Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins


December 30, 2013 at 3:35 am (One Comment)

On IntelligenceWith On Intelligence, I find myself in the unique position of having heavily evangelized a book before I’ve even finished it.  I read half of it and started buying copies for friends.  This is something I’ve never done before, so if you’re busy, you can take a quick tl;dr, and assume that if you’re interested in how intelligence works, namely how the brain functions at a high level (learning patterns, predicting the future, forming invariant representations of things) and how we might functionally simulate that with computers, do not pass go, do not collect $200, go buy a copy (Amazon, Powells) and read it.

Still here?  Good, because I have a lot to say.  This isn’t really a book review, it’s more of a book summary and an exhortation to activity.  You’ve been warned.

A Little Backstory

Earlier this year I went to OSCON, and at OSCON the keynote that impressed me the most was by Jeff Hawkins, creator of the PalmPilot and founder of HandSpring.  Here’s the video:

As appropriate for an Open Source conference, Jeff’s company, Numenta was announcing that they were open sourcing their neocortical simulator library, NuPIC, and throwing it out there for people to hack on.  NuPIC was based on the work Numenta had done on neocortical simulations since he wrote the book, On Intelligence, in 2005.  NuPIC is software that simulates the neocortex, the sheet of grey matter on the outside of your brain where all your experiences live.  3 years of French?  It’s in the neocortex.  The ability to figure out that two eyes and a nose equals a face?  The neocortex.  The neocortex even has the ability to directly control your body, so that muscle memory you rely on to do that thing you do so well, like riding a bike or painting or driving a car?  That’s all in your neocortex.  It’s the size of a large dinner napkin (the largest in humans, but every mammal has one), is about as thick as 7 business cards, and wraps around the outside of your head.  It is you.

Intrigued, I went to the full length session that the Numenta team presented…

One of their main demos was an electrical consumption predictor for a gymnasium.  When initialized, the NuPIC system is empty, like a baby’s brain.  Then you start to feed it data, and it starts to try to predict what comes next.  At first, its predictions fall a little behind the data it’s receiving, but as the days of data go by, it starts to predict future consumption an hour out (or whatever you’ve configured), and it gets pretty good at it.  Nobody told NuPIC what the data was, just like our DNA doesn’t tell our brains about French verbs, the structure is there and with exposure it gets populated and begins to predict.

At the end of the talk, their recommendation for learning more about this stuff was to read On Intelligence.  So, eventually, that’s what I did.

A Little Hyperbole

The simulation, in software and silicon, of the biological data handling processes, and building software off of that simulation, is the most interesting thing I’ve seen since Netscape Navigator.  Everything up to your iPhone running Google Maps is progressive enhancement and miniaturization of stuff I’ve seen before.  Building brains feels different.

Newton AdI have a Newton Messagepad 2000 around here somewhere.  It had mobile email over packet radio with handwriting recognition in 1997.  In 2001 I was using a cell phone with a color screened to look up directions and browse web sites in Japan.  It’s all iterating, getting better bit by bit, so that when we look back in 10 years we think that we’ve made gigantic leaps.  Have we?  Maybe, but software is still stubbornly software-like.  If I repeat the same error 10 times in a row, it doesn’t rewrite itself.  My computer doesn’t learn about things, except in the most heavy handed of ways.

Sir You Are Being Hunted MapWriting and shipping working software is hard, there’s rarely time to focus on the things that aren’t necessities.  In video games this has given us nicer and nicer graphics, since for the last few generations, graphics have sold games.  Now developers are starting to realize there’s a huge swath of interesting stuff you can do that doesn’t require a 500 person art department and a million dollar budget.  Sir, You Are Being Hunted has procedural map generation.  Rimworld has AI storytellers that control events in the game world to create new experiences.

