Review: The Rules of Backyard Cricket

The Rules of Backyard Cricket
The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(3.5 stars)
Enjoyable book with strong central characters – something of a psychological thriller mixed with Greek-style tragedy reflecting on flawed greatness and what it is to be human and live well. Will be enjoyed more by those with at least some interest in the sport of cricket and who’ve lived in the Australian city of Melbourne, the setting for much of the book.

I say Greek-style tragedy above because without adding spoilers we’re told very early on that central character Darren (Daz) Keefe is a man in his 40s-early 50s, in a very sticky situation in the boot of a car. So each chapter begins with a brief update on his current predicament, and then his retrospective retelling in his mind of earlier parts of his life. So we wonder what twists of fate, mistakes and flaws of character led up to his current predicament. We see the arc of his life story from childhood in the (then tough and down at heel, since much-gentrified) inner Western suburbs of Melbourne and intense family relationships, flaring of success as a gifted cricketer along with his older brother, and then personal battles, relationships, excesses and stuff-ups on and off the pitch.

As a humanistic book about a man’s trying to live well, deal with their flaws and find meaning in a strange world it’s a really good book – Daz is an engaging anti-hero and the relationships with his brother, mother, and other family who come & go along the way are strong and produce a lot of poignant moments. The structure lends tension too because in sections where Daz seems to have it all going for him at last, we know there is trobule looming that will undo him.

But as a crime fiction, and also one on the cover described as ‘timely’ because it presumably is making points about the problems of celebrity and corruption in sport … I feel the book didn’t quite hit the mark. The transition from the well-told sections set in the 1970s-80s to the modern world of Twitter, the web, online gaming etc felt rushed to me, almost a bit tacked on. The ending didn’t quite shine for me also, not because it was a cliched ‘Hollywood Ending’ but because for me it left unexplored too many threads and wider issues hinted at as surrounding Darren’s life.

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Review: Nemesis

Nemesis
Nemesis by Alex Lamb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(3.5 stars)
A full-on space opera set in the mid-future, a follow-up to the first book in this universe, which I haven’t read, ‘Roboteer’. I think having read the book Roboteer (I haven’t) would help quite a bit with this one, and I haven’t, as the central character Will and a lot of his preoccupations, and the set-up of the interplanetary political situation, all seem to hark back to events in the earlier book a lot.

Pros of this book are the interesting-ish cast of characters, and somewhat plausible plot of skulduggery, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, galaxy-wide realpolitik, and well-sketched vignettes of visiting different planets and flying different ships as the characters are drawntowards the climactic final battles. There’s a lot of action that draws the book along after the central shaping event of the Nemesis attack early in the book.

Remarking on the politics and science futurism:- Lamb treads a balance between Dystopia and techno-topia (of the sort Singularitarians like to ponder) in this book and tries to draw out implications. Like many other anthropocene sci-fi authors, Lamb posits that the Earth’s ecosystem is on a pretty serious downward slide and most of the population are trying to migrate to other planets, despite a few do-gooders efforts to turn things round and even though the Transcended from the previous book supplied limiteless energy … Cyberspace has been highly augmented and particularly the characters Will and his reluctant protege (Mark?) seem to have ubermenschian abilities to hack almost anything almost instantly, and even several other key characters have pretty amazing abilities. As a software engineer myself (and seeing the author is too) this seems pretty implausible without major augmentation and it’s implied this has happened, but not clearly. Maybe that was in the previous book.

Overall a good read – like a review of an earlier book with the same title by Asimov implies – trying to balance an intense mixture of worldbuilding, science ideas, political ideas, character exposition and decent plot and action must be damn tricky. While this book doesn’t achieve what the likes of Iain M Banks at his peak did in this genre (I.E. in Use of Weapons), especially re making the central characters compellingly intersting despite their souped-up abilities, it’s a good attempt.

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My quick review of the book How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection, by David Dufty

Really interesting and worthwhile book … still feels relevant even if the main events of the book mostly took place a little over a decade ago. I.E. issues like starting to blur the line between artificial and regular intelligence, and whether to ‘immortalise’ people like Phillip K Dick in android form. (A central theme of the book was that the android Phillip K Dick was able to be quite nuanced in its conversation responses because of the vast archive of published interviews with Dick throughout his life).

