Optimal

Optimal
© 2020 J.M. Berger
355 pages

Jack has known nothing but the System his entire life.  He rises when it tells him to, he dresses in the outfit its algorithms choose for him, he follows prompts to a selected diner and finds a delicious and nutritionally-varied meal waiting for him at the table, no waiting required.  From his work to his social life (romantic interactions included), the System has taken good care of him.    When the System assigns him a new task – finding a man who has disappeared, somehow dropping off the System’s grid – his tidy, content world will begin to unravel.  Optimal offers us food for thought as we travel through a world only different from ours by degree.

Most of us can still remember a world before big data:  we’d come of age when Gmail arrived and when we began learning that Apple,  Microsoft, Google, and others routinely collected and analyzed the data our online activity generated, we were properly horrified – at least, for a few minutes. Then another news story pushed itself to the top of the feed, Amazon  alerted us to a new book that was exactly the kind of thing it knows we liked to read, and we forgot.    Imagine a world, though, so completely ruled by algorithms that most people needn’t make any decision at all: their clothes, food,  and even leisure activities are suggested to them. The System is always watching, always making helpful suggestions.   Optimal’s main character was reared in such a world, and he’s found it works very well for him, most of the time. Sure,  there are times when the System’s benevolent administration of Jack’s life doesn’t square with what he’d like( he yearns to be an artist, for instance, despite the System insisting that he has the soul of an accountant) but on the whole, he can’t complain. He’s a happy, safe hamster on his wheel – until he begins investigating the disappearance of a man whom he discovers was sharply critical of the System. An antique radio reveals an illicit broadcast that blows into Jack’s mind and awakens him to new possibilities.

There’s not much I can say about the plot of Optimal that won’t give it away and deny potential readers the sinister thrill of learning about this Brave New World and its hidden flaws.    Perhaps what’s most notable about Optimal’s world is that there’s no obvious coercion:  the System rules by suggestion. If its prescriptions are followed, users can expect a steady stream of rewarding moments: if not,   they encounter subtle friction, to the point that the desired object loses interest for them: the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.   For some, though,  impulse and reward are insufficient:  they demand fulfillment, meaning, purpose – agency.  Optimal creates a picture of a world that is dystopian despite its idyll,  and bears thinking about given how much of our own reality is shaped by algorithms. It’s not an accident that the rule of the System came about through ‘information wars’, chaos created by people living in different intellectual worlds from the other  – each living in their own filter bubble, in increasingly smaller conceptions of the outside universe. (Berger has done previous work on the origins of extremism, making his analysis particularly interesting despite the fictional setting.)  How many people evaluate their own view of reality, moderated as it is through TV and social media feeds? How many people deliberately consider the view from other eyes?    Entertainment queues, too,  push our being: we Flanderize ourselves by allowing the discovery menu to make part of our interests  become the whole of our viewing consumption. 

Optimal is a fascinating, thoughtful thriller about the world to come. Definite reccommendation.

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Excellence requires work

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Cloud Judgement

Cloud Judgement
© 2022 Kat Wheeler
193 pages

Cam Caldwell was a conscientious saleswoman whose interest in a product defect inadvertently threw her into the middle of a murder mystery.  The culmination of that drama in There is no Cloud cost Cam her job, and nearly her life.  Now, despite running her own consultancy and steering clear of her old job, Cam is being drawn back in  –  lured in by both an interesting-looking fella, a compelling mystery, and the possibility of having more money than the pocket change she’s currently living off of.   Cloud Judgment sees Cam drawn into two mysteries, both equally dangerous,  and is a fun sequel to Kat Wheeler’s debut novel. 


I much enjoyed There is no Cloud last year, as computer-technical thrillers are a relatively rare breed (who writes them besides Doctorow and Russonovich?), and  Wheeler used that novel to explore the even-more untapped world of ‘smart’ homes and IoT gear.  That trend continues in Cloud Judgment, as the central mystery Cameron chews over involves a series of house fires that appear to be connected to IoT equipment – though there’s no obvious pattern to the equipment used.  The other mystery inaugurates the novel, as Cam is approached by a handsome chap who makes her heart go pitty-pat and solicited for cybersecurity work. When beginning the job, she realizes something isn’t kosher and bolts, reporting the incident to her ex-boyfriend, a cop, who doesn’t take her seriously but instead asks her for help with the arson case.   Relationship tension pervades the novel, not only between Cam and her two love interests / consultees, but between Cam and people she consults: one relationship proves to be particularly important during the novel’s finale. There’s also a lot of humor in the novel, as Cam and her colleagues frequently rib one another: no one can understand how a saleswoman keeps getting herself mixed up in abductions, conspiracies, and desperate grapples.

