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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Consolations of Economics – Good News in the Wake of the Financial Crisis by Gerard Lyons (FP: 2014)

I picked this up (cheap) because I believed that I would disagree with the author. I did, but not nearly as much as I thought I would. This wasn’t because I agreed with him though – at least not very much. Written not too long after the financial crisis of 2008 this was very much a positive book looking towards the global recovery that was just beginning to show itself (rather ironically just a week or so ago the UK average monthly wage had just, by a matter of pennies, topped that in 2008). But he wasn’t just blindly optimistic about things. That would’ve made this book very difficult – if not impossible – the read. No, he backed up his ideas with facts and reasonable projections.

The bits I disagreed with were, to my mind, obvious. The author is a believer in the genius of markets – in the idea that all economic and a fair few other problems can be solved by just letting the Market do its thing and that a number of problems are caused by governments in particular meddling where they don’t belong. He did save himself though from being thrown in the nearest recycling bin by admitting more than once that the markets are far from perfect and that governments sometimes need to step in during ‘market corrections’. He also agreed that there are several areas where markets do not give the best outcome – infrastructure projects for instance or defence. Personally I would add schools, hospitals, prisons and utilities like water. He also mentioned, without a single sneer, that things after 2008 would have been a LOT worse if governments around the globe hadn’t stepped in to halt a total banking meltdown and even laid the blame where it belonged – investment bankers and the lack of sufficient regulation and control. So, points for him!

Much more interesting from my point of view was his analysis of the future prospects of Europe, Africa and China. He made a very strong case that the move to the Euro in the EU was far more a political decision that an economic one and that the difficulties in the Eurozone was, largely, of its own making and that countries on the periphery should not have been allowed to join in the way they did (and he praised the UK government for staying out). He was confident for Africa’s future despite everything we see in the News. Africa, he says, will surprise us in the not too distant future. I guess we’ll see. His detailed analysis of China was most intriguing – from their move to a more Capitalistic path to their internal problems and how they’re going to be solved. He was in the camp of ‘no future conflict’ with the US, either military or economic which has turned out to be more of a miss than a hit I think but he certainly didn’t see anyone like Trump coming or America’s slow slide into something akin to isolationism. Interestingly he expressed some disappointment with India which should be an economic powerhouse with its very large and very young population readily available. All in all a very interesting global analysis indeed.

Overall this wasn’t a bad book at all. A little too much on the Right for my liking but he made good points and may have shifted my appreciation of some subjects which is all to the good. As an introduction to future global economic trends I think this would be a good place to start for anyone new(ish) to economics. It certainly gave me a lot to think about and definitely deepened my appreciation of a subject I’m starting to find endlessly fascinating. 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Larry Tesler: Computer scientist behind cut, copy and paste dies aged 74

From The BBC

20 February 2020

Larry Tesler, an icon of early computing, has died at the age of 74. Mr Tesler started working in Silicon Valley in the early 1960s, at a time when computers were inaccessible to the vast majority of people. It was thanks to his innovations - which included the "cut", "copy" and "paste" commands - that the personal computer became simple to learn and use. Xerox, where Mr Tesler spent part of his career, paid tribute to him. "The inventor of cut/copy & paste, find & replace, and more, was former Xerox researcher Larry Tesler," the company tweeted. "Your workday is easier thanks to his revolutionary ideas." Mr Tesler was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1945, and studied at Stanford University in California.

After graduating, he specialised in user interface design - that is, making computer systems more user-friendly. He worked for a number of major tech firms during his long career. He started at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), before Steve Jobs poached him for Apple, where he spent 17 years and rose to chief scientist. After leaving Apple he set up an education start-up, and worked for brief periods at Amazon and Yahoo. In 2012, he told the BBC of Silicon Valley: "There's almost a rite of passage - after you've made some money, you don't just retire, you spend your time funding other companies. There's a very strong element of excitement, of being able to share what you've learned with the next generation."

Possibly Mr Tesler's most famous innovation, the cut and paste command, was reportedly based on the old method of editing in which people would physically cut portions of printed text and glue them elsewhere. The command was incorporated in Apple's software on the Lisa computer in 1983, and the original Macintosh that was released the following year. One of Mr Tesler's firmest beliefs was that computer systems should stop using "modes", which were common in software design at the time. Modes allow users to switch between functions on software and apps but make computers both time-consuming and complicated. So strong was this belief that Mr Tesler's website was called "nomodes.com", his Twitter handle was "@nomodes", and even his car's registration plate was "No Modes". Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum said Mr Tesler "combined computer science training with a counterculture vision that computers should be for everyone".

