Saturday, March 25, 2006

Walter Mosley's "47"

Walter Mosley's 47 is a finalist for the Prometheus award. It's an unusual candidate, in that it's aimed at the young adult market, and it's light on the science fiction. As Mosley says, the science fiction is present in order to provide a ray of hope in an otherwise extremely bleak picture.

You see, 47 is the story of a young slave on a plantation in Georgia in the 1830's, and the cruelty and misery seem entirely plausible for the context. How else to make this irredeemable scenario palatable, but to bring in Tall John, a potential savior to give a reason for hope?

Mosley plays off an old slave myth of someone who would come to the new world to confound the masters and set the slaves free. In this case, 47, the title character, encounters an apparent runaway, who turns out to have special powers. But his most important attribute is his simple unwillingness to bend his knee to the master, even when he can't prevent the ensuing punishment. He teaches 47 that it's possible to hold up your head (saying Neither a slave nor a master be.) even when someone has the complete ability to punish or kill you.

It's a bit far-fetched, and the technological MacGuffins have such fantastic consequences that the book is hard to take seriously. But the depiction of the slave's situations has a very realistic feel, and Tall John's self sufficiency is inspiring. I don't expect it to win this year, but the finalist status is well-deserved.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's new book, Learning the World, is a good first contact story. I didn't like it as much as I've enjoyed his previous stories, but it's still pretty good. Our distant descendents are spreading throughout the galaxy, and have been doing so for thousands of years without encountering anything more advanced than algae, mold, and lichen. There's no FTL travel, but there is serious life extension, so ships are crewed by two generations of travelers: the Founders, and the ship generation. The starship we're focused on has the luck to be the first to encounter an alien race.

The aliens are approximately bat-like flying mammals, though scaled up to human dimensions. They are just reaching their own renaissance, and by happenstance, astronomers cataloging comets catch a glimpse of the starship as it's decelerating into the solar system. This gives them the opportunity to notice the subtle signs of their presence even though the new arrivals try to remain hidden.

The politics onboard the starship involve struggles between factions who want to exploit the planetary system as their plans called for in the absence of intelligent life, and those who think it might be better to hold off and ensure that the first contact results in amicable relations. Complicating all this is that the ship generation has grown up in a post-conflict environment. They understand that there's far more to gain by trade than conquest, and assume that everyone else knows it too. The planet-bound creatures (they call themselves human, so there's no good term for them) have reached a level of sophistication to realize that trade is beneficial, but they don't dare assume that starfarers know it as well. The starfarers bumble in their attempts to unobtrusively survey the planet, and the planet dwellers interpret the signs as preparations for an invasion.

There were several parts of the story that rang wrong for me. A third of the way through the book, one of the ship generation realizes that an encounter so earlier in our expansion through space, and with a race at such a similar level of development implies that intelligence is likely to be ubiquitous. She tries to start a discussion of this point on her blog (I kid you not!) and get people to consider the implications for their approach to expansion, but one member of the Founder generation pooh-poohs the idea, and the subject is dropped until the last two pages of the story. In the crowds I hang out with, this subject has been a hot topic for a while. I can't believe that the subject would disappear in a society as sophisticated as this one is portrayed to be.

I was continually struck, as I watched the planet-dwellers interact and react, by how human they seemed. MacLeod would occasionally point out how, being flyers, they thought tactically in three dimensions; they perch rather than sitting, and do other things to reflect their heritage, but their thinking wasn't at all alien. Maybe I noticed because I'm currently reading (in the background) C. J. Cherryh's Chanur series. There are several alien species, and they're all alien. There seems to be consistent motivation, but they don't act like or think like people. MacLeod's aliens are people in bat-suits. You can see the same effects when the ship generation modify themselves to be more suited to the zero-g areas of the ship. They have different abilities, and react naturally for the shape they've taken on, but they think like people. Oh, well.

I did appreciate the way MacLeod had the characters on the ship dealing explicitly with futures contracts (and prediction markets?) based on changing events. It was clear that planning for development when the crew arrived at a new starsystem was a process of preparing business plans and presenting them to wealthy investors who would chose which opportunities to invest in.

The aspect of the book that caused some discussion in the LFS' finalist committee, considering this book as a candidate for the Prometheus award, was the way the ship cultures imposed their views on the planetary civilization's. The bat creatures have a related species, the trudge, that they use as beasts of burden. There's a smattering of discussion among the bats as to whether the trudge are intelligent enough that this is akin to slavery. As far as I could tell, they could be anywhere from oxen to gorillas. They didn't seem as smart as dogs. But some on the ships are incensed anyway; it's not even clear that they've looked beyond the fact that the starfarers can't distinguish the trudges from the civilized ones. They decide to prohibit slave-holding anyway. But by the time they make the prohibition, they have, apparently as an accidental side-effect of their attempts to hijack local lower creatures in order to communicate and watch the planet-bound, uplifted some of the trudges to sentience. So the question of whether it was slavery or domestication is moot. grumble.

Even with all these complaints, I enjoyed the story. I wouldn't classify it as strongly libertarian, but it did make the list of Prometheus finalists. (I voted for it.) If you're interested, the list of finalists for 2005 (already posted on a couple of other blogs) is as follows:

  • Chainfire by Terry Goodkind
  • Learning the World by Ken MacLeod
  • 47 by Walter Mosley
  • The Hidden Family by Charles Stross
  • The Black Arrow by Vin Suprynowicz
  • RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman
Yes, that's six finalists rather than the usual five.

