The Mandibles – a story of a human impact of government finance

This review was posted at Amazon.

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles is a dystopia focused on financial issues, but you won’t find Wall Street or government characters in it. It shows how overly simple – and popular! – government decisions ruin the lives of the regular people. It makes an argument that federal government debt is a serious threat to our society and an attempt to get out of debt easily by renouncing it would be a disaster, collapsing the economy and plunging the whole country into dire poverty. In the ensuing economic collapse, shortages of all goods rival what is reported out of modern-day Venezuela. Homelessness is massive. The chilling perspective surely provides some food for thought. The book is well written, with likable characters and vivid scenes.

There are some decidedly Randian notes in the book: the spirited defense of free markets, extended dialogue on economics, cartoonishly negative and arguably mean-spirited depiction of socialists. There is even something like a Galt’s Gulch that I liked better than the original. Rand’s Galt’s Gulch was a utopia and the weakest part of Atlas Shrugged, in part because utopias are generally boring. Shriver’s version is decidedly bleak and thus more realistic. And the whole book is written mostly from a “little man” perspective, which was severely lacking from Rand’s writings.

The book covers 2 distinct time periods: first two thirds of the book are set in the late 2020s – early 2030s, when US is spiraling into collapse. The events of the last third of the book occur in 2047, when the situation is not quite as dire on the level of basic necessities, but federal government reasserted itself and became an oppressive monster. Punitive taxation inhibits economic activity. Government controls every little transaction, down to a parent giving her child a small allowance. Life becomes even bleaker than in the first part because there seems to be no future to hope for. Yet both parts of the book are united by an uplifting thread: spirit and resourcefulness of two persons, a young and an old, finding answers to the toughest challenges.

I found the first part of the book plausible. The events in the book are set off by a decision of a large group of countries to introduce a common currency backed by hard assets. This particular event may be unrealistic, but it doesn’t really matter. Anything could serve as black swan and the book would work with only minor changes if the triggering event was different.

The second part of the book appeared to me to be more schematic and less persuasive. The 2047 period echoes the key element of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End: government insisting on inserting itself into everything people do through electronic chips they own and control. While Vinge focuses on technological aspects of this arrangement, Shriver’s book is mostly about routine daily transactions. Interestingly, Vinge expected strict government chipping rules to be flouted and chips hacked, and his society, while not clearly described, was broadly functional. In the Shriver’s book, government control is inescapable and the resulting society hopeless. On this, it’s a bit hard for me to believe Shriver. There is another example of the similar absolutism in the book that sounds dubious. US state of Nevada breaks away from the totalitarian USA. The landlocked territory named USN badly need trade because it is too small to manufacture all the different goods available in the modern economy. US government prohibits any relations with the enemy territory and advertises dire consequences for seditious noncompliance, but doesn’t physically enforce the border. And in the book a spirited smuggling economy does NOT emerge! This makes no sense: while US people are under the spell of government propaganda, the Nevadans know that the border is non-existent and have all the incentives to make trade work. The lack of smuggling is decidedly strange for a book that extolls free markets. Black market is relatively free because it is remarkably difficult to regulate: government doesn’t do that and various non-government strongmen can only do so much. Smuggling and black markets have always existed where governments attempted to restrict trade – just look to Prohibition and the War on Drugs as examples.

The author also makes an astute observation that in a severe depression our entitlements system will lead to a bizarre phenomena where elderly would be the only people with meaningful income. They would become the anchors of their families. Woe to a family in which no one draws a Social Security for they will not know where their next meal will come from. This picture, while dystopian, is not a figment of author’s imagination: it would be familiar to people from former Soviet bloc who lived through internal conflicts and USSR breakup wars. Those government retirement checks were meager indeed, but amid civil wars and economic collapse there were often no jobs to be had.

