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March 01, 2009

Horses and Books

Via Andrew Sullivan, from a long article by John Siracusa on the history and future of digital books:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word "horse" for "book" and the word "car" for "e-book." ...

"Books will never go away." True! Horses have not gone away either.

"Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome." True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don't go everywhere, nor should they.

"Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can't match." True! Cars just can't match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn't. I'm sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a "horseless carriage" -- and they never did! And then they died.

Is Amazon's Kindle 2 good enough for me? No. Will Apple release a device this year that would do it for me? Possibly. But do I believe that I'll be reading most of my books and magazines on a portable electronic device within five years? Absolutely.

May 23, 2006

"The Singularity Is Near"

My seventh book of the year (I'm still catching up from a couple of months ago) was Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I've heard it said that anyone in high technology has to read this book -- that Kurzweil's arguments now come up so often in discussion that to be literate in our field, one has to be conversant with them. I tend to go along with that theory. Kurzweil makes dramatic claims about the future of technology and backs them up with 500 pages of charts and citations. We can't afford not to read what he has to say, debate it, and think about its implications for our future.

The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace...

This book will argue... that within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself...

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.

Is what Kurzweil is saying true? I don't know. The statistics he cites in the book on exponential growth -- in microprocessor cost and performance, DNA sequencing cost, the decrease in size of mechanical devices, resolution and speed of brain scanning, and many more -- are undeniable. The question is, where are those trends leading us? Will a machine pass the Turing test by 2029? Once intelligent, will machine intelligence increase exponentially? Will humans augment their biological intelligence with machine intelligence? Kurzweil believes all this will happen, and has a schedule for it, based on extrapolating the exponential growth curves he cites.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Kurzweil is on the right track, but his dates might be off. He believes that once we have low-cost computers with raw processing power equal to that of the human brain, and with a deep understanding of the brain's "architecture" in hand thanks to neuroscience advances, it won't take long for human-level intelligence to develop in machines. My hunch is that it will take longer than he thinks. For one thing, software development is much less predictable than hardware development. For another, even with the necessary hardware and software at our disposal, we will have to teach our would-be intelligent machines about the world. That process could turn out to be time-consuming. It might be that, at first, the only way to effectively bring about a human-equivalent intelligence will be to create a physical entity and allow it to explore and experience the world around it, just as we do with human children. This process alone could take years, and we might get it wrong many times before we get it right.

But agree or disagree with him, Kurzweil can't simply be dismissed. He makes a comprehensive case for his beliefs, and if his forecasts come to pass -- on whatever schedule -- they will change our world more profoundly than anything since the development of language and tool-making.

May 18, 2006

"The Confusion" and "The System of the World"

Let me get my prejudice out of the way. With Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I thought that Neal Stephenson established himself as one of the best science fiction authors writing today. With Cryptonomicon, I felt that he had become one of the best authors writing in any genre. Now, with The Baroque Cycle trilogy, if there's a better author alive today, all I can say is, I want to read his or her work.

The Confusion and The System of the World, the fifth and sixth books I read this year, are volumes two and three of The Baroque Cycle, a sprawling, 3,000-page work. The Baroque Cycle is readable on a variety of levels: as a treatise on the development of modern financial systems; as a historical novel featuring the greatest scientists (Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren) and rulers (Louis XIV, William III, James II) of the 17th Century; as a pirate-vagabond-military adventure; or as a love story for the ages (my favorite, but then, I'm a romantic at heart).

It would be easy to choose one of many, many excellent sections that illustrate Stephenson's ability to explain, in context, technical and arcane subject matter. It would be equally easy to pick out a fine bit of swashbuckling, in which the participants may or may not be honorable, but are usually literate and often interesting. But some of my favorite passages from The Baroque Cycle are those that center on personal relationships. This is from a conversation between Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, and Bob Shaftoe, a soldier with whom she has had the occasional affair:

"I am ever in a delicate way," said Eliza, "but men pick and choose the time to take notice of it, as it suits their purposes." At this Bob chuckled again, which provoked her. "Let us speak plainly," she said, "for this is where our ways part -- you must to the Tower to attend your master in his prison-cell, I must to dockside to arrange passage to Dunkerque." ...

"When you promise to speak plainly, I know to brace myself," said Bob, and then he did literally, leaning against a brick wall.

