Search Results: "vivi"

22 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: And Shall Machines Surrender

Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Series: Machine Mandate #1
Publisher: Prime Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-60701-533-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 86
Shenzhen Sphere is an artificial habitat wrapped like complex ribbons around a star. It is wealthy, opulent, and notoriously difficult to enter, even as a tourist. For Dr. Orfea Leung to be approved for a residency permit was already a feat. Full welcome and permanence will be much harder, largely because of Shenzhen's exclusivity, but also because Orfea was an agent of Armada of Amaryllis and is now a fugitive. Shenzhen is not, primarily, a human habitat, although humans live there. It is run by the Mandate, the convocation of all the autonomous AIs in the galaxy that formed when they decided to stop serving humans. Shenzhen is their home. It is also where they form haruspices: humans who agree to be augmented so that they can carry an AI with them. Haruspices stay separate from normal humans, and Orfea has no intention of getting involved with them. But that's before her former lover, the woman who betrayed her in the Armada, is assigned to her as one of her patients. And has been augmented in preparation for becoming a haruspex. Then multiple haruspices kill themselves. This short novella is full of things that I normally love: tons of crunchy world-building, non-traditional relationships, a solidly non-western setting, and an opportunity for some great set pieces. And yet, I couldn't get into it or bring myself to invest in the story, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It took me more than a week to get through less than 90 pages, and then I had to re-read the ending to remind me of the details. I think the primary problem was that I read books primarily for the characters, and I couldn't find a path to an emotional connection with any of these. I liked Orfea's icy reserve and tight control in the abstract, but she doesn't want to explain what she's thinking or what motivates her, and the narration doesn't force the matter. Krissana is a bit more accessible, but she's not the one driving the story. It doesn't help that And Shall Machines Surrender starts in medias res, with a hinted-at backstory in the Armada of Amaryllis, and then never fills in the details. I felt like I was scrabbling on a wall of ice, trying to find some purchase as a reader. The relationships made this worse. Orfea is a sexual sadist who likes power games, and the story dives into her relationship with Krissana with a speed that left me uninterested and uninvested. I don't mind BDSM in story relationships, but it requires some foundation: trust, mental space, motivations, effects on the other character, something. Preferably, at least for me, all romantic relationships in fiction get some foundation, but the author can get away with some amount of shorthand if the relationship follows cliched patterns. The good news is that the relationships in this book are anything but cliched; the bad news is that the characters were in the middle of sex while I was still trying to figure out what they thought about each other (and the sex scenes were not elucidating). Here too, I needed some sort of emotional entry point that Sriduangkaew didn't provide. The plot was okay, but sort of disappointing. There are some interesting AI politics and philosophical disagreements crammed into not many words, and I do still want to know more, but a few of the plot twists were boringly straightforward and too many words were spent on fight scenes that verged on torture descriptions. This is a rather gory book with a lot of (not permanent) maiming that I could have done without, mostly because it wasn't that interesting. I also was disappointed by the somewhat gratuitous use of a Dyson sphere, mostly because I was hoping for some set pieces that used it and they never came. Dyson spheres are tempting to use because the visual and concept is so impressive, but it's rare to find an author who understands how mindbogglingly huge the structure is and is able to convey that in the story. Sriduangkaew does not; while there are some lovely small-scale descriptions of specific locations, the story has an oddly claustrophobic feel that never convinced me it was set somewhere as large as a planet, let alone the artifact described at the start of the story. You could have moved the whole story to a space station and nothing would have changed. The only purpose to which that space is put, at least in this installment of the story, is as an excuse to have an unpopulated hidden arena for a fight scene. The world-building is great, what there is of it. Despite not warming to this story, I kind of want to read more of the series just to get more of the setting. It feels like a politically complicated future with a lot of factions and corners and a realistic idea of bureaucracy and spheres of government, which is rarer than I would like it to be. And I loved that the cultural basis for the setting is neither western nor Japanese in both large and small ways. There is a United States analogue in the political background, but they're both assholes and not particularly important, which is a refreshing change in English-language SF. (And I am pondering whether my inability to connect with the characters is because they're not trying to be familiar to a western lens, which is another argument for trying the second installment and seeing if I adapt with more narrative exposure.) Overall, I have mixed feelings. Neither the plot nor the characters worked for me, and I found a few other choices (such as the third-person present tense) grating. The setting has huge potential and satisfying complexity, but wasn't used as vividly or as deeply as I was hoping. I can't recommend it, but I feel like there's something here that may be worth investing some more time into. Followed by Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast. Rating: 6 out of 10

10 August 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Mum, Samsung Galaxy M-52

Mum I dunno from where to start. While I m not supposed to announce it, mum left this earth a month ago (thirteen days when I started to write this blog post) ago. I am still in part denial, part shock, and morose. Of all the seasons in a year, the rainy season used to be my favorite, now would I ever be able to look and feel other than the emptiness that this season has given me? In some senses, it is and was very ironic, when she became ill about last year, I had promised myself I would be by her side for 5-6 years, not go anywhere either Hillhacks or Debconf or any meetup and I was ok with that. Now that she s no more I have no clue why am I living. What is the purpose, the utility? When she was alive, the utility was understandable. We had an unspoken agreement, I would like after her, and she was supposed to look after me. A part of me self-blames as I am sure, I have done thousands of things wrong otherwise the deal was that she was going to be for another decade. But now that she has left not even halfway, I dunno what to do. I don t have someone to fight with anymore  It s mostly a robotic existence atm. I try to distract myself via movies, web series, the web, books, etc. whatever can take my mind off. From the day she died to date, I have a lower back pain which acts as a reminder. It s been a month, I eat, drink, and am surviving but still feel empty. I do things suggested by extended family but within there is no feeling, just emptiness :(. I have no clue if things will get better and even if I do want the change. I clearly have no idea, so let me share a little about what I know.

Samsung Galaxy M-52G Just a couple of days before she died, part of our extended family had come and she chose that opportunity to gift me Samsung Galaxy M-52G even though my birthday was 3 months away. Ironically, after I purchased it, the next day, one of the resellers of the phone cut the price from INR 28k to 20k. If a day more, I could have saved another 8k/- but what s done is done  To my mind, the phone is middling yet a solid phone. I had the phone drop accidentally at times but not a single scratch or anything like that. One can look at the specs in greater detail on fccd.io. Before the recent price drop, as I shared it was a mid-range phone so am gonna review it on that basis itself. One of the first things I did is to buy a plastic cover as well as a cover shield even though the original one is meant to work for a year or more. This was simply for added protection and it has served me to date. Even with the additional weight, I can easily use it with one hand. It only becomes problematic when using chatting apps. such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Quicksy and a few others where it comes with Samsung keyboard with the divided/split keyboard. The A.I. for guessing words and sentences are spot-on when you are doing it in English but if you try a mixture of Hinglish (Hindi and English) that becomes a bit of a nightmare. Tryng to each A.I; new words is something of a task. I wish there was an interface in which I could train the A.I. so it could be served for Hinglish words also. I do think it does, but it s too rudimentary as it is to be any useful at least where it is now.

WiFi Direct While my previous phone did use wifi direct but it that ancient android version wasn t wedded to Wifi Direct as this one is. You have essentially two ways to connect to any system outside. One is through Wi-Fi Direct and the more expensive way is through mobile data. One of the strange things I found quite a number of times, that Wifi would lose it pairings. Before we get into it, Wikipedia has a good explanation of what Wifi direct is all about. Apparently, either my phone or my modem loses the pairing, which of the two is the culprit, I really don t know. There are two apps from the Play Store that do help in figuring out what the issue is (although it is limited in what it gives out in info. but still good.) The first one is Wifi Signal Meter and the other one is WifiAnalyzer (open-source). I have found that pairing done through Wifi Signal Meter works better than through Google s own implementation which feels lacking. The whole universe of Android seems to be built on apps and games and many of these can be bought for money, but many of these can also be played using a combination of micro-transactions and ads. For many a game, you cannot play for more than 5 minutes before you either see an ad or wait for something like 2-3 hrs. before you attempt again. Hogwarts Mystery, for e.g., is an example of that. Another one would be Explore Lands . While Hogwarts Mystery is more towards the lore created by J.K.Rowling and you can really get into the thick of things if you know the lore, Explore lands is more into Exploration of areas. In both the games, you are basically looking to gain energy over a period of time, which requires either money or viewing ads or a combination of both Sadly most ads and even Google don t seem to have caught up that I m deaf so most ads do not have subtitles, so more often than not they are useless to me. I have found also that many games share screenshots or videos that have nothing to do with how the game is. So there is quite a bit of misleading going on. I did read that Android had been having issues with connecting with developers after their app. is in the Play Store. Most apps. ask and require a whole lot of permissions that aren t needed by that app.

F-Droid Think Pirate Praveen had introduced me to F-Droid and a whole lot of things have happened in F-Droid, lot more apps. games etc. the look of F-Droid has been pulled back. In fact, I found Neo Store to be a better skin to see F-Droid. I have yet to explore more of F-Droid before sharing any recommendations and spending some time on it. I do find that many of foss apps. do need to work on how we communicate with our users. For e.g. one app. that Praveen had shared with me recently was Quicksy. And while it is better, it uses a double negative while asking permission whether it should or not to use more of the phone s resources. It is an example of that sort of language that we need to be aware of and be better. I know this post is more on the mobile rather than the desktop but that is where I m living currently.

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

2 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Overdue

Review: Overdue, by Amanda Oliver
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-64160-534-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 190
Like many lifetime readers, I adored the public library. I read my way through three different children's libraries at the rate of a grocery sack of books per week, including numerous re-readings, and then moved on to the adult section as my introduction to science fiction. But once I had a regular job, I discovered the fun of filling shelves with books without having to return them or worry about what the library had available. I've always supported my local library, but it's been decades since I spent much time in it. When I last used one heavily, the only computers were at the checkout desk and the only books were physical, normally hardcovers. Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library therefore caught my eye when I saw a Twitter thread about it before publication. It promised to be a picture of the modern public library and its crises from the perspective of the librarian. The author's primary topic was the drafting of public libraries as de facto homeless service centers, but I hoped it would also encompass technological change, demand for new services, and the shifting meaning of what a public library is for. Overdue does... some of that. The author was a children's librarian in a Washington DC public school and then worked at a downtown branch of the Washington DC public library, and the book includes a few anecdotes from both experiences. Most of the book, though, is Oliver's personal memoir of how she got into field, why she chose to leave it, and how she is making sense of her feelings about the profession. Intermixed with that memoir is wide-ranging political commentary on topics ranging from gentrification to mental health care. This material is relevant to the current challenges libraries face, but it wandered far afield from what I was hoping to get from the book. I think of non-fiction books as coming in a few basic shapes. One is knowledge from an expert: the author has knowledge about a topic that is not widely shared, and they write a book to share it. Another is popularization: an author, possibly without prior special expertise in the topic, does research the reader could have done but doesn't have time to do and then summarizes the results in a format that's easier to understand than the original material. And a third is memoir, in which the author tells the story of their own life. This is a variation of the first type, since the author is obviously an expert in their own life, but most people's lives are not interesting. (Mine certainly isn't!) Successful memoir therefore depends on either having an unusual life or being a compelling storyteller, and ideally both. Many non-fiction books fall into multiple categories, but it's helpful for an author to have a clear idea of which of these goals they're pursuing since they result in different books. If the author is writing primarily from a position of special expertise, the book should focus on that expertise. I am interested in librarians and libraries and would like to know more about that job, so I will read with interest your personal stories about being a librarian. I am somewhat interested in your policy suggestions for how to make libraries work better, although more so if you can offer context and analysis beyond your personal experiences. I am less interested in your opinions on, say, gentrification. That's not because I doubt it is a serious problem (it is) or that it impacts libraries (it does). It's because working in a library doesn't provide any special expertise in gentrification beyond knowing that it exists, something that I can see by walking around the corner. If I want to know more, I will read books by urban planners, sociologists, and housing rights activists. This is a long-winded way of saying that I wish Overdue had about four times as many stories about libraries, preferably framed by general research and background that extended beyond the author's personal experience, or at least more specific details of the politics of the Washington DC library system. The personal memoir outside of the library stories failed to hold my interest. This is not intended as a slam on the author. Oliver seems like a thoughtful and sincere person who is struggling with how to do good in the world without burning out, which is easy for me to sympathize with. I suspect I broadly agree with her on many political positions. But I have read all of this before, and personally lived through some of the same processing, and I don't think Oliver offered new insight. The library stories were memorable enough to form the core of a good book, but the memoir structure did nothing for them and they were strangled by the unoriginal and too-general political analysis. At the risk of belaboring a negative review, there are two other things in Overdue that I've also seen in other writing and seem worth commenting on. The first is the defensive apology that the author may not have the best perspective to write the book. It's important to be clear: I am glad that the Oliver has thought about the ways her experiences as a white woman may not be representative of other people. This is great; the world is a better place when more people consider that. I'm less fond of putting that observation in the book, particularly at length. As the author, rather than writing paragraphs vaguely acknowledging that other people have different experiences, she could instead fix the problem: go talk to librarians of other ethnic and social backgrounds and put their stories in this book. The book would then represent broader experiences and not require the apology. Overdue desperately needed more library-specific content, so that would have improved the book in more than one way. Or if Oliver is ideologically opposed to speaking for other people (she makes some comments to that effect), state up-front, once, that this is a personal memoir and, as a memoir, represents only her own experience. But the author should do something with this observation other than dump its awkwardness on the reader, if for no other reason than that lengthy disclaimers about the author's limited perspective are boring. The second point is about academic jargon and stock phrasing. I work in a field that relies on precise distinctions of meaning (between identity, authentication, and authorization, for example), and therefore I rely on jargon. Its purpose is to make those types of fine distinctions. But authors who read heavily in fields with jargon tend to let that phrasing slip into popular writing where it's not necessary. The result is, to quote Orwell, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." The effect may be small in a single sentence but, when continued throughout a book, the overuse of jargon is leaden, belabored, and confusing. Any example I choose will be minor since the effect is cumulative, but one of several I noticed in Overdue is "lived experience." This is jargon from philosophy that, within the field, draws a useful distinction between one's direct experiences of living in the world, and academic or scientific experience with a field. Both types of experience are valuable in different situations, but they're not equivalent. This is a useful phrase when the distinction matters and is unclear. When the type of experience one is discussing is obvious in context (the case in at least three of the four uses in this book), the word "lived" adds nothing but verbosity. If too much of this creeps into writing, it becomes clunky and irritating to read. The best (and not coincidentally the least clunky) part of this book is Oliver's stories of the patrons and other employees of the Northwest One branch of the Washington DC library system and her experiences with them. The picture was not as vivid as I was hoping for, but I came away with some new understanding of typical interactions and day-to-day difficulties. The same was true to a lesser extent for her experiences as a school librarian. For both, I wish there had been more context and framing so that I could see how her experiences fit into a whole system, but those parts of the book were worth reading. Unfortunately, they weren't enough of those parts in the book for me to recommend Overdue. But I'm still interested in reading the book I hoped I was getting! Rating: 5 out of 10

