause a ruckus that allows him to contact a sympathetic and influential psychiatrist who believes his story.

The story is well-told, but without depth or broad implications. The most interesting aspects are the world building and Art's struggle to get out of the asylum. The former is well-played; it's a believable fast-paced world with a constant introduction of new toys and tools, but most of the population is unaware of the constant struggle to invent and deliver the things they use. I enjoyed the story, but it's not more than an entertaining diversion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nick Humphrey: Seeing Red

Nick Humphrey's Seeing Red is another attempt to explain consciousness, but from a slightly different angle. Humphrey clearly understands what it would mean to produce an explanation, and makes some progress on the task. Humphrey starts not with what it means to think about something or to be aware of something, but with the more fundamental fact of perception of something outside of ourselves. The focal perception is of a red sensation. There's something in your environment that produces the perception of redness. What just happened to you? What does it mean that it makes you sense the presence of red? Why can you share this experience with others who also perceive the redness or with people who aren't present but still understand what you mean?

Humphrey first concentrates his attention on the internal details: first you perceive, then you become aware that you are perceiving. You may put words to the sensation or you might not, but Humphrey takes pains to point out that the perceiving and awareness are two separate facts. If you then talk to someone else about the perception (which you can do because you're aware of it), then of necessity each of you has some kind of "theory of mind"; a mental model that represents the fact that whatever it means to perceive, you are something that can do it, and other people are capable of the same thing.

Having set these aspects of reality out, Humphrey goes to some trouble to demonstrate that they are separate facets of reality, and all need to be present in an actual explanation. He talks about things like 'blindsight' and optical illusions in order to convince people who aren't keeping up that all these things are distinct facets of reality and need to be distinct in any explanation.

In the second half of this small book, Humphrey explains that consciousness arises out of the neurons in the brain, and that their role is to reflect and represent what's really going on in the world. He wants to present an evolutionary explanation of why they arose, but he only really justifies the fact that they are useful. The mechanism and history that allowed a feedback process between sensing and acting to arise and be passed down as a competitive advantage eludes him. And he doesn't have much to say about how the neural substrate might represent facts about reality in such a way that it could actually be useful to an aware, active agent interacting with the world.

My bottom line is that this book lays out the issues fairly clearly in a way that ought to be interesting and convincing to someone who is just starting to think about how consciousness might work, but the explanations fall short of answering the deeper questions. On the other hand, Humphrey's stated goal in the book is to show that consciousness matters and that it can be productive to think carefully about it. That much he succeeded at.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson: A Short, Sharp Shock

Kim Stanley Robinson's A Short, Sharp Shock is a vague, meandering fantasy in which nothing interesting or consequential happens. Someone washes up on a shore and can't remember who he is or where he came from. A woman is also there in the surf, and when they are separated, he spends the rest of the book looking for her and then traveling with or passing time with her. The local terrain is an unending peninsula that apparently circles the world, providing an obvious opportunity for a trek. Thel (the name finally bestowed on the non-hero in the fourth chapter) wanders on his one-dimensional quest, encountering various bizarre groups with indecipherable goals and practices. Some of them chase him, some of them welcome him, some of them let him live peacefully with them. Thel doesn't spend any time trying to figure out who he was, or how he got here, or what his current situation means. Sometimes he's driven by events or pursuers on long sub-quests to find his companion again (who remains unnamed, and is merely "the swimmer" throughout the book). Other times, he spends long interludes in indolence or indulgence either with his swimmer or with someone else.

I've read other books in which nothing happens, but in the good ones someone learns or grows or at least strives. Sometimes the viewpoint character does none of these, but the reader is at least entertained because interesting things happen nearby, and the way these events affect or don't affect the protagonist is compelling. There was none of that in this book. Thel journeys, waits, searches, suffers, encounters, and debauches; all without learning, growing, or caring for anything beyond self-preservation and a drive to be with the person he first noticed next to him. This passage, near the end of the book seemed particularly apt. Thel has found a coin in the surf bearing a profile like the swimmer's.

"Were you ever the queen of an ancient kingdom?"

"Yes," she muttered sleepily. "And I still am."

But this, he supposed, was another of their misunderstandings. Thel had first noticed this phenomenon when he had seen a windhover, hunting over the meadows inland. "Look," he had said, "a kestrel." But the swimmer had thought him crazy for pointing into the sky, for that to her was the name of a kind of fish. And later he found that when he said loyalty she understood it to mean stubbornness, and when she said arbitrary she meant beautiful, and that when she said melancholy she did not mean that sadness we enjoy feeling, but rather mendacity; and when she said actually she meant currently; and when he said "I love you," she thought he was saying "I will leave you." They had slowly worked up quite a list of these false cognates, Thel could recite scores and scores of them, and he had come to understand that they did not share a language so much as the illusion of a language; they spoke strong idiolects, and lived in worlds of meaning distinct and isolated from the other. So that she no doubt understood queen of an ancient kingdom to mean something like a swimmer in the deep sea; and the mystery of the ancient alloy coin was never explained, and, he realized, never would be. It gave him a shiver of fear, thinking about it—it seemed to him that nothing would ever be explained , and that all of a sudden each day was slipping away, that time was flying by and they were getting old and nothing would ever come clear. He sat on the beach watching the clouds tumble overhead and letting handfuls of sand run through his fingers, the little clear grains of quartz flecks of black mica, pieces of coral, shell fragments like small bits of hard ceramic, and he saw that a substantial portion of the sand was made of shells, that living things had labored all their lives to create ceramic shelters, homes, the most permanent parts of themselves; which had then been pummeled into shards just big enough to see, millions upon millions of lives ground up and strewn under him, the beach made out of the wreckage of generations. And before long he and the swimmer too would become no more than sand on a beach; and they would never really have understood anything.

