Search Results: "adam"

17 April 2022

Russ Allbery: First 2022 haul post

I haven't posted one of these in a while. Here's the (mostly new) stuff that's come out that caught my interest in the past few months. Some of these I've already read and reviewed. Tom Burgis Kleptopia (non-fiction)
Angela Chen Ace (non-fiction)
P. Dj l Clark A Dead Djinn in Cairo (sff)
P. Dj l Clark The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (sff)
P. Dj l Clark A Master of Djinn (sff)
Brittney C. Cooper Eloquent Rage (non-fiction)
Madeleine Dore I Didn't Do the Thing Today (non-fiction)
Saad Z. Hossain The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday (sff)
George F. Kennan Memoirs, 1925-1950 (non-fiction)
Kiese Laymon How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (non-fiction)
Adam Minter Secondhand (non-fiction)
Amanda Oliver Overdue (non-fiction)
Laurie Penny Sexual Revolution (non-fiction)
Scott A. Snook Friendly Fire (non-fiction)
Adrian Tchaikovsky Elder Race (sff)
Adrian Tchaikovsky Shards of Earth (sff)
Tor.com (ed.) Some of the Best of Tor.com: 2021 (sff anthology)
Charlie Warzel & Anne Helen Petersen Out of Office (non-fiction)
Robert Wears Still Not Safe (non-fiction)
Max Weber The Vocation Lectures (non-fiction) Lots and lots of non-fiction in this mix. Maybe a tiny bit better than normal at not buying tons of books that I don't have time to read, although my reading (and particularly my reviewing) rate has been a bit slow lately.

8 April 2022

Jacob Adams: The Unexpected Importance of the Trailing Slash

For many using Unix-derived systems today, we take for granted that /some/path and /some/path/ are the same. Most shells will even add a trailing slash for you when you press the Tab key after the name of a directory or a symbolic link to one. However, many programs treat these two paths as subtly different in certain cases, which I outline below, as all three have tripped me up in various ways1.

POSIX and Coreutils Perhaps the trickiest use of the trailing slash in a distinguishing way is in POSIX2 which states:
When the final component of a pathname is a symbolic link, the standard requires that a trailing <slash> causes the link to be followed. This is the behavior of historical implementations3. For example, for /a/b and /a/b/, if /a/b is a symbolic link to a directory, then /a/b refers to the symbolic link, and /a/b/ refers to the directory to which the symbolic link points.
This leads to some unexpected behavior. For example, if you have the following structure of a directory dir containing a file dirfile with a symbolic link link pointing to dir. (which will be used in all shell examples throughout this article):
$ ls -lR
.:
total 4
drwxr-xr-x 2 jacob jacob 4096 Apr  3 00:00 dir
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacob jacob    3 Apr  3 00:00 link -> dir
./dir:
total 0
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Apr  3 00:12 dirfile
On Unixes such as MacOS, FreeBSD or Illumos4, you can move a directory through a symbolic link by using a trailing slash:
$ mv link/ otherdir
$ ls
link	otherdir
On Linux5, mv will not rename the indirectly referenced directory and not the symbolic link, when given a symbolic link with a trailing slash as the source to be renamed. despite the coreutils documentation s claims to the contrary6, instead failing with Not a directory:
$ mv link/ other
mv: cannot move 'link/' to 'other': Not a directory
$ mkdir otherdir
$ mv link/ otherdir
mv: cannot move 'link/' to 'otherdir/link': Not a directory
$ mv link/ otherdir/
mv: cannot move 'link/' to 'otherdir/link': Not a directory
$ mv link otherdirlink
$ ls -l otherdirlink
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacob jacob 3 Apr  3 00:13 otherdirlink -> dir
This is probably for the best, as it is very confusing behavior. There is still one advantage the trailing slash has when using mv, even on Linux, in that is it does not allow you to move a file to a non-existent directory, or move a file that you expect to be a directory that isn t.
$ mv dir/dirfile nonedir/
mv: cannot move 'dir/dirfile' to 'nonedir/': Not a directory
$ touch otherfile
$ mv otherfile/ dir
mv: cannot stat 'otherfile/': Not a directory
$ mv otherfile dir
$ ls dir
dirfile  otherfile
However, Linux still exhibits some confusing behavior of its own, like when you attempt to remove link recursively with a trailing slash:
rm -rvf link/
Neither link nor dir are removed, but the contents of dir are removed:
removed 'link/dirfile'
Whereas if you remove the trailing slash, you just remove the symbolic link:
$ rm -rvf link
removed 'link'
While on MacOS, FreeBSD or Illumos4, rm will also remove the source directory:
$ rm -rvf link
link/dirfile
link/
$ ls
link
The find and ls commands, in contrast, behave the same on all three operating systems. The find command only searches the contents of the directory a symbolic link points to if the trailing slash is added:
$ find link -name dirfile
$ find link/ -name dirfile
link/dirfile
The ls command acts similarly, showing information on just a symbolic link by itself unless a trailing slash is added, at which point it shows the contents of the directory that it links to:
$ ls -l link
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacob jacob 3 Apr  3 00:13 link -> dir
$ ls -l link/
total 0
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Apr  3 00:13 dirfile

rsync The command rsync handles a trailing slash in an unusual way that trips up many new users. The rsync man page notes:
You can think of a trailing / on a source as meaning copy the contents of this directory as opposed to copy the directory by name , but in both cases the attributes of the containing directory are transferred to the containing directory on the destination.
That is to say, if we had two folders a and b each of which contained some files:
$ ls -R .
.:
a  b
./a:
a1  a2
./b:
b1  b2
Running rsync -av a b moves the entire directory a to directory b:
$ rsync -av a b
sending incremental file list
a/
a/a1
a/a2
sent 181 bytes  received 58 bytes  478.00 bytes/sec
total size is 0  speedup is 0.00
$ ls -R b
b:
a  b1  b2
b/a:
a1  a2
While running rsync -av a/ b moves the contents of directory a to b:
$ rsync -av a/ b
sending incremental file list
./
a1
a2
sent 170 bytes  received 57 bytes  454.00 bytes/sec
total size is 0  speedup is 0.00
$ ls b
a1  a2	b1  b2

Dockerfile COPY The Dockerfile COPY command also cares about the presence of the trailing slash, using it to determine whether the destination should be considered a file or directory. The Docker documentation explains the rules of the command thusly:
COPY [--chown=<user>:<group>] <src>... <dest>
If <src> is a directory, the entire contents of the directory are copied, including filesystem metadata. Note: The directory itself is not copied, just its contents. If <src> is any other kind of file, it is copied individually along with its metadata. In this case, if <dest> ends with a trailing slash /, it will be considered a directory and the contents of <src> will be written at <dest>/base(<src>). If multiple <src> resources are specified, either directly or due to the use of a wildcard, then <dest> must be a directory, and it must end with a slash /. If <dest> does not end with a trailing slash, it will be considered a regular file and the contents of <src> will be written at <dest>. If <dest> doesn t exist, it is created along with all missing directories in its path.
This means if you had a COPY command that moved file to a nonexistent containerfile without the slash, it would create containerfile as a file with the contents of file.
COPY file /containerfile
container$ stat -c %F containerfile
regular empty file
Whereas if you add a trailing slash, then file will be added as a file under the new directory containerdir:
COPY file /containerdir/
container$ stat -c %F containerdir
directory
Interestingly, at no point can you copy a directory completely, only its contents. Thus if you wanted to make a directory in the new container, you need to specify its name in both the source and the destination:
COPY dir /dirincontainer
container$ stat -c %F /dirincontainer
directory
Dockerfiles do also make good use of the trailing slash to ensure they re doing what you mean by requiring a trailing slash on the destination of multiple files:
COPY file otherfile /othercontainerdir
results in the following error:
When using COPY with more than one source file, the destination must be a directory and end with a /
  1. I m sure there are probably more than just these three cases, but these are the three I m familiar with. If you know of more, please tell me about them!.
  2. Some additional relevant sections are the Path Resolution Appendix and the section on Symbolic Links.
  3. The sentence This is the behavior of historical implementations implies that this probably originated in some ancient Unix derivative, possibly BSD or even the original Unix. I don t really have a source on that though, so please reach out if you happen to have any more knowledge on what this refers to.
  4. I tested on MacOS 11.6.5, FreeBSD 12.0 and OmniOS 5.11 2
  5. unless the source is a directory trailing slashes give -ENOTDIR
  6. In fairness to the coreutils maintainers, it seems to be true on all other Unix platforms, but it probably deserves a mention in the documentation when Linux is the most common platform on which coreutils is used. I should submit a patch.

29 March 2022

Jacob Adams: A Lesson in Shortcuts

(The below was written by Rob Pike, copied here for posterity from The Wayback Machine) Long ago, as the design of the Unix file system was being worked out, the entries . and .. appeared, to make navigation easier. I m not sure but I believe .. went in during the Version 2 rewrite, when the file system became hierarchical (it had a very different structure early on). When one typed ls, however, these files appeared, so either Ken or Dennis added a simple test to the program. It was in assembler then, but the code in question was equivalent to something like this:
   if (name[0] == '.') continue;
This statement was a little shorter than what it should have been, which is
   if (strcmp(name, ".") == 0   strcmp(name, "..") == 0) continue;
but hey, it was easy. Two things resulted. First, a bad precedent was set. A lot of other lazy programmers introduced bugs by making the same simplification. Actual files beginning with periods are often skipped when they should be counted. Second, and much worse, the idea of a hidden or dot file was created. As a consequence, more lazy programmers started dropping files into everyone s home directory. I don t have all that much stuff installed on the machine I m using to type this, but my home directory has about a hundred dot files and I don t even know what most of them are or whether they re still needed. Every file name evaluation that goes through my home directory is slowed down by this accumulated sludge. I m pretty sure the concept of a hidden file was an unintended consequence. It was certainly a mistake. How many bugs and wasted CPU cycles and instances of human frustration (not to mention bad design) have resulted from that one small shortcut about 40 years ago? Keep that in mind next time you want to cut a corner in your code. (For those who object that dot files serve a purpose, I don t dispute that but counter that it s the files that serve the purpose, not the convention for their names. They could just as easily be in $HOME/cfg or $HOME/lib, which is what we did in Plan 9, which had no dot files. Lessons can be learned.)

