Search Results: "sesse"

4 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: She Who Became the Sun

Review: She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: Radiant Emperor #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-62179-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 414
In 1345 in Zhongli village, in fourth year of a drought, lived a man with his son and his daughter, the last surviving of seven children. The son was promised by his father to the Wuhuang Monastery on his twelfth birthday if he survived. According to the fortune-teller, that son, Zhu Chongba, will be so great that he will bring a hundred generations of pride to the family name. When the girl dares ask her fate, the fortune-teller says, simply, "Nothing." Bandits come looking for food and kill their father. Zhu goes catatonic rather than bury his father, so the girl digs a grave, only to find her brother dead inside it with her father. It leaves her furious: he had a great destiny and he gave it up without a fight, choosing to become nothing. At that moment, she decides to seize his fate for her own, to become Zhu so thoroughly that Heaven itself will be fooled. Through sheer determination and force of will, she stays at the gates of Wuhuang Monastery until the monks are impressed enough with her stubbornness that they let her in under Zhu's name. That puts her on a trajectory that will lead her to the Red Turbans and the civil war over the Mandate of Heaven. She Who Became the Sun is historical fiction with some alternate history and a touch of magic. The closest comparison I can think of is Guy Gavriel Kay: a similar touch of magic that is slight enough to have questionable impact on the story, and a similar starting point of history but a story that's not constrained to follow the events of our world. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan doesn't change the names of places and people. It's therefore not difficult to work out the history this story is based on (late Yuan dynasty), although it may not be clear at first what role Zhu will play in that history. The first part of the book focuses on Zhu, her time in the monastery, and her (mostly successful) quest to keep her gender secret. The end of that part introduces the second primary protagonist, the eunuch general Ouyang of the army of the Prince of Henan. Ouyang is Nanren, serving a Mongol prince or, more precisely, his son Esen. On the surface, Ouyang is devoted to Esen and serves capably as his general. What lies beneath that surface is far darker and more complicated. I think how well you like this book will depend on how well you get along with the characters. I thought Zhu was a delight. She spends the first half of the book proving herself to be startlingly competent and unpredictable while outwitting Heaven and pursuing her assumed destiny. A major hinge event at the center of the book could have destroyed her character, but instead makes her even stronger, more relaxed, and more comfortable with herself. Her story's exploration of gender identity only made that better for me, starting with her thinking of herself as a woman pretending to be a man and turning into something more complex and self-chosen (and, despite some sexual encounters, apparently asexual, which is something you still rarely see in fiction). I also appreciated how Parker-Chan varies Zhu's pronouns depending on the perspective of the narrator. That said, Zhu is not a good person. She is fiercely ambitious to the point of being a sociopath, and the path she sees involves a lot of ruthlessness and some cold-blooded murder. This is less of a heroic journey than a revenge saga, where the target of revenge is the entire known world and Zhu is as dangerous as she is competent. If you want your protagonist to be moral, this may not work for you. Zhu's scenes are partly told from her perspective and partly from the perspective of a woman named Ma who is a good person, and who is therefore intermittently horrified. The revenge story worked for me, and as a result I found Ma somewhat irritating. If your tendency is to agree with Ma, you may find Zhu too amoral to root for. Ouyang's parts I just hated, which is fitting because Ouyang loathes himself to a degree that is quite difficult to read. He is obsessed with being a eunuch and therefore not fully male. That internal monologue is disturbing enough that it drowned out the moderately interesting court intrigue that he's a part of. I know some people like reading highly dramatic characters who are walking emotional disaster zones. I am not one of those people; by about three quarters of the way through the book I was hoping someone would kill Ouyang already and put him out of everyone's misery. One of the things I disliked about this book is that, despite the complex gender work with Zhu, gender roles within the story have a modern gloss while still being highly constrained. All of the characters except Zhu (and the monk Xu, who has a relatively minor part but is the most likable character in the book) feel like they're being smothered in oppressive gender expectations. Ouyang has a full-fledged case of toxic masculinity to fuel his self-loathing, which Parker-Chan highlights with some weirdly disturbing uses of BDSM tropes. So, I thought this was a mixed bag, and I suspect reactions will differ. I thoroughly enjoyed Zhu's parts despite her ruthlessness and struggled through Ouyang's parts with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought the pivot Parker-Chan pulls off in the middle of the book with Zhu's self-image and destiny was beautifully done and made me like the character even more, but I wish the conflict between Ma's and Zhu's outlooks hadn't been so central. Because of that, the ending felt more tragic than triumphant, which I think was intentional but which wasn't to my taste. As with Kay's writing, I suspect there will be some questions about whether She Who Became the Sun is truly fantasy. The only obvious fantastic element is the physical manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, and that has only a minor effect on the plot. And as with Kay, I think this book needed to be fantasy, not for the special effects, but because it needs the space to take fate literally. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan does not use the writing style of epic fantasy, but Zhu's campaign to assume a destiny which is not her own needs to be more than a metaphor for the story to work. I enjoyed this with some caveats. For me, the Zhu portions made up for the Ouyang portions. But although it's clearly the first book of a series, I'm not sure I'll read on. I felt like Zhu's character arc reached a satisfying conclusion, and the sequel seems likely to be full of Ma's misery over ethical conflicts and more Ouyang, neither of which sound appealing. So far as I can tell, the sequel I assume is coming has not yet been announced. Rating: 7 out of 10

22 May 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: On a Sunbeam

Review: On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden
Publisher: Tillie Walden
Copyright: 2016-2017
Format: Online graphic novel
Pages: 544
On a Sunbeam is a web comic that was published in installments between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, and then later published in dead tree form. I read the on-line version, which is still available for free from its web site. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and won a ton of other awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mia is a new high school graduate who has taken a job with a construction crew that repairs old buildings (that are floating in space, but I'll get to that in a moment). Alma, Elliot, and Charlotte have been together for a long time; Jules is closer to Mia's age and has been with them for a year. This is not the sort of job one commutes to: they live together on a spaceship that travels to the job sites, share meals together, and are more of an extended family than a group of coworkers. It's all a bit intimidating for Mia, but Jules provides a very enthusiastic welcome and some orientation. The story of Mia's new job is interleaved with Mia's school experience from five years earlier. As a new frosh at a boarding school, Mia is obsessed with Lux, a school sport that involves building and piloting ships through a maze to capture orbs. Sent to the principal's office on the first day of school for sneaking into the Lux tower when she's supposed to be at assembly, she meets Grace, a shy girl with sparkly shoes and an unheard-of single room. Mia (a bit like Jules in the present timeline) overcomes Grace's reticence by being persistently outgoing and determinedly friendly, while trying to get on the Lux team and dealing with the typical school problems of bullies and in-groups. On a Sunbeam is science fiction in the sense that it seems to take place in space and school kids build flying ships. It is not science fiction in the sense of caring about technological extrapolation or making any scientific sense whatsoever. The buildings that Mia and the crew repair appear to be hanging in empty space, but there's gravity. No one wears any protective clothing or air masks. The spaceships look (and move) like giant tropical fish. If you need realism in your science fiction graphical novels, it's probably best not to think of this as science fiction at all, or even science fantasy despite the later appearance of some apparently magical or divine elements. That may sound surrealistic or dream-like, but On a Sunbeam isn't that either. It's a story about human relationships, found family, and diversity of personalities, all of which are realistically portrayed. The characters find their world coherent, consistent, and predictable, even if it sometimes makes no sense to the reader. On a Sunbeam is simply set in its own universe, with internal logic but without explanation or revealed rules. I kind of liked this approach? It takes some getting used to, but it's an excuse for some dramatic and beautiful backgrounds, and it's oddly freeing to have unremarked train tracks in outer space. There's no way that an explanation would have worked; if one were offered, my brain would have tried to nitpick it to the detriment of the story. There's something delightful about a setting that follows imaginary physical laws this unapologetically and without showing the author's work. I was, sadly, not as much of a fan of the art, although I am certain this will be a matter of taste. Walden mixes simple story-telling panels with sweeping vistas, free-floating domes, and strange, wild asteroids, but she uses a very limited color palette. Most panels are only a few steps away from monochrome, and the colors are chosen more for mood or orientation in the story (Mia's school days are all blue, the Staircase is orange) than for any consistent realism. There is often a lot of detail in the panels, but I found it hard to appreciate because the coloring confused my eye. I'm old enough to have been a comics reader during the revolution in digital coloring and improved printing, and I loved the subsequent dramatic improvement in vivid colors and shading. I know the coloring style here is an intentional artistic choice, but to me it felt like a throwback to the days of muddy printing on cheap paper. I have a similar complaint about the lettering: On a Sunbeam is either hand-lettered or closely simulates hand lettering, and I often found the dialogue hard to read due to inconsistent intra- and interword spacing or ambiguous letters. Here too I'm sure this was an artistic choice, but as a reader I'd much prefer a readable comics font over hand lettering. The detail in the penciling is more to my liking. I had occasional trouble telling some of the characters apart, but they're clearly drawn and emotionally expressive. The scenery is wildly imaginative and often gorgeous, which increased my frustration with the coloring. I would love to see what some of these panels would have looked like after realistic coloring with a full palette. (It's worth noting again that I read the on-line version. It's possible that the art was touched up for the print version and would have been more to my liking.) But enough about the art. The draw of On a Sunbeam for me is the story. It's not very dramatic or event-filled at first, starting as two stories of burgeoning friendships with a fairly young main character. (They are closely linked, but it's not obvious how until well into the story.) But it's the sort of story that I started reading, thought was mildly interesting, and then kept reading just one more chapter until I had somehow read the whole thing. There are some interesting twists towards the end, but it's otherwise not a very dramatic or surprising story. What it is instead is open-hearted, quiet, charming, and deeper than it looks. The characters are wildly different and can be abrasive, but they invest time and effort into understanding each other and adjusting for each other's preferences. Personal loss drives a lot of the plot, but the characters are also allowed to mature and be happy without resolving every bad thing that happened to them. These characters felt like people I would like and would want to get to know (even if Jules would be overwhelming). I enjoyed watching their lives. This reminded me a bit of a Becky Chambers novel, although it's less invested in being science fiction and sticks strictly to humans. There's a similar feeling that the relationships are the point of the story, and that nearly everyone is trying hard to be good, with differing backgrounds and differing conceptions of good. All of the characters are female or non-binary, which is left as entirely unexplained as the rest of the setting. It's that sort of book. I wouldn't say this is one of the best things I've ever read, but I found it delightful and charming, and it certainly sucked me in and kept me reading until the end. One also cannot argue with the price, although if I hadn't already read it, I would be tempted to buy a paper copy to support the author. This will not be to everyone's taste, and stay far away if you are looking for realistic science fiction, but recommended if you are in the mood for an understated queer character story full of good-hearted people. Rating: 7 out of 10

30 March 2022

Ulrike Uhlig: How do kids conceive the internet?

I wanted to understand how kids between 10 and 18 conceive the internet. Surely, we have seen a generation that we call digital natives grow up with the internet. Now, there is a younger generation who grows up with pervasive technology, such as smartphones, smart watches, virtual assistants and so on. And only a few of them have parents who work in IT or engineering

Pervasive technology contributes to the idea that the internet is immaterial With their search engine website design, Google has put in place an extremely simple and straightforward user interface. Since then, designers and psychologists have worked on making user interfaces more and more intuitive to use. The buzzwords are usability and user experience design . Besides this optimization of visual interfaces, haptic interfaces have evolved as well, specifically on smartphones and tablets where hand gestures have replaced more clumsy external haptic interfaces such as a mouse. And beyond interfaces, the devices themselves have become smaller and slicker. While in our generation many people have experienced opening a computer tower or a laptop to replace parts, with the side effect of seeing the parts the device is physically composed of, the new generation of end user devices makes this close to impossible, essentially transforming these devices into black boxes, and further contributing to the idea that the internet they are being used to access with would be something entirely intangible.

What do kids in 2022 really know about the internet? So, what do kids of that generation really know about the internet, beyond purely using services they do not control? In order to find out, I decided to interview children between 10 and 18. I conducted 5 interviews with kids aged 9, 10, 12, 15 and 17, two boys and three girls. Two live in rural Germany, one in a German urban area, and two live in the French capital. I wrote the questions in a way to stimulate the interviewees to tell me a story each time. I also told them that the interview is not a test and that there are no wrong answers. Except for the 9 year old, all interviewees possessed both, their own smartphone and their own laptop. All of them used the internet mostly for chatting, entertainment (video and music streaming, online games), social media (TikTok, Instagram, Youtube), and instant messaging. Let me introduce you to their concepts of the internet. That was my first story telling question to them:

If aliens had landed on Earth and would ask you what the internet is, what would you explain to them? The majority of respondents agreed in their replies that the internet is intangible while still being a place where one can do anything and everything . Before I tell you more about their detailed answers to the above question, let me show you how they visualize their internet.

If you had to make a drawing to explain to a person what the internet is, how would this drawing look like? Each interviewee had some minutes to come up with a drawing. As you will see, that drawing corresponds to what the kids would want an alien to know about the internet and how they are using the internet themselves.

Movies, series, videos A child's drawing. In the middle, there is a screen, on the screen a movie is running. Around the screen there are many people, at least two dozens. The words 'film', 'series', 'network', 'video' are written and arrows point from these words to the screen. There's also a play icon. The youngest respondent, a 9 year old girl, drew a screen with lots of people around it and the words film, series, network, video , as well as a play icon. She said that she mostly uses the internet to watch movies. She was the only one who used a shared tablet and smartphone that belonged to her family, not to herself. And she would explain the net like this to an alien:
"Internet is a er one cannot touch it it s an, er [I propose the word idea ], yes it s an idea. Many people use it not necessarily to watch things, but also to read things or do other stuff."

User interface elements There is a magnifying glass icon, a play icon and speech bubbles drawn with a pencil. A 10 year old boy represented the internet by recalling user interface elements he sees every day in his drawing: a magnifying glass (search engine), a play icon (video streaming), speech bubbles (instant messaging). He would explain the internet like this to an alien:
"You can use the internet to learn things or get information, listen to music, watch movies, and chat with friends. You can do nearly anything with it."

Another planet Pencil drawing that shows a planet with continents. The continents are named: H&M, Ebay, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook. A 12 year old girl imagines the internet like a second, intangible, planet where Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Ebay, or H&M are continents that one enters into.
"And on [the] Ebay [continent] there s a country for clothes, and ,trousers , for example, would be a federal state in that country."
Something that was unique about this interview was that she told me she had an email address but she never writes emails. She only has an email account to receive confirmation emails, for example when doing online shopping, or when registering to a service and needing to confirm one s address. This is interesting because it s an anti-spam measure that might become outdated with a generation that uses email less or not at all.

Home network Kid's drawing: there are three computer towers and next to each there are two people. The first couple is sad, the seconf couple is smiling, the last one is suprised. Each computer is connected to a router, two of them by cable, one by wifi. A 15 year old boy knew that his family s devices are connected to a home router (Freebox is a router from the French ISP Free) but lacked an imagination of the rest of the internet s functioning. When I asked him about what would be behind the router, on the other side, he said what s behind is like a black hole to him. However, he was the only interviewee who did actually draw cables, wifi waves, a router, and the local network. His drawing is even extremely precise, it just lacks the cable connecting the router to the rest of the internet.

Satellite internet This is another very simple drawing: On top left, there's planet Earth an there are lines indicating that earth is a sphere. Around Earth there are two big satellites reaching most of Earth. on the left, below, there are three icons representing social media services on the internet: Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok. On the right, there are simplified drawings of possibilities which the internet offers: person to person connection, email (represented by envelopes), calls (represented by an old-style telephone set). A 17 year old girl would explain the internet to an alien as follows:
"The internet goes around the entire globe. One is networked with everyone else on Earth. One can find everything. But one cannot touch the internet. It s like a parallel world. With a device one can look into the internet. With search engines, one can find anything in the world, one can phone around the world, and write messages. [The internet] is a gigantic thing."
This interviewee stated as the only one that the internet is huge. And while she also is the only one who drew the internet as actually having some kind of physical extension beyond her own home, she seems to believe that internet connectivity is based on satellite technology and wireless communication.

