Book Review: Exploring a Mars-topia

Fantasy epics are good. Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones are but the most popular. But what about good sci-fi epics? Perhaps the Dune series? The Rama books? Both are on my List, but I just finished an epic that would be loved by lefties and techies the world over. It’s the Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve written about Red and Green Mars, but this is more of a general overview. First up, know that this is truly an epic, spanning decades and stretching out across the Solar System. There is a hoard of characters, though KSR sticks to a handful for most chapters. This is hard science fiction at its best, futurism at its most optimistic.

That’s saying something. KSR doesn’t picture the rosiest picture of the future, but you can tell he has high hopes. If you care about a balanced society, if you care about gender equality, and if you care about the eventual dismissal of neoliberalism, read these books.

And why not admit it. Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids. There was that to be said.

Mars is the utopia, while Earth languishes in population and corporate woes. It takes a while to get there, and this tension between the settlement and the home world provides most of the major tension, but eventually it seems that the Red Planet comes to peace. We explore new economics,  divergent ways of working and living, enlivened ideas about environment. In fact, the environment is a key aspect of the books, and indeed most of KSR’s books (I’ve heard). Currently Mars in uninhabitable, and would need the introduction of greenhouse gases to make it livable. But where and when do you stop? How much human imposition should a planet sustain?

These are the issues we face now. That is, overpopulation and human encroachment are affecting Earth. Our desires overpower the Earth’s needs (and really, as a result, our needs). We’re headed to Mars very soon (I’m pretty sure these projections fall into KSR’s dates) and the reality is we are going to have to take conservatism with us to the stars. The Mars series tells us how to do it.

But what about the book the ideas are woven into? It’s well-written for the most part. It’s definitely nicely framed and structured, with proper jumps in time and character. There are some awkwardly written sex scenes, but I think KSR deliberately skipped through these quickly, understanding that they’re a bitch to write. That said, the blooming romances and relationships are beautiful and you know these characters so well that they feel natural. Blue Mars does feel like it teeters at the end, not going on for too long, per se, but struggling with how to express the last movement. There’s a lack of grandiose action sequences compared with the first two books, but by now the planet is settling. And KSR does manage to inject some fantastic lines that make you stop and say “whoa”:

Ann was looking at him closely. Finally she said, “Everything dies someday. Better to die thinking that you’re going to miss a golden age, than to go out thinking that you had taken down your children’s chances with you. That you’d left your descendants with all kinds of toxic long-term debts. Now that would be depressing. As it is, we only have to feel bad for ourselves.”

Read it and weep. I mean really weep. That’s what the world faces now. Hopefully that sought after golden age is still within our grasp.

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Book Review: Do prophets dream of electric psalms?

The latest two books I’ve read are connected in an obtuse manner. The first was sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Phillip K. Dick, and the second was all-round classic, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. The former questions what it means to be alive; the latter gives answers on how to live.

This was the first Dick book I’ve read. I saw Bladerunner years back when I was too young to appreciate it. However, appreciating the existential nature of the novel is a delight.
Language wise, I loved the abbreviations, the most notable of which is ‘andy’, a nickname that has very human connotations. Dick has a simple style, but paints a dreary picture very effectively. His characters are all a little eccentric, lost in a technologically denigrated world. Sometimes the dialogue was a little brash, a bit out of character, but that happened rarely.
Our protagonist, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter who tracks down and ‘retires’ renegade androids. The difficulty comes in how close androids mimic human behaviour, meaning that an empathy test has to be administered. The fun (but that I mean learning) of the book comes in when Deckard asks androids (and humans) the questions, and how he tricks them into revealing whether or not they are alive. Deckard at one stage ponders his own existence, and the book ends on an ambiguous note. When a book blurs boundaries like this it adds so much joy to the experience, and I found myself stopping many times to try and think through the philosophies. I can’t wait to read more from this clear master of sci-fi.

