The Internet of Things: AR and Real World Search

https://i0.wp.com/screenmediadaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/augmented_reality_5.jpgWhen it comes to the future, it is clear that the concept of the “Internet of Things” holds sway. This idea – which states that all objects will someday be identifiable thanks to a virtual representations on the internet – is at the center of a great deal of innovation that drives our modern economy. Be it wearables, wireless, augmented reality, voice or image recognition, that which helps us combine the real with the virtual are on the grow.

And so it’s really no surprise that innovators are looking to take augmented reality to the next level. The fruit of some of this labor is Blippar, a market-leading image-recognition and augmented reality platform. Lately, they have been working on a proof of concept for Google Glass showing that 3-D searches are doable. This sort of technology is already available n the form of apps for smartphones, but a central database is lacking that could any device into a visual search engine.

https://i0.wp.com/inthralld.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Say-Hello-to-Ikeas-2014-Interactive-Catalog-App-4.jpegAs Ambarish Mitra, the head of Blippar stated, AR is already gaining traction among consumers thanks to some of the world’s biggest industrial players recognizing the shift to visually mediated lifestyles. Examples include IKEA’s interactive catalog, Heinz’s AR recipe booklet or Amazon’s recent integration of the Flow AR technology into its primary shopping app. As this trend continues, we will need a Wikipedia-like database for 3-D objects that will be available to us anytime, anywhere.

Social networks and platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Facebook have all driven a cultural shift in the way people exchange information. This takes the form of text updates, instant messaging, and uploaded images. But as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. In short, information absorbed through visual learning has a marked advantage over that which is absorbed through reading and text.

Augmented_Reality_Contact_lensIn fact, a recent NYU study found that people retain close to 80 percent of information they consume through images versus just 10 percent of what they read. If people are able to regularly consume rich content from the real world through our devices, we could learn, retain, and express our ideas and information more effectively. Naturally, there will always be situations where text-based search is the most practical tool, but searches arise from real-world experiences.

Right now, text is the only option available, and oftentimes, people are unable to best describe what they are looking for. But an image-recognition technology that could turn any smartphone, tablet or wearable device into a scanner that could identify any 3-D object would vastly simplify things. Information could be absorbed in a more efficient way, using an object’s features and pulling up information from a rapidly learning engine.

https://i2.wp.com/24reviews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/QWERTY-keyboard.pngFor better or for worse, wearable designs of consumer electronics have come to reflect a new understanding in the past few years. Basically, they have come to be extensions of our senses, much as Marshall McCluhan wrote in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Google Glass is representative of this revolutionary change, a step in the direction of users interacting with the environment around them through technology.

Leading tech companies are already investing time and money into the development of their own AR products, and countless patents and research allocations are being made with every passing year. Facebook’s acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus Rift is the most recent example, but even Samsung received a patent earlier this year for a camera-based augmented reality keyboard that is projected onto the fingers of the user.

https://i2.wp.com/blogs.gartner.com/it-glossary/files/2012/07/internet-of-things-gartner.pngAugmented reality has already proven itself to be a multi-million dollar industry – with 60 million users and around half a billion dollars in global revenues in 2013 alone. It’s expected to exceed $1 billion annually by 2015, and combined with a Google-Glass type device, this AR could eventually allow individuals to build vast libraries of data that will be the foundation for finding any 3-D object in the physical world.

In other words, the Internet of Things will become one step closer, with an evolving database of visual information at the base of it that is becoming ever larger and (in all likelihood) smarter. Oh dear, I sense another Skynet reference coming on! And in the meantime, enjoy this video that showcases Blippar’s vision of what this future of image overlay and recognition will look like:


Source: wired.com, dashboardinsight.com, blippar.com

Frontiers of Neuroscience: Neurohacking and Neuromorphics

neural-network-consciousness-downloading-640x353It is one of the hallmarks of our rapidly accelerating times: looking at the state of technology, how it is increasingly being merged with our biology, and contemplating the ultimate leap of merging mind and machinery. The concept has been popular for many decades now, and with experimental procedures showing promise, neuroscience being used to inspire the next great leap in computing, and the advance of biomedicine and bionics, it seems like just a matter of time before people can “hack” their neurology too.

