Archive for June, 2005

Book Review: Iron Sunrise

Well, I finished my third Charles Stross novel a day or so ago. This time it was Iron Sunrise. Set in the same universe as Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise is not a direct sequel, although the main characters are the same and there are some references to the previous book.

Iron Sunrise — Charles Stross

Rating: 4.5/5

I’ve really enjoyed the Charles Stross novels I’ve read lately. Luckily, I still have some more to go, with the promise of more coming out soon. Iron Sunrise is the latest of his published novels in the Eschaton series.

If you are unfamiliar with this, the premise is that at some point in the fairly near future, experiments in quantum entanglement allow information to be transmitted faster than light. Due to special relativity, this implies that information is being sent into the past — in effect, time travel. When the future Internet starts receiving information from it’s own future, it quickly bootstraps itself into a quasi-godlike entity called the Eschaton, and teleports 9 billion of Earth’s 10 billion people onto various worlds throughout a 1000-parsec volume of space and over hundreds of years of time. When Earth recovers from the subsequent economic disruptions and starts venturing out into space again, they discover myriads of existing human societies scattered throughout the nearby stars.

The Eschaton wishes to preserve its own existence, and may have other motives that are subtly hinted at throughout the series. The only serious threat to an entity such as the Eschaton is uncontrolled faster-than-light travel and the attendant causality violations. The Eschaton would strongly prefer not to be edited out of existence retroactively, and has the power to defend itself with extreme prejudice. Of course, it prefers to act subtly if possible rather than obliterating uppity planets with killer asteroids and supernovas.

Iron Sunrise starts off with a bang. In fact, this may be one of the biggest opening bangs in a novel that I can remember, as the star in the Moscow system is iron-bombed by a rogue causality-violating device, inducing a tremendous nova that destroys all life in the inner system. As the outer stations are evacuated, a young girl guided by her “invisible friend” finds some odd documents and hides them before leaving. Years later, these documents cause several interstellar organizations to take a sudden and extremely unhealthy interest in that girl.

Charles Stross’s writing has been a pleasure to read in every book of his I’ve tried so far. In Iron Sunrise, his well-thought-out Eschaton setting provides the steel, his plentiful references to the cutting edges of physics and computer science serve as the flint, and his energetic writing style whacks them together to produce a lot of sparks to ignite the imagination. Stross uses FTL and instantaneous communication in his novels, as many authors do, but Stross’s extensive knowledge of some of the major gaps in modern physics give his versions of these hoary SF tropes more believability.

Like Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise is a space opera at its core. Stross has balanced his universe out very precisely in order to retain as much fidelity with known science as possible while still enabling swashbuckling interstellar adventure, and I think he succeeds fairly well. In many ways, I think Iron Sunrise is the better book. It benefits from human adversaries that are comprehensible and intelligent, unlike the Festival and the hierarchy of the New Republic from Singularity Sky, who were, respectively, not. Stross’s writing is also a bit calmer and less frenetic in this novel than the previous one, which I think improves it. Singularity Sky seemed to suffer from idea overload at times and Iron Sunrise benefits from a slightly slower and more consistent pace.

It will be interesting to see where Stross goes with the Eschaton setting after this. There are a number of questions that need answers, and a number of different directions he could take the series. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. I would recommend Iron Sunrise to anyone that likes hard science fiction, particularly if you’ve enjoyed Stross in the past.


Souter to Receive “Just Compensation” For Property Seizure Decision

We in the Midwest (and South, for that matter), are no strangers to the abuse of eminent domain. But now that the decision has been handed down from the Supreme Court of the United States that private property can be seized by governments for transfer to private developers, it looks like we are going to have some exalted company. Freestar Media is in the planning stages of a project for a hotel to be built on Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s property in Connecticut.


Cool Link: Levitated

This site has to have some of the coolest Flash animation I’ve ever seen. I can tell I’ll be wasting quite a bit of time looking through this when I get some more time.


Another Wave of Illness

This time it’s Robin. She’s sicker than hell, with symptoms similar to the flu that she had earlier in the year. She’s been running a fever of 102-103 since Saturday, plus she’s congested and has little appetite. There just doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. She’s on Zithromax just in case it’s bacterial, but that doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Luckily the kids and I are OK, but I’ve had to stay home most of the time to help Robin out, as she doesn’t have the energy for sustained exertion beyond about 15 minutes or so. After the kids are in bed, I have to hit work pretty hard, as we have hard deadlines coming up and I have plenty to do. So at least for a while there won’t be a whole lot in this space.