Imagine that a wise and friendly dragon could teach you one thing about the internet that you ve always wanted to know. What would you ask the dragon to teach you about? A 10 year old boy said he d like to know how big are the servers behind all of this . That s the only interview in which the word server came up. A 12 year old girl said I would ask how to earn money with the internet. I always wanted to know how this works, and where the money comes from. I love the last part of her question! The 15 year old boy for whom everything behind the home router is out of his event horizon would ask How is it possible to be connected like we are? How does the internet work scientifically? A 17 year old girl said she d like to learn how the darknet works, what hidden things are there? Is it possible to get spied on via the internet? Would it be technically possible to influence devices in a way that one can listen to secret or telecommanded devices? Lastly, I wanted to learn about what they find annoying, or problematic about the internet.

Imagine you could make the internet better for everyone. What would you do first? Asked what she would change if she could, the 9 year old girl advocated for a global usage limit of the internet in order to protect the human brain. Also, she said, her parents spend way too much time on their phones and people should rather spend more time with their children. Three of the interviewees agreed that they see way too many advertisements and two of them would like ads to disappear entirely from the web. The other one said that she doesn t want to see ads, but that ads are fine if she can at least click them away. The 15 year old boy had different ambitions. He told me he would change:
"the age of access to the internet. More and more younger people access the internet ; especially with TikTok there is a recommendation algorithm that can influcence young people a lot. And influencing young people should be avoided but the internet does it too much. And that can be negative. If you don t yet have a critical spirit, and you watch certain videos you cannot yet moderate your stance. It can influence you a lot. There are so many things that have become indispensable and that happen on the internet and we have become dependent. What happens if one day it doesn t work anymore? If we connect more and more things to the net, that s not a good thing."

The internet - Oh, that s what you mean! On a sidenote, my first interview tentative was with an 8 year old girl from my family. I asked her if she uses the internet and she denied, so I abandoned interviewing her. Some days later, while talking to her, she proposed to look something up on Google, using her smartphone. I said: Oh, so you are using the internet! She replied: Oh, that s what you re talking about? I think she knows the word Google and she knows that she can search for information with this Google thing. But it appeared that she doesn t know that the Google search engine is located somewhere else on internet and not on her smartphone. I concluded that for her, using the services on the smartphone is as natural as switching on a light in the house: we also don t think about where the electricity comes from when we do that.

What can we learn from these few interviews? Unsurprisingly, social media, streaming, entertainment, and instant messaging are the main activities kids undertake on the internet. They are completely at the mercy of advertisements in apps and on websites, not knowing how to get rid of them. They interact on a daily basis with algorithms that are unregulated and known to perpetuate discrimination and to create filter bubbles, without necessarily being aware of it. The kids I interviewed act as mere service users and seem to be mostly confined to specific apps or websites. All of them perceived the internet as being something intangible. Only the older interviewees perceived that there must be some kind of physical expansion to it: the 17 year old girl by drawing a network of satellites around the globe, the 15 year old boy by drawing the local network in his home. To be continued

27 March 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Song for a New Day

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

22 February 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Children of Earth and Sky

Review: Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Copyright: 2016
ISBN: 0-698-18327-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 572
Nine hundred years have passed since the events of Lord of Emperors. Twenty-five years ago, Sarantium, queen of cities, fell to the Osmanlis, who have renamed it Asharias in honor of their Asherite faith. The repercussions are still echoing through the western world, as the Osmanlis attempt each spring to push farther west and the forces of Rodolfo, Holy Emperor in Obravic and defender of the Jaddite faith, hold them back. Seressa and Dubrava are city-state republics built on the sea trade. Seressa is the larger and most renown, money-lenders to Rodolfo and notorious for their focus on business and profit, including willingness to trade with the Osmanlis. Dubrava has a more tenuous position: smaller, reliant on trade and other assistance from Seressa, but also holding a more-favored trading position with Asharias. Both are harassed by piracy from Senjan, a fiercely Jaddite raiding city north up the coast from Dubrava and renown for its bravery against the Asherites. The Senjani are bad for business. Seressa would love to wipe them out, but they have the favor of the Holy Emperor. They settled for attempting to starve the city with a blockade. As Children of Earth and Sky opens, Seressa is sending out new spies. One is a woman named Leonora Valeri, who will present herself as the wife of a doctor that Seressa is sending to Dubrava. She is neither his wife nor Seressani, but this assignment gets her out of the convent to which her noble father exiled her after an unapproved love affair. The other new spy is the young artist Pero Villani, a minor painter whose only notable work was destroyed by the woman who commissioned it for being too revealing. Pero's destination is farther east: Grand Khalif Gur u the Destroyer, the man whose forces took Sarantium, wants to be painted in the western style. Pero will do so, and observe all he can, and if the opportunity arises to do more than that, well, so much the better. Pero and Leonora are traveling on a ship owned by Marin Djivo, the younger son of a wealthy Dubravan merchant family, when their ship is captured by Senjani raiders. Among the raiders is Danica Gradek, the archer who broke the Seressani blockade of Senjan. This sort of piracy, while tense, should be an economic transaction: some theft, some bargaining, some ransom, and everyone goes on their way. That is not what happens. Moments later, two men lie dead, and Danica's life has become entangled with Dubravan merchants and Seressani spies. Children of Earth and Sky is in some sense a sequel to the Sarantine Mosaic, and knowing the events of that series adds some emotional depth and significant moments to this story, but you can easily read it as a stand-alone novel. (That said, I recommend the Sarantine Mosaic regardless.) As with nearly all of Kay's work, it's historical fiction with the names changed (less this time than in most of this books) and a bit of magic added. The setting is the middle of the 15th century. Seressa is, of course, Venice. The Osmanlis are the Ottoman Turks, and Asharias is Istanbul, the captured Constantinople. Rodolfo is a Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, holding court in an amalgam of northern cities that (per the afterward) is primarily Prague. Dubrava, which is central to much of this book, is Dubrovnik in Croatia. As usual with Kay's novels, you don't need to know this to enjoy the story, but it may spark some fun secondary reading. The touch of magic is present in several places, but comes primarily from Danica, whose grandfather resides as a voice in her head. He is the last of her family that she is in contact with. Her father and older brother were killed by Osmanli raiders, and her younger brother taken as a slave to be raised as a djanni warrior in the khalif's infantry. (Djannis are akin to Mamluks in our world.) Damaz, as he is now known, is the remaining major viewpoint character I've not mentioned. There are a couple of key events in the book that have magic at the center, generally involving Danica or Damaz, but most of the story is straight historical fiction (albeit with significant divergences from our world). I'd talked myself out of starting this novel several times before I finally picked it up. Like most of Kay's, it's a long book, and I wasn't sure if I was in the mood for epic narration and a huge cast. And indeed, I found it slow at the start. Once the story got underway, though, I was as enthralled as always. There is a bit of sag in the middle of the book, in part because Kay didn't follow up on some relationships that I wish were more central to the plot and in part because he overdoes the narrative weight in one scene, but the ending is exceptional. Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of a specific type of omniscient tight third person narration, one in which the reader sees what a character is thinking but also gets narrative commentary, foreshadowing, and emotional emphasis apart from the character's thoughts. It can feel heavy-handed; if something is important, Kay tells you, explicitly and sometimes repetitively, and the foreshadowing frequently can be described as portentous. But in return, Kay gets fine control of pacing and emphasis. The narrative commentary functions like a soundtrack in a movie. It tells you when to pay close attention and when you can relax, what moments are important, where to slow down, when to brace yourself, and when you can speed up. That in turn requires trust; if you're not in the mood for the author to dictate your reading pace to the degree Kay is attempting, it can be irritating. If you are in the mood, though, it makes his novels easy to relax into. The narrator will ensure that you don't miss anything important, and it's an effective way to build tension. Kay also strikes just the right balance between showing multiple perspectives on a single moment and spending too much time retelling the same story. He will often switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene, but he avoids the trap of replaying the scene and thus losing the reader's interest. There is instead just a moment of doubled perspective or retrospective commentary, just enough information for the reader to extrapolate the other character's experience backwards, and then the story moves on. Kay has an excellent feel for when I badly wanted to see another character's perspective on something that just happened. Some of Kay's novels revolve around a specific event or person. Children of Earth and Sky is not one of those. It's a braided novel following five main characters, each with their own story. Some of those stories converge; some of them touch for a while and then diverge again. About three-quarters of the way through, I wasn't sure how Kay would manage a satisfying conclusion for the numerous separate threads that didn't feel rushed, but I need not have worried. The ending had very little of the shape that I had expected, focused more on the small than the large (although there are some world-changing events here), but it was an absolute delight, with some beautiful moments of happiness that took the rest of the novel to set up. This is not the sort of novel with a clear theme, but insofar as it has one, it's a story about how much of the future shape and events of the world are unknowable. All we can control is our own choices, and we may never know their impact. Each individual must decide who they want to be and attempt to live their life in accordance with that decision, hopefully with some grace towards others in the world. The novel does, alas, still have some of Kay's standard weaknesses. There is (at last!) an important female friendship, and I had great hopes for a second one, but sadly it lasted only a scant handful of pages. Men interact with each other and with women; women interact almost exclusively with men. Kay does slightly less awarding of women to male characters than in some previous books (although it still happens), but this world is still weirdly obsessed with handing women to men for sex as a hospitality gesture. None of this is too belabored or central to the story, or I would be complaining more, but as soon as one sees how regressive the gender roles typically are in a Kay novel, it's hard to unsee. And, as always for Kay, the sex in this book is weirdly off-putting to me. I think this goes hand in hand with Kay's ability to write some of the best conversations in fantasy. Kay's characters spar and thrust with every line and read nuance into small details of wording. Frequently, the turn of the story rests on the outcome of a careful conversation. This is great reading; it's the part of Kay's writing I enjoy the most. But I'm not sure he knows how to turn it off between characters who love and trust each other. The characters never fully relax; sex feels like another move in ongoing chess games, which in turn makes it feel weirdly transactional or manipulative instead of open-hearted and intimate. It doesn't help that Kay appears to believe that arousal is a far more irresistible force for men than I do. Those problems did get in the way of my enjoyment occasionally, but I didn't think they ruined the book. The rest of the story is too good. Danica in particular is a wonderful character: thoughtful, brave, determined, and deeply honest with herself in that way that is typical of the best of Kay's characters. I wanted to read the book where Danica's and Leonora's stories stayed more entwined; alas, that's not the story Kay was writing. But I am in awe at Kay's ability to write characters who feel thoughtful and insightful even when working at cross purposes, in a world that mostly avoids simple villains, with a plot that never hinges on someone doing something stupid. I love reading about these people. Their triumphs, when they finally come, are deeply satisfying. Children of Earth and Sky is probably not in the top echelon of Kay's works with the Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven, but it's close. If you like his other writing, you will like this as well. Highly recommended. Rating: 9 out of 10

31 December 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2021: Fiction

In my two most recent posts, I listed the memoirs and biographies and followed this up with the non-fiction I enjoyed the most in 2021. I'll leave my roundup of 'classic' fiction until tomorrow, but today I'll be going over my favourite fiction. Books that just miss the cut here include Kingsley Amis' comic Lucky Jim, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (although see below for McCarthy's Blood Meridian) and the Complete Adventures of Tintin by Herg , the latter forming an inadvertently incisive portrait of the first half of the 20th century. Like ever, there were a handful of books that didn't live up to prior expectations. Despite all of the hype, Emily St. John Mandel's post-pandemic dystopia Station Eleven didn't match her superb The Glass Hotel (one of my favourite books of 2020). The same could be said of John le Carr 's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which felt significantly shallower compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again, a favourite of last year. The strangest book (and most difficult to classify at all) was undoubtedly Patrick S skind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and the non-fiction book I disliked the most was almost-certainly Beartown by Fredrik Bachman. Two other mild disappointments were actually film adaptions. Specifically, the original source for Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac didn't match Alfred Hitchock's 1958 masterpiece, as did James Sallis' Drive which was made into a superb 2011 neon-noir directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. These two films thus defy the usual trend and are 'better than the book', but that's a post for another day.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1971) Ursula K. Le Guin How did it come to be that Harry Potter is the publishing sensation of the century, yet Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea is only a popular cult novel? Indeed, the comparisons and unintentional intertextuality with Harry Potter are entirely unavoidable when reading this book, and, in almost every respect, Ursula K. Le Guin's universe comes out the victor. In particular, the wizarding world that Le Guin portrays feels a lot more generous and humble than the class-ridden world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Just to take one example from many, in Earthsea, magic turns out to be nurtured in a bottom-up manner within small village communities, in almost complete contrast to J. K. Rowling's concept of benevolent government departments and NGOs-like institutions, which now seems a far too New Labour for me. Indeed, imagine an entire world imbued with the kindly benevolence of Dumbledore, and you've got some of the moral palette of Earthsea. The gently moralising tone that runs through A Wizard of Earthsea may put some people off:
Vetch had been three years at the School and soon would be made Sorcerer; he thought no more of performing the lesser arts of magic than a bird thinks of flying. Yet a greater, unlearned skill he possessed, which was the art of kindness.
Still, these parables aimed directly at the reader are fairly rare, and, for me, remain on the right side of being mawkish or hectoring. I'm thus looking forward to reading the next two books in the series soon.

Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian follows a band of American bounty hunters who are roaming the Mexican-American borderlands in the late 1840s. Far from being remotely swashbuckling, though, the group are collecting scalps for money and killing anyone who crosses their path. It is the most unsparing treatment of American genocide and moral depravity I have ever come across, an anti-Western that flouts every convention of the genre. Blood Meridian thus has a family resemblance to that other great anti-Western, Once Upon a Time in the West: after making a number of gun-toting films that venerate the American West (ie. his Dollars Trilogy), Sergio Leone turned his cynical eye to the western. Yet my previous paragraph actually euphemises just how violent Blood Meridian is. Indeed, I would need to be a much better writer (indeed, perhaps McCarthy himself) to adequately 0utline the tone of this book. In a certain sense, it's less than you read this book in a conventional sense, but rather that you are forced to witness successive chapters of grotesque violence... all occurring for no obvious reason. It is often said that books 'subvert' a genre and, indeed, I implied as such above. But the term subvert implies a kind of Puck-like mischievousness, or brings to mind court jesters licensed to poke fun at the courtiers. By contrast, however, Blood Meridian isn't funny in the slightest. There isn't animal cruelty per se, but rather wanton negligence of another kind entirely. In fact, recalling a particular passage involving an injured horse makes me feel physically ill. McCarthy's prose is at once both baroque in its language and thrifty in its presentation. As Philip Connors wrote back in 2007, McCarthy has spent forty years writing as if he were trying to expand the Old Testament, and learning that McCarthy grew up around the Church therefore came as no real surprise. As an example of his textual frugality, I often looked for greater precision in the text, finding myself asking whether who a particular 'he' is, or to which side of a fight some two men belonged to. Yet we must always remember that there is no precision to found in a gunfight, so this infidelity is turned into a virtue. It's not that these are fair fights anyway, or even 'murder': Blood Meridian is just slaughter; pure butchery. Murder is a gross understatement for what this book is, and at many points we are grateful that McCarthy spares us precision. At others, however, we can be thankful for his exactitude. There is no ambiguity regarding the morality of the puppy-drowning Judge, for example: a Colonel Kurtz who has been given free license over the entire American south. There is, thank God, no danger of Hollywood mythologising him into a badass hero. Indeed, we must all be thankful that it is impossible to film this ultra-violent book... Indeed, the broader idea of 'adapting' anything to this world is, beyond sick. An absolutely brutal read; I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Bodies of Light (2014) Sarah Moss Bodies of Light is a 2014 book by Glasgow-born Sarah Moss on the stirrings of women's suffrage within an arty clique in nineteenth-century England. Set in the intellectually smoggy cities of Manchester and London, this poignant book follows the studiously intelligent Alethia 'Ally' Moberly who is struggling to gain the acceptance of herself, her mother and the General Medical Council. You can read my full review from July.

