Saturday, January 23, 2010

[books] Feersum Endjinn

Feersum Endjinn Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Feersum Endjinn is a work of science fiction set in a time long after the enlightened humans have left the planet and the people living on earth have some technology, not all of which they understand. There is also the kript, or crypt or cryptosphere: an internet of sorts where AIs are free to roam. Moreover, when "real" people die, they can download into the crypt and continue "living" as a sentient being there. People can crypt in at any time and in some cases, crypt forms can take take control of corporeal entities.

This jumble provides for a great story set in the time when the sun's orbit is going to lead the planet into a space cloud, thereby dimming the sun and bringing on a long ice age (the whole thing is referred to as the Encroachment). The first generation of humans anticipated this and left a device to help the rest survive this - this is the titular Feersum Endjinn. The problem is that the current humans have no idea how to activate this and, as if that wasn't enough, have embroiled themselves in internal petty conflict.

Thats a lot to say without giving away the rest of the plot - one last interesting element: the book is written as 4 different alternating narratives. One of these, a character named Bascule, speaks only in phonetics. Thus, there is a good fourth of the book that reads like this:
Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.

Its interesting, albeit on a different plane, how quickly the human brain adopts to this form of written english. Pretty quickly you will find yourself reading phonetics just as well as you do regular English. Fascinating.

All in all, a good book, recommended if you are into science fiction and want something a bit different.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

How much money should you donate to Haiti relief efforts

As much as possible.

This form of ambiguity makes my engineer brain implode. It can't deal with things like "as much as" (possible is a known quantity). So we need to come up with a reasonable model, plug in some numbers and see what it looks like. Here's a proposal:

Match every non-essential dollar you have spent for a week (its been close to a week after the earthquake) with a dollar for relief.

What does non-essential mean?
It depends (hah, ambiguity is back!) but we can take a stab at the definition. For a person reasonably well off (steady job, income that you actually save or invest), it should be everything except food and housing.
Average food cost is $18/day according to Dept. of Labor statistics - so lets double it and say $30/day. For a week, thats $210. Please note: if you are a Googler or a Facebooker or any of the Valley companies that covers your meals, you can't take this deduction.
Housing is 1/4th your monthly rent/mortgage and similarly utilities are 1/4th of your monthlys. Apply corrections as appropriate if you are supporting a family.

Weekly spending estimate:
Favourite form of spending (credit card / cash / atm card) over a month divided by 4. Round up to nearest 50.

Subtract essentials from spending and you are good to go. Mental math if you keep a close track of your expenses, two minutes checking your banking/credit card online if you don't.

In case you need any more motivation:
The Big Picture: Earthquake, 48 hours later and 6 days later

How to donate: Any way you can.
I personally find it easiest to use Google Checkout or Amazon Payments, but thats because I have an established account and its just easy to click away. I work at Google (full disclosure), so if you are uncomfortable about that connection, please use Amazon.
Amazon Payments (if someone knows the simple URL for this let me know - I cannot unscramble amazon's URL here). You can also just go to Amazon and find the prominent link on their main page.

EDIT: Most companies I know of have donation matching programs; please make sure to look into these to potentially double your gift.

UPDATE: I was reminded of in case people are trying to find people in Haiti.