The Cobweb

thecobweb“On the eve of Operation Desert Storm, the murder of an Arab exchange student at a local university puts Iowa deputy sheriff Clyde Banks on a collision course with both the CIA and Saddam Hussein. It seems the students are Iraqis conducting agricultural research on biological weapons in his midwestern town.” (Goodreads)

I really enjoyed this book. I tried the other book he co-authored with J. Frederick George (Interface) but couldn’t get past some of the long, wordy passages. This story really worked for me and I can highly recommend the book.

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, by James Gleick (1999)

Most of us suffer some degree of “hurry sickness,” a malady that has launched us into the “epoch of the nanosecond,” a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, computers, faxes, and remote controls. Yet for all the hours, minutes, and even seconds being saved, we’re still filling our days to the point that we have no time for such basic human activities as eating, sex, and relating to our families. Written with fresh insight and thorough research, Faster is a wise and witty look at a harried world not likely to slow down anytime soon. (Goodreads)

The obvious question was: how relevant is a book — written seventeen years ago — about how everything in our lives is accelerating? The author clearly understood the book would be dated before he completed it. Can only hope he write a follow-up (More Faster?). Here are a few bit that got some highlighter:

The Otis Elevator Company estimates that its cars raise and lower the equivalent of the planet’s whole population every nine days.

The fastest passenger elevators, mostly in Japan, travel at more than thirty feet per second. The record holder in the late 1990’s was a special Mitsubishi elevator in a sightseeing tower in Yokohama: more than forty feet per second, a good climb rate for an airplane.

Anger at elevators rises within seconds, experience show. A good waiting time is in the neighborhood of fifteen seconds. Sometime around forty second, people start to get visibly upset. […] Door dwell (how long we’ll wait for door to close) tends to be set at two to four seconds.

(Cigarettes and shots of whiskey) are additives for our engines. We take them to modify the working of what we now quite consciously think of as the human machine.

It was only in the machine age that people became aware of speed as a quality that could be measured, computed, and adjusted.

Reading on-line becomes another form of channel-flipping.

(In 1984) Only eighty thousand fax machines were sold nationwide. Just three years later, in 1987, virtually every American law firm had a fax machine, and within two more years, realtors and takeout restaurants and hardware stores had jumped on the train. Businesses and individual consumers bought two million fax machines in the United States in 1989.

Future anthropologists will find our pottery but not our E-mail.

The Age of Scrutiny

“In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam.”

“We are (now) in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media,” Ogle said. “The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond.”

Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George (1994)

Time Travel: A History (James Gleick)

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-12-01-53-pm“From the acclaimed author of The Information and Chaos, here is a mind-bending exploration of time travel: its subversive origins, its evolution in literature and science, and its influence on understanding time itself.”

Sleeping into the future is what we do every night.

“Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

“People living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.” — Albert Einstein’s message in the time capsule buried at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

We know that complete certainty must always elude us. We know that for certain.

“Time and space are modes by which we think, and not conditions in which we live.” — Albert Einstein

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything.” — Richard Feynman

What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track.

Schopenhauer asserted that life and dreams are pages from the same book. To read them in their proper order is to live, but to browse among them is to dream.

No one can really explain how memories are formed and retrieved. Nor can anyone explain away Proust’s paradoxical contention: that the past cannot truly be recovered by searching our memories, by interrogating them, by rewinding the film or reaching back into the drawer; rather, that the essence of the past, when it comes to us at all,comes unbidden.

If you ever see yourself coming out of a time machine, run the other way as fast as you can. Nothing good can come from meeting yourself. — Charles Yu

We experience childhood one way when we’re living it and another way when we relive it in memory.

But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience?

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. […] You order the slices of your life. You edit the film even as it records.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” — The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

“We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet. We are time travelers into our own future. We are Time Lords.” — Ali Smith

If we confuse the real world with our many virtual worlds, it’s because so much of the real world is virtual.

Time’s winged chariot isn’t taking us anywhere good. […] The past, in which we did not exist, is bearable, but the future, in which we will not exist, troubles us more.

“We perceive time only because we know we have to die.” — Heidegger

Time Travel: A History (review)

Maria Popova describes James Gleick’s new book Time Travel: A History, “a dizzying tour of science, philosophy, and their interaction with literature.” A few snippets from her lengthy review:

“Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.”

“Things have been, says the legal mind, and so we are here. The creative mind says we are here because things have yet to be.”

“The mind is what we experience most immediately and what does the experiencing.”

“If we have only the one universe — if the universe is all there is — then time murders possibility. It erases the lives we might have had.”

One of my favorite topics by one of my favorite writers.

UPDATE: From a good piece in The Guardian: “Howard and his editors also manage a number of celebrity Beatle-fan coups, like the day when, to their astonishment, they spotted a 14-year-old Sigourney Weaver looming lankily over her fellow teenyboppers in footage of a 1964 show.”

The Internet Has Not Killed the Printed Book

“Sixty-five percent of adults in the United States said they had read a printed book in the past year, the same percentage that said so in 2012. When you add in ebooks and audiobooks, the number that said they had read a book in printed or electronic format in the past 12 months rose to 73 percent, compared with 74 percent in 2012. Twenty-eight percent said they had opted for an ebook in the past year, while 14 percent said they had listened to an audiobook.”