Take Kevin Tracey, a researcher working for the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., as an example. Back in 1998, he began conducting experiments to show that an interface existed between the immune and nervous system. Building on ten years worth of research, he was able to show how inflammation – which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease – can be fought by administering electrical stimulu, in the right doses, to the vagus nerve cluster.

Brain-ScanIn so doing, he demonstrated that the nervous system was like a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem, like acute inflammation, before it starts, or repair a body after it gets sick.  His work also seemed to indicate that electricity delivered to the vagus nerve in just the right intensity and at precise intervals could reproduce a drug’s therapeutic reaction, but with greater effectiveness, minimal health risks, and at a fraction of the cost of “biologic” pharmaceuticals.

Paul Frenette, a stem-cell researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is another example. After discovering the link between the nervous system and prostate tumors, he and his colleagues created SetPoint –  a startup dedicated to finding ways to manipulate neural input to delay the growth of tumors. These and other efforts are part of the growing field of bioelectronics, where researchers are creating implants that can communicate directly with the nervous system in order to try to fight everything from cancer to the common cold.

human-hippocampus-640x353Impressive as this may seem, bioelectronics are just part of the growing discussion about neurohacking. In addition to the leaps and bounds being made in the field of brain-to-computer interfacing (and brain-to-brain interfacing), that would allow people to control machinery and share thoughts across vast distances, there is also a field of neurosurgery that is seeking to use the miracle material of graphene to solve some of the most challenging issues in their field.

Given graphene’s rather amazing properties, this should not come as much of a surprise. In addition to being incredibly thin, lightweight, and light-sensitive (it’s able to absorb light in both the UV and IR range) graphene also a very high surface area (2630 square meters per gram) which leads to remarkable conductivity. It also has the ability to bind or bioconjugate with various modifier molecules, and hence transform its behavior. 

brainscan_MRIAlready, it is being considered as a possible alternative to copper wires to break the energy efficiency barrier in computing, and even useful in quantum computing. But in the field of neurosurgery, where researchers are looking to develop materials that can bridge and even stimulate nerves. And in a story featured in latest issue of Neurosurgery, the authors suggest thatgraphene may be ideal as an electroactive scaffold when configured as a three-dimensional porous structure.

That might be a preferable solution when compared with other currently vogue ideas like using liquid metal alloys as bridges. Thanks to Samsung’s recent research into using graphene in their portable devices, it has also been shown to make an ideal E-field stimulator. And recent experiments on mice in Korea showed that a flexible, transparent, graphene skin could be used as a electrical field stimulator to treat cerebral hypoperfusion by stimulating blood flow through the brain.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353And what look at the frontiers of neuroscience would be complete without mentioning neuromorphic engineering? Whereas neurohacking and neurosurgery are looking for ways to merge technology with the human brain to combat disease and improve its health, NE is looking to the human brain to create computational technology with improved functionality. The result thus far has been a wide range of neuromorphic chips and components, such as memristors and neuristors.

However, as a whole, the field has yet to define for itself a clear path forward. That may be about to change thanks to Jennifer Hasler and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech, who recently published a roadmap to the future of neuromorphic engineering with the end goal of creating the human-brain equivalent of processing. This consisted of Hasler sorting through the many different approaches for the ultimate embodiment of neurons in silico and come up with the technology that she thinks is the way forward.

neuromorphic-chip-fpaaHer answer is not digital simulation, but rather the lesser known technology of FPAAs (Field-Programmable Analog Arrays). FPAAs are similar to digital FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays), but also include reconfigurable analog elements. They have been around on the sidelines for a few years, but they have been used primarily as so-called “analog glue logic” in system integration. In short, they would handle a variety of analog functions that don’t fit on a traditional integrated circuit.

Hasler outlines an approach where desktop neuromorphic systems will use System on a Chip (SoC) approaches to emulate billions of low-power neuron-like elements that compute using learning synapses. Each synapse has an adjustable strength associated with it and is modeled using just a single transistor. Her own design for an FPAA board houses hundreds of thousands of programmable parameters which enable systems-level computing on a scale that dwarfs other FPAA designs.

neuromorphic_revolutionAt the moment, she predicts that human brain-equivalent systems will require a reduction in power usage to the point where they are consuming just one-eights of what digital supercomputers that are currently used to simulate neuromorphic systems require. Her own design can account for a four-fold reduction in power usage, but the rest is going to have to come from somewhere else – possibly through the use of better materials (i.e. graphene or one of its derivatives).

