Category Archives: Books

Banking on the Future

Iain (M.) Banks announced yesterday that he has terminal bladder cancer and has less than a year to live. In less than a day 3800 people (including me) signed his guest book/condolence page. Had he announced three days ago during April Fools Day, I would have had a chuckle and rubbed my hands in anticipation of the many more novels he would gift to us.  Sadly that joke was not to be.

I finished Against a Dark Background in February, and The Hydrogen Sonata shortly after it came out in October of last year. These two novels brought the number of his books I have read to eleven, which is probably the most of any other author I have read.  By far it is his Culture novels I adore.

For me, his Culture novels describe a post-scarcity anarcho-communist society where everyone can choose his, her or its own purpose and is able to live a full, rich life of play.  A short fan video directed by Jon Rennie goes far in describing what that life is like:

In our current world of violence, austerity and inequality, the future the Culture offers is immensely liberating.

Certainly the Culture is guided by its Minds, the god-like artificial intelligences (AI) who are fond of their generally mentally and logically inferior pan-human and drone fellow citizens and wish to keep such “interesting companions” around.  One cannot ignore the Culture’s (or is it the Mind’s) propensity to meddle in the affairs of other societies less technologically advanced than they are either overtly or covertly via its Special Circumstances adhoc grouping.  All for the good of course.

That the Culture has contradictions and problems is evident in his novels and certainly what makes them interesting stories.  Banks has not crafted a perfect utopia, even if it is a desirable one.

Sadly no one has adaptated any of Banks’ science fiction novels for film or tv, though some have talked of it.  The complexity of the stories and their many characters make it difficult to adapt, certainly. His first two Culture novels, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games are probably the ones that could be most easily adapted. Perhaps some enterprising person will write a screen play for them and ask for funding on Kickstarter.  I would certainly give to such an endeavor.

Banks’ impending demise will prevent us from reading future books from his pen.  Yet there is no reason others should not be allowed to create in his sandbox.  Let his wife and family have the books he created for the next seventy years (the term of copyright in the US).  By opening up the worlds and galaxies he created for others to use and adapt, he would give us a truly wonderful gift.

On the reading queue

I am presently reading A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson about the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BCE.  Hanson is very conservative (see this rant of ideological cherry picking), but the book reads well and after slogging through most of The Landmark Thucydides by Robert B. Strassler, it is a welcome summary of the war.  Not as complete as Peter Green's Alexander to Actium, though, but then that book is a tome.

After that it is on to the other book I got for the holidays: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks.  Another Culture novel.  I almost cannot wait.

Then on to either The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle or Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which is the only book on the list which was not a present.

Eventually, I will finish The Landmark Thucydides, if only to say I did.  However, after reading Hanson's rant, some Marx might be a welcome change, either Karl or Groucho.

Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use & Where do people find the time?

Clay Shirky wrote an interesting blog post about "The Collapse of Complex Business Models" (thanks to Boing Boing and TechDirt, among others).  Here is an excerpt:

About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand
curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since
then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly
the opposite thing will start happening any day now.

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry
Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free,
and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that
users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for
content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will
have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have
to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a
choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because,
spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we
will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have
grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

With that article in mind, it seems time to revisit another one of his articles, "Gin, Television, and
Social Surplus
" that I mentioned to my friend Amy last month and haven't gotten around to sending her:

I started
telling her about the Wikipedia
article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the
planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of
this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people
are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an
ruckus–"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And
a little bit
at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the
while–from, "Pluto is the ninth
planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped
orbit at the edge of the solar system."

I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to
have a conversation about authority or social construction or
whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and
she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?"
That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No
one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the
time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been
masking for 50 years."

how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit,
all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit,
every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia
exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100
million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin
Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but
it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of

Here is a talk he gave on his book "Here Comes Everybody" which elaborates further on the post's topic.

Looks like I need to pick up a copy of his book.