House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski House of Leaves is a remarkably difficult book to explain. Although the plot refers to a fictional documentary about a family whose house is somehow larger on the inside than the outside, this quotidian horror premise doesn't explain the complex meta-commentary that Danielewski adds on top. For instance, the book contains a large number of pseudo-academic footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves), with references to scholarly papers, books, films and other articles. Most of these references are obviously fictional, but it's the kind of book where the joke is that some of them are not. The format, structure and typography of the book is highly unconventional too, with extremely unusual page layouts and styles. It's the sort of book and idea that should be a tired gimmick but somehow isn't. This is particularly so when you realise it seems specifically designed to create a fandom around it and to manufacturer its own 'cult' status, something that should be extremely tedious. But not only does this not happen, House of Leaves seems to have survived through two exhausting decades of found footage: The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are, to an admittedly lesser degree, doing much of the same thing as House of Leaves. House of Leaves might have its origins in Nabokov's Pale Fire or even Derrida's Glas, but it seems to have more in common with the claustrophobic horror of Cube (1997). And like all of these works, House of Leaves book has an extremely strange effect on the reader or viewer, something quite unlike reading a conventional book. It wasn't so much what I got out of the book itself, but how it added a glow to everything else I read, watched or saw at the time. An experience.

Milkman (2018) Anna Burns This quietly dazzling novel from Irish author Anna Burns is full of intellectual whimsy and oddball incident. Incongruously set in 1970s Belfast during The Irish Troubles, Milkman's 18-year-old narrator (known only as middle sister ), is the kind of dreamer who walks down the street with a Victorian-era novel in her hand. It's usually an error for a book that specifically mention other books, if only because inviting comparisons to great novels is grossly ill-advised. But it is a credit to Burns' writing that the references here actually add to the text and don't feel like they are a kind of literary paint by numbers. Our humble narrator has a boyfriend of sorts, but the figure who looms the largest in her life is a creepy milkman an older, married man who's deeply integrated in the paramilitary tribalism. And when gossip about the narrator and the milkman surfaces, the milkman beings to invade her life to a suffocating degree. Yet this milkman is not even a milkman at all. Indeed, it's precisely this kind of oblique irony that runs through this daring but darkly compelling book.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) Claire North Harry August is born, lives a relatively unremarkable life and finally dies a relatively unremarkable death. Not worth writing a novel about, I suppose. But then Harry finds himself born again in the very same circumstances, and as he grows from infancy into childhood again, he starts to remember his previous lives. This loop naturally drives Harry insane at first, but after finding that suicide doesn't stop the quasi-reincarnation, he becomes somewhat acclimatised to his fate. He prospers much better at school the next time around and is ultimately able to make better decisions about his life, especially when he just happens to know how to stay out of trouble during the Second World War. Yet what caught my attention in this 'soft' sci-fi book was not necessarily the book's core idea but rather the way its connotations were so intelligently thought through. Just like in a musical theme and varations, the success of any concept-driven book is far more a product of how the implications of the key idea are played out than how clever the central idea was to begin with. Otherwise, you just have another neat Borges short story: satisfying, to be sure, but in a narrower way. From her relatively simple premise, for example, North has divined that if there was a community of people who could remember their past lives, this would actually allow messages and knowledge to be passed backwards and forwards in time. Ah, of course! Indeed, this very mechanism drives the plot: news comes back from the future that the progress of history is being interfered with, and, because of this, the end of the world is slowly coming. Through the lives that follow, Harry sets out to find out who is passing on technology before its time, and work out how to stop them. With its gently-moralising romp through the salient historical touchpoints of the twentieth century, I sometimes got a whiff of Forrest Gump. But it must be stressed that this book is far less certain of its 'right-on' liberal credentials than Robert Zemeckis' badly-aged film. And whilst we're on the topic of other media, if you liked the underlying conceit behind Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle yet didn't enjoy the 'variations' of that particular tale, then I'd definitely give The First Fifteen Lives a try. At the very least, 15 is bigger than 7. More seriously, though, The First Fifteen Lives appears to reflect anxieties about technology, particularly around modern technological accelerationism. At no point does it seriously suggest that if we could somehow possess the technology from a decade in the future then our lives would be improved in any meaningful way. Indeed, precisely the opposite is invariably implied. To me, at least, homo sapiens often seems to be merely marking time until we can blow each other up and destroying the climate whilst sleepwalking into some crisis that might precipitate a thermonuclear genocide sometimes seems to be built into our DNA. In an era of cli-fi fiction and our non-fiction newspaper headlines, to label North's insight as 'prescience' might perhaps be overstating it, but perhaps that is the point: this destructive and negative streak is universal to all periods of our violent, insecure species.

The Goldfinch (2013) Donna Tartt After Breaking Bad, the second biggest runaway success of 2014 was probably Donna Tartt's doorstop of a novel, The Goldfinch. Yet upon its release and popular reception, it got a significant number of bad reviews in the literary press with, of course, an equal number of predictable think pieces claiming this was sour grapes on the part of the cognoscenti. Ah, to be in 2014 again, when our arguments were so much more trivial. For the uninitiated, The Goldfinch is a sprawling bildungsroman that centres on Theo Decker, a 13-year-old whose world is turned upside down when a terrorist bomb goes off whilst visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, killing his mother among other bystanders. Perhaps more importantly, he makes off with a painting in order to fulfil a promise to a dying old man: Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years (and almost 800 pages), the painting becomes the only connection to his lost mother as he's flung, almost entirely rudderless, around the Western world, encountering an array of eccentric characters. Whatever the critics claimed, Tartt's near-perfect evocation of scenes, from the everyday to the unimaginable, is difficult to summarise. I wouldn't label it 'cinematic' due to her evocation of the interiority of the characters. Take, for example: Even the suggestion that my father had close friends conveyed a misunderstanding of his personality that I didn't know how to respond it's precisely this kind of relatable inner subjectivity that cannot be easily conveyed by film, likely is one of the main reasons why the 2019 film adaptation was such a damp squib. Tartt's writing is definitely not 'impressionistic' either: there are many near-perfect evocations of scenes, even ones we hope we cannot recognise from real life. In particular, some of the drug-taking scenes feel so credibly authentic that I sometimes worried about the author herself. Almost eight months on from first reading this novel, what I remember most was what a joy this was to read. I do worry that it won't stand up to a more critical re-reading (the character named Xandra even sounds like the pharmaceuticals she is taking), but I think I'll always treasure the first days I spent with this often-beautiful novel.

Beyond Black (2005) Hilary Mantel Published about five years before the hyperfamous Wolf Hall (2004), Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is a deeply disturbing book about spiritualism and the nature of Hell, somewhat incongruously set in modern-day England. Alison Harte is a middle-aged physic medium who works in the various towns of the London orbital motorway. She is accompanied by her stuffy assistant, Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, who is invisible to everyone but Alison. However, this is no gentle and musk-smelling world of the clairvoyant and mystic, for Alison is plagued by spirits from her past who infiltrate her physical world, becoming stronger and nastier every day. Alison's smiling and rotund persona thus conceals a truly desperate woman: she knows beyond doubt the terrors of the next life, yet must studiously conceal them from her credulous clients. Beyond Black would be worth reading for its dark atmosphere alone, but it offers much more than a chilling and creepy tale. Indeed, it is extraordinarily observant as well as unsettlingly funny about a particular tranche of British middle-class life. Still, the book's unnerving nature that sticks in the mind, and reading it noticeably changed my mood for days afterwards, and not necessarily for the best.

The Wall (2019) John Lanchester The Wall tells the story of a young man called Kavanagh, one of the thousands of Defenders standing guard around a solid fortress that envelopes the British Isles. A national service of sorts, it is Kavanagh's job to stop the so-called Others getting in. Lanchester is frank about what his wall provides to those who stand guard: the Defenders of the Wall are conscripted for two years on the Wall, with no exceptions, giving everyone in society a life plan and a story. But whilst The Wall is ostensibly about a physical wall, it works even better as a story about the walls in our mind. In fact, the book blends together of some of the most important issues of our time: climate change, increasing isolation, Brexit and other widening societal divisions. If you liked P. D. James' The Children of Men you'll undoubtedly recognise much of the same intellectual atmosphere, although the sterility of John Lanchester's dystopia is definitely figurative and textual rather than literal. Despite the final chapters perhaps not living up to the world-building of the opening, The Wall features a taut and engrossing narrative, and it undoubtedly warrants even the most cursory glance at its symbolism. I've yet to read something by Lanchester I haven't enjoyed (even his short essay on cheating in sports, for example) and will be definitely reading more from him in 2022.

The Only Story (2018) Julian Barnes The Only Story is the story of Paul, a 19-year-old boy who falls in love with 42-year-old Susan, a married woman with two daughters who are about Paul's age. The book begins with how Paul meets Susan in happy (albeit complicated) circumstances, but as the story unfolds, the novel becomes significantly more tragic and moving. Whilst the story begins from the first-person perspective, midway through the book it shifts into the second person, and, later, into the third as well. Both of these narrative changes suggested to me an attempt on the part of Paul the narrator (if not Barnes himself), to distance himself emotionally from the events taking place. This effect is a lot more subtle than it sounds, however: far more prominent and devastating is the underlying and deeply moving story about the relationship ends up. Throughout this touching book, Barnes uses his mastery of language and observation to avoid the saccharine and the maudlin, and ends up with a heart-wrenching and emotive narrative. Without a doubt, this is the saddest book I read this year.

29 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: A Spindle Splintered

Review: A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow
Series: Fractured Fables #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-76536-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 121
Zinnia Gray lives in rural Ohio and is obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, even though the fairy tale objectively sucks. That has a lot to do with having Generalized Roseville Malady, an always-fatal progressive amyloidosis caused by teratogenic industrial waste. No one with GRM has ever lived to turn twenty-two. A Spindle Splintered opens on Zinnia's twenty-first birthday. For her birthday, her best (and only) friend Charm (Charmaine Baldwin) throws her a party at the tower. There aren't a lot of towers in Ohio; this one is a guard tower at an abandoned state penitentiary occasionally used by the local teenagers, which is not quite the image one would get from fairy tales. But Charm fills it with roses, guests wearing cheap fairy wings, beer, and even an honest-to-god spinning wheel. At the end of the night, Zinnia decides to prick her finger on the spindle on a whim. Much to both of their surprise, that's enough to trigger some form of magic in Zinnia's otherwise entirely mundane world. She doesn't fall asleep for a thousand years, but she does get dumped into an actual fairy-tale tower near an actual princess, just in time to prevent her from pricking her finger. This is, as advertised on the tin, a fractured fairy tale, but it's one that barely introduces the Sleeping Beauty story before driving it entirely off the rails. It's also a fractured fairy tale in which the protagonist knows exactly what sort of story she's in, given that she graduated early from high school and has a college degree in folk studies. (Dying girl rule #1: move fast.) And it's one in which the fairy tale universe still has cell reception, if not chargers, which means you can text your best friend sarcastic commentary on your multiversal travels. Also, cell phone pictures of the impossibly beautiful princess. I should mention up-front that I have not watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, I know, I'm sure it's wonderful, I just don't watch things, basically ever), which is a quite explicit inspiration for this story. I'm therefore not sure how obvious the story would be to people familiar with that movie. Even with my familiarity with the general genre of fractured fairy tales, nothing plot-wise here was all that surprising. What carries this story is the characters and the emotional core, particularly Zinnia's complex and sardonic feelings about dying and the note-perfect friendship between Zinnia and Charm.
"You know it wasn't originally a spinning wheel in the story?" I offer, because alcohol transforms me into a chatty Wikipedia page.
A Spindle Splintered is told from Zinnia's first-person perspective, and Zinnia is great. My favorite thing about Harrow's writing is the fierce and complex emotions of her characters. The overall tone is lighter than The Once and Future Witches or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but Harrow doesn't shy away from showing the reader Zinnia's internal thought process about her illness (and her eye-rolling bemusement at some of the earlier emotional stages she went through).
Dying girl rule #3 is no romance, because my entire life is one long trolley problem and I don't want to put any more bodies on the tracks. (I've spent enough time in therapy to know that this isn't "a healthy attitude towards attachment," but I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.)
There's a content warning for parents here, since Harrow spends some time on the reaction of Zinnia's parents and the complicated dance between hope, despair, smothering, and freedom that she and they had to go through. There were no easy answers and all balances were fragile, but Zinnia always finds her feet. For me, Harrow's character writing is like emotional martial arts: rolling with punches, taking falls, clear-eyed about the setbacks, but always finding a new point of stability to punch back at the world. Zinnia adds just enough teenage irreverence and impatience to blunt the hardest emotional hits. I really enjoy reading it. The one caution I will make about that part of the story is that the focus is on Zinnia's projected lifespan and not on her illness specifically. Harrow uses it as setup to dig into how she and her parents would react to that knowledge (and I thought those parts were done well), but it's told from the perspective of "what would you do if you knew your date of death," not from the perspective of someone living with a disability. It is to some extent disability as plot device, and like the fairy tale that it's based on, it's deeply invested in the "find a cure" approach to the problem. I'm not disabled and am not the person to ask about how well a story handles disability, but I suspect this one may leave something to be desired. I thought the opening of this story is great. Zinnia is a great first-person protagonist and the opening few chapters are overflowing with snark and acerbic commentary. Dumping Zinnia into another world but having text messaging still work is genius, and I kind of wish Harrow had made that even more central to the book. The rest of the story was good but not as good, and the ending was somewhat predictable and a bit of a deus ex machina. But the characters carried it throughout, and I will happily read more of this. Recommended, with the caveat about disability and the content warning for parents. Followed by A Mirror Mended, which I have already pre-ordered. Rating: 8 out of 10

9 November 2021

Joachim Breitner: How to audit an Internet Computer canister

I was recently called upon by Origyn to audit the source code of some of their Internet Computer canisters ( canisters are services or smart contracts on the Internet Computer), which were written in the Motoko programming language. Both the application model of the Internet Computer as well as Motoko bring with them their own particular pitfalls and possible sources for bugs. So given that I was involved in the creation of both, they reached out to me. In the course of that audit work I collected a list of things to watch out for, and general advice around them. Origyn generously allowed me to share that list here, in the hope that it will be helpful to the wider community.

Inter-canister calls The Internet Computer system provides inter-canister communication that follows the actor model: Inter-canister calls are implemented via two asynchronous messages, one to initiate the call, and one to return the response. Canisters process messages atomically (and roll back upon certain error conditions), but not complete calls. This makes programming with inter-canister calls error-prone. Possible common sources for bugs, vulnerabilities or simply unexpected behavior are:
  • Reading global state before issuing an inter-canister call, and assuming it to still hold when the call comes back.
  • Changing global state before issuing an inter-canister call, changing it again in the response handler, but assuming nothing else changes the state in between (reentrancy).
  • Changing global state before issuing an inter-canister call, and not handling failures correctly, e.g. when the code handling the callback rolls backs.
If you find such pattern in your code, you should analyze if a malicious party can trigger them, and assess the severity that effect These issues apply to all canisters, and are not Motoko-specific.

Rollbacks Even in the absence of inter-canister calls the behavior of rollbacks can be surprising. In particular, rejecting (i.e. throw) does not rollback state changes done before, while trapping (e.g. Debug.trap, assert , out of cycle conditions) does. Therefore, one should check all public update call entry points for unwanted state changes or unwanted rollbacks. In particular, look for methods (or rather, messages, i.e. the code between commit points) where a state change is followed by a throw. This issues apply to all canisters, and are not Motoko-specific, although other CDKs may not turn exceptions into rejects (which don t roll back).

Talking to malicious canisters Talking to untrustworthy canisters can be risky, for the following (likely incomplete) reasons:
  • The other canister can withhold a response. Although the bidirectional messaging paradigm of the Internet Computer was designed to guarantee a response eventually, the other party can busy-loop for as long as they are willing to pay for before responding. Worse, there are ways to deadlock a canister.
  • The other canister can respond with invalidly encoded Candid. This will cause a Motoko-implemented canister to trap in the reply handler, with no easy way to recover. Other CDKs may give you better ways to handle invalid Candid, but even then you will have to worry about Candid cycle bombs that will cause your reply handler to trap.
Many canisters do not even do inter-canister calls, or only call other trustwothy canisters. For the others, the impact of this needs to be carefully assessed.

Canister upgrade: overview For most services it is crucial that canisters can be upgraded reliably. This can be broken down into the following aspects:
  1. Can the canister be upgraded at all?
  2. Will the canister upgrade retain all data?
  3. Can the canister be upgraded promptly?
  4. Is three a recovery plan for when upgrading is not possible?

