Why you should read John Brunner if you care about the future

I came across John Brunner a few years ago when I read Stand on Zanzibar . I love Brunner because his writing style adheres to some of my core beliefs of what sci-fi writing should be about. Here are three excerpts from The Shockwave Rider (1975) which is based in the early 21st century that illustrate why you should be reading his works.

FENCED BUT NOT FOILED

Inter alia the Handbook of the National Association of Players at the Game of Fencing states:
– The game may be played manually or electronically.
– The field shall consist of 101 parallel equidistant lines coded AA, AB, AC … BA, BB, BC … to EA (omitting the letter I), crossed at 90 ° by 71 parallel equidistant lines 01 to 71.
– The object is to enclose with triangles a greater number of coordinate points than the opponent…

Worldbuilding over Narrative – I am strongly of the belief that in sci-fi the context is more important than the storyline itself. A lot of excellent sci-fi has been created by taking contemporary stories and contextualizing them in imaginary worlds – a good example being The Stars by Destination, a futuristic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. The stock approach is to let context be implied from dialogues and monologues (diary entries being the most pedestrian of the lot) and it is pretty hard to build a lot of context quickly without boring the audience.

In Shockwave, Brunner introduces the fictional game of Fencing in a brutally efficient manner by simply including a Fencing Rulebook between chapters, abruptly and with no additional context. Contrast this with how the late Iain Banks labours through each contest in The Player of Games (loved the substance, hated the style)


“I’m a poor player myself; it would be a mismatch. But why did fencing appeal to you rather than, say, Go, or even chess?”
“Chess has been automated,” was the prompt reply. “How long is it since a world champion has done without computer assistance?”
“I see. Yes, I understand nobody has yet written a competent fencing program. Did you try it? You had adequate capacity.”
“Oh, using a program to play chess is work. Games are for fun. I guess I could have spoiled fencing, if I’d spent a year or two on the job. I didn’t want to.”

 

 

Technology but also how social values have been influenced by technological change – Brunner cares deeply about social problems of the future and how technology hasn’t done a good job of solving them.

Brunner having spent a few pages writing up the rules of Fencing, avoids the temptation of having a match-up between the protagonist and his interlocutor. Instead they talk about the value in creating an AI to “solve” it which is an important topic few people have addressed. Likewise that Brunner came up with Shockwave’s larger theme (I won’t tell you exactly what it is) 40 years ago gives me goosebumps in light of Apple vs the FBI!

Prescience – Brunner retains healthy realism in all his writing – he doesn’t make up overly fancy tech or aliens and he makes some pretty accurate predictions about the future. I find it fascinating that in Shockwave which is set in the early 21st Century correctly predicts AIs cracking chess and implies Go has been “solved” as well. Timely given how Lee Seedol has been faring vs AlphaGo.

 

By the time Reverend Lazarus fought his way through the maze of interlinked credit-appraisal computers and nailed the tapeworm that had just been hatched, he could well be ragged and starving.

 

Neologisms – Brunner does an excellent job of coming up with new words for things that don’t exist yet (almost none of them being portmanteaus – too contrived and easy). The bit above isn’t representative except it just happens to be perhaps the first time someone thought about self-replicating malware and decided this was an appropriate name for it.

I’ll end with this chapter-within-chapter from Stand on Zanzibar (written in 1968) that illustrates all of this again – worldbuilding over narrative, social impact of tech, prescience and neologisms –  doesn’t “acceleratube” remind you of something?

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Why everyone should download Overdrive and switch to Audiobooks

If you’ve spent any time at all talking to me about books over the past year I’ve likely hijacked a few minutes of that conversation to expound the virtues of Overdrive (of which I cannot get enough).

Here is that sermon in print:

Audio over E: If you don’t check your phone while sitting in front of the TV or stay away from Whatsapp or Facebook while reading a multi-page article on your phone, well, congratulations! You can stop reading here and go back to what you were doing earlier. Otherwise, you’ve probably seen your reading habit suffer as a result of diminished attention span. I find that audiobooks provide the necessary sensory insulation to be able to absorb content without distraction. Further if you’re spending a material portion of your day in front of a screen anyway, it helps get your eyes and neck a rest once in a while, letting your ears do the heavy lifting.

