Help Asia

December 29th, 2004 § Comments Off on Help Asia § permalink

If you can, donate to help the victims of Asia’s tsunami disaster.

Donate via Amazon (for the American Red Cross) or any other of those sites.

The Third Millennium

December 28th, 2004 § Comments Off on The Third Millennium § permalink

Revisiting books you have read and liked a long time ago is always a trick business. Sometimes, what you found touching and noteworthy in your first reading becomes banal and uninteresting the next time you read the book again. Sometimes, the work can still hold your attention, but you find weaknesses in it that you didn’t perceive before.

A couple days ago I finished rereading The Third Millennium, by José Maria Domenech. As I told in a previous entry, I came across this book recently after not thinking about it for more than ten years. It was mentioned a short time ago in a science fiction list I’m subscribed to, and when I visited a bookstore in the next day, I found it in the used books section, in very good condition, even though it’s somewhat rare.

As I also said in that previous entry, this book was one of the first science fiction books I read, which contributed for my taking a liking for the genre. I was about nine or ten years old when I read it for the first time (if memory serves me right) and I already had a profound interest for anything related to science, especially where space were concerned. This book showed me it was possible to have science and adventure in the same pages. It broadened my literary horizons, and imbued me with the will to tell my own stories. I even wrote some short stories based on the book, and on ideas it provided me — stories which, unfortunately, I didn’t keep.

The book caused such an impression on me that I remembered its main storyline for all those years, even though I couldn’t remember specifics like the names of the characters, for example. Reading the book again, I was surprised to see how much I remembered of the story, and how little I remembered of the philosophy defended by the book. Probably because I was still too young when I read it to care about such things.

The Third Millennium is a story written to present a particular viewpoint about the evolution of the human society in the tradition of works like Brave New World, Island, Walden II, and Utopia. It’s not on a par with those works in terms of literary value, but has a similar style.

The book offers an optimistic vision of the future, although it starts with the somber note of a nuclear holocaust, which, ironically, is the author’s solution to purge humanity of his destructive impulses. The book relies heavily on Malthusian theories to present its view of a perfect society.

Written in 1972, it’s considerably dated. The story begins with the first human spaceship able to traverse interstellar distances waiting for the beginning of its first mission, which, strangely, is the colonization of Mars. On the verge of The Third Millennium, the ship is keeping a silent watch until the time for leaving comes. Then, the worst happens, and the Earth is destroyed in the flames of a nuclear holocaust. The ship’s crew, forced to change their plans, decides to explore the galaxy while they wait for the time when Earth can be colonized again. When the ship returns, after a thousand-year journey, surprises lie ahead for its crew.

It’s not an original story, and it’s merit lies not on the plot but on the discussion of the problems the world was facing at the time and the possibilities science was beginning to explore to solve those problems.

The book has three main parts. The chapters are short, usually two or three pages long. Exposition is a bit heavy, which is a big failing of the book. Most dialogues are just an excuse to expose some scientific or social considerations, which the characters would never need. Amusingly enough, the part of the book I remembered best — the interstellar journey — takes up mere four chapters, adding up to no more than ten pages;

The first part of the book recounts the events leading to the construction of the ship in which most of the action happens, and the technological advances that made its construction possible. The second part describes the nuclear hecatomb and the ship’s journey to the stars. The final part narrates the return of the ship, and the surprises waiting for the crew on Earth. In all parts, Domenech’s theories are explored.

In this rereading, I found that I don’t agree with most of the theories the author defends, even discounting the changes in society that happened meanwhile.

Domenech’s dream is of a society where people are genetically selected to breed and technologically controlled, something that’s too close to Brave New World to my linking. The author splits up humanity in two distinct classes, implying only those with a superior genetic stock should be allowed to breed.

Another thing that I didn’t like about the book is the role it attributes to women. Female characters appear in the book as mere supporting players, whose single object is making the male characters comfortable. In the ship, there are three couples besides the commander, who’s single. The women in the ship (whose scientific qualifications are only briefly mentioned) act as simple “housewives” (or, as Domenech puts its, “hostess”) who keep the ship clean, the male crew fed, and only occasionally helping in scientific duties.