16 January 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite films of 2021

In my four most recent posts, I went over the memoirs and biographies, the non-fiction, the fiction and the 'classic' novels that I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. But in the very last of my 2021 roundup posts, I'll be going over some of my favourite movies. (Saying that, these are perhaps less of my 'favourite films' than the ones worth remarking on after all, nobody needs to hear that The Godfather is a good movie.) It's probably helpful to remark you that I took a self-directed course in film history in 2021, based around the first volume of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies. This collection of 100-odd movie essays aims to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, and I watched all but a handul before the year was out. I am slowly making my way through volume two in 2022. This tome was tremendously useful, and not simply due to the background context that Ebert added to each film: it also brought me into contact with films I would have hardly come through some other means. Would I have ever discovered the sly comedy of Trouble in Paradise (1932) or the touching proto-realism of L'Atalante (1934) any other way? It also helped me to 'get around' to watching films I may have put off watching forever the influential Battleship Potemkin (1925), for instance, and the ur-epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) spring to mind here. Choosing a 'worst' film is perhaps more difficult than choosing the best. There are first those that left me completely dry (Ready or Not, Written on the Wind, etc.), and those that were simply poorly executed. And there are those that failed to meet their own high opinions of themselves, such as the 'made for Reddit' Tenet (2020) or the inscrutable Vanilla Sky (2001) the latter being an almost perfect example of late-20th century cultural exhaustion. But I must save my most severe judgement for those films where I took a visceral dislike how their subjects were portrayed. The sexually problematic Sixteen Candles (1984) and the pseudo-Catholic vigilantism of The Boondock Saints (1999) both spring to mind here, the latter of which combines so many things I dislike into such a short running time I'd need an entire essay to adequately express how much I disliked it.

Dogtooth (2009) A father, a mother, a brother and two sisters live in a large and affluent house behind a very high wall and an always-locked gate. Only the father ever leaves the property, driving to the factory that he happens to own. Dogtooth goes far beyond any allusion to Josef Fritzl's cellar, though, as the children's education is a grotesque parody of home-schooling. Here, the parents deliberately teach their children the wrong meaning of words (e.g. a yellow flower is called a 'zombie'), all of which renders the outside world utterly meaningless and unreadable, and completely mystifying its very existence. It is this creepy strangeness within a 'regular' family unit in Dogtooth that is both socially and epistemically horrific, and I'll say nothing here of its sexual elements as well. Despite its cold, inscrutable and deadpan surreality, Dogtooth invites all manner of potential interpretations. Is this film about the artificiality of the nuclear family that the West insists is the benchmark of normality? Or is it, as I prefer to believe, something more visceral altogether: an allegory for the various forms of ontological violence wrought by fascism, as well a sobering nod towards some of fascism's inherent appeals? (Perhaps it is both. In 1972, French poststructuralists Gilles and F lix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus, which plays with the idea of the family unit as a metaphor for the authoritarian state.) The Greek-language Dogtooth, elegantly shot, thankfully provides no easy answers.

Holy Motors (2012) There is an infamous scene in Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 film collaboration between Luis Bu uel and famed artist Salvador Dal . A young woman is cornered in her own apartment by a threatening man, and she reaches for a tennis racquet in self-defence. But the man suddenly picks up two nearby ropes and drags into the frame two large grand pianos... each leaden with a dead donkey, a stone tablet, a pumpkin and a bewildered priest. This bizarre sketch serves as a better introduction to Leos Carax's Holy Motors than any elementary outline of its plot, which ostensibly follows 24 hours in the life of a man who must play a number of extremely diverse roles around Paris... all for no apparent reason. (And is he even a man?) Surrealism as an art movement gets a pretty bad wrap these days, and perhaps justifiably so. But Holy Motors and Un Chien Andalou serve as a good reminder that surrealism can be, well, 'good, actually'. And if not quite high art, Holy Motors at least demonstrates that surrealism can still unnerving and hilariously funny. Indeed, recalling the whimsy of the plot to a close friend, the tears of laughter came unbidden to my eyes once again. ("And then the limousines...!") Still, it is unclear how Holy Motors truly refreshes surrealism for the twenty-first century. Surrealism was, in part, a reaction to the mechanical and unfeeling brutality of World War I and ultimately sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Holy Motors cannot be responding to another continental conflagration, and so it appears to me to be some kind of commentary on the roles we exhibit in an era of 'post-postmodernity': a sketch on our age of performative authenticity, perhaps, or an idle doodle on the function and psychosocial function of work. Or perhaps not. After all, this film was produced in a time that offers the near-universal availability of mind-altering substances, and this certainly changes the context in which this film was both created. And, how can I put it, was intended to be watched.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) An absolutely devastating portrayal of a character who is unable to forgive himself and is hesitant to engage with anyone ever again. It features a near-ideal balance between portraying unrecoverable anguish and tender warmth, and is paradoxically grandiose in its subtle intimacy. The mechanics of life led me to watch this lying on a bed in a chain hotel by Heathrow Airport, and if this colourless circumstance blunted the film's emotional impact on me, I am probably thankful for it. Indeed, I find myself reduced in this review to fatuously recalling my favourite interactions instead of providing any real commentary. You could write a whole essay about one particular incident: its surfaces, subtexts and angles... all despite nothing of any substance ever being communicated. Truly stunning.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Roger Ebert called this movie one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come. But whilst it is difficult to disagree with his sentiment, Ebert's choice of sad is somehow not quite the right word. Indeed, I've long regretted that our dictionaries don't have more nuanced blends of tragedy and sadness; perhaps the Ancient Greeks can loan us some. Nevertheless, the plot of this film is of a gambler and a prostitute who become business partners in a new and remote mining town called Presbyterian Church. However, as their town and enterprise booms, it comes to the attention of a large mining corporation who want to bully or buy their way into the action. What makes this film stand out is not the plot itself, however, but its mood and tone the town and its inhabitants seem to be thrown together out of raw lumber, covered alternatively in mud or frozen ice, and their days (and their personalities) are both short and dark in equal measure. As a brief aside, if you haven't seen a Roger Altman film before, this has all the trappings of being a good introduction. As Ebert went on to observe: This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. Furthermore, we can see some of Altman's trademark conversations that overlap, a superb handling of ensemble casts, and a quietly subversive view of the tyranny of 'genre'... and the latter in a time when the appetite for revisionist portrays of the West was not very strong. All of these 'Altmanian' trademarks can be ordered in much stronger measures in his later films: in particular, his comedy-drama Nashville (1975) has 24 main characters, and my jejune interpretation of Gosford Park (2001) is that it is purposefully designed to poke fun those who take a reductionist view of 'genre', or at least on the audience's expectations. (In this case, an Edwardian-era English murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, but where no real murder or detection really takes place.) On the other hand, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is actually a poor introduction to Altman. The story is told in a suitable deliberate and slow tempo, and the two stars of the film are shown thoroughly defrocked of any 'star status', in both the visual and moral dimensions. All of these traits are, however, this film's strength, adding up to a credible, fascinating and riveting portrayal of the old West.

Detour (1945) Detour was filmed in less than a week, and it's difficult to decide out of the actors and the screenplay which is its weakest point.... Yet it still somehow seemed to drag me in. The plot revolves around luckless Al who is hitchhiking to California. Al gets a lift from a man called Haskell who quickly falls down dead from a heart attack. Al quickly buries the body and takes Haskell's money, car and identification, believing that the police will believe Al murdered him. An unstable element is soon introduced in the guise of Vera, who, through a set of coincidences that stretches credulity, knows that this 'new' Haskell (ie. Al pretending to be him) is not who he seems. Vera then attaches herself to Al in order to blackmail him, and the world starts to spin out of his control. It must be understood that none of this is executed very well. Rather, what makes Detour so interesting to watch is that its 'errors' lend a distinctively creepy and unnatural hue to the film. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud used the word unheimlich to describe the experience of something that is not simply mysterious, but something creepy in a strangely familiar way. This is almost the perfect description of watching Detour its eerie nature means that we are not only frequently second-guessed about where the film is going, but are often uncertain whether we are watching the usual objective perspective offered by cinema. In particular, are all the ham-fisted segues, stilted dialogue and inscrutable character motivations actually a product of Al inventing a story for the viewer? Did he murder Haskell after all, despite the film 'showing' us that Haskell died of natural causes? In other words, are we watching what Al wants us to believe? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the film succeeds precisely because of its accidental or inadvertent choices, so it is an implicit reminder that seeking the director's original intention in any piece of art is a complete mirage. Detour is certainly not a good film, but it just might be a great one. (It is a short film too, and, out of copyright, it is available online for free.)

Safe (1995) Safe is a subtly disturbing film about an upper-middle-class housewife who begins to complain about vague symptoms of illness. Initially claiming that she doesn't feel right, Carol starts to have unexplained headaches, a dry cough and nosebleeds, and eventually begins to have trouble breathing. Carol's family doctor treats her concerns with little care, and suggests to her husband that she sees a psychiatrist. Yet Carol's episodes soon escalate. For example, as a 'homemaker' and with nothing else to occupy her, Carol's orders a new couch for a party. But when the store delivers the wrong one (although it is not altogether clear that they did), Carol has a near breakdown. Unsure where to turn, an 'allergist' tells Carol she has "Environmental Illness," and so Carol eventually checks herself into a new-age commune filled with alternative therapies. On the surface, Safe is thus a film about the increasing about of pesticides and chemicals in our lives, something that was clearly felt far more viscerally in the 1990s. But it is also a film about how lack of genuine healthcare for women must be seen as a critical factor in the rise of crank medicine. (Indeed, it made for something of an uncomfortable watch during the coronavirus lockdown.) More interestingly, however, Safe gently-yet-critically examines the psychosocial causes that may be aggravating Carol's illnesses, including her vacant marriage, her hollow friends and the 'empty calorie' stimulus of suburbia. None of this should be especially new to anyone: the gendered Victorian term 'hysterical' is often all but spoken throughout this film, and perhaps from the very invention of modern medicine, women's symptoms have often regularly minimised or outright dismissed. (Hilary Mantel's 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost is especially harrowing on this.) As I opened this review, the film is subtle in its messaging. Just to take one example from many, the sound of the cars is always just a fraction too loud: there's a scene where a group is eating dinner with a road in the background, and the total effect can be seen as representing the toxic fumes of modernity invading our social lives and health. I won't spoiler the conclusion of this quietly devasting film, but don't expect a happy ending.