If you are looking for a relevant technical thriller that doesn’t get into the weeds like the Jeff Aiken series, the Cam Caldwell books should be of interest, prompting thought about the kind of tech we admit into our homes unsecured. I know it’s kept any interest I have in one of Google or Amazon’s smart speakers properly squelched!

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Dogfight

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution
© 2013 Fred Vogelstein
272 pages

Fifteen years ago, Apple inaugurated a technical and social revolution when it released the first iPhone.  It did so in close partnership with Google, advertising the inclusion of its Maps and YouTube apps with the device.  Within five years, however,   Steve Jobs regarded Google as a treacherous competitor,  for promoting a competitor to his new wunderkind.  The growth of Android isn’t as simple as being a copycat iphone, though, and in Dogfight Fred Vogelstein argues that the competition between these two tech giants has done consumers a service,  even as he speculates that one day the fight will conclude in one giant owning an effective monopoly, like Microsoft in the 1990s. 

‘Smart’ phones and tablet computers were not a new concept in the early 2000s, as numerous tech companies from IBM to Apple  had tried and failed to make them a reality. By the 21st century, though, miniaturization and battery technology were just advancing to the point that pocket devices could become a functional possibility.   Prior to the iphone announcement, Google had been at work on its own smartphone, using a newly-acquired mobile OS, Android.  The release of the iphone made Google developers realized their prototype device ‘Sooner’  would be an inadequate alternative,  relying as it did on the same D-pad navigation that digital cameras, cellphones, and similar devices were still employing.  Despite Jobs’ showmanship and the sharp look of the iphone, though,  Android developers could see shortfalls in Job’s new baby –  its outdated cellular radio, for instance, and the inability to add custom apps – or indeed, customize anything.   The smartphone market was too lucrative to abandon to Apple,  especially given that iOS was a closed system,   pushed out to consumers as a finished product that they needn’t worry their pretty little heads about modifying or changing.   In response, Google created the Open Handset Alliance, bringing together industrial manufacturers, network providers,  and software developers to create a less proprietary ecosystem.  Apple didn’t rest on its laurels: not only did it begin aggressively using patent lawsuits to slow the growth of Android,  but  it released the iPad  – a revolution in its own right, one that began fundamentally altering people’s relationship with media, just as the iPod had ten years prior.  The rivalry between Apple & Google thus forced each to improve the quality and scope of their own offerings.

Dogfight is only a partial history. The author believes that the Google-Apple  rivalry will one day end in one party have the final victory, but a decade after this book’s release that seems unlikely.  They continue to spar – Apple attempting to create alternatives to Google services like AppleTv and Apple Map, Google abandoning the pretense of being strictly a software developer and creating not only a line of Pixel devices, but the ChromeOS as well –  and have developed two rival ecosystems, but that competition is contained mostly within the United States. Globally, Android prevails – and Google arguably has a larger target in its sights,  competing with Microsoft with Workspace & Chrome.  Although Dogfight is more oriented toward corporate deals and lawsuits than the technically-based One Device, it’s an interesting look back at a fight that continues to transform our world. Neither Apple’s signature devices nor the Android alliance are ignorable.

Related:
The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant
The Perfect Thing: how the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness, Steven Levy
Jobs, Walter Isaacson
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steven Levy
How the Internet Happened, Brian McCullough

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Channeling my inner Veruca Salt

“Gooses! Geeses!”

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Commandos, Inklings, and powershell

If you can’t tell, dear readers, I’m in something of a reading funk — nibbling at many books but not immersed in any. Life has gotten busy recently: I’m now officially on a transplant list, a friend was just married, and I’m studying 3-4 hours a day for Google & CompTia certifications. The only days I’m not absorbed in exercise or lectures on network protocols are dialysis days, when I’m too tired and spacey to concentrate on anything besides the latest episode of Better Call Saul. (Speaking of which: I am bitterly disappointed to learn that Gus Fring wears clip on ties. )

Two weeks ago I started what I trust will be an excellent series, reading James Holland’s The Odin Mission on Cyberkitten’s reccommendation. A World War 2 espionage and small-group action thriller, it’s set in the early days of World War 2 (the invasion of Norway, specifically), and follows a small group of British rangers who were cut off from their unit and then stumbled onto a mission of vital import for the war: guiding a mysterious Norwegian scientist to safety. As the British expeditionary force stumbles backwards in defense, crippled by lost supply ships, German forces envelop the country. We follow Sergeant Jack Tanner and his men as they survive the harsh Scandinavian landscape, made all the more savage by the lingering winter, and work desperately to evade capture by German forces. The task is made all the more challenging by an incompetent French lieutenant who asserts command, and the presence of a traitor within the ranks. I’ve got the other books in the series on order from Britain and hope to dive into them soon.

