The Victorian Internet

As 2007 lurches to a close, it seems only appropriate to review The Victorian Internet, a book which hearkens to the past in two ways — most obviously, by talking about a significant technological revolution in the 19th Century, but also from its own time, very late in the 20th Century, before the dot-com bubble burst.

Tom Standage describes the birth and explosive spread of the telegraph network, the first technology to allow information to travel long distances faster than it could be physically carried. He begins with the optical telegraph in France, then moves on to the electric telegraph. The book doesn’t get very deep in the technology, but concentrates on the social effects, many of which were repeated 150 years later with the Internet (and some of which are occurring yet again with Web 2.0 and social networking — his description of the informal chatter of telegraph operators is very similar to what’s happening on Twitter right this instant).

Standage ends his story with the death of Morse (Samuel Morse, not the code, which is alive and well, even if it’s no longer a requirement for a ham license) — the telephone was poised to take over much of the telegraphy business at that point (almost anything which didn’t require written records), and chronicling a downward spiral is no fun.

It’s a short book, a bit dated, but still a good read.

Saint Clare Marlborough 2006 Sauvignon Blanc

Recently, I’ve been putting my wine notes on Cork’d. But I made a mistake with tonight’s wine and forgot to tell the system whether I was entering it to review, to add to my “cellar”, or to add to my wishlist — and then when I tried to fix the problem, it complained that the wine was already in the system but couldn’t find it. So I’ll review it here…and that means I don’t have to use the compressed 100-point scale, either. Not all bugs are harmful!

At any rate, the wine we had with dinner was Saint Clare Marlborough 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (probably purchased at Costco). Both Diane and I liked it (more than half the bottle vanished); it has a good bit of acidity, a medium finish, and lots of grapefruit notes (with a little kiwifruit mixed in). We had it with a spicy spaghetti sauce and Indian vegetables — it didn’t really hold its own against that competition, but it was still pleasant enough for a cool evening.

One more by Charles Stross: Accelerando

I came to Accelerando with a false hope, one I’ll disabuse you of right away. The back cover blurb from Vernor Vinge made me hope that this book would tell the story of the Singularity Sky Singularity, the one which created the Eschaton. It doesn’t.

And unlike the Eschaton, which is a deus ex machina which mostly stays offstage, the transcendent results of Accelerando‘s Singularity are very much a presence throughout the novel.

Well, it’s not really a novel. It was originally published as nine short stories in Asimov’s, and it shows — there is a good bit of repetition and reintroduction (though nothing as obtrusive as in Harry Turtledove’s series). So we get to meet our protagonist, Manfred Macx, many times, along with the other members of his dysfunctional family, as they play out their personal drama against the Singularity as it approaches, happens, and leaves them struggling with the results.

And that’s the weakness of the book — humans can’t comprehend the Singularity. Stross tries hard to show it through its effect on the human (and then post-human) characters, but in the end, it’s Just Another Damn Book Of Magical Stuff (sentient business models? I’d settle for sentient business modelers!).

The book was enjoyable — Stross has a nasty sense of humor at times, and I really enjoyed some of the allusions he threw in to other SF — but the last three chapters were effective at making the point that a post-Singularity world would be incomprehensible, by being rather messy themselves.