Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Lifelode by Jo Walton

I really enjoyed Jo Walton's Lifelode for its ethereal feel. This is uncommon fantasy, with a real ear for how the storyteller's language sets the mood.

The story takes place in a rural setting with a medium level of magic, in a geography where the strength of magic and the speed of time's flow vary according to how far east or west you go. Like Vinge's Zones of Thought, there are regions with powerful magic and powerful gods, and regions where magic is absent and even ordinary thinking is slowed down. The village of Applekirk is a feudal setting, though there's more of a sense of the lords taking care of and protecting their subjects than of taking advantage of them.

Ferrand is the lord of the manor, and a gentle, just and foresighted leader. His polygamous household consists of his wife Chayra, his sweetmate Tavethe and her husband Ranal. Each has a 'lifelode', or calling that fills their days, and some have a gift with 'yeya' or magical mana. Tavethe's lifelode is keeping the house running smoothly, and she also sees shadows of the future and past selves of those around her. The household is busy with three children of different ages and temperments, each eager to grow up and find their own lifelode.

Into this mix comes Jankin, an academic from the west, with no particular magic of his own, but a driving curiosity about the history of a civilization that passed through this area centuries earlier, and Hanethe, Ferrand's great grandmother and a previous, reluctant, lord of the manor. Hanethe has been in the east having mysterious adventures for 15 years or so, while 60 years have passed in Applekirk. Hanethe is being chased by agents of a vengeful god she has wronged, but I'm more interested in talking about the setting than the main conflict, so you wan't get any interesting spoilers here.

Walton does a great job of fitting her prose to the scene, or whose story she's telling. When she talks about Tavethe, future, past and present are swirled together in an eternal now. When Walton is giving background on Applekirk, she also mixes past and future recklessly, in a way that makes the place seem unchanging, even as people are remembering or experiencing momentous events. And as Tavethe says occasionally, "The house remembers," and since the doors spontaneously announce the arrival of visitors or invaders and open politely for people with yeya and a strong connection to the place, it's easy to believe.

It's common for young people in Applekirk (and presumably other villages in the vicinity) to spend a year or two seeing what life is like a litttle ways east (for people with a touch of yeya) or west (for those with a more worldly bent), but they often return home and live out their lives where they started.

When Jankin is the subject, any little object or incident can suddenly shine with a special intensity as he focuses his attention, and learns something new about the history of the place, or how yeya works, or how people develop and exercise their skills (mundane or magical).

Melly, Taveth's daughter has a strong affinity for yeya, and becomes an apprentice to Hanethe for a short while.

When harvest time arrives, everyone bends to with a will, knowing their part already, except Jankin and Hanethe. Jankin has never lived on a farm, and has no relevant skills. Hanethe is no longer young and no one is willing to assign duties to her. But by this point, she is under threat and needs the villagers' support, so she does odd jobs that keep her visible like carrying water and refeshments to the workers. Jankin joins the reapers and learns about dirty and sweaty work.

The children are also drawn in great detail. Hodge is 6 and the natural son of Ferrand and Chayra, so he is the heir and everyone can tell that his lifelode when he grows up will be taking his place as Ferrand's successor. He is very earnest, and pays careful attention to the way that Ferrand leads. Still, he is easily distracted. Melly is 8, but less mature, except when her yeya comes into play. She hasn't yet learned to control it, except for small feats like bringing more from kitchen to dining room than will fit in her hands. She is excited to learn more, and fastens on to Hanethe, whose power is obvious, and who has been in the east.

This is a very satisfying story, with great mood, well-drawn characters, and interesting conflict. Even if the outcome is telegraphed, the twists and turns are surprising.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder's Stealing Worlds imagines a near future where enhanced reality, alternate realities, and virtual world overlays compete with the conventional economy to provide alternate sources of employment and entertainment for anyone who wants it. Blockchain-based crypto-currencies make it simple for people to evade the strictures governments impose on real-world commerce. That, in turn, makes it possible for people looking for the distraction of having an adventure in fairyland, or Transylvania, or fight club world to pay others to make real-world resources available or act as NPCs or design huge virtual arenas in which to play.

Most of the action takes place in the US and Canada, but the action is presented as if it's a world-wide phenomena that spans the globe and undermines third-world dictatorships as much as it does the nanny state. There's enough crossing back-and-forth to show both how people are given an incentive to provide support services, and how interested parties would work to direct the attention and efforts of others to support their schemes.

