quinta-feira, maio 31, 2018

Ana: 20 Years

To Ana

Heart and soul cleave and meld as one
Immaculate, closed to all petty manipulations
Inviolable, immune to meddling of the jealous
A lodestar, a fulcrum about which turns the world
Storm and tempest move it not, nor earth’s eruptions
A pearl beyond price, though unremarked upon
By the unthinking multitudes, even unto Time
Itself and the reaper waiting, always waiting in the shadows
Even unto the end of all things and then still
Persisting beyond all doubt, beyond all question
For know that it is endless and its name is Love.

by MAAntão (31.05.2018)

terça-feira, maio 29, 2018

Reading a Book Over and Over: “Devices and Desires” by P. D. James

“’The victim's hair was damp, which suggests she died after her swim and not before it’"

In “Devices and Desires” by P. D. James

I’m no detective but that is some incredible deduction Dalgliesh…

I'm only going to be on this earth for a limited amount of time, and in all likelihood I won't manage in that time to get through all the great books that have ever been written. But I should at least try my best to. I only re-read books if it's so long since I read them that I barely remember them at all, (and even then it's rare). My bookshelves are heaving with books, and I buy them quicker than I read them, so I've got to try my hardest to keep up. And I certainly can't help thinking that if one is re-reading the same book every year, one could do with broadening our horizons a bit. Nevertheless, re-reading should be adopted by all serious readers. Last year I went through some of my favourite SF books of all-time, and what a joyous ride it’s been. Unfortunately that particular objective kept me away from reading some new stuff coming out. Moreover, to re-read a good book lifts the soul, but to re-read one twice or more puts authors on the dole….lol.

Now that spring is here and summer is just around the corner (the temperature here right now is 29ºC…), it’s time to decide what to read. Why summer? Because summer is the season when some people read books, you smugly. Flat on your back in the hotel bedroom you'll watch dumbfounded as your wife assembles a great leaning tower of books, and leaves you lying there alone. Your friend Saramago will tell you he's casually re-reading “Anna Karenina” - time to hide folks! The most common use of the expression is simply to show off, that you are so clever that you re-read. No-one talks about reading tin labels. But some people who re-read books are not well read at all, because they've only read Shakespeare (it’s me I’m talking about). Another reason someone might re-read a book is because they haven't understood it from the blurb the first time (this is also me I’m talking about). This is criminal. So think twice before not re-reading this summer. As for me, I'll be re-re-[…]-reading "Devices and Desires" again any time soon.

Bottom-line: Knew about P.D. James' work when I borrowed one of her books in The British Council Lisbon's library way back in the late 80s. I got hooked ever since.

segunda-feira, maio 28, 2018

Femalessness SF: "Needle" by Hal Clement

Clement’s later novels included females because people had pointed out to him that his novels had no females in them. To be fair, his work is not ardently sexist; it was just often focused on a group of scientists going to an alien planet to study the aliens ... and at the time Clement was writing, "group of scientists" largely meant "group of male scientists". There are female characters in “Iceworld”, and also in “Needle”, but those are set on Earth (with the aliens visiting us), where a complete absence of female characters would be a bit glaring. I think 'Needle' would be an interesting book to make a film from ... and (spoiler alert) given that the aliens are just amorphous blobs that live inside the body of a human host, it wouldn't be that expensive to make. If it had been the point of the book, a space-mission with fewer than 40% female crew would have been a different story and, concomitantly, much longer if added to the voyage to Mesklin. The humans are there as a backdrop for the Mesklinites and have to be as schematic as they are to fit the word-count. A space-mission with a few women would have been a good premise for a story (see the cover-story for that first issue of 'Universe' I mentioned in a post a while back) but akin to something like a woman accompanying Shackleton to the Pole. Who knows how many stories like that were spiked because of John W. Campbell's notoriously prissy secretary?

On the other hand, "Through the Eye of the Needle" is, if anything, more filmic than the first book. Well, the hero of “Needle” had a mother, though she only got a bit part.

But this wasn't unique to Clement. Eric Frank Russell was much the same, though in racial matters he was quite advanced. In Arthur C. Clarke's “Earthlight” the hero's wife is mentioned a few times, but never appears on stage. It was much the same with Verne and Wells, where Weena in “The Time Machine” is the only female character I can think of.

NB: I always enjoyed the SF of Hal Clement. Then someone pointed out to me - after I had read a few of his novels without noticing it - that his novels contained no female characters at all. Untrue. 'Noise' and 'Still River' off the top of my head. And the male pronouns applied to Barlennon and 'his' crew by Lackland/the narrator might not apply. I wonder why “Mission of Gravity” hasn't been optioned by Pixar. Admittedly Barlennon's a bit like Mr. Krabs from 'Spongebob' but maybe a character who communicates with farts is a bit advanced for Disney's shareholders.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

domingo, maio 27, 2018

Quantum Ontology: "What is Real - The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics" by Adam Becker

The Universal-Wave-Function vs. The Pilot-Schrödinger-Wave-Function vs. the Collapsing-Schrödinger-Wave-function as a Stab at Explaining Reality.

The diversity of possible comments on this book reflects ironically the Everett paradigm of quantum ontology. There are as many views of reality as there are observers. Thankfully in all instances, given the depth of some of the possible interpretations, the interaction of the observer state wave and that of the rest of the universe is extremely asymmetrical - the universe has a great effect on the observer but the latter's effect on the universe is mercifully, infinitesimally small. There is no doubt that the philosophical implications of the developments in modern scientific thinking are in lagging mode. This is because of the extreme complexities of the formalisms created to describe the reality as seen by human observers with a certain evolved sense of perception. The modern philosopher has to tread wearily through the theory before emerging tired and almost at wit's end to be in a position to even expound a valid opinion, least of all an emerging new philosophy, on the ontological basis of the quantum world. This is the first time I’ve read a book on Quantum Mechanics wherein three of the major outlier physicists appear: David Bohm, Hugh Everett III, and John Stewart Bell. 

I'm always so frustrated by people who are absolutely sure of themselves, although I wouldn't doubt that I do the same kind of thing more often than I'd like. My suspicion is that people can't help but make probability judgments based only on the information available to them at a given time. Many, especially those in the scientific community, are quick to dismiss certain possible viewpoints because they consider them to have an extraordinarily low probability, therefore requiring "extraordinary" evidence to be explored at all. Even though I consider myself a "skeptic" in many ways, I've always doubted this kind of thinking, which I hear all the time from other skeptics. I'm not sure how to put it into words, but maybe it's the word "extraordinary" that I object to in the first place. Wouldn't many modern scientific "facts" and technologies, for example, be considered "extraordinary" by those in the past, even the recent past in some cases? This exclusionary model of (scientific?) thinking seems fundamentally flawed to me, yet on the other hand, I feel I completely understand why it happens. I believe it's simply a practical matter of human limitations on focus and scope. Ought we to not focus on those that have a higher "probability" of being provable and workable? We seemed to have arrived at some sort of logical paradox here. This seemed the attitude that Bohr and his accolades had when confronted with ideas (by Bohm, Everett and Bell) non-aligned with their vision of what was/is real.

