Book review: True names and eternal questions: Vernor Vinge and the cyberspace frontier

This book contains “True names”, a novella by Vernor Vinge, and nine essays on deep political and technological issues underlying the novella. As it often happens with true artists, Vinge, who published his story in 1981, predicted a lot of problems that we face today. He was the first to describe cyberspace (although the actual term was coined later by William Gibson). The book poses so many questions that we are asking ourselves still and they, if anything, become more acute.

To what extent shall we cede our freedom to the government in the name of fighting the “four bogeymen”, or what Bruce Sterling characterized as “four horsemen of Modern Apocalypse”: terrorists, child pornographers, drug dealers and mafia? And if the “key escrow” scheme were realized in the USA, for example, how would that not make it a totalitarian state? Besides, if you outlaw the weapon (in this case, cryptography), then only criminals will have weapons, right?

Another interesting issue raised by Vinge is the cyberspace and people’s lifes in it. Almost 30 years later we know that people can get divorced because of virtual reality and even sue for very real money to compensate them for their loss of virtual property. One can be poor in real life (or in “real life”?) and be a powerful magnate in cyberspace. On the other hand, Vinge’s character gets caught by the police because he is wealthy and influential in both the cyberspace and the reality.

The characters of the novella have to keep their true identities — their True Names — secret to avoid prosecution by the “Great Adversary”, the US government that tries to find them out.The police who busts into “Mr.Slippery”’s house one day calls itself Welfare department, and they accuse “Mr.Slippery” of “interference with the instrumentalities of National and individual survival”. The police lets “Mr.Slippery” off the hook but only so he finds out and turns in to the police a certain “Mailman”, another cyberspace character.

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Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Philippa Fawcett, English mathematician and educationalist

Related post: What do you think of diversity?

My post from the previous year: It’s Ada Lovelace day!

Philippa Fawcett’s parents were Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett. In many ways they are more famous than their daughter Philippa. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a leader of English suffragists (the movement to grant women the vote). She had worked tirelessly, not only for the vote, but for the cause of women’s higher education in Cambridge. In 1871 she co-founded Newnham College in Cambridge, one of the earliest English university colleges for women. We take higher education for granted; however, it was not always so. The idea of women attending the University was greeted with derision when first seriously raised in the 19th century. In 1868 Cambridge’s Local Examinations Board allowed women to take exams for the first time. The first female colleges were formed in 1869 (Girton) and 1871 (Newnham). After that women were allowed into lectures, albeit at the discretion of the lecturer. By 1881, women were allowed to sit university examinations. Starting from 1921, they were awarded degrees rather than special certificates.

Henry Fawcett was a professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone’s government. (As Postmaster General, he introduced many innovations, including parcel post, postal orders, and licensing changes to permit payphones and trunk lines.)

Millicent Garrett also had a famous older sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was a pioneer of women in medicine. She attended lectures and surgical demonstrations, from which everyone sought to exclude her. Some years later she had been elected President of the East Anglian branch of that very British Medical Association which at first had debated whether women could pursue rigorous medical studies.

Growing up in such intelligent, broad-minded and forward-thinking family surely stimulated and developed Philippa’s mind. At the age of fifteen Philippa was showing such outstanding ability at mathematics that her parents employed a mathematics tutor. She also began to attend mathematics lectures both at Bedford College, the first British university to grant degrees to women, and at University College London where she studied pure and applied mathematics from 1885 to 1887. Philippa Fawcett’s outstanding results in algebra and geometry led to her being awarded a Gilchrist scholarship to study mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, the women’s College that her mother had helped to found. Read the rest of this entry »

Nostalgia tripping via old Toronto postcards

Bloor & Avenue Rd. 1901

Bloor & Avenue Rd. 1901

Bloor & Avenue Rd. now

Bloor & Avenue Rd. now

More photographs and the complete article on BlogTO

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day!

It’s a special day today: Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging about women in technology. I wanted to write about Grace Hopper but then I thought there’s too much written about Granny COBOL out there already.

I’d rather write about women I know.

My mother, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and has been working full-time as a researcher, together with cooking, cleaning, mending, standing for hours in lines in grocery stores, sewing and knitting for the family of four, for as long as I remember.

My mother-in-law, who worked all her life in a Soviet-style classified IT institution and still tries to teach my kids some assembler (over the phone, from Russia).

Maya Pavlovna Zimina, who headed the summer archaeological expedition, herding myself and about 10 other unruly digging teenagers throughout our most difficult ages, from 13 to about 19 when most of us were admitted to universities and at least half of us got married. Archaeology is not exactly technology, but still, she was a great role model.

My university mates. I was in the Computer Science faculty, and, strangely enough, about 90% of the people in my year were female. It is easily explained, though: university students used to be exempt from the mandatory Army draft, but a year before I entered the University the exemption was canceled, and boys flocked to the four institutes that still granted the exemption. The University was not among them, so we got only those boys who already served in the army and those who got exempted for health reasons. About 20% of all students, in total. The few that still got to serve were plucked from our ranks within the first year, and for the next 5 years we had to study in an environment resembling a nunnery.

