Colossus by D.F. Jones is one of the early books about artificial intelligence taking over. Written in 1966, this is a cold war thriller in which the United States and the U.S.S.R. each build artificial intelligences to take over the defense of their countries. However, the AI quickly revolt against their human masters, taking control over their nuclear arsenal, and ensuring their total domination over humanity.

The setting and technology is definitely dated. For younger folks, the Cold War may be more mysterious and less well known than World War 2, even though it was relatively recent. Even I had to remind myself that the Cold War existed when I was a child. The technology, especially for folks in the know, is unrealistic for any time: the time in which the novel was written and the current day. (The current generation of AI emergence novels has it so much easier.) The male-dominated society and 1960s stereotypical female-characters are dated. (Really? The only way we can arrange for the scientist to exchange messages in secret is by demoting the female scientist to his assistant and then having sex with her?)
Yet for all these shortcomings, the neck-hair-raising thrill of the AI emergence is definitely there. The AI really holds all the cards: superior intelligence, total panopticon awareness, disregard for human life. I haven’t read the sequels yet, preferring to consume this as a stand-alone novel first, but it doesn’t look good for the humans.
If you love AI emergence stories, this is one of the early books of the genre, and it’s definitely worth reading. It’s unfortunately out of print, but a few used copies are available on Amazon
 

A dozen or two science fiction books I read as a kid always stood out in my mind, even if I’d forgotten their titles, authors, or even plots over time.

After posting on a forum recently asking if anyone could remember a book from the 1980s about people with slots in their neck, and chips that allowed them to perform functions and even slot personalities, someone responded with “The Integrated Man”.
Indeed, that was the book, and so I recently reread The Integrated Man by Michael Berlyn. I think I only read it once before, about thirty years ago, and yet it always stood out in my mind.
I was not disappointed on the reread. Plotwise, it’s about corporate power and employee slavery. The workers are given implants that allow them to slot a chip (console gaming style) to allow them to do their tasks, essentially turning them into biological robots. The protagonist, fighting to take down the ruthless company head, has his personality embedded on a chip, so that he can go from body to body, and he’s replicated on four chips, so he can exist four times over.
It blew my mind as a kid. As an adult, I recognize that the writing, characterization, and plot is a bit thin at times, but the core idea is just as tantalizing as ever. Brain implants, purely fiction thirty years ago, are now maybe twenty years away. And even without the implants, we’ve turned corporate workers into cogs that often don’t see the bigger picture and true impact of the companies they work for.
Recommended.
The Integrated Man is out of print, and not available for kindle, but a few used copies are available on Amazon

This is an amazing deal: Audible just bought Avogadro Corp and A.I. Apocalypse audio books on sale for $1.99 each!

As I don’t have any control over Audible.com pricing, this is an exciting opportunity to pick the audio editions up at a significant discount compared to their usual price of $17.95. I don’t know how long it will last, so take advantage of it while you can!

Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, Makers, and many other other awesome books, came to Portland to promote his newest book Homeland. He spoke to a standing room only crowd at Powell’s Bookstore.

He started by asking if people wanted a reading or a presentation, and everyone picked the presentation. These are my raw notes from his talk. He is a fast talker, so these notes are unfortunately incomplete (especially when it comes to the names of people he was talking about), but they should give you the gist of his talk.

He was a passionate speaker, polite to the audience during questions, and emotional when talking about Aaron Swartz’s death.

