Search Results: "roman"

9 January 2024

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: 2023 A Musical Retrospective

I ended 2022 with a musical retrospective and very much enjoyed writing that blog post. As such, I have decided to do the same for 2023! From now on, this will probably be an annual thing :) Albums In 2023, I added 73 new albums to my collection nearly 2 albums every three weeks! I listed them below in the order in which I acquired them. I purchased most of these albums when I could and borrowed the rest at libraries. If you want to browse though, I added links to the album covers pointing either to websites where you can buy them or to Discogs when digital copies weren't available. Once again this year, it seems that Punk (mostly O !) and Metal dominate my list, mostly fueled by Angry Metal Guy and the amazing Montr al Skinhead/Punk concert scene. Concerts A trend I started in 2022 was to go to as many concerts of artists I like as possible. I'm happy to report I went to around 80% more concerts in 2023 than in 2022! Looking back at my list, April was quite a busy month... Here are the concerts I went to in 2023: Although metalfinder continues to work as intended, I'm very glad to have discovered the Montr al underground scene has departed from Facebook/Instagram and adopted en masse Gancio, a FOSS community agenda that supports ActivityPub. Our local instance, askapunk.net is pretty much all I could ask for :) That's it for 2023!

8 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: The Faithless

Review: The Faithless, by C.L. Clark
Series: Magic of the Lost #2
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: March 2023
ISBN: 0-316-54283-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 527
The Faithless is the second book in a political fantasy series that seems likely to be a trilogy. It is a direct sequel to The Unbroken, which you should read first. As usual, Orbit made it unnecessarily hard to get re-immersed in the world by refusing to provide memory aids for readers who read books as they come out instead of only when the series is complete, but this is not the fault of Clark or the book and you've heard me rant about this before. The Unbroken was set in Qaz l (not-Algeria). The Faithless, as readers of the first book might guess from the title, is set in Balladaire (not-France). This is the palace intrigue book. Princess Luca is fighting for her throne against her uncle, the regent. Touraine is trying to represent her people. Whether and to what extent those interests are aligned is much of the meat of this book. Normally I enjoy palace intrigue novels for the competence porn: watching someone navigate a complex political situation with skill and cunning, or upend the entire system by building unlikely coalitions or using unexpected routes to power. If you are similar, be warned that this is not what you're going to get. Touraine is a fish out of water with no idea how to navigate the Balladairan court, and does not magically become an expert in the course of this novel. Luca has the knowledge, but she's unsure, conflicted, and largely out-maneuvered. That means you will have to brace for some painful scenes of some of the worst people apparently getting what they want. Despite that, I could not put this down. It was infuriating, frustrating, and a much slower burn than I prefer, but the layers of complex motivations that Clark builds up provided a different sort of payoff. Two books in, the shape of this series is becoming clearer. This series is about empire and colonialism, but with considerably more complexity than fantasy normally brings to that topic. Power does not loosen its grasp easily, and it has numerous tools for subtle punishment after apparent upstart victories. Righteous causes rarely call banners to your side; instead, they create opportunities for other people to maneuver to their own advantage. Touraine has some amount of power now, but it's far from obvious how to use it. Her life's training tells her that exercising power will only cause trouble, and her enemies are more than happy to reinforce that message at every opportunity. Most notable to me is Clark's bitingly honest portrayal of the supposed allies within the colonial power. It is clear that Luca is attempting to take the most ethical actions as she defines them, but it's remarkable how those efforts inevitably imply that Touraine should help Luca now in exchange for Luca's tenuous and less-defined possible future aid. This is not even a lie; it may be an accurate summary of Balladairan politics. And yet, somehow what Balladaire needs always matters more than the needs of their abused colony. Underscoring this, Clark introduces another faction in the form of a populist movement against the Balladairan monarchy. The details of that setup in another fantasy novel would make them allies of the Qaz l. Here, as is so often the case in real life, a substantial portion of the populists are even more xenophobic and racist than the nobility. There are no easy alliances. The trump card that Qaz l holds is magic. They have it, and (for reasons explored in The Unbroken) Balladaire needs it, although that is a position held by Luca's faction and not by her uncle. But even Luca wants to reduce that magic to a manageable technology, like any other element of the Balladairan state. She wants to understand it, harness it, and bring it under local control. Touraine, trained by Balladaire and facing Balladairan political problems, has the same tendency. The magic, at least in this book, refuses not in the flashy, rebellious way that it would in most fantasy, but in a frustrating and incomprehensible lack of predictable or convenient rules. I think this will feel like a plot device to some readers, and that is to some extent true, but I think I see glimmers of Clark setting up a conflict of world views that will play out in the third book. I think some people are going to bounce off this book. It's frustrating, enraging, at times melodramatic, and does not offer the cathartic payoff typically offered in fantasy novels of this type. Usually these are things I would be complaining about as well. And yet, I found it satisfyingly challenging, engrossing, and memorable. I spent a lot of the book yelling "just kill him already" at the characters, but I think one of Clark's points is that overcoming colonial relationships requires a lot more than just killing one evil man. The characters profoundly fail to execute some clever and victorious strategy. Instead, as in the first book, they muddle through, making the best choice that they can see in each moment, making lots of mistakes, and paying heavy prices. It's realistic in a way that has nothing to do with blood or violence or grittiness. (Although I did appreciate having the thin thread of Pruett's story and its highly satisfying conclusion.) This is also a slow-burn romance, and there too I think opinions will differ. Touraine and Luca keep circling back to the same arguments and the same frustrations, and there were times that this felt repetitive. It also adds a lot of personal drama to the politics in a way that occasionally made me dubious. But here too, I think Clark is partly using the romance to illustrate the deeper political points. Luca is often insufferable, cruel and ambitious in ways she doesn't realize, and only vaguely able to understand the Qaz l perspective; in short, she's the pragmatic centrist reformer. I am dubious that her ethics would lead her to anything other than endless compromise without Touraine to push her. To Luca's credit, she also realizes that and wants to be a better person, but struggles to have the courage to act on it. Touraine both does and does not want to manipulate her; she wants Luca's help (and more), but it's not clear Luca will give it under acceptable terms, or even understand how much she's demanding. It's that foundational conflict that turns the romance into a slow burn by pushing them apart. Apparently I have more patience for this type of on-again, off-again relationship than one based on artificial miscommunication. The more I noticed the political subtext, the more engaging I found the romance on the surface. I picked this up because I'd read several books about black characters written by white authors, and while there was nothing that wrong with those books, the politics felt a little too reductionist and simplified. I wanted a book that was going to force me out of comfortable political assumptions. The Faithless did exactly what I was looking for, and I am definitely here for the rest of the series. In that sense, recommended, although do not go into this book hoping for adroit court maneuvering and competence porn. Followed by The Sovereign, which does not yet have a release date. Content warnings: Child death, attempted cultural genocide. Rating: 7 out of 10

30 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Hound of Justice

Review: The Hound of Justice, by Claire O'Dell
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #2
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: July 2019
ISBN: 0-06-269938-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 325
The Hound of Justice is a near-future thriller novel with Sherlock Holmes references. It is a direct sequel to A Study in Honor. This series is best read in order. Janet Watson is in a much better place than she was in the first book. She has proper physical therapy, a new arm, and a surgeon's job waiting for her as soon as she can master its features. A chance meeting due to an Inauguration Day terrorist attack may even develop into something more. She just needs to get back into the operating room and then she'll feel like her life is back on track. Sara Holmes, on the other hand, is restless, bored, and manic, rudely intruding on Watson's date. Then she disappears, upending Watson's living arrangements. She's on the trail of something. When mysterious destructible notes start appearing in Watson's books, it's clear that she wants help. The structure of this book didn't really work for me. The first third or so is a slice-of-life account of Watson's attempt to resume her career as a surgeon against a backdrop of ongoing depressing politics. This part sounds like the least interesting, but I was thoroughly engrossed. Watson is easy to care about, hospital politics are strangely interesting, and while the romance never quite clicked for me, it had potential. I was hoping for another book like A Study in Honor, where Watson's life and Holmes's investigations entwine and run in parallel. That was not to be. The middle third of the book pulls Watson away to Georgia and a complicated mix of family obligations and spy-novel machinations. If this had involved Sara's fae strangeness, verbal sparring, and odd tokens of appreciation, maybe it would have worked, but Sara Holmes is entirely off-camera. Watson is instead dealing with a minor supporting character from the first book, who drags her through disguises, vehicle changes, and border stops in a way that felt excessive and weirdly out of place. (Other reviews say that this character is the Mycroft Holmes equivalent; the first initial of Micha's name fits, but nothing else does so far as I can tell.) Then the last third of the novel turns into a heist. I like a heist novel as much as the next person, but a good heist story needs a team with chemistry and interplay, and I didn't know any of these people. There was way too little Sara Holmes, too much of Watson being out of her element in a rather generic way, and too many steps that Watson is led through without giving the reader a chance to enjoy the competence of the team. It felt jarring and disconnected, like Watson got pulled out of one story and dropped into an entirely different story without a proper groundwork. The Hound of Justice still has its moments. Watson is a great character and I'm still fully invested in her life. She was pulled into this mission because she's the person Holmes knows with the appropriate skills, and when she finally gets a chance to put those skills to use, it's quite satisfying. But, alas, the magic of A Study in Honor simply isn't here, in part because Sara Holmes is missing for most of the book and her replacements and stand-ins are nowhere near as intriguing. The villain's plan seems wildly impractical and highly likely to be detected, and although I can come up with some explanations to salvage it, those don't appear in the book. And, as in the first book, the villain seems very one-dimensional and simplistic. This is certainly not a villain worthy of Holmes. Fittingly, given the political movements O'Dell is commenting on, a lot of this book is about racial politics. O'Dell contrasts the microaggressions and more subtle dangers for Watson as a black woman in Washington, D.C., with the more explicit and active racism of the other places to which she travels over the course of the story. She's trying very hard to give the reader a feeling for what it's like to be black in the United States. I don't have any specific complaints about this, and I'm glad she's attempting it, but I came away from this book with a nagging feeling that Watson's reactions were a tiny bit off. It felt like a white person writing about racism rather than a black person writing about racism: nothing is entirely incorrect, but the emotional beats aren't quite where black authors would put them. I could be completely wrong about this, and am certainly much less qualified to comment than O'Dell is, but there were enough places that landed slightly wrong that I wanted to note it. I would still recommend A Study in Honor, but I'm not sure I can recommend this book. This is one of those series where the things that I enjoyed the most about the first book weren't what the author wanted to focus on in subsequent books. I would read more about the day-to-day of Watson's life, and I would certainly read more of Holmes and Watson sparring and circling and trying to understand each other. I'm less interested in somewhat generic thrillers with implausible plots and Sherlock Holmes references. At the moment, this is academic, since The Hound of Justice is the last book of the series so far. Rating: 6 out of 10

