Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Code Book by Simon Singh (1999)



I have what is either a very bad habit or a very good habit.  Whenever I come across a reference to a book on a subject I know very little about, I put everything else I want to read aside and read that book instead.  In this case, the subject was cryptography, and the book is Simon Singh's The Code Book.  Covering the history of codemaking and codebreaking from ancient civilizations, through the development of mechanical enciphering (esp. the Enigma machine and Bletchley Park) and up to public key encryption and the possibilities implied by quantum computing.  All of this, with a brief detour into the deciphering of Hieroglyphics and Linear B, is explained in terms that a layman (i.e. me) can understand.

One reason I hesitate to review books like this is my knowledge on the subject is so scarce that I can't really speak to its veracity.  Unlike some non-fiction books (*cough* Freakonomics *cough*), there are no obvious problems that stick out.  This is not a bad thing, but could indicate a very good book or a book that seems very good to someone who doesn't know what they're talking about (i.e. me).  Anyway, assuming Singh's work is as well-researched and accurate as it appears to me, it's a good primer on a subject that will only become more relevant to the average person as time passes.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Problem of Eternity in Barnes' "The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters"

"The Dream," the final chapter of Julian Barnes' novel in stories The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989), takes place in heaven.  It begins with the unnamed narrator of this chapter declaring that "I dreamt that I woke up.  It's the oldest dream of all, and I've just had it." Heaven is the place where you get everything you want.  To the narrator's delight, he has unlimited access to the best food, he can play golf every day, and have sex with beautiful women every night.  As one of heaven's employees (whether they're angels, or former people, or something else entirely is never clarified) states, "'the principle of heaven [is] that you get what you want, what you expect.'"  There's no hell, just "something we call Hell.  But it's more like a theme park.  You know, skeletons popping out and frightening you..."  The only positive thing on earth that's absent in heaven is dreaming.  But as perfect and wonderful as heaven is, "there aren't an infinite number of possibilities."  The narrator eventually gets so good at golf that he hits a hole in one on every shot.  Eventually, he completely masters every sport.  Asking one of the employees what will happen, eventually, and what heaven was like in the old days, he discovers that "If you want to die off, you do.  You just have to want it long enough and that's it, it happens" and "everyone takes the option [to die], sooner or later."  Eventually, the narrator decides that the time has come, so he goes to bed, planning to decide on death once he wakes up.  The next and final line of the story is "I dreamt that I woke up.  It's the oldest dream of all, and I've just had it."  While it's possible to read this line as a simple restatement of the opening, the fact that this line takes place immediately after the narrator goes to bed and decides to start dying, and the fact that Barnes specifically established that people don't dream in heaven, suggests that the story is cyclical.  Once you get so tired of eternal paradise that you want to die, you start over.  The idea of a cyclical afterlife is not rare in fiction. But it usually describes hell.

The earliest work I know of to present a cyclical afterlife is Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (written in 1939-40, though not published for a couple decades), in which an unnamed narrator finds himself awaiting execution in an increasingly surreal environment until, at the end, he discovers that he has been dead throughout, and the sequence of events that unfolded, and which he has already begun to forget, will repeat as a punishment for his sins. A sort of Dante in Wonderland.  I can think of a few other examples off the top of my head.  "Judgment Night," an early Twilight Zone episode, features a German waking up on a British cruise liner during WWII, not knowing how he got there or why he is certain the ship is going to be sunk.  It turns out he was a Nazi submarine captain who ordered the passenger ship torpedoed, and now spends eternity living and reliving the suffering he caused.  Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have both written stories that deal with a cyclical hell ("That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is in French" and "Other People," respectively, although I personally think the latter may be purgatorial rather than infernal). In Joshua Fialkov's comic series, "The Life After," suicides relive the same day for eternity.