Canister upgradeability A canister that traps, for whatever reason, in its canister_preupgrade system method is no longer upgradeable. This is a major risk. The canister_preupgrade method of a Motoko canister consists of the developer-written code in any system func preupgrade() block, followed by the system-generated code that serializes the content of any stable var into a binary format, and then copies that to stable memory. Since the Motoko-internal serialization code will first serialize into a scratch space in the main heap, and then copy that to stable memory, canisters with more than 2GB of live data will likely be unupgradeable. But this is unlikely the first limit: The system imposes an instruction limit on upgrading a canister (spanning both canister_preupgrade and canister_postupgrade). This limit is a subnet configuration value, and sepearate (and likely higher) than the normal per-message limit, and not easily determined. If the canister s live data becomes too large to be serialized within this limit, the canister becomes non-upgradeable. This risk cannot be eliminated completely, as long as Motoko and Stable Variables are used. It can be mitigated by appropriate load testing: Install a canister, fill it up with live data, and exercise the upgrade. If this succeeds with a live data set exceeding the expected amount of data by a margin, this risk is probably acceptable. Bonus points for adding functionality that will prevent the canister s live data to increase above a certain size. If this testing is to be done on a local replica, extra care needs to be taken to make sure the local replica actually performs instruction counting and has the same resource limits as the production subnet. An alternative mitigation is to avoid canister_pre_upgrade as much as possible. This means no use of stable var (or restricted to small, fixed-size configuration data). All other data could be
  • mirrored off the canister (possibly off chain), and manually re-hydrated after an upgrade.
  • stored in stable memory manually, during each update call, using the ExperimentalStableMemory API. While this matches what high-assurance Rust canisters (e.g. the Internet Identity) do, This requires manual binary encoding of the data, and is marked experimental, so I cannot recommend this at the moment.
  • not put into a Motoko canister until Motoko has a scalable solution for stable variable (for example keeping them in stable memory permanently, with smart caching in main memory, and thus obliterating the need for pre-upgrade code.)

Data retention on upgrades Obviously, all live data ought to be retained during upgrades. Motoko automatically ensures this for stable var data. But often canisters want to work with their data in a different format (e.g. in objects that are not shared and thus cannot be put in stable vars, such as HashMap or Buffer objects), and thus may follow following idiom:
stable var fooStable =  ;
var foo = fooFromStable(fooStable);
system func preupgrade()   fooStable := fooToStable(foo);  )
system func postupgrade()   fooStable := (empty);  )
In this case, it is important to check that
  • All non-stable global vars, or global lets with mutable values, have a stable companion.
  • The assignments to foo and fooStable are not forgotten.
  • The fooToStable and fooFromStable form bijections.
An example would be HashMaps stored as arrays via Iter.toArray( .entries()) and HashMap.fromIter( .vals()). It is worth pointiong out that a code view will only look at a single version of the code, but cannot check whether code changes will preserve data on upgrade. This can easily go wrong if the names and types of stable variables are changed in incompatible way. The upgrade may fail loudly in this cases, but in bad cases, the upgrade may even succeed, losing data along the way. This risk needs to be mitigated by thorough testing, and possibly backups (see below).

Prompt upgrades Motoko and Rust canisters cannot be safely upgraded when they are still waiting for responses to inter-canister calls (the callback would eventually reach the new instance, and because of infelicities of the IC s System API, could possibly call arbitrary internal functions). Therefore, the canister needs to be stopped before upgrading, and started again. If the inter-canister calls take a long time, this mean that upgrading may take a long time, which may be undesirable. Again, this risk is reduced if all calls are made to trustworthy canisters, and elevated when possibly untrustworthy canisters are called, directly or indirectly.

Backup and recovery Because of the above risk around upgrades it is advisable to have a disaster recovery strategy. This could involve off-chain backups of all relevant data, so that it is possible to reinstall (not upgrade) the canister and re-upload all data. Note that reinstall has the same issue as upgrade described above in prompt upgrades : It ought to be stopped first to be safe. Note that the instruction limit for messages, as well as the message size limit, limit the amount of data returned. If the canister needs to hold more data than that, the backup query method might have to return chunks or deltas, with all the extra complexity that entails, e.g. state changes between downloading chunks. If large data load testing is performed (as Irecommend anyways to test upgradeability), one can test whether the backup query method works within the resource limits.

Time is not strictly monotonic The timestamps for current time that the Internet Computer provides to its canisters is guaranteed to be monotonic, but not strictly monotonic. It can return the same values, even in the same messages, as long as they are processed in the same block. It should therefore not be used to detect happens-before relations. Instead of using and comparing time stamps to check whether Y has been performed after X happened last, introduce an explicit var y_done : Bool state, which is set to False by X and then to True by Y. When things become more complex, it will be easier to model that state via an enumeration with speaking tag names, and update this state machine along the way. Another solution to this problem is to introduce a var v : Nat counter that you bump in every update method, and after each await. Now v is your canister s state counter, and can be used like a timestamp in many ways. While we are talking about time: The system time (typically) changes across an await. So if you do let now = Time.now() and then await, the value in now may no longer be what you want.

Wrapping arithmetic The Nat64 data type, and the other fixed-width numeric types provide opt-in wrapping arithmetic (e.g. +%, fromIntWrap). Unless explicitly required by the current application, this should be avoided, as usually a too large or negatie value is a serious, unrecoverable logic error, and trapping is the best one can do.

Cycle balance drain attacks Because of the IC s canister pays model, all canisters are prone to DoS attacks by draining their cycle balance, and this risk needs to be taken into account. The most elementary mitigation strategy is to monitor the cycle balance of canisters and keep it far from the (configurable) freezing threshold. On the raw IC-level, further mitigation strategies are possible:
  • If all update calls are authenticated, perform this authentication as quickly as possible, possibly before decoding the caller s argument. This way, a cycle drain attack by an unauthenticated attacker is less effective (but still possible).
  • Additionally, implementing the canister_inspect_message system method allows the above checks to be performed before the message even is accepted by the Internet Computer. But it does not defend against inter-canister messages and is therefore not a complete solution.
  • If an attack from an authenticated user (e.g. a stakeholder) is to be expected, the above methods are not effective, and an effective defense might require relatively involved additional program logic (e.g. per-caller statistics) to detect such an attack, and react (e.g. rate-limiting).
  • Such defenses are pointless if there is only a single method where they do not apply (e.g. an unauthenticated user registration method). If the application is inherently attackable this way, it is not worth the bother to raise defenses for other methods.
Related: A justification why the Internet Identity does not use canister_inspect_message) A motoko-implemented canister currently cannot perform most of these defenses: Argument decoding happens unconditionally before any user code that may reject a message based on the caller, and canister_inspect_message is not supported. Furthermore, Candid decoding is not very cycle defensive, and one should assume that it is possible to construct Candid messages that require many instructions to decode, even for simple argument type signatures. The conclusion for the audited canisters is to rely on monitoring to keep the cycle blance up, even during an attack, if the expense can be born, and maybe pray for IC-level DoS protections to kick in.

Large data attacks Another DoS attack vector exists if public methods allow untrustworthy users to send data of unlimited size that is persisted in the canister memory. Because of the translation of async-await code into multiple message handlers, this applies not only to data that is obviously stored in global state, but also local data that is live across an await point. The effectiveness of such attacks is limited by the Internet Computer s message size limit, which is in the order of a few megabytes, but many of those also add up. The problem becomes much worse if a method has an argument type that allows a Candid space bomb: It is possible to encode very large vectors with all values null in Candid, so if any method has an argument of type [Null] or [?t], a small message will expand to a large value in the Motoko heap. Other types to watch out:
  • Nat and Int: This is an unbounded natural number, and thus can be arbitrarily large. The Motoko representation will however not be much larger than the Candid encoding (so this does not qualify as a space bomb).
It is still advisable to check if the number is reasonable in size before storing it or doing an await. For example, when it denotes an index in an array, throw early if it exceeds the size of the array; if it denotes a token amount to transfer, check it against the available balance, if it denotes time, check it against reasonable bounds.
  • Principal: A Principal is effectively a Blob. The Interface specification says that principals are at most 29 bytes in length, but the Motoko Candid decoder does not check that currently (fixed in the next version of Motoko). Until then, a Principal passed as an argument can be large (the principal in msg.caller is system-provided and thus safe). If you cannot wait for the fix to reach you, manually check the size of the princial (via Principal.toBlob) before doing the await.

Shadowing of msg or caller Don t use the same name for the message context of the enclosing actor and the methods of the canister: It is dangerous to write shared(msg) actor, because now msg is in scope across all public methods. As long as these also use public shared(msg) func , and thus shadow the outer msg, it is correct, but it if one accidentially omits or mis-types the msg, no compiler error would occur, but suddenly msg.caller would now be the original controller, likely defeating an important authorization step. Instead, write shared(init_msg) actor or shared( caller = controller ) actor to avoid using msg.

Conclusion If you write a serious canister, whether in Motoko or not, it is worth to go through the code and watch out for these patterns. Or better, have someone else review your code, as it may be hard to spot issues in your own code. Unfortunately, such a list is never complete, and there are surely more ways to screw up your code in addition to all the non-IC-specific ways in which code can be wrong. Still, things get done out there, so best of luck!

27 September 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Problem with Work

Review: The Problem with Work, by Kathi Weeks
Publisher: Duke University Press
Copyright: 2011
ISBN: 0-8223-5112-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 304
One of the assumptions baked deeply into US society (and many others) is that people are largely defined by the work they do, and that work is the primary focus of life. Even in Marxist analysis, which is otherwise critical of how work is economically organized, work itself reigns supreme. This has been part of the feminist critique of both capitalism and Marxism, namely that both devalue domestic labor that has traditionally been unpaid, but even that criticism is normally framed as expanding the definition of work to include more of human activity. A few exceptions aside, we shy away from fundamentally rethinking the centrality of work to human experience. The Problem with Work begins as a critical analysis of that centrality of work and a history of some less-well-known movements against it. But, more valuably for me, it becomes a discussion of the types and merits of utopian thinking, including why convincing other people is not the only purpose for making a political demand. The largest problem with this book will be obvious early on: the writing style ranges from unnecessarily complex to nearly unreadable. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
The lack of interest in representing the daily grind of work routines in various forms of popular culture is perhaps understandable, as is the tendency among cultural critics to focus on the animation and meaningfulness of commodities rather than the eclipse of laboring activity that Marx identifies as the source of their fetishization (Marx 1976, 164-65). The preference for a level of abstraction that tends not to register either the qualitative dimensions or the hierarchical relations of work can also account for its relative neglect in the field of mainstream economics. But the lack of attention to the lived experiences and political textures of work within political theory would seem to be another matter. Indeed, political theorists tend to be more interested in our lives as citizens and noncitizens, legal subjects and bearers of rights, consumers and spectators, religious devotees and family members, than in our daily lives as workers.
This is only a quarter of a paragraph, and the entire book is written like this. I don't mind the occasional use of longer words for their precise meanings ("qualitative," "hierarchical") and can tolerate the academic habit of inserting mostly unnecessary citations. I have less patience with the meandering and complex sentences, excessive hedge words ("perhaps," "seem to be," "tend to be"), unnecessarily indirect phrasing ("can also account for" instead of "explains"), or obscure terms that are unnecessary to the sentence (what is "animation of commodities"?). And please have mercy and throw a reader some paragraph breaks. The writing style means substantial unnecessary effort for the reader, which is why it took me six months to read this book. It stalled all of my non-work non-fiction reading and I'm not sure it was worth the effort. That's unfortunate, because there were several important ideas in here that were new to me. The first was the overview of the "wages for housework" movement, which I had not previously heard of. It started from the common feminist position that traditional "women's work" is undervalued and advocated taking the next logical step of giving it equality with paid work by making it paid work. This was not successful, obviously, although the increasing prevalence of day care and cleaning services has made it partly true within certain economic classes in an odd and more capitalist way. While I, like Weeks, am dubious this was the right remedy, the observation that household work is essential to support capitalist activity but is unmeasured by GDP and often uncompensated both economically and socially has only become more accurate since the 1970s. Weeks argues that the usefulness of this movement should not be judged by its lack of success in achieving its demands, which leads to the second interesting point: the role of utopian demands in reframing and expanding a discussion. I normally judge a political demand on its effectiveness at convincing others to grant that demand, by which standard many activist campaigns (such as wages for housework) are unsuccessful. Weeks points out that making a utopian demand changes the way the person making the demand perceives the world, and this can have value even if the demand will never be granted. For example, to demand wages for housework requires rethinking how work is defined, what activities are compensated by the economic system, how such wages would be paid, and the implications for domestic social structures, among other things. That, in turn, helps in questioning assumptions and understanding more about how existing society sustains itself. Similarly, even if a utopian demand is never granted by society at large, forcing it to be rebutted can produce the same movement in thinking in others. In order to rebut a demand, one has to take it seriously and mount a defense of the premises that would allow one to rebut it. That can open a path to discussing and questioning those premises, which can have long-term persuasive power apart from the specific utopian demand. It's a similar concept as the Overton Window, but with more nuance: the idea isn't solely to move the perceived range of accepted discussion, but to force society to examine its assumptions and premises well enough to defend them, or possibly discover they're harder to defend than one might have thought. Weeks applies this principle to universal basic income, as a utopian demand that questions the premise that work should be central to personal identity. I kept thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement and the demand to abolish the police, which (at least in popular discussion) is a more recent example than this book but follows many of the same principles. The demand itself is unlikely to be met, but to rebut it requires defending the existence and nature of the police. That in turn leads to questions about the effectiveness of policing, such as clearance rates (which are far lower than one might have assumed). Many more examples came to mind. I've had that experience of discovering problems with my assumptions I'd never considered when debating others, but had not previously linked it with the merits of making demands that may be politically infeasible. The book closes with an interesting discussion of the types of utopias, starting from the closed utopia in the style of Thomas More in which the author sets up an ideal society. Weeks points out that this sort of utopia tends to collapse with the first impossibility or inconsistency the reader notices. The next step is utopias that acknowledge their own limitations and problems, which are more engaging (she cites Le Guin's The Dispossessed). More conditional than that is the utopian manifesto, which only addresses part of society. The least comprehensive and the most open is the utopian demand, such as wages for housework or universal basic income, which asks for a specific piece of utopia while intentionally leaving unspecified the rest of the society that could achieve it. The demand leaves room to maneuver; one can discuss possible improvements to society that would approach that utopian goal without committing to a single approach. I wish this book were better-written and easier to read, since as it stands I can't recommend it. There were large sections that I read but didn't have the mental energy to fully decipher or retain, such as the extended discussion of Ernst Bloch and Friedrich Nietzsche in the context of utopias. But that way of thinking about utopian demands and their merits for both the people making them and for those rebutting them, even if they're not politically feasible, will stick with me. Rating: 5 out of 10