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What’s wrong with The Giver: Sameness and communism don’t work

I’ve recently had a conversation with a couple of high schoolers about The Giver (a popular middle school reading assignment and a 2014 movie). The story is a dystopia set in an apparently post-apocalyptic world. The key feature of this world is Sameness: there are no seasons and no weather, all people live in identical housing and so on. Population of this world doesn’t have memories of the past, and their present is free of any strong emotions. They lack color perception and don’t know love, but there is no warfare, strife or hunger.

The world is supposed to come off unsympathetically dystopian, but it’s not all that cut and dry. Upon reading the book and seeing the movie I wondered how many people would be willing to take such a deal. And lo, the high schoolers I talked to expressed an opinion that the world of The Giver may be a nice place, especially for the older people who no longer care for romance and just want to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort.

Of course, it wouldn’t work this way. Seniors would be the worst off, actually, because in The Giver’s world, the authorities simply kill off (“release”) seniors.

For the others, the deal in The Giver is also not as good as it seems. We learn about the world through the eyes of Jonas, a teenager (12 years old in the book, but 16 years old in the movie). He is young and naive and doesn’t yet know much about his own world. He is shocked to learn that a routine act of “release” from community applied to elders, unexpected babies and sometimes adults is not a benign exile, but an execution. So it’s not as nice as it seemed at first: powers that be won’t send you to a war, but they will still kill you. If you’re lucky, you will live to advanced age, but what happens if you become unproductive due to an accident? This is hardly a utopia.

In addition, we learn from Jonas’ mother, who is a judge, that their community applies a whole specter of punishments, “release” naturally being the ultimate penalty. She relates that she sentenced someone to release. This fact alone breaks the beautiful picture of a harmonious society. The way their small community (a hamlet, really), “releases” people left and right, it might as well be called a death camp. And the world doesn’t look as perfect once you realize that people still routinely break rules and are punished for that. Is there really no strife in that world or any miscreants are swiftly executed before situation gets out of hand?

OK, so the society was totalitarian, but did they at least live comfortable lives with all their basic material needs taken care of? No way! History tells us that humans need incentives. Imposing Sameness removes material rewards as incentives. With punishment being the only incentive, a society can’t survive. The largest scale experiment of this kind, the USSR, collapsed much sooner than it reached anywhere near the level of control and uniformity depicted in the book. It was beset by deficits throughout entirety of its existence.

People tried to create utopia many times. Not a single one succeeded. Ask Governor Bradford of Plymouth Plantation how well communism worked even with seemingly highly motivated group of people who had no one to rely one rather than themselves. Answer: not well at all. Once individual incentives are removed and the fruit of labor is split between all members of the community, people start finding excuses to avoid work. In his writing, Governor Bradford relates how pilgrims, who arrived to settle a colony in the New World, attempted to do all agricultural work together and share the crops fairly and evenly. The result was a disaster that nearly wiped out the colony: people were unwilling to put much effort into tough farming work, even though their collective survival depended on it. Seeing this, next year they decided to parcel out land and let each family work its own lot. The quick end to the communist experiment saved the colony. Governor Bradford describes the improvement in these words:

The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Sameness may be superficially attractive and communist ideal will probably always resonate, but it is a false calling, doomed to leave an impressive body count and ultimately fail every time it is tried. This is one of the most important lessons we could learn from all of human history.

 

References:

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. The University of Chicago Press. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s1.html

Are True Names in Earthsea digital encryption keys?

I’ve recently reread Earthsea, a classic fantasy novel by Ursula LeGuin. The novel is set in a magic world and tracks the progress of Ged, a mage with unprecedented powers, from his childhood to adulthood. Keeping in mind an often cited quote by another classic writer, Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, I decided to peel back the curtain of magic and imagine what practical inventions may stand behind the magical concepts of the Earthsea world. I’m most interested in the concept of true names. I will show how true names could relate to modern day digital encryption – with a mage’s true name being his personal digital certificate.

Some of the technology behind the magic in the book is trivially easy to see. For example, when Ged applied a spell to a brackish spring on a tiny sea island, it means he’s installed a filtration system. Water desalination was a plausible alternative, but, since it is more complex and bulky (using modern technology), it would be less likely.

