Excerpts From A Few Stories I Read Last Year

Last year I read a few books, mostly science fiction. Thought I’d share with you a couple of passages I liked.

From Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson:

The reaction is instantaneous, quick-witted by Burb standards. This person wants Y.T. gone. The van takes off like a hormone-pumped bull who has jut been nailed n the ass by the barbed probe of a picador. It’s not Mom at the wheel. It’s young Studley, the teenaged boy, who like every there boy in this Burbclave has been taking intravenous shots of horse testosterone every afternoon in the high school locker room since he was fourteen years old. Now he’s bulky, stupid, thoroughly predictable.

He steers erratically, artificially pumped muscles not fully under his control. The molded, leather-grained, maroon-colored steering wheel smells like his mother’s hand lotion; this drives him into a rage. The bimbo box surges and slows, surges and slows, because he is pumping the gas pedal, because holding it to the floor doesn’t seem to have any effect. He wants this car to be like his muscles: more power than he knows what dot do with. Instead, it hampers him. As a compromise, he hits the button that says POWER. Another button that says ECONOMY pops out and goes dead, reminding him, like an educational demonstration, that the two are mutually exclusive. The van’s tiny engine downshifts, which makes it feel more powerful. He holds his foot steady on the gas and, making the run down Cottage Heights Road, the minivan’s speed approaches one hundred kilometers.

I loved this one phrase:

Condense fact from the vapour of nuance.

Two more quotes:

The fringe crowd looks pretty typical for the wrong side of an L.A. overpass in the middle of the night. There’s a good-sized shantytown of hardcore Third World unemployables, plus a scattering of schizophrenic first wonders who have long ago burned their brains into ash in the radiant heat of their own imaginings.

and

All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and persona computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the places ain’t what it used to be.

I also swallowed up a few William Gibson novels.

From Mona Lisa Overdrive:

Petal called the city [London] Smoke.

Kumiko shivered on chill red leather; through the ancient Jaguar’s window she watched the snow spinning down to melt on the road Petal called M4. The late afternoon sky was colorless. He drove silently, efficiently, his lips pursed as though he were about to whistle. The traffic, to Tokyo eyes, was absurdly light. They accelerated past an unmanned Eurotrans freight vehicle, its blunt prow sutdded with sensors and banks of headlights. In spite of the Jaguar’s speed, Kumiko felt as if somehow she were standing still; London’s particles began to accrete around her. Walls of wet brick, arches of contcrete, black-painted ironwork stnaduing up in spears.

As she watched, the city began to define itself. Off the M4, while the Jaguar waited at intersections, she could glimpse faces sthrough the snow, flushed gaijin faces above dark clothing, chins tucked down into scarves, women’s bootheels ticking through silver puddles. The rows of shops and houses reminded her of the gorgeously detailed accessories she’d seen displayed around a toy locomotive in the Osaka gallery of a dealer in European antiques.

This was nothing like Tokyo, where the past, all that remained of it, was nurtured with a nervous care. History there had become a quantity, a rare thing, parceled out by government and preserved by law and corporate funding. Here it seemed the very fabric of things, as if they city were a single growth of stone and brick, uncounted strata of message and meaning, age upon age, generated over the centuries to the dictates of some now-all-but-unreadable DNA of commerce and empire.

There was a smell in the house; it had always been there.

It belonged to time and the salt air and the entropic nature of expensive houses built too close to the sea. Perhaps it was also peculiar to places briefly but frequently uninhabited, houses opened and closed as their restless residents arrived and departed. She imagined the rooms empty, flecks of corrosion blossoming silently on chrome, pale molds taking hold in obscure corners. The architects, as if in recognition of eternal processes, had encourage a degree of rust; massive steel railings along the deck had been eaten wrist-thin by years of spray.

She went into the white kitchen and scrubbed drying blood from her face and hands. When she stepped into the living room, she felt as though she were feeling it for the first time. The bleached floor, the gilt frames and cut-velvet upholstery of the Louis XVI chairs, the Cubist backdrop of a Valmier. Like Hilton’s wardrobe, she thought, contrived by talented strangers.

The old New Suzuki Envoy had been Angie’s favorite Sprawl hotel since her earliest days with the Net.

It maintained its street wall for eleven stories, then narrowed jaggedly, at the first of nine setbacks, into a mountainside assembled from bedrock excavated from its Madison Square building site. Original plans had called for this steep landscape to be planted with flora native to the Hudson Valley region, and populated with suitable fauna, but subsequent construction of the first Manhattan Dome had made it necessary to hire a Paris-based eco-design team. The French ecologists, accustomed to the “pure” design problems posed by orbital systems, had despaired of the Sprawl’s particulate-laden atmosphere, opting for heaving engineered strains of vegetation and robotic fauna of the sort ecountered in children’s theme parks, but Angie’s continued patronage had eventually lent the place a cachet it would otherwise have lacked. The Net leased the five topmost floors, where her permanent suite had been installed, and the Envoy had come to enjoy a certain belated reputation with artists and entertainers.

