I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Books: Faster, by James Gleick

I have decided that sometimes I should also recommend books, not just criticise the books I don't like.  Here is the first one.  Let's see how it goes.

The book is Faster, by James Gleick, the well known author of Chaos.

I picked up a copy of the book in a reminders' bookshop and it was a very good buy.

Gleick analyses the roots of the frenetic and ever faster modern life.  The book was first published fifteen years ago, but it hasn't aged at all.  What follows is my interpretation of the essence of the book and my reflections on its content.

The world has become very competitive.  As a result, everybody keeps looking for "an edge".  That is, for something that will give them a bit of an advantage over their competitors.  This applies to every organisation and individual living in a modern society, and especially in western-style capitalistic societies.

An edge could consist of working a little bit longer, employing a new technique or tool, optimising your time, exploiting other people's work, focussing on what counts most, or (and), effectively, anything that will increase our output, either in terms of quality or (more often) in terms of quantity.

How we use/spend/employ/waste/enjoy our time, according to Gleick (and I agree), is of paramount importance.  That's why we keep looking at our watch; that's why we are so impatient; that's why we hate queues; that's why we plan and prioritise our days.

Unfortunately, every edge we develop has already been developed by others, or soon will be.  In our attempt to emerge from the masses and be successful, we keep struggling up a downward escalator, whereby failure to become more productive means going backward.  And, to push the metaphor further, the downward escalator doesn't move at uniform speed.  It accelerates.

This is an intrinsically unstable system, in which a positive feedback leads to explosive conclusions: we work harder and faster to emerge but, as everybody else does it as well, we need to work even faster.  This has made possible incredible achievements, but we are paying those achievements with our health and wellbeing.

It wasn't always like this.  Before the industrial revolution or even just before the introduction of production lines, time was not money.  But for the past good one hundred years everything is money, including time.  Even if, contrary to money and despite colloquialisms, time cannot be gained or saved: every second spent is lost forever and cannot ever been recovered.

H.G. Wells, in his "A Modern Utopia" of 1905, described a future in which we would work five hours a week.  Modern technology might allow to do so, but the increase in efficiency and productivity generated by technology, instead of automatically resulting in a reduction of working hours, is used to a large extent to fuel growth.  The average number of weekly working hours has been steadily falling in developed countries, but we are still very far from the Utopian levels predicted by Wells.

During my working life in Italy, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and France, I was steadily under pressure to work longer hours.  Australia was the worst offender, and I often had to work 60 h/week or more.  You might think that it was because I was slow or not good enough, but that was not the case.  Everybody around me struggled.  When I worked at Prime R&D in Canberra, we had a HR person to take care of only thirty developers.  Such a very high ratio (1/30) was deemed necessary to enable us to survive the pressure we had to endure and the resulting conflicts.  Perhaps I enjoyed reading Faster because it resonated with what I had experienced.

The book is also full of snippets of time-related information that I found very interesting.

For example, at MacDonald's, in 1997 its marketers tried to speed up [...] by offering refunds to any customer not served within fifty-five seconds (p.245).  That's what I would call a pressure-cooker environment, even if at MacDonald's everything is fried!  ;-)

Star Trek DTI: Watching the Clock - How disappointing!

In 1997 I discovered the existence of Star Trek novels.  Since then, I bought and read 146 novels, mostly in The Next Generation series.  To be precise: 97 TNG, 4 OS, 3 DS9, 26 Voyager, 5 Enterprise, and 11 New Frontier.  Very recently, I discovered that Pocket Books had started publishing a new series, centred on the Department of Temporal Investigation (DTI).  As I have always liked stories involving time travel and time paradoxes, I immediately bought the two DTI novels published so far, and started reading the first one, Watching the Clock.

At the time of writing this post, I have read 287 of its 488 pages.  I will finish it, but it has been a disappointment.  Before saying what I don't like in it, I will reproduce for you the index of major sections, chapters, and subsections of the first 100 pages:

PRESENT TIME - STARDATE 58188.4 TO 58193.8
    1  March 10, 2381 Common Era, Gregorian Calendar - A Tuesday
        DTI Branch Office - San Francisco, North Am, Earth - 18:32 UTC
        U.S.S. Everett NCC-72392 - March 12, 2381 CE (A Thursday) - 03:14 UTC
        03:21 UTC
        05:47 UTC
        06:11 UTC
        08:27 UTC
        Regulus Passenger Lines Transport Verity - 10:36 UTC
        U.S.S. Everett - 11:02 UTC
        11:37 UTC
        18:02 UTC
        18:27 UTC
DOWNTIME - STARDATE 41697.9 TO 41906.7
    2  Kartika 13, 2286 Saka Era, Indian National Calendar - A Wednesday
        Dulmur Residence - Motilal City, Nehru Colony - 05:46 UTC
        Indira City - 13:27 UTC
        Dulmur Residence - 17:54 UTC
        Vandor IV - Agrahayana 7, 2286 SE (A Friday) - 20:43 UTC
        20:52 UTC
    3  Julian Day 2590805 - A Monday
        DTI Headquarters - Greenwich, European Alliance, Earth - 14:11 UTC
        Julian Days 2590812 to 2590823
        Julian Days 2590825 to 2590833
        Julian Days 2590834 to 2590838
        Julian Days 2590841 to 2590849
DOWNTIME - STARDATE 42692.8 TO 42704.5
    4  Day 18 of et'Khior, Year of ShiKahr 9051 - A Saturday
        Lucsly Residence - San Francisco - 14:54 UTC
        DTI Branch Office - San Francisco - 16:14 UTC
        Shuttlecraft Deutsch - Traversing Sector 006 - 21:16 UTC
        Warlock Station - 19 et'Khior, YS 9051 (A Sunday) - 19:59 UTC
        20 et'Khior, YS 9051 (A Monday) - 07:06 UTC

What is immediately apparent from the titles of the major sections is the alternance of events in the present and downtime (i.e., in the past).

First of all, according to Wikipedia, Star Trek The Next Generation Writer's/Director's Guide of March 23, 1987 (p. 13) defines stardate as follows:
A stardate is a five-digit number followed by a decimal point and one more digit. Example: "41254.7." The first two digits of the stardate are always "41." The 4 stands for 24th century, the 1 indicates first season. The additional three leading digits will progress unevenly during the course of the season from 000 to 999. The digit following the decimal point is generally regarded as a day counter.
As the DTI series is contemporary to TNG and Voyager, stardates beginning with 58 are wrong.  Another mistake: the differences in stardates of the major sections are clearly too large.  For example, 5.4 in the first section, while everything happens between a Tuesday and a Thusday, which would imply a stardate change of 0.3.

But there is a more substantial problem: headings are meant to help the reader understand what's going on, but things like "Kartika 13, 2286 Saka Era" and "Day 18 of et'Khior" are at best irrelevant and at worst confusing.  Furthermore, and somewhat ridiculously, although the dates are given in a cryptic way, the hours are always given in UTC and there is always the day of the week.  Does Bennett expects us to believe that Greenwich time is used on a planet that follows an "et'Khior" calendar (whatever that is)?  Or that they have seven-day weeks?  I find it pathetic.

Before I forget, the Julian Day of January 1, 2000, was 2,451,545.  How can it suddenly be back to 2590805 in 2381?

I hate useless/wrong/confusing things only done for show!

The bottom line is that you should only look at the distinction between PRESENT TIME and DOWNTIME, consider the UTC time (which is sometimes marginally useful), and ignore the rest.

Besides the detail I have just talked about, there are two further (and, in my opinion, more serious) issues: the first one concerns the use of references to events described in the TV series, and the second one has to do with how the story flows (or doesn't).

Bennett seems to have gone out of his way to cram into the novel as many references as possible to timeflow-related incidents that occurred to Kirk, Picard, and Janeway.  For a fan, it is nice to find references, but Bennett does it excessively.  As far as I can see, he refers to all time-inversions and time-loops that occurred in the TV series, with descriptions and stardates.  After the first couple, I started thinking: Oh no...  not another one!  I'm curious to see what he will refer to in his second novel...

But I have left last the biggest criticism I have about this novel: it is full of irrelevant facts, which only contribute to interrupt the flow of the narrative.  I'm pretty confident that if we removed all Downtime sections, the main story would come out better.  Flashbacks have been used in fiction for centuries.  Some novels have even been written as single flashbacks.  But these Downtime stories are like self-contained short stories, with little or no connection to the main story.  He didn't need so many flashbacks to introduce the characters and provide context.

In general, I find the main story fragmentary and unfocussed.  It might be due to the presence of so many distracting flashbacks, but I am not sure.  Perhaps Bennett thought that the silly dates, the many references to past events, and the plethora of races new and old would keep ST fans happy.  But it is nothing more than a heap of clutter.  There is no substitute for a good plot presented in a clean, uncluttered way.  Especially when talking about time travel.