The idiosyncrasy of language between them hadn't been prominent to this point, and isn't raised again. If this is intended as the message of the book, it's a good thing Robinson spelled it out, because Thel and the swimmer don't spend their time searching for meaning or trying to build anything permanent; they don't even focus on enjoying their time together. They do appear isolated from one another when they're together, but not because they can't communicate so much as because they don't try. The passage seems a symptom of the lack of direction of the entire book.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Michael Resnick, New Dreams for Old

Mike Resnick's New Dreams for Old contains several very good stories. If you haven't been reading (or listening to) recent nominees for the Hugo awards, it's worth picking up. Out of 20 stories, half were nominated for or won a Hugo.

I'm a fan of Resnick, though I can't claim to be a completist. I have his name on my list of authors, so when I'm in a bookstore with time or money to spend, I make sure to look through his books and often find something interesting to read. I think he writes good adventure SF, but this collection also contains some interesting fantasy.

With short stories, the element of surprise seems more important than with longer works, so I'm hesitant to say much about these stories. There are a couple ("Robots Don't Cry", "Travels with My Cats") in which Resnick shows an ability to quickly make us care deeply about a character whether or not they're human. "The Chinese Sandman" is a wonderful evocation of the fairy tale genre, with an oriental flavor.

Some are serious investigations of serious issues; "Hothouse Flowers" and "Down Memory Lane" talk about how important quality of life is to those in their declining years. I think they make important points, even though I expect the state of medicine to improve sufficiently in the next couple of decades to make the issue obsolete.

Obligatory disclaimer: this book was provided to Prometheus, the LFS Newsletter, as a review copy. Since I'm a fan of Resnick, I jumped at the chance to read it. I'm glad I did, even though I was already familiar with the best stories in the collection.

Resnick's stories should resonate well with libertarians, even though there's nothing overtly political in them. "Guardian Angel" and "Keepsakes" take different views of dealing with criminals. In one case, the police aren't called in because the principals include ganglords, in the other, the police have to step gingerly because the "criminals" involved don't seem to have broken any laws. In both cases justice is served, though in one case justice isn't very satisfying. Resnick also has a healthy respect for self-sufficiency, and many of his characters could have come from the pages of a Heinlein story.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lessig's Change Congress proposal

Larry Lessig has an article in Metro, a Silicon Valley entertainment weekly. In it Lessig talks about his new campaign to reform national politics. Lessig does a good job of laying out and describing a problem that is worth solving. He ends by providing a vague idea of what he intends to do about it, but doesn't seem to notice that the solution only addresses the surface characteristics of the problem, and won't change the underlying incentives that make the problem so pernicious. His solution might make the problem more visible, but unless they provoke a separate, more fundamental change, it will leave politics as the same mess it currently is.

The problem that has attracted Lessig's attention is the pernicious affect of money on politicians. He has laid out the problem in illuminating detail. The problem isn't just explicit graft and corruption; the unrelenting need to raise money affects even those who manage to keep their values unaffected by the source of the funds that get them elected. Those who provide the money set the terms of the debate and determine which questions will be addressed. Even ideal politicians (if any exist) who retain their values and vote their conscience have to choose among policy prescriptions provided according to the current focus of attention.

As the theory of regulatory capture shows, the decision to regulate an industry is valuable to the companies currently in that industry, regardless of what form the regulation takes initially. Eventually, the industry will leverage its greater interest in the outcomes and its monopoly on experts in the field to ensure that the effective regulations change to its advantage. Once the question of regulation is in the air, people with an interest will weigh in in various ways, including campaign contributions, and eventually there will be a plausible case that congress should discuss what regulations are best. At that point the deck is stacked.

Lessig even provides an example showing that congressfolk completely understand the implications of this. When Al Gore was working on the National Information Infrastructure, one of his proposals was to deregulate the nascent Internet. When Gore's team presented the idea to people in Congress,

the reception was not favorable. "'Hell no,' we were told." The concern? Translated: "How are we going to raise money from those guys if we deregulate them?"

This is, roughly speaking, extortion. And if so, then the Communications Act is a kind of extortion-enabling regulation: regulation whose reach was explained, in part at least, by the opportunity such regulation would give regulators to raise money.

And if so, then how much other regulation is extortion-enabling in just this sense? How many other examples are there of government reaching beyond what it needs to regulate effectively, merely to assure (sic) that members can raise campaign funds more effectively?

So to combat this problem, what does Lessig propose? He's going to use Web 2.0-style media and networking tools to shine a light on congress. They'll connect votes to contributions and show the public what is going on. But given the discussion that has gone before, the only affect of this will be to drive out any explicit graft, and encourage the legislators to take fewer positions that seem affected by donations.

But that won't solve the problem. The problem is that congress can regulate, and does so when constituents demand it. The form of the regulation and its affects on society are extremely hard to see ahead of time, but we can predict that most of the time, the industry will be more in control afterward. And we can be sure that Congress will extract a rent during and after the process, and that the regulation will be structured so that Congress at least has the ability to intervene so there's a reason for affected businesses to keep paying them contributing. Even if we can see the connections between the contributions and the resulting legislation, the contributors will still be able to defend giving money to influential legislators, and legislators will be able to say the effects are all open and visible. There doesn't have to be quid pro quo in order for the influence to be beneficial to both sides.

Giving voters access to better statistics about the situation will make it clearer that interested parties contribute to powerful legislators, but there are legal and respectable ways to do this, and there always will be.

Am I missing something? Does Lessig hope to create an outcry that will change the fundamental incentives? Is there something other than pious hope behind the drive to remove money from politics?