One of my last RoE reads was intended to be Bandersnatch, a guide to collaboration inspired by the Inklings. The book reviews different aspects of the Inklings’ shared writing lif, like the inspiration and criticism Lewis and Tolkien offered the other, for instance, or joint projects like Lewis/Tolkien’s intended space-and-time travel set. The book attempts to divine tips for successful collaboration from the study of these men, but I was reading it purely for the company: I’m very fond of the Lewis brothers and Tolkien. Thanks to DT, owner of Broad Street Books, for lending me that!

For devotional reasons, I re-read a book I read last year: How to Live, an introduction to Benedictine spirituality. The author, Judith Valente, is a journalist working for NPR who is also an oblate at a monastery. The book is a walkthrough of Benedict’s Rule, and a reflection on how non-monks can infuse their own spiritual lives with its wisdom. A lot of the content is focused on attention and mindfulness: Benedict and Valente urge us to wake up, to pay attention to the sacred in one another and to the present moment, to live in awareness of our own mortality and of the limits of our power. We are urged to create space for contemplation, by dropping out of the sea of noise that is modern life — creating sabbath moments for ourself to meditate, pray, and even sing. Valente also reminds us that the cultivation of virtue within us, the realization of holiness, is a constant battle — and that we must keep in mind that every moment is a choice. Valente also shares insights on the importance of building community, and exercising fair and humble leadership. I’ve been more deliberate in my approach to the spiritual-philosophical life in recent weeks, inspired by this in part: one rule I’ve incorporated is to meditate and go for a walk before I have coffee or turn my computer on, allowing me to start the day focused and energized naturally and not bombarded with stimulation from the word go.

A smaller work I also read was The Tao of Tranquility, an appraisal of the Quinjing Jing, a short work in verse that combines Taoist and Buddhist themes. The Buddhist insights were more obvious and easier to appreciate ( the connection between desire and suffering) than the Taoist ones. I’ve read a commentary on Taoist writing before and still find it a bit mysterious. How to Live often connected Benedictine insights to those of other wisdom traditions, and I found myself thinking again about the overlapping approaches of men like Buddha, Gandhi, and Jesus — and their differences.

Moving from philosophy to the utterly prosaic, I’ve read several books on computers.

Teach Yourself Visually: Chromebooks is a guide not only to Chromebooks, but the Chrome browser and Google’s various  services the chromebook relies on – particularly Gmail, GoogleDocs, and GoogleDrive.  I’m presently pursuing a Google certification via  Coursera, and hoped this would contain something about the Google ecosystem I was unaware of.  No such luck on my end, but this would be a good resource for your self-proclaimed “computer illiterate” relation who wants some basic competence at using chromeboooks. 

Teach Yourself Visually: Windows 11  was an item I checked out to see if it documented changes from Windows 10 to Windows 11, but the book looks fairly identical to its Windows 10 predecessor:  McFedries explains the basics of the Windows userspace,  and offers visual guides to using its features and included apps.  Nothing for the serious user,  but it’s ideal for beginners given the heavy visual guidance. I recently upgraded my laptop (not my gaming PC!) to Win11 to start getting familiar with it. It’s really more of a facelift than anything else.

Windows Command Line Beginner’s Guide by Jonathan Moeller is not a visual guide, because it’s all about learning to use the Windows terminal, also known as the C:\ prompt or the MS-DOS prompt (if you’re of a certain age). I started practicing with this before I even began studying for the CompTia, in part because I was awed by LGR’s fluency in MS-DOS operations and wanted learn to interact with the computer at that level. It also helps at work: we used to have frequent issues with IP conflicts, and then I learned how to use the C:\ prompt to remedy that. (IPCONFIG Release/Renew did the trick.) Although I’m still getting used to the language of the command prompt & powershell (practicing mostly with powershell), I thought the guide especially useful for beginners, because it’s not a list of commands and switches and a terse description of their use. Moeller explains the context of commands, so in the chapter on networking tools, he explains what an IP address is, how it’s assigned, etc. He has a similar book on the Linux terminal which I’ll probably be looking at as well: the current course I’m taking, Becoming a Power User, will test users on basic command line/terminal operations in both operating systems.

