Earlier this year
Then last month I was finishing up some back issues of BAR that I had not previously read, and there's this fascinating article on the discovery of the Biblical fortified city Sha'arayim (the Hebrew name means "Two Gates") with the compelling evidence that the city was designed with two monumental gates in the style of King David's fortress cities, all the rest of which had only one gate, and carbon-dated to 1000BC (Before the Christ Event, which divided modern calendars into positive and negative years, although the anti-Christion religious bigots usually try to invent a different significance for the initials). The anti-Christian religious bigots have been trying (without success) for hundreds of years to discredit the Bible as a source of history, but they whine all the time. Here on p.40:
Yehuda Dagan of the Israel Antiquities Authority claimed that the entire Iron Age city, with its gates, casemate city wall and buildings, was built in the Late Persian / Early Helenistic period [about 400BC], based on pottery sherds collected on the site's surface some 20 years earlier. -- "Qeiyafa's Unlikely Second Gate"That's pottery dating for you, whatever feels good. This was January 2017, while Shanks was still firmly at the helm.
Tomorrow I head off to Portland for four weeks of mentoring the High School Autonomous Vehicle Project. The director, who in the past spent some of his excess wealth learning how to race Formula-1 cars, wanted them to race their cars in the international competition (in New York this fall), and I agreed -- this year only -- because everybody else is trying to do it with Neural Nets (see my essay "The Problem with 21st Century AI" last year), and I think the kids can beat the university graduate students using designed code on a smaller processor. It's a challenge with significant risk. Even if we succeed, it won't kill NNs (which is after all religion, believing what everybody else knows ain't so), but it will give the intelligent people a data point for debates against the atheists.
Competition is not a Christian virtue, so mostly I try not to do this, but even God gets to laugh at the idiots -- at least the ones who don't want into His Heaven. That's His right to decide, not mine, so I need to tread lightly here.
Like last year, I will still be writing blog posts, but probably won't
upload them all until I get back.
Anyway I was reminded of this today reading in 2Chron.26 about all the
military might King Uzziah assembled "for he was wonderfully helped" (by
God), so we have a second person that God explicitly helped militarily
-- well there was also Joshua and Gideon and several others -- and it occurred
to me that God helped these people to do what God called them to do. God
did not call me into battle -- my first job out of college was in the military,
programming computers, not fighting -- but He made me very good at what
I do. So I personalize Ps.144:1 to "Bless God Who teaches my fingers to
draw near (to the keyboard) and my hands to do battle (with computer bugs)."
My late sister was an outstanding cook, and she could have said the same
thing about her kitchen equipment. I don't think that's too far of a reach.
God gives different gifts to different people. I know of several others,
too many to mention, who have developed their God-given gift productively.
So now I'm back to reading some of the Psalms "of David" which are full of arcane polysyllabic alternatives the lack of whose perspicuity is incontrovertable. The designation "of David" is a single word in Hebrew, the single-letter prefix lamed seems to be a general reference to its attached noun, usually translated as "to" or "for" but also used to denote the possessor of wealth (or children or whatever). A different preposition mem denotes source or origin as we would normally think of an author, but it is never used in the title to attach a Psalm to a person. So sometimes I wonder if the title of these later Psalms refers not to authorship but the category some later editor assigned them to. It's hard to imagine that a shepherd-warrior would have acquired the complex vocabulary affected by the educated historian-scribes who wrote the later Chronicles (which I'm also reading these days).
I'm no Hebrew scholar, and I think that confers on me a certain advantage when reading through the Hebrew Bible: Some books, like the early history books such as Genesis and Judges, and the post-exile prophets, are easy reading, whereas the pre-exile prophets and most poetry are very tough going for me. The style of writing in Genesis changes from episode to episode, suggesting different authors, but the point is, because I do not know the more difficult words used less often in the erudite writing of professional writers in their own native language, it's much more obvious to me when they are being used (I need to stop and peek at the gloss in the interlinear text I'm using, or even look them up in a dictionary); somebody with a full command of the vocabulary might not notice the differences so easily. I first noticed it some five years ago on my first trip through the Hebrew, but as I get more proficient in the language, I see different aspects of the same phenomenon, like the differences between the Psalms, and (this month) how the Chronicles progressively got harder to read.