Looking beyond the game space, a few weeks ago I was talking with a large networking company about some skunkworks projects they had, and one of them was a honey pot product for catching and investigating hack attempts.  The connections between deep simulations like Dwarf Fortress or the AI Storyteller in Rimworld and how a fake sysadmin in a honey pot should react to an intruder are obvious.  If it’s all scripted and the same, if the sysadmin reboots the server exactly 15 seconds after the attacker logs in, it’s obviously fake.  For the product to work, and for the attacker to be taken, it has to feel real, and in order to fool software (which can pick up on things like that 15 second timer), it has to be different every time.

One thing that these procedural and emergent systems have in common is that they aren’t rigidly structured programs.  They are open to flexibility, they are unpredictable, and they are fun because unexpected things happen.  They’re more like a story told by a person, or experiencing a real lived-in world.

I believe that to do that well, to have computers that surprise and delight us as creators, is going to require a new kind of software, and I think software like Numenta’s NuPIC neocortical simulator is a huge step in that direction.

Let’s Deflate That a Bit

Ok, so NuPIC isn’t a whole brain in a box.  It’s single threaded, it’s kind of slow to learn, and it can be frustratingly obtuse.  One of the samples I tried did some Markov chaining style text prediction, but since they fed each letter into the system as a data point instead of whole words, the system would devolve into returning ‘the the the the the’, because ‘the’ was the most common word in the data set I trained it with.

Neocortical simulators are a new technology in the general developer world.  We’ve had brute force data processing systems like Hadoop, methods developed to deal with the problems of the Google’s of the world, and now we have NuPIC.  The first steps towards Hadoop were rough, the first steps towards neocortical simulators are going to be rough.

It’s also possible that we’re entering another hype phase, brought on by the rise of big data as the everywhere-buzzword.  We had the decades of AI, the decade of Expert Systems, the decade of Neural Networks, but without a lot to show for it.  This could be the decade of the neocortex, where in 10 years it’ll be something else, but it’s also possible that just like the Web appeared once all the pieces were in place, the age of truly intelligent machines could be dawning.

Oh, This Was a Book Review?

It’s hard to review On Intelligence as a book, because how well it’s written or how accessible the prose may be is so much less important than the content.  Sandra Blakeslee co-wrote the book, and undoubtedly had a large hand in hammering Jeff’s ideas into consumable shape.  It isn’t an easy read due to the ideas presented, but it’s fascinating, and well worth the effort.

In the book Jeff describes the memory-prediction framework theory of the brain.  The theory essentially states that the neocortex is a big non-specialized blob that works in a standard, fairly simple way.  The layers in the sheet of the neocortex (there are 7 of them), communicate up and down, receiving inputs from your sensory organs, generalizing the data they get into invariant representations, and then pushing predictions down about what they will receive data about next.  For instance, the first layer may get data from the eye and say, there’s a round shape here, and a line shape next to it.  It pushes ’round shapes’ and ‘line shapes’ up to the next level, and says “I’ll probably continue to see round shapes and line shapes in the future”.  The bouncing around of your natural eye movements gets filtered out, and the higher levels of the brain don’t have to deal with it.  The next level up says, “This kind of round shape and line shapes seem to be arranged like a nose, so I’m going to tell the layer up from me that I see a nose”.  The layer up from that gets the ‘I see a nose’ and two ‘I see an eye’ reports and says, “Next layer up, this is a face”.  If it gets all the way to the top and there’s no mouth, which doesn’t match the invariant representation of ‘face’, error messages get sent back down and warning flags go off and we can’t help but stare at poor Keanu…

Neo Mouth

These layers are constantly sending predictions down (and across, to areas that handle other related representations) about what they will experience next, so when we walk into a kitchen we barely notice the toaster and the microwave and the oven and the coffee maker, but put a table saw onto the counter and we’ll notice it immediately.

As we experience things, these neurons get programmed, and as we experience them more, the connections to other things strengthen.  I figure this is why project based learning works so much better than rote memorization, because you’re cross connecting more parts of your brain, and making it easier for that information to pop up later.  Memory palaces probably work the same way.  (I’m also half way through Moonwalking with Einstein, about that very thing.)

So, Have We Mentioned God Yet?

