Search Results: "crow"

22 September 2022

Jonathan Dowland: Nine Inch Nails, Cornwall, June

In June I travelled to see Nine Inch Nails perform two nights at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It'd been eight years since I last saw them live and when they announced the Eden shows, I thought it might be the only chance I'd get to see them for a long time. I committed, and sods law, a week or so later they announced a handful of single-night UK club shows. On the other hand, on previous tours where they'd typically book two club nights in each city, I've attended one night and always felt I should have done both, so this time I was making that happen. Newquay
approach by air approach by air
Towan Beach (I think) Towan Beach (I think)
For personal reasons it's been a difficult year so it was nice to treat myself to a mini holiday. I stayed in Newquay, a seaside town with many similarities to the North East coast, as well as many differences. It's much bigger, and although we have a thriving surfing community in Tynemouth, Newquay have it on another level. They also have a lot more tourism, which is a double-edged sword: in Newquay, besides surfing, there was not a lot to do. There's a lot of tourist tat shops, and bars and cafes (som very nice ones), but no book shops, no record shops, very few of the quaint, unique boutique places we enjoy up here and possibly take for granted. If you want tie-dyed t-shirts though, you're sorted. Nine Inch Nails have a long-established, independently fan-run forum called Echoing The Sound. There is now also an official Discord server. I asked on both whether anyone was around in Newquay and wanted to meet up: not many people were! But I did meet a new friend, James, for a quiet drink. He was due to share a taxi with Sarah, who was flying in but her flight was delayed and she had to figure out another route. Eden Project
the Eden Project the Eden Project
The Eden Project, the venue itself, is a fascinating place. I didn't realise until I'd planned most of my time there that the gig tickets granted you free entry into the Project on the day of the gig as well as the day after. It was quite tricky to get from Newquay to the Eden project, I would have been better off staying in St Austell itself perhaps, so I didn't take advantage of this, but I did have a couple of hours total to explore a little bit at the venue before the gig on each night. Friday 17th (sunny) Once I got to the venue I managed to meet up with several names from ETS and the Discord: James, Sarah (who managed to re-arrange flights), Pete and his wife (sorry I missed your name), Via Tenebrosa (she of crab hat fame), Dave (DaveDiablo), Elliot and his sister and finally James (sheapdean), someone who I've been talking to online for over a decade and finally met in person (and who taped both shows). I also tried to meet up with a friend from the Debian UK community (hi Lief) but I couldn't find him! Support for Friday was Nitzer Ebb, who I wasn't familiar with before. There were two men on stage, one operating instruments, the other singing. It was a tough time to warm up the crowd, the venue was still very empty and it was very bright and sunny, but I enjoyed what I was hearing. They're definitely on my list. I later learned that the band's regular singer (Doug McCarthy) was unable to make it, and so the guy I was watching (Bon Harris) was standing in for full vocal duties. This made the performance (and their subsequent one at Hellfest the week after) all the more impressive.
pic of the band
Via (with crab hat), Sarah, me (behind). pic by kraw Via (with crab hat), Sarah, me (behind). pic by kraw
(Day) and night one, Thursday, was very hot and sunny and the band seemed a little uncomfortable exposed on stage with little cover. Trent commented as such at least once. The setlist was eclectic: and I finally heard some of my white whale songs. Highlights for me were The Perfect Drug, which was unplayed from 1997-2018 and has now become a staple, and the second ever performance of Everything, the first being a few days earlier. Also notable was three cuts in a row from the last LP, Bad Witch, Heresy and Love Is Not Enough. Saturday 18th (rain)
with Elliot, before with Elliot, before
Day/night 2, Friday, was rainy all day. Support was Yves Tumor, who were an interesting clash of styles: a Prince/Bowie-esque inspired lead clashing with a rock-out lead guitarist styling himself similarly to Brian May. I managed to find Sarah, Elliot (new gig best-buddy), Via and James (sheapdean) again. Pete was at this gig too, but opted to take a more relaxed position than the rail this time. I also spent a lot of time talking to a Canadian guy on a press pass (both nights) that I'm ashamed to have forgotten his name. The dank weather had Nine Inch Nails in their element. I think night one had the more interesting setlist, but night two had the best performance, hands down. Highlights for me were mostly a string of heavier songs (in rough order of scarcity, from common to rarely played): wish, burn, letting you, reptile, every day is exactly the same, the line begins to blur, and finally, happiness in slavery, the first UK performance since 1994. This was a crushing set. A girl in front of me was really suffering with the cold and rain after waiting at the venue all day to get a position on the rail. I thought she was going to pass out. A roadie with NIN noticed, and came over and gave her his jacket. He said if she waited to the end of the show and returned his jacket he'd give her a setlist, and true to his word, he did. This was a really nice thing to happen and really gave the impression that the folks who work on these shows are caring people.
Yep I was this close Yep I was this close
A fuckin' rainbow! Photo by "Lazereth of Nazereth"
Afterwards Afterwards
Night two did have some gentler songs and moments to remember: a re-arranged Sanctified (which ended a nineteen-year hiatus in 2013) And All That Could Have Been (recorded 2002, first played 2018), La Mer, during which the rain broke and we were presented with a beautiful pink-hued rainbow. They then segued into Less Than, providing the comic moment of the night when Trent noticed the rainbow mid-song; now a meme that will go down in NIN fan history. Wrap-up This was a blow-out, once in a lifetime trip to go and see a band who are at the top of their career in terms of performance. One problem I've had with NIN gigs in the past is suffering gig flashback to them when I go to other (inferior) gigs afterwards, and I'm pretty sure I will have this problem again. Doing both nights was worth it, the two experiences were very different and each had its own unique moments. The venue was incredible, and Cornwall is (modulo tourist trap stuff) beautiful.

17 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Books and Indian Tourism

Fiction A few days ago somebody asked me and I think it is an often requested to perhaps all fiction readers as to why we like fiction? First of all, reading in itself is told as food for the soul. Because, whenever you write or read anything you don t just read it, you also visualize it. And that visualization is and would be far greater than any attempt in cinema as there are no budget constraints and it takes no more than a minute to visualize a scenario if the writer is any good. You just close your eyes and in a moment you are transported to a different world. This is also what is known as world building . Something fantasy writers are especially gifted in. Also, with the whole parallel Universes being a reality, it is just so much fertile land for imagination that I just cannot believe that it hasn t been worked to death to date. And you do need a lot of patience to make a world, to make characters, to make characters a bit eccentric one way or the other. And you have to know to put into a three, five, or whatever number of acts you want to put in. And then, of course, they have readers like us who dream and add more color to the story than the author did. As we take his, her, or their story and weave countless stories depending on where we are, where we are and who we are. What people need to understand is that not just readers want escapism but writers too want to escape from the human condition. And they find solace in whatever they write. The well-known example of J.R.R. Tolkien is always there. How he must have felt each day coming after war, to somehow find the strength and just dream away, transport himself to a world of hobbits, elves, and other mysterious beings. It surely must have taken a lot of pain from him that otherwise, he would have felt. There are many others. What also does happen now and then, is authors believe in their own intelligence so much, that they commit crimes, but that s par for the course.

Dean Koontz, Odd Apocalypse Currently, I am reading the above title. It is perhaps one of the first horror title books that I have read which has so much fun. The hero has a great sense of wit, humor, and sarcasm that you can cut butter with it. Now if you got that, this is par for the wordplay happening every second paragraph and I m just 100 pages in of the 500-page Novel. Now, while I haven t read the whole book and I m just speculating, what if at the end we realize that the hero all along was or is the villain. Sadly, we don t have many such twisted stories and that too is perhaps because most people used to have black and white rather than grey characters. From all my reading, and even watching web series and whatnot, it is only the Europeans who seem to have a taste for exploring grey characters and giving twists at the end that people cannot anticipate. Even their heroes or heroines are grey characters. and they can really take you for a ride. It is also perhaps how we humans are, neither black nor white but more greyish. Having grey characters also frees the author quite a bit as she doesn t have to use so-called tropes and just led the characters to lead themselves.

Indian Book publishing Industry I do know Bengali stories do have a lot of grey characters, but sadly most of the good works are still in Bengali and not widely published compared to say European or American authors. While there is huge potential in the Indian publishing market for English books and there is also hunger, getting good and cheap publishers is the issue. Just recently SAGE publishing division shut down and this does not augur well for the Indian market. In the past few years, I and other readers have seen some very good publishing houses quit India for one reason or the other. GST has also made the sector more expensive. The only thing that works now and has been for some time is the seconds and thirds market. For e.g. I just bought today about 15-20 books @INR 125/- a kind of belated present for the self. That would be what, at the most 2 USD or 2 Euros per book. I bet even a burger costs more than that, but again India being a price-sensitive market, at these prices the seconds book sells. And these are all my favorite authors, Lee Child, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, and so on and so forth. I also saw a lot of fantasy books but they would have to wait for another day.

Tourism in India for Debconf 23 I had shared a while back that I would write a bit about tourism as Debconf or Annual Debian Conference will happen in India next year around this time. I was supposed to write it in the FAQ but couldn t find a place or a corner where I could write it. There are actually two things that people need to be aware of. The one thing that people need to be very aware of is food poisoning or Delhi Belly. This is a far too common sight that I have witnessed especially with westerners when they come to visit India. I am somewhat shocked that it hasn t been shared in the FAQ but then perhaps we cannot cover all the bases therein. I did find this interesting article and would recommend the suggestions given in it wholeheartedly. I would suggest people coming to India to buy and have purifying water tablets with them if they decide to stay back and explore India. Now the problem with tourism is, that one can have as much tourism as one wants. One of the unique ways I found some westerners having the time of their life is buying an Indian Rickshaw or Tuk-Tuk and traveling with it. A few years ago, when I was more adventourous-spirited I was able to meet a few of them. There is also the Race with Rickshaws that happens in Rajasthan and you get to see about 10 odd cities in and around Rajasthan state and get to see the vibrancy in the North. If somebody really wants to explore India, then I would suggest getting down to Goa, specifically, South Goa, meeting with the hippie crowd, and getting one of the hippie guidebooks to India. Most people forget that the Hippies came to India in the 1960s and many of them just never left. Tap water in Pune is ok, have seen and experienced the same in Himachal, Garwhal, and Uttarakhand, although it has been a few years since I have been to those places. North-East is a place I have yet to venture into. India does have a lot of beauty but most people are not clean-conscious so if you go to common tourist destinations, you will find a lot of garbage. Most cities in India do give you an option of homestays and some even offer food, so if you are on a budget as well as wanna experience life with an Indian family, that could be something you could look into. So you can see and share about India with different eyes. There is casteism, racism, and all that. Generally speaking, you would see it wielded a lot more in your face in North India than in South India where it is there but far more subtle. About food, what has been shared in the India BOF. Have to say, it doesn t even scratch the surface. If you stay with an Indian family, there is probably a much better chance of exploring the variety of food that India has to offer. From the western perspective, we tend to overcook stuff and make food with Masalas but that s the way most people like it. People who have had hot sauces or whatnot would probably find India much easier to adjust to as tastes might be similar to some extent. If you want to socialize with young people, while discos are an option, meetup.com also is a good place. You can share your passions and many people have taken to it with gusto. We also have been hosting Comiccons in India, but I haven t had the opportunity to attend them so far. India has a rich oral culture reach going back a few thousand years, but many of those who are practicing those reside more in villages rather than in cities. And while there have been attempts in the past to record them, most of those have come to naught as money runs out as there is no commercial viability to such projects, but that probably is for another day. In the end, what I have shared is barely a drop in the ocean that is India. Come, have fun, explore, enjoy and invigorate yourself and others

14 September 2022

Joachim Breitner: rec-def: Program analysis case study

At this week s International Conference on Functional Programming I showed my rec-def Haskell library to a few people. As this crowd appreciates writing compilers, and example from the realm of program analysis is quite compelling.