Anyway, I'm musing on the fact that my reading was so hard these mornings -- less so today, King Amaziah apparently had a lower budget for his Court Recorder than his grandfather did, so the erudition of the text is substantially lower (and to me more readable) -- while trying to make sense of the sermons yesterday and the week before, and it occurs to me that these are connected. I think it was a week ago, the sermon mentioned (among numerous other texts) Rev.20:12-15, where everybody is judged according to what they did in this life, and then if their name is not in the Book of Life, they go into the Lake of Fire anyway. The preacher inferred from this what the text clearly did not say, which is if your name is in the Book, you go to Heaven. When Jesus described the same event, there was no mention of the Book of Life, you are judged on your works. Post-Reformation Evangelicals don't like to teach this doctrine the way it is written, they prefer to add OSAS (Once Saved, Always Saved) to the text, and maybe God will ratify their teaching as Jesus promised in reference to the Keys of the Kingdom [first in Matt.16:19, and again in John 20:23], but God clearly tells them not to do that -- three times, once near the beginning of the Bible [Dt.12:32], again in the middle [Prov.30:6], and then one more time at the end, [Rev.21:18].
So what is it we must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered that question with The First and Second Great Commandments (1+2C). The First is simple: God is first. It's not about me and what I get out of the sermon or my morning readings, it's about God. He made us and we are His property, and He has the right to tell us what to do and not do, and we have the moral obligation to do that. Jesus' finished work on the Cross erases the "bad karma" of past failures -- if we choose to do Good from now on (that's called "repentance" and it seems to be pretty important to God) and I suppose that is what gets our names in the Book of Life -- but we still need to obey. If you don't want to obey God now, what makes you think you will want to in Heaven? And a Righteous God cannot let you into His Heaven while you are still sinning, because then it wouldn't be Heaven for the rest of us. OK, I get that. God gets first say in what I do. Mostly. Better now than when I was younger.
The Second Great Commandment (2C) is most easily explained as the Golden Rule, but it turns out really hard to get it right. It is the nature of sin that innocent people get hurt, and when that happens, it's because you didn't follow 2C. Even so-called "victimless crimes" like pornography and drugs, people get hurt. Ask any wife whose husband is addicted to porn. He made a promise to her, and she acted in reliance on that promise, and now she's not getting what he promised. Drugs mess up your ability (and desire) to help other people, to do 2C to them, so they are worse off because of your failure; they are real victims of your drug habit, even if you are careful not to steal to pay for it. OK, I get that. I was pretty competetive when I was younger, but that is a profound violation of 2C (the competitor wants the other players to lose, which is not what he wants for himself, see "Winning the Game of Life" 12 years ago). I can no longer do that in good conscience.
Anyway, reading my Bible is part of 1C. So is sitting in church listening
to preachers mess with the Bible. Nowhere do I see that understanding
what I read (or agreeing with what I hear) is a necessary part of 1+2C.
Doing it is important, but the parts about doing something are generally
pretty clear. So I do the best I can with what I have been given, and when
I figure out that I screwed up (it happens) repent, accept God's forgiveness,
and don't do that again. Reading the Hebrew Bible and losing the context
over the struggle with words I don't know, I see that as more of doing
the best I can than screwing up. In Chronicles Joash had the Kingdom thrust
on him at the age of seven, and he mostly did the right thing while Jehoiada
was High Priest, and God kept Jehoiada around for 130 years, but then he
died and Joash became rudderless. Some people need somebody around to help
them know what's the Right Thing to do, but I seem to be neither Joash
The second one is a sci-fi that reads like like a pot-head's drugged dream. Authors write what they know, and this guy writes about people going into bars to drink a "pint of [whatever]" (the classic British bar beverage), or else smoke up an ounce of hemp. He has "saurian" people mingling in with the humans, and then suddenly shifts to when the Russky government in the "Former United Kingdom" (obscene pun no doubt intended) announced meeting the first aliens on an asteroid they are mining. Maybe it makes sense to a pot-head, but I do not enjoy reading about intoxication, not alcohol, and certainly not stronger stuff. I want my fictional heroes to be heroic and do stuff that intoxication and expletives are the opposite of.