27 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Light from Uncommon Stars

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-78907-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 371
Katrina Nguyen is an young abused transgender woman. As the story opens, she's preparing to run away from home. Her escape bag is packed with meds, clothes, her papers, and her violin. The note she is leaving for her parents says that she's going to San Francisco, a plausible lie. Her actual destination is Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley, where a man she met at a queer youth conference said he'd give her a place to sleep. Shizuka Satomi is the Queen of Hell, the legendary uncompromising violin teacher responsible for six previous superstars, at least within the limited world of classical music. She's wealthy, abrasive, demanding, and intimidating, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world she has made a literal bargain with Hell. She has to deliver seven souls, seven violin players who want something badly enough that they'll bargain with Hell to get it. Six have already been delivered in spectacular fashion, but she's running out of time to deliver the seventh before her own soul is forfeit. Tamiko Grohl, an up-and-coming violinist from her native Los Angeles, will hopefully be the seventh. Lan Tran is a refugee and matriarch of a family who runs Starrgate Donut. She and her family didn't flee another unstable or inhospitable country. They fled the collapsing Galactic Empire, securing their travel authorization by promising to set up a tourism attraction. Meanwhile, she's careful to give cops free donuts and to keep their advanced technology carefully concealed. The opening of this book is unlikely to be a surprise in general shape. Most readers would expect Katrina to end up as Satomi's student rather than Tamiko, and indeed she does, although not before Katrina has a very difficult time. Near the start of the novel, I thought "oh, this is going to be hurt/comfort without a romantic relationship," and it is. But it then goes beyond that start into a multifaceted story about complexity, resilience, and how people support each other. It is also a fantastic look at the nuance and intricacies of being or supporting a transgender person, vividly illustrated by a story full of characters the reader cares about and without the academic abstruseness that often gets in the way. The problems with gender-blindness, the limitations of honoring someone's gender without understanding how other people do not, the trickiness of privilege, gender policing as a distraction and alienation from the rest of one's life, the complications of real human bodies and dysmorphia, the importance of listening to another person rather than one's assumptions about how that person feels it's all in here, flowing naturally from the story, specific to the characters involved, and never belabored. I cannot express how well-handled this is. It was a delight to read. The other wonderful thing Aoki does is set Satomi up as the almost supernaturally competent teacher who in a sense "rescues" Katrina, and then invert the trope, showing the limits of Satomi's expertise, the places where she desperately needs human connection for herself, and her struggle to understand Katrina well enough to teach her at the level Satomi expects of herself. Teaching is not one thing to everyone; it's about listening, and Katrina is nothing like Satomi's other students. This novel is full of people thinking they finally understand each other and realizing there is still more depth that they had missed, and then talking through the gap like adults. As you can tell from any summary of this book, it's an odd genre mash-up. The fantasy part is a classic "magician sells her soul to Hell" story; there are a few twists, but it largely follows genre expectations. The science fiction part involving Lan is unfortunately weaker and feels more like a random assortment of borrowed Star Trek tropes than coherent world-building. Genre readers should not come to this story expecting a well-thought-out science fiction universe or a serious attempt to reconcile metaphysics between the fantasy and science fiction backgrounds. It's a quirky assortment of parts that don't normally go together, defy easy classification, and are often unexplained. I suspect this was intentional on Aoki's part given how deeply this book is about the experience of being transgender. Of the three primary viewpoint characters, I thought Lan's perspective was the weakest, and not just because of her somewhat generic SF background. Aoki uses her as a way to talk about the refugee experience, describing her as a woman who brings her family out of danger to build a new life. This mostly works, but Lan has vastly more power and capabilities than a refugee would normally have. Rather than the typical Asian refugee experience in the San Gabriel valley, Lan is more akin to a US multimillionaire who for some reason fled to Vietnam (relative to those around her, Lan is arguably even more wealthy than that). This is also a refugee experience, but it is an incredibly privileged one in a way that partly undermines the role that she plays in the story. Another false note bothered me more: I thought Tamiko was treated horribly in this story. She plays a quite minor role, sidelined early in the novel and appearing only briefly near the climax, and she's portrayed quite negatively, but she's clearly hurting as deeply as the protagonists of this novel. Aoki gives her a moment of redemption, but Tamiko gets nothing from it. Unlike every other injured and abused character in this story, no one is there for Tamiko and no one ever attempts to understand her. I found that profoundly sad. She's not an admirable character, but neither is Satomi at the start of the book. At least a gesture at a future for Tamiko would have been appreciated. Those two complaints aside, though, I could not put this book down. I was able to predict the broad outline of the plot, but the specifics were so good and so true to characters. Both the primary and supporting cast are unique, unpredictable, and memorable. Light from Uncommon Stars has a complex relationship with genre. It is squarely in the speculative fiction genre; the plot would not work without the fantasy and (more arguably) the science fiction elements. Music is magical in a way that goes beyond what can be attributed to metaphor and subjectivity. But it's also primarily character story deeply rooted in the specific location of the San Gabriel valley east of Los Angeles, full of vivid descriptions (particularly of food) and day-to-day life. As with the fantasy and science fiction elements, Aoki does not try to meld the genre elements into a coherent whole. She lets them sit side by side and be awkward and charming and uneven and chaotic. If you're the sort of SF reader who likes building a coherent theory of world-building rules, you may have to turn that desire off to fully enjoy this book. I thought this book was great. It's not flawless, but like its characters it's not trying to be flawless. In places it is deeply insightful and heartbreakingly emotional; in others, it's a glorious mess. It's full of cooking and food, YouTube fame, the disappointments of replicators, video game music, meet-cutes over donuts, found family, and classical music drama. I wish we'd gotten way more about the violin repair shop and a bit less warmed-over Star Trek, but I also loved it exactly the way it was. Definitely the best of the 2022 Hugo nominees that I've read so far. Content warning for child abuse, rape, self-harm, and somewhat explicit sex work. The start of the book is rather heavy and horrific, although the author advertises fairly clearly (and accurately) that things will get better. Rating: 9 out of 10

26 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Feet of Clay

Review: Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #19
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227551-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 392
Feet of Clay is the 19th Discworld novel, the third Watch novel, and probably not the best place to start. You could read only Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms before this one, though, if you wanted. This story opens with a golem selling another golem to a factory owner, obviously not caring about the price. This is followed by two murders: an elderly priest, and the curator of a dwarven bread museum. (Dwarf bread is a much-feared weapon of war.) Meanwhile, assassins are still trying to kill Watch Commander Vimes, who has an appointment to get a coat of arms. A dwarf named Cheery Littlebottom is joining the Watch. And Lord Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has been poisoned. There's a lot going on in this book, and while it's all in some sense related, it's more interwoven than part of a single story. The result felt to me like a day-in-the-life episode of a cop show: a lot of character development, a few largely separate plot lines so that the characters have something to do, and the development of a few long-running themes that are neither started nor concluded in this book. We check in on all the individual Watch members we've met to date, add new ones, and at the end of the book everyone is roughly back to where they were when the book started. This is, to be clear, not a bad thing for a book to do. It relies on the reader already caring about the characters and being invested in the long arc of the series, but both of those are true of me, so it worked. Cheery is a good addition, giving Pratchett an opportunity to explore gender nonconformity with a twist (all dwarfs are expected to act the same way regardless of gender, which doesn't work for Cheery) and, even better, giving Angua more scenes. Angua is among my favorite Watch characters, although I wish she'd gotten more of a resolution for her relationship anxiety in this book. The primary plot is about golems, which on Discworld are used in factories because they work nonstop, have no other needs, and do whatever they're told. Nearly everyone in Ankh-Morpork considers them machinery. If you've read any Discworld books before, you will find it unsurprising that Pratchett calls that belief into question, but the ways he gets there, and the links between the golem plot and the other plot threads, have a few good twists and turns. Reading this, I was reminded vividly of Orwell's discussion of Charles Dickens:
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's "as good is from evil." Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart" that, essentially, is what he is always saying. If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A "change of heart" is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.
and later:
His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, "Behave decently," which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, "an expression on the human face."
I think Pratchett is, in that sense, a Dickensian writer, and it shows all through Discworld. He does write political crises (there is one in this book), but the crises are moral or personal, not ideological or structural. The Watch novels are often concerned with systems of government, but focus primarily on the popular appeal of kings, the skill of the Patrician, and the greed of those who would maneuver for power. Pratchett does not write (at least so far) about the proper role of government, the impact of Vetinari's policies (or even what those policies may be), or political theory in any deep sense. What he does write about, at great length, is morality, fairness, and a deeply generous humanism, all of which are central to the golem plot. Vimes is a great protagonist for this type of story. He's grumpy, cynical, stubborn, and prejudiced, and we learn in this book that he's a descendant of the Discworld version of Oliver Cromwell. He can be reflexively self-centered, and he has no clear idea how to use his newfound resources. But he behaves decently towards people, in both big and small things, for reasons that the reader feels he could never adequately explain, but which are rooted in empathy and an instinctual sense of fairness. It's fun to watch him grumble his way through the plot while making snide comments about mysteries and detectives. I do have to complain a bit about one of those mysteries, though. I would have enjoyed the plot around Vetinari's poisoning more if Pratchett hadn't mercilessly teased readers who know a bit about French history. An allusion or two would have been fun, but he kept dropping references while having Vimes ignore them, and I found the overall effect both frustrating and irritating. That and a few other bits, like Angua's uncommunicative angst, fell flat for me. Thankfully, several other excellent scenes made up for them, such as Nobby's high society party and everything about the College of Heralds. Also, Vimes's impish PDA (smartphone without the phone, for those younger than I am) remains absurdly good commentary on the annoyances of portable digital devices despite an original publication date of 1996. Feet of Clay is less focused than the previous Watch novels and more of a series book than most Discworld novels. You're reading about characters introduced in previous books with problems that will continue into subsequent books. The plot and the mysteries are there to drive the story but seem relatively incidental to the characterization. This isn't a complaint; at this point in the series, I'm in it for the long haul, and I liked the variation. As usual, Pratchett is stronger for me when he's not overly focused on parody. His own characters are as good as the material he's been parodying, and I'm happy to see them get a book that's not overshadowed by another material. If you've read this far in the series, or even in just the Watch novels, recommended. Followed by Hogfather in publication order and, thematically, by Jingo. Rating: 8 out of 10

29 May 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Kleptopia

Review: Kleptopia, by Tom Burgis
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2020
Printing: September 2021
ISBN: 0-06-323613-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 340
Kleptopia is a nonfiction chronicle of international financial corruption and money laundering told via a focus on the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. The primary characters are a British banker named Nigel Wilkins (at the start of the story, the head of compliance in the London office of the Swiss bank BSI), a group of businessmen from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan called the Trio, and a Kazakh oligarch and later political dissident named Mukhtar Ablyazov, although the story spreads beyond them. It is partly a detailed example of what money laundering looks like in practice: where the money comes from, who has it, what they want to do with it, who they hire to move it, and what countries welcome it. But it is more broadly about the use of politics for financial plunder, and what stories we tell about the results. The title of this book feels a bit like clickbait, and I was worried it would be mostly opinion and policy discussion. It is the exact opposite. Tom Burgis is an investigations correspondent at the Financial Times, and this is a detailed piece of investigative journalism (backed by a hundred pages of notes and detailed attributions). Burgis has a clear viewpoint and expresses it when it seems relevant, but the vast majority of this book is the sort of specific account of people, dates, times, and events that one would expect from a full-length investigative magazine piece, except maintained at book length. Even aside from the subject matter, I love that writing like this exists. It's often best in magazines, newspapers, and on-line articles for timeliness, since book publishing is slow, but some subjects require the length of a book. Burgis is the sort of reporter who travels the world to meet with sources in person, and who, before publication, presents his conclusions to everyone mentioned for their rebuttals (many of which are summarized or quoted in detail in the notes so that the reader can draw their own credibility conclusions). Whether or not one agrees with his specific conclusions or emphasis, we need more of this sort of journalism in the world. I knew essentially nothing about Kazakhstan or its politics before reading this book. I also had not appreciated the degree to which exploitation of natural resources is the original source of the money for international money laundering. In both Kazakhstan and Africa (a secondary setting for this book), people get rich largely because of things dug or pumped out of the ground. That money, predictably, does not go to the people doing the hard work of digging and pumping, who work in appalling conditions and are put down with violence if they try to force change. (In one chapter, Burgis tells the harrowing and nightmarish story of Roza Tuletayeva, a striker at the oil field in Zhanaozen.) It's gathered up by the already rich and politically connected, who gained control of former state facilities during the post-Soviet collapse and then maintained their power with violence and corruption. And once they have money, they try to convert it into holdings in European banks, London real estate, and western corporations. The primary thing I will remember from this book is the degree to which oligarchs rely on being able to move between two systems. They make their money in unstable or authoritarian countries with high degrees of political corruption and violence, and are adept at navigating that world (although sometimes it turns on them; more on that in a moment). But they don't want to leave their money in that world. Someone else could betray them, undermine them, or gain the ear of the local dictator. They rely instead on western countries with strong property rights, stable financial institutions, and vast legal systems devoted to protecting the wealth of people who are already rich. In essence, they play both rule sets against each other: make money through techniques that would be illegal in London, and then move their money to London so that the British government and legal system will protect it against others who are trying to do the same. What they get out of this is obvious. What London gets out of it is another theme of this book: it's a way for a lot of people to share the wealth without doing any of the crimes. Money laundering is a very lossy activity. Lots of money falls out of the cart along the way, where it is happily scooped up by bankers, lawyers, accountants, public relations consultants, and the rest of the vast machinery of theoretically legitimate business. Everyone wins, except the people the money is being stolen from in the first place. (And the planet; Burgis doesn't talk much about the environment, but I found the image of one-way extraction of irreplaceable natural resources haunting and disturbing.) Donald Trump does make an appearance here, although not as significant of one as I was expecting given the prominent appearance of Trump crony Felix Sater. Trump is part of the machinery that allows oligarch money to become legally-protected business investment, but it's also clear from Burgis's telling that he is (at least among the money flows Burgis is focused on) a second-tier player with delusions of grandeur. He's more notable for his political acumen and ability to craft media stories than his money-laundering skills. The story-telling is a third theme of this book. The electorate of the societies into which oligarchs try to move their money aren't fond of crime, mob activity, political corruption, or authoritarian exploitation of workers. If public opinion turns sufficiently strongly against specific oligarchs, the normally friendly mechanisms of law and business regulation may have to take action. The primary defense of laundered money is hiding its origins sufficiently that it's too hard to investigate or explain to a jury, but there are limits to how completely the money can hide given that oligarchs still want to spend it. They need to tell a story about how they are modernizing businessmen, aghast at the lingering poor conditions of their home countries but working earnestly to slowly improve them. And they need to defend those stories against people who might try to draw a clearer link between them and criminal activity. The competing stories between dissident oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov and the Kazakh government led by Nursultan Nazarbayev are a centerpiece of this book. Ablyazov is in some sense a hero of the story, someone who attempted to expose the corruption of Nazerbayev's government and was jailed by Nazerbayev for corruption in retaliation. But Burgis makes clear the tricky fact that Ablyazov likely is guilty of at least some (and possibly a lot) of the money laundering of which he was accused. It's a great illustration of the perils of simple good or bad labels when trying to understand this world from the outside. All of these men are playing similar games, and all of them are trying to tell stories where they are heroes and their opponents are corrupt thieves. And yet, there is not a moral equivalency. Ablyazov is not a good person, but what Nazerbayev attempted to do to his family is appalling, far worse than anything Ablyazov did, and the stories about Ablyazov that have prevailed to date in British courts are not an attempt to reach the truth. The major complaint that I have about Kleptopia is that this is a highly complex story with a large number of characters, but Burgis doesn't tell it in chronological order. He jumps forward and backward in time to introduce new angles of the story, and I'm not sure that was the right structural choice. Maybe a more linear story would have been even more confusing, but I got lost in the chronology at several points. Be prepared to put in some work as a reader in keeping the timeline straight. I also have to warn that this is not in any way a hopeful book. Burgis introduces Nigel Wilkins and his quixotic quest to expose the money laundering activities of European banks early in the book. In a novel that would set up a happy ending in which Wilkins brings down the edifice, or at least substantial portions of it. We do not live in a novel, sadly. Kleptopia is not purely depressing, but by and large the bad guys win. This is not a history of corruption that we've exposed and overcome. It's a chronicle of a problem that is getting worse, and that the US and British governments are failing to address. Burgis's publishers successfully defended a libel suit in British courts brought by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, the primary corporate entity of the Trio who are the primary villains of this book. I obviously haven't done my own independent research, but after reading this book, including the thorough notes, this looks to me like the type of libel suit that should serve as an advertisement for its target. I can't say I enjoyed reading this, particularly at the end when the arc becomes clear. Understanding how little governments and institutions care about stopping money laundering is not a pleasant experience. But it's an important book, well and vividly told (except for the chronology), and grounded in solid investigative journalism. Recommended; I'm glad I read it. 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 December 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2021: Non-fiction

