100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime

October 12th, 2015

Amazon has compiled a list of 100 science fiction and fantasy books to read in a lifetime. It’s a somewhat pretentious title but a reasonably well balanced list covering both classics of the genre and substantial new works. I could quibble about some of the choices (no Ian MacDonald, Iain M. Banks, Robert Charles Wilson, or Guy Gavriel Kay), but there’s a lot of good reading here.

It Could Be Worse

October 11th, 2015

SF author Charlie Stross looks at the Chinese governments plan to assign everyone a Citizen Score and what it could mean. And it’s not pleasant. Once a system like the one Stross describes has been put in place, it would be next to impossible to get rid of it. This is one of the scariest pieces of social commentary I’ve read. And do read the comments – there are a lot of good points being made.

So, let’s start by synopsizing the Privacy Online News report. It’s basically a state-run universal credit score, where you’re measured on a scale from 350 to 950. But it’s not just about your financial planning ability; it also reflects your political opinions. On the financial side, if you buy products the government approves of your credit score increases: wastes of time (such as video games) cost you points. China’s main social networks feed data into it and you can lose points big-time by expressing political opinions without prior permission, talking about history (where it diverges from the official version—e.g. the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square—hey, I just earned myself a negative credit score there!), or saying anything that’s politically embarrassing.

The special social network magic comes into play when you learn that if your friends do this, your score also suffers. You can see what they just did to you: are you angry yet? Social pressure is a pervasive force and it’s going to be exerted on participants whether they like it or not, by friends looking for the goodies that come from having a high citizen score: goodies like instant loans for online shopping, car rentals without needing a deposit, or fast-track access to foreign travel visas. Also, everyone’s credit score is visible online, making it easy to ditch those embarrassingly ranty cocktail-party friends who insist on harshing your government credit karma by not conforming.

The gamification of social conformity, overseen by an authoritarian government and mediated by nudge theory, is a thing of beauty and horror; who needs cops with nightsticks to beat up dissidents when their friends and family will give them a tongue-lashing on behalf of the government for the price of a discount off a new fridge?

But don’t worry, I could make it a whole lot worse.

An unpaid political announcement

October 9th, 2015

I haven’t made any secret here about how much I detest Stephen Harper and his government, and I will continue to do so, until he’s booted out into the cold heartless wasteland that he’s trying so hard to turn our country into. But rather than hearing me rant, read these articles from writers who are much more knowledgeable and eloquent than I am.

From Peter Watts, we have Squirrel!

Don’t talk to me about percentages. Don’t tell me that I’m being too harsh, that two thirds of Canada’s population wouldn’t spit on Harper if he was on fire, that he owes his power entirely to gerrymandered riding boundaries and vote-splitting on the left. That shouldn’t matter. Harper’s contempt for empirical fact, his evangelical devotion to ideology over evidence— his ongoing campaign to actively destroy evidence when it doesn’t accord with said ideology— is so blatant that gerrymandering every riding in the whole damn country shouldn’t be enough to save him in any nation whose mean IQ rises above room temperature. It’s like trying to claim that the USA is not populated by scientific illiterates; you’re not gonna make that case by pointing out that hey, when you give them a multiple-choice question about how long it takes the Earth to circle the sun, only half of them get it wrong.

We’ve learned nothing. Our dalliance with the center wasn’t a considered decision, empirically derived, after all. It was just another distraction— a sparkly thing pounced upon and then forgotten by an electorate with the attention span of a gnat. And once again, my hard-won opinionated optimism proves to be so much shit.

I don’t know whats going to happen in two weeks. I hope conventional wisdom is wrong, that we don’t after all get the government we deserve. But at least you can fly to Iceland now for ninety bucks. Iceland’s nice. They live on geothermal, they jailed their bankers after the meltdown of 2008, and their pop stars sing the praises of biology.

I wonder if their citizenship requirements include a dress code.

And this from John Lorinc:

Harper and his war room seem willing to say or do anything to win. Nothing, no matter how appalling, is off limits (except, it seems, the issues that really matter, like the economy and sustainable development). As Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, a good-humoured centrist not given to personal attacks, said over the weekend, “This is disgusting and it is time for us to say, stop it.”

Yes, it is. Yet if Harper wins a second majority, we’ll all be implicated in an outcome so many Canadians purport to oppose. Look around you. Look in the mirror: it’s your fault, too. Doesn’t matter if you didn’t vote for the guy.

Why? Because Canadians on the centre-left failed to demand that the two opposition parties find common ground and present a consensus-based alternative to highly frustrated voters. By tolerating their rivalry through a decade of increasingly disturbing Conservative rule – through the census fiasco, the silencing of scientists, the flouting of election laws, the gutting of environmental regulation, the politically motivated foreign policy, the tactically fashioned attacks on refugees, the medieval criminal justices stances, the terrorist fear-mongering, and on and on – we have allowed the NDP and the Liberals to play into Harper’s hand.

The Problem of Disaffected Males

October 8th, 2015

I’ve been aware for a long time that having a significant number of disaffected young males in your population is a recipe for social unrest. You can see it happening in the Middle East, for example  (look at who the Saudi 9/11 hijackers were) and it’s been reported as a major long-term risk for China, especially given the national propensity for male children. Now we’re seeing it in the United States in a wave of mass shootings.

The article3, The Shootings Are Not Senseless, examines the problem in depth. It’s one of the most perceptive articles I’ve seen in a while.

Today a growing segment of young adult males will not achieve the material and social success necessary to be attractive mates and form households. By way of comparison, a generation ago in his mid-20s my father had a house, a wife, two kids and a stable job things I was unable to achieve until my ’30s (he would go on to fuck all this up later, but that’s another story). Today Increased economic opportunity and higher educational attainment for women has removed the economic need to be tied down to undesirable dudes. This is a good thing for almost everyone. But for those on the outside, however, it turns social awkwardness and the tail end of the achievement bell curve into a prison planet of isolation. And that generates rage.

If a disaffected young man does not find an identity in some positive group or activity where he can demonstrate a level of mastery, he will find his answers late at night on a message board where an anonymous poster will explain the problem is not him, but instead is women or blacks or Jews or ‘sheeple’ or some other shared lunacy which in the group-reinforcement model that describes closed circles of thought will eat his mind.

And there will be guns around to level the score. Militarized, menacing, assault weapons optimized for mass output. A ticket to forever fame and glory among his new online friends and the ultimate bullhorn to telegraph his resentments at everyone else for less than the cost of a medium-range laptop.

Incidentally, I am reminded of John Brunner’s superb novel, Stand on Zanzibar, which described a similar phenomenon 40 years ago – he called them muckers, but it’s clearly the same thing.

Nirsoft Utilities

October 7th, 2015

Nirsoft Utilities is a large collection of mostly low-level utilities created by Nir Sofer. When I say low level, I mean utilities for sniffing out TCP/IP packet contents, recovering passwords from Windows XP credential files, edit and repair Outlook auto-correct files, and so on. There are dozens and they are freeware. Bookmark his site – the odds are you’ll run into a problem that one of his utilities will help you solve.

Cory Doctorow speaking in Toronto

October 6th, 2015

Cory Doctorow, SF author and Internet activist will be speaking in Toronto later this month. He’ll be at Seneca College, Newnham Campus on Finch Ave. East at 3:00 on Thursday October 15th. It’s free but you have to register in advance. It just so happens that I’m on vacation that week so I’ll be able to go. I’ve seen Cory speak a couple of times before and he’s an entertaining and stimulating speaker.