Starting to read _Ready Player One_

Our near-future science fiction book club is now reading Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One.  Here are my notes and reflections for the first 20% or so.

I’ll begin with a quick intro, then dive into the book, and conclude with the kind of notes we obsessive lit profs take.

I’ve read the book before, but will try to post as if I’m reading it for the first time.

Quick intro:

Our teenage hero lives in a dystopian near future, when he’s not escaping to play a treasure hunt game in a globe-spanning virtual world.  Said hero and the game’s creator share an obsession with the 1980s, which also shapes the game.

The first 20% of the book sets up the world and gets Wade started on his quest.

Ready Player One, cover art

The future world

The world is a grim one.  Rather, the physical world is grim, and always appears horribly.

The ongoing energy crisis.  Catastrophic climate change.  Widespread famine, poverty, and disease.  Half a dozen wars.  You know: “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” (Kindle location 84)

An energy crisis knocked the world back (317), reminding me of this classic 1980s movie:

Beyond the fuel crash, the Great Recession “was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high” (932).  It took a generation for this combined collapse to occur, witnessed and lived through by Wade’s mother (“She’s been born into a world of plenty, then had to watch it all slowly vanish”, 342).

Narrator Wade Watts lives in a new type of trailer park, where trailers and similar units are stacked vertically, “twenty-two mobile homes high” (379).  It’s violent: “[g]unfire wasn’t uncommon” (238).  “There were ofter dangerous and desperate people about – the sort who would rob you, rape you, and then sell your organs on the black market.” (415)  The local public schools “ha[ve] been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades” (569).

Some people “sign a five-year indenturement contract with some corporation” (538). Wade’s mother didn’t work at necessarily happy jobs: “one as a telemarketer, the other as an escort in an online brothel.” (280)  Some of their neighbors “lucky enough to have a job… worked as day laborers in the giant factory farms” (440); automation doesn’t seem to have happened here.

OASIS is very different.  So far (20% in) it’s largely positive, an attractive alternative to the bad world.  It’s huge (201) and rich, reminding me a bit of this year’s No Man’s Sky.  Wade describes it as an MMO, but it’s really a virtual world.  A variety of locations exist there, from schools to churches (434).   It seems to have licensed a huge amount of content, or the world went open (286).  Its currency trades on the world market (508) (professor Castranova is the first academic to study this).

However, some chunk of OASIS is not fantastic, but simply represents the real world, or an improved/historical version of it.  The high school Wade attends is… a high school (497ff), and avatars are unimaginative by design (508), like uniforms writ large.  Somehow the tech also disciplines students (854).   It also has rich VR, which makes sense, since participants are already in a VR platform.

The software sounds a lot like Second Life, even to the description of first-time users’ clothing (544) and the company making money by selling land (1069).  So far that boom-and-bust project hasn’t been name-checked.  There’s also a bit torrent analog for game players sharing stuff, Guntorrent (players are “gunters”, a contraction of “Easter Egg hunters”) (1097).

The technology is interesting and well developed.  Two pieces connect users to OASIS, a visor (which sounds like goggles) and a glove (for haptic feedback) (286).  It’s a serious VR setup (1045).

There’s also a politics to the technology.  OASIS is open source, has no ads, and doesn’t seem to track users.    Its enemy, IOI and its Sixers, are the opposite (611).

Our hero is poor and desperate.  His home “reeked of cat piss and abject poverty” (242), a trailer holding fifteen people (“It was a double-wide.  Plenty of room for everybody.” (248)).  We first meet him “wedged into the gap between the wall and the dryer” (242), a bit like Harry Potter under the stairs.  OASIS is his escape:

If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. (255)

[Wade’s mother] used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world.  Because the real world sucked. (342)

Those goggles blot out the world, “blocking out all external light” (482).

Wade also has his own oasis, an abandoned and neglected van (“My Batcave. My Fortress of Solitude” (464), that precious site for every suffering teen.

Wade and his hero Halliday are also serious geeks.  Not only do they have stereotypical obsessions (obscure slices of pop culture, computer games), but we learn that they share a common interpersonal background of awkwardness, shyness, and social unacceptable appearance (556, 957).  The worlds they imagine are from the science fiction and fantasy genres, not from westerns, romance, war, history, or sports.  If we think of the 1980s, when geeks were marginal, if rising, this call-back makes historical an emotional sense.