Another reviewer here says the first half of the book ‘drags’ … this maybe depends if you’ve ever worked in academia/research and tried to get big complex projects done there. I.E. for me I quite enjoyed the window into the strange world of US high-end research Dufty provided, as I worked there myself in a different area.

In fact that’s my main criticism of the book, given Dick’s concern with corporatisation and the military-industrial complex, and the sometimes challenging trade-off scientists interested in pure research have to deal with in relation to these areas. But maybe that just struck me after having re-watched ‘Short Circuit’ the night before finishing this book 😉

Musings on time-distortions caused by PhD research

A not too serious post to get back into the swing of things with this blog … on a day last week I was emailing a few people about their projects and talks based on an old email thread, and realised I’d visited one of them back in October 2012 (at Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland), and the other gave a talk locally in Feb 2015 – yet both of these occasions feel like just yesterday.

Time flies when you’re having ….. fun on a PhD?!

Perhaps some research is needed into the “psycho-social disturbances in space-time caused by the PhD research candidature process” 😉 After all, in my academic discipline of urban planning, prominent theorist Prof. Jean Hillier wrote a journal article recently entitled “If Schrödinger’s cat miaows in the suburbs, will anyone hear?” (http://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/list/…). So who knows, quantum physics and general relativity could be the next big thing in urban planning!

Early thinking on clarifying Open Source in the real world of political economy

As those who know me personally will know, the last few years I’ve been doing a PhD focused on the role and potential of Open Source software in public-policy making for transport.

This choice of topic was partly spurred by my own background in using and developing Open Source software at the Victorian Partnership for Advanced Computing, for scientific research.

In the nature of a PhD though, one has to go far beyond your own experience to look at other frameworks and literatures in relation to a complex topic.

And Open Source is a tricky one. Not least of which because ‘Open Source’ as a concept has a close but contested relationship with its forebear and more overtly political concept, ‘Free Software’. Grossly simplifying a set of complex debates, Open Source has an ideology more about collaboration and the idea that it’s a more effective way to develop good software, whereas Free Software considers software with open source (‘copyleft’) licenses as part of a committed challenge to intellectual property rights, indeed even the entire concept of ‘intellectual property’.

Thus both Free Software and Open Source have a Utopian impulse and spirit behind them of sorts – similar to urban planning throughout its history. Yet, as with urban planning – in the real world this utopian spirit runs up against the challenges of political economy – a world where scarcity and pronounced inequalities exist, and these problems exacerbate an already mixed human nature.

Personalising this a bit :- to me, the idealistic appeal of Open Source was that its about sharing good-quality resources, for free and with no transaction costs, without expectation of return. To use your human potential, to create good things and good work, and cooperate with others on improving them, where profit is not the primary motive.

Yet its now clearer to me that this sort of impulse can only thrive in a certain environment. It probably thrives best in an environment of confident governments, corporations and research institutes, who are not worried about existential threats to their legitimacy or income sources in the immediate future. Where they are able to pay intelligent men and women (and without being age-ist, it seems to me particularly youthful contributors are important, before they have the possible responsibility of raising children) well to do interesting work – and have a little bit of time and autonomy during or after that work to support open source projects and initiatives.

I wouldn’t be the first to argue for a more skeptical and balanced approach to Open Source – IE grounding it in real political-economic challenges – and indeed there are several references in my bibliographic library along that line. I guess this post though is just to make a note of this developing theme, that I may be able to come back to later.

Thinking about creating options for a less car-dependent city :- one bike trip at a time.

Here is a link to a Google map showing an (anonymised, by changing my home address a bit) map between my place in Brunswick South, and where I play indoor soccer each week in North Coburg.

