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Uptime report: Do androids dream of Chinese New Year?

Thanks to that bit of time off earlier in the month, I’m ahead of my reading goals. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon was probably twice the length of a standard novel, and five times as elaborate. I was lured in by the SF premise — a murder in a panopticonic dystopian near future (it first occurs to me that it’s not unlike the one in the anime Psycho-Pass), where a governing AI and its human agents are stymied by an encounter with a mind they can’t read — and ended up staying for a literary mindfuck of Pynchonesque proportions. Recommended, but don’t be in a hurry.

I’ve now started reading Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design, and can’t wait to get started on the new William Gibson novel, Agency. I think my favorite Gibsons are Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral, and this seems to be along similar lines.

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It’s now a few days later and I’ve quit reading Ruined by Design. It’s not that I disagree with the central premise; maybe the opposite. There are certainly designers in the world who don’t think or yet know that changing their organizations from the inside-out to be more ethical and responsible is part of the job, and maybe it takes a couple hundred pages of hitting the point over and over to get them onboard. I just stopped getting anything else out of it past the opening, and stuck around until the 70% mark to be sure. The author mentions structuring your presentations like an inverted pyramid, the way journalists are trained to do, leading with your best bits to get your audience’s precious attention, so I guess the book itself puts that into practice.

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This year’s Chinese New Year celebrations have been a little muted, both at home and abroad. Putting aside the nCoV outbreak in the headlines, it just feels different now, like an idea that has almost run its course. The build up to this has taken place over a few years, but it’s certainly palpable now.

My parents’ generation is getting tired of organizing everything, and mine doesn’t care about observing traditions in the same way. The virus has provided a reason for canceling some of the get-togethers, but they were being scaled down anyway. Even Apple’s annual CNY shot-on-iPhone film/ad lacks its usual artistry this time around. I don’t know if it’s the 60fps look, the fact that they shot many scenes handheld, or the Smart HDR effect, but it feels more on the cheap side rather than cinematic.

Speaking of change and the fading of old ways, over at my workplace, we’ve just put out our annual trends report. It’s compiled with the input of some 1,200 employees in 33 studios, so the results should be a nearly fair representation of the global design climate. The running theme across all seven trends? Many of the fundamentals underlying daily life are being put on notice as we ponder the definition of value as consumers and consumed in an increasingly turbulent world.

One trend, called Digital Doubles, touches upon the idea of personal datasets so rich that we’ll appoint them as digital proxies for our own choices and behaviors, sort of like how you can tell a robo-advisor how much risk you’d happily tolerate before letting them go trade and rebalance your portfolios. At this point, I’m several chapters into Gibson’s Agency and one of its main threads concerns an AI product designed to do exactly that.

“but he described the product, that’s you, as a cross-platform, individually user-based, autonomous avatar. Target demographic power-uses VR, AR, gaming, next-level social media. Idea’s to sell a single unique super-avatar. Kind of a digital mini-self, able to fill in when the user can’t be online.”

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Reviewed The Humans by Matt Haig




As a story, the way it moves is unlike anything I can remember reading. Laugh out loud funny at times; very insightful about life and love; peppered with sentimental, inspirational schmaltz; and also a fast-paced page turner. It’s some kind of sorcery. It’ll make you sad and lonely, but also take you to a place where it doesn’t matter.

Reviewed The Humans by Matt Haig.

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Reviewed The Inland Sea by Donald Richie




I cannot recall a more insightful or colorful travelogue about Japan (article or book), and it’s 40 years old. Richie seems that rare and perfect in between of both cultures to serve as guide/interpreter to the foreign reader. I wish he had done more.

Reviewed The Inland Sea by Donald Richie.

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Quote from The Inland Sea


I sit and nibble at the stuff, sweet and insipid at the same time, and feel sorry for myself—alone and lonely, miles away from friends, eating shiruko on a wet, dead day, lost somewhere in the wilds of a land that preeminently knows how to make one feel alone. Reluctantly, I eat the last of the red beans—because there seems nothing else to do. The young waitress, plain and neat in a blue skirt and a white apron, has been watching me. Now she approaches, excuses herself, deftly removes the empty bowl, bows, and moves away. Soon she reappears, fills my teacup neatly, brings a new ashtray, removes the used one. She does all of this, as do most Japanese waitresses, decorously, with discretion and with care. Then she disappears and comes back with another bowl of steaming shiruko. She allows herself a smile as she puts it in front of me, turns and says, charmingly, “Okawari desu”—another helping. She had observed me, had perhaps misunderstood my reluctance to finish as a wish to savor. Now she was giving me, free, another helping because I had seemed to like it and because it was theirs. The Japanese concept of service is doing something nice for someone, and doing it as though for its own sake. This girl expects nothing because one need not tip in Japan. Even my future patronage is not to be considered, for the likelihood of my ever returning is very slight, sitting as I am with my belongings, waiting for a boat. And no one obliges her to behave in such a pleasant fashion. She does it because it is the proper way of doing it. And it is. It is the only way to serve and not demean either yourself or your customer.