29 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Afterward

Review: The Afterward, by E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Dutton Books
Copyright: February 2019
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-7352-3190-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 339
The Afterward is a standalone young adult high fantasy with a substantial romance component. The title is not misspelled. Sir Erris and her six companions, matching the number of the new gods, were successful in their quest for the godsgem. They defeated the Old God and destroyed Him forever, freeing King Dorrenta from his ensorcellment, and returned in triumph to Cadrium to live happily ever after. Or so the story goes. Sir Erris and three of the companions are knights. Another companion is the best mage in the kingdom. Kalanthe Ironheart, who distracted the Old God at a critical moment and allowed Sir Erris to strike, is only an apprentice due to her age, but surely will become a great knight. And then there is Olsa Rhetsdaughter, the lowborn thief, now somewhat mockingly called Thief of the Realm for all the good that does her. The reward was enough for her to buy her freedom from the Thief's Court. It was not enough to pay for food after that, or enough for her to change her profession, and the Thief's Court no longer has any incentive to give her easy (or survivable) assignments. Kalanthe is in a considerably better position, but she still needs a good marriage. Her reward paid off half of her debt, which broadens her options, but she's still a debt-knight, liable for the full cost of her training once she reaches the age of nineteen. She's mostly made her peace with the decisions she made given her family's modest means, but marriages of that type are usually for heirs, and Kalanthe is not looking forward to bearing a child. Or, for that matter, sleeping with a man. Olsa and Kalanthe fell in love during the Quest. Given Kalanthe's debt and the way it must be paid, and her iron-willed determination to keep vows, neither of them expected their relationship to survive the end of the Quest. Both of them wish that it had. The hook is that this novel picks up after the epic fantasy quest is over and everyone went home. This is not an entirely correct synopsis; chapters of The Afterward alternate between "After" and "Before" (and one chapter delightfully titled "More or less the exact moment of"), and by the end of the book we get much of the story of the Quest. It's not told from the perspective of the lead heroes, though; it's told by following Kalanthe and Olsa, who would be firmly relegated to supporting characters in a typical high fantasy. And it's largely told through the lens of their romance. This is not the best fantasy novel I've read, but I had a fun time with it. I am now curious about the intended audience and marketing, though. It was published by a YA imprint, and both the ages of the main characters and the general theme of late teenagers trying to chart a course in an adult world match that niche. But it's also clearly intended for readers who have read enough epic fantasy quests that they will both be amused by the homage and not care that the story elides a lot of the typical details. Anyone who read David Eddings at an impressionable age will enjoy the way Johnston pokes gentle fun at The Belgariad (this book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings), but surely the typical reader of YA fantasy these days isn't also reading Eddings. I'm therefore not quite sure who this book was for, but apparently that group included me. Johnston thankfully is not on board with the less savory parts of Eddings's writing, as you might have guessed from the sapphic romance. There is no obnoxious gender essentialism here, although there do appear to be gender roles that I never quite figured out. Knights are referred to as sir, but all of the knights in this story are women. Men still seem to run a lot of things (kingdoms, estates, mage colleges), but apart from the mage, everyone on the Quest was female, and there seems to be an expectation that women go out into the world and have adventures while men stay home. I'm not sure if there was an underlying system that escaped me, or if Johnston just mixed things up for the hell of it. (If the latter, I approve.) This book does suffer a bit from addressing some current-day representation issues without managing to fold them naturally into the story or setting. One of the Quest knights is transgender, something that's revealed in a awkward couple of paragraphs and then never mentioned again. Two of the characters have a painfully earnest conversation about the word "bisexual," complete with a strained attempt at in-universe etymology. Racial diversity (Olsa is black, and Kalanthe is also not white) seemed to be handled a bit better, although I am not the reader to notice if the discussions of hair maintenance were similarly awkward. This is way better than no representation and default-white characters, to be clear, but it felt a bit shoehorned in at times and could have used some more polish. These are quibbles, though. Olsa was the heart of the book for me, and is exactly the sort of character I like to read about. Kalanthe is pure stubborn paladin, but I liked her more and more as the story continued. She provides a good counterbalance to Olsa's natural chaos. I do wish Olsa had more opportunities to show her own competence (she's not a very good thief, she's just the thief that Sir Erris happened to know), but the climax of the story was satisfying. My main grumble is that I badly wanted to dwell on the happily-ever-after for at least another chapter, ideally two. Johnston was done with the story before I was. The writing was serviceable but not great and there are some bits that I don't think would stand up to a strong poke, but the characters carried the story for me. Recommended if you'd like some sapphic romance and lightweight class analysis complicating your Eddings-style quest fantasy. Rating: 7 out of 10

28 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Nettle & Bone

Review: Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-24403-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 242
Nettle & Bone is a standalone fantasy novel with fairy tale vibes. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon. As the book opens, Marra is giving herself a blood infection by wiring together dog bones out of a charnel pit. This is the second of three impossible tasks that she was given by the dust-wife. Completing all three will give her the tools to kill a prince. I am a little cautious of which T. Kingfisher books I read since she sometimes writes fantasy and sometimes writes horror and I don't get along with horror. This one seemed a bit horrific in the marketing, so I held off on reading it despite the Hugo nomination. It turns out to be just on the safe side of my horror tolerance, with only a couple of parts that I read a bit quickly. One of those is the opening, which I am happy to report does not set the tone for the rest of the book. Marra starts the story in a wasteland full of disease, madmen, and cannibals (who, in typical Ursula Vernon fashion, turn out to be nicer than the judgmental assholes outside of the blistered land). She doesn't stay there long. By chapter two, the story moves on to flashbacks explaining how Marra ended up there, alternating with further (and less horrific) steps in her quest to kill the prince of the Northern Kingdom. Marra is a princess of a small, relatively poor coastal kingdom with a good harbor and acquisitive neighbors. Her mother, the queen, has protected the kingdom through arranged marriage of her daughters to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, who rules it in all but name given the mental deterioration of his father the king. Marra's eldest sister Damia was first, but she died suddenly and mysteriously in a fall. (If you're thinking about the way women are injured by "accident," you have the right idea.) Kania, the middle sister, is next to marry; she lives, but not without cost. Meanwhile, Marra is sent off to a convent to ensure that there are no complicating potential heirs, and to keep her on hand as a spare. I won't spoil the entire backstory, but you do learn it all. Marra is a typical Kingfisher protagonist: a woman who is way out of her depth who persists with stubbornness, curiosity, and innate decency because what else is there to do? She accumulates the typical group of misfits and oddballs common in Kingfisher's quest fantasies, characters that in the Chosen One male fantasy would be supporting characters at best. The bone-wife is a delight; her chicken is even better. There are fairy godmothers and a goblin market and a tooth extraction that was one of the creepiest things I've read without actually being horror. It is, in short, a Kingfisher fantasy novel, with a touch more horror than average but not enough to push it out of the fantasy genre. I think my favorite part of this book was not the main quest. It was the flashback scenes set in the convent, where Marra has the space (and the mentorship) to develop her sense of self.
"We're a mystery religion," said the abbess, when she'd had a bit more wine than usual, "for people who have too much work to do to bother with mysteries. So we simply get along as best we can. Occasionally someone has a vision, but [the goddess] doesn't seem to want anything much, and so we try to return the favor."
If you have read any other Kingfisher novels, much of this will be familiar: the speculative asides, the dogged determination, the slightly askew nature of the world, the vibes-based world-building that feels more like a fairy tale than a carefully constructed magic system, and the sense that the main characters (and nearly all of the supporting characters) are average people trying to play the hands they were dealt as ethically as they can. You will know that the tentative and woman-initiated romance is coming as soon as the party meets the paladin type who is almost always the romantic interest in one of these books. The emotional tone of the book is a bit predictable for regular readers, but Ursula Vernon's brain is such a delightful place to spend some time that I don't mind.
Marra had not managed to be pale and willowy and consumptive at any point in eighteen years of life and did not think she could achieve it before she died.
Nettle & Bone won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2023. I'm not sure why this specific T. Kingfisher novel won and not any of the half-dozen earlier novels she's written in a similar style, but sure, I have no objections. I'm glad one of them won; they're all worth reading and hopefully that will help more people discover this delightful style of fantasy that doesn't feel like what anyone else is doing. Recommended, although be prepared for a few more horror touches than normal and a rather grim first chapter. Content warnings: domestic abuse. The dog... lives? Is equally as alive at the end of the book as it was at the end of the first chapter? The dog does not die; I'll just leave it at that. (Neither does the chicken.) Rating: 8 out of 10

26 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Study in Honor

Review: A Study in Honor, by Claire O'Dell
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: July 2018
ISBN: 0-06-269932-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 295
A Study in Honor is a near-future science fiction novel by Claire O'Dell, a pen name for Beth Bernobich. You will see some assertions, including by the Lambda Literary Award judges, that it is a mystery novel. There is a mystery, but... well, more on that in a moment. Janet Watson was an Army surgeon in the Second US Civil War when New Confederacy troops overran the lines in Alton, Illinois. Watson lost her left arm to enemy fire. As this book opens, she is returning to Washington, D.C. with a medical discharge, PTSD, and a field replacement artificial arm scavenged from a dead soldier. It works, sort of, mostly, despite being mismatched to her arm and old in both technology and previous wear. It does not work well enough for her to resume her career as a surgeon. Watson's plan is to request a better artificial arm from the VA (the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, which among other things is responsible for the medical care of wounded veterans). That plan meets a wall of unyielding and uninterested bureaucracy. She has a pension, but it's barely enough for cheap lodging. A lifeline comes in the form of a chance encounter with a former assistant in the Army, who has a difficult friend looking to split the cost of an apartment. The name of that friend is Sara Holmes. At this point, you know what to expect. This is clearly one of the many respinnings of Arthur Conan Doyle. This time, the setting is in the future and Watson and Holmes are both black women, but the other elements of the setup are familiar: the immediate deduction that Watson came from the front, the shared rooms (2809 Q Street this time, sacrificing homage for the accuracy of a real address), Holmes's tendency to play an instrument (this time the piano), and even the title of this book, which is an obvious echo of the title of the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Except that's not what you'll get. There are a lot of parallels and references here, but this is not a Holmes-style detective novel. First, it's only arguably a detective novel at all. There is a mystery, which starts with a patient Watson sees in her fallback job as a medical tech in the VA hospital and escalates to a physical attack, but that doesn't start until a third of the way into the book. It certainly is not solved through minute clues and leaps of deduction; instead, that part of the plot has the shape of a thriller rather than a classic mystery. There is a good argument that the thriller is the modern mystery novel, so I don't want to overstate my case, but I think someone who came to this book wanting a Doyle-style mystery would be disappointed. Second, the mystery is not the heart of this book. Watson is. She, like Doyle's Watson, is the first-person narrator, but she is far more present in the book. I have no idea how accurate O'Dell's portrayal of Watson's PTSD is, but it was certainly compelling and engrossing reading. Her fight for basic dignity and her rage at the surface respect and underlying disinterested hostility of the bureaucratic war machinery is what kept me turning the pages. The mystery plot is an outgrowth of that and felt more like a case study than the motivating thread of the plot. And third, Sara Holmes... well, I hesitate to say definitively that she's not Sherlock Holmes. There have been so many versions of Holmes over the years, even apart from the degree to which a black woman would necessarily not be like Doyle's character. But she did not remind me of Sherlock Holmes. She reminded me of a cross between James Bond and a high fae. This sounds like a criticism. It very much is not. I found this high elf spy character far more interesting than I have ever found Sherlock Holmes. But here again, if you came into this book hoping for a Holmes-style master detective, I fear you may be wrong-footed. The James Bond parts will be obvious when you get there and aren't the most interesting (and thankfully the misogyny is entirely absent). The part I found more fascinating is the way O'Dell sets Holmes apart by making her fae rather than insufferable. She projects effortless elegance, appears and disappears on a mysterious schedule of her own, thinks nothing of reading her roommate's diary, leaves meticulously arranged gifts, and even bargains with Watson for answers to precisely three questions. The reader does learn some mundane explanations for some of this behavior, but to be honest I found them somewhat of a letdown. Sara Holmes is at her best as a character when she tacks her own mysterious path through a rather grim world of exhausted war, penny-pinching bureaucracy, and despair, pursuing an unexplained agenda of her own while showing odd but unmistakable signs of friendship and care. This is not a romance, at least in this book. It is instead a slowly-developing friendship between two extremely different people, one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I do have a couple of caveats about this book. The first is that the future US in which it is set is almost pure Twitter doomcasting. Trump's election sparked a long slide into fascism, and when that was arrested by the election of a progressive candidate backed by a fragile coalition, Midwestern red states seceded to form the New Confederacy and start a second civil war that has dragged on for nearly eight years. It's a very specific mainstream liberal dystopian scenario that I've seen so many times it felt like a cliche even though I don't remember seeing it in a book before. This type of future projection of current fears is of course not new for science fiction; Cold War nuclear war novels are probably innumerable. But I had questions, such as how a sparsely-populated, largely non-industrial, and entirely landlocked set of breakaway states could maintain a war footing for eight years. Despite some hand-waving about covert support, those questions are not really answered here. The second problem is that the ending of this book kind of falls apart. The climax of the mystery investigation is unsatisfyingly straightforward, and the resulting revelation is a hoary cliche. Maybe I'm just complaining about the banality of evil, but if I'd been engrossed in this book for the thriller plot, I think I would have been annoyed. I wasn't, though; I was here for the characters, for Watson's PTSD and dogged determination, for Sara's strangeness, and particularly for the growing improbable friendship between two women with extremely different life experiences, emotions, and outlooks. That part was great, regardless of the ending. Do not pick this book up because you want a satisfying deductive mystery with bumbling police and a blizzard of apparently inconsequential clues. That is not at all what's happening here. But this was great on its own terms, and I will be reading the sequel shortly. Recommended, although if you are very online expect to do a bit of eye-rolling at the setting. Followed by The Hound of Justice, but the sequel is not required. This book reaches a satisfying conclusion of its own. Rating: 8 out of 10