To Throw or not to throw Here is our little toy language to analyze: It has variables, lambdas and applications, non-recursive (lazy) let bindings and, so that we have something to analyze, a way to throw and to catch exceptions: Given such an expression, we would like to know whether it might throw an exception. Such an analysis is easy to write: We traverse the syntax tree, remembering in the env which of the variables may throw an exception: The most interesting case is the one for Let, where we extend the environment env with the information about the additional variable env_bind, which is calculated from analyzing the right-hand side e1. So far so good:
ghci> someVal = Lam "y" (Var "y")
ghci> canThrow1 $ Throw
True
ghci> canThrow1 $ Let "x" Throw someVal
False
ghci> canThrow1 $ Let "x" Throw (App (Var "x") someVal)
True

Let it rec To spice things up, let us add a recursive let to the language: How can we support this new constructor in canThrow1? Let use naively follow the pattern used for Let: Calculate the analysis information for the variables in env_bind, extend the environment with that, and pass it down: Note that, crucially, we use env', and not just env, when analyzing the right-hand sides. It has to be that way, as all the variables are in scope in all the right-hand sides. In a strict language, such a mutually recursive definition, where env_bind uses env' which uses env_bind is basically unthinkable. But in a lazy language like Haskell, it might just work. Unfortunately, it works only as long as the recursive bindings are not actually recursive, or if they are recursive, they are not used:
ghci> canThrow1 $ LetRec [("x", Throw)] (Var "x")
True
ghci> canThrow1 $ LetRec [("x", App (Var "y") someVal), ("y", Throw)] (Var "x")
True
ghci> canThrow1 $ LetRec [("x", App (Var "x") someVal), ("y", Throw)] (Var "y")
True
But with genuine recursion, it does not work, and simply goes into a recursive cycle:
ghci> canThrow1 $ LetRec [("x", App (Var "x") someVal), ("y", Throw)] (Var "x")
^CInterrupted.
That is disappointing! Do we really have to toss that code and somehow do an explicit fixed-point calculation here? Obscuring our nice declarative code? And possibly having to repeat work (such as traversing the syntax tree) many times that we should only have to do once?

rec-def to the rescue Not with rec-def! Using RBool from Data.Recursive.Bool instead of Bool, we can write the exact same code, as follows: And it works!
ghci> canThrow2 $ LetRec [("x", App (Var "x") someVal), ("y", Throw)] (Var "x")
False
ghci> canThrow2 $ LetRec [("x", App (Var "x") Throw), ("y", Throw)] (Var "x")
True
I find this much more pleasing than the explicit naive fix-pointing you might do otherwise, where you stabilize the result at each LetRec independently: Not only is all that extra work hidden from the programmer, but now also a single traversal of the syntax tree creates, thanks to the laziness, a graph of RBool values, which are then solved under the hood .

The issue with x=x There is one downside worth mentioning: canThrow2 fails to produce a result in case we hit x=x:
ghci> canThrow2 $ LetRec [("x", Var "x")] (Var "x")
^CInterrupted.
This is, after all the syntax tree has been processed and all the map lookups have been resolved, equivalent to
ghci> let x = x in RB.get (x :: RBool)
^CInterrupted.
which also does not work. The rec-def machinery can only kick in if at least one of its function is used on any such cycle, even if it is just a form of identity (which I ~ought to add to the library~ since have added to the library):
ghci> idR x = RB.false   x
ghci> let x = idR x in getR (x :: R Bool)
False
And indeed, if I insert a call to idR in the line then our analyzer will no longer stumble over these nasty recursive equations:
ghci> canThrow2 $ LetRec [("x", Var "x")] (Var "x")
False
It is a bit disappointing to have to do that, but I do not see a better way yet. I guess the def-rec library expects the programmer to have a similar level of sophistication as other tie-the-know tricks with laziness (where you also have to ensure that your definitions are productive and that the sharing is not accidentally lost).

11 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Politics, accessibility, books

Politics I have been reading books, both fiction and non-fiction for a long long time. My first book was a comic most probably when I was down with Malaria when I was a kid. I must be around 4-5 years old. Over the years, books have given me great joy and I continue to find nuggets of useful information, both in fiction as well as non-fiction books. So here s to sharing something and how that can lead you to a rabbit hole. This entry would be a bit NSFW as far as language is concerned. NYPD Red 5 by James Patterson First of all, have no clue as to why James Patterson s popularity has been falling. He used to be right there with Lee Child and others, but not so much now. While I try to be mysterious about books, I would give a bit of heads-up so people know what to expect. This is probably more towards the Adult crowd as there is a bit of sex as well as quite a few grey characters. The NYPD Red is a sort of elite police task force that basically is for celebrities. In the book series, they do a lot of ass-kissing (figuratively more than literally). Now the reason I have always liked fiction is that however wild the assumption or presumption is, it does have somewhere a grain of truth. And each and every time I read a book or two, that gets cemented. One of the statements in the book told something about how 9/11 took a lot of police personnel out of the game. First, there were a number of policemen who were patrolling the Two Towers, so they perished literally during the explosion. Then there were policemen who were given the cases to close the cases (bring the cases to conclusion). When you are investigating your own brethren or even civilians who perished 9/11 they must have experienced emotional trauma and no outlet. Mental health even in cops is the same and given similar help as you and me (i.e. next to none.) But both of these were my assumptions. The only statement that was in the book was they lost a lot of bench strength. Even NYFD (New York Fire Department). This led me to me to With Crime At Record Lows, Should NYC Have Fewer Cops? This is more right-wing sentiment and in fact, there have been calls to defund the police. This led me to https://cbcny.org/ and one specific graph. Unfortunately, this tells the story from 2010-2022 but not before. I was looking for data from around 1999 to 2005 because that will tell whether or not it happened. Then I remembered reading in newspapers the year or two later how 9/11 had led NYC to recession. I looked up online and for sure NY was booming before 9/11. One can argue that NYC could come down and that is pretty much possible, everything that goes up comes down, it s a law of nature but it would have been steady rather than abrupt. And once you are in recession, the first thing to go is personnel. So people both from NYPD and NYFD were let go, even though they were needed the most then. As you can see, a single statement in a book can take you to places & time literally. Edit: Addition 11th September There were quite a few people who also died from New York Port Authority and they also lost quite a number of people directly and indirectly and did a lot of patrolling of the water bodies near NYC. Later on, even in their department, there were a lot of early retirements.

Kosovo A couple of days back I had a look at the Debconf 2023 BOF that was done in Kosovo. One of the interesting things that happened during the BOF is when a woman participant chimed in and asks India to recognize Kosovo. Immediately it triggered me and I opened the Kosovo Wikipedia page to get some understanding of the topic. Reading up on it, came to know Russia didn t agree and doesn t recognize Kosovo. Mr. Modi likes Putin and India imports a lot of its oil from Russia. Unrelatedly, but still useful, we rejected to join IPEF. Earlier, we had rejected China s BRI. India has never been as vulnerable as she is now. Our foreign balance has reached record lows. Now India has been importing quite a bit of Russian crude and has been buying arms and ammunition from them. We are also scheduled to buy a couple of warships and submarines etc. We even took arms and ammunition from them on lease. So we can t afford that they are displeased with India. Even though Russia has more than friendly relations with both China and Pakistan. At the same time, the U.S. is back to aiding Pakistan which the mainstream media in India refuses to even cover. And to top all of this, we have the Chip 4 Alliance but that needs its own article, truth be told but we will do with a paragraph  Edit Addition 11th September Seems Kosovo isn t unique in that situation, there are 3-4 states like that. A brief look at worldpopulationreview tells you there are many more.

Chip 4 Alliance For almost a decade I have been screaming about this on my blog as well as everywhere that chip fabrication is a national security thing. And for years, most people deny it. And now we have chip 4 alliance. Now to understand this, you have to understand that China for almost a decade, somewhere around 2014 or so came up with something called the big fund . Now one can argue one way or the other how successful the fund has been, but it has, without doubt, created ripples so strong that the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and probably South Korea will join and try to stem the tide. Interestingly, in this grouping, South Korea is the weakest in the statements and what they have been saying. Within the group itself, there is a lot of tension and China would use that and there are a number of unresolved issues between the three countries that both China & Russia would exploit. For e.g. the Comfort women between South Korea and Japan. Or the 1985 Accord Agreement between Japan and the U.S. Now people need to understand this, this is not just about China but also about us. If China has 5-6x times India s GDP and their research budget is at the very least 100x times what India spends, how do you think we will be self-reliant? Whom are we fooling? Are we not tired of fooling ourselves  In diplomacy, countries use leverage. Sadly, we let go of some of our most experienced negotiators in 2014 and since then have been singing in the wind

Accessibility, Jitsi, IRC, Element-Desktop The Wikipedia page on Accessibility says the following Accessibility is the design of products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities. The concept of accessible design and practice of accessible development ensures both direct access (i.e. unassisted) and indirect access meaning compatibility with a person s assistive technology. Now IRC or Internet Relay Chat has been accessible for a long time. I know of even blind people who have been able to navigate IRC quite effortlessly as there has been a lot of work done to make sure all the joints speak to each other so people with one or more disabilities still can use, and contribute without an issue. It does help that IRC and many clients have been there since the 1970s so most of them have had more than enough time to get all the bugs fixed and both text-to-speech and speech-to-text work brilliantly on IRC. Newer software like Jitsi or for that matter Telegram is lacking those features. A few days ago, discovered on Telegram I was shared that Samsung Voice input is also able to do the same. The Samsung Voice Input works wonder as it translates voice to text, I have not yet tried the text-to-speech but perhaps somebody can and they can share whatever the results can be one way or the other. I have tried element-desktop both on the desktop as well as mobile phone and it has been disappointing, to say the least. On the desktop, it is unruly and freezes once in a while, and is buggy. The mobile version is a little better but that s not saying a lot. I prefer the desktop version as I can use the full-size keyboard. The bug I reported has been there since its Riot days. I had put up a bug report even then. All in all, yesterday was disappointing

6 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Debian on Phone

History Before I start, the game I was talking about is called Cell To Singularity. Now I haven t gone much in the game as I have shared but think that the Singularity it refers to is the Technological Singularity that people think will happen. Whether that will happen or not is open to debate to one and all. This is going to be a bit long one. Confession Time :- When I was sharing in the blog post, I had no clue that we actually had sessions on it in this year s Debconf. I just saw the schedule yesterday and then came to know. Then I saw Guido s two talks, one at Debconf as well as one as Froscon. In fact, saw the Froscon talk first, and then the one at Debconf. Both the talks are nearly the same except for a thing here or a thing there. Now because I was not there so my understanding and knowledge would be disadvantageously asymmetrical to Guido and others who were there and could talk and share more. Having a Debian mobile or Debian on the mobile could also make Debian more popular and connectable to the masses, one of the things that were not pointed out in the Debian India BOF sadly. At the same time, there are some facts that are not on the table and hence not thought about. Being a B.Com person, I have been following not just the technical but also how the economics work and smartphone penetration in India is pretty low or historically been very low, say around 3-4% while the majority that people use, almost 90-95% of the market uses what are called non-smartphones or dumbphones. Especially during the pandemic and even after that the dumbphones market actually went up while smartphones stagnated and even came down. There is a lot of inventory at most of the dealers that they can t get rid of. From a dealer perspective, it probably makes more sense to buy and sell dumbphones more in number as the turnaround of capital is much faster and easier than for smartphones. I have seen people spend a number of hours and rightly so in order to make their minds up on a smartphone while for a dumbphone, it is a 10-minute thing. Ask around, figure out who is selling at the cheapest, and just buy. Most of these low-end phones are coming from China. In fact, even in the middle and getting even into smartphones, the Chinese are the masters from whom we buy, even as they have occupied Indian territory. In the top five, Samsung comes at number three of four (sharing about Samsung as a fan and having used them.) even though battery times are atrocious, especially with Android 12L. The only hope that most of the smartphone manufacturers have is lowering the sticker prices and hoping that 5G Adoption picks up and that is what they are betting on but that comes with its own share of drawbacks as can be seen.

GNOME, MATE, memory leaks, Payments FWIW, while I do have GNOME and do use a couple of tools from the GNOME stack, I hate GNOME with a passion. I have been a mate user for almost a decade now and really love the simplicity that mate has vis-a-vis GNOME. And with each release, MATE has only become better. So, it would be nice if we can have MATE on the mobile phone. How adaptive the apps might be on the smaller area, I dunno. It would be interesting to find out if and how people are looking at debugging memory leaks on mobile phones. Although finding memory leaks on any platform is good, finding them and fixing them on a mobile phone is pretty much critical as most phones have fixed & relatively small amounts of memory and it is and can get quickly exhausted. One of the things that were asked in the Q&A was about payments. The interesting thing is both UK and India are the same or markedly similar in regard as far as contactless payments being concerned. What most Indians have or use is basically UPI which is basically backed by your bank. Unlike in some other countries where you have a selection of wallets and even temporary/permanent virtual accounts whereby you can minimize your risks in case your mobile gets stolen or something, here we don t have that. There are three digital wallets that I know Paytm Not used (have heard it s creepy, but don t really know), Google pay (Unfortunately, this is the one I use, they bought multiple features, and in the last couple of years have really taken the game away from Paytm but also creepy.). The last one is Samsung Pay (haven t really used it as their find my phone app. always crashes, dunno how it is supposed to work.) But I do find that the apps. are vulnerable. Every day there is some or other news of fraud happening. Previously, only States like Bihar and Jharkhand used to be infamous for cybercrime as a hub, but now even States like Andhra Pradesh have joined and surpassed them :(. People have lost lakhs and crores, this is just a few days back. Some more info. on UPI can be found here and GitHub has a few implementation examples that anybody could look at and run away with it.