People are fascinated by this world.  Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote Ready Player One fanfiction. Continue reading

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I am profiled by the Connected Learning Alliance

Howard RheingoldThe Connected Learning Alliance published an interview with/profile of me this week.  It was conducted and written by the very great Howard Rheingold.

We discuss open education, mobile, gaming and simulations, the power of small colleges and universities, automation, social media, and more.  I talk about my unusual career trajectory, back to the grad school and teaching days of the 1990s.

It’s also a personal story, with sweet anecdotes about how Howard and I first met.

Let me quote myself, speaking of open education and open access: “What a glorious opportunity, what creativity we can inspire. I think for education, I tell people embrace open. Do it now.”


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This week in the 21st century

Edward Snowden's Twitter photoIt’s one of those 21st century moments.

A history-making whistleblower, who currently speaks to America only through digital video or robots, used Twitter today to explain that the National Security Agency has been hacked.  The target is the Equation Group, a shadowy entity that supposedly hurls malware and hacks at America’s enemies.

Said (alleged) hackers are Russians who named their collective, the Shadow Brokers, after a video game character* and now hold the NSA to ransom unless the agency and/or its friends pays in bitcoin.

The files posted over the weekend include two sets of files. The hackers have made one set available for free. The other remains encrypted and is the subject of an online auction, payable in bitcoin, the cryptocurrency. That set includes, according to the so-called Shadow Brokers, “the best files.” If they receive at least 1 million bitcoin — the equivalent of at least $550 million — they will post more documents and make them available for free.

The Shadow Brokers explain themselves as global insurgents, targeting the rich and powerful elite.  Very 2016:

The group delivered a message to what it called “wealthy elites” and assailed the integrity of elections. “Elites is making laws protect self and friends, lie and fuck other peoples,” they wrote in idiosyncratic English. “Then Elites runs for president. Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?”

“We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites,” the group added. “Your wealth and control depends on electronic data.”

Some days it just feels like we’re living in the 21st century dreamed up by science fiction.

*From the Mass Effect wiki:

The Shadow Broker is an individual at the head of an expansive organization which trades in information, always selling to the highest bidder. The Shadow Broker appears to be highly competent at its trade: all secrets that are bought and sold never allow one customer of the Broker to gain a significant advantage, forcing the customers to continue trading information to avoid becoming disadvantaged, allowing the Broker to remain in business.

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Two small examples of technologies emerging

Last month I shared two little but interesting examples of new technologies. Today’s I’ll offer another pair.

ITEM #1: some virtual reality gear is rapidly becoming more accessible.  In July my wife and I participated in the fine NYSCIO conference, and several vendors were present.  Most gave away swag, like pens and cell phone holders.  One, Varonis, freely handed out its version of Google Cardboard.

VR cardboard from Varonis

To be clear, this is a virtual reality head-mounted display mount.   It’s free.  We just had to fold it together, stick a decent phone inside, and start ogling in 3d.

Yes, the high-end visors are still expensive.   Yes, producing VR is still a significant challenge for most. But the cardboard option for consuming VR is now at effectively zero cost.  This is one way forward for the medium.

ITEM #2: Here’s a tiny example of automation being used in creativity.

Yesterday I took photos of some flowers on our land after a short rain (they are bee balm; very useful for our gardens).  I posted this one to/via Instagram:

bee balm pre Google

A couple of the black dots just visible are actually bees.

Over night Google asked me if it could do some creative work on it.

How did this happen?  I checked into Google+ (my profile) as I do every day.  Under “Notifications” appeared a “we’ve created a new thing for you” alert.  I clicked it, and found this:
bee balm after Google

G+ seems to have taken my photo, added an old-time photo mount border around it, then filtered parts of the image.

(I’m not sure if it was my Instagram photo or another one taken using my Galaxy’s native phone app.  I haven’t synced phone to laptop of late, but I think the mobile G+ app just sniffs around the phone’s camera folder whenever it’s online.)

On the plus side, this was fun.  I liked seeing what the machines did to my snapshot.  I enjoyed the surprise of this being brought to me, rather than my asking for it.  It makes me want to try filters again

On the downside, I can image Alan Levine barking up a critique.  It’s not that impressive a tweak, nothing as wild as DeepDream.  And maybe it won’t inspire users to do anything; indeed, maybe this machine creativity disables human desires to create.