The Microcosmic GodThis is where things start to get weird for me.  I grew up in a very religious family, and a large part of religion is that it gives you an easy answer to the ‘what is consciousness’ question when you’re young.  Well, God made you, so God made you conscious.  You’re special, consciousness lets you realize you can go to heaven, the dog isn’t conscious and therefor can’t, etc.

About a third of the way into On Intelligence I started having some minor freakouts, like you might have if someone let you in on the Truman Show secret.  It was like the fabric of reality was being pulled back, and I could see the strings being pulled.  Data in, prediction made, prediction fulfilled.  Consciousness is a by-product of having a neocortex.  (Or so Jeff postulates at the end of the book.)  You have awareness because your neocortex is constantly churning on predictions and input.  Once you no longer have predictions, you’re unconscious or dead, and that’s that.

Kid + RobotThat’s a heavy thing to ponder, and I think if I pondered it too much, it would be a problem.  One could easily be consumed by such thoughts.  But it’s like worrying about the death of the solar system.  There are real, immediate problems, like teaching my daughter how stuff (like a Portal Turret) works.

Let’s Wrap This Thing Up With A Bow

I’m sorry this post was so meandering, but I really do think that neocortical simulators and other bio processing simulations are going to be a huge part of the future.  Systems like this don’t get fed a ruleset, they learn over time, and they can continue to learn, or be frozen in place.  Your self-driving car may start with a car brain that’s driven simulated (Google Street View) roads millions of miles in fast-forward, and then thousands of miles in the real world.  Just like everyone runs iOS, we could all be running a neocortex built on the same data.  (I imagine that really observant people will be able to watch Google’s self driving cars and by minor variations in their movements, tell what software release they’re running.)  Or we could allow ours to learn, adjust its driving patterns to be faster, or slower, or more cautious.

The power of software is that once it is written, it can be copied with nearly no cost.  That’s why software destroys industries.  If you write one small business tax system, you can sell it a million times.  If you grow a neocortex, feed it and nurture it, you’ve created something like software.  Something that can be forked and copied and sold like software, but something that can also continue to change once it’s out of your hands.  Who owns it?  How can you own part of a brain?  Jeff writes in the book about the possibilities of re-merging divergent copies.  That’s certainly plausible, and starts to sound a whole lot like what I would have considered science fiction 10 years ago.

I finally finished On Intelligence.  I have Ray Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind on my nightstand.  I’ve heard they share a lot of similar ideas.  Ray’s at Google now, solving their problem of understanding the world’s information.  He’s building a brain, we can assume.  Google likes to be at the fore-front.

DoctorWe could throw up our hands and say we’re but lowly developers, not genius computer theorists or doctors or what have you.  The future will come, but all we can do is watch.  The problem with that is that Google’s problems will be everyone’s problems in 5 years, so for all the teeth gnashing about Skynet and Bigdog with a Google/Kurzweil brain, it’s much more productive to actually get to work getting smarter and more familiar with this stuff.  I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2020 ‘5+ Years Experience Scaling Neocortical Learning Systems in the Cloud’ was on a lot of job postings.  And for the creative, solving the problem of how the Old Brain’s emotions and fears and desires interfaces with the neocortex should be rife with experimental possibilities.

NuPIC is on github.  They’re putting on hackathons.  The future isn’t waiting.  Get to it.

Updates

Here’s a video from the Goto conference where Jeff talks about the neocortex and the state of their work.  This video is from October 1st of 2013, so it’s recent.  If you have an hour, it’s really worth a watch.

Book Review: Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez


October 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm (2 Comments)

Kill Decision Book CoverDaniel Squarez‘s latest techno-thriller Kill Decision isn’t a happy book.  It’s an especially unhappy book if you’re excited about quadcopters, RC planes, self-organizing swarm AI, or any of that neat, fun stuff.

Daniel’s first published book was Daemon, a novel about a programmer who, upon discovering that his time is up, creates a distributed dumb-agent network of actions and actors triggered by reports in news feeds.  The thing that made Daemon so interesting wasn’t just that concept, it was that Daniel has a really good grasp on the technology, so everything that happened in the book kind of made sense.  There was no magic bullet, it was all ‘oh, yea, that could work’.

