Book Review: “Ready Player One”

ready player1So far I have only done one book review on this blog.  I read more than that of course, I just stick to talking about books that echo the themes of this blog.  The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline does just that.

Ready Player One is one of the latest young adult dystopian books, though not as sick and twisted as the highly overrated Hunger Games.  It is set in the 2040’s when gas is so scarce that everyone abandons the suburbs for the big cities, but the cities don’t have room.  Oklahoma City comes up with the idea to build high rise trailer parks.  The books protagonist 17 year old Wade lives in the laundry room of a double wide, occupied by his aunt, her latest boyfriend, and two other families.

But Wade spends most of his time hiding in an abandoned van in a junk yard which he powers with a bicycle powered generator.  He jacks into a 3D Virtual World called OASIS, which thanks to technology allowing thousands of players to play in an area lag free, OASIS has become the 3D internet.  Wade attends a virtual high school, getting a better education than he would in an overcrowded school he lives in.

You can probably understand why I like this book so much.  The world is very similar to Snow Crash in that there are two worlds, a dystopian stink hole called the real world, and a utopian paradise everyone prefers to live in.  Ready Player One has a distinct advantage over Snow Crash, however, 20 years of hindsight.  Many of the conceptual ideas of the “Metaverse” in Snow Crash seem rather dumb with today’s technology.  OASIS, on the other hand, seems plausible if you take today’s technology and project it forward three decades.

A major theme of the book is the difference between the online world and the real world.  Our avatar personification vs. who we really are; Living in a fantasy world vs. dealing with the real world.  I have delved deeper than the novel has on these topics, but the novel does a good job dealing with them.

The central plot involves the creator of OASIS, a game designer turned multibillionaire  who upon his death wills nearly the entirety of his estate, including control of OASIS to whoever can solve the hidden puzzle he left behind hidden somewhere in the OASIS world.

With such a huge prize everyone goes out looking for it, but the puzzle is so well hidden, that 5 years go by before anyone manages to discover the beginning of the puzzle (which has 6 parts, 3 keys and 3 gates).  The person who discovers it is Wade.

I have mentioned a couple of times how different the world will get once energy starts to get scarce, and how gaming will become a welcome escape from that reality.  Here is a book that echoes that theme in a very entertaining way.

There is another interesting part I have yet to mention.  It seems that the mad gaming designer grew up during the 1980’s, and is obsessed with the books, games, comics, music and movies of that decade.  Solving the central puzzle requires expert knowledge of this material, and the players dedicated to solving the puzzle have to become experts on the 1980’s pop culture.  Lots of this novel is filled with references to  the ’80s.  Being someone who grew up in the 80’s as well, I got all the references and knew all the songs referenced in the novel.

This unfortunately may be the biggest negative of the book, there is too much 80’s references which are likely to get lost on kids who grew up in later decades.  Since this is a “young adult” novel aimed at teen audiences, I’m not sure how well it will go over with the target audience.  But it did go over well with me.  Ernest Cline created an “official soundtrack” here if you want to hear many of the songs referenced in the novel.  You might also want to familiarize yourself with the movies WarGames, Ladyhawke, Blade Runner, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you don’t already know them (If you don’t then shame on you, they are classics).  There are major references to the games Pac Man, Tempest, Joust, Adventure, Black Tiger, Dungeons of Daggorath and Zork, too.

Since this book seems like it was written specifically for me, I ran through it in a few days time.  General audiences may not be as well versed in these subjects as I am, though the author does spend a lot of time explaining things for the general reader’s benefit (mostly unnecessary in my case).

The book is currently available hard copy and e-book via links at the Official Site, paperback and cheaper e-books coming in June.

The Energy Situation

I generally don’t like to talk much about the real world on this blog, but I have had an interest in the energy sector for almost as long as my interest in virtual worlds.  I wouldn’t bother, but between the nuclear crisis in Japan, the revolutions happening in oil exporting nations like Libya and Bahrain, and the recent sudden rise (again) of fuel prices, it seems like it is important to say something.

The energy crisis popularly known as “peak oil” has been talked about for decades, but only recently has the International Energy Administration (IEA) come right out and said it is already a reality.  “Crude oil” peaked in 2005, and all liquid fuels (85% of which is oil) will peak in 2012 if it hasn’t already done so in 2008.  Because liquid fuel is necessary for transportation, it means transportation is going to get harder and/or more expensive.

Many will dismiss “peak oil” by saying that there is still plenty of fuel available to go around, which is true.  The problem is not a function of “amount”, it is a problem of “growth”.  Every year there will be less and less fuel available for our economy to use, and because of this the economy is more likely to shrink (enter a recession or worse a new Great Depression) in the near future, and there is nothing anyone from any political party can do about it.