The Driver (1978) Critics grossly misunderstood The Driver when it was first released. They interpreted the cold and unemotional affect of the characters with the lack of developmental depth, instead of representing their dissociation from the society around them. This reading was encouraged by the fact that the principal actors aren't given real names and are instead known simply by their archetypes instead: 'The Driver', 'The Detective', 'The Player' and so on. This sort of quasi-Jungian erudition is common in many crime films today (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Layer Cake, Fight Club), so the critics' misconceptions were entirely reasonable in 1978. The plot of The Driver involves the eponymous Driver, a noted getaway driver for robberies in Los Angeles. His exceptional talent has far prevented him from being captured thus far, so the Detective attempts to catch the Driver by pardoning another gang if they help convict the Driver via a set-up robbery. To give himself an edge, however, The Driver seeks help from the femme fatale 'Player' in order to mislead the Detective. If this all sounds eerily familiar, you would not be far wrong. The film was essentially remade by Nicolas Winding Refn as Drive (2011) and in Edgar Wright's 2017 Baby Driver. Yet The Driver offers something that these neon-noir variants do not. In particular, the car chases around Los Angeles are some of the most captivating I've seen: they aren't thrilling in the sense of tyre squeals, explosions and flying boxes, but rather the vehicles come across like wild animals hunting one another. This feels especially so when the police are hunting The Driver, which feels less like a low-stakes game of cat and mouse than a pack of feral animals working together a gang who will tear apart their prey if they find him. In contrast to the undercar neon glow of the Fast & Furious franchise, the urban realism backdrop of the The Driver's LA metropolis contributes to a sincere feeling of artistic fidelity as well. To be sure, most of this is present in the truly-excellent Drive, where the chase scenes do really communicate a credible sense of stakes. But the substitution of The Driver's grit with Drive's soft neon tilts it slightly towards that common affliction of crime movies: style over substance. Nevertheless, I can highly recommend watching The Driver and Drive together, as it can tell you a lot about the disconnected socioeconomic practices of the 1980s compared to the 2010s. More than that, however, the pseudo-1980s synthwave soundtrack of Drive captures something crucial to analysing the world of today. In particular, these 'sounds from the past filtered through the present' bring to mind the increasing role of nostalgia for lost futures in the culture of today, where temporality and pop culture references are almost-exclusively citational and commemorational.

The Souvenir (2019) The ostensible outline of this quietly understated film follows a shy but ambitious film student who falls into an emotionally fraught relationship with a charismatic but untrustworthy older man. But that doesn't quite cover the plot at all, for not only is The Souvenir a film about a young artist who is inspired, derailed and ultimately strengthened by a toxic relationship, it is also partly a coming-of-age drama, a subtle portrait of class and, finally, a film about the making of a film. Still, one of the geniuses of this truly heartbreaking movie is that none of these many elements crowds out the other. It never, ever feels rushed. Indeed, there are many scenes where the camera simply 'sits there' and quietly observes what is going on. Other films might smother themselves through references to 18th-century oil paintings, but The Souvenir somehow evades this too. And there's a certain ring of credibility to the story as well, no doubt in part due to the fact it is based on director Joanna Hogg's own experiences at film school. A beautifully observed and multi-layered film; I'll be happy if the sequel is one-half as good.

The Wrestler (2008) Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is long past his prime, but he is still rarin' to go in the local pro-wrestling circuit. Yet after a brutal beating that seriously threatens his health, Randy hangs up his tights and pursues a serious relationship... and even tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. But Randy can't resist the lure of the ring, and readies himself for a comeback. The stage is thus set for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which is essentially about what drives Randy back to the ring. To be sure, Randy derives much of his money from wrestling as well as his 'fitness', self-image, self-esteem and self-worth. Oh, it's no use insisting that wrestling is fake, for the sport is, needless to say, Randy's identity; it's not for nothing that this film is called The Wrestler. In a number of ways, The Sound of Metal (2019) is both a reaction to (and a quiet remake of) The Wrestler, if only because both movies utilise 'cool' professions to explore such questions of identity. But perhaps simply when The Wrestler was produced makes it the superior film. Indeed, the role of time feels very important for the Wrestler. In the first instance, time is clearly taking its toll on Randy's body, but I felt it more strongly in the sense this was very much a pre-2008 film, released on the cliff-edge of the global financial crisis, and the concomitant precarity of the 2010s. Indeed, it is curious to consider that you couldn't make The Wrestler today, although not because the relationship to work has changed in any fundamentalway. (Indeed, isn't it somewhat depressing the realise that, since the start of the pandemic and the 'work from home' trend to one side, we now require even more people to wreck their bodies and mental health to cover their bills?) No, what I mean to say here is that, post-2016, you cannot portray wrestling on-screen without, how can I put it, unwelcome connotations. All of which then reminds me of Minari's notorious red hat... But I digress. The Wrestler is a grittily stark darkly humorous look into the life of a desperate man and a sorrowful world, all through one tragic profession.

Thief (1981) Frank is an expert professional safecracker and specialises in high-profile diamond heists. He plans to use his ill-gotten gains to retire from crime and build a life for himself with a wife and kids, so he signs on with a top gangster for one last big score. This, of course, could be the plot to any number of heist movies, but Thief does something different. Similar to The Wrestler and The Driver (see above) and a number of other films that I watched this year, Thief seems to be saying about our relationship to work and family in modernity and postmodernity. Indeed, the 'heist film', we are told, is an understudied genre, but part of the pleasure of watching these films is said to arise from how they portray our desired relationship to work. In particular, Frank's desire to pull off that last big job feels less about the money it would bring him, but a displacement from (or proxy for) fulfilling some deep-down desire to have a family or indeed any relationship at all. Because in theory, of course, Frank could enter into a fulfilling long-term relationship right away, without stealing millions of dollars in diamonds... but that's kinda the entire point: Frank needing just one more theft is an excuse to not pursue a relationship and put it off indefinitely in favour of 'work'. (And being Federal crimes, it also means Frank cannot put down meaningful roots in a community.) All this is communicated extremely subtly in the justly-lauded lowkey diner scene, by far the best scene in the movie. The visual aesthetic of Thief is as if you set The Warriors (1979) in a similarly-filthy Chicago, with the Xenophon-inspired plot of The Warriors replaced with an almost deliberate lack of plot development... and the allure of The Warriors' fantastical criminal gangs (with their alluringly well-defined social identities) substituted by a bunch of amoral individuals with no solidarity beyond the immediate moment. A tale of our time, perhaps. I should warn you that the ending of Thief is famously weak, but this is a gritty, intelligent and strangely credible heist movie before you get there.

Uncut Gems (2019) The most exhausting film I've seen in years; the cinematic equivalent of four cups of double espresso, I didn't even bother even trying to sleep after downing Uncut Gems late one night. Directed by the two Safdie Brothers, it often felt like I was watching two films that had been made at the same time. (Or do I mean two films at 2X speed?) No, whatever clumsy metaphor you choose to adopt, the unavoidable effect of this film's finely-tuned chaos is an uncompromising and anxiety-inducing piece of cinema. The plot follows Howard as a man lost to his countless vices mostly gambling with a significant side hustle in adultery, but you get the distinct impression he would be happy with anything that will give him another high. A true junkie's junkie, you might say. You know right from the beginning it's going to end in some kind of disaster, the only question remaining is precisely how and what. Portrayed by an (almost unrecognisable) Adam Sandler, there's an uncanny sense of distance in the emotional chasm between 'Sandler-as-junkie' and 'Sandler-as-regular-star-of-goofy-comedies'. Yet instead of being distracting and reducing the film's affect, this possibly-deliberate intertextuality somehow adds to the masterfully-controlled mayhem. My heart races just at the memory. Oof.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) I ended up watching three films that feature sand this year: Denis Villeneuve's Dune (2021), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Woman in the Dunes. But it is this last 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara that will stick in my mind in the years to come. Sure, there is none of the Medician intrigue of Dune or the Super Panavision-70 of Lawrence of Arabia (or its quasi-orientalist score, itself likely stolen from Anton Bruckner's 6th Symphony), but Woman in the Dunes doesn't have to assert its confidence so boldly, and it reveals the enormity of its plot slowly and deliberately instead. Woman in the Dunes never rushes to get to the film's central dilemma, and it uncovers its terror in little hints and insights, all whilst establishing the daily rhythm of life. Woman in the Dunes has something of the uncanny horror as Dogtooth (see above), as well as its broad range of potential interpretations. Both films permit a wide array of readings, without resorting to being deliberately obscurantist or being just plain random it is perhaps this reason why I enjoyed them so much. It is true that asking 'So what does the sand mean?' sounds tediously sophomoric shorn of any context, but it somehow applies to this thoughtfully self-contained piece of cinema.

A Quiet Place (2018) Although A Quiet Place was not actually one of the best films I saw this year, I'm including it here as it is certainly one of the better 'mainstream' Hollywood franchises I came across. Not only is the film very ably constructed and engages on a visceral level, I should point out that it is rare that I can empathise with the peril of conventional horror movies (and perhaps prefer to focus on its cultural and political aesthetics), but I did here. The conceit of this particular post-apocalyptic world is that a family is forced to live in almost complete silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound alone. Still, A Quiet Place engages on an intellectual level too, and this probably works in tandem with the pure 'horrorific' elements and make it stick into your mind. In particular, and to my mind at least, A Quiet Place a deeply American conservative film below the surface: it exalts the family structure and a certain kind of sacrifice for your family. (The music often had a passacaglia-like strain too, forming a tombeau for America.) Moreover, you survive in this dystopia by staying quiet that is to say, by staying stoic suggesting that in the wake of any conflict that might beset the world, the best thing to do is to keep quiet. Even communicating with your loved ones can be deadly to both of you, so not emote, acquiesce quietly to your fate, and don't, whatever you do, speak up. (Or join a union.) I could go on, but The Quiet Place is more than this. It's taut and brief, and despite cinema being an increasingly visual medium, it encourages its audience to develop a new relationship with sound.