[Next to the Undo Button cut & paste has to be my all-time favourite function on the PC. It has saved me SO much time over the past 25+ years. I do hope that there’s a statue somewhere of Mr Tesler – their certainly SHOULD be…. And to the Undo guy/girl whoever they are!! Farewell Mr Tesler. Every time I cut & paste something in future I’ll raise a glass of something to your memory!]

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin (FP: 2008)

England, Winter 1172. The Rose of the World, Rosamund Clifford, is dead – poisoned. The prime suspect is lover’s wife. Her lover is Henry II, King of England. His wife is Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in Christian Europe. If the rumours are true, or even if they are believed by enough people, the country could quickly descend into Civil War. But if Eleanor is innocent there is something far more dangerous abroad than a woman scorned. At the heart of the kingdom are those willing to manipulate the monarchy for their own ends no matter the consequences for the country. But how to get to the bottom of things? Bishop Rowley has just an investigator in mind. Brilliant, incisive, educated, fluent in languages and knowledgeable of the way of the world – plus the mother of his illegitimate daughter. Adelia Aguilar is this and more. University educated in Seville, Italy she is a speaker for the dead, able to their story from the evidence left behind when their spirit left them. Some regard her skills with suspicion (whispering witchcraft), others regard them with distain because of her sex, and a few regard them with fear as she closes in on those who would kill to get their way and silence those who oppose them.

I will be the first to admit that 12th century England is most definitely not my ‘specialist subject’. So I had to let at least some of the historical references fly by me. I suppose that I could have Googled my way through the book checking facts or word usage as they arose but that’s hardly conducive to enjoyment of a novel. Apart from the enormous elephant in the room things seemed, at least on the face of things, reasonable enough to let it slide. My pedant alarm did go off once or twice – not too loudly – but I think it felt somewhat overwhelmed by the central character in the novel to show much more than a muted grumbling. Now (again) I’d be the first to admit that the main character Adelia is excellent, she has enough depth and more than enough humanity and human failings to make her interesting. She’s a good person whose focus is on helping people, making the world a better place and bringing up her infant daughter safely. I liked her – a lot. BUT, oh BUT, the idea that a 12th century woman – even a foreigner – would be a well-respected, university educated, wait for it, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST is SO out their (at least in my ignorant of the period opinion) as to invalidate the whole novel moving it from the historical crime section into the fantasy section. Not only was Adelia a working breathing anachronism in that regard – if that wasn’t bad enough – but she was highly sceptical of all religion (having a working knowledge of Christianity, Judaism and Islam), a Socialist (or at least highly critical of the existing social structure) and a Feminist. In other words she was an early 21st century woman transported to the late 12th century without any apparent conflict or discontinuity. What makes the whole thing worse for me though was that this was a bloody good novel. Characterisation was good down to the level of very secondary characters who had believable backstories and reasonable motivations for their actions, the setting was very well done and was easily visualised throughout, and the pace was good and never lagged or raced ahead of the narrative. It was, in essence, very well constructed and equally well executed. I honestly really enjoyed it – despite the GLARING anachronism at its very heart. If it had taken place in the 20th century I would have heaped nothing but praise on this book. However, I just can’t get over the central character being so out of place. If, in later novels, it turns out that Adelia is an amnesic time-traveller that would make PERFECT sense and would make me very happy. Recommended – kind of!   

Monday, February 17, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Darwin’s Armada – Four Voyages to the Southern Oceans and Their Battle for the Theory of Evolution by Iain McCalman (FP: 2009)