There are many cases when figuring out the exact technical solution is impractical because it is described in magical terms. Now, any technology would look like magic to people who don’t understand it. They would simply have no concepts to explain it and wouldn’t know where to look for clues. So naturally people in medievalist societies where magic fantasies are usually set can’t provide adequate descriptions of advanced technology they mistake for magic. Hence the readers lack cues to accurately translate the magic to the modern day technical concepts. This is certainly by design.

With this, let’s get to true names, the most creative and crucially important device in this book. Many entities in the Earthsea universe have secret true names, which have special magic meaning. Here’s what we know about true names:

  • Humans, other live beings and geographical objects (seas and islands) have true names.
  • Each human has a unique true name.
  • True name is permanent and can’t be changed.
  • Animals have one true name for the whole specie.
  • Ged’s true name was assigned to him by a mage when he was near puberty. He didn’t have a true name before that. Many other people aged from 14 and up also have true names. No human person other than child Ged is specifically described as having no true name.
  • True names can be used by beings with magical powers (human mages and dragons) to control behavior of the name bearer

What we don’t know:

  • Do human-made objects (such as houses and boats) have true names? We know that spells are routinely applied to them, but it’s not clear if such spells require knowing the true name of the object.
  • Do all humans get their true names assigned by mages in their teen years? There is not enough information is Earthsea to draw conclusions (and I didn’t read sequels to Earthsea).

Based on what we know, true names must mean different things for humans, animals and inanimate objects. This would explain the fact that human true names are individual, but animals of the same specie share the same true name. We also know that there are several kinds of magic, taught by different Master Mages. It stands to reason that if true names unlock different kinds of magic, then the true names themselves may be of different types. Let’s start with animals, which seem to be the easiest case. For animals, the logical true name would be a DNA signature. The magic it enables is, then, biotech-based.

For humans, we could also go with personally targeted bio. One example of this is found in Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbows End. The book is mostly about near term advanced digital technology and augmented reality. At one point Alice Gu is incapacitated by a virus targeted to her individually. The creation of the virus required collection of her DNA sample.

There are other ways to individually target humans. The simplest one is an identifier issued by a competent authority, something like a Social Security Number in US. And it doesn’t have to be a number – it could be just a name. After all, only a few years after Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin uses this idea in her book Dispossessed – individual names are unique and assigned on planet-wide basis.

In this case, determining someone’s true name would be roughly equivalent to modern day identity theft. We know that identity theft enables the thief to take over the victim’s accounts, disrupting his ability to communicate and access to finances. It can be really demoralizing, which matches the effect of an adversary knowing your true name (rendering you unable to defend yourself). For this to work, the target has to be quite advanced and sophisticated: medieval subsistence farmers won’t suffer much from identity theft, because they don’t bank or use Skype. From the book, it’s not clear whether revealing of the true name is equally damaging to different people. We know that it has debilitating effect on mages, but they are a unique cast living by special rules. We have to assume that they are the super-sophisticated hi-tech elite of the Earthsea, so they could indeed suffer from identity theft.

Another possibility is a breach of anonymity. In one of the first Sci-Fi books of the digital era, True Names, Vernor Vinge shows how cyberspace character is in grave danger if his real world identity is exposed. Thus, true name is simply the real name in the physical world. In the True Names, the danger comes from the government, which is able to apply its heavy hand to coerce desired behavior in cyberspace. But “we know where you live” has also been an effective threat from non-government actors, such as mafia, KKK and jihadists. In the Internet era this threat has increased in poignancy and acquired a new name: doxing.