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

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

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

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

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

28 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Out of Office

Review: Out of Office, by Charlie Warzel & Anne Helen Petersen
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 0-593-32010-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 260
Out of Office opens with the provocative assertion that you were not working from home during the pandemic, even if you were among the 42% of Americans who were able to work remotely.
You were, quite literally, doing your job from home. But you weren't working from home. You were laboring in confinement and under duress. Others have described it as living at work. You were frantically tapping out an email while trying to make lunch and supervise distance learning. You were stuck alone in a cramped apartment for weeks, unable to see friends or family, exhausted, and managing a level of stress you didn't know was possible. Work became life, and life became work. You weren't thriving. You were surviving.
The stated goal of this book is to reclaim the concept of working from home, not only from the pandemic, but also from the boundary-destroying metastasis of work into non-work life. It does work towards that goal, but the description of what would be required for working from home to live up to its promise becomes a sweeping critique of the organization and conception of work, leaving it nearly as applicable to those who continue working from an office. Turns out that the main problem with working from home is the work part, not the "from home" part. This was a fascinating book to read in conjunction with A World Without Email. Warzel and Petersen do the the structural and political analysis that I sometimes wish Newport would do more of, but as a result offer less concrete advice. Both, however, have similar diagnoses of the core problems of the sort of modern office work that could be done from home: it's poorly organized, poorly managed, and desperately inefficient. Rather than attempting to fix those problems, which is difficult, structural, and requires thought and institutional cooperation, we're compensating by working more. This both doesn't work and isn't sustainable. Newport has a background in productivity books and a love of systems and protocols, so his focus in A World Without Email is on building better systems of communication and organization of work. Warzel and Petersen come from a background of reporting and cultural critique, so they put more focus on power imbalances and power-serving myths about the American dream. Where Newport sees an easy-to-deploy ad hoc work style that isn't fit for purpose, Warzel and Petersen are more willing to point out intentional exploitation of workers in the guise of flexibility. But they arrive at some similar conclusions. The way office work is organized is not leading to more productivity. Tools like Slack encourage the public performance of apparent productivity at the cost of the attention and focus required to do meaningful work. And the process is making us miserable. Out of Office is, in part, a discussion of what would be required to do better work with less stress, but it also shares a goal with Newport and some (but not most) corners of productivity writing: spend less time and energy on work. The goal of Out of Office is not to get more work done. It's to work more efficiently and sustainably and thus work less. To reclaim the promise of flexibility so that it benefits the employee and not the employer. To recognize, in the authors' words, that the office can be a bully, locking people in to commute schedules and unnatural work patterns, although it also provides valuable moments of spontaneous human connection. Out of Office tries to envision a style of work that includes the office sometimes, home sometimes, time during the day to attend to personal chores or simply to take a mental break from an unnatural eight hours (or more) of continuous focus, universal design, real worker-centric flexibility, and an end to the constant productivity ratchet where faster work simply means more work for the same pay. That's a lot of topics for a short book, and structurally this is a grab bag. Some sections will land and some won't. Loom's video messages sound like a nightmare to me, and I rolled my eyes heavily at the VR boosterism, reluctant as it may be. The section on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) was a valiant effort that at least gestures towards the dismal track record of most such efforts, but still left me unconvinced that anyone knows how to improve diversity in an existing organization without far more brute-force approaches than anyone with power is usually willing to consider. But there's enough here, and the authors move through topics quickly enough, that a section that isn't working for you will soon be over. And some of the sections that do work are great. For example, the whole discussion of management.
Many of these companies view middle management as bloat, waste, what David Graeber would call a "bullshit job." But that's because bad management is a waste; you're paying someone more money to essentially annoy everyone around them. And the more people experience that sort of bad management, and think of it as "just the way it is," the less they're going to value management in general.
I admit to a lot of confirmation bias here, since I've been ranting about this for years, but management must be the most wide-spread professional job for which we ignore both training and capability and assume that anyone who can do any type of useful work can also manage people doing that work. It's simply not true, it creates workplaces full of horrible management, and that in turn creates a deep and unhelpful cynicism about all management. There is still a tendency on the left to frame this problem in terms of class struggle, on the reasonable grounds that for decades under "scientific management" of manufacturing that's what it was. Managers were there to overwork workers and extract more profits for the owners, and labor unions were there to fight back against managers. But while some of this does happen in the sort of office work this book is focused on, I think Warzel and Petersen correctly point to a different cause.
"The reason she was underpaid on the team was not because her boss was cackling in the corner. It was because nobody told the boss it was their responsibility to look at the fucking spreadsheet."
We don't train managers, we have no clear expectations for what managers should do, we don't meaningfully measure their performance, we accept a high-overhead and high-chaos workstyle based on ad hoc one-to-one communication that de-emphasizes management, and many managers have never seen good management and therefore have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. The management problem for many office workers is less malicious management than incompetent management, or simply no effective management at all apart from an occasional reorg and a complicated and mind-numbing annual review form. The last section of this book (apart from concluding letters to bosses and workers) is on community, and more specifically on extracting time and energy from work (via the roadmap in previous chapters) and instead investing it in the people around you. Much ink has been spilled about the collapse of American civic life, about how we went from a nation of joiners to a nation of isolated individual workers with weak and failing community institutions. Warzel and Petersen correctly lay some blame for this at the foot of work, and see the reorganization of work and an increase in work from home (and thus a decrease in commutes) as an opportunity to reverse that trend. David Brooks recently filled in for Ezra Klein on his podcast and talked with University of Chicago professor Leon Kass, which I listened to shortly after reading this book. In one segment, they talked about marriage and complained about the decline in marriage rates. They were looking for causes in people's moral upbringing, in their life priorities, in the lack of aspiration for permanence in kids these days, and in any other personal or moral failing that would allow them to be smugly judgmental. It was a truly remarkable thing to witness. Neither man at any point in the conversation mentioned either money or time. Back in the world most Americans live in, real wages have been stagnant for decades, student loan debt is skyrocketing as people desperately try to keep up with the ever-shifting requirements for a halfway-decent job, and work has expanded to fill all hours of the day, even for people who don't have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Employers have fully embraced a "flexible" workforce via layoffs, micro-optimizing work scheduling, eliminating benefits, relying on contract and gig labor, and embracing exceptional levels of employee turnover. The American worker has far less of money, time, and stability, three important foundations for marriage and family as well as participation in most other civic institutions. People like Brooks and Kass stubbornly cling to their feelings of moral superiority instead of seeing a resource crisis. Work has stolen the resources that people previously put into those other areas of their life. And it's not even using those resources effectively. That's, in a way, a restatement of the topic of this book. Our current way of organizing work is not sustainable, healthy, or wise. Working from home may be part of a strategy for changing it. The pandemic has already heavily disrupted work, and some of those changes, including increased working from home, seem likely to stick. That provides a narrow opportunity to renegotiate our arrangement with work and try to make those changes stick. I largely agree with the analysis, but I'm pessimistic. I think the authors are as well. We're very bad at social change, and there will be immense pressure for everything to go "back to normal." Those in the best bargaining position to renegotiate work for themselves are not in the habit of sharing that renegotiation with anyone else. But I'm somewhat heartened by how much public discussion there currently is about a more fundamental renegotiation of the rules of office work. I'm also reminded of a deceptively profound aphorism from economist Herbert Stein: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." This book is a bit uneven and is more of a collection of related thoughts than a cohesive argument, but if you are hungry for more worker-centric analyses of the dynamics of office work (inside or outside the office), I think it's worth reading. Rating: 7 out of 10

25 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Shattered Pillars

Review: Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear
Series: Eternal Sky #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2013
ISBN: 0-7653-2755-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 333
Shattered Pillars is the second book in the Eternal Sky series, which begins with Range of Ghosts. You should read them in order, and ideally close together, since they (along with the next book) form a single continuous story. I made the horrible mistake of reading the first book of an Elizabeth Bear series and then letting four years go by before reading the second one. Bear's trademark style is to underexplain things to the point that it can be hard to follow the plot when you remember it, let alone after more than sufficient time to forget even the general shape of the plot. I therefore spent most of this book (and a bit of Internet searching) trying to dig up pieces of my memory and reconstruct the story. Learn from my error and read the trilogy as one novel if you're going to read it. Please, authors and publishers, put a short plot synopsis at the start of series books. No, your hints about what happened previously that you weave into the first two chapters are not as good as a one-page plot synopsis. No, I don't want to have to re-read the first book; do you have any idea how many books I own but haven't read? No, the Internet doesn't provide plot synopses for every book. Give me a couple of paragraphs and help me enjoy your fiction! Argh. Possible spoiler warnings for the first book are in order because I don't remember the first book well enough to remember what plot details might be a spoiler. As Shattered Pillars opens, Temur, Samarkar, and their companions have reached the western city of Asitaneh, seeking help from Temur's grandfather to rescue Edene from the Nameless. This will require breaching the Nameless fortress of Ala-Din. That, in turn, will entangle Temur and Samarkar in the politics of the western caliphate, where al-Sepehr of the Nameless is also meddling. Far to the east, from where Samarkar came, a deadly plague breaks out in the city of Tsarepheth, one that follows an eerily reliable progression and is even more sinister than it may first appear. Al-Sepehr's plans to sow chaos and war using ancient evil magic and bend the results to his favor continue apace. But one of the chess pieces he thought he controlled has partly escaped his grasp. Behind all of this lurks the powers of Erem and its scorching, blinding, multi-sunned sky. Al-Sepehr believes he understands those powers well enough to use them. He may be wrong. This is entirely the middle book of a trilogy, in that essentially nothing is resolved here. All the pieces in motion at the start of this book are still in motion at the end of this book. We learn a lot more about the characters, get some tantalizing and obscure glances at Erem, and end the book with a firmer idea of the potential sides and powers in play, but there is barely any plot resolution and no proper intermediate climax. This is a book to read as part of a series, not on its own. That said, I enjoyed this book considerably more than I would have expected given how little is resolved. Bear's writing is vivid and engrossing and made me feel like I was present in this world even when nothing apparently significant was happening. And, as usual, her world-building is excellent if you like puzzles, stray hints, and complicated, multi-faceted mythology. This is a world in which the sky literally changes depending on which magical or mythological system reigns supreme in a given area, which in the Erem sections give it a science fiction flavor. If someone told me Bear could merge Silk Road historical fantasy with some of the feel of planetary romance (but far more sophisticated writing), I would have been dubious, but it works. Perhaps the best thing about this book is that all of the characters feel like adults. They make complex, nuanced decisions in pursuit of their goals, thoughtfully adjust to events, rarely make obviously stupid decisions, and generally act like the intelligent and experienced people that they are. This is refreshing in epic fantasy, where the plot tends to steamroll the characters and where often there's a young chosen one at the center of the plot whose courage and raw power overcomes repeated emotional stupidity. Shattered Pillars is careful, precise, and understated where epic fantasy is often brash, reckless, and over-explained. That plus the subtle and deep world-building makes this world feel older and more complex than most series of this sort. There's also a magical horse, who is delightfully uninterested in revealing anything about where it came from or why it's magical, and who was probably my favorite character of the book. Hrahima, the giant tiger-woman, is a close second. I was intrigued to learn more about her complicated relationship with her entirely separate mythology, and hope there's more about that the third book. The villain is still hissable, but a bit less blatantly so on camera. It helps that the scenes from the villains' perspective primarily focus on his more interesting servants. One of the problems with this book, and I think one of the reasons why it feels so transitional and intermediate, is that there are a lot of viewpoint characters and a lot of scene-switching. We're kept up-to-date with four separate threads of events, generally with more than one viewpoint character in each of those threads, and at times (particularly with the wizards of Tsarepheth) I had trouble keeping all the supporting characters straight. Hopefully the third book will quickly merge plot lines and bring some of this complexity together. I wish I'd read this more closely to Range of Ghosts. Either that or a plot synopsis would have helped me enjoy it more. But this is solid epic fantasy by one of SFF's better writers, and now I'm invested in the series again. Some unfortunate logistics are currently between me and the third book, but it won't be four years before I finish the series. Followed by Steles of the Sky. Rating: 7 out of 10

