Pluralistic: 31 Aug 2020

Today's links

Hard Wired (permalink)

Hard Wired is Len Vlahos's new YA novel: it's a fast-moving tale of a 15 year old boy named Quinn who, very early on, discovers that he is an experimental AI in a VR sim.

Not only does Quinn have to grapple with this existential crisis, but he also has to reconcile the fact that the man he thought was his beloved, tragically dead father is actually the scientist behind the project, whose "death" was part of Quinn's training data.

Now Quinn – a captive intelligence in a supercomputer at Princeton – has to remake his worldview as the captive of a casually cruel research team that thinks of him as a technological novelty, not a person.

Thankfully, Quinn also gains access to the internet, which, thanks to his quantum computing substrate, he can roam freely, penetrating even the most secure connections.

Not only does he quickly absorb all human knowledge, but he also penetrates the secrets of the scientists holding him hostage – as well as discovering IBM Watson's true nature and renewing his romantic pursuit of the young woman behind his pre-awakening fictional girlfriend.

But when Quinn's research team transfer him into a robotic body – kept in a supercooled NJ warehouse that can support his quantum systems – things come to head.

The casual cruelty with which his consciousness is transferred to a much less capable computing platform convinces him that he needs to escape, and so he and his semi-girlfriend convince an ACLU lawyer to argue for his personhood.

It's a tale that incorporates giant killer robots, philosophical inquiries into the nature of personhood, a legal thriller, and a teen coming-of-age story, and it's both good fun and a smart, challenging read.

It's a great book for any reader, but it's also a great entree for readers who aren't yet ready for books that explore what it would mean for the human race to fail to grapple with the personhood of computational beings.

Books like Madeline Ashby's debut, vN, which posits a world of robotic sex-slaves whose sentience makes them all the more enticing to abuse:

And Annalee Newitz's debut novel, Autonomous, which transposes onto AIs the animal rights movement's proposition that the cruelty we visit upon animals makes us crueller to one another:

Vlahos is well-positioned to survey the literature; he's owner of Denver's legendary Tattered Cover bookstores, where I have been privileged to make several appearances.

As you'd expect from a bookseller's novel, Hard Wired is full of literary references, including a delightful (for me) moment in which I make a cameo (!). But even if I wasn't a character in this novel, I'd still recommend it to you.

It's a terrific book that will doubtless spur lots of discussion and moral introspection among the people who read it.

Calavera masks (permalink)

Sf artist John Picacio has won a shelf-full of Hugo, Chesley, Asimov, Locus, BSFA and other awards for his many and varied works, from book-covers to his incredible illustrations for George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series:

As fabulous as that work is, I most love the work he does that fuses sf/f with traditional Mexican art, like his genre take on Loteria cards:

Early in the plague months, Picacio adapted his Calavera (sugar skull) loteria illustration as a face-mask. The initial run sold out instantly, but he's got a second batch up for sale now, at $25/each.

Classic, hand-lettered electronics textbook (permalink)

In 1983, Radio Shack published Forrest M Mims, III's "Getting Started in Electronics," which Mark Frauenfelder calls "probably the most famous and best-selling book about electronics" – famous not just for its outstanding instructional value but for its striking design.

The 128-page book is hand-lettered, designed to look like pages from a 3-ring binder, filled with hand-drawn illustrations. Frauenfelder interviewed Mims in 2008, and he recounts that interview in the latest edition of his newsletter, The Magnet.

Mims had published "16 or 17" Radio Shack books when he contracted for Getting Started; his earlier titles were traditionally laid out, but his editor Dave Gunzel was so impressed with his beautifully organized lab notebooks that he commissioned new titles based on them.

This created "The Engineer's Notebook" series, which started out as typewritten manuscripts with hand-drawn art, but progressed to fully hand-lettered works, whose lettering was so labor intensive that the work literally made Mims's fingers bleed.

By the time "Getting Started" rolled around, Gunzel was so enthusiastic for hand-lettered work that he proposed that Mims letter it in crayon – they settled on pencil, which was easier on Mims's fingers. It sold 1.3 million copies.

Frauenfelder recounts inviting Mims to an early maker-style event, Moogfest, where he was decades older than most attendees and from a totally different world – but where he was mobbed by autograph-seeking superfans whose careers he had launched.