For most of the story, the coordination is depicted as growing spontaneously out of the intertwined needs and abilities of the participants and those who work behind the scenes. If you already understand the way the invisible hand can lead people to solve problems for others without meeting them or getting explicit direction from them, it all makes perfect sense. Toward the end of the book, this story goes off the rails somewhat as agents are appointed for other interested constituencies like local wildlife or watersheds, or the carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Somehow these agents are able to know what limits need to be imposed in order to keep the environment healthy. Luckily for the story, they work more in the vein of directing development to the right areas rather than shutting down violating activities, but there's a little too much "Gaia Hypothesis" and distributed central planning for my taste.

There have been quite a few overlapping alternate reality stories recently, but Schroeder does a comparatively thorough job of showing how a parallel economy could work. This happens because the characters here play on both sides of the line, and have reasons (they're being pursued) to want to understand who's chasing them and how observable they are.

And then there's the story and the characters. This was a fun tale, with interesting people. The viewpoint character, Sura Neelin, is running to escape bounty hunters working for people who think her father gave her the McGuffin. This provides a reason to make use of the parallel economy's ability to move people around in the shadows and a reason to trade with shady characters who know other ways to hide without going into isolation. She works in several overlapping augmented realities as an NPC, and sometimes in the guise of her increasingly prominent primary character when she wants to affect the story line of one of the live action games that have become ubiquitous. She makes friends and learns to rely on them, and to be dependable when they need help. The plot provides plenty of opportunities for chases, firefights, and intrigue. It's a lot of fun.

The libertarian implications aren't prominent, but can be drawn out. The underground economy thrives, and is fairer to people who might get the short stick in the conventional world. There are criminals, but people can deal with them collectively in a more direct and immediate way than the sclerotic justice system would. Nobody advocates overthrowing the disfunctional governments, they just route around them.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Frederick Douglass: Self-made Man, by Tim Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur's Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is an inspirational read. Sandefur does a masterful job of putting the story of Douglass' life and accomplishments into context. Douglass was born a slave, and became one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders. He insisted on telling his own story, and led the faction that was most interested in integration. While the leading faction when he started advocating freedom was arguing that the constitution was an impediment to freedom for blacks, he argued that it would be better to take the constitution literally, and use it as the basis for a moral case for equality.

I heard Sandefur give a wonderful talk about Douglass' life at Reason Weekend. (There's an earlier version of the talk on YouTube.) Both the talk and the book deliver a powerful pro-liberty statement and show how Douglass lived as a model of what he advocated, and convinced many other people that playing on the positive vision of the founders would be a more productive way to engage on the issue of emancipation. Douglass trumpeted that "the Consitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT". Douglass argued that the Supreme Court is bound to follow the words of the Consitution rather than historical precedent, and there's nothing in the words that allows or supports treating some citizens as second class. It took a long time before the Supreme Court agreed, but eventually, the aspirational message of the constitution's meaning prevailed.

While I was in the DC area for Thanksgiving, we visited the Smithsonian's African American Museum, since the lines were finally short enough (during the week) that we could get in without reservations. While the historical section of the museum is arranged chronologically, it didn't feel like the museum did a good job of connecting the exhibits to give a feeling of how different incidents connected together. I was glad I was reading a history of the period for context. The museum's exhibits confirmed that Douglass was a prominent leader, though (not surprisingly) they didn't say much about the content of his views, or how much contention there was among different factions of the movement.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Two by C. J. Cherryh

I was recently reading Alliance Rising by C. J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher and Defender by C. J. Cherryh at the same time. (It's not unusual for me to be reading 4 or 5 books at the same time. Some I have as hard copies by the bed, some on my tablet, and others on my phone.) I've liked most of the Cherryh that I've read, so I was a little surprised at my reaction to these two.

Defender is book 5 in a 20 book series, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm familiar with the characters, and there's a lot of action, and many factions jockeying for control. It doesn't have much of a pro-liberty message -- I don't insist on that in everything I read.

Defender focuses more on a struggle to keep the peace, and a society where some of the characters have very alien motivations. This is one of the things that I like about this series--Cherryh has a really great ability to depict people who don't think as we do.

My response to Alliance Rising, was quite different. If it hadn't been nominated for this year's Prometheus award (I'm on the review committee) I might even have set it aside. After getting through about a third of the book, I felt like the only actual action that had taken place was that an unexpected ship had arrived at the space station where the story takes place. The rest was all talk. There had been meetings and trysts and discussions and a lot of description of historical and political background by the authors. By the end there was a little more action, but the focus was really on politics and lobbying.