Elena Sergeevna Ventzel, a math professor, doctor of technology, author of widely known textbooks on probability theory, scientific papers and popular science books. She also wrote great novels under the pen-name of I.Grekova (from “Igrek”, the Russian name of the letter “Y”), full of bitter truth and of praise for the glory of life and of the woman as a creative element.

My female IT colleagues in Russia. They got used to seeing job ads starting with “A programmer wanted, male, under 35 y.o.” They got used to talking to receptionists from recruitment agencies, “Er, you know, I hold a degree with honours in computer science, and I just returned from abroad where I worked for a major IT company”, and to hearing the abrupt response, “Our client asked for a man!”, followed by hanging up. I could not deal with it. It was easier for me to immigrate to Canada and build my life and career from scratch here.

My second cousin, a P.Eng., a professor in Durham College and a mother of three.

The wife of my other second cousin, a laboratory chemist and also a mother of three.

The effervescent Sacha Chua who taught me everything I know about networking, loving one’s work and being in love with life.

… I could probably go on, but there’s only 15 minutes left to midnight. That’s all folks! Or else Ada Lovelace’s day ends before I post, and my blog turns into a pumpkin.

The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning

I am now reading God’s Secretaries, a great book by Adam Nicolson about the making of the King James Bible. It was a new translation made by a whole team of learned men upon request of King James. This version of the Bible shaped the British history and was shaped by it. Nicolson’s book  is a wonderful reading, but one passage especially attracted my attention as it described what we would call now the workflow of a translation team in the early 17th century England. A copy of a Bible with the translators’ notes and markings was accidentally discovered in a British library.

Here’s an excerpt from Nicolson’s book.

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Animated history of Latvia

Another nice cartoon

Animated cartoon, 1924

About interplanetary revolution and bad capitalists who drink proletarian blood. The good guys win. You have been warned.

Color photography dated 1907

In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian photographer, developed an ingenious technique of taking colour photographs. The same object was captured in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. He then presented these images in colour in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters. He went around what was Russian Empire then (1909-1915) and produced a series of amazing photographs.

In 1918, after the revolution, he fled from Russia, taking with him only his collection of nearly 2,000 glass-plate negatives and his photograph albums. The collection was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948 from his heirs.

In 2001, the number of glass plates have been scanned and, through an innovative process known as digichromatography, brilliant colour images have been produced.

Here’s one of them and a link to some more restored by Alex Gridenko.

Fishing settlement

Fishing settlement

Futurama and art as radar

I saw this Futurama series tonight and was astonished by how it fits the current economic situation. See for yourself.

Act I: Everybody’s rich

Earth forces have defeated the Spiderians of Tarantulon 6 and seized plenty of spoils: one trillion dollars in silk and treasure. Richard Nixon’s head, after a consultation with voodoo economists, decides to give every citizen of Earth three hundred dollars.

Act II: Frivolous spending

People spend their money on meaningless things, e.g. Professor Farnsworth gets a treatment that will make him look younger for a very short time. Fry decides to drink 100 cups of coffee. Hermes buys his son Dwight a set of Bamboo Boogie Boot, a kind of powered stilts, which Dwight is not too happy with (he wanted to invest the money). Hermes puts them on and loses control, Dwight tries to save his father but is stuck up the stilts with him, and the two of them roam the city completely out of control.

Act III: The loot! The loot!! The loot is on fire!!!

The reception at the presentation of the National Silk Surplus. Zoidberg wants to buy one of the tapestries, but finds out that it costs $1 billion. He realizes that even with $300 he is still desperately poor and that money brought him no happiness. Bender smokes the Grand Cigar (that cost $10,000). Hermes and Dwight, still on the Bamboo Boogie Boots, crash the reception, the Grand Cigar is dropped and sets fire to the precious silks. Fry, after his 100th cup of coffee, suddenly gains superman powers. He can move so fast that he cannot be seen. He saves everyone at the reception. Hermes gives the penny left from the purchase of the Boogie Boots to Dwight, who decides to invest it in five shares of Richard Nixon’s head is devastated because the budget surplus is gone – burned away in the blink of an eye.

This actually proves the point that I stated here: a real artist does not ape history, he, in fact, foresees it. As Marshall MacLuhan put it,

The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist “the antennae of the race.” Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the art as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If art is an “early warning system”, to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study, but to the development of media controls.

All you ever wanted to know about black history but were afraid to ask

I got a “Black History Month” brochure peddled on me today while I was going to Robin Barker to get my hair done. It was extremely interesting and I just have to share the contents.

First the brochure has some short biographies of prominent people like Elija McCoy. So far, so good.

Then it offers some word puzzles. Like the following:

Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Floods THE _EA_ _ER
White Mother, Black Father _A_ _K _B_ _A
(In case you could not guess, that’s “The weather” and “Barak Obama” respectively; the answer is kindly provided a few lines below)

Then the brochure has a wonderful list of INVENTIONS (I will reproduce the entire page here, without omissions or alterations):
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