Balancing on three things For any new mobile phone to crack the market, it has to balance three things. One, achieve economies of scale. Unless, that is not taken care of or done, however good or bad the product might be, it remains a niche and dies after some time. While Guido shared about Openmoko and N900, one of the more interesting bits from a user perspective at least was the OLPC project. There are many nuances that the short article didn t go through. While I can t say for other countries, at least in India, no education initiative happens without corruption. And perhaps Nicholas s hands were tied while other manufacturers would and could do to achieve their sales targets. In India, it flopped because there was no way for volunteers to buy or get OLPC unless they were part of a school or college. There was some traction in FOSS communities, but that died down once OLPC did the partnership with MS-Windows, and proverbially broke the camel s back. FWIW, I think the idea, the concept, and even the machine were far ahead of their time. The other two legs are support and Warranty Without going into any details, I can share and tell there were quite a few OLPC type attempts using conventional laptops or using Android and FOSS or others or even using one of the mainstream distributions but the problems have always been polishing, training and support. Guido talked about privacy as a winning feature but fails to take into account that people want to know that their privacy isn t being violated. If a mobile phone answers to Hey Google does it mean it was passively gathering, storing, and sending info to third parties, we just don t know. The mobile phone could be part of the right to repair profile while at the same time it can force us to ask many questions about the way things currently are and going to be. Six months down the line all the flagships of all companies are working on being able to take and share through satellites (Satellite Internet) and perhaps maybe a few non-flagships. Of course, if you are going to use a satellite, then you are going to drain that much more quickly. In all and every event there are always gonna be tradeoffs. The Debian-mobile mailing list doesn t seem to have many takers. The latest I could find there is written by Paul Wise. I am in a similar boat (Samsung; SM-M526B; Lahaina; arm64-v8a) v12. It is difficult to know which release would work on your machine, make sure that the building from the source is not tainted and pristine and needs a way to backup and restore if you need to. I even tried installing GNURoot Debian and the Xserver alternative they had shared but was unable to use the touch interface on the fakeroot instance  . The system talks about a back key but what back key I have no clue.

Precursor Events Debconf 2023 As far as precursor events are concerned before Debconf 23 in India, all the festivals that we have could be used to showcase Debian. In fact, the ongoing Ganesh Chaturthi would have been the perfect way to showcase Debian and apps. according to the audience. Even the festival of Durga Puja, Diwali etc. can be used. When commercial organizations use the same festivals, why can t we? What perhaps we would need to figure out is the funding part as well as getting permissions from Municipal authorities. One of the things for e.g. that we could do is buy either a permanent 24 monitor or a 34 TV and use that to display Debian and apps. The bigger, the better. Something that we could use day to day and also is used for events. This would require significant amounts of energy so we could approach companies, small businesses and individuals both for volunteering as well as helping out with funding. Somebody asked how we could do online stuff and why it is somewhat boring. What could be done for e.g. instead of 4-5 hrs. of things, break it into manageable 45 minute pieces. 4-5 hrs. is long and is gonna fatigue the best of people. Make it into 45-minute negotiable chunks, and intersphere it with jokes, hacks, anecdotes, and war stories. People do not like or want to be talked down to but rather converse. One of the things that I saw many of the artists do is have shows and limit the audience to 20-24 people on zoom call or whatever videoconferencing system you have and play with them. The passive audience enjoys the play between the standup guy and the crowd he works on, some of them may be known to him personally so he can push that envelope a bit more. The same thing can be applied here. Share the passion, and share why we are doing something. For e.g. you could do smem -t -k less and give a whole talk about how memory is used and freed during a session, how are things different on desktop and ARM as far as memory architecture is concerned (if there is). What is being done on the hardware side, what is on the software side and go on and on. Then share about troubleshooting applications. Valgrind is super slow and makes life hell, is there some better app ? Doesn t matter if you are a front-end or a back-end developer you need to know this and figure out the best way to deal with in your app/program. That would have lot of value. And this is just an e.g. to help trigger more ideas from the community. I am sure others probably have more fun ideas as to what can be done. I am stopping here now otherwise would just go on, till later. Feel free to comment, feedback. Hope it generates some more thinking and excitement on the grey cells.

1 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Summer haul

It's been a while since I posted one of these! Or, really, much of anything else. Busy and distracted this summer and a bit behind on a wide variety of things at the moment, although thankfully not in a bad way. Sara Alfageeh & Nadia Shammas Squire (graphic novel)
Travis Baldree Legends & Lattes (sff)
Leigh Bardugo Six of Crows (sff)
Miles Cameron Artifact Space (sff)
Robert Caro The Power Broker (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott Servant Mage (sff)
Nicola Griffith Spear (sff)
Alix E. Harrow A Mirror Mended (sff)
Tony Judt Postwar (nonfiction)
T. Kingfisher Nettle & Bone (sff)
Matthys Levy & Mario Salvadori Why Buildings Fall Down (nonfiction)
Lev Menand The Fed Unbound (nonfiction)
Courtney Milan Trade Me (romance)
Elie Mystal Allow Me to Retort (nonfiction)
Quenby Olson Miss Percy's Pocket Guide (sff)
Anu Partanen The Nordic Theory of Everything (nonfiction)
Terry Pratchett Hogfather (sff)
Terry Pratchett Jingo (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Last Continent (sff)
Terry Pratchett Carpe Jugulum (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Truth (sff)
Victor Ray On Critical Race Theory (nonfiction)
Richard Roberts A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel (sff)
Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson (ed.) Black Stars (sff anthology)
John Scalzi The Kaiju Preservation Society (sff)
James C. Scott Seeing Like a State (nonfiction)
Mary Sisson Trang (sff)
Mary Sisson Trust (sff)
Benjanun Sriduangkaew And Shall Machines Surrender (sff)
Lea Ypi Free (nonfiction)
It's been long enough that I've already read and reviewed some of these. Already read and pending review are the next two Pratchett novels in my slow progress working through them. Had to catch up with the Tor.com re-read series. So many books and quite definitely not enough time at the moment, although I've been doing better at reading this summer than last summer!

26 August 2022

Antoine Beaupr : How to nationalize the internet in Canada

Rogers had a catastrophic failure in July 2022. It affected emergency services (as in: people couldn't call 911, but also some 911 services themselves failed), hospitals (which couldn't access prescriptions), banks and payment systems (as payment terminals stopped working), and regular users as well. The outage lasted almost a full day, and Rogers took days to give any technical explanation on the outage, and even when they did, details were sparse. So far the only detailed account is from outside actors like Cloudflare which seem to point at an internal BGP failure. Its impact on the economy has yet to be measured, but it probably cost millions of dollars in wasted time and possibly lead to life-threatening situations. Apart from holding Rogers (criminally?) responsible for this, what should be done in the future to avoid such problems? It's not the first time something like this has happened: it happened to Bell Canada as well. The Rogers outage is also strangely similar to the Facebook outage last year, but, to its credit, Facebook did post a fairly detailed explanation only a day later. The internet is designed to be decentralised, and having large companies like Rogers hold so much power is a crucial mistake that should be reverted. The question is how. Some critics were quick to point out that we need more ISP diversity and competition, but I think that's missing the point. Others have suggested that the internet should be a public good or even straight out nationalized. I believe the solution to the problem of large, private, centralised telcos and ISPs is to replace them with smaller, public, decentralised service providers. The only way to ensure that works is to make sure that public money ends up creating infrastructure controlled by the public, which means treating ISPs as a public utility. This has been implemented elsewhere: it works, it's cheaper, and provides better service.

A modest proposal Global wireless services (like phone services) and home internet inevitably grow into monopolies. They are public utilities, just like water, power, railways, and roads. The question of how they should be managed is therefore inherently political, yet people don't seem to question the idea that only the market (i.e. "competition") can solve this problem. I disagree. 10 years ago (in french), I suggested we, in Qu bec, should nationalize large telcos and internet service providers. I no longer believe is a realistic approach: most of those companies have crap copper-based networks (at least for the last mile), yet are worth billions of dollars. It would be prohibitive, and a waste, to buy them out. Back then, I called this idea "R seau-Qu bec", a reference to the already nationalized power company, Hydro-Qu bec. (This idea, incidentally, made it into the plan of a political party.) Now, I think we should instead build our own, public internet. Start setting up municipal internet services, fiber to the home in all cities, progressively. Then interconnect cities with fiber, and build peering agreements with other providers. This also includes a bid on wireless spectrum to start competing with phone providers as well. And while that sounds really ambitious, I think it's possible to take this one step at a time.

Municipal broadband In many parts of the world, municipal broadband is an elegant solution to the problem, with solutions ranging from Stockholm's city-owned fiber network (dark fiber, layer 1) to Utah's UTOPIA network (fiber to the premises, layer 2) and municipal wireless networks like Guifi.net which connects about 40,000 nodes in Catalonia. A good first step would be for cities to start providing broadband services to its residents, directly. Cities normally own sewage and water systems that interconnect most residences and therefore have direct physical access everywhere. In Montr al, in particular, there is an ongoing project to replace a lot of old lead-based plumbing which would give an opportunity to lay down a wired fiber network across the city. This is a wild guess, but I suspect this would be much less expensive than one would think. Some people agree with me and quote this as low as 1000$ per household. There is about 800,000 households in the city of Montr al, so we're talking about a 800 million dollars investment here, to connect every household in Montr al with fiber and incidentally a quarter of the province's population. And this is not an up-front cost: this can be built progressively, with expenses amortized over many years. (We should not, however, connect Montr al first: it's used as an example here because it's a large number of households to connect.) Such a network should be built with a redundant topology. I leave it as an open question whether we should adopt Stockholm's more minimalist approach or provide direct IP connectivity. I would tend to favor the latter, because then you can immediately start to offer the service to households and generate revenues to compensate for the capital expenditures. Given the ridiculous profit margins telcos currently have 8 billion $CAD net income for BCE (2019), 2 billion $CAD for Rogers (2020) I also believe this would actually turn into a profitable revenue stream for the city, the same way Hydro-Qu bec is more and more considered as a revenue stream for the state. (I personally believe that's actually wrong and we should treat those resources as human rights and not money cows, but I digress. The point is: this is not a cost point, it's a revenue.) The other major challenge here is that the city will need competent engineers to drive this project forward. But this is not different from the way other public utilities run: we have electrical engineers at Hydro, sewer and water engineers at the city, this is just another profession. If anything, the computing science sector might be more at fault than the city here in its failure to provide competent and accountable engineers to society... Right now, most of the network in Canada is copper: we are hitting the limits of that technology with DSL, and while cable has some life left to it (DOCSIS 4.0 does 4Gbps), that is nowhere near the capacity of fiber. Take the town of Chattanooga, Tennessee: in 2010, the city-owned ISP EPB finished deploying a fiber network to the entire town and provided gigabit internet to everyone. Now, 12 years later, they are using this same network to provide the mind-boggling speed of 25 gigabit to the home. To give you an idea, Chattanooga is roughly the size and density of Sherbrooke.

Provincial public internet As part of building a municipal network, the question of getting access to "the internet" will immediately come up. Naturally, this will first be solved by using already existing commercial providers to hook up residents to the rest of the global network. But eventually, networks should inter-connect: Montr al should connect with Laval, and then Trois-Rivi res, then Qu bec City. This will require long haul fiber runs, but those links are not actually that expensive, and many of those already exist as a public resource at RISQ and CANARIE, which cross-connects universities and colleges across the province and the country. Those networks might not have the capacity to cover the needs of the entire province right now, but that is a router upgrade away, thanks to the amazing capacity of fiber. There are two crucial mistakes to avoid at this point. First, the network needs to remain decentralised. Long haul links should be IP links with BGP sessions, and each city (or MRC) should have its own independent network, to avoid Rogers-class catastrophic failures. Second, skill needs to remain in-house: RISQ has already made that mistake, to a certain extent, by selling its neutral datacenter. Tellingly, MetroOptic, probably the largest commercial dark fiber provider in the province, now operates the QIX, the second largest "public" internet exchange in Canada. Still, we have a lot of infrastructure we can leverage here. If RISQ or CANARIE cannot be up to the task, Hydro-Qu bec has power lines running into every house in the province, with high voltage power lines running hundreds of kilometers far north. The logistics of long distance maintenance are already solved by that institution. In fact, Hydro already has fiber all over the province, but it is a private network, separate from the internet for security reasons (and that should probably remain so). But this only shows they already have the expertise to lay down fiber: they would just need to lay down a parallel network to the existing one. In that architecture, Hydro would be a "dark fiber" provider.