The technological advances predicted by Domenech — hibernation, magnetic shielding, and artificial intelligence — are still in the future. Although his imagined society is heavily dependent on technology to function, Domenech displays a deep distrust for technology. For example, in the book, three artificial intelligences share the command of the ship, being played one against the other, so to speak, to keep them from taking control of the ship from their human masters.

There are other things I didn’t like, but it’s not my interest to make an exhaustive analysis of the book. Despite those problems, I still like the book. The story is interesting, and I believe that, even with its failures and dated technology, it has some good qualities. The questions explored in the book were important when it was written, and are still significant. Although I don’t like the solutions Domenech proposes, the discussion is interesting.

After criticizing the book so much, I don’t believe anyone will want to read it, even if it could be easily found. Anyway, as one of the few science fiction books published in Brazil, it may still be worth a look.

Christmas tally

December 26th, 2004 § Comments Off on Christmas tally § permalink

Three parties with a day to rest between the first two and the last one. End result: two or three kilograms I will need to lose later. I guess all the effort at the gym was for naught. Nothing to do about it, however. Christmas is not a time to keep score on my weight anyway. :-)

I shot 274 pictures, totaling 368MB. Most of them at 4 megapixes. With two big memory cards, I can take as many pictures as I want and I won’t run out of space. I also recorded 13 short movies, totaling 235MB. A whole CD worth of memories for our view pleasure. I can’t even think about how much that would cost if I hadn’t bought a digital camera.

We usually buy gifts as a family at Christmas since we married. So we bought our digital camera, DVDs, fourteen books, and a couple other things. This year was the year of the book for our family. (Of course, this is our internal policy. Relatives, including immediate family, do get gifts lest our sanity be questioned.)

I watched seven movies (most of them after everybody was asleep) and got only 15 hours of sleep. I’ll need to recover those hours over the week, because the new year is coming, with more parties and sleep deprivation.

Let’s see if I will make the next year alive.

Merry Christmas

December 23rd, 2004 § Comments Off on Merry Christmas § permalink

A merry Christmas to all readers and visitors. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, a merry end-of-year to you too. 😛

As always, updates will be erratic here until the next year. Have a good time. :-)

SF&F online

December 21st, 2004 § Comments Off on SF&F online § permalink

Some links for those of you who like science fiction and/or fantasy:

The best place to buy SF&F e-books: excellent selection, nice prices, good support, and a site that works.
Greg Egan’s Home Page
Greg Egan’s personal site. In the Stories section you will find more than 15 free stories you can read online or download.
Free Reads by Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly, another very well-known science fiction writer, has recorded various of his stories in MP3.
Futurismic: Fiction
Online science fiction by the same guys who brought us the excellent Futurismic blog.
Infinity Plus
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror by famous and non-famous alike.

Why Rails?

December 19th, 2004 § 2 comments § permalink

Ian Bicking is not particularly impressed by Rails. He says there’s nothing special about the framework, nothing that makes it different from other Web programming libraries. As a longtime user of this kind of frameworks, I understand his criticism; I even agree with some of them. As a recent Rails enthusiast, I disagree with his comment as a whole.

As readers of this blog probably know, there is something I value above all other things in a programming language or library: simplicity. More than any other feature, that is what defines the power of a tool to me. Simplicity, in this case, is not merely ease-of-use, but a set of characteristics that make the tool useful in the long term.

So the short answer to Bicking’s contention is: Ruby presents a kind of simplicity no other framework I’ve used (or at least know of) does. As such a short answer is not so interesting, I’ll comment on some specific aspects of Bicking’s post.

» Read the rest of this entry «

His Dark Materials

December 18th, 2004 § Comments Off on His Dark Materials § permalink

His Dark Materials is Philip Pullman‘s quite imaginative, but ultimately disappointing, trilogy.

I first read about Pullman at Amazon. I was browsing the site for some fantasy books I wanted to buy, and a recommendation in one of the pages pointed to the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it’s called in its United Kingdom editions).

I read the book’s summary, and immediately lost interest in it. Firstly, the main character is a child, something that rarely engages my interest these days. With the exception of some classics, most of the stories where the protagonist is too young tend to be below the level of story realization I expect. Secondly, another character was an armored bear. I don’t know why, but it occurred to me at that moment that I would never read a book with an armored bear as a character. I was wrong, but it seemed to me too ridiculous a thing at the time. The book looked like an overrated fairy tale.