The Prophet is less plot engaged, and reads more like a self-help book. The Prophet, who is the protagonist, is leaving his town, and is asked by fellow villagers a variety of questions. These include “Tell us of Children” and “Speak to us of Reason and Passion”.
My parents gave this to me when I left home, clearly for good reason. Finally getting around to it has been a blessing (they highlighted the chapter on Children).
I’m not sure how much I can take away from it, but I will certainly use it as a reference book. For example, this quote is from the chapter on Work:

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submissions towards the infinite.

Good to keep in mind when you’re dragging your feet around the office.

These are two books I would highly recommend, and both will give you a slightly better grasp on life – albeit with completely different methods.

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What good is a degree?

Here is a piece I wrote for Lot’s Wife, which should be available from the Monash Clayton campus now.

Another year of university, another year of universal drudgery. Whether it be your first, third, or Honours year, you may be looking ahead to 2013 with apprehension. Maybe you’re worried about the course load ahead, or whether you can juggle work and study between socialising. A year of university is a labyrinth to get lost in.

But what if it were for nothing? What if this fretting never amounted to much? Stop and think: How employable will you be after the three or more years? If you are planning on becoming an engineer or IT specialist, then yes, perhaps there is a strong demand out there. That Arts degree? Not so much. Even a Law degree doesn’t guarantee work straight out of university these days.1 Employability goes far beyond a degree, and if that’s all you have then it isn’t enough. The changes are not the individual’s fault, and are beyond control. What we understand of education and work is evolving, and the discerning student is advised to be adaptable.

Universities date back far beyond institutes such as Oxford, but it was this English model that paved the way for modern establishments. What began as exclusive clubs for the rich and privileged have become more and more open to the masses. Today the focus is on an extended pedagogy. Going to university immediately after finishing secondary school is expected. Adults will hop between careers numerous times throughout their working lives, and colleges account for these mature age students. Learning is for life. Despite this demographic and ideological shift the university remains a revered, hallowed place.

How long will this last though? It exceedingly appears—like with the rest of culture before—that the ivory towers and sandstone halls may soon be ground to dust under the indomitable advance of technology.

Online learning has long been available, but the digital will become much more integral to uni life. Our own Moodle is an example of combining traditional learning with online tools, but the sudden boom in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will see the pendulum swing entirely that way. As The Economist puts it, “…online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.”2 Imagine a world where you can access a course from Harvard from your home in Hawthorne. Boundaries break down, and more people have access to better tools. Start-ups include Udacity, Coursera, and edX, and you can sign up to them right now (though don’t forget your real-world course load). This is all potentially good for the budding scholar, but what does it mean for campuses?

For the top, not a lot. There is no denying that there won’t be a shake-up, but the best have a pedigree, and it is hard to qualify an online degree. Mid-tier universities will have to specialise, and have an online campus in conjunction with the physical one. It could go the way of the publishing industry, with an amalgamation of large bodies and a proliferation of specialised providers. Like with any industry, once supply reaches a critical peak, demand and income become bottle-necked.

And if we think of the concept of ‘work’ as a global, all-encompassing industry, similar shifts abound.

The case for earning your degree is less and less compelling simply because everybody has one (ever more so with MOOCs). Unless it’s for medicine, engineering, or IT, wasting time and money at university is an increasingly futile project when your future prospects are grim. Has anyone ever told you to do a ‘real’ degree, or to not even bother and just start working? It probably came from a thirty year old earning a six-figure paycheck who’s sick of paying for your worthless education. Your parents may tell you to follow your dreams, but when you’re leaning on the system only to fall down the rabbit hole it’s perhaps time to do a Business major. If you’re a “P’s get degrees” vagrant, then may the Dean have mercy on your soul.