As those who know me personally realise – I do not own a car at the moment, I live “Carfree” – I own a bike, and can also walk or take public transport for my mobility. I am also a member of a car-sharing company so can hire cars nearby by the hour, but I use this sparingly. So for this soccer trip :- for me it is a toss-up whether to ride the whole way – its a 7.6km trip, takes about 30 minutes along Upfield bike path, limited by having to stop frequently at a lot of intersections – or ride to Jewell station, take my bike on the Upfield line train to Batman, then another short bike trip. The train is 20 minute frequencies in the early evening, reducing to 30 mins later on. At current bus frequencies there are no tram+bus or train+bus combos that are remotely competitive. The 30 minute train frequency is low enough to often mean a quite long wait of ~20 minutes after games finish to get home, in which case I’m tempted to ride. But the Upfield bike path is poorly lit at night, and narrow, and I worry about hitting other cyclists or pedestrians if one of us has even a slight speed wobble.

Why all this travel minutae? Because I think a less car-dependent city comes down to these day-to-day factors, and the possibilities or not they create for us. An Upfield bike path closer to Dutch standard, with signal priority that valued our precious human-powered energy :- would make cycling a pleasant option for most of the population for these kinds of trips, not just one that enthusiasts put up with. And trains at 15, 10, or even ideally 5 minute (a la Vancouver’s Skytrain) frequencies well into evenings, would make a train + bike combo an always-good option. Infrastructure Australia have just published a report about which roads caused X million dollars of ‘productivity loss’ to drivers thru congestion – but its the millions of decisions or delays to cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders that are just as important.

A round-up on this week’s posts of interest on Sustainable Cities Collective – and my thoughts on unsustainable cities – esp. a ‘realpolitik’ or vortex cities view of urban sustainability

David Thorpe has posted several good new articles looking at sustainablity and cities at the precinct or entire metropolitan scale this week, like this update on the winners of the European awards for sustainable urban mobility, an update on European smart city partnerships to look at ICTs in increasing energy efficiency, and this post on the ‘most unsustainable cities in the world’.

It turns out that the latter of these is based on a Swiss Re report about the riskiest cities to insure – given risks of flooding, earthquake, and other acute disasters. This is not a criticism of David, but it seems to me this is a very ‘realpolitik’ definition of unsustainability. That is, it is concerned purely with a cities’ own localised survival in the short to medium-term, and not with its net contribution to wider long-term regional or global sustainability.

One way of illustrating this is e.g. academic Phil McManus’ concept the idea of cities in much of the affluent world, including my home country Australia, as ‘Vortex Cities’: they offer a fairly good quality of life to local residents but by drawing very heavily from and impacting on wider ecosystems.

Another way of measuring this unsustainably is that of cities as urban metabolisms, so we’re interested in how efficiently they provide the ‘goods’ of city life (employment opportunities, social opportunities, diverse food & water, entertainment, education & innovation) to residents & regions, per units of natural resources used and waste generated. Australian academics Peter Newton and Peter Newman explored this concept in depth, including via a series of Australian State of the Environment reports.

This makes me wonder that Chinese cities like Beijing don’t appear on the Swiss Re list, given increasing reports of severe health effects of air pollution due to rapid industrialisation, but I guess this is still quite a chronic, rather than acute, health risk that its not on the radar of an insurance company so much. But as increasing numbers of chinese people take up life insurance, this could perhaps be quantified.

Finally, extending the vortex cities concept of un-sustainability – could we consider a city highly unsustainable, even if it isn’t a heavy user of resources directly for its residents, but plays an important role in facilitating current patterns of unsustainable resource consumption and waste generation globally? Thus perhaps even small towns crucial in particularly carbon-intensive forms of fossil-fuel production, like mining towns in brown coal areas, would make such a list. Or is this unfair to highlight them given the responsibility for consuming the resources is distributed globally, often in much more affluent countries than the resource-extracting locations? We would also have to take into account that it is the global centers of the capitalist economy like New York & London that facilitate the investment, advertising, and much of the decision-making driving our current economy and forms of lifestyle and consumption.

Elsewhere on the site, there were also a couple of posts on cycling, one by Christoper Berggren arguing human-powered transport access to cities is part of healthy & happy environments (though I would have liked more empirical data), and a more focused post by Florian Lorenz on integrating cycling opportunities with the design of new residential housing – including criticising current mandatory car-parking minimums.