Retroactive destruction

There are some novels that are truly magnificent, that remain with you for years and at times influence who you are. Most authors, having written such novels, are wise enough to leave their works alone and move on to something else. A few authors will embark on writing a sequel.

A few sequels match or even excel their first book (Vernor Vinge’s novels are the classic example). Most sequels are merely good, or merely bad. However, there is a special breed of sequels that are so awfully, soul-destroying terrible that not only do they waste your time and money, but they manage to retroactively poison your appreciation of the first novel.

It’s as if they reach back in time to when your read the first novel and infect all the happy memories that you associated it with. Previously, I’d only heard of one such set of sequels that were so bad that I’d be told never to read them (the Endymion books, in case you were wondering). Today, I was unfortunate enough to read the sequel to ‘Against The Fall Of Night’ (aka ‘The City And The Stars’) by Arthur C Clarke, called ‘Beyond The Fall Of Night‘.

Clarke didn’t actually write ‘Beyond…’; instead, he farmed out the job to Greg Benford, who is otherwise a very competent author. For some inexplicable reason, Benford managed to botch it up so badly that the sequel is entirely pointless, and as an added bonus, it practically defecates on the the beautiful universe and characters that Clarke built up in his first novel. It’s that bad. And I wish that I’d never read it.

Spiritng Neal Stephenson Away

Yesterday was a busy day for me; it began with meeting a friend from London, and then a talk by the ever-elusive Neal Stephenson. We progressed on to a spot of Laserquest, had dinner, and finished with watching ‘Spirited Away’. Since there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I’m making this a ‘massive’ entry.

Meeting up with Lal (the aforementioned London friend) went quite well until we were ensnared by the siren call of Waterstones. Lal, bedazzled by their 3 for 2 offers, proceeded to buy Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both by Neal Stephenson, in addition to the copy of Cryptonomicon that he’d brought with him. I volunteered to buy the books for him in case there was a student discount, but apparently Waterstones have stopped doing that sort of thing (probably because of people like me).

A hundred metres further down the road, we ducked into Galloway and Porter, my favourite seconds bookstore. Galloway and Porter has an almost universal effect on heavy readers of any genre; they’ll walk in, and exclaim that this didn’t look like a second-hand bookstore, because everything was in good condition. Then they’ll find several books that they’ve bought within the last year being sold significantly cheaper than what they paid. Once that stage has passed, they’ll proceed to a Terminator-like state, they methodically scan the titles of every single book present to see if they are worth buying for �1 or �2 – this usually requires quite a bit of mental rejigging, since you’re used to paying at least �6 for a book. In book calculus, does this mean that a book one-third the quality of a book you would buy for �6 be worth paying �2 for, or is book quality perhaps a logarithmic scale? Such questions keep the best thinkers of Cambridge awake at nights…

After we left Galloway and Porter, Lal dropped his bags off in my room, and we went out to meet Rich, who’d be joining us for the Neal Stephenson lecture. We found Rich on the Trinity backs (the ‘back’ of Trinity College, next to the river, also confusingly called the ‘backs’) and went to the lecture.

Now, Stephenson’s lecture was the second of a weekly six-part lecture series, and the first lecture was by George Dyson, which I wrote about earlier. I think only about ten students turned up to that talk, meaning that we were outnumbered by the dozen or so fellows present. I assumed that this would be the same for Stephenson’s lecture – granted, Stephenson is a world-famous bestselling science fiction author, but Trinity had done (perhaps deliberately) such a poor job of publicising the talks that I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was wrong – someone on the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (of which I am not a member) had posted a note about Stephenson’s talk to their mailing list. As a result, the place was full by the time we got there. Not wanting to sit at the back of the room, we grabbed a few chairs and proceeded right to the front, along with a few glasses of wine for good measure.