International public internet None of the above solves the problem for the entire population of Qu bec, which is notoriously dispersed, with an area three times the size of France, but with only an eight of its population (8 million vs 67). More specifically, Canada was originally a french colony, a land violently stolen from native people who have lived here for thousands of years. Some of those people now live in reservations, sometimes far from urban centers (but definitely not always). So the idea of leveraging the Hydro-Qu bec infrastructure doesn't always work to solve this, because while Hydro will happily flood a traditional hunting territory for an electric dam, they don't bother running power lines to the village they forcibly moved, powering it instead with noisy and polluting diesel generators. So before giving me fiber to the home, we should give power (and potable water, for that matter), to those communities first. So we need to discuss international connectivity. (How else could we consider those communities than peer nations anyways?c) Qu bec has virtually zero international links. Even in Montr al, which likes to style itself a major player in gaming, AI, and technology, most peering goes through either Toronto or New York. That's a problem that we must fix, regardless of the other problems stated here. Looking at the submarine cable map, we see very few international links actually landing in Canada. There is the Greenland connect which connects Newfoundland to Iceland through Greenland. There's the EXA which lands in Ireland, the UK and the US, and Google has the Topaz link on the west coast. That's about it, and none of those land anywhere near any major urban center in Qu bec. We should have a cable running from France up to Saint-F licien. There should be a cable from Vancouver to China. Heck, there should be a fiber cable running all the way from the end of the great lakes through Qu bec, then up around the northern passage and back down to British Columbia. Those cables are expensive, and the idea might sound ludicrous, but Russia is actually planning such a project for 2026. The US has cables running all the way up (and around!) Alaska, neatly bypassing all of Canada in the process. We just look ridiculous on that map. (Addendum: I somehow forgot to talk about Teleglobe here was founded as publicly owned company in 1950, growing international phone and (later) data links all over the world. It was privatized by the conservatives in 1984, along with rails and other "crown corporations". So that's one major risk to any effort to make public utilities work properly: some government might be elected and promptly sell it out to its friends for peanuts.)

Wireless networks I know most people will have rolled their eyes so far back their heads have exploded. But I'm not done yet. I want wireless too. And by wireless, I don't mean a bunch of geeks setting up OpenWRT routers on rooftops. I tried that, and while it was fun and educational, it didn't scale. A public networking utility wouldn't be complete without providing cellular phone service. This involves bidding for frequencies at the federal level, and deploying a rather large amount of infrastructure, but it could be a later phase, when the engineers and politicians have proven their worth. At least part of the Rogers fiasco would have been averted if such a decentralized network backend existed. One might even want to argue that a separate institution should be setup to provide phone services, independently from the regular wired networking, if only for reliability. Because remember here: the problem we're trying to solve is not just technical, it's about political boundaries, centralisation, and automation. If everything is ran by this one organisation again, we will have failed. However, I must admit that phone services is where my ideas fall a little short. I can't help but think it's also an accessible goal maybe starting with a virtual operator but it seems slightly less so than the others, especially considering how closed the phone ecosystem is.

Counter points In debating these ideas while writing this article, the following objections came up.

I don't want the state to control my internet One legitimate concern I have about the idea of the state running the internet is the potential it would have to censor or control the content running over the wires. But I don't think there is necessarily a direct relationship between resource ownership and control of content. Sure, China has strong censorship in place, partly implemented through state-controlled businesses. But Russia also has strong censorship in place, based on regulatory tools: they force private service providers to install back-doors in their networks to control content and surveil their users. Besides, the USA have been doing warrantless wiretapping since at least 2003 (and yes, that's 10 years before the Snowden revelations) so a commercial internet is no assurance that we have a free internet. Quite the contrary in fact: if anything, the commercial internet goes hand in hand with the neo-colonial internet, just like businesses did in the "good old colonial days". Large media companies are the primary censors of content here. In Canada, the media cartel requested the first site-blocking order in 2018. The plaintiffs (including Qu becor, Rogers, and Bell Canada) are both content providers and internet service providers, an obvious conflict of interest. Nevertheless, there are some strong arguments against having a centralised, state-owned monopoly on internet service providers. FDN makes a good point on this. But this is not what I am suggesting: at the provincial level, the network would be purely physical, and regional entities (which could include private companies) would peer over that physical network, ensuring decentralization. Delegating the management of that infrastructure to an independent non-profit or cooperative (but owned by the state) would also ensure some level of independence.

Isn't the government incompetent and corrupt? Also known as "private enterprise is better skilled at handling this, the state can't do anything right" I don't think this is a "fait accomplit". If anything, I have found publicly ran utilities to be spectacularly reliable here. I rarely have trouble with sewage, water, or power, and keep in mind I live in a city where we receive about 2 meters of snow a year, which tend to create lots of trouble with power lines. Unless there's a major weather event, power just runs here. I think the same can happen with an internet service provider. But it would certainly need to have higher standards to what we're used to, because frankly Internet is kind of janky.

A single monopoly will be less reliable I actually agree with that, but that is not what I am proposing anyways. Current commercial or non-profit entities will be free to offer their services on top of the public network. And besides, the current "ha! diversity is great" approach is exactly what we have now, and it's not working. The pretense that we can have competition over a single network is what led the US into the ridiculous situation where they also pretend to have competition over the power utility market. This led to massive forest fires in California and major power outages in Texas. It doesn't work.

Wouldn't this create an isolated network? One theory is that this new network would be so hostile to incumbent telcos and ISPs that they would simply refuse to network with the public utility. And while it is true that the telcos currently do also act as a kind of "tier one" provider in some places, I strongly feel this is also a problem that needs to be solved, regardless of ownership of networking infrastructure. Right now, telcos often hold both ends of the stick: they are the gateway to users, the "last mile", but they also provide peering to the larger internet in some locations. In at least one datacenter in downtown Montr al, I've seen traffic go through Bell Canada that was not directly targeted at Bell customers. So in effect, they are in a position of charging twice for the same traffic, and that's not only ridiculous, it should just be plain illegal. And besides, this is not a big problem: there are other providers out there. As bad as the market is in Qu bec, there is still some diversity in Tier one providers that could allow for some exits to the wider network (e.g. yes, Cogent is here too).

What about Google and Facebook? Nationalization of other service providers like Google and Facebook is out of scope of this discussion. That said, I am not sure the state should get into the business of organising the web or providing content services however, but I will point out it already does do some of that through its own websites. It should probably keep itself to this, and also consider providing normal services for people who don't or can't access the internet. (And I would also be ready to argue that Google and Facebook already act as extensions of the state: certainly if Facebook didn't exist, the CIA or the NSA would like to create it at this point. And Google has lucrative business with the US department of defense.)

What does not work So we've seen one thing that could work. Maybe it's too expensive. Maybe the political will isn't there. Maybe it will fail. We don't know yet. But we know what does not work, and it's what we've been doing ever since the internet has gone commercial.

Subsidies The absurd price we pay for data does not actually mean everyone gets high speed internet at home. Large swathes of the Qu bec countryside don't get broadband at all, and it can be difficult or expensive, even in large urban centers like Montr al, to get high speed internet. That is despite having a series of subsidies that all avoided investing in our own infrastructure. We had the "fonds de l'autoroute de l'information", "information highway fund" (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) and "branchez les familles", "connecting families" (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) which subsidized the development of a copper network. In 2014, more of the same: the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a program called connecting Canadians to connect 280 000 households to "high speed internet". And now, the federal and provincial governments are proudly announcing that "everyone is now connected to high speed internet", after pouring more than 1.1 billion dollars to connect, guess what, another 380 000 homes, right in time for the provincial election. Of course, technically, the deadline won't actually be met until 2023. Qu bec is a big area to cover, and you can guess what happens next: the telcos threw up their hand and said some areas just can't be connected. (Or they connect their CEO but not the poor folks across the lake.) The story then takes the predictable twist of giving more money out to billionaires, subsidizing now Musk's Starlink system to connect those remote areas. To give a concrete example: a friend who lives about 1000km away from Montr al, 4km from a small, 2500 habitant village, has recently got symmetric 100 mbps fiber at home from Telus, thanks to those subsidies. But I can't get that service in Montr al at all, presumably because Telus and Bell colluded to split that market. Bell doesn't provide me with such a service either: they tell me they have "fiber to my neighborhood", and only offer me a 25/10 mbps ADSL service. (There is Vid otron offering 400mbps, but that's copper cable, again a dead technology, and asymmetric.)

Conclusion Remember Chattanooga? Back in 2010, they funded the development of a fiber network, and now they have deployed a network roughly a thousand times faster than what we have just funded with a billion dollars. In 2010, I was paying Bell Canada 60$/mth for 20mbps and a 125GB cap, and now, I'm still (indirectly) paying Bell for roughly the same speed (25mbps). Back then, Bell was throttling their competitors networks until 2009, when they were forced by the CRTC to stop throttling. Both Bell and Vid otron still explicitly forbid you from running your own servers at home, Vid otron charges prohibitive prices which make it near impossible for resellers to sell uncapped services. Those companies are not spurring innovation: they are blocking it. We have spent all this money for the private sector to build us a private internet, over decades, without any assurance of quality, equity or reliability. And while in some locations, ISPs did deploy fiber to the home, they certainly didn't upgrade their entire network to follow suit, and even less allowed resellers to compete on that network. In 10 years, when 100mbps will be laughable, I bet those service providers will again punt the ball in the public courtyard and tell us they don't have the money to upgrade everyone's equipment. We got screwed. It's time to try something new.

Updates There was a discussion about this article on Hacker News which was surprisingly productive. Trigger warning: Hacker News is kind of right-wing, in case you didn't know. Since this article was written, at least two more major acquisitions happened, just in Qu bec: In the latter case, vMedia was explicitly saying it couldn't grow because of "lack of access to capital". So basically, we have given those companies a billion dollars, and they are not using that very money to buy out their competition. At least we could have given that money to small players to even out the playing field. But this is not how that works at all. Also, in a bizarre twist, an "analyst" believes the acquisition is likely to help Rogers acquire Shaw. Also, since this article was written, the Washington Post published a review of a book bringing similar ideas: Internet for the People The Fight for Our Digital Future, by Ben Tarnoff, at Verso books. It's short, but even more ambitious than what I am suggesting in this article, arguing that all big tech companies should be broken up and better regulated:
He pulls from Ethan Zuckerman s idea of a web that is plural in purpose that just as pool halls, libraries and churches each have different norms, purposes and designs, so too should different places on the internet. To achieve this, Tarnoff wants governments to pass laws that would make the big platforms unprofitable and, in their place, fund small-scale, local experiments in social media design. Instead of having platforms ruled by engagement-maximizing algorithms, Tarnoff imagines public platforms run by local librarians that include content from public media.
(Links mine: the Washington Post obviously prefers to not link to the real web, and instead doesn't link to Zuckerman's site all and suggests Amazon for the book, in a cynical example.) And in another example of how the private sector has failed us, there was recently a fluke in the AMBER alert system where the entire province was warned about a loose shooter in Saint-Elz ar except the people in the town, because they have spotty cell phone coverage. In other words, millions of people received a strongly toned, "life-threatening", alert for a city sometimes hours away, except the people most vulnerable to the alert. Not missing a beat, the CAQ party is promising more of the same medicine again and giving more money to telcos to fix the problem, suggesting to spend three billion dollars in private infrastructure.

