Mar 082017

This aphorism by Nassim Taleb condenses everything one needs to know about the dynamics of inertia, complexity, and thinking in linear trajectories.

Inertia, also known as path dependency, stands for a dynamic in which a network has so much invested in its perpetuation along a set of linear parameters that any deviation from those parameters [the path] will increase its operational costs to catastrophic proportions. The network – usually a vertically integrated complex such as a large bureaucratic organization – views path deviation as a direct challenge to its performativity, and aims to preempt deviations by continuously generating a wall of reinforcement noise RN [RN = organizational culture]. RN increases complexity along the entire structure of the network by adding an additional layer of agency to be performed along with the rest of its functions. Over time, as inertia is dynamically reinforced, such networks start resonating with RN to a threshold after which a process of dynamic self-selection starts eliminating network nodes not resonating at RN frequencies. From the perspective of RN [and senior management] the elimination of these nodes is intended to increase coherence and structural integrity. Paradoxically however, this process increases complexity even further, as it prunes any nodes capable of performing non-linearly and pulling the network away from inertia.

The RN driven self-selection process is an emergent quality of networks stuck in inertia. Crucially, while such networks generate RN as a defensive mechanism, it is also their biggest weakness, as all it takes to completely disrupt the network is to hack/jam/modify the RN, or for reality to intervene in its usual nonlinear way. The aphorism above captures this scenario.

Inertia rule of thumb: the moment an external observer can detect identical RN signals emanating unprompted from at least three structurally distinct nodes of a network [i.e. front-side, admin, senior management], one can deduce the network has flatlined into path dependency.

At that moment, when viewed from the inside, the network appears stable and full of robust momentum [‘we are all on the same page’]. However, RN driven inertia is a death sentence to any network as it leaves it completely exposed to, and at the mercy of, other networks capable of attenuating its RN and/or using the predictability of its path dependency to their advantage. Most importantly, even if no such outside networks exist [maybe they all are stuck in path dependencies], the costs of performativity of inertia rise exponentially with changes to the environment in which the network operates. While the network’s path is by necessity linear, the changes outside of it are always nonlinear. This divergence generates entropy and inevitably leads to collapse.

Mar 022017

I finally assembled the triad of new Victor Pelevin books, in the Russian original, and yet to be translated into English. From left to right: Batman Apollo; The Lamp of Methuselah, or the final battle of the chekists and the masons; Love for the three Zuckerbrins. Reading Pelevin is always an aesthetic pleasure, as he is among the best contemporary writers in any language. However, reading him is also always a philosophical experience, because of the way in which he blends the old thinking tropes of the West with Eastern eschatology, and I am not even sure whether West and East make any sense in the context of his writing.

What is his style like? On a single page, Pelevin is capable of seamlessly discussing television advertisement techniques and Shumerian mythology [see Babylon], or the role of glamour and discourse in contemporary media and vampire lore [see Empire V], or dystopian societies of the near future where social justice theology has finally won and the Zen Buddhist awakening of an artificial intelligence love doll [see S.N.U.F.F.].

In fact, he often writes in a format inserting the reader as a participant in the narrative, whereby the reader has the delightful opportunity to encounter his or her mind in the process of the unfolding story [see Buddha’s Little Finger].

There is nothing quite like reading a Pelevin book.

Jan 032017

In his essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges ‘quotes’ the following passage from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that all animals are divided into:

(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) tame ones, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids or sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) those that have just broken the flower vase, (n) those that, at a distance, resemble flies.


Aug 112015

I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves over the weekend, all 867 pages of it. After the first 100 pages the only thing that kept me going was the ever-receding hope that it can and will only get better. A vain hope, as it turned out. Midway through I stopped hoping for improvement and simply decided to persevere since I’d gotten so far. The final third simply fell off from whatever standard the novel was trying to uphold until then and so I went through it with perverse fascination, savoring, as it were, its descent into uncharted territory.

The short version of this review would go something like this: this is the worst of Neal Stephenson’s books, by a very large margin. Huge plot holes, no character development whatsoever, multiple poorly developed points of view leading to superficial protagonists, illogical premises, inconsistent story-world. If you are a die-hard Neal Stephenson fan, as I am, this will be on your bookshelf anyway, but wait for the bargain bin copy. If you are into space exploration and/or hard sci-fi spare yourself the time and effort and read Andy Weir’s The Martian. If you are into post-apocalypse and TEOTWAWKI scenarios read everything by Hugh Howey, starting with his Silo Saga [Wool, Shift, Dust].