I’m currently reading Charles Stross’s Iron Sunrise, which is shaping up to be at least as good as Singularity Sky. More when I get a chance to finish and write a review.


Book Review: Altered Carbon

I recently finished reading Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. I’d heard a bit about this book in the past; it had made a pretty big splash for a debut novel, but I hadn’t read it. It arrived a few weeks ago in the CARE package of books my uncle Eric sent to me, and after making it to the top of the pile, I finally got to read it. It was an excellent book, reminding me of a cross between a Raymond Chandler novel and the movie Blade Runner.

Altered Carbon — Richard K. Morgan

Rating: 4.5/5

Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel, Altered Carbon, is quite an achievement. Drawing freely from the tropes of film noir, detective fiction, and cyberpunk, Altered Carbon is not only a tight mystery with excellent pacing but also a deep exploration about what it really means to be a human individual.

In Morgan’s world, death has been robbed of most of its sting by the “stack”, a small cybernetic implant that sits at the base of the skull and digitally records a person’s thoughts and sense perceptions — in effect, the complete personality. In the event of a person’s physical death, the stack can be downloaded into another “sleeve” (body), overwriting the original personality and allowing the downloaded person to live again in the new sleeve.

Of course, human nature being what it is, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a golden age for mankind. Real death through destruction of the stack is still possible, unless you are rich enough to have yourself backed up regularly. Choice bodies are expensive, and unless you are wealthy or useful, providing for your own continued existence in anything other than a virtual condo or a cheap synthetic sleeve may be beyond your means. Virtual experiences mediated by computer software are widely available, but when you are in virtual space you are completely at the mercy of the host computer system and the subject to the whims of whomever controls it.

In Morgan’s setting, humanity has managed to lever itself off of Earth, with the help of an alien legacy discovered on Mars. FTL communications allow a sort of interstellar mobility for some people, as it is possible to transmit your coded personality to another planet for “ensleevement” there. Of course, this type of travel is prohibitively expensive and only available to the fantastically wealthy or to those people with exceptional skills that are employed by the fantastically wealthy.

The main character of Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs, is one of the latter. A former member of the Envoy Corps, the most elite miliary unit of the UN Protectorate, turned criminal, Kovacs is serving a long sentence in storage on the colony planet of Harlan’s World when he gets selected as an investigator for an exceptionally rich and influential man on Earth. Granted a new sleeve and a six-week lease on life, he is instructed to solve the mystery of how his patron, Laurens Bancroft, was killed. The police think the investigation is a waste of time. They’re sure it was suicide.

Any novel that deals with digitization and transfer of human consciousness has to be informed by some sort of materialistic assumptions. A belief that the mind arises solely from material causes is known as “materialistic monism”, and almost all novelists that deal with transhuman themes have to assume this in one way or another. Most, however, shy away from some of the more bizarre consequences of such a position, such as personality blending, editing, duplication and destruction, as well as the more basic issues of whether you are the same person in a 15-year-old girl’s body as you were when your mind was in the body of a 40-year-old male. Even some of the most cutting-edge, avant-garde transhumanist writers try to preserve distinct identities and mental images for their viewpoint characters, likely because it becomes very difficult to write about and identify with hive minds or entities with no fixed personality features.

Morgan does at least pay lip service to some of these issues — viruses that can perform destructive corruption of the personality feature in several places in the novel, and both editing and duplication are discussed at times. Also, he acknowledges the influence that the flesh has on the mind — romantic attraction between two personalities strongly depends on the pheromonal compatibility of the bodies they wear, and addictions to alcohol and tobacco are dependent on the habituations of the sleeve. Like most authors, however, Morgan shies away from some of the really tough questions about what this type of technology would mean for human individuality. He does this by legislating some applications (duplication) away, by not showing some of the other possibilities, and finally, by seeming to retreat to the position that the stack is the “house of the soul”, much like Descartes’ dualistic view of the pineal gland. The stack, fragile and corruptible as it is, becomes the fixed point of a person’s identity.

Morgan’s writing is pretty tight and clean, making a nice stylistic complement to the hardboiled characters and convoluted plot he serves up. He’s got a bit of everything in this novel: comedy, tragedy, greed, romance, idealism, sadism, mystery, and an illuminating and satisfying resolution. In terms of content, he reminds me favorably of Philip K. Dick, so it doesn’t surprise me that Hollywood has optioned this novel for a movie. A film version of Altered Carbon could be great if it was done with the same cinematographic sensibilities as Blade Runner. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more by Morgan in the future.