Time went by, and I forgot about the books. One of the blogs I read briefly mentioned the book some time later, talking — guess what — about the armored bear. But I had forgotten about the books, and only remembered the mention later when I started to read the books.

When I started buying e-books at Fictionwise, I began a wish list of the ones I wanted to buy in the future. And, once again, I came across Pullman’s work, which, if I’m not mistaken, was being offered at a discounted price at the time. For some motive, this time my opinion of the books changed. The summary at Fictionwise presented a different version of the books, much more interesting, and didn’t mention any armored bears. I bought the books.

When I finished the other books I was reading in the Palm, I downloaded the books from Fictionwise and synced them to the Palm. Even so, it took me some time to start reading. I was afraid I would not like the books. Finally, I decided to give them a go, and began the first book.

I got hooked in the first sentence. For a fantasy work, that sentence is simply perfect. As I progressed though the book I realized my first opinion about it had been completely wrong. The main character, Lyra, while being a child, is so masterfully realized that you can’t help but root for her. The secondary characters are also very interesting. And — I know this is ironic — the armored bears turned out to be fascinating characters as well. » Read the rest of this entry «

Open Books Project

December 16th, 2004 § Comments Off on Open Books Project § permalink

Via Galvez: O’Reilly Books is making a lot of titles available for free in PDF and HTML. I don’t know if this is a new site, but the selection is quite interesting, including a bunch of out-of-print books that contain good material even if part of it is outdated. Some good titles there: We the Media, Unix Text Processing, DocBook: The Definitive Guide, and Linux Network Administrator’s Guide.

Trusting Google

December 15th, 2004 § Comments Off on Trusting Google § permalink

A couple months ago, when Google Desktop was released, I wrote an entry saying I didn’t trust Google, especially because of certain dissonances in its declared policy (Don’t be evil) and its actions — for example, when Google News bowed to China’s government and censored search results.

At the time, some even called me a neurotic, but I’m not particularly bothered by this label. Where my privacy is concerned, I border on paranoia. If I don’t defend myself in this area, no one else will. For certain things, I really want to know what is happening, and how it’s happening.

Returning to the subject at hand, however, the question of whether trust Google or not is still open. With Google’s announcement of a new large project, a deal with various large universities in the US to digitize and make available online thousands of books belonging to the libraries of those universities, people are starting to consider the issue again. This time, three well-known names in the blogsphere offer their opinion.

Scott Rosenberg writes:

The public has a big interest in making sure that no one business has a chokehold on the flow of human knowledge. As long as Google’s amazing project puts more knowledge in more hands and heads, who could object? But in this area, taking the long view is not just smart — it’s ethically essential. So as details of Google’s project emerge, it will be important not just to rely on Google’s assurances but to keep an eye out for public guarantees of access, freedom of expression and limits to censorship.

Rosenberg welcomes Google’s deal as one of the most important undertakings of the company, but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Google is still a business, with commercial interests that may conflict with he needs of the general public. Today, he argues, we can reasonably trust Google because the company has a good record of making the right calls when it comes to pleasing its users. But that won’t last, he continues. Eventually, Google’s current leadership will give way to a new generation of executives whose priorities may not be so aligned with the user-geared policies in place today at the company.

Obviously, I agree. Google still has the special glamour of a company who always innovates in what it does, always gets it right, and keeps raising the bar on what people expect of Web applications. But, many times, that also causes people to forget some basic facts. No company aligns its commercial interests to those of their users out of generosity. Expecting Google to proceed differently is a mistake.

Dave Winer talks about that in his commentary of Rosenberg’s article:

Another way of looking at it: What if Microsoft were doing what Google is doing? Of course we wouldn’t let them do it without a very serious and probably very shrill examination. Well, I’m telling you, Google today is as dangerous as Microsoft, and I wouldn’t bet on their trustworthyness (sic), not without a lot more light having been shed on this. The technology industry is built on a foundation of arrogance and disdain for users. Google is too. You may not have seen it yet, but I have.