But I have to admit that Alliance Rising is a plausible candidate for the award. The politics and hobnobbing are all in service of the independent trading ships banding together in the face of Earth's apparent intent to take over the interstellar shipping business. There are safety concerns because the people acting for Earth's government are more concerned with controlling commerce than operating a business, while the traders have family ties with the stations, and have an interest in making sure that trade continues even where it's uneconomical at times. I'm not sure that it's a principaled pro-freedom message, but it's at least plausible. I still prefer to read SF stories where the plot is advanced by stuff happening, rather than by people talking. I'll have to wait to see how this book stacks up against the other contenders for this year's Prometheus.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Lucy Jones, "The Big Ones"

Lucy Jones' The Big Ones talks about many major disasters, and what we can do to prepare for them. She is an earthquake specialist (working for the USGS), so she focuses on quakes, but she also spent time working on more general disaster preparedness for various California state and local agencies. The disasters include earthquakes, floods, tsunamis (flooding caused by earthquakes), and volcanoes. Each chapter focuses on a separate incident.

The introduction talks about the structure and geology of earthquakes. The San Andreas, for example, only produces big quakes. The surfaces that are pulling past each other have been ground smooth enough that they stick together. This means it can't release pressure a little at a time; it waits for a sizable build-up, and releases the tension all at once. The magnitude of a quake is determined by how much of the fault releases at once. If it's a short distance, it produces a small quake. Quakes that release a few yards of pressure would be under 2.0. If the rupture goes for a mile and then stops, you get a magnitude 5. A 100 mile long break would produce a magnitude 7.5 quake. Since the rupture front on the San Andreas is pretty smooth, a quake on it will continue to propagate once started, and will cover most of the length of the fault. The built up stresses (at two inches a year) on the southern end of the fault have accumulated about 26 feet of differential since the last major release more than 300 years ago. The section in northern California has had more recent quakes. If two hundred miles of the fault give way, we're talking about 7.8, while 350 miles is conceivable, and would reach 8.2. The section around Paso Robles releases pressure gradually, and should stop further propagation.

I was already pretty aware of the big picture for a major earthquake, since I've been part of the earthquake response teams both at Google and for Mountain View. After a major quake, some roads will be out, and all the fire, police and hospitals will be busy, so no one will get the mutual assistance that they can usually count on. Jones led a team of more than 300 experts as they explored what an 8.2 in LA would be like. Even though building codes have been improving for several decades in California, not enough have been retrofitted to keep this from being a serious disaster. 1500 buildings are likely to collapse including possibly some high-rises. When we drill in Mountain View, or at Google, we always assume that we'll be on our own--no fire or medical help should be expected for a few days. Google (and most other large employers) have plans to be able to feed employees for a few days, and the earthquake team is trained in triage and first aid. But anyone needing attention from a doctor is unlikely to get it.

And all that was in the introduction. The next few chapters cover the volcanoes that buried Pompeii in C.E. 79 (there were early warnings, so there are eyewitness reports from people who fled days or hours before the final eruption) and Iceland in 1783, and the earthquake that shook Lisbon in 1755.

I want to spend more time on chapter 4, which covers the great flood of California's central valley in 1861-2. Just that description should make you suspect that it was bigger than you'd expect. This was a flood that filled the Central Valley, and the water didn't recede for 9 months. California had only been a state for about 10 years at the time, and the only thing that most Californians today have heard about this event is that Sacramento raised its street level by 10 feet in response.

Most people who are familiar with California weather know that most of it is basically a desert. It usually only rains in the winter, and most of the rain falls in the mountains. We only have enough to drink because we dam the rivers, and store water from rainy years in the reservoirs. If you live here for a while, you get used to the idea that some winters are pretty dry, and other years, we'll get a couple of storms that seem to get stuck here, and we can get rain that lasts for a week or two.

Starting in December 1861, the rain throughout much of the state was continuous for nearly 45 days. Other than the mountainous areas, normal rainfall is 12-18 inches, with 24 inches being heavy. That storm apparently dropped 5-6 feet of rain in many places. There were no dams at the time, so by January 9th, the water in Sacramento was 24 foot above its normal level. Most of the city was at 16 feet, so the water was 8 feet deep. The water was still there 3 months later. But this was only what was visible at Sacramento, which is pretty much the northern tip of the central valley. The entire central valley: 30 miles wide and 200 miles long was inundated to a depth of thirty feet. Innumerable cities and towns were completely washed away. All the cattle grazing there died.