21 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-23624-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 151
A Prayer for the Crown Shy is the second novella in the Monk & Robot series and a direct sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Don't start here. I would call this the continuing adventures of Sibling Dex and Mosscap the robot, except adventures is entirely the wrong term for stories with so little risk or danger. The continuing tour? The continuing philosophical musings? Whatever one calls it, it's a slow exploration of Dex's world, this time with Mosscap alongside. Humans are about to have their first contact with a robot since the Awakening. If you're expecting that to involve any conflict, well, you've misunderstood the sort of story that this is. Mosscap causes a sensation, certainly, but a very polite and calm one, and almost devoid of suspicion or fear. There is one village where they get a slightly chilly reception, but even that is at most a quiet disapproval for well-understood reasons. This world is more utopian than post-scarcity, in that old sense of utopian in which human nature has clearly been rewritten to make the utopia work. I have to admit I'm struggling with this series. It's calm and happy and charming and occasionally beautiful in its descriptions. Dex continues to be a great character, with enough minor frustration, occasional irritation, and inner complications to make me want to keep reading about them. But it's one thing to have one character in a story who is simply a nice person at a bone-deep level, particularly given that Dex chose religious orders and to some extent has being a nice person as their vocation. It's another matter entirely when apparently everyone in the society is equally nice, and the only conflicts come from misunderstandings, respectful disagreements of opinion, and the occasional minor personality conflict. Realism has long been the primary criticism of Chambers's work, but in her Wayfarers series the problems were mostly in the technology and its perpetual motion machines. Human civilization in the Exodus Fleet was a little too calm and nice given its traumatic past (and, well, humans), but there were enough conflicts, suspicions, and poor decisions for me to recognize it as human society. It was arguably a bit too chastened, meek, and devoid of shit-stirring demagogues, but it was at least in contact with human society as I recognize it. I don't recognize Panga as humanity. I realize this is to some degree the point of this series: to present a human society in which nearly all of the problems of anger and conflict have been solved, and to ask what would come after, given all of that space. And I'm sure that one purpose of this type of story is to be, as I saw someone describe it, hugfic: the fictional equivalent of a warm hug from a dear friend, safe and supportive and comforting. Maybe it says bad, or at least interesting, things about my cynicism that I don't understand a society that's this nice. But that's where I'm stuck. If there were other dramatic elements to focus on, I might not mind it as much, but the other pole of the story apart from the world tour is Mosscap's philosophical musings, and I'm afraid I'm already a bit tired of them. Mosscap is earnest and thoughtful and sincere, but they're curious about Philosophy 101 material and it's becoming frustrating to see Mosscap and Dex meander through these discussions without attempting to apply any theoretical framework whatsoever. Dex is a monk, who supposedly has a scholarship tradition from which to draw, and yet appears to approach all philosophical questions with nothing more than gut feeling, common sense, and random whim. Mosscap is asking very basic meaning-of-life sorts of questions, the kind of thing that humans have been writing and arguing about from before we started keeping records and which are at the center of any religious philosophy. I find it frustrating that someone supposedly educated in a religious tradition can't bring more philosophical firepower to these discussions. It doesn't help that this entry in the series reinforces the revelation that Mosscap's own belief system is weirdly unsustainable to such a degree that it's staggering that any robots still exist. If I squint, I can see some interesting questions raised by the robot attitude towards their continued existence (although most of them feel profoundly depressing to me), but I was completely unable to connect their philosophy in any believable way with their origins and the stated history of the world. I don't understand how this world got here, and apparently I'm not able to let that go. This all sounds very negative, and yet I did enjoy this novella. Chambers is great at description of places that I'd love to visit, and there is something calm and peaceful about spending some time in a society this devoid of conflict. I also really like Dex, even more so after seeing their family, and I'm at least somewhat invested in their life decisions. I can see why people like these novellas. But if I'm going to read a series that's centered on questions of ethics and philosophy, I would like it to have more intellectual heft than we've gotten so far. For what it's worth, I'm seeing a bit of a pattern where people who bounced off the Wayfarers books like this series much better, whereas people who loved the Wayfarers books are not enjoying these quite as much. I'm in the latter camp, so if you didn't like Chambers's earlier work, maybe you'll find this more congenial? There's a lot less found family here, for one thing; I love found family stories, but they're not to everyone's taste. If you liked A Psalm for the Wild-Built, you will probably also like A Prayer for the Crown-Shy; it's more of the same thing in both style and story. If you found the first story frustratingly unbelievable or needing more philosophical depth, I'm afraid this is unlikely to be an improvement. It does have some lovely scenes, though, and is stuffed full of sheer delight in both the wild world and in happy communities of people. Rating: 7 out of 10

6 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Master of Djinn

Review: A Master of Djinn, by P. Dj l Clark
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-26767-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 391
A Master of Djinn is the first novel in the Dead Djinn Universe, but (as you might guess from the series title) is a direct sequel to the novelette "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". The novelette is not as good as the novel, but I recommend reading it first for the character introductions and some plot elements that carry over. Reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 first is entirely optional. In 1912 in a mansion in Giza, a secret society of (mostly) British men is meeting. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz is devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz. In our world, these men would likely be colonialist plunderers. In this world, they still aspire to that role, but they're playing catch-up. Al-Jahiz bored into the Kaf, releasing djinn and magic into the world and making Egypt a world power in its own right. Now, its cities are full of clockwork marvels, djinn walk the streets as citizens, and British rule has been ejected from India and Africa by local magic. This group of still-rich romantics and crackpots hopes to discover the knowledge lost when al-Jahiz disappeared. They have not had much success. This will not save their lives. Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Her job is sorting out the problems caused by this new magic, such as a couple of young thieves with a bottle full of sleeping djinn whose angry reaction to being unexpectedly woken has very little to do with wishes. She is one of the few female investigators in a ministry that is slowly modernizing with the rest of society (Egyptian women just got the vote). She's also the one called to investigate the murder of a secret society of British men and a couple of Cairenes by a black-robed man in a golden mask. The black-robed man claims to be al-Jahiz returned, and proves to be terrifyingly adept at manipulating crowds and sparking popular dissent. Fatma and the Ministry's first attempt to handle him is a poorly-judged confrontation stymied by hostile crowds, the man's duplicating bodyguard, and his own fighting ability. From there, it's a race between Fatma's pursuit of linear clues and the black-robed man's efforts to destabilize society. This, like the previous short stories, is a police procedural, but it has considerably more room to breathe at novel length. That serves it well, since as with "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" the procedural part is a linear, reactive vehicle for plot exposition. I was more invested in Fatma's relationships with the supporting characters. Since the previous story, she's struck up a romance with Siti, a highly competent follower of the old Egyptian gods (Hathor in particular) and my favorite character in the book. She's also been assigned a new partner, Hadia, a new graduate and another female agent. The slow defeat of Fatma's irritation at not being allowed to work alone by Hadia's cheerful competence and persistence (and willingness to do paperwork) adds a lot to the characterization. The setting felt a bit less atmospheric than The Haunting of Tram Car 015, but we get more details of international politics, and they're a delight. Clark takes obvious (and warranted) glee in showing how the reintroduction of magic has shifted the balance of power away from the colonial empires. Cairo is a bustling steampunk metropolis and capital of a world power, welcoming envoys from West African kingdoms alongside the (still racist and obnoxious but now much less powerful) British and other Europeans. European countries were forced to search their own mythology for possible sources of magic power, which leads to the hilarious scene of the German Kaiser carrying a sleepy goblin on his shoulder to monitor his diplomacy. The magic of the story was less successful for me, although still enjoyable. The angels from "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" make another appearance and again felt like the freshest bit of world-building, but we don't find out much more about them. I liked the djinn and their widely-varied types and magic, but apart from them and a few glimpses of Egypt's older gods, that was the extent of the underlying structure. There is a significant magical artifact, but the characters are essentially handed an instruction manual, use it according to its instructions, and it then does what it was documented to do. It was a bit unsatisfying. I'm the type of fantasy reader who always wants to read the sourcebook for the magic system, but this is not that sort of a book. Instead, it's the kind of book where the investigator steadily follows a linear trail of clues and leads until they reach the final confrontation. Here, the confrontation felt remarkably like cut scenes from a Japanese RPG: sudden vast changes in scale, clockwork constructs, massive monsters, villains standing on mobile platforms, and surprise combat reversals. I could almost hear the fight music and see the dialog boxes pop up. This isn't exactly a complaint I love Japanese RPGs but it did add to the feeling that the plot was on rails and didn't require many decisions from the protagonist. Clark also relies on an overused plot cliche in the climactic battle, which was a minor disappointment. A Master of Djinn won the Nebula for best 2021 novel, I suspect largely on the basis of its setting and refreshingly non-European magical system. I don't entirely agree; the writing is still a bit clunky, with unnecessary sentences and stock phrases showing up here and there, and I think it suffers from the typical deficiencies of SFF writers writing mysteries or police procedurals without the plot sophistication normally found in that genre. But this is good stuff for a first novel, with fun supporting characters (loved the librarian) and some great world-building. I would happily read more in this universe. Rating: 7 out of 10

5 June 2022

John Goerzen: Visiting Germany: Reflections on Schloss Charlottenburg

200 years ago, my ancestors migrated from Prussia to Ukraine. They left for many reasons, many of which boiled down to their strong pacifism in the midst of a highly militarized country. Last week, my wife, the boys, and I walked through the favorite palace of Friedrich Wilhelm III, the king of Prussia who was responsible for forcing my ancestors out Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. Photos can t possibly convey the enormity and the riches of this place, even after being attacked during multiple wars (and used by Napoleon for a time). My ancestors would never have been able to get into to this place. We, on the other hand, walked right through the king s bedroom, audience room, and chapel. The chapel, incidentally, mixing church and state; a fine pipe organ along with a statue of an eagle holding the Prussian crown. I could pause and enjoy the beauty of the place; the oval rooms overlooking the acres of sculpted gardens outside and carefully tree-lined streets leading to the palace, the artwork no doubt worth many millions, the gold and silver place settings, the rare tapestries. And I could also reflect on the problems with such great wealth and power, and the many lives lost and refugees created by the wars the Prussian kings started. (First of several reflections on our wonderful recent trip to Germany with the boys)

28 May 2022

kpcyrd: auth-tarball-from-git: Verifying tarballs with signed git tags

I noticed there s a common anti-pattern in some PKGBUILDs, the short scripts that are used to build Arch Linux packages. Specifically we re looking at the part that references the source code used when building a package:
source=("git+https://github.com/alacritty/alacritty.git#tag=v$ pkgver ?signed")
validpgpkeys=('4DAA67A9EA8B91FCC15B699C85CDAE3C164BA7B4'
              'A56EF308A9F1256C25ACA3807EA8F8B94622A6A9')
sha256sums=('SKIP')
This does: In contrast consider this PKGBUILD:
source=($pkgname-$pkgver.tar.gz::https://github.com/alacritty/alacritty/archive/refs/tags/v$pkgver.tar.gz)
sha256sums=('e48d4b10762c2707bb17fd8f89bd98f0dcccc450d223cade706fdd9cfaefb308')
Personally - if I had to decide between these two - I d prefer the later because I can always try to authenticate the pinned tarball later on, but it s impossible to know for sure which source code has been used if all I know is something that had a valid signature on it . This set could be infinitely large for all we know! But is there a way to get both? Consider this PKGBUILD:
makedepends=('auth-tarball-from-git')
source=($pkgname-$pkgver.tar.gz::https://github.com/alacritty/alacritty/archive/refs/tags/v$pkgver.tar.gz
        chrisduerr.pgp
        kchibisov.pgp)
sha256sums=('e48d4b10762c2707bb17fd8f89bd98f0dcccc450d223cade706fdd9cfaefb308'
            '19573dc0ba7a2f003377dc49986867f749235ecb45fe15eb923a74b2ab421d74'
            '5b866e6cb791c58cba2e7fc60f647588699b08abc2ad6b18ba82470f0fd3db3b')
prepare()  
  cd "$pkgname-$pkgver"
  auth-tarball-from-git --keyring ../chrisduerr.pgp --keyring ../kchibisov.pgp \
    --tag v$pkgver --prefix $pkgname-$pkgver \
    https://github.com/alacritty/alacritty.git ../$pkgname-$pkgver.tar.gz
 
In this case sha256sums= is the primary line of defense against tampering with build inputs and the git tag is only used to document authorship. For more infos on how this works you can have a look at the auth-tarball-from-git repo, there s also a section about attacks on signed git tags that you should probably know about.

Thanks This work is currently crowd-funded on github sponsors. I d like to thank @SantiagoTorres, @repi and @rgacogne for their support in particular.