Kill Decision is a book about drones, specifically autonomous drones that can kill.  It was only a few years ago that I remember wondering when someone was going to strap a handgun (even a fake one) to a quadcopter and attempt a robbery by drone.  Kill Decision is a book about just that, except the handgun is quadcopter optimized and the person getting robbed is the USA.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any popular techno-thrillers, but from what I remember, Kill Decision follows the arc pretty well.  There’s a tough soldier type, a naive but smart audience proxy, a team of good guys for gun fodder, and a big bad.  The pacing is good, the details are good, and the book keeps you guessing.  I guess my only complaint is also the books point, that in the end, with a robot that can kill, it’s really hard to figure out who the bad guy is.  In Kill Decision there isn’t a Snidley Whiplash twirling his mustache just off stage, at least that we get to see, and that lack of a direct villain gives the book a feeling of existential angst.  The bots just keep coming, and in the end, there isn’t a clear win or loss.

Lots of thrillers are spy novels with more gadgets.  They’re Jason Bourne, a lone operative outwitting the watchful, ever-present eye of big evil.  It’s a big data dream, outwitting the system.  Kill Decision is different.  Kill Decision is a zombie novel, except the zombies are cheap, deadly, swarming technology.

If you can handle that kind of anxiety, and you like books about AI, maker, and military technology, Kill Decision is an easy recommendation.  Also, go watch this video of Joi Ito interviewing Daniel Suarez at the Media Lab.  Joi gives Kill Decision two thumbs up.

Book Review: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross


July 23, 2013 at 10:50 am (No Comments)

Neptune's Brood CoverCharles Stross has another space opera, a sequel of sorts to his 2008 novel Saturn’s Children.  This one’s called Neptune’s Brood, and it’s all about money.

Perhaps a little introduction is in order.  The world that Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood are set in is a hard sci-fi space opera universe.  It’s thousands of years in the future, humanity has died out, but our assistants, the humanioid bots we built in our image, kept on trucking.  They populated the galaxy (in the first book) and now, some thousands of years later, they have expanded by very slow means to other star systems.  Of course, humanoids aren’t optimized for every environment, so the essential components of synthetic life take lots of forms, little bat creatures, mermaids, squid, worms, etc.  Everything that used to be biological is now biomechanical, but still simulates multi-cell life.

Neptune’s Brood is a find-the-macguffin novel, the heroine Krina Alizond-114 is the forked prodigy of an intergalactic banker.  In order to expand her reach, her mother forks 8 or 16 copies of herself into new bodies every so often.  These copies are born with a debt-load (I told you this book was about money, right?), and if they manage to survive the years of indentured servitude to become real people, they may still be laboring under a giant debt load for their initial construction or housing.  Our heroine is a specialist in a certain type of intergalactic banking fraud, and is trying to track down one of her fork-sisters who seems to be in trouble, and who might know the location of said macguffin.

Before Charles Stross wrote Neptune’s Brood, he read a book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and in order to understand how Neptune’s Brood formed, you should have at least a passing interest in money and debt.  In trying to find her fork-sister, Krina is also trying to find a certain financial instrument, one that becomes clear as the story unfolds.  Along the way she encounters religious zealots (spreading the flesh of humanity to the stars), pirates, Queens and cops, and more.

As I finished Neptune’s Brood, I had a real sneaking suspicion that I’d read the book before, which is either me pushing my impressions upon it, or a real reflection of Stross’s tendency to mash things up.  It finally struck me that Neptune’s Brood felt a lot like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in pacing, complete with pirates who are more than they initially appear.  The pirates are almost like… well, the closest comparison I can come up with is Morpheus and his crew from The Matrix.  It’s a bad comparison, but I think it relays tone.