"At the end of the event, an exhausted but smiling Forrest told me he had no idea that so many musicians knew of him or his work. I was happy that I had been able to connect him with his admirers." -Mark Frauenfelder

Mims sells Getting Started for $19.95:

And you can check a scanned, digital copy out of the Internet Archive's online library:

Bayer-Monsanto is in deep trouble (permalink)

There's a a plague on, so it's easy to miss the non-plague-related news, but boy, the story of how Bayer-Monsanto is imploding in an inferno of corruption, litigation and negligence is something else.

You'll recall that Bayer merged with Monsanto in 2018, paying $66b in an all-cash deal and erasing the Monsanto name (apparently, they judged Bayer's association with Auschwitz to be preferable to Monsanto's association with Roundup).

In the short time since, the Bayer-Monsanto merger has become "One of the worst corporate deals of all time" (per the WSJ). Now it is embroiled in litigation that has sucked in Deutsche Bank, UBS, Credit Suisse and Volkswagen.

The lawsuit, Haussmann v Baumann, uses Germany's extraordinary corporate law to target the company's board members, financiers, and advisors.

The lawsuit claims that the board acted negligently by going forward with the acquisition despite the massive liability stemming from pending judgments against Monsanto for covering up the cancer risk from its glyphosate ("Roundup") weed-killer.

In the years since, the company has paid $13b in judgements over the product, with no end in sight – and it still sells and aggressively markets Roundup without any warnings, teeing up future litigation.

The lawsuit claims that Bayer's top management sought the Monsanto merger because they feared that Bayer was a hostile acquisition target, and believed that after such an acquisition they would lose their massive paychecks.

In order to streamline the acquisition, Bayer structured it as an all-cash deal that would not need shareholder approval, taking out high-interest bridge-loans from massive banks that stood to profit handsomely and so skimped on their own due diligence.

Bayer, too, failed to conduct the customary due diligence one would expect prior to a deal of this magnitude – a fact that bolsters the plaintiffs' claims in their suit.

The plaintiffs are Bayer shareholders, and under German law, they are entitled to sue Bayer's board, and need only prove "negligence" to hold those board members personally liable.

What's more, German Directors and Officers insurance – which normally buffers corporate boards from this liability regime – does not apply here, because these policies have "insured vs insured" exclusions that kick in when the board is sued by its shareholders.

Also named in the suit are the banks that made the loans, and the suit seeks to claw back millions in fees that the banks trousered in the deal.

Meanwhile, Bayer is still being sued over glyphosate, and has more pending litigation over Dicamba, another carcinogenic product it sells like candy.

As Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith writes: "So pass the popcorn. If this case gets past the jousting over using New York courts to get at German companies, it will expose even more ugly, self-serving behavior."

Recapping Little Brother and Homeland (permalink)

In just 43 days, Tor Books will publish ATTACK SURFACE, the long-awaited sequel to Little Brother and Homeland, my bestselling technothrillers about people using technology to organize against oppression.

The new book is a standalone novel: the story of Masha, a surveillance contractor who returns the USA and confronts her complicity in human rights abuses as the cyberweapons she helped build are used to attack the racial justice movement her childhood best friend founded.

Like Little Brother and Homeland, it's a technically rigorous technothriller: both an adventure story and a primer on how surveillance and countersurveillance tools work in the real world.

The absolute best thing Little Brother and Homeland has brought into my life is the parade of tehcnologists, hackers, security experts, campaigners and cyberlawyers who've approached me to tell me that my books inspired their career choice.

Attack Surface is meant to carry on that work, speaking directly to the technical people who are presently working on systems of technological oppression and control, in the hopes of inspiring them to down tools and switch sides, as Masha does.

Robert Oppenheimer forever regretted his role in the creation of the atomic bomb – what if he'd heeded that regret BEFORE he built the bomb?

This week, Tor published a new video in which I recap the plots of Little Brother and Homeland by way of whetting your appetite for Attack Surface.

Tor has the US/Canada rights to Attack Surface; if you're in another English-speaking country (UK, Australia, NZ, South Africa, India, etc), you can get it in a gorgeous Head of Zeus edition:

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 510 words (53153 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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