Bottom-line: the Alain Aspect experiment leaves us with ONLY a dual choice in terms of interpreting reality: either (1) a hidden variable interpretation of quantum mechanics (as opposed to a wave-function collapse approach, or whatever) is looking less and less plausible, unless we are really happy to reject special relativity of course, or, (2) reality is non-local in the sense that instantaneous action at a distance is possible

I'm not sure I agree with either; unfortunately both the theory and the experiments force me to choose one or the other. I don't think Kant, or anyone else, anticipated this. Bloody hell! In quantum mechanics, the results of experiments are probabilistic. But no one really knows how or why. By that I mean, are their properties as we measure them "real" or are we really measuring some abstraction of an underlying reality? It would take far too long to go into that here, but there are proponents on either side of the debate - and even within those sides, there's very different approaches. One'd probably find most people would say (for various reasons) that reality is fundamentally probabilistic (there is no underlying reality - no hidden variables), but it's not actually as pinned down as its proponents claim. Currently the most common idea is that the world is fundamentally probabilistic, but one obviously wouldn't' agree with that as a hard determinist. I think an idea I keep banging on about - not because I think it is necessarily right, but because I can't argue its ability to circumvent Bell's Theorem - is super-determinism. So, I don't think complexity can turn a hard deterministic universe into one that appears probabilistic, at least not at the fundamental level. But give me a few days and I'll probably change my mind on that. The thing with hard determinism and free will is that I don't think the two are compatible. I'm going to do what I'm going to do, irrelevant of any independent influence from "me". It's a nonsensical statement, even. That doesn't mean I don't make rational decisions, but what I'm going to do is already decided. On the other hand, if there is a "me" that can have some arbitrary influence on my decision making - how is that any more a case of free will? What instigates that spark of independence, other than some random action I have no control over? Even with an understanding of complexity, I still think it all boils down to those arguments of principles. I think. Basically, the question of free will does both my balls in…

A ham sandwich is better than understanding what is reality! How do we know that?

1. NOTHING is better than understanding what is reality -- AND
2. A ham sandwich is BETTER than NOTHING!

Ipso facto; QED!

NB: Becker’s attempt at explaining Bell’s inequality theorem by using the casino analogy is nothing short of masterful. Well done Sir!

sábado, maio 26, 2018

Indistinguishable SF: "Nightflyers and Other Stories" by George R.R. Martin

Dragons have always been cool, Video games have always been cool, real ale has always been cool. (Union) Rugby has always been cool, Science Fiction has always been cool, and Fantasy has always been cool. Football has always been shit, same as radio 4 depressing plays that the controller seems to think everyone has been to Cambridge/Oxford and therefore they like this sort of thing as it’s so highbrow. Kill a mockingbird yada yada, the Royal Shakespeare Taliban society again shit. Give me dragon slaying and space ship battles any day of the week. There's very little in life that can't be improved by adding dragons. Anyway, since when was a game of thrones considered to be fantasy? To me, it is fantasy with the guts ripped out of it. Take away the undead and the dragons, and you would see no difference to the overall story. It is a medieval soap drama with fantasy elements tacked on. Fair enough, Martins wants to move the genre on - he wants to go beyond epic sagas and doomed heroes, and the romance that underpins all fantasy, but what has he replaced it with? Sex and misogyny. And death...meaningless death...If you constantly kill off your characters left right and centre as it also happens in "Nightflyers", you're admitting a failure to move their development on. After all, it's the easiest thing in the world to kill a character and start again with somebody else, it's a lot harder to have him face the consequences of his or her actions. That takes a skilled author. Fantasy used to be about something. Even Conan had more intellectual heft than the present generation of so called 'fantasy' fiction. Granted, it was a thing of mostly ugly meanings if you looked at it hard, but it least it was carving out a place to stand on and defend. Instead of a genera where the magic was used to place a light on man's imagination and philosophy, it's become a canvas of sound and fury signifying nothing. 90% of the fantasy on the shelf these days is indistinguishable. "Nightflyers" and some of the stories in this volume suffer from this same malady as well. There is more complex fantasy around than Martin, but it tends to not be as commercial. Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is certainly more complicated and dealing with a much vaster set of themes (he even has a Conan-like character who actually channels Howard's philosophical viewpoint instead of just having muscles and a sword). Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series deals with philosophy, existentialism and nihilism. Matt Stover's "Acts of Caine" series might just melt your brain. That's not to say they are all better than Martin, and none touch Martin's gift for varied characterisation, but the genre is in a much healthier state now because of the authors that Martin helped get off the ground and get on the shelf by simply re-popularising the genre. Elizabeth Bear's excellent "Eternal Sky Trilogy" can be read as a subtle rebuke on Martin's overly-simplistic take on the Mongols with the Dothraki, for example.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quinta-feira, maio 24, 2018

Joys of Re-Reading: "A Certain Justice" by P. D. James

I too read Asterix comic books that I've read before. The memories of reading them as a child, the familiarity of the characters and the incidents, the dialogue even. Of course, there are lots of reasons why we might want to return to a book. Reading a book again is not just reading it for a second time, it involves a reflexivity: reading your earlier reading of the book (assuming you remember reading it before or if you’ve got a review of that previous reading).

It’s by re-reading certain authors with greater clarity than I have apparently mustered, the very self-conscious act that lies behind the public use of the verb 'to re-read'. Is it related to the fact that to describe someone as well read is a bigger compliment than remarking on how someone has been to a lot of opera or surfed a lot of the internet? Do we measure intellectual merit by number of books read? Is that a good thing? (I imagine for the readers of a books blog, the answer is “Yes”). I don't know. Some people see re-reading as a light-hearted irritating tendency though not life-threatening social trope, sometimes seasoned with a few sharp comments (in some reviews) on how to deflate the braying, boastful re-reader like myself. Of course there are more specific and sophisticated ways of doing that.

