Wednesday, January 23, 2013


So when I picked up the new Culture novel at the Lexington Free Public Library, I also picked up the latest Dan Simmons, "Flashback". Simmons is a great author, having won awards for science fiction, mystery, and horror, and having also published mainstream novels. What a great trip to the library!

I start reading "Flashback". It's set in a near future (25 years) dystopia. The American Empire has fallen due to the horrible decisions of 2008 and 2012 re not cutting social services and fixing the deficit, and encouraging the Arab world, and not nuc'ing Iran, and not realizing that anthropogenic global warming doesn't exist but was just bad modeling, and getting rid of all but 26 of our nuclear weapons, and abandoning Israel, and, pretty much every (neocon) republican talking point of the last 10 years -- except for abortion and creationism, mercifully.

It really made it hard to read the book. Simmons seemed to be going out of his way to prostelytize on this stuff, and talking about how he doesn't like socialism, Boulder CO, or the Denver Art Museum. It didn't seem to be just story development, it seemed like he was seriously getting stuff off his chest. That aside, it was a classic cheap detective story, with great action, a lot of fun if it weren't for the chorus of right-wing dog whistles throughout.

Well, I would guess that Simmons is successful enough that he's made it into the 1% -- net worth over $2M. And somehow, it seems like a lot of people when they get there decide that it's time to become Libertarians -- "I got mine, fuck you".

My wife and I had a few years where we paid 6 figure federal taxes. I was happy and proud to help my government and those not as lucky as I had been. There was still plenty left over. Maybe it comes back to being afraid that the government is going to take all the results of your hard work and give it away to the undeserving. Somehow I just never felt that way.

More and more it becomes apparent that the policy of the US is to maintain our standard of living at the expense of democratic principles, the rest of the world, and the planet itself, and that seems to be what Simmons is in favor of. This is just flat out wrong. If we don't get sustainable, we are going to get a collapse, and not just an economic one.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A New Culture Novel!

Just finished the latest Iain M. Banks Culture novel, "The Hydrogen Sonata". I so love his totally post-human, galaxy-spanning Culture civilization. The main movers of the Culture are actually the (artificial) Minds mostly embodied in ships ranging in size from moderate to "that's not a moon, that's a battle station". They all have smart ass names, smart ass vehicle classes (Thugs, Hooligans, ...), and are constantly engaged in smart ass dialog. But, their key feature is that they are trying to optimize every situation; they are firmly committed to the principle that in a post-scarcity economy, complete and utter altruism is the only outlook on life that makes any sense.

Most of the conflict in a Culture novel usually comes from their dealings with a less advanced civilization, and basically using carrots, sticks, and whatever else is available to get everyone involved to Do The Right Thing. In this case, there is a non-Culture cousin civilization getting ready to Sublime -- move to the 7th and 8th dimensions, where space is mostly full rather than mostly empty as it is here -- and some less advanced civilizations squabbling over all the great gear they are leaving behind, with a 10,000 year old man thrown in just for fun.

Damn, I love these novels!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Three Library Books

Visited our most excellent Beaumont Branch of the Lexington Free Public library. Came home with 3 novels.

First, "The Alchemist", by Paolo Bacigalupi. I would suspect this is a chapbook -- not clapbook, as I first wrote. Paolo has broken out as a science fiction author with near future tales of global ecosystem catastrophe. This short story is a fantasy -- in the preface he says he wanted to try something different. It is a very pleasant read, with a nice fairy tale feel.

Secondly, "Redshirts", by John Scalzi. I would characterize this is a meta-story that borrows from the Star Trek mythos. Sometimes I like meta-stories more than others. The first I remember was "Beasts", by John Crowley (1976), where you gradually realize that the characters are mostly fairy tale and fable archetypes placed in a science fictional background -- it was magical and charming. Even better from Crowley was the award winning "Little, Big" (1981), where the characters themselves by the end have realized that they are characters in a fairy tale. More recently, I loved the stories within stories of "The Fractal Prince", by Hannu Rajaniemi, about which I blogged here.

But on the other hand, I remember blasting Heinlien's "The Number of the Beast" in this blog post to the effect that "reusing literary figures is a kind of a cheap ploy, and I usually interpret it as a lack of imagination". And I remember my first reaction was annoyance when a writer as good as Dan Simmons ended the award winning "Hyperion" with the characters linking arms and singing "We're Off To See The Wizard".

"Redshirts" I reacted to somewhere between these two extremes. The fact that Star Trek is pop culture (and a favorite of fanboys) rather then more general archetypes made it a little cheezy for me. Like I was wondering, could someone who had never seen Star Trek, or who wasn't vaguely a Trekkie, have enjoyed this at all? I guess they probably wouldn't have picked up a book titled "Redshirts" -- no, they wouldn't have gotten the reference, would they, they might still have picked it up randomly?

