Tag Archives: rajaniemi

2015: Change, Change We Must

2015 was a year of very high dynamic range, in all possible senses and interpretations. In addition to well-defined highs, there were some definite lows, and significant reflection around the midpoint.

Our daughter kicked the year off with a law school acceptance – and we somewhat stupidly decided to drive home from her celebratory dinner in what would be the first major snow storm of January. She wrapped up her undergrad career with a spectacular graduation that included large and small ceremonies, dinners with friends, and all of the pomp and circumstance you’d expect. Random highlight: the procession to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles” which was a high school band favorite.

After more than 30 years of discussion, gentle handling of basses in various music stores, and watching our son play upright and electric bass in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to McGann’s in Boston, I decided to take formal lessons. Hat tip to Max at So.I.Heard music studio in Millburn, for both having the patience for an (older) adult student as well as finding the right mix of 70s classic rock and Phish songs to stimulate both long- and short-term musical muscle memory. I still suck, but at least I can do more than pluck open strings when I find myself staring at a wall of basses that plead “Play Us”.

Despite horrible ticket lottery luck, and random travel schedules, I was able to see Phish twice at the Mann Center, including one of the best all-time sets I’ve heard them play in a dozen shows. Got shut out of the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” tour despite hand-decorating an envelope, but the Mann twinbill made up for that miss. There is nothing quite like seeing an intense show with old friends and a regular crew for the pre-game. This could become a tradition.

On other other end of the musical spectrum, we lost BB King and Chris Squire. Squire’s death was my personal equivalent of a lifelong Yankee fan experiencing Micky Mantle’s sudden and too-young death. It was the first bookend of music related events that made me realize, yes, my icons are aging, and the windows in which to see them live are closing or have closed. The other happy-but-sad event took place in Vegas, with the Bubba, as we caught one of the last large-arena Rush shows on their (effective) retirement tour. Seeing a band you love with your own kids, singing along as loudly as you are, enjoying the music in the moment, captures the wonder and pageantry and energy of live music in the best way possible. Like our daughter’s graduation, it marked a “last” that will endure in memory.

More personally, we said farewell to my uncle who had encouraged me in my more random engineering pursuits, and who epitomized the “do the right things” school of design. Despite his employer (at the time) insisting that there wasn’t that much value in the idea, he filed a patent for a radio frequency tag device which we recognize on the highways as EZPass. This Thanksgiving, our combined families celebrated the first “reunion turkey tour” in more than twenty years. Turns out we had four bass players at the dinner table. Loudness of all types ensued, and it was a wonderful celebration of the season.

By the time the ball drops on Times Square I will have read close to 50 books, including way too much science fiction and musical history, and a surfeit of trilogies with dystopian or apocalyptic under- and overtones. I do believe, as Neal Stephenson points out in the introduction to “Hieroglyph,” that science fiction drives science forward; it gives us the mechanism and meter to describe the future we wish to create. I got to use that line with Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, when he asked me why we (and by inference, he and the board) were hosting an internal hackathon, and he at least tacitly agreed (my badge still worked the next day). I had reviews of books retweeted or favorited by the relevant authors (Hannu Rajaniemi and Ted Kosmatka, both featured prominently in this year’s reading list). I learned quite a bit about the Grateful Dead, and relived some of my fascination with KISS (which introduced me to the wonders of live music, which of course fueled so much of this summer’s ups and downs).

So 2015 had its moments, good and bad, like all years. It brought changes in things to anticipate and appreciate; it reinforced the value of family and friends; it made me consider that change is good if it creates new opportunity and doesn’t forget, forgo or eclipse the path to its development.

2016 is going to be an interesting year, for all values of “interesting”.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Fractal Prince”

Warning: mild spoiler alert, but nothing that will reveal the actual quantum of goodness that is Rajaniemi’s second novel in the Jean LeFlambeur series.

I read the first book – “The Quantum Thief” – based on Rajaniemi’s nomination for a “Best New Author” award. The accolades heaped on that book barely dent the surface of its sequel. Each of his books introduces hard scientific and computer sciences concepts that are central to the story, just far-fetched enough to be difficult to imagine today but fair extrapolations of current scenarios. Whether it is the intense, multi-layered privacy of gevulot in “The Quantum Thief” that makes Downtown Abbey appear medieval in social complexity or the seals that reduce to nano scale firewalls, Rajaniemi starts with a just-creepy-enough foundation. The mark of a great book, for me, is if I find myself still mulling on its themes weeks after reaching the last page.

Three weeks, later, I’m still thinking about this one. He explores what it means to be human, not on a moral or physiological scale, but on a physical one. Are we primarily quantum or classical physics creatures? Do we give ourselves to the many-worlds or the open-ended possibilities of quantum physics, or the strictly procedural and well-known classical model? The dialectic is that of two views of science and faith, but with the roles reversed such that faith rides on the horse of harder science. “Fractal Prince” also convolves genres better than Robert Moog’s ring modulator: it’s Ocean’s Eleven and Charles Stross-deep sci-fi crossed with Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” and a noise injection from Frank Herbert’s Dune (axoltl and ghola indirect references) and Antoine de Saint Exuperay’s Little Prince to produces a “what really makes us human” opera.

The storytelling is fast paced and magnificent, and even if the first hundred pages are tough going until you grok the invented vernacular. Rajaniemi uses grammar and even punctuation to wonderful effect – changing a proper name to a lower-cased noun to differentiate a thing and copies of the thing, a self-referential Xerox and xerox copy. Layers upon layers of the story themselves form a set of quantum waves that collapse to your delight as you reach the conclusion. I just pre-ordered the third book in the trilogy, eager to see what LeFlambeur steals from — or gives to — this time.