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I’m going to do it again

Welcome to the world, baby boy, I’ll paint you red and white and blue

The indoctrination starts as soon as you come out the womb

Pretty quick we’ll make you stupid with curriculums at school

And if the classroom doesn’t do the trick, we’ll make you watch the news

Pick your team, right or left, pick the red pill or the blue

You can vote, but even if you win, still everyone will lose

Don’t forget to buy designer because Gucci makes you cool

We prioritize material belongings over truth

Get a job that you can’t stand so you can buy some cans of food

Go overseas and die for freedom, there’s some oil we could use

Our democracy exists so that you think that you could choose

But our algorithms make you do what we want you to do

What’s the problem, you’re depressed? Society has you confused?

We got medication for you that you’ll probably abuse.

Tom MacDonald has the most world-relevant lyrics of any artist I’ve heard. I love how he targets aspects of post modernity — the capture of humanity by consumerism, big pharama, identity politics — without falling neatly into any political tribalism. He’s not a republican, a democratic, a socialist, a libertarian — he’s just Tom, a guy singing truth to a compelling beat.

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April 2022 in Review

April on ReadingFreely is always marked by Read of England, my annual focus on English literature and history. This year it was half history and half historical fiction.

Climbing Mount Doom:
Dr. Johnson’s London, Liza Picard
Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Dennis Okholm
Lionheart, Ben Kane
The Age of Fighting Sail, C.S. Forester

Science Survey / Readin’ Dixie / Classics Club

Zero, nada, bupkis. I should have done some English classics, but I was in a history-and-adventure mood, as the RoE list demonstrates!

Read of England:
The Odin Mission, James Holland (just finished — great recommendation, Cyberkitten!)
A Sea Unto Itself, Jay Worrall
Crusader, Ben Kane
Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, Damien Lewis
Churchill’s Band of Brothers, Damien Lewis
The Age of Fighting Sail, C.S. Forester
Sharpe’s Devil, Bernard Cornwell
Dr. Johnson’s London, Liza Picard

Coming up in May:
More English historical fiction, because that mood isn’t expired, and the return of science and the usual suspects.

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Your one wild and precious life

It’s been raining buckets this weekend, but after lunch the sun came out, and I threw on my gym shorts and beaten tennis shoes and hit the road. Water covered lawns, filled ditches, flooded the street — but the bright sun shining off the recently fallen rain made everything all the more beautiful. I did my usual four-mile walk, and as I returned home I was turning over a phrase in my mind, something I’d heard before but could not place: “What are you doing with your one beautiful life?” A google search led me to Mary Oliver, whose nature poetry I’ve loved for years (“Wild Geese” being my favorite).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

EDIT: I figured out where I encountered the poem first! It’s quoted in How to Live, an intro to Benedictine spirituality.

Run while you still have the light of Life, that the darkness of Death may not overtake you.

How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us about Happiness, Meaning, and Community.
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A Sea Unto Itself

A Sea Unto Itself
© 2013 Jay Worrall
272 pages

Amid the bloodshed and chaos of the French revolution, a singular figure has emerged: General Napoleon Bonaparte, a minor Corsican nobleman who distinguished himself on the field of battle and now has an increasing command over France’s destiny. Now he has invaded Egypt, and his object can only be to compromise British interests in India.  Captain Charles Edgemont is commissioned to rendezvous with an agent of the Crown and deliver him safely abroad, a mission which will take months, and is made far more difficult by Edgement’s new ship, Cassandra. Her previous captain was both a hard and neglectful disciplinarian, frequently abusing his crew but failing to maintain their training,  and it will take every bit of Edgemont’s charisma and creativity to put things to rights.  The sequel to Any Approaching Enemy, A Sea Unto Itself is happily without some of the more improbable aspects of that book’s plot, and deftly combines maneuvers at sea with espionage.

It’s been over a year I read Any Approaching Enemy, but I remembered it fondly enough to try its sequel. Captain Edgemont is unusual among most military protagonists in that he’s married to a pacifist, a Quaker woman who does a poor job of hiding her severe disapproval of his chosen occupation.  Perhaps his frequent arguments with the Mrs. give him practice in independent reasoning and debate,  for he engages in both throughout A Sea Unto Itself:  not only does he have to manage a rebellious and shoddily-prepared crew, but once he’s in the middle of things, he’s pitted against the local admiral – who dosn’t take Edgemont’s spy mission, or the French threat, seriously in the least.  Edgemont has to commit to his reasoning and conscience and keep Cassandra ahead of an admiralty ship bearing orders for his arrest.   The African setting adds its own interest, especially in this time when varied European powers were active in different parts of the east African coast and the nearby islands: Cassandra pays visit to a Genoease colony, for instance,  where an Italian femme fatale (sorry, donna fatale) plays an important part in distracting or trying to distract Edgemont from his mission. 

A Sea Unto Itself is perfectly enjoyable as a light naval read: not Hornblower quality, but it serves well enough.

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