book review: the fractal prince

In order to get my copy of Hannu Rajaniemi’s latest book The Fractal Prince I had to learn how to pronounce the author’s surname. Luckily, the owner of my local bookstore is of Finnish descent and could help me out with that. In return, I will talk about mad science fiction with her customers if she asks.

And The Fractal Prince is kind of an insane book. In the best possible way.

It’s the sequel to The Quantum Thief and it’s again about cryptography as the key to an information-based future. While the Quantum Thief was about a score on Mars, this book heads back to Earth, which has a tiny part of it being preserved for people with bodies they don’t jump into and out of as needs must.

There are two parallel storylines going: one follows the thief who must return to Earth to… do stuff, and the other follows the daughter of a politician who is kind of disgraced because she loves monsters. Technological informational djinn who roam the desolate parts of earth. The more advanced technological civilizations (like the thief’s) who don’t usually bother with things that aren’t already virtualized get infected by the code running wild on earth.

What I love about this book (and its predecessor) is how you’re dumped into these mind-bending realities and forced to absorb and deal with them. Part of the genius in how that’s done here is that characters are recognizable as humans in the way that they need stories and metaphor to even explain to themselves what the hell they’re doing.

So it’s a book about cryptography, but it’s a book about djinni who whisper secrets. It’s great (and would have been on my top 12 books of 2012 if I’d finished it before making the list), but would be a terrible first science fiction book for someone used to more recognizable humans.

career track

Yesterday I sort of began my library school career with a new grad student orientation dealy. It was for grad students in general, not just us wannabe information professionals, but that was good. It was good because it was this weird parallel universe where success is some sort of attainable goal. A world where people weren’t coming into a dying field with no jobs. A totally imaginary world.

It was neat looking at it from this perspective. This idea that “The success of our grad students is the success of our university!” and “Here’s how to be successful as a grad student” and “Succeed!” is kind of foreign to me. I mean, I wonder how many fellow new librarian students have this idea of success even being possible, and how many are just in it for some sort of job. A job the profession might not have.

So now read this post from the.effing.librarian. It’s about how libraries’ll bounce back, how we aren’t quite a dead profession, but it’s a hard time right now. My favourite bit is below:

The problem with being a librarian is that you can’t really do it yourself. You can’t open a private library down the street as you would if you were a dentist or an accountant. I don’t know any librarian with a business card that reads, “Have Books, Will Travel.”

Or maybe the librarian travels from town to town with a laptop performing Internet searches for people in exchange for a night in the barn and a slice of peach pie. And that’s how we’ll survive, leaving librarian chalk signs for each other about which towns are librarian friendly and which ones google everything and will run you out of town on sight.

Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

See, that’s the kind of existence I would love. I want that business card. Or I could just be in some out of the way place, making sure information is available. That’s the kind of success I’m looking for. All this bigger Success talk sounds wrong, or misguided or something. Naive maybe.

I shouldn’t be cynical about my (future) job just yet, right? Getting into Titanic metaphors when I’m just starting school? But this might be the best way for me to find an edge, a fringe, a periphery to do something interesting. Not just a traditional library job. Selah.

book review: you are not a gadget

Jaron Lanier is a nerd. A computer nerd and a music nerd. He was one of the people who were working on the internet back in the early days (not the real early military days, but the beginning of the Silicon Valley uprising and the dawn of personal computing). So when he writes a book complaining about the way technology and the internet has developed it has a bit more credibility than someone who has trouble with sending an email. That’s what You Are Not A Gadget is about.

There are a couple of things he takes aim at. One is the idea of lock-in. The way programming works is that small programs are easy and can work in ideal ways. As you start making a program do more complicated stuff, you have more complicated code. To make anything work you have to build on top of what has gone before, which is why software is buggy. It’s all the complicated interactions with the way things are already done.

The problem is when we don’t see this lock-in as the result of choices made by people and don’t recognize that things could be done differently. But doing things differently requires tearing everything down again and remaking it. If you want electronic music that is less about discrete notes like a piano and more like a violin, you can’t do that using the programming we have today, because the choice was made that MIDI would act like a keyboard. (I don’t know enough about digital music to know how using recording samples works in this context.) If you want your digital sound to sound like a violin you have to make the file go against how it was designed. You are adapting to the technology rather than having the technology work for you.