"You have seen me sick, and suppose that I am pregnant. This has wrought powerfully on your mind, for you know that Abigail was given syphilis by Upnor and may not be able to give you children, even if you do pry her from the clutches of Count Sheerness. You have stopped thinking of me as 'Eliza the woman I roger from time to time' and begun to think of me as 'Eliza the expectant mother of my only child.' This has queered your judgment and led you to consider schemes that are not likely to produce Abigail's freedom. Know then that the foetus -- which might have been yours, or my husband's, or any of several other men's -- miscarried the night before last. It is with the angels. I would still produce a competent heir for my husband, but must begin a new pregnancy once I have reached France. Perhaps I shall seduce Jean Bart, perhaps the Marquis d'Ozoir, perhaps a Marine who catches my fancy on the street. In any case you must give up hope that any progeny of yours shall come from here -- " and Eliza rested her hand on the front of her bodice " -- for I am done with being the other woman in the life of Bob Shaftoe and Abigail Frome. Done with being the poppy-elixir that makes you forget your pain, and leads you to dream strategems that shall never avail you or her a thing. Abigail may be waiting for you, Bob. I am not. Get thee to thy projects, then."

Over the course of the three books, Stephenson occasionally writes anachronistically, always briefly, always for humorous effect, and never so much as to detract from the verisimilitude of his novels:

"The ineffable currents of the slave-market drove me to Algiers. My owner learned that I had some skills beyond oar-pulling, and put me to work as a bookkeeper in a market where Corsairs sell and trade their swag. The winter before last, I made the acquaintance of Moseh, who was asking many questions about the market in tutsuklar ransom futures. We had several conversations and I began to perceive the general shape of his Plan."

"He told you about Jeronimo, and the Viceroy?"

"No, I learned of that on the same night as you."

"Then what do you mean when you say you understood his plan?"

"I understood the basic principle: that a group of slaves who, taken one by one, were assigned a very low value by the market, might yet be worth much when grouped together cleverly..." Vrej rolled up to his feet and grimaced into the sun. "The wording does not come naturally in this bastard language of Sabir, but Moseh's plan was to synergistically leverage the value-added of diverse core competencies into a virtual entity whose whole was more than the sum of its parts..."

Jack stared at him blankly.

"It sounds brilliant in Armenian." Vrej sighed.

I can't say enough good things about this trilogy. Stephenson has more interesting ideas in any given chapter than most authors have in entire books -- or in some cases, entire lifetimes. It's an amazing accomplishment, and were it any other writer, I would say it was destined to be seen as the pinnacle of his or her career -- but this is Stephenson, so I know better.

May 13, 2006

Back to the Future for E-Books?

Kevin Kelly has a long piece in The New York Times, "Scan This Book!", on the various efforts to digitize the world's book collection. He touches on the issue of how we'll read e-books, writing:

The least important, but most discussed, aspects of digital reading have been these contentious questions: Will we give up the highly evolved technology of ink on paper and instead read on cumbersome machines? Or will we keep reading our paperbacks on the beach? For now, the answer is yes to both. Yes, publishers have lost millions of dollars on the long-prophesied e-book revolution that never occurred, while the number of physical books sold in the world each year continues to grow. At the same time, there are already more than a half a billion PDF documents on the Web that people happily read on computers without printing them out, and still more people now spend hours watching movies on microscopic cellphone screens. The arsenal of our current display technology -- from handheld gizmos to large flat screens -- is already good enough to move books to their next stage of evolution: a full digital scan.
It's true that a variety of efforts to sell e-books (and, in some cases, devices to read them) have fallen flat. Why is this so? I think there have been at least two major contributing reasons:
  • Until the advent of the iTunes Music Store, most consumers didn't feel comfortable buying digital-only content.
  • Consumers have had two choices for reading e-books, both of which they rejected: PCs and dedicated e-book readers. PCs are ubiquitous, but who wants to be tied to a desktop computer to read, or to have to boot up a large, clunky, battery-hungry laptop? E-book readers were more convenient, but still too large and clunky, and consumers were expected to pay for a device to allow them to perform an activity (reading) they could do for free without it.
Will the time soon be right to relaunch the e-book experiment? I think it will be, for two reasons:
  • Having conditioned iPod owners to purchase music online, when Apple launched its video service last year, those same consumers picked it up immediately. Mainstream consumers are now comfortable with the idea of buying bits, as long as they feel they're buying from a vendor they can trust.
  • Consumers are now carrying around small, convenient, dedicated media playback devices by the millions. Sadly, the current iPod design is unsuitable for reading books, but a hypothetical widescreen iPod might be acceptable.
If Apple were to ship a widescreen iPod this year, and if its display size and quality made it suitable for comfortable e-book reading, could Apple successfully launch an e-book purchase service on the iTunes Music Store (which, by the way, I predict will soon be renamed the iTunes Media Store)? I think the answer is yes, Apple could. Would it be successful? My hunch is that it would, but in any case, I don't see any other company able to assemble the components of a successful e-book strategy as easily as Apple. If anyone can make e-books work in the short term, it's Apple. I'll be curious to see if they try.