It was not an idea that struck him out of the blue out of a clear sky. On the contrary it was a long, long time coming. When the young Charles Darwin managed to get himself assigned to the HMS Beagle and its mission to map the Sothern Ocean the prevailing thought was that each species on earth was a special creation of God and though some local adaptation was possible the transmutation of species was not. Each species had been created in its place and time as part of a divine plan. So it was a shame that anomalies and unanswerable questions had steadily been accumulating. One thing was almost universally accepted now – that the Earth was more likely to be millions of years old that the previously accepted six thousand. There was enough time for oceans to fall and mountains to rise and for the land itself to be transformed. Darwin brought back (or often sent back) copious notes, observations and specimens from across the globe to investigate further on his return to England. But he was not the last to do so. Other intrepid explorers of the world – geological, geographical and natural – followed in his footsteps, added pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of life, sent specimens home (including to Darwin himself) and thought about what they had seen with their own eyes. Often they were the first European to have set foot on an island or to have observed the rituals of primitive peoples. Alfred Wallace in particular spent 8 long years in South-East Asia and in the Amazon basin cataloguing, observing and living in close contact with the natives of those far off lands. In the early 1850’s he wrote to Darwin expressing the ideas so close to his own that Darwin thought that his years of vacillation on the topic had undone him and that he could not, in all conscience, claim a prime place in the Evolutionary debate. His friends Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker (all three pallbearers at Darwin’s funeral) persuaded him otherwise and encouraged him to publish Origin of Species giving due credit to the work of Wallace. All four of the voyagers, each in their own way, contributed to getting Natural Selection accepted in the Victorian scientific establishment somewhat quicker than Darwin had anticipated. A revolution in human thought had taken place.

This was generally an excellent book focusing on the foundational voyages of Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Wallace as each encountered, assimilated and speculated on what each had experienced away from the confines of Europe and how those encounters had convinced each of them that Evolution by Natural Selection was a scientific fact. The only wobble (for me) was the section on Huxley’s voyage to Australia which seemed concentrate on his love life and depressive tendencies rather than any scientific discoveries. Apart from Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle my favourite passages concerned the adventures of Alfred Wallace in South-East Asia and the Amazon. I have added his published book on the subject to my Wish List. It sounds amazing. If you’ve ever wondered where the ideas put forward in Origin of Species came from this entertaining work of popular science will answer many of your questions. Recommended. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Astronomers want public funds for intelligent life search

By Pallab Ghosh for BBC News

15 February 2020

The head of one of the US's national observatories says the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe needs to be taken more seriously. Dr Anthony Beasley told the BBC that there should be greater government support for a field that has been shunned by government research funders for decades. His backing for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti) marks a sea change in attitudes to a field regarded until recently as fringe science. Dr Beasley made his comments at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. The director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville in Virginia said that it was now "time for Seti to come in from the cold and be properly integrated to all other areas of astronomy".

Dr Beasley's comments come as one of the private sector funders of Seti research announced that the Very Large Array (VLA) observatory in New Mexico would be joining the effort to detect signs of intelligent life on other worlds. The VLA is a multi-antenna observatory and home to what is regarded as one of the best-equipped telescopes in the world. According to Dr Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley's Seti Research Centre, the incorporation of the VLA would increase the chances of finding intelligent life by "10- or even 100-fold". "We are now set for the most comprehensive all-sky survey [for extra-terrestrial intelligence] that has ever been accomplished," he told the BBC. Equally important, according to Dr Siemion, is the credibility that the VLA's involvement brings to the field. "We would like to see Seti transformed from a small cabal of scientists and engineers in California, isolated from academia to one that is as much an integral part of astronomy and astrophysics as any other field of inquiry." Breakthrough Listen is a privately funded project to search for intelligent extra-terrestrial communications throughout the universe. The 10-year project began in 2016, funded by the billionaire Yuri Milner to the tune of $100m (£77m).

The UK's Astronomer Royal, Professor Lord Rees, is the chair of the organisation's international advisory group. He told the BBC that, given that the multi-billion pound Large Hadron Collider had not yet achieved its aim of finding sub-atomic particles beyond the current theory of physics, governments should consider modest funding of a few million pounds for Seti. "I'd feel far more confident arguing the case for Seti than for a particle accelerator," he said. "Seti searches are surely worthwhile, despite the heavy odds against success, because the stakes are so high". Nasa once funded the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence to the tune of $10m a year. But the funding was scrapped in 1993 following the introduction of legislation by Senator Richard Bryan, who believed it to be a waste of money. "This hopefully will be the end to the Martian hunting season at the taxpayer's expense," he said at the time. There has been no significant public funding for Seti in the US or anywhere else in the world since, although so-called astrobiology searches for evidence of simple organisms from the chemical signatures in the atmosphere's of other worlds receives increasing backing. At the time, the first few planets orbiting distant stars were discovered, but it was not known if this was the norm. We now know that it is - nearly 4,000 have been discovered to date. It is this development, according to Dr Siemion, that has persuaded many respected scientists that the search for intelligent life on other worlds should be taken more seriously. "Ever since human beings have looked up at the night sky and wondered 'is there anyone out there?' We now have the capacity to answer that question, and perhaps to make a discovery that would rank as the most profound scientific discoveries in the history of humanity".