I think the fundamental problem is that congress is allowed and expected to legislate on all subjects. We want citizens (who are also owners of businesses and members of public-interest groups) to be able to speak about their goals and priorities. Being able to spend money expressing support for policies and politicians is an essential way of participating in the debate. Since the laws that come out of congress affect people's goals, people who favor and oppose various outcomes will attempt to influence the decisions that are made.

Money isn't the problem, it's merely one of the more apparent forms of evidence about where influence is flowing. Money and influence aren't going to stop flowing. Maybe Lessig's affect here will just be in making the flow of influence more apparent. I certainly can't foresee any way that he can stop them from flowing.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Arthur De Vany: Hollywood Economics

Arthur De Vany's Hollywood Economics gives a detailed look at an extreme example of a long-tail industry, the movies. The first half of the book consists of some technical papers that De Vany wrote during his career as an economist. Some of them are quite technical, but they lay the foundation for De Vany's contention that making movies is a highly unpredictable business.

These opening articles demonstrate that there is little predictability in the movie business, and investors, directors, producers, and actors who try to improve their odds by spending more money on special effects, hiring people from the A list, advertising heavily, or whatever else haven't studied the numbers well enough.

The old slogan "nobody knows anything" arises because of the nature of movie releases. Audiences vary from week to week, and they have an always changing menu of movies to choose from. Their reaction may depend on what's in the news, what hits have appeared recently, and whether the blockbuster that came out six weeks ago still has legs. And that's before we try to take account of the intrinsic merit of the story, the acting, how broad the distribution is, etc. Every week is a new tournament with some old and some new players. The audience can't make a judgment about any particular movie until they see it, and they don't make their evaluations from a clean slate.

The statistics deriving from this chaotic process produces the now familiar power law distribution. 70% of movies made are unprofitable, but the business makes money on the whole. most of the 30% that make money barely do better than breaking even; only a few a really successful, and the business of Hollywood is all about trying to make enough movies and give yourself enough chances that you can capture one of the few runaway successes. De Vany talks about how how studios, actors and directors should structure contracts so that the right people have the right incentives, and the right people make money when there is a hit. He then analyzes some actual contracts to show that they follow his rules: star players give up some straight pay for a share of the distant upper tail. The contracts talk about events that are meaningful for less than one movie in a hundred, but that's where all the money is, and one hit in that category can make you rich.

After he's laid the groundwork in the first half of the book, De Vany talks about the breakup of the Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1940's. I had no idea the anti-trust crusaders had even done this. The golden age of the Hollywood studio system was ended by a series of anti-trust cases (culminating in the Supreme Court) that denied the studios the ability to own movie theaters, and restricted the kinds of contracts they could write with independent theater owners. The result was that the studios lost certainty about being able to place the films they made, so they had to be much more careful in deciding what movies to fund, and couldn't plan a season's production coherently. De Vany shows how poorly the courts understood the movie business, and that they didn't achieve any of their objectives in terms of making the business fairer for independent distributors, theaters, or production companies.

I found the book to be fascinating, though quite dense. If the technical analysis in the first half of the book seems daunting, I recommend skimming it; just pay attention to his conclusions, since you'll need them to appreciate the findings in the second half of the book. I suspect there are many lessons that are applicable to other people trying to make money in other long-tail businesses. (Most of the discussion about long-tail is about making money by exploiting the long thin tail, but someone's making money from the tall, rich head of that curve.) The dynamics of other businesses are different, so you'll have to figure out what the drivers are for your uncertainty. De Vany does a great job of explaining the vagaries of the movie business, but not every business is an iterated tournament in which some of the contenders are new each week, while others have advantages or disadvantages due to their recent performance. There's a limit to the number of movies that can be playing in first run theaters every week, so some have to be dropped in order to make room for the constant flow of new releases.

I found this book after reading De Vany's blog for a while in 2005 and 2006. His articles on the movie business were quite interesting, but there's also a bunch of interesting material on evolutionary fitness, health, and sports.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Spending Money

Robin Hanson (oops) that was Eliezer Yudkowsky takes a quote ("even $10 trillion isn't a huge amount of money") out of context to make an interesting question:

So if you had $10 trillion, what would you do with it?

After reading the first several responses, I quickly dashed off a list of my own:

  1. Fund the top half of The Copenhagen Consensus projects. The idea behind this project was simple: different things that could be done to improve the world have vastly different apparent costs and claimed benefits, and very little policy discussion considers the trade-offs between. The project got leading economists to compare various proposals for big interventions intended to improve welfare across large populations. The recommendations and rationale are very interesting and the process is convincing to me.
  2. Longevity research: Give a billion to Aubrey de Grey.
  3. Push the US government towards more support of liberty. Money on that scale could make a significant start to unwinding the welfare state.
    1. The Institute for Justice has a very good program making practical steps. They could productively spend at least 10 times their current budget. Think about whether their methods can be applied in other areas.
    2. Try to convince Marshall Fritz to return to the Advocates for Self Government. He pioneered a process of inventing tools to spread liberty, and then measure the results to decide how to spend more money.
    3. Start think tanks to flood the political market with arguments and (funded) proposals for moving toward liberty. The Cato Institute does a good job, but in this case, I'd expect to improve things more by providing them with competition than with funding.
  4. Buy OLPCs for the kids in all the "bottom billion" countries.

With a little more time to think about it, it doesn't seem like I'd change my priorities much. I've added some explanation about the Copenhagen Consensus; the others seem to stand on their own. Otherwise, I'll just republish it here with appropriate links added.