And the finalists for Hall of Fame are:

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • As Easy as A.B.C. by Rudyard Kipling
  • It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The awards will be presented at the WorldCon in LA in August.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Privacy tip for the Paranoid

Just a quick tip for people who are privacy paranoids and homeowners: compost your shredded paper.

Everyone recommends that you shred anything you want to discard that includes account numbers, SSNs, medical info, financial info, and so on. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the police can legally take your trash without a warrant, and other courts have held that private individuals can also take your trash with impunity. We also know that shredded materials can be painfully pieced together: The Iranians reconstructed documents from the American embassy after the takeover in 1979, and more recently East Germans are reconstructing shredded documents from the Stasi's files.

So my solution is to not throw away my shredding. I compost it. Most of the composting recommendations I've read say it's fine to include paper, though they often recommend against colored inks. Shredded paper added in small amounts to leaves, grass, and whatever else you have makes great compost that is just fine to include in your vegetable garden. Or, if you can't be bothered with a garden, you can put the compost in your curbside green recycling.

What are the chances anyone is actually interested in my throw away paper? In this era of identity theft, it wouldn't surprise me if some entrepreneur is going through everything that reaches the dump looking for useful information. Why tempt them, when the compost pile is so close?

For extra paranoia value, I like to empty the shredder into the compost just below a layer of orange pulp, old fruit peels, or just as the rain is starting to fall.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Practicing Management

Art Hutchinson has an interesting blog on forecasting and strategic thinking. His contribution to the consulting scene is running planning seminars in which the corporate management teams run through scenarios to prepare to deal with a variety of unexpected and expected events. I read the blog partly because he occasionally has a good word to say about the role of prediction markets in running a resilient organization. Yesterday's post was about a conference he spoke at last month, and mainly discussed his own talk. He gives a really good argument for the value of scenario exercises. Most teams spend the vast majority of their time rehearsing. Not management teams.

Art points out that one of the factors that leads to good performance under pressure is familiarity with everyone's role, and knowing your own responsibilities well enough that you can act rather than having to spend precious time figuring out where you're supposed to be, or whether you should be digging out more information or telling someone what you already know. Sports teams practice all the time; orchestras spend 75% of their time in rehearsal; military units spend a significant amount of time in war games or sharpening skills; management teams don't.

If you're at all interested in resilient organizations, or sharpening the skills needed to help teams cope, I recommend reading Art Hutchinson.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I'm an introvert

I'm president of one organization, and secretary of another. I consider myself a good manager (I think I add more to a business by managing other software developers than by writing code myself.) My current job requires more self-promotion than I've had to do in a while. I'm okay with that; I have no fear of giving talks or presentations.

According to Jonathan Rauch's standards, I'm an introvert. I'd rather read than chit chat. I'm fine in a discussion of ideas (I may do more than my share of talking at our reading group), but have little interest in pleasantries. I do regularly go out for a beer with my hockey team's hard drinkers, but that's because I think cameraderie is really important in team sports. I don't talk to people while waiting in line unless there's something worth saying.

It's nice to get to the point in a relationship with someone that the silences aren't awkward. Awkward silences tell me that the relationship isn't mature yet. The Sartre quote Hell is other people at breakfast resonates for me. It's not really hell, but why can't I just read my paper quietly?

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

David Buller: Adapting Minds

David Buller's 's Adapting Minds was pretty hard to get through, but the most important ideas seemed to have been covered in the first half. I only got about half-way through before skimming and skipping my way through the rest. I got the impression from the reading group's discussion that more people than usual hadn't finished the book.

Buller's goal is to show that the most well known findings of the Evolutionary Psychology movement (which intends to show that there are facets of human behavior that are evolved and universal) result from misinterpretation of the experimental results, or from improper controls in the experiments. In this, it resembles Judith Miller's The Nurture Assumption, which showed that most of the research intended to determine what traits are genetic based on comparisons of twins raised together or apart misunderstood the nature of the correlations they were looking for, and so used the wrong attributes as controls. Miller's book succeeded in demolishing those results, and put forward alternate explanations along with supporting evidence to show that her characterization worked better than the standard interpretation.

Buller succeeds in showing some flaws in the widely touted results, but doesn't present plausible alternative explanations. In the end, the reader is left with the feeling that EP's results have been nitpicked to death, but has no solid basis for guessing which way the experiments would come out if run again with better controls. On the other hand, since Buller started out by saying that he didn't want to attack the idea that there's an evolved basis for behavior, Buller wouldn't count this as a failure. All he wanted to do was shoot down the specific results of the EP proponents, and not the idea of heritable behavioral traits, or the program of research intended to establish the details.

One particular example that Buller beats to death is the Wason Test, the results of which have been widely interpreted to show that people have an innate cheater detection facility. Buller relies on the argument that the form of the two questions that are asked (if even then red, versus if drinking then must be of age) are different kinds of logical propositions. The most enlightening version of the explanation (he seems to explain at least a dozen times, with references to different experts and scholarly lines of discussion) is that the two cases that supposedly violate the given rules differ structurally. In one case, the consequent is negated ("the card shows red"), in the other, the rule's requirement is not complied with ("the patron is under age").

In the end, it seems clear that the EP crowd's explanation doesn't carry all the force it is commonly purported to. At the same time, it's also clear from introspecting on our difference in performance on the two tasks that we solve one by general reasoning, and the other using a built-in problem solver (it's fast, and the process is introspectively atomic). Even if it is the form of the question that affects the results rather than the subject matter of the question, there's still a difference in performance that matches the EPers' description of a behavioral facility that is inate, specific to humans, and universal among healthy individuals. It's an inherited behavioral trait. The boundaries aren't where the standard explanation puts them, put it's still there.

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