23 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Bookshops & Bonedust

Review: Bookshops & Bonedust, by Travis Baldree
Series: Legends & Lattes #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-88611-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 337
Bookshops & Bonedust is a prequel to the cozy fantasy Legends & Lattes. You can read them in either order, although the epilogue of Bookshops & Bonedust spoils (somewhat guessable) plot developments in Legends & Lattes. Viv is a new member of the mercenary troop Rackam's Ravens and is still possessed of more enthusiasm than sense. As the story opens, she charges well ahead of her allies and nearly gets killed by a pike through the leg. She survives, but her leg needs time to heal and she is not up to the further pursuit of a necromancer. Rackam pays for a room and a doctor in the small seaside town of Murk and leaves her there to recuperate. The Ravens will pick her up when they come back through town, whenever that is. Viv is very quickly bored out of her skull. On a whim, and after some failures to find something else to occupy her, she tries a run-down local bookstore and promptly puts her foot through the boardwalk outside it. That's the start of an improbable friendship with the proprietor, a rattkin named Fern with a knack for book recommendations and a serious cash flow problem. Viv, being Viv, soon decides to make herself useful. The good side and bad side of this book are the same: it's essentially the same book as Legends & Lattes, but this time with a bookstore. There's a medieval sword and sorcery setting, a wide variety of humanoid species, a local business that needs love and attention (this time because it's failing instead of new), a lurking villain, an improbable store animal (this time a gryphlet that I found less interesting than the cat of the coffee shop), and a whole lot of found family. It turns out I was happy to read that story again, and there were some things I liked better in this version. I find bookstores more interesting than coffee shops, and although Viv and Fern go through a similar process of copying features of a modern bookstore, this felt less strained than watching Viv reinvent the precise equipment and menu of a modern coffee shop in a fantasy world. Also, Fern is an absolute delight, probably my favorite character in either of the books. I love the way that she uses book recommendations as a way of asking questions and guessing at answers about other people. As with the first book, Baldree's world-building is utterly unconcerned with trying to follow the faux-medieval conventions of either sword and sorcery or D&D-style role-playing games. On one hand, I like this; most of that so-called medievalism is nonsense anyway, and there's no reason why fantasy with D&D-style species diversity should be set in a medieval world. On the other hand, this world seems exactly like a US small town except the tavern also has rooms for rent, there are roving magical armies, and everyone fights with swords for some reason. It feels weirdly anachronistic, and I can't tell if that's because I've been brainwashed into thinking fantasy has to be medievaloid or if it's a true criticism of the book. I was reminded somewhat of reading Jack McDevitt's SF novels, which are supposedly set in the far future but are indistinguishable from 1980s suburbia except with flying cars. The other oddity with this book is that the reader of the series knows Viv isn't going to stay. This is the problem with writing a second iteration of this story as a prequel. I see why Baldree did it the story wouldn't have worked if Viv were already established but it casts a bit of a pall over the cheeriness of the story. Baldree to his credit confronts this directly, weaves it into the relationships, and salvages it a bit more in the epilogue, but it gave the story a sort of preemptive wistfulness that was at odds with how I wanted to read it. But, despite that, the strength of this book are the characters. Viv is a good person who helps where she can, which sounds like a simple thing but is so restful to read about. This book features her first meeting with the gnome Gallina, who is always a delight. There are delicious baked goods from a dwarf, a grumpy doctor, a grumpier city guard, and a whole cast of people who felt complicated and normal and essentially decent. I'm not sure the fantasy elements do anything for this book, or this series, other than marketing and the convenience of a few plot devices. Even though one character literally disappears into a satchel, it felt like Baldree could have written roughly the same story as a contemporary novel without a hint of genre. But that's not really a complaint, since the marketing works. I would not have read this series if it had been contemporary novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a slice of life novel about kind and decent people for readers who are bored by contemporary settings and would rather read fantasy. Works for me. I'm hoping Baldree finds other stories, since I'm not sure I want to read this one several more times, but twice was not too much. If you liked Legends & Lattes and are thinking "how can I get more of that," here's the book for you. If you haven't read Legends & Lattes, I think I would recommend reading this one first. It does many of the same things, it's a bit more polished, and then you can read Viv's adventures in internal chronological order. Rating: 8 out of 10

22 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Wintersmith

Review: Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #35
Publisher: Clarion Books
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-06-089033-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 450
Wintersmith is the 35th Discworld novel and the 3rd Tiffany Aching novel. You could probably start here, since understanding the backstory isn't vital for following the plot, but I'm not sure why you would. Tiffany is now training with Miss Treason, a 113-year-old witch who is quite different in her approach from Miss Level, Tiffany's mentor in A Hat Full of Sky. Miss Level was the unassuming and constantly helpful glue that held the neighborhood together. Miss Treason is the judge; her neighbors are scared of her and proud of being scared of her, since that means they have a proper witch who can see into their heads and sort out their problems. On the surface, they're quite different; part of the story of this book is Tiffany learning to see the similarities. First, though, Miss Treason rushes Tiffany to a strange midnight Morris Dance, without any explanation. The Morris Dance usually celebrates the coming of spring and is at the center of a village party, so Tiffany is quite confused by seeing it danced on a dark and windy night in late autumn. But there is a hole in the dance where the Fool normally is, and Tiffany can't keep herself from joining it. This proves to be a mistake. That space was left for someone very different from Tiffany, and now she's entangled herself in deep magic that she doesn't understand. This is another Pratchett novel where the main storyline didn't do much for me. All the trouble stems from Miss Treason being maddeningly opaque, and while she did warn Tiffany, she did so in that way that guarantees a protagonist of a middle-grade novel will ignore. The Wintersmith is a boring, one-note quasi-villain, and the plot mainly revolves around elemental powers being dumber than a sack of hammers. The one thing I will say about the main plot is that the magic Tiffany danced into is entangled with courtship and romance, Tiffany turns thirteen over the course of this book, and yet this is not weird and uncomfortable reading the way it would be in the hands of many other authors. Pratchett has a keen eye for the age range that he's targeting. The first awareness that there is such a thing as romance that might be relevant to oneself pairs nicely with the Wintersmith's utter confusion at how Tiffany's intrusion unbalanced his dance. This is a very specific age and experience that I think a lot of authors would shy away from, particularly with a female protagonist, and I thought Pratchett handled it adroitly. I personally found the Wintersmith's awkward courting tedious and annoying, but that's more about me than about the book. As with A Hat Full of Sky, though, everything other than the main plot was great. It is becoming obvious how much Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax have in common, and that Granny Weatherwax recognizes this and is training Tiffany herself. This is high-quality coming-of-age material, not in the traditional fantasy sense of chosen ones and map explorations, but in the sense of slowly-developing empathy and understanding of people who think differently than you do. Tiffany, like Granny Weatherwax, has very little patience with nonsense, and her irritation with stupidity is one of her best characteristics. But she's learning how to blunt it long enough to pay attention, and to understand how people she doesn't like can still be the right people for specific situations. I particularly loved how Granny carries on with a feud at the same time that Tiffany is learning to let go of one. It's not a contradiction or hypocrisy; it's a sign that Tiffany is entitled to her judgments and feelings, but has to learn how to keep them in their place and not let them take over. One of the great things about the Tiffany Aching books is that the villages are also characters. We don't see that much of the individual people, but one of the things Tiffany is learning is how to see the interpersonal dynamics and patterns of village life. Somehow the feelings of irritation and exasperation fade once you understand people's motives and see more sides to their character. There is a lot more Nanny Ogg in this book than there has been in the last few, and that reminded me of how much I love her character. She has a completely different approach than Granny Weatherwax, but it's just as effective in different ways. She's also the perfect witch to have around when you've stumbled into a stylized love story that you don't want to be a part of, and yet find oddly fascinating. It says something about the skill of Pratchett's characterization that I could enjoy a book this much while having no interest in the main plot. The Witches have always been great characters, but somehow they're even better when seen through Tiffany's perspective. Good stuff; if you liked any of the other Tiffany Aching books, you will like this as well. Followed by Making Money in publication order. The next Tiffany Aching novel is I Shall Wear Midnight. Rating: 8 out of 10

18 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Wolf Country

Review: Wolf Country, by Mar Delaney
Publisher: Kalikoi
Copyright: September 2021
ASIN: B09H55TGXK
Format: Kindle
Pages: 144
Wolf Country is a short lesbian shifter romance by Mar Delaney, a pen name for Layla Lawlor (who is also one of the writers behind the shared pen name Zoe Chant). Dasha Volkova is a werewolf, a member of a tribe of werewolves who keep to themselves deep in the wilds of Alaska. She's just become an adult and is wandering, curious and exploring, seeing what's in the world outside of her sheltered childhood. A wild chase after a hare, purely for the fun of it, is sufficiently distracting that she doesn't notice the snare before she steps in it going full speed. Laney Rosen is not a werewolf. She's a landscape painter who lives a quiet and self-contained life in an isolated cabin in the wilderness. She only stumbles across Dasha because she got lost on the snowmobile tracks taking photographs. Laney assumes Dasha is a dog caught in a poacher's trap, and is quite surprised when the pain of getting her out of the snare causes Dasha to shapeshift into a naked woman. This short book is precisely what it sounds like, which I appreciate in a romance novel. Woman meets wolf and discovers her secret accidentally, woman is of course entirely trustworthy although wolf can't know that, attraction at first sight, they have to pitch a tent in the wilderness and there's only one sleeping bag, etc. Nothing here is going to surprise you, but it's gentle and kind and fulfills the romance contract of a happy ending. It's not particularly steamy; the focus is on the relationship and the mutual attraction rather than on the sex. The best part of this book is probably the backdrop. Delaney lives in Alaska, and it shows in both the attention to the details of survival and heat and in the landscape descriptions (and the descriptions of Laney's landscapes). Dasha's love of Laney's paintings is one of the most heart-warming parts of the book. Laney has retinitis pigmentosa and is slowly losing her vision, which I thought was handled gracefully and well in the story. It creates real problems and limitations for her, but it also doesn't define her or become central to her character. Both Dasha and Laney are viewpoint characters and roughly alternate tight third-person viewpoint chapters. There are a few twists: potential parental disapproval on Dasha's part and some real physical danger from the person who set the trap, but most of the story is the two woman getting to know each other and getting past the early hesitancy to name what they're feeling. Laney feels a bit older than Dasha just because she's out on her own and Dasha was homeschooled and very sheltered, but both of them feel very young. This is Dasha's first serious relationship. Delaney does use the fated lover trope, which seems worth a warning in case you're not in the mood for that. Werewolves apparently know when they've found their fated mate and don't have a lot of choice in the matter. This is a common paranormal and fantasy romance trope that I find disturbing if I think about it too hard. Thankfully, here it's not much of a distraction. Dasha is such an impulsive, think-with-her-heart sort of character that the immediate conclusion that Laney is her fated mate felt in character even without the werewolf lore. I read this based on a random recommendation from Yoon Ha Lee when I was in the mood for something light and kind and uncomplicated, and I got exactly what I expected and was in the mood for. The writing isn't the best, but the landscape descriptions aren't bad and the characterization is reasonably good if you're in the mood for brightly curious but not particularly wise. Recommended if you're looking for this sort of thing. Rating: 7 out of 10

