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REVIEW: "Virtually Eliminated", Jefferson Scott

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKVRTELM.RVW 20000416 Virtually Eliminated , Jefferson Scott, 1996, 0-88070-885-9, U$9.99 %A Jefferson Scott %C P. O. Box 1720, Sisters, OR 97759 %D
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 21, 2000
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      BKVRTELM.RVW 20000416

      "Virtually Eliminated", Jefferson Scott, 1996, 0-88070-885-9, U$9.99
      %A Jefferson Scott
      %C P. O. Box 1720, Sisters, OR 97759
      %D 1996
      %G 0-88070-885-9
      %I Questar Publishers/Multnomah
      %O U$9.99 Fax: 541-549-0260 information@...
      %P 333 p.
      %T "Virtually Eliminated" (virtu@...)

      C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams wrote fantasy that stands with the
      best. George MacDonald did amazing stuff in both nuance and range. I
      don't think Chesterton and Sayers authored a bad mystery between them.
      And there is no reason for a Christian not to be able to deal with
      computers: both Pascal and Babbage left writings indicating that their
      theological studies contributed to the design of their calculating
      machines.

      But I still cringed when I saw the banner at the top of the book
      jacket: "Can one man of faith stop a killer who stalks cyberspace."

      Giving credit where credit is due, Scott does recognize that law
      enforcement personnel are woefully behind the technological curve in
      many ways. He even has a fair idea of why this is so. Unusually, for
      a story about erased identity, the author realizes that the truth is
      fairly easy to determine by recourse to hardcopy records. I also have
      to fully agree that the behaviour of a great many service workers
      justifies the assumption that a significant number of them could be
      replaced by machines without any loss of humanity.

      However, you don't have to read very far through the book to see that
      the author has learned most of what he knows about technology from
      William Gibson and Steven Levy. A lot of his imagery, some of his
      jargon, and even a product or two are lifted from Gibson's works.
      Gibson is an excellent writer, but we all know that he wrote his first
      four books on a typewriter.

      The book is set in the future, a very indeterminate future for about
      the first third of the text. The reader tries to reconcile vague
      allusions to current popular culture (nothing much seems to have
      happened in cultural terms between now and then) plus mentions of the
      colonies on Mars and Venus. We eventually find out that we're talking
      about 2005.

      The plot revolves around the aforementioned killer. He (literally)
      fries people with "random power spikes." Now of the various power
      problems that can occur; failures, brownouts, over-voltages, surges,
      and spikes; spikes are possibly the most corrupting to data, but the
      least dangerous to hardware. (And thus, by extension, to users.) The
      reason for this is fairly simple. Spikes can reach high voltages.
      They can also bypass the protection of fuses and many simple types of
      surge protectors. The reason that spikes can get through to flip bits
      in memory is that they are transient. Being of such short duration,
      they don't have the power to blow fuses. Since they can't even blow
      fuses, they certainly wouldn't be able to charbroil a user. (In fact,
      modern power supplies deal with spikes rather effectively these days.
      But we'll let that go.)

      Even if a spike could get through with enough power to do any damage,
      the ability to hurt the user would be very hardware dependent. But,
      given the virtual reality environment that the book talks about, the
      bandwidth requirements would seem to favour fibre optics over copper
      wire. (This fact is later confirmed in the book.) Plastic or glass
      fibre just does not carry current worth a darn. A surge protector is,
      in essence, something like a fuse. If a protector takes a big enough
      hit to stop the surge protector from working, the damage breaks the
      circuit. Yet a surge protector on a phone line blows and the data
      stream continues as if nothing had happened. Given that nobody has
      ever been killed by a "random power spike," at least not directly,
      having several happen in a year would definitely be noticed. And
      finally, if our hero suspects that somebody is sending spikes through
      VR gear headsets, why doesn't he back down to viewing through a
      terminal? (Or, better yet, stick to the command line. As any techie
      knows, GUIs are fun and fast, but to really debug something you have
      to go to the raw data.)

      It is implied in the book that GlobeNet is bigger and better than the
      Internet. However, it seems to be more of a portal than the amalgam
      of access, communications channel, and server pool that is the current
      Internet. (I rather suspect that Scott has been an AOL user at some
      point.) In one scene we are presented with a very clear single point
      of failure in the mail system, which is anathema to net design. The
      technology is based on gopher, which, even at the time the book was
      written, was already fading into obscurity and disuse. Whereas an
      AltaVista search will currently return results in seconds, in the more
      advanced GlobeNet ten minutes is not sufficient. Utility software can
      be used once: nobody keeps or uses copies of it. GlobeNet seems to
      lack robustness: if you *could* cut the West Coast off from the rest
      of North America, even the current Internet would have no trouble in
      re-routing traffic around the world the other way. The lack of
      familiarity goes deeper than that, though: our technical genius (who
      is bad at logic) ties up the house phone line when he's on the net
      (even though almost every household in our future world has more than
      one phone line), has no backup access provider, and gets so little
      email that he's never seen a threatening message.

      What else? Telephone cable room security is more lax in the United
      States than it is in other countries, but it would be unusual for a
      tech company to have a phone room in the mess described in the book.
      GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite constellations are not in
      geosynchronous orbit. Cell phones can't call long distance: a few can
      call each other without going through the PSTN, but the range is
      pretty limited. And, speaking of the Public Switched Telephone
      Network, a single cable does not link east and west North America.
      Even if it did, how could you cut off California without cutting off
      Oregon, too?

      Paranoia about federal government agencies is one thing, but to
      believe that the FBI would, with the connivance of local police,
      kidnap a nine-year-old boy in order to bait a trap that could just as
      easily be laid by anyone with a net hookup is a bit much.

      A strong sub-plot in the book is that of net addiction. Anyone who
      uses the net for any length of time is drawn deeper and deeper into
      its evil embrace, lured into the world of pedophiles and
      pornographers, with the line between reality and fantasy blurring
      until, eventually and inevitably, the user disappears into the
      bitstream. (I suppose I should be happy that at least he admits
      Canada is real. The US-centrism that motivates many of the characters
      may leave non-American readers a bit bewildered.)

      The virtual reality scenarios and imagery have nothing to do with
      technology, and so are generally irrelevant, with two exceptions. At
      numerous times various characters feel themselves "being watched" by
      the killer. While there are a number of ways to explain this
      phenomenon in real life, in the computer world it simply wouldn't
      arise. Read-only is read-only, and feeling someone breathing down
      your bitstream relies on more psychic ability than I'm willing to
      credit. The other point relates to security software, and how it is
      portrayed. It gets beat up, tied up, blown up, and generally bashed
      about, in visual terms. In reality, security software either works or
      it doesn't. If it does, it can't get modified, embarrassed, or
      mocked. Even if it doesn't work, the clever security breaker
      (something of an oxymoron, I'll admit) doesn't waste time and
      opportunity by making a big production out of the accomplishment.

      And what of the faith? Well, that seems to be pretty irrelevant, too.
      Every once in a while somebody prays, but it doesn't seem to be
      demonstrably effective. Characterizations are very thin. Women are
      weak, ineffectual, and don't like pets. Non-Christians are weak,
      stupid, get ... oh, I can hardly bear to say it ... get *divorced*,
      and even ... copulate! To accomplish anything the hero has to turn to
      anger and idolatry. (Having admitted his idolatry and rejected it, he
      returns to the practice, convincing himself that this is God's plan.)
      Oh, and if it doesn't involve the Crucifixion, it's a morality play,
      not a Passion play.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 2000 BKVRTELM.RVW 20000416

      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... rslade@... slade@... p1@...
      It's been lovely, but I have to scream now
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev or http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade
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