Addendum: while looking for the links for this article, I discovered that Marshall Fritz has terminal cancer. I'm tremendously saddened. Marshall is the one person in the libertarian movement I most respect. His pioneering work in promoting and promulgating the freedom philosophy was without peer. Other people continue the fight, but he was the first to approach the problem of spreading the word scientifically and experimentally. He generated ideas himself and welcomed ideas from other people, and would implement them whole-heartedly, and see which ones were the most successful in recruiting new libertarians. Others have continued to run the organization he started (the Advocates for Self Government), but they merely continue to use the successful tools he developed, rather than using his approach to continue to invent and evaluate new techniques.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Mechanicrawl: July 12, 2008, San Francisco

The Exploratorium, Long Now Foundation, and Musee Mechanique are sponsoring a walking tour of the amazing mechanical marvels spread along San Francisco's North Shore on July 12 from 3 to 8pm. You already know how wonderful the Exploratorium is, right? Well the Musee Mecanique is another must-see; they have an awesome collection of antique and recent arcade machines, mostly in very good working order. I haven't been to visit the Long Now Museum yet, but they have an Orrery, and models demonstrating the planned workings for several parts of their 10,000-Year clock.

They have the world's most complex mechanical computer (targeting system for the USS Pompanito), and one of the world's largest working steam engines (on the USS Jeremiah O'Brien). There are good intro videos at the Mechanicrawl web site.

Members of any of these institutions can get in free to the whole thing, or it's $15 for adults (less for kids and seniors). I'm going; are you?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Harry Turtledove: Ruled Britannia

Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia is an alternate history in which Shakespeare lives in a Britain conquered and ruled by the Spanish. This is the Spanish Inquisition in full force; they are an occupying power, and the pressure of maintaining civil rule and imposing their religious views both push them to ever more forceful measures. Shakespeare is convinced to lend his talents to an underground group attempting to overthrow the Spaniards. Of course, Shakespeare's part is to write a new play that will convince the audience to rise up and overthrow the Spaniards. His task is complicated by the fact that that he has also reluctantly accepted a commission to write a play extolling the virtues of the Spain's King Philip, whose health is quickly failing.

Turtledove does a good job of giving the feel of the era: we see an auto de fé, see how suspicions can be raised about witches, worry about fire consuming the city, travel across the fetid Thames, and attend a bear baiting. The Spanish are constantly recruiting new informants and persecuting suspected Protestants, unbelievers, witches and homosexuals. So, while many have better things to do than spend their time at church, they all have to put on a show of propriety for fear of the inquisitors.

Lope de Vega is an ambitious, womanizing Spaniard, whose talents at writing plays in his native Spanish are sufficient to get him assigned the (joyful for him) task of monitoring Shakespeare's progress and trying to figure out if there is any substance to hints about his unreliability to the Spanish. (The Spanish can always find reasons to be suspicious, though few in this story seem to be based on Shakespeare's actual transgressions.) But the presence of an assumed snoop complicates the project, since both new plays have to be rehearsed. de Vega is kept busy both by having to learn a role in the paean to King Philip, and by his constant chasing after various women.

Turtledove seemed to enjoy writing new passages for Shakespeare, and rewrite familiar passages to reflect the changed circumstances of this world. I enjoyed the story. The conflict was plausible and the characters engaging. The political implications are light and obvious: occupiers are easy to dislike, and those that impose an alien religion and punish disbelief are the easiest to despise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Meaney: To Hold Infinity

John Meaney's To Hold Infinity was a very pleasant surprise. I received it as a review copy, since Anders Monsen, editor of the LFS' Prometheus, doesn't have time to read everything that arrives, so I didn't have any particular expectations. It turns out to be a wonderful book. It reminded me of the wonder of reading Neuromancer for the first time--a vivid depiction of a new way of looking at the world. In this case, Meaney manages to show us enhanced humans (Luculenti) interacting with the unenhanced normals on Fulgor as well as the shadowy Pilots with their access to mu-space, and gives a feel for what the conversation feels like from each viewpoint. It's a wondrous achievement.

The story covers the investigation of Rafael Garcia de la Vega, a Luculentus who has been killing and absorbing the minds and consciousnesses of other Luculenti. We know from the outset that de la Vega did it, but Meaney still manages to make the pursuit riveting. And along the way, we get to see how the enhanced Luculenti entertain one another and get glimpses of how it affects their lives.

Meaney gives an inside view of the thought process of Luculenti in conversation with the unenhanced, while simultaneously giving an impression that the Pilots are as far out of reach. A Luculentus would be having an ordinary real-time conversation, while simultaneously managing web searches on the background of an unexepected guest, negotiating terms of a business deal, and enjoying the nuances of an exquisiste meal. At times, we see Luculenti engaging in multi-layer conversations in which three or four people talk out loud while sharing private jokes with some of those present, accompanying their comments with visual, olfactory, and emotional side-notes to underscore their points. Meaney has to invent a new typography and layout in order to make this all flow smoothly and let you feel it from the inside, but he carries it off very well.

The story follows several different threads, each with its own pace and interacting characters. In the main thread we are treated to a lavish party presented by a top Luculenta for a mixed group of Luculenti and the unenhanced. The entertainment has so many interwoven elements that all the audience members, including the reader, are simultaneously impressed with what they perceive of the whole presentation. In one sub-thread, a recently up-raised Luculentus is in hiding off-the-grid while his new formed talents are trying to emerge without the usual multi-layer interactions to feed their need for stimulation.

A side-note for my security-minded friends looking forward to their own enhancement: the usual rules of story telling require that the enhancing mindware have a crucial security flaw that allows de la Vega to take control of someone else's software. Without this trope, there wouldn't be much of a story, but it's a vivid depiction of why we'd want to design the platform for our thoughts very carefully. Not everyone who uses the system will have the ability or inclination to determine whether the substrate is secure, but they'll all be reliant on its properties.