10 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Chilling Effect

Review: Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes
Series: Chilling Effect #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: September 2019
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-06-287724-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 420
Chilling Effect is a space opera, kind of; more on the genre classification in a moment. It is the first volume of a series, although it reaches a reasonable conclusion on its own. It was Valerie Valdes's first novel. Captain Eva Innocente's line of work used to be less than lawful, following in the footsteps of her father. She got out of that life and got her own crew and ship. Now, the La Sirena Negra and its crew do small transport jobs for just enough money to stay afloat. Or, maybe, a bit less than that, when the recipient of a crate full of psychic escape-artist cats goes bankrupt before she can deliver it and get paid. It's a marginal and tenuous life, but at least she isn't doing anything shady. Then the Fridge kidnaps her sister. The Fridge is a shadowy organization of extortionists whose modus operandi is to kidnap a family member of their target, stuff them in cryogenic suspension, and demand obedience lest the family member be sold off as indentured labor after a few decades as a popsicle. Eva will be given missions that she and her crew have to perform. If she performs them well, she will pay off the price of her sister's release. Eventually. Oh, and she's not allowed to tell anyone. I found it hard to place the subgenre of this novel more specifically than comedy-adventure. The technology fits space opera: there are psychic cats, pilots who treat ships as extensions of their own body, brain parasites, a random intergalactic warlord, and very few attempts to explain anything with scientific principles. However, the stakes aren't on the scale that space opera usually goes for. Eva and her crew aren't going to topple governments or form rebellions. They're just trying to survive in a galaxy full of abusive corporations, dodgy clients, and the occasional alien who requires you to carry extensive documentation to prove that you can't be hunted for meat. It is also, as you might guess from that description, occasionally funny. That part of the book didn't mesh for me. Eva is truly afraid for her sister, and some of the events in the book are quite sinister, but the antagonist is an organization called The Fridge that puts people in fridges. Sexual harassment in a bar turns into obsessive stalking by a crazed intergalactic warlord who frequently interrupts the plot by randomly blasting things with his fleet, which felt like something from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The stakes for Eva, and her frustrations at being dragged back into a life she escaped, felt too high for the wacky, comic descriptions of the problems she gets into. My biggest complaint, though, is that the plot is driven by people not telling other people critical information they should know. Eva is keeping major secrets from her crew for nearly the entire book. Other people are also keeping information from Eva. There is a romance subplot driven almost entirely by both parties refusing to talk to each other about the existence of a romance subplot. For some people, this is catnip, but it's one of my least favorite fictional tropes and I found much of the book both frustrating and stressful. Fictional characters keeping important secrets from each other apparently raises my blood pressure. One of the things I did like about this book is that Eva is Hispanic and speaks like it. She resorts to Spanish frequently for curses, untranslatable phrases, aphorisms, derogatory comments, and similar types of emotional communication that don't feel right in a second language. Most of the time one can figure out the meaning from context, but Valdes doesn't feel obligated to hold the reader's hand and explain everything. I liked that. I think this approach is more viable in these days of ebook readers that can attempt translations on demand, and I think it does a lot to make Eva feel like a real person. I think the characters are the best part of this book, once one gets past the frustration of their refusal to talk to each other. Eva and the alien ship engineer get the most screen time, but Pink, Eva's honest-to-a-fault friend, was probably my favorite character. I also really enjoyed Min, the ship pilot whose primary goal is to be able to jack into the ship and treat it as her body, and otherwise doesn't particularly care about the rest of the plot as long as she gets paid. A lot of books about ship crews like this one lean hard into found family. This one felt more like a group of coworkers, with varying degrees of friendship and level of interest in their shared endeavors, but without the too-common shorthand of making the less-engaged crew members either some type of villain or someone who needs to be drawn out and turned into a best friend or love interest. It's okay for a job to just be a job, even if it's one where you're around the same people all the time. People who work on actual ships do it all the time. This is a half-serious, half-comic action romp that turned out to not be my thing, but I can see why others will enjoy it. Be prepared for a whole lot of communication failures and an uneven emotional tone, but if you're looking for a space-ships-and-aliens story that doesn't take itself very seriously and has some vague YA vibes, this may work for you. Followed by Prime Deceptions, although I didn't like this well enough to read on. Rating: 6 out of 10

4 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Last Watch

Review: The Last Watch, by J.S. Dewes
Series: Divide #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-23634-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 476
The Last Watch is the first book of a far-future science fiction duology. It was J.S. Dewes's first novel. The station of the SCS Argus is the literal edge of the universe: the Divide, beyond which there is nothing. Not simply an absence of stars, but a nothing from a deeper level of physics. The Argus is there to guard against a return of the Viators, the technologically superior alien race that nearly conquered humanity hundreds of years prior and has already returned once, apparently traveling along the Divide. Humanity believes the Viators have been wiped out, but they're not taking chances. It is not a sought-after assignment. The Sentinels are the dregs of the military: convicts, troublemakers, and misfits, banished to the literal edge of nowhere. Joining them at the start of this book is the merchant prince, cocky asshole, and exiled sabateur Cavalon Mercer. He doesn't know what to expect from either military service or service on the edge of the universe. He certainly did not expect the Argus to be commanded by Adequin Rake, a literal war hero and a far more effective leader than this post would seem to warrant. There are reasons why Rake is out on the edge of the universe, ones that she's not eager to talk about. They quickly become an afterthought when the Argus discovers that the Divide is approaching their position. The universe is collapsing, and the only people who know about it are people the System Collective would prefer to forget exist. Yes, the edge of the universe, not the edge of the galaxy. Yes, despite having two FTL mechanisms, this book has a scale problem that it never reconciles. And yes, the physics do not really make sense, although this is not the sort of book that tries to explain the science. The characters are too busy trying to survive to develop new foundational theories of physics. I was looking for more good military SF after enjoying Artifact Space so much (and still eagerly awaiting the sequel), so I picked this up. It has some of the same elements: the military as a place where you can make a fresh start with found family elements, the equalizing effects of military assignments, and the merits of good leadership. They're a bit disguised here, since this is a crew of often-hostile misfits under a lot of stress with a partly checked-out captain, but they do surface towards the end of the book. The strength of this book is the mystery of the contracting universe, which poses both an immediate threat to the ship and a longer-term potential threat to, well, everything. The first part of the book builds tension with the immediate threat, but the story comes into its own when the crew starts piecing together the connections between the Viators and the Divide while jury-rigging technology and making risky choices between a lot of bad options. This is the first half of a duology, so the mysteries are not resolved here, but they do reach a satisfying and tantalizing intermediate conclusion. The writing is servicable and adequate, but it's a bit clunky in places. Dewes doesn't quite have the balance right between setting the emotional stakes and not letting the characters indulge in rumination. Rake is a good captain who is worn down and partly checked out, Mercer is scared and hiding it with arrogance and will do well when given the right sort of attention, and all of this is reasonably obvious early on and didn't need as many of the book's pages as it gets. I could have done without the romantic subplot, which I thought was an unnecessary distraction from the plot and turned into a lot of tedious angst, but I suspect I was not the target audience. (Writers, please remember that people can still care about each other and be highly motivated by fear for each other without being romantic partners.) I would not call this a great book. The characters are not going to surprise you that much, and it's a bit long for the amount of plot that it delivers. If you are the sort of person who nit-picks the physics of SF novels and gets annoyed at writers who don't understand how big the universe is, you will have to take a deep breath and hold on to your suspension of disbelief. But Dewes does a good job with ratcheting up the tension and conveying an atmosphere of mysterious things happening at the edge of nowhere, while still keeping it in the genre of mysterious technology and mind-boggingly huge physical phenomena rather than space horror. If you've been looking for that sort of book, this will do. I was hooked and will definitely read the sequel. Followed by The Exiled Fleet. Rating: 7 out of 10

27 August 2023

Shirish Agarwal: FSCKing /home

There is a bit of context that needs to be shared before I get to this and would be a long one. For reasons known and unknown, I have a lot of sudden electricity outages. Not just me, all those who are on my line. A discussion with a lineman revealed that around 200+ families and businesses are on the same line and when for whatever reason the electricity goes for all. Even some of the traffic lights don t work. This affects software more than hardware or in some cases, both. And more specifically HDD s are vulnerable. I had bought an APC unit several years for precisely this, but over period of time it just couldn t function and trips also when the electricity goes out. It s been 6-7 years so can t even ask customer service to fix the issue and from whatever discussions I have had with APC personnel, the only meaningful difference is to buy a new unit but even then not sure this is an issue that can be resolved, even with that. That comes to the issue that happens once in a while where the system fsck is unable to repair /home and you need to use an external pen drive for the same. This is my how my hdd stacks up
/ is on dev/sda7 /boot is on /dev/sda6, /boot/efi is on /dev/sda2 and /home is on /dev/sda8 so theoretically, if /home for some reason doesn t work I should be able drop down on /dev/sda7, unmount /dev/sda8, run fsck and carry on with my work. I tried it number of times but it didn t work. I was dropping down on tty1 and attempting the same, no dice as root/superuser getting the barest x-term. So first I tried asking couple of friends who live nearby me. Unfortunately, both are MS-Windows users and both use what are called as company-owned laptops . Surfing on those systems were a nightmare. Especially the number of pop-ups of ads that the web has become. And to think about how much harassment ublock origin has saved me over the years. One of the more interesting bits from both their devices were showing all and any downloads from fosshub was showing up as malware. I dunno how much of that is true or not as haven t had to use it as most software we get through debian archives or if needed, download from github or wherever and run/install it and you are in business. Some of them even get compiled into a good .deb package but that s outside the conversation atm. My only experience with fosshub was few years before the pandemic and that was good. I dunno if fosshub really has malware or malwarebytes was giving false positives. It also isn t easy to upload a 600 MB+ ISO file somewhere to see whether it really has malware or not. I used to know of a site or two where you could upload a suspicious file and almost 20-30 famous and known antivirus and anti-malware engines would check it and tell you the result. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the URL and seeing things from MS-Windows perspective, things have gotten way worse than before. So left with no choice, I turned to the local LUG for help. Fortunately, my mobile does have e-mail and I could use gmail to solicit help. While there could have been any number of live CD s that could have helped but one of my first experiences with GNU/Linux was that of Knoppix that I had got from Linux For You (now known as OSFY) sometime in 2003. IIRC, had read an interview of Mr. Klaus Knopper as well and was impressed by it. In those days, Debian wasn t accessible to non-technical users then and Knoppix was a good tool to see it. In fact, think he was the first to come up with the idea of a Live CD and run with it while Canonical/Ubuntu took another 2 years to do it. I think both the CD and the interview by distrowatch was shared by LFY in those early days. Of course, later the story changes after he got married, but I think that is more about Adriane rather than Knoppix. So Vishal Rao helped me out. I got an HP USB 3.2 32GB Type C OTG Flash Drive x5600c (Grey & Black) from a local hardware dealer around similar price point. The dealer is a big one and has almost 200+ people scattered around the city doing channel sales who in turn sell to end users. Asking one of the representatives about their opinion on stopping electronic imports (apparently more things were added later to the list including all sorts of sundry items from digital cameras to shavers and whatnot.) The gentleman replied that he hopes that it would not happen otherwise more than 90% would have to leave their jobs. They already have started into lighting fixtures (LED bulbs, tubelights etc.) but even those would come in the same ban  The main argument as have shared before is that Indian Govt. thinks we need our home grown CPU and while I have no issues with that, as shared before except for RISC-V there is no other space where India could look into doing that. Especially after the Chip Act, Biden has made that any new fabs or any new thing in chip fabrication will only be shared with Five Eyes only. Also, while India is looking to generate about 2000 GW by 2030 by solar, China has an ambitious 20,000 GW generation capacity by the end of this year and the Chinese are the ones who are actually driving down the module prices. The Chinese are also automating their factories as if there s no tomorrow. The end result of both is that China will continue to be the world s factory floor for the foreseeable future and whoever may try whatever policies, it probably is gonna be difficult to compete with them on prices of electronic products. That s the reason the U.S. has been trying so that China doesn t get the latest technology but that perhaps is a story for another day.