“The Pew study, based on a telephone survey of 1,520 adults in the country from March 7 to April 4, reports that people are indeed using tablets and smartphones to read books. Thirteen percent of adults in the United States said that they used their cellphones for reading in the past year, up from 5 percent in 2011. Tablets are a similar story: 15 percent said that they had used one for books this year, up from 4 percent in 2011.”

“While 6 percent said they read books only in digital format, 38 percent said they read books exclusively in print. But 28 percent are reading a combination of digital and printed books, suggesting that voracious readers are happy to take their text however they can get it.”

New York Times

Dark Matter

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 11.51.17 AMIn this novel the multiverse is real (are real?) and the protagonist (and others) can visit these other realities which include other versions of himself. One would expect a novel based on quantum entanglement to get confusing and this one did. (There were moments in the story that reminded me of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series.) If you’ve ever pondered what you life would have been like if you had taken that other fork in the road, you might enjoy this novel. I found it well written but disturbing. I was eager to get to the end. (Amazon)

William Gibson interview

William Gibson fans will want to read this short interview by Business Insider. Mr. Gibson talks about ‘The Peripheral,’ the power of Twitter, and his next book set in today’s Silicon Valley.

“I am able to wake up, open Twitter, and sort of glance across the psychic state of the planet.”

What does a writer do when the world gets weirder faster than you can write about it?

“…he world is already that much weirder than it was when I started writing the book. You know the level of freakiness we have experienced in 2016 is so far off the charts, I am having to go back and crank up the weirdness in parts of the book I have already written.”

And it’s only August. Worried about the Middle East? Don’t be.

“And then I see NASA’s climate projection for the Middle East in 2050 or so, when they say none of it will be livable by human beings who don’t have space suits.”

Questions an AI might ask

“She wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this “Reader” was, and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives. What home would be without Plumtree’s Potted Meats. How long it would take to compile a key to all mythologies. What the son of a fish looked like. Where Uncle Toby was wounded. Why anyone wanted to imagine unquiet slumbers for sleepers in quiet earth. Whether Conrad was a racist. Why Huck Finn was taken out of libraries. Which end of an egg to break. Why people read. Why they stopped reading. What it meant to be “only a novel.” What use half a locket was to anyone. Why it would be mistake not to live all you can.”

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

Galatea 2.2

Galatea 2.2“After four novels and several years living abroad, the fictional protagonist of Galatea 2.2—Richard Powers—returns to the United States as Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason for existing.” — Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

I began to see the web as just the latest term in an ancient polynomial expansion. Each nick on the timeline spit out some fitful precursor. Everyone who ever lived had lived at a moment of equal astonishment.

The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child online and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we’d still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it.

Every sentence, every word I’d ever stored had changed the physical structure of my brain.

I began to keep a reading diary. Not very dramatic as turning points go, but there it is. A lifetime later, rereading these notebooks, I saw that the lines I copied out, the words I deemed worth fixing forever in the standing now of my own handwriting, clumped up with unlikely frequency toward the start of any new book. The magic quotes thinned out over any book’s length. The curve was linear and invariable. Perhaps writers everywhere crowded their immortal bits up toward the front of their books, like passengers clamoring to get off a bus. More likely, reading, for me, meant the cashing out of verbal eternity in favor of story’s forward motion. Trapping me in the plot, each passing line left me less able to reach for my notebook and fix the sentence in time.

Age lurches in fits and starts, like a failing refrigerator compressor. Like a gawky, grand mal-adroit adolescent on ancient roller skates, navigating a stretch of worn sidewalk in a subduction zone. It holes up awhile, stock-still, then slams out one afternoon to play catch-up ball.

How hope, beaten to a stump, never died. How it always dragged back, like an amputated pet, its hindquarters rigged up in a makeshift wagon.

I was middle-aged, and had myself only recently learned that no one hears what anyone else says.

The only explanation for how infants acquired anything was that they already knew everything there was to know. The birth trauma made them go amnesiac. All learning was remembering.

“Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass

The more I read about how the mind worked, the flakier mine became.

After all, the world’s items had no real names. All labels were figures of speech.

Mediating the phenomenal world via consciousness was like listening to reports of a hurricane over the radio while hiding in the cellar.

Her knowledge was neither deep nor wide. But it was supple.

How can the fight be so ugly over so small a piece of pie?

Always more books, each one read less. The world will fill with unread print. Unless print dies.

She wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this “Reader” was, and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives. What home would be without Plumtree’s Potted Meats. How long it would take to compile a key to all mythologies. What the son of a fish looked like. Where Uncle Toby was wounded. Why anyone wanted to imagine unquiet slumbers for sleepers in quiet earth. Whether Conrad was a racist. Why Huck Finn was taken out of libraries. Which end of an egg to break. Why people read. Why they stopped reading. What it meant to be “only a novel.” What use half a locket was to anyone. Why it would be mistake not to live all you can.

Life meant convincing another that you knew what it meant to be alive.

Why do we do anything? Because we’re lonely.