This isn’t Stross’s first rodeo, and the book is well written, tightly paced and generally well built.  The heroine is likable and relatable, and although she narrates the story largely from her perspective (so we know she gets through these scrapes), there’s still some tension.  The ending is satisfying, though it leaves the reader wondering about its impact on the greater galaxy and the characters we’ve met.

If you like space operas, and especially if you like finance, Neptune’s Brood is easy to recommend.  I’d probably read Saturn’s Children first (ignore the cover), because I think it’s probably a bit more ambitious and sets up the rules of the world more completely.  They aren’t really connected beyond sharing the same galaxy, though, so feel free to jump in here.

Means of Prod-Sumption: The Samsung Chromebook


June 10, 2013 at 10:33 am (3 Comments)

Four years ago I bought a Toshiba Portege M200 off eBay.  The Portege was a neat little machine, one of the early twist-and-flip Windows tablets.  It was relatively light, relatively fast, and was well built.  Unfortunately it didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, would only boot from certain select external USB CD-ROM drives (which I didn’t have) and needed a specific Windows disc (which I didn’t have either).  After a while I ended up wiping it and loading Ubuntu on it.  I wanted to use it as a simple Web terminal, especially for National Novel Writing Month.  It was passable, but difficult to use and maintain, and eventually was lost underneath a pile of junk.

The Samsung Chromebook on an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper.

The Samsung Chromebook on an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for a simple, lightweight machine to write blog posts with.  I use a MacBook Pro for my workhorse computer, but it lives tethered to a big monitor and big keyboard on my desk.  Disconnecting all those cables, dealing with a half dozen app windows that suddenly resize and are in the wrong place is enough of a pain that I just don’t do it.  I wanted something lightweight, something with a great keyboard, ok screen, wifi, easy maintainability and great battery life.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Google has introduced Chrome OS, a managed Linux OS built specifically for running Chrome and accessing Google services.  It’s designed to run on minimal hardware, and a couple of manufacturers have put together stripped down machines with Chrome OS on them.

Samsung put out one last year, an 11.6″ machine that runs $249.  It’s designed to be disposable, but it’s been the best selling laptop on Amazon since it came out.  A month ago I broke down and bought the first one off the truck at my local Fry’s.

The Hardware

Samsung ChromebookThe 11.6″ Samsung Chromebook weighs in at a svelte 2.5 lbs, and looks like a plastic MacBook Air.  It uses the same dual core ARM processor that powers the Nexus 10 tablet.  It seems snappy enough for web browsing, which is essentially all the machine does.  It boots from a 16 gig SSD, which means there aren’t any moving parts.  The machine has 2 gig of built in RAM, with no expansion option.

The screen is… not good.  It’s a matte 16×9 LCD, and has a crazy low resolution.  The pixels are so big that it’s almost… retro, and you can see faint lines between them.  It makes me feel like I’m living in a late 90’s romantic comedy when I use it, which has a cool vintage sensibility, in a way.

The keyboard is where this machine really shines.  It may not be as good as the keyboard on my Macbook Pro, but it’s big enough and good enough for serious typing.  This is the third blog post I’ve written on it, and haven’t had any complaints or issues at all with 2,500 word posts.  The caps lock key has been replaced by a search key, but you can apparently switch it back in the OS control panel.

Samsung Chromebook SD Card Slot, Headphone Jack and KeyboardThe sound isn’t great, it has some small speaker vents under the palm rests, but that isn’t what you buy this machine for.  The chipset’s graphics are fast enough to decode high def video, so YouTube works just fine.  I haven’t watched any TV episodes or movies on it, but since you have Chrome OS you won’t be running Quicktime or VideoLAN Client.  It’s only going to support HTML5 video.  No Flash.  There’s a combo microphone/headphone jack on the left side, so streaming video and audio should work just fine.  There’s a simple webcam above the LCD, but the machine doesn’t really have enough horsepower to run it.  It would work for a simple Google Hangout, but in the little testing I did, the frame rate is low.