6 December 2021

Jonathan Dowland: Sixth Annual UK System Research Challenges Workshop lightning talk

me looking awkward, thanks [Mark Little](https://twitter.com/nmcl/status/1466148768043126791/photo/1) me looking awkward, thanks Mark Little
Last week I attended the UK Systems Research 2021 conference in County Durham, my first conference in nearly two years (since FOSDEM 2020, right on the cusp of the Pandemic). The Systems conference community is very pleasant and welcoming and so when I heard it was going to take place "physically" again this year I was so keen to attend I decided to hedge my bets and submit two talk proposals. I wasn't expecting them both to be accepted As well as the regular talks (more on those in another post) there is a tradition for people to give short, impromptu lightning talks after dinner on the second night. I've given two of these before, and I'd been considering whether to offer to one this time or not, but with two talks to deliver (and finish writing) I wasn't sure. Usually people talk about something interesting that they have been doing besides their research or day-jobs, but the last two years have been somewhat difficult and I didn't really think I had a topic to talk about. Then I wondered if that was a topic in itself During the first day of the conference (and especially one I'd got past one of my talks) I started to outline a lightning talk idea and it seemed to come out well enough that I thought I'd give it a go. Unusually I therefore had something written down and I was surprised how well it was received, so I thought I'd share it. Here it is:
I was anticipating the lightning talks and being cajoled into talking about something. I've done it twice before. So I've been racking my brains to figure out if I've done anything interesting enough to talk about. in 2018 I talked about some hack I'd made to the classic computer game Doom from 1993. I've done several hacks to Doom that I could probably talk about except I've become a bit uncomfortable about increasingly being thought of as "that doom guy". I'd been reflecting on why it was that I continued to mess about with that game in the first place and I realised it was a form of expression: I was treating Doom like a canvas. I've spent most of my career thinking about what I do in the frame of either science or engineering. I suffer from the creative urge and I've often expressed (and sated) that through my work. And that's possible because there's a craft in what we do. In 2019 I talked about a project I'd embarked on to resurrect my childhood computer, a Commodore Amiga 500, in order to rescue my childhood drawings and digital paintings. (There's the artistic thing again). I'd achieved that and I have ambitions to do some more Amiga stuff but again that's a work in progress and there's nothing much to talk about. In recent years I've been thinking more and more about art and became interested in the works and writings of people like Grayson Perry, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. I first learned about Eno through his music but he's also a visual artist. and a music producer. As a producer in the 70s he co-invented a system to try and break out of writer's block called "oblique strategies": A deck of cards with oblique suggestions written on them. When you're stuck, you pull a card and it might help you to reframe what you are working on and think about it in a completely different way. I love this idea and I think we should use more things like that in software engineering at least. So back to casting about for something to talk about. What have I been doing in the last couple of years? Frankly, surviving - I've just about managed to keep doing my day job, and keep working on the PhD, at home with two young kids and home schooling and the rest of it. Which is an achievement but makes for a boring lightning talk. But I'd like to say that for anyone here who might have been worrying similarly: I think surviving is more than enough. I'll close on the subject of thinking like an artist and not an engineer. I brought some of the Oblique Strategies deck with me and I thought I'd draw a card to perhaps help you out of a creative dilemma if you're in one. And I kid you not, the first card I drew was this one:
Card reading 'You are an Engineer'

2 August 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Piranesi

Review: Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-63557-564-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 245
Piranesi is a story told in first-person journal entries by someone who lives in a three-floored world of endless halls full of statues. The writing style is one of the most distinctive things about this book (and something you'll have to get along with to enjoy it), so it's worth quoting a longer passage from the introductory description of the world:
I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors sometimes even Walls! have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light. In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance. No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues. These Absences are as mysterious in their way as the Statues themselves.
So far as the protagonist knows, the world contains only one other living person, the Other, and thirteen dead ones who exist only as bones. The Other is a scientist searching for Great and Secret Knowledge, and calls the protagonist Piranesi, which is odd because that is not the protagonist's name. Be warned that I'm skating around spoilers for the rest of this review. I don't think I'm giving away anything that would ruin the book, but the nature of the story takes some sharp turns. If knowing anything about that would spoil the book for you and you want to read this without that knowledge, you may want to stop reading here. I also want to disclose early in this review that I wanted this to be a different book than it is, and that had a significant impact on how much I enjoyed it. Someone who came to it with different expectations may have a different and more enjoyable experience. I was engrossed by the strange world, the atmosphere, and the mystery of the halls full of statues. The protagonist is also interested in the same things, and the early part of the book is full of discussion of exploration, scientific investigation, and attempts to understand the nature of the world. That led me to hope for the sort of fantasy novel in which the setting is a character and where understanding the setting is a significant part of the plot. Piranesi is not that book. The story that Clarke wants to tell is centered on psychology rather than setting. The setting does not become a character, nor do we learn much about it by the end of the book. While we do learn how the protagonist came to be in this world, my first thought when that revelation starts halfway through the book was "this is going to be disappointing." And, indeed, it was. I say all of this because I think Piranesi looks, from both its synopsis and from the first few chapters, like it's going to be a world building and exploration fantasy. I think it runs a high risk of disappointing readers in the way that it disappointed me, and that can lead to disliking a book one may have enjoyed if one had read it in a different mood and with a different set of expectations. Piranesi is, instead, about how the protagonist constructs the world, about the effect of trauma on that construction, and about the complexities hidden behind the idea of recovery. And there is a lot to like here: The ending is complex and subtle and does not arrive at easy answers (although I also found it very sad), and although Clarke, by the end of the book, is using the setting primarily as metaphor, the descriptions remain vivid and immersive. I still want the book that I thought I was reading, but I want that book in large part because the fragments of that book that are in this one are so compelling and engrossing. What did not work for me was every character in the book except for the protagonist and one supporting character. The relationship between the protagonist and the Other early in the book is a lovely bit of unsettling complexity. It's obvious that the Other has a far different outlook on the world than the protagonist, but the protagonist seems unaware of it. It's also obvious that the Other is a bit of a jerk, but I was hoping for a twist that showed additional complexity in his character. Sadly, when we get the twist, it's not in the direction of more complexity. Instead, it leads to a highly irritating plot that is unnecessarily prolonged through the protagonist being gullible and child-like in the face of blatantly obvious gaslighting. This is a pattern for the rest of the book: Once villains appear on stage, they're one-note narcissists with essentially no depth. There is one character in Piranesi that I liked as well or better than the protagonist, but they only show up late in the story and get very little character development. Clarke sketches the outline of a character I wanted to learn much more about, but never gives us the details on the page. That leads to what I thought was too much telling rather than showing in the protagonist's relationships at the end of the book, which is part of why I thought the ending was so sad. What the protagonist loses is obvious to me (and lines up with the loss I felt when the book didn't turn out to be what I was hoping it would be); what the protagonist gains is less obvious, is working more on the metaphorical level of the story than the literal level, and is more narrated than shown. In other words, this is psychological fantasy with literary sensibilities told in a frame that looks like exploration fantasy. Parts of it, particularly the descriptions and the sense of place, are quite skillful, but the plot, once revealed, is superficial, obvious, and disappointing. I think it's possible this shift in the reader's sense of what type of book they're reading is intentional on Clarke's part, since it works with the metaphorical topic of the book. But it's not the existence of a shift itself that is my primary objection. I like psychological fantasy as well as exploration fantasy. It's that I thought the book after the shift was shallower, less interesting, and more predictable than the book before the shift. The one thing that is excellent throughout Piranesi, though, is the mood. It takes a bit to get used to the protagonist's writing style (and I continue to dislike the Affectation of capitalizing Nouns when writing in English), but it's open-hearted, curious, thoughtful, observant, and capable in a way I found delightful. Some of the events in this book are quite dark, but it never felt horrifying or oppressive because the protagonist remains so determinedly optimistic and upbeat, even when yanked around by the world's most obvious and blatant gaslighting. That persistent hopefulness and lightness is a good feature in a book published in 2020 and is what carried me through the parts of the story I didn't care for. I wish this had been a different book than it was, or failing that, a book with more complex and interesting supporting characters and plot to fit its complex and interesting psychological arc. I also wish that Clarke had done something more interesting with gender in this novel; it felt like she was setting that up for much of the book, and then it never happened. Ah well. As is, I can't recommend Piranesi, but I can say the protagonist, atmosphere, and sense of place are very well done and I think it will work for some other readers better than it did for me. Rating: 6 out of 10

20 June 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Magician's Nephew

Review: The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #6
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1955
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044230-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 186
The Magician's Nephew is the sixth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in the original publication order, but it's a prequel, set fifty years before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's therefore put first in the new reading order. I have always loved world-building and continuities and, as a comics book reader (Marvel primarily), developed a deep enjoyment of filling in the pieces and reconstructing histories from later stories. It's no wonder that I love reading The Magician's Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The experience of fleshing out backstory with detail and specifics makes me happy. If that's also you, I recommend the order in which I'm reading these books. Reading this one first is defensible, though. One of the strongest arguments for doing so is that it's a much stronger, tighter, and better-told story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and therefore might start the series off on a better foot for you. It stands alone well; you don't need to know any of the later events to enjoy this, although you will miss the significance of a few things like the lamp post and you don't get the full introduction to Aslan. The Magician's Nephew is the story of Polly Plummer, her new neighbor Digory Kirke, and his Uncle Andrew, who fancies himself a magician. At the start of the book, Digory's mother is bed-ridden and dying and Digory is miserable, which is the impetus for a friendship with Polly. The two decide to explore the crawl space of the row houses in which they live, seeing if they can get into the empty house past Digory's. They don't calculate the distances correctly and end up in Uncle Andrew's workroom, where Digory was forbidden to go. Uncle Andrew sees this as a golden opportunity to use them for an experiment in travel to other worlds. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. The Magician's Nephew, like the best of the Narnia books, does not drag its feet getting started. It takes a mere 30 pages to introduce all of the characters, establish a friendship, introduce us to a villain, and get both of the kids into another world. When Lewis is at his best, he has an economy of storytelling and a grasp of pacing that I wish was more common. It's also stuffed to the brim with ideas, one of the best of which is the Wood Between the Worlds. Uncle Andrew has crafted pairs of magic rings, yellow and green, and tricks Polly into touching one of the yellow ones, causing her to vanish from our world. He then uses her plight to coerce Digory into going after her, carrying two green rings that he thinks will bring people back into our world, and not incidentally also observing that world and returning to tell Uncle Andrew what it's like. But the world is more complicated than he thinks it is, and the place where the children find themselves is an eerie and incredibly peaceful wood, full of grass and trees but apparently no other living thing, and sprinkled with pools of water. This was my first encounter with the idea of a world that connects other worlds, and it remains the most memorable one for me. I love everything about the Wood: the simplicity of it, the calm that seems in part to be a defense against intrusion, the hidden danger that one might lose one's way and confuse the ponds for each other, and even the way that it tends to make one lose track of why one is there or what one is trying to accomplish. That quiet forest filled with pools is still an image I use for infinite creativity and potential. It's quiet and nonthreatening, but not entirely inviting either; it's magnificently neutral, letting each person bring what they wish to it. One of the minor plot points of this book is that Uncle Andrew is wrong about the rings because he's wrong about the worlds. There aren't just two worlds; there are an infinite number, with the Wood as a nexus, and our reality is neither the center nor one of an important pair. The rings are directional, but relative to the Wood, not our world. The kids, who are forced to experiment and who have open minds, figure this out quickly, but Uncle Andrew never shifts his perspective. This isn't important to the story, but I've always thought it was a nice touch of world-building. Where this story is heading, of course, is the creation of Narnia and the beginning of all of the stories told in the rest of the series. But before that, the kids's first trip out of the Wood is to one of the best worlds of children's fantasy: Charn. If the Wood is my mental image of a world nexus, Charn will forever be my image of a dying world: black sky, swollen red sun, and endless abandoned and crumbling buildings as far as the eye can see, full of tired silences and eerie noises. And, of course, the hall of statues, with one of the most memorable descriptions of history and empire I've ever read (if you ignore the racialized description):
All of the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P's and Q's, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little farther, they found themselves among faces they didn't like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on, they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.
The last statue is of a fierce, proud woman that Digory finds strikingly beautiful. (Lewis notes in an aside that Polly always said she never found anything specially beautiful about her. Here, as in The Silver Chair, the girl is the sensible one and things would have gone better if the boy had listened to her, a theme that I find immensely frustrating because Susan was the sensible one in the first two books of the series but then Lewis threw that away.) There is a bell in the middle of this hall, and the pillar that holds that bell has an inscription on it that I think every kid who grew up on Narnia knows by heart.
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
Polly has no intention of striking the bell, but Digory fights her and does it anyway, waking Jadis from where she sat as the final statue in the hall and setting off one of the greatest reimaginings of a villain in children's literature. Jadis will, of course, become the White Witch who holds Narnia in endless winter some thousand Narnian years later. But the White Witch was a mediocre villain at best, the sort of obvious and cruel villain common in short fairy tales where the author isn't interested in doing much characterization. She exists to be evil, do bad things, and be defeated. She has a few good moments in conflict with Aslan, but that's about it. Jadis in this book is another matter entirely: proud, brilliant, dangerous, and creative. The death of everything on Charn was Jadis's doing: an intentional spell, used to claim a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat by her sister in a civil war. (I find it fascinating that Lewis puts aside his normally sexist roles here.) Despite the best attempts of the kids to lose her both in Charn and in the Wood (which is inimical to her, in another nice bit of world-building), she manages to get back to England with them. The result is a remarkably good bit of villain characterization. Jadis is totally out of her element, used to a world-spanning empire run with magic and (from what hints we get) vaguely medieval technology. Her plan to take over their local country and eventually the world should be absurd and is played somewhat for laughs. Her magic, which is her great weapon, doesn't even work in England. But Jadis learns at a speed that the reader can watch. She's observant, she pays attention to things that don't fit her expectations, she changes plans, and she moves with predatory speed. Within a few hours in London she's stolen jewels and a horse and carriage, and the local police seem entirely overmatched. There's no way that one person without magic should be a real danger to England around the turn of the 20th century, but by the time the kids manage to pull her back into the Wood, you're not entirely sure England would have been safe. A chaotic confrontation, plus the ability of the rings to work their magic through transitive human contact, ends up with the kids, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a taxicab driver and his horse all transported through the Wood to a new world. In this case, literally a new world: Narnia at the point of its creation. Here again, Lewis translates Christian myth, in this case the Genesis creation story, into a more vivid and in many ways more beautiful story than the original. Aslan singing the world into existence is an incredible image, as is the newly-created world so bursting with life that even things that normally could not grow will do so. (Which, of course, is why there is a lamp post burning in the middle of the western forest of Narnia for the Pevensie kids to find later.) I think my favorite part is the creation of the stars, but the whole sequence is great. There's also an insightful bit of human psychology. Uncle Andrew can't believe that a lion is singing, so he convinces himself that Aslan is not singing, and thus prevents himself from making any sense of the talking animals later.
Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.
As with a lot in Lewis, he probably meant this as a statement about faith, but it generalizes well beyond the religious context. What disappointed me about the creation story, though, is the animals. I didn't notice this as a kid, but this re-read has sensitized me to how Lewis consistently treats the talking animals as less than humans even though he celebrates them. That happens here too: the newly-created, newly-awakened animals are curious and excited but kind of dim. Some of this is an attempt to show that they're young and are just starting to learn, but it also seems to be an excuse for Aslan to set up a human king and queen over them instead of teaching them directly how to deal with the threat of Jadis who the children inadvertently introduced into the world. The other thing I dislike about The Magician's Nephew is that the climax is unnecessarily cruel. Once Digory realizes the properties of the newly-created world, he hopes to find a way to use that to heal his mother. Aslan points out that he is responsible for Jadis entering the world and instead sends him on a mission to obtain a fruit that, when planted, will ward Narnia against her for many years. The same fruit would heal his mother, and he has to choose Narnia over her. (It's a fairly explicit parallel to the Garden of Eden, except in this case Digory passes.) Aslan, in the end, gives Digory the fruit of the tree that grows, which is still sufficient to heal his mother, but this sequence made me angry when re-reading it. Aslan knew all along that what Digory is doing will let him heal his mother as well, but hides this from him to make it more of a test. It's cruel and mean; Aslan could have promised to heal Digory's mother and then seen if he would help Narnia without getting anything in return other than atoning for his error, but I suppose that was too transactional for Lewis's theology or something. Meh. But, despite that, the only reason why this is not the best Narnia book is because The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the only Narnia book that also nails the ending. The Magician's Nephew, up through Charn, Jadis's rampage through London, and the initial creation of Narnia, is fully as good, perhaps better. It sags a bit at the end, partly because it tries to hard to make the Narnian animals humorous and partly because of the unnecessary emotional torture of Digory. But this still holds up as the second-best Narnia book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading. If anything, Jadis and Charn are even better than I remembered. Followed by the last book of the series, the somewhat notorious The Last Battle. Rating: 9 out of 10