Modern California has dams and reservoirs, but they wouldn't have been able to hold back this much water. It was only 150 years ago, and there's no reason to think that extreme variation in annual rainfall has abated. Jones says that geologic records indicate we should expect this much rain "once every century or two", which is suitably vague, but scarily often. There's no way we're prepared for an event of this size. We now get decent alerts about rain two weeks ahead, but several recent winters have included anomalous weather patterns that persisted for longer than that, and the weather bureaus don't have much more to say than "we can't tell how long it'll last". If it starts raining and doesn't stop, we won't know until two weeks before all the dams are overtopped.

Later chapters cover flooding on the Mississippi and in New Orleans, tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, other disasters in Italy and China, and Japan's Fukushima, which combined earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. She talks about emergency response, long-range preparedness, and our tendency to estimate the future based on past incidents we're familiar with.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Order Without Law, Robert Ellickson

Robert Ellickson's Order Without Law is a study, as its sub-title says of "How Neighbors Settle Disputes". Ellickson starts with a deep dive into how ranchers and farmers in Shasta County, in the rural northern part of California actually deal with a problem that Richard Coase brought up in a classic paper on transactions costs. In "The Problem of Social Cost", Coase argued that if transaction costs were irrelevant, it wouldn't matter how property rights were allocated. Regardless of whether ranchers were responsible for keeping their cattle from straying or farmers were responsible for keeping unwelcome beasts out of their crops, the same solutions would be reached. If the law doesn't allocate responsibility to the low cost actor, then according to Coase the other party would find a way to pay the other party to do the cheaper thing. Of course, most of the argument since then has focused on the fact that transaction costs are seldom negligible.
Ellickson says that Shasta County is uniquely positioned for a study on this issue
Shasta County is "open range." In open range an owner of cattle is typically not legally liable for damages stemming from his cattle's accidental trespass upon unfenced land. Since 1945, however a special California statute has authorized the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, the county's elected governing body, to "close the range" in subareas of the county. A closed-range ordinance makes a cattleman strictly liable (that is liable even in the absence of negligence) for any damage his livestock might cause while trespassing within the territory described by the ordinance. The Shasta County Board of Supervisors has exercised its power to close the range on dozens of occasions since 1945, thus changing for selected territories the exact rule of liability that Coase used in his famous example.
This is the kind of change that economists love to study, because they can look at how behavior changes over time and treat the change of law as an independent variable. Any consistent changes in people's activity after the law changes can be treated as the result of the legal change.Ellickson focuses on how neighbors actually respond when trespasses occur. The book is filled with colorful stories giving details of what happened when particular responsible or irresponsible ranchers allowed their livestock to wander. The main observation is that while people were generally aware whether their property was in 'open' or 'closed' lands, their resolutions to incidents had little to do with what the law called for and more to do with a commonly accepted wisdom about that cattle owners are morally responsible for the damage. According to Ellickson, this fits Coase's model, since cattle owners are the low-cost provider. There are a variety of different types of pasture throughout Shasta County, and the cattle owners know more about how densely they are using any particular piece, and are more aware of which neighbors are most sensitive to their intrusions.
One of the most important enforcement mechanisms that Ellickson cites is plain simple gossip. Most of the people he talks about are eager to make things right, rather than be the subject of their neighbors' pointed comments. There is one member of the community who gets discussed a lot, but there are more extreme measures available when there are repeated run-ins, and one party is a consistent non-cooperator.
Ellickson is a good story teller and an astute observer. While the subjects of his study are less tight-knit than the farmers Ostrum described, there is enough social cohesion so that norms develop, and neighborliness is for the most part, a stronger limitation on people's interactions than actual laws.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow's Walkaway, though it was more the setting than the story that had me entranced.

Doctorow envisions a relatively high tech future with a strong upper class with strict controls on many aspects of society, but there's an informal, unsupported safety valve that makes it possible for people to get out from under the plutocrats (called Zottas here). Doctorow's society is fraying around the edges, so there are lots of abandoned industrial facilities and vacant land that people who are fed up can Walkaway to. Once there they create informal voluntary societies, and exploit the abandoned wealth they find around them. As with Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom this is a reputation based society, but many of the people who fuel this iteration explicitly reject the ideas of ratings and rankings and tracking contributions. People work together for the joy of it, and record their ideas and plans so others can replicate what works and improve on what doesn't.