The book is 500 pages long, but it definitely held my attention. I was up for a couple hours past my usual bedtime for nearly a week while reading it. Oh--even though it was sent to the LFS as a review copy, I didn't find anything particularly of libertarian interest in it. There is a government, but its role is minor without being invisible. The characters assume the government will prosecute crimes, but this one is obscure enough that they do their own investigation.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Tobias Buckell: Ragamuffin

Tobias Buckell's Ragamuffin is a finalist for the Prometheus award. Buckell describes it as "Caribbean space opera", and it definitely has a Caribbean feel to it. In this story, humans are one of several interstellar-faring species dominated by "the benevolent satrapy", but the only one that we see visibly chafing at the Satrapy's tight control over commerce and technology. Most of the humans we see or hear about numbly accept the domination, but a few among the space traveling people are part of the resistance, and are trying to find a way to fight free.

The story follows Nashara, a genetically enhanced agent, with an implanted computer virus targeted at the Satrapy's systems, and Pepper, an extremely long-lived agent currently trapped on a world at the far end of the worm-hole trail that connects the worlds of the Satrapy. Both have superhuman reflexes, observation powers, and are close to invulnerable, so they're pretty unstoppable—but they still need to find a way to attack their oppressors.

Nashara joins a resistance movement on the planet where she's been marooned long enough to assassinate a local official in exchange for transit off-planet. Once in orbit, she finds a sequence of positions on trading ships that take her closer to where she expects the action to be. Along the way, we encounter various factions and agents who will reappear later.

Pepper's current world is dominated by a faction that in, technology and government, recreates the Aztecs; it's a pretty bloody place to live. But it's a good place to wait for the reappearance of the Teotl, an advanced race that may be willing to help fight the Satrapy, since the broken wormhole they disappeared through years before is still visible in the night sky. Of course, the Teotl do reappear, fleeing their own (even more enhanced) enemy.

The story is engaging, and the characters are interesting, but the main characters' superior powers make the fights' conclusions too obvious. There are interesting subplots on many different worlds and ships, exploring megalomania, mind control, uploading, closed economies, and more.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fleet of Worlds

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner co-wrote Fleet of Worlds, a new novel in Niven's Known Space series. The book is a finalist for the Prometheus Award (voting is going on right now; the award will be presented at the Denver WorldCon in August.) According to Wikipedia, the book follows shortly after the events of the short story "At the Core".

The book's setting and some characters will seem familiar to people who have read most of Niven's earlier Known Space stories. The story line involves humans and Puppeteers. The focal characters are a group of humans descended from travellers on a ship captured long ago by the Puppeteers, and kept isolated from their history and the rest of humanity. Nessus (a character who appears in a few other Known Space stories) is leading a team of humans to explore the future path of the Puppeteers' fleet of worlds and ensure there are no dangers there. Thus, these captive humans end up with an unusual degree of freedom and access to historical information normally hidden from their society. They ferret out the truth about their history, and engineer a rebellion against the Puppeteers.

The libertarian appeal is obvious—rebellion against authority—but it's muted here since the rebellion seems to start and end with the focal characters. Their compatriots who have been left behind during the voyage of exploration don't learn the truth until the explorers have planned out how they will gain their release from the Puppeteers. There are barely hints of any dissatisfaction with their lives; the Puppeteers have done a good job of keeping their history hidden, and isolating them from any knowledge of the location of the rest of humanity. Once they find out, it's obvious that they want to return, and the Puppeteers quickly acquiesce, reasoning that they're better off without troublesome humans around, now that they realize that they're captives and not guests.

The story is reasonably well told, has interesting twists and surprises, and contains many likable characters. In addition, we learn a lot about the Puppeteers (procreation, home world, how General Products Hulls work, government, etc.) It's a reasonably fun story, but without much libertarian interest.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Two Books on Progress: "Farewell to Alms" and "Birth of Plenty"

I recently read two more books on the question of progress that had very different approaches to the subject. The two were William Bernstein's The Birth of Plenty , and Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. (Marginal Revolution had a long discussion on the latter book. It's worth reading if you have time.)

Clark's main argument is reasonably straightforward: Before the industrial revolution, the world's economies were all caught in a malthusian trap: any increase in productivity increased population and drove living standards down. The only (short-term) changes that improved living standards were things that reduced population: war, famine, disease. There was a gradual accretion of technological improvements over time, and something switched over in the 16th or 17th century in Europe (and later elsewhere) leading to a situation in which progress was substantial enough that societies left the malthusian trap, and people gradually became richer. The key according to Clark was that in the malthusian era in England, the wealthy were out-reproducing the poor, causing a general downward mobility, which spread the social mores (and possibly the genes) for more productive behavior more widely there. It's crucial to the argument that in England commerce was the road to wealth, so the values and behavior that were spreading were those that are the foundational for commercial and entrepreneurial success.