Getting over the hump: I found getting used to audiobooks very challenging to begin with. I recommend easing yourself in, either by listening to something you’ve read already or by sticking to humour – I opted to do both and dug into Bill Bryson. Persevere through at least 5-6 hours of material before you decide to give up on audio. I promise you second wind.

The voice matters:  I tend to stay away from authors who read their own books – they don’t seem to realize that reading is as much an art as writing – the exceptions to this rule are stage and radio comedians who read their books (David Sedaris is an excellent example). Hachette and Randomhouse do an excellent job of picking pleasant and appropriate voices for their publications.

Fiction vs Non-fiction: Non-fiction is significantly easier than fiction as you can afford to drift away if you like and still not feel lost. Fiction, the kind I read at least, requires high attention to detail and is harder to follow on audio though I continue trying. Whodunnits are the worst and I stick to my kindle for them.

Add Ons: Pacing, Snoozing etc: Most audiobook apps allow you to modulate pace without affecting pitch – this is a life saver especially once you adjust to the format and want to kick the speed up a couple of notches. Almost all players also come with a snooze function that lets you play audio for a chosen period of time before switching off – keeps me from staring into my phone while in bed into the wee hours of the morning.

And finally..

Overdrive vs Audible: About a year back Lifehacker did a poll on audiobook services and Audible won hands down. I’ve tried Audible and I’ve found their service to be excellent. My beef with the ecosystem though is that audiobooks are notoriously expensive vs e-books and perhaps rightly so – it takes a lot more effort to create a good audiobook and the audience for audiobooks is markedly smaller for now. Even with the subscription model that gets me a free book each month and discounts, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy books on Audible with the same frivolousness as I do on Kindle. Here is where Overdrive comes in.

Overdrive is connected to over 30,000 libraries & schools – if you have a first world library membership (such as with the NLB ) that allows you access to their audiobook collection (apart from their e-book collection) so long as you’re a library member. The app seamlessly interfaces with your library’s digital collection allowing you to sign in with your library card credentials, search and download any book you like. Getting on to Overdrive has brought me back to reading a material amount of long form content each week after trying to desperately make it work for several years. For this reason I cannot recommend it enough.

Bonus: Finally the one complaint I have with the app is the inability to view the entire audiobook collection of your library in an endless scroll without having to hit next page each time. I wrote a simple crawler for NLB here which should spit out info into text file that you can parse into something like this.

Happy listening!

 

the anti-recommendation engine – 2

This post originally appeared on Facebook

As a first step to exposing myself to books outside my comfort zone I’ve built this basic tool – https://goo.gl/6m4h4r
This google sheet contains the nearly 10,000 audiobooks available at National Library of Singapore and randomly recommends 5 of them with helpful Overdrive download links.
The plan is to open this sheet whenever I’m on the lookout for a new book and force myself to download at least one of the 5, preferably something outside my comfort zone.
Let’s see how it goes!

Runners vs Walkers

This was originally posted on Facebook on 10th February 2013

The organizers of the Green Power 50km hike were kind enough to publish a full rank list of finishers here:

http://goo.gl/4fbUw.

Two interesting observations:

a. One should expect marathon finish times end up being some kind of normal distribution with a long right tail. However GP participants fall largely into 2 distinct categories – those who walk the ups but run the flats and downs vs those who will walk the whole way. This led me to believe that there should be some kind of bi-modality in the distribution – I was not disappointed.

Histogram of finish times in hours (y-axis = number of people who made it)

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Compare above with a sampling from a bimodal distribution – 50/50 mix of {N(6.75,1.25); N(10.25,1.5)}

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b. There is an additional distortion – I was personally looking to finish under 10 hrs and I found myself adjusting pace towards the end to meet this target – does this work with everyone? If it did we should see more people finish closer to a 30 minute and hour mark as opposed to 15 and 45 minute marks. Here is a breakdown of finishers split into 15 min intra hr buckets revealing that this is indeed the case.

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