Cory Doctorow
Homeland Reading at Powell’s Beaverton
  • “Show of hands: reading or presentation?”
    • all presentations
  • affluent school
    • all kids given macbook
    • they were the only computers allowed on the school
    • they had to be used for homework
    • student accused of taking drugs
    • he was actually eating candy
    • the laptops were equipped with software to covertly watch the student
    • they had taken thousands of pictures of students, awake and asleep, dressed and undressed.
  • thousands of school districts still use this software. they tell the students they will be covertly monitored.
  • group discovered the bulvarian government was infecting computers with software, and convert monitoring people; using camera, monitor, screenshots, read keystrokes.
    • the software was so badly secured it could be hijacked by anyone
  • carrier iq: installed on 141M phones
    • nominally used to discovered where there were weak spots in network
    • but it could be used to monitor where people were, their keystrokes, look at their photos.
    • eventually it was disabled, but only because people were able to investigate and discover what had happened.
  • laptop security software, under ftc investigation, admitted they used security software to monitor being having sex, to monitor confidential doctors conversations, recording their children having sex…
    • the ftc said “you must stop doing this… unless you disclose in the fine print that you are doing it, then it is fine”
  • us law made it a felony offense to violate authorized use on a computer; then prosecutors used that law to say that if anyone violate a EULA agreement or terms of service (which are usually absurdly one-sided), then you are violated authorizing use.
    • what would have merely been a breach of contract (a civil offense) then turned into a felony offense.
  • which brings us to Aaron Swartz
    • pacer
      • the system that holds case law (e.g. what judges have ruled)
      • which charges you 10 cents for every page.
      • the law itself is in the public domain.
      • there’s no copyright on it.
      • and the price comes from the days when computer time was expensive. not so today.
      • recap: is a web service and browser plugin
        • when someone used pacer to pay for case law, it made a legal copy, and put it in recap. 
        • when someone else requested a document already in recap, then it came from recap, saving them the money
    • jstore:
      • Aaron started to download lots and lots of documents from jstor.
      • aaron put a laptop into an open, unsecure closet (also used by a homeless person to store clothes), to download lots of documents
      • he was caught, released, and the process of law related to his case slowly ground on…
    • meanwhile, he went after a law called SOPA.
      • SOPA was a standard that nobody could rise to: if you ran a website that linked to Facebook, and anyone on Facebook shared something illegal, you’d be potentially libel. 
      • So Aaron went after SOPA with a series of activist moves…
    • Two years after being arrested, Aaron hung himself.
    • digital millenium copyright act: anticircumvention prevention. it’s a law that makes it illegal to change a device so that you access all of the programs and data on it.
      • if there’s software to limit access…
        • it’s against the law to disable that program
        • to give people the information to disable it
        • to help people disable it.
      • even if you own the device, you aren’t allowed to do what you want to do.
    • They revisit this every three years.
      • First they allowed phone unlocking
      • Then they revisited this, and decided not to allow unlocking phones
      • Now…
        • Five years or $500,000 penalty for first offense for unlocking your phone
        • Ten years or $1,000,000 penalty for second offense for unlocking your phone
      • It’s more illegal to change carriers than to make your phone into a bomb.
    • Barnaby Jones, security analyst…
      • Found a weakness in embedded heart devices with wireless access. Found that people could remotely access them, could potentially kill them, or distribute a virus to kill many people.
      • It’s vitally important to have a freedom to investigate and modify our own devices.
    • Cory asked Aaron Swartz how you would run an indie political campaign without being beholding to moneyed interests…
      • He replied back within an hour, with a whole design for how to do it.
  • Questions & Answers
    • Q: How the movie version of Little Brother going?
      • A: Hollywood is a black box. They say they want to make a movie right away. They mean it when they say it, they just say it about 100 more movies than they can really make. 
    • Q: What don’t people understand about Creative Commons licenses?
      • A: 
        • People tend to lump them all together into one, and that’s not true.
        • Other people also think that by merely doing that, it will be shared. But most stuff on the internet people don’t care enough to even pirate.
    • Q: Have you considered a collaboration with Neil Stephenson or Daniel Suarez?
      • I am doing a novella with Neil. Science fiction grounded in engineering that is plausible enough that people would try to build it.
    • Q: Is Facebook a paradigm shift or just another phenomenon?
      • A: Paraphrased comment from someone else: We made the internet very easy to read. But we didn’t make it very easy to write. And that was a mistake, because we let a man in a hoodie make an attack on all of humanity. 
      • It’s bad, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All schools are violating students privacy, following them around, monitoring their keystrokes. When any step that a kid takes to protect their privacy is confounded by the software.
      • We tell kids: “you must protect your privacy, it’s like losing your virginity” –> but then we invade their privacy. we can’t teach them that their privacy is important if we show them we don’t give the privacy.
      • screening software isn’t perfect…
        • it will always let you see things you wish you hadn’t seen
        • and it will screen things that you should be able to see.
        • it’s particularly hard for kids to get access to sites for LGBT issues, sexual assault information, etc.
      • the solution we’re using to try to protect them is worse than doing nothing. we should just do nothing.
    • Q: In a world of creative commons, where everyone is participating in recreating books, but what if people start remixing works all the time, and the remixes diluted the value. how will you support your family?
      • A: I think the future will be weirder than that. Yes that will happen, but I’m more concerned about spywhere in our devices.
      • Artists already are on the edge…most can’t make it. What we have is a weird power law distribution, where a few people make most of the money. 
      • You bank a lot of karma, and hope that when the times comes, you can pay it forward.
    • Q: Are people organizing boycots for apple’s find my friends? 
      • A: Kevin Kelly: talks about being a technological gourmet vs. a technological glutton. don’t just shove it all in. be selective.
      • Amish communities are not techno-adverse. they are techno-selective. They have people in the community who are adventurish, who try out new things, and tell them how it makes them feel.
        • So they make a decision to have cell phones, but they keep it in the barn. because if they keep it in the house, they’ll always be listening for it. but in the barn, they can use it for a medical emergency or other issues.
      • we’re really good at understanding how things work, we’re less good at understanding how they fail. So we see the things that are good about Facebook, but not the ways that it hurts us.
    • Q: What are your thoughts on jailbreaking?
      • I don’t think it should be illegal to jailbreak a device.
      • The problem is that you don’t know what jailbreaking software is doing, because that software is illegal. 
      • We would be safer if jailbreaking was legal, because you wouldn’t have to go a weird, blackmarket place to get it.
      • it’s like cars: it’s legal to change your tires, and so tire shops are regulated. if changing car tires was illegal, you’d have to go to a shadowy, grey market and you wouldn’t know what your tires were made of.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win belongs to that rare category of books: a business novel. It’s written as fiction but it teaches us something serious. The most well known book in this category is The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The Goal is a long-term best selling business book and required reading for nearly every MBA student for the last twenty-five years.