The same happens when it comes to P. D. James. When you strip the storyline back to its bare bones, it's as a shock to understand how little there is to it (minimalist comes to mind), but then it's the James storytelling in some of her novels, her ability to make physical descriptions of her characters, and her profound psychological insight into her characters that are important and putting it all together allows James to weave an intricate web narrative-wise. By binging once again on P.D. James I can see right away what separates the truly gifted writer from the merely entertaining one (like Agatha Christie). James (almost) always manages to give me entertainment value while also offering me attention-getting prose that makes me really think about how the characters feel and how events in the plot might actually affect the lives of real people. That’s what distinguishes P. D. James from her Crime Fiction counterparts. Take this as an example:  Octavia, one of those adult children who insist on being treated as an adult, but moves in with Mummy and tries to rule her house instead of finding her own, 'You see, the only person who’s in a state about her daughter coming home is you'. Insolent and narcissistic. Some children are difficult to love and even more difficult to like. Detestable. Will Mummy turn out to be the Mummy from hell?

Bottom-line: A gripping book from start to finish. Well, almost. I hated the ending… as far as I can recall, it was the first time Dalgliesh does not close a case successfully.

terça-feira, maio 22, 2018

Plebiscitum: “Disco Sour” by Giuseppe Porcaro

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC - Uncorrected Manuscript Proof) of this book from the Author in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

"My new app, Plebiscitum (®), will allow anyone to express their opinions anytime, anywhere, and will include geolocalisation systems"

In “Disco Sour” by Giuseppe Porcaro

This novel at first sight provokes in me worry of "assessing someone's democratic ability" and if people don't match to certain criteria, what, no right to vote? I agree Democracy should be a "very important school subject"; moreover, education in general should be about creating inquisitive minds in the young, only then can there be any hope of people becoming able to see through the shortcomings of politicians and the shortcomings of representative democracy. However education at present is exclusively directed (with some notable exceptions) at formatting young people to fit in to a wholly capitalistic society, in other words to become the little soldiers of capital for the benefit of the few. Alas, the 'born to rule' class still exists, this is the caste that needs breaking up, this poison which has insidiously infiltrated the minds of so many. To a point where the electorate will continue shooting themselves in the foot in a sort of perverse admiration saying 'if they can, so can I!' And even if they don't think in this way, others get caught up in a viscous circle of simply surviving. An important aspect of this education should be that policies are more important than personalities, that the choice of a policy is the political will of the electorate; who is, or are, employed to execute this policy is a separate issue. Higher education in Democracy should be freely available. It should be compulsory for everyone who wants to be a councillor or MP, complete with official exams. The general public should be encouraged to do these courses, too. The need for online democracy arrived about 15 years ago. All the referendum results of the last 15 years would have been different, with voting online, and there would be no Brexit either. The problem is political corruption, politicians persuading people that their physical presence is an essential part of representative democracy. If they did not attend once a week (safe seat people sometimes only go a couple of times a year) and it were obvious that they did not, then their pay would be more seriously in doubt than it is already. If referendums, direct democracy procedures are to be used more frequently, somebody will have to decided precisely what kind of decisions are suitable for it. At the moment it is complete chaos. The main purpose of the General Election is to re-establish the authority of representative democracy over direct democracy, which only reinforces the perception that online democracy is a bad thing, that physical presence is essential, and that representative democracy is the only way. Where it exists, Democracy is our most important human progress. It means we all count in the process of deciding who will form our government. However, there are many things wrong with existing democracies. Here I will make suggestions about solving just one problem, the general ill-preparedness of the average voter. Democracy should be a very important school subject, taught from as early as possible and, in time, put into practice within the school context. The history and development of Democracy should be taught, along with descriptions of different democratic systems. Before reaching the age of 18, minors should take exams, the passing of which qualifies them for voting in local, national and, where possible, international elections.

That's why online voting is not a good idea.

Similarly, it's incredibly difficult to hack pieces of paper with pencil marks on them. Unlike electronic voting machines. Self-preservation is the only reason I can see they persist with it when it is so obviously bad for the country and the economy whilst leaving the majority disenfranchised. Nowhere it its inadequacy more apparent than Brexit, where large numbers of pro-votes were drawn from both retired Conservative supporters, and just about managing Labour supporters, neither of which had benefited from EU membership, whilst both parties had signed up to various treaties on their behalf. For some it worked, for others it didn't. Now there is no-one to blame but that which we should have been blaming all along, but which has been as steadfast in refusing to evolve into a genuine democracy as North Korea. Hopefully when Brexit unravels, people will wake up to that which caused it, not because Brexit was impossible, but because FPTP ("First-Past-the-Post") couldn't deliver it, any more than it could deliver our successful position at the forefront of European integration. Due to being incapable of long-term planning, backed by the majority, it's just not up to the job. The majority of people don’t like thinking they’ve been suckers. Even conspiracy theories are maintained because the people promoting them don’t want to accept that they’ve been suckered in. People don’t like admitting to being wrong. Which is not really surprising particularly as there may well not be a right and wrong. Things do just happen. Without any real plan. Facebook started out as a college revenge project and grew into a sort of weird new form of socialising and eventually into a media company. By the time they had to move on from “hot or not” they’d given the game away for free. In those early days could Facebook had simply charged people to access the survey? If they had then they wouldn’t need to harvest as much data. But by the time the IPOs came round the subscription horse had bolted and all they had left was their data. Of course the flip side is that users were only too happy to share their data instead of their money. And so it’s hard to put too much of the blame on Facebook. The issue is not the big revelatory LIE. It’s what we need to do about it if there are more people in the world who are concerned about their data than the number who are not. If people continue to not give a shit then there won’t be much of a change but if we people do then, what are we going to do about it?

Could Facebook move away from data harvesting and make money through a paid for subscription service? Would people pay to do whatever it is they do on Facebook? If not, then seems to be the bigger problem. Facebook is counting on its millions of members who are completely oblivious to the manner in which Facebook uses its members as products and have no real interest in finding out. In other words, most of its members don't care and don't want to know about its indiscretions, and just want to be able to communicate with their friends. Such is the rather shallow life of an average Facebooker.

There's only one slight problem:

People not understanding that individuals are not important, have never been important. People get a kick out of this "society doesn't exist" meme. In truth, it's the individual that doesn't. Society is very real and a single entity is so much easier to control than sixty five million or three hundred and forty million people. A copy of "The Unfinished Game" and Snowden's slides should be delivered to all registered voters. Do you think there have been any deaths by keyboards? So we should get rid of keyboards too, the one I’m typing on? Is Facebook merely a space? What data goes into that supposed space? Is it up to the software companies and the personal preference of its online users? Like my brain is space, I can fill it with nonsense arguments or critical means of thinking. Making Facebook the enemy just shows how out of touch politics is with the digital world we live in, and it’s lazy. No, Facebook is an API to a graph of data items. The code behind that API does quite a bit. It is not just a space. You don't need development teams or a company for a space.

USENET was a space.
WAIS was a space.

Facebook collected your phone messages and call logs off your phone without authorization and on some phones you couldn't deinstall. It did this even if you never created an account. I'd hardly call that a space.

