Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Charles Stross - Halting State

Charles Stross, Halting State, Ace, 2007.

There's a phrase I really hate: "It sounds like science fiction, but...", usually followed by a description of some scientific or technological advance. The assumption behind this usage is that science fiction describes things that are impossible, or at least unlikely. In fact, science fiction is often based on real scientific theory, and many things first described or popularized by science fiction authors have become part of our reality, or have been supported by scientific research.

Halting State is a near-future story, set in 2018. I always think it takes courage to set a story such a short distance in the future, and it will be fun to wait and compare the reality of that year with that described in this book. The descriptions of the technology and its implications seem to me quite plausible. We are living in a rapidly changing world, and it is interesting to compare our current lives with the way we lived ten or twenty years ago, and to extrapolate from our present to the possible future.

Not many authors use second person narration, and it did seem strange at first. Each chapter title contains the name of the view-point character, which helped in some cases. The style appears reminiscent of what players would hear in a traditional role-playing game like D&D. The dungeon master would tell them something like: "You walk around the corner and see three orcs coming towards you". In this respect the author is taking on the role of omniscient DM. However, the second person voice seems less appropriate when describing the characters' inner monologue. It sometimes almost sounds like the characters are being told what to think... I know that the degree of omniscience in a third person narration would be identical, and that only a first person voice really explains how these inner thoughts and feelings are known and narrated to the reader, but somehow it felt strange here. But I soon got used to it and accepted the literary device.

The story starts with an unusual bank robbery. This robbery takes place within a bank in a role playing virtual reality game. It shouldn't have been possible, and there are financial implications in the real world. The three main characters set out to investigate: a local police officer, Sergeant Sue Smith; Elaine Barnaby, a forensic auditor sent from London to Edinburgh to investigate the games company on suspicion of fraud; and Jack Reed, a games programmer hired as Elaine's consultant and guide to the gaming world. They employ their various skills to discover what is happening, which turns out to be far more complicated and serious than they could have expected.

The plot moves like a fast-paced thriller, and contains some insights into the predicted society. The characters grow and learn new things about themselves and their world, and the resolution feels satisfactory. Jack, in particular, has two secrets that have had an impact on his life. His developing relationship with Elaine, and the events they experience, force him to share these secrets with her, leading to the touching emergence of hope into his life.

This is a story that will be particularly welcomed by gamers and geeks (I use this word in the positive sense!), as it contains insights into the possible future development of gaming, gadgets and computing in general. One of the more interesting implications is the mixture of gaming and real life, when people will be playing in public, seeing the game on their glasses and using various control devices to interact, which seems a bit more dangerous than listening to music on your iPod on the train, for example. Another aspect is the ability of the police, for example, to record everything they observe (not only video, also things like measuring the stress levels in people's voices and body language). While this would prevent cases of people later denying what they had said in interviews, it seems a bit labour-intensive if all this recorded evidence would have to be reviewed afterwards, and memory intensive if it had to be stored indefinitely.

This is a highly enjoyable, intelligent and engaging story.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The danger of group thinking

A subject that seems unavoidable at the moment is group thinking. By this I mean when people think of themselves as members of one group, and judge other individuals based on the group to which they belong.

We are currently experiencing violence in our region between two different groups. Both groups have a claim to the same territory, and because they are so intent on preserving their separate identities, they cannot just share it.

Ideally, we would treat all people as humans, and issues like ethnic origins, religious faith and language would be matters of personal choice (or chance) rather than labels that become more important than individual traits. I would like to live in a world where nobody asked "What are you?", meaning "What is your race/ religion/ other group label?". Nobody would be upset if their relative married a member of another group, provided the relationship between the two individuals was based on mutual understanding.

In practice, so many people are willing to kill and die for their group identity, and to subject the world to chaos, violence and suffering in the process, rather than admit that we are all human and find a way to live together.

Having said all that, I am not a naive idealist, and I know that it is unlikely that people will give up their group thinking and adopt individual thinking. I also know that there are differences between various groups in the degree to which they are willing to accommodate the needs of other groups. Some groups have an ideology of wanting every human to join their group and adopt their way of thinking. Others just want to continue their existence while cooperating as much as possible with the surrounding groups.