Hasler also forecasts that using soon to be available 10nm processes, a desktop system with human-like processing power that consumes just 50 watts of electricity may eventually be a reality. These will likely take the form of chips with millions of neuron-like skeletons connected by billion of synapses firing to push each other over the edge, and who’s to say what they will be capable of accomplishing or what other breakthroughs they will make possible?

posthuman-evolutionIn the end, neuromorphic chips and technology are merely one half of the equation. In the grand scheme of things, the aim of all of this research is not only produce technology that can ensure better biology, but technology inspired by biology to create better machinery. The end result of this, according to some, is a world in which biology and technology increasingly resemble each other, to the point that they is barely a distinction to be made and they can be merged.

Charles Darwin would roll over in his grave!

Sources: nytimes.com, extremetech.com, (2), journal.frontiersin.orgpubs.acs.org

The Future is Here: World’s First “Invisible” Building

tower-infinity-seoul-south-koreaAll over the globe, governments and design firms are looking to create living examples of arcologies. Merging next-generation architectural with ecological sustainability, this futuristic concept is now becoming a reality, with projects ranging from Masdar Eco City in Dubai, to Crystal Island in Moscow, and China’s Shanghai Tower.

Not to be outdone, South Korea has proposed an equally audacious building plan that calls for the construction of a 450 meters tower that uses the latest in optical technology to render itself virtually invisible. Known as Tower Infinity, or City Tower, the building will be located in Cheongna (near the Incheon Airport just outside of Seoul) and will use the same technology that military contractors do to create “adaptive camouflage”.

F:tower infinityemailout120612 to gdskti-INVISIBIL-RESOLUTIThis involves fitting the building with a high-tech LED facade that integrates projectors and 18 strategically placed optical cameras. These cams will snap real-time pictures of the area directly behind the building, digitally stitch them into a panorama, and project them back onto the building’s reflective surface. This will create the illusion that viewers are looking straight through the building, making it appear to blend into the skyline at certain times of day.

According to GDS – the design firm behind Tower Infinity’s creation – the purpose of the building is largely symbolic. According to their website:

The tower subtly demonstrates Korea’s rising position in the world by establishing its powerful presence through diminishing its presence. Korea will have the unique position of having the ‘best’ tower by having an ‘anti-tower.

tower_infinityAnd while no word has been given yet on the relationship between the structure’s invisibility and planes from the nearby airport, it seems logical to stress that the building’s “invisibility cloak” is not perfect, nor is it meant to be. While it is able to generate an image that allows it to blend into the natural environment more readily, the building still leaves a translucent outline when at full power.

GDS also indicated that the purposes of the building go beyond the symbolic. In addition to showcases Korea’s presence in the global economy, the technology can be used for advertising and entertainment. As the company said in a statement:

This same technology also allows the tower to become a 450-meter-tall billboard screen and urban focal point for all arriving at Incheon,

The tower will house a 4D theater, a water park, landscaped gardens, and the third-highest observation deck in the world. Basically, it is intended as a tourist mecha in addition to everything else, which makes sense given its strategic location close to a major airport.

Source: cnet.news.com, gdsarchitects.com

Should We Be Afraid? A List for 2013

emerg_techIn a recent study, the John J. Reilly Center at University of Notre Dame published a rather list of possible threats that could be seen in the new year. The study, which was called “Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology” sought to address all the likely threats people might face as a result of all developments and changes made of late, particularly in the fields of medical research, autonomous machines, 3D printing, Climate Change and enhancements.

The list contained eleven articles, presented in random order so people can assess what they think is the most important and vote accordingly. And of course, each one was detailed and sourced so as to ensure people understood the nature of the issue and where the information was obtained. They included:

1. Personalized Medicine:
dna_selfassemblyWithin the last ten years, the creation of fast, low-cost genetic sequencing has given the public direct access to genome sequencing and analysis, with little or no guidance from physicians or genetic counselors on how to process the information. Genetic testing may result in prevention and early detection of diseases and conditions, but may also create a new set of moral, legal, ethical, and policy issues surrounding the use of these tests. These include equal access, privacy, terms of use, accuracy, and the possibility of an age of eugenics.