HP USB 3.2 Type C OTG Flash Drive x5600c For people who have had read this blog they know that most of the flash drives today are MLC Drives and do not have the longevity of the SLC Drives. For those who maybe are new, this short brochure/explainer from Kingston should enhance your understanding. SLC Drives are rare and expensive. There are also a huge number of counterfeit flash drives available in the market and almost all the companies efforts whether it s Kingston, HP or any other manufacturer, they have been like a drop in the bucket. Coming back to the topic at hand. While there are some tools that can help you to figure out whether a pen drive is genuine or not. While there are products that can tell you whether they are genuine or not (basically by probing the memory controller and the info. you get from that.) that probably is a discussion left for another day. It took me couple of days and finally I was able to find time to go Vishal s place. The journey of back and forth lasted almost 6 hours, with crazy traffic jams. Tells you why Pune or specifically the Swargate, Hadapsar patch really needs a Metro. While an in-principle nod has been given, it probably is more than 5-7 years or more before we actually have a functioning metro. Even the current route the Metro has was supposed to be done almost 5 years to the date and even the modified plan was of 3 years ago. And even now, most of the Stations still need a lot of work to be done. PMC, Deccan as examples etc. still have loads to be done. Even PMT (Pune Muncipal Transport) that that is supposed to do the last mile connections via its buses has been putting half-hearted attempts

Vishal Rao While Vishal had apparently seen me and perhaps we had also interacted, this was my first memory of him although we have been on a few boards now and then including stackexchange. He was genuine and warm and shared 4-5 distros with me, including Knoppix and System Rescue as shared by Arun Khan. While this is and was the first time I had heard about Ventoy apparently Vishal has been using it for couple of years now. It s a simple shell script that you need to download and run on your pen drive and then just dump all the .iso images. The easiest way to explain ventoy is that it looks and feels like Grub. Which also reminds me an interaction I had with Vishal on mobile. While troubleshooting the issue, I was unsure whether it was filesystem that was the issue or also systemd was corrupted. Vishal reminded me of putting fastboot to the kernel parameters to see if I m able to boot without fscking and get into userspace i.e. /home. Although journalctl and systemctl were responding even on tty1 still was a bit apprehensive. Using fastboot was able to mount the whole thing and get into userspace and that told me that it s only some of the inodes that need clearing and there probably are some orphaned inodes. While Vishal had got a mini-pc he uses that a server, downloads stuff to it and then downloads stuff from it. From both privacy, backup etc. it is a better way to do things but then you need to laptop to access it. I am sure he probably uses it for virtualization and other ways as well but we just didn t have time for that discussion. Also a mini-pc can set you back anywhere from 25 to 40k depending on the mini-pc and the RAM and the SSD. And you need either a lappy or an Raspberry Pi with some kinda visual display to interact with the mini-pc. While he did share some of the things, there probably could have been a far longer interaction just on that but probably best left for another day. Now at my end, the system I had bought is about 5-6 years old. At that time it only had 6 USB 2.0 drives and 2 USB 3.0 (A) drives.
The above image does tell of the various form factors. One of the other things is that I found the pendrive and its connectors to be extremely fiddly. It took me number of times fiddling around with it when I was finally able to put in and able to access the pen drive partitions. Unfortunately, was unable to see/use systemrescue but Knoppix booted up fine. I mounted the partitions briefly to see where is what and sure enough /dev/sda8 showed my /home files and folders. Unmounted it, then used $fsck -y /dev/sda8 and back in business. This concludes what happened. Updates Quite a bit was left out on the original post, part of which I didn t know and partly stuff which is interesting and perhaps need a blog post of their own. It s sad I won t be part of debconf otherwise who knows what else I would have come to know.
  1. One of the interesting bits that I came to know about last week is the Alibaba T-Head T-Head TH1520 RISC-V CPU and saw it first being demoed on a laptop and then a standalone tablet. The laptop is an interesting proposition considering Alibaba opened up it s chip thing only couple of years ago. To have an SOC within 18 months and then under production for lappies and tablets is practically unheard of especially of a newbie/startup. Even AMD took 3-4 years for its first chip.It seems they (Alibaba) would be parceling them out by quarter end 2023 and another 1000 pieces/Units first quarter next year, while the scale is nothing compared to the behemoths, I think this would be more as a matter of getting feedback on both the hardware and software. The value proposition is much better than what most of us get, at least in India. For example, they are doing a warranty for 5 years and also giving spare parts. RISC-V has been having a lot of resurgence in China in part as its an open standard and partly development will be far cheaper and faster than trying x86 or x86-64. If you look into both the manufacturers, due to monopoly, both of them now give 5-8% increment per year, and if you look back in history, you would find that when more chips were in competition, they used to give 15-20% performance increment per year.
2. While Vishal did share with me what he used and the various ways he uses the mini-pc, I did have a fun speculating on what he could use it. As shared by Romane as his case has shared, the first thing to my mind was backups. Filesystems are notorious in the sense they can be corrupted or can be prone to be corrupted very easily as can be seen above  . Backups certainly make a lot of sense, especially rsync. The other thing that came to my mind was having some sort of A.I. and chat server. IIRC, somebody has put quite a bit of open source public domain data in debian servers that could be used to run either a chatbot or an A.I. or both and use that similar to how chatGPT but with much limited scope than what chatgpt uses. I was also thinking a media server which Vishal did share he does. I may probably visit him sometime to see what choices he did and what he learned in the process, if anything. Another thing that could be done is just take a dump of any of commodity markets or any markets and have some sort of predictive A.I. or whatever. A whole bunch of people have scammed thousands of Indian users on this, but if you do it on your own and for your own purposes to aid you buy and sell stocks or whatever commodity you may fancy. After all, nowadays markets themselves are virtual. While Vishal s mini-pc doesn t have any graphics, if it was an AMD APU mini-pc, something like this he could have hosted games in the way of thick server, thin client where all graphics processing happens on the server rather than the client. With virtual reality I think the case for the same case could be made or much more. The only problem with VR/AR is that we don t really have mass-market googles, eye pieces or headset. The only notable project that Google has/had in that place is the Google VR Cardboard headset and the experience is not that great or at least was not that great few years back when I could hear and experience the same. Most of the VR headsets say for example the Meta Quest 2 is for around INR 44k/- while Quest 3 is INR 50k+ and officially not available. As have shared before, the holy grail of VR would be when it falls below INR 10k/- so it becomes just another accessory, not something you really have to save for. There also isn t much content on that but then that is also the whole chicken or egg situation. This again is a non-stop discussion as so much has been happening in that space it needs its own blog post/article whatever. Till later.

20 August 2023

Russell Coker: GPT Systems and Relationships

Sam Hartman wrote an interesting blog post about his work as a sex and intimacy educator and how GPT systems could impact that [1]. I ve read some positive reviews of Replika a commercial system that is somewhat promoted as a counsellor [2], so I decided to try it out. In my brief trial it seemed to be using all the methods that Android pay to play games are known for. Having multiple types of in-game currency, pay to buy new clothes etc for your friend, etc. Basically it seems pretty horrible. I didn t pay for it and the erotic and romantic features all require payment so I didn t test that. When thinking about this logically, having a system designed to deal with people when they are vulnerable (either being in a romantic relationship or getting counselling) that uses manipulative techniques to get money from them can t have a good result. So a free software system seems the best option. When I first learned of virtual girlfriends I never thought I would feel compelled to advocate for a free software virtual dating program, but that s where the world has got to. Virtual girlfriends have been around for years now. Several years ago I watched a documentary about their use in Japan. It seemed a bit strange when a group of men who had virtual girlfriends had a dinner party with their tablets and phones propped up so their girlfriends could join in as they all appeared to be dating the same girl. The documentary didn t go in to enough detail to cover whether the girlfriend app could learn or be customised enough that they would seem to have different personalities. Virtual boyfriends have also been around for a while apparently without most people noticing. I just Googled it and found a review of a virtual boyfriend app published in 2016! One thing that will probably concern people is the possibility for virtual dating systems to be used for inappropriate things. That is a reasonable thing to be concerned about but I don t think it s possible to prevent technology that has already been released from doing such things. As a general rule technology can always be used for good and bad things so we need to just make it easy to do good things and let the legal system develop ways of dealing with the bad things.

6 June 2023

Shirish Agarwal: Odisha Train Crash and Coverup, Demonetization 2.0 & NHFS-6 Survey

Just a few days back we came to know about the horrific Train Crash that happened in Odisha (Orissa). There are some things that are known and somethings that can be inferred by observance. Sadly, it seems the incident is going to be covered up  . Some of the facts that have not been contested in the public domain are that there were three lines. One loop line on which the Goods Train was standing and there was an up and a down line. So three lines were there. Apparently, the signalling system and the inter-locking system had issues as highlighted by an official about a month back. That letter, thankfully is in the public domain and I have downloaded it as well. It s a letter that goes to 4 pages. The RW is incensed that the letter got leaked and is in public domain. They are blaming everyone and espousing conspiracy theories rather than taking the minister to task. Incidentally, the Minister has three ministries that he currently holds. Ministry of Communication, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEIT), and Railways Ministry. Each Ministry in itself is important and has revenues of more than 6 lakh crore rupees. How he is able to do justice to all the three ministries is beyond me  The other thing is funds both for safety and relaying of tracks has been either not sanctioned or unutilized. In fact, CAG and the Railway Brass had shared how derailments have increased and unfulfilled vacancies but they were given no importance  In fact, not talking about safety in the recently held Chintan Shivir (brainstorming session) tells you how much the Govt. is serious about safety. In fact, most of the programme was on high speed rail which is a white elephant. I have shared a whitepaper done by RW in the U.S. that tells how high-speed rail doesn t make economic sense. And that is an economy that is 20 times + the Indian Economy. Even the Chinese are stopping with HSR as it doesn t make economic sense. Incidentally, Air Fares again went up 200% yesterday. Somebody shared in the region of 20k + for an Air ticket from their place to Bangalore  Coming back to the story itself. the Goods Train was on the loopline. Some say it was a little bit on the outer, some say otherwise, but it is established that it was on the loopline. This is standard behavior on and around Railway Stations around the world. Whether it was in the Inner or Outer doesn t make much of a difference with what happened next. The first train that collided with the goods train was the 12864 (SMVB-HWH) Yashwantpur Howrah Express and got derailed on to the next track where from the opposite direction 12841 (Shalimar- Bangalore) Coramandel Express was coming. Now they have said that around 300 people have died and that seems to be part of the cover-up. Both the trains are long trains, having between 23 odd coaches each. Even if you have reserved tickets you have 80 odd people in a coach and usually in most of these trains, it is at least double of that. Lot of money goes to TC and then above (Corruption). The Railway fares have gone up enormously but that s a question for perhaps another time  . So at the very least, we could be looking at more than 1000 people having died. The numbers are being under-reported so that nobody has to take responsibility. The Railways itself has told that it is unable to identify 80% of the people who have died. This means that 80% were unreserved ticket holders or a majority of them. There have been disturbing images as how bodies have been flung over on tractors and whatnot to be either buried or cremated without a thought. We are in peak summer season so bodies will start to rot within 24-48 hours  No arrangements made to cool the bodies and take some information and identifying marks or whatever. The whole thing being done in a very callous manner, not giving dignity to even those who have died for no fault of their own. The dissent note also tells that a cover-up is also in the picture. Apparently, India doesn t have nor does it feel to have a need for something like the NTSB that the U.S. used when it hauled both the plane manufacturer (Boeing) and the FAA when the 737 Max went down due to improper data collection and sharing of data with pilots. And with no accountability being fixed to Minister or any of the senior staff, a small junior staff person may be fired. Perhaps the same official that actually told them about the signal failures almost 3 months back  There were and are also some reports that some jugaadu /temporary fixes were applied to signalling and inter-locking just before this incident happened. I do not know nor confirm one way or the other if the above happened. I can however point out that if such a thing happened, then usually a traffic block is announced and all traffic on those lines are stopped. This has been the thing I know for decades. Traveling between Mumbai and Pune multiple times over the years am aware about traffic block. If some repair work was going on and it wasn t able to complete the work within the time-frame then that may well have contributed to the accident. There is also a bit muddying of the waters where it is being said that one of the trains was 4 hours late, which one is conflicting stories. On top of the whole thing, they have put the case to be investigated by CBI and hinting at sabotage. They also tried to paint a religious structure as mosque, later turned out to be a temple. The RW says done by Muslims as it was Friday not taking into account as shared before that most Railway maintenance works are usually done between Friday Monday. This is a practice followed not just in India but world over. There has been also move over a decade to remove wooden sleepers and have concrete sleepers. Unlike the wooden ones they do not expand and contract as much and their life is much more longer than the wooden ones. Funds had been marked (although lower than last few years) but not yet spent. As we know in case of any accident, it is when all the holes in cheese line up it happens. Fukushima is a great example of that, no sea wall even though Japan is no stranger to Tsunamis. External power at the same level as the plant. (10 meters above sea-level), no training for cascading failures scenarios which is what happened. The Days mini-series shares some but not all the faults that happened at Fukushima and the Govt. response to it. There is a difference though, the Japanese Prime Minister resigned on moral grounds. Here, nor the PM, nor the Minister would be resigning on moral grounds or otherwise :(. Zero accountability and that was partly a natural disaster, here it s man-made. In fact, both the Minister and the Prime Minister arrived with their entourages, did a PR blitzkrieg showing how concerned they are. Within 50 hours, the lines were cleared. The part-time Railway Minister shared that he knows the root cause and then few hours later has given the case to CBI. All are saying, wait for the inquiry report. To date, none of the accidents even in this Govt. has produced an investigation report. And even if it did, I am sure it will whitewash as it did in case of Adani as I had shared before in the previous blog post. Incidentally, it is reported that Adani paid off some of its debt, but when questioned as to where they got the money, complete silence on that part :(. As can be seen cover-up after cover-up  FWIW, the Coramandel Express is known as the Migrant train so has a huge number of passengers, the other one which was collided with is known as sick train as huge number of cancer patients use it to travel to Chennai and come back

