Railhead = YA Hyperion + Culture

I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.

Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.

Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:

She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.


Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.


And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.

An unexpected but pleasant surprise!

Invariable Reinforcement

Our office manager Sophie passed me the phone. “It’s someone from Google,” she said. I raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this was an invitation to an event, or another chance to test prototype hardware, or something even more magical.

I unmute the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, I’m Tim, from Google Digital Development. I’d love to talk about how we can help you promote your apps on the Google Play Store better.”

How disappointing — they were just selling Google search ads. I quickly made my excuses and hung up.

Three months later: “Hi Adrian! My name is Mike, I’m from Google Digital Development -”

Seven months: “Hey Adrian! I’m from Google Digital -”

Twelve months: “I’m Sean, I’m from Google Digi -”

To this day, it keeps happening and I keep getting my hopes up, like a child. Why don’t I learn that ‘Google’ on the phone equals ‘Irish guy cold-calling with ad sales’?

Because I haven’t told you about the times Google contacts us about actual interesting projects. It’s usually by email, but sometimes they do call. Not on a regular schedule, of course — but at random, unpredictable times.

This pattern of frustration mixed with intermittent success is essentially a variable reinforcement schedule. If you’ve read any article about addiction in the last twenty years, you’ll know that a variable reinforcement schedule can be used to make rats compulsively press a lever in the hope of getting another pellet of food; and that the same schedule could explain how addictive behaviour develops in humans.

Some people in the tech community act as if variable reinforcement schedules were occult knowledge, magic words capable of enchanting muggles into loosening their wallets. If only we could learn the secrets of variable reinforcement schedules, we could make them addicted to our new app — all those microtransactions, all those ad views, oh my!

So when people learn that I studied experimental psychology and neuroscience at Cambridge and Oxford — and that I run a company that designs health and fitness games — they are taken aback. They are fascinated. And then… they are disappointed, but only after I tell them that the principles of variable reinforcement schedules and operant conditioning can be learned by a dedicated student in a few hours. Moreover, if experimental psychologists were all capable of making the next Candy Crush, they wouldn’t spend most of their time complaining about the quality of tea in the staff common room.

That doesn’t mean that variable reinforcement schedules are bunk, though.

Variable reinforcement schedules help explain why I spend an hour a day mindlessly checking Gmail, Metafilter, Reddit, Twitter, and Hacker News. Even when I know, with 99% certainty, that nothing interesting will have happened in the 15 minutes since I last checked them, I still type Command-R — because maybe this time I’ll get lucky.

More broadly, it’s why we pay attention to the constant interruptions that plague our screens — there’s no cost to the person sending the interruption, and occasionally, it’s of real interest to us. Continue reading “Invariable Reinforcement”

Understanding Pain

Two weeks ago, I was at the Six to Start offices discussing the cost of shipping packages internationally for our next Virtual Race. I bent over to pick up something on the floor and felt an intense stabbing pain in my lower right back. I attempted to straighten up, but it hurt to much that I dropped to my knees and, on the advice of Matt, lay down on the floor for a few minutes.

This alleviated the pain somewhat, but I was still barely able to walk. Even sitting down didn’t help. That morning, I’d packed my running gear to use on the way back, but it was obvious nothing of the sort was on the cards. Still, I was determined to hobble back home that night, which I successfully did.

Things hadn’t improved the next day, or the day after that. I’d evidently strained or pulled a muscle in my back, and it wasn’t going to clear up quickly.

What struck me in those days was how difficult it was to do anything. Getting up from a sofa or from bed, putting on trousers, tying shoelaces, even brushing my teeth – all these activities caused pain, to the extent that something which would normally take 10 seconds and no thought at all instead could take a few minutes each. Everyone was very helpful during this time, particularly my girlfriend, but my back pain still caused real problems. I worried about how long it would last for – would I need to figure out some new way of exercising other than running? How might this affect my work? If it lasted much longer, it would certainly have worsened my health in other ways.

Thankfully, after a week, I was back to 90% and able to start running again, and now I’m pretty much at 100%. Part of the reason for the quick recovery, I think, is because I was already very healthy and had a habit of walking a lot; I’m told that back pain is worsened by not moving, and in my experience, that’s definitely the case.

However briefly, I gained a new understanding of what it means to have back pain. More broadly, I realised the kind of difficulties people have when it’s just hard or tiring or painful to move in general. It’s not news to me that many, many people have these problems, and I never doubted that walking or stretching or so on was genuinely difficult – but it’s one thing to believe it, and another thing to experience it. It’s actually astonishing to me how hard it was to do everyday tasks.