Porcaro's attempt at getting to the real root of the problem is quite interesting; he wants to explore the relationship between human psychology and mass media. We are hardwired for selfishness and tribalism. From the first moments of consciousness within the womb, we as individuals are inevitably more real and more important to us than anything or anyone else. Later we extend this beyond 'me' to 'mine': my people, my group. Some of us really take this to heart, really understand that others have the same rights as we do, and really live this way — many, many others do not. Most historical strife comes from the latter group, call them the intolerants, who aggress against and war with either other intolerant groups or with more tolerant ones (the current American situation is both). Many societies have never resolved this and live in perpetual intolerance, with peace only deriving from the temporary domination of one intolerant side over another. More fortunate societies have, over time, gradually and often painfully, built a fragile system based on tolerance, which is always accompanied by certain limitations on what intolerants can say and do, and has always benefited from the limited ability of the many, many intolerants to unite and work together. Good fences, as they say, make good neighbours, i.e., hindrances to mass communication are in some ways beneficial. Consider how the rise of mass media assisted and went hand in hand with the rise of both outright fascism and, later, once the art of more subtle manipulation through TV had been mastered, corporate control. The internet throws off almost all control, enabling not only the union, education, brainwashing and rise of intolerants, but a vast enhancement of corporate fascism — as we are now realising. The internet itself is the problem. It does allow massive interconnection, as Zuckerberg says. What he knows but does not say is that is also massively enhances the reach and effectiveness of corporate — and other — fascism. By its very nature, it feeds the selfish, aggressive, intolerant side of humanity, undoes centuries of social evolution and smashes the painfully achieved and highly fragile model of a workable tolerant society.

Bottom-line: This novel proves that one should pay attention to what is being published outside the familiar trodden paths publishing-wise.

domingo, maio 20, 2018

Over-the-top World-Building: "The Hammer" by K. J. Parker

When I was attending The British Council back in the day in Lisbon, in the summer, the best students usually went to the Linguistic Mother Land to brush up on their English. On our first visit I stayed in a posh hotel. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when we I found out no bidet in the loo! Good God! Had I returned to the middle ages? I went down to the reception and politely tried asking the concierge whether there was another room with that particular feature. Can you imagine the dialog? Cutting the story short, I couldn't make the concierge understand what a bidet was!!! I went there two years ago (to another hotel), and I found out the same thing: no bidet! Good grief. Now I understand why the Brexit. The Natives don't want to install bidets in hotels. I heard from some Londoners that the bidet is also absent from the common home...I can't understand this aversion to the bidet. For starters, we're not sitting on the nozzle... it doesn't make contact. It sprays from several inches below the action area and at an angle. On top of that, we wash away the stuff that gets lifted off your bits without thinking. With a bidet, the bog roll is bought maybe twice a year in small batches... for guests from abroad. My arsehole smells clean after a shit. Yours? Sorry to be blunt but this is a disease... Some Europeans have known the truth for over a century.

The idea that being cleaner is something to be worried about is... weird. This is a case of pure stubbornness on the part of some Lands. I'm of the opinion that the invention of the bidet was a great service to humanity. I feel really dirty if I haven't had a good rinse post bowel movement. Also it doesn't negate the need for paper. I use just as much as I would when using a non-bidet toilet. It sometimes amazes me how little some folk know about something so fundamental. I'm all for cleanliness. Same can't be said for some my local boozer's bogs and some of the men who use them. I have a particular loathing for those who 'shake and stuff' whilst texting. But maybe that's just me. I might also add that the absence of the bidet also happens in Europe (so that my Anglo-Saxon readers don't think I'm targeting them...lmao). A central country in Europe which I won’t name, has also got an even stranger thing. Anyone who's been there will know that bidets are not in fact widespread, and that there is a distressing trend for that country’s hotel rooms to include a complete transparent bathroom cubicle, which means that should you be sharing a room with someone, you can look each other in the eye when one of you is going... There are also numerous hotels in resorts popular with folk coming from that central European country that have also adopted this horrifying approach to bathroom construction. Why the strange fascination with the bidet when reviewing “The Hammer”? It's all about stubbornness, and the Gignomai character has plenty of it.

The main character, Gignomai met'Oc, is as memorable as was Bassianus Severus. Gignomai is the youngest member of a sentenced family of exiles on account of the political betrayal of an aristocratic family and he's clearly different from his relatives - he does not enjoy the birth privileges due to his birth, and he willingly spends time with the colonists, and with the passage of years he foments a revolt against hypocrisy and the game of appearances. From here on it is only a few steps away from initiating a political revolution and industrial revolution, and the reader is fortunate to be a witness to the whole process, described in the smallest details. It is worth paying special attention to the image of the world presented; K.J. Parker avoids the mistake of many other fantasy writers, i.e., not boring the reader with the history of past ages, dozens of geographical names, and complex genealogy. Parker is much smarter than that. He goes in a completely different direction, smuggling further information in dialogues or skimping data in descriptions, thanks to which he constantly keeps the reader's attention. We construct the subtle details in our minds.

Parker’s very unusual prose is also present. Minimalist for lack of a better word. Very sparingly administered information. I like the way Parker sets up the characters of his novels as pawns on the chessboard and then plays the narrative game. Thanks to this, his prose is so intimate, theatrical. It has its undoubted charm. Reading "The Hammer" I had the impression that this book is asking for filming in the style of "Dogville" by Lars von Trier. The plot is a simple story about revenge and stubbornness, but Parker is good at outlining different types of character streaks, playing with the fantasy world along the way.

The downside lies on the fact that Parker does not really engage the characters in moral dilemmas; on top of that, Parker indulges in an over-the-top plot and we also need some suspension-of-disbelief to apply (e.g., could a land like the one depicted be left virtually untouched?). Despite all that, the book will make you ponder stuff. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but with so much SF crap being published nowadays...  

Bottom-Line: A tale of obsession, stubbornness and technological revolution. While reading it I had ambivalent feelings for most of the time, but when everything was clear, it turned out to be good and engaging.

sábado, maio 19, 2018

Triteness and Boringness: "Cover Her Face” by P. D. James

“The cultured cop! I thought they were peculiar to detective novels.”