Demonetization 2.0 Few days back, India announced demonetization 2.0. Surprised, don t be. Apparently, INR 2k/- is being used for corruption and Mr. Modi is unhappy about it. He actually didn t like the INR 2k/- note but was told that it was needed, who told him we are unaware to date. At that time the RBI Governor was Mr. Urjit Patel who didn t say about INR 2k/- he had said that INR 1k/- note redesigned would come in the market. That has yet to happen. What has happened is that just like INR 500/- and INR 1k/- note is concerned, RBI will no longer honor the INR 2k/- note. Obviously, this has made our neighbors angry, namely Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan etc. who do some trading with us. 2 Deccan herald columns share the limelight on it. Apparently, India wants to be the world s currency reserve but doesn t want to play by the rules for everyone else. It was pointed out that both the U.S. and Singapore had retired their currencies but they will honor that promise even today. The Singapore example being a bit closer (as it s in Asia) is perhaps a bit more relevant than the U.S. one. Singapore retired the SGD $10,000 as of 2014 but even in 2022, it remains as legal tender. They also retired the SGD $1,000 in 2020 but still remains legal tender.

So let s have a fictitious example to illustrate what is meant by what Singapore has done. Let s say I go to Singapore, rent a flat, and find a $1000 note in that house somewhere. Both practically and theoretically, I could go down to any of the banks, get the amount transferred to my wallet, bank account etc. and nobody will question. Because they have promised the same. Interestingly, the Singapore Dollar has been pretty resilient against the USD for quite a number of years vis-a-vis other Asian currencies. Most of the INR 2k/- notes were also found and exchanged in Gujarat in just a few days (The PM and HM s state.). I am sure you are looking into the mental gymnastics that the RW indulge in :(. What is sadder that most of the people who try to defend can t make sense one way or the other and start to name-call and get personal as they have nothing else

Disability questions dropped in NHFS-6 Just came to know today that in the upcoming National Family Health Survey-6 disability questions are being dropped. Why is this important. To put it simply, if you don t have numbers, you won t and can t make policies for them. India is one of the worst countries to live if you are disabled. The easiest way to share to draw attention is most Railway platforms are not at level with people. Just as Mick Lynch shares in the UK, the same is pretty much true for India too. Meanwhile in Europe, they do make an effort to be level so even disabled people have some dignity. If your public transport is sorted, then people would want much more and you will be obligated to provide for them as they are citizens. Here, we have had many reports of women being sexually molested when being transferred from platform to coach irrespective of their age or whatnot  The main takeaway is if you do not have their voice, you won t make policies for them. They won t go away but you will make life hell for them. One thing to keep in mind that most people assume that most people are disabled from birth. This may or may not be true. For e.g. in the above triple Railways accidents, there are bound to be disabled people or newly disabled people who were healthy before the accident. The most common accident is road accidents, some involving pedestrians and vehicles or both, the easiest is Ministry of Road Transport data that says 4,00,000 people sustained injuries in 2021 alone in road mishaps. And this is in a country where even accidents are highly under-reported, for more than one reason. The biggest reason especially in 2 and 4 wheeler is the increased premium they would have to pay if in an accident, so they usually compromise with the other and pay off the Traffic Inspector. Sadly, I haven t read a new book, although there are a few books I m looking forward to have. People living in India and neighbors please be careful as more heat waves are expected. Till later.

30 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older
Series: Mossa and Pleiti #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-86051-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 169
The Mimicking of Known Successes is a science fiction mystery novella, the first of an expected series. (The second novella is scheduled to be published in February of 2024.) Mossa is an Investigator, called in after a man disappears from the eastward platform on the 4 63' line. It's an isolated platform, five hours away from Mossa's base, and home to only four residential buildings and a pub. The most likely explanation is that the man jumped, but his behavior before he disappeared doesn't seem consistent with that theory. He was bragging about being from Valdegeld University, talking to anyone who would listen about the important work he was doing not typically the behavior of someone who is suicidal. Valdegeld is the obvious next stop in the investigation. Pleiti is a Classics scholar at Valdegeld. She is also Mossa's ex-girlfriend, making her both an obvious and a fraught person to ask for investigative help. Mossa is the last person she expected to be waiting for her on the railcar platform when she returns from a trip to visit her parents. The Mimicking of Known Successes is mostly a mystery, following Mossa's attempts to untangle the story of what happened to the disappeared man, but as you might have guessed there's a substantial sapphic romance subplot. It's also at least adjacent to Sherlock Holmes: Mossa is brilliant, observant, somewhat monomaniacal, and very bad at human relationships. All of this story except for the prologue is told from Pleiti's perspective as she plays a bit of a Watson role, finding Mossa unreadable, attractive, frustrating, and charming in turn. Following more recent Holmes adaptations, Mossa is portrayed as probably neurodivergent, although the story doesn't attach any specific labels. I have no strong opinions about this novella. It was fine? There's a mystery with a few twists, there's a sapphic romance of the second chance variety, there's a bit of action and a bit of hurt/comfort after the action, and it all felt comfortably entertaining but kind of predictable. Susan Stepney has a "passes the time" review rating, and while that may be a bit harsh, that's about where I ended up. The most interesting part of the story is the science fiction setting. We're some indefinite period into the future. Humans have completely messed up Earth to the point of making it uninhabitable. We then took a shot at terraforming Mars and messed that planet up to the point of uninhabitability as well. Now, what's left of humanity (maybe not all of it the story isn't clear) lives on platforms connected by rail lines high in the atmosphere of Jupiter. (Everyone in the story calls Jupiter "Giant" for reasons that I didn't follow, given that they didn't rename any of its moons.) Pleiti's position as a Classics scholar means that she studies Earth and its now-lost ecosystems, whereas the Modern faculty focus on their new platform life. This background does become relevant to the mystery, although exactly how is not clear at the start. I wouldn't call this a very realistic setting. One has to accept that people are living on platforms attached to artificial rings around the solar system's largest planet and walk around in shirt sleeves and only minor technological support due to "atmoshields" of some unspecified capability, and where the native atmosphere plays the role of London fog. Everything feels vaguely Edwardian, including to the occasional human porter and message runner, which matches the story concept but seems unlikely as a plausible future culture. I also disbelieve in humanity's ability to do anything to Earth that would make it less inhabitable than the clouds of Jupiter. That said, the setting is a lot of fun, which is probably more important. It's fun to try to visualize, and it has that slightly off-balance, occasionally surprising feel of science fiction settings where everyone is recognizably human but the things they consider routine and unremarkable are unexpected by the reader. This novella also has a great title. The Mimicking of Known Successes is simultaneously a reference a specific plot point from late in the story, a nod to the shape of the romance, and an acknowledgment of the Holmes pastiche, and all of those references work even better once you know what the plot point is. That was nicely done. This was not very memorable apart from the setting, but it was pleasant enough. I can't say that I'm inspired to pre-order the next novella in this series, but I also wouldn't object to reading it. If you're in the mood for gender-swapped Holmes in an exotic setting, you could do worse. Followed by The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. Rating: 6 out of 10

22 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Tsalmoth

Review: Tsalmoth, by Steven Brust
Series: Vlad Taltos #16
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-4668-8970-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 277
Tsalmoth is the sixteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series and (some fans of the series groan) yet another flashback novel to earlier in Vlad's life. It takes place between Yendi and the interludes in Dragon (or, perhaps more straightforwardly, between Yendi and Jhereg. Most of the books of this series stand alone to some extent, so you could read this book out of order and probably not be horribly confused, but I suspect it would also feel weirdly pointless outside of the context of the larger series. We're back to Vlad running a fairly small operation as a Jhereg, who are the Dragaeran version of organized crime. A Tsalmoth who owes Vlad eight hundred imperials has rudely gotten himself murdered, thoroughly enough that he can't be revived. That's a considerable amount of money, and Vlad would like it back, so he starts poking around. As you might expect if you've read any other book in this series, things then get a bit complicated. This time, they involve Jhereg politics, Tsalmoth house politics, and necromancy (which in this universe is more about dimensional travel than it is about resurrecting the dead). The main story is... fine. Kragar is around being unnoticeable as always, Vlad is being cocky and stubborn and bantering with everyone, and what appears to be a straightforward illegal business relationship turns out to involve Dragaeran magic and thus Vlad's highly-placed friends. As usual, they're intellectually curious about the magic and largely ambivalent to the rest of Vlad's endeavors. The most enjoyable part of the story is Vlad's insistence on getting his money back while everyone else in the story cannot believe he would be this persistent over eight hundred imperials and is certain he has some other motive. It's otherwise a fairly forgettable little adventure. The implications for the broader series, though, are significant, although essentially none of the payoff is here. Brust has been keeping a major secret about Vlad that's finally revealed here, one that has little impact on the plot of this book (although it causes Vlad a lot of angst) but which I suspect will become very important later in the series. That was intriguing but rather unsatisfying, since it stays only a future hook with an attached justification for why we're only finding out about it now. If one has read the rest of the series, it's also nice to see Vlad and Cawti working together, bantering with each other and playing off of each other's strengths. It's reminiscent of the best parts of Yendi. As with many of the books of this series, the chapter introductions tell a parallel story; this time, it's Vlad and Cawti's wedding. I think previous books already mentioned that Vlad is narrating this series into some sort of recording device, and a bit about why he's doing that, but this is made quite explicit here. We get as much of the surrounding frame as we've ever seen before. There are no obvious plot consequences from this it's still all hints and guesswork but I suspect this will also become important by the end of the series. If you've read this much of the series, you'll obviously want to read this one as well, but unfortunately don't get your hopes up for significant plot advancement. This is another station-keeping book, which is a bit of a disappointment. We haven't gotten major plot advancement since Hawk in 2014, and I'm getting impatient. Thankfully, Lyorn has a release date already (April 9, 2024), and assuming all goes according to the grand plan, there are only two books left after Lyorn (Chreotha and The Last Contract). I'm getting hopeful that we're going to get to see the entire series. Meanwhile, I am very tempted to do a complete re-read of the series to date, probably in series chronological order rather than in publication order (as much as that's possible given the fractured timelines of Dragon and Tiassa) so that I can see how the pieces fit together. The constant jumping back and forth and allusions to events that have already happened but that we haven't seen yet is hard to keep track of. I'm very glad the Lyorn Records exists. Followed by Lyorn. Rating: 7 out of 10