And yet I could still do things to it.  G+ offered a handy edit option, which gave options new to a photography tyro like myself:

Google + edit box for a photo

Personally, I learn from this.

The larger trend to point to?  As I’ve been saying, computer-aided creativity is now a thing, and it’s likely to grow.  We need think hard, now, about what that could mean.

In sum: two little examples.  Two bits of evidence from a core sample taken from mid-2016, showing digital technologies in development.

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Automation versus jobs: a new model

How will automation impact tomorrow’s jobs?  I and others have been exploring this increasingly urgent question, with an eye towards the intersection of education and society.

The Foresight Alliance team just added to the discussion with a new publication, combining simulation modeling and scenario development.  I recommend the whole article, but will also pull out some key points here.

(NB: I’m only going to discuss automation’s impact on education through society.  No time now for writing about automating education itself.)

One is the pair of trends they selected for scenario creation, which point to a wider range of possibilities than we normally consider.  These are degrees of technological innovation and adoption pace.  For the former, consider how much of AI and robotics is still tentative or flawed, and could well take a long time to become operational.  For the latter, every educator knows organizations don’t necessarily pounce on new technology.

Using the classic two-by-two matrix model, the Alliance offers this set of possible futures:

scenarios matrix: technological innovation and automation adoption

We can readily imagine different social outcomes for each of these.  SAG and ATO generate substantial un- and underemployment.  RAH is closest to our present day, while HMC might involve the deepest types of change, as jobs are transformed along with people’s sense of their working life (and selfhood, I think).

Note the huge range of potential job loss, from under 2% to over 34%:

automation and job loss to 2035_Foresight Alliance

Note, too, the divergent timelines.  The report sees 9 years out at the closer horizon, while pushing forward a further decade – 19 years ahead – to see further impact.  This isn’t happening overnight.

I’m also struck by the wildly skewed impact on different economic strata.  Automation is classist, no matter which scenario bears fruit.  And widespread: “The jobs threatened by automation are among the most ubiquitous jobs in the US workforce.”

Automation and unemployment, different levels for scenarios

This suggests income and wealth inequality are likely to grow, at least when considering the impact of automation.

These findings also point to post-secondary education participating in that widening class division, as university degrees should remain a ticket to higher income – and avoiding the robots.  “With only a few exceptions (accounting clerks, paralegals, etc.) college educated business professionals face minimal risks from job automation across all scenarios.”  What does this mean for educators and campus leaders?  Should we accept this division and our role in it, or organize to shape a different, more egalitarian outcome?

At a meta-level, let me commend the Alliance team for some nice data dashboard work.  Here’s a too-cramped screenshot:

Foresight Alliance dashboard


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Home internet restored after three days; disturbing issues; next steps

We’re back online at home.  After three days offline, Fairpoint finally fixed their problem and ours.  Which is the good news.  Actually, we have good news, bad news, and good/bad news.

The good: around dinner time Monday night our routers flipped from red to green, and we reconnected home, family, and business with the 21st century.

The good/bad news: a Fairpoint technician actually drove to our home.  (I was away, so what follows is based on my wife’s recollection)  He wasn’t there to fix anything, as he explained that the problem wasn’t our house line, and house tech was his speciality.  Instead, he’d been sent to share information and answer questions.

home to Fire Brook

The switch is located where Fire Brook ends on North Branch, they say.

The cause of the outage was actually a problem blade device in a switch located along North Branch Road, the next road west of us and (I guess) along which run internet cables.  This outage impacted many people on the road and nearby, and not just our house.  Those folks apparently complained en masse to this visiting Fairpoint fellow.  Which was his assignment, along with busily visiting people to reassure them of progress.

Sending the technician around to talk with us is very nice of Fairpoint, and unusual (see below), but also weird, because of what else he said.  We’re not sure how much of his comments were official communications.  We have to suppose so.  And this is the bad news.

Apparently “the switch’s blade just plain needed to be replaced,” but workers couldn’t get permission from Fairpoint management.  The technician speculated that the refusal to approve the replacement was because the switch was costly.

Vermont state gov logoAdditionally, the tech thought the state Public Service Board didn’t see internet connection as a priority.  PSB considers phone service urgent, but not the internet, in his view.

