Clueless in Tampa

Back in the late Spring of 2003, I was located in Tampa for two-and-a-half months for business. While there, I had a great deal of time to catch up on reading and, for what ever reason, decided to spend it on political science books. While picking up a couple of books at the local Barnes & Noble one evening, I was being checked out by a woman who looked to be in her mid forties and who appeared to be perfectly sane, at first:

"Hey, those seem like two great books! We don’t get too many people buying these down here. I’ve never heard of this one, but I like the title: The Emerging Democratic Majority."

"Yeah, I read a piece by one of the authors, in The Nation, I think, and I thought this book seemed interesting. It’s mostly wonky, statistical stuff, though."

"Well, we need something to turn this country around. That other book (The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda) by Senator Wellstone is supposed to be great. We’ll sure miss him."

"Yeah, he was a great man."

"I just can’t stand this current Bush administration. I didn’t really like Clinton because he couldn’t keep it in his pants, but he’s a male and your all that way, so I just have to be understanding. But these people are just despicable."

silence

"My husband and I worked on the Nader campaign in 2000. We really helped to get a lot of people interested here in Tampa."

"You live in Florida and you worked to get people to vote for Ralph Nader?"

"Yes, I think he’s somebody who really could help America."

I promptly dove across the counter and strangled a person who, along with her husband, might have forever ruined my beloved country. Okay, that part’s not true at all. However, you can imagine the personal restraint on my part to resist such a compulsion.

"Hey, ______ (can’t remember names, don’t want to), are you going to talk that guy to death or check him out. He’s just standing there with a blank look waiting for you to hush and ring him up." says the lady at the next register, unwittingly noting my defense mechanism.

"Oh, of course. Sorry about that. It’s just nice to see someone who thinks the way I do."

"Uh-huh." (!?)

She proceeds to ring me up for my two books and I walk out, thinking how I finally met one of those wacky moonbats that Rush Limbaugh is always going on-and-on about and just astounded at the fact that she was sure she’d found some kindred spirit in me. I kept looking over my shoulder for the Kick Me sign that was surely taped on there.

"Neuromancer" by William Gibson

I recently finished reading William Gibson’s classic science fiction novel, "Neuromancer;" the 1984 novel which is widely credited with beginning the cyber-punk genre.

Neuromancer

William Gibson’s "Neuromancer"

I recently (okay, two months ago… I’ve been up to other stuff) finished reading William Gibson’s classic science fiction novel, "Neuromancer;" the 1984 novel which is widely credited with beginning the cyber-punk genre. My particular book is an anniversary edition that opens with a retrospective forward written by the author. He explains, upon retrospect, that the only aspect of the future he failed to capture was the rise in popularity of mobile phones. Upon reading this, I initially saw this as a bit of hubris, that is for him to think that he had envisioned everything else with such accuracy as to comment on the one thing he had missed. After reading the book, I’d say that it has nothing to do with predicting the future. This book helped to create the future. If Gibson had wrote this story including mobile phones, then they would have only caught on that much sooner.

Computer scientist Alan Kay famously said "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Many people love to quote him on that one, but I suppose most instances refer to physical tinkering; the physics and chemistry and nuts and bolts aspects of invention. However, much credit should be given to the science fiction authors who often first envision the future1. They seem to guide the scientists and engineers down their path, many of whom are fans of science fiction. Such would be the case with Gibson’s novel. It isn’t so much prophetic as it is directorial. Written near the dawn of the personal computing age, it was as if Gibson saw the first train tracks being laid westward and wrote about the train reaching some lovely mountains and beaches, causing the people laying the tracks to then say ‘that sounds great, let’s go looking for lovely mountains and beaches.’

There is a certain amount of lingo that never really caught on, but some phrases really stuck with the masses; such as the once ubiquitous "cyberspace" for referring to the online world. It’s not used as much anymore, much like the phrase Information Superhighway has fallen to its own wayside. I suspect their both causalities of the general populace becoming more familiar with traditionally geek terms like internet, world-wide-web, etc. Not as poetic, but more accurate. However, even if much of the lingo isn’t with us, you can see the impact of this novel elsewhere. The film "The Matrix" draws heavily upon this novel for ideas and terminology, as does the Anime classic, "Ghost In The Machine." While not the first science fiction instance of an artificial intelligence (oops, belated spoiler alert…), surely none before captured Gibson’s accuracy of the notion that A.I. would indeed be software and not some shiny alloy humanoid with a unexplainable Austrian accent. It seems like an obvious statement now, but in 1984, how revolutionary was it to imprison the greatest threat to humanity by keeping it from connecting to a world wide computer network?

The novel centers around a relatively washed up hacker named Case, who is given a second chance to get back into the work he once loved (eleven years before Kevin Mitnick would be sentenced to a prison and a computer ban). He is recruited by a mysterious woman who acts as the muscle for a small and secretive operation which Case acts as the brains for, well at least jacked into cyberspace. We meet some other odd characters along the way, many of whom have had some black market DNA alteration or surgery to enhance or create abilities. The world, as Gibson describes it, isn’t as clean as the black print on white paper would first appear. His is a noir adventure bouncing from a fully immersible online world to a rough, gritty, and commercialized world; in either of which Max Headroom would feel right at home.