3 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything

Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2016
Printing: June 2017
ISBN: 0-06-231656-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 338
Anu Partanen is a Finnish journalist who immigrated to the United States. The Nordic Theory of Everything, subtitled In Search of a Better Life, is an attempt to explain the merits of Finnish approaches to government and society to a US audience. It was her first book. If you follow US policy discussion at all, you have probably been exposed to many of the ideas in this book. There was a time when the US left was obsessed with comparisons between the US and Nordic countries, and while that obsession has faded somewhat, Nordic social systems are still discussed with envy and treated as a potential model. Many of the topics of this book are therefore predictable: parental leave, vacation, health care, education, happiness, life expectancy, all the things that are far superior in Nordic countries than in the United States by essentially every statistical measure available, and which have been much-discussed. Partanen brings two twists to this standard analysis. The first is that this book is part memoir: she fell in love with a US writer and made the decision to move to the US rather than asking him to move to Finland. She therefore experienced the transition between social and government systems first-hand and writes memorably on the resulting surprise, trade-offs, anxiety, and bafflement. The second, which I've not seen previously in this policy debate, is a fascinating argument that Finland is a far more individualistic country than the United States precisely because of its policy differences.
Most people, including myself, assumed that part of what made the United States a great country, and such an exceptional one, was that you could live your life relatively unencumbered by the downside of a traditional, old-fashioned society: dependency on the people you happened to be stuck with. In America you had the liberty to express your individuality and choose your own community. This would allow you to interact with family, neighbors, and fellow citizens on the basis of who you were, rather than on what you were obligated to do or expected to be according to old-fashioned thinking. The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met and the more American I myself became the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity freedom, personal independence, and opportunity that seemed, from my outsider s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today. Amid the anxiety and stress of people s daily lives, those grand ideals were looking more theoretical than actual.
The core of this argument is that the structure of life in the United States essentially coerces dependency on other people: employers, spouses, parents, children, and extended family. Because there is no universally available social support system, those relationships become essential for any hope of a good life, and often for survival. If parents do not heavily manage their children's education, there is a substantial risk of long-lasting damage to the stability and happiness of their life. If children do not care for their elderly parents, they may receive no care at all. Choosing not to get married often means choosing precarity and exhaustion because navigating society without pooling resources with someone else is incredibly difficult.
It was as if America, land of the Hollywood romance, was in practice mired in a premodern time when marriage was, first and foremost, not an expression of love, but rather a logistical and financial pact to help families survive by joining resources.
Partanen contrasts this with what she calls the Nordic theory of love:
What Lars Tr g rdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.
She sees this as the common theme through most of the policy differences discussed in this book. The Finnish approach is to provide neutral and universal logistical support for most of life's expected challenges: birth, child-rearing, education, health, unemployment, and aging. This relieves other social relations family, employer, church of the corrosive strain of dependency and obligation. It also ensures people's basic well-being isn't reliant on accidents of association.
If the United States is so worried about crushing entrepreneurship and innovation, a good place to start would be freeing start-ups and companies from the burdens of babysitting the nation s citizens.
I found this fascinating as a persuasive technique. Partanen embraces the US ideal of individualism and points out that, rather than being collectivist as the US right tends to assume, Finland is better at fostering individualism and independence because the government works to removes unnecessary premodern constraints on individual lives. The reason why so many Americans are anxious and frantic is not a personal failing or bad luck. It's because the US social system is deeply hostile to healthy relationships and individual independence. It demands a constant level of daily problem-solving and crisis management that is profoundly exhausting, nearly impossible to navigate alone, and damaging to the ideal of equal relationships. Whether this line of argument will work is another question, and I'm dubious for reasons that Partanen (probably wisely) avoids. She presents the Finnish approach as a discovery that the US would benefit from, and the US approach as a well-intentioned mistake. I think this is superficially appealing; almost all corners of US political belief at least give lip service to individualism and independence. However, advocates of political change will eventually need to address the fact that many US conservatives see this type of social coercion as an intended feature of society rather than a flaw. This is most obvious when one looks at family relationships. Partanen treats the idea that marriage should be a free choice between equals rather than an economic necessity as self-evident, but there is a significant strain of US political thought that embraces punishing people for not staying within the bounds of a conservative ideal of family. One will often find, primarily but not exclusively among the more religious, a contention that the basic unit of society is the (heterosexual, patriarchal) family, not the individual, and that the suffering of anyone outside that structure is their own fault. Not wanting to get married, be the primary caregiver for one's parents, or abandon a career in order to raise children is treated as malignant selfishness and immorality rather than a personal choice that can be enabled by a modern social system. Here, I think Partanen is accurate to identify the Finnish social system as more modern. It embraces the philosophical concept of modernity, namely that social systems can be improved and social structures are not timeless. This is going to be a hard argument to swallow for those who see the pressure towards forming dependency ties within families as natural, and societal efforts to relieve those pressures as government meddling. In that intellectual framework, rather than an attempt to improve the quality of life, government logistical support is perceived as hostility to traditional family obligations and an attempt to replace "natural" human ties with "artificial" dependence on government services. Partanen doesn't attempt to have that debate. Two other things struck me in this book. The first is that, in Partanen's presentation, Finns expect high-quality services from their government and work to improve it when it falls short. This sounds like an obvious statement, but I don't think it is in the context of US politics, and neither does Partanen. She devotes a chapter to the topic, subtitled "Go ahead: ask what your country can do for you." This is, to me, one of the most frustrating aspects of US political debate. Our attitude towards government is almost entirely hostile and negative even among the political corners that would like to see government do more. Failures of government programs are treated as malice, malfeasance, or inherent incompetence: in short, signs the program should never have been attempted, rather than opportunities to learn and improve. Finland had mediocre public schools, decided to make them better, and succeeded. The moment US public schools start deteriorating, we throw much of our effort into encouraging private competition and dismantling the public school system. Partanen doesn't draw this connection, but I see a link between the US desire for market solutions to societal problems and the level of exhaustion and anxiety that is so common in US life. Solving problems by throwing them open to competition is a way of giving up, of saying we have no idea how to improve something and are hoping someone else will figure it out for a profit. Analyzing the failures of an existing system and designing incremental improvements is hard and slow work. Throwing out the system and hoping some corporation will come up with something better is disruptive but easy. When everyone is already overwhelmed by life and devoid of energy to work on complex social problems, it's tempting to give up on compromise and coalition-building and let everyone go their separate ways on their own dime. We cede the essential work of designing a good society to start-ups. This creates a vicious cycle: the resulting market solutions are inevitably gated by wealth and thus precarious and artificially scarce, which in turn creates more anxiety and stress. The short-term energy savings from not having to wrestle with a hard problem is overwhelmed by the long-term cost of having to navigate a complex and adversarial economic relationship. That leads into the last point: schools. There's a lot of discussion here about school quality and design, which I won't review in detail but which is worth reading. What struck me about Partanen's discussion, though, is how easy the Finnish system is to use. Finnish parents just send their kids to the most convenient school and rarely give that a second thought. The critical property is that all the schools are basically fine, and therefore there is no need to place one's child in an exceptional school to ensure they have a good life. It's axiomatic in the US that more choice is better. This is a constant refrain in our political discussion around schools: parental choice, parental control, options, decisions, permission, matching children to schools tailored for their needs. Those choices are almost entirely absent in Finland, at least in Partanen's description, and the amount of mental and emotional energy this saves is astonishing. Parents simply don't think about this, and everything is fine. I think we dramatically underestimate the negative effects of constantly having to make difficult decisions with significant consequences, and drastically overstate the benefits of having every aspect of life be full of major decision points. To let go of that attempt at control, however illusory, people have to believe in a baseline of quality that makes the choice less fraught. That's precisely what Finland provides by expecting high-quality social services and working to fix them when they fall short, an effort that the United States has by and large abandoned. A lot of non-fiction books could be turned into long articles without losing much substance, and I think The Nordic Theory of Everything falls partly into that trap. Partanen repeats the same ideas from several different angles, and the book felt a bit padded towards the end. If you're already familiar with the policy comparisons between the US and Nordic countries, you will have seen a lot of this before, and the book bogs down when Partanen strays too far from memoir and personal reactions. But the focus on individualism and eliminating dependency is new, at least to me, and is such an illuminating way to look at the contrast that I think the book is worth reading just for that. Rating: 7 out of 10

28 March 2023

Shirish Agarwal: Three Ancient Civilizations, Tesla, IMU and other things.

Three Ancient Civilizations I have been reading books for a long time but somehow I don t know how or when I realized that there are three medieval civilizations that time and again seem to fascinate the authors, either American or European. The three civilizations that do get mentioned every now and then are Egyptian, Greece and Roman and I have no clue as to why. Another two civilizations closely follow them, Mesopotian and Sumerian Civilizations. Why most of the authors irrespective of genre are mystified by these 5 civilizations is beyond me but they also conjure lot of imagination. Now if I was on the right side of 40, maybe 22-25 onwards and had the means or the opportunity or both, I would have gone and tried to learn as much as I can about these various civilizations. There is still a lot of enigma attached and it seems that the official explanations of how these various civilizations ended seems too good to be true or whatever. One of the more interesting points has been how Greece mythology were subverted and flipped to make Roman mythology. Apparently, many Greek gods have a Roman aspect and the qualities are opposite to the Greek aspect. I haven t learned the reason why it is so, yet. Apart from the Iziko Natural Museum in South Africa which did have its share of wonders (the whole South African experience was surreal) nowhere I have witnessed stuff from the above other than in Africa. The whole thing seemed just surreal. I could go on but as I don t know what is real and what is mythology when it comes to various cultures including whatever little I experienced in Africa.

Recent History Having said the above, I also find that many Indians somehow do not either know or are not interested in understanding recent history. I am talking of the time between 1800s and 1950 s. British apologist Mr. William Dalrymple in his book Anarchy has shared how the East Indian Company looted India and gave less than half back to the British. So where did the rest of the money go ? It basically went to the tax free havens around UK. That tale is very much similar as to how the Axis gold was used to have an entity called Switzerland from scratch. There have been books as well as couple of miniseries or two that document that fact. But for me this is not the real story, this is more of a side dish per-se. The real story perhaps is how the EU peace project was born. Because of Hitler s rise and the way World War 2 happened, the Allies knew that they couldn t subjugate Germany through another humiliation as they had after World War 1, who knows another Hitler might come. So while they did fine the Germans, they also helped them via the Marshall plan. Germany also realized that it had been warring with other European countries for over a thousand years as well as quite a few other countries. The first sort of treaty immediately in that regard was the Western Union Alliance . While on the face of it, it was a defense treaty between sovereign powers. Interestingly, as can be seen UK at that point in time wanted more countries to be part of the Treaty of Dunkirk. This was quickly followed 2 years later by the Treaty of London which made way for the Council of Europe to be formed. The reason I am sharing is because a lot of Indians whom I meet on SM do not know that UK was instrumental front and center for the formation of European Union (EU). Also they perhaps don t realize that after World War 2, UK was greatly diminished both financially and militarily. That is the reason it gave back its erstwhile colonies including India and other countries. If UK hadn t become a part of EU they would have been called the poor man of Europe as they had been called few hundred years ago. In fact, after Brexit, UK has been the only nation that has fallen on the dire times as much as it has. They have practically no food, supermarkets running out of veggies and whatnot. electricity sky-high as they don t want to curtail profits of the gas companies which in turn donate money to Tory coffers. Sadly, most of my brethen do not know that hence I have had to share it. The EU became a power in its own right due to Gravity model of trade. The U.S. is attempting the same thing and calls it near off-shoring.

