A contrast in how science and technology drives plot

In the past few months I’ve read two absolutely amazing science fiction books that I highly recommend: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie1 and The Martian by Andy Weir. Looking back on them, one of the fascinating things to me is how they use science and technology (hereafter S&T)2 to drive the plot.

Aside: this is a spoiler-free post, although it does talk about some overarching themes.

The plot of both books involve a study of the human condition. In The Martian it’s about human perseverance and ingenuity. In the Ancillary series, it’s about what it means to be human and what values that encompasses.

In The Martian, the force of the plot revolves around interacting closely with the limits of S&T. You see the main character solving problems on how to stay alive with the technology available to him vs the laws of the universe as we know them. The author went to great lengths to make the book as realistic as possible, something that makes it very engaging and relatable. If the S&T in the book had been distinctly different than what you and I know it would have been much less real, and thus much less engaging. I would even argue that while clearly hard science fiction, it is so realistic it feels like it could have been a documentary of events in the near future.

In contrast, the Ancillary series has a completely difference tact to S&T as we know it. It unveils a universe with laws that seem very much like our own, but yet has technology that skirts the edges of what seems possible (ie: ancillaries, shields, gate space). The plot requires this almost-magic technology to exist, but doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, the author presents the technology with sensible limitations, and then uses it to drive the human-centric plot. It would have been impossible to tell this story without violating the S&T as we know it.

Thus you have two books who use S&T completely differently to drive their plots — one which adheres strictly to S&T as we know it, and another which intentionally stretches it outside of our norm — all to focus on the human condition. If you enjoy science fiction, I would encourage you to add both to your reading list.

1 Actually, I read all three books in the series: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and the newly-released Ancillary Mercy — all of which are great.

2 Daniel and I had a somewhat heated discussion in which we debated what actually counts as science and technology. Being an actual scientist he argued that science is a process of study, not a thing in and of itself, whereas technology is a tool. Me being the engineer argued that science is synonymous with fundamental laws of nature and technology is our interaction with them. We agreed that we really needed a new noun for discussing what we really wanted to focus on in these books, which was the interaction with the fundamental laws of physics without calling it either science or technology. We decided on “octopus cucumbers” during that discussion. I’ve decided to use S&T instead so you’ll think I’m less crazy than I actually am.

Language Visible

I just finished Language Visible by David Sacks. It is an in-depth look at the English alphabet, letter by letter, from their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphics by the Semites (who took the hieroglyphic shapes and assigned them individual sounds) through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and French. Some fascinating tidbits:

  • I knew that some languages were right-to-left (RTL) and some left-to-right (LTR) but I wasn’t aware that some changed over time. And when they changed, they changed the direction that the letters were written — which is crazily intuitive but not something I’d ever thought about.
  • J, V, and W are three of the newest letters of the English alphabet. J a derivative of I; V a derivative of U, and W also a derivative of U. Indeed, English didn’t have its full compliment of 26 letters as a standard until the mid 1800s. The last two (I and J) got brought formally in thanks in no small part to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828. Aside: we also have Webster to thank for some of the spelling differences between American and British English. He “envisioned a distinctly American language, to help unite the new nation and make it independent of Britain’s printing presses and other cultural influences” — in other words, he intentionally created differences.
  • The English alphabet and spelling was heavily influenced by the Norman invasion, which booted out some Anglo-Saxon letters like thorn, eth, wyn, and yogh.
  • The Old English spelling of ye as in “Ye Olde Tavern” for instance, is actually pronounced the and always was. The ‘y’ is actually a thorn using the closest-looking Roman character at the time (handwritten thorn had evolved to look like a ‘y’) and is pronounced like ‘th’.
  • The author’s observation on the class origins of some English words was fascinating (pp 152-3). For instance, Old English gives us sheep, cows, calves, and swines and French gives us mutton, beef, veal, and pork. This and much more thanks again to the Norman invasion.
  • I knew the alphabet started out as what we would call all-uppercase. What I didn’t know is that the letter shapes we call lower-case were just another form of uppercase letters when they were created. Our lowercase letter shapes first saw their beginning from unical uncial, circa 300 AD, created for easier writing on parchment. These were standardized by the English cleric Alcuin under Charlemagne in around 789 AD, and adopted by the Italian printers in the 1460s as the model for lowercase letters in the “roman” print.
  • The uppercase letters we use in print are heavily derived, if not entirely lifted, from those used in Rome around 100 AD. I’d never fully realized just how gorgeous the lettering on Trajan’s column was until I saw them individually (sorry J, U, and W) in this book.
  • In general, with few exceptions, the English alphabet has survived mostly unchanged for thousands of years. Sounds have morphed over time, a few letters added or removed, but in large, the letters I write today have existed for thousands of years.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is fascinated about language, the history of letters, and letter shapes. One of the best parts about the book is that you know how far along you are with every chapter dedicated to a single letter. This also makes it easy to put down and pick back up. Sadly, the Seattle Library has one copy and I’m a week overdue in getting it back (sorry to the person who is in the hold queue after me!) so you might be waiting awhile if you’re looking for a copy there.