Stephenson was looking particularly (and some might say, unusually) respectable, what with the nice suit and the neatly tied ponytail. When the room had become sufficiently packed, the lecture series organiser introduced Stephenson’s talk, on ‘Newton/Leibniz’ and Stephenson warned us about the length and esoteric nature of his lecture. If we wanted to leave, we were told, he wouldn’t be offended.

Neal Stephenson looking respectable after the lecture

I didn’t take notes for the lecture, so I won’t be able to go into detail about its content.

Stephenson started off by giving us a quick overview of the Newton/Leibniz controversy; these two people developed calculus seemingly independently in the 17th century, and sparked off a huge argument about who developed it first. The short answer is that Newton was first, and the long answer would include how Leibniz also contributed much to our use of calculus today, including the integral and differential notation.

But that’s not what Stephenson wanted to talk about – that story has been dealt with by many scientific historians. Instead, he took us on a typically Stephenson-like meandering of thoughts and facts relating to why this argument developed in the first place, what the historical context was, and the personalities of Newton and Leibniz.

As I said, I’m not prepared to go into detail because I’d inevitably make a dreadful hash of it. Suffice to say that Stephenson had done his homework, plus that of many others, and that if I could find any fault with his lecture, it was that he spent perhaps a little too much time reading directly from 17th century texts.

If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’d expect his lecture to have some wonderful and bizarre tangents in them that defied all imagination. You wouldn’t be disappointed. For several minutes he talked about how some scholar (John Wilkins) tried to create a new language using only a few thousand words that he deemed essential; he placed these words into a matrix, and people would refer to them by their co-ordinates within the matrix. In the course of creating this language (and the book about it) he had to compose the world’s most comprehensive list of organisms at that time.

This posed a problem; he was implicitly casting doubt on the veracity of Noah’s Ark by saying that there were so many animals in the world, and this was not a good idea at all in the religious climate of the time. So Wilkins decided to go and explain exactly how, with the use of diagrams, all of these animals would fit into Noah’s Ark. Wilkins listed a number of tricks he could have used to do this, namely the ‘six cubits equals one cubit’ trick, and the ‘all animals were vegetarians before the Ark’ trick, and then delcared that he didn’t want to use any of them.

It appeared that Wilkins succeeded, although he did have to fit about 1800 sheep into the Ark as food for all the carnivores.

Naturally, I completely forget why Stephenson got onto this, although there’s a strong possibility that a good explanation simply does not exist – you just can’t be sure with Stephenson. Another of his short tangents involved comparing the Jedi Knights to the Knights Templar, which I think you’ll agree is much more straightforward.

Anyway, the rest of the lecture swirled around alchemy, myths of secret societies, universal libraries, theories of the nature of the universe, monads, and other such things. Thus it is not surprising that Stephenson overran his alloted time by an impressive 30 minutes. Due to this, there were only two questions asked. The first was whether Stephenson considered himself a dualist or a materialist; Stephenson replied saying that much of the materialist argument is based on the brain being a Turing machine, which he is not so sure about, and so he’s a skeptic.

The second question, asked by myself, addressed what I believed to be the burning issue of the night:

“Can you tell us about your next book?” I said. After the room burst into laughter, I added, in an effort to appear on-topic, “Is it related to what you’ve been talking about this evening?”

I already knew a little about his next book, but it’s always fun asking. Stephenson told us that it would be set in the 17th century, which was a great time because it had all these mathematical and cryptographical shenanigans going on (which was the subject of his lecture), plus it also had real life pirates, plenty of swashbuckling, and swordfights galore. What more could you ask for? The book will also visit people such as Newton, Leibniz, the Royal Society in London, and I imagine the royal intrigue going on at the time.

The lecture organiser helpfully added that the book would be called ‘Quicksilver’. Stephenson then added that his publicist would have killed him for not mentioning the name of the book, and that it was coming out in August.

