Y is for Yesterday

I am pleased to report that Sue Grafton fans will not be disappointed by the latest Sue Grafton novel. Y is for Yesterday delivers the goods. One of her best yarns, in my opinion. She’s been cranking these out since 1982 and, yes, like all such series, there’s a bit of a formula but it’s a good one. Lots of characters in this one with the main plot jumping back and forth between 1979 and 1989. A potentially annoying device but she pulls it off nicely. And a good sub-plot that ties up a loose end from her previous novel. I assume Z Is for (?) is already written and will be out in a year or two. Sad to think it might be her last Kinsey Millhone book. I’ll miss that girl.

The Rise of Exotropy

The following passage is from Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.

Most hydrogen atoms were born at the beginning of time. They are as old as time itself. They were created in the fires of the big bang and dispersed into the universe as a uniform warm mist. Thereafter, each atom has been on a lonely journey. When a hydrogen atom drifts in the unconsciousness of deep space, hundreds of kilometers from another atom, it is hardly much more active than the vacuum surrounding it. Time is meaningless without change, and in the vast reaches of space that fill 99.99 percent of the universe, there is little change.

After billions of years, a hydrogen atom might be swept up by the currents of gravity radiating from a congealing galaxy. With the dimmest hint of time and change it slowly drifts in a steady direction toward other stuff. Another billion years later it bumps into the first bit of matter it has ever encountered, After millions of years it meets the second. In time it meets another of its kind, a hydrogen atom. They drift together in mild attraction until aeons later they meet an oxygen atom. Suddenly something weird happens. In a flash of heat they clump together as one later molecule. Maybe they get sucked into the atmosphere circulation of a planet. Under this marriage, they are caught in great cycles of change. Rapidly the molecule is carried up and then rained down into a crowded pool of other jostling atoms. In the company of uncountable numbers of other water molecules it travels this circuit around and around for millions of years, from crammed pools to expansive clouds and back. One day, in a stroke of luck, the water molecule is captured by a chain of unusually active carbons in one pool. Its path is once again accelerated. It spins around in a simple loop, assisting the travel of carbon chains. It enjoys speed, movement, and change such as would not be possible in the comatose recesses of space. The carbon chain is stolen by another chain and reassembled many times until the hydrogen finds itself in a cell constantly rearranging its relations and bonds with other molecules. Now it hardly ever stops changing, never stops interacting.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Fans of the Harry Bosch detective series will, I believe, be well pleased with Michael Connelly’s new character/series. Just finished The Late Show (introducing LAPD detective Renee Ballard) and could not put the book down. (It’s not a cliche when it’s true.)

Harry Bosch was born in 1950 so he’d be 67 years old in any story set in 2017. Too old for the situations Connelly creates for Harry. Freezing Harry at, say, 47 years old puts the story back in the late ‘90s. Before a lot of tech that could/should figure in most crime fiction.

Sue Grafton long ago made the decision to keep Kinsey Millhone forever in the 80s. No cell phones or computers (that I recall).

In this new series, we get a female cop who knows her way around an iPhone and summons Uber when she needs a ride. Feels right.

Something else I noticed off the bat. In physical encounters with bad guys, there’s a threatening tension that didn’t exist for Harry. While Harry can pretty much kick anybody’s ass, Renee is tough and fit but no match for a bad guy that has a hundred pounds on her.

Connelly lets this new character have some sexuality, too. Harry got laid from time to time, but it’s different (and interesting, plot-wise) for a female character.

If you like the Bosch novels you won’t be disappointed by this first in a new series.

Some spoilers in this excellent review in the L. A. Times but for those that have already read the book, a good piece.

“I didn’t freeze Harry in time, because it’s better storytelling not to. As long as he can keep his health and his knees are good, he can close cases.” Nonetheless, at 67, Bosch presents readers of the redoubtable series with a different kind of ticking clock.


Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978) is a book by Jerry Mander, who argues that many of the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed. From Wikipedia page:

“Television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature. It flattens perception so that information, which you need a fair amount of complexity to understand it as you would get from reading, this information is flattened down to a very reduced form on television. And the medium has inherent qualities which cause it to be that way.”

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

I really wanted to like this book. Neal Stephenson has written some of the best stories I’ve ever read and I’ve read most of them two or three times. And how can I say I read 740 pages and didn’t enjoy the book? At least a little.

But it just did not work for me. Maybe it was the witches and time travel. Maybe it was writing with a co-author (Nicole Galland). I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written by two people that I really enjoyed. Wait! Not true! James S. A. Corey, the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I love the Expanse series. But I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.