21 September 2021

Russell Coker: Links September 2021

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

16 September 2021

Chris Lamb: On Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead's latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, was always going to be widely reviewed, if only because his last two books won Pulitzer prizes. Still, after enjoying both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, I was certainly going to read his next book, regardless of what the critics were saying indeed, it was actually quite agreeable to float above the manufactured energy of the book's launch. Saying that, I was encouraged to listen to an interview with the author by Ezra Klein. Now I had heard Whitehead speak once before when he accepted the Orwell Prize in 2020, and once again he came across as a pretty down-to-earth guy. Or if I were to emulate the detached and cynical tone Whitehead embodied in The Nickel Boys, after winning so many literary prizes in the past few years, he has clearly rehearsed how to respond to the cliched questions authors must be asked in every interview. With the obligatory throat-clearing of 'so, how did you get into writing?', for instance, Whitehead replies with his part of the catechism that 'It seemed like being a writer could be a cool job. You could work from home and not talk to people.' The response is the right combination of cute and self-effacing... and with its slight tone-deafness towards enforced isolation, it was no doubt honed before Covid-19. Harlem Shuffle tells three separate stories about Ray Carney, a furniture salesman and 'fence' for stolen goods in New York in the 1960s. Carney doesn't consider himself a genuine criminal though, and there's a certain logic to his relativistic morality. After all, everyone in New York City is on the take in some way, and if some 'lightly used items' in Carney's shop happened to have had 'previous owners', well, that's not quite his problem. 'Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock,' as one character dryly observes. Yet as Ezra pounces on in his NYT interview mentioned abov, the focus on the Harlem underworld means there are very few women in the book, and Whitehead's circular response ah well, it's a book about the criminals at that time! was a little unsatisfying. Not only did it feel uncharacteristically slippery of someone justly lauded for his unflinching power of observation (after all, it was the author who decided what to write about in the first place), it foreclosed on the opportunity to delve into why the heist and caper genres (from The Killing, The Feather Thief, Ocean's 11, etc.) have historically been a 'male' mode of storytelling. Perhaps knowing this to be the case, the conversation quickly steered towards Ray Carney's wife, Elizabeth, the only woman in the book who could be said possesses some plausible interiority. The following off-hand remark from Whitehead caught my attention:
My wife is convinced that [Elizabeth] knows everything about Carney's criminal life, and is sort of giving him a pass. And I'm not sure if that's true. I have to have to figure out exactly what she knows and when she knows it and how she feels about it.
I was quite taken by this, although not simply due to its effect on the story it self. As in, it immediately conjured up a charming picture of Whitehead's domestic arrangements: not only does Whitehead's wife feel free to disagree with what one of Whitehead's 'own' characters knows or believes, but that Colson has no problem whatsoever sharing that disagreement with the public at large. (It feels somehow natural that Whitehead's wife believes her counterpart knows more than she lets on, whilst Whitehead himself imbues the protagonist's wife with a kind of neo-Victorian innocence.) I'm minded to agree with Whitehead's partner myself, if only due to the passages where Elizabeth is studiously ignoring Carney's otherwise unexplained freak-outs. But all of these meta-thoughts simply underline just how emancipatory the Death of the Author can be. This product of academic literary criticism (the term was coined by Roland Barthes' 1967 essay of the same name) holds that the original author's intentions, ideas or biographical background carry no especial weight in determining how others should interpret their work. It is usually understood as meaning that a writer's own views are no more valid or 'correct' than the views held by someone else. (As an aside, I've found that most readers who encounter this concept for the first time have been reading books in this way since they were young. But the opposite is invariably true with cinephiles, who often have a bizarre obsession with researching or deciphering the 'true' interpretation of a film.) And with all that in mind, can you think of a more wry example of how freeing (and fun) nature of the Death of the Author than an author's own partner dissenting with their (Pulitzer Prize-winning) husband on the position of a lynchpin character?
The 1964 Harlem riot began after James Powell, a 15-year-old African American, was shot and killed by Thomas Gilligan, an NYPD police officer in front of 10s of witnesses. Gilligan was subsequently cleared by a grand jury.
As it turns out, the reviews for Harlem Shuffle have been almost universally positive, and after reading it in the two days after its release, I would certainly agree it is an above-average book. But it didn't quite take hold of me in the way that The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys did, especially the later chapters of The Nickel Boys that were set in contemporary New York and could thus make some (admittedly fairly explicit) connections from the 1960s to the present day that kind of connection is not there in Harlem Shuffle, or at least I did not pick up on it during my reading. I can see why one might take exception to that, though. For instance, it is certainly true that the week-long Harlem Riot forms a significant part of the plot, and some events in particular are entirely contingent on the ramifications of this momentous event. But it's difficult to argue the riot's impact are truly integral to the story, so not only is this uprising against police brutality almost regarded as a background event, any contemporary allusion to the murder of George Floyd is subsequently watered down. It's nowhere near the historical rubbernecking of Forrest Gump (1994), of course, but that's not a battle you should ever be fighting. Indeed, whilst a certain smoothness of affect is to be priced into the Whitehead reading experience, my initial overall reaction to Harlem Shuffle was fairly flat, despite all the action and intrigue on the page. The book perhaps belies its origins as a work conceived during quarantine after all, the book is essentially comprised of three loosely connected novellas, almost as if the unreality and mental turbulence of lockdown prevented the author from performing the psychological 'deep work' of producing a novel-length text with his usual depth of craft. A few other elements chimed with this being a 'lockdown novel' as well, particularly the book's preoccupation with the sheer physicality of the city compared to the usual complex interplay between its architecture and its inhabitants. This felt like it had been directly absorbed into the book from the author walking around his deserted city, and thus being able to take in details for the first time:
The doorways were entrances into different cities no, different entrances into one vast, secret city. Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look.
And I can't fail to mention that you can almost touch Whitehead's sublimated hunger to eat out again as well:
Stickups were chops they cook fast and hot, you re in and out. A stakeout was ribs fire down low, slow, taking your time. [ ] Sometimes when Carney jumped into the Hudson when he was a kid, some of that stuff got into his mouth. The Big Apple Diner served it up and called it coffee.
More seriously, however, the relatively thin personalities of minor characters then reminded me of the simulacrum of Zoom-based relationships, and the essentially unsatisfactory endings to the novellas felt reminiscent of lockdown pseudo-events that simply fizzle out without a bang. One of the stories ties up loose ends with: 'These things were usually enough to terminate a mob war, and they appeared to end the hostilities in this case as well.' They did? Well, okay, I guess.
The corner of 125th Street and Morningside Avenue in 2019, the purported location of Carney's fictional furniture store. Signage plays a prominent role in Harlem Shuffle, possibly due to the author's quarantine walks.
Still, it would be unfair to characterise myself as 'disappointed' with the novel, and none of this piece should be taken as really deep criticism. The book certainly was entertaining enough, and pretty funny in places as well:
Carney didn t have an etiquette book in front of him, but he was sure it was bad manners to sit on a man s safe. [ ] The manager of the laundromat was a scrawny man in a saggy undershirt painted with sweat stains. Launderer, heal thyself.
Yet I can't shake the feeling that every book you write is a book that you don't, and so we might need to hold out a little longer for Whitehead's 'George Floyd novel'. (Although it is for others to say how much of this sentiment is the expectations of a White Reader for The Black Author to ventriloquise the pain of 'their' community.) Some room for personal critique is surely permitted. I dearly missed the junk food energy of the dry and acerbic observations that run through Whitehead's previous work. At one point he had a good line on the model tokenisation that lurks behind 'The First Negro to...' labels, but the callbacks to this idea ceased without any payoff. Similar things happened with the not-so-subtle critiques of the American Dream:
Entrepreneur? Pepper said the last part like manure. That s just a hustler who pays taxes. [ ] One thing I ve learned in my job is that life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive, it gets cheaper still.
Ultimately, though, I think I just wanted more. I wanted a deeper exploration of how the real power in New York is not wielded by individual street hoodlums or even the cops but in the form of real estate, essentially serving as a synecdoche for Capital as a whole. (A recent take of this can be felt in Jed Rothstein's 2021 documentary, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn and it is perhaps pertinent to remember that the US President at the time this novel was written was affecting to be a real estate tycoon.). Indeed, just like the concluding scenes of J. J. Connolly's Layer Cake, although you can certainly pull off a cool heist against the Man, power ultimately resides in those who control the means of production... and a homespun furniture salesman on the corner of 125 & Morningside just ain't that. There are some nods to kind of analysis in the conclusion of the final story ('Their heist unwound as if it had never happened, and Van Wyck kept throwing up buildings.'), but, again, I would have simply liked more. And when I attempted then file this book away into the broader media landscape, given the current cultural visibility of 1960s pop culture (e.g. One Night in Miami (2020), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Summer of Soul (2021), etc.), Harlem Shuffle also seemed like a missed opportunity to critically analyse our (highly-qualified) longing for the civil rights era. I can certainly understand why we might look fondly on the cultural products from a period when politics was less alienated, when society was less atomised, and when it was still possible to imagine meaningful change, but in this dimension at least, Harlem Shuffle seems to merely contribute to this nostalgic escapism.

21 July 2021

Molly de Blanc: Updates (2)

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

21 June 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Demon Lord of Karanda

Review: Demon Lord of Karanda, by David Eddings
Series: The Malloreon #3
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: September 1988
Printing: February 1991
ISBN: 0-345-36331-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 404
This is the third book of the Malloreon, which in turn is a sequel trilogy to The Belgariad. Eddings, unlike most series authors, does a great job of reminding you what's happening with prologues in each book, but you definitely do not want to start reading here. When we last left our heroes, they had been captured. (This is arguably a spoiler for King of the Murgos, but it's not much of one, nor one that really matters.) This turns out to be an opportunity to meet the Emperor of Mallorea, the empire from which their adversary Zandramas (and, from the earlier trilogy, the god Torak) comes. This goes much better than one might expect, continuing the trend in this series of showing the leaders of the enemy countries as substantially similar to the leaders of the supposedly good countries. This sounds like open-mindedness on Eddings's part, and I suppose it partly is. It's at least a change from the first series, in which the bad guys were treated more like orcs. But the deeper I read into this series, the more obvious how invested Eddings is in a weird sort of classism. Garion and the others get along with Zakath in part because they're all royalty, or at least run in those circles. They just disagree about how to be a good ruler (and not as much as one might think, or hope). The general population of any of the countries is rarely of much significance. Zakath is a bit more cynical than Garion and company and has his own agenda, but he's not able to overcome the strong conviction of this series that the Prophecy and the fight between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark is the only thing of importance that's going on, and other people matter only to the extent that they're involved in that story. When I first read these books as a teenager, I was one of the few who liked the second series and didn't mind that its plot was partly a rehash of the first. I found, and still find, the blatantness with which Eddings manipulates the plot by making prophecy a character in the novel amusing. What I had forgotten, however, was how much of a slog the middle of this series is. It takes about three quarters of this book before there are any significant plot developments, and that time isn't packed with interesting diversions. It's mostly the heroes having conversations with each other or with Zakath, being weirdly sexist, rehashing their personality quirks, or shrugging about horrific events that don't matter to them personally. The last is a reference to the plague that appears in this book, and which I had completely forgotten. To be fair to my memory, that's partly because none of the characters seem to care much about it either. They're cooling their heels in a huge city, a plague starts killing people, they give Zakath amazingly brutal and bloodthirsty advice to essentially set fire to all the parts of the city with infected people, and then they blatantly ignore all the restrictions on movement because, well, they're important unlike all those other people and have places to go. It's rather stunningly unempathetic under the best of circumstances and seems even more vile in a 2021 re-read. Eddings also manages to make Ce'Nedra even more obnoxious than she has been by turning her into a walking zombie with weird fits where she's obsessed with her child, and adding further problems (which would be a spoiler) on top of that. I have never been a Ce'Nedra fan (that Garion's marriage ever works at all appears to be by authorial decree), but in this book she's both useless and irritating while supposedly being a tragic figure. You might be able to tell that I'm running sufficiently low on patience for Eddings's character quirks that I'm losing my enthusiasm for re-reading this bit of teenage nostalgia. This is the third book of a five-book series, so while there's a climax of sorts just like there was in the third book of the Belgariad, it's a false climax. One of the secondary characters is removed, but nothing is truly resolved; the state of the plot isn't much different at the end of this book than it was at the start. And to get there, one has to put up with Garion being an idiot, Ce'Nedra being a basket case, the supposed heroes being incredibly vicious about a plague, and one character pretending to have an absolutely dreadful Irish accent for pages upon pages upon pages. (His identity is supposedly a mystery, but was completely obvious a hundred pages before Garion figured it out. Garion isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.) The one redeeming merit to this series is the dry voice in Garion's head and the absurd sight of the prophecy telling all the characters what to do, and we barely get any of that in this book. When it wasn't irritating or offensive, it was just a waste of time. The worst book of the series so far. Followed by Sorceress of Darshiva. Rating: 3 out of 10

1 June 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Horse and His Boy

Review: The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #5
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1954
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044200-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217
The Horse and His Boy was the fifth published book in the Chronicles of Narnia, but it takes place during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in the midst of the golden age of Narnia. It's the only true side story of the series and it doesn't matter much where in sequence you read it, as long as it's after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before The Last Battle (which would spoil its ending somewhat). MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. The Horse and His Boy is also the only book of the series that is not a portal fantasy. The Pevensie kids make an appearance, but as the ruling kings and queens of Narnia, and only as side characters. The protagonists are a boy named Shasta, a girl named Aravis, and horses named Bree and Hwin. Aravis is a Calormene, a native of the desert (and extremely Orientalist, but more on that later) kingdom to the south of Narnia and Archenland. Shasta starts the book as the theoretically adopted son but mostly slave of a Calormene fisherman. The Horse and His Boy is the story of their journey from Calormen north to Archenland and Narnia, just in time to defend Narnia and Archenland from an invasion. This story starts with a great hook. Shasta's owner is hosting a passing Tarkaan, a Calormene lord, and overhears a negotiation to sell Shasta to the Tarkaan as his slave (and, in the process, revealing that he rescued Shasta as an infant from a rowboat next to a dead man). Shasta starts talking to the Tarkaan's horse and is caught by surprise when the horse talks back. He is a Talking Horse from Narnia, kidnapped as a colt, and eager to return to Narnia and the North. He convinces Shasta to attempt to escape with him. This has so much promise. For once, we're offered a story where one of the talking animals of Narnia is at least a co-protagonist and has some agency in the story. Bree takes charge of Shasta, teaches him to ride (or, mostly, how to fall off a horse), and makes most of the early plans. Finally, a story that recognizes that Narnia stories don't have to revolve around the humans! Unfortunately, Bree is an obnoxious, arrogant character. I wanted to like him, but he makes it very hard. This gets even worse when Shasta is thrown together with Aravis, a noble Calormene girl who is escaping an arranged marriage on her own talking mare, Hwin. Bree is a warhorse, Hwin is a lady's riding mare, and Lewis apparently knows absolutely nothing about horses, because every part of Bree's sexist posturing and Hwin's passive meekness is awful and cringe-worthy. I am not a horse person, so will link to Judith Tarr's much more knowledgeable critique at Tor.com, but suffice it to say that mares are not meekly deferential or awed by stallions. If Bree had behaved that way with a real mare, he would have gotten the crap beaten out of him (which might have improved his attitude considerably). As is, we have to put up with rather a lot of Bree's posturing and Hwin (who I liked much better) barely gets a line and acts disturbingly like she was horribly abused. This makes me sad, because I like Bree's character arc. He's spent his whole life being special and different from those around him, and while he wants to escape this country and return home, he's also gotten used to being special. In Narnia, he will just be a normal talking horse. To get everything else he wants, he also has to let go of the idea that he's someone special. If Lewis had done more with this and made Bree a more sympathetic character, this could have been very effective. As written, it only gets a few passing mentions (mostly via Bree being weirdly obsessed with whether talking horses roll) and is therefore overshadowed by Shasta's chosen one story and Bree's own arrogant behavior. The horses aside, this is a passable adventure story with some well-done moments. The two kids and their horses end up in Tashbaan, the huge Calormene capital, where they stumble across the Narnians and Shasta is mistaken for one of their party. Radagast, the prince of Calormen, is proposing marriage to Susan, and the Narnians are in the process of realizing he doesn't plan to take no for an answer. Aravis, meanwhile, has to sneak out of the city via the Tisroc's gardens, which results in her hiding behind a couch as she hears Radagast's plans to invade Archenland and Narnia to take Susan as his bride by force. Once reunited, Shasta, Aravis, and the horses flee across the desert to bring warning to Archenland and then Narnia. Of all the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy leans the hardest into the personal savior angle of Christianity. Parts of it, such as Shasta's ride over the pass into Narnia, have a strong "Footprints" feel to them. Most of the events of the book are arranged by Aslan, starting with Shasta's early life. Readers of the series will know this when a lion shows up early to herd the horses where they need to go, or when a cat keeps Shasta company in the desert and frightens away jackals. Shasta only understands near the end. I remember this being compelling stuff as a young Christian reader. This personal attention and life shaping from God is pure Christian wish fulfillment of the "God has a plan for your life" variety, even more so than Shasta turning out to be a lost prince. As an adult re-reader, I can see that Lewis is palming the theodicy card rather egregiously. It's great that Aslan was making everything turn out well in the end, but why did he have to scare the kids and horses half to death in the process? They were already eager to do what he wanted, but it's somehow inconceivable that Aslan would simply tell them what to do rather than manipulate them. There's no obvious in-story justification why he couldn't have made the experience much less terrifying. Or, for that matter, prevented Shasta from being kidnapped as an infant in the first place and solved the problem of Radagast in a more direct way. This sort of theology takes as an unexamined assumption that a deity must refuse to use his words and instead do everything in weirdly roundabout and mysterious ways, which makes even less sense in Narnia than in our world given how directly and straightforwardly Aslan has acted in previous books. It was also obvious to me on re-read how unfair Lewis's strict gender roles are to Aravis. She's an excellent rider from the start of the book and has practiced many of the things Shasta struggles to do, but Shasta is the boy and Aravis is the girl, so Aravis has to have girl adventures involving tittering princesses, luxurious baths, and eavesdropping behind couches, whereas Shasta has boy adventures like riding to warn the king or bringing word to Narnia. There's nothing very objectionable about Shasta as a character (unlike Bree), but he has such a generic character arc. The Horse and Her Girl with Aravis and Hwin as protagonists would have been a more interesting story, and would have helpfully complicated the whole Narnia and the North story motive. As for that storyline, wow the racism is strong in this one, starting with the degree that The Horse and His Boy is deeply concerned with people's skin color. Shasta is white, you see, clearly marking him as from the North because all the Calormenes are dark-skinned. (This makes even less sense in this fantasy world than in our world because it's strongly implied in The Magician's Nephew that all the humans in Calormen came from Narnia originally.) The Calormenes all talk like characters from bad translations of the Arabian Nights and are shown as cruel, corrupt slavers with a culture that's a Orientalist mishmash of Arab, Persian, and Chinese stereotypes. Everyone is required to say "may he live forever" after referencing the Tisroc, which is an obvious and crude parody of Islam. This stereotype fest culminates in the incredibly bizarre scene that Aravis overhears, in which the grand vizier literally grovels on the floor while Radagast kicks him and the Tisroc, Radagast's father, talks about how Narnia's freedom offends him and the barbarian kingdom would be more profitable and orderly when conquered. The one point to Lewis's credit is that Aravis is also Calormene, tells stories in the same style, and is still a protagonist and just as acceptable to Aslan as Shasta is. It's not enough to overcome the numerous problems with Lewis's lazy world-building, but it makes me wish even more that Aravis had gotten her own book and more meaningful scenes with Aslan. I had forgotten that Susan appears in this book, although that appearance doesn't add much to the general problem of Susan in Narnia except perhaps to hint at Lewis's later awful choices. She is shown considering marriage to the clearly villainous Radagast, and then only mentioned later with a weird note that she doesn't ride to war despite being the best archer of the four. I will say again that it's truly weird to see the Pevensie kids as (young) adults discussing marriage proposals, international politics, and border wars while remembering they all get dumped back into their previous lives as British schoolkids. This had to have had dramatic effects on their lives that Lewis never showed. (I know, the real answer is that Lewis is writing these books according to childhood imaginary adventure logic, where adventures don't have long-term consequences of that type.) I will also grumble once more at how weirdly ineffectual Narnians are until some human comes to tell them what to do. Calormen is obviously a threat; Susan just escaped from an attempted forced marriage. Archenland is both their southern line of defense and is an ally separated by a mountain pass in a country full of talking eagles, among other obvious messengers. And yet, it falls to Shasta to ride to give warning because he's the human protagonist of the story. Everyone else seems to be too busy with quirky domesticity or endless faux-medieval chivalric parties. The Horse and His Boy was one of my favorites when I was a kid, but reading as an adult I found it much harder to tolerate Bree or read past the blatant racial and cultural stereotyping. The bits with Aslan also felt less magical to me than they did as a kid because I was asking more questions about why Aslan had to do everything in such an opaque and perilous way. It's still not a bad adventure; Aravis is a great character, the bits in Tashbaan are at least memorable, and I still love the Hermit of the Southern March and want to know more about him. But I would rank it below the top tier of Narnia books, alongside Prince Caspian as a book with some great moments and some serious flaws. Followed in original publication order by The Magician's Nephew. Rating: 7 out of 10