2. Hacking medical devices:
pacemakerThough no reported incidents have taken place (yet), there is concern that wireless medical devices could prove vulnerable to hacking. The US Government Accountability Office recently released a report warning of this while Barnaby Jack – a hacker and director of embedded device security at IOActive Inc. – demonstrated the vulnerability of a pacemaker by breaching the security of the wireless device from his laptop and reprogramming it to deliver an 830-volt shock. Because many devices are programmed to allow doctors easy access in case reprogramming is necessary in an emergency, the design of many of these devices is not geared toward security.

3. Driverless zipcars:
googlecarIn three states – Nevada, Florida, and California – it is now legal for Google to operate its driverless cars. A human in the vehicle is still required, but not at the controls. Google also plans to marry this idea to the zipcar, fleets of automobiles shared by a group of users on an as-needed basis and sharing in costs. These fully automated zipcars will change the way people travel but also the entire urban/suburban landscape. And once it gets going, ethical questions surrounding access, oversight, legality and safety are naturally likely to emerge.

4. 3-D Printing:
AR-153D printing has astounded many scientists and researchers thanks to the sheer number of possibilities it has created for manufacturing. At the same time, there is concern that some usages might be unethical, illegal, and just plain dangerous. Take for example, recent effort by groups such as Distributed Defense, a group intent on using 3D printers to create “Wiki-weapons”, or the possibility that DNA assembling and bioprinting could yield infectious or dangerous agents.

5. Adaptation to Climate Change:
climatewarsThe effects of climate change are likely to be felt differently by different people’s around the world. Geography plays a role in susceptibility, but a nation’s respective level of development is also intrinsic to how its citizens are likely to adapt. What’s more, we need to address how we intend to manage and manipulate wild species and nature in order to preserve biodiversity.This warrants an ethical discussion, not to mention suggestions of how we will address it when it comes.

6. Counterfeit Pharmaceuticals:
Syringe___Spritze___by_F4U_DraconiXIn developing nations, where life saving drugs are most needed, low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals are extremely common. Detecting such drugs requires the use of expensive equipment which is often unavailable, and expanding trade in pharmaceuticals is giving rise to the need to establish legal measures to combat foreign markets being flooded with cheap or ineffective knock-offs.

7. Autonomous Systems:
X-47BWar machines and other robotic systems are evolving to the point that they can do away with human controllers or oversight. In the coming decades, machines that can perform surgery, carry out airstrikes, diffuse bombs and even conduct research and development are likely to be created, giving rise to a myriad of ethical, safety and existential issues. Debate needs to be fostered on how this will effect us and what steps should be taken to ensure that the outcome is foreseeable and controllable.

8. Human-animal hybrids:
human animal hybrid
Is interspecies research the next frontier in understanding humanity and curing disease, or a slippery slope, rife with ethical dilemmas, toward creating new species? So far, scientists have kept experimentation with human-animal hybrids on the cellular level and have recieved support for their research goals. But to some, even modest experiments involving animal embryos and human stem cells are ethical violation. An examination of the long-term goals and potential consequences is arguably needed.

9. Wireless technology:
vortex-radio-waves-348x196Mobile devices, PDAs and wireless connectivity are having a profound effect in developed nations, with the rate of data usage doubling on an annual basis. As a result, telecommunications and government agencies are under intense pressure to regulate the radio frequency spectrum. The very way government and society does business, communicates, and conducts its most critical missions is changing rapidly. As such, a policy conversation is needed about how to make the most effective use of the precious radio spectrum, and to close the digital access divide for underdeveloped populations.

10. Data collection/privacy:
privacy1With all the data that is being transmitted on a daily basis, the issue of privacy is a major concern that is growing all the time. Considering the amount of personal information a person gives simply to participate in a social network, establish an email account, or install software to their computer, it is no surprise that hacking and identity theft are also major conerns. And now that data storage, microprocessors and cloud computing have become inexpensive and so widespread, a discussion on what kinds of information gathering and how quickly a person should be willing to surrender details about their life needs to be had.

11. Human enhancements:
transhumanismA tremendous amount of progress has been made in recent decades when it comes to prosthetic, neurological, pharmaceutical and therapeutic devices and methods. Naturally, there is warranted concern that progress in these fields will reach past addressing disabilities and restorative measures and venture into the realm of pure enhancement. With the line between biological and artificial being blurred, many are concerned that we may very well be entering into an era where the two are indistinguishable, and where cybernetic, biotechnological and other enhancements lead to a new form of competition where people must alter their bodies in order to maintain their jobs or avoid behind left behind.

