Sunday, May 31, 2009

World No Smoking Day

The World Health Organization has proclaimed May 31st, 2009, as World No Tobacco Day.

If I could change one thing in the history of the world, I would like humans never to have discovered that tobacco can be smoked (or chewed). I think the world would have been a better place without the consumption of tobacco.

Imagine trying to advertise a product with the following list of features: It's addictive, it's unhealthy and poisonous to you and even to others around you, it makes you stink, it will cost you a fortune over your lifetime, it reduces the number of people who will be willing to be your friend or partner, it makes a lot of money for a large, cynical and exploitative industry. It amazes me that despite knowing all these things about smoking, young people still start smoking.

One of the best moments for me in recent years was about two years ago when my father managed to give up after 55 years of quite heavy smoking. I was also happy that various medical tests showed that he hadn't suffered any health problems as a result. It was better for me to have a healthy father than to be able to say "I told you so!". However, this doesn't mean that everyone who smokes as much as he did will stay healthy!

I would like to add my voice to the call for people to give up smoking, or never take up the habit. We are rational beings, and when we have knowledge about healthy living, it is worth acting on that instead of being deliberately self-destructive.

I also call for smokers to become aware of the impact of their smoking on others. The smoke spreads over a large area around the smoker and lingers for several minutes. It also remains on the smoker's person and clothes. Smoke makes my eyes sting and my throat ache, and encountering someone smoking really ruins my day.

Smokers like to claim that they are "persecuted" by non-smokers, and that they have the "right" to smoke. However, smoking is poisoning the surrounding area and has been shown to cause health risks for the exposed non-smokers. It is not equivalent to other things people do in public that are "annoying", such as eating strong-smelling food or chewing bubble gum.

I hope to see the percentage of smokers decline to zero throughout the world in my lifetime.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Peter F. Hamilton - The Dreaming Void

Peter F. Hamilton, The Dreaming Void, Part One of the Void Trilogy, Pan, 2007.

Spoiler warning!

This novel takes place in the Commonwealth universe, many years after the events of the Commonwealth Saga (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained). While I assume the new trilogy can be read by those unfamiliar with the previous works, I think it is worth reading the Commonwealth Saga first, as some of the events are referenced, and some of the same characters appear here. I re-read this book as preparation for reading the next in the trilogy, The Temporal Void.

The Void is an artificial universe at the centre of the galaxy, created by an advanced society, and studied by various species for millions of years. It gradually consumes our universe, somewhat like a black hole. A researcher at the human observation base, Inigo, starts receiving dreams about life within the Void, and discovers that many years ago, humans somehow entered the Void and their ships crash landed on the planet Querencia. Inigo's dreams show a society where advanced technology doesn't exist, but the humans have developed telepathic and telekinetic skills. He follows the life of Edeard, who has strong skills and a clear vision of how the world should change. It is also hinted that Edeard dreams, perhaps about the Commonwealth universe beyond the Void.

Inigo spreads his dreams by means of the artificial telepathy most humans have adopted, the gaiafield, based on Silfen technology. This leads to the creation of a religious movement called the Living Dream, and its followers wish to enter the Void and live on Querencia. This raises fears among many humans and other species that such an attempt would cause the Void to start a "devourment phase" which could destroy the galaxy. The Living Dream is strengthened by the appearance on the gaiafield of new dreams coming from the Void, this time focusing on the Skylords, beings supposed to guide the souls of the dead to their equivalent of heaven. The Living Dream is trying to locate the Second Dreamer who is having these dreams, apparently unaware of their significance.

We follow Aaron, an agent trying to find Inigo, who disappeared from public life some time after the religion he founded became established. Aaron has had his memory edited so he can focus only on the task at hand, though sometimes he dreams of his past. He joins up in this search with Inigo's former lover, Corrie-Lyn, who doesn't trust him but realizes he can't be stopped.

Meanwhile, a physicist called Troblum, obsessed with the history of the Starflyer war (described in the Commonwealth Saga), is involved in developing some advanced technology and is manipulated by the various powers.

Another character is Araminta, who is setting up her housing refurbishment business and conducting a relationship with a Multiple man who has one consciousness spread among several bodies. The reader gradually realizes that Araminta has a larger role to play in the big story.

We also see the return of several familiar characters from the Commonwealth Saga, and follow the political scheming among the various human factions.

Hamilton is an expert at taking a big SF idea, then creating a vivid human setting around it. His characters and social settings are interesting, and the writing is very visual, with graphic descriptions of the scenery, action and details such as clothing. After investing such a lot of time in creating an imaginary world, it is easy to understand why the author likes to write big, multi-volume series, with many viewpoint characters. Presumably, readers also like to return to the familiar setting, which is why these books become best sellers. I have read all Hamilton's novels so far, and most of them maintain the same high standard, making them a worthwhile read.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Duplicate Effort

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Duplicate Effort, ROC, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

This is the seventh book in the Retrieval Artist series. It is a series of future police procedural stories, set in the domed city of Armstrong on the moon. Each story contains a crime mystery to be solved by the characters, but also some big ideas. The human race has encountered many species of aliens, and the Earth Alliance guarantees that everyone has to abide by the laws of the dominant species in a particular territory. Since humans don't understand alien law, they often get into danger and wish to escape. For example, some alien laws punish people for accidents, and some claim the descendants of the perpetrators. These humans apply to agencies that help them "Disappear" and start a new life under a new identity. However, they are still in danger from Trackers who try to locate them. Sometimes there is a reason to locate them without endangering them, and this is where Retrieval Artists come in. The main character of the series, Miles Flint, leaves his job as a police detective in order to become a Retrieval Artist.