March 28, 2006

"Satisfaction"

The fourth book of the year for me was Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

Buddhism says that we seek permanence, stability, and predictability. So does Gregory Berns, the author of Satisfaction. Buddhism says that, viewed from a spiritual standpoint, we achieve satisfaction by letting go of these desires. Berns says that, viewed from a neurological standpoint, we achieve satisfaction by finding novelty.

Predictability is, I think, what every animal wants; by this I mean predictability in the sense of the skill of being able to foresee, and not in the sense of a quality or description of one's environment. If you can predict what will happen in the future, even if it is just a few seconds away, then you have a substantial advantage over someone who can't make such a prediction. Prediction equals survival...

Although we would like to predict events in the world, our ambitions are more or less thwarted by the fact that we must share the world with other people... No matter how well you know another person, you can never be sure of what he or she is going to do. Of course, this makes for an unpredictable, if exciting, existence, for no other animal has a social structure as complex as humans...

If you believe that the world is unpredictable because we live in it with other people, then a straightforward way to counteract such unpredictability is to motivate humans to better their predictions. You see immediately how such a drive could lead to an evolutionary advantage, and, in the social realm, how learning to predict one another's behavior patterns, imperfect as these forecasts might be, could lead to mating with the most fit members of the opposite sex. The stronger the drive to predict, the more an individual will learn about how the world and its inhabitants operate, resulting in reproductive success and the transmission of such a drive to one's offspring.

The drive to predict leads to a single outcome in a fundamentally unpredictable world -- the need for novelty. I have come to understand novelty as the one thing that we all want.

Satisfaction helped me understand the drive for new experiences, and provided an interesting contrast to Buddhist teaching: yes, the world is unpredictable, but instead of focusing on letting go of our desire for predictability, we can recognize that evolution has wired us to derive satisfaction from activities (novel experiences and challenging achievements) that ultimately lead to better predictions on our part. I don't see the two philosophies as necessarily incompatible, but rather as different and potentially complementary strategies for dealing with the same problem.

Put another way, it turns out that my reduced desire for collecting things and my increased desire for achieving things are linked in a way I couldn't have imagined.

March 09, 2006

"Freakonomics"

This was the third book I read this year (I'm still catching up with blogging my January and February reading).

More than one friend had recommended Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything to me as a "must-read". It didn't disappoint.

Co-author Steven Levitt is known as a kind of maverick economist, studying the economics of crack dealing rather than, say, fluctuations in the money supply. He's best known for his hypothesized connection between Roe v. Wade and the drop in the crime rate in the 1990s:

In 1995, the criminologist James Alan Fox wrote a report for the U.S. attorney general that grimly detailed the coming spike in murders by teenagers...

And then, instead of going up and up and up, crime began to fall. And fall and fall and fall some more. The crime drop was startling in several respects. It was ubiquitous... It was persistent... And it was entirely unanticipated...

The magnitude of the reversal was astounding. The teenage murder rate... fell more than 50 percent within five years. By 2000 the overall murder rate in the United States had dropped to its lowest level in 35 years....

Even though the experts had failed to anticipate the crime drop -- which was in fact well under way even as they made their horrifying predictions -- they now hurried to explain it... It was the roaring 1990s economy, they said... It was the proliferation of gun control laws... It was the sort of innovative policing strategies put into place in New York City...

There was only one problem [with these theories]: they weren't true.

There was another factor, meanwhile, that had greatly contributed to the massive crime drop of the 1990s...

As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade -- poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get -- were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.