I try to keep a stack of four library novels ready for just such occasions as this, two more to go, and two more days until the library is next open. sigh
The next book on the stack is another "mystery" by an author whose writing style I greatly enjoyed the previous week. The problem is that his hero was a criminal. I have no desire to celebrate crime, so I skipped over the next in that series, and I also skipped over the next series (by the same author) that seemed also to be told from the criminal's perspective. I hope that's not all he knows how to write about. The dust jacket blurb on this one gave no such clue, so we shall see. It opens in an AA meeting, but at least the guy is not drunk. There's a small amount of introspection, but mostly it reads well, so far about 20% in. The first-person hero is an unlicensed PI. The author has spent enough time on trying to find his missing actress-wannabe, I expect he'll probably succeed -- or else make a pretty good story of failing (which is hard).
June 4 PS, I finished the AA book -- the 1st-person
hero spent most of his prose going into AA meetings, or else in inner turmoil
about being tempted to drink (he never actually failed) so the actual plot
line is a little thin. I'm not tempted by inner turmoil, so I probably
won't try any more of this author. Besides, I'm only in the 'B's, and I
have 24 letters of author names to go before I finish the mystery section.
Why do I mention this? Processed food and factory farms have eliminated 90% of the labor and cost of food production in the USA, so that the time their great-grandparents spent in food production, modern people can divert to other uses, like doing fun things, or Making the World a Better Place. The Linux command line is like organic food: before 1984, it was the only way to use a computer, but it's labor-intensive. Now we have Dragon-Drop (mousing and clicking) which is measurably faster (the way processed food is faster than organic), so that ordinary people are freed up to spend their time in other uses, like doing fun things, or Making the World a Better Place (or, as I hope, both at the same time). Some people, if they so choose, can waste their extra time growing and preparing organic food. Other people can waste their extra time typing commands into a Linux command line. The rest of us will use our newly available time to Make the World a Better Place, or at least on fun things like the Autonomous Vehicle Project I am mentoring this summer.
So why am I picking on Linux? Because (like organic food) there are bigots who claim without proof that their preferred time-waster is actually better, and are trying to criticize me for choosing to do this project in Windows (which is faster than Linux). Others are criticizing me for choosing to do it in Java (which again is faster than the available alternatives). You can read my technical response, but today I want to go on public record as holding no ill will against their unfounded prejudice.
I think C++ and Linux and Neural Nets are wonderful tools, and I hope all my competitors make full use of them. I don't particularly want to use the inferior products they implement using those tools, but when our team of high school kids goes head to head against college students this fall, we can beat them because we are using better (faster) tools than they are.
Anyway, our praise team are all young people, and they vanish off into the sunset from time to time to hear some out-of-town concert, or next month I think it has to do with graduation, and we have no music at all. A couple time they got a half-dozen of us guys together to sing, but we had a pianist. This time they volunteered us to do it a capella, because the piano dude is one of the people out of town. One of the guys seemed to be in charge of these things, so I told him that if he'd let me know early what songs he picked, I could be ready to plunk them out for practice. I can read music, and I took a year of piano lessons when I was 12, then convinced my parents to let me stop, and have been kicking myself ever since. Probably just as well, I'm really too clumsy (it's a built-in personality thing) to be very good at it.