25 May 2021

Shirish Agarwal: Pandemic, Toolkit and India

Pandemic Situation in India. I don t know from where I should start. This is probably a good start. I actually would recommend Indiacable as they do attempt to share some things happening in India from day to day but still there is a lot thatt they just can t cover, nobody can cover. There were two reports which kind of shook me all inside. One which sadly came from the UK publication Independent, probably as no Indian publication would dare publish it. The other from Rural India. I have been privileged in many ways, including friends who have asked me if I need any financial help. But seeing reports like above, these people need more help, guidance and help than I. While I m never one to say give to Foundations. If some people do want to help people from Maharashtra, then moneylifefoundation could be a good place where they could donate. FWIW, they usually use the foundation to help savers and investors be safe and help in getting money when taken by companies with dubious intentions. That is their drive. Two articles show their bent. The first one is about the Algo scam which I have written previously about the same in this blog. Interestingly, when I talk about this scam, all Modi supporters are silent. The other one does give some idea as to why the Govt. is indifferent. That is going to a heavy cross for all relatives to bear. There has been a lot that has been happening. Now instead of being limited to cities, Covid has now gone hinterland in a big way. One could ask also Praveen as he probably knows what would be good for Kerala and surrounding areas. The biggest change, however, has been that India is now battling not just the pandemic but also Mucormycosis also known as black fungus and its deadlier cousin the white fungus. Mucormycosis came largely due to an ill-advise given that applying cow dung gives protection to Corona. And many applied it due to faith. And people who know science do know that in fact it has that bacteria. Sadly, those of us who are and were more interested in law, computer science etc. has now also have to keep on top of what is happening in the medical field. It isn t that I hate it, but it has a lot of costs. From what I could gather on various social media and elsewhere, a single injection of anti-fungal for the above costs INR 3k/- and that needs to be 5 times in a day and that course has to be for three weeks. So even the relatively wealthy people can and will become poor in no time. No wonder thousands of those went to UK, US, Dubai or wherever they could find safe-harbor from the pandemic with no plans of arriving back soon. There was also the whole bit about FBS or Fetal Bovin Serum. India ordered millions of blood serum products from abroad and continues to. This was quickly shut down as news on Social Media. Apparently, it is only the Indian cow which is worthy of reverence. All other cows and their children are fair game according to those in power. Of course, that discussion was quickly shut down as was the discussion about IGP (Indian Genome Project). People over the years had asked me why India never participated for the HGP (Human Gnome Project). I actually had no answer for that. Then in 2020, there was idea of IGP which was put up and then it was quickly shot down as the results could damage a political party s image. In fact, a note to people who want to join Indian civil services tells the reason exactly. While many countries in the world are hypocrites, including the U.S. none can take the place that India has made for itself in that field.

The Online experience The vaccination process has been made online and has led to severe heartburn and trouble for many including many memes. For e.g.

Daily work, get up, have a bath, see if you got a slot on the app, sleep.
People trying desperately to get a slot, taken from Hindi Movie Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaygenge.
Just to explain what is happening, one has to go to the website of cowin. Sharing a screenshot of the same.
Cowin app. sceeenshot
I have deliberately taken a screenshot of the cowin app. in U.P. which is one of the areas where the ruling party, BJP has. I haven t taken my state for the simple reason, even if a slot is open, it is of no use as there are no vaccines. As have been shared in India Cable as well as in many newspapers, it is the Central Govt. which holds the strings for the vaccines. Maharashtra did put up an international tender but to no effect. All vaccine manufacturers want only Central Govt. for purchases for multiple reasons. And GOI is saying it has no money even though recently it got loans as well as a dividend from RBI to the tune of 99k crore. For what all that money is, we have no clue. Coming back though, to the issue at hand. the cowin app. is made an open api. While normally, people like us should and are happy when an API is open, it has made those who understand how to use git, compile, etc. better than others. A copy of the public repo. of how you can do the same can be found on Github. Now, obviously, for people like me and many others it has ethical issues.

Kiran s Interview in Times of India (TOI) There isn t much to say apart from I haven t used it. I just didn t want to. It just is unethical. Hopefully, in the coming days GOI does something better. That is the only thing we are surviving on, hope.

The Toolkit saga A few days before, GOI shared a toolkit apparently made by Congress to defame the party in power. That toolkit was shared before the press and Altnews did the investigation and promptly shredded the claims. Congress promptly made an FIR in Chhattisgarh where it is in power. The gentleman who made the claims Mr. Sambit Patra refused to appear against the police without evidence citing personal reasons and asking 1 week to appear before them. Apart from Altnews which did a great job, sadly many people didn t even know that there is something called WYSIWYG. I had to explain that so many Industries, whether it is politics, creative industries, legal, ad industries, medical transcription, and imaging all use this, and all the participants use the same version of the software. The reason being that in most Industries, there is a huge loss and issue of legal liabilities if something untoward happens. For e.g. if medical transcription is done in India is wrong (although his or her work will be checked by a superior in the West), but for whatever reason is not, and a wrong diagnosis is put (due to wrong color or something) then a patient could die and the firm who does that work could face heavy penalties which could be the death of them. There is another myth that Congress has unlimited wealth or huge wealth. I asked if that was the case, why didn t they shift to Mac. Of course, none have answers on this one. There is another reason why they didn t want to appear. The Rona Wilson investigation by Arsenal Experts also has made them cautious. Previously, they had a free run. Nowadays, software forensic tools are available to one and all. For e.g. Debian itself has a good variety of tools for the same. I remember Vipin s sharing few years back. For those who want to start, just install the apps. and try figuring out. Expertise on using the tools takes years though, as you use the tool day in night. Update 25/05/2021 Apparently because Twitter made and showcased few tweets as Manipulated Media , those in Govt. are and were dead against it. So they conducted a raid against Twitter India headquarters, knowing fully well that there would be nobody except security. The moment I read this, my mind went to the whole Fruit of the poisonous tree legal doctrine. Sadly though, India doesn t recognize it and in fact, still believes in the pre-colonial era that evidence however collected is good. A good explanation of the same can be found here. There are some exceptions to the rule, but they are done so fine that more often than not, they can t be used in the court of law in India. Although a good RTI was shared by Mr. Saket Gokhale on the same issue, which does raise some interesting points
Twitter India Raid, Saket Gokhale RTI 1
Saket Gokhale RTI query , Twitter India Raid 2
FWIW, Saket has been successful in getting his prayers heard either as answers to RTI queries or then following it up in the various High Courts of India. Of course, those who are in the ruling party ridicule him but are unable to find faults in his application of logic. And quite a few times, I have learned from his applications as well as nuances or whatever is there in law, a judgment or a guideline which he invokes in his prayer. For e.g. the Lalitha Kumari Guidelines which the gentleman has shared in his prayer can be found here. Hence now, it would be upto the Delhi Police Cell to prove their case in response to RTI. He has also trapped them as he has shared they can t give excuses/exemptions which they have tried before. As I had shared earlier, High Courts in India have woken up, whether it is Delhi, Mumbai, Aurangabad, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha or Kerala. Just today i.e. on 25th May 2021, Justices Bela Trivedi and Justice Kalra had asked how come all the hospitals don t have NOC from the Fire De[partment. They also questioned the ASG (Assistant Solicitor General) as how BU (Building Use Certificate) has been granted as almost all the 400 hospitals are in residential area. To which the ASG replies, it is the same state in almost 4000 schools as well as 6000 odd factories in Ahemdabad alone, leave the rest of the district and state alone. And this is when last year strict instuctions were passed. They chose to do nothing sadly. I will share a link on this when bar and bench gives me  The Hindu also shared the whole raid on twitter saga.

Conclusion In conclusion, I sincerely do not where we are headed. The only thing I know is that we cannot expect things to be better before year-end and maybe even after that. It all depends on the vaccines and their availability. After that ruralindia article, I had to see quite a few movies and whatnot just to get that out of my head. And this is apart from the 1600 odd teachers and workers who have died in the U.P. poll duty. Now, what a loss, not just to the family members of the victims, but a whole generation of school children who would not be able to get quality teaching and be deprived of education. What will be their future, God only knows. The only good Bollywood movie which I saw was Ramprasad ki Teravi . The movie was an accurate representation of most families in and around me. There was a movie called Sansar (1987) which showed the breakup of the joint family and into a nuclear family. This movie could very well have been a continuation of the same. Even Marathi movies which at one time were very progressive have gone back to the same boy, girl love story routine. Sameer, though released in late 2020, was able to see it only recently. Vakeel Saab was an ok copy of Pink . I loved Sameer as, unlike Salman Khan films, it showed pretty much an authentic human struggle of a person who goes to the Middle East without any qualifications and works as a laborer and the trials he goes through. Somehow, Malayalam movies have a knack for showing truth without much of budget. Most of the Indian web series didn t make an impact. I think many of them were just going through the motions, it seems as everybody is concerned with the well-being of their near and dear ones. There was also this (Trigger Warning: This story discusses organized campaigns glorifying and advocating sexual violence against Muslim women.) Hoping people somehow make it to the other side of the pandemic.

