January 27, 2015

The Risen Empire - A Book Review

Just finished reading Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire, the second in his Scifi Succession duology, and I have just one word to describe it: AMAZING!

The story is set far, far in the future, where technology is so advanced interstellar travel is possible, select few people can live for ever (thanks to some bio-engineering feat that requires you to die first--hence their given name: the "Risen"), and where AI is vaster and more advanced than entire worlds!

The only problem here being that AI believe in their superiority, and a schism has taken place between the Greys (or the Risen)--those who live indefinitely but are still considered 100% human--and the Rix--those who devote their lives to a super-duper-godlike AI (or Compound Mind) and are often enhanced by these as well to become more robot-like, but with amazing capabilities, like super machines.

The book goes back and forth between different characters in this world: Captain Laurent Zai who's tasked with freeing the Child Empress (the Risen Emperor's darling little sister--also a Grey) who's been taken hostage by the Rix; Nara Oxham, a human senator who's against having living dead people rule (without death there is no change), and Zai's lover; the Compound Mind that's taken over all of the computers of the planet that hosts the Child Empress; the Rix woman who's the Compound Mind's special agent on that planet; and a number of other more minor characters.

I was really awed by all the imagination that went into Westerfeld's first book. The science behind it, the complex plot, the philosophical questions it raises. I seriously recommend it to anyone and everyone who's ever had an inkling of an interest in Scifi!

And without further ado, here's an excerpt of the book, told from the point of view of the Compound Mind on Legis XV as it becomes self-conscious (a product of it taking over more and more of the computer systems and databases on the planet), the planet where the Child Empress was taken hostage:

   Existence was good. Far richer than the weak dream of shadowtime.
   In the shadowtime, external reality had already been visible, hard and glimmering with promise, cold and complex to the touch. Objects existed outside of one, events transpired. But one's self was a dream, a ghostly being composed only of potential. Desire and thought without intensity, mere conceits, a plan before it is set in motion. Even the anguish at one's own nonexistence was dull; a shadow play of real pain.
   But now the Rix compound mind was moving, stretching across the infostructure of Legis XV like a waking cat, glorying in its own realness as it expanded beyond mere program. It had been just a seed before, a kernel of design possessing a tiny mote of consciousness, waiting to unleash itself across a fecund environment. But only the integrated data systems of an entire planet were lush enough to hold it, to math its nascent hunger as it grew.
   The mind had felt this expansion before, millions of times in simulation had experienced propagation as it relentlessly trained for awakening. But experiences in the shadowtime were models, mere analogs to the vast architecture that the mind was becoming. 
   Soon, the mind would encompass the total datastores and communications web of this planet, Legis XV. It had copied its seeds to every device that used data, from the huge broadcast arrays of the equatorial desert to the pocket phones of two billion inhabitants, from the content reservoir of the Grand Library to the chips of the transit cards used for tube fares. Its shoots had disabled the shunts placed throughout the system, obscene software intended to prevent the advent of intelligence. In four hours it had left its mark everywhere.
   And the propagation seeds were not some mere virus scattering its tag across the planet. They were designed to link the mindless cacophony of human interaction into a single being, a metamind composed of connections: the webs of stored autodial numbers that mapped out friendships, cliques, and business cartels; the movements of twenty million workers t rush hour in the capital city; the interactive fables played by schoolchildren, spawning a million decision trees each hour; the recorded purchases of generations of consumers related to their voting patterns....
   That was being a compound mind. Not some yapping AI designed to manage traffic lights or zoning complaints or currency markets, but the epiphenomenal chimera that was well beyond the sum total of all these petty transactions. Only hours in existence, the mind was already starting to feel the giddy sensation of being these connections, this web, this multiverse of data. Anything less was the shadowtime.
   Yes...existence was good.
   The Rix had fulfilled their promise.
OK, so technically this image is from Star Wars, but both stories take place in galaxies far, far away, and
intergalactic traveling and all that...

January 20, 2015

Demon Duck Of Doom

No, this isn't the title to new B-rated horror movie (though it could be). It is instead the pet name given to the Bullockornis, a 2.5 m tall duck. Although I suppose he'd be considered to be more of a giant cousin of the dodo (also extinct) in that it was a flightless bird (getting 500 kg into the air is no small feat, after all). It lived about 15 millions years ago in (where else?) Australia!