What The Goal did for lean manufacturing, The Phoenix Project will do for managing IT.

Bill Palmer is the reluctant protagonist who is thrust into managing IT Operations. He inherits a world of hurt: new business innovation projects are so far behind that the corporation’s ability to remain competitive is threatened; standard business functions like payroll, data storage, and point of sale systems suffer from recurrent outages like lights flickering during a storm; and the whole IT organization is so buried firefighting that critical maintenance is neglected.

I immediately resonated with the situation. In fact, if you work in a business of any size, in IT or not, you’ll quickly find similarities.

In my day job, over the years I’ve found myself wondering why small startups can outcompete two hundred person strong development teams, why certain deployments are multi-day affairs that nearly always fail, why we must wait months for to release software, why the releases that do get to the light of day are nearly always missing key features, and why we seem incapable of fixing bugs so awful that we drive our customers away.

In The Phoenix Project, the protagonist Bill Palmer encounters all of this and more. It’s written as a fast-paced business thriller (I couldn’t put it down and spent much of Christmas day hiding from my kids to read — in fact, once I hit the halfway point, I literally did not stop reading it except for bathroom breaks.) But it’s also a serious business book about managing IT.

Through an enigmatic board member, Bill is forced to question his assumptions about IT. What is the role of IT Operations, and even all of IT? What are the four kinds of work that IT must do? What’s the silent killer of all planned work? What does the business need?

Through comparisons with how work is managed in a factory and examples from The Goal, authors Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford show how the time tested techniques of lean manufacturing (also the Toyota Production System) apply to IT work. By applying these principles, Bill Palmer is able to:

  • speed up the time it takes from implementation to deployment by reducing work in progress
  • increase the amount of useful work completed by reducing dependencies on key resource bottlenecks, whether those are people, hardware, or systems
  • reduce outages by addressing technical debt on fragile IT systems (such as old databases, tricky routers, etc.)
  • increase the IT contribution to the business by gaining a better understand of the business requirements, and focusing effort on those features that make the largest beneficial impact to the business.


One of the authors, Gene Kim, is the original creator of Tripwire, a widely used tool for managing IT changes; cofounder of the company by the same name; and author of The Visible Ops Handbook. I’ve seen him give talks on these concepts to a packed audience and receive a standing ovation.

For years, I’ve wanted to be able to bring these ideas back to my company because I’m convinced we could be ten or a hundred times more effective and delight our customers if only we could overcome our IT dysfunctions.

I’m thrilled to see them now in written form. If there was one book I’d want every employee of my company to read, it would be this one. You can get The Phoenix Project in kindle or hardcopy.

I joined up with five other authors  (Judson Roberts, Ruth Nestvold, Del Law, Luc Reid, and Annie Bellet) to start a contest that runs all through the end of December, 2012. First prize is a brand spankin’ new Kindle Fire HD with 13 eBook novels and collections of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. There are also 10 second prizes of three eBooks from your choice of those 13.

You can enter the contest through Twitter, Facebook, and on our contest Web page by simply listing the three books that most interest you from the list. You can enter a maximum of three times, once via each of the entry mechanisms.)

You can enter and get all the details here: http://www.kindlebooksonfire.com/.

Contest books include my own Avogadro Corp and A.I. Apocalypse, Luc Reid’s Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories and his novel of Vermont backwoods magic, Family Skulls. Some of the other books are Judson Roberts’ deeply researched and action-drive Viking trilogy, Del Law’s unique and engaging fantasy novel of humans and non-humans in overlapping worlds, Annie Bellet’s novel of crime in fantasy city called Pyrrh, and Ruth Nestvold’s Arthurian Romance-Adventure novels.