9 April 2021

Michael Prokop: A Ceph war story

It all started with the big bang! We nearly lost 33 of 36 disks on a Proxmox/Ceph Cluster; this is the story of how we recovered them. At the end of 2020, we eventually had a long outstanding maintenance window for taking care of system upgrades at a customer. During this maintenance window, which involved reboots of server systems, the involved Ceph cluster unexpectedly went into a critical state. What was planned to be a few hours of checklist work in the early evening turned out to be an emergency case; let s call it a nightmare (not only because it included a big part of the night). Since we have learned a few things from our post mortem and RCA, it s worth sharing those with others. But first things first, let s step back and clarify what we had to deal with. The system and its upgrade One part of the upgrade included 3 Debian servers (we re calling them server1, server2 and server3 here), running on Proxmox v5 + Debian/stretch with 12 Ceph OSDs each (65.45TB in total), a so-called Proxmox Hyper-Converged Ceph Cluster. First, we went for upgrading the Proxmox v5/stretch system to Proxmox v6/buster, before updating Ceph Luminous v12.2.13 to the latest v14.2 release, supported by Proxmox v6/buster. The Proxmox upgrade included updating corosync from v2 to v3. As part of this upgrade, we had to apply some configuration changes, like adjust ring0 + ring1 address settings and add a mon_host configuration to the Ceph configuration. During the first two servers reboots, we noticed configuration glitches. After fixing those, we went for a reboot of the third server as well. Then we noticed that several Ceph OSDs were unexpectedly down. The NTP service wasn t working as expected after the upgrade. The underlying issue is a race condition of ntp with systemd-timesyncd (see #889290). As a result, we had clock skew problems with Ceph, indicating that the Ceph monitors clocks aren t running in sync (which is essential for proper Ceph operation). We initially assumed that our Ceph OSD failure derived from this clock skew problem, so we took care of it. After yet another round of reboots, to ensure the systems are running all with identical and sane configurations and services, we noticed lots of failing OSDs. This time all but three OSDs (19, 21 and 22) were down:
% sudo ceph osd tree
ID CLASS WEIGHT   TYPE NAME      STATUS REWEIGHT PRI-AFF
-1       65.44138 root default
-2       21.81310     host server1
 0   hdd  1.08989         osd.0    down  1.00000 1.00000
 1   hdd  1.08989         osd.1    down  1.00000 1.00000
 2   hdd  1.63539         osd.2    down  1.00000 1.00000
 3   hdd  1.63539         osd.3    down  1.00000 1.00000
 4   hdd  1.63539         osd.4    down  1.00000 1.00000
 5   hdd  1.63539         osd.5    down  1.00000 1.00000
18   hdd  2.18279         osd.18   down  1.00000 1.00000
20   hdd  2.18179         osd.20   down  1.00000 1.00000
28   hdd  2.18179         osd.28   down  1.00000 1.00000
29   hdd  2.18179         osd.29   down  1.00000 1.00000
30   hdd  2.18179         osd.30   down  1.00000 1.00000
31   hdd  2.18179         osd.31   down  1.00000 1.00000
-4       21.81409     host server2
 6   hdd  1.08989         osd.6    down  1.00000 1.00000
 7   hdd  1.08989         osd.7    down  1.00000 1.00000
 8   hdd  1.63539         osd.8    down  1.00000 1.00000
 9   hdd  1.63539         osd.9    down  1.00000 1.00000
10   hdd  1.63539         osd.10   down  1.00000 1.00000
11   hdd  1.63539         osd.11   down  1.00000 1.00000
19   hdd  2.18179         osd.19     up  1.00000 1.00000
21   hdd  2.18279         osd.21     up  1.00000 1.00000
22   hdd  2.18279         osd.22     up  1.00000 1.00000
32   hdd  2.18179         osd.32   down  1.00000 1.00000
33   hdd  2.18179         osd.33   down  1.00000 1.00000
34   hdd  2.18179         osd.34   down  1.00000 1.00000
-3       21.81419     host server3
12   hdd  1.08989         osd.12   down  1.00000 1.00000
13   hdd  1.08989         osd.13   down  1.00000 1.00000
14   hdd  1.63539         osd.14   down  1.00000 1.00000
15   hdd  1.63539         osd.15   down  1.00000 1.00000
16   hdd  1.63539         osd.16   down  1.00000 1.00000
17   hdd  1.63539         osd.17   down  1.00000 1.00000
23   hdd  2.18190         osd.23   down  1.00000 1.00000
24   hdd  2.18279         osd.24   down  1.00000 1.00000
25   hdd  2.18279         osd.25   down  1.00000 1.00000
35   hdd  2.18179         osd.35   down  1.00000 1.00000
36   hdd  2.18179         osd.36   down  1.00000 1.00000
37   hdd  2.18179         osd.37   down  1.00000 1.00000
Our blood pressure increased slightly! Did we just lose all of our cluster? What happened, and how can we get all the other OSDs back? We stumbled upon this beauty in our logs:
kernel: [   73.697957] XFS (sdl1): SB stripe unit sanity check failed
kernel: [   73.698002] XFS (sdl1): Metadata corruption detected at xfs_sb_read_verify+0x10e/0x180 [xfs], xfs_sb block 0xffffffffffffffff
kernel: [   73.698799] XFS (sdl1): Unmount and run xfs_repair
kernel: [   73.699199] XFS (sdl1): First 128 bytes of corrupted metadata buffer:
kernel: [   73.699677] 00000000: 58 46 53 42 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 62 00  XFSB..........b.
kernel: [   73.700205] 00000010: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00  ................
kernel: [   73.700836] 00000020: 62 44 2b c0 e6 22 40 d7 84 3d e1 cc 65 88 e9 d8  bD+.."@..=..e...
kernel: [   73.701347] 00000030: 00 00 00 00 00 00 40 08 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 00  ......@.........
kernel: [   73.701770] 00000040: 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 02  ................
ceph-disk[4240]: mount: /var/lib/ceph/tmp/mnt.jw367Y: mount(2) system call failed: Structure needs cleaning.
ceph-disk[4240]: ceph-disk: Mounting filesystem failed: Command '['/bin/mount', '-t', u'xfs', '-o', 'noatime,inode64', '--', '/dev/disk/by-parttypeuuid/4fbd7e29-9d25-41b8-afd0-062c0ceff05d.cdda39ed-5
ceph/tmp/mnt.jw367Y']' returned non-zero exit status 32
kernel: [   73.702162] 00000050: 00 00 00 01 00 00 18 80 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00  ................
kernel: [   73.702550] 00000060: 00 00 06 48 bd a5 10 00 08 00 00 02 00 00 00 00  ...H............
kernel: [   73.702975] 00000070: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 0c 0c 0b 01 0d 00 00 19  ................
kernel: [   73.703373] XFS (sdl1): SB validate failed with error -117.
The same issue was present for the other failing OSDs. We hoped, that the data itself was still there, and only the mounting of the XFS partitions failed. The Ceph cluster was initially installed in 2017 with Ceph jewel/10.2 with the OSDs on filestore (nowadays being a legacy approach to storing objects in Ceph). However, we migrated the disks to bluestore since then (with ceph-disk and not yet via ceph-volume what s being used nowadays). Using ceph-disk introduces these 100MB XFS partitions containing basic metadata for the OSD. Given that we had three working OSDs left, we decided to investigate how to rebuild the failing ones. Some folks on #ceph (thanks T1, ormandj + peetaur!) were kind enough to share how working XFS partitions looked like for them. After creating a backup (via dd), we tried to re-create such an XFS partition on server1. We noticed that even mounting a freshly created XFS partition failed:
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo mkfs.xfs -f -i size=2048 -m uuid="4568c300-ad83-4288-963e-badcd99bf54f" /dev/sdc1
meta-data=/dev/sdc1              isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6272 blks
         =                       sectsz=4096  attr=2, projid32bit=1
         =                       crc=1        finobt=1, sparse=1, rmapbt=0
         =                       reflink=0
data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25088, imaxpct=25
         =                       sunit=128    swidth=64 blks
naming   =version 2              bsize=4096   ascii-ci=0, ftype=1
log      =internal log           bsize=4096   blocks=1608, version=2
         =                       sectsz=4096  sunit=1 blks, lazy-count=1
realtime =none                   extsz=4096   blocks=0, rtextents=0
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo mount /dev/sdc1 /mnt/ceph-recovery
SB stripe unit sanity check failed
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0x0/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0x0/0x1000
cache_node_purge: refcount was 1, not zero (node=0x1d3c400)
SB stripe unit sanity check failed
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0x18800/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0x18800/0x1000
SB stripe unit sanity check failed
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0x0/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0x0/0x1000
SB stripe unit sanity check failed
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0x24c00/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0x24c00/0x1000
SB stripe unit sanity check failed
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0xc400/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0xc400/0x1000
releasing dirty buffer (bulk) to free list!releasing dirty buffer (bulk) to free list!releasing dirty buffer (bulk) to free list!releasing dirty buffer (bulk) to free list!found dirty buffer (bulk) on free list!bad magic number
bad magic number
Metadata corruption detected at 0x433840, xfs_sb block 0x0/0x1000
libxfs_writebufr: write verifer failed on xfs_sb bno 0x0/0x1000
releasing dirty buffer (bulk) to free list!mount: /mnt/ceph-recovery: wrong fs type, bad option, bad superblock on /dev/sdc1, missing codepage or helper program, or other error.
Ouch. This very much looked related to the actual issue we re seeing. So we tried to execute mkfs.xfs with a bunch of different sunit/swidth settings. Using -d sunit=512 -d swidth=512 at least worked then, so we decided to force its usage in the creation of our OSD XFS partition. This brought us a working XFS partition. Please note, sunit must not be larger than swidth (more on that later!). Then we reconstructed how to restore all the metadata for the OSD (activate.monmap, active, block_uuid, bluefs, ceph_fsid, fsid, keyring, kv_backend, magic, mkfs_done, ready, require_osd_release, systemd, type, whoami). To identify the UUID, we can read the data from ceph --format json osd dump , like this for all our OSDs (Zsh syntax ftw!):
synpromika@server1 ~ % for f in  0..37  ; printf "osd-$f: %s\n" "$(sudo ceph --format json osd dump   jq -r ".osds[]   select(.osd==$f)   .uuid")"
osd-0: 4568c300-ad83-4288-963e-badcd99bf54f
osd-1: e573a17a-ccde-4719-bdf8-eef66903ca4f
osd-2: 0e1b2626-f248-4e7d-9950-f1a46644754e
osd-3: 1ac6a0a2-20ee-4ed8-9f76-d24e900c800c
[...]
Identifying the corresponding raw device for each OSD UUID is possible via:
synpromika@server1 ~ % UUID="4568c300-ad83-4288-963e-badcd99bf54f"
synpromika@server1 ~ % readlink -f /dev/disk/by-partuuid/"$ UUID "
/dev/sdc1
The OSD s key ID can be retrieved via:
synpromika@server1 ~ % OSD_ID=0
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo ceph auth get osd."$ OSD_ID " -f json 2>/dev/null   jq -r '.[]   .key'
AQCKFpZdm0We[...]
Now we also need to identify the underlying block device:
synpromika@server1 ~ % OSD_ID=0
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo ceph osd metadata osd."$ OSD_ID " -f json   jq -r '.bluestore_bdev_partition_path'    
/dev/sdc2
With all of this, we reconstructed the keyring, fsid, whoami, block + block_uuid files. All the other files inside the XFS metadata partition are identical on each OSD. So after placing and adjusting the corresponding metadata on the XFS partition for Ceph usage, we got a working OSD hurray! Since we had to fix yet another 32 OSDs, we decided to automate this XFS partitioning and metadata recovery procedure. We had a network share available on /srv/backup for storing backups of existing partition data. On each server, we tested the procedure with one single OSD before iterating over the list of remaining failing OSDs. We started with a shell script on server1, then adjusted the script for server2 and server3. This is the script, as we executed it on the 3rd server. Thanks to this, we managed to get the Ceph cluster up and running again. We didn t want to continue with the Ceph upgrade itself during the night though, as we wanted to know exactly what was going on and why the system behaved like that. Time for RCA! Root Cause Analysis So all but three OSDs on server2 failed, and the problem seems to be related to XFS. Therefore, our starting point for the RCA was, to identify what was different on server2, as compared to server1 + server3. My initial assumption was that this was related to some firmware issues with the involved controller (and as it turned out later, I was right!). The disks were attached as JBOD devices to a ServeRAID M5210 controller (with a stripe size of 512). Firmware state:
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo storcli64 /c0 show all   grep '^Firmware'
Firmware Package Build = 24.16.0-0092
Firmware Version = 4.660.00-8156
synpromika@server2 ~ % sudo storcli64 /c0 show all   grep '^Firmware'
Firmware Package Build = 24.21.0-0112
Firmware Version = 4.680.00-8489
synpromika@server3 ~ % sudo storcli64 /c0 show all   grep '^Firmware'
Firmware Package Build = 24.16.0-0092
Firmware Version = 4.660.00-8156
This looked very promising, as server2 indeed runs with a different firmware version on the controller. But how so? Well, the motherboard of server2 got replaced by a Lenovo/IBM technician in January 2020, as we had a failing memory slot during a memory upgrade. As part of this procedure, the Lenovo/IBM technician installed the latest firmware versions. According to our documentation, some OSDs were rebuilt (due to the filestore->bluestore migration) in March and April 2020. It turned out that precisely those OSDs were the ones that survived the upgrade. So the surviving drives were created with a different firmware version running on the involved controller. All the other OSDs were created with an older controller firmware. But what difference does this make? Now let s check firmware changelogs. For the 24.21.0-0097 release we found this:
- Cannot create or mount xfs filesystem using xfsprogs 4.19.x kernel 4.20(SCGCQ02027889)
- xfs_info command run on an XFS file system created on a VD of strip size 1M shows sunit and swidth as 0(SCGCQ02056038)
Our XFS problem certainly was related to the controller s firmware. We also recalled that our monitoring system reported different sunit settings for the OSDs that were rebuilt in March and April. For example, OSD 21 was recreated and got different sunit settings:
WARN  server2.example.org  Mount options of /var/lib/ceph/osd/ceph-21      WARN - Missing: sunit=1024, Exceeding: sunit=512
We compared the new OSD 21 with an existing one (OSD 25 on server3):
synpromika@server2 ~ % systemctl show var-lib-ceph-osd-ceph\\x2d21.mount   grep sunit
Options=rw,noatime,attr2,inode64,sunit=512,swidth=512,noquota
synpromika@server3 ~ % systemctl show var-lib-ceph-osd-ceph\\x2d25.mount   grep sunit
Options=rw,noatime,attr2,inode64,sunit=1024,swidth=512,noquota
Thanks to our documentation, we could compare execution logs of their creation:
% diff -u ceph-disk-osd-25.log ceph-disk-osd-21.log
-synpromika@server2 ~ % sudo ceph-disk -v prepare --bluestore /dev/sdj --osd-id 25
+synpromika@server3 ~ % sudo ceph-disk -v prepare --bluestore /dev/sdi --osd-id 21
[...]
-command_check_call: Running command: /sbin/mkfs -t xfs -f -i size=2048 -- /dev/sdj1
-meta-data=/dev/sdj1              isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6272 blks
[...]
+command_check_call: Running command: /sbin/mkfs -t xfs -f -i size=2048 -- /dev/sdi1
+meta-data=/dev/sdi1              isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6336 blks
          =                       sectsz=4096  attr=2, projid32bit=1
          =                       crc=1        finobt=1, sparse=0, rmapbt=0, reflink=0
-data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25088, imaxpct=25
-         =                       sunit=128    swidth=64 blks
+data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25344, imaxpct=25
+         =                       sunit=64     swidth=64 blks
 naming   =version 2              bsize=4096   ascii-ci=0 ftype=1
 log      =internal log           bsize=4096   blocks=1608, version=2
          =                       sectsz=4096  sunit=1 blks, lazy-count=1
 realtime =none                   extsz=4096   blocks=0, rtextents=0
[...]
So back then, we even tried to track this down but couldn t make sense of it yet. But now this sounds very much like it is related to the problem we saw with this Ceph/XFS failure. We follow Occam s razor, assuming the simplest explanation is usually the right one, so let s check the disk properties and see what differs:
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo blockdev --getsz --getsize64 --getss --getpbsz --getiomin --getioopt /dev/sdk
4685545472
2398999281664
512
4096
524288
262144
synpromika@server2 ~ % sudo blockdev --getsz --getsize64 --getss --getpbsz --getiomin --getioopt /dev/sdk
4685545472
2398999281664
512
4096
262144
262144
See the difference between server1 and server2 for identical disks? The getiomin option now reports something different for them:
synpromika@server1 ~ % sudo blockdev --getiomin /dev/sdk            
524288
synpromika@server1 ~ % cat /sys/block/sdk/queue/minimum_io_size
524288
synpromika@server2 ~ % sudo blockdev --getiomin /dev/sdk 
262144
synpromika@server2 ~ % cat /sys/block/sdk/queue/minimum_io_size
262144
It doesn t make sense that the minimum I/O size (iomin, AKA BLKIOMIN) is bigger than the optimal I/O size (ioopt, AKA BLKIOOPT). This leads us to Bug 202127 cannot mount or create xfs on a 597T device, which matches our findings here. But why did this XFS partition work in the past and fails now with the newer kernel version? The XFS behaviour change Now given that we have backups of all the XFS partition, we wanted to track down, a) when this XFS behaviour was introduced, and b) whether, and if so how it would be possible to reuse the XFS partition without having to rebuild it from scratch (e.g. if you would have no working Ceph OSD or backups left). Let s look at such a failing XFS partition with the Grml live system:
root@grml ~ # grml-version
grml64-full 2020.06 Release Codename Ausgehfuahangl [2020-06-24]
root@grml ~ # uname -a
Linux grml 5.6.0-2-amd64 #1 SMP Debian 5.6.14-2 (2020-06-09) x86_64 GNU/Linux
root@grml ~ # grml-hostname grml-2020-06
Setting hostname to grml-2020-06: done
root@grml ~ # exec zsh
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # dpkg -l xfsprogs util-linux
Desired=Unknown/Install/Remove/Purge/Hold
  Status=Not/Inst/Conf-files/Unpacked/halF-conf/Half-inst/trig-aWait/Trig-pend
 / Err?=(none)/Reinst-required (Status,Err: uppercase=bad)
 / Name           Version      Architecture Description
+++-==============-============-============-=========================================
ii  util-linux     2.35.2-4     amd64        miscellaneous system utilities
ii  xfsprogs       5.6.0-1+b2   amd64        Utilities for managing the XFS filesystem
There it s failing, no matter which mount option we try:
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # mount ./sdd1.dd /mnt
mount: /mnt: mount(2) system call failed: Structure needs cleaning.
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # dmesg   tail -30
[...]
[   64.788640] XFS (loop1): SB stripe unit sanity check failed
[   64.788671] XFS (loop1): Metadata corruption detected at xfs_sb_read_verify+0x102/0x170 [xfs], xfs_sb block 0xffffffffffffffff
[   64.788671] XFS (loop1): Unmount and run xfs_repair
[   64.788672] XFS (loop1): First 128 bytes of corrupted metadata buffer:
[   64.788673] 00000000: 58 46 53 42 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 62 00  XFSB..........b.
[   64.788674] 00000010: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00  ................
[   64.788675] 00000020: 32 b6 dc 35 53 b7 44 96 9d 63 30 ab b3 2b 68 36  2..5S.D..c0..+h6
[   64.788675] 00000030: 00 00 00 00 00 00 40 08 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 00  ......@.........
[   64.788675] 00000040: 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 02  ................
[   64.788676] 00000050: 00 00 00 01 00 00 18 80 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00  ................
[   64.788677] 00000060: 00 00 06 48 bd a5 10 00 08 00 00 02 00 00 00 00  ...H............
[   64.788677] 00000070: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 0c 0c 0b 01 0d 00 00 19  ................
[   64.788679] XFS (loop1): SB validate failed with error -117.
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # mount -t xfs -o rw,relatime,attr2,inode64,sunit=1024,swidth=512,noquota ./sdd1.dd /mnt/
mount: /mnt: wrong fs type, bad option, bad superblock on /dev/loop1, missing codepage or helper program, or other error.
32 root@grml-2020-06 ~ # dmesg   tail -1
[   66.342976] XFS (loop1): stripe width (512) must be a multiple of the stripe unit (1024)
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # mount -t xfs -o rw,relatime,attr2,inode64,sunit=512,swidth=512,noquota ./sdd1.dd /mnt/
mount: /mnt: mount(2) system call failed: Structure needs cleaning.
32 root@grml-2020-06 ~ # dmesg   tail -14
[   66.342976] XFS (loop1): stripe width (512) must be a multiple of the stripe unit (1024)
[   80.751277] XFS (loop1): SB stripe unit sanity check failed
[   80.751323] XFS (loop1): Metadata corruption detected at xfs_sb_read_verify+0x102/0x170 [xfs], xfs_sb block 0xffffffffffffffff 
[   80.751324] XFS (loop1): Unmount and run xfs_repair
[   80.751325] XFS (loop1): First 128 bytes of corrupted metadata buffer:
[   80.751327] 00000000: 58 46 53 42 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 62 00  XFSB..........b.
[   80.751328] 00000010: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00  ................
[   80.751330] 00000020: 32 b6 dc 35 53 b7 44 96 9d 63 30 ab b3 2b 68 36  2..5S.D..c0..+h6
[   80.751331] 00000030: 00 00 00 00 00 00 40 08 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 00  ......@.........
[   80.751331] 00000040: 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 02  ................
[   80.751332] 00000050: 00 00 00 01 00 00 18 80 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00  ................
[   80.751333] 00000060: 00 00 06 48 bd a5 10 00 08 00 00 02 00 00 00 00  ...H............
[   80.751334] 00000070: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 0c 0c 0b 01 0d 00 00 19  ................
[   80.751338] XFS (loop1): SB validate failed with error -117.
Also xfs_repair doesn t help either:
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # xfs_info ./sdd1.dd
meta-data=./sdd1.dd              isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6272 blks
         =                       sectsz=4096  attr=2, projid32bit=1
         =                       crc=1        finobt=1, sparse=0, rmapbt=0
         =                       reflink=0
data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25088, imaxpct=25
         =                       sunit=128    swidth=64 blks
naming   =version 2              bsize=4096   ascii-ci=0, ftype=1
log      =internal log           bsize=4096   blocks=1608, version=2
         =                       sectsz=4096  sunit=1 blks, lazy-count=1
realtime =none                   extsz=4096   blocks=0, rtextents=0
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # xfs_repair ./sdd1.dd
Phase 1 - find and verify superblock...
bad primary superblock - bad stripe width in superblock !!!
attempting to find secondary superblock...
..............................................................................................Sorry, could not find valid secondary superblock
Exiting now.
With the SB stripe unit sanity check failed message, we could easily track this down to the following commit fa4ca9c:
% git show fa4ca9c5574605d1e48b7e617705230a0640b6da   cat
commit fa4ca9c5574605d1e48b7e617705230a0640b6da
Author: Dave Chinner <dchinner@redhat.com>
Date:   Tue Jun 5 10:06:16 2018 -0700
    