Samsung Chromebook RearThe computer also has a pair of USB ports (one USB 3, one USB 2), and an HDMI port, though I’m not sure why you’d use it.  It has an SD card slot, so theoretically I suppose you could plug your camera’s memory card in and upload the photos to Picassa.  It has built-in WiFi, and there’s a slot for a SIM card, as the laptop comes in a model with 3G wireless.

The Experience

It’s a strange thing, using a computer that only runs a web browser.  Most people would consider me a power user.  I have a pretty customized setup, I use Terminal on my Mac all the time, I write little shell scripts to test things, I’m regularly in Photoshop or Illustrator tweaking this or that.  I use a lot of non-web applications, and I’m always flipping between them.  Not so with the Chromebook.

Samsung Chromebook Google HomepageWhen you startup the machine it asks you to login to your Google account.  That’s it.  You can login as a guest, and access the web, but it’s very, very, very tied to your Google account.  The mail button opens Gmail, the files button opens Google Drive, you get the picture.  The integration if you’ve bought into the Google ecosystem is pretty amazing.  Just type in your email address and password and voila, all your stuff is there.

You can’t install Apps on it that don’t come from the Chrome store.  There are options for installing an entire chrooted xwindows environment with something called crouton, but you have to switch the machine over to development mode.  Using development mode isn’t as simple as a key press.  When you switch from managed to development mode the entire machine is wiped and the development image is downloaded.  Any tweaks you’ve made, gone.  You have to hold down a special key combo when you start the machine, and I’d be leery of just handing the machine to someone else.  I want the Chromebook to be essentially disposable, so no dev mode for me.

Samsung Chromebook SSHThere’s a pretty decent SSH client in the Chrome OS store, so you can open multiple SSH tabs, and do whatever development work you need to do on a server elsewhere.  It’d be nice to have a really limited shell to test bits of python code, but I see how that’s a slippery slope.  Give them an inch, and suddenly it isn’t a fully managed experience anymore.  The SSH client is nice, supports colors, and is supplied directly by Google.

The machine comes pre-loaded with a cloud-syncing Google Drive app, and you can run Gmail offline.  It’s really built to be connected, though, so this isn’t a machine you’d want to take on a long trip with no internet access.  The WiFi seems good in my limited testing around the house.

As a web browser, the machine works well.  The 16×9 screen isn’t really well suited for reading long articles, but two finger scrolling with the trackpad works well enough.  You can run Chrome full-screen, which gives you enough space that it doesn’t feel cramped.  I’ve heard that if you open more than 20 or so tabs the machine will run out of RAM and you’ll need to reload those tabs when you go back to them.  I haven’t run into this problem, but I’ve read that they’re considering turning on disk-swap, which will help alleviate those issues.

The Competition

This particular model runs a dual-core ARM processor, while other models come with Intel chips.  HP, in particular, makes a 14″ model with a Celeron.  I played with one, and it feels much more like a real laptop.  In the end I wanted an ultraportable, so the Samsung was the obvious choice.

When comparing the Chromebook to other computing experiences you inevitably end up looking at cheap Windows 8 laptops, Android tablets and iPads.  When I was standing in Fry’s there were 3 options under $300, one an AMD 15″ Windows 8 laptop, one an Intel-based HP Chromebook, and then this ARM based Chromebook.  The Nexus 7 is the same price, the iPad Mini’s less than a $100 more, and the iPad Retina and Nexus 10 run $200 more.

I’ve found tablets to really shine as media consumption devices.  That’s what I use my iPad for.  The retina screen is great for reading articles and news.  For my money, you can’t really beat it for that purpose.  Windows 8 machines, and the cheaper OS X machines higher up the price ladder are way better at media production.  You can run Word, or Google Docs, or Write.  You can install software on them, you can customize your experience.  You can run databases, instant messenger apps, chat clients.  Switching between apps is easy, as is pounding out an essay or blog post.

The Chromebook really sits in the middle.  It’s way easier to write a blog post on than an iPad.  Web browsing and tab switching is probably faster, if not as fluid.  Copy and paste is a little easier.  There aren’t nearly as many native Apps as the other two options, but if you just want an ultraportable machine to write with, something that forces you to focus on the writing, and minimizes the distractions, it’s a $249 dream.