Feel scared yet? Well you shouldn’t. The issue here is about remaining informed about possible threats, likely scenarios, and how we as people can address and deal with them now and later. If there’s one thing we should always keep in mind, it is that the future is always in the process of formation. What we do at any given time controls the shape of it and together we are always deciding what kind of world we want to live in. Things only change because all of us, either through action or inaction, allow them to. And if we want things to go a certain way, we need to be prepared to learn all we can about the causes, consequences, and likely outcomes of every scenario.

To view the whole report, follow the link below. And to vote on which issue you think is the most important, click here.

Source: reilly.nd.edu

Of Great Sci-Fi (and other non-affliated) Quotes:

alien-worldRecently, I’ve taken to posting quotes by the great science fiction authors on twitter. Most are from the authors I draw the most inspiration from, others are just from people I admire and who offered some wisdom along the way. Like a true nerd, I keep these things in a file on my computer, adding to it every time I find a new one or think up one myself. Might sound odd but I find it useful, it offers fresh inspiration and perspective whenever I’ve hit a wall or am not sure how a piece of writing is turning out. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the gems that have really inspired me over the years. To be fair, some of them are not science-fiction related, or even by authors; they’re just moments of brilliance captured in an utterance. Here are a few:

“We sit atop a sort of anthill of technologies. At the bottom there’s fire, and growing cereal grains, and learning to store cereal – all those things that people have to store edible energy and start building cities. Not that we’re the crown of creation; we are at the crown of technological creation at any given moment.”
-William Gibson during an interview after writing “Pattern Recognition”

“It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.”

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…”

“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.”

“. . . the street finds its own uses for things.”
-Other tidbits from Gibson, who’s nothing if not prolific in his observations!

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
-Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”

“Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: “What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young marines on their way to Guadalcanal?”
Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge!
“Just kill the one with the sword first.”
“Ah,” Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. “Smarrrt–you target them because they’re the officers, right?”
“No, fuckhead!” Shaftoe yells. “You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?”
-Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”. One of the funniest written passages I’ve ever read, and fitting because it puts Reagan in his proper, historically accurate place!

“I just think talk of suffering should be left to those who’ve actually suffered.”
-Jack (a First Nations former student I knew. As soon as he said it, I knew that I had just heard one of the smartest things ever said by anybody, anywhere, ever!)

Of William Gibson (The Bigend Trilogy)

Not only is he a famous author, he’s also a fellow BCite and the man who literally wrote the book on cyberpunk. Beyond that, his books have been renowned for capturing the zeitgeist of our times, an age characterized by revolutions in information technology and mass media. And I can honestly say that I’ve tried to emulate him in recent years. His Neuromancer was required reading seeing as how I wanted to get into hard sci-fi and he’s a major name. And his latest works also gave me a push in the direction of modern day fiction, dealing with the cutting edge rather than the future.

But… gotta be honest here, these books have been a bit of a disappointment for me. Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History are all mainstream bestsellers that did an awful lot to capture the spirit of our age once more, but they all shared elements which I thought were kind of… well, weak. For example, consider the plot set-ups to all three books. All things in this trilogy by Gibson revolve around the enigmatic (and absurdly named) Hubertus Bigend. He’s an advertising magnate who’s always looking for the angles, the hidden agendas, the thing that’s beyond cutting edge, just five minutes away from becoming real. And to investigate these things, he hires freelance contractors, strange people with strange gifts. And that’s what sets the plots in motion every time.

In Pattern Recognition, he recruits Cayce Pollard (pronounced Cay-See), a freelance “coolhunter” who uses her odd intuition to evaluate logos and brand names for companies. Her father was lost in 9/11 (something that Gibson had to include because it occurred while writing it) and this haunts her. In addition to her weird skills (hypersensitivity to iconography) she follows footage on the internet produced by some cinematic genius. Bigend wants the creator found because… he’s curious, he wants their talent, or something like that. So Cayce sets out to find them relying on Bigend’s network, his dime, and her own personal contacts. Her journey takes her from New York, to London, to Tokyo, and finally to Moscow, all the while she’s pursued by a rival and some shadowy agents who’s agenda is not quite clear. In the end, she finds the geniuses in Moscow, the genius is a brain-damaged girl who’s sister takes care of her and puts out the footage as a way of expressing herself. The dark agents pursuing her turn out to be their protectors who just stalked her because they weren’t sure of her, and Bigend’s slightly richer for having uncovered the truth… I guess. Cool idea, weak climax, weird overall point.