Now for the longer version [again, SPOILERS]. I can safely be described as a life-long fan of Neal Stephenson’s work, and have read and own all of his books. I re-read Anathem regularly, simply because it is an almost perfect science fiction novel. Such is my dedication. I feel I must say that as a preface to what comes next. Seveneves is by far the worst book written by Neal Stephenson, and that includes the meandering narrative of the Baroque Cycle, and his collaborative Mongoliad effort. Usually fiction of the magnitude of Seveneves, running close to a thousand pages, suffers from some weak points by the sheer nature of its size and complexity as a story. That being the case, it doesn’t mean that the whole book will suffer from these weaknesses, because if the fundamental structural elements of the story are sound then the whole will stand on its own. Unfortunately, Seveneves is a disaster in every respect.

The moon is blown up by a never explained Agent and humanity has 2 years to find a way to survive as a species before the earth is bombarded by a meteorite shower lasting several thousand years and obliterating everything on the surface of the planet. So far so good, but the humans of Seveneves decide that the best solution from this predicament is to focus all their resources into an escape into low earth orbit around the International Space Station [ISS]. If you are technically inclined you will immediately observe that this is by far the most energy inefficient option, as opposed to building deep underground or underwater bases [more on that below]. In effect, the majority of the plot is centered around the desperate efforts of a tiny remnant of humanity to deal with the totally predictable effects of the absurd premise, namely, the fact that their survival plan positioned them right in the middle of a millenia-long meteorite shower and constant solar radiation. Speaking of solar radiation, its plot role is to magically deal with characters Stephenson doesn’t know what to do with. It also turns out that solar radiation, when compounded over millenia,  has zero adverse effects on the human organism. Who could have imagined?

Facing this world-ending event, all world governments, including the Chinese and the Russians, magically delegate all their authorities and resources to the US President [I kid you not] and a totally US-dominated team of scientists and military led by [I kid you not] Neil deGrasse Tyson. The character of Doc Dubois is such an obvious and lazy reference to Tyson that after the first 100 pages I started doubting whether the book was written by Stephenson at all. The plot, while dead serious about pretty much everything, asks us to believe that a TV science presenter is a deus ex machina capable of solving impossible problems on the go, and that real scientists not only take him seriously but always delegate final decision making to him. Eventually this dynamic becomes comical. But wait, there is more! On his journey to Superman-hood and species-saving exploits Neil deGrasse Tyson is accompanied by the internet mogul turned asteroid mining entrepreneur Sean Whatshisname, modeled on the love-child of Jeff Bezos [Amazon] and Elon Musk [PayPal]. Yes.

Absurdly long stretches of the narrative are focused on detailed technical descriptions of contraptions which will never be encountered again in the story, while major moments in the plot such as losing ones family and children are dedicated a paragraph or less. Apparently scientists do not emote much. Characters constantly appear to value trivial technical problems quite more than the ability to speak to their loved ones condemned to die on earth. It takes Neil deGrasse Tyson all of 5 seconds to decide to abandon his children for the benefit of being on the ISS, and this is not presented as a moral issue at all. Why bother building characters and developing a story when you could spend the next twenty pages describing an airlock? Why indeed.

Speaking of the ISS. If you know anything about the ISS you probably know that the only way to get to it right now is on a Russian Soyuz module. The commander of the Soyuz is always a Russian, and, while ISS mission commanders can be from other nations, the commander of the Russian Orbital Segment [ROS] of the ISS is always a Russian too. Now, the ROS is important, because it and only it controls the navigation and guidance systems of the ISS. In other words, the control room of the ISS is and always has been controlled by Russians, who pretty much wrote the book on space station building and maintenance. It would take you less than one hour to learn all of these things from the open internet. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese are the only other nation to currently put people into space independently, with an active space station program of their own, modeled on the Mir and Soyuz programs. Obviously, if you were to write a book whose plot is entirely centered around a quasi-realistic sci-fi scenario involving the ISS, with a target audience of people interested in these sorts of things, this might be an important fact to consider and weave in your plot. Not so with Seveneves, which magically deals with uncomfortable facts by ignoring them altogether. And so, the Russians play a plot role oscillating between space-plumbers and thugs, while the Chinese have no plot role at all. A rag-tag team of US scientists led by Neil deGrasse Tyson is all it takes.