Bernstein's story isn't as deep; he's interested in intermediate causes rather than root causes. Bernstein argues that economic growth occurs only when four institutions are all present in a society: property rights, the scientific worldview, access to capital, and high-speed communication. He provides a very engaging account of the history of these institutions, and a plausible argument that they are associated with growth, but the evidence that they are both necessary and sufficient is lacking. As history, I found the book to be very well written. Bernstein depicts several episodes in history quite colorfully: the sprint from the invention of telegraphy in the 1830s to stock tickers in 1867 was wonderful. His evidence that the US victory over Japan in the Pacific was dominated by productivity differences is also convincing. The two nations had roughly equal fleets at the beginning of the war, and the early battles caused attrition to each that were due to the vagaries of fate and individual commanders. But four years later, the Japanese had built two new carriers to shore up their losses, and the US had built sixteen. In smaller ships, the US was outproducing the Japanese at a much higher rate. At that point, fate and individual talent stop mattering

Both authors are concerned with the now omnipresent question raised by Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel: why in some places and not others; why did those particular countries come out on top, and what could the developing countries do to catch up? Bernstein says that development of the four institutions is all it takes. Of course, prescribing it is easier than implementing it, and the biggest step missing from his argument is evidence that it's possible for a country to decide to take this path and succeed. According to the evidence he marshals, it has only happened in the past when the institutional framework was nearly complete, and the missing ingredients fell into place by happenstance. This makes it sound like an experiment worth trying, if there were a country on the verge of having that set of institutions, and the political ability to make the changes. But it doesn't seem like a prescription that can (or ought to, at this point) be forced on all underdeveloped nations wholesale.

Clark's answer is more pessimistic (and less culturally neutral.) Some countries' citizens work more efficiently than others. Clark carefully rules out the obvious possible causes: differences in available capital or in training. He's left saying that the difference is in the workers themselves, though it "can be firmly established" that the differences "stem from the local social environment". Although Clark refuses to use the word himself, the conclusion he leads you to is that poor countries have lazy workers. It takes more workers to do the same amount of work, and no amount of training or social pressure seems to change that. Employers have tried a number of tactics, and the only approach that seems to work reliably is to expect it to take two or three people to carry out the tasks that would be done by one worker in a first-world country. Clark is unhappy with the conclusion, and doesn't proffer any explanations of root causes.

My conclusion? Progress was a complex event historically, and there are lots more details to learn. In the contemporary world, there are significant differences between those who continue to advance and those who don't, and we still haven't found a recipe for bridging the gap. We know that it's sometimes possible, but we don't know of any interventions that could even be said to be "likely" to work. There are changes that seem to lead to improvements (improving access to markets, increasing protections for property ownership, better telecommunications and transportation infrastructure) but they don't work reliably, and these aren't simple to achieve. They take time and significant effort, and can be derailed in a variety of unpredictable ways.

The only good news for those below the curve is that progress is usually much faster for those playing catch-up (once they start on the accelerating path).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Puzzle Contest June 14th

For several years, I've been entering the US Puzzle Championship annual contest. I've never placed very highly, but I enjoy the puzzles they provide. If you are into puzzles, I recommend it. I try to complete as many puzzles as I can in the 2.5 hours they provide, but you can take as long as you like. If you want to compete for time and submit your answers, you have to pre-register. Afterwards, they make the puzzles available. For instance, you can download several years' worth of past puzzle tests.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

CFTC Requests Input on Regulating Prediction Markets

The CFTC asked for comments on whether they should legalize and regulate prediction markets. I haven't joined the discussion yet, because I'm seriously torn about whether it would be a good idea. But I feel compelled to quibble with something Dave Pennock said: "It's not often that an industry in its infancy cries out for more government oversight."

It's actually quite common. The term in the economics literature that includes this is regulatory capture. When there's a regulatory body specific to a particular industry, it's very common for industry to be the major source of expertise in the area, and so for the regulators to be reasonably friendly with the businesses. The businesses can work for regulation that limits entry, and cuts down on competition that reduces profits, and they can work together to ensure that public relations problems are addressed in a cohesive way. But cutting down on competition often means fewer choices for consumers by way of tighter controls on what products are offered.

In our case, the thing I worry about is a narrow ruling that only "socially valuable" questions can be asked, and an expensive process for deciding what innovative questions can be posed. It seems likely that some interests will work to ensure that sports and entertainment questions be declared off-limits. The companies that have the strongest interest in fighting that faction are mostly persona non grata in the CFTC's eyes, since they currently operate outside the law (TradeSports) or outside the country (BetFair ).

The narrower the set of approved questions, or the more expensive the process of getting approval, the less chance that markets will be commercially successful. I think the experiments within companies have indicated (though not proven) that a mix of valuable and popular claims is necessary in order to attract continuing participation.

My biggest worry about fighting for CFTC regulation at this point is that they'll approve something narrow, and this won't produce enough successes to demonstrate that loosening the restrictions over time would be beneficial. The alternative is to continue to find ways to introduce markets under the radar and demonstrate their value to the academic audience, which could lead to a friendlier hearing in a more distant future after prediction markets have demonstrated social value and little risk of harm.

Of course the other likely outcome is that the novel experiments don't happen because of the threat of litigation or regulation. But that seems unlikely given the growth in internal markets within companies. I think there's more likelihood of long-term success without regulation than with it, and we're better off waiting until the chances that the regulations will provide a broad approval are significantly higher.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Zocalo News

I've been busy with a major home remodel recently, so I haven't had a chance to crow in public about some great news for Zocalo, my open source prediction market project. I have two consulting contracts now that are paying for ongoing improvements in the software. Together they are keeping me busy full-time.

I have been working on development of Zocalo since 2004, including a period of 18 months as a Research Fellow at CommerceNet. I've been busy with personal matters for much of the last 8 months (a major home remodel), so I wasn't able to put in as much time as I'd have liked recently, but I've been working on the code again full-time for about two months.

I'm pleased to be able to say that I have two consulting contracts at this point. I'm working with a group at Chapman University and another university I'm not allowed to mention in public announcements. The Chapman team is led by Dave Porter, who I worked with while he was at George Mason University. Most of the Experimentalists from the GMU Economics department have moved (or are in the process of moving) to Chapman in Orange County, California. Dave has been using Zocalo for economics experiments since 2005, while I was at CommerceNet. He has plans (and budget) to expand Zocalo to support a variety of experiments that he'd like to do. The software continues to be used at George Mason as well.