Tesla, Investor Day Presentation, Toyota and Free Software The above brings it nicely about the Tesla Investor Day that happened couple of weeks back. The biggest news though was broken just 24 hours earlier when the governor of Monterrey] shared how Giga New Mexico would be happening and shared some site photographs. There have been bits of news on that off-and-on since then. Toyota meanwhile has been putting lot of anti-EV posters and whatnot. In fact, India seems to be mirroring Japan in a lot of ways, the only difference is Japan is still superior economically than India. I do sincerely hope that at least Japan can get out of its lost decades. I have asked privately if any of the Japanese translators would be willing to translate the anti-EV poster so we may all know.
Anti-EV poster by Toyota

Urinal outside UK Embassy About a week back few people chanting Khalistan entered the Indian Embassy and showed the flags. This was in the UK. Now in a retaliatory move against a friendly nation, we want to make a Urinal. after making a security downgrade for the Embassy. The pettiness being shown by Indian Govt. especially when it has very few friends. There are also plans to do the same for the U.S. and other embassies as well. I do not know when we will get common sense.

Holi Just a few weeks back, Holi happened. It used to be a sweet and innocent festival. But from the last few years, I have been hearing and seeing sexual harassment on the rise. In fact, saw quite a few lewd posts written to women on Holi or verge of Holi and also videos of the same. One of the most shameful incidents occurred with a Japanese tourist. She was not only sexually molested but also terrorized that if she were to report then she could be raped and murdered. She promptly left Delhi. Once it was reported in mass media, Delhi Police tried to show it was doing something. FWIW, Delhi s crime against women stats have been at record high and conviction at record low.

Ecommerce Rules being changed, logistics gonna be tough. Just today there have been changes in Ecommerce rules (again) and this is gonna be a pain for almost all companies big and small with the exception of Adani and Ambani. Almost all players including the Tatas have called them out. Of course, all such laws have been passed without debate. In such a scenario, small startups like these cannot hope to grow their business.

Inertial Measurement Unit or Full Body Tracking with cheap hardware. Apparently, a whole host of companies are looking at 3-D tracking using cheap hardware apparently known as IMU sensors. Sooner than later cheap 3-D glasses and IMU sensors should explode the 3-D market worldwide. There is a huge potential and upside to it and will probably overtake smartphones as well. But then the danger will be of our thoughts, ideas, nightmares etc. to be shared without our consent. The more we tap into a virtual world, what stops anybody from tapping into our brain and practically stealing our identity in more than one way. I dunno if there are any Debian people or FSF projects working on the above. Even Laws can only do so much, until and unless there are alternative places and ways it would be difficult to say the least

25 March 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thief of Time

Review: Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #26
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: May 2001
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230739-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 420
Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the last Death novel, although he still appears in subsequent books. It's the third book starring Susan Sto Helit, so I don't recommend starting here. Mort is the best starting point for the Death subseries, and Reaper Man provides a useful introduction to the villains. Jeremy Clockson was an orphan raised by the Guild of Clockmakers. He is very good at making clocks. He's not very good at anything else, particularly people, but his clocks are the most accurate in Ankh-Morpork. He is therefore the logical choice to receive a commission by a mysterious noblewoman who wants him to make the most accurate possible clock: a clock that can measure the tick of the universe, one that a fairy tale says had been nearly made before. The commission is followed by a surprise delivery of an Igor, to help with the clock-making. People who live in places with lots of fields become farmers. People who live where there is lots of iron and coal become blacksmiths. And people who live in the mountains near the Hub, near the gods and full of magic, become monks. In the highest valley are the History Monks, founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised. Like most monks, they take apprentices with certain talents and train them in their discipline. But Lobsang Ludd, an orphan discovered in the Thieves Guild in Ankh-Morpork, is proving a challenge. The monks decide to apprentice him to Lu-Tze the sweeper; perhaps that will solve multiple problems at once. Since Hogfather, Susan has moved from being a governess to a schoolteacher. She brings to that job the same firm patience, total disregard for rules that apply to other people, and impressive talent for managing children. She is by far the most popular teacher among the kids, and not only because she transports her class all over the Disc so that they can see things in person. It is a job that she likes and understands, and one that she's quite irate to have interrupted by a summons from her grandfather. But the Auditors are up to something, and Susan may be able to act in ways that Death cannot. This was great. Susan has quickly become one of my favorite Discworld characters, and this time around there is no (or, well, not much) unbelievable romance or permanently queasy god to distract. The clock-making portions of the book quickly start to focus on Igor, who is a delightful perspective through whom to watch events unfold. And the History Monks! The metaphysics of what they are actually doing (which I won't spoil, since discovering it slowly is a delight) is perhaps my favorite bit of Discworld world building to date. I am a sucker for stories that focus on some process that everyone thinks happens automatically and investigate the hidden work behind it. I do want to add a caveat here that the monks are in part a parody of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, Lu-Tze is rather obviously a parody of Laozi and Daoism in general, and Pratchett's parodies of non-western cultures are rather ham-handed. This is not quite the insulting mess that the Chinese parody in Interesting Times was, but it's heavy on the stereotypes. It does not, thankfully, rely on the stereotypes; the characters are great fun on their own terms, with the perfect (for me) balance of irreverence and thoughtfulness. Lu-Tze refusing to be anything other than a sweeper and being irritatingly casual about all the rules of the order is a classic bit that Pratchett does very well. But I also have the luxury of ignoring stereotypes of a culture that isn't mine, and I think Pratchett is on somewhat thin ice. As one specific example, having Lu-Tze's treasured sayings be a collection of banal aphorisms from a random Ankh-Morpork woman is both hilarious and also arguably rather condescending, and I'm not sure where I landed. It's a spot-on bit of parody of how a lot of people who get very into "eastern religions" sound, but it's also equating the Dao De Jing with advice from the Discworld equivalent of a English housewife. I think the generous reading is that Lu-Tze made the homilies profound by looking at them in an entirely different way than the woman saying them, and that's not completely unlike Daoism and works surprisingly well. But that's reading somewhat against the grain; Pratchett is clearly making fun of philosophical koans, and while anything is fair game for some friendly poking, it still feels a bit weird. That isn't the part of the History Monks that I loved, though. Their actual role in the story doesn't come out of the parody. It's something entirely native to Discworld, and it's an absolute delight. The scene with Lobsang and the procrastinators is perhaps my favorite Discworld set piece to date. Everything about the technology of the History Monks, even the Bond parody, is so good. I grew up reading the Marvel Comics universe, and Thief of Time reminds me of a classic John Byrne or Jim Starlin story, where the heroes are dumped into the middle of vast interdimensional conflicts involving barely-anthropomorphized cosmic powers and the universe is revealed to work in ever more intricate ways at vastly expanding scales. The Auditors are villains in exactly that tradition, and just like the best of those stories, the fulcrum of the plot is questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the surprising alliances these non-human powers make with humans or semi-humans. I devoured this kind of story as a kid, and it turns out I still love it. The one complaint I have about the plot is that the best part of this book is the middle, and the end didn't entirely work for me. Ronnie Soak is at his best as a supporting character about three quarters of the way through the book, and I found the ending of his subplot much less interesting. The cosmic confrontation was oddly disappointing, and there's a whole extended sequence involving chocolate that I think was funnier in Pratchett's head than it was in mine. The ending isn't bad, but the middle of this book is my favorite bit of Discworld writing yet, and I wish the story had carried that momentum through to the end. I had so much fun with this book. The Discworld novels are clearly getting better. None of them have yet vaulted into the ranks of my all-time favorite books there's always some lingering quibble or sagging bit but it feels like they've gone from reliably good books to more reliably great books. The acid test is coming, though: the next book is a Rincewind book, which are usually the weak spots. Followed by The Last Hero in publication order. There is no direct thematic sequel. Rating: 8 out of 10

26 February 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: An Informal History of the Hugos

Review: An Informal History of the Hugos, by Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 2018
ISBN: 1-4668-6573-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 564
An Informal History of the Hugos is another collection of Jo Walton's Tor.com posts. As with What Makes This Book So Great, these are blog posts that are still available for free on-line. Unlike that collection, this series happened after Tor.com got better at tags, so it's much easier to find. Whether to buy it therefore depends on whether having it in convenient book form is worth it to you. Walton's previous collection was a somewhat random assortment of reviews of whatever book she felt like reviewing. As you may guess from the title, this one is more structured. She starts at the first year that the Hugo Awards were given out (1953) and discusses the winners for each year up through 2000. Nearly all of that discussion is about the best novel Hugo, a survey of other good books for that year, and, when other awards (Nebula, Locus, etc.) start up, comparing them to the winners and nominees of other awards. One of the goals of each discussion is to decide whether the Hugo nominees did a good job of capturing the best books of the year and the general feel of the genre at that time. There are a lot of pages in this book, but that's partly because there's a lot of filler. Each post includes all of the winners and (once a nomination system starts) nominees in every Hugo category. Walton offers an in-depth discussion of the novel in every year, and an in-depth discussion of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (technically not a Hugo but awarded with them and voted on in the same way) once those start. Everything else gets a few sentences at most, so it's mostly just lists, all of which you can readily find elsewhere if you cared. Personally, I would have omitted categories without commentary when this was edited into book form. Two other things are included in this book. Most helpfully, Walton's Tor.com reviews of novels in the shortlist are included after the discussion of that year. If you like Walton's reviews, this is great for all the reasons that What Makes This Book So Great was so much fun. Walton has a way of talking about books with infectious enthusiasm, brief but insightful technical analysis, and a great deal of genre context without belaboring any one point. They're concise and readable and never outlast my attention span, and I wish I could write reviews half as well. The other inclusion is a selection of the comments from the original blog posts. When these posts originally ran, they turned into a community discussion of the corresponding year of SF, and Tor included a selection of those comments in the book. Full disclosure: one of those comments is mine, about the way that cyberpunk latched on to some incorrect ideas of how computers work and made them genre conventions to such a degree that most cyberpunk takes place in a parallel universe with very different computer technology. (I suppose that technically makes me a published author to the tune of a couple of pages.) While I still largely agree with the comment, I blamed Neuromancer for this at the time, and embarrassingly discovered when re-reading it that I had been unfair. This is why one should never express opinions in public where someone might record them. Anyway, there is a general selection of comments from random people, but the vast majority of the comments are discussions of the year's short fiction by Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois. I understand why this was included; Walton doesn't talk about the short fiction, Dozois was a legendary SF short fiction editor and multiple Hugo winner, and both Horton and Dozois reviewed short fiction for Locus. But they don't attempt reviews. For nearly all stories under discussion, unless you recognized the title, you would have no idea even what sub-genre it was in. It's just a sequence of assertions about which title or author was better. Given that there are (in most years) three short fiction categories to the one novel category and both Horton and Dozois write about each category, I suspect there are more words in this book from Horton and Dozois than Walton. That's a problem when those comments turn into tedious catalogs. Reviewing short fiction, particularly short stories, is inherently difficult. I've tried to do a lot of that myself, and it's tricky to find something useful to say that doesn't spoil the story. And to be fair to Horton and Dozois, they weren't being paid to write reviews; they were just commenting on blog posts as part of a community conversation, and I doubt anyone thought this would turn into a book. But when read as a book, their inclusion in this form wasn't my favorite editorial decision. This is therefore a collection of Walton's commentary on the selections for best novel and best new writer alongside a whole lot of boring lists. In theory, the padding shouldn't matter; one can skip over it and just read Walton's parts, and that's still lots of material. But Walton's discussion of the best novels of the year also tends to turn into long lists of books with no commentary (particularly once the very-long Locus recommended list starts appearing), adding to the tedium. This collection requires a lot of skimming. I enjoyed this series of blog posts when they were first published, but even at the time I skimmed the short fiction comments. Gathered in book form with this light of editing, I think it was less successful. If you are curious about the history of science fiction awards and never read the original posts, you may enjoy this, but I would rather have read another collection of straight reviews. Rating: 6 out of 10

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