This is probably the most important story the mainstream media is completely failing to talk about.

My simple explanation is in the chart above.  This chart is unscientific (notice the lack of actual values on the x and y axis), it is merely an illustration of what I believe to be our current energy situation.

On the X axis we have cost, and on the Y we have energy production. It seems logical that the best source of energy is in the top left corner of the chart. This is energy of the “and then one day shooting at some food, and up from the ground comes a bubbling crude (oil that is, black gold, texas tea).  Once upon a time oil gushed from the ground, thus requiring no work to obtain it.

Well that oil is gone now, decades ago. So we start moving down, the cheap less productive stuff, and/or to the right, the more expensive but productive stuff, until that is exhausted.  The lighter and lighter colored semi-circles show the progression of our use of energy.  As time goes, we continue to move further and further down and to the right.

The thing is there are limits to how far down and how far to the right we can move.

The hardest limit is the red line at the bottom: EROEI = 1. If it takes more energy to produce the energy it is a waste of time. Lately some conservatives have been passing a stat that America has 10 times the oil that Saudi Arabia has in the form of shale oil. What they do not bother to mention is that to get a barrel of oil out of shale, it would require 2 or 3 barrels of oil worth of energy. That’s an EROEI of 0.3, way below minimum. Another popular “alternative” is Hydrogen. The problem there is that the primary source of hydrogen is water, and as every basic chemistry student knows, the energy needed to unlock hydrogen from water exceeds the amount you can get from the actual hydrogen.  We can create a car that runs on hydrogen, but it will always be more efficient to just get an electric car.

Other limits are it has to be profitable (green line). This line may change as energy prices vary. Sometimes when prices go up, once unprofitable energy sources suddenly become profitable. That is why solar and wind projects are suddenly picking up. They weren’t profitable enough in the cheap oil days.

Then there are capitalization costs (blue line) which represents the  limit lenders and investors are willing to spend on a project. This is the #1 problem with nuclear power. It is not the safety concerns, it is the fact that it takes 30 years to become profitable, when you consider both construction costs and takedown costs, and nuclear plants average around a 40 year life span. To find someone to invest 15 billion dollars with that little amount of profit is extremely difficult, which is why all nuclear plants are government subsidized.

Then there is the last line: costs exceed economic limits (purple line). People are mentioning the possibility of oil reaching $200 a barrel. Oil at that price is economically unsustainable. The share of energy costs in our economy is around 8%. When energy costs exceed that, it cuts into growth. Energy costs kill economic growth. Want proof? 3 out of the last 4 major recessions in the last 40 years were preceded by record energy costs. The exception to the rule was the dotcom bust of 2000.

The worrisome aspect is that our primary sources of new oil, like Canadian oil sand, and deep water drilling, require prices to be around $80 a gallon just to be profitable, which is pushing us over the 8% limit.  The airline industry, which is highly dependent on liquid fuel, loses money when the price goes above $85.

On the chart I point out all the popular answers to our current energy crisis and their approximate position on the production vs cost scale.  As you can see all of these new energy technologies push against at least one of these four limits. We have pretty much exhausted all of the cheap and productive sources of energy.

Our only choice now is renewables. One renewable source, hydroelectric, accounts for almost 20% of our electricity, but unfortunately all the hydroelectric dams that can be built, have already been built.   Geothermal is another renewable source, but it has not been fully exploited yet, accounting for only about 1% of our electricity.  It also runs into the same problem as hydroelectric in that there are limited places where a geothermal plant can succeed. The other renewables: Photovoltaic solar, solar thermal, wave power and wind power, amount to around 1% combined, but growing. We had better start investing quickly, or soon we will have to get by with only 22% of the energy we currently have.

Then there is the transportation problem, 95% of which is done with oil and oil products. Food production requires oil too, a lot of it. When oil prices go up so do food prices. We can find ways to cut back on travel, we can’t cut back on eating.  Transportation is going to have to go electric, and for long distance that means trains on electrified rails, in which the US has none, and which the GOP is opposed to building.  Planes cannot reliably  run on electricity, at least not big passenger jets, so until the solar powered blimp can be scaled up to hold 200 passengers, the airline travel era may soon end.

What I see happening is energy and energy costs driving the US and all other OECD countries into a new Great Depression, this one without any chance for recovery due to lack of resources. The US is the country least prepared to deal with this as we have put all our chips on oil for energy and cars for transport, and suburbs for housing so people have to drive to work.  The $100 a barrel oil will cause another major recession, not that we have even recovered from the last one.

Videos on Peak oil can be found here.   The best website for all energy topics (and the source for most of the above info)

Virtual World Philosophy: Escape From Reality

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.