The other group is probably familiar to most of you, though my contract says I can't use their name for publicity without approval (which they didn't give). Suffice it to say, I'm happy to be working with this group; the professor in charge has been working on market-related software systems for almost 20 years.

These consulting contracts support my continued development of Zocalo, and both groups are fully supportive of the open source approach. Having these groups actively working with the software, requesting changes, and reviewing progress will contribute substantially to the usefulness and usability of the code. The fact that one group is working with the experiment configuration and the other with the prediction markets ensures that both will continue to be enhanced and get more robust as they are being used.

This announcement is being cross-posted to

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

C. J. Cherryh: Rider at the Gate

I really enjoyed C. J. Cherryh's Rider at the Gate and will be looking for the sequel. I've enjoyed all of what I've read previously by Cherryh, and so I was surprised at my reaction when I recently read her Rusalka. But now that I look at her bibliography, I see that I've only read her books that are categorized as science fiction, even when they seemed on the fantasy side to me. I would certainly have categorized Rider as fantasy, since it depends heavily on ESP; but that's the only magic that is present. And to my vague recollection Wave Without a Shore seemed like fantasy as well.

But anyway, it was the characters in Rider that had me captured, and the characters in Rusalka that never came to life for me. In a lot of Cherryh's stories, the fascinating thing is the way she juxtaposes characters of different species and makes them all more interesting by their contrasts. (And shows us different facets of being human through this lens.) In both these series, all the characters are human (discounting the psychically active horses in Rider. They have tastes and personalities, but only develop goals and plans when allied with a rider.)

Perhaps the difference is that the characters in Rider are actively trying to solve their problems, while the characters in Rusalka are reluctant heroes. Yes, that's certainly a part of it; I've never liked reluctant hero stories, going back to Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, most of which I read in college. While I was reading Rusalka I thought my distaste was also because of the dark air of the story: I'm no fan of horror. But Rider is nearly as dark and brooding. I think the characters' gung-ho attitudes drain the power of the darkness.

Anyway, I'm pleased that I've found another series of books by Cherryh that I want to follow up on, and hopefully you'll have learned something about these books whether or not your tastes run along the same lines as mine.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

James Flynn: What is Intelligence?

In his new book, What is Intelligence?, James Flynn tries to explain a few things. First he wants to explain what intelligence is and what its components are, second he wants to explain his new understanding of the Flynn effect, and what it implies about genes and intelligence, and thirdly, he wants to convince us that what The Bell Curve said about intelligence and race isn't supported by these new understandings. He succeeds admirably at the latter two; his success in explaining the nature of intelligence is limited.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the Flynn Effect, I'll repeat the findings briefly. More than two decades ago, Flynn noticed that IQs have been going up over time. About 3-5 points per decade, independent of culture, location, sex and race. The people who write intelligence tests have known for quite a while; they reissue their tests every decade or so, and "re-norm" the results. Since the definition of IQ is that 100 is the average score across the population (which population? That's a separate question; read the book if you want the details) they have to measure the results for a standardized group, and set the scoring so the current test will give the right results.

One of the consequences that matters to Flynn is the implication for death penalty cases, which he has been brought into recently. The implication is that if you give someone a test that is 10 to 15 years out of date, their score will be artificially inflated, since they are being measured by the norms of an earlier period. The obvious argument among defenders of capital cases is that death row inmates should be tested by up-to-date standards so as not to inflate their scores and accidentally rate them as competent to stand trial when they are in fact borderline or below it. Flynn points out that it's common for schools in disadvantaged areas and for prisons to not replace their existing stock of test booklets when a revision is issued, so they can be significantly out-of-date, which artificially inflates the scores and negates one escape route.

Like all good scientific revolutions, Flynn starts with four paradoxes arising from the combined data about rising scores.

  • Different sub-tests (e.g. vocabulary, spatial reasoning, abstract analogies, pattern matching) have shown different increases. What's different about the areas in which intelligence is growing the fastest?
  • Given the size of the increase, why doesn't it seem clear in everyday interactions that each generation is significantly smarter? 20 years is almost 10 IQ points, so two generations is nearly 20.
  • How did our ancestors get by if only 100 years ago, everyone was mentally retarded by current standards?
  • The changes are so rapid that they can't be genetic, so they must be due to environmental changes, yet studies comparing twins raised together and apart show that environment makes little difference to adult intelligence. Why does the environment make so much difference in some cases and so little in others?

Flynn's resolution is that the environmental differences that matter are large-scale and societal. He also argues that the societal differences compound, so even though small changes are scattered throughout our schooling, entertainment, child-rearing practices, employment expectations, and hobbies, the effects can be pervasive. The area of change that Flynn pinpoints is reliance on abstraction. This turns out to be a common thread among the sub-tests with the highest increases. Our ancestors dealt with the world much more concretely, and modern child rearing, education and entertainment all exercise our growing competence at abstraction. The results from twin studies are dominated by society-wide practices, and show that which family one is raised in, or which schools one goes to don't matter nearly as much as which era, and which society. An agrarian society that doesn't expect its children to grow up and leave the farm raises them to focus on the here and now. Expectations change when horizons open up, and we should expect every society to undergo a Flynn effect as people expect the next generation to live in cities, work in information-intensive jobs, and socialize with people who aren't all doing the same work their ancestors have done since time immemorial.

Ultimately, Flynn's book provides a satisfying resolution to the problems raised by IQ differences. The implications of Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve for racial differences have been neutralized. Not by ethical arguments or posturing, but by a careful analysis of the data. Murray and Herrnstein were led astray by the surface implications of the data when analyzed within generations. If they hadn't written up their analysis carefully and thoroughly, Flynn wouldn't have been impelled to revisit the data and produce a sounder conclusion. Murray and Herrnstein's conclusions weren't original with them; their contribution was their willingness to explain an unpopular idea carefully enough that its limitations would become visible when the right context became apparent.