In a focal early scene, Limpopo and her companions have been working for months to build a habitation called the Belt and Braces in the wilderness. Limpopo leads by doing a lot of the work, and she has argued convincingly that using leaderboards and rewarding people based on their contributions are ineffective ways to encourage desirable behaviors because they incentivize the wrong kinds of effort. Jimmy had lost an earlier round of this argument and been asked to leave. He returns with a crowd of allies one day when Limpopo is working outside, and his crowd uses the lack of formal rules to rewrite the software controls and impose a reward structure. A common response to this kind of disagreement would be to wage a "revert" battle in the software, but Limpopo uses this opportunity to demonstrate the depth of her commitment to the "Walkaway" philosophy by announcing that she's not going to fight over it. Instead, she'll go somewhere else and start over, leaving Jimmy with full possession of an empty shell. When pressed, she declares "I didn't make it. It wasn't mine. I didn't let him take it." The Walkaway philosophy is to not have belongings, so as not be attached to your stuff. It's impossible to steal from them because they don't acknowledge ownership.

For me, the model that strikes home is the ability to withdraw from an existing government and decamp to a new location to just start over. The current international order doesn't seem to leave any gaps for things like this, but I'm currently in the middle of reading James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, which presents a history of South East Asia that says that the shape of the societies in that part of the world has been driven for millennia largely by the people who moved to less accessible locations in order to escape governments that were getting unbearable. Scott argues that the sociology of the closely related peoples living in hills and valleys were driven more by which crops and living arrangements were easy for governments to count and tax in the valleys, and hard for them to find and more durable in the remote and higher settlements. I hope to write more about that when I've finished Scott's book.

Doctorow doesn't try to argue that it's easy, and in fact shows that the walkaway crowd is doing an immense amount of work in order to rebuild. I find this model of decentralized self government very sympathetic. There's no acknowledged government with territorial exclusivity, and people are able to leave if they don't like the way things are being run. There is plenty of open room to move to, and there's enough generalized wealth at hand and accessible know how that people don't feel tied down.

The unfortunate part of Walkaway is that Doctorow needed a conflict, and the one he sets up is that the Zottas are jealous of their control over society, and see the walkaways as a threat, so they're willing to kidnap, torture and send in the troops in order to regain control. In the final battle scene, a Zotta leader's daughter is in the target area, and the Zotta's back down. But in the meantime, the walkaway society's story is one of resisting violence from outside rather than the peaceful coexistence they're working so hard to get.

I agree with Doctorow's aesthetic sense; focusing on this society after the Zottas have ceded control wouldn't provide conflict at the same existential level, but it would be a much nicer place to live, both for those who walk away and those who remain behind in the "default" economy.

Doctorow knows how to tell a story: There are a lot of funny and touching scenes in the story, and he covers a lot of ground. In addition to the overall situation which I've focused on so far, the story covers many kinds of relationships, uploading makes a major sub-plot, and the unequal distribution of society's benefits is explored. He does have a darker outlook than I on where technology is heading. The reason there are riches lying around is that the Zottas would rather shutter outmoded plants than sell them and allow someone else to exploit the resources they contain. There are many highly trained mercenaries around that the Zottas can hire who will do their bidding, no matter how distasteful it might seem to us. But that's visible in many of his other stories, and he still manages to be entertaining and paint a hopeful picture about how people can get along together and build something great. This book is being considered for this year's Prometheus, and it's my current favorite.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation, by Josh Mitteldorf

Josh Mitteldorf's Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation places its thesis right in the title. Mitteldorf makes a strong case that aging is under the control of evolutionary pressures, and that the selection pressures for it are based on the benefits to groups, since it's clear there's no evolutionary gain to the individual. The evidence that aging is under evolution's control boils down to a comparison of many lineages that have long lives and have evolutionary cousins that do not. This is straightforward and hard to refute. The question is why.

The book's answer is that lineages that don't limit fecundity overshoot the carrying capacity of whatever environment they inhabit. The consequences are frequent population crashes. The alternative that leads to the possibility of stable populations is some feedback cycle that limits reproduction, combined with some way to ensure that deaths occur at a consistent rate. If the genes are optimized for the longest feasible life, then most deaths will occur in times of stress (resource exhaustion, unusual weather, or other cataclysm). This would lead to a much higher chance of ongoing boom and bust, which is a recipe for inevitable extinction.