I wonder if they could replace our modern-day horses (I know people have tried riding ostriches)--they could've been like chocobos!

It's all fun to imagine such a large bird waddling except for the tiny, very minor detail that it was quite possibly carnivorous and its beak sharp and strong enough to shred through flesh. So perhaps it's for the best that most animals have shrunk over the eras (reasons for this include a change in oxygen levels and the climate, for example) or have been locked up inside Jurassic World :)

Prehistoric wildlife
Te Ara

January 13, 2015

The Five Qualities To Being A Great Salesman Like Walt Disney

In case some of you hadn't noticed, I'm quite a fan of Disney--whether the enterprise (though I may not always like everything they produced), and Mr. Walt Disney himself (or at least what I've heard of him).

So I decided to find out more about the man behind the mouse and started reading How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life. I've so far really enjoyed reading about Mr. Disney in this book and learned about the man and how he made his dreams come true despite failure and opposition.

One of the tips to his success, therefore, was his amazing ability to sell anyone on one of his big ideas, no matter how crazy it may have sounded, and I thought I'd share the five keys to being a great salesman with you which are explained in (much) greater detail in the book:

  1. Honesty - A great salesman lives on repeat business, and that implies trust. If a customer doesn't trust you, s/he will never do business with you again (and probably have others avoid you via word-of-mouth). [Walt] didn't use glib talk or flashy sales methods. He simply sold his ideas with honesty and sincerity.
  2. Enthusiasm - Enthusiasm is contagious. That is how Walt managed to get Atlantic Richfield Company (later to be known as Arco) to sponsor his Autopia attraction in Tomorrowland for $250,000 or $25,000 for ten years, with the first check written to him on that day. The moment Walt left with everything he'd asked for, one of the execs at the company asked the others what they had just bought!
  3. Confidence - Be confident in your idea or project, no matter how bad things may seem. Lillian Disney [his wife] once said, "Walt never thought he was beaten at anything--ever." No matter how bad things seemed, Walt believed in himself, his product, his future. Not only that, but he also gave confidence to those people who partnered with them, making them believe they could achieve the impossible as well, and thereby motivating them to push themselves just as hard and achieve greater heights of accomplishment. Confidence is not a feeling, it's an attitude choice. Even if you don't feel confidence, you can still adopt an attitude of confidence. Even if you're uncomfortable. In fact, you should step outside your comfort zone to make things happen.
  4. Courage - Don't fear rejection. Psychological studies show that high-achieving, successful people are not overly concerned about what others think. This was true of Walt Disney. He never catered to his critics. He never worried about rejection. He kept selling his dreams. He focused on his projects and ideas instead of on himself, he didn't have the luxury to think of himself! 
  5. Persistence - Nothing that is worthwhile is easy. Even Walt had plenty of downs (especially at the begin of his career where he saw one of his companies go bankrupt, his cash run dry, his team leave him and his characters get stolen from him!), yet he never gave up! And that is why the Disney empire is still among us to this day.

I hope you found these points as interesting as I did and, most importantly, inspiring! So go out there, dare to dream big and fight for your dreams to come true!

Walt Disney worked hard and sold his ideas from the earliest
days of his career. He had no MBA, not even a college degree. But 
Walt had the right idea and the right spirit, and he was willing 
to go out and sell his ideas. He was a world-class salesman.
~Peter Clark, retired Disney Executive

January 12, 2015

A New Blog - On Belgium

Since I've recently moved back to Belgium, I figured I should probably learn more about it and its (sometimes quite complicated) workings. So I started a new blog where I intend to write down everything I decipher about it. I may therefore occasionally link to those posts inside this blog.

The first post was just to introduce the blog and give a few quick facts about the land of waffles, chocolate, beer and Smurfs!

January 6, 2015

On Deciphering Some Great Composers' Handwriting

This is just a quick post to say how great I think the inventor of the music staff was! Otherwise, I'm not sure how we'd be able to decipher some of our great composers' masterpieces, especially when something as simple as a G clef can apparently be written in so many different ways...

I mean, this is what Beethoven's copyists had to deal with:
Cello Sonata Opus 69?