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Holiday Reading: Diamonds, Aircraft Laboratories and Housewives

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An interesting book I picked up surrounding my interest in nanofactories is The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson.

The book takes place sometime in the near future, and opens with a birthday celebration for Princess Charlotte, whose age isn't explicitly given but from the descriptions is around 4-9 years of age. She is described as being "slight" and "small" but still able to be seen standing up on the hull of a deck of a ship to the people below. (Interesting note: Princess Charlotte of Cambridge was born in 2015, but this book was written in 1995).

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Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, born in 2015 with Kate Middleton and Prince William

In this hypothetical future, "matter compilers" that assemble objects are available for everyone, however, there are gradations of quality that are available to each economic class, and whilst the upper classes enjoy the luxuries of real fabrics and hand-made objects, the lower classes have matter compilers that make everyday objects for them that could be recycled back into the matter compiler (eg, clothes, mattresses, dolls etc).

Currently in our society, 3D printers are widely available, but like "matter compilers" are limited by the source materials and substances. In comparison nanofactories, or molecular assemblers, recreate objects at the atomic scale, and do not need the source materials for the creation of objects which occur at the nano-scale. (ie, tiny nano machines fuse together atoms in a factory setting to create an object, such as a laptop computer). Thus the name of the book is derived from two sources: The Diamond Age implies a succession to previous eras in history such as the Bronze Age or The Stone Age, and The Iron Age when materials were discovered and their production became mass produced in human development. The Diamond Age is derived from the advent of nanotechnology and ability to mass produce carbon diamonds at the nano-scale.

Animation of how a nanofactory or molecular assembler works by NanoRex, a startup from Suwon, South Korea in 2004

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer seems to be a reference to James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and similarly tells the coming of age story of the central female characters whose lives are changed by an interactive book: referred to as a Primer, which can only bond with one reader for life, and also guides the reader, interacts with the reader and is a kind of guardian angel of sorts that transforms the central character into a future leader.

Another interesting central character to the book is a man named Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, who is modeled after Masayoshi Son, Founder of SoftBank, an ethnic Korean man who is educated in the United States and becomes the Founder of several companies, one of which becomes a large conglomerate called Apthorp and is the one to commission the creation of the nanotechnology-based interactive book called the Primer, for his granddaughter, Elizabeth.

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SoftBank and Aldebaran Robotics are major shareholders in the creation of Pepper, the humanoid robot that is said to perceive human emotion.

In this society, classes are referred to as "phyles" which are groups of people that are bonded together via culture. Cultural ties become more important than ethnicity, as the book narrates that it had been found that people align more closely with the environment in which they were raised, rather than via identification with their ethnicity.

(Interesting note: Masayoshi Son adopted Japanese citizenship, despite ethnically being Korean, and abeit being educated in the US). As the product of immigrant parents, I can partly identify with this aspect, as ethnicity-wise I am of Korean heritage, with US citizenship, but have always felt that the UK was my metaphorical homeland. I read somewhere that the average Millennial will move 20 or more times in the history of his or her career, due to the emerging lack of job stability in our contemporary era and so the ideas of global citizenship have become more widespread.

However, in the The Age of Diamonds, artificial intelligence has failed and referred to as "pseudo-intelligence." It was found in this hypothetical future that AI never surpassed human intelligence, and that conscious, intelligent beings cannot be derived from non-biological machines. Although biological beings could be cloned and modified, AI was a failed experiment, and singularity (human+machine) never happened and instead recreation of biological elements via nanotechnology became more prevalent (ie, if you wanted a new arm, a new one could be grown for you, identical to your DNA instead of a mechanised, artificial limb). Although, in this hypothetical society, some members of the lower classes often have guns imprinted into their heads (eg, skull gun), a technology designed for super soldiers that became available on the black market, mainly for working class criminals who exploit this technology to be able to shoot people or commit crimes.

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I sort of imaged the Primer would be an interactive version of Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy that I loved when I was younger. However excerpts of the book begin with a fairy tale surrounding a character based on the reader, and transitions into more mature narratives as the reader gets older. The Primer takes in all the existing environmental sounds and integrates them into the storyline. In another weird ideology, the book has actors called "actroids" in which there exists live actors somewhere who are assigned to be guiding the reader. I wasn't sure how this concept worked, but I imagine it is something akin to an interactive nanny, who interacts with the reader via the book, but has a real-life persona somewhere else in the world. I suppose a bit like if you have an online friend that you talk to a lot but have never seen nor met.

Instead of nanofactories bringing equality to the classes, in this hypothetical society, it drives them further apart, and more class disparity exists, separating the working classes with "equity lords" (ie, people in groups who possess a significant equity share in major companies). Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw (the Masayoshi Son character) is disillusioned with the educational system, and wants to instigate a bit of rebellion into the youth of his era, so he designs the interactive book, the Primer, for his granddaughter Elizabeth, whom he hopes will become a great leader, however the book is stolen and given to Nell, a girl from the lower classes.

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My father's typewriter. His favourite accessory into the 1980s. 

Another book I've been reading is one of my father's travelogues. My aunt happened to have a lot of my father's writings and photographs in her attic and she gave them to me recently as I was looking for photos of my grandmother for a family art project.

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Although there aren't many photos of my father (as he was the one taking the majority of the photographs), I found this one:

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My father visiting Bell Labs in Texas in 1975 as a Major in the Air Force. He's the tall guy on the right. 

My father visited the Bell Laboratories when he was a young man in the mid-late 70s, as a Major in the Air Force, and he documented all his visits. One interesting thing I discovered is that my father likes to refer to himself in the 3rd person as he was writing. I remember as a little kid my father had a favorite typewriter that he would take everywhere (which I now keep as a sculpture piece) and he spent a lot of time writing down his journeys. These books I had never seen before, and it was interesting to discover that my father and I share a similar writing style. (In the last several years, my father has been working on an unfinished science fiction novel about 600-800 pages long.) As Bell was developing their computer technology, my father had been documenting its usage for their helicopters, inventory and computer-aided design.

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What computers looked like in 1975. Bell Laboratory Computers.

My father was born and raised in South Korea, and attended Seoul National University before joining the Air Force, and spent a lot of time in Texas and travelled extensively all over the United States when he was a young man before I was born, but he ultimately chose Northern California to settle down because he said it was the best place to live and raise a family.

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I suppose growing up in California, I never really thought of it as particularly extraordinary. However, it's interesting to see the trajectory of my father's diaspora, and the decisions he made that had brought him to California. Both my parents love sunshine and warm weather, but I ended up being a bit of an oddball, because I would instead always long for snow and rain.

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The third book I've been reading (or rather perusing through as this book is a thousand pages long) this holiday is called The Book Of Household Management by Mrs. Beeton, written in Victorian Era England in 1861, as a guide for women.

Although we have a contemporary pervasive view of housewives as leisurely entities who shop and eat, spend all their time posting on social media and do nothing aside from meddling in the affairs of others, the women in Mrs. Beeton's era of housewives were responsible for the management of all aspects of the household, including the management and investment of finances, chief educator of the children, responsible for the hiring of all staff and their training, and the inspirational leader who envisoned all aspects of living, wrote lengthy letters and excerpts for books and pamphlets that influenced thought in their era and was responsible for every detail, from the decorative to the mundane:

"As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of the house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path."

Women of her era were all a bit like startup founders.