8 January 2022

Jonathan Dowland: 2021 in Fiction

Cover for *This is How You Lose the Time War*
Cover for *Robot*
Cover for *The Glass Hotel*
Following on from last year's round-up of my reading, here's a look at the fiction I enjoyed in 2021. I managed to read 42 books in 2021, up from 31 last year. That's partly to do with buying an ereader: 33/36% of my reading (by pages/by books) was ebooks. I think this demonstrates that ebooks have mostly complemented paper books for me, rather than replacing them. My book of the year (although it was published in 2019) was This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: A short epistolary love story between warring time travellers and quite unlike anything else I've read for a long time. Other notables were The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel and Robot by Adam Wi niewski-Snerg. The biggest disappointment for me was The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR), which I haven't even finished. I love KSRs writing: I've written about him many times on this blog, at least in 2002, 2006 and 2009, I think I've read every other novel he's published and most of his short stories. But this one was too much of something for me. He's described this novel a the end-point of a particular journey and approach to writing he's taken, which I felt relieved to learn, assuming he writes any more novels (and I really hope that he does) they will likely be in a different "mode". My "new author discovery" for 2021 was Chris Beckett: I tore through Two Tribes and America City before promptly buying all his other work. He fits roughly into the same bracket as Adam Roberts and Christopher Priest, two of my other favourite authors. 5 of the books I read (12%) were from my "backlog" of already-purchased physical books. I'd like to try and reduce my Backlog further so I hope to push this figure up next year. I made a small effort to read more diverse authors this year. 24% of the books I read (by book count and page count) were by women. 15% by page count were (loosely) BAME (19% by book count). Again I'd like to increase these numbers modestly in 2022. Unlike 2020, I didn't complete any short story collections in 2021! This is partly because there was only one issue of Interzone published in all of 2021, a double-issue which I haven't yet finished. This is probably a sad date point in terms of Interzone's continued existence, but it's not dead yet.

6 January 2022

Jacob Adams: Linux Hibernation Documentation

Recently I ve been curious about how hibernation works on Linux, as it s an interesting interaction between hardware and software. There are some notes in the Arch wiki and the kernel documentation (as well as some kernel documentation on debugging hibernation and on sleep states more generally), and of course the ACPI Specification

The Formal Definition ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) is, according to the spec, an architecture-independent power management and configuration framework that forms a subsystem within the host OS which defines a hardware register set to define power states. ACPI defines four global system states G0, working/on, G1, sleeping, G2, soft off, and G3, mechanical off1. Within G1 there are 4 sleep states, numbered S1 through S4. There are also S0 and S5, which are equivalent to G0 and G2 respectively2.

Sleep According to the spec, the ACPI S1-S4 states all do the same thing from the operating system s perspective, but each saves progressively more power, so the operating system is expected to pick the deepest of these states when entering sleep. However, most operating systems3 distinguish between S1-S3, which are typically referred to as sleep or suspend, and S4, which is typically referred to as hibernation.

S1: CPU Stop and Cache Wipe The CPU caches are wiped and then the CPU is stopped, which the spec notes is equivalent to the WBINVD instruction followed by the STPCLK signal on x86. However, nothing is powered off.

S2: Processor Power off The system stops the processor and most system clocks (except the real time clock), then powers off the processor. Upon waking, the processor will not continue what it was doing before, but instead use its reset vector4.

S3: Suspend/Sleep (Suspend-to-RAM) Mostly equivalent to S2, but hardware ensures that only memory and whatever other hardware memory requires are powered.

S4: Hibernate (Suspend-to-Disk) In this state, all hardware is completely powered off and an image of the system is written to disk, to be restored from upon reapplying power. Writing the system image to disk can be handled by the operating system if supported, or by the firmware.

Linux Sleep States Linux has its own set of sleep states which mostly correspond with ACPI states.

Suspend-to-Idle This is a software only sleep that puts all hardware into the lowest power state it can, suspends timekeeping, and freezes userspace processes. All userspace and some kernel threads5, except those tagged with PF_NOFREEZE, are frozen before the system enters a sleep state. Frozen tasks are sent to the __refrigerator(), where they set TASK_UNINTERRUPTIBLE and PF_FROZEN and infinitely loop until PF_FROZEN is unset6. This prevents these tasks from doing anything during the imaging process. Any userspace process running on a different CPU while the kernel is trying to create a memory image would cause havoc. This is also done because any filesystem changes made during this would be lost and could cause the filesystem and its related in-memory structures to become inconsistent. Also, creating a hibernation image requires about 50% of memory free, so no tasks should be allocating memory, which freezing also prevents.

Standby This is equivalent to ACPI S1.

Suspend-to-RAM This is equivalent to ACPI S3.

Hibernation Hibernation is mostly equivalent to ACPI S4 but does not require S4, only requiring low-level code for resuming the system to be present for the underlying CPU architecture according to the Linux sleep state docs. To hibernate, everything is stopped and the kernel takes a snapshot of memory. Then, the system writes out the memory image to disk. Finally, the system either enters S4 or turns off completely. When the system restores power it boots a new kernel, which looks for a hibernation image and loads it into memory. It then overwrites itself with the hibernation image and jumps to a resume area of the original kernel7. The resumed kernel restores the system to its previous state and resumes all processes.

Hybrid Suspend Hybrid suspend does not correspond to an official ACPI state, but instead is effectively a combination of S3 and S4. The system writes out a hibernation image, but then enters suspend-to-RAM. If the system wakes up from suspend it will discard the hibernation image, but if the system loses power it can safely restore from the hibernation image.
  1. The difference between soft and mechanical off is that mechanical off is entered and left by a mechanical means (for example, turning off the system s power through the movement of a large red switch)
  2. It s unclear to me why G and S states overlap like this. I assume this is a relic of an older spec that only had S states, but I have not as yet found any evidence of this. If someone has any information on this, please let me know and I ll update this footnote.
  3. Of the operating systems I know of that support ACPI sleep states (I checked Windows, Mac, Linux, and the three BSDs8), only MacOS does not allow the user to deliberately enable hibernation, instead supporting a hybrid suspend it calls safe sleep
  4. The reset vector of a processor is the default location where, upon a reset, the processor will go to find the first instruction to execute. In other words, the reset vector is a pointer or address where the processor should always begin its execution. This first instruction typically branches to the system initialization code. Xiaocong Fan, Real-Time Embedded Systems, 2015
  5. All kernel threads are tagged with PF_NOFREEZE by default, so they must specifically opt-in to task freezing.
  6. This is not from the docs, but from kernel/freezer.c which also notes Refrigerator is place where frozen processes are stored :-).
  7. This is the operation that requires special architecture-specific low-level code .
  8. Interestingly NetBSD has a setting to enable hibernation, but does not actually support hibernation