12 April 2021

Russell Coker: Riverdale

I ve been watching the show Riverdale on Netflix recently. It s an interesting modern take on the Archie comics. Having watched Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space when I was younger I was anticipating something aimed towards a similar audience. As solving mysteries and crimes was apparently a major theme of the show I anticipated something along similar lines to Scooby Doo, some suspense and some spooky things, but then a happy ending where criminals get arrested and no-one gets hurt or killed while the vast majority of people are nice. Instead the first episode has a teen being murdered and Ms Grundy being obsessed with 15yo boys and sleeping with Archie (who s supposed to be 15 but played by a 20yo actor). Everyone in the show has some dark secret. The filming has a dark theme, the sky is usually overcast and it s generally gloomy. This is a significant contrast to Veronica Mars which has some similarities in having a young cast, a sassy female sleuth, and some similar plot elements. Veronica Mars has a bright theme and a significant comedy element in spite of dealing with some dark issues (murder, rape, child sex abuse, and more). But Riverdale is just dark. Anyone who watches this with their kids expecting something like Scooby Doo is in for a big surprise. There are lots of interesting stylistic elements in the show. Lots of clothing and uniform designs that seem to date from the 1940 s. It seems like some alternate universe where kids have smartphones and laptops while dressing in the style of the 1940s. One thing that annoyed me was construction workers using tools like sledge-hammers instead of excavators. A society that has smart phones but no earth-moving equipment isn t plausible. On the upside there is a racial mix in the show that more accurately reflects American society than the original Archie comics and homophobia is much less common than in most parts of our society. For both race issues and gay/lesbian issues the show treats them in an accurate way (portraying some bigotry) while the main characters aren t racist or homophobic. I think it s generally an OK show and recommend it to people who want a dark show. It s a good show to watch while doing something on a laptop so you can check Wikipedia for the references to 1940s stuff (like when Bikinis were invented). I m half way through season 3 which isn t as good as the first 2, I don t know if it will get better later in the season or whether I should have stopped after season 2. I don t usually review fiction, but the interesting aesthetics of the show made it deserve a review.

7 February 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2020

I won't reveal precisely how many books I read in 2020, but it was definitely an improvement on 74 in 2019, 53 in 2018 and 50 in 2017. But not only did I read more in a quantitative sense, the quality seemed higher as well. There were certainly fewer disappointments: given its cultural resonance, I was nonplussed by Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and whilst Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun was a little thin (again, given the obvious influence of the Bond franchise) the booked lacked 'thinness' in a way that made it interesting to critique. The weakest novel I read this year was probably J. M. Berger's Optimal, but even this hybrid of Ready Player One late-period Black Mirror wasn't that cringeworthy, all things considered. Alas, graphic novels continue to not quite be my thing, I'm afraid. I perhaps experienced more disappointments in the non-fiction section. Paul Bloom's Against Empathy was frustrating, particularly in that it expended unnecessary energy battling its misleading title and accepted terminology, and it could so easily have been an 20-minute video essay instead). (Elsewhere in the social sciences, David and Goliath will likely be the last Malcolm Gladwell book I voluntarily read.) After so many positive citations, I was also more than a little underwhelmed by Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and after Ryan Holiday's many engaging reboots of Stoic philosophy, his Conspiracy (on Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan taking on Gawker) was slightly wide of the mark for me. Anyway, here follows a selection of my favourites from 2020, in no particular order:

Fiction Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies & The Mirror and the Light Hilary Mantel During the early weeks of 2020, I re-read the first two parts of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy in time for the March release of The Mirror and the Light. I had actually spent the last few years eagerly following any news of the final instalment, feigning outrage whenever Mantel appeared to be spending time on other projects. Wolf Hall turned out to be an even better book than I remembered, and when The Mirror and the Light finally landed at midnight on 5th March, I began in earnest the next morning. Note that date carefully; this was early 2020, and the book swiftly became something of a heavy-handed allegory about the world at the time. That is to say and without claiming that I am Monsieur Cromuel in any meaningful sense it was an uneasy experience to be reading about a man whose confident grasp on his world, friends and life was slipping beyond his control, and at least in Cromwell's case, was heading inexorably towards its denouement. The final instalment in Mantel's trilogy is not perfect, and despite my love of her writing I would concur with the judges who decided against awarding her a third Booker Prize. For instance, there is something of the longueur that readers dislike in the second novel, although this might not be entirely Mantel's fault after all, the rise of the "ugly" Anne of Cleves and laborious trade negotiations for an uninspiring mineral (this is no Herbertian 'spice') will never match the court intrigues of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and that man for all seasons, Thomas More. Still, I am already looking forward to returning to the verbal sparring between King Henry and Cromwell when I read the entire trilogy once again, tentatively planned for 2022.

The Fault in Our Stars John Green I came across John Green's The Fault in Our Stars via a fantastic video by Lindsay Ellis discussing Roland Barthes famous 1967 essay on authorial intent. However, I might have eventually come across The Fault in Our Stars regardless, not because of Green's status as an internet celebrity of sorts but because I'm a complete sucker for this kind of emotionally-manipulative bildungsroman, likely due to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials a few too many times in my teens. Although its title is taken from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, The Fault in Our Stars is actually more Romeo & Juliet. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient falls in love with Gus, an equally ill teen from her cancer support group. Hazel and Gus share the same acerbic (and distinctly unteenage) wit and a love of books, centred around Hazel's obsession of An Imperial Affliction, a novel by the meta-fictional author Peter Van Houten. Through a kind of American version of Jim'll Fix It, Gus and Hazel go and visit Van Houten in Amsterdam. I'm afraid it's even cheesier than I'm describing it. Yet just as there is a time and a place for Michelin stars and Haribo Starmix, there's surely a place for this kind of well-constructed but altogether maudlin literature. One test for emotionally manipulative works like this is how well it can mask its internal contradictions while Green's story focuses on the universalities of love, fate and the shortness of life (as do almost all of his works, it seems), The Fault in Our Stars manages to hide, for example, that this is an exceedingly favourable treatment of terminal illness that is only possible for the better off. The 2014 film adaptation does somewhat worse in peddling this fantasy (and has a much weaker treatment of the relationship between the teens' parents too, an underappreciated subtlety of the book). The novel, however, is pretty slick stuff, and it is difficult to fault it for what it is. For some comparison, I later read Green's Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns which, as I mention, tug at many of the same strings, but they don't come together nearly as well as The Fault in Our Stars. James Joyce claimed that "sentimentality is unearned emotion", and in this respect, The Fault in Our Stars really does earn it.

The Plague Albert Camus P. D. James' The Children of Men, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon ... dystopian fiction was already a theme of my reading in 2020, so given world events it was an inevitability that I would end up with Camus's novel about a plague that swept through the Algerian city of Oran. Is The Plague an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two? Where are all the female characters? Where are the Arab ones? Since its original publication in 1947, there's been so much written about The Plague that it's hard to say anything new today. Nevertheless, I was taken aback by how well it captured so much of the nuance of 2020. Whilst we were saying just how 'unprecedented' these times were, it was eerie how a novel written in the 1940s could accurately how many of us were feeling well over seventy years on later: the attitudes of the people; the confident declarations from the institutions; the misaligned conversations that led to accidental misunderstandings. The disconnected lovers. The only thing that perhaps did not work for me in The Plague was the 'character' of the church. Although I could appreciate most of the allusion and metaphor, it was difficult for me to relate to the significance of Father Paneloux, particularly regarding his change of view on the doctrinal implications of the virus, and spoiler alert that he finally died of a "doubtful case" of the disease, beyond the idea that Paneloux's beliefs are in themselves "doubtful". Answers on a postcard, perhaps. The Plague even seemed to predict how we, at least speaking of the UK, would react when the waves of the virus waxed and waned as well:
The disease stiffened and carried off three or four patients who were expected to recover. These were the unfortunates of the plague, those whom it killed when hope was high
It somehow captured the nostalgic yearning for high-definition videos of cities and public transport; one character even visits the completely deserted railway station in Oman simply to read the timetables on the wall.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carr There's absolutely none of the Mad Men glamour of James Bond in John le Carr 's icy world of Cold War spies:
Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, Smiley was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet.
Almost a direct rebuttal to Ian Fleming's 007, Tinker, Tailor has broken-down cars, bad clothes, women with their own internal and external lives (!), pathetically primitive gadgets, and (contra Mad Men) hangovers that significantly longer than ten minutes. In fact, the main aspect that the mostly excellent 2011 film adaption doesn't really capture is the smoggy and run-down nature of 1970s London this is not your proto-Cool Britannia of Austin Powers or GTA:1969, the city is truly 'gritty' in the sense there is a thin film of dirt and grime on every surface imaginable. Another angle that the film cannot capture well is just how purposefully the novel does not mention the United States. Despite the US obviously being the dominant power, the British vacillate between pretending it doesn't exist or implying its irrelevance to the matter at hand. This is no mistake on Le Carr 's part, as careful readers are rewarded by finding this denial of US hegemony in metaphor throughout --pace Ian Fleming, there is no obvious Felix Leiter to loudly throw money at the problem or a Sheriff Pepper to serve as cartoon racist for the Brits to feel superior about. By contrast, I recall that a clever allusion to "dusty teabags" is subtly mirrored a few paragraphs later with a reference to the installation of a coffee machine in the office, likely symbolic of the omnipresent and unavoidable influence of America. (The officer class convince themselves that coffee is a European import.) Indeed, Le Carr communicates a feeling of being surrounded on all sides by the peeling wallpaper of Empire. Oftentimes, the writing style matches the graceless and inelegance of the world it depicts. The sentences are dense and you find your brain performing a fair amount of mid-flight sentence reconstruction, reparsing clauses, commas and conjunctions to interpret Le Carr 's intended meaning. In fact, in his eulogy-cum-analysis of Le Carr 's writing style, William Boyd, himself a ventrioquilist of Ian Fleming, named this intentional technique 'staccato'. Like the musical term, I suspect the effect of this literary staccato is as much about the impact it makes on a sentence as the imperceptible space it generates after it. Lastly, the large cast in this sprawling novel is completely believable, all the way from the Russian spymaster Karla to minor schoolboy Roach the latter possibly a stand-in for Le Carr himself. I got through the 500-odd pages in just a few days, somehow managing to hold the almost-absurdly complicated plot in my head. This is one of those classic books of the genre that made me wonder why I had not got around to it before.

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead According to the judges who awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Nickel Boys is "a devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida" that serves as a "powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption". But whilst there is plenty of this perseverance and dignity on display, I found little redemption in this deeply cynical novel. It could almost be read as a follow-up book to Whitehead's popular The Underground Railroad, which itself won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Indeed, each book focuses on a young protagonist who might be euphemistically referred to as 'downtrodden'. But The Nickel Boys is not only far darker in tone, it feels much closer and more connected to us today. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that it is based on the story of the Dozier School in northern Florida which operated for over a century before its long history of institutional abuse and racism was exposed a 2012 investigation. Nevertheless, if you liked the social commentary in The Underground Railroad, then there is much more of that in The Nickel Boys:
Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.
Sardonic aper us of this kind are pretty relentless throughout the book, but it never tips its hand too far into on nihilism, especially when some of the visual metaphors are often first-rate: "An American flag sighed on a pole" is one I can easily recall from memory. In general though, The Nickel Boys is not only more world-weary in tenor than his previous novel, the United States it describes seems almost too beaten down to have the energy conjure up the Swiftian magical realism that prevented The Underground Railroad from being overly lachrymose. Indeed, even we Whitehead transports us a present-day New York City, we can't indulge in another kind of fantasy, the one where America has solved its problems:
The Daily News review described the [Manhattan restaurant] as nouveau Southern, "down-home plates with a twist." What was the twist that it was soul food made by white people?
It might be overly reductionist to connect Whitehead's tonal downshift with the racial justice movements of the past few years, but whatever the reason, we've ended up with a hard-hitting, crushing and frankly excellent book.