I believe that series are intended to be read in order. When I see a book in a bookshop that says "second in the X series" or "stunning sequel to..." or something, I put it back on the shelf. If I am interested enough, I try to find the previous book(s) in the series and read them in order. While some authors claim that each book can be read as a "stand alone novel", usually either the reader misses out by not knowing the back story, or the author feels the need to put in explanations of the back story for new readers, which can become a burden as the series progresses and more info dumps are required.

With this series, I was fortunate to start reading from the beginning, and have been following the books as they have been published. The books are an easy read, with short chapters alternating between different view point characters. This does not mean they are light material, as their subject matter is often serious and the atmosphere can be quite dark.

The idea of having to follow the laws of a culture you don't understand seems relevant to our politically correct world, where people don't dare say that the legal and cultural norms of other societies might be, by any standards, "barbaric". I think opponents of the death penalty will find some of the ideas in this series interesting.

The current volume, Duplicate Effort, explores the growing relationship between Miles and his clone daughter Talia, and also the issue of prejudice against clones, which could be seen as equivalent to any sort of prejudice in our world (racism, discrimination against people with different abilities, etc.). It is sad, but realistic, to think that even when humanity encounters many sentient species it will not become a united and egalitarian society. In fact, the novels demonstrate the humans remain entirely unchanged, with the full range of human motivations, flaws and weaknesses.

Another issue raised is the risks people take when trying to discover the truth. A journalist is killed for investigating some illegal and unethical activity, which of course happens in our world as well. It does appear that some people either ignore the risks or are willing to take them, while others would not even consider acting against a dangerous opponent.

As the series progresses, the regular characters develop and grow, reacting to the events of their lives. The setting, Armstrong city, has become familiar. While I can't say I wait breathlessly for the next book, I'm always glad when I find it in the bookshop, and I hope this series continues in years to come.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Chip Heath & Dan Heath - Made to Stick

Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House, 2007.

This book teaches the reader to communicate ideas. Several components of successful ideas are examined in the various chapters, with vivid case studies to exemplify each component.

Ideas must be: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories (from this the authors form the acronym SUCCESs, which made me wonder if they couldn't find anything to do with the final S of the word...).

This is a clear and practical guide book for anyone trying to communicate ideas, especially in writing. It is written in the standard style of popular non-academic non-fiction books, with all references to source material put in endnotes at the back of the book, without even endnote numbers, on the assumption (probably correct) that most readers won't bother to look at this section at all. For me as a seasoned reader of academic material, this style seems somewhat overprotective of readers. It wouldn't hurt for the general public to learn to use footnotes and see bibliographic references now and then. However, this may have been the preference of the publisher rather than the authors.

The examples brought are illuminating, and are obviously the best among several examples considered for each chapter. Sometimes these examples lead to a discussion of the psychology of the reader. It is not enough to observe that people react in certain ways to certain types of idea presentation, and sometimes it helps to understand why they do this.

One of the best phrases, in my mind, is "the curse of knowledge". This means that the writer of the idea has complete knowledge of the subject and so finds it difficult to express the idea in a way that assumes the reader has no knowledge of it. This is one of many examples of the things people take for granted. It's easiest to think that everyone is like us, and much more difficult to acquire empathy for different people. To convey an idea successfully, the writer must be able to think from the reader's point of view.

Another interesting discussion, in Chapter Five, concerns Maslow's theory of motivation. This is commonly known as "Maslow's pyramid (or hierarchy) of needs", and assumes that our basic biological survival needs have to be satisfied before the higher needs, such as self-actualization, can be addressed. The authors explain convincingly that in fact people are interested in fulfilling the so-called higher needs even while their basic needs are being addressed. For example, the common image of the starving artist.

This book offers a good balance of practical advice, inspiring stories and some deeper discussions. It will be of use to communicators of all sorts.

Monday, May 4, 2009

White tigers at Haifa Zoo

Haifa's authorities are proudly advertising the city's newest residents, a pair of white tigers who arrived at the Haifa zoo last month. They are featured on billboards all over town, and frequently mentioned in local and national newspapers. Today's article discussed how these Siberian animals are adapting to the Israeli summer heat (with air conditioned rooms and pools to play in), and also mentioned their diet of fresh meat.

I have mixed feelings about zoos. Some people argue that it's cruel to keep animals caged, and it is true that many zoo animals become depressed. On the other hand, I can understand the counter-argument that zoos help preserve the genetic diversity that is being destroyed in nature by the expansion of human habitats. Perhaps one day, when humans have expanded into space, it will be time to reduce the scope of our presence on this planet and allow the other species to reclaim large areas. I hope this will happen before it is too late. In the meantime, I suppose zoos have a role to play. Also, as a cat owner who keeps her cats indoors, I think some animals can have a good life even "imprisoned" or deprived of their freedom.

So I hope to visit the zoo soon, to see the white tigers and other animals.