3 January 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Crashed

Review: Crashed, by Adam Tooze
Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2018
Printing: 2019
ISBN: 0-525-55880-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 615
The histories of the 2008 financial crisis that I have read focus almost exclusively on the United States. They also stop after the bank rescue and TARP or, if they press on into the aftermath, focus on the resulting damage to the US economy and the widespread pain of falling housing prices and foreclosure. Crashed does neither, instead arguing that 2008 was a crisis of European banks as much as American banks. It extends its history to cover the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, treating it as a continuation of the same crisis in a different guise. In the process, Tooze makes a compelling argument that one can draw a clear, if wandering, line from the moral revulsion at the propping up of the international banking system to Brexit and Trump. Qualifications first, since they are important for this type of comprehensive and, in places, surprising and counterintuitive history. Adam Tooze is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University and the director of its European Institute. His previous books have won multiple awards, and Crashed won the Lionel Gelber Prize for non-fiction on foreign policy. That it won a prize in that topic, rather than history or economics, is a hint at Tooze's chosen lens. The first half of the book is the lead-up and response to the crisis provoked by the collapse in value of securitized US mortgages and leading to the failure of Lehman Brothers, the failure in all but name of AIG, and a massive bank rescue. The financial instruments at the center of the crisis are complex and difficult to understand, and Tooze provides only brief explanation. This therefore may not be the best first book on the crisis; for that, I would still recommend Bethany McClean and Joe Nocera's All the Devils Are Here, although it's hard to beat Michael Lewis's storytelling in The Big Short. Tooze is not interested in dwelling on a blow-by-blow account of the crisis and initial response, and some of his account feels perfunctory. He is instead interested in describing its entangled global sweep. The new detail I took from the first half of Crashed is the depth of involvement of the European banks in what is often portrayed as a US crisis. Tooze goes into more specifics than other accounts on the eurodollar market, run primarily through the City of London, and the vast dollar-denominated liabilities of European banks. When the crisis struck, the breakdown of liquidity markets left those banks with no source of dollar funding to repay dollar-denominated short-term loans. The scale of dollar borrowing by European banks was vast, dwarfing the currency reserves or trade surpluses of their home countries. An estimate from the Bank of International Settlements put the total dollar funding needs for European banks at more than $2 trillion. The institution that saved the European banks was the United States Federal Reserve. This was an act of economic self-protection, not largesse; in the absence of dollar liquidity, the fire sale of dollar assets by European banks in a desperate attempt to cover their loans would have exacerbated the market crash. But it's remarkable in its extent, and in how deeply this contradicts the later public political position that 2008 was an American recession caused by American banks. 52% of the mortgage-backed securities purchased by the Federal Reserve in its quantitative easing policies (popularly known as QE1, QE2, and QE3) were sold by foreign banks. Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse unloaded more securities on the Fed than any American bank by a significant margin. And when that wasn't enough, the Fed went farther and extended swap lines to major national banks, providing them dollar liquidity that they could then pass along to their local institutions. In essence, in Tooze's telling, the US Federal Reserve became the reserve bank for the entire world, preventing a currency crisis by providing dollars to financial systems both foreign and domestic, and it did so with a remarkable lack of scrutiny. Its swap lines avoided public review until 2010, when Bloomberg won a court fight to extract the records. That allowed the European banks that benefited to hide the extent of their exposure.
In Europe, the bullish CEOs of Deutsche Bank and Barclays claimed exceptional status because they avoided taking aid from their national governments. What the Fed data reveal is the hollowness of those boasts. The banks might have avoided state-sponsored recapitalization, but every major bank in the entire world was taking liquidity assistance on a grand scale from its local central bank, and either directly or indirectly by way of the swap lines from the Fed.
The emergency steps taken by Timothy Geithner in the Treasury Department were nearly as dramatic as those of the Federal Reserve. Without regard for borders, and pushing the boundary of their legal authority, they intervened massively in the world (not just the US) economy to save the banking and international finance system. And it worked. One of the benefits of a good history is to turn stories about heroes and villains into more nuanced information about motives and philosophies. I came away from Sheila Bair's account of the crisis furious at Geithner's protection of banks from any meaningful consequences for their greed. Tooze's account, and analysis, agrees with Bair in many respects, but Bair was continuing a personal fight and Tooze has more space to put Geithner into context. That context tells an interesting story about the shape of political economics in the 21st century. Tooze identifies Geithner as an institutionalist. His goal was to keep the system running, and he was acutely aware of what would happen if it failed. He therefore focused on the pragmatic and the practical: the financial system was about to collapse, he did whatever was necessary to keep it working, and that effort was successful. Fairness, fault, and morals were treated as irrelevant. This becomes more obvious when contrasted with the eurozone crisis, which started with a Greek debt crisis in the wake of the recession triggered by the 2008 crisis. Greece is tiny by the standards of the European economy, so at first glance there is no obvious reason why its debt crisis should have perturbed the financial system. Under normal circumstances, its lenders should have been able to absorb such relatively modest losses. But the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis was not normal circumstances, particularly in Europe. The United States had moved aggressively to recapitalize its banks using the threat of compensation caps and government review of their decisions. The European Union had not; European countries had done very little, and their banks were still in a fragile state. Worse, the European Central Bank had sent signals that the market interpreted as guaranteeing the safety of all European sovereign debt equally, even though this was explicitly ruled out by the Lisbon Treaty. If Greece defaulted on its debt, not only would that be another shock to already-precarious banks, it would indicate to the market that all European debt was not equal and other countries may also be allowed to default. As the shape of the Greek crisis became clearer, the cost of borrowing for all of the economically weaker European countries began rising towards unsustainable levels. In contrast to the approach taken by the United States government, though, Europe took a moralistic approach to the crisis. Jean-Claude Trichet, then president of the European Central Bank, held the absolute position that defaulting on or renegotiating the Greek debt was unthinkable and would not be permitted, even though there was no realistic possibility that Greece would be able to repay. He also took a conservative hard line on the role of the ECB, arguing that it could not assist in this crisis. (Tooze is absolutely scathing towards Trichet, who comes off in this account as rigidly inflexible, volatile, and completely irrational.) Germany's position, represented by Angela Merkel, was far more realistic: Greece's debt should be renegotiated and the creditors would have to accept losses. This is, in Tooze's account, clearly correct, and indeed is what eventually happened. But the problem with Merkel's position was the potential fallout. The German government was still in denial about the health of its own banks, and political opinion, particularly in Merkel's coalition, was strongly opposed to making German taxpayers responsible for other people's debts. Stopping the progression of a Greek default to a loss of confidence in other European countries would require backstopping European sovereign debt, and Merkel was not willing to support this. Tooze is similarly scathing towards Merkel, but I'm not sure it's warranted by his own account. She seemed, even in his account, boxed in by domestic politics and the tight constraints of the European political structure. Regardless, even after Trichet's term ended and he was replaced by the far more pragmatic Mario Draghi, Germany and Merkel continued to block effective action to relieve Greece's debt burden. As a result, the crisis lurched from inadequate stopgap to inadequate stopgap, forcing crippling austerity, deep depressions, and continued market instability while pretending unsustainable debt would magically become payable through sufficient tax increases and spending cuts. US officials such as Geithner, who put morals and arguably legality aside to do whatever was needed to save the system, were aghast. One takeaway from this is that expansionary austerity is the single worst macroeconomic idea that anyone has ever had.
In the summer of 2012 [the IMF's] staff revisited the forecasts they had made in the spring of 2010 as the eurozone crisis began and discovered that they had systematically underestimated the negative impact of budget cuts. Whereas they had started the crisis believing that the multiplier was on average around 0.5, they now concluded that from 2010 forward it had been in excess of 1. This meant that cutting government spending by 1 euro, as the austerity programs demanded, would reduce economic activity by more than 1 euro. So the share of the state in economic activity actually increased rather than decreased, as the programs presupposed. It was a staggering admission. Bad economics and faulty empirical assumptions had led the IMF to advocate a policy that destroyed the economic prospects for a generation of young people in Southern Europe.
Another takeaway, though, is central to Tooze's point in the final section of the book: the institutionalists in the United States won the war on financial collapse via massive state interventions to support banks and the financial system, a model that Europe grudgingly had to follow when attempting to reject it caused vast suffering while still failing to stabilize the financial system. But both did so via actions that were profoundly and obviously unfair, and only questionably legal. Bankers suffered few consequences for their greed and systematic mismanagement, taking home their normal round of bonuses while millions of people lost their homes and unemployment rates for young men in some European countries exceeded 50%. In Europe, the troika's political pressure against Greece and Italy was profoundly anti-democratic. The financial elite achieved their goal of saving the financial system. It could have failed, that failure would have been catastrophic, and their actions are defensible on pragmatic grounds. But they completely abandoned the moral high ground in the process. The political forces opposed to centrist neoliberalism attempted to step into that moral gap. On the Left, that came in the form of mass protest movements, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and parties such as Syriza in Greece. The Left, broadly, took the moral side of debtors, holding that the primary pain of the crisis should instead be born by the wealthy creditors who were more able to absorb it. The Right by contrast, in the form of the Tea Party movement inside the Republican Party in the United States and the nationalist parties in Europe, broadly blamed debtors for taking on excessive debt and focused their opposition on use of taxpayer dollars to bail out investment banks and other institutions of the rich. Tooze correctly points out that the Right's embrace of racist nationalism and incoherent demagoguery obscures the fact that their criticism of the elite center has real merit and is partly shared by the Left. As Tooze sketches out, the elite centrist consensus held in most of Europe, beating back challenges from both the Left and the Right, although it faltered in the UK, Poland, and Hungary. In the United States, the Democratic Party similarly solidified around neoliberalism and saw off its challenges from the Left. The Republican Party, however, essentially abandoned the centrist position, embracing the Right. That left the Democratic Party as the sole remaining neoliberal institutionalist party, supplemented by a handful of embattled Republican centrists. Wall Street and its money swung to the Democratic Party, but it was deeply unpopular on both the Left and the Right and this shift may have hurt them more than helped. The Democrats, by not abandoning the center, bore the brunt of the residual anger over the bank bailout and subsequent deep recession. Tooze sees in that part of the explanation for Trump's electoral victory over Hilary Clinton. This review is already much too long, and I haven't even mentioned Tooze's clear explanation of the centrality of treasury bonds to world finances, or his discussions of Russian and Ukraine, China, or Brexit, all of which I thought were excellent. This is not only an comprehensive history of both of the crises and international politics of the time period. It is also a thought-provoking look at how drastic of interventions are required to keep the supposed free market working, who is left to suffer after those interventions, and the political consequences of the choice to prioritize the stability of a deeply inequitable and unsafe financial system. At least in the United States, there is now a major political party that is likely to oppose even mundane international financial institutions, let alone another major intervention. The neoliberal center is profoundly weakened. But nothing has been done to untangle the international financial system, and little has been done to reduce its risk. The world will go into the next financial challenge still suffering from a legitimacy crisis. Given the miserly, condescending, and dismissive treatment of the suffering general populace after moving heaven and earth to save the banking system, that legitimacy crisis is arguably justified, but an uncontrolled crash of the financial system is not likely to be any kinder to the average citizen than it is to the investment bankers. Crashed is not the best-written book at a sentence-by-sentence level. Tooze's prose is choppy and a bit awkward, and his paragraphs occasionally wander away from a clear point. But the content is excellent and thought-provoking, filling in large sections of the crisis picture that I had not previously been aware of and making a persuasive argument for its continuing effects on current politics. Recommended if you're not tired of reading about financial crises. Rating: 8 out of 10