Then there was Spook Country. The name alone was telling, alluding to its focus on the paranoia and intrigue of post-9/11 America. In this one, Bigend is back, employing yet another freelance contractor named Hollis Henry (why they couldn’t just bring Cayce back is beyond me, but whatever). This one has no weird intuition, she’s just a former teen singer who’s gone on to become a writer about the industry. He hires her ostensibly to research locative art for some new magazine, a cutting edge technology that is now referred to as “augmented reality”. In the course of this, she discovers that her real mission is to find out who the artist is working for. You see, he’s been using the GPS technology that powers locative art to track a crate that’s been moving around the world for years, passing that info onto some shadowy figure.

So once again, Bigend is curious… When Hollis looks into it, she finds out that the crate is filled with millions that were embezzled from Iraq’s reconstruction fund and the old man tracking it is a former intelligence operative who has a score to settle. He and his crack team are also being tracked by a current intelligence man who uses an addict named Milgrim to track the old man’s operatives by translating their Russian texts (rendered in a language called Volapuk). By the end, the old man and his crew follow the crate to Vancouver and fill it full of hollow point bullets containing radioactive dust. The money is now useless, Hollis is given an exclusive first hand look at it, and returns to Bigend to report on it. Once again, he’s richer for knowing, but has gained nothing else… And all that spy stuff and paranoia? Didn’t really amount to much. Sure there was spy work going on but it was pretty damn subtle, the marginal stuff that goes on at the fringes of the war on terror, not anything central to it. Not what I would expect at all from a book that was trying to make a point about post-9/11 America, in all its paranoid, angry, confused glory.

In the finale, Zero History, which apparently takes it name from the character Milgrim, a man who has no record of his existence for the last ten years (hence, zero history), things are a bit more clear in terms of Bigend’s motivation. However, the overall story was a bit weak, with a name like Zero History and the fact that its the third installment in the series, I was expecting a big send-off, something that went over and above what the first two did. It didn’t seem too much to expect; after all, the first book was a fitting commentary on cyberspace and the sort of tribalism its engendered. The second book upped the ante with a look at espionage and paranoia in post-9/11 America. So who wouldn’t expect that this one would deal with something incrementally bigger and more important? Alas… not so much. But I digress!

In the final installment of the trilogy, Bigend hires Hollis again, paired up with Milgrim, to investigate the origin of some elusive fashion line known as Gabriel Hounds. The reason he wants to do this is because he wants to break into the military-fashion crossover market. Not as silly as it sounds; according to the book, this has been a huge market trend since the Vietnam War and has received new life thanks to the war in Iraq. The culture of war provides life to the fashion industry, swaths of men who buy outfits to look like soldiers, and fashion designers get accustomed to making army gear and end up contracting to the military itself. In the course of their investigation, they learn that one sample they are looking at is the illusive brand named Hounds. These denim products are sold using direct marketing: the dealers show up at prearranged drop points, sell off their merchandise, and then disappear. However, the other sample they come across is being produced by an arms dealer who has a big racket involving former contacts in the military and consulting worlds, and he now sees Bigend as competition. Since he’s a former military man and is into some shady stuff, things begin to get dangerous!

However, the climax is once again the same, with a build-up and then a letdown. Sure the bad guys get beat, but no one dies and no one even gets hurt beyond a simple tasering. Some arrests are made, people hook up, and the world keeps on spinning! There’s also the point of how Bigend’s company appears to be coming apart towards the climax, but in another abortive twist, nothing happens. Bigend is simply declared as being “too big to fail” by the end, and his machinations about being able to see a few minutes into the future appear to have come true thanks to the work of his people. Cool, as a concept, the idea of limited prescience, but like with the other books, it feels like something taped over the plot itself to give it some credibility. Bigend’s main motivation was his curiosity, a contrivance to get the story moving; everything else just feels like justification. Somehow, Bigend has to benefit from all his maneuvering, and developing some kind of system whereby he can predict trends sounds like a good answer. No explanation is forthcoming as to how this works, its just thrown in at the end. Too bad too, as a premise, it’s pretty cool and even kind of worked with the title. Zero History: there is no future, just a constantly evolving present. He who can see just a few minutes ahead and glimpse it in formation will have unimaginable power!

