Aug 152014
 

LeftHandOfDarkness-40thAnniversary-PaulYoung_250hBy Ursula K. LeGuin

Synopsis: The spiritual journey of a fixed-gender human who, while living on a world inhabited by humans who alternate between genders, gets caught up in their political schemes and is cast into the wilderness.

Book Review: The first thing I noticed about this book is the writing style. It was published in 1969, and much of that 60s/70s era sci-fi has a distinct style that you can almost taste. It’s a bit more rigid, more formal. It does more telling and less showing in terms of the action that’s happening, but it is less explicit in the points it’s driving to. It feels like the sort of thing Jean-Luc Picard would read while sipping his Early Grey. It wasn’t unenjoyable, simply different. However much of the book is dated – it’s 45 years old now, and it suffers for it. Psyonics was still somewhat-plausible back then, and quite the staple of SF. It’s not the fault of those authors that it’s been thoroughly debunked in the intervening decades, but it’s painful to read it being taken seriously. Soon all the quantum-magic books of the 90s and 00s are going to look the same way to the next generation of readers.

The writing itself is absolutely gorgeous. There are so many breath-taking scenes I don’t even want to get started listing them all. Not only are they exquisite, but they aren’t over-wrought. The trip to the internment camp, where the protagonist bonds with strangers without ever talking to them, only by sharing air and what little water they are given, and by watching two other prisoners slowly die, is emotionally harrowing without being dramatic. It is simple and elegant and utterly compelling. This happens multiple times in the novel.

Unfortunately I never quite understood the point. When I was done I felt a deep melancholy, something within definitely pulled at me. But I couldn’t tell what. The message was so deeply buried/implied that I never caught a glimpse of it. I don’t want things to be garish, but I’ve never been very good with subtlety. If you don’t give me at least a few big clues, I probably won’t catch on.

In addition, this is a book whose mission has been accomplished. I gather that it’s some sort of treatise on gender equality. To me it felt very much like reading a work containing impassioned pleas to consider non-white races as equally human, and maybe abolish slavery. I, and everyone I know of my generation, has already deeply internalized this message. Most of us consider ourselves feminists. I understand this book had an important job in the past, and I can honor those who came before for providing the foundations we now stand on, and respect their great work. However it’s not a book for me. There wasn’t that much to hold my interest. If you are exploring your SF roots and want to read a foundational work, this book is exemplary, and won both the Hugo and Nebula when it was published. But 45 years later, I can’t really recommend it to anyone like me for general reading. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: This part is a bit harder. There is a fair bit to talk about. It’s interesting that all the alien characters, while supposedly gender-neutral, read as men. Was this a subconscious way of LeGuin expressing that in a world without the restrictions imposed by society and biology the “male” experience is the purer, more agenty one? But the protagonist, despite self-identifying as male and being described as masculine many times, reads like a female character (and it wasn’t just me that thought that). The book’s protagonist is a heroine, despite the male presentation. Is that a comment on the alienation of being a strong woman in a male-dominated world? We were very lucky that one of our book club members is a literary genius and was able to pick up on a lot of subtle points in the book – explaining the “left hand of darkness” metaphor, cultural imperialism vs going native, and a few others. I never would have picked up on those, and it made the discussion far more interesting. Without that, I fear we might have not spent too much time discussing the book itself. If you have a good mix of ages and life-experiences, this could be a good book for your club, and I’d recommend it. If, OTOH, your book club contains only younger readers who never experienced in-your-face old-school sexism, I would not. The world has changed. Which is for the better.

Aug 122014
 

napoleon-dynamiteRationality, it has been said, is about winning.  And winning is often heavily influenced by who can best exploit the infrastructure they find themselves in. It’s what the losers often call “cheating”, what the winners call “technique”, and what most people I know like to call “hacks.”

It’s no secret that attractive people have an advantage is almost everything. There’s countless studies, I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few. Like most intellectually-oriented people, as I was growing up I thought this was bullshit. Not in that it was untrue, but in that it was unfair and thus to be scorned. People should be judged by the content of their character, and the brilliance of their minds. Physical attractiveness is nothing but a genetic crapshoot and I didn’t want it to matter. I didn’t put any effort into presenting an attractive exterior, and I didn’t pick my friends based on looks either. Cuz fuck that.

Four years ago, for entirely less-than-noble reasons, but reasons that fulfilled my utility function nonetheless, I started to put a lot of effort into my physical appearance. I started working out a fair bit, not for any of the health reasons or whatever else, but purely to try to look better. I expected only that I would look more attractive to others. I discovered something far more startling.

Being attractive is the BIGGEST FUCKING HACK EVER. It’s ridiculous. I became more interesting to other people. Not just to women around my age, but to people all ages and genders. My jokes were funnier. When I screwed up people were quicker to wave it off. My insights were more profound. For Merlin’s sake, I was taken more seriously at work!! My coworkers and my bosses were all distinctly more impressed by my contributions, and more willing to defer to my expertise.

I want to make it clear that very little of this is because I’m ACTUALLY better in these respects. I’d like to think that I’ve improved in all areas over time as I’ve aged, due to experience and (maybe?) maturity. But the leaps and bounds that I “improved” across all areas over the 18 months I put into becoming less of a shlub were greatly out of proportion to how much I could have actually objectively improved. And seriously, nothing changed at my job except my appearance. I didn’t magically become better at spreadsheet-jockeying or more authoritative at number-explaining.

I suspect that our monkey brains see a person that looks healthy and near sexual prime and wants to be near them for various reproductive reasons, and our conscious self, being the PR firm of our psyche, translates that “urge to be near person X” for less-than-noble reasons into a feeling that “person X has desirable traits in this situation.” Obviously that’s why I want to be near them! And that is fully generalized to whatever the current situation is, be it conversation or joking around or work.

Yes, it’s still not fair. Yes, you may not care about physical attractiveness. It doesn’t matter, because the vast majority of the world does. If you are not exploiting this hack you are leaving valuable tools unused.

I know some people can’t. And I know there’s a bit of genetic luck involved. But you are probably using motivated thinking to overestimate how much is out of your control. I’m not a huge genetic winner, I’m about average on the whole. There’s a lot more that most people can do than they are doing, and it’s worth it.

Think of it like sleep. Remember when you were younger, and you said “Sleep is for the weak. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” so that you could get a few extra hours every day to do stuff you actually wanted to do? To LIVE life, rather burning your life away lying comatose in the dark? Me too. And the results were disastrous. Years lost to constant fatigue and emotional disturbance. Eventually we learned that sleeping the full 8+ hours every night is the best way to get extra time. The productivity boost from being well-rested more than compensates for the extra hours we would have been awake. We felt like we were doing more when we sacrificed sleep, but in reality we were doing less, and degrading our quality of life to boot!

Spending time on being attractive is the same way. It’s not a waste of time that you could be doing something else, something important. It is an investment of time. The remaining hours you have will be more efficient. You’ll get closer to your goal after a year’s effort than you would have if you’d taken those extra 200ish hours and used them directly for working on your goal. Being attractive really is *that much* of a hack. People want to do things for you. It’s crazy.

Maybe you only interact with other rationalists, and so this advice would have minimal impact on your life. In that case, I greatly envy you. But for everyone who has to deal with the mad world on the outside on a regular basis – OMG, you won’t even believe this shit until you’ve tried it yourself.

Aug 092014
 

10355875_10204202470444739_2434810086950501287_nBeen too long since I’ve done this, stupid life keeps getting in the way.

The most fascinating Treasure Hunt story I’ve read in a long time. For over 210 years humans have been trying to dig 140 feet down on an island in Canada, and failing over and over. Tons of man-hours, money, and a number of lives have beenlost in the attempt. One company even built a bridge from this otherwise worthless island to the mainland to facilitate the hunt. It ends kinda like you’d expect. 

Moderate voters are a myth?
“Moderates are just as likely as anyone else to hold extreme positions: it’s just that those positions don’t all line up on the left or the right.
“There’s even reason to believe “average voters” hold more extreme opinions: engaged Democrats and Republicans tend to adopt the positions held by their parties, and parties tend to adopt positions that are popular, achievable and workable.
“the idea of the moderate middle is bullshit: it’s a rhetorical device meant to marginalize some policy positions at the expense of others”

The US Sought Permission To Change The Historical Record Of A Public Court Proceeding. How many years away are we from Eurasia Has Always Been At War With Eastasia?
We’re hearing about it because the judge said WTF and “ultimately, the government said that it had *not* revealed classified information at the hearing and removed its request.”

In Moloch news - This post (Gnon and Elua) is so thick with jargon that it won’t mean much to most people, but the argument in summary is this: A world of conflict, where one can live and struggle and die with purpose, is preferable to a hedonic utopia where there are no goals or challenges, only an eternal heroin bliss. Or, put more simply, a shitty difficult life on earth is still vastly preferable to Heaven.
I find myself agreeing with this position very strongly.
But it was pointed out by others that if we humans really need struggle for our values to be fulfilled, then that is part of our Eutopia. If our benevolent god can’t make a utopia better than a perpetual heroin dream, it’s totally failed at God-ing.

Sayeth John Scalzi“why does their Kindle Direct boilerplate have language in it that says that Amazon may unilaterally change the parameters of their agreement with authors? … between my publisher and Amazon, one of them gets to utter the immortal Darth Vader line “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it further” to authors doing business with it and one does not.”

Ayn Rand’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. With lines like:
“If you want my advice, Cedric, you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”
Cedric shook his head. “How do you always manage to decide?”
“How can you let others decide for you?”
They’re doing the entire series. This reminds me of why I liked Atlas Shrugged. I miss this sort of writing style. I guess I’m still a melodramatic goth kid at heart.

I think I’m starting to enjoy this particular religion. :) Satanists want to use Hobby Lobby decision to exempt women from anti-abortion laws.

Superman taught me to kill
“Today’s online first-person-shooters might make kids enjoy violence. I don’t know. But at least these kids learn that violence has risks, and that it’s easier to start a fight than to end it. Video games don’t show kids over and 
over that the good guys are super-powerful and could easily solve everybody’s problems without anybody innocent getting hurt if they just stopped being wimps and killed all the bad guys. Counterstrike might have lead to school shootings, but Superman led to the invasion of Iraq”

Why a fanfic?
“if Azkaban were a feature of a world of my own invention, someone might ask whether Harry’s reaction to it, or the fact that other people in magical Britain seem not to notice it as a moral horror would rest on wobbly floors. They might accuse me of having constructed an absurd parody for political purposes, where Rowling is not as easily subject to this charge.”

Lawsuit alleging the Happy  Birthday song is not in copyright, and Warner owes the world hundreds of millions. I hope they win SO HARD.

This is fun! Literary Genre Translations. Original Text: “I ate a sandwich and looked out the window.” (SF version: “I placed the allotted nutrition capsules on my tongue bed and looked to the Nahin VI-8373 space podhole.”)

First – NICE! Sneaky and clever and effective. So much win.

Second – I completely relate because THAT IS MY JOB. Well, ok, that is one aspect of my job. But I would be the guy going “OK, WTF is with all these transfers on our bank account, and how do I fix it?”
(FWIW, I’m quite low on the totem pole. It’s likely the *actual* CFO of most of these corporations never saw anything. Their time is too valuable to be looking over friggin bank statements.)

Oh teh lulz!
“HeartMath’s website is impeccable. Their representatives gave a presentation to a hospital full of doctors – including cardiologists and neurologists – without any missteps that made them look anything less than reputable. 
...And then you look a little deeper and you find out that their cute little relaxation exercises are actually a plot to connect to higher dimensions beyond time and space and immanentize the eschaton by messing with Earth’s magnetic field, possibly with the help of $60,000 worth of giant coils and/or Yog-Sothoth.”

How to make Twilight not suck! (good head-canon)
(original here)

A great post from one of the supposed target demo of YA novels about what she actually wants.
“I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
Nothing too complex.
No adults.
Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points.
…I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.”

I hate “science reporters” so much….

10314713_10152191824321179_6951003947952215847_n

 

 

 

 

 

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In well-worn “the past was terrible” news - Children aren’t worth very much—that’s why we no longer make many
“before the demographic transition, children were essentially the property of their parents. Their labor could be used for the parents’ good, and they were accustomed to strict and austere treatment. Parents had claims not only to their children’s labor in childhood, but even to their wealth in adulthood. To put it crudely, marrying a wife meant buying a slave factory, and children were valuable slaves.”

I learned something new and, frankly, absolutely funktastic.
LOYDSIR-NOSE-VOID-OF-FUNK“Starchild’s nemesis is Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk … His goal is to place the minds of all humanity into a state called the Zone of Zero Funkativity. Starchild, on the other hand, uses his Bop Gun to achieve “Funkentelechy” for all humanity. With the Funky powers of the Bop Gun Starchild causes Sir Nose to reach Funkentelechy, and find his Funky soul. He then dances away the night.”
There is more.

In keeping with the government’s theme of “Let’s crack down on these uppity women and their so-called ‘rights’ ” week – The EFF on Why Everyone Should be Concerned By the Seizure of MyRedBook.Com

“Being forced to depend upon your employer for your access to healthcare is a shitty, shitty system.
The reason I’ve come to believe that healthcare is a human right is because it’s about survival, and about control. Someone else controlling your healthcare, your decisions, puts them in no small measure in control of your life.”

Literally the ghost of a song. Sounds appropriately ghosty, which makes me happy.

Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they’re private corporations, immune from open records laws
“a number of SWAT teams in the Bay State are operated by what are called law enforcement councils, or LECs. These LECs are funded by several police agencies in a given geographic area and overseen by an executive board, which is usually mad
e up of police chiefs from member police departments”
“the LECs are claiming that the 501(c)(3) status means that they’re private corporations, not government agencies. And therefore, they say they’re immune from open records requests. These agencies oversee police activities. They employ cops who carry guns, wear badges, collect paychecks provided by taxpayers and have the power to detain, arrest, injure and kill. They operate SWAT teams, which conduct raids on private residences. And yet they say that because they’ve incorporated, they’re immune to Massachusetts open records laws.”

 

And ending with way too many words – In Defense of Facebook(‘s recent social experiment)

“First, these effects are tiny. The largest effect size reported had the monumental effect of shifting that user’s own emotional word use by two hundredths of a standard deviation

the suggestion that Facebook “manipulated users’ emotions” is quite misleading. … Facebook simply removed emotional messages for some users. … it’s certainly not credible to suggest that replacing 10% – 90% of emotional content with neutral content constitutes a potentially dangerous manipulation of people’s subjective experience

the Facebook news feed is, and has always been, a completely contrived environment … Instead, what you’re presented with is a carefully curated experience that is crafted in such a way as to create a more engaging experience. The items you get to see are determined by a complex and ever-changing algorithm

virtually every large company with a major web presence is constantly conducting large controlled experiments on user behavior with the explicit goal of helping to increase revenue. if the idea that Facebook would actively try to manipulate your behavior bothers you, you should probably also stop using Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, and pretty much every other major website

it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. Your mother wants you to eat more broccoli; your friends want you to come get smashed with them at a bar; your boss wants you to stay at work longer and take fewer breaks.

the present backlash will do absolutely nothing to deter Facebook from actually conducting controlled experiments on its users. What [it] will almost certainly do is decrease the scientific community’s access to, and interaction with, one of the largest and richest sources of data on human behavior in existence

Aug 052014
 

keanu-reeves-kung-fuA long time ago I thought that Martial Arts simply taught you how to fight – the right way to throw a punch, the best technique for blocking and countering an attack, etc. I thought training consisted of recognizing these attacks and choosing the correct responses more quickly, as well as simply faster/stronger physical execution of same. It was later that I learned that the entire purpose of martial arts is to train your body to react with minimal conscious deliberation, to remove “you” from the equation as much as possible.

The reason is of course that conscious thought is too slow. If you have to think about what you’re doing, you’ve already lost.  It’s been said that if you had to think about walking to do it, you’d never make it across the room. Fighting is no different. (It isn’t just fighting either – anything that requires quick reaction suffers when exposed to conscious thought. I used to love Rock Band. One day when playing a particularly difficult guitar solo on expert I nailed 100%… except “I” didn’t do it at all. My eyes saw the notes, my hands executed them, and no where was I involved in the process. It was both exhilarating and creepy, and I basically dropped the game soon after.)

You’ve seen how long it takes a human to learn to walk effortlessly. That a situation with a single constant force, an unmoving surface, no agents working against you, and minimal emotional agitation. No wonder it takes hundreds of hours, repeating the same basic movements over and over again, to attain even a basic level of martial mastery. To make your body react correctly without any thinking involved. When Neo says “I Know Kung Fu” he isn’t surprised that he now has knowledge he didn’t have before. He’s amazed that now his body now reacts in the optimal manner when attacked without his involvement.

All of this is simply focusing on pure reaction time – it doesn’t even take into account the emotional terror of another human seeking to do violence to you. It doesn’t capture the indecision of how to respond, the paralysis of having to choose between outcomes which are all awful and you don’t know which will be worse, and the surge of hormones. The training of your body to respond without your involvement bypasses all of those obstacles as well.

This is the true strength of Martial Arts – eliminating your slow, conscious deliberation and acting while there is still time to do so.

Roles are the Martial Arts of Agency.

When one is well-trained in a certain Role, one defaults to certain prescribed actions immediately and confidently. I’ve acted as a guy standing around watching people faint in an overcrowded room, and I’ve acted as the guy telling people to clear the area. The difference was in one I had the role of Corporate Pleb, and the other I had the role of Guy Responsible For This Shit. You know the difference between the guy at the bar who breaks up a fight, and the guy who stands back and watches it happen? The former thinks of himself as the guy who stops fights. They could even be the same guy, on different nights. The role itself creates the actions, and it creates them as an immediate reflex. By the time corporate-me is done thinking “Huh, what’s this? Oh, this looks bad. Someone fainted? Wow, never seen that before. Damn, hope they’re OK. I should call 911.” enforcer-me has already yelled for the room to clear and whipped out a phone.

Roles are the difference between Hufflepuffs gawking when Neville tumbles off his broom (Protected), and Harry screaming “Wingardium Leviosa” (Protector). Draco insulted them afterwards, but it wasn’t a fair insult – they never had the slightest chance to react in time, given the role they were in. Roles are the difference between Minerva ordering Hagrid to stay with the children while she forms troll-hunting parties (Protector), and Harry standing around doing nothing while time slowly ticks away (Protected). Eventually he switched roles. But it took Agency to do so. It took time.

Agency is awesome. Half this site is devoted to becoming better at Agency. But Agency is slow. Roles allow real-time action under stress.

Agency has a place of course. Agency is what causes us to decide that Martial Arts training is important, that has us choose a Martial Art, and then continue to train month after month. Agency is what lets us decide which Roles we want to play, and practice the psychology and execution of those roles. But when the time for action is at hand, Agency is too slow. Ensure that you have trained enough for the next challenge, because it is the training that will see you through it, not your agenty conscious thinking.

 

As an aside, most major failures I’ve seen recently are when everyone assumed that someone else had the role of Guy In Charge If Shit Goes Down. I suggest that, in any gathering of rationalists, they begin the meeting by choosing one person to be Dictator In Extremis should something break. Doesn’t have to be the same person as whoever is leading. Would be best if it was someone comfortable in the role and/or with experience in it. But really there just needs to be one. Anyone.

Aug 012014
 

schemerMuch like The Joker, I used to think there was a plan. That someone (or rather, various groups of people) had some idea of what they wanted to happen, and had some sort of plans to bring those things to fruition. You know, the adults of society. The older I get and the more I interact with people up the ladder, the more I realize no one has a fucking clue and everyone’s just kinda faking it and hoping things don’t collapse on their watch.

Recently when interacting with the person who is replacing my boss’s boss he asked me to run a report a week earlier than usual. I asked if this was just for this month, or should I move up the due date permanently? He did exactly what I would do in that situation, down to the physical mannerisms, so I recognized it instantly and intimately: He put on a contemplative look, waited a few seconds, then told me implement the change I had suggested (permanent move of the due date). This is the Basic Look-Managerial Move. He was thinking (as I would have at that moment) “I have no fucking clue. It doesn’t really matter, but now I’ve engaged the topic and I’ve got to look managerial. I will put on a contemplative face and wait a few seconds, to give the impression that I am deeply considering this and its various implications. Then I will confidently state that my employee go with their suggested action.” No actual contemplation was done, this was all for show. I’d had some suspicions before, but this was the first really firm evidence that the people above me don’t have any more of a clue than I do about running this whole thing.

More hilariously – every week they pack everyone in the office (100ish people) into the lunch room to have a “Stand-Up Meeting.” There’s barely enough room for everyone, and the meetings are worthless. I mean that in a strict sense – no information of value is given to anyone that would find it valuable. Those who need the information already know it, and the rest of us don’t care because it doesn’t affect our jobs or our work in any way. Mainly we stand around and burn 20 minutes of the day in boredom while some VPs and SVPs rattle off stats. I think it’s supposed to be a corporate bonding sort of thing, like the Japanese do. They try to encourage cheering and the reciting of the corporate motto and so forth. Anyway, a lot of people skip these meetings cuz they aren’t useful. Last week our Board of Directors was in the building and they came to the Stand-Up Meeting, so beforehand all our managers let us know that everyone should attend that meeting. We wanted to have an impressive turnout for the Board. The room was packed past capacity. I grabbed a spot by the door so I could get some fresh air. You know where this is going.

About 18 minutes in someone in the back corner passed out. A call went out for someone to call 911, and a couple people took off to do that. The SVP, who’d been going through his routine in the center of the room, looked around with wide eyes like a deer caught in headlights. As Draco would say “When you take advantage of emergencies to demonstrate leadership, you want to look like you’re in total control of the situation, rather than, say, going into a complete panic.” Of course I also did jack-shit, when I could have very easily announced we should clear the room so the passed-out person can get some damn fresh air. I did nothing, because to wrest control of the room from an SVP would make him look bad, would make me look like I was grabbing for un-earned status, and could possibly make me some powerful enemies. Of course it could also make me look great, but I was erring on the side of caution. Somehow the fact that someone was passed out in the corner and needed others to do something to help her didn’t come into consideration. :(  I suspect that at that moment the SVP was suffering from similar paralysis, because the CEO was in the room. Surely the CEO outranked him, shouldn’t he let the CEO take care of this? Or the Board of Directors, who were also all there? So he did nothing, and it looked bad.

On reflection, he should have acted, because as the leader of the meeting it was his room to control. He was in charge of that space, even if he wasn’t the highest-ranking person there in absolute terms.
First lesson – everyone is just as clueless as I am. We’re all faking it, hoping nothing goes wrong.

Second lesson – #CivilizationalInadequacy permeates organizations of all levels. It even goes down to the individual level.

Third lesson – I should always assume I am the defacto person in charge and responsible for any area I’m in, and if any of my underlings (even those nominally of much higher rank) are failing to do things that prevent others from being hurt I have to intervene.

Fourth lesson – This explains a LOT about politics.

Fifth lesson – How the hell does civilization still exist if it’s such a loose hodge-podge of people bumbling along trying to keep things from falling apart for one more day and hoping nobody catches on that none of us has a fucking clue? It must be both much more robust and much less directed than I had imagined.

Sixth lesson – Being an adult in the real world is stupidly scary. I used to think the world made sense. Turns out the great clown Pagliacci was right: everyone is alone in a harsh and threatening world.

Jul 312014
 

hugoOnly hours left to get in your Hugo ballots! By long* tradition, my ballot and reasoning below.

Best Novel

1 – Ancillary Justice, obviously. So cool that in addition to my standard Book Club Review I also had to write a second post, about the themes I loved within it. Deserves the win.

2 – Warbound. This was a bit of a hard call. I wouldn’t consider either of them to be a “great” work, but Warbound is certainly less interesting and more popcorny. So why Warbound above Neptune’s Brood? I guess I just preferred its tone of humanity ultimately being good, if flawed, over Brood’s brooding “all humans are scum” feel. That makes up for a lot.

3 – Neptune’s Brood.

4 – Parasite. I didn’t read it. I slogged through the last three books Mira Grant managed to get nominated, all of which were too long and two of which sucked. I know Seanan McGuire is awesome IRL, I’d love to hang out with her (altho if she ever saw this I doubt the feeling would be mutual). But I simply no longer trust her to tell a story. Certainly not enough to entrust her with many hours of my life. If she ever writes something really awesome I’ll have to be told of it by others, I certainly won’t find out for myself.

5 – Wheel of Time. I’m glad this got on the ballot, it’s fun to stick a wrench in the works from time to time. :) But let’s get serious when we’re voting.

 

Only read one Novella (Valente, cuz she’s awesome), so I’m not voting there.

 

Best Novelette

1 – Truth of Fact, Truth of Feeling

2 – Lady Astronaut of Mars

3 – The Waiting Stars

4 – The Exchange Officers

5 – Opera Vita Aeterna

Explanation why, and reviews, here.

 

Best Short Story

1 – Selkie Stores Are for Losers

2 – Ink Readers of Doi Saket

3 – If You Were a Dinosaur

4 – The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere

Explanation why, and reviews, here.

 

No votes in any other catagories, since I haven’t read/seen enough of the ballot to make an informed decision. Although y’all really should read We Have Always Fought if you haven’t already, it’s really good.


*since last year

Jul 282014
 

neptunesbroodBy Charles Stross

Synopsis: A post-human is chased across a star system and to the bottom of an ocean by competing wealthy and powerful people who want a code in her head worth a nigh-unimaginable fortune.

Book Review: Like all of Stross’s works, this combines an intricately built world and tight plotting with a biting sense of humor and palpable misanthropy. It’s a strange mix. The first section of the book takes part in a flying church that is SO GOTH my inner teen shrieks in delight (yeah, The Crow was one of my favorite movies in High School). It’s played for humor, and it’s a lot of fun while still being serious and disturbing in parts. Which, BTW, is another strange flavor to watch out for. There are occasional spikes of pure horror that drop out of nowhere and blast you with nightmare fuel, before going back to standard SF fare. The writing is clever, in some places overly so, but that helps to give it Lovecraftian overtones. It is an odd palette that Stross paints with.

The most notable thing about the book is that it reintroduces one to what “Noir” originally meant. Nowadays it’s used to mean that generic 40’s style, with wise-cracking guys in fedoras and tommy guns. I referred to Warbound as a “Noir” story. Nowadays it’s all about the furniture. But originally Noir meant a bleak, dark world that leaves the audience feeling soiled. In a Noir story every single person is in it only for themselves. There is no honor, no loyalty, no greater noble virtues to humanity. You can’t trust anyone in even the slightest regard (expect, perhaps, to pursue their own interests). Everyone cares only for their own selfish, short-term, monetary gain. It’s this grim, mercenary view of humanity that leaves you feeling dirty when you watch/read old Noir. Except, of course, usually the protagonist served as a sort of Jaded White Knight – cynical, but an idealist at heart. This book is like that, except the protagonist here is just as mercenary as everyone else.

In fairness, there is a society glimpsed near the end that surpasses human selfishness and is awesome, but they’re barely seen. For all its neat points, the story didn’t really compel me in any major way, expect perhaps to hate all humanity. And that’s not a feeling I’m particularly fond of. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s interesting that the book didn’t spark more discussion among our group, considering the very in-depth speculation on the workings of future societies. Upon consideration though, maybe I should have expected that. The economic framework Stross presents is elaborate and fascinating, but it’s not emotionally compelling. I was interested and enjoyed reading the many digressions into the slow-money financial system and its relation to our current monetary system, but I was never really gripped by anything. The story makes its way to the conclusion in an orderly and respectable manner, and then it’s over. Perhaps this would work well in a group that is grumpy and would be happy to talk about how people suck. After all, traditional-Noir used to be a popular genre (right?). But the mood seemed to stifle conversation a bit for us. Not Recommended.

Jul 172014
 

Alexander_cuts_the_Gordian_KnotLike pretty much all geeks everyone, I am a huge Alexander the Great fan. Except for the story of The Gordian Knot. When I got to that part of his legend I was sorely disappointed. Here’s one of the smartest badasses ever, presented with an intellectual challenge of epic proportions, and what does he do? The same thing any thug with a sharp hunk of metal could do. No finesse, no show of genius. It reminded me of what the mouth-breathing jocks I despised would do.

But lately I’ve had a change of heart. Allow me to digress.

Alone, when commenting on The Milgram Experiment, noted that even the supposedly “good” people only refused to shock the test victim. Not a single one kicked over a chair, tore a fluorescent bulb out of the ceiling, smashed it on the floor, and then swung the jagged remains around like a lightsaber demanding that the torture victim in the other room be freed or by god the blood of evil-doers would be spilled!! (Alone can get dramatic in his blog posts sometimes). Which, upon relfection, is a good fucking point.

Likewise, in a lot of fairy tales, heroes are presented by the villain with a test they must pass. Recently I read the story (ok, listened to) of a heroine who must match the remembered heartbeat of her lover against dozens of variably-ticking clocks. If she truly loves him and knows his heartbeat, she’ll be able to pick the matching clock, and the witch will return her lover. In these stories, the hero/ine always goes through with the test. They never grab the witch, put a knife to her throat, and say “Fuck you and fuck your stupid test. Give me my lover or I will skin you alive.” Which is really the best course of action. First, you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists out of principle. And second, this person has already proven themselves to be evil, why would you trust them to keep their word if you do pass their test?

These characters have lost sight of their true goals. Originally their goal was “Rescue my lover,” and when they were told that passing this test would return their lover to them, they immediately shifted to the instrumental goal of “pass this test” without thinking about whether that best fulfills their terminal goal. It’s a wonderful trick, and it seems to be extremely easy to pull on most people (and is probably what the bulk of politics is about).

One could speculate that, confronted by orders to harm others, the participants in the Milgram experiment lost track of their “do not let evil prevail” terminal goal in their agonizing focus on “do not personally do evil” goal, which should rightly be only a subset of the former.

All that being said – my problem was that I had taken my eyes from Alexander’s true goal. I saw the Gordian Knot as a test, an opportunity to show off his superior intellect and wits. A chance to dazzle all those who admire him, and perturb all who would oppose him. I would have tried to untangle the knot. Alexander never lost sight of his true goal, which was to rule the world. The Gordian Knot was an obstacle, and he swept it aside in the most expedient and least risky way possible.

It’s only recently that I realized this. I’ve come to respect this focus on brutal problem solving much more lately. Looking good in front of others is still very useful, and can be of utility in pursuing your other goals. But if it doesn’t solve the problem, your effort is probably being wasted. Stop being the witch’s toy, and start cutting your way to your goal.

Jul 152014
 

hugoBook Review:  Every year my book club reads all the short stories and novelletes nominated for Hugo Awards and discusses those at a meeting, rather than reading a novel. So this will be more of a quick review of a bunch of stories, rather than of a single work.

Short Stories

‘‘The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere’’, John Chu
I don’t see why this is considered Speculative Fiction. There’s basically nothing SF in here (and the water doesn’t count). This is a plain ol’ coming-out story. More than that, it’s a boring coming out story. And maybe worst of all, there wouldn’t even be a story if the protagonist had even a single vertebrae worth of backbone. I have no interest in reading about a complete wus being so much of a loser that it hurt my eyes to read about it. Jesus, ovary up!

 

‘‘The Ink Readers of Doi Saket’’, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
A delightful fairy tale, with a beautiful cadence. It’s fun to read, but it won’t leave your life changed, or your week altered. Fun, but light.

 

‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers’’, Sofia Samatar (audio)
I first heard this in audio, so I almost didn’t read it, which would have been a huge mistake. Something is lost in the audio, I don’t know what it is. The meter of the words maybe. The breaks are very important too. I didn’t get anything from it when I heard it.

Then I read it.

This story is amazing. It hits one of my favorite themes, the same theme that Comes The Huntsman and Evangelion and Vellum and all sorts of things I love portray well – People Will Leave You. Whether by choice or accident or death, eventually everyone you know will leave your life in some way, and it will fucking hurt. But trying to shield yourself by not forming attachments ends up hurting even more, because human psychology sucks and isolation is awful. Putting it in crass words like this is terrible and doesn’t convey any of the emotion, which is why you’ll never see it put in this way in anything worth reading/watching. Read this story. It’s amazing.

The fear and pain of abandonment drips from every single sentence. And let me say this is one of the best written works I’ve read in a long time. The craft of the wordsmithing is breath-taking. It flows like a song, tugging you where it wants you to be with the rhythm of the words and the tension of the voice. Tugging is the wrong word to use, it embraces and guides you.

And the protagonist! Holy god! It’s been said that Superman isn’t brave when he jumps in front of a bullet, because he knows it won’t hurt him. Actual bravery is a normal human who does so, because he knows he could be maimed, or killed, and maybe it won’t even matter. This protagonist is the bravest fucking person I’ve read about in ages. You feel her bowel-liquidating fear and yet she goes forward with what terrifies her. She refuses to live cringing from life for fear of pain, she grabs onto life and screams in defiance and accepts that maybe she’ll be thrown off and it’ll hurt and it’ll be awful but fuck it all, that’s no way to live. It’s exhilarating and moving and terrifying and inspiring.

This story deserves to win SO HARD it’s ridiculous.

 

‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love’’, Rachel Swirsky
This isn’t a short story, it’s a poem, but let’s let that slide since there’s no poetry category. It is technically magnificent. It does exactly what it sets out to do with skill so precise it’s scary. Every bit as amazingly written as Selkie Stories. However, what it sets out to do is hurt you. This is a sad-fic. It describes something so unutterably tragic and terrible in such a perfect way that you feel every bit of that pain. And unlike Selkie Stories, there is no brave protagonist pushing forward and being amazing. There is just the pain. This is the literary equivalent of taking a straight razor, dulling it just slightly, and then running it over your skin just hard enough to cut it without drawing much blood. If that’s what you want in your fiction, this is perfect for you and you will fall in love with it instantly. Me, I left my cutting days back in my teen years. I don’t like stories that exist just for the catharsis of experiencing pain. I feel this story would have been better off in a Literary Fiction magazine.

 

Novelettes

‘‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’’, Ted Chiang
When he writes, Ted Chiang dissects our universe. He keeps cutting until he finds something interesting, one little bit of reality that captures his interest. He then removes this piece, studies it, and alters it ever so slightly to create a unique and fascinating premise for a story. Then he surgically re-inserts this altered bit, re-composes reality, and finally creates the story that would arise naturally from that little bit of the universe being different. And as you examine this story, you can see reflected in its surfaces and vertices what the original piece of our world was. By presenting us a story where that piece is different, it brings light to how that original piece shapes our own reality.

Which is to say (again) Ted Chiang is the best short-fiction writer of the present day.

He does that again with this story. This time the piece is literacy. Obviously this was my favorite novelette, and you should read it. :)

 

‘‘Opera Vita Aeterna’’, Vox Day
I tried to give this a chance. I really did. I read Warbound with an open mind, and Correia himself seemed quite happy with my attempt at fairness. So I went in thinking this could be a good work, even if I think Vox Day himself is an insufferable douchebag. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time a great artist has been personally reprehensible.

I kept waiting for the story to start. It never did. Seriously, there is nothing here. The writing itself isn’t bad (a bit amateurish, but we all gotta start somewhere), but this isn’t a story. As one of our book club said “If this was presented to our writing group, we’d return it without comment, saying it’s not worth our time to critique.” It is purely a finger-in-the-eye to the Hugos. All I can say is… well played Correia.

Needless to say, this isn’t worth your time.

 

‘‘The Waiting Stars’’, Aliette de Bodard
Everyone else seemed to love this, but I don’t know why. It’s a retelling of The Matrix that doesn’t add anything. Meh.

 

‘‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’’, Mary Robinette Kowal 
A very good story about aging. The conflict between being true to your calling and what you view as your duty. And what it means to grow old and useless to society. This speaks directly to me. It was very moving, and the resolution made me a bit misty-eyed. Let’s never get old, OK?

 

‘‘The Exchange Officers’’, Brad Torgersen
This starts with the line “Does technology change the nature–and meaning–of sacrifice?” as a teaser. The answer is yes. Trashing some government agency’s expensive hardware from a safe bunker hundreds of miles away is not at all as compelling as sacrificing your own life. One might say that applying the word “sacrifice” to the first scenario is an abuse of the reader’s trust. This was more like the power-fantasy that boys write in early high school (I would know). It was boring, and bad.

 

Book Club Review: Despite some of these stories sucking (which happens every year), I cannot do anything less but heartily recommend the “reading stories/novelettes” practice to all book clubs. It’s a different form of story-telling, and the scattershot approach exposes you to a variety of styles and authors you probably wouldn’t normally read. It’s a very refreshing change of pace, and it’s fun to compare stories to each other directly, rather than discussing a single work in isolation as is generally done. It gives you a ton of subject matter to talk about. And it’s ok if some of it sucks, it lets you vent, and you move on to the good stuff. This is great fun, and I hope more people get into it!

Jul 032014
 

suburban-sprawlI really really dislike the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs and I didn’t have a happy childhood, so that’s probably in part psychological. But the suburbs are a cultural wasteland. I find them barren of anything new or exciting. Everything is cookie-cutter, all of it feels like a fake plastic façade. Neighbors with painted-on smiles trying to fit in, hiding anything that doesn’t match the old Rockwell paintings. They feel hollow, and I hate ‘em. There is no place as isolating as suburbia.

I moved out as soon as I could, moved into a multi-family building with three floors, three neighbors against three walls and another below me. I still carried my isolation and loneliness with me, but it was a start. This is gonna sound kinda pathetic, but give young-me a break, I was only 19… I was so painfully alone that first night in my own place that I dragged my mattress over to the front door. I lay as close to the crack in the door as I could and let the human sounds of my neighbors going about their lives lull me to sleep. It was comforting.

You can’t hide behind polished images and fake lives when you live that close to so many people. (Well, maybe you can, but it’s a lot harder) And if any really serious shit goes down, your neighbors are right there to call the cops or whatever. Yeah, we don’t actually talk to each other or really acknowledge each other – when you’re tight in like that it’s best to let everyone just be. But it’s real in a way suburban living isn’t.

Not to mention that suburban living is monstrously inefficient. I don’t just mean that massive waste of radiating away all that heat in the winter, and all that cool in the summer, but that’s part of it. Energy bills are ridiculous for single-family houses. You know how much you save by sharing 3-6 walls with other people? Keeping that heat/cold amongst yourselves rather than just sending it out into the wild? The surface-area-to-person ratio is much better for multi-