[It’s amazing just how little is being spent on SETI right now. A truly TINY amount of money compared to other projects. As has been shown with finding planets – the more you look the more you find. Answering one of THE fundamental questions might be a few million dollars away. The odds might be long, although I for one don’t think the odds are THAT long as to make it not worth our while looking, but finding evidence of life elsewhere would essentially change EVERYTHING. Worth a few hundred mill off the top I think…..]

"It is hard to picture a billion, but perhaps it is easier to conceive of it in terms of time. There are sixty seconds in one minute; 3,600 seconds in an hour. To reach a million seconds would take twelves days; to reach one billion seconds takes thirty-two years."

Gerard Lyons, The Consolations of Economics (2014)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Just Finished Reading: War Against the Taliban – Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan by Sandy Gall (FP: 2012)

It is no great surprise – to those who actually know their history – that Afghanistan has the well-deserved label of the Graveyard of Empires. Alexander tried to occupy the country and failed as did the British (3 times) and the Russians before the Americans and British (again) plus other allies tried again after the attacks on 9/11. Honestly the British at least should have known better.

Whilst comparatively easy to attack and invade it’s almost impossible to hold Afghanistan for very long with anything like acceptable casualties (on either side). For one thing the terrain is unforgiving both on man and machine. The roads are often of questionable quality and always open to ambush. The Afghans themselves are a deeply tribal people with allegiances going back generations and vendettas going back just as far. Kill one of them and a hundred others will dedicate every waking minute to gaining revenge no matter the cost. After hundreds of years of combat against the major powers of each era the Afghans have developed a belief that they cannot ultimately be beaten before the price in blood of the invaders is too high to sustain.

But these are not the only reasons that the latest adventure in Afghanistan has been doomed to failure from the very start. A good place to start is the impossibility of nation building where nationhood does not exist. Despite the fact that many Afghans would identify as such their first and only true allegiance is to their family and their tribe. Welding a deeply tribal culture into a more modern nationalist one will take many more years than the West are prepared to take – even if such a thing is possible. Then there is the drug trade and the corruption it fosters in an area already known for its patronage and nepotism. Pouring billions of dollars into the country to build roads and institutions only made a bad situation worse. But by far the biggest problem – even bigger than cultural ignorance – is Pakistan. Despite the denials it eventually became clear that Taliban fighters were treating northern Pakistan as a safe haven and that not only were they allowed to do so but that Pakistani Intelligence armed and trained many of the Taliban that would eventually attack Allied troops in Afghanistan. The reasons are deep and often complex but the evidence for Pakistan’s collusion is overwhelming. What could, or will, be done about this fact is an even more difficult question to answer.

The author is both incredibly knowledgeable and informed about the region and has been their repeatedly since the early 1970’s and has developed relationships with some of the key players on all sides in that time. His access to members of Pakistan’s High Command, Allied commanders and members of Taliban units was astonishing. Such access not enabled him to bring out the strategic aspects of the conflict so that whatever was being discussed was always in the context of wider regional and global concerns. The diversion into Iraq was instrumental in siphoning off vast quantities of men and material at a vital time in the Afghan conflict at best delaying any final resolution and quite possibly derailing the whole campaign. Only much later – what the war was almost lost – did resources start to flow back into Afghanistan to stave off total defeat.

This is a must read for anyone trying to wrap their heads around what on earth is happening in this most tragic place. You get a real sense of what’s happening on the ground both from the grunts point of view as well as normal Afghan civilians who just want the killing to stop and the foreigners to leave. Highly recommended and much more to come.     

Monday, February 10, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (FP: 2017)

This was a total impulse buy that has been sitting in a pile of books since the day I picked it up in my local franchise bookstore. I think it was being much talked about and I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I think that I knew I’d have issues with some of the directions it was coming from but do feel the need to not only expand my knowledge of subjects but also to challenge myself and see where my boundaries are.