31 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Space Between Worlds

Review: The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-593-13506-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 327
Cara is valuable because, in most places, she's dead. In the world of Earth Zero, as the employees of the Eldridge Institute call it, a scientific genius named Adam Bosch developed the ability to travel between parallel worlds. This ability is not limitless, however. One restriction is that the parallel world has to be very close; large divergences of history render them unreachable. The other restriction is that anyone who attempts to travel to a world in which the local version of themselves is still alive is rejected: physically mangled in ways that result in a very short remaining lifespan. Earth Zero has not found a way to send information between worlds without sending people there physically to collect it. Those people are traversers, and their value lies in how many of their parallel selves have died. Each death in one of the 380 worlds Earth Zero can reach means another world that person can traverse to. They are the transportation system for a network of information-gathering nodes, whose collected contents are mined for stock tips, political cautions, and other information of value. Cara is dead on 372 worlds, and thus provides valuable savings on employee salaries. These related worlds are not so much post-apocalyptic as a continuation of current wealth disparity trends, although it's also clear that the climate has gotten worse. The Eldridge Institute, which controls traversing, is based in Wiley City, a walled, climate-controlled arcology of skyscrapers with a dome that filters out the dangerous sun. Its citizens are rich, with the best social support that money can buy. They are not interested in immigrants, unless they are extremely valuable. Cara is not from Wiley City. She is from Ashtown, the encampment in the desert outside of Wiley City's walls. That's part of the explanation for her death rate; in Ashtown, there are only a few ways to survive, particularly if one is not from the stiflingly religious Rurals, and most of them are dependent on being in the good graces of the local warlord and his Mad-Max-style enforcers. Being a traverser gets Cara out of Ashtown and into Wiley City, but not as a citizen, although that's dangled vaguely as a possible future prize. She's simply an employee, on a work permit, who enjoys the comforts of Wiley City for exactly as long as she's useful. Meanwhile, she juggles the demands of her job, her attraction to her watcher Dell, and her family in Ashtown. She is profoundly, aggressively cynical. Cara is also not precisely who people think she is. The Space Between Worlds pulls off a beautifully elegant combination of two science fiction subgenres: parallel universes and time travel. Both have been part of science fiction for decades, but normally parallel universes are substantially different from each other. Major historical events go differently, Nazis win World War II, Spock has a goatee, etc. Minor deviations are more often the subject of time travel stories, as travelers attempt to tweak the past and influence the future. Johnson instead provides the minor variations and small divergences of time travel stories in a parallel world framework, with no actual time travel involved or possible. The resulting story shows the same ripple effect of small differences, but the future remains unwritten and unconstrained, which avoids the stiflingly closed feeling of most time travel plots. Against that backdrop is set a story of corporate and personal intrigue, but one with a far deeper understanding of class and place than almost all of science fiction. Cara is not from Ashtown in the normal sense of science fiction novels written by comfortably middle-class white authors about protagonists from the wrong side of the tracks, who show their merit and then never look back. Cara is from Ashtown in a way that means she misses the taste of its dirt and understands its people and feels seen there. Wiley City knows very well that she's from Ashtown, and doesn't let her forget it. This type of ambiguous relationship with place and wealth, and deep connection to where one comes from, is so rare in science fiction, and it's beautifully written here. Cara wants to be in Wiley City over the alternative; the potential loss of her job is a real threat. But at the same time she is not at home there, because she is not visible there. Everything is slightly off, she has no one she can really talk to, and her reactions don't quite fit. No one understands her the way that her family in Ashtown does. And yet, by living in Wiley City, she is becoming less at home in Ashtown as well. She is becoming an outsider. It takes about 70 pages for the story in The Space Between Worlds to really get started. Those first 70 pages is very important background information that the rest of the story builds on, but they weren't that engrossing. Once the story kicks into gear, though, it's a tense, complicated story that I had a hard time predicting and an even harder time putting down. It's not perfect (more on that in a moment), but Johnson weaves together Cara's sense of place, her family connections, her sense of self, and her internal moral compass to create a memorable protagonist in a page-turning plot with a satisfying payoff. She uses our ability to look in on several versions of each character to give them additional satisfying heft and depth. Esther, Cara's highly religious sister, is the most delightful character in this book, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who usually doesn't like highly religious characters. I do have some world-building quibbles, and came up with more when I mulled over the book after finishing it, so you may need to strengthen your suspension of disbelief. The passive information gathering via traversing made a lot of sense; the bulk import of raw materials via the industrial hatch makes less sense given the constraints of the world. (Who is loading those materials into the other side? Or are they somehow traversing them directly out of the ground? Wouldn't someone notice?) The plot also partly hinges on a bit of lost technology that is extremely difficult to square with the rest of the setting, and felt like a transparent justification for introducing Mad Max elements into the setting. The quibble I noticed the most may be unavoidable given the setting: alternate worlds with slightly different versions of the same characters creates a potential explosion in cast size, which Johnson deals with by focusing on the cross-world variations of a small number of characters. I like all of those characters, but it does give the story a bit of an incestuous feel. The politics of every world revolve around the same ten people, and no one else seems to matter (or usually even has a name). That said, a small cast is a better problem to have than a confusing cast. Johnson does a great job helping the reader keep all the characters and relationships straight across their alternate world variations. I didn't realize until after I finished the book how difficult that probably was, which is the sign of a job well done. I do also have to complain about how completely dense Cara is when it comes to Dell, but I won't say any more than that to avoid spoilers. There are some things I figured out way before Cara did, though, and that made her behavior rather frustrating. This is an extremely impressive first novel that does some lovely things with genre and even more impressive things with social class and mobility. It's a little rough in places, you have to bear with the first 70 pages, and the ending, while a fitting conclusion to the emotional arc, seemed wildly unbelievable to me given the events of the plot. But it's very much worth reading despite those flaws. Johnson respects her characters and their culture and their world, and it shows. This was one of the best science fiction novels I read in 2021. (Content warning for physical and emotional partner abuse.) Rating: 8 out of 10

20 December 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppSMC 0.2.6 on CRAN: Compiler Update

A new maintenance RcppSMC release 0.2.6 arrived at CRAN yesterday. It chiefly updates the code to comply with g++-11 which default to C++17 which brings us std::data(). And if one is not careful, as we weren t in three files, this can clash with other uses of data as I tweeted a good week ago. Otherwise some JSS URLs now sport the preferred shorter doi form. RcppSMC provides Rcpp-based bindings to R for the Sequential Monte Carlo Template Classes (SMCTC) by Adam Johansen described in his JSS article. Sequential Monte Carlo is also referred to as Particle Filter in some contexts. The package features the Google Summer of Code work by Leah South in 2017, and by Ilya Zarubin in 2021. This release is summarized below.

Changes in RcppSMC version 0.2.6 (2021-12-17)
  • Updated URLs to JSS for the new DOI scheme upon their request
  • Adjusted three source files for C++17 compilation under g++-11

Courtesy of my CRANberries, there is a diffstat report for this release. More information is on the RcppSMC page. Issues and bugreports should go to the GitHub issue tracker. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

16 December 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RProtoBuf 0.4.18: Multiple Updates

A new release 0.4.18 of RProtoBuf arrived on CRAN earlier today. RProtoBuf provides R with bindings for the Google Protocol Buffers ( ProtoBuf ) data encoding and serialization library used and released by Google, and deployed very widely in numerous projects as a language and operating-system agnostic protocol. This release, the first since March of last year, contains two contributed pull requests improving or extending the package, some internal maintance updating the CI setup as well as retiring an old-yet-unused stub interface for RPC, as well as an update for UCRT builds on Windows. The following section from the NEWS.Rd file has more details.

Changes in RProtoBuf version 0.4.18 (2021-12-15)
  • Support string_view in FindMethodByName() (Adam Cozzette in #72).
  • CI use was updated first at Travis, later at GitHub and now uses r-ci (Dirk in #74 and (parts of) #76).
  • The (to the best of our knowledge) unused minimal RPC mechanism has been removed, retiring one method and one class as well as the import of the RCurl package (Dirk in #76).
  • The toJSON() method supports two (upstream) formatting toggles (Vitali Spinu in #79 with minor edit by Dirk).
  • Windows UCRT builds are now supported (Jeroen in #81, Dirk and Tomas Kalibera in #82).

Thanks to my CRANberries, there is a diff to the previous release. The RProtoBuf page has copies of the (older) package vignette, the quick overview vignette, and the pre-print of our JSS paper. Questions, comments etc should go to the GitHub issue tracker off the GitHub repo. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

29 November 2021

Russ Allbery: Fall haul

It's been a while since I've posted one of these, and I also may have had a few moments of deciding to support authors by buying their books even if I'm not going to get a chance to read them soon. There's also a bit of work reading in here. Ryka Aoki Light from Uncommon Stars (sff)
Frederick R. Chromey To Measure the Sky (non-fiction)
Neil Gaiman, et al. Sandman: Overture (graphic novel)
Alix E. Harrow A Spindle Splintered (sff)
Jordan Ifueko Raybearer (sff)
Jordan Ifueko Redemptor (sff)
T. Kingfisher Paladin's Hope (sff)
TJ Klune Under the Whispering Door (sff)
Kiese Laymon How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (non-fiction)
Yuna Lee Fox You (romance)
Tim Mak Misfire (non-fiction)
Naomi Novik The Last Graduate (sff)
Shelley Parker-Chan She Who Became the Sun (sff)
Gareth L. Powell Embers of War (sff)
Justin Richer & Antonio Sanso OAuth 2 in Action (non-fiction)
Dean Spade Mutual Aid (non-fiction)
Lana Swartz New Money (non-fiction)
Adam Tooze Shutdown (non-fiction)
Bill Watterson The Essential Calvin and Hobbes (strip collection)
Bill Willingham, et al. Fables: Storybook Love (graphic novel)
David Wong Real-World Cryptography (non-fiction)
Neon Yang The Black Tides of Heaven (sff)
Neon Yang The Red Threads of Fortune (sff)
Neon Yang The Descent of Monsters (sff)
Neon Yang The Ascent to Godhood (sff)
Xiran Jay Zhao Iron Widow (sff)

3 November 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RDieHarder 0.2.2 on CRAN: Simpler Build, Fixes

An updated version 0.2.2 of the random-number generator tester RDieHarder (based on the DieHarder suite developed / maintained by Robert Brown with contributions by David Bauer and myself) is now on CRAN. I should dub this the due to Brian Ripley release. He sent me a detailed five-point email a few days ago which detailed a change I could not have tested ( no access ), a change I would not have known ( somewhat obscure C language bit-level manipulation ), a change I had missed (how my build setup failed for M1mac), another advanced C level fix, and one more simple fix I actually knew. Speechless. The man (I presume) does not sleep and is just so generous with his time and expertise. So based on the input I rejigged the package over the weekend and made two more (substantial) changes. First, extending on what 0.2.0 brought, I will no longer attempt to use an external libdieharder library (or build one on the fly) that was issue one. Now we just declare all C files as dependents of the package shared library, and things are simpler and more consistent. Sadly, that also implies everything is in the package so I had to edit out a metric ton of stdout or exit() reference with the appropriate R C API hooks to appease the CRAN Policy deities. Win some, loose some. But the package is now simpler, and cleaner, and should be in good standing. (Or so one hopes. Earlier today, and within hours of it hitting CRAN, I got an issue ticket from a motivated user about yet another ( mostly harmless in the Douglas Adams sense) compiler warning Good now too.) Thanks to CRANberries, you can also look at the most recent diff. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

2 October 2021

Jacob Adams: SSH Port Forwarding and the Command Cargo Cult

Someone is Wrong on the Internet If you look up how to only forward ports with ssh, you may come across solutions like this:
ssh -nNT -L 8000:example.com:80 user@bastion.example.com
Or perhaps this, if you also wanted to send ssh to the background:
ssh -NT -L 3306:db.example.com:3306 example.com &
Both of these use at least one option that is entirely redundant, and the second can cause ssh to fail to connect if you happen to be using password authentication. However, they seem to still persist in various articles about ssh port forwarding. I myself was using the first variation until just recently, and I figured I would write this up to inform others who might be still using these solutions. The correct option for this situation is not -nNT but simply -N, as in:
ssh -N -L 8000:example.com:80 user@bastion.example.com
If you want to also send ssh to the background, then you ll want to add -f instead of using your shell s built-in & feature, because you can then input passwords into ssh if necessary1 Honestly, that s the point of this article, so you can stop here if you want. If you re looking for a detailed explaination of what each of these options actually does, or if you have no idea what I m talking about, read on!

