Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia cover art by Mark Harrison

Ecotopia is a utopian novel that’s not as bad as its reputation but not good either.

I’ve read lots of bad reviews of Ecotopia and had several reports from other readers that it’s really awful. As an avid reader of utopian stories, I had to find out for myself. It’s true that Ecotopia is not that good as either a novel or a utopian idea. To be fair, nearly all utopian novels fail to hold up as novels, with the possible exceptions of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. All of them have the same plot: a character known as the reader’s surrogate winds up in Utopia and wanders around asking “how does this work?” and “how does that work?” Various utopian citizens explain the workings of their society. Eventually the character returns home to deliver the message of how to improve the world. Or, in those novels that want to have an exciting twist ending, the main character may decide to abandon their home and stay in Utopia.

In this story, the reader’s surrogate is Will Weston, a reporter who is the first American allowed to visit Ecotopia, a Utopian nation formed by the secession of Oregon, Washington, and the Northern part of California. The current year is 1999 and the secession happened in 1980. In the intervening 20 years, Ecotopia has turned itself into 1970’s hippy commune dweller’s idea of Utopia. The main differences I noticed between Ecotopia and other fictional utopias is the amount and variety of sexual activity described and a weird emphasis on the need for random emotional outbursts. Apparently 1970s people thought Americans suffered from a case of pent-up emotions. Ecotopian characters frequently burst into tears or become enraged about seemingly random things, get into fights, and make love with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Spock’s planet, Vulcan, where logic and reason lead to peaceful coexistence.

What holds up well for a 1970s novel:

  • pervasive use of battery powered electric vehicles
  • solar, wind, and geothermal power on a distributed grid system
  • houses and vehicles are individually customized from mass-produced interlocking modules
  • manufactured materials must be either naturally or artificially biodegradable
  • print-on-demand books/newspapers available from vending machines
  • city support systems are stable-state, no build-up of pollutants
  • stable-state agricultural system that balances food production with environment
  • clean air, clean water, natural environment (obvious from the novel’s name!)
  • direct political participation via a nationwide, interactive computer network
  • citizens allowed as much personal and economic freedom as possible
  • universal basic income for all citizens

What doesn’t hold up well

  • emotional outbursts, often leading to violence
  • armed, lethal combat sports (to channel violent tendencies of young males)
  • frequent, unprotected, casual sex with strangers
  • segregated racial “mini-nations” for African-Americans and Asians
  • healthcare system involves lots of sex between patients and providers
  • favorite clothing materials are natural leather and furs – this seems very anachronistic to a modern reader as we’d likely assume California ecological proponents to also be PETA members but back in the 1970s their outlook was more of a Native-American inspired ecological ideal, so the efficient use of animal resources made sense in context.

Young men who take part in the armed combat events shout “It is a good day to die!” when going into battle. This is another Native American inspired element of the book that will likely be lost on modern readers, who are more likely to associate the phrase with Worf, the Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the end, Ecotopia fails at the most important aspect of a Utopian novel: it doesn’t leave the reader with the feeling that they’d like to visit or even live in the world described. Final verdict: if you’re looking for entertaining novel, you’d be best to avoid the entire genre of Utopian books, that’s not their purpose. If you’re a fan of Utopian novels, this one is readable, moderately entertaining, but unconvincing.

Notes on my Selection of a VPN Provider

Barbed wire fence. Nothing to do with VPNs really but it suggested security to me. I shot this in Deep Ellum with a Canon 40D and Yashica YUS 135mm f2.8 lens. CC by SA 2.0

I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago asking for advice on VPNs after it became clear Net Neutrality rules were likely to be gutted. I’ve been meaning to improve my online security at home anyway and this seemed like a good time. I got a few replies to that post so I thought there might be some interest in which VPN I ended up with…

I narrowed it down to three: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and TorGuard. I realized I really wanted a dedicated IP so that I could run a server (stuff like a bitcoin node or tor node). That eliminated ExpressVPN because they don’t offer dedicated IPs. I also wanted to pay with bitcoin. Both NordVPN and TorGuard accept bitcoin but NordVPN requires the dedicated IP to be a separate purchase, necessitating two bitcoin transactions and with the tx fees still running over $10 that seemed unappealing. Plus NordVPN has some other issues with their ordering/checkout system that annoyed me like requiring you to provide two email addresses.

