Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: Crux by Ramez Naam

Nexus is one of the best books I have read in years.  It had a fast paced plot dealing with the morals and ethics of our transhumanist future along with a nice bit of Buddhist philosophy.  Also the unique setting of a cyberpunk Bangkok was pretty awesome.  Crux is the sequel novel that deals with the aftermath of the events in Nexus.

There isn't much I can say about the plot without somewhat spoiling Nexus but I will say that we find the surviving characters of the previous novel each dealing with the new reality from those event in their own ways.  They have changed the world in ways both good and bad and might have a few chances to make things better.  In the end the book is about the good and bad impact transhumanist technology can have on a society.  Technologies that are developing in the real world much faster than anyone would have though just a few years ago.

The most common complaint I have read about Crux is that the quality of writing isn't very good.  Although I see what those reviewers are talking about and Crux isn't going to win any awards for literary style, I feel that these critics are missing the point of a book like this.  It isn't about the quality of the prose, but the quality of the ideas which is important.  This is the major reason the Sci Fi tends to be viewed poorly by literary types.  Crux might not win over the literati but I feel that Ramez Naam is a solid writer and he is able to depict action scenes much better than most other authors.  

This leads to the major complaint I have with this book, and something I have noticed happening in most modern Sci Fi.  I felt the book had too much action and didn't focus enough on the ideas.  The novel could have been significantly shorter if many of the action scenes had just been left out with no real damage being done to the story itself.  Additional character development, world building, and just random musings on the social impact of the various technologies in the book would have been a welcome change of pace from the action.  It almost feels like Sci Fi writers today are scared of their audience getting bored and that blowing something up is a way to fix that.  

I also didn't feel that the anti-transhumanist characters were given enough depth and space to give their side of the argument.  Some rather horrible things are done in this book in the name of humanity and the people committing those acts end up looking more evil than rational.  It may be that Ramez Naam decided that Nexus gave enough of that argument and that Crux should instead focus on the real possible implications of transhumanism.  Even if that is the case I felt more time could have been given to debating the issues that the book brings up.  

In the end this is a fun, fast-paced, techno-thriller that I enjoyed immensely.  I can't wait for the next book in the series and I hope it spends a bit more time on the important ideas that only a Sci-Fi novel like this can explore.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: Buying bus and train tickets with your smartphone in Portland

One of the reasons I live in Portland is the simple fact that the mass transit system is good enough that I don’t have to drive.  I hate driving and find it to be both expensive and a huge waste of time.  One of the odd issues though with using mass transit is trying to make sure that you either have some bus passes or the correct amount of cash to buy a ticket when you need one.  Given that I rarely use cash this has actually been more of an issue than it should have been so I have been looking forward to e-tickets to simplify this issue.

Now Trimet, the regional mass transit authority for the Portland area, has a simple smartphone app that lets you buy tickets whenever you need them.  All you need to do is download the app, put in some credit/debit card information and then you can start buying tickets.  When you need to use one you just click a few buttons and you get a valid ticket to show the bus driver, it even has a QR code that the driver can check to ensure that the ticket is valid.

I have been using this app for the last week and it works exactly how I would want an app like this to work. It is simple to use and even looks pretty good.  The only issue I have with the system is that they do force you to buy at least $5 of tickets at a time.  This is undoubtedly due to processing fees and is not that big a deal, but still a bit annoying.  Also some people have complained that the trip planning features are not as developed as they should be, but I already use google maps for my transit directions anyways.

I personally had thought about e-ticketing systems over the years and have used a few in various cities.  What I love about this system is the simplicity of it.  All you need is a smartphone running Android or iOS and you are good to go.  Most other system are much more complicated and involve needing to sign up for some type of card or device.  This system didn’t require any type of overhaul of the current ticketing system that trimet has and is simple enough that most people can start using right away.

I am very impressed with this app and hope that a lot of people start using it and if you live in the Portland area please give it a try!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thought of the day "Would you feel differently if the creative destruction were a natural disaster instead of an economic one?"

The issue of how the pace of innovation has been destroying middle class jobs has been more and more in the news recently with several stories about it on Marketplace and a couple of Economist articles over the last few months.

Most people who are knowledgeable on this issue tend to take the long view that this has all happened before and, in the long term, we still ended up with plenty of jobs for everyone.  I mostly agree with this line of reasoning but have to admit that this time does look a little different.

Mark Sigal of Unicorn Labs has an interesting post over at gigaom that looks more deeply at the issues of innovation and jobs.
Innovation, economics, and messy, complex truths
SUMMARY:The only certainty involved in assessing the impact of technology on the future of our economy is complexity. Mark Sigal of Unicorn Labs argues that the impact of technology on job creation is a complicated question with no easy answers.
The biggest policy issue that might be facing us today is how to deal with technological unemployment.  It doesn't appear that a laissez-faire approach will work, but then what will?  There isn't an obvious answer and a lot of people are going to get hurt while we try to figure out what to do.