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Weekly Review #92: Megalomaniac computer programs and Cheryl Strayed’s journey

Not much online this week due to being stranded in the Galapagos, but that means I read a lot!

Daemon

The standout was undoubtedly Daniel Suarez’s Daemon series (Daemon and Freedom(TM)). This came highly recommended by my programmer friends, and it didn’t skimp one bit! I haven’t had this much fun reading since a Crichton novel.

Daemon is essentially Jurassic Park with computers. A millionaire computer scientist CTO dies and leaves behind a daemon computer program that reacts to real world events. So it might read on an RSS feed certain real world news, and in response, trigger an automated phone call to specific people and incentivize them to do things. Or it might lock down a house, frame someone using secret data, or otherwise twist the Internet to its nefarious means.

That’s exactly what the Daemon does – crashing stock markets towards it’s own goal, giving nerdy hackers digital superpowers and unlimited cash, telling corrupt reports where to be and what to report on – all things a computer could plausibly do. That’s what makes Daemon so electrifying – it’s far more realistic than cloning dinosaurs.

And oh, but do things get spicy. It’s weapons of choice are automated cars hooked up to the internet than hone in on infrared humans, which makes them impervious to anything less than bazooka rounds. Oh, and there’s also luxury motorcycles covered in razor sharp swords and laser blinding boxes, so they blind you and then cut you to pieces. All built by unwitting humans who don’t ask questions since they’re paid handsomely for their efforts.

The first book is classic technothriller, and the second is a bit more nuanced, anti-corporate philosophical far. Both are completely worth the read! (Though I must warn, they do read like a hyped up twentysomething programmer’s wet dream sometimes)

Cheryl Strayed

I also read both of Cheryl Strayed’s works – Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Both are essentially memoirs of her life, but TBT is told through an advice column, while Wild is told through her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (Rocky mountains, from Mexico to Canada). She’s had a helluva rough life (absent father, dead mother, heroin addiction, divorce, impoverished upbringing), and she’s a great writer, so somehow these stand out from most ‘oh my good listen to how hard my life was’ memoir fare.

It also lend her advice a certain gravity. Some writer would write in talking about truly terrible situations, and she would immediately respond with something equally terrible or analogously so from her own life, and offer how she dealt with it. And even when she had nothing to compare with (like a dead son) she would offer an exceptionally nuanced and compassionate response offering her take.

She says all her letters fall into two camps – people who are genuinely lost, and people who know what they must do but shirk away from it. Interesting to see such a pattern.

Wild was a little more typical, but a more linear look at her life and the loss of her mother. I like Cheryl and I think she’s spunky, so I enjoyed hearing about her unique life experience, especially being a solo woman hiker, but maybe it’s not for all. I see parallels between her, the Eat Pray Love woman, and Elle Luna, but Cheryl is probably my favorite of the bunch.

It all makes me wonder – must one experience terrible emotions to make great art? Could Strayed give advice that rang true without having lived through terror and squalor? Would anybody care about her hike if her mom didn’t die? It seems unlikely, and yet that’s so terrible, to have suffered for her art. Then again, what is a life if not lived colorfully? I just feel bad for her…