So I went with TorGuard. I took advantage of a special offer that’s floating around on the deal sites and got two years of service plus the dedicated IP for $90, or about $3.75 a month. The checkout and bitcoin payment were super easy and fast. I selected a dedicated IP located in LA. Besides my dedicated IP location, I can also use any of 3000 other server locations in 50 countries as my apparent location. I can have 5 simultaneous connections (the dedicated IP eats one of those, leaving 4 and that’s two each for myself and Susan), so enough for home and work or desktop and mobile devices.

They support standard VPN stuff like OpenVPN, so setup on GNU/Linux systems and routers is trivial, they even provided an example conf file for OpenVPN. And they have downloadable software you can use if you’re on an OS like Windows or MacOS where VPN tends to be harder for users to figure out; there are also browser plugins and an Android app for smartphones if you need them.

I had it set up and working pretty quickly. It does increase latency a bit. I get about 30 to 40 ms ping times to google.com over the VPN vs 5 to 6 ms on my direct FIOS connection. But upload/download speeds are the same as always.

The biggest downside to TorGuard is that it’s based in the US so there are some security/privacy threats from the government that wouldn’t be there on NordVPN (Panama) or ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands). But for preventing my ISP from monitoring or interfering with our activity, it should work fine. And FIOS has to allow VPN usage in work-from-home situations, so this should be a reasonable work-around for any user-side abuses that crop up in the near term.

If you don’t need a dedicated IP, you might want to consider ExpressVPN. Otherwise, I highly recommend TorGuard. Also, if you want to help me out (and if your ad-blocker doesn’t hide it!), use this link to visit TorGuard so I’ll get a referral credit: https://torguard.net/aff.php?aff=3811

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed


This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.

DIY Logic Cookies

For the last two years, I’ve made Logic Cookies for the National Day of Reason. My first attempt in 2016 resulted in edible cookies but they had numerous problems including less than tasty cookies, soft icing that prevented stacking, and a sub-optimal cookie shape. I’ve patched up most of the issues for 2017 and succeeded well enough that it’s time to release the plans. The 2017 recipes are pretty standard sugar cookie and royal icing recipes with minor tweaks. I changed the cookie shape to hexagonal this year instead of circles. Hexagons are an ideal shape for Logic Cookies because the cookies can be cut with no wastage due to the ability to achieve a perfect 6.6.6 tessellation of the Euclidean cookie dough plane.

With the plans below, you’ll be ready to bake your own logic cookies for the next National Day of Reason, which is coming up on 3 May, 2018. If you make some, please comment below and maybe provide a link to your photos!

See more photos of my 2016 Logic Cookies and my 2017 Logic Cookies on Flickr.

Cookie recipe

8 Tbl (35 ml) (1 stick) butter
0.75 cup (177 ml) sugar
1 Tsp (5 ml) baking powder
1 Tsp (5 ml) true cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon)
0.25 Tsp (1.23 ml) salt
1 egg
1 Tbl (35 ml) milk
1 Tsp (5 ml) Vanilla
2 Cups (474 ml) flour

Beat butter for 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, beat until combined. Add milk, egg, vanilla, beat until combined. Add flour, beating in as much as possible, then finishing with a spoon if needed. Divide dough in half, flatten, cover with was paper and chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat over to 375℉. Roll dough on lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch (6.4mm) thick. Cut into 2.5 inch (63 mm) hexagonal shapes. I used Ateco 5251 Plain Edge Hexagon Cutters in Graduated Sizes. Place cookies on non-stick cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool on wire racks before icing.