Honestly the first 50-60 pages gave me a headache I was frowning so much. I found the authors style unfocused and chaotic as if she was having a stream of consciousness event and just wanted to get her thoughts down on paper without much in the way of editing or structure. Her examples, I thought, were poorly chosen and poorly presented. If this is the rest of the book, I thought, it was in real danger of being DNF’d. But at some point either the author improved her style or I simply got used to it – probably a bit of both. By the end of the book, although I still didn’t agree with her premise, at least I know where she was coming from and had a much greater appreciation of the basis for her argument. However, the more I started to understand her argument the more I started to see a fundamental flaw in it (at least from my point of view). Now I almost said from my ‘white privileged male’ point of view because that is an essential part of her argument that white people are privileged by the very fact that they’re born white. I have long rejected the idea of white privilege but now, thanks to this book, have a more nuanced understanding of what white privilege is – it’s the fact that white people in a white culture don’t have to contend with everyday racism, something which non-white people (a phrase the author doesn’t like) often do have to deal with. This idea of ‘privilege’ I can get my head around. The author did make an interesting distinction between prejudice and racism which, I think, should have pointed her towards a deeper understanding of the issue. She said that anyone can be prejudiced but that only white people can be racist because they have the power – however slight – to weaponise their prejudice to disadvantage anyone who doesn’t fit their racial ideals. This I think is the nub of the issue and something which the author should not have dismissed as easily as she did – that racism isn’t actually about race, it’s about power in the same was that sexism isn’t about gender, ultimately it too is about power.

If you understand the power relations in any group or culture you’ll know immediately who will be discriminated against and who will have a much easier journey through life. Historically in Europe and the US those in power have been and generally still are white men. It follows naturally that women and non-whites will be disadvantaged whenever those in power decide to do so. However, it doesn’t naturally follow that the white men in power will simply benefit other white men because of their skin colour or gender. The last thing those in power want to do is to share power with anyone else and they most certainly don’t want their power diluted in any way. A well-worn method of holding on to power is to divide your enemies and get them fighting amongst themselves whilst the powerful watch in wry amusement. This is how the few in power keep the vast numbers of the powerless from moving into their neighbourhood, going to their schools or marrying their daughters. Unfortunately the ‘divide and rule’ element of racism is another facet of the problem that the author either dismisses or minimises. Let me be very clear, I am neither saying that racism does not exist not am I minimising the impact on those in its crosshairs (sometimes literally). What I am saying is that racism (and sexism) are manifestations of something larger which the author almost, but not quite, recognises on several occasions. By half way through this book my headache had passed and I’d stopped frowning so much. At that point I had simply stopped rejecting her overall argument and had, instead, started to analyse it and find its faults. She almost had it right and I can see why she missed it (at least in my opinion).

It’s always interesting to be presented with something that you need to struggle with and which can challenge your world view. For me this book definitely achieved that end – after somewhat of a rocky start. The author eventually made some good arguments that I had to think through to see where they sat in relation to my existing beliefs about the world and, because of that, I believe that my world view has been improved. Definitely worth reading if only to see things from another perspective. 

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Self-driving delivery van ditches 'human controls'

From The BBC

6 February 2020

The first self-driving vehicle designed without basic human controls such as steering wheels, pedals or side view mirrors has been granted permission to test on US roads. Nuro, the company behind the design, makes autonomous delivery vans. The vehicle is Nuro's second generation of its vehicles, which it is calling R2 and will be tested in Houston, Texas. This is the first exemption to a rule requiring vehicles to have controls for human operators. Most of the rules for testing vehicles require features that allow a driver to safely take control of them. But in a statement, the US transport secretary Elaine Chao said given that the vehicle's top speed is capped at 25mph, these requirements "no longer make sense". The Department of Transportation (DoT) will also be enforcing greater oversight of the testing. It will require Nuro to report information about the operation of the R2 and reach out to the communities where the vehicle will be tested. In a blog post, Nuro's co-founder Dave Ferguson said the decision was a "milestone for the industry". "Moving forward, we must modernize the existing regulations that never envisioned a vehicle without a driver or occupants, and everyone in the industry must work to ensure self-driving technology is tested and deployed in the safest possible vehicles," he wrote. General Motors has also requested an exemption to test its self-driving Chevy Bolt. DoT has not yet announced its decision for the firm's request. The Bolt does however have a higher top speed than Nuro's R2 vehicle.

Nuro's vehicles are designed to operate without a driver or passengers in them. In its R2 design, the company removed the side view mirrors and windscreens. It will also keep the rear view camera running at all times. This is not permitted without an exemption from the DoT, as the camera could distract human drivers. The vehicle has an egg-shaped frame that is smaller than most cars in the US. It also has two temperature-controlled compartments for deliveries. Doors raise up to reveal the items once a code has been entered by the recipient. The R2 uses radar, thermal imaging and 360-degree cameras to direct its movement. Nuro has announced the R2 will deliver pizza for Domino's Pizza, groceries from supermarket chain Kroger and goods for Walmart, during its Huston trial. During the testing of its initial R1 design, the firm made deliveries for Kroger in Scottsdale, Arizona. Nuro was founded by two former Google engineers and it has funding from Japanese firm Softbank.