"Redshirts" also seemed to end rather abruptly, and then was followed by 3 short addenda, told from the viewpoint of three somewhat ancillary characters. I liked the third of these, but this still seemed gimmicky -- almost like alternative endings, or fan fiction. I guess I mostly like getting sucked into a main narrative and staying there.

Finally, "The Cold Commands", by Richard K. Morgan. Sequel to "The Steel Remains". Morgan broke out in 2002 with "Altered Carbon", which I thought was great. After a couple sequels to that, he did "Thirteen", which was very good as well. Then he switched to a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but very gritty, and with a gay protagonist, and explicit homosexual sex scenes. I'm always up for some good sex with my action and adventure, but the male homosexual stuff definitely sets off my "yuck" reaction.

Reading the full library edition, with dust covers and all, I always enjoy reading the synopsis, "about the author", etc. -- kind of like appetizers for the main course, the book itself. This was one case where that was a mistake, because the synopsis says "the characters are going to be doing this", but apparently "this" got pushed to the 3rd book. So the pacing seems off throughout. Aside from that, a good read. The homosexual stuff seemed toned down a bit (phew) -- and a lesbian sex scene I of course found totally unyucky. I'm hoping Morgan will get back to sci-fi after this fantasy trilogy concludes.

On a different topic, I made the decision to retire (rather than work at a new 50-60 hour per week startup) Labor Day weekend of 2012. So it's been 4-1/2 months now. I sleep late; exercise every morning; go to lunch a few days a week; and read, fool around online, blog in the afternoons. I cook 2-3 times a week. I haven't been playing as much music as I expected due to the arthritis in my hands acting up. The long and the short of it is, I'm acting like I'm on a prolonged vacation, and will probably continue to do so until it no longer seems appropriate. My mind seems to be smoothing out with regard to worries, ambition, etc, like ripples in a pond dying down. Getting in touch with my inner buddha -- or my inner complete slacker, one or the other. I did have an idea for an iPhone app last week that I'm exploring -- very slowly. But from this point on, I think I will only work again if it's something I (or conceivably a good friend) come up with.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Occupy World Street

I just finished reading "Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap For Radical Political And Economic Reform", by Ross Jackson. Jackson is a former IT guy who cofounded a software company that supports the financial industries. PhD in Operations Research from Case Western, a Canadian now living in Denmark.

The first 50-60% of the book is kind of depressing:

  • Has the US really bombed and/or invaded that many other countries since World War II?
  • Has the middle class of the entire developed world pretty much gone nowhere since 1980 and Reagan and Thatcher invented trickle-down economics? While CEO salaries and corporate profits have outpaced GDP growth?
  • Are the WTO and the IMF designed primarily as instruments of economic colonialism, loaning developing countries money that is pocketed by corrupt elites or returned to the developed countries as consulting contracts, and keeping the developing countries in a permanent debtor status?
  • Is "free trade" designed to keep developing companies from protecting fledgling new local industries via tariffs, so that they remain nothing but sources of raw materials and slave/cheap labor for the developed countries manufacturers -- developed countries who used tariffs and other tools of "sovereign trade" to protect their new industries in the 19th and 20th centuries?
  • Do the executives of large corporations really not mind trashing the earth if it means they get their $10M bonuses and their billionaire lifestyles?
Sadly, you realize that the answer to all these charges is probably a resounding "yes".

Of course, this is against a backdrop of the ecosystem collapse that we are heading into, with global warming, extinction of 1/3 of the species on the earth, continued rising population, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, monoculture farming, and endocrine disruptors in the water supply. He also includes GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) in this list, which I would not classify as the same level of problem as the others.

Interestingly, he also contends that we have passed or are right at "peak oil" -- which means that we have used over half the fossil fuels on the planet, such that supplies will from here on out decline and continuously increase in price -- leading to an economic collapse to match the ecological one. And he points out, this is a one-time supply. If we run out before we have alternative energy sources in place, we are totally screwed, there will be no energy to drive civilization.

He talks about books on the collapse of civilizations, including "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, blogged here. He reaches the same conclusion that Diamond did: that civilizations usually collapse because of ecological catastrophes. This time, tho, the difference is we're talking about possibly the whole world.

In discussing how we got here, he contrasts the current system vs a new system that would try to address these problems rather than ignore them in favor of continued wealth extraction by the world's wealthiest.