Royal Icing recipe

2 cups (226 grams) powdered sugar
1 Tbl (10 grams) meringue powder
1/8 Tsp (0.6 ml) Cream of Tartar
3.5 Tbl (35 ml) water
1 Tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 Tsp (5 ml) light corn syrup (optional for shiny finish on hardened icing)
Food coloring

Combine powdered sugar, meringue powder, and Cream of Tartar with whisk. Add water and vanilla extract. Beat for 10 minutes or until very thick. Separate out a small portion of the icing (approximate 1/8 of it) into a different container for later use in creating the symbols. Add a few drops of your desired food color to the main portion of icing and beat until evenly colored.

Apply color background icing in a thin even coat to each cookie using any preferred icing application method. Let icing cure for at least 10 minutes. Apply the white icing set aside earlier to form logic symbols using your desired method. If you use a piping bag or icing syringe, you will need to thin the white icing with small amounts of water until it reaches a consistency that works with your device of choice.

Let completed iced cookies cure exposed to the air for 12 hours to allow icing to harden.

Symbol table

This is the current collection of symbols I’ve used on my 2016 and 2017 Logic Cookies. I’ve included a variety of symbols from the fields of symbolic logic, set theory, boolean algebra, algebraic logic, and other fields. I also included Gottfried Leibniz’s integral symbol and Leonhard Euler’s summation Sigma. Feel free to expand this list. The follow table uses Unicode values for the symbols so it may not display correctly on older or non-standard web browsers.

∞ Infinity
≔ Definition / Assignment
≡ Material Implication
⊃ Implication / Superset
∪ Union
∩ Intersection
∈ Element of a set
⊆ Subset equal
⊊ Subset not equal
⊂ Subset of
⊇ Superset of
⋑ Double Superset
⨯ Cartesian product
≏ Difference
∅ Empty set
⊖ Symmetric difference
∆ Difference (delta)
∴ Therefore
◇ Possibility
∨ Disjunction
∧ Logical and
⫮ Negation
⊕ Exclusive Disjunction
> Greater than
< Less than
= Equal
≠ Not equal
Σ Sigma (summation)
∫ Integral (Leibniz calculus)
∮ Integral – contour
⨙ Integral – intersection

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia

Star Trek TOS Replicator (AKA food synthesizer)

I’m always interested in the future of economics and, in particular, ways of adapting our world to deal with post scarcity economics. Nearly any book or paper on post scarcity economics, at one point or another, has to reference the most detailed known fictional example: Star Trek. So, when Manu Saadia’s new book, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” was published, it went on my reading list immediately.

If you’re not familiar with post scarcity economics, it’s basically the future we’re headed towards, whether we like it or not. Industrialization, mass-production, 3D printing, nano-technology, automation, robots; all these things continually drive down the cost and scarcity of many goods and services. This is interesting because for the past few hundred years, all our economic models have been based around solving the so-called “economic problem” – that is, finding ways to allocate scarce resources to meet human needs and desires. The two favorite solutions to the economic problem, capitalism and communism/socialism, have developed religious-like ideological followings.

Pure capitalism relies on the collective action of everyone’s individual greed to allocate resources. Communism and socialism rely on central planning to allocate resources (the difference is that Communism is the result of a revolution from capitalism, while socialism is an evolution of capitalism). In the real world neither method has ever worked well in its pure form, though capitalism comes the closest. Attempts to rely solely on central planning have always failed unless some elements of individual freedom of action are incorporated. Likewise, attempts to rely solely on capitalism fail unless certain elements of central planning are incorporated (e.g. minimum wages, banking regulations, etc). But, however you mix the two, the goal is always to solve the economic problem of resource allocation. What would happen if that problem went away?

In the Star Trek universe the problem of resource allocation largely doesn’t exist. For the most part, anyone can obtain anything they want, any time they want, at no cost beyond the energy required to replicate it. Obviously the real world isn’t there yet but we’re headed that way. In economics, an externality is something that doesn’t come into play when calculating supply and demand – the cost of goods and services. For example, GPS is thought to be the first man-made service to be an economic externality. It exists all over the Earth and anyone can use it at no cost. No one has to worry about how to allocate GPS service as a resource because there is never a shortage of it and the very idea of supply vs demand is meaningless with regard to it. When many goods and services become as ubiquitous as GPS, what happens?