As a third act twist, Gibson does throw one curve ball. Turns out the elusive Hounds designer, whom Hollis finds, is Cayce Pollard herself! Cool, but again, not much comes of it. Hollis says she won’t reveal her, Pollard says she’s not worried, she knows how to deal with Bigend so she’ll be okay when he finds her, and the thread dies! The story then shifts over to the military man and the threat he poses and no word is given to the Hounds for the rest of the story. Odd seeing as how that was central to the plot, but this kind of truncation is common by this installment in the story so I wasn’t surprised. In the plus column, the story does provide some interesting thoughts on resistance to commodification and how the culture of the armed forces trickles down to the street. But seriously, all the fashion stuff gets really suffocating! After a certain point in my reading of it, I couldn’t help but notice the constant mention of clothing, apparel, jackets, etc. Intrinsic to the themes of the novel yes, but I mean, c’mon! Felt like I was reading Sex and the City fan fiction after awhile! Then there was the rather odd attempts to give Bigend character traits beyond his wealth and eccentricities. Aside from an odd fashion sense he has a lust for the Full English breakfast that is mentioned too often in the story, and serves no real purpose that I can see.

Second, there’s the usual Bigend motivation factor. His interest in the marketability of military apparel is one thing, but why would be pay through the nose to get Milgrim clean in this book? Apparently, Bigend likes him because he “notices things” while at the same time is good at going completely unnoticed. For these reasons, he’s decided to pay for rehab in a Swiss clinic and put him on his payroll. Really? All that money just to hire someone who’s only marketable skill is being inconspicuous and observant? Seems more like he just wanted to bring the character back and came up with a small contrivance to fill the point. And of course, there’s Bigend himself. Unlike the previous books, where he just a shadowy figure in the background, by this book he’s grown to the point where he’s kind of like a Bond villain. Gibson even goes as far to say it by the ending, how his purchase of a Russian low-flying craft, the way he had it decked out, and has all the staff dressed like odd caricatures, is Bondian. Doesn’t make it any less weird. Oh, and the fact that he has acquired half of Iceland through a series of business deals and is flying all his staff there on that Russian craft at the end? Bondian!

Overall, what stands out about these books is their similarity to his earlier works, particularly Neuromancer. In this and other works, the story revolves around contractors who are picked up by mysterious men who work behind the scenes or have hidden agendas. But whereas in Neuromancer and other titles belonging to the “Sprawl” and “Bridge” trilogies where you have corporate magnates or mass media forces with clear (and often morally ambiguous) intentions, this time around the agenda of the shadowy person (i.e. Bigend) seems pretty benign and… well, pointless. I mean, why for example is Bigend so obsessed with uncovering all of these mysteries, what’s his motivation? Where’s the profit incentive, the threat to his bottom line? Surely a filthy-rich advertising magnate would have better things to do than spend all kinds of time and money on pet projects that have no purpose other than satisfying his curiosity. In some cases, marginal attention is given to how these things could be of use to him, but curiosity is always the main driving force. Again and again, Bigend’s actions are justified by saying that this is just the kind of guy he is, an eccentric, controlling man who wants to know whats going on around every corner and just happens to be rich enough to make that happen.

To be fair, I get it. I mean how else are you going to set up plots like this, which delve into the mysteries of the everyday world, not sci-fi worlds where anything’s possible because its total fiction and the limits of your imagination are the only constraints you have to deal with? But I would expect that a story would build to a climax, not truncate itself or end up being a letdown for the heroes, not to mention the audience. But then again, Gibson’s work is in details, the story come through more in the subtext than in the goings on of the text itself. And I still love Gibson’s work and owe a rather large debt to him for the inspiration and example he’s provided over the years. So I won’t be avoiding his books in the future; in fact, I’m anxious to see what he’ll do next. Whatever else can be said about this man, he’s good at what he does and manages to always have a keen eye for the things that are just beyond the fringes of the now, the things that are likely to be the cutting edge stuff of tomorrow. One has to wonder how much influence he himself exercises in this regard… Oh well, something for his next book maybe!