Tolerant individuals must be aware that not everyone is equally tolerant, unfortunately. In order for tolerance to survive, it sometimes has to take what seems like intolerant action against the intolerant people who seek to impose their ideology on everyone else. Obviously this is not easy for tolerant individuals who see the other side as individuals and are aware that not all members of a particular group are involved in the intolerance.

When hearing about a conflict, I believe it is possible to identify the motivations of each side and to evaluate how much each side contributes to tolerance or intolerance in the world (assuming that one searches for the facts rather than accepting propaganda). In this way, one can decide which of the sides seems to be, let's say, slightly less unjustified in using violence against the other.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pluralism in the Holiday Season

On Friday we visited Nazareth again, hoping to experience some of the Christmas atmosphere there. We saw many Christmas street lights, trees and decorations in shops and homes, and inflatable Baba Noel (Santa Claus) dolls for sale. Our local friend said there were less Christmas decorations than in previous years, and wondered whether this was connected to the influence of the Islamic movement in the town.

We also visited the nearby town of Cana (Kafr Kanna), where we saw the Wedding Church (Catholic), said to be the site of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. There was also a Greek Orthodox church, but it was closed. There were some souvenir shops, implying that some tourists, presumably mainly Christians, visit this town.

In the evening, we went to a Christmas-themed dance show. It was held in the refurbished Diana Cinema in Nazareth. The show focused on the journey of the Magi, featuring musical adaptations of familiar Christmas carols (sung in Arabic). The dance troupe, Mawwal, includes Christian and Muslim dancers from all over Nazareth. They also have a dance school with 120 students. The show combined traditional Arabic dancing with modern dance styles. It was good to see such cultural events taking place, despite the low level of government funding for the Arab sector.

Haifa has a large Christian population, too, and in certain parts of town one can see trees and other decorations. Many shops sell Christmas items - from trees and decorations to cards and chocolates. Christmas also features prominently in the Festival of Festivals, the annual event held on Saturdays during December to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and the nearest Muslim festival (the Islamic lunar year means their festivals happen in different seasons each year), in this case, Eid al-Adha. The mixed city of Haifa promotes pluralism and co-existence, and its residents generally respect the traditions of various local groups.

I encourage members of each religion or community to take an interest in the festivals of the others, and to make the holiday season truly reflect goodwill and tolerance.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why I listen to podcasts

It started over a year ago with just one weekly podcast, and gradually increased so I now subscribe to 14 podcasts. This number may grow even further, as I explore the vast range of podcasts available.

On the content side, I listen to the sort of subjects I read: science fiction, and a large range of non-fiction subjects, including language, business, self-improvement, science and technology.

However, what is significant here is the medium itself. Since I read a lot anyway, I'm not one of those (many) people who prefer podcasts (and audiobooks) because they don't like reading. So I have been wondering what is so special about hearing compared with reading.

I realized that I like listening to human voices. I enjoy lectures, and at university I often attended lectures on various subjects by guest lecturers, which were not necessarily relevant to my studies. I now go to lectures related to my business. So I do feel that hearing people speak has some added value compared with reading.

I like the fiction podcasts, where the stories are read out or even acted. Sometimes I hear podcasts of stories I have read, and the rendition by the reader can change my perspective, subtly interpreting the story or characters in a new way. All this is achieved by the voice reading out the same words I had earlier read from print, hearing the words in my own voice in my mind.

The non-fiction podcasts come in many different forms. Some are just one person talking about a subject. Others are interviews. Some are group discussions. A few are actual radio programs, while some are a lot less formal. The more educational podcasts give tips, which I write down in my notebook for future reference (I also do this while reading certain types of material).

I can't listen to podcasts while I'm working, though I do listen to music. But I listen to podcasts while doing other things that require less concentration, or at least not verbal concentration. This saves some time, unlike reading which can't be multi-tasked at all.

One other thing I like about podcasts is that they are available when I want to listen to them, and can be paused and replayed. I don't have a television, for many reasons. One reason is that people who watch television are restricted to spending particular times of the day doing only that. If they get an important phone call, they can miss a whole episode. I like my time to be flexible.

Oh, and they are free!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Happiness is contagious

A new study has found that happiness is contagious. People who have happy friends are happier, and even the happiness of friends' friends influences our happiness.

There is an obvious evolutionary reason for emotions being contagious. I suppose it started with fear, which spreads quickly in small communities under threat, ensuring that everyone reacts appropriately. So it's good to know that the positive emotions can also be spread in this way.