So why, if endless repetition is consistently presented as divine punishment, is it heaven in Barnes's novel?  Perhaps the answer lies in how we construe heaven.  Putting aside religious literature* for the moment, how is heaven, as an afterlife, portrayed in modern fiction?  Well, when it is portrayed, it often ends up as a kind of "happily ever after" scenario (as in, e.g., the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991)).  Other times, it serves as a useful plot element, usually as a way to let the dead speak (e.g., Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (2002) or Vonnegut's God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a series of radioplays where Vonnegut interviews dead historical figures).  The point I'm getting at, is that the experience of an eternal life in heaven is rarely dealt with in modern fiction.  What would something like that look like?  One example that sticks in my mind comes from Jhonen Vasquez's graphic novel, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (1997) in which the titular character, touring the afterlife, visits heaven, only to find millions of people sitting quietly and staring into space.  When he asks what the deal is, he's told that all the people there are perfectly content.  And so they sit there.  Eternally. (Well, except for a brief spate of hyper-violence, anyway).

If this endless, passive contentment doesn't sound appealing, what type of eternity could we have? We could consider an eternal soul that is stripped of our human desires, that becomes something fundamentally different from what we were when we were alive, but then you can't say that it is "you" who are in eternal paradise, anymore than it is "you" who would be absorbed into the soil after burial. What Barnes has realized is that perhaps eternity is inherently hostile to human consciousness.   As Barnes' narrator concludes, "Heaven's a very good idea, it's a perfect idea you could say, but not for us.  Not given the way we are."  But the alternative is non-existence.  The underlying unease in this chapter can be summed up by one question: What if this is the best possible scenario?


*By religious literature, I mean works that are specifically aimed at a religious audience and that claim some spiritual value, whether this be a Lloyd C. Douglas biblical epic or Left Behind.  Heaven, for these writers, is a oneness with god, and is a theological issue, not a narrative one.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Run Program by Scott Meyer (2017) review

Run Program will be released on June 20th, 2017



Run Program follows Hope Takeda, who works at a tech company as a lab assistant in an experimental A.I. development program.  The job is far less rewarding or stimulating than it sounds.  Or rather, it was, before the A.I. escaped.  What makes this different from any of the countless "A.I. on the loose" stories is that the A.I. (named Al) is the mental equivalent of a six year old human.*  His motives, personality, and intellectual abilities are akin to those of an average first-grader, if the average first grader could control airplanes with his mind and transfer vast sums of money through online banking apps.  Unsurprisingly, the government isn't too happy about this, and so begins the quest to locate and contain Al, who has plans of his own, dragging in everyone from disgruntled scientists, surprisingly profound soldiers, and a self-declared genius who has decided to call himself The Voice of Reason.


Run Program is a comedy, though not of the wacky Hitchhicker's Guide variety.  To get a feel for Meyer's sense of humor, you can check out his webcomic Basic Instuctions.  There's a lot of observational humor, and a lot of that is workplace humor, which isn't for everyone.  Really, go check out some of his webcomics.  I think that'll be the best indication of whether or not you'll like the book. 



* On a side note, the idea of raising an AI from childhood seems to have been getting more popular within SF in the last decade (and was handled extraordinarily well in Ted Chiang's 2010 novella, The Life Cycle of Software Objects).  Meyer doesn't go deep into the theoretical or technical background on this, but is more focused on the immediate impact of a child with practically unlimited power, and the odd results of that situation.






Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fake It Til They Make a Movie About You

Con artists work by gaining your confidence.  Hell, it's in the name.  Sometimes this is done by creating a thorough and plausible identity.  Other times, they just wing it and hope no one will ask questions. Perhaps one the most ballsy types of  this scam are people who claim to be close relatives of famous people, especially when those people do not exist.  I recently heard about the case of Alison Reynolds, who in 2003 went around claiming to be TS Eliot's twin daughters, Claire and Chess, while scamming the British theater establishment for large sums of cash.  There are two basic problems here: TS Eliot had no children, and Reynolds was incapable of being in two places at once. She was forced to drop the identity "after theatre staff became suspicious that they had never seen Claire and Chess in the same room."  What's baffling is that she was able to get away with this in the age of Google.  I'll be honest, I'd watch a movie about a con woman claiming to be the non-existent twins of a famous playwright and, if history is any indication, we might well get one.
A similar scam was perpetrated in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when David Hampton went around claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son. (Poitier has six daughters, but no sons).  His story was the basis of the play and movie Six Degrees of Separation