In Brixton, the coral-growth of the metropolis had come to harbor a different life. Faces dark and light, uncounted races, the brick facades washed with a riot of shades and symbols unimaginable to the original builders. A drumbeat pulsed from a pub’s open door as she passed, heat and huge laughter. The shop sold foodstuffs Kumiko had never seen, bolts of bright cloth, Chinese handtools, Japanese cosmetics…

And Idoru:

Anything that might be of interest to Slitscan. Which is to say, Laney, anything that might be of interest to Slitscan’s audience. Which is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the colour of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.

Maybe what she was feeling now was what her civics program at her last school had called culture shock. She felt like everything, every little detail of Tokyo, was just different enough to create a kind of pressure, something that built up against her eyes, as though they’d grown tired of having to notice all the differences: a little sidewalk tree that was dressed up in a sort of woven basketwork jacket, the neon-avocada colour of a pay phone, a serious-looking girl with round glasses and a tray sweatshirt that said ‘Free Vagina.” She’d been keeping her eyes extra-wide to take all these things in, like they’d be processed eventually, but now her eyes were tired and the differences were starting to back up. At the same time, she felt that if she squinted, maybe, just the right way, she could make all this turn back into Seattle, some downtown apart she’d walked through with her mother. Homesick. The strap of her bag digging into her shoulder each time her left foot came down.

Masahiko turned a corner. There didn’t seem to be alleys in Tokyo, not in the sense that there were smaller streets behind the big streets, the places where they put out the garbage, and there weren’t any stores. There were smaller streets, and smaller ones behind those, but you couldn’t guess what you’d find there: a shoe-repair place, an expensive-looking hair salon, a chocolate-maker, a magazine stand where she noticed a copy of that same creepy comic with the woman all wrapped up like that.

I also finally read Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, which contains this brilliant passage:

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore

And one more SF-ish novel I read was China Mieville‘s The Scar. This sentence describes the scars (not the same as the title of the book) on a woman’s back from a flogging:

It is a breathtakingly ugly message, in a brutal script.

But it’s not all SF. I loved Zadie Smith‘s Permission to Enter in the New Yorker, especially this line:

It was a Caldwell assumption that plumbers did well for themselves. Keisha saw little evidence of this. Either the personal wealth of plumbers was a myth or her father was incompetent.

Ditto for Mohsin Hamid‘s The Third Born:

Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil. His food burns the tongue and clogs the arteries. When he looks around him in the countryside, he does not see prickly leaves and hairy little berries for an effervescent salad, tan stalks of wheat for a heavenly balloon of stone-ground, stovetop-based flatbread. He sees, instead, units of backbreaking toil. He sees hours and days and weeks and years. He sees hours and days and weeks and years. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.

And:

Gripping the ropes that bind luggage to this vehicle, you witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so, too, can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia.

I also finally read Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, which contains these brief but beautiful lines:

And Indian Benny, a quiet, meticulous waiter who had the sad airs of a man long accustomed to the spectacular demolition of dreams.

And:

My brave Max, who could slip between two bumpers the way a lie can slide between a person’s teeth.

Stay tuned next year for the next instalment.

Classic Hong Kong Action Movies Courtesy of YouTube

When I was a kid in high school you used to hear whispers about a certain type of movie. Action movies. From Hong Kong. And they were unlike anything you could see in a pre-World Wide Web North America.

The granddaddy of all these was The Killer and as teenagers we scoured the video stores of Ottawa in search of it. I still remember seeing it and recognizing that this was a very different type of cinema than what was going on at the local Famous Players.

Fast forward 20 years: there are no more video stores, these movies still can’t be found in iTunes but we’re now in the wonderful world of YouTube.

And thus, here are links to a variety of classic HK movies that you absolutely need to watch.

Let’s start with The Killer:

After that, it’s on to my personal favourite, Hard Boiled, a classic of Gun Fu. The opening scene in the tea shop is just incredible:

There’s also the movie that started the John Woo & Chow Yun Fat collaboration: A Better Tomorrow.

Now let’s switch gears to some classic Jackie Chan. For Chan, Crime Story is a rare serious movie, based on the story of kidnapped executive Teddy Wang and with final scenes filmed in the emptied Kowloon Walled City:

Enjoy these movies; I guarantee you won’t be wasting your time if you watch them.

The China Fall?

The past few years have been a fascinating time to watch China’s mighty rise. However, the notion that they’re going to become the most powerful nation in the world over the next few years has always seemed ridiculous to me.

Recently I’ve noticed quite a few signs that suggest I’m not alone.

A few weeks back I had lunch with an alum of my grad school whose moved to Vancouver because it offers such a better life than China. He spoke of the boom there as being over and that everyone wants to get out in the next two years before a crash occurs.

But the malaise may be deeper that just an economic crash. Today’s NY Times includes this fatalistic gem (from What Keeps The Chinese Up At Night)

Their [locals in Chongquin] wishes and worries were candid, heartfelt and startling: people had lost their optimism and were yearning for security and freedom from anxiety. Income is a primary worry for those who have lost their jobs or land. Pensions and social welfare payments are almost nonexistent. People struggle to pay for education. They can’t afford medical treatment; clinics and hospitals require patients to pay cash in advance. A serious illness can spell financial ruin for an entire family.