Fundamentally, Freakonomics is about using economics as a tool to understand why and how people behave the way they do: why sumo wrestlers rig certain matches... how some teachers help their students cheat on tests, and how to detect them... why African-American mothers often give their babies unique names... or how a crack dealing gang is like a fast-food company:

So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald's organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
Reading Freakonomics changed, at least for a while, how I looked at interactions with people. I'd ask myself, "what is their economic motivation for behaving the way they do?" And it turns out to be a useful exercise to run. A few weeks after finishing it, I no longer think this way all the time, but I believe that viewing people and their behaviors from an economic motivation sense is now a tool that I'll always have around to use.

One of the things I liked best about the book was how unconcerned Levitt is with whom he offends. His Roe v. Wade hypothesis upset people from both ends of the political spectrum, but especially (and quite predictably) anti-abortion advocates on the right. But he surely didn't make any friends on the left with this analysis:

In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 one child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimate 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn't even close. [A child] is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident... than in gunplay.
I would have liked more detail throughout the book. Freakonomics breezily takes us through many years of Levitt's research, with footnotes to a multitude of articles in mostly-inaccessible economics journals our only method of learning more. A follow-on book, much longer and with much more detail, would be welcome. But this is a minor complaint about a wonderful book that opens up new ways of seeing everyday life.

March 07, 2006

"Every Second Counts"

This is the second book I read in 2006 -- I was in the middle of two other books, but it was a quick read.

I was a little late to the Lance Armstrong autobiography party, and started with the second book instead of the first, but enjoyed Every Second Counts nonetheless.

From Armstrong's description of the unforgettable day on the 2003 Tour:

A flash of yellow caught my eye. A small kid was holding a yellow Tour souvenir bag, whipping it back and forth.

Uh-oh, I'm going to catch that thing, I thought.

Suddenly, the bag was tangled on the handle of my brake. I felt the bike jerk violently beneath me --

It flipped over sideways.

It was as though I had been garroted. I went straight down, and landed on my right hip, hard. I've crashed? Now? I thought, incredulously. How could I have crashed?

My next thought was, Well, the Tour's over. It's too much, too many things gone wrong.

But another thought intruded.

Get up.

It was the same thought that had prodded me during all those long months I'd spent in a hospital bed. After surgery. Get up. After chemo. Get up. It had whispered to me, and nudged me, and poked me, and now here it was again. Get... up.

Armstrong gets up, threads the chain back onto his bike, makes a "furious effort", and rejoins the lead group. Then...

No sooner had I gotten there than [Spanish racer Iban] Mayo glanced back at me -- and attacked again. I immediately jumped out of the saddle, charged up to his wheel, and slingshotted past him.

I was livid. I drove my legs into the pedals, adrenaline and fear and frustration in every stroke.

In a matter of moments, I was alone. I had bolted away from the group so suddenly that nobody could follow.

Armstrong continues to accelerate away from the field until he approaches the finish line...

I had given everything, and now I was wasted. The last few kilometers were one long grimace of pain. But finally the finish line was approaching, and adrenaline and anger carried me. I thought about the doubts in the peloton, all the whispers that I was too old, or too rich, or too distracted, or too American to win the Tour de France a fifth time. I thought, This is my neighborhood, and nobody else is winning this race.
Every Second Counts isn't a great book, but it's a serviceable book by someone who has done great things.

March 04, 2006

"The Everything Zen Book"

I've decided to keep a log here of the books I read in 2006. In most cases, I won't review the books, but I'll at least include an excerpt from each, and in some cases a bit of commentary.

The first book I read this year was The Everything Zen Book: Achieve Inner Calm and Peace of Mind Through Meditation, Simple Living, and Harmony.

From the book:

Many of the great religions and spiritual practices tell us the same thing: True happiness lies in getting outside of ourselves and helping others. To be locked inside oneself, obsessed with one's own thoughts and needs, is to truly suffer. It is to suffer the bondage of self. Real freedom exists when you cease thinking of yourself all day long...

We live in a time in which we are often coddled and told, "Take care of yourself." We are admonished to take time for ourselves and pamper ourselves. We deserve time off, long baths, new clothes, and a dinner out. We overindulge, overspend, and overeat. And we are not happy! Clearly, the way to a peaceful life is not through spending more money, eating more food, and paying more attention to your own needs.

To be honest, I bought this book because I was looking for a basic introductory book on Zen, but I didn't want something with "...for Dummies" or "The Idiot's Guide to..." in the title. It was pretty much what I expected it to be: straightforward, easy to read, and written for absolute beginners. Reading it convinced me to give Zen a try -- there's a beginner's session at my local zendo tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.