Somewhere in a previous life I acquired a small electric piano, which
I have been carrying about each time I move. It's been so long since I
tried to play anything on it, the keys have gotten sticky, sometimes not
playing at all, or (more often) continuing to sound after release. That
might be good enough for finding a single note here and there when practicing
for the Messiah sing-along (see "It's Not
About Love" last year), but I need to get more familiar iwth the tunes
on these hymns so I can be the help I promised, and the missing or doubled-up
notes interfere with that. So I took it apart today and loosened up some
of the keys. I didn't get all of them -- well, I thought I did, but when
it was back together the problem was still there, mostly for notes I didn't
need. It's not like I need to play the hymns during the service (the guys
will still sing a capella) but at least I can help them learn the
Christians don't need blasphemy and hate crime laws, because we have
the truth, and while evil people hate the truth, most people need society
to support truth (see "Moral
Absolutes"), and there are enough people in any culture who can detect
that they are being lied to, so the truth will be known (the liars cannot
succeed). So while not all so-called Christians consistently tell the truth,
they do so more than other religions, so we can let the truth stand on
its own feet. The false religions do not have that home-court advantage,
so their only hope for survival against the Christians is to exclude the
truth from public discussion. In this they show that they know they
cannot trust their own ideas to prevail in a level playing field. We Christians
One outcome from this Religion (people believing what the rest of us know ain't so) is that I can carry home this huge 700-page anthology of short stories, which the editor has struggled mightily to conform to the Feminazi agenda, and half of them aren't worth reading. I mentioned the Herbert (Dune) clan a few months ago, so I skipped over his contribution with no further thought. Some of the female authors I started, but abandonned as soon as it became obvious that she's writing chick-lit, not space opera.
One caught my attention: The editor's blurb at the top of the page announced that she's Nigerian, so I wanted to see what effect that would have. My most important observation I got from reading the editor's blurb: she's female. The story was filled with inner turnoil, like most other chick-lit. Her first-person lead character was also (no surprise here) female, who scored at the top of her fictional ethnic community in some STEM contest, and was therefore invited to study at the off-planet university. Much of her inner turmoil is reacting to prejudice and harassment from the majority ethnic people -- probably modelled on the Arabs in Africa, who seriously oppress the Christian minority, especially in Nigeria -- and it was particularly curious to see how her character used her superior mathematical (the "M" in STEM) skills to cope with her problems: she recited mathematical formulas over and over like a prayer or mantra. I happen to have a college degree in mathematics, and I know for a fact that reciting mathematical formulas over and over is not the way to do math. It might be the way to appease a pagan (or even Muslim and some varieties of Christian) god, if you recite the formulas prescribed for that religion, but you do math by doing math: proving theorems, or plugging numbers into those formulas and calculating the results, which you can then use to study the behavior of machines or molecules in scientific or technological disciplines, but reciting formulas by rote is utterly worthless as math.
The only value in reading a story like "Binti" is to see why and how
disadvantaged people fail at reaching their potential in a world driven
by power and technology. I think the people who suffer persecution tend
to develop a focus on being a victim that overwhelms any ability they might
have at doing what might make them useful in the world -- which is the
only way to achieve wealth and power in the modern world. You get rich
by making things or providing services that people want to pay money for;
you gain power over people when they perceive that giving you their allegiance
makes their own lives better. You get by giving. It's the Golden Rule,
and if you want the gold and the rule, you need to earn it by giving value
to other people. That's hard work, and if you are distracted by trying
to find your next meal, or by resentment over nobodies mistreating you,
then you cannot concentrate on Making the World a Better Place, and you
will not be rich and powerful. Even trying to become rich and/or powerful
is a distraction that mostly prevents people from succeeding at it. The
author of this story, as represented in her first-person lead character,
was so fixated on her own victim status, that she could not even be bothered
to get her facts (about math and science) right. The story was a curiosity,
but not good space opera.