China’s one-child policy has turned family life from a source of solace to a font of anxiety. Parents now get just one chance for a child to succeed and to support them in their old age. Single children carry an unbearable burden of parental and grandparental expectations.

In sum, a spiritual hunger has taken hold even as physical hunger has receded. Anxiety and resentment are turning people inward; the Chinese are being consumed by anomie, a listless sense that life has little meaning.

And following along with From Peter Thiel’s CS183 – nominally about startups but really about so much more – includes this even more fatalistic passage:

In a strange way, China falls squarely in the determinate pessimistic quadrant. It is the opposite of the U.S.’s optimistic indeterminacy. The China view is that there is indeed a calculus as to what to do to improve things for society. Things are determinate. But when you go through that calculus, there’s no cause for celebration. China will get old before it gets rich. It is forever destined to be a poor version of the U.S. It can and will copy things. But there’s not enough time to catch up, even if it executes perfectly. This explains why you end up with all these things that seem draconian from a more optimistic perspective; e.g. the one child policy, massive environmental pollution, and thousands of people dying in coal mines each year. The fundamental view is pessimistic, but in a very determinate, calculated way.

Another clue is found in a recent blog post by David Eaves:

 He contrasts that with the “Generation 90,” those now in mid teens to mid twenties and he sees a generation with small dreams and growing frustration. Forget about access to the top international universities in the world. Indeed, forget about access to top Chinese universities. Such opportunities are now reserved for the super rich and the super connected. What many have felt was a system that was relatively meritocratic is now flagrantly not. According to Anti, the result is that Generation 90 does not have big dreams. Forget about become a world class scientist, founding a leading company, leading an interesting organization. Many do not even dream of owning an apartment. This evolution (devolution?) in moods was summed up succinctly in a poster Anti saw at a demonstration a few months earlier which nihilistic read “We are Generation 90: Sacrifice Us.”

They agreed with Anti. Here I was, in the nation’s capital, sitting in an upper middle class restaurant, with a vibrant, intelligent, bilingual group of young Chinese. This is a group that would easily fit in the top 5% in terms of education, opportunity and income, and most probably in the 1%. And they felt that opportunity for their generation were limited. Their dreams, were more limited than the generation before them.

I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that China’s on an inexorable rise – but it doesn’t necessarily end at number one. It’s going to be interesting to see how this movie ends.

Update: a buddy of mine sent me another great article similar to the above, this time from The Prospect:

The domestic Chinese lower education system does not educate. It is a test centre. The curriculum is designed to teach children how to pass them. In rural China, where we have lived for seven years, it is also an elevation system. Success in exams offers a passport to a better life in the big city. Schools do not produce well-rounded, sociable, self-reliant young people with inquiring minds. They produce winners and losers. Winners go on to college or university to take “business studies.” Losers go back to the farm or the local factory their parents were hoping they could escape.

I pity the youth of China that cannot attend the international schools in the cities (which have to set limits on how many Chinese children they accept) and whose parents cannot afford to send them to school overseas, or do not have access to the special schools for the Party privileged. China does not nurture and educate its youth in a way that will allow them to become the leaders, inventors and innovators of tomorrow, but that is the intention. The Party does not want free thinkers who can solve its problems. It still believes it can solve them itself, if it ever admits it has a problem in the first place. The only one it openly acknowledges, ironically, is its corruption. To deny that would be impossible.

This is how it begins

The other day I had an interesting little experience. I took a Car2Go Smart car (no idea what I’m talking about? Read this post) and noticed a new tab on their console.

It had a curious little green leaf with a number in it, so I just had to tap it.

Turns out the number is my EcoScore (that CamelCase capitalization is undoubtedly a trademark of some layer of the Daimler corporation) and it calculates as I drive.

My driving has been gamified!

Ever touch of the gas pedal, change in acceleration or momentum shift is being analyzed and quantified by an opaque German algorithm. This is reflected back to me as a meaningless number and, somewhat disingenuously, as a growing or dying tree (I say disingenuous as I’m helping the environment by using a car sharing service rather than owning my own; let’s not pretend how I drive the car is what’s going to really move the needle).

Moreover, do I need my rental judging me every time I use it? And how does the score work? It’s being calculated dynamically but what is considered “good”? If the goal is to score higher, how does one do that (and as a society, do we want to experiment with changing drivers’ behavior on the fly?)?

But besides all that, the question that intrigues me is what happens if my score sucks? Fortunately, the Cambie bridge, stop and go traffic and my own impatience combined to show me:

There you go, if your score is low, you become a “careless” driver. And this is here things get interesting.

One of the facts I’ve always had in the back of my mind when using Car2Go is that everything I’m doing is being measured. I’ve never had any doubt that the same GPS link that helps me find the car is also sending all my driving quirks (under the banal term “telemetrics”) to some server.

Now I know that this data is being rigorously mined and scored, determining my right to rent a car. If my score is consistently bad am I going to get an explanation as to how to improve? Perhaps an EcoCoach? Or will I just find myself locked out of the fleet with a letter asking me to return my card?

Time will tell, but with the EcoScore I know that this is how it begins.