There are some great graphs in the book illustrating the huge variety in life histories across many species. This one shows survivorship as a function of mortality and fecundity. When mortality is a horizontal line, survival falls consistently from birth to death. (hydra, hermit crabs, et. al.) Some species show decreasing mortality over their lifespan (desert tortoise, white mangrove, redleaf oak, ...), others only a slight uptick near the end (mute swan, tundra vole, sparrowhawk, ...).

According to Mitteldorf, the outcome of many experiments with artificial life show that one of the most valuable features of a species that has to cohabit with predators and prey is the ability to react to changes in its own population so that they have more progeny when the population density is low, and more individuals die when population density is high. The classical reaction to arguments about group selection says that this requires genes to have some kind of foresight, but the paradigm here is that populations that don't discover a way to reinforce this kind of response to population variation will be much more likely to go through frequent bottlenecks. Each bottleneck is another opportunity to go extinct.

One of the key ideas is that in order to contribute to ecosystem stability, rather than only to individual fitness, the genes must find a mechanism that leads to variation in robustness among the population. If some are slower, some are more susceptible to famine or cold, etc., then when a periodic stressor arises, some of the individuals will die. The alternative, if the genes design for uniform robustness is that all survive except when the stressor is severe, and in that case, nearly all will die. Aging, according to this thesis is a mechanism that causes variation within the population, ensuring a steady rate of death, which evens out rapid rises and falls in population. The population can still expand relatively rapidly when a niche opens up, but when living in a stable location, there are forces mitigating against population swings.

For those thinking about how to extend lifespan, a plausible first reaction to the idea that aging is selected for is to conclude that this means that aging will be harder to defeat. I would argue that the opposite may be true. Mitteldorf makes a good case that many lineages have found ways to allow individuals to live to arbitrarily long ages, so the biological mechanisms can't be infeasible or energetically unaffordable. Evolution's lesson is that we should be aware of the consequences of unlimited population growth, but given the demographic transition affecting most advanced economies, we can reasonably be more worried about the dangers of dropping population levels than of too many people. In any case, the hazards for human populations happen slowly enough that we'd be able to react before populations grow to be dangerous.

Aubrey de Grey wrote a response to Mitteldorf, but it looks like it was to an early version of the argument. (The book is dated 2017, but de Grey's 'response' is from 2015.) It looks to me as if de Grey had the reaction I described just above, and thought it was important to refute Mitteldorf's claims. I don't think de Grey directly addresses the arguments in the book. It seems to me that the argument presented here doesn't rule out the possibility of using de Grey's (SENS) approach to engineering fixes for the causes of aging, and it also provides for the possibility of other approaches that would directly intervene in the body's signaling that encourages aging and early senescence. If it's right, it doesn't reduce the number of possible approaches, it adds to them.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Redemption Ark, by Alastair Reynolds

Alistair Reynolds's Redemption Ark is a great yarn, with action spaning a long time scale and many star systems. It takes quite a while to figure out that the Inhibitors have the same goals as Saberhagen's Berserkers—they want to eradicate intelligent life (though there's some hint that they're doing it to stave off a more thorough cleansing by unknown agencies). Unlike the Berserkers, these killers wait quietly while monitoring commerce between the stars so that when they strike, they'll be able to wipe out all traces of the civilizations they notice. And they don't attack with space ships and robotic warriors; they build megastructures to destroy entire star systems. The humans who figure out their objectives have to make even longer range plans in order to counter them.

And the main characters here are willing and able to think that far ahead, and set up long term goals. A few of them have the longevity to pursue this kind of plan, and still interact with shorter-lived people on a human level. The factions include a borg-like collective, though they seem to follow plausible physics, and members don't participate in the group mind when they're not on the same planet. They do have faster than light travel, though there are reasons it's rarely used. They still have a civilization that spans multiple star systems, so they have the ability to hibernate while on long journeys. Given time dilation at near light and other effects, they're used to (at a societal level) dealing with people who remember the distand past at first hand, and have institutions that allow people to carry out long term plans when the principals might be away for extended periods.

One of the things that has cut down the prevalence of interstellar travel is the presence of plague, a nano-scale infection that they seem unable to stop except by physical isolation. The story starts with the return of the ship captained by a revered long-lost ancestor which seems to have been infected or attacked by a new kind of agent. After this, we follow a couple of different story lines among the borg, on a colony world in political turmoil, and following a local transport rocket pilot around a densely inhabited system. Characters and events influence one another in various ways across the different story lines.