Finally, here’s the tantalizing possibility: true name could be a person’s private encryption key. Such a key is necessary to create digital signatures proving authenticity of communications. And it must be kept secret, otherwise an attacker could impersonate the victim. Again, this will only work against hi-tech targets dependent on electronic gadgets and communication services. If you are a mage deploying an array of electronic devices, sensors, weapons and so on, a lost private key means that your adversary can now impersonate you in all digital communications. He can issue commands that will appear to be coming from you. He can control all of your devices and turn your weapons against you, which must spell quick and immediate defeat. The threat is made more severe by the fact that in the Earthsea, the key (true name) can’t be changed. We can see the impact of this oversight in the book, where once someone’s true name is known, that person (or dragon) remains in danger forever. An ability to change keys is a fundamental tenet of modern crypto systems: if keys are stolen, changing the keys (think passwords) allows a quick closing of the security breach. Changing keys is so important that some security experts advise against biometric security (e.g. fingerprints or retina scans) because the secrets are unchangeable. Once your fingerprints make it into the wrong hands, you are as helpless as a wizard of Earthsea whose true name has been revealed.

If true names can be understood in terms of  digital encryption, then a book on the current FBI vs Apple encryption fight was written half a century ago.

Augmented Reality and other predictions in Rainbows End

With FAA giving approval to Amazon to test aerial drone deliveries, one of the major predictions in Vernor Vinge’s Sci-Fi novel “Rainbows End” is edging ever closer to being realized. What about the other predictions from this book?

Vinge is one of my favorite Sci Fi authors. He broke into professional writing in mid 80s, when space era of Sci Fi was fading out, being replaced by the computer age. Coming from hardcore computer background (professor of Computer Science), Vernor Vinge mercifully avoided the siren songs of cyberpunk with its wild descriptions of life in virtual reality, which are embarrassing to read a couple of decades hence. Instead, he gave us a beautiful and thoughtful book illustrating his published scientific thoughts on Artificial Intelligence in “A Fire Upon the Deep”. Much later, in 2006 came “Rainbows End”, set in Augmented Reality world of a near future, circa 2025. Now that half of the time to the book setting has passed, I decided to look at some of the ideas and gadgets described in that book because it does what the best Scientific Fiction has done. It not just entertains, but also educates about technology and warns about potential issues.

The most important technical inventions in the book go by acronyms SHE and YGBM. SHE stands for Secure Hardware Environment, a hardware element that is owned by the government and must be a part of all consumer electronics. It is the means by which the government intrudes into the everyday lives of people. Not much is known about what SHE actually does. Evidence of its efficacy (security) is not clear.

This sounds like modern day government surveillance programs, except so far they are not inside our consumer devices. We know that government is pushing for it, though, and industry is publicly resisting. Ominously, unlike Vinge’s fantasy, governments are not even offering a promise of security to sweeten the deal. I’d score this prediction a partial hit – still on track, but not there yet.

YGBM stands for “You Gotta Believe Me” – a combined bio-electronic technology that, well, makes the targeted person believe the operator’s claims. The book’s plot revolves around an attempt by a sinister group to secretly develop practical YGBM technology. YGBM definitely remains something out of the realm of fantasy. Any commercial efforts to improve online/mobile ad quality so far are, fortunately, in a different universe from YGBM. For the sake of completeness, I’d mention that Russian government has achieved spectacular results with nothing more than conventional propaganda tools. Fortunately, this prediction remains a miss.

Following these 2 big ideas, there is a cornucopia of technological advances. Most notable and critical to the books plot is the universal use of Augmented Reality delivered through contact lenses and smart clothing. Augmented Reality is simply an overlaying of computer-generated imagery on top of the real world view (other senses may be engaged as well, but vision is by far the most important simply because of the way we are built). One example of AR that would be familiar to the american audience is the yellow First Down line in the TV broadcasts of gridiron football. The line doesn’t exist on the football field but is clearly seen by the TV viewers. It is different from, say, scorebox, because it works as an integral part of the field view – it appears to stay in place as camera view moves. To give you one example of what AR could become, imagine you are in a business meeting with a group of people you meet for the first time – and each person’s name and title are neatly displayed above her head whenever you look at her. Dialing it up a notch: imagine a language translation program paired with AR system so that when you look at a text in foreign language, you see translation instead. In fact, this is not a fantasy – the is an app for that! – Word Lens. In the military domain, AR exists in the form of HUD (Heads Up Display).