Winer’s commentary is interesting because Google is often compared with Microsoft, but in a completely opposite aspect — that of Microsoft’s killer, just as Microsoft killed IBM as a software company. That naïve comparison also obscures the questions that should be done about the control Google has over the data that belongs to its users. Commenting both Rosenberg’s article and Winer’s entry, Jon Udell says:

Bottom line: I think that stewardship of so much of our private as well as public information requires a lot more transparency than Google currently practices. For example, on the day that MSN Search was announced I pointed to a funny but tasteless prank that Google News played on Microsoft. Are we really supposed to believe that an algorithm chose that unflattering photo of Bill Gates? Of course it didn’t. But how can we know for sure?

Today, Google controls a enormous set of information, and I’m not talking about the documents in its search database. For Orkut, Google Mail, and Blogger, Google stores in its servers a huge amount of data on behalf of its users, many times under dubious service agreements. If we question Microsoft because of those issues, why shouldn’t we question Google? Fortunately, Google has been providing ways to export that data to others places, even though sometimes they only do it when people have already routed around initial barriers.

This stewardship, as Udell puts it, is a big responsibility, and Google still has not faced a crisis of such magnitude so as to allow us to judge how they would react if serious problems arose with its terms of service. In fact, this would be an good way to gain trust, defining explicitly how the company would handle problematic scenarios.

The issue of centralization is also important. Centralization is almost always considered an undesirable characteristic of protocols, products, and services. For the kind of products Google offers, however, centralization is desirable in some ways because it makes a better service possible. Also, most of the times, decentralization makes little sense for a business. Then again, alternative access is also important. Closed and limited access points always penalize users.

This is where I agree the most with the open source movement. Although there are still many issues to be solved where the commercial interests of a company and the need to provide assurance to users that their data won’t be lost or locked away clash, I still believe open source offers the best path to the protection of the public interests.

In short, as good as Google may be as a company, I still believe our role as users is to always watch what is going one. Otherwise, we risk the prospect of unpleasant surprises in the future. As Rosenberg also writes in his article, what happens if a new generation at Google decides it’s time to be more aggressive with its product portfolio?

So I maintain my position. I’ll use some of the products Google makes available to be, but I will make my choices understanding that the company may abruptly change its policies, as it’s its right. While the water is nice, I will keep swimming at the pool. But if push comes to shove, my options will be open. I believe that’s a sensible stance.

In the queue

December 14th, 2004 § Comments Off on In the queue § permalink

More books in my end-of-year reading list:

Tomorrow Now, by Bruce Sterling
This is the first book by Bruce Sterling that I’ll read. I usually don’t read books attempt to predict the near future because they quickly become out of date, but I’m giving Sterling a try considering the quality of his articles, and his standing in the science fiction community.
The Stand, by Stephen King
I saw parts of the miniseries once, but never read the book. The story seems to be very interesting.
Misery, by Stephen King
Recommended by a friend of mine. The story seems interesting too. I hope it’s not one of King’s cliché stories.
The Third Millennium, by José Maria Domenech
A serendipitous finding: I read this book more than fifteen years ago, and didn’t even remember it existed anymore. A couple weeks ago, someone mentioned it in a science fiction mailing list I’m subscribed to. In the next day, I went to a used bookstore just to take a look at the selections there, not quite remembering it. In an amazing coincidence, it was the first book I found in the science fiction section. This book is one of the first books I ever read in that genre. I was pretty young at the time, and didn’t know there existed adventure books (as I thought about them) with science as the main component. I got hooked, and never stopped reading the genre. The book also inspired me to write my own fiction.
A Strange Valley, de Darrell Bain
I bought this book before I had read Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children, and had not realized they had similar stories (at least, judging by what the cover says). I will give it a try anyway.
The Case for Christ, de Lee Strobel
A journalist analyses the evidence for Jesus.
The Scar, de China Miéville
This book is an indirect sequel to Perdido Street Station. Must not start reading now. I have no time. Must not start reading now. I have…
Selected Tales, de Edgar Allan Poe
I read many of Poe’s tales before, but this selection has some that are new to me. Poe is really a master writer.
Moby Dick, de Herman Melville
Decided to read it again. The last time I read it, I was quite young, and I don’t remember much about the book anymore.

Where am I?

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