The Axemaker’s Gift

I recently finished The Axemaker’s Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein. The book outlines key innovations throughout human history that significantly altered the course of our history. The journey is fascinating and I’d highly recommend the book.

Two of the innovations and their repercussions were so interesting to me, that I wanted to call them out.

  • The alphabet. Not written language in the abstract mind you, but the alphabet specifically. The use of letters representing individual sounds that could be rearranged and mapped easily to oral language was in sharp contrast to hieroglyphics and other pictorial languages that came before. The alphabet began the slow process of moving power from the elite (rulers and their scholars) to a still small, but larger, portion of the population. It also allowed for the development of formalized logic and analysis as instead of trying to retain the details of what one was thinking about inside your head, you could now write them down — essentially using the written word as an extension to your thought process.
  • Gutenberg’s printing press. It’s no surprise this one was close to my heart (it’s also the reason I bought the book to begin with). The use of movable metal type for the quick reproduction of written material is fairly straightforward, although still awe-inspiring to me as to its impact. The part I found fascinating is that the use of the printing press was closely linked to the strengthening of national identity after the bible was translated into countries native languages. This increased national identity eroded people’s link to the Catholic church as they began to associate themselves more as people of a land with a common language and less as a people based solely on a common religion.

A quote from the book that I particularly enjoyed was from Plato writing to Thoth regarding Thoth’s “invention of writing”:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

Sounds like this xkcd comic, no?

I think smartphones are the next disruptive innovation for the human race. Their use has become so pervasive and the capabilities they are enabling so diverse, from instant access of information to augmented reality, that I believe they are fundamentally changing how we interact with each other and our environment. What moveable type did for the written word, smartphones are doing for information.

Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

I just finished a book titled The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. In it he talks about what he calls the New Rich, which are essentially people that structure their income such that they can take what he calls mini-retirements throughout their lives instead of working until we’re 60 to retire. The book is composed of 4 sections excluding the introductory material. I found useful material in sections 1, 2, and 4 that have made me stop and think about how I work, how I live, and where I’m going in life.

Of particular interest to me were the following thoughts

  • If we only have enough work to fill 2 or 3 hours of our workday, why do we stretch it out to fill 8 hours instead of getting it done and leaving for other more worthwhile activities? — This one in particular I found directly applicable to me. I have a tendency to get the job done, but to do so in a very inefficient manner since I “have to be there all day anyway”. In truth, as long as I fulfill my business commitments and am generally available for people who have questions, there’s no reason I should feel chained to my desk all day long.
  • Rediscovering the 80/20 rule – 80% of your profits are brought in by 20% of your people, so why would you jump through hoops for the remaining 80% of the people? — While not directly applicable I have rethought how I do customer support. Despite working extensively to include all applicable tunings for my product in released-to-customer Tuning Guides (that cover 80% of the issues), I am still constantly questioned about the remaining 20% that defy easy-to-document solutions. I’ve decided to write troubleshooting documents such that customers, support, and service personnel can follow to self-diagnose some of that 20%. In essence distilling the steps I take with a customer into a document they can follow themselves. This won’t eliminate all of the phone calls, but it will free up more time I can spend doing other things.
  • Productivity increases when you decrease interruptions and multitasking. — One of the stress points early in the summer between Benjamin and myself was him trying to talk to me while I was working and thus derailing my train of thought. We’ve since worked out a system but that highlights the point: interruptions suck and decrease productivity. Unfortunately I’ve never really applied that to email or IMs. I’ve always made the excuse that “part of my job is being available to help other people” which, while true, doesn’t mean that I have to be literally at their beck and call. Today I didn’t open my email or IM clients until 11am and I finished setting up a test environment and completed half of the Tuning ITDS, Part 2 paper that I’ve been unable to stay focused on the past several weeks. I had a few other things to do but I need to access both my email and be on IM for my 11am meeting. After the meeting I left my email and IM client enabled and my productivity sharply decreased. While there’s obviously a correlation between those factors, there’s not enough data to try and imply causation — it could be any number of factors. Tomorrow and the remainder of the week I’ll be working to refine my productivity time vs communication time.
  • Don’t foo-foo your dreams – dream big, set goals, and work to achieve them. — This seems obvious but too often I find myself saying “yeah, I’d like to do X, but …” and X never gets done for some reason or another. But consider this, if your productivity increases such that you have more free time, what are you going to do with that free time? Oddly enough, the question scares me. This is something I really need to work on. I don’t think the question would have scared me so much when I was in Austin and not working from home. Maybe I’ve become too much of a hermit and need to rediscover activities and adventure. A big take-home for me.

There’s tons of other jewels in the book and while I don’t completely agree with the author (in fact, I find him sleazy and downright unethical in places — mostly reflected in section 3) I do recommend it. I don’t expect to implement all of his suggestions but it sure has me thinking.