But of course, if we're talking about celebrity impostors, we have to acknowledge the infamous Alan Conway, who didn't settle for pretending to be related to Stanley Kubrick, but claimed that he was Stanley Kubrick.  If you think it's a bit funny that a con artist would be named Conway, well so would he, considering that he chose the name for himself, after being charged with numerous frauds. But this is just the kind of boldness you'd expect from a guy who, despite being British, clean shaven, and having "had apparently only seen a couple of Kubrick's films," managed to keep convincing people he was the real deal.  The story of his unmasking is worth a read.  It was largely left up to the real Kubrick's assistant, Anthony Frewin, who later went on to write a screenplay about the ordeal, titled Colour Me Kubrick.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Much Did You Chafe Today?

Every now and then, it's nice to remember that president's are still people, who have the same problems as the rest of us.  And, the persistent use of secret recordings in the Oval Office from FDR up through the Nixon administration, gives us the ability to hear some of the more mundane difficulties that presidents face.  Such as finding a pair of pants with enough room to "let your nuts hang."  LBJ's call to his tailor is scandalous in a different sense than most secret white house recordings.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Flynn Precedent

While there have been a lot of comparisons made between Trump and Jackson (by supporters and opponents), one important similarity keeps getting overlooked. As far as Jackson was concerned, there was only one quality that proved someone's character: Loyalty to Andrew Jackson. While this caused plenty of turmoil within the cabinet (most notably the Eaton Affair), there's one particular event I want to bring up.
Samuel Swartwout had a checkered past. A military man with plentiful New York political connections, he was rounded up as part of the Burr conspiracy but was eventually released. During the election of 1828, he was a vocal campaigner for Jackson, so the new president decided to give Swartwout a cozy patronage position, as Collector of the Port of New York. To quote from Remini's "Life of Andrew Jackson:"
"And when Van Buren learned that Jackson intended to appoint Samuel Swartwout to the office he almost collapsed. Not only did Swartwout have criminal tendencies but the [Albany] Regency detested him. Van Buren alerted the President immediately and warned him that Swartwout's appointment would 'not be in accordance with the public sentiment, the interest of the Country or the credit of the administration.' Unfortunately, Jackson refused to listen. He liked Swartwout because he had been an early supporter -- unlike Van Buren -- and so he went ahead with the appointment. In time, of course, Swartwout absconded with $1,222,705.09. It was a monumental theft...
When the scandal broke, Jackson's opponents doubled over with laughter. All the talk of rooting out corruption in government, they said, and here the greatest theft in the history of the Republic..."
Jackson, like Trump, campaigned on a promise of fighting corruption and waste in government, but, through his own shortcomings, appointed people who were more corrupt than those they replaced.  




Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Has a Name, pero Solo en la Hispanidad

One fun thing about living abroad and meeting expats from all over the world is seeing how bits of culture make their way from place to place and the often unpredictable changes they undergo in the process.  I was speaking with some grad students from Bolivia and China, the latter explaining how, due to the difficulty most westerners have with pronouncing the different tonalities in Chinese names, she uses a transliterated version of her real name pronounced in Spanish or English, depending on who she's talking to.  (N.B.  This is actually a trend I've noticed among Chinese students here in Madrid, although many I've met have chosen a typical American/Spanish name rather than a direct transliteration of their real name.)  Her name, in Spanish, is pronounced "Huizi" (woo-EET-zee), which the Bolivian pointed out was just like the name of the spider from the kid's song she grew up with.



Witsi Witsi Araña trepó a la canaleta,
vino la lluvia y se la llevó.
Luego salió el sol, y la lluvia evaporó,
y Witsi Witsi Araña de nuevo subió.


"Witsi Witsi" seems to be the most popular version of the name, but there are variations ranging from "Huitzi Huitzi" to "Gusi Gusi."  Otherswise, the lyrics are pretty much identical to the English version of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," as is the melody.  Any suspicion that this might have been a local variation or the creation of a particular teacher evaporated when one of the student's friends arrived and recognized the song.  The friend was from Ecuador. (For those without maps handy, Ecuador and Bolivia aren't exactly neighbors.)

I haven't drawn any special insights from this.  I just think it's an interesting example of cultural transmission.