Murray and Herrnstein's other conclusions still stand: modern societies do an extremely good job of separating out the (relatively small, we now know) within-generation differences in intelligence, and directing people to different pursuits and occupations. The consequences is a shortage of general problem solvers in areas where intelligence is less valuable, while our institutions evolved in circumstances where general problem solvers were widely distributed.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

One of the big new features of Leopard, the current release of Apple's OS X is Spaces, and I was really looking forward to using it. Unfortunately, the actual details fell short of my expectations, and I have turned it off. I've used similar features before (under X Windows, for instance) and being able to organize a larger virtual desktop can make handling many simultaneous open windows easier.

I currently have 22 application windows either open on my desktop, or collapsed in the dock. It's not unusual for there to be 10-15 open browser windows, but right now I have only 8. I have a couple of terminal windows for talking to remote computers, three emacs windows (two currently collapsed), Word, ITunes, two for Numbers (Apple's spreadsheet program), one Preview pane, Idea, Thunderbird, and Shrook (blog reader). I'd expect to separate tasks by project, so I might have a Space for tracking Real Estate, one for working on Zocalo, one for reading blogs and web pages, and so on. Without Spaces, each shelved project takes up several slots in the dock, making it harder to find whatever I'm looking to do next.

When I attempted to navigate between applications using the keyboard, Spaces would throw me around somewhat arbitrarily, breaking whatever train of thought I had going. If I used keyboard commands to switch applications, I expect the system to choose a window for that application that is already open in the current space, or if there are none, to allow me to use Command-N or Command-O to open a new one. Instead, it would arbitrarily choose an open window for that application and switch me to whatever space contained it.

In the end, I decided that I'm better off with a cluttered dock, and a single desktop than with their implementation of Spaces. Maybe the next version will do better.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Harry Turtledove: The Gladiator

Harry Turtledove's The Gladiator, provides a much better entrypoint to libertarian science fiction for young people than The Walton Street Tycoons, which was nominated for the Prometheus award last year. The Gladiator is part of Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series (aimed at young adults), which I hadn't noticed before.

The main characters of this volume are high school students in an alternate Italy in which the Soviet Union won the cold war and most of the world is communist. These youngsters have all been brought up to believe that capitalism is a far worse system than communism, which they can see leaves a lot to be desired. Since they never get a glimpse of capitalism, they have no concept that there could be advantages to it. Into this milieu some visitors arrive from an alternate reality (presumably ours). They come in the guise of a chain of game stores offering simple face-to-face fantasy games of building and running railroads, managing sports teams, or battling dragons. Their plan is to gently undermine the world-wide commuist regime by teaching a few people at a time that capitalism has its good points, too. This is probably the most fantastic aspect of the novel. No, I take it back; there are certainly people who would believe that that strategy might work.

Anyway, the Italian anti-subversion squads figure out what is going on and stage a series of raids to capture the stores' operators and shutter the stores. One of the visitors from the alternate timeline is away from his store at the time of the raid, and has to figure out how to get back, leading a few sympathetic and helpful youngsters further astray.

The device of having the viewpoint characters believe wholeheartedly in communism works well. Turtledove shows us how easy it is to get people to follow a unanimous crowd. Everyone doubts that the system works well, but everyone also knows that there are spies and informers everywhere, so no one voices their doubts. The official line is that Communism is the only system that works, and since no one speaks up for Capitalism, everyone assumes that if there's a better system than the one they see around them, it must be in some other direction, since the failings of Capitalism are so widely repeated.

The characters are believable high school students, worried about popularity, grades, and other students jockeying for power in student politics. (Though in this world, student politics can lead to real-world power.) They learn lessons from plausible circumstances, sometimes not seeing the whole picture immediately, and other times reaching a conclusion that other events have prepared them for. Quite convincing, and very well written. It's not grand space opera, but you can cover big topics in a small scope, as Terry Pratchett has shown with his Discworld novels. Turtledove does at least as well, and paints a convincing picture of young people living under oppression and yearning for freedom.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Guardener's Tale, Bruce Boston

Bruce Boston's The Guardener's Tale is up for the Prometheus award for this year, but I'm not particularly impressed with it. The first part recapitulates Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, but a lot more woodenly.

There is a clever section in the middle that feels more like Total Recall, except that the protagonist is struggling to break out of the dream vacation. This portion actually lives up to the blurb's billing; it's reminiscent of the best of Philip K. Dick. The protagonist wants to convince his wife that they should break up, so he wants to ruin their "dream vacation". He soon discovers that the dream is heavily scripted and his wife's part is played by a zombie. He concludes that they are in separate simulations, and that he can't do anything to affect her experience.

When they return from the vacation, the dreary story-telling resumes. From this point, the plot is mostly predictable. Eventually most of the characters are mind-wiped or pacified and returned to their proper place in society. A few have happier outcomes, but Boston doesn't make them very plausible.

The story is framed as the report of one of the guards (the Guardener of the title), but the viewpoint isn't maintained consistently. (Sometimes unusual features of the society are explained from a modern viewpoint, and other times as if by someone who grew up with them.) The guard's change of heart isn't motivated enough to be convincing, so the framing falls flat in the one place it might have changed the way we felt about the teller of the tale.

Overall, this was a disappointing book. The story is definitely a dystopia, but it wasn't very inventive, and it didn't hold my attention very tightly. I don't think there were any new insights about how tyrannies arise, how they persevere or fail, or why some people suffer quietly and others don't.