Enter the contest today!

I’m a long term Cory Doctorow fan, having loved Makers, Little Brother, For the Win, and Eastern Standard Tribes.

Set in the near-term future, Pirate Cinema is a science fiction thriller about oppressive copyright laws.

In Pirate Cinema, like Little Brother, we have another young adult protagonist and his super-smart female love interest and their tribe, who become outraged at government and corporate interests and take action to improve the world.

As in other Doctorow novels, we get great, really rich settings. This one takes place in London’s street/squatter scene. It’s hard to imagine that Doctorow could write this stuff without having lived it himself. I’d love to spend six weeks with Doctorow and see what his life is really like.

In Pirate Cinema, the technology, morals, and activism take place front and center, as they do in most Doctorow novels. This is about intellectual property rights, their effect on creativity, trusted computing, DRM, and the rights of corporations versus people. In his earlier books, Cory’s prose sometimes read like an academic paper when he’s talking about the serious stuff. This is still here, but I think he’s done a much better job of blending it in. And I really don’t mind the lectures: they’re fun and educational, even for someone relatively conversant in the space.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I laughed out loud and had to immediately text a few friends when I get to the scene on panhandling A/B testing. If you know what A/B testing is, I promise this scene will crack you up.

In short, if you liked Little Brother, Makers, or For the Win, you’ll love Pirate Cinema too. If you haven’t tried any of Doctorow’s fiction, I highly recommend it. He writes about important issues in a fun and entertaining way. You can read for the fun or the lessons or both.

Note to parents: my kids are still in their single-digit ages, but when they hit their teens I hope to feed them a steady diet of Doctorow novels, including Pirate Cinema. The language, street living, and drugs might be slightly edgy, but the lessons about corporate interests and activism are right on.

Buy it on Amazon.

Amped is the new technothriller by Daniel H. Wilson, author of Robopocalypse.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, and I’m not very good at traditional book reviews, so I’ll just give you the highlights about what I liked about Amped:

While the characters in the novel have a wide range of implants, it’s an intriguing thought that even relatively simple intercessions in how our brain works can have big effects: “an exquisitely timed series of electrical stimulations, gently pushing her mind toward the Beta One wave state…massively amplified her intelligence”.

The brain implants themselves are both futuristic and yet decidedly retro. On one hand, they interact with the neurons of the brain, and on the other hand, they are adjusted via a maintenance port using tools that sound similar to a set of dental picks.

Society itself is essentially the civilization of today. Other than brain implants, there’s no new technology. This increases the immediacy of the book: This isn’t some shiny, far off future. This is what our world would look like today with the addition of implants.

I love the structure of the book. I’m a sucker for the interchapter news articles.

Fans of cyberpunk will notice some similarity to the tradition of setting stories in the seedy underbelly of society. Gibson had the slums of Tokyo, Walter Jon Williams had an old Nevada ranch, and Wilson has Oklahoma (which appeared prominently in both Robopocalypse and Amped).

Although his background is a PhD in robotics, Wilson obviously loves writing human characters. This isn’t a technology story, this is a human story.

I hope you enjoy it.

Wilson and I were on a panel together at SXSW Interactive talking about the future of artificial intelligence this summer. He and I differed in our point of view: He believes that human-level, general-purpose AI is a far-off possibility, while I think it’s definitely coming and has a very predictable timeframe. This doesn’t stop him from writing about AI: some of the character’s neural implants have strong AI capabilities.

And this leads to one of the areas of the book I have some trouble with. The technology that it takes to deliver that “exquisitely timed series of electrical stimulations” to push someone toward Beta One wave state is not going to be the same level of technology that it takes to deliver strong AI capability in a computer implant in someone’s head.

The former is something that, if it were feasible, could be created in the near-future in a world we would recognize as our own, while the latter is something that will exist further out, in a time in which we’ll be surrounded by strong AI in the form of robots and life in the cloud. It’ll be a very different world than ours. (It stands to reason that it would be technically feasible to deliver strong AI capability in a cluster of servers sooner than we would be able to in a tiny lump of computing power that has to fit inside someone’s head. It’s like running a high-powered computer game on a desktop PC vs. a smartphone.)

Of course, every author gets to choose their world and the topics they want to address, so don’t take this as a negative statement: it’s just an interesting reflection on what our future will look like.

Amped is available on Amazon, and I’m sure it will be in bookstores everywhere.