Remember the absurd premise of trying to survive in low earth orbit for 5 thousand years in the middle of a meteorite shower? Apparently someone pointed that out in early draft edits, because there is a secondary plot latched superficially to the main plot, involving throwaway characters who somehow manage to successfully survive 5 thousand years in a mine and on the ocean floor of planet earth. Yes. How did they do that without the major nation-state resources necessary to accomplish it? We are never told. Instead, these characters are superficially tied to the main protagonists through family bonds which conveniently melt into air the moment the meteor shower starts, only to reappear as cherished relics 5 thousand years later [I kid you not]. In Neal Stephenson’s version of historical development, 5 thousand years is basically like 50 years – some people die, some people change a bit, some people get a little bit weird, but basically everyone still speaks the same language [naturally – English], and everyone understands each other’s jokes. After 5 thousand years of solitary development all it takes to immediately reestablish connection between 3 cultures is taking out the family heirlooms from 5 millenia ago, which includes pictures. Let that sink in. This is not even high-school level of absurd, so I don’t really know what to say about it. Even 50 years in a shared cultural space generates more variety than what Stephenson wants us to believe was generated over 5000 years in communities completely cut off from each other. Imagine bumping into a Sumerian and immediately starting to discuss life, politics and economics, in English. This is the major plot moment of Seveneves. It repeats twice, in case you did not get the message the first time.

Characters make randomly absurd decisions with infuriating consistency. Protagonists who are clearly dangerous for the survival of the species [cannibals] are not only allowed to live, but others regularly sacrifice themselves on their behalf. A protagonist who continuously endangers the lives of everyone is allowed to continue to do so, in a situation where what is at stake is the survival of the species – something which, we are told, is constantly on everyone’s mind. Characters do not undergo any dramatic development, they just appear, are given a two page treatment reading like a Wired advertorial for a tech stock, and then go on their business to die for other characters without an explanation why. The final part of the book introduces a new main protagonist who, and I have to admit this is an achievement of sorts, has no personality whatsoever. Points of view between protagonists shift so often that the reader cannot begin to empathize with the poorly written characters because there is no time.

Coming to think of it, the only redeeming element of the book are the space propulsion ideas. If Stephenson had written a short story collection playing with each idea in turn, it would have been honest, and great. Instead, we have this monolith of bad writing and worse characterization, which, in solidarity with its plot, should be shot into low earth orbit and kept there indefinitely.

Jul 192015

In a lecture on Nightmares, delivered in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1977, by which time he was completely blind and therefore speaking entirely from memory, Jorge Luis Borges narrates the following story from the fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, one that was later to be praised by De Quincey.

Wordsworth tells us that he was in a rocky cave by the sea. It was noon, and he was reading Don Quixote, one of his favorite books, ‘the famous history of the errant knight recorded by Cervantes.’ He put down the book and began to think about the end of science and art, and then the hour came. The powerful hour of noon, a hot summer noon. ‘Sleep seized me’, he recalls, ‘and I passed into a dream.’ He falls asleep in the cave, facing the sea, amid the golden sands of the beach. In his dream he is also surrounded by sand, a Sahara of black sand. There is no water, there is no sea. He is in the middle of a desert – in the desert one is always in the middle – and he is horrified at the thought of trying to escape. Suddenly he sees there is someone next to him. It is, oddly enough, an Arab of the Bedouin tribes, mounted on a camel and with a lance in his right hand. Under his left arm he has a stone, and in his hand he holds a shell. He brings the shell to the poet’s ear; the shell is of an extraordinary beauty. Wordsworth tells us he hears a prophecy ‘in an unknown tongue which yet I understood’: a sort of tender ode, prophesying that the earth was on the verge of being destroyed by a flood sent by the wrath of God.  The Arab tells him that it is true, the flood is coming, but that he has a mission: to save the arts and sciences. He shows him the stone. And the stone is, curiously, Euclid’s Elements, while remaining a stone. Then he brings the shell closer, and the shell too is a book; it is what had spoken those terrible things. The shell is, moreover, all the poetry of the world, including – why not? – the poem by Wordsworth. The Bedouin tells him that he must save these two things, the stone and the shell, both of them books. He turns around, and there is a moment in which Wordsworth sees that the face of the Bedouin has changed, that it is full of horror. He too turns around, and he sees a great light, a light that has now flooded the middle of the desert. It is the waters of the flood that will destroy the earth. The Bedouin goes off, and Wordsworth sees that the Bedouin is also Don Quixote and that the camel is also Rosinante and that, in the same way that the stone was a book and the shell a book, so the Bedouin is Don Quixote and is neither of the two and is both at once. This duality corresponds to the horror of the dream. Wordsworth, at that moment, wakes with a cry of terror, for the waters have engulfed him.

I think that this nightmare is one of the most beautiful in literature.

Sep 192014

A few pics from my recent PC build, involving:

Level 10 GT Thermaltake case, MSI A88X G45 motherboard, XFX R9 270X GPU, AMD A10 7850K Kaveri CPU, 32GB combo G.Skill Ripjaws 2133MHz DDR3, Samsung 840 EVO Series 250GB SSD, Seagate Barracuda 1TB HDD, CoolerMaster V850 PSU.

The MSI motherboard comes with an o/c friendly BIOS, and I already overclocked the Ripjaws and the CPU – the OC Genie button on the motherboard allows presets for different o/c scenarios.


Click for album