What is SSH Port Forwarding? ssh is a powerful tool for remote access to servers, allowing you to execute commands on a remote machine. It can also forward ports through a secure tunnel with the -L and -R options. Basically, you can forward a connection to a local port to a remote server like so:
ssh -L 8080:other.example.com:80 ssh.example.com
In this example, you connect to ssh.example.com and then ssh forwards any traffic on your local machine port 80802 to other.example.com port 80 via ssh.example.com. This is a really powerful feature, allowing you to jump3 inside your firewall with just an ssh server exposed to the world. It can work in reverse as well with the -R option, allowing connections on a remote host in to a server running on your local machine. For example, say you were running a website on your local machine on port 8080 but wanted it accessible on example.com port 804. You could use something like:
ssh -R 8080:example.com:80 example.com
The trouble with ssh port forwarding is that, absent any additional options, you also open a shell on the remote machine. If you re planning to both work on a remote machine and use it to forward some connection, this is fine, but if you just need to forward a port quickly and don t care about a shell at that moment, it can be annoying, especially since if the shell closes ssh will close the forwarding port as well. This is where the -N option comes in.

SSH just forwarding ports In the ssh manual page5, -N is explained like so:
Do not execute a remote command. This is useful for just forwarding ports.
This is all we need. It instructs ssh to run no commands on the remote server, just forward the ports specified in the -L or -R options. But people seem to think that there are a bunch of other necessary options, so what do those do?

SSH and stdin -n controls how ssh interacts with standard input, specifically telling it not to:
Redirects stdin from /dev/null (actually, prevents reading from stdin). This must be used when ssh is run in the background. A common trick is to use this to run X11 programs on a remote machine. For example, ssh -n shadows.cs.hut.fi emacs & will start an emacs on shadows.cs.hut.fi, and the X11 connection will be automatically for warded over an encrypted channel. The ssh program will be put in the background. (This does not work if ssh needs to ask for a password or passphrase; see also the -f option.)

SSH passwords and backgrounding -f sends ssh to background, freeing up the terminal in which you ran ssh to do other things.
Requests ssh to go to background just before command execution. This is useful if ssh is going to ask for passwords or passphrases, but the user wants it in the background. This implies -n. The recommended way to start X11 programs at a remote site is with something like ssh -f host xterm.
As indicated in the description of -n, this does the same thing as using the shell s & feature with -n, but allows you to put in any necessary passwords first.

SSH and pseudo-terminals -T is a little more complicated than the others and has a very short explanation:
Disable pseudo-terminal allocation.
It has a counterpart in -t, which is explained a little better:
Force pseudo-terminal allocation. This can be used to execute arbitrary screen-based programs on a remote machine, which can be very useful, e.g. when implementing menu services. Multiple -t options force tty allocation, even if ssh has no local tty.
As the description of -t indicates, ssh is allocating a pseudo-terminal on the remote machine, not the local one. However, I have confirmed6 that -N doesn t allocate a pseudo-terminal either, since it doesn t run any commands. Thus this option is entirely unnecessary.

What s a pseudo-terminal? This is a bit complicated, but basically it s an interface used in UNIX-like systems, like Linux or BSD, that pretends to be a terminal (thus pseudo-terminal). Programs like your shell, or any text-based menu system made in libraries like ncurses, expect to be connected to one (when used interactively at least). Basically it fakes as if the input it is given (over the network, in the case of ssh) was typed on a physical terminal device and do things like raise an interrupt (SIGINT) if Ctrl+C is pressed.

Why? I don t know why these incorrect uses of ssh got passed around as correct, but I suspect it s a form of cargo cult, where we use example commands others provide and don t question what they do. One stack overflow answer I read that provided these options seemed to think -T was disabling the local pseudo-terminal, which might go some way towards explaining why they thought it was necessary. I guess the moral of this story is to question everything and actually read the manual, instead of just googling it.
  1. Not that you SHOULD be using ssh with password authentication anyway, but people do.
  2. Only on your loopback address by default, so that you re not allowing random people on your network to use your tunnel.
  3. In fact, ssh even supports Jump Hosts, allowing you to automatically forward an ssh connection through another machine.
  4. I can t say I recommend a setup like this for anything serious, as you d need to ssh as root to forward ports less than 1024. SSH forwarding is not for permanent solutions, just short-lived connections to machines that would be otherwise inaccessible.
  5. Specifically, my source is the ssh(1) manual page in OpenSSH 8.4, shipped as 1:8.4p1-5 in Debian bullseye.
  6. I just forwarded ports with -N and then logged in to that same machine and looked at psuedo-terminal allocations via ps ux. No terminal is associated with ssh connections using just the -N option.

21 September 2021

Clint Adams: Outrage culture killed my dog

Why can't Debian have embarrassing flamewars like this thread?
Posted on 2021-09-21
Tags: barks

9 September 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppSMC 0.2.5 on CRAN: Build Update

A week after the 0.2.5 release bringing the recent Google Summer of Code for RcppSMC to CRAN, we have a minor bug-fix release consistently, essentially, of one line. Everybody s favourite OS and toolchain did not know what to make of pow(), and I seemingly failed to test there, so shame on me. But now all is good thanks to proper use of std::pow(). RcppSMC provides Rcpp-based bindings to R for the Sequential Monte Carlo Template Classes (SMCTC) by Adam Johansen described in his JSS article. Sequential Monte Carlo is also referred to as Particle Filter in some contexts. The package now features the Google Summer of Code work by Leah South in 2017, and by Ilya Zarubin in 2021. This release is summarized below.

Changes in RcppSMC version 0.2.5 (2021-09-09)
  • Compilation under Solaris is aided via std::pow use (Dirk in #65 fixing #64)

Courtesy of my CRANberries, there is a diffstat report for this release. More information is on the RcppSMC page. Issues and bugreports should go to the GitHub issue tracker. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

3 September 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppSMC 0.2.4 on CRAN: Even More GSoC !!

A brand new release 0.2.4 of the RcppSMC package arrived on CRAN earlier today, with a dual delay for CRAN closing for a well-earned break, and then being overwhelmed when reopening. Other than that the processing was again versy smooth. RcppSMC provides Rcpp-based bindings to R for the Sequential Monte Carlo Template Classes (SMCTC) by Adam Johansen described in his JSS article. Sequential Monte Carlo is also referred to as Particle Filter in some contexts. The package started when I put some Rcpp bindings together based on Adam s paper and library. It grew when Adam and I supervised Leah South during the 2017 iteration of the Google Summer of Code. And now it grew again as we have Adam, Leah and myself looking over the shoulders of Ilya Zarubin who did very fine work during the 2021 iteration of the Google Summer of Code that just concluded! So we are now GSoC squared! This release is effectively all work by Ilya and summarized below.

Changes in RcppSMC version 0.2.4 (2021-09-01)
  • Multiple Sequential Monte Carlo extensions (Ilya Zarubin as part of Google Summer of Code 2021)
    • Provide informative user output (convergence diagnostics) for PMMH example #50 (Ilya in #50 and #52 addressing #25, bullet point 5)
    • Support for tracking of ancestral lines for base sampler class (Ilya in #56)
    • Support for conditional SMC via derived conditionalSampler class (Ilya in #60)
  • Add URL and BugReports to DESCRIPTION (Dirk in #53)

Courtesy of my CRANberries, there is a diffstat report for this release. More information is on the RcppSMC page. Issues and bugreports should go to the GitHub issue tracker. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

23 August 2021

Clint Adams: Mystical secrets of the bookworm

unmerged /usr is unsupported in bookworm and sid has been feeding bookworm since 2021-08-14, unmerged /usr is also unsupported in sid since 2021-08-14, no one using any portion of either bookworm or sid since 2021-08-14 should have any expectation that things should function correctly with unmerged /usr , anyone using any portion of either bookworm or sid should execute apt install usrmerge or perform its equivalent on or prior to 2021-08-14.
Posted on 2021-08-23
Tags: ranticore

14 August 2021

Clint Adams: upgrayedd

Mom, When you upgrade to bullseye, you need to change your security source from
deb http://security.debian.org/ buster/updates main
to
deb http://security.debian.org/debian-security bullseye-security main
However, that will silently fail to work if you forget to update the file in /etc/apt/preferences.d to add something like this stanza:
Explanation: Debian security
Package: *
Pin: release o=Debian,n=bullseye-security
Pin-Priority: 990
Posted on 2021-08-14
Tags: quanks

21 July 2021

Molly de Blanc: Updates (2)

I feel like I haven t had a lot to say about open source or, in general, tech for a while. From another perspective, I have a whole lot of heady things to say about open source and technology and writing about it seems like a questionable use of time when I have so much other writing and reading and job hunting to do. I will briefly share the two ideas I am obsessed with at the moment, and then try to write more about them later. The Defensible-Charitable-Beneficent Trichotamy I will just jokingly ha ha no but seriously maybe jk suggest calling this the de Blanc-West Theory, considering it s heavily based on ideas from Ben West. Actions fall into one of the following categories: Defensible: When an action is defensible, it is permissible, acceptable, or okay. We might not like it, but you can explain why you had to do it and we can t really object. This could also be considered the bare minimum. Charitable: A charitable action is better than a defensible action in that it produces more good, and it goes above and beyond the minimum. Beneficent: This is a genuinely good action that produces good. It is admirable. I love J.J. Thomson example of Henry Fonda for this. For a full explanation see section three at this web site. For a summary: imagine that you re sick and the only thing that can cure you is Henry Fonda s cool touch on your fevered brow. It is Defensible for Henry Fonda to do nothing he doesn t owe you anything in particular. It is Charitable for, say if Henry Fonda happened to be in the room, to walk across it and touch your forehead. It is Beneficent for Henry Fonda to re-corporealize back into this life and travel to your bedside to sooth your strange illness. P.S. Henry Fonda died in 1982. I don t think these ideas are particularly new, but it s important to think about what we re doing with technology and its design: are our decisions defensible, charitable, or beneficent? Which should they be? Why? The Offsetting Harm-Ameliorating Harm-Doing Good Trichotamy
I ve been doing some research and writing around carbon credits. I owe a lot of thanks to Philip Withnall and Adam Lerner for talking with me through these ideas. Extrapolating from action and policy recommendations, I suggest the following trichotamy: Offsetting harm is attempting to look at the damage you ve done and try to make up for it in some capacity. In the context of, e.g., air travel, this would be purchasing carbon credits. Ameliorating harm is about addressing the particular harm you ve done. Instead of carbon credits, you would be supporting carbon capture technologies or perhaps giving to or otherwise supporting groups and ecosystems that are being harmed by your air travel. Doing Good is Doing Good. This would be like not traveling by air and choosing to still help the harm being caused by carbon emissions. These ideas are also likely not particularly new, but thinking about technology in this context is also useful, especially as we consider technology in the context of climate change.