For more ideas, you can check out Wikipedia or just read the Vinge’s book.

AR is a tantalizing idea because it makes sense and it seems the technology to deliver it is almost there. Google made a high profile AR push with Google Glass. Unfortunately, Google Glass teased us with promise, but so far has failed to deliver.

In my opinion, Google Glass failed because it was not easy enough to use, even though the idea of bringing AR to the public is compelling. I think the Glass’ problem was in inadequate input technology – speech recognition. As an output, glasses may have been workable. But constantly talking to your devise simply is not efficient. Critically, it is downright weird when done in public. Note that Vinge’s fictitious devise featured “silent messaging” – an ability to communicate discretely, without attracting bystanders attention. And of course the public was offended by the perception of invasion of privacy created by the Glass’ recording capability.

So it looks like AR will have to wait until technology matures to allow easy, silent and discrete input. It will be as much of revolution as the mouse, which enabled PCs and started a new era. We don’t know yet what it will be – it might be gesture capture, eye movement tracking, brain wave reading, something else altogether or some combination of multiple methods.

And earlier this year Facebook announced that it also wants to jump on the AR bandwagon. Hopefully by 2025 Augmented Reality becomes a part of everyday life.

Partials book series review

Dan Wells may have entered a writing contest with Veronica Roth a few years back. The object of the contest was to write a Young Adult post-apocalypses dystopian trilogy set in a small human community surviving in a formerly major US city. The main character is a teenage girl who becomes a hero bearing arms and fighting for her community. The situation was created through large-scale genetic work on humans carried out by the US Government. Veronica Roth entered the Divergent series. Dan Wells countered with the Partials series.
Well, the results of the contest are in and Roth won. Her Divergent series is popular and is being made into a popular movie series. Wells’ Partial series doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.
The Partials series (Partials, Fragments and Ruins novels, plus bonus Isolation story) is not awful, it just has very uneven quality, good writing mixed with bad. Action is fast paced and readable. Characters are well developed, but there is a discontinuity: it is never explained how the main character, a regular teenage girl, all of a sudden becomes an “army of one” soldier, killing time and again and never having a second thought. Divergent’s Tris, who killed Will in the split second action during gunfight and forever agonizes over that decision, is more believable.
The premise of the Partials series is a full scale conflict between humans and large numbers of alienated bio-engineered humanoids. This problem is a recurring theme in Science Fiction, dating back at least to Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man”, which tells us that the topic is interesting and explores real moral problems. Unfortunately, the series falls into the typical YA pitfall – the teens are the only ones with the sense to do anything right and save the world while adults at best stand around. And it falls into that pitfall hard, as the first novel develops the story with this gem: a 16 year old intern bests all of the scientific research performed to date and the only ones to act on her insight are a bunch of teenagers.
The author shows his creativity in describing how climate can be changed by genetically engineered microorganisms. Unfortunately, his best creative idea is not well integrated into the plot. The climate change is unbelievably quick and is used simply to pile on additional obstacles to the heroic humans toward the end of the series. This was just irritating to me.
Intended or not, the book makes a point about importance of separation of power. In the human community, government becomes tyrannical, ruling by fear and going so far as to mandate serial pregnancy from age 16. This is possible because all the power is concentrated in the hands of a 20-member Senate (in reality, even smaller 5 member core Senate), which makes laws, executes them and also judges citizens.
There is an interesting angle on the ethics of science. In this book series, well intentioned scientists attempted to subvert evil plans of the government, but ended up creating even bigger monstrosity in the process.
While the beginning is of questionable quality, so is the ending. Lighthearted happy ending effectively erases sacrifice of the immediately preceding battle scene. How important could be a self sacrifice of a Heron, who was known as a cynic who cared for her self preservation before everything else? I guess not very important if even her comrades shrug it off and get busy setting up dating arrangements before her body is cold. Need I compare this to the powerful punch-in-the-gut conclusion of the Divergent series?
In summary, an interesting topic, some creative ideas, but poor execution.