Obviously, the two primary systems we’ve relied on in the past, capitalism and communism/socialism, would also become meaningless at that point. Supply would tend toward infinity while cost, labor, and employment tend towards zero. Some kind of new economic system is needed to cope with a world like that, but what? Answering that question is what post scarcity economics is all about.

Economists are just beginning to speculate on this sort of thing but science fiction writers have pondered it for decades. Star Trek’s Federation of Planets is the most detailed and well-known example of a fictional post scarcity economy. There is no money. No one is paid to work. Goods have effectively zero cost because they can be replicated at will by anyone. This sounds crazy at first to many people. Why would people work if they’re not paid? How could anything get done with no money? Trying to understand how such an economic system could function is what economists are after. Studying Star Trek’s model has proven to be a good starting point.

Star Trek TNG Replicator

Many people mistakenly think Star Trek portrays a communist or socialist government. But there are many clear examples showing that this is not the case. There is no prohibition against private property. For example, the Picard family owns and operates a vinyard that produces fine wines. Anyone is as free to start any sort of business enterprise as they are under a modern capitalist system. For example, Joseph Sisko operates a restaurant in New Orleans. There is no prohibition against anyone having or using currency if they want to, it’s just unnecessary within the Federation itself. When dealing with alien races outside the Federation, for example, various types of currency have been used.

But who runs the Federation economy? Star Fleet itself relies on central planning in the same way any large organization does but the Federation of Planets appears to do very little Federation-wide economic planning as there is simply no need for it. However, there are a few things that can’t be replicated even in the Star Trek universe, such as dilithium crystals or certain medical compounds. There are upper limits on production such as the number of starships that can be built per year. So the government does have a few things to keep it busy. But, otherwise, little central planning or control seems to be needed.

This brings us to Trekonomics. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to learn as much as you might wish from this book. Despite the promising title, it’s mostly written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really “get” the show, or at least is only interested in one particular incarnation known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The author goes to some lengths in the final chapters to point out that he really thinks Star Trek and all science fiction is ultimately a waste of time. The author believes space travel itself is pointless, and that even leaving the Earth to visit Mars is misguided. He’s really only interested in the economic principles. Sadly, he never really gets around to talking much about the economics.

The majority of the book is a collection of personal anecdotes and lengthy retellings and paraphrasings of various Star Trek episodes that had an impact on his economic thoughts. Other than an introduction in which he describes post scarcity in general and a description of how Star Trek’s replicator effectively reduces the cost of goods to zero, there’s very little useful information. At the end of the book, you’ll know his favorite Star Trek characters, his favorite episodes, what he thinks of Elon Musk, where he got his first Isaac Asimov book, and a dozen other bits of useless trivia. But you won’t know much more about the actual economics of Star Trek than when you started.

However, I didn’t write all this just to tell you the book sucked. Rather, I’d like to point you to an alternative to the book. Rick Webb has written a good sized document titled, “The Economics of Star Trek” that does an excellent job of looking at all the economic clues we can discover from Star Trek. He even speculates a bit on how such things could actually work in a realistic economic system, something Saadia doesn’t even attempt in Trekonomics.

And one last tidbit. You may want to check out one of the earliest predictions that the world is headed towards a post scarcity system. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“. Saadia mentions the paper in Trekonomics but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Keynes notes in his paper that while scarcity has long been the fundamental assumption of economics, by 2030 we may be facing a world in which wealth and automation have rendered the economic problem solved. He predicts that capitalism will get us there but that it will be forced by technology to evolve into something else afterwards. He predicts that humans will have to adjust to a new lifestyle in which money is not important and the love of money will be viewed as a sickness. And finally he predicts that economics will become a mundane field as a result.

The one flaw in his vision is that he assumed capitalism would continue following the path of classic enlightenment liberalism, as it did in his time. If we allow economic inequality to grow rather than decline, his predictions will fail. It seems to me that capitalism has gone off the rails in that regard and is leading us toward disaster. We may still reach a utopian economic system like that of Star Trek but it may have to be by another route such as democratic socialism. Or, maybe it’s not too late to reform capitalism. It will be interesting to find out.