22 April 2022

Andrej Shadura: To England by train (part 1)

This post was written in August 2021. Just as I was going to publish it, I received an email from BB stating that due to a railway strike in Germany my night train would be cancelled. Since the rest of the trip has already been booked well in advance, I had to take a plane to Charleroi and a bus to Brussels to catch my Eurostar. Ultimately, I ended up publishing it in April 2022, just as I m about to leave for a fully train-powered trip to the UK once again. Before the pandemic started, I planned to use the last months of my then-expiring UK visa and go to England by train. I ve completed two train long journeys by that time already, to Brussels and to Belarus and Ukraine, but this would be something quite different, as I wanted to have multiple stops on my way, use night trains where it made sense, and to go through the Channel Tunnel. The Channel Tunnel fascinated me since my childhood; I first read about it in the Soviet Science and Life magazine ( ) when I was seven. I ve never had the chance to use it though, since to board any train going though it I d first need to get to France, Belgium or the Netherlands, making it significantly more expensive than the cheap 30 Ryanair flights to Stansted. As the coronavirus spread across the world, all of my travel plans along with plans for a sabbatical had to be cancelled. During 2020, I only managed to go on two weekend trips to Prague and Budapest, followed by a two-weeks holiday on Crete (we returned just a couple of weeks before the infection numbers rose and lockdowns started). I do realise that a lot of people couldn t even have this much because the situation in their countries was much worse we were lucky to have had at least some travel. Fast forward to August 2021, I m fully vaccinated, I once again have a UK visa for five years, and the UK finally recognises the EU vaccination passports yay! I can finally go to Devon to see my mother and sister again. By train, of course. Compared to my original plan, this journey will be different: about the same or even more expensive than I originally planned, but shorter and with fewer stops on the way. My original plan would be to take multiple trains from Bratislava to France or Belgium and complete this segment of the trip in about three days, enjoying my stay in a couple of cities on the way. Instead, I m taking a direct NightJet from Vienna to Brussels, not stopping anywhere on the way.
Map: train route from Bratislava to BrusselsTrain route from Bratislava to Brussels
Since I was booking my trip just two weeks ahead, the price of the ticket is not that I hoped for, but much higher: 109 for the ticket itself and 60 for the berth (advance bookings could be about twice as cheap). Next, to London! Eurostar is still on a very much reduced schedule, running one train only from Amsterdam through Brussels and Lille to London each day. This means, of course, higher ticket prices (I paid about 100 for the ticket) and longer waiting time in Brussels my sleeper arrives about 10 am, but the Eurostar train is scheduled to depart at 3 pm.
Map: train route from Brussels to LondonTrain route from Brussels to London
The train makes a stop in Lille, which I initially suspected to be risky as at the time when I booked my tickets, as at the time France was on the amber plus list for the UK, requiring a quarantine upon arrival. However, Eurostar announced that they will assign travellers from Lille to a different carriage to avoid other passengers having to go to quarantine, but recently France was taken off the amber plus list. The train fare system in the UK is something I don t quite understand, as sometimes split tickets are cheaper, sometimes they re expensive, sometimes prices for the same service at different times can be vastly different, off-peak tickets don t say what exactly off-peak means (very few people in the UK are asked were able to tell me when exactly off-peak hours are). Curiously, transfers between train stations using London Underground services can be included into railway tickets, but some last mile connection like Exeter to Honiton cannot (but this used to be possible). Both GWR.com and TrainLine refused to sell me a single ticket from London to Honiton through Exeter, insisting I split the ticket at Exeter St Davids or take the slower South Western train to Honiton via Salisbury and Yeovil. I ended up buying a 57 ticket from Paddington to Exeter St Davids with the first segment being the London Underground from St Pancras, and a separate 7.70 ticket to Honiton.
Map: arrival at St Pancras, the underground, departure from PaddingtonChange of trains in London
Map: arrival at Exeter St Davids, change to a South Western train, arrival at HonitonChange of trains in Exeter
Date Station Arrival Departure Train
12.8 Bratislava-Petr alka 18:15 REX 7756
Wien Hbf 19:15 19:53 NJ 50490
13.8 Bruxelles-Midi 9:55 15:06 EST 9145
London St Pancras 16:03 16:34 TfL
London Paddington 16:49 17:04 GWR 59231
Exeter St Davids 19:19 19:25 SWR 52706
Honiton 19:54
Unfortunately, due to the price of the tickets, I m taking a 15 Ryanair flight back Update after the journey Since I flew to Charleroi instead of comfortably sleeping in a night train, I had to put up with inconveniences of airports, including cumbersome connections to the nearby cities. The only reasonable way of getting from Charleroi to Brussels is an overcrowded bus which takes almost an hour to arrive. I used to take this bus when I tried to save money on my way to FOSDEM, and I must admit it s not something I missed. Boarding the Eurostar train went fine, my vaccination passport and Covid test wasn t really checked, just glanced at. The waiting room was a bit of a disappointment, with bars closed and vending machines broken. Since it was underground, I couldn t even see the trains until the very last moment when we were finally allowed on the platform. The train itself, while comfortable, disappointed me with the bistro carriage: standing only, instant coffee, poor selection of food and drinks. I m glad I bought some food at Carrefour at the Midi station! When I arrived in Exeter, I soon found out why the system refused to sell me a through ticket: 6 minutes is not enough to change trains at Exeter St Davids! Or, it might have been if I took the right footbridge but I took the one which led into a very talkative (and slow!) lift. I ended up running to the train just as it closed the doors and departed, leaving me tin Exeter for an hour until. I used this chance and walked to Exeter Central, and had a pint in a conveniently located pub around the corner. P.S. The maps in this and other posts were created using uMap; the map data come from OpenStreetMap. The train route visualisation was generated with help of the Raildar.fr OSRM instance.

27 March 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Song for a New Day

Review: A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 1-9848-0259-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 372
Luce Cannon was touring with a session band when the shutdown began. First came the hotel evacuation in the middle of the night due to bomb threats against every hotel in the state. Then came the stadium bombing just before they were ready to go on stage. Luce and most of the band performed anyway, with a volunteer crew and a shaken crowd. It was, people later decided, the last large stage show in the United States before the congregation laws shut down public gatherings. That was the end of Luce's expected career, and could have been the end of music, or at least public music. But Luce was stubborn and needed the music. Rosemary grew up in the aftermath: living at home with her parents well away from other people, attending school virtually, and then moving seamlessly into a virtual job for Superwally, the corporation that ran essentially everything. A good fix for some last-minute technical problems with StageHoloLive's ticketing system got her an upgraded VR hoodie and complimentary tickets to the first virtual concert she'd ever attended. She found the experience astonishing, prompting her to browse StageHoloLive job openings and then apply for a technical job and, on a whim, an artist recruiter role. That's how Rosemary found herself, quite nerve-wrackingly, traveling out into the unsafe world to look for underground musicians who could become StageHoloLive acts. A Song for a New Day was published in 2019 and had a moment of fame at the beginning of 2020, culminating in the Nebula Award for best novel, because it's about lockdowns, isolation, and the suppression of public performances. There's even a pandemic, although it's not a respiratory disease (it's some variety of smallpox or chicken pox) and is only a minor contributing factor to the lockdowns in this book. The primary impetus is random violence. Unfortunately, the subsequent two years have not been kind to this novel. Reading it in 2022, with the experience of the past two years fresh in my mind, was a frustrating and exasperating experience because the world setting is completely unbelievable. This is not entirely Pinsker's fault; this book was published in 2019, was not intended to be about our pandemic, and therefore could not reasonably predict its consequences. Still, it required significant effort to extract the premise of the book from the contradictory evidence of current affairs and salvage the pieces of it I still enjoyed. First, Pinsker's characters are the most astonishingly incurious and docile group of people I've seen in a recent political SF novel. This extends beyond the protagonists, where it could arguably be part of their characterization, to encompass the entire world (or at least the United States; the rest of the world does not appear in this book at all so far as I can recall). You may be wondering why someone bombs a stadium at the start of the book. If so, you are alone; this is not something anyone else sees any reason to be curious about. Why is random violence spiraling out of control? Is there some coordinated terrorist activity? Is there some social condition that has gotten markedly worse? Race riots? Climate crises? Wars? The only answer this book offers is a completely apathetic shrug. There is a hint at one point that the government may have theories that they're not communicating, but no one cares about that either. That leads to the second bizarre gap: for a book that hinges on political action, formal political structures are weirdly absent. Near the end of the book, one random person says that they have been inspired to run for office, which so far as I can tell is the first mention of elections in the entire book. The "government" passes congregation laws shutting down public gatherings and there are no protests, no arguments, no debate, but also no suppression, no laws against the press or free speech, no attempt to stop that debate. There's no attempt to build consensus for or against the laws, and no noticeable political campaigning. That's because there's no need. So far as one can tell from this story, literally everyone just shrugs and feels sad and vaguely compliant. Police officers exist and enforce laws, but changing those laws or defying them in other than tiny covert ways simply never occurs to anyone. This makes the book read a bit like a fatuous libertarian parody of a docile populace, but this is so obviously not the author's intent that it wouldn't be satisfying to read even as that. To be clear, this is not something that lasts only a few months in an emergency when everyone is still scared. This complete political docility and total incuriosity persists for enough years that Rosemary grows up within that mindset. The triggering event was a stadium bombing followed by an escalating series of random shootings and bombings. (The pandemic in the book only happens after everything is locked down and, apart from adding to Rosemary's agoraphobia and making people inconsistently obsessed with surface cleanliness, plays little role in the novel.) I lived through 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing in the US, other countries have been through more protracted and personally dangerous periods of violence (the Troubles come to mind), and never in human history has any country reacted to a shock of violence (or, for that matter, disease) like the US does in this book. At points it felt like one of those SF novels where the author is telling an apparently normal story and all the characters turn out to be aliens based on spiders or bats. I finally made sense of this by deciding that the author wasn't using sudden shocks like terrorism or pandemics as a model, even though that's what the book postulates. Instead, the model seems to be something implicitly tolerated and worked around: US school shootings, for instance, or the (incorrect but widespread) US belief in a rise of child kidnappings by strangers. The societal reaction here looks less like a public health or counter-terrorism response and more like suburban attitudes towards child-raising, where no child is ever left unattended for safety reasons but we routinely have school shootings no other country has at the same scale. We have been willing to radically (and ineffectually) alter the experience of childhood due to fears of external threat, and that's vaguely and superficially similar to the premise of this novel. What I think Pinsker still misses (and which the pandemic has made glaringly obvious) is the immense momentum of normality and the inability of adults to accept limitations on their own activities for very long. Even with school shootings, kids go to school in person. We now know that parts of society essentially collapse if they don't, and political pressure becomes intolerable. But by using school shootings as the model, I managed to view Pinsker's setup as an unrealistic but still potentially interesting SF extrapolation: a thought experiment that ignores countervailing pressures in order to exaggerate one aspect of society to an extreme. This is half of Pinsker's setup. The other half, which made less of a splash because it didn't have the same accident of timing, is the company Superwally: essentially "what if Amazon bought Walmart, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Disney, and Live Nation." This is a more typical SF extrapolation that left me with a few grumbles about realism, but that I'll accept as a plot device to talk about commercialization, monopolies, and surveillance capitalism. But here again, the complete absence of formal political structures in this book is not credible. Superwally achieves an all-pervasiveness that in other SF novels results in corporations taking over the role of national governments, but it still lobbies the government in much the same way and with about the same effectiveness as Amazon does in our world. I thought this directly undermined some parts of the end of the book. I simply did not believe that Superwally would be as benign and ineffectual as it is shown here. Those are a lot of complaints. I found reading the first half of this book to be an utterly miserable experience and only continued reading out of pure stubbornness and completionism. But the combination of the above-mentioned perspective shift and Pinsker's character focus did partly salvage the book for me. This is not a book about practical political change, even though it makes gestures in that direction. It's primarily a book about people, music, and personal connection, and Pinsker's portrayal of individual and community trust in all its complexity is the one thing the book gets right. Rosemary's character combines a sort of naive arrogance with self-justification in a way that I found very off-putting, but the pivot point of the book is the way in which Luce and her community extends trust to her anyway, as part of staying true to what they believe. The problem that I think Pinsker was trying to write about is atomization, which leads to social fragmentation into small trust networks with vast gulfs between them. Luce and Rosemary are both characters who are willing to bridge those gulfs in their own ways. Pinsker does an excellent job describing the benefits, the hurt, the misunderstandings, the risk, and the awkward process of building those bridges between communities that fundamentally do not understand each other. There's something deep here about the nature of solidarity, and how you need both people like Luce and people like Rosemary to build strong and effective communities. I've kept thinking about that part. It's also helpful for a community to have people who are curious about cause and effect, and who know how a bill becomes a law. It's hard to sum up this book, other than to say that I understand why it won a Nebula but it has deep world-building flaws that have become far more obvious over the past two years. Pinsker tries hard to capture the feeling of live music for both the listener and the performer and partly succeeded even for me, which probably means others will enjoy that part of the book immensely. The portrayal of the difficult dynamics of personal trust was the best part of the book for me, but you may have to build scaffolding and bracing for your world-building disbelief in order to get there. On the whole, I think A Song for a New Day is worth reading, but maybe not right now. If you do read it now, tell yourself at the start that this is absolutely not about the pandemic and that everything political in this book is a hugely simplified straw-man extrapolation, and hopefully you'll find the experience less frustrating than I found it. Rating: 6 out of 10

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.

