Kehlmann is a German novelist whose books I quite enjoy. His language appeals to me a lot. Previously I read his book Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World) putting Von Humboldt and Gauss side by side in their quest to measure the world, and last year Tyll, a newly and beautifully imagined retelling of Till Eulenspiegel.

A few weeks ago, in our book case I found Kehlmann’s book Ruhm (Fame), a small collection of 9 stories that turn out to be connected and form a novel as a whole. I couldn’t remember buying it, nor if I had already read it, and started in the past days. Probably I read about a third because that is where I encountered the receipt from the bookstore: The Balmer Buchhaus in Zug Switzerland, dated 27 November 2010.

Me, in Zug in November? That sounded not quite right. We visit friends there regularly, but usually around New Year and at some point during the summer. Did I or we really visit there in November a decade ago? My Flickr photo stream provided immediate proof we did indeed.

Walchwil SunriseLake Zug at sunrise in late November snow, 2010

Checking my calendar from 2010 I found out the reason for our trip. We helped my sister move house that month (which I do remember). She lived in the neighbouring part of Austria, and had been recently widowed, and moved into a new apartment right on the Swiss border (now she lives in Brussels with her new husband, and is about to retire to Portugal). On our way back we stopped at dear friends near Zug (which I also remember). And visited the local bookstore (which I forgot).
There’s also photographic proof of it, as I snapped an image of books I wanted to maybe research online after our visit.

Browsing Swiss Bookshop

The one on the left I think we decided to buy after I took the photo, because I think it is in the bookcase somewhere too.

The past days were by accident probably the best setting to read this book, right in the upward swing of a pandemic. I finished it yesterday and today here in the Netherlands everything got closed down, pubs, restaurants, sports facilities and schools for at least 3 weeks. In A Song for a New Day, that ‘at least 3 weeks’ turned into always, with humanity keeping its distance from one another after a pox pandemic, and most of life moving to virtual environments so you don’t need to leave your room for work nor entertainment. Drone delivery ftw.

Live music takes center stage in this story. Concerts are not allowed, as they bring together more than a few people. But there’s an underground network of venues and artists. One on which a company feeds to find talent for virtual concerts, but at the cost of shutting down the real venues and scenes.

A call for creativity, and overcoming fear of others. In times of government calls for social physical distancing, a reminder to let guitars rip over the speakers and be kind to your neighbours and community.

16down concert in Second LifeA concert by 16Down I once went to in Second Life in 2007.

(I started reading A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker, as I found it on the list of Nebula Award nominees).

I’ve read three books by Linda Nagata the past days. The Last Good Man was the final one. Set in a near future it explores what can remain of a warrior code, duty and honor, in an age of AI run autonomous drones of all sizes and for all purposes. Who’s the last good man standing? The take away largely is that it basically can turn any spot on the globe into a hotzone, with humans as mere backdrop and as collateral damage. It also raises the issue of when military power monopolies are a dimension of national sovereignty, what dissolving those monopolies will look like. It’s set in the Middle East and Morocco mostly, with Burma and the Phillipines additional settings.

Having finished it last night a pointer by Bruce Sterling this morning to an article titled Drones, Deniability, and Disinformation: Warfare in Libya and the New International Disorder which describes precisely how this all currently plays out already in Libya, although currently without much AI and autonomous platforms. It also is a worthwile reminder of John Robb’s Brave New War which I read in 2012.

Bruce Sterling takes this quote from the article, about drone weapons, but it applies even more to the disinformation efforts also mentioned.

Armed drones embody a trend toward military action that minimizes the risks and costs to the intervening powers, thereby encouraging them to meddle in conflicts where no vital interests are at stake

A book that has ‘Agency‘ as its title, and is written by William Gibson, as Boris already intuited, is a book that I must read. So I did, in the past few days after it got published on January 23rd.

It was disappointing I thought.
Except for its definition of personal agency by a rogue AI as personhood, financial independence, and global citizenship, plus transparency about that towards others. And except for introducing the concept of Competitive Control Areas (described more theoretically here) to overcome failed states (in this case by installing Russian oligarchs/gangs, aptly named the ‘klept’. We probably should use that term more widely)

The playing with alternate time paths (stubs) I disliked as it seems a cop-out (leave the timey wimey stuff to The Doctor, where it’s all just a bit of good fun). Other than that the entire book is merely a long chase through a USA where Trump never got elected and Brexit didn’t happen (but Syria might become a nuclear war zone). A high speed chase with AI glasses, and coolio drones remotely controlled by people from the future who lived through the ‘Jackpot’ (the crunch where 80% of humanity died from the climate emergency, but somehow the tech level never collapsed) and now seem rather relaxed about it all as they interfere in other timepaths for fun mostly.

William Gibson, father of 'cyberpunk'William Gibson, image by Frédéric Poirot, license CC BY SA

Read Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record in recent weeks. Not sure what the rationale for this book is. Sort of an autobiography meant as an apologia, it seems. The first range of chapters didn’t do much for me. In the later chapters there’s more I found interesting.

Takeaways are that despite his young age he was way deeper involved with the three letter agencies than those agencies after he left implied. His last more removed position was his way of building an exit strategy, though the agencies said that made his role insignificant. The point isn’t where he worked last, but what he did in the years before. Working with lots of contractors adds to an agency’s plausible deniability however.

The book also makes clearer what it is that he currently does, even in his isolated state in Russia (where he stranded as his passport was canceled by the US mid flight, while en route to South America), why he chose to work with reporters the way he did, and how he could ensure nothing of the material he took with him was with him when he left Hong Kong.

Other than that, the book usefully makes the key points again that matter: that meta data is much more telling about you than the name suggests, that there is a huge difference between scooping everything up to retroactively search for things later, versus the previous method of searching for additional information once something suspicious has been detected. This makes all of us suspect by default, depending on the type of light shed on all the data collected about us already.

Witchhunt Snowden
A poster of Edward Snowden in Berlin, I took this photo in 2014 a year after the first publications