He also talks about the file metaphor, which is so ingrained into how we think of information because of our computers. We don’t think of clusters or smears of information; we think of discrete chunks that can be manipulated. When we summarize ourselves down into these clumps of interests and employers for the vast database that is Facebook, he argues that we are diminishing ourselves as humans, making ourselves more like the computers so that we can pretend they’re getting smarter.

The other big thing he gets mad at is the idea of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia and Linux are fine for what they do, but he argues that the whole design by hivemind will never create anything really wonderful. It’s good at refining, but not at helping us live up to our potential as innovators. Back in the day the pioneers of the internet wanted to see what awesome new art could be created with all these connections. A dodgy encyclopedia and a refined version of UNIX were not the pinnacles of their dreams. The things that change our lives aren’t designed by the hivemind. He laments the passing of the old idiosyncratic days of the web, where things were ugly, but you had the chance of finding something new. Nowadays when you’re doing casual research how often do you just grab whatever that first wikipedia result is? The future looks more and more like a “one book library” and it doesn’t need to be.

There are also bits about cephalopods, our nostalgic music culture and the economic crisis (the book was released in 2010, so it’s timely enough). It was a great read, and will be good contrarian fuel for discussions about the future of technology.

book review: american gods

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of my favourite stories ever. It’s about a man who gets pulled into a conflict between America’s old gods (Odin, Anubis, Anansi, leprechauns, et al) and its new (Television, Automobiles, the Internet). There are digressionary tales of people who brought their gods to America, but the main story is about this con artist who’s enlisted this guy to help defend the old ways.

One of the things it doesn’t deal with is the modern political dimension of religion. There’s a bit where they talk about the churches on every corner having nothing to do with holy sites where you have to make something, some sort of sacrifice. There’s an offhand comment about what a lucky son-of-a-virgin Jesus was, all stealing Mithras’ birthday and everything, but the political realities of America are left out. There is no discussion of Islamofascism or any of that political religious shit you can fill up with in the real world news. But there are paragraphs like this that make me love this book so much:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this:

There are more bits in there that I love, but the other day I watched a TED talk on metaphor and this bit leapt out at me. At work last night I was telling someone about the Pynchon bit about metaphor in V that goes:

Fausto’s kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the ‘practical’ half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie.”

That’s in the middle of a big chunk on the importance of poetry, which was worth the price of admission for me. So yes. Metaphor. Belief. Interesting stuff.

And this new copy of American Gods I received (in trade, not as an Xmas present) is signed by Neil Gaiman himself, from when he was in Winnipeg last month. I don’t have to get my 1st edition all banged up rereading it. So that’s cool.

But yes, American Gods is a great story. I’ve heard that there are people who don’t like it, and I honestly can’t understand why. I mean, I can understand the fact that some people don’t like beautiful wonderful things and would prefer to live in gray boxes without feeling or thinking about anything, but I don’t understand why someone would be like that. No accounting for taste I suppose.

just a footnote

Storytime last night included a few kids getting a bit too into it, all standing up and trying to point out everything they saw on the pages, and I realized I’m really not equipped to calm kids down. I blame China, where I was so horribly boring a teacher I needed to jazz up everything and never did it very much. Five-year-olds are much easier to jazz up, as I have learned. Even though I did a story I really liked but that was way metaphorical about Fall being Mother Earth’s wild child who wouldn’t go to bed. Cool story; not so great with a bunch of kids who didn’t get it.

I have an interview for a new job downtown next week. My current job is a temporary position and if I reach the end of the temporary time and the person I’m replacing comes back then I get bumped back to being a bookstacking page. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for permanent part-time positions that are a bit closer to home. This position I applied for includes working Sundays and a couple of 6 hour shifts a week so the same hours I’m getting at the branch, but condensed into fewer days. Which is nice. The other benefit would be not having to bike to work, as the main branch is within walking distance, so it’s cheaper.