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.

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.

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

I’ve been reading Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series since the beginning and have found it quite charming. The latest installment, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive is no exception.

As always, the mysteries are minor, and the character development scant, but despite that, I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with Mma Ramotswe, Charlie the hapless apprentice, and the man for whom this volume is titled, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. If you’re not already a fan of the series, this book won’t convert you; if you are, you’ll enjoy it.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I wrote about some of the great events at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange back in April. But there were some other, more mundane, benefits of attending, too. One of them was the “TLE Bookstore”, which had a selection of technical and leadership titles available for the effort of filling out a paper form — a far easier process than our usual internal book-buying system. So, naturally, I picked out a lot of books, including the one I just finished, Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Goldsmith is an executive coach; he deals with people whose salaries have a zero or two more than mine. But that doesn’t make his ideas and advice inapplicable to me — far from it.

The McGuffin here is his list of 20 “transactional flaws” that one person can commit against others. I’m happy to report that I am not guilty of all twenty flaws, but I do see a few of them in myself, including #2 (adding too much value) and #16 (not listening).

Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t just help you identify flaws — he offers suggestions for ways to combat them, especially apologizing and thanking. And he also strongly suggests that you advertise your intention to change, and find a way of really measuring how you do (or don’t) change your behavior. He also points out that you only need to change those behaviors which cause problems with other people (so I’m safe in not working on my messy files at work!).

I will be returning to this book in the New Year and developing an action plan to obviate at least some of my flaws. Recommended.