[Well, if any of your kid’s dream of becoming delivery drivers I think you need to have ‘the talk’ with them before they find their long term aspirations shattered by a sliver of silicon. Inevitable I guess though. Once they iron out the wrinkles of autonomous vehicles they’ll be everywhere. What a strange world we are building……]

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (FP: 2011)

OK, this is going to be a somewhat different review so bear with me. I saw the trailer for the movie of Ready Player One (RPO) and couldn’t help being interested. As a Gamer since around 1974 I’ve always been disappointed in how the Game/Virtual world was portrayed on screen. The Spielberg movie delivered this IN SPADES so I was more than happy with the on-line visuals. The off-line IRL scenes I was less happy with but I’ll discuss all of that when I finally get around to reviewing the movie.

Now I’ve seen RPO the Movie about 4-5 times now and, because of its Easter Egg nature am always picking up on new things. Inevitably the movie was, for me, the story despite the fact that I was holding the book in my hand. This was the first problem I had. Although I know, and have tried the educate others on the fact, that movies and books exist in very different media and can’t be reasonably or easily compared with each other the movie version in my head kept clashing with the written version in my hand and proved to be a serious impediment to me getting involved with the book. The problem was that I was being constantly drawn out of the narrative by thoughts of “well THAT’S different from the Movie!” over and over again. I mean, apart from the characters, some set pieces and the overall structure the two media are very different indeed. SPOILERS AHEAD: The first thing that jarred was the fact that, in the book, Wade was in High School. Not only of High School age but actually IN High School – indeed this fact was important to the plot. A huge difference I thought was that the whole novel was pretty much exclusively from Wade’s point of view. Although the other members of the ‘High Five’ took part in Halliday’s competition (to discover the hidden Easter Egg and take control of the company that ran the MASSIVE game called Oasis) they did so mostly separately with very little interaction with or help from the others. There was no ‘resistance’ and Art3mis most definitely wasn’t its leader. IOI, the competing software company, was the bad guy but turned out to be even more ruthless in the book than in the film where, to be honest, they were kind of incompetent and comical rather than frightening.

The two things that shocked me in the book – as opposed to the movie which in many respects was a toned down version of Cline’s vision – where the details about HOW Wade’s parents died. We only learnt that they had died in the movie (during the early period of chaos after an environmental and economic collapse) without any detail. The detail provided in the book would have made the movie both darker and certainly less child friendly. The world Cline created was MUCH darker than the typical Spielberg trope. Cline’s world is unforgiving, dangerous and pretty much without hope – if you’re stuck at the bottom of the heap that is. There are glimpse of the rich or more readily those who are ‘getting by’ but life is precarious at best for the majority of people. But I did think from time to time that although the author created this dark backdrop he didn’t quite know what to do with it. He was certainly no William Gibson in this regard. The second thing that really surprised me was that one of the High Five DIED in the real world so never made it to the final gate (so no completely soppy happy ending in the book – although there is a happy ending of sorts).

Overall the narrative arc is the same – contest, challenges, keys, IOI opposition and so on. The bombing of the ‘Stacks’ happens as does the shoot out in the nightclub but both are significantly different in the movie. Ogden Morris is far more central in the book but he doesn’t play the robotic butler. There’s no cool car chases or Shining scene (one of my favourite bits of the movie) and the book challenges are, to be honest, moderately naff and just wouldn’t have translated well to the large screen. I could go on with comparisons but I won’t. Needless to say except for the core idea, the names of the protagonists and a few set-pieces the movie and the book are worlds apart. But that’s not always a bad thing by any stretch. It was actually interesting reading the book after the film to see where the ideas came from. I could understand why Spielberg ran with some ideas and dropped others. I could see why he amped up the romance between Wade and Art3mis as well as the friendship between the members of the High Five (who actually lived all across the globe and not in the same city) and why he personified IOI more in the shape of Sorrento. RPO certainly wasn’t a bad book. I can see why it became so popular. I loved the endless references to pop culture and especially gaming culture throughout and smiled/laughed more than once as evoked memories from the 70’s and 80’s popped and fizzed in my head. This is a fun read for anyone who lived through that time and who had spent far too many hours and far too many coins in arcades playing the latest game until you could beat them completely on autopilot. Recommended to all Geeks out there – expect you’ve probably already read it by now.