Movie Review: Batman Begins

Robin and I celebrated our 14th anniversary (and my racquetball gold medal) on Thursday with a night at the movies. She hadn’t seen Revenge of the Sith yet, so that was one possibility. Also, Batman Begins had just come out recently and she was interested in that also.

I was more inclined to see something new, so we let the reviews be the tiebreaker. Batman Begins was getting some very good press, so we decided to see it. It was an excellent choice. Batman Begins is possibly the best superhero movie ever made.

Batman Begins

Rating: 5/5

I am going to assert that Batman Begins is the best superhero movie ever made. I will admit that I haven’t seen all the movies based on comic book superheroes, so you can take my hyperbole with a grain of salt if you like. I have, however, seen a lot of them, including most of the ones that got good buzz and critical reviews, and Batman Begins overshadows all but the best. I’d put both Spiderman movies and The Matrix at least close to it, but there was something about Batman Begins that drove it to the top of the list for me.

Christopher Nolan, of Memento fame, directed this darker, more complex Batman movie. His customary tricks with continuity and flashbacks are showcased here, particularly early on where he deftly knits together threads from Bruce Wayne’s childhood, college years and mid-20’s to quickly impress the formation of his personality and character on the audience before progressing to the creation of the persona of Batman.

A stellar cast gives this movie a lot of acting depth. Michael Caine as Alfred, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer and Gary Oldman are just a sampling of the excellent character actors that grace this film. Strong screenwriting works with these actors’ talents to give them ample opportunity to shine and animate their characters with a strong sense of humanity and reality.

Christian Bale, a relative unknown compared to many of these veteran actors, makes an excellent Batman. He portrays Bruce Wayne as tormented, lonely, driven and implacable, but never loses the character’s compassion and connection to humanity that makes him a superhero instead of just a costumed vigilante or terrorist. This Batman is built much more on the Frank Miller model as seen in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns than any other of the cinematic Batmen over the years. Katie Holmes plays his semi-love interest Rachel Dawes, and the two invest this relationship with the bittersweet futility that will be familiar to superhero comic aficionados.

Batman Begins is unique among the recent Batman movies in that the primary focus of the movie is on Batman himself. Although there certainly are an array of villians both prosaic and theatrical, Nolan never lets them become overly ridiculous or allows them to steal the focus off of Bruce Wayne for very long. This is the film’s greatest triumph: by keeping the focus on the complex, deep motivations of Batman, we get a movie that can entertain while still staying close to believability. Aside from a couple of pieces of technology in the movie that were transparent plot devices, almost everything in Batman Begins seems like it could actually take place in the real world, if you squint just a little.

Serious Batman fans may be a bit disturbed by some of the modifications made to the canonical Batman origin story. Although the major details are still there, the screenwriters have taken some liberties that are bound to irritate some. For the most part, I felt that the changes improved the story and strengthened the portrayal of the fundamental qualities of Batman — his indomitable force of will, and his total committment to protecting the common man from the criminals that would prey on him. Contrasting Batman’s moral sense to that of Ra’s al-Ghul and the Shadow League (in several ways throughout the movie) was a masterstroke and probably did more to define the essence of Batman than anything else that happens in the movie.

When you put everything together, Batman Begins has it all. Great acting, great writing, strong effects and cinematography, and the powerful, archetypal figure of Batman to anchor it. If you like superheroes or action movies at all, I recommend this movie without reservation. Even if you don’t, Batman Begins may win you over anyway.


GOLD!!!

I won last night! As I suspected, the match was pretty tough. I got off to a good lead in the first game, 7-2 or so, and then my opponent (his name was Ron) came back and beat me 15-10. I started to play more aggressively, moving forward and trying to control the center as well as mixing up my serves a bit in the second game, and was more successful, winning 15-7. Ron helped me out in that game by driving quite a few shots into the ground and giving me some much-appreciated freebie points.

I started off the third game with a big push. I got up by about four points right off the bat, and this lead very slowly eroded as we traded service back and forth. I wound up ahead at 10-8 by focusing on every point as if it were the last one, giving everything I had to win it. I lost service on match point, and Ron scored on my subsequent mistake returning his serve. I took service back on the next point, and when he tried a pinch shot later in the final rally he used too much angle and didn’t make it to the front wall. Final score: 11-9.