In “Cover Her Face” by P. D. James

Sometimes people just like to talk about the books they're reading. Not boast. Just talk. I realise such plebeian behaviour may not be acceptable in the rarefied circles some people move in, but for the rest of us mere mortals it happens quite a lot. Given that reading is becoming less and less common, one would think you'd be happy people are reading at all, without feeling the need to bitch about the fact that they happened to have enjoyed something so much they might want to read it again. Unless you think reading should just be restricted to the real intelligentsia, among whom some people obviously count themselves. So, unless those people have evidence that re-reading causes cancer or blows up the WC, why not back off and let the rest of us do what we like. Or better, why not direct that scathing anger at something that really matters? "Oh, I'm re-reading ‘Cover Her Face’.” Yes, there are people who like to brag about re-reading the Shakespeare plays, but most of us are just trying to be accurate. If you say, "I'm reading such-and-such," people assume you mean "reading for the first time." I'm not sure why this applies to books and not movies, but it doesn't seem like that hard a thing to accept. As for our being too stupid to understand books the first time around -- sure! Fine! I admit it! I didn't even begin to understand “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” when I read it at fifteen or sixteen. But strangely enough, I wasn't too ashamed of my terminal idiocy to read it again in college and loving it. Plenty of books need a second or third reading, not because we're stupid, but because they're complex. But as almost everyone has said, this is all so painfully obvious that I can't believe I'm actually bothering to point it out.  “Cover Her Face” was one of the first books I discovered at the British Council’s library. Fond memories. Some of them I’m not allowed to state here…But I loved re-reading it although it’s not that good. It's so trite and boring how family and witnesses ALWAYS complain when asked questions... And always having the same depressed, desperate, selfish and despondent characters and family members ... And every character always deciding not to tell what they know...like life really.  And then getting killed just when they decide to tell (this part I’m not particularly fond of.) I, for one, think Katherine is pitiful; the character is so clingy to that man-child doctor it’s a cause for the vomit police. And Doctor Stephen needs a kick up the arse as well! It did surprise me upon this re-reading what a nasty piece of work Dalgliesh can be denying lawyers and bullying witnesses. I always knew Dalgliesh had a mean streak...

Bottom-line: It’s all about Memories after all.

quinta-feira, maio 17, 2018

dAction/dx = d/dt(dLagrangean/dv)-dLagrangean/dx = 0: “The Theoretical Minimum - What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics” by Leonard Susskind, George Hrabovsky

Math is just a skill, like any other and not everyone can do it. What gets my goat is the "anyone can do anything if only they try hard enough "attitude. No, they can't. Some people are good at certain skills and not other, and others have different skills. I happen to be good at math. I get annoyed when people say "Ooh, you must be so clever!" when I tell them. No - I just have that particular skill - I can no doubt be as dumb as the next person at something else. As Courtney Barnett puts it: "The ambulance driver thinks I'm clever 'cos I play guitar /I think she's clever 'cos she stops people dying." Laughing at general illiteracy isn't so funny, because that is a relatively simple skill that most of us can learn, and it hurts people not to have it; but Quantum Mechanics? Come on, no one groks it, and it really doesn't matter for most of us.

The innumeracy and scientific illiteracy that is being normalised is part of the social environment which enables a powerful minority to continue to dominate and exploit a majority by ensuring that as few people as possible have the necessary logical skills and knowledge to seriously question the stories they are told about the world. Accepting this kind of thing as "humour" is accepting a narrative which says that math and science are things that only a tiny number of geeky people care about or understand on account of its alleged "difficulty" and irrelevance. It's all part and parcel of the maintenance of power. In truth, math and science are not that hard until they get to work on us school to persuade us that they are. They also get to work on suppressing our creativity. There's nothing funny about this at all. Mass literacy has been accepted as a necessary evil and it's no longer acceptable to be proud of illiteracy.

Why aren’t more kids learning Physics? It has to be a combination of teaching methods and the way physics is stereotyped in the media. Physics is an absolutely fascinating subject. It's about understanding the very fabric of reality. What could be more interesting than that? It depresses me that most people seem to see the subject as being dry and dull. It really isn't. On top of that, people who study physics have to do it because they love physics, and many people do love it. However, there is virtually no prospect of future employment in the field in Portugal.

A lot of physics at degree level can be downright dull IF NOT TAUGHT RIGHT. You really have to be interested in why things are the way they are from an early age to circumvent that, and I find it hard to believe that gawking at Carl Sagan (the one I grew up with) on the telly is going to make that happen. I can't remember having role models as such - I just loved taking things like hifi, toasters, phones and bikes to bits to see what made them tick (or to see if they'd worked when I'd put them back together...), and finding math equations extraordinarily beautiful. Yes, there's the sexy stuff like astrophysics (relatively easy as much of it was qualitative when I studied it), but to have even the barest of a good all-round grasp of physics as a whole, you have to have done the fairly sophisticated mathematical groundwork, get your head around such utterly scintillating concepts like statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and Fourier optics, before you can set the world alight with your re-jigged theory of quantum gravity (which I did study after I finished my Computer Science college degree).

Moving in a little closer to the book’s content. His explanation of the Lagrangean is something I've never seen done this way before. We have determined experimentally that we can represent very generally the laws of physics by deriving them from a condition which states that a certain quantity (called the Action) must be kept minimum. The action is differently defined for each system, but always represented as the integral between two points in time of another quantity (Called the "Lagrangean Quantity") that is a function of position and velocity at any point in time. Since the action must be kept minimum, the derivative of it (with respect to position) must be kept 0. Both position and velocity are considered to change with respect to time. As such, we can write:

dAction/dx = d/dt(dLagrangean/dv)-dLagrangean/dx = 0  (Euler-Lagrange Equation)

By selecting the Lagrangean function to equal KE-PE, the above equation derives Newton's 2nd law of motion. Brilliant. Moreover, the lagrangean's form can be changed in order to change coordinate system. By doing so first and then solving the Euler-Lagrange equation, the laws of motion for even Non-Inertial Reference Frames can be readily computed (as long as they are non-relativistic), such as in a circularly moving Reference frame. Like so, fictitious forces (those observed in NIRFs but not in IRFs) can be calculated, such as the Coriolis force.

[Paraphrased] "There are some things you only want to experience once, like a book. You don't want to read the same thing over and over again. But there are other things, like music, that you'll want to listen to continually because it just feels good. I hope my lectures are like that... (Paraphrased)." Why yes, Professor Susskind, the lectures in your book are a treasure to read.

I have never seen some of these topics explained with so much clarity. He is one of the greatest teacher in physics, and I admire his effort to go through all of physics for the benefit of beginning students. It is a great contribution to the field as a whole, and hopefully some of his readers will become future physics stars thanks to this, just like the Feynman lectures. Incidentally, I had a Professor in college, José Maria Quadros e Costa, who approached Physics in just the same manner Prof. Susskind does, i.e., from first principles. One can never over emphasize the basics. This is what separates great teachers from ordinary ones. I find that a lot of the students brush through the basics and find later that they do not have a deep understanding. The concepts of state/phase space is a good example of this; they’re actually not as simple and are so critical in understanding a lot of the world, and they’re worth spending some time on.