If either or both of these are true, they bode ill for broadband access in Vermont.  Either the state or our lone internet provider is blowing us off.

Remember that “us” means a good number of people, including at least several internet-dependent businesses.

The bad news, part 2: we haven’t heard anything from Fairpoint by email, Twitter, or Facebook, where I’ve reached out to them.  There’s no sign of Fairpoint posted to, or reading, the Reddit Vermont board or any relevant FrontPorchForum (a Vermont community email list/BBS hybrid). For an ISP, bringing digital communication to consumers, they seem to shun digital communication.

EDITED TO ADD: Fairpoint called me yesterday (Tuesday).  The representative (Megan) more or less repeated what the technician said, reporting that an Occam blade (example) failed at a “central office” or a remote terminal.  I asked if they could be easily replaced, especially if it’s a device deployed widely throughout the Fairpoint domain; the rep didn’t know.  The rep also doesn’t know if there were other reasons for the delay, but said we should contact… the main help line, which didn’t help us before.  The rep ultimately referred me to her manager; one of them will reconnect with me later on, hopefully.

EDITED TO ADD, 2: That manager called.  A very interesting conversation.  He’s only been in the position a month and a half.  He assured me repeatedly that he is committed to maintaining service, which is good.  He also explained that Fairpoint was struggling to keep up with problems from a storm several weeks ago, which is not good.  He didn’t know why Fairpoint wasn’t responding to digital communication, which is also not good.  The manager’s a technician by background, which reassured me.  He also gave me his number to call, which was a nice gesture.

So, what next?

We reached out to numerous sources, including members of the community, Reddit’s Vermont board, Facebook, FrontPorchForum, and, of course, this blog.  We’ve received a lot of feedback, the supermajority of which expresses strong dislike of and dissatisfaction with Fairpoint (check the Redditors for a sample).  That’s been useful for us emotionally and informationally.

Here’s what we’re considering doing now:

  1. Contacting our state legislators.  I’ve emailed our representative and senator, along with one candidate for this week’s primaries; haven’t heard back yet.
  2. Contacting gubernatorial candidates, since this is an election year.  That’s Sue Minter (Dem) and Phil Scott (GOP).  Let’s see who has a better position on rural broadband
  3. Complaining to the Public Service Board.  I hope they can address the technician’s comments.
  4. Contacting the FCC.
  5. Asking Google for their blazing-fast fiber (Alan’s suggestion).  (Too bad an ex-Googler lost his run for governor this week)
  6. Reconnect with our old community broadband provider.  Short version: they connected the town more than a decade ago, as a co-op.  This success inspired Fairpoint to move in and provide the service for less money, so the co-op suspended itself.  North Branch Networks continues to exist, so we’ll look into reconnecting.
  7. Keeping in touch with that Fairpoint manager.

In short, we’d like to understand what the problem was.  We’d like to determine if Fairpoint and/or the state are actually committed to providing broadband.  We’d like to know how reliable service will be in the future.  We’d like to improve communication.  And we’ll see about NBN as a backup.

Because we’re seriously considering setting up an office in a town with better internet, which would cost a great deal for our little business.  And when our youngest moves away to college, this is giving us a reason to move house away from town, or even Vermont.

Posted in personal, technology | Tagged | 7 Comments

Our next science fiction reading: _Ready Player One_

Ready Player One, alt. coverAfter energetic polling and lobbying, the votes are in for our next near-future science fiction reading.  The winner is…

…Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) (Wikipedia, Amazon, Goodreads).  Vinge’s Rainbows End tied, so I flipped a coin.  (You should all consider Vinge for the next book)

Ready Player One takes place in a near future dystopia.  It’s a plausible and lousy world, one which its inhabitants escape from via an epic computer game.  So the book draws together a bunch of interesting futures (and present) themes, including gaming, VR, inequality, surveillance, and learning

Here’s one blurb:

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenager Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

If you haven’t read Ready Player One, you’re in for a treat.  If you lived through the 1980s, prepare for a nostalgia tidal wave.  If you’re too young for that, get ready for a deep dive into a stratum of American history.  Either way, it’s a fast-paced and seriously geeky trip.

You should be able to find copies pretty easily, especially since Spielberg’s working on a movie version.

I plan on kicking off the reading with a post this Monday.

Happy exploring!  And keep your audio cassette tapes handy.
Cline Ready Player One_website image

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