I don’t have any bright ideas about how to treat or combat back pain; I’m not about to suggest that an app* would solve it, or that we should all get exoskeletons (although that would be pretty cool). It’s just clear to me that it’s a problem that, while seemingly invisible, is bound to seriously reduce a person’s quality of life and exacerbate or create new ailments.

*If you could measure posture in real time using wearable devices, you could create an app or chatbot or game that might gently encourage people to move and stretch in a sensible way. But that’s a) obvious and, more importantly, b) rather far off given the NHS’ (in)ability to deploy that kind of technology to patients.

Initial Thoughts on KSR's Aurora

Spoilers abound for the entire plot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy changed my life. I was 14 and reading plenty of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov when I idly flipped through our monthly book club brochure. They usually didn’t have any science fiction, so I was surprised to see an entire page devoted to a book called Red Mars. It was by some author I’d never heard of and therefore of questionable quality, but Arthur C. Clarke himself urged readers to give it their time. “The ultimate in science fiction,” or something similarly unambiguous.

We bought the book – we had to, that’s how book clubs worked – and I fell in love with the idea of colonising Mars. I felt as if Kim Stanley Robinson had demonstrated that not only was it possible, not only was it sublime, but it was absolutely necessary for the project of humanity becoming a fairer, more enlightened people. At an impressionable age, this book made the biggest impression, and was enough to spark my ambition to write an essay, win a competition, travel to a Mars conference in the US on my own, organise youth groups, speak at TED, and so on.

I am not active in the Mars exploration movement, or even the space exploration movement any more. I remain deeply interested, but it became clear to me that the road to Mars would be much longer and much harder than anyone had expected. Even now, even with SpaceX, it feels as if the decades keep ticking up. What once might have happened in 2020 will now happen in 2030, or 2040, or later. And when we get there, what then? Creating a world from scratch is hard, slow work.

Kim Stanley Robinson regrets the effect the Mars trilogy had on people like me. At least, that’s the impression I got from Aurora, a tale of the near-impossibility, and hence near-pointlessness, of creating an Earth-like environment outside of Earth. It’s not his fault; the science has changed since the 90s. We now know that Mars has much less nitrogen than we need for growing plants, and the vast amounts of perchlorates on the surface are a serious hazard to humans. These, and other new obstacles, could lengthen the time to terraform Mars from centuries to millennia, or tens of millennia. Perhaps our technology will advance to meet the challenge, but there’s no question the challenge is herculean.

Yet no-one seems dissuaded by this. In fact, I had never even heard of the nitrogen and perchlorates problem until reading Aurora. It’s as if merely asserting that colonising Mars is an imperative for the survival of humanity suddenly makes it possible. What must happen, will happen.

And why is colonising Mars an imperative? Because, in part, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

So Aurora is a corrective. We follow an attempt to colonisation a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, light years from Earth. In short, it fails. Everything fails. Not the just colonisation of Tau Ceti, but the very starship that took the colonists there as well. All the beautifully designed miniature Earth-like biomes on the starship fail, because that’s what happens to enclosed ecosystems with a wide variety of flora and fauna, all evolving at different rates.

Our colonists do try, though. A engineer/biologist is positively heroic in her efforts to keep the starship running, a rather unusual note in a science fiction novel (although not, to be fair, The Martian); and some colonists are so determined to press on with the project in Tau Ceti that they choose to take the one in ten thousand chance of creating a new world. Those are, of course, terrible odds. Only in a certain kind of story do you win that gamble, and this is not that kind of story.

What kind of story is it, then? An anti-space exploration story? Not really. Robinson describes a solar system full of thriving outposts and colonies, all trading with one and another, and most crucially, with Earth. He talks about the eventual colonisation of Mars – in a few thousand years time. This is not the imagination of someone who wants to smash rockets. In his world, Space exploration is exciting, it’s laudable, it’s inevitable, but it’s not a solution to preserving the future of humanity. And while volunteers will line up to take the riskiest of gambles, it’s not so clear that their children and grandchildren, left on a fragile miniature ecosystem too far from Earth, should have to risk their lives as well. No, the future of humanity is best assured by preserving the future of Earth’s ecosystem.

This kind of talk used to sound like sedition to me, spread by shortsighted fools who’d say, “Why explore space when we have problems on Earth?” It still does, sort of. It may not seem like it, but humanity is wealthier than ever, and I still think we can well afford to explore and travel in space, and to Mars.

The problem is, it’s not just on Mars that the facts have changed, with its nitrogen and perchlorates – it’s Earth as well, with its warming air and rising seas and fraying ecosystem. So I don’t feel unjustified in changing my mind as well about our priorities and how we think about the future of humanity, not after reading Aurora.

It’s been almost twenty years since I first opened Red Mars, but I’m still impressionable – at least, by Kim Stanley Robinson.