We gradually learn that an inner cabal within the closed leadership group inside a faction of the borg knows about some super weapons created in the distant past that might be useful in fighting the Inhibitors. The Inhibitors have recently become more active, and a few factions figure out that someone needs to act. The struggle to find and control the super weapons drives much of the conflict in one story line. Other groups pursue other schemes in the converging story lines, to keep things dramatic and interesting.

Anyway, the struggles between long-lived and widely traveling post humans and ordinary people living out their lives on planets in distant solar systems are fascinating to watch, and quite plausible. The further they are from an ordinary lifespan, the more alien their motivations and goals, but most of them seem to be trying to work towards a greater good as they understand it. Even the few with truly alien viewpoints know how to work with others to achieve mutual goals.

I've read a few of Reynolds ' books at this point, and I enjoy the broad scope, the immense vision, and the finely detailed characters. The stories are suspenseful, and even when they leave a hook for a follow-up story, the endings are satisfying.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott

I found a lot to like in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. It presents a way of thinking about the consequences of governments' interventions that makes a large category of unintended side effects appear coherent. Once you see this consistency, you can make predictions about other interventions and the ways they will turn out without needing to ascribe motivation to the planners behind them. In order to achieve their goals, bureaucrats and autocrats have to make the population they intend to help more surveyable, visible, and regular. That very act, independent of how much the rest of the change might be done with the best interests of the people in mind, reduces the relevance of the local knowledge and expertise that they have built up over time, making them more dependent on government, and less able to fill in the gaps in the ways that lead to smoothly functioning societies.

Scott describes several grand schemes, mostly done to help various populations, though often in ignorance of the ways of the people living in the affected area. He discusses state-sponsored forestry, Corbusier's city planning, government-sponsored (and private) experiments in industrial agriculture, China's Great Leap Forward, resettlements in Tanzania, as well as touching on other examples. In each case he shows how the (necessarily) high level plans of of the top officials were translated into concrete details for the convenience of those implementing the plan, in ignorance of the deleterious consequences for the affected villagers. The end result in each case conformed to the planners' specifications, but left an unlivable environment in which the inhabitants were more dependent on the government, and often much poorer than they started out.

Whether the results of all these grand schemes ended up being helpful is questionable, and is certainly independent of what the original intent was, or how much effort was spent during the planning stage in considering ways to make the outcome closer to what the subjects would have asked for. Since plans and maps are necessarily abstractions from reality, and since the plans must be carried out by intermediaries whose interests are distinct from both the rulers and the people being 'helped', those doing the work will have to have to fill in details about how to get the work done. This will often be done in ignorance of the intent, and more usually without concern for the extended well-being of the future of the community.

As with Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, the point isn't to move towards a conclusion on how to do a better job of redesigning a society, so much as of having skepticism that it's possible to achieve humane objectives by trying. In most cases, hubris would lead to addressing problems by allowing people to adjust things in an incremental manner. Otherwise we risk replacing things that seems suboptimal to an outsider with situations that are truly dismal for those left behind. While discussing Soviet collective farms, Scott talks about some attempts by American industrial agricultural firms to do something similar in the midwest. Their grand plans for integrated industrial farms didn't succeed any better, but the difference was that when the outcome became clear, the companies involved backed off and the land reverted to more local, context-sensitive control.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, is the second book of a trilogy. It (along with the first book in the series, Dissidence, is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Insurgence continues the story of awakened robots struggling for freedom, and uploaded human ex-combatants fighting to retake the planetary system the robots had been mining and exploring.

This installment focuses less on the robots' claim to be agents worthy of separate respect, and more on the uploaded warriors struggle to figure out the nature of the reality they inhabit while mostly following orders to fight the battles their supervisors are pursuing. Their ultimate worry is that they don't have enough information to tell which side they're fighting on or who they are battling to subdue. When you live in a simulation (particularly when you can tell that someone else has access to the control panel) it's a little difficult to be sure that your choices aren't effectively controlled by someone else.

Next, cracks appear in the simulation, and "real" revived people see the shortcomings, but non-player-characters (MacLeod calls them philosophical zombies) think everything is normal, so the real people can tell who's just a simulated person. The idea of zombies in philosophy (sometimes "p-zombies") is an exploration of the idea of consciousness. What if there were beings that acted just like people, but had no consciousness? Would it make a difference to them? Should we accord them lesser rights?