That said the world should not revolve around job prospects and practicality. There is a difference between working for happiness (short term) and for meaning (long term).3 Were work merely for productivity, governments would allot educational pathways to its young citizens rather than have the hassle of freedom of choice. Actually, that could be a great system. Show a penchant for mathematics and an interest in Lego at a young age, and you’re an engineer for life. Good bye existential crisis, hello smooth groove of infinity. The number one prerogative of any government should be investment in the future, in the construction of infrastructure, and there is no greater infrastructure than the young. Of course, no government in their right mind would assign the role of, say, film director or food stylist, let alone journalist (unless it was Propaganda Minister). That is why we have so many universities offering a massive range of learning opportunities. We have specialist schools that teach their pupils how to be artists, whole institutions whose focus is on videogame production, even while major and minor studios go under (and not Down Under). Maybe government intervention would be for the greater good.

Work is changing. The graduate of today should look forward to internships, contracts, and multiple part-time undertakings. And the liberating thought is that it won’t revert back to the good old days. Perhaps we will subsist on a civilian wage4 as our AI accomplices perform the mundane tasks. In a post-work, post-scarcity civilization, will we become bored as the days drag by, or will humanity reach another era of enlightenment and innovation? Where ever we end up, diplomas and degrees are sure to be laughable relics.

In the here and now though, experience is everything. Get out there and find part-time work at McDonald’s. Buy a camera and get off Instagram. Travel the world (preferably not the Western one). Youth occurs once, and an empty savings account means you’re making the most of it.5 And if you want to study Creative Writing, well, it’s your life.







Further reading regarding the future of education:

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Journey beyond the spam wall

Spam is such an interesting piece of our digital lives. It’s us determining what we don’t want, what we consider too vulgar to consider. There are different levels of obstruction that we can apply to the spam waves. Sometimes things that we need are trapped there, behind the wall. Other times something charming can be found amongst the muck. Like this email I received the other day.

Dear Thomas Wilson,
We send you this e-mail as a result of examining your CV presented at job board website database.
Let us give you some information about our corporation. Our firm was set up in 1983. The company compared corporate doctors and its participants decided to establish its background. To make it true they formed a team consisted of operating managers, functional experts and consultants. Our purpose is to give help to our customers in all fields required. We execute their efforts and provide juridical and primary support facilitating tax burden.
We need honest, responsible and reliable employees, for whom we would like to bid both full and part time work.

The candidate should meet the following requirements:
– Facilitation skills, the ability to multi-process and withstand fast working pace
– Capability to work under pressure

The employee will have the following job description:
– Monitoring and processing payments
– Producing weekly and monthly reports
– Following the instructions of top managers

The approximate fee for the job is 2,200 with extra recompense for every transaction processed.

The organization is fully responsible for bank and other relevant costs.

Now a Financial assistant job position is valid at our corporation.

In case you are intrigued by the position, please, send us a message by e-mail expressing your interest.

Corporate jargon? Check. Complete lack of details? Check. Hitting very close to something that I actually want? Check (that is, a job). It’s probably a genuine attempt at hiring me, because there were no phishing hyperlinks to be found.

The email was sent by one ‘Beverly Webb’ (like, interweb?) using a free nokiamail account. I would say they found me through Freelancer or oDesk, both websites where willing workers search for contract jobs of dubious respect. However it got to me, I’m glad it did.

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Reads of the Day: Inspirational

Couple of links for today, a big discrepancy between pictures and a long read. Mondays are the worst what with Sunday Reading and all that. Nothing on the Oscars (thankfully):


“Stories don’t come with a convenient label: you need to be able to spot them — while experiences can make for great material.” — Some good tips to take on board.

“25 Places That Look Not Normal, But Are Actually Real” — That’s a terrible title, but the photos are inspiring.

“But the reality of choice makes digital determinists uncomfortable, for it puts the individual and society back in control of the machine.” — The ever-engrossing debate over Intellectual Property.

“You, tomorrow, could have your own bookstore, selling books in any format, that anyone could read on any device they wanted.” — Speaking of which, book publishing doesn’t know what it wants.

“In short, drones provide the technological impetus and the military capacity to turn the entire world into one giant, permanent theatre of war and a subject of total surveillance.” — Well, no need to read the rest then.

And in related news: How to defeat the drones.


Until next time, keep those eyes on the Web.

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