Ron was a gracious opponent and a tough competitor; it was certainly a worthy match for the gold medal. Since it was Robin and my 14th anniversary on the 22nd, we celebrated afterwards by going to Batman Begins, which was a fantastic movie to cap the evening off with. I’ll be reviewing it shortly.


Racquetball Alchemy

I have the silver locked up and will be trying to apply the proper alchemical formulae to transmute it into gold on Thursday. My first match last night was a throwaway: 15-6, 15-1. The six points he got in the first game were all due to me punching his serves into the floor. He had showed up early, and the match was quick, so I had lots of time to size up my next opponent — I watched his entire match.

Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out that he was far more vulnerable to lob serves than drive serves until halfway through my second game with him. Fortunately, it didn’t matter that much. I beat him 15-8, 15-6. The games were closer than the score; he took service away from me a lot with excellent serve returns but was unable to capitalize and convert that into points. He was a real nice guy and we talked quite a bit afterwards. Like what seems to be the majority of players in Corporate Challenge racquetball, he was also a software engineer, so we had some nice conversation about work experiences. He’ll be playing for the bronze on Thursday, and I hope he wins. I tried to give him as much advice on his upcoming opponent (a poor sport that gives racquetball a bad name) as possible to help him out.

The final match on Thursday should be very interesting. I got a chance to watch my opponent for the finals, and he’s about as fast as me, has the same type of strengths I do and as near as I can tell is right around the same skill level. I’m looking forward to an epic match.


A Quick Update

The kids are recovering from their bout of hand-foot-mouth disease, although Thomas still has a head cold he developed at the same time, and I won my first round match last night at the Corporate Challenge tournament. It was a tougher match than I’ve ever had in the first round at that tournament. The guy I played against was good, and after the match was over (15-4, 15-4) he commented that he’d played only about 5 games in the last 10 years! My jaw dropped and I said that if that was true he must have been an A- or Open-level player when he played a lot. He confirmed that he was an Open league player when he was “a kid”. I told him to practice a bit, knock the rust off, and come back and kick all our butts next year. I’m sure he could do it.

I have two more matches tonight, and if I win those I’m guaranteed the silver medal at least. I’ll update again afterwards!


The Michael Jackson Verdict

There has been a lot of talk about celebrity bias in the aftermath of the Michael Jackson case. While it’s important to keep a close eye on this possibility, I think it is also a good idea to consider whether the prosecution’s case was strong enough to convince beyond a reasonable doubt. Like others, I don’t think the prosecution had enough hard evidence to convict in this case.

Despite the similar outcome and the best efforts of California prosecutors, this trial was not the OJ Simpson trial redux. In my opinion OJ Simpson was a guilty man who was acquitted primarily because of a few major prosecutorial miscues and a defense team headed by Johnnie Cochran who was well up to the task of capitalizing on those mistakes. Simpson’s defense dominated the proceedings, from the predominantly black and female jury selection and the depiction of Mark Furman as a racist with an agenda all the way to the debacle with the bloody glove.

Simpson was acquitted despite the preponderance of hard, physical evidence; the defense team even managed to cast spurious doubt on the DNA evidence, successfully painting the whole trial as an LAPD conspiracy aimed at scapegoating a famous black man with a white wife.

In contrast, the case against Michael Jackson was not nearly as compelling. The prosecutorial evidence consisted primarily of porn and items from Neverland Ranch, along with testimony from a carnival of former employees and past and present accusers. Most of the testimony had no independent corroboration and most, if not all, could be successfully painted (with little effort) by the defense as disgruntled former employees with a grudge or scammers hoping to cash in at Jackson’s expense. The defense could easily summon celebrity character witnesses to refute the prosecution, leaving the prosecution’s case boiled down to a “he said, she said” dispute with a light salting of circumstantial evidence. In such a contest, the crazy mother of the accuser was a real liability.

Given the limitations of the prosecution’s case, it is unsurprising that the jury rendered “not guilty” verdicts on all counts. The only surprise to me is that the jury took so long to come back from deliberations. My guess is that they were diligently comparing notes on the timeline and testimony to fulfill their duty as jurors.

My personal belief is that Michael Jackson has probably had improper sexual relations with young children in the past, which is abhorrent. If sufficient evidence can be found, he should be prosecuted fully for any instances for which a convincing case can be made. But in this case, the prosecution failed in its responsibility to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that this particular instance of molestation took place, and so Michael Jackson was rightly acquitted. Convicting him with this weak case would not have held true to the tenets of American justice.

The system can work as was intended, and in this case it did.


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