Saturday, June 25, 2011

Peter F. Hamilton - The Evolutionary Void

Peter F. Hamilton, The Evolutionary Void, Pan, 2011.

This book is the third and final volume of the Void Trilogy, which in turn is set in a later period in the same universe as the Commonwealth Saga. As usual for this author, it is a large book, spanning many different characters, sub-plots, and worlds.

It is difficult to discuss the end of a series without giving spoilers. While in the Commonwealth Saga the threat to human civilization was posed by an uncompromising alien species, in the Void Trilogy it is the Void itself that threatens to expand and engulf the galaxy. All known species have been studying the nature of the Void for thousands of years, but humans have received a unique insight into the mystery when a scientist starts dreaming the lives of some humans living inside it. As the series progresses, we follow the characters outside the Void as a group of humans plan to try to enter the Void, which would lead to a catastrophic expansion. We also follow the world within the dreams, and gradually learn about the special nature of life within the Void.

This volume builds to a satisfying climax. The various sub-plots are tied together. The mystery is explained. Some things that earlier seemed to be trivial descriptions or local colour turn out to play central roles in the story. A few characters from the earlier stories are re-introduced.

I have read all of Hamilton's novels, and enjoy observing the progress of his skills over time. His work has a wide appeal, with something for everyone. There are characters, sub-plots, and aspects of the story that will interest individual readers more than others. For me, the combination of a wide-ranging space opera describing far future human societies, along with the Big Ideas, creates a perfect balance of enjoyable escapism with thought-provoking speculation into scientific and social possibilities.

One example of this is the idea that human life has been extended, and people can rejuvenate frequently. Most people maintain a young appearance, usually in their twenties, and are in good health and very attractive. An interesting thought experiment for readers: Try to imagine every adult you know, including family, friends, colleagues, and celebrities, all appearing to be around their mid-twenties, all in good health, and all as attractive as possible. Nobody would age, nobody would have any disabilities or any of the features that might be considered unattractive or unhealthy. Can you imagine spending your day with everyone, including yourself, looking like this? Imagine a wedding where the bride's mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on for many generations, are all present and all looking equally young and attractive. This demonstrates how used we are to the concept of ageing. We expect to be able to determine a person's age, more or less, from their appearance, and that this appearance will change over the decades. The social implications of changing this expectation are among the most interesting speculations in many SF works I have read, including much of Hamilton's work.

I recommend this series, and new readers will benefit from reading the books in order, starting with the Commonwealth Saga, or perhaps even the related stand-alone novel Misspent Youth, before reading the Void Trilogy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marketing Conference: Faster, Cheaper, More Focused

This week I attended the Second Annual Marketing Conference organized by the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Haifa & the North. This followed the first conference I attended last year, and was once again held at the International Convention Center Haifa. There were about 250 people attending, slightly fewer than last year.

The morning started with greetings from Haifa's deputy mayor, Oded Dunitz, who spoke about the city's development, and noted that the number of tourists visiting Haifa has doubled in the past year. Then the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Gad Shefer welcomed the participants.

The first lecture was by Osnat Rubin, who has spoken at two conferences I have attended, this year's ITA conference, and the last Jasmine conference. She explained that marketing messages should focus on the customer's needs and how the product/service benefits the customer. Next, Amir Cahani told us about providing value. He noted that locating a new customer costs 5-8 times more than preserving an existing customer, and stressed the importance of long-term relationships with customers, and of professional ethics. Avi Osipov of Open College presented his lecture as a story of a computer technician trying to find the right way to advertise his business. The suggestions were asking existing customers to give referrals, opening a business Facebook page with recommendations, and providing appropriate content.

After a short break, Yahel Demeter introduced us to his method of sociological branding, explaining that the brand has to represent something symbolic, not just functional, for the customers to want to be associated with it. To create good branding, it is important to study the potential customers through sociological theories. Next, Josepha Edman, who spoke at last year's conference, told us how to use Facebook ads for effective advertising, and gave practical tips for creating a good business page. She argued that Facebook ads are becoming more popular than Google AdWords.

Next there was a panel about marketing to different sectors in Israel. These sectors are the Israeli Arabs (20%), the Russian immigrants (15-20%), and the ultra-orthodox Jews (11% or more). Keren Bar told us that marketing to the ultra-orthodox sector stresses family values and uses sales promotion and word-of-mouth marketing. Jumana Boulus described the Israeli Arab population as having a growing middle class, with a rising education level and greater disposable income. Marketing to this sector should focus on community marketing, sales promotion, and should create an emotional connection to the brand. This sector has a greater cellular market than the Jewish population, and a new Arabic language television channel to be opened in 2012 will provide new opportunities. Avner Korin explained that there has been a decline in Russian printed newspapers, and now Russian speakers are very active online. This panel was not given enough time, so the audience was not able to ask questions and develop a discussion.

Nahum Donitza discussed digital media and the importance of creating a community, providing interesting content that encourages social interaction. He noted that Israelis spend more time than any other population on social media, and that 65.5% of them read their friends' recommendations.

Finally, Zeev Klang presented cellular marketing, noting that only 45% of cellular activity now is phone calls. The advantage of cellular marketing is that it is focused, content is sent only to those who request it, our phones are with us all the time, the some content can be location-relevant.

The conference ended with lunch. In general, it was well-organized and the lectures were more or less on time. I learned a few new things, and felt motivated by having things that I already knew confirmed. I met about ten people I knew. I hope to attend next year's conference.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Home ownership

Five years ago this week, we moved into our flat. Before then, we had lived in rented flats, for periods of between one and six years in each place. Here are some thoughts about what owning a home means to me.

First of all, it gives me a sense of permanence. Before, we never knew how long we would be able to stay in each flat. Knowing that I might be forced to leave at the end of the contract, with the stress and upheaval of finding another place, packing, moving, unpacking, and informing everyone of the change of address, was a constant threat somewhere in the back of my mind. Now I know that I can live here as long as I want, and only move if or when I choose to do so, this background anxiety has been lifted.

Secondly, we were able to design our home to meet our requirements. The rented flats were designed for the owner's needs, and contained some furniture that was not ours. Our own home is designed to suit our tastes and preferences, and all the furniture and fixtures here are our own. This does give us the responsibility for any repairs required, but it also means no potential conflicts with landlords.

Financially, some experts say it is preferable to rent rather than buy. They are considering the interest paid on mortgages as compared with the interest you might get on savings in the bank. When we were renting, we could often afford a larger flat than we have now. I am also acutely aware that we were only able to buy a flat when we inherited enough money for the down payment (from relatives on both sides). So I think it is a complicated decision, and not all the factors are purely rational.

Thinking about why I enjoy owning my home, it seems that the reasons are both emotional and practical. When I was young and idealistic, I sneered at the idea of needing to have "a job, a house, and a car" for security. I thought happiness was purely internal, and as such, could be achieved independently of external conditions. Having lived a life with little security for the future for many years, I now think that while these externals are not something to aspire to in themselves, their absence does make life a bit more difficult. There is less anxiety in the life of a person who has a regular income, a home, and perhaps a means of transportation.

Some people thrive on variety, change, new challenges, and new environments. There are many young people now who are living a minimalist lifestyle, partly enabled by the growing importance of the digital over the physical. When people report that they can pack all their belongings into one case and one backpack, and be ready to move or travel whenever the opportunity arises, I can admire this, but I know it's not for me. I like having physical books, though I am reading more in digital form. I like having my own kitchen and cooking my meals. Also, I have cats in my life and they do not appreciate moving home.

To me, home means security, stability, comfort, and permanence.