Found by Brandon Lee in The Inland Sea.

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➟ Graphic Adventures, the Book

Straight from the pages of Wikipedia, compiled and edited by one Philipp Lenssen, this book tells the story of an era most people my age lived through and think back upon with great affection: the early period of computer adventure gaming. Companies like Sierra On-Line, Lucasarts, Microprose, and Adventure Soft defined the boundaries of what we now know of interactive storytelling, plot-driven game design, and narrative/item-based puzzles. It’s on sale at Amazon for $29, and is also available as a free, downloadable HTML file with “loads of screenshots”. YJSoon has a useful tip: run it through Calibre to make an EPUB file, and it’ll sit nicely on your iPad’s iBookshelf.

Link (via @YJSoon)

Author of the Month: William Gibson (June)

 

I read fiction sporadically, in a manner that exhausts all interest in holding another book when I’m done; a holdover from my university days when being asked to read five novels a week wasn’t unreasonable. So sometimes I go for months without, and then at other times like this past week, I bite down hard and can’t let go.

Aside: That last phrase gives me a mental image of Cory Doctorow’s domain name, craphound.com, where you should really go and get his latest book, “For The Win”, as a free download.

I’m currently on my fifth William Gibson, and the third for the week, Idoru. These books have been around for years, and I thought I was all alone in picking them up on a whim, until I saw on Twitter this morning that two other friends are currently rereading Neuromancer. A coincidence is a terrible thing-that-could-be-blogging-fodder to waste, so I decided I would suggest an author each month and maybe some of you would like to read along.

Gibson is a remarkable talent. Some critics find fault with his writing, or the alternating obtuseness and thinness of his plots, or his Japanophilia, but his sense of futurism is unassailable. This is a man who virtually invented the cyberpunk term and genre with Neuromancer… which he wrote on a manual typewriter and reams of paper. His experience with computers at that point was non-existent, yet the book is rife with systems that we can recognize today as variations of the internet, email, websites, search engines, personal handheld computers, and some others like virtual reality that are still far from perfection.

It’s as if he lived as a person displaced in time, to whom the thoughts of a 21st-century man would come without effort or the need for context: earlier, I came across a bit in Idoru where military-like airport security guards randomly stopped a passenger and compared a DNA sample (a strand of hair) against the data stored in her passport. That’s tight airport security, biometric passports, and invasive random searches, foreseen in a book published in 1996. Incredibly prescient work from a man who had just gotten his first email address and modem.

Most of his books are set in a not-too-distant future where pockets of physical ruin and squalor coexist with technologies that would be viewed today as luxurious. Instead, they are survival tools or commonplace opiates: cyberspace worlds into which people escape, conduct their shady businesses, or stumble onto valuable corporate secrets. This is the ground from which heroes spring, to be later oppressed by those who are obscenely rich and sometimes more machine than human. The Keanu Reeves movie, Johnny Mnemonic, was based on a Gibson story and is probably the best example for helping you visualize a typical cyberpunk setting and narrative.

I’ve read one set in the present, Pattern Recognition, and it might be a good place to start if hardcore SF turns you off. I love the hook: the heroine possesses an innate ability to perform what is usually a learned skill. She experiences involuntary reactions to logos and branding, intuiting which ones will perform and which will fail, and as such becomes something of an expensive guru for hire amongst multinational corporations. It’s a trick also seen in Idoru, set in a futuristic Tokyo where nanotech buildings grow like trees, constantly expanding upwards: a major character has the ability to quickly “feel” large amounts of statistical data on a person and understand the emotions and causes behind them. In one scene, he knows when a celebrity has begun to contemplate suicide, and moves to intervene.

The most tangible outcome of having immersed myself in Gibson’s futures all week – places where customized portable computers are a way of life – is something I only understood this evening, when I absentmindedly reached for my iPhone and realized that I no longer thought of it as anything but “my computer”. An object of pure utility, stripped of its brand, operating system, applications, and hardware specifics. Beyond a certain level of usability, there’s a parity between these portable devices and desktop systems. What matters is the network of information they access. This is by no means a new idea, but feeling it, and by extension feeling like a character in an SF story in one unguarded moment, was like an epiphany. There are certain passages I could point to as the seeds for that moment, persuasive little vignettes that idealize the relationships we seek to have with information technology, but this quote I found on Wikipedia demonstrates how Gibson’s philosophy of computing has always followed such a line of thought:

“I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.”

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Recommended reading:
Neuromancer
Pattern Recognition


The Bridge Trilogy:
1. Virtual Light
2. Idoru
3. All Tomorrow’s Parties