I was really hoping that Samsung would update the 11.6″ Chromebook at Google I/O, maybe bump it to a quad-core processor, but that didn’t happen.  In the end I decided that for $249, I could deal with obsolescence.  If something better comes out that I just have to have, I can easily pass this machine down to a cousin or kid.  It’s the kind of machine I’d give my mom.  There just isn’t much you can break, and it’s great at what it does.  Plus, at $249 I don’t feel like it’s a sacred object, like my Macbook Pro.  In fact, I fully intend to plaster stickers all over it.

Book Review: The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross


May 10, 2013 at 9:22 pm (No Comments)

The Rapture of the Nerds, CoverI hate to admit it, but The Rapture of the Nerds is a book I thought I wouldn’t like.  It should have been a must read for me, but I waited quite a few months before picking up a copy.  It’s by two of my favorite authors, Charles Stross, creator of the Laundry books and the excellent Accelerando, and Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and generally good guy.  Cory’s even shown the good humor to let me bot-ify him, which is a project I need to get back to.  I was just… worried.

It may just be my religious upbringing, but the title of Rapture of the Nerds carried a ton of baggage with it.  When you couple the singularity, which has gotten beaten up a lot lately, with a religious concept like the rapture, from these specific authors, it seems like a recipe for some lets-make-fun-of-the-utopian-nerds riffing.  That’s kind of in vogue these days, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to think you could make a novel out of it.  Reading a whole novel of that really didn’t appeal to me, but it turns out the book isn’t about that.

While there’s undoubtedly a subtle undercurrent of it in The Rapture of the Nerds, what we really have is a tale of a luddite’s gonzo journey to the heart of the post-singularity, complete with mommy/daddy issues.  You could call it Boy Meets Post-Singularity World, and that would probably be more accurate.  There’s some gender morphing, militant deep south isolationist conservatism, hyper-intelligent ant farms, and bio-tech viruses.  There are also a lot of scenes in courtrooms.  All in all, par for the course for a world where technology makes anything that can be imagined happen.

The Rapture of the Nerds really reads like a looser Charles Stross novel.  His space opera titles like Saturn’s Children are usually really tight, this one’s more loosey goosey like a Laundry novel, probably the result of bouncing back and forth with Cory.  If Cory’s written much beyond-the-horizon sci-fi, I haven’t read it, so this novel seems more Strossian than Doctorowian to me.  I think some of the flavor may have bled from or to The Apocalypse Codex, as well, given that novel’s bad guy.  This book seems more brainstormed over lots of pints down at the pub than carefully planned.

There’s a lot of the third act of Accelerando here, or the first bits of The Quantum Theif, if that makes sense.  A good chunk of the novel takes place in… well… cyberspace.  There’s a love story, and a happy ending, both things I appreciate (I’m looking at you, Paolo Bacigalupi.).  It’s a lot better than I was worried it would be, though it probably isn’t either of their best.  There’s a post-singularity Lovecraftian dread throughout this book that Stross has really nailed with the Laundry novels.  In this book it isn’t so much defeated as just… survived.

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy (and I’d certainly recommend it if you like gonzo post-singularity fiction), you can pick up a copy at the usual suspects.

Book Review: YOU by Austin Grossman


April 22, 2013 at 9:39 pm (No Comments)

YOU Novel Cover

Austin Grossman has a new novel out.  It just hit last week, and it’s called YOU.  YOU is like Ready Player One and Fight Club having a baby while making an Ultima game.  If you’ve read both of those books (or watched the movie, in Fight Club’s case) and liked them, do not pass go, do not go to your cave and find your power animal, buy this book and read it.