True Grit & No Country for Old Men Charles Portis & Cormac McCarthy It's one of the most tedious cliches to claim the book is better than the film, but these two books are of such high quality that even the Coen Brothers at their best cannot transcend them. I'm grouping these books together here though, not because their respective adaptations will exemplify some of the best cinema of the 21st century, but because of their superb treatment of language. Take the use of dialogue. Cormac McCarthy famously does not use any punctuation "I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that's it" but the conversations in No Country for Old Men together feel familiar and commonplace, despite being relayed through this unconventional technique. In lesser hands, McCarthy's written-out Texan drawl would be the novelistic equivalent of white rap or Jar Jar Binks, but not only is the effect entirely gripping, it helps you to believe you are physically present in the many intimate and domestic conversations that hold this book together. Perhaps the cinematic familiarity helps, as you can almost hear Tommy Lee Jones' voice as Sheriff Bell from the opening page to the last. Charles Portis' True Grit excels in its dialogue too, but in this book it is not so much in how it flows (although that is delightful in its own way) but in how forthright and sardonic Maddie Ross is:
"Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." "One would be as unpleasant as the other."
Perhaps this should be unsurprising. Maddie, a fourteen-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas, can barely fire her father's heavy pistol, so she can only has words to wield as her weapon. Anyway, it's not just me who treasures this book. In her encomium that presages most modern editions, Donna Tartt of The Secret History fame traces the novels origins through Huckleberry Finn, praising its elegance and economy: "The plot of True Grit is uncomplicated and as pure in its way as one of the Canterbury Tales". I've read any Chaucer, but I am inclined to agree. Tartt also recalls that True Grit vanished almost entirely from the public eye after the release of John Wayne's flimsy cinematic vehicle in 1969 this earlier film was, Tartt believes, "good enough, but doesn't do the book justice". As it happens, reading a book with its big screen adaptation as a chaser has been a minor theme of my 2020, including P. D. James' The Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, John le Carr 's Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and even a staged production of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol streamed from The Old Vic. For an autodidact with no academic background in literature or cinema, I've been finding this an effective and enjoyable means of getting closer to these fine books and films it is precisely where they deviate (or perhaps where they are deficient) that offers a means by which one can see how they were constructed. I've also found that adaptations can also tell you a lot about the culture in which they were made: take the 'straightwashing' in the film version of Strangers on a Train (1951) compared to the original novel, for example. It is certainly true that adaptions rarely (as Tartt put it) "do the book justice", but she might be also right to alight on a legal metaphor, for as the saying goes, to judge a movie in comparison to the book is to do both a disservice.

The Glass Hotel Emily St. John Mandel In The Glass Hotel, Mandel somehow pulls off the impossible; writing a loose roman- -clef on Bernie Madoff, a Ponzi scheme and the ephemeral nature of finance capital that is tranquil and shimmeringly beautiful. Indeed, don't get the wrong idea about the subject matter; this is no over over-caffeinated The Big Short, as The Glass Hotel is less about a Madoff or coked-up financebros but the fragile unreality of the late 2010s, a time which was, as we indeed discovered in 2020, one event away from almost shattering completely. Mandel's prose has that translucent, phantom quality to it where the chapters slip through your fingers when you try to grasp at them, and the plot is like a ghost ship that that slips silently, like the Mary Celeste, onto the Canadian water next to which the eponymous 'Glass Hotel' resides. Indeed, not unlike The Overlook Hotel, the novel so overflows with symbolism so that even the title needs to evoke the idea of impermanence permanently living in a hotel might serve as a house, but it won't provide a home. It's risky to generalise about such things post-2016, but the whole story sits in that the infinitesimally small distance between perception and reality, a self-constructed culture that is not so much 'post truth' but between them. There's something to consider in almost every character too. Take the stand-in for Bernie Madoff: no caricature of Wall Street out of a 1920s political cartoon or Brechtian satire, Jonathan Alkaitis has none of the oleaginous sleaze of a Dominic Strauss-Kahn, the cold sociopathy of a Marcus Halberstam nor the well-exercised sinuses of, say, Jordan Belford. Alkaitis is dare I say it? eminently likeable, and the book is all the better for it. Even the C-level characters have something to say: Enrico, trivially escaping from the regulators (who are pathetically late to the fraud without Mandel ever telling us explicitly), is daydreaming about the girlfriend he abandoned in New York: "He wished he'd realised he loved her before he left". What was in his previous life that prevented him from doing so? Perhaps he was never in love at all, or is love itself just as transient as the imaginary money in all those bank accounts? Maybe he fell in love just as he crossed safely into Mexico? When, precisely, do we fall in love anyway? I went on to read Mandel's Last Night in Montreal, an early work where you can feel her reaching for that other-worldly quality that she so masterfully achieves in The Glass Hotel. Her f ted Station Eleven is on my must-read list for 2021. "What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate. Not even Mandel cannot give us the answer, but this will certainly do for now.

Running the Light Sam Tallent Although it trades in all of the clich s and stereotypes of the stand-up comedian (the triumvirate of drink, drugs and divorce), Sam Tallent's debut novel depicts an extremely convincing fictional account of a touring road comic. The comedian Doug Stanhope (who himself released a fairly decent No Encore for the Donkey memoir in 2020) hyped Sam's book relentlessly on his podcast during lockdown... and justifiably so. I ripped through Running the Light in a few short hours, the only disappointment being that I can't seem to find videos online of Sam that come anywhere close to match up to his writing style. If you liked the rollercoaster energy of Paul Beatty's The Sellout, the cynicism of George Carlin and the car-crash invertibility of final season Breaking Bad, check this great book out.

Non-fiction Inside Story Martin Amis This was my first introduction to Martin Amis's work after hearing that his "novelised autobiography" contained a fair amount about Christopher Hitchens, an author with whom I had a one of those rather clich d parasocial relationship with in the early days of YouTube. (Hey, it could have been much worse.) Amis calls his book a "novelised autobiography", and just as much has been made of its quasi-fictional nature as the many diversions into didactic writing advice that betwixt each chapter: "Not content with being a novel, this book also wants to tell you how to write novels", complained Tim Adams in The Guardian. I suspect that reviewers who grew up with Martin since his debut book in 1973 rolled their eyes at yet another demonstration of his manifest cleverness, but as my first exposure to Amis's gift of observation, I confess that I was thought it was actually kinda clever. Try, for example, "it remains a maddening truth that both sexual success and sexual failure are steeply self-perpetuating" or "a hospital gym is a contradiction like a young Conservative", etc. Then again, perhaps I was experiencing a form of nostalgia for a pre-Gamergate YouTube, when everything in the world was a lot simpler... or at least things could be solved by articulate gentlemen who honed their art of rhetoric at the Oxford Union. I went on to read Martin's first novel, The Rachel Papers (is it 'arrogance' if you are, indeed, that confident?), as well as his 1997 Night Train. I plan to read more of him in the future.

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 1 & Volume 2 & Volume 3 & Volume 4 George Orwell These deceptively bulky four volumes contain all of George Orwell's essays, reviews and correspondence, from his teenage letters sent to local newspapers to notes to his literary executor on his deathbed in 1950. Reading this was part of a larger, multi-year project of mine to cover the entirety of his output. By including this here, however, I'm not recommending that you read everything that came out of Orwell's typewriter. The letters to friends and publishers will only be interesting to biographers or hardcore fans (although I would recommend Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984 first). Furthermore, many of his book reviews will be of little interest today. Still, some insights can be gleaned; if there is any inconsistency in this huge corpus is that his best work is almost 'too' good and too impactful, making his merely-average writing appear like hackwork. There are some gems that don't make the usual essay collections too, and some of Orwell's most astute social commentary came out of series of articles he wrote for the left-leaning newspaper Tribune, related in many ways to the US Jacobin. You can also see some of his most famous ideas start to take shape years if not decades before they appear in his novels in these prototype blog posts. I also read Dennis Glover's novelised account of the writing of Nineteen-Eighty Four called The Last Man in Europe, and I plan to re-read some of Orwell's earlier novels during 2021 too, including A Clergyman's Daughter and his 'antebellum' Coming Up for Air that he wrote just before the Second World War; his most under-rated novel in my estimation. As it happens, and with the exception of the US and Spain, copyright in the works published in his lifetime ends on 1st January 2021. Make of that what you will.

Capitalist Realism & Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class Mark Fisher & Owen Jones These two books are not natural companions to one another and there is likely much that Jones and Fisher would vehemently disagree on, but I am pairing these books together here because they represent the best of the 'political' books I read in 2020. Mark Fisher was a dedicated leftist whose first book, Capitalist Realism, marked an important contribution to political philosophy in the UK. However, since his suicide in early 2017, the currency of his writing has markedly risen, and Fisher is now frequently referenced due to his belief that the prevalence of mental health conditions in modern life is a side-effect of various material conditions, rather than a natural or unalterable fact "like weather". (Of course, our 'weather' is being increasingly determined by a combination of politics, economics and petrochemistry than pure randomness.) Still, Fisher wrote on all manner of topics, from the 2012 London Olympics and "weird and eerie" electronic music that yearns for a lost future that will never arrive, possibly prefiguring or influencing the Fallout video game series. Saying that, I suspect Fisher will resonate better with a UK audience more than one across the Atlantic, not necessarily because he was minded to write about the parochial politics and culture of Britain, but because his writing often carries some exasperation at the suppression of class in favour of identity-oriented politics, a viewpoint not entirely prevalent in the United States outside of, say, Tour F. Reed or the late Michael Brooks. (Indeed, Fisher is likely best known in the US as the author of his controversial 2013 essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle, but that does not figure greatly in this book). Regardless, Capitalist Realism is an insightful, damning and deeply unoptimistic book, best enjoyed in the warm sunshine I found it an ironic compliment that I had quoted so many paragraphs that my Kindle's copy protection routines prevented me from clipping any further. Owen Jones needs no introduction to anyone who regularly reads a British newspaper, especially since 2015 where he unofficially served as a proxy and punching bag for expressing frustrations with the then-Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. However, as the subtitle of Jones' 2012 book suggests, Chavs attempts to reveal the "demonisation of the working class" in post-financial crisis Britain. Indeed, the timing of the book is central to Jones' analysis, specifically that the stereotype of the "chav" is used by government and the media as a convenient figleaf to avoid meaningful engagement with economic and social problems on an austerity ridden island. (I'm not quite sure what the US equivalent to 'chav' might be. Perhaps Florida Man without the implications of mental health.) Anyway, Jones certainly has a point. From Vicky Pollard to the attacks on Jade Goody, there is an ignorance and prejudice at the heart of the 'chav' backlash, and that would be bad enough even if it was not being co-opted or criminalised for ideological ends. Elsewhere in political science, I also caught Michael Brooks' Against the Web and David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, although they are not quite methodical enough to recommend here. However, Graeber's award-winning Debt: The First 5000 Years will be read in 2021. Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another is worth a brief mention here though, but its sprawling nature felt very much like I was reading a set of Substack articles loosely edited together. And, indeed, I was.

The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing Ewan Clayton A recommendation from a dear friend, Ewan Clayton's The Golden Thread is a journey through the long history of the writing from the Dawn of Man to present day. Whether you are a linguist, a graphic designer, a visual artist, a typographer, an archaeologist or 'just' a reader, there is probably something in here for you. I was already dipping my quill into calligraphy this year so I suspect I would have liked this book in any case, but highlights would definitely include the changing role of writing due to the influence of textual forms in the workplace as well as digression on ergonomic desks employed by monks and scribes in the Middle Ages. A lot of books by otherwise-sensible authors overstretch themselves when they write about computers or other technology from the Information Age, at best resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs and dangerously Panglossian viewpoints at worst. But Clayton surprised me by writing extremely cogently and accurate on the role of text in this new and unpredictable era. After finishing it I realised why for a number of years, Clayton was a consultant for the legendary Xerox PARC where he worked in a group focusing on documents and contemporary communications whilst his colleagues were busy inventing the graphical user interface, laser printing, text editors and the computer mouse.

New Dark Age & Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life James Bridle & Adam Greenfield I struggled to describe these two books to friends, so I doubt I will suddenly do a better job here. Allow me to quote from Will Self's review of James Bridle's New Dark Age in the Guardian:
We're accustomed to worrying about AI systems being built that will either "go rogue" and attack us, or succeed us in a bizarre evolution of, um, evolution what we didn't reckon on is the sheer inscrutability of these manufactured minds. And minds is not a misnomer. How else should we think about the neural network Google has built so its translator can model the interrelation of all words in all languages, in a kind of three-dimensional "semantic space"?
New Dark Age also turns its attention to the weird, algorithmically-derived products offered for sale on Amazon as well as the disturbing and abusive videos that are automatically uploaded by bots to YouTube. It should, by rights, be a mess of disparate ideas and concerns, but Bridle has a flair for introducing topics which reveals he comes to computer science from another discipline altogether; indeed, on a four-part series he made for Radio 4, he's primarily referred to as "an artist". Whilst New Dark Age has rather abstract section topics, Adam Greenfield's Radical Technologies is a rather different book altogether. Each chapter dissects one of the so-called 'radical' technologies that condition the choices available to us, asking how do they work, what challenges do they present to us and who ultimately benefits from their adoption. Greenfield takes his scalpel to smartphones, machine learning, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, etc., and I don't think it would be unfair to say that starts and ends with a cynical point of view. He is no reactionary Luddite, though, and this is both informed and extremely well-explained, and it also lacks the lazy, affected and Private Eye-like cynicism of, say, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. The books aren't a natural pair, for Bridle's writing contains quite a bit of air in places, ironically mimics the very 'clouds' he inveighs against. Greenfield's book, by contrast, as little air and much lower pH value. Still, it was more than refreshing to read two technology books that do not limit themselves to platitudinal booleans, be those dangerously naive (e.g. Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable) or relentlessly nihilistic (Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism). Sure, they are both anti-technology screeds, but they tend to make arguments about systems of power rather than specific companies and avoid being too anti-'Big Tech' through a narrower, Silicon Valley obsessed lens for that (dipping into some other 2020 reading of mine) I might suggest Wendy Liu's Abolish Silicon Valley or Scott Galloway's The Four. Still, both books are superlatively written. In fact, Adam Greenfield has some of the best non-fiction writing around, both in terms of how he can explain complicated concepts (particularly the smart contract mechanism of the Ethereum cryptocurrency) as well as in the extremely finely-crafted sentences I often felt that the writing style almost had no need to be that poetic, and I particularly enjoyed his fictional scenarios at the end of the book.

The Algebra of Happiness & Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life Scott Galloway & Nir Eyal A cocktail of insight, informality and abrasiveness makes NYU Professor Scott Galloway uncannily appealing to guys around my age. Although Galloway definitely has his own wisdom and experience, similar to Joe Rogan I suspect that a crucial part of Galloway's appeal is that you feel you are learning right alongside him. Thankfully, 'Prof G' is far less err problematic than Rogan (Galloway is more of a well-meaning, spirited centrist), although he, too, has some pretty awful takes at time. This is a shame, because removed from the whirlwind of social media he can be really quite considered, such as in this long-form interview with Stephanie Ruhle. In fact, it is this kind of sentiment that he captured in his 2019 Algebra of Happiness. When I look over my highlighted sections, it's clear that it's rather schmaltzy out of context ("Things you hate become just inconveniences in the presence of people you love..."), but his one-two punch of cynicism and saccharine ("Ask somebody who purchased a home in 2007 if their 'American Dream' came true...") is weirdly effective, especially when he uses his own family experiences as part of his story:
A better proxy for your life isn't your first home, but your last. Where you draw your last breath is more meaningful, as it's a reflection of your success and, more important, the number of people who care about your well-being. Your first house signals the meaningful your future and possibility. Your last home signals the profound the people who love you. Where you die, and who is around you at the end, is a strong signal of your success or failure in life.
Nir Eyal's Indistractable, however, is a totally different kind of 'self-help' book. The important background story is that Eyal was the author of the widely-read Hooked which turned into a secular Bible of so-called 'addictive design'. (If you've ever been cornered by a techbro wielding a Wikipedia-thin knowledge of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist psychology and how it can get you to click 'Like' more often, it ultimately came from Hooked.) However, Eyal's latest effort is actually an extended mea culpa for his previous sin and he offers both high and low-level palliative advice on how to avoid falling for the tricks he so studiously espoused before. I suppose we should be thankful to capitalism for selling both cause and cure. Speaking of markets, there appears to be a growing appetite for books in this 'anti-distraction' category, and whilst I cannot claim to have done an exhausting study of this nascent field, Indistractable argues its points well without relying on accurate-but-dry "studies show..." or, worse, Gladwellian gotchas. My main criticism, however, would be that Eyal doesn't acknowledge the limits of a self-help approach to this problem; it seems that many of the issues he outlines are an inescapable part of the alienation in modern Western society, and the only way one can really avoid distraction is to move up the income ladder or move out to a 500-acre ranch.