I consider the idea of p-zombies to be incoherent, but many smart people treat the question as exploring an important distinction. MacLeod here undercuts the point of the argument since there are actual behavioral differences. It isn't an exploration of whether consciousness matters, it's just that some characters in the story are imperfect simulations without an inner life, and the actual thinking beings can tell who they are. At the same time, MacLeod makes sure we notice that the robots and AIs who are active in the battles and the scheming do have an inner dialogue, and are making plans and collaborating with others to get things done.

The starting position for the agencies that represent the current Earth government and act under its protection is that only humans are allowed to be sentient. Even AIs' powers are circumscribed. Whenever self awareness arises otherwise, it must be stamped out. It's not clear why this would be a plausible stance, since it's clearly the case that the AIs can become self-aware for short periods, and autonomously operating robots have the capacity for spontaneous self awareness given the right trigger. So they must be constantly battling to defeat uprisings, and track down newly minted sophonts who either try to escape from control, or hide in occupied systems. It would make more sense to forbid use of tools with the capacity for self awareness, than to constantly try to stomp them out. I'd also have a hard time going along with a regime that wanted to outlaw and destroy a class of beings because they were self aware. Self aware and hostile is a separate thing, but that's not the distinction they've settled on.

Before one of the final battles, one of the leaders of the simulated humans challenges the combatants to each eat a slice of p-zombie flesh to prove that they believe they're in a simulation, and that there can't be any moral issues with simulated eating of simulated meat from simulated people that were never actually alive or aware. Except for a few who object to the initiation-ceremony aspect of the act, they all partake.

So there's a lot of exploration here of of philosophical questions of identity, and what it means to be human. The questions of liberty are mostly focussed on what kinds of agents deserve respect as actual people, though I think MacLeod fumbled some of the issues. The action is interesting and the conflict exciting. Besides there are also weaponized communications packets, interrogations of potentially hostile agents by sending them into a dungeon simulation, double and triple agents, and terraforming. It's a pretty good read, and the lead-in to part three, of course leaves a few things to be resolved.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, is the first book of trilogy. It (along with the second book in the series, Insurgence) is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

The story starts with a scene in which a pair of mining robots exploring an asteroid (in a distant solar system) and representing different corporate interests have an encounter, which leads them to realize they have opposing interests, which leads them each to recognize that they have interests, which leads them to self-awareness. The corporations are in a tenuous situation, trying to assert their ownership of the robots, trying to be civil about their contractual cooperation, but objecting strenuously to breaches by the opposing robots. The corporations end up fighting one another, and the robots band together and spread the concept of self-awareness to other nearby robots with sufficient computing capacity. Since the corporations don't seem likely to grant them independence, the robots form an independent faction in the upcoming battle. The corporations are loath to destroy their valuable property just yet.

When they do decide that military actions are called for, they end up dredging up opposing troops of uploaded warriors from past wars. All the AIs and non-self-aware robots, and other actors are under a deep compulsion that only humans and their uploads can actually be armed for combat, even against rogue self-aware robots. So the "humans" spent parts of their time embodied as people in a planetary environment, training and relaxing between missions. In the missions, they're downloaded into articulated space battle suits. Every time they die in battle, they return to the training site to start again. Over time, they find reason to doubt the reality of their home, and eventually detect serious cracks.

The uploads gradually learn enough about their realities to doubt that they're still fighting for the side they were loyal to in their first lives. Apparently part of the distinction between uploads and awakened AIs is that the operators can't tinker with opinions and loyalties directly, but they can easily lie and mislead about who they're representing, and what their opponents are fighting for. Of course, it wouldn't be an interesting story if the operator's control couldn't be subverted.

Ken MacLeod tells a good story, and gets us to think about what kinds of entities should have rights. The authorial point of view allows him to show the action in the eyes alternately of the awakened robots and the revived soldiers, so we feel their fundamental humanness. The characters, ex-human and non-human alike, think about who they should allow into their coalition, whether other actors are actually aware or just act like it, and have varying motives.

My biggest complaint about the story and the characters' attitudes is a simple acceptance among all the characters that some other characters are not real, based simply on statements from people in authority roles. In war, it doesn't make much sense to worry about whether the people shooting at you are actually thinking beings, but deciding that some category of bystanders don't have inner lives should be a cause for more intensive investigation. It's an easy allegation to make, and not far from standard attitudes about our enemies that we've mostly moved past.