Most people left after that and maybe a dozen people hovered around the front of the room evidently wanting to talk to Stephenson, probably for book signings – but none of them wanting to be first. I didn’t really want to go first, because I thought I might talk to him for a while and it wasn’t fair to keep other people waiting. However, this didn’t seem to work so after Stephenson told the President of the Science Fiction Society that he, alas, could not present a talk to them because he was leaving tomorrow, Lal and I had a brief chat with him about his website, which screams ‘Don’t talk to me’ to all visitors, and his time in Europe visiting Versailles.

“Was that for research?” asked Lal.

“Yeah, for ‘research’,” replied Stephenson, with audible quotation marks, and then went on to talk about how authors get to have lots of fun researching things.

There was a bit of a chat about doing publicity for new books, and I executed a shameful segue by saying, “Well, if you want to get back into practice for signing books, why not start now?” as I whipped out my copy of Cryptonomicon. He agreed, in good grace, and wrote a little message at the front:

“To Adrian. Thank you for staying awake through my talk, Neal S.”

Lal also had his three books signed, although he didn’t get a message. We later theorised that this was probably because he didn’t manage to stay awake through the talk.

I did ask Stephenson whether he was doing anything that night, in an unlikely effort to get him to come out with us, but unfortunately he suspected that plans had already been made for him by Trinity College; undoubtedly true, although we berated ourselves afterwards for not having pretended to be the ‘Trinity College Welcoming Committee’ and kidnapping him.

I’m going to skip over Laserquest now, since this account has already gotten too long and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway. Neither will I talk about dinner, which we had at a nice Italian restaurant with another of my friends, Zizhen; instead I’m going to talk about the film ‘Spirited Away’ that we saw afterwards.

Spirited Away‘ is Japan’s most successful film ever, and could be superficially described as a children’s anime fantasy. Its producer, Hayao Miyazaki, commands such respect among the Japanese that they look forward to his new films with the same kind of expectation (if not more) that we have for the next Harry Potter book.

You might think, as a friend of mine confessed, that you don’t want to watch a cartoon movie. Maybe you really don’t. But if you miss ‘Spirited Away’, which should be released in the UK next year, you’ll be missing one of the most magnificent and wonderful films ever made. It has meticulously crafted and beautiful artwork along with a sensitive score; and of course, the story is enchanting; it’s about a young girl who has to save her parents and make her way in a strange and fantastic world.

What I loved about Spirited Away was the way in which they really utilised the power of animation. Several scenes were literally breathtaking, and unlike the identical Disney movies we’ve had in recent years, Miyazaki didn’t simply use animals – he created all sorts of strange creatures that morphed and shapeshifted.

When I left the cinema (actually, it was a college film society, but anyway) I saw that everyone was smiling. It was one of those movies that really delighted you; it wasn’t what I’d simply call a feel-good movie, and it was darker than most Disney movies, although certainly not as dark as Miyazaki’s other great work, ‘Princess Mononoke‘. The story and setting was much more adventurous than most movies these days as well, with a rich universe that had some excellent concepts that progress far further than the ‘dwarfs and elves’ that seem to characterise most other fantasy movies.

I intend to buy the score of the movie, and also the DVD when it is released – it’s just one of those movies that I really have to own.

And that’s about it for me, I’m not going to write any more now since I have to leave for the lab and do some programming. I might add some stuff later though.

Trek Geektitude

A discussion about chainsaws in Star Trek, elicited by a recent Enterprise episode:

“Historically, the most often raised Star Trek technology issue has involved bathrooms. Burning questions such as:

“How many bathrooms? And where are they located? What are the fixtures like? Did Starfleet adopt the hideous American ‘low flow’ design? Or like most patriots, do they still smuggle their toilets in from Canada?