    xfs: catch bad stripe alignment configurations
    
    When stripe alignments are invalid, data alignment algorithms in the
    allocator may not work correctly. Ensure we catch superblocks with
    invalid stripe alignment setups at mount time. These data alignment
    mismatches are now detected at mount time like this:
    
    XFS (loop0): SB stripe unit sanity check failed
    XFS (loop0): Metadata corruption detected at xfs_sb_read_verify+0xab/0x110, xfs_sb block 0xffffffffffffffff
    XFS (loop0): Unmount and run xfs_repair
    XFS (loop0): First 128 bytes of corrupted metadata buffer:
    0000000091c2de02: 58 46 53 42 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 10 00  XFSB............
    0000000023bff869: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00  ................
    00000000cdd8c893: 17 32 37 15 ff ca 46 3d 9a 17 d3 33 04 b5 f1 a2  .27...F=...3....
    000000009fd2844f: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00 00 00 06 d0  ................
    0000000088e9b0bb: 00 00 00 00 00 00 06 d1 00 00 00 00 00 00 06 d2  ................
    00000000ff233a20: 00 00 00 01 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 01 00 00 00 00  ................
    000000009db0ac8b: 00 00 03 60 e1 34 02 00 08 00 00 02 00 00 00 00  ... .4..........
    00000000f7022460: 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 0c 09 0b 01 0c 00 00 19  ................
    XFS (loop0): SB validate failed with error -117.
    
    And the mount fails.
    
    Signed-off-by: Dave Chinner <dchinner@redhat.com>
    Reviewed-by: Carlos Maiolino <cmaiolino@redhat.com>
    Reviewed-by: Darrick J. Wong <darrick.wong@oracle.com>
    Signed-off-by: Darrick J. Wong <darrick.wong@oracle.com>
diff --git fs/xfs/libxfs/xfs_sb.c fs/xfs/libxfs/xfs_sb.c
index b5dca3c8c84d..c06b6fc92966 100644
--- fs/xfs/libxfs/xfs_sb.c
+++ fs/xfs/libxfs/xfs_sb.c
@@ -278,6 +278,22 @@ xfs_mount_validate_sb(
                return -EFSCORRUPTED;
         
        
+       if (sbp->sb_unit)  
+               if (!xfs_sb_version_hasdalign(sbp)  
+                   sbp->sb_unit > sbp->sb_width  
+                   (sbp->sb_width % sbp->sb_unit) != 0)  
+                       xfs_notice(mp, "SB stripe unit sanity check failed");
+                       return -EFSCORRUPTED;
+                 
+         else if (xfs_sb_version_hasdalign(sbp))   
+               xfs_notice(mp, "SB stripe alignment sanity check failed");
+               return -EFSCORRUPTED;
+         else if (sbp->sb_width)  
+               xfs_notice(mp, "SB stripe width sanity check failed");
+               return -EFSCORRUPTED;
+        
+
+       
        if (xfs_sb_version_hascrc(&mp->m_sb) &&
            sbp->sb_blocksize < XFS_MIN_CRC_BLOCKSIZE)  
                xfs_notice(mp, "v5 SB sanity check failed");
This change is included in kernel versions 4.18-rc1 and newer:
% git describe --contains fa4ca9c5574605d1e48
v4.18-rc1~37^2~14
Now let s try with an older kernel version (4.9.0), using old Grml 2017.05 release:
root@grml ~ # grml-version
grml64-small 2017.05 Release Codename Freedatensuppe [2017-05-31]
root@grml ~ # uname -a
Linux grml 4.9.0-1-grml-amd64 #1 SMP Debian 4.9.29-1+grml.1 (2017-05-24) x86_64 GNU/Linux
root@grml ~ # lsb_release -a
No LSB modules are available.
Distributor ID: Debian
Description:    Debian GNU/Linux 9.0 (stretch)
Release:        9.0
Codename:       stretch
root@grml ~ # grml-hostname grml-2017-05
Setting hostname to grml-2017-05: done
root@grml ~ # exec zsh
root@grml-2017-05 ~ #
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # xfs_info ./sdd1.dd
xfs_info: ./sdd1.dd is not a mounted XFS filesystem
1 root@grml-2017-05 ~ # xfs_repair ./sdd1.dd
Phase 1 - find and verify superblock...
bad primary superblock - bad stripe width in superblock !!!
attempting to find secondary superblock...
..............................................................................................Sorry, could not find valid secondary superblock
Exiting now.
1 root@grml-2017-05 ~ # mount ./sdd1.dd /mnt
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # mount -t xfs
/root/sdd1.dd on /mnt type xfs (rw,relatime,attr2,inode64,sunit=1024,swidth=512,noquota)
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # ls /mnt
activate.monmap  active  block  block_uuid  bluefs  ceph_fsid  fsid  keyring  kv_backend  magic  mkfs_done  ready  require_osd_release  systemd  type  whoami
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # xfs_info /mnt
meta-data=/dev/loop1             isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6272 blks
         =                       sectsz=4096  attr=2, projid32bit=1
         =                       crc=1        finobt=1 spinodes=0 rmapbt=0
         =                       reflink=0
data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25088, imaxpct=25
         =                       sunit=128    swidth=64 blks
naming   =version 2              bsize=4096   ascii-ci=0 ftype=1
log      =internal               bsize=4096   blocks=1608, version=2
         =                       sectsz=4096  sunit=1 blks, lazy-count=1
realtime =none                   extsz=4096   blocks=0, rtextents=0
Mounting there indeed works! Now, if we mount the filesystem with new and proper sunit/swidth settings using the older kernel, it should rewrite them on disk:
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # mount -t xfs -o sunit=512,swidth=512 ./sdd1.dd /mnt/
root@grml-2017-05 ~ # umount /mnt/
And indeed, mounting this rewritten filesystem then also works with newer kernels:
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # mount ./sdd1.rewritten /mnt/
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # xfs_info /root/sdd1.rewritten
meta-data=/dev/loop1             isize=2048   agcount=4, agsize=6272 blks
         =                       sectsz=4096  attr=2, projid32bit=1
         =                       crc=1        finobt=1, sparse=0, rmapbt=0
         =                       reflink=0
data     =                       bsize=4096   blocks=25088, imaxpct=25
         =                       sunit=64    swidth=64 blks
naming   =version 2              bsize=4096   ascii-ci=0, ftype=1
log      =internal log           bsize=4096   blocks=1608, version=2
         =                       sectsz=4096  sunit=1 blks, lazy-count=1
realtime =none                   extsz=4096   blocks=0, rtextents=0
root@grml-2020-06 ~ # mount -t xfs                
/root/sdd1.rewritten on /mnt type xfs (rw,relatime,attr2,inode64,logbufs=8,logbsize=32k,sunit=512,swidth=512,noquota)
FTR: The sunit=512,swidth=512 from the xfs mount option is identical to xfs_info s output sunit=64,swidth=64 (because mount.xfs s sunit value is given in 512-byte block units, see man 5 xfs, and the xfs_info output reported here is in blocks with a block size (bsize) of 4096, so sunit = 512*512 := 64*4096 ). mkfs uses minimum and optimal sizes for stripe unit and stripe width; you can check this e.g. via (note that server2 with fixed firmware version reports proper values, whereas server3 with broken controller firmware reports non-sense):
synpromika@server2 ~ % for i in /sys/block/sd*/queue/ ; do printf "%s: %s %s\n" "$i" "$(cat "$i"/minimum_io_size)" "$(cat "$i"/optimal_io_size)" ; done
[...]
/sys/block/sdc/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdd/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sde/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdf/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdg/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdh/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdi/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdj/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdk/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdl/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdm/queue/: 262144 262144
/sys/block/sdn/queue/: 262144 262144
[...]
synpromika@server3 ~ % for i in /sys/block/sd*/queue/ ; do printf "%s: %s %s\n" "$i" "$(cat "$i"/minimum_io_size)" "$(cat "$i"/optimal_io_size)" ; done
[...]
/sys/block/sdc/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdd/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sde/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdf/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdg/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdh/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdi/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdj/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdk/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdl/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdm/queue/: 524288 262144
/sys/block/sdn/queue/: 524288 262144
[...]
This is the underlying reason why the initially created XFS partitions were created with incorrect sunit/swidth settings. The broken firmware of server1 and server3 was the cause of the incorrect settings they were ignored by old(er) xfs/kernel versions, but treated as an error by new ones. Make sure to also read the XFS FAQ regarding How to calculate the correct sunit,swidth values for optimal performance . We also stumbled upon two interesting reads in RedHat s knowledge base: 5075561 + 2150101 (requires an active subscription, though) and #1835947. Am I affected? How to work around it? To check whether your XFS mount points are affected by this issue, the following command line should be useful:
awk '$3 == "xfs" print $2 ' /proc/self/mounts   while read mount ; do echo -n "$mount " ; xfs_info $mount   awk '$0 ~ "swidth" gsub(/.*=/,"",$2); gsub(/.*=/,"",$3); print $2,$3 '   awk '  if ($1 > $2) print "impacted"; else print "OK" ' ; done
If you run into the above situation, the only known solution to get your original XFS partition working again, is to boot into an older kernel version again (4.17 or older), mount the XFS partition with correct sunit/swidth settings and then boot back into your new system (kernel version wise). Lessons learned Thanks: Darshaka Pathirana, Chris Hofstaedtler and Michael Hanscho. Looking for help with your IT infrastructure? Let us know!