The Women’s March on Austin

Like most people, we were disheartened by the horrible results of the 2016 election. The old quote that is variously attributed to Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill kept rolling around in my head; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. The awful coalition of the Tea Party, alt-right, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the religious right that over-powered the Republic Party and spawned the Trump administration is as evil as anything in American history that I can think of. The growing need to do something, even if only a symbolic gesture of resistance, coincided with a chance sighting on Facebook of some event info about a Women’s March in Washington, DC planned for January 21.

There was no way we could attend a march in Washington, DC but there appeared to be ancillary marches in the State capitols as well. Austin seemed possible, so we put it on the calendar. The event info also mentioned the Pussy Hat Project – a good-natured poke at Donald Trump’s hypocritical “Make America Great Again” hats. His hats promoted bringing jobs back to America while ironically being mass-produced by low income workers in China. Pussy Hats, in contrast, would be hand made by individual American makers everywhere. Neither Susan nor I are knitters but I am a member of Dallas Makerspace, the biggest collective of hackers and makers in Texas, so it was pretty easy to find a like-minded knitter there. The talented Devin Burnett knitted us a few hats in exchange for the pink yarn.

Early on the morning of Jan 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, we set out for Austin. There was a beautiful sunrise but almost immediately a weird, dark haze began to settle over the landscape. There was no rain. It was more like a thick dark fog. We joked that perhaps as in Lord of the Rings, the rise of evil is always accompanied by a physical darkness settling over the land. The dark haze was with us most of the way down but finally began to break up as we approached Austin, revealing a beautiful, warm sunny day. Along the way to Austin we saw numerous buses and I noticed someone on Facebook saying they were taking a bus from Dallas to Austin. Had we known about them, we’d have taken a bus too. Our biggest worry was that it would be impossible to find parking close to the capitol. As it turned out, everything worked out perfectly.

We found the Cap Metro Howard Station Park & Ride on Google maps on the northern outskirts of Austin and decided to take a chance that there would be a way to get downtown on a Metro bus. We parked free and walked straight from the car to a waiting bus with Cap Metro employees waving us aboard. We tried to buy two day passes but it was an “exact change only” situation and the smallest bill we had was a ten that the cash scanner didn’t like. The driver asked if were going to the Women’s March. We said yes and she comp’ed us two day passes. The bus was full of other happy, pussy hat wearing marchers.

The bus arrived downtown and let us out a couple of blocks from the capitol. It was no problem finding the march. There were people from every direction converging on it and within moments we had merged into a stream of marchers. Originally, the plan was for everyone to meet at the capitol and then march a 1.5 mile path around downtown. As it turned out, there were so many people that the entire capitol grounds were filled as well as the entire 1.5 mile marching course. The Austin police estimated 50,000 marchers (and it’s now on record as the largest march in Texas history). So there was a continuous, endless loop of marchers on the 1.5 mile path for nearly four hours as well as the massive crowds on the capitol grounds. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever seen in person.

We marched for a while and then mingled with the crowds at the capitol. I shot lots of photos. I was amazed at the range of ages and the diversity. There were people of every race, old women in wheel chairs, children of all ages, I even saw one blind woman. There were lots of men as well and entire families marching together. There were lots of religious leaders marching too.

I was especially pleased to see the wide range of issues, well beyond just women’s rights being represented. I think this election may have awakened a widespread recognition that we have to stop taking things for granted, that we have to get out and work together or the forces of ignorance and superstition will overtake us all. I saw many signs advocating science and evidence based policy. There were a surprising number of signs bearing inside jokes of geeks, nerds, and science fiction fans. There was a general feeling of good-natured humor and fun among the marchers. Overall it was a great experience and I think it really encouraged everyone that maybe there is some hope after all. Maybe what we’re seeing is not the pendulum swinging back into the ignorance of the past but, rather, the last gasps of an ever shrinking minority who want to hold back the rest of the world and who may well die out in a generation.

We eventually headed back to the bus stop and made the drive back to Dallas. It was a long day but well worth it. Now we just need to get back to the everyday work of trying to make the world a better place.