YOU is a book about making computer games, about making the Ultimate Game, a game where you could be anyone and do anything and the world would still work, the story would still unfold completely naturally.  Austin has worked as a writer and designer on some of my favorite games, including Deus Ex and Thief: Deadly Shadows.  His experience in the games industry really shows, and you can see bits of real games peaking through the imaginary ones.  There’s a section in the book about a demo at E3, and it sounds exactly like they’re playing Thief, scrambling over rooftops, firing flaming arrows at torches, evading the city watch.  Austin’s latest game is Dishonored, which is sitting on my shelf, and has now risen much higher in the next-to-be-played list.

The story of YOU is told through a prodigal protagonist.  Out of options, he returns to the game company his friends started after high school, after they all built a pair of RPGs together.  He gets a job as an entry-level game designer, and proceeds to unravel a mystery about friendship and adolescence and being a nerd.  The game shifts between its present day of 1997 and the 80’s years of high school, the story unfolding through flashbacks and dives into the games the company created.

If you read REAMDE and enjoyed the parts in the MMO, or if you enjoyed Daemon, or Ready Player One, or Tad William’s Otherland books, you’ll like this book.  It’s obvious he’s writing from experience when he introduces a game, and while some of the details may be embellished from what was possible then, they play like we want to remember them.

The ending of this book doesn’t land as well as it could, it doesn’t leave you with a particularly warm sense of accomplishment, but it isn’t bad.  The macguffin is resolved, but the mystery sort of peters out.  This isn’t a book you read for the ending, though, it’s a book you read for the journey, for the time warp back into high school, into games on floppy discs and BBSes and a million possibilities inside the magical machine that no one over the age of 25 understands.  As an ode to that bygone era, it is unmatched.

Book Review: Love is Strange (A Paranormal Romance) by Bruce Sterling


January 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm (No Comments)

coversterling_sito1In his 2009 SXSW closing keynote Bruce Sterling said that he thought his latest book, The Caryatids, would be the last book of its kind.  The Kindle and its ilk were going to kill the hardcover.  He handed out copies to the kids.  It’s was a very fin de siècle sort of thing.  It’s now 2013, and Bruce has a new book out, Love is Strange (A Paranormal Romance), and it’s only available on the Kindle.  The future is what you make it.

Love is Strange is a story about two Futurists, her an Italian by way of Brazil, him a Seattle startup accountant geek.  They meet at a futurist conference in Capri, and proceed to fall in love.  Terrible, fraught, cinematic love.  The book reads very much like a self-aware 60’s gonzo romantic comedy about an American visiting Europe.  Things happen because they are fun, things work out because they make you happy to read about, and the only suspenseful conflicts are in the characters hearts.  The novel’s soaked in the 2009 era, women like Carla Bruni and the post-election Sarah Palin are recurring themes.  The Italian heroine is oh so very cinematically Italian.  She is Adorably Fraught With Concerns And Drama!

Readers and critics like to make connections between creators and their life situations.  Oh, this character is really that person, and he wrote this because of that.  It’s hard not to see that in this book.  In 2005 Bruce married Jasmina Tesanović, a very inspiring, out there Serbian futurist translator.  (She’s very nice, by the way.)  Bruce started spending a lot of time in Europe, a lot of time being less of a novelist and more of a futurist.  It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine this book as a happy ode to their sort of romance.

Love is Strange isn’t a quick read.  It’s mostly dialog, lots of gushy romanic Italian dialog.  There’s a lot of Italian and Portuguese in it, with helpful translations at the end of chapters.  It’s a very charming book, and maybe a glimpse of a new more positive Bruce Sterling that’s been showing up recently.

Love is Strange is an easy recommendation to make If any of what I’ve described sounds appealing.  Love is Strange executes it well, and the end nicely wraps the package in a voodoo bow.

 

Fiasco: Bad Beans


January 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm (One Comment)

Most gamers I know tend to collect unplayed games.  We buy them with the greatest intentions, but then they sit, unplayed, often unread.  Fiasco is a great game, a collaborative storytelling game about people with powerful ambitions but poor impulse control.  We finally got to play it tonight and had a great time.  For your enjoyment, here’s a rundown of our little adventure in Beatrice, Nebraska.  It was a real fiasco.

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