The conclusion from this study is that you should choose your friends carefully and prefer the company of happy people. Conversely, be aware that your own emotions have an impact on others, so if you are capable of remaining happy while your friends are depressed, this could help them recover more quickly than if you caught their mood. Try to identify only with positive moods in your friends, while maintaining your own happiness even while they are down.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ken MacLeod - The Execution Channel

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel, Orbit, 2007.

Following the example of a philosophy book I translated last year, I will examine this novel on two levels: that of epistemology, discussing the nature of knowledge and information, and that of ontology, concerning the nature of reality. These are the two obvious themes of the book, and they are linked by the idea of secrecy and its costs.

On the ontological level, the setting is a near future of a slightly alternative reality. The point of divergence from our own world is the 2000 US presidential elections. In this version, Gore won the elections and events proceeded slightly differently, ending up with a more extensive Allied war in the Middle East. The description of this history makes the reader wonder how much of a difference there could have been, and whether things would have turned out as described. It feels close enough to our reality for readers to identify with events.

The main characters are James Travis, a programmer for an English infrastructure company, who is also a French spy; and his daughter, Roisin Travis, a peace activist, who has seen something strange at a US Air Force base in Scotland. Around them, we observe various characters who know things about these two, or are spreading information that has an impact on their actions. These minor characters include an American conspiracy theory blogger called Mark Dark; a CIA agent and an MI5 agent working together to capture James and Roisin; and a group of disinformation creators working on the Internet to conceal the truth and create confusion.

On the epistemological level, at every point in the story, the reader has to remember what each character knows, and what the source of this information was, since it may well be disinformation.

An explosion at the Scottish air base triggers a series of terrorist attacks around Britain. Our main characters flee through the chaos, while everyone tries to work out what is happening. The original explosion is quickly understood not to have been a nuclear accident. It is obviously related to what Roisin saw at the base. The various characters have different theories, and evaluate the evidence and opinions they encounter in different ways.

The British public blames the Muslims and there are unprovoked attacks, a poignant and realistic description that reminded me of the treatment of Jews in Europe just before the Holocaust. The government starts placing Muslim citizens in camps, "for their own protection". In one of the most touching scenes, which had me in tears, James rescues a Muslim family from a rioting mob. He does this out of human decency, at a time when his life and freedom are in danger. It made me wonder how far I would go to help innoccent victims. Living in a mixed city like Haifa, I can imagine such a situation erupting, with the Jewish majority suddenly turning against their Arab neighbours. Such acts of racism cannot be justified in any circumstances, and I would like to believe that many of us would act like James Travis rather than stand by and let this happen.

Roisin, meanwhile, is arrested and questioned about the photos she took at the Scottish base, which her friend managed to send to the blogger Mark Dark. She is released in an attempt to entrap James, becomes aware of this and decides not to run any more.

The world of both major characters is changed when the Execution Channel, a television station broadcasting recorded executions from around the world, shows the execution of Alec Travis, James's son and Roisin's brother, a British soldier serving in Kazakhstan, who was arrested and tortured to death by the CIA agent. This is the first instance where we encounter the cost of secrecy. James chose to become a French spy, and the cost of his secret activities is the life of his son. People considering undercover work of any sort should be aware that this endangers their loved ones. This comes down to the basic choice people sometimes have to make between ideals and individuals.

The ending of the story is what makes it science fiction (apart from it being set in an alternative near future). The truth about events is revealed, and without giving too much away, the explanation shows that certain countries were developing some innovative technology in secret. The explosion in the air base was caused by mishandling of this stolen technology, and the terrorist attacks around Britain resulted from a misunderstanding of this explosion as a trigger signal. This theme of secrecy around new technology is highly relevant in a world where superpowers, countries and organizations are competing for any advantage, particularly one that has military applications. This secrecy almost led to the outbreak of the "final war" in this novel, and it is easy to imagine some similar circumstances leading to potentially world-ending consequences in our reality. A spirit of cooperation would obviously be a better strategy for human long-term survival than the current competition between various groups. My optimism doesn't stretch far enough to believe that this is achieveable.

This is a mature, subtle and sophisticated political novel, showing MacLeod's skills at their best. It forces the reader to confront various political and ideological issues, and the ethical decisions that can result from holding various positions. Its characters are intriguing and well-drawn, to the extent that you may find yourself caring about them more than you care about what is happening in the world around them.