There are several items called out on the front cover that I thought interesting, one of them mostly for its incompleteness. "How the Spectre and Meltdown Hacks Really Worked" gives a little of the hardware explanation for how these claimed vulnerabilities enabled the Bad Guys to discover data in other people's code, but I know a little about hacking, and I still cannot see how to use this claimed flaw in the hardware to actually get anything useful. They explained how the hardware loads up its high-speed cache memory so that when a program touches data in the same place multiple times, the subsequent accesses are already there and much faster than getting it from (slower) main memory, but I already knew that. The hardware people didn't much worry about whose data it was in the cache, nor who could flush it to force the next access to go back to main memory, so the theory is that the Bad Guy can flush the cache then touch memory in locations similar to where the "secret" data is (that is, it gets loaded into the same cache) and if it's fast, then they presumably know that the other program already touched that same data in their own program.
Unstated in this article is the supposition that the timing of a single memory access is available to the programmer -- that's a big condition, because modern hardware has interrupts that can temporarily pause any program at any time (like right before or after the instruction you want the time for) which then gives you a very long instruction time -- and that the Bad Guys know exactly where the "secret" data is stored in memory. If that is true, it's a consequence of the Unix "Open Source" mentality and the whole Unix security model, which (I have said on numerous occasions) is broken. No Bad Guy software should ever be allowed on computers with secret data in them. We have enough computers in the world and in this country that this opportunity of access is not a requirement.
It gets worse. All the Bad Guy can do with this "exploit" is test the time to access one memory location at a time, and it takes hundreds or thousands of instructions to do it. And what does the Bad Guy know? Only that the other program looked there within the time frame being tested, but not what was in it, nor that they looked some other time, nor that the "secret" data was even running at the same time on the same computer. The article goes on to suggest how this is useful: The real "secret" that can be learned from this "exploit" is when the other program uses the secret data as an index into an array -- How often does that happen in a real program? I'm a programmer, and I know that it's not very often -- but for that data to be a useful index into an array, its value must range over at least a dozen (more often hundreds or thousands) different values, and the Bad Guy must test every single one of them, one at a very slow time, and by then the other program has moved on to do other things. It doesn't compute. It is less likely for somebody's secret data to be compromised this way than they are to be struck by lightning on a sunny day when texting while crossing a busy intersection against the light. Other catastrophes are far more likely in their Unix-vulnerable computers than somebody lucking out to expose secrets data by timing cache-misses.
Much more interesting is "The Case Against Quantum Computing" because like Neural Nets (NNs), so-called "quantum computers" (let's call them "QCs") are being promoted as the latest and greatest new advance in computer science. Don't believe it, this guy argues, and he explains it well enough so that I can understand it. Quantum physics is not something I know much about. I suspect a lot of people who talk about it don't know any more than I do. One of the novels I read a month or two ago mentioned some experiment where the result of the experiment could not be known until some person looked. There's a real simple test to see if that's true the way the novel explained it: have the experiment print out the result, then look at the printout before you see the experimental result. He never offered that sequence. It would have spoiled his story. This guy explains it much more credibly as a range of probabilities, which is approximately equivalent to having a zillion separate values in (the huge memory of) a normal computer, then processing them all at once. But, he goes on, for that do to anything useful, and to correct the inherent errors that creep into physical structures that small, you need hundreds of thousands of "Qubits" -- the largest QC today is something like 50 Qubits. QCs big enough to crack modern encryption keys won't happen for another 20 years, maybe never, according to this guy. By comparison (although this guy didn't say so), supercomputers big (and fast) enough to crack small encryption keys came a half-century after the first computers with dozens of memory cells happened in the 1940s. Maybe big QCs will happen, maybe not, but don't hold your breath waiting for them.
Into the same issue of Spectrum they folded in what used to be a quarterly newsprint tabloid, The Institute, which is more about the people than the technology, and one of its feature articles in that issue is "Quantum Computing's Researcher Shortage." I guess the people who might have jumped on that bandwagon got the message before the guy they interviewed for this piece did. Sort of like the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.