Bottom-line: Everyone knows leptons live in Alentejo and spend their lives looking for crocks of gold at the end of rainbows. However, I concede that without scientific discoveries, mathematics, physics and books like these, we'd be explaining the universe in myth and legend.

quarta-feira, maio 16, 2018

Shut the Fuck Up and Calculate (Or Not): "The Nature of Space and Time" by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose

"I have emphasized what I consider the two most remarkable features that I have learned in my research on space and time: (1) that gravity curls up space-time so that it has a beginning and an end; (2) that there is a deep connection between gravity and thermodynamics that arises because gravity itself determines the topology of the manifold on which it acts".

In “The Nature of Space and Time" by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose by Stephen Hawking in the lecture "Quantum Cosmology"

"We should think of twistor space as the space in terms of which we should describe physics."

In “The Nature of Space and Time" by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose by Roger Penrose in the lecture "The Twistor View of Spacetime"

"These lectures have shown very clearly the difference between Roger and me. He's a Platonist and a positivist. He's worried that Schrödinger's cat is in a quantum state, where it is held alive and held dead. He feels that can't correspond to reality. But that doesn't bother me. I don't demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don't know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with litmus pap. All I'm concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements. Quantum theory does this very successfully. It predicts that the result of an observation is either that the cat is alive or that it is dead. It is like you can't be slightly pregnant: you either are or you aren't."

In “The Nature of Space and Time" by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose by Stephen Hawking in the lecture "The Debate"

Can I write a review on such a book? Hawking and Penrose... It's staggering...I don't even know what day the mailman comes...After having re-read this oldie after Hawking's passing, I'd say it depends on where you are in the universe, whether you're on/near some sizeable object (of mass), its rotation, distance from other masses, or whether you live in my neck of the woods...When in doubt I always follow "the flat earth" rule (Medieval behaviour is so "in" now). The world is the centre of (my own)) universe that you/I live in and it's getting flatter every day. Which hopefully means you can see further and observe when others perform the same behaviour. Or ask them. Preferably in a suit of armour while riding a horse. Possibly a lance too. (Until you understand the society you live in). I'm all for a flat and cubist planet! Our time is here! And it'd be easier to fence. And we could launch spaceships off the corners. Uncannily, the mailman knows when I'm on the phone, asleep or having a quiet moment on the throne...I sniff a time conspiracy here (*It'll End in Tears theme music*)

When it comes to Quantum Theory, the math in the book includes every possible outcome, and the predictions it makes are simply probabilities - e.g. there's a 1% chance X will happen, 90% chance Y will happen and 9% chance Z will happen. How you choose to interpret this is still up for grabs, if you go with Everett's "Many Worlds Interpretation" idea then all possibilities are equally real and actually happen in different universes; if you go with the Copenhagen Interpretation then the wave-function of "possibilities" collapses down to one single result. On a fundamental level, whichever way you choose to interpret it (there's about 8 main contenders for interpretation) the math remains unchanged, and the possibility remains that the math itself is the "truth" and there is no further interpretation, usually called the "shut the fuck up and calculate" interpretation (my favourite).

Bottom-line: This is not a book à la Smolin, i.e., it's not for laymen. I still remember some of the reviews I read in 2010 when the second edition of the book came out. Hilarious! E.g., "Clearly the work of two great minds" (possible Translation - "I didn’t understand the bits I speed read, but they looked dead clever and I have to say summat"...).

terça-feira, maio 15, 2018

Non-Distinctive Narrative Voice: "All Systems Red" by Martha Wells

“I remember every word ever said to me." That was a lie. Who would want that? Most of it I delete from permanent memory.

In "All Systems Red" by Martha Wells

"I'm six-foot five inches tall, black wavy hair, turquoise eyes, and with a cat under my arm." In a first-person narration how can I describe this? Should I use an admiration take or just be factual? For starters, admiration has nothing to do with sexual attraction. You can admire someone for what they do or say, but when it comes to sexual attraction the first and foremost things on your mind are… But then I am a full bodied male and I suppose my sexuality is more "aggressive" because of that, not that I'm unable to appreciate the higher components of an individual of course. Because of this "nuances", first-person narration is always rather difficult to engineer with complete success. They do involve a lot of tinkering to make sure you do indeed avoid the tiresome repetition of "I" in favour of more interesting ways of presenting the character's perspective. The question is always the same: How is it possible to have an absolutely distinctive voice from the first page onwards? How can I build a story around the other characters by using "the eyes" of the first-person narrator? Could my hypothetical first-person narrator say something like "I'm choked with admiration for you!"? Narrative-wise is it a perfectly feasible emotion? I think so. A bit creepy to say otherwise, I would think, unless you walk around with porn goggles on. It’s very difficult to shift point-of-view in first person. With so many characters, should Martha Wells have written alternating chapters all in first-person narrative, one for each of the crew members (along with the chapters for the murderbot)? Yes, but then we'd have a longer novel and maybe Wells didn't want to go down that path. Who knows? This is only SF right? As it is, all the characters seem basically identical in voice and all are clearly just riffs on the author's voice. Not good enough. But 3 stars for the attempt just the same.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, maio 12, 2018

Lagrangean Systems: "Levels of Infinity - Selected Writings on Mathematics and Philosophy" by Hermann Weyl, Peter Pesic

“It is a well-known anecdote that Hilbert supported her [Emmy Noether] application by declaring at the faculty meeting, ‘I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as Privatdozent. After all, we are a university and not a bathing establishment.´”

In the memorial address “Emmy Noether (1935)” delivered in Goodheart Hall, Bryn Mawr College, 26 April 1935, and included in “Levels of Infinity - Selected Writings on Mathematics and Philosophy” by Hermann Weyl, Peter Pesic

Mathematics is, in a sense, profoundly anarchistic - you can't use authority to change or control its progress, and nothing is ruled in our out without proof agreed by the collective of practitioners, and Weyl was one of our most distinguished practitioners of the art of doing beautiful mathematics and physics. Sometimes practitioners have a brave and frankly generous stab at letting the layman get a feel for some of the broader concepts, but ultimately this is an intellectual edifice that's been built by thousands of people over the last five centuries or so and there's no reason whatsoever that we should be able to understand it at all without putting in the hard yards - the problem is not with math, it's with us and our arrogance in assuming that's possible. Weyl, as this homage book testifies, was able to put math into language people could understand and it's absolutely essential for a general audience. Language needs to be a vehicle of understanding and not an obstacle to it.

