Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Month That Was - June 2014

Water, water everywhere. It seems like it has been raining non-stop since it got too warm to snow. I went to a lot of trouble and expense to get my sprinkler system in shape and I haven't turned it on. the guy who cuts my lawn is having a terrible time.

Yeah, I stopped doing that myself. My lawn tractor is just sitting in the garage. In fact I have a ton of stuff I no longer use sitting in my garage: a replaced ceiling fan, fireplace logs, and old crt tv, soon I'll have a couple of stereo receivers -- which reminds me to do a technology update next month.

I still haven't got a new car. I'm just adding a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so. I keep reading how auto sales are booming, so I'm gun shy. I'm still looking for that special deal, but for now I'm comfortable with riding out the summer and waiting for the model year change. Should probably write about that next month too.

I got up to Mackinac for the Lilac 10K which was a welcome respite and much needed since I may not be getting up there for the 8-miler in September like I usually do. I'm tenative planning something more drastic.

The first draft of the latest book is proceeding at my normal glacial pace. But at least I am unstuck for the moment. We'll see how long that lasts.

[Books] Book Look: Decoded
[Books] Book Look: To Say Nothing of the Dog
[Books] TV: True Detective vs Fargo
[Books] Cars: Robot You Can Drive My Car

[Books] Book Look: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Well that was clever. You want to write a British comedy of manners (with overtones of classic whodunits), and you do so via a time travel story. Truly inspired. I wish I had thought of it.

Connie Willis is an award-smothered science fiction writer (enough Nebulas and Hugos to stuff a mattress), but she has an obvious affection for those delightful old British genres. In To Say Nothing of the Dog we start in the late twenty-first century when time travel is common but really not fully controllable. A fairly influential and wealthy lady has taken it upon herself to rebuild an old cathedral that was burned during the WW2 bombing of England. She has her minions popping in and out of various points in time, getting the exact details right and trying to locate any surviving artifacts -- one in particular: the bishop's bird stump. I'm still not entirely clear on what a bird stump is, but it's an effectively silly macguffin.

In the course of all this cross-temporal scurrying about an incongruity occurs. That is to say, someone somewhere altered history in some significant way. When that happens, The Net -- the lattice of connection that is used to travel through time -- begins acting in unpredictable ways in an effort to self-correct. Time travelers don't alway end up where or when they expect to as The Net tries to guide events in such a way that the incongruity is corrected or cancelled out.

In the course of the mad search for our macguffin, an incongruity has occurred. A bad one. Soon it's all hands on deck to try to sort things out, in the course of which our hero finds himself in the middle on a bubblingly Wodehousian romp in Edwardian England to try to set things right. He is accompanied by a female colleague and together they encounter the full palette of timely characters -- the blustering aunt, the spoiled princess, the batty professor, the gruff adventurer, various young men is spats, the omnipotent butler -- as they try to piece together clues ala Poirot and, of course, fall in love.

Should you read To Say Nothing of the Dog? Yes - and that's a pretty confident yes. The story hits all the right madcap notes, but not without sly observations about fate versus free will and personality driven versus designed history. If there are criticisms they are small: it is a bit too wordy in scene setting early on, and the tangled web of causality gets quite difficult to follow, although it is well sorted out in the end. But, those are nits. It was absolutely one of the most fun books I've read in quite a while.

[Books] Book Look: Decoded, by Mai Jia

An odd, but very intriguing, book, Decoded is the first book by very popular Chinese author Mai Jia to be translated into English. From a writer's perspective it's a great example how rules are really just guidelines and the only thing that counts is what works.

The protagonist of the story is Rong Jinzhen (he also goes by various other names) who is an autistic savant -- socially inept, but an otherworldly talent at mathematics. We don't meet him until about a third of the way in. The first third is his family history starting a handful of generations prior. This could be an aspect of Chinese culture and the valuing of ancestors, but it also works to set up Jinzhen as a tragic figure. When we finally do meet him we never really get a story from his point of view. It all comes through the image of him as held by those around him. He gets minimal dialogue and very few scenes of him in action.

As a child Jinzhen starts out neglected, but is taken under the wing of a pair of Westerners. First Mr. Auslander, a servant of Jinzhen's family, looks after him and sees that he is provided for. Then a mathematician who is stranded in China during the war takes notice of his innate abilities and becomes a mentor. In time, Jinzhen is noticed by a government security unit and is sequestered in their compound, assigned to decode ciphers. He makes quite a mark in the field but eventually the stress of decoding, or possibly the expectations of the world, drive him insane.

The story is told via a narrator, who occasionally breaks the fourth wall, and his recitation of statements he had from those close to Jinzhen -- his boss, his wife, others around him. The tone of the book is that of a gentle fable. How much of that is due to the translation, I cannot say. I do know that Mai Jia's reputation in China is as a genre novelist, but this work, at least as translated into English, is more subtle and emotionally rich than a standard genre thriller. In fact, there really are no thrills to speak of, it is entirely cerebral.

I doubt there is a simple underlying theme the author was tracking. If there is it can only be that the pursuit of the unknowable (with ciphers as a stand in) that compels us also destroys us. Jinzhen experiences this directly and completely in his decoding work. Those around him experience it to a lesser extent by trying to known Jinzhen, who is himself unknowable. But there are other ideas in play. The notion of fate is strong from the outset -- Jinzhen is helpless in the face of genetic inheritance and political circumstance. Other ideas include the relationship between artistic creativity and analytics, and the ongoing memory and shadow of the Cultural Revolution which continues to hang over China today.