I just hope readers ignore the phrase on the front cover, "The war on terror is over... terror won", which does not describe the contents of this book (and I dislike the common misuse of the word "terror" to mean "terrorism"). I don't see how terrorism could win, since if they achieved their ends, the terrorist groups would form states (or a global empire) that would then suffer from internal stress and lead to new terrorist groups forming.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Israeli Businesswomen's Conference

Yesterday I attended a conference for business women organized by the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, and Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel. This event was also supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Hadassah Foundation and the UJA Foundation of New York.

Personally, as a female professional, I have never experienced discrimination or felt disadvantaged. Perhaps this is because translating is one of the professions that utilizes what are considered "female" abilities - verbal and linguistic skills. However, it is undeniable that Israeli society displays some sexist tendencies, partly because it is such a family-oriented society, partly due to the large traditional populations, and also because military service is still highly valued.

Only yesterday, Israel's Minister of Science, Culture and Sports, MK Rajeb Majadele, said "the woman's role should be to build a good family, to be an aide to her husband and to stand by him". This is a reflection of the sort of traditional attitude common among Israel's Arab population, and also among some religious Jews.

About 400 businesswomen from all over Israel attended the conference at the Dan Carmel hotel. Among the prominent lecturers were Ofra Strauss, Chair of Strauss-Elite, Israel's second largest food company. She spoke about the barriers to women's careers: normative, economic, parenting, internal and military. She discussed the need for companies to adopt policies and attitudes of diversity and inclusion. She was then "crowned" as President of Jasmine, with a floral wreath.

This was followed by a lecture on the psychology of success by business coach Ashraf Kurtam. Then, Dr. Ahmed Athamena presented the results of a study of the health of Jews and Arabs, which found that Arab women had more health problems than any other group, including high rates of diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. This was related to their low level of educational achievement, low rate of employment, unhealthy nutrition, lack of exercise, and depression. The findings demonstrated the importance of education and a career to women's health. Then Tiba Herschman presented the results of surveys about stereotypes regarding working women. About a third of the population still believe that women who work are harming their families. This attitude will have to change before employment equality can be achieved.

After lunch, we heard MK Nadia Hilou, who spoke about the double barrier facing Arab women - both gender and coming from a minority. Thus, Arab women seeking employment are held back first by their own society's traiditonal attitudes and later by the discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society. However, there seems to be some progress, with half of the Arab university students in Israel now being female (as is very obvious on the campus of the University of Haifa, for example). MK Hilou went on to list the legislation she has supported, aimed at lengthening maternity leave and having child-care expenses considered a tax-deductible expense. As she said, it seems ridiculous that the ink you buy for your printer is recognized as a tax-deductible expense, but the child-care that enables mothers to work is not. MK Hilou was in many ways the most impressive speaker, and presented a well-balanced view of women and society.

Then there was a panel about successful women, presented by Dr. Esther Herzog of Beit Berl College. First we heard from Mas Watad, who at the age of 23 established a chain of weight-watching programs for the Arab sector, and has invented a new method of measuring the nutritional values of food. Then I was pleased to hear Iman Zuebi, owner of the Al-Mutran guest house in Nazareth, which I visited about a month ago. Finally, Ayah Shachar from Sano, Israel's largest household cleaning products manufacturer, spoke about being the third generation in a family business.

There was a good atmosphere at the conference, and many participants managed to make business contacts. However, there was less interaction than I would have wanted between the Jewish and Arab participants, and I wonder if some of the Arab businesswomen found it difficult to communicate in Hebrew (or maybe they were just shy...), while the Jewish businesswomen many not have thought of the potential benefits of making contacts in the Arab sector.

Unfortunately, several speakers cancelled their participation at the last minute. While they may all have had good reasons for this, the feeling the audience got was that perhaps they didn't consider the event important enough to come "all the way to Haifa" for. My intention is not to "name and shame" them, but since their participation was planned, published and then cancelled, I see no harm in listing them here (if any reader knows why they cancelled and wishes to comment, feel free to do so): journalist Smadar Peled; journalist Orli Vilanai; Chair of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, Nurit Dabush; MK Amira Dotan; marketing expert Yafit Greenberg; and businesswoman and current political candidate, Pnina Rosenblum.

Update (December 15): Here's an article about this conference on their website.