What amused me as an engineer is how engineers are taught many mathematically valid shortcuts that they use to solve many problems, while mathematicians are not taught them. Then again, how engineers and mathematicians interpret the ideas expressed in the mathematics that they use is obviously different, so perhaps although I find it amusing it is not particularly important in the greater scheme of things, (if there is a scheme). Of course, we do get taught be shortcuts, but only in the context of understanding exactly where they break down. We engineers get to live in a world of 'nice' functions where we can do things like differentiate under the integral or assume sin theta equals theta without getting too antsy about it...

I'm glad both Hilbert, Einstein and Weyl made a top shout out to Emmy Noether! She proved one of the most important and foundational results in modern physics - in a just world she'd be as well-known as Einstein, but (a) she was a woman and (b) there's no easy way to explain what she did with a glib pop science metaphor...but after having read Weyl's kind of mathematical eulogy for her, and because today is woman's day (8th March), I'll just have to give my two cents... 

Noether proved it as a theorem specifically about physical systems. It only works because the physics is fully determined by a Lagrangean which is minimised. And if that Lagrangean is covariant under a continuous symmetry (e.g. spatial translation) it leads to a conserved quantity (e.g. momentum). If the system cannot be described by a Lagrangean whose action is minimised then Noether's Theorem does not necessarily hold. Noether showed that physics being the same whatever time it is leads to Conservation of Energy. Being the same regardless of your position leads to Conservation of Momentum and being the same no matter what direction you look at leads to Conservation of Angular Momentum. All of which are examples of a symmetry which results in a conserved quantity. I'm not sure it really requires the usual glib metaphors to explain, most people have heard of Conservation of Energy and Momentum. You can explain Conservation of Angular Momentum by the usual example of a skater rotating faster as they pull their arms in. And the idea that physics is the same at all times and places and whatever direction you look at should be straightforward to understand with a small amount of thought. The extraordinary thing is that it isn't a particularly complicated proof and isn't really about physics particularly. What is surprising is no one discovered it earlier. Even Newton had the mathematical tools to do so. That he and none of the succeeding two centuries of mathematicians did suggests she had a special talent. Maybe because she was really a mathematician where she is famous for solving much more difficult problems. But it is strange nevertheless that Noether's Theorem isn't more famous. Certainly up there with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. And of course is widely used in theoretical physics today.

It is still important today because the basis for any theory of physics such as particle physics is also a Lagrangean whose action is minimised. If that Lagrangean is covariant under a continuous group then there is an associated conserved quantity called the Noetherian current. Another conserved quantity which can be explained by Noether's theorem is conservation of electric current as a result of phase symmetry in the wave function of quantum mechanics.

As always the ghost of Emmy Noether, one of the greatest mathematical physicist of the 20th century for her work on symmetry and conservation of quantities (energy, momentum, angular momentum), presides over all. It is a pity she was never awarded a Nobel Prize of her own. I would describe Noether's work as (a) mathematical physics for her work on symmetry and conservation and (b) pure mathematics, for everything else. For her work on symmetry alone she deserves to stand in the pantheon of great mathematical physicists. Both for its insight and subsequent centrality to modern particle physics and quantum mechanics.

Thanks Hermann Weyl for doing what you did at the time.

NB: The essay on Noether, along with the essays “The Mathematical Way of Thinking” (1940), and “Why is the World Four-Dimensional?” (1955, the year Weyl died), on their own, are worth the price of admission.

sexta-feira, maio 11, 2018

Smelly Socks:"Gravitational Waves - How Einstein’s Spacetime Ripples Reveal the Secrets of the Universe" by Brian Clegg

By complete coincidence, last night I had my amateur radio telescope pointed at a certain part of the sky. I had left the recording equipment on, and when I played it back this morning there was this strange message:

"Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits in a lurgid bee.
Group, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,

And hooptiously thrangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
For otherwise I will rend thee in the gobberwartswuh
With my burglecruncheon."
See if I don't!"

Black holes...That explains where all my spoons, biros, unicorns, and my wife's hair-clips that keep disappearing end up in. In order to find the Black Hole, we simply follow a large number of my smelly socks to their destination ((nah, the Unicorns are down to Noah; the silly sod got so drunk and confused he filled the Ark with the reject list, so instead of Unicorns, Centaurs, Mimsy Borogroves & c we ended up with the poisonous snakes and spiders, naked mole rats and the various parasites, viruses and such that infest the world now thanks to Noah's love of booze. Of course the book makes him out to be a hero, but who do you think wrote it? He and his family are the only people left, no wonder it's a hagiography! Hell, you don't want to hear what he got up to with the Mermaids!).

I wish we had a theory of quantum gravity.

What we describe as waves in a sea of energy aren't real waves but a representation of probabilities at locations. Particles can come in and out of existence at random, but they may hang around for quite a long time. Long enough to bind together into atoms, which accrete into a planet and eventually get taken up by a tree which is cut down to make my chair. The only visible signal would be if some material around the black holes started crashing together. The energy from the black holes themselves spiralling in just comes out as gravitational waves. You get visible light from the accretion disks of black holes, which are typically pulled off companion stars. But binaries both of whose components are black holes don't have companion stars, and hence have no accretion disks. So they are expected to be very dark electromagnetically. Energy doesn't have to be visible.

Gravity waves are it. I don't know that you would necessarily see any "visible signal", unless by "visible" one simply meant detectable, e.g. visible telemetry data. In which case it's exactly what LIGO and VIRGO are doing as Clegg shows.

quarta-feira, maio 09, 2018

My Y2K with SAP R/3: "A Life in Code - A Personal History of Technology" By Ellen Ullman

If you want to get a glimpse of what was the Y2K Bug craze in 1999 Ullman’s chapter on it is a must.
Millenniums may ask: “What was the Y2K bug?” Well, as one who was actively working in IT at the time, it basically was the number of seriously heavyweight IT-reliant- and IT-provider-based organizations running crapped out, moth-eaten, disaster-ready systems for critical public service and infrastructure functions, systems that were originally developed for Noah's GPSing around Ararat, beggars belief. The problem with the earlier Y2K and other system's potential 1970s-based clock issue and its siblings was and is their potential for cascading. The Y2K bug did, indeed, bite a lot of systems, but it did not go critical and ignite a runaway reaction. However, before the event absolutely no-one on the planet knew for sure whether it would or not.

The real problem was in the corporate/government sphere where old systems running in-house code needed to be fixed and/or replaced, although those systems could be running on quite small hardware platforms, and the risks were real that something serious might happen, and people needed to be informed so that they could carry out the necessary checks (even if that meant doing nothing). It's very true that the vast majority of consumer (and small business) hardware/software applications were sorted by the natural replacement cycle and by the fact that widespread adoption of computers at that scale was comparatively recent (by which I mean the late eighties and nineties). The challenge, as anyone who has done any serious integration testing on enterprise scale applications knows, is testing all the different scenarios; the risk of a cascading failure is ever present.