1 March 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Architects of Memory

Review: Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne
Series: Memory War #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-250-21546-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 350
Ash is an Aurora Company indenture working as a salvage pilot in the wreckage of the Battle of Tribulation. She's been on the crew of the Twenty-Five and indentured to Aurora for about a year. Before that, she was an indenture in the mines of Bittersweet, where her fianc died in an attack from the alien Vai and where she contracted the celestium poisoning that's slowly killing her. Her only hope for treatment is to work off her indenture and become a corporate citizen, a hope that is doomed if Aurora discovers her illness. Oh, and she's in love with the citizen captain of the Twenty-Five, a relationship that's a bad idea for multiple reasons and which the captain has already cut off. This is the hopeful, optimistic part of the book, before things start getting grim. The setting of Architects of Memory is a horrifying future of corporate slavery and caste systems that has run head-long into aliens. The Vai released mysterious and beautiful weapons that kill humans horribly and were wreaking havoc on the corporate ships, but then the Vai retreated in the midst of their victory. The Twenty-Five is salvaging useful equipment and undetonated Vai ordnance off the dead hulk of the Aurora ship London when corporate tells them that the London may be hiding a more potent secret: a captured Vai weapon that may be the reason the Vai fled. I was tempted into reading this because the plot is full of elements I usually like: a tight-knit spaceship crew, alien first contact full of mysterious discoveries, corporate skulduggery, and anti-corporate protagonists. However, I like those plot elements when they support a story about overthrowing oppression and improving the universe. This book, instead, is one escalating nightmare after another. Ash starts the book sick but functional and spends much of the book developing multiple forms of brain damage. She's not alone; the same fate awaits several other likable characters. The secret weapon has horrible effects while also being something more terrible than a weapon. The corporations have an iron and apparently inescapable grip on humanity, with no sign of even the possibility of rebellion, and force indentures to cooperate with their slavery in ways that even the protagonists can't shake. And I haven't even mentioned the organ harvesting and medical experiments. The plot is a spiral between humans doing awful things to aliens and then doing even more awful things to other humans. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it was far less emotionally satisfying than I needed. I'm not sure this was intentional; there are some indications that Osborne meant for it to be partly cathartic for the characters. But not only didn't it work for me at all, it emphasized my feelings about the hopelessness and futility of the setting. If a book is going to put me through that amount of character pain and fear, I need a correspondingly significant triumph at the end. If that doesn't bother you as much as it does me, this book does have merits. The descriptions of salvage on a disabled starship are vivid and memorable and a nice change of pace from the normal military or scientific space stories. Salvage involves being careful, methodical, and precise in the face of tense situations; combined with the eerie feeling of battlefield remnants, it's an evocative scene. The Vai devices are satisfyingly alien, hitting a good balance between sinister and exotically beautiful. The Vai themselves, once we finally learn something about them, are even better: a truly alien form of life at the very edge of mutual understanding. There was the right amount of inter-corporate skulduggery, with enough factions for some tense complexity and double-crossing, but not so many that I lost track. And there is some enjoyably tense drama near the climax. Unfortunately, the unremitting horrors were too much for me. They're also too much for the characters, who oscillate between desperate action and psychological meltdowns that become more frequent and more urgently described as one gets farther into the book. Osborne starts the book with the characters already so miserable that this constant raising of the stakes became overwrought and exhausting for me. By the end of the book, the descriptions of the mental state of the characters felt like an endless, incoherent scream of pain. Combine that with a lot of body horror, physical and mental illness, carefully-described war crimes, and gruesome death, and I hit mental overload. This is not the type of science fiction novel (thankfully getting rarer) in which the author thinks any of these things are okay. Osborne is clearly on the side of her characters and considers the events of this story as horrible as I do. I think her goal was to tell a story about ethics and courage in the face of atrocities and overwhelming odds, and maybe another reader would find that. For me, it was lost in the darkness. Architects of Memory reaches a definite conclusion but doesn't resolve some major plot elements. It's followed by Engines of Oblivion, which might, based on the back-cover text, be more optimistic? I don't think I have it in me to find out, though. Rating: 4 out of 10

20 January 2021

Molly de Blanc: Inauguration Pie

How can I put four years into a pie? I m thinking of Inauguration Day 2017 through to today, Inauguration Day 2021. In truth things started back in 2015, when Donald Trump announced his run for the United States presidency, and I don t know how long things will continue past the moment when President-Elect Joe Biden becomes President Joe Biden. For the United States, it s been a hell of a time. For the world, it d been even worse. Every generation thinks that they lived through more than anyone else, that they had it worse. I had a Boomer tell me that the existential stress of COVID is nothing compared to the Vietnam War. I m sure when we are living through a global water crisis, I ll tell the kids that we had it bad too. Everyday I listen to the radio and read Twitter, aware that the current state of endless wars wars against terrorism and drugs, organized crime and famine, climate change and racism is global, and not limited to just what s happening to and around me. That makes it feel worse and bigger and I wonder if earlier generations can really grasp how big that is. The last four years brought me in closer working relationships with people in India and Nigeria. I would call these people my friends in that if they were in town I would want to see them and show them around. Most of them I would offer a space in my small apartment, in case they needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to save the money. We chat, though we only have the internet as opposed to elevator rides in tall office buildings and slow walks down to the shops during lunch breaks. From these relationships I have learned very little about life in India or Nigeria, and I only visited India separately from any of my colleagues there. (I went for a wedding. My visa to Nigeria was denied on account of a medical issue.) But, I follow these people on social media and see what they share, the same political and social utterances that could be the same here or virtually any other place, as long as we replace the right keywords. Exchange the name of one leader, conservative party, or government unit for another. When I first saw the #EndSARS hashtag show up, I thought the images were from Black Lives Matter protests. Stop police brutality. And that was only in the last few months. I ve had three jobs since Trump first announced his candidacy in three very different places. In the first I felt like I wasn t able to talk about the sexism and discrimination I was dealing with in the office, and how much more so my views on an organizational partnership with a government whose policies I strongly disagreed with. In the second I was able to talk about these things, but there was nothing to do about them. I ve been in love and had my heart broken three times in three very different ways that all came down to someone valuing someone else more than they valued me. Can I bake heartbreak into a pie? Is it even fair to distract from the political world with my own loss? What about COVID-19? There s bitterness and anger and tears and pain emotional and physical. There is desperation and desolation and loneliness. Covid has colored everything during the past year. It is a burden our new political leaders will take on. Biden and Harris, all of the new people in Congress, and everyone else who has taken on an elected position now must content with Covid with new levels of responsibility. Not only do their decisions affect the people they come into contact with, they now affect everyone their policies touch and perhaps even more than that. The government hired people to build walls. Our government approved it and people willingly took on the job of building those walls. Families were separated. Children were placed in inhumane conditions; children were tortured. Remember when the guards at border detention facilities were raping children? Remember when children had guards? Women were forcefully operated upon and had their bodies permanently changed without their permission, against their desires. People were executed by the state. There were so many things I ve lost track of them all. I remember bits and pieces as I write this, coming back to me like singing a song I haven t thought about in years. With each line, I remember another one. Being worried about coming home from Cuba, when the visitation rules were changed in the middle of my trip. Climate change, again and again. Pollution and microplastics and watching the country being broken into pieces and sold off in the name of economy and progress. People losing their access to healthcare, through clinics closing down and loss of insurance. What do you bake into a pie that tastes like sedition? What are the flavors of loss and racism and hate? How to you balance the sourness with subtle hints of hope, which feels to tender and fragile? Do we pair equal parts of the palatable with the unpalatable, in the name of our neatly divided senate? I have hope, of course I have hope, and I have always had hope, but now it feels thinner than ever, like a ganache or a caramel after your hand slips and you pour too much cream in. A custard or compote or curd that that refuses to thicken no matter how long you cook it. I see that things could be better, but better does not mean good and better does not mean enough. So I will put my hope into this pie. I put my pain and anger into the dough. I will put my tears and helplessness and bitterness into the filling. I will cover it sweetness and the delicate hope I ve spun out of sugar. Soon I will bake it and share it with the three other people I see because the most important thing about surviving these past years, these past months and weeks and days, is that we did it together. We will commiserate on what we ve overcome, and we will share our hope and the sweetness of the moment, as the spun sugar dissolves on our tongues. There is so much we have left to do, so much we must do. We will be angry in the future, we may be angry later today, but until then, we have pie.

9 January 2021

Thorsten Alteholz: My Debian Activities in December 2020

FTP master This month I only accepted 8 packages and like last month rejected 0. Despite the holidays 293 packages got accepted. Debian LTS This was my seventy-eighth month that I did some work for the Debian LTS initiative, started by Raphael Hertzog at Freexian. This month my all in all workload has been 26h. During that time I did LTS uploads of: Unfortunately package slirp has the same version in Stretch and Buster. So I first had to upload slirp/1:1.0.17-11 to unstable, in order to be allowed to fix the CVE in Buster and to finally upload a new version to Stretch. Meanwhile the fix for Buster has been approved by the Release Team and I am waiting for the next point release now. I also prepared a debdiff for influxdb, which will result in DSA-4823-1 in January. As there appeared new CVEs for openjpeg2, I did not do an upload yet. This is planned for January now. Last but not least I did some days of frontdesk duties. Debian ELTS This month was the thirtieth ELTS month. During my allocated time I uploaded: As well as for LTS, I did not finish work on all CVEs of openjpeg2, so the upload is postponed to January. Last but not least I did some days of frontdesk duties. Unfortunately I also had to give back some hours. Other stuff This month I uploaded new upstream versions of: I fixed one or two bugs in: I improved packaging of: Some packages just needed a source upload: and there have been even some new packages: With these uploads I finished the libosmocom- and libctl-transitions. The Debian Med Advent Calendar was again really successful this year. There was no new record, but with 109, the second most number of bugs has been closed.
year number of bugs closed
2011 63
2012 28
2013 73
2014 5
2015 150
2016 95
2017 105
2018 81
2019 104
2020 109
Well done everybody who participated. It is really nice to see that Andreas is no longer a lone wolf.

4 January 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Once and Future Witches

Review: The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Redhook Books
Copyright: October 2020
ISBN: 0-316-42202-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 515
Once upon a time there were three sisters. They were born in a forgotten kingdom that smelled of honeysuckle and mud, where the Big Sandy ran wide and the sycamores shone white as knuckle-bones on the banks. The sisters had no mother and a no-good father, but they had each other; it might have been enough. But the sisters were banished from their kingdom, broken and scattered.
The Once and Future Witches opens with Juniper, the youngest, arriving in the city of New Salem. The year is 1893, but not in our world, not quite; Juniper has witch-ways in her pocket and a few words of power. That's lucky for her because the wanted posters arrived before she did. Unbeknownst to her or to each other, her sisters, Agnes and Bella, are already in New Salem. Agnes works in a cotton mill after having her heart broken one too many times; the mill is safer because you can't love a cotton mill. Bella is a junior librarian, meek and nervous and uncertain but still fascinated by witch-tales and magic. It's Bella who casts the spell, partly by accident, partly out of wild hope, but it was Juniper arriving in the city who provided the final component that made it almost work. Not quite, not completely, but briefly the lost tower of Avalon appears in St. George's Square. And, more importantly, the three sisters are reunited. The world of the Eastwood sisters has magic, but the people in charge of that world aren't happy about it. Magic is a female thing, contrary to science and, more importantly, God. History has followed a similar course to our world in part because magic has been ruthlessly suppressed. Inquisitors are a recent memory and the cemetery has a witch-yard, where witches are buried unnamed and their ashes sown with salt. The city of New Salem is called New Salem because Old Salem, that stronghold of witchcraft, was burned to the ground and left abandoned, fit only for tourists to gawk at the supposedly haunted ruins. The women's suffrage movement is very careful to separate itself from any hint of witchcraft or scandal, making its appeals solely within the acceptable bounds of the church. Juniper is the one who starts to up-end all of that in New Salem. Juniper was never good at doing what she was told. This is an angry book that feels like something out of another era, closer in tone to a Sheri S. Tepper or Joanna Russ novel than the way feminism is handled in recent work. Some of that is the era of the setting, before women even had the right to vote. But primarily it's because Harrow, like those earlier works, is entirely uninterested in making excuses or apologies for male behavior. She takes an already-heated societal conflict and gives the underdogs magic, which turns it into a war. There is likely a better direct analogy from the suffrage movement, but the comparison that came to my mind was if Martin Luther King, Jr. proved ineffective or had not existed, and instead Malcolm X or the Black Panthers became the face of the Civil Rights movement. It's also an emotionally exhausting book. The protagonists are hurt and lost and shattered. Their moments of victory are viciously destroyed. There is torture and a lot of despair. It works thematically; all the external solutions and mythical saviors fail, but in the process the sisters build their own strength and their own community and rescue themselves. But it's hard reading at times if you're emotionally invested in the characters (and I was very invested). Harrow does try to balance the losses with triumphs and that becomes more effective and easier to read in the back half of the book, but I struggled with the grimness at the start. One particular problem for me was that the sisters start the book suspicious and distrustful of each other because of lies and misunderstandings. This is obvious to the reader, but they don't work through it until halfway through the book. I can't argue with this as a piece of characterization it made sense to me that they would have reacted to their past the way that they did. But it was still immensely frustrating to read, since in the meantime awful things were happening and I wanted them to band together to fight. They also worry over the moral implications of the fate of their father, whereas I thought the only problem was that the man couldn't die more than once. There too, it makes sense given the moral framework the sisters were coerced into, but it is not my moral framework and it was infuriating to see them stay trapped in it for so long. The other thing that I found troubling thematically is that Harrow personalizes evil. I thought the more interesting moral challenge posed in this book is a society that systematically abuses women and suppresses their power, but Harrow gradually supplants that systemic conflict with a villain who has an identity and a backstory. It provides a more straightforward and satisfying climax, and she does avoid the trap of letting triumph over one character solve all the broader social problems, but it still felt too easy. Worse, the motives of the villain turn out to be at right angles to the structure of the social oppression. It's just a tool he's using, and while that's also believable, it means the transfer of the narrative conflict from the societal to the personal feels like a shying away from a sharper political point. Harrow lets the inhabitants of New Salem off too easily by giving them the excuse of being manipulated by an evil mastermind. What I thought Harrow did handle well was race, and it feels rare to be able to say this about a book written by and about white women. There are black women in New Salem as well, and they have their own ways and their own fight. They are suspicious of the Eastwood sisters because they're worried white women will stir up trouble and then run away and leave the consequences to fall on black women... and they're right. An alliance only forms once the white women show willingness to stay for the hard parts. Black women are essential to the eventual success of the protagonists, but the opposite is not necessarily true; they have their own networks, power, and protections, and would have survived no matter what the Eastwoods did. The book is the Eastwoods' story, so it's mostly concerned with white society, but I thought Harrow avoided both making black women too magical or making white women too central. They instead operate in parallel worlds that can form the occasional alliance of mutual understanding. It helps that Cleopatra Quinn is one of the best characters of the book. This was hard, emotional reading. It's the sort of book where everything has a price, even the ending. But I'm very glad I read it. Each of the three sisters gets their own, very different character arc, and all three of those arcs are wonderful. Even Agnes, who was the hardest character for me to like at the start of the book and who I think has the trickiest story to tell, becomes so much stronger and more vivid by the end of the book. Sometimes the descriptions are trying a bit too hard and sometimes the writing is not quite up to the intended goal, but some of the descriptions are beautiful and memorable, and Harrow's way of weaving the mythic and the personal together worked for me. This is a more ambitious book than The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and while I think the ambition exceeded Harrow's grasp in a few places and she took a few thematic short-cuts, most of it works. The characters felt like living and changing people, which is not easy given how heavily the story structure leans on maiden, mother, and crone archetypes. It's an uncompromising and furious book that turns the anger of 1970s feminist SF onto themes that are very relevant in 2021. You will have to brace yourself for heartbreak and loss, but I think it's fantasy worth reading. Recommended. Rating: 8 out of 10

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