1 January 2022

Russ Allbery: 2021 Book Reading in Review

In 2021, I finished and reviewed 43 books, yet another (tiny) increase over 2020 and once again the best year for reading since 2012 (which was the last time I averaged 5 books a month). The year got off to a good reading start and closed strong, but once again had sags in the spring and summer when I got behind on reviews and fell out of the habit of reading daily. This year, at least, the end-of-year catch-up was less dramatic; all but two of the books I reviewed in December were finished in December. The best books I read this year were Naomi Novik's magic boarding school fantasies A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, which I rated a 9 and a 10 respectively. Memorable characters, some great world-building, truly exceptional characterization of a mother/daughter relationship, adroit avoidance of genre pitfalls, and two of my favorite fictional tropes: for me, this series has it all. The third and concluding book of that series is my most anticipated book of 2022. My large reviewing project of this year was a complete re-read of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, starting with my 1000th published review. As you can see, I have a lot of opinions about those books; they were a huge part of my childhood, and I'd been talking about writing those reviews for years. They were the longest reviews I've published and, unusually for me, full-spoiler reviews, and they took up a lot of my reviewing energy for the year. Of the seven books in the series, I was pleased to see that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician's Nephew held up and are still very much worth reading. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in particular, is an exceptional sense-of-wonder fantasy novel with a story structure that remains rare. The best non-fiction book I read in 2021 is a prosaic choice that's only of specialist interest, but JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is precisely the type of programming language manual that I look for when learning a new language. It taught me what I was hoping to learn when I picked it up. Honorable mentions are a crowded field this year; I read a lot of books that were good but not great. Worth calling out are Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to the excellent A Memory Called Empire), if for nothing else than Three Seagrass; Micaiah Johnson's impressive debut The Space Between Worlds; and Becky Chambers's last Wayfarer novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. On the non-fiction side, Allie Brosh's Solutions and Other Problems is a much harder and sadder book than the exceptional Hyperbole and a Half, but it was still very much worth reading. This was another year spent reading mostly recently-published books, without much backfill of either award winners or my existing library. In 2022, I hope to balance keeping up with new books of interest with returning to series I left unfinished, award lists I left only partly explored, and books I snapped up in earlier years and then never got around to. The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

30 December 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2021: Non-fiction

As a follow-up to yesterday's post listing my favourite memoirs and biographies I read in 2021, today I'll be outlining my favourite works of non-fiction. Books that just missed the cut include: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell for its thrilleresque narrative of a modern-day Robin Hood (and if you get to the end, a completely unexpected twist); Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide to the American Status System as an amusing chaser of sorts to Kate Fox's Watching the English; John Carey's Little History of Poetry for its exhilarating summation of almost four millennia of verse; David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years for numerous historical insights, not least its rejoinder to our dangerously misleading view of ancient barter systems; and, although I didn't treasure everything about it, I won't hesitate to gift Pen Vogler's Scoff to a number of friends over the next year. The weakest book of non-fiction I read this year was undoubtedly Roger Scruton's How to Be a Conservative: I much preferred The Decadent Society for Ross Douthat for my yearly ration of the 'intellectual right'. I also very much enjoyed reading a number of classic texts from academic sociology, but they are difficult to recommend or even summarise. These included One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Frederic Jameson and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. 'These are heavy books', remarks John Proctor in Arthur Miller's The Crucible... All round-up posts for 2021: Memoir/biography, Non-fiction (this post) & Fiction (coming soon).

Hidden Valley Road (2020) Robert Kolker A compelling and disturbing account of the Galvin family six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia which details a journey through the study and misunderstanding of the condition. The story of the Galvin family offers a parallel history of the science of schizophrenia itself, from the era of institutionalisation, lobotomies and the 'schizo mother', to the contemporary search for genetic markers for the disease... all amidst fundamental disagreements about the nature of schizophrenia and, indeed, of all illnesses of the mind. Samples of the Galvins' DNA informed decades of research which, curiously, continues to this day, potentially offering paths to treatment, prediction and even eradication of the disease, although on this last point I fancy that I detect a kind of neo-Victorian hubris that we alone will be the ones to find a cure. Either way, a gentle yet ultimately tragic view of a curiously 'American' family, where the inherent lack of narrative satisfaction brings a frustration and sadness of its own.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (2021) Cat Flyn In this disarmingly lyrical book, Cat Flyn addresses the twin questions of what happens after humans are gone and how far can our damage to nature be undone. From the forbidden areas of post-war France to the mining regions of Scotland, Islands of Abandonment explores the extraordinary places where humans no longer live in an attempt to give us a glimpse into what happens when mankind's impact on nature is, for one reason or another, forced to stop. Needless to say, if anxieties in this area are not curdling away in your subconscious mind, you are probably in some kind of denial. Through a journey into desolate, eerie and ravaged areas in the world, this artfully-written study offers profound insights into human nature, eschewing the usual dry sawdust of Wikipedia trivia. Indeed, I summed it up to a close friend remarking that, through some kind of hilarious administrative error, the book's publisher accidentally dispatched a poet instead of a scientist to write this book. With glimmers of hope within the (mostly) tragic travelogue, Islands of Abandonment is not only a compelling read, but also a fascinating insight into the relationship between Nature and Man.

The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) Robert O. Paxton Everyone is absolutely sure they know what fascism is... or at least they feel confident choosing from a buffet of features to suit the political mood. To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon: even as 'early' as 1946, George Orwell complained in Politics and the English Language that the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable . Still, it has proved uncommonly hard to define the core nature of fascism and what differentiates it from related political movements. This is still of great significance in the twenty-first century, for the definition ultimately determines where the powerful label of 'fascist' can be applied today. Part of the enjoyment of reading this book was having my own cosy definition thoroughly dismantled and replaced with a robust system of abstractions and common themes. This is achieved through a study of the intellectual origins of fascism and how it played out in the streets of Berlin, Rome and Paris. Moreover, unlike Strongmen (see above), fascisms that failed to gain meaningful power are analysed too, including Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Curiously enough, Paxton's own definition of fascism is left to the final chapter, and by the time you reach it, you get an anti-climatic feeling of it being redundant. Indeed, whatever it actually is, fascism is really not quite like any other 'isms' at all, so to try and classify it like one might be a mistake. In his introduction, Paxton warns that many of those infamous images associated with fascism (eg. Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Mussolini speaking from a balcony, etc.) have the ability to induce facile errors about the fascist leader and the apparent compliance of the crowd. (Contemporary accounts often record how sceptical the common man was of the leader's political message, even if they were transfixed by their oratorical bombast.) As it happens, I thus believe I had something of an advantage of reading this via an audiobook, and completely avoided re-absorbing these iconic images. To me, this was an implicit reminder that, however you choose to reduce it to a definition, fascism is undoubtedly the most visual of all political forms, presenting itself to us in vivid and iconic primary images: ranks of disciplined marching youths, coloured-shirted militants beating up members of demonised minorities; the post-war pictures from the concentration camps... Still, regardless of you choose to read it, The Anatomy of Fascism is a powerful book that can teach a great deal about fascism in particular and history in general.

What Good are the Arts? (2005) John Carey What Good are the Arts? takes a delightfully sceptical look at the nature of art, and cuts through the sanctimony and cant that inevitably surrounds them. It begins by revealing the flaws in lofty aesthetic theories and, along the way, debunks the claims that art makes us better people. They may certainly bring joy into your life, but by no means do the fine arts make you automatically virtuous. Carey also rejects the entire enterprise of separating things into things that are art and things that are not, making a thoroughly convincing case that there is no transcendental category containing so-called 'true' works of art. But what is perhaps equally important to what Carey is claiming is the way he does all this. As in, this is an extremely enjoyable book to read, with not only a fine sense of pace and language, but a devilish sense of humour as well. To be clear, What Good are the Arts? it is no crotchety monograph: Leo Tolstoy's *What Is Art? (1897) is hilarious to read in similar ways, but you can't avoid feeling its cantankerous tone holds Tolstoy's argument back. By contrast, Carey makes his argument in a playful sort of manner, in a way that made me slightly sad to read other polemics throughout the year. It's definitely not that modern genre of boomer jeremiad about the young, political correctness or, heaven forbid, 'cancel culture'... which, incidentally, made Carey's 2014 memoir, The Unexpected Professor something of a disappointing follow-up. Just for fun, Carey later undermines his own argument by arguing at length for the value of one art in particular. Literature, Carey asserts, is the only art capable of reasoning and the only art with the ability to criticise. Perhaps so, and Carey spends a chapter or so contending that fiction has the exclusive power to inspire the mind and move the heart towards practical ends... or at least far better than any work of conceptual art. Whilst reading this book I found myself taking down innumerable quotations and laughing at the jokes far more than I disagreed. And the sustained and intellectual style of polemic makes this a pretty strong candidate for my favourite overall book of the year.

27 November 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers
Series: Monk & Robot #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: July 2021
ISBN: 1-250-23622-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 160
At the start of the story, Sibling Dex is a monk in a monastery in Panga's only City. They have spent their entire life there, love the buildings, know the hidden corners of the parks, and find the architecture beautiful. They're also heartily sick of it and desperate for the sound of crickets.
Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city.
Sibling Dex therefore decides to upend their life and travel the outlying villages doing tea service. And they do. They commission an ox-bike wagon, throw themselves into learning cultivation and herbs, experiment with different teas, and practice. It's a lot to learn, and they don't get it right from the start, but Sibling Dex is the sort of person who puts in the work to do something well. Before long, they have a new life as a traveling tea monk. It's better than living in the City. But it still isn't enough. We don't find out much about the moon of Panga in this story. Humans live there and it has a human-friendly biosphere with recognizable species, but it is clearly not Earth. The story does not reveal how humans came to live there. Dex's civilization is quite advanced and appears to be at least partly post-scarcity: people work and have professions, but money is rarely mentioned, poverty doesn't appear to be a problem, and Dex, despite being a monk with no obvious source of income, is able to commission the construction of a wagon home without any difficulty. They follow a religion that has no obvious Earth analogue. The most fascinating thing about Panga is an event in its history. It previously had an economy based on robot factories, but the robots became sentient. Since this is a Becky Chambers story, the humans reaction was to ask the robots what they wanted to do and respect their decision. The robots, not very happy about having their whole existence limited to human design, decided to leave, walking off into the wild. Humans respected their agreement, rebuilt their infrastructure without using robots or artificial intelligence, and left the robots alone. Nothing has been heard from them in centuries. As you might expect, Sibling Dex meets a robot. Its name is Mosscap, and it was selected to check in with humans. Their attempts to understand each other is much of the story. The rest is Dex's attempt to find what still seems to be missing from life, starting with an attempt to reach a ruined monastery out in the wild. As with Chambers's other books, A Psalm for the Wild-Built contains a lot of earnest and well-meaning people having thoughtful conversations. Unlike her other books, there is almost no plot apart from those conversations of self-discovery and a profile of Sibling Dex as a character. That plus the earnestness of two naturally introspective characters who want to put their thoughts into words gave this story an oddly didactic tone for me. There are moments that felt like the moral of a Saturday morning cartoon show (I am probably dating myself), although the morals are more sophisticated and conditional. Saying I disliked the tone would be going too far, but it didn't flow as well for me as Chambers's other novels. I liked the handling of religion, and I loved Sibling Dex's efforts to describe or act on an almost impossible to describe sense that their life isn't quite what they want. There are some lovely bits of description, including the abandoned monastery. The role of a tea monk in this imagined society is a neat, if small, bit of world-building: a bit like a counselor and a bit like a priest, but not truly like either because of the different focus on acceptance, listening, and a hot cup of tea. And Dex's interaction with Mosscap over offering and accepting food is a beautiful bit of characterization. That said, the story as a whole didn't entirely gel for me, partly because of the didactic tone and partly because I didn't find Mosscap or the described culture of the robots as interesting as I was hoping that I would. But I'm still invested enough that I would read the sequel. A Psalm for the Wild-Built feels like a prelude or character introduction more than a complete story. When we leave the characters, they're just getting started. You know more about the robots (and Sibling Dex) at the end than you did at the beginning, but don't expect much in the way of resolution. Followed by A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, scheduled for 2022. Rating: 7 out of 10