“While I, too, share these concerns, I also represent the often quiet silent majority of fandom concerned with future logging practices…”

Spiriting Stephenson Away

Whee! Next Thursday (24th October) Neal Stephenson, one of my favourite SF authors, will be coming to speak at Trinity College about Newton vs. Leibniz. This would be good enough news on its own, but on the same night Queens College film society will be screening Spirited Away (known in Japan as Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). Spirited Away is an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, and before you dismiss it as a kid’s flick, it’s the most successful film in Japan ever, and has won a shedload of awards.

The rights to show Spirited Away in the UK have already been sold so it’ll probably be out at a few cinemas next year, but it’ll be fun to see the non-dubbed version.

Now, onto the more difficult task – convincing Stephenson to come along and watch Spirited Away with us…

Trekkie

Some interesting rumours about the future of the Star Trek franchise. Could Jonathon ‘Riker’ Frakes head a new Star Trek series? Will they cover the Fall of the Federation? Does anyone apart from me care? Find out next week in the astonishing conclusion to…

The Mission

Back in the 80s, there was a science fiction series directed by Stephen Spielberg called Amazing Stores. Aside from its intro sequence, which was rather impressive for that time, most episodes were pretty uninspiring and dismal. There was one episode that it seems everyone (including me) remembers: The Mission.

‘The Mission’ was by all accounts a superstar episode – directed by Spielberg, music by John Williams, and starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer ‘Jack Bauer’ Sutherland. You can read a synopsis of the episode at the link above and when I watched it, I was very impressed. Admittedly, I couldn’t have been any older than 10, but by browsing on some forums on the Internet it seems other older people were similarly impressed.

For some reason, I’ve always mixed up ‘The Mission’ with the movie ‘Memphis Belle’ even though now I think about it, I’ve never seen the latter. Anyway, it’s a shame that there isn’t much good short story SF on TV any more. I was never privy to the Twilight Zone or the original Outer Limits, shows that many die-hard SF fans swear by, but I did think that the first few series of the new Outer Limits weren’t bad. A fair number of people watched the new Outer Limits when they were on BBC2, I recall.

Alas, production values dropped and perhaps the constant grind of depressing stories wore viewers down. If only some enterprising TV producer would decide to adapt some published SF short stories… while many are merely average, the best are truly excellent and some are very well suited to adaption, even on low budgets, if necessary.

Fast Times at Fairmont High

Ack! Vernor Vinge has done it again! His Hugo award-winning novella Fast Times at Fairmont High is not merely an excellent story (what else would you expect from the Vingester?) but it throws out some wonderful ideas about the future of entertainment and the singularity.

The quality of SF writing has increased drastically recently, in my opinion, but I don’t think that the generation of truly new ideas is any faster than it ever was before. Although it’s not the central point of Vinge’s novella, his idea that entertainment companies will merely provide the ‘seeds’ for movie properties and let everyone else create the content and be actors is not something that I’ve heard before – and certainly not articulated as well as he puts it.

I was lucky enough to get Fast Times for free while it was still a Hugo nominee – now you have to pay to download it – but it’s definitely worth reading. Alternatively, you could wait for it to come out in one of the Dozois SF collections later on this year – I can’t see how it could be excluded (except for silly legal reasons).

The Decline of Metafilter

(This is a break from your regularly scheduled programming about massively multiuser online entertainment. Normal service will resume shortly).

Once again, Metafilter has me worried. Far be it for me to predict the imminent demise of one of the Internet’s most popular and well-known weblogs when it has confounded the predictions of countless others, but this time I think there’s a real problem.

Metafilter’s unique feature is that it has practically no moderation. If you’re a registered user, you can post a link to the front page of Metafilter once a day, every day, and you can post as many comments as you want. Chances are that if your link isn’t a duplicate or something completely useless and/or inflammatory, it won’t get taken down by the harried site administrator, Matt Haughey. Your links and comments cannot be rated and as such they are all presented on an equal footing; therefore, there is no quick and easy way of filtering out links or comments that other users believe are bad (which you can do on Kuro5hin and Slashdot).