Should you read Decoded? Well, most of what I follow around the web seems to indicate that it is being marketed as a spy thriller. It's really nothing of the sort. If that is your expectation you will likely find it slow and unsatisfying. Mai Jia has done something very interesting though. He has written and accessible, superficially conventional, book that is in fact pretty far outside the box. If that sounds appealing you should give it a go. It is not intrigue, but it is intriguing.

[TV] True Detective vs Fargo

I'm trying to decide which one I liked better. Both were existentially dark crime dramas with splashes of dry humor for relief. Both pushed some stylistic boundaries. Both had remarkable acting. Alison Tollman and Martin Freeman go toe-to-toe with McConaughey and Harrelson by any measure. Throw in a deadpan Billy Bob Thorton and you might have to give the edge to Fargo.

By the way, has it occurred to anyone yet that it's Martin Freeman's world and we're just here by permission. In the British Office he became a paradigm (though it is not better than the U.S. one, as snobs claim); he not only matches Benedict Cumberbatch but becomes an essential Watson to his Holmes in Sherlock; Peter Jackson hires him to be the main Hobbit in his bajillion dollar epic and that turns out to be a low point; and now he gives Bryan Cranston a run for his money as a schlub who becomes a supervillain (and Cranston didn't need to do an accent). Jeez, what a run, eh?

Anyway, back to the comparison. They both had antagonists of pure evil, along with variations of evil. In True, Hart and Cohle did many bad things to get to the purer evil. In Fargo things were even more complicated. Billy Bob was the eternal big bad, but Martin Freeman went over (or was driven) to the dark side, and Colin Hanks wasn't without guilt. The plot and character complexities have to favor Fargo also.

Where they contrast is in the depth with which they view the evil. In Fargo, there are people who are born evil, people who are choose evil, and people who have it thrust upon them. In True, evil just is. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. In fact, there is very little difference between these approaches, just the the one in True is more meta.

Most interestingly to me is that the traditional victory-for-good-but-at-great-cost is where they both end up. In True the big bad is vanquished and Cohle sees something more than utter futility in existence. In Fargo the two big evils are killed and not only does one regretful act of cowardice get redeemed, but the good guys live happily ever after. You would expect folks who like to get arty and push the edges of style and tone would be the sorts of people to leave endings unresolved with respect to moral comeuppance because that seems so much more sophisticated to cynical viewers. Not so in these cases.

Overall, I have to give Fargo the nod. It was both more complicated and more coherent. It struck many chords, whereas True mostly sicked McConaughey and Harrelson on one. I'm glad for both shows and looking forward to more from the same sources. Funny, I would have expected cop dramas to be played out dramatically after The Wire but there's still something left in them.

[Cars] Robot You Can Drive My Car

I continue to be confounded by the opinions regarding driverless cars you find around the web. Even at the WSJ we get a passage like:
To revel in the future that the visionaries hold out, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable. In their lush vision, America's parking lots and driveways could return to nature as a relative handful of always-handy robot cars would supplant the mostly idle cars owned in the millions by Americans today. [That is not the “vision" of people creating driverless cars. That is the vision of someone who wants to create snark.]

In practice, though, all cars would likely have to be driverless—or at least capable of taking control away from a driver in heavy traffic situations—for any cars to be driverless. Otherwise, effectively one jerk in a '74 Buick would own the only right of way. [Why? Are we suddenly going to suspend all traffic laws and let human guided vehicles do what they want with impunity? In what way would the jerk in the ‘74 Buick own the road any more than he does now?]

Doing so, though, would require not only expensive onboard systems in every car but wireless networking that would likely raise privacy and personal autonomy fears far more alarming to many Americans than whether NSA computers are scanning their mostly boring emails and text messages. Imagine a National Rifle Association for car owners. [A. Not everyone. This will be no problem for lot s folks who already love the little dongles they get from their insurance companies for lower rates. B. Yes there will need to be regulatory and legal guidelines, and stuff will get sorted via the messy, inefficient process of politics. The horror. C. Expensive becomes cheap over time. “High Def TV? Never happen - it would require everyone to buy an expensive flat screen television."]
In exactly what way are these problems insurmountable?

We get a more thoughtful observation from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias:
Auto autos, i.e., self-driving cars, seem similar: while there could be modest immediate gains from reducing accident rates and lost productive time commuting, the biggest gains should come from reorganizing our cities to match them. Self-driving cars could drive fast close together to increase road throughput, and be shared to eliminate the need for parking. This should allow for larger higher density cities. For example, four times bigger cities could plausibly be twenty-five percent more productive.
But to achieve most of these gains, we must make new buildings with matching heights and locations. And this requires that self-driving cars make their appearance before we stop making so many new buildings.Overall, his observation is that the most beneficial place to target driverless cars are fast growing cities where the changes needed to support them most efficiently. In the end he comes to the same pessimistic conclusion as the WSJ editorial: essentially, that we may not be up to the task, socio-politically. I think that's true if you're looking for a near term revolution. But the process will be evolutionary -- from fish, with cruise control and blind spot warning systems and automatic obstacle avoidance, to amphibians with driverless cars is a multi-decade step. Also, while I agree the productivity benefits would be modest until we thoroughly adapt, I don't think productivity is what will power this. Productivity gains pale in comparison to the need to signal your good-hearted concern for the safety of your fellow citizens. I expect the reduction in accident rates would be quite sizable in any city. For example, let's say we replaced 50% of all meat-pilot vehicles with robot cars. That removes one half of all the potential idiot moves on the road. I can't imagine that the reduction in accidents would be only modest. I think it would be enough to make legislators and city planners quite righteous in encouraging driverless cars.

I still believe a tipping point will come, although probably not in my lifetime, and driving will become a niche activity and eventually fade away. As we have witnessed when a tipping point occurs, whether years away or decades away, the change can ripple through society stunningly fast. As I said previously:
Our descendants will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.