I struggle with the paradoxes inherent in stories about time travel. I appreciated the premise of Memento and Loopers but my mind kept drifting as I tried to work out the time stuff. No such problem, however, with William Gibson’s The Peripheral.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with Cryptonomicon and REAMDE being 5’s), I’d rate this latest book a 3. Maybe. I do hope you enjoy(ed) it more than I.

The “useless class” and a new quest for purpose

I was so impressed by Yuval Harari’s latest book it took me three blog posts to event touch on a few of his big ideas. In an article in The Guardian, he expands on a couple of (related) ideas: Basic Income and religion-as-virtual reality. He wrote at length about both of these in Homo Deus but I think the Guardian piece is new (not excerpts from his book).

I agree with Professor Harari that some kind of Basic Income is inevitable. It’ll happen because the wealthy will see it as the best (only?) way to protect all their shit. And what will we all do when we don’t have to have a job? One possibility is virtual reality.

For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.” […] What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

I really can’t see a flaw in that comparison. Unless you count, “Yeah, but Heaven and Hell are real and Grand Theft Auto Six is not.”

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

Whoa. The two big holy books as VR devices. And how about a game we all play?

Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game. You might object that people really enjoy their cars and vacations. That’s certainly true. But the religious really enjoy praying and performing ceremonies, and my nephew really enjoys hunting Pokémon. In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain.

What does it all mean?

The end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles.

As one who has not worked for the the last four-and-a-half years, I’m here to tell you it is not necessary to give your life meaning.

U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport

New characters, new locales, new badge. Finished John Sandford’s new Prey novel this evening. One fine yarn. Lucas’ new job takes him (and the reader) to new parts of the country and introduces new characters I suspect we’ll be seeing again. Mobile phones play a key role in this story. So much so the author gives Lucas a page of dialogue on the topic near the end of the book. A fast-paced manhunt with plenty of shoot-outs.

William Gibson Reimagines World After 2016 Election

“Agency,” Mr. Gibson’s next novel, which Berkley will publish in January. The story unfolds in two timelines: San Francisco in 2017, in an alternate time track where Hillary Clinton won the election and Mr. Trump’s political ambitions were thwarted, and London in the 22nd century, after decades of cataclysmic events have killed 80 percent of humanity. In the present-day San Francisco setting, a shadowy start-up hires a young woman named Verity to test a new product: a “cross-platform personal avatar” that was developed by the military as a form of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, characters in the distant future are interfering with the events unfolding in 2017, through technological time travel that allows them to send digital communications to the past.”

New York Times book review »

“I am a fair witness, not a participant.”

“A fair witness is a character type from the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land by the American author Robert A. Heinlein.”

“The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with — and eventual transformation of — terrestrial culture.”

“Several later editions of the book have promoted it as “the most famous science fiction novel ever written”. While initially a success among science fiction readers, over the following years word-of-mouth caused sales to build, requiring numerous subsequent printings after the first edition. Eventually Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult classic.”

“A fair witness is a fictional profession invented for the novel. A fair witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. A photographic memory is a prerequisite for the job, although this may be attainable with suitable training.”

“In Heinlein’s society, a fair witness is an absolutely reputable source of information. By custom, a fair witness acting professionally, generally wearing distinctive white robes, is never addressed directly, and is never acknowledged by anyone present.”

“A fair witness is prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. For example, a character in the book is asked to describe the color of a house seen in the distance. The character responds, “It’s white on this side”; whereupon it is explained that one would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house one should not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.”

I found this on FAIR WITNESS: Street Photography for the 21st Century. The attributed Wikipedia but I couldn’t find this description there.

Our extended self

I’m rereading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

“If I re-google my own email (stored in a cloud) to find out what I said (which I do) or rely on the cloud for my memory, where does my “I” end and the cloud start? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of my interests, and all of my notes and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere, but nowhere in particular, it changes how I think of myself. […] The cloud is our extended soul. Or, if you prefer, our extended self.”

My relationship with the cloud has changed how I think about who or what I am. The best example of that is my fetish for saving excerpts from my favorite books in Google Docs. A few of those ideas might have stuck in the mush between my ears but not many.

Today I can open up Google Docs, enter a word or phrase (consciousness, self, universe, time, reality, media, etc) and instantly pull up every instance of that in every book or article I’ve read (and saved). And, increasingly, I’m linking these excerpts (someday Google will do that for me if I want).

Like Mr. Kelly, it doesn’t feel like Google et al are (is?) replacing my memory or intelligence so much as expanding and enhancing it.