21 September 2021

Russell Coker: Links September 2021

Matthew Garrett wrote an interesting and insightful blog post about the license of software developed or co-developed by machine-learning systems [1]. One of his main points is that people in the FOSS community should aim for less copyright protection. The USENIX ATC 21/OSDI 21 Joint Keynote Address titled It s Time for Operating Systems to Rediscover Hardware has some inssightful points to make [2]. Timothy Roscoe makes some incendiaty points but backs them up with evidence. Is Linux really an OS? I recommend that everyone who s interested in OS design watch this lecture. Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting set of 6 articles about Disneyland, ride pricing, and crowd control [3]. He proposes some interesting ideas for reforming Disneyland. Benjamin Bratton wrote an insightful article about how philosophy failed in the pandemic [4]. He focuses on the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who has a history of writing stupid articles that match Qanon talking points but with better language skills. Arstechnica has an interesting article about penetration testers extracting an encryption key from the bus used by the TPM on a laptop [5]. It s not a likely attack in the real world as most networks can be broken more easily by other methods. But it s still interesting to learn about how the technology works. The Portalist has an article about David Brin s Startide Rising series of novels and his thought s on the concept of Uplift (which he denies inventing) [6]. Jacobin has an insightful article titled You re Not Lazy But Your Boss Wants You to Think You Are [7]. Making people identify as lazy is bad for them and bad for getting them to do work. But this is the first time I ve seen it described as a facet of abusive capitalism. Jacobin has an insightful article about free public transport [8]. Apparently there are already many regions that have free public transport (Tallinn the Capital of Estonia being one example). Fare free public transport allows bus drivers to concentrate on driving not taking fares, removes the need for ticket inspectors, and generally provides a better service. It allows passengers to board buses and trams faster thus reducing traffic congestion and encourages more people to use public transport instead of driving and reduces road maintenance costs. Interesting research from Israel about bypassing facial ID [9]. Apparently they can make a set of 9 images that can pass for over 40% of the population. I didn t expect facial recognition to be an effective form of authentication, but I didn t expect it to be that bad. Edward Snowden wrote an insightful blog post about types of conspiracies [10]. Kevin Rudd wrote an informative article about Sky News in Australia [11]. We need to have a Royal Commission now before we have our own 6th Jan event. Steve from Big Mess O Wires wrote an informative blog post about USB-C and 4K 60Hz video [12]. Basically you can t have a single USB-C hub do 4K 60Hz video and be a USB 3.x hub unless you have compression software running on your PC (slow and only works on Windows), or have DisplayPort 1.4 or Thunderbolt (both not well supported). All of the options are not well documented on online store pages so lots of people will get unpleasant surprises when their deliveries arrive. Computers suck. Steinar H. Gunderson wrote an informative blog post about GaN technology for smaller power supplies [13]. A 65W USB-C PSU that fits the usual wall wart form factor is an interesting development.

17 August 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Black Sun

Review: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
Publisher: Saga Press
Copyright: October 2020
ISBN: 1-5344-3769-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 454
Serapio has been crafted and trained to be the vessel for a god. He grew up in Obregi land, far from his ancestral home, but he will return to Tova at the appropriate time and carry the hopes of the Carrion Crow clan with him. Xiala is a ship captain, a woman, and a Teek. That means she's a target. Teek have magic, which makes them uncanny and dangerous. They're also said to carry that magic in their bones, which makes them valuable in ways that are not pleasant for the Teek. Running afoul of the moral codes of Cuecola is therefore even more dangerous to her than it would be to others, which is why she accepts a bargain to run errands for a local lord for twelve years, paid at the end of that time with ownership of a ship and crew. The first task: ferry a strange man to the city of Tova. Meanwhile, in Tova, the priestess Naranpa has clawed her way to the top of the Sky Made hierarchy from an inauspicious beginning in the poor district of Coyote's Maw. She's ruthlessly separated herself from her despised beginnings and focused her attention on calming Tova in advance of the convergence, a rare astronomical alignment at the same time as the winter solstice. But Carrion Crow holds a deep-seated grudge at their slaughter by the priesthood during the Night of Knives, and Naranpa's position atop the religious order that partly rules Tova's fractious politics is more precarious than she thinks. I am delighted that more fantasy is drawing on mythologies and histories other than the genre default of western European. It's long overdue for numerous reasons and a trend to be rewarded. But do authors writing fantasy in English who reach for Mesoamerican cultures have to gleefully embrace the excuse to add more torture? I'm developing an aversion to this setting (which I do not want to do!) because every book seems to feature human sacrifice, dismemberment, or some other horror show. Roanhorse at least does not fill the book with that (there's lingering child abuse but nothing as sickening as the first chapter), but that makes the authorial choice to make the torture one's first impression of this book even odder. Our introduction to Serapio is a scene that I would have preferred to have never read, and I don't think it even adds much to the plot. Huge warnings for people who don't want to read about a mother torturing her son, or about eyes in that context. Once past that introduction, Black Sun settles into a two-thread fantasy, one following Xiala and Serapio's sea voyage and the other following Naranpa and the political machinations in Tova. Both the magic systems and the political systems are different enough to be refreshing, and there are a few bits of world-building I enjoyed (a city built on top of rocks separated by deep canyons and connected with bridges, giant intelligent riding crows, everything about the Teek). My problem was that I didn't care what happened to any of the characters. Naranpa spends most of the book dithering and whining despite a backstory that should have promised more dynamic and decisive responses. The other character from Tova introduced somewhat later in the book is clearly "character whose story will appear in the next volume"; here, he's just station-keeping and representing the status quo. And while it's realistic given the plot that Serapio is an abused sociopath, that didn't mean I enjoyed reading his viewpoint or his childhood abuse. Xiala is the best character in the book by far and I was warming to the careful work she has to do to win over an unknown crew, but apparently Roanhorse was not interested in that. Instead, the focus of Xiala's characterization turns to a bad-boy romance that did absolutely nothing for me. This will be a matter of personal taste; I know this is a plot feature for many readers. But it had me rolling my eyes and turning the pages to get to something more interesting (which, sadly, was not forthcoming). It also plays heavily on magical disabled person cliches, like the blind man being the best fighter anyone has met. I did not enjoy this book very much, but there were some neat bits of world-building and I could see why other people might disagree. What pushed me into actively recommending against it (at least for now) is the publishing structure. This is the first book of a trilogy, so one can expect the major plot to not be resolved by the end of the book. But part of the contract with the reader when publishing a book series is that each volume should reach some sense of closure and catharsis. There will be cliffhangers and unanswered questions, but there should also be enough plot lines that are satisfactorily resolved to warrant publishing a book as a separate novel. There is none of that here. This is the first half (or third) of a novel. It introduces a bunch of plot lines, pulls them together, describes an intermediate crisis, and then simply stops. Not a single plot line is resolved. This is made worse by the fact this series (presumably, as I have only seen the first book) has a U-shaped plot: everything gets worse and worse until some point of crisis, and then presumably the protagonists will get their shit together and things will start to improve. I have soured on U-shaped plots since the first half of the story often feels like a tedious grind (eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert), but it's made much worse by cutting the book off at the bottom of the U. You get a volume, like Black Sun, that's all setup and horror and collapse, with no payoff or optimism. After two tries, I have concluded that Roanhorse is not for me. This is clearly a me problem rather than a Roanhorse problem, given how many other people love both Black Sun and her Sixth World series, but this is the second book of hers where I mildly enjoyed the world building but didn't care about any of the characters. Ah well, tastes will differ. Even if you get along with Roanhorse, though, I recommend against starting this book until the second half of it is published (currently scheduled for 2022). As it stands, it's a wholly unsatisfying reading experience. Followed by the not-yet-published Fevered Star. Rating: 4 out of 10

27 May 2021

Wouter Verhelst: SReview and pandemics

The pandemic was a bit of a mess for most FLOSS conferences. The two conferences that I help organize -- FOSDEM and DebConf -- are no exception. In both conferences, I do essentially the same work: as a member of both video teams, I manage the postprocessing of the video recordings of all the talks that happened at the respective conference(s). I do this by way of SReview, the online video review and transcode system that I wrote, which essentially crowdsources the manual work that needs to be done, and automates as much as possible of the workflow. The original version of SReview consisted of a database, a (very basic) Mojolicious-based webinterface, and a bunch of perl scripts which would build and execute ffmpeg command lines using string interpolation. As a quick hack that I needed to get working while writing it in my spare time in half a year, that approach was workable and resulted in successful postprocessing after FOSDEM 2017, and a significant improvement in time from the previous years. However, I did not end development with that, and since then I've replaced the string interpolation by an object oriented API for generating ffmpeg command lines, as well as modularized the webinterface. Additionally, I've had help reworking the user interface into a system that is somewhat easier to use than my original interface, and have slowly but surely added more features to the system so as to make it more flexible, as well as support more types of environments for the system to run in. One of the major issues that still remains with SReview is that the administrator's interface is pretty terrible. I had been planning on revamping that for 2020, but then massive amounts of people got sick, travel was banned, and both the conferences that I work on were converted to an online-only conference. These have some very specific requirements; e.g., both conferences allowed people to upload a prerecorded version of their talk, rather than doing the talk live; since preprocessing a video is, technically, very similar to postprocessing it, I adapted SReview to allow people to upload a video file that it would then validate (in terms of length, codec, and apparent resolution). This seems like easy to do, but I decided to implement this functionality so that it would also allow future use for in-person conferences, where occasionally a speaker requests that modifications would be made to the video file in a way that SReview is unable to do. This made it marginally more involved, but at least will mean that a feature which I had planned to implement some years down the line is now already implemented. The new feature works quite well, and I'm happy I've implemented it in the way that I have. In order for the "upload" processing and the "post-event" processing to not be confused, however, I decided to import the conference schedules twice: once as the conference itself, and once as a shadow version of that conference for the prerecordings. That way, I could track the progress through the system of the prerecording completely separately from the progress of the postprocessing of the video (which adds opening/closing credits, and transcodes to multiple variants of the same video). Schedule parsing was something that had not been implemented in a generic way yet, however; since that made doubling the schedule in that way rather complex, I decided to bite the bullet and (finally) implement schedule parsing in a generic way. Currently, schedule parsers exist for two formats (Pentabarf XML and the Wafer variant of that same format which is almost, but not quite, entirely the same). The API for that is quite flexible, and I'm happy with the way things have been implemented there. I've also implemented a set of "virtual" parsers, which allow mangling the schedule in various ways (by either filtering out talks that we don't want, or by generating the shadow version of the schedule that I talked about earlier). While the SReview settings have reasonable defaults, occasionally the output of SReview is not entirely acceptable, due to more complicated matters that then result in encoding artifacts. As a result, the DebConf video team has been doing a final review step, completely outside of SReview, to ensure that such encoding artifacts don't exist. That seemed suboptimal, so recently I've been working on integrating that into SReview as well. First tests have been run, and seem to be acceptable, but there's still a few loose ends to be finalized. As part of this, I've also reworked the way comments could be entered into the system. Previously the presence of a comment would signal that the video has some problems that an administrator needed to look at. Unfortunately, that was causing some confusion, with some people even thinking it's a good place to enter a "thank you for your work" style of comment... which it obviously isn't. Turning it into a "comment log" system instead fixes that, and also allows for better two-way communication between administrators and reviewers. Hopefully that'll improve things in that area as well. Finally, the audio normalization in SReview -- for which I've long used bs1770gain -- is having problems. First of all, bs1770gain will sometimes alter the timing of the video or audio file that it's passed, which is very problematic if I want to process it further. There is an ffmpeg loudnorm filter which implements the same algorithm, so that should make things easier to use. Secondly, the author of bs1770gain is a strange character that I'd rather not be involved with. Before I knew about the loudnorm filter I didn't really have a choice, but now I can just rip bs1770gain out and replace it by the loudnorm filter. That will fix various other bugs in SReview, too, because SReview relies on behaviour that isn't actually there (but which I didn't know at the time when I wrote it). All in all, the past year-and-a-bit has seen a lot of development for SReview, with multiple features being added and a number of long-standing problems being fixed. Now if only the pandemic would subside, allowing the whole "let's do everything online only" wave to cool down a bit, so that I can finally make time to implement the admin interface...

Next.