“But,” I hear you cry, “how on Earth can this system work if Metafilter has thousands of users? Won’t there be hundreds of links per day and thousands of comments, making the front impossible to navigate and allowing lots of substandard content to clutter the place up?”

The answer isn’t simple. A couple of months ago, Metafilter had about 14,000 registered users and perhaps ten times that number of unregistered readers. However, not all 14,000 users posted a link every day – if they did, the site would be unreadable. Instead, there were a mere 20 or so links posted per day, and on average they wouldn’t be too bad. There are many reasons why there weren’t more links posted per day; many of the 14,000 user accounts were defunct and of the active ones, there were many people who simply never wanted to post a link. The strongest limiter, though, was the fact that there is an ingrained culture in Metafilter that states, “Think long and hard before making a post which will go in front of tens of thousands of people. Don’t waste their time.”

And so things were fine; as with any large community, there were spats, feuds, arguments and flames on a day to day basis. Yet there wasn’t any apparent downward trend in thread quality, and the mythical ‘golden age’ of Metafilter contined on in the present. As for me, I visited the website on a daily basis and found many interesting articles from the links provided. Every so often I’d post my own link. Things were fine.

It couldn’t last forever, of course. Metafilter was in the midst of an artificial situation – for the past four months, it had closed down new user registrations due to insufficient server processing power. When a new server came online – two months ago – registrations were reopened cautiously, letting only 20 users in per day, and people who didn’t want to wait could pay $5 for immediate registration.

User numbers bloomed by over a thousand in less than two months. I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “What difference is 15,000 from 14,000? Little will change.” I’m not so sure now. The thousand users who’d joined had been waiting for months to get in – they weren’t a representative sample of Metafilter users, and clearly they wanted the priveleges that came with being registered, namely the ability to post and comment.

The sky didn’t fall, and it still hasn’t – I think link post counts have gone up, and I think there are more comments than usual. Subjectively, I think quality is slowly inching down but I know all about the rose-tined spectacles effect. I can’t see Metafilter coming to a crashing halt. Instead, I can see a gradual decline.

I liken the current situation to an event in Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars, what a surprise, eh?). In this book, the Martian natives (humans) have enjoyed a period of relatively slow population grow after they destroyed the space elevator that allowed large numbers of immigrants in. Once a replacement elevator was installed, they were in danger of becoming swamped by Earth immigrants who were unfamiliar with their customs and formed their own little communities, sealed off from the natives. Conflicts arose, and the natives felt they were being overwhelmed.

The ‘solution’ (and I use quote marks because, realistically, it wasn’t perfect) was to greet the immigrants not with hostility but with open arms and try and accept them. After a fashion, the immigration crisis subsided.

This sort of solution is pretty damned hard to enact in reality, especially in a place like Metafilter. The ‘immigrants’ – the new users – are on average not as familiar with the culture of Metafilter as older users and they are more likely to slip up by not understanding what constitutes a good post, and simply enough, how not to piss other people off.

With increasing user numbers, retaining a high quality and manageable number of posts and comments will become more and more difficult. Solutions that were in the past dismissed are now being considered, such as rating posts and comments. Ultimately, I think Metafilter’s current model is not sustainable and either the site will fractionate, or a rating system will be introduced. Unmoderated posting is only possible in a small community, and it’s a testament to the self-control of Metafilter’s users that it’s managed to work for so long. Note that I’m not criticising rating systems; personally I think they’ll be useful, if not without their faults. Ditto for unmoderated posting.

None of this will come as a surprise to people who regularly read the ubiquitous and frankly pap books that talk about Online Communities (my dislike of them is well known; in brief, I think that their authors have no experience in serious writing or analysis and rely too much on anecdotal reports, case studies and vague, contradictory homilies. But enough of that). What I’m saying isn’t particularly original, but I did feel that it hasn’t been said openly recently.

Sooner or later, Metafilter will have to change dramatically. It was a grand experiment while it lasted.