28 July 2020

Chris Lamb: Pop culture matters

Many people labour under the assumption that pop culture is trivial and useless while only 'high' art can grant us genuine and eternal knowledge about the world. Given that we have a finite time on this planet, we are all permitted to enjoy pop culture up to a certain point, but we should always minimise our interaction with it, and consume more moral and intellectual instruction wherever possible. Or so the theory goes. What these people do not realise is that pop and mass culture can often provide more information about the world, humanity in general and what is even more important ourselves. This is not quite the debate around whether high art is artistically better, simply that pop culture can be equally informative. Jeremy Bentham argued in the 1820s that "prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry", that it didn't matter where our pleasures come from. (John Stuart Mill, Bentham's intellectual rival, disagreed.) This fundamental question of philosophical utilitarianism will not be resolved here. However, what might begin to be resolved is our instinctive push-back against pop culture. We all share an automatic impulse to disregard things we do not like and to pretend they do not exist, but this wishful thinking does not mean that these cultural products do not continue to exist when we aren't thinking about them and, more to our point, continue to influence others and even ourselves. Take, for example, the recent trend for 'millennial pink'. With its empty consumerism, faux nostalgia, reductive generational stereotyping, objectively ugly sthetics and tedious misogyny (photographed with Rose Gold iPhones), the very combination appears to have been deliberately designed to annoy me, curiously providing circumstantial evidence in favour of intelligent design. But if I were to immediately dismiss millennial pink and any of the other countless cultural trends I dislike simply because I find them disagreeable, I would be willingly keeping myself blind to their underlying ideology, their significance and their effect on society at large. If I had any ethical or political reservations I might choose not to engage with them economically or to avoid advertising them to others, but that is a different question altogether. Even if we can't notice this pattern within ourselves we can first observe it in others. We can all recall moments where someone has brushed off a casual reference to pop culture, be it Tiger King, TikTok, team sports or Taylor Swift; if you can't, simply look for the abrupt change of tone and the slightly-too-quick dismissal. I am not suggesting you attempt to dissuade others or even to point out this mental tic, but merely seeing it in action can be highly illustrative in its own way. In summary, we can simultaneously say that pop culture is not worthy of our time relative to other pursuits while consuming however much of it we want, but deliberately dismissing pop culture doesn't mean that a lot of other people are not interacting with it and is therefore undeserving of any inquiry. And if that doesn't convince you, just like the once-unavoidable millennial pink, simply sticking our collective heads in the sand will not mean that wider societal-level ugliness is going to disappear anytime soon. Anyway, that's a very long way of justifying why I plan to re-watch TNG.

2 July 2020

Russell Coker: Isolating PHP Web Sites

If you have multiple PHP web sites on a server in a default configuration they will all be able to read each other s files in a default configuration. If you have multiple PHP web sites that have stored data or passwords for databases in configuration files then there are significant problems if they aren t all trusted. Even if the sites are all trusted (IE the same person configures them all) if there is a security problem in one site it s ideal to prevent that being used to immediately attack all sites. mpm_itk The first thing I tried was mpm_itk [1]. This is a version of the traditional prefork module for Apache that has one process for each HTTP connection. When it s installed you just put the directive AssignUserID USER GROUP in your VirtualHost section and that virtual host runs as the user:group in question. It will work with any Apache module that works with mpm_prefork. In my experiment with mpm_itk I first tried running with a different UID for each site, but that conflicted with the pagespeed module [2]. The pagespeed module optimises HTML and CSS files to improve performance and it has a directory tree where it stores cached versions of some of the files. It doesn t like working with copies of itself under different UIDs writing to that tree. This isn t a real problem, setting up the different PHP files with database passwords to be read by the desired group is easy enough. So I just ran each site with a different GID but used the same UID for all of them. The first problem with mpm_itk is that the mpm_prefork code that it s based on is the slowest mpm that is available and which is also incompatible with HTTP/2. A minor issue of mpm_itk is that it makes Apache take ages to stop or restart, I don t know why and can t be certain it s not a configuration error on my part. As an aside here is a site for testing your server s support for HTTP/2 [3]. To enable HTTP/2 you have to be running mpm_event and enable the http2 module. Then for every virtual host that is to support it (generally all https virtual hosts) put the line Protocols h2 h2c http/1.1 in the virtual host configuration. A good feature of mpm_itk is that it has everything for the site running under the same UID, all Apache modules and Apache itself. So there s no issue of one thing getting access to a file and another not getting access. After a trial I decided not to keep using mpm_itk because I want HTTP/2 support. php-fpm Pools The Apache PHP module depends on mpm_prefork so it also has the issues of not working with HTTP/2 and of causing the web server to be slow. The solution is php-fpm, a separate server for running PHP code that uses the fastcgi protocol to talk to Apache. Here s a link to the upstream documentation for php-fpm [4]. In Debian this is in the php7.3-fpm package. In Debian the directory /etc/php/7.3/fpm/pool.d has the configuration for pools . Below is an example of a configuration file for a pool:
# cat /etc/php/7.3/fpm/pool.d/example.com.conf
[example.com]
user = example.com
group = example.com
listen = /run/php/php7.3-example.com.sock
listen.owner = www-data
listen.group = www-data
pm = dynamic
pm.max_children = 5
pm.start_servers = 2
pm.min_spare_servers = 1
pm.max_spare_servers = 3
Here is the upstream documentation for fpm configuration [5]. Then for the Apache configuration for the site in question you could have something like the following:
ProxyPassMatch "^/(.*\.php(/.*)?)$" "unix:/run/php/php7.3-example.com.sock fcgi://localhost/usr/share/wordpress/"
The fcgi://localhost part is just part of the way of specifying a Unix domain socket. From the Apache Wiki it appears that the method for configuring the TCP connections is more obvious [6]. I chose Unix domain sockets because it allows putting the domain name in the socket address. Matching domains for the web server to port numbers is something that s likely to be error prone while matching based on domain names is easier to check and also easier to put in Apache configuration macros. There was some additional hassle with getting Apache to read the files created by PHP processes (the options include running PHP scripts with the www-data group, having SETGID directories for storing files, and having world-readable files). But this got things basically working. Nginx My Google searches for running multiple PHP sites under different UIDs didn t turn up any good hits. It was only after I found the DigitalOcean page on doing this with Nginx [7] that I knew what to search for to find the way of doing it in Apache.

27 May 2020

Russ Allbery: Review: Middlegame

Review: Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2019
ISBN: 1-250-19551-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 528
Roger and Dodger are cuckoo children, alchemical constructs created by other alchemical constructs masquerading as humans. They are halves of the primal force of the universe, the Doctrine of Ethos (which is not what the Doctrine of Ethos is, but that is one of my lesser problems with this book), divided into language and math and kept separate to properly mature. In this case, separate means being adopted by families on opposite coasts of the United States, ignorant of each other's existence and closely monitored by agents Reed controls. None of that prevents Roger and Dodger from becoming each other's invisible friends at the age of seven, effortlessly communicating psychically even though they've never met. That could have been the start of an enjoyable story that hearkened back to an earlier age of science fiction: the secret science experiments discover that they have more power than their creators expected, form a clandestine alliance, and fight back against the people who are trying to control them. I have fond memories of Escape to Witch Mountain and would have happily read that book. Unfortunately, that isn't the story McGuire wanted to tell. The story she told involves ripping Roger and Dodger apart, breaking Dodger, and turning Roger into an abusive asshole. Whooboy, where to start. This book made me very angry, in a way that I would not have been if it didn't contain the bones of a much better novel. Four of them, to be precise: four other books that would have felt less gratuitously cruel and less apparently oblivious to just how bad Roger's behavior is. There are some things to like. One of them is that the structure of this book is clever. I can't tell you how it's clever because the structure doesn't become clear until more than halfway through and it completely changes the story in a way that would be a massive spoiler. But it's an interesting spin on an old idea, one that gave Roger and Dodger a type of agency in the story that has far-ranging implications. I enjoyed thinking about it. That leads me to another element I liked: Erin. She makes only fleeting appearances until well into the story, but I thought she competed with Dodger for being the best character of the book. The second of the better novels I saw in the bones of Middlegame was the same story told from Erin's perspective. I found myself guessing at her motives and paying close attention to hints that led to a story with a much different emotional tone. Viewing the ending of the book through her eyes instead of Roger and Dodger's puts it in a different, more complicated, and more thought-provoking light. Unfortunately, she's not McGuire's protagonist. She instead is one of the monsters of this book, which leads to my first, although not my strongest, complaint. It felt like McGuire was trying too hard to write horror, packing Middlegame with the visuals of horror movies without the underlying structure required to make them effective. I'm not a fan of horror personally, so to some extent I'm grateful that the horrific elements were ineffective, but it makes for some frustratingly bad writing. For example, one of the longest horror scenes in the book features Erin, and should be a defining moment for the character. Unfortunately, it's so heavy on visuals and so focused on what McGuire wants the reader to be thinking that it doesn't show any of the psychology underlying Erin's decisions. The camera is pointed the wrong way; all the interesting storytelling work, moral complexity, and world-building darkness is happening in the character we don't get to see. And, on top of that, McGuire overuses foreshadowing so much that it robs the scene of suspense and terror. Again, I'm partly grateful, since I don't read books for suspense and terror, but it means the scene does only a fraction of the work it could. This problem of trying too hard extends to the writing. McGuire has a bit of a tendency in all of her books to overdo the descriptions, but is usually saved by narrative momentum. Unfortunately, that's not true here, and her prose often seems overwrought. She also resorts to this style of description, which never fails to irritate me:
The thought has barely formed when a different shape looms over him, grinning widely enough to show every tooth in its head. They are even, white, and perfect, and yet he somehow can't stop himself from thinking there's something wrong with them, that they're mismatched, that this assortment of teeth was never meant to share a single jaw, a single terrible smile.
This isn't effective. This is telling the reader how they're supposed to feel about the thing you're describing, without doing the work of writing a description that makes them feel that way. (Also, you may see what I mean by overwrought.) That leads me to my next complaint: the villains. My problem is not so much with Leigh, who I thought was an adequate monster, if a bit single-note. There's some thought and depth behind her arguments with Reed, a few hints of her own motives that were more convincing for not being fully shown. The descriptions of how dangerous she is were reasonably effective. She's a good villain for this type of dark fantasy story where the world is dangerous and full of terrors (and reminded me of some of the villains from McGuire's October Daye series). Reed, though, is a storytelling train wreck. The Big Bad of the novel is the least interesting character in it. He is a stuffed tailcoat full of malicious incompetence who is only dangerous because the author proclaims him to be. It only adds insult to injury that he kills off a far more nuanced and creative villain before the novel starts, replacing her ambiguous goals with Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling. The reader has to suffer through extended scenes focused on him as he brags, monologues, and obsesses over his eventual victory without an ounce of nuance or subtlety. Worse is the dynamic between him and Leigh, which is only one symptom of the problem with Middlegame that made me the most angry: the degree to this book oozes patriarchy. Every man in this book, including the supposed hero, orders around the women, who are forced in various ways to obey. This is the most obvious between Leigh and Reed, but it's the most toxic, if generally more subtle, between Roger and Dodger. Dodger is great. I had absolutely no trouble identifying with and rooting for her as a character. The nasty things that McGuire does to her over the course of the book (and wow does that never let up) made me like her more when she tenaciously refuses to give up. Dodger is the math component of the Doctrine of Ethos, and early in the book I thought McGuire handled that well, particularly given how difficult it is to write a preternatural genius. Towards the end of this book, her math sadly turns into a very non-mathematical magic (more on this in a moment), but her character holds all the way through. It felt like she carved her personality out of this story through sheer force of will and clung to it despite the plot. I wanted to rescue her from this novel and put her into a better book, such as the one in which her college friends (who are great; McGuire is very good at female friendships when she writes them) stage an intervention, kick a few people out of her life, and convince her to trust them. Unfortunately, Dodger is, by authorial fiat, half of a bound pair, and the other half of that pair is Roger, who is the sort of nice guy everyone likes and thinks is sweet and charming until he turns into an emotional trap door right when you need him the most and dumps you into the ocean to drown. And then somehow makes you do all the work of helping him feel better about his betrayal. The most egregious (and most patriarchal) thing Roger does in this book is late in the book and a fairly substantial spoiler, so I can't rant about that properly. But even before that, Roger keeps doing the the same damn emotional abandonment trick, and the book is heavily invested into justifying it and making excuses for him. Excuses that, I should note, are not made for Dodger; her failings are due to her mistakes and weaknesses, whereas Roger's are natural reactions to outside forces. I got very, very tired of this, and I'm upset by how little awareness the narrative voice showed for how dysfunctional and abusive this relationship is. The solution is always for Dodger to reunite with Roger; it's built into the structure of the story. I have a weakness for the soul-bound pair, in part from reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey at an impressionable age, but one of the dangerous pitfalls of the concept is that the characters then have to have an almost flawless relationship. If not, it can turn abusive very quickly, since the characters by definition cannot leave each other. It's essentially coercive, so as soon as the relationship shows a dark side, the author needs to be extremely careful. McGuire was not. There is an attempted partial patch, late in the book, for the patriarchal structure. One of the characters complains about it, and another says that the gender of the language and math pairs is random and went either way in other pairs. Given that both of the pairs that we meet in this story have the same male-dominant gender dynamic, what I took from this is that McGuire realized there was a problem but wasn't able to fix it. (I'm also reminded of David R. Henry's old line that it's never a good sign when the characters start complaining about the plot.) The structural problems are all the more frustrating because I think there were ways out of them. Roger is supposedly the embodiment of language, not that you'd be able to tell from most scenes in this novel. For reasons that I do not understand, McGuire expressed that as a love of words: lexicography, translation, and synonyms. This makes no sense to me. Those are some of the more structured and rules-based (and hence mathematical) parts of language. If Roger had instead been focused on stories collecting them, telling them, and understanding why and how they're told he would have had a clearer contrast with Dodger. More importantly, it would have solved the plot problem that McGuire solved with a nasty bit of patriarchy. So much could have been done with Dodger building a structure of math around Roger's story-based expansion of the possible, and it would have grounded Dodger's mathematics in something more interesting than symbolic magic. To me, it's such an obvious lost opportunity. I'm still upset about this book. McGuire does a lovely bit of world-building with Asphodel Baker, what little we see of her. I found the hidden alchemical war against her work by L. Frank Baum delightful, and enjoyed every excerpt from the fictional Over the Woodward Wall scattered throughout Middlegame. But a problem with inventing a fictional book to excerpt in a real novel is that the reader may decide that the fictional book sounds a lot better than the book they're reading, and start wishing they could just read that book instead. That was certainly the case for me. I'm sad that Over the Woodward Wall doesn't exist, and am mostly infuriated by Middlegame. Dodger and Erin deserved to live in a better book. Should you want to read this anyway (and I do know people who liked it), serious content warning for self-harm. Rating: 4 out of 10

23 November 2017

Russ Allbery: Holiday haul

Catching up on accumulated book purchases. I'm going to get another burst of reading time over the holidays (and am really looking forward to it). Alfred Bester The Stars My Destination (sff)
James Blish A Case of Conscience (sff)
Leigh Brackett The Long Tomorrow (sff)
Algis Budrys Who? (sff)
Frances Hardinge Fly By Night (sff)
Robert A. Heinlein Double Star (sff)
N.K. Jemisin The Obelisk Gate (sff)
N.K. Jemisin The Stone Sky (sff)
T. Kingfisher Clockwork Boys (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin City of Illusions (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin The Complete Orsinia (historical)
Ursula K. Le Guin The Dispossessed (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin Five Ways to Forgiveness (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin Planet of Exile (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin Rocannon's World (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin The Telling (sff)
Ursula K. Le Guin The World for Word Is Forest (sff)
Fritz Leiber The Big Time (sff)
Melina Marchetta Saving Francesca (mainstream)
Richard Matheson The Shrinking Man (sff)
Foz Meadows An Accident of Stars (sff)
Dexter Palmer Version Control (sff)
Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth The Space Merchants (sff)
Adam Rex True Meaning of Smekday (sff)
John Scalzi The Dispatcher (sff)
Julia Spencer-Fleming In the Bleak Midwinter (mystery)
R.E. Stearns Barbary Station (sff)
Theodore Sturgeon More Than Human (sff)
I'm listing the individual components except for the Orsinia collection, but the Le Guin are from the Library of America Hainish Novels & Stories two-volume set. I had several of these already, but I have a hard time resisting a high-quality Library of America collection for an author I really like. Now I can donate a bunch of old paperbacks. Similarly, a whole bunch of the older SF novels are from the Library of America American Science Fiction two-volume set, which I finally bought since I was ordering Library of America sets anyway. The rest is a pretty random collection of stuff, although several of them are recommendations from Light. I was reading through her old reviews and getting inspired to read (and review) more.

Next.