Simulating 'what-if' scenarios against a future time was particularly hard, since we had to advance the system clocks of many applications simultaneously (or simulate the impact of that). Where finance postings were involved (as is typically the case with billing and logistics systems) that becomes exceptionally difficult to plan and organise. In nearly 20 years of working in one the largest organisations in Portugal, I had never seen such testing done on such a wide scale. At the time, I certainly didn't condone 'mass scaremongering' and I was not gleeful that the world mostly acted professionally to fix the Y2K problem. I'm happy that the risks were assessed and a conservative precautionary principle was followed. If we couldn't realistically have tested all the possible failure modes of a future time flipping things into an unstable state it was safer to find and fix as many of the bugs as possible well in advance. I think it's sad that unscrupulous businesses used it as an opportunity to pressurise people to upgrade and replace things that might safely have been left alone, rather than educating them to do more research and maybe decide for themselves that they were, in fact, ok. The sad fact is that for many people IT fulfills Arthur C. Clarke's maxim: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguisable from magic", and they will always be prone to being conned.

Will we have another Y2K-craze in 2038? I doubt I will last until 2038 (or the advent of its analogous problem in other systems, probably around the same time) but, if I do, I really hope this time sees a cascading reaction; it will indeed be a pleasure to go out, to adapt Bob Monkhouse's anecdote, listening peacefully to the screams of a multitude of hitherto complacent and ill-informed dweebs as their teetering systems crash and burn around them. I'll rouse myself briefly and LOL: "Ha ha," I'll go. "Ha ha ha." I'll probably be dead when all the planes fall out of the sky this time, so no worries…
How can we motivate corporate businesses to address the 2038 issue? Simple. With threats. Ultimately it is all fixable; I wouldn't panic right now, though it is time to start worrying about it. And anyone coding time into 32 bit numbers right now deserves to be forced to use Windows 3.1 for a month until they promise never to do it again…

NB: A personal note. The Germans calmly assessed the situation and ported non Y2K compliant IBM COBOL code into Y2K compliant SAP ABAP code, and launched one of the largest software companies on Earth. Implementing SAP R/3 to replace old IBM ERP solutions was one of the main ways that companies world-wide avoided the Y2K problem. I was head of an IT SAP Systems Administration team at the time, and the only think I had to worry about was to make sure all the programs developed by humans were Y2K-Compliant, and that was still a big worry I can tell you. My team spent New Year’s Eve at the office to make sure everything went according to plan while other teams were in the trenches... I remember my team drinking and eating on New Year's Eve...Wondrous times that won't come back.

terça-feira, maio 08, 2018

Bone-in Meat without the Meat: "Proust and the Squid" by Maryanne Wolf

“Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?"

In “Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf”

Why wouldn't Amazon publish the ebook I wrote in 1986 on a ZX81 and posted to them saved on a cassette tape? On the other hand, I once (1988, I think) did the work for a non-linear dynamics paper on my Sinclair Spectrum, and produced the diagrams using the Spectrum's printer, which used sparks to burn dots in the silver coating of the paper, then photographing and enlarging them. It was submitted to the very snooty college journal. They accepted it but wondered if I couldn't make better diagrams. They published anyway when I said I couldn't. How I wish I could recover this. It’s in one of the floppy disk in my attic at home…I’ve still got several programming nuggets I developed at the time. One of them was a chess compiler in C. If I had the hardware to read that kind of media (I’ve still got the floppy disks, but I no longer have the drive that went along with them…), I could recover most of them too if I really set my mind to it. But I wouldn't regard it as worth the effort, so they'll eventually get lost without anyone ever knowing whether they are worth saving. Only me…A lot of forensics software aims to keep old formats readable - so incompatibility is the least of our worries. Books last for hundreds, even thousands of years. Modern storage media do not. 'Bit rot' is going to become a serious problem...

That might be part of the reason we have books like these. Or because of the people they were written for.

Back in the day when I was attending The British Council, I treated myself years to a copy of the great Oxford English Dictionary, the full 20 volume version (I know what you’re thinking…; but this took place in the 80s). If I sat down to look up a word I could be there an hour later, reading the etymology of a completely unrelated word that I possibly didn't even know existed until that point. Because of that, I learnt to keep my discoveries to myself, on the whole, having seen the look of panic on other people's faces should I start with an enthusiastic recital of my discoveries. Whilst Wikipedia (and other online reference sources) do have a certain amount of serendipity, the joy of reading the next entry in a print encyclopaedia is hard to match. Ah, the joys of dictionary leafing! Also reminds me that, as a youngster, some of the encyclopaedia sets at home were one of my favourite things. Later on I bought the German equivalent. Oh, what joy! I must have clocked years looking up all sorts of wonders, tracing diagrams and designs and just having myself a proper party! Nevertheless, if I lose a book and it's gone, given a couple of minutes of WIFI and a mobile phone I can download any one of millions of books for free anywhere in the word, with paid-for Kindle type services. Plus, they're closing all the libraries, where is one supposed to go to get all this information and look things up? Especially if the required lookup is needed in the middle of the night for instance. Sadly, we're reaching a point where if it isn't on the net, somewhere, and indexed by a search engine, it may as well not exist. There is a sense of sensibility in this day and age for printed matter, but, as with the stone tablets Maryanne Wolf writes about (cuneiform, etc.), this will pass and soon. I think, in less than a generation (I probably won’t leave to see it), books will only be boutique gifts. There will come a time, possibly within the lifetime of you now reading this, when there will simply be no more books published. Novels, yes; collections of short stories; poems; plays; all manner of nonfiction--but it will all be electronic. Everything will be photonic, and when it is photonic and the cloud is a quantum entangled swarm of particles in orbit of the sun which powers that internet iteration, there will be legions whinging about the sad loss of electronics, and they will sound just as pathetic.

But the problem is not that we moved on from the printed page. What will be an utter disgrace is that no one will read Proust anymore. Proust's sort of fun if you have the time and uninterrupted stamina: if you let a day go by without keeping up the momentum it abruptly just turns into gossip about people you'll never meet. That can be diverting, on a long bus journey (because otherwise the yammering of the people behind you becomes irritating noise, whereas making sense of it is at least a good mental exercise). A bit of concentration and the books resolve into exactly what people claim, a Great Work about time, loss and our attempts to make sense of it all, but then life gets in the way and it turns back into eavesdropping on “fin de siècle” Parisian random stuff (loved the quite right at the beginning of the book). What I didn’t like is the fact Wolf seems to be writing a book without the “science” to support it. Starting the book with a quote by Proust was a good touch, but it’s bone-in meat without the meat…