Current system:

  1. Cartesian/Newtonian worldview.
  2. Growth economy.
  3. Good of the merchant class most important.
  4. Globalization maintains status quo with US on top.
  5. Corporatocracy (the Empire).
  6. The Neoliberal Project.
  7. Continuous war -- from the War on Communism to the War on Terror.
New system:
  1. Quantum, holistic worldview.
  2. Sustainable economy.
  3. Good of everyone most important.
  4. Localization creates micro, eco-friendly, local markets worldwide.
  5. Democracy.
  6. The Gaian League.
  7. Peace, and a peace dividend.
There's a lot of good information on financial systems that I did not know about (I'm thinking about finding an economics course online), with discussions of currency regimes, derivatives, default credit swaps, and lots more. One point what was emphasized is that GDP growth has been proportional to energy use -- which implies serious problems for a growth economy if energy availability starts to decline. There's a very good discussion of financial bubbles, and how they are now pretty much baked into our unregulated economy.

The discussion of The Neoliberal Project (or "wealthism" or "financial colonialism") is fascinating. From WW2 until 1980, there was pretty much growth and prosperity for many, and no financial crises. Then, Reagan and Thatcher and Neoliberalism:

  1. unrestricted movement of capital across borders in a currency regime of floating rates without capital controls;
  2. removal of all restrictions on the free flow of goods and labor;
  3. minimum government regulation of markets;
  4. removing of all subsidies to domestic industries;
  5. privatization of state enterprises.
This is pretty much what you are required to sign up for to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), with its sister organizations the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Number 1 above is what allows the big money on Wall Street to engage in currency speculation such that they can loot and bankrupt a small country, such as they did with Iceland and Thailand. All in all, they all screw the current Have-nots to the benefit of the current Haves. But there are signs that the Have-nots are starting to wake up.

All of this leads to the horrible inequality we are seeing in the world today, both between and within countries. And studies show, inequality is bad, producing poorer health and less happiness for starters. This applies to everyone, not just the Have-nots. Many studies lately have show that even Republicans want a more equalitarian society than what the US has developed into. Increasingly the .01% billionaires seem to be horribly unhappy, driven, sociopathic power and money addicts.

So then on to what a better system could look like. Note, he characterizes quantum theory as showing that "everything is interconnected", which I would not. And, he chooses to use James Lovelock's Gaia Theory, which I would not particularly put in the scientific mainstream. But, to me, his slight misappropriation of science is far outweighed by the overwhelming economic and social evidence for the need for something new.

He divides the population of the world into 3 groups:

  1. the Cultural Creatives -- us, the cool kids and hipsters. In 1999, 26% of the population, now 35%.
  2. the Moderns -- the corporate hacks and yuppies, $$$. 49% in 1999.
  3. the Traditionals -- the christian dumbasses. 25% in 1999.
He also talks about the 100,000s of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) now in the world, and the impact they are having.

Overall, the new system comes with only two core values:

  1. Sustainable development, or eco-economics;
  2. Human rights.
There are many amazing examples of new more holistic agriculture and manufacturing, including Ecovillages (the first of which in the US is in Ithaca, NY).

Finally, there is the new government structure of the new system:

  • the Gaian Trade Organization.
  • the Gaian Clearing Union. This maintains an artificial "currency" for international exchange, and frees the US dollar from its role as the world's currency, allowing us to decrease our deficit without decreasing the liquidity of the world's cash supply.
  • the Gaian Development Bank.
  • the Gaian Congress.
  • the Gaian Commission -- the executive branch.
  • the Gaian Court of Justice.
  • the Gaian Resource Board -- administers both nonrenewable and renewable resources. This has got to be the hardest piece.
  • the Gaian Council -- the council of "wise elders" with veto power. People like Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter.
One thing interesting about all these new bodies is that they have very little power. The emphasis is on local groups making locally correct decisions. They seek to truly level the playing field rather than keep it slanted to the US and its allies as it is now. Part of why China is booming is that it refused to play by the US rules. So this gives the rest of the developing world, smaller countries who don't have the size or clout of China, a chance to maybe do the same.

Finally, he talks about, how do we get there? Surprisingly, some of the paths seem possible. The Old Lizards really aren't going to like this approach at all tho. So that the Powers That Be will instead of course want to continue to become more obscenely rich at the expense of everyone and everything else.

One thing he didn't talk about, except for a passing reference to Newt Gingrich touting space exploration as a solution to limits to growth, is just that: space exploration, asteroid mining, etc as source of more materials. But, despite my most optimistic, futuristic outlook, I would say that we will not be able to get an interplanetary economy going anywhere near in time to help with the ecosystem collapse we are facing. Plus, the problem is not just sources, it also sinks. We still have to control growth, or we will wind up living (or dying) on a planet that is all one large garbage dump.

This seems like a really long summary. I guess there is a lot there. There were dozens of FFTKAT (Fun Facts To Know And Tell) that I have omitted for the sake of brevity.

I recommend this book highly. It is a fairly quick read, 336p. I read it in 2-3 days -- ha ha, cool, Kobo reader tells me I read it in 13.6 hours! Lots of new (economic) concepts for me, but well explained and very comprehensible. Joe Bob sez, Check it out!