Something very common amongst science fiction writing, particularly that of the past 30 years, is the incorporation of corporations (either real or fictional ones). Sometimes they are the great evil, sometimes they are just dropped to lend a sense of authenticity to the story. Both are often done in a blatant and heavy way, sometimes so much so that I cannot determine whether the author got paid for the name drop or really hates large conglomerates so much as to make them a central villain. Gibson, however, does this about as perfectly as can be done. He creates a sense of continuity between 1984 (and 2005) and the dateless future. This reminds me of "Dune," for which Frank Herbert incorporated Arabic words to invoke a sense of history as well as stir up imagery of desert life. (Of course, in my world, all science fiction reminds me of Frank Herbert).

"Neuromancer" would go on to win three major award for science fiction writing. Not bad for his first novel. I’d like to continue on reading the other two books in the "sprawl" trilogy (every good science fiction novel must be part of a trilogy, in which there are often four or more books). I’d recommend it as well, as there is a sense something near nostalgia for cyber-punk in it for my generation. Were it not for this book, we might not have this medium with which to communicate. At least, it might have taken longer to get here as Gibson’s fans wouldn’t have been there, trying to create the future he had written about.

1 The exception here is Arthur C. Clark, who is credited for the invention of the use of geostationary orbiting satellites could aid in telecommunications. He wrote about it in a short article for a science and engineering magazine in 1945, rather than in a fiction novel. Had the latter occurred, it is quite possible no one would have been willing to give credit for the idea.

Amazon SIPs for this book: toxin sacs, new pancreas, shark thing, leather jeans

My Life by William J. Clinton

Not so much a straight biography, but a autobiography from an American president who really understood all the presidents before him. The kind of perspective only someone with this position and his kind of love for history and politics could write.

My Life

While I began reading My Life by former President Bill Clinton back in the summer of last year, my reading of it was interrupted by the release of a installment in the Dune series (weird priorities, I know). However, I’ve been back on it recently, and I find the book well worth the time.

I suppose most people skimmed through the first half or more of the book just to read whatever salacious details about extra-marital affairs they could find, or simply imply. Honestly, I could care less. I always thought that was a little too personal for my business. What’s more, my opinion is this: it happened, he lied to congress, he was censured, I moved on. It’s not the most significant thing in the man’s life and I’m not going to spend anymore of this post or my time worrying about it. It’s not like a war got started over it…

Bill Clinton is, and probably always will be, a nerd of the Democratic party (or in politico-ease, a wonk). I mean this as a compliment, in that he is truly one of the modern times great minds in politics. He is a student of the game, so to speak. As A studier of history and as a person who lived through some of the countries more tumultuous times, he is able to put ideas and policy in perspective. As a candidate and as President, he received a lot of attention for his pain feeling abilities, but after reading more about his youth, I don’t really doubt him. However, it is a true love of politics that makes him a nerd. I get the impression that this is a man who seeks out political races like a compulsive gambler finds race tracks. Sure, he’s a progressive who wants change, but I think he also likes the challenge just for the sake of it.

The parts of the books I enjoy most, aside from some interesting tales of his youth, are the insights into America’s history. Mr. Clinton does an nice job of making Jefferson, Truman, and Kennedy all feel as though they were contemporaries as much as ancestors. Of course, he has intimate knowledge of making history, but he honestly makes America’s past seem not just interesting but relevant. I was aware from reading other books by staffers about the President’s love for reading and how he often would reference events in the lives of former presidents back to Washington for insight. This is what I was looking forward to in this book. Not so much a straight biography, but a autobiography from an American president who really understood all the presidents before him. The kind of perspective only someone with this position and his kind of love for history and politics could write. I’m sorry to say that up until now in the book, it has only been coming in snippets.

I can imagine critics not caring for the all-over-the-map style of writing. However, I love it. It adds a sense of place to every incident described. Sure, there are some goofy parts and some anecdotes that just seem out of place. On the whole, I’d say it’s a good read. I know that many of his detractors simply think this book is revisionist history. I’d say that if someone is going to attack the man and his work, the least you could do is read his side of the story, and here it is.

TiVo Hacks by Raffi Krikorian

In my impatience for TiVo To Go, I recently bought TiVo Hacks by Raffi Krikorianed.

In my impatience for TiVo To Go, I recently bought TiVo Hacks by Raffi Krikorianedstly useful hacks, like pretty much all of the books in the O’Reilly ____ Hacks series. I say mostly… who wants to make all of the text on your TiVo interface in italics (seriously, hack no. 9).

I’d say that of all the books out there for hacking your TiVo, this is probably the most concise and up-to-date. Of course, there’s part of the problem. If you have Series 2 TiVo, you trade off for nicer features with the inability to do many of the more popular hacks for the TiVo. You can’t use FTP to get your video off of your TiVo with a Series 2 becuase the video is scrambled on it. Okay, you can FTP it, but what’s the point? Anyway, none of this is the author’s fault, and he goes iinto some detail to explain exactly what models can do what.

The greatest hack, in my opinion, for any TiVo is going to be adding more hard drive space. You’re really not going to improve on the features of the UI by adding a screen clock and the whole web-surfing thing sounds fun until you remember that surfing with just a TiVo remote is going to suck (that’s why you have a laptop). Adding/replacing hard disks is the killer hack, and this book tells you pretty much all you need to know. Of course, all you may need to know is to just buy a kit from Bill Regnery. However, this book still goes a long way and I’d recommend it to anyone who owns a TiVo and is curious about what’s inside the box and how to make it do some cool tricks.