3 May 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #3
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1952
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044260-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 216
There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third Narnia book in original publication order (see my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for more about reading order). You could arguably start reading here; there are a lot of references to the previous books, but mostly as background material, and I don't think any of it is vital. If you wanted to sample a single Narnia book to see if you'd get along with the series, this is the one I'd recommend. Since I was a kid, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has held the spot of my favorite of the series. I'm happy to report that it still holds up. Apart from one bit that didn't age well (more on that below), this is the book where the story and the world-building come together, in part because Lewis picks a plot shape that works with what he wants to write about. The younger two Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy, are spending the summer with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta because their parents are in America. That means spending the summer with their cousin Eustace. C.S. Lewis had strong opinions about child-raising that crop up here and there in his books, and Harold and Alberta are his example of everything he dislikes: caricatured progressive, "scientific" parents who don't believe in fiction or mess or vices. Eustace therefore starts the book as a terror, a whiny bully who has only read boring practical books and is constantly scoffing at the Pevensies and making fun of their stories of Narnia. He is therefore entirely unprepared when the painting of a ship in the guest bedroom turns into a portal to the Narnia and dumps the three children into the middle of the ocean. Thankfully, they're in the middle of the ocean near the ship in the painting. That ship is the Dawn Treader, and onboard is Caspian from the previous book, now king of Narnia. He has (improbably) sorted things out in his kingdom and is now on a sea voyage to find seven honorable Telmarine lords who left Narnia while his uncle was usurping the throne. They're already days away from land, headed towards the Lone Islands and, beyond that, into uncharted seas. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. Obviously, Eustace gets a redemption arc, which is roughly the first half of this book. It's not a bad arc, but I am always happy when it's over. Lewis tries so hard to make Eustace insufferable that it becomes tedious. As an indoor kid who would not consider being dumped on a primitive sailing ship to be a grand adventure, I wanted to have more sympathy for him than the book would allow. The other problem with Eustace's initial character is that Lewis wants it to stem from "modern" parenting and not reading the right sort of books, but I don't buy it. I've known kids whose parents didn't believe in fiction, and they didn't act anything like this (and kids pick up a lot more via osmosis regardless of parenting than Lewis seems to realize). What Eustace acts like instead is an entitled, arrogant rich kid who is used to the world revolving around him, and it's fascinating to me how Lewis ignores class to focus on educational philosophy. The best part of Eustace's story is Reepicheep, which is just setup for Reepicheep becoming the best part of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Reepicheep, the leader of Narnia's talking mice, first appears in Prince Caspian, but there he's mostly played for laughs: the absurdly brave and dashing mouse who rushes into every fight he sees. In this book, he comes into his own as the courage and occasionally the moral conscience of the party. Caspian wants to explore and to find the lords of his past, the Pevensie kids want to have a sea adventure, and Eustace is in this book to have a redemption arc, but Reepicheep is the driving force at the heart of the voyage. He's going to Aslan's country beyond the sea, armed with a nursemaid's song about his destiny and a determination to be his best and most honorable self every step of the way, and nothing is going to stop him. Eustace, of course, takes an immediate dislike to a talking rodent. Reepicheep, in return, is the least interested of anyone on the ship in tolerating Eustace's obnoxious behavior and would be quite happy to duel him. But when Eustace is turned into a dragon, Reepicheep is the one who spends hours with him, telling him stories and ensuring he's not alone. It's beautifully handled, and my only complaint is that Lewis doesn't do enough with the Eustace and Reepicheep friendship (or indeed with Eustace at all) for the rest of the book. After Eustace's restoration and a few other relatively short incidents comes the second long section of the book and the part that didn't age well: the island of the Dufflepuds. It's a shame because the setup is wonderful: a cultivated island in the middle of nowhere with no one in sight, mysterious pounding sounds and voices, the fun of trying to figure out just what these invisible creatures could possibly be, and of course Lucy's foray into the second floor of a house, braving the lair of a magician to find and read one of the best books of magic in fantasy. Everything about how Lewis sets this scene is so well done. The kids are coming from an encounter with a sea serpent and a horrifically dangerous magic island and land on this scene of eerily normal domesticity. The most dangerous excursion is Lucy going upstairs in a brightly lit house with soft carpet in the middle of the day. And yet it's incredibly tense because Lewis knows exactly how to put you in Lucy's head, right down to having to stand with her back to an open door to read the book. And that book! The pages only turn forward, the spells are beautifully illustrated, and the sense of temptation is palpable. Lucy reading the eavesdropping spell is one of the more memorable bits in this series, at least for me, and makes a surprisingly subtle moral point about the practical reasons why invading other people's privacy is unwise and can just make you miserable. And then, when Lucy reads the visibility spell that was her goal, there's this exchange, which is pure C.S. Lewis:
"Oh Aslan," said she, "it was kind of you to come." "I have been here all the time," said he, "but you have just made me visible." "Aslan!" said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. "Don't make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!" "It did," said Aslan. "Did you think I wouldn't obey my own rules?"
I love the subtlety of what's happening here: the way that Lucy is much more powerful than she thinks she is, but only because Aslan decided to make the rules that way and chooses to follow his own rules, making himself vulnerable in a fascinating way. The best part is that Lewis never belabors points like this; the characters immediately move on to talk about other things, and no one feels obligated to explain. But, unfortunately, along with the explanation of the thumping and the magician, we learn that the Dufflepuds are (remarkably dim-witted) dwarfs, the magician is their guardian (put there by Aslan, no less!), he transformed them into rather absurd shapes that they hate, and all of this is played for laughs. Once you notice that these are sentient creatures being treated essentially like pets (and physically transformed against their will), the level of paternalistic colonialism going on here is very off-putting. It's even worse that the Dufflepuds are memorably funny (washing dishes before dinner to save time afterwards!) and are arguably too dim to manage on their own, because Lewis made the authorial choice to write them that way. The "white man's burden" feeling is very strong. And Lewis could have made other choices! Coriakin the magician is a fascinating and somewhat morally ambiguous character. We learn later in the book that he's a star and his presence on the island is a punishment of sorts, leading to one of my other favorite bits of theology in this book:
"My son," said Ramandu, "it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit."
Lewis could have kept most of the setup, kept the delightfully silly things the Dufflepuds believe, changed who was responsible for their transformation, and given Coriakin a less authoritarian role, and the story would have been so much stronger for it. After this, the story gets stranger and wilder, and it's in the last part that I think the true magic of this book lies. The entirety of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a progression from a relatively mundane sea voyage to something more awe-inspiring. The last few chapters are a tour de force of wonder: rejuvenating stars, sunbirds, the Witch's stone knife, undersea kingdoms, a sea of lilies, a wall of water, the cliffs of Aslan's country, and the literal end of the world. Lewis does it without much conflict, with sparse description in a very few pages, and with beautifully memorable touches like the quality of the light and the hush that falls over the ship. This is the part of Narnia that I point to and wonder why I don't see more emulation (although I should note that it is arguably an immram). Tolkien-style fantasy, with dwarfs and elves and magic rings and great battles, is everywhere, but I can't think of many examples of this sense of awe and discovery without great battles and detailed explanations. Or of characters like Reepicheep, who gets one of the best lines of the series:
"My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan's country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek shall be the head of the talking mice in Narnia."
The last section of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite endings of any book precisely because it's so different than the typical ending of a novel. The final return to England is always a bit disappointing in this series, but it's very short and is preceded by so much wonder that I don't mind. Aslan does appear to the kids as a lamb at the very end of the world, making Lewis's intended Christian context a bit more obvious, but even that isn't belabored, just left there for those who recognize the symbolism to notice. I was curious during this re-read to understand why The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is so much better than the first two books in the series. I think it's primarily due to two things: pacing, and a story structure that's better aligned with what Lewis wants to write about. For pacing, both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian have surprisingly long setups for short books. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by contrast, it takes only 35 pages to get the kids in Narnia, introduce all the characters, tour the ship, learn why Caspian is off on a sea voyage, establish where this book fits in the Narnian timeline, and have the kids be captured by slavers. None of the Narnia books are exactly slow, but Dawn Treader is the first book of the series that feels like it knows exactly where it's going and isn't wasting time getting there. The other structural success of this book is that it's a semi-episodic adventure, which means Lewis can stop trying to write about battles and political changes whose details he's clearly not interested in and instead focus wholeheartedly on sense-of-wonder exploration. The island-hopping structure lets Lewis play with ideas and drop them before they wear out their welcome. And the lack of major historical events also means that Aslan doesn't have to come in to resolve everything and instead can play the role of guardian angel. I think The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has the most compelling portrayal of Aslan in the series. He doesn't make decisions for the kids or tell them directly what to do the way he did in the previous two books. Instead, he shows up whenever they're about to make a dreadful mistake and does just enough to get them to make a better decision. Some readers may find this takes too much of the tension out of the book, but I have always appreciated it. It lets nervous child readers enjoy the adventures while knowing that Aslan will keep anything too bad from happening. He plays the role of a protective but non-interfering parent in a genre that usually doesn't have parents because they would intervene to prevent adventures. I enjoyed this book just as much as I remembered enjoying it during my childhood re-reads. Still the best book of the series. This, as with both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, was originally intended to be the last book of the series. That, of course, turned out to not be the case, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is followed (in both chronological and original publication order) by The Silver Chair. Rating: 9 out of 10

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