Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pattern Recognition

William Gibson

After reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, I felt a need to catch up a bit on William Gibson's novels. Pattern Recognition is the first in a series of novels set in a weird Gibsonian version of the, post 9/11, present. Gibson's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, makes her living by being psychologically allergic to corporate hyperbole. She is a consultant to advertising agencies, on what is going to be the next cool thing to take advantage of and what is creepy about their advertising campaigns. She is in London at the beginning of the book, passing judgement on the newly designed swoosh logo of a sneaker manufacturer which shall remain nameless.

Gibson  built this novel around a concept which he calls the "Garage Kubrick." Keep in mind that the book was published in 2003, before the advent of YouTube. The "Garage Kubrick" working alone with a personal computer, is able to create a feature film by manipulating bits and pieces of footage, making a movie pixel by pixel, mixing in dialog and music, then releasing the film by uploading it in bits and pieces, to various websites.

Cayce Pollard, who follows the release of the various bits of "the footage" and discusses them on a dedicated online forum,  is hired by the mysterious  Dutch advertising executive Hubertus Bigend, to track down the creator of the footage, the "Garage Kubrick." The action and adventure that ensues is due to her pursuit of that goal. I hate to release any spoilers but rest assured there is plenty of action and adventure.

All of the technology in the book was current, or at least possible, in 2003. Pixar was creating digitally animated films which were quite sophisticated. It was possible, at that time, to imaging one that looked like live action. This year, of course, we saw the release of  Tintin, which appears to be about 95% of the way to that goal.

I am working my way through Spook Country, Gibson's next novel in this series, on my way to attempting Zero History, which came out in 2010. Expect to see more of Gibson on these pages, soon.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson

Writers tend to accumulate a lot of stuff, short pieces that they wrote for this or that publication, or for no particular reason. After a while all that stuff can be swept together an become a book. This book is William Gibson's stuff.

Gibson is an odd, quirky kind of thinker, so his stuff is pretty interesting. The first piece "African Thumb Piano" is about how he set about learning to write fiction, science fiction, of course. He had a hard time at first with the cool technologies that were supposed to make his stories fit that genre. What do they do and what should he call them? "My wife parodied them all, not unkindly, as 'His long green ears quivering, Fino slipped from the rig.' Today this reminds me that I was having trouble with character names. At one point I seriously considered borrowing them from products in the IKEA catalog. But there was always something akin to 'the rig.' Some unimagined (by me), hence unnamed, element of technology." Later Gibson got very good at imagining and naming things, like "cyberspace," his invented term for an extension of the internet into a live space occupied by the minds of uber-hackers of the near future, who no longer had much interest in their physical bodies. Now we think of cyberspace as the world wide web.

In this book, Gibson reviews a record or two, visits Singapore (Disneyland with the Death Penalty), explains why he is fascinated with Japan, loves London and Tokyo, disparages the internet as a waste of time, becomes an eBay addict and visits the set of his own movie. It is a hodgepodge of "non fiction" writing by a master writer of fiction.

He predicts (12 years ago) that computer chips will indeed be implanted in peoples heads, for medical reasons and that they will rapidly become obsolete. I heard a piece on NPR just this weekend about a paraplegic, experimentally, controlling a robot arm through the use of a brain implanted chip. Twelve years from now we may see paraplegics walk again, using lab grown neurons implanted in their bodies to bypass the damaged spinal chord. Who needs a chip?

Some pieces have already been bypassed by events. Gibson includes a 1999 piece about digital film making: how it could someday be good enough to supplant real film. Hardly anybody makes movies on film anymore, it's too expensive and limited. The pace at which real technology now overtakes the imagination of science fiction writers is kind of scary.

I'm unsure which flavor I am instructed to distrust in the title of the book. Cappuccino Crunch?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature

David George Haskell

A standard exercise in undergraduate  environmental science classes is to assign each student to go out and throw a hula hoop on the ground and then write a paper on what is to be found inside the circle of that hoop. I’m sure professors hope nobody will go out and do a report on a small part of an asphalt parking lot. Professor Haskell has taken this assignment to it’s logical extreme by visiting the same small patch of ground, on a mountainside, in an old growth forest near where he teaches biology in Tennessee, every week or two for an entire year.

Each chapter is derived from one such visit, starting in early January and running until December 31st. On every visit he sees something different, something timely and something interesting.

Haskell goes into extreme detail about the plants, the soil, the tiny springtails, the fungus, spiders and insects found in his square meter of ground. He also looks up to see the trees, the song birds and the deer, coyotes and raccoons that are in the surrounding forest.

Haskell’s small patch of ground is in and old growth forest, but human intervention is everywhere in his patch. Acidification caused by coal burning power plants, golf balls driving from the top of a nearby cliff by wagering golfers, global climate change. He has one chapter about the eradication of eastern timber wolves and their gradual replacement by coyotes migrating from the west and one on the effect of farming and timbering on the deer population.

As I am soon going to move in to a small patch of reasonable aged regrown forest I was drawn to this study. I sort of doubt that I will spend my retirement studying my local nematodes, but now, at least, I will know that they are there.