It's sort of comical, because the next page mentions an IEEE website about robots including "self-driving cars" so I mentioned it to Steve, the director of the summer program I've been mentoring, and he contacted the editor/reporter (and probably the entire staff of one) for The Institute who then interviewed Steve and me for the next issue. If you've been reading my blog much in the past three or four years, you know what I think of self-driving cars and in particularly of the NNs everybody thinks will make them possible (see "The Problem with 21st Century AI" last year). The current plan for our summer program this year is to take our car to an international model car race in the fall, and our secret sauce, the reason I think our car will win, is that everybody else is using NNs. Doing things with NNs is hard. They make your computer Artificially Stupid (not intelligent as claimed). NNs are about as smart as an earthworm right now, but they might get as smart as an emu (somebody at the San Diego Zoo once claimed their emu had been trained: "We give it food, and it eats," he said). I expect the researchers will eventually give up on NNs because they can only be trained in conditioned response, not in solving problems like what (intelligent) humans can solve. I think NNs are like Linux, whose proponents claim it is "more powerful" than Windoze, but I think it's because the archaic unix operating system (of which Linux is an "open source" clone) makes people work harder to get the same things done that on a more modern system the computer already knows how to do, so they feel more useful. The way a pick and shovel are "more powerful" than a Bobcat for digging a swimming pool. But nobody cares about my opinion -- except maybe a dozen kids in Portland each summer, because I give them a fun project they can finish in four weeks and that looks good when they present it to the public (see "Knocking It Out of the Park" last year). That's because they are not using NNs.
The following month, it still wasn't the cover story -- these are techies, with every bit as much Religion as the Relationshipists, so they want their cover story to be upbeat and positive about technology -- one of the features was titled "IBM Watson, Heal Thyself" [their italics], "How IBM overpromised and underdelivered on AI health care." You need to understand that IBM today isn't the same powerhouse it was a half-century ago, when it was widely know as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" -- the dwarves being the other seven major computer companies, who together had less revenue than IBM alone. The PC put Bill Gates in that seat, and the internet transferred the title to Google, but not with the same degree of supremacy as IBM once had. So and possibly because, IBM does not have the same caliber of management as they did back then. But this article can't say that.
Need I mention? IBM's "AI for medicine" is largely based on NNs.
Maybe you can train a NN to play a game -- certainly not chess, that requires
inferential logic, at which conditioned response simply cannot be trained
-- but they got cocky. "Pride goeth before...a fall," a very wise man once
said. This article quoted "a leading AI researcher" as saying "AI systems
can't understand ambiguity and don't pick up on subtle cues that a human
doctor would notice." This is not news, it's only the True Believers who
don't get it.
Anyway, here I am reading Psalm 85 this morning, and I noticed that it's much easier for me to understand in the original Hebrew than the other Psalms are. Many of the Psalms were written by David, who was a singer and poet at heart. Some were written by the professional singers in the Temple after David's time, and are much more obscure than even David's. Part of that I attribute to the natural change in the language, the accumulation of idioms that mean something utterly different from the etymology of the words. You can see the same effect in the Hebrew of the later books of the Old Testament (prior to the Exile), as noted in my essay "Insights from Reading Greek & Hebrew" a few years ago. Psalm 85 is different, its Hebrew much more plain and understandable. The message seems to be consistent with a post-Exile worldview, so I suppose the guy who wrote it was not writing in his native language -- generally everybody spoke Aramaic (not Hebrew) after the Exile, even including in the 1st century from which we have a few of the words of Jesus recorded in the original -- which means the Psalmist here could not do high-quality poetry like David, but only the simple stuff that techies like me can understand.
So I'm reading this Psalm, and I notice that (among other things) it's about God unifying opposites, "Mercy & truth have met, righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth springs up from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven" [vv.11,12]. Mercy is what Feelers are good at; Truth is what Thinkers give priority to. Righteousness does not make for peace -- at least not in our understanding -- unless everybody is on the same page. Heaven is where God lives, the earth is our domain. These are all unified here.
If you want to ignore the overall message of the Psalm and you were so inclined, you could proof-text the mantra of the theistic Darwinists -- indeed, most scientists since Galileo, who argued that "the Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, but not how the heavens go" -- so they all posit two sources of information, the Bible ("from Heaven") for matters of faith, and science ("from the earth") for verifiable knowledge. Francis Schaeffer called that a "two-story universe" and showed how it is inconsistent with the unified worldview of the Bible. The theistic Darwinists generally don't have a high enough view of Scripture to justify proof-texting, so it's not a problem.
Anyway, that was my insight for today.
An important technological factor in his story involves a "sky-hook" to raise and lower people from an orbiting space ship without landing on the planet. It looks ingenious if you don't understand physics: the idea is that you whirl this very long, super-strong cable like a Ferris wheel centered on the low-orbiting ship, so that the far end of the cable with the hook on it gets really close to the ground going backwards at the same speed as the ship is going forward in the sky, so the speeds cancel out the way it works for the tires on a car. You hook on, and it pulls you up and out to twice the hieght (and velocity) of the space ship, which if they release the cargo on that outer reach, it can be driven farther out into orbit, presumably with no serious energy lost in rocketing off the earth. The physics part is called momentum, first to get that thing whirling takes a lot of energy out there at the hook end, and if it doesn't have enough inertia (weight) coming through the atmosphere and hooking onto the load, the spin just stops (or at least slows down like a pendulum through a liquid). That energy must come from somewhere, it's not free. It takes just as much energy lifting a ton of load off the earth into orbit with a sky-hook as it does lifting it up in a rocket taking off from the ground. The only difference is that the rocket also needs to lift itself off. It still needs to do that, plus lifting all the fuel to keep it in orbit while lifting the load with the hook. It's fiction, authors get to invent stuff like that, but the scientifically inclined readers will notice the discrepancies.
Some time in the twenty centuries between now and the setting of this story, somebody figured out that dreams always involve (other) people and (according to this pseudo-science) those dreams are actually contact with other people who are also dreaming, and this goes through some kind of dimensional thing so it's instantaneous, not constrained by the speed of light. My dreams don't always involve people, and if they do, it's often that the people I'm dreaming about already died in real life. I suspect it might be because I'm a techie and work with things (not people) in real life, whereas singers and actors tend to be people-oriented (Feelers). Anyway, in his story, you just "log onto the net" and you have telepathy with anybody anywhere (who is also logged on, but you can "bullet" them like a telephone ring if they are not). From this and what mathematicians call "a hand wave" he gets faster-than-light (FTL) communications and travel. Space opera needs star travel, and only Orson Scott Card managed to do it without magic (for a while) -- but even he had FTL communications. So it's a permitted fantasy in otherwise hard sci-fi.
The most important technological break-through in his story is what he called "rebooting," where they have this facility that goes through your whole body and undoes the aging, and while they're at it, they can make physiological changes to the body, like adding fur or feathers or reptilian scales as a grown skin covering, or change your height and muscle strength. On a smaller scale, the (presumably same) technology can heal pretty much anything that happens to you by way of accident. If it's a fatal accident, you quickly upload your "perspective" (essentially your memories and thought patterns) to the net, then wait three months while they clone a new body for you. Rebooting is very expensive, so in order for everybody to get it, they sign up for one lifetime of slavery, followed by another reboot, and the corporation that is buying 80 years of your labor pays for the reboot at the front (to prepare you for whatever they want you doing) and another at the end to restore you to yourself or whatever you want to be. The result is that nobody ever dies any more, and the FTL enables them to go colonize new planets -- where terraforming is labor-intensive, paid for by corporations who profit from the resources, using the contract slave labor -- so the earth is no longer overcrowded.
This much took 200 pages of back-story woven into otherwise boring drunken existence with a lot of inner turmoil over past bad decisions, so that our first-person hero finally had the necessary basis for the theme of his story, which is what do people who live in such a culture do with death? At this point I began to realize this book had turned a corner to become a deeply religious tract. The function of religion, in his opinion, is to cope with death, to give people an immortal soul that transcends death, and a ritual to send their loved ones off to heaven or Valhala or wherever. And when death is abolished, then religion dies. Except for one planet where the religious nuts went to refuse rebooting and continue their religious traditions -- Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever, it didn't matter, they were all equivalent in his mind.
Although he didn't say so that I noticed, another function of religions that he was willing to admit to is to provide a moral compass, to encourage people to act in civilized ways toward each other. Lowrie's Religion -- capitalized here, so to refer to my definition, which is to spell out for their adherents what is non-negotiably True -- Lowrie and his lead character Mo both have a Religion which solves the moral problem with telepathy. If you attack (like rape) a person, all she needs to do is go online and everybody can feel her pain, so rape and murder and stealing are eliminated. As if. The problem is that "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" [Jer.17:9], and we sinners are generally not willing to give that up. In Lowrie's 40th century, dying is so horrible, it overwhelms any sinful disadvantage we might see in telepathy. Anyway, it was clear that Lowrie was using his technology as a substitute redemption story that conferred eternal life, as pointed out in that ChritianityToday story some ten years ago (see my "Sci-Fi Redemption" blog post).
Lowrie himself can't really imagine a universe without sin, so his secondary character, the mega-wealthy female industrialist named Steel who hires Mo as a crew member on her starship, she needs to be accompanied by a 500-pound almost-sentient gorilla who serves as a bodyguard: when Mo first sees beautiful furry (but otherwise naked) Steel in the bar in the first chapter, his next thought is "Where's her bodyguard?" He looks around and sees him just outside the door. This is before Lowrie gets around to explaining why religion is dead. Why would this be necessary if the net eliminated the need for religion? Later it is revealed that the top crust of society (including Steel) can use the net, but are not on it the way everybody else is. I think it's Lowrie's way of telling us that in his Religion (like most movies today, where corporate greed drives the Bad Guys), industrialists have no moral compass, so they do Bad Things to other people. He writes what he knows, and it's a world full of sin. The story would be boring otherwise, because we readers want to read about sin -- if for no other reason than so that the Good Guys can beat the Bad Guys.
The last quarter of the book turned another corner, left off preaching, and became a rowsing action story. Still too much inner turmoil, but the religious focus turned against radical feminism. Lowrie seems to be only a nominal feminist: the starship owner Steel and her hired scientist Archie are both female, but Steel's bodyguard and our hero Mo and the pilot and the tech wiz are all stereotypical male. Pretty close to the 3/4 mark, Mo (who can do no wrong other than getting drunk when he has no job and spending too much time in senseless introspection) tells Archie,
If women are equal to men they're equal in venality as well as nobility. In stupidity as well as wisdom. In weakness as well as strength. That's the horror. The world won't be a better place if women run it; women are just men shaped a little differently. There's no one to run to, no bosom to hide in. We human beings are all we've got. Better to think that women are just 'kind of' equal to men. Equal but different, equal but better, more sensitive, less aggressive, just plain nicer. [page 285]
Some authors make their unisex women into "men shaped a little differently," but Lowrie does not. Some, but not a lot. That's because the reality, which Lowrie sees and knows and writes about (but probably does not understand), is that women are different from men in more ways than reproductive organs -- organs atrophied in this story except for sex acts, because children are "hatched" and not raised by families (except on the planet Eden, which is isolated from the net, and where Steel and Archie went to study the culture of people who die).
It's an interesting exploration of religion and death, by a person who obviously has no love for nor understanding of what Religion is all about, but recognizes that it serves a useful purpose in our society today, just one he wants no part of himself. If obscenities are the hallmark of anger, then the third quarter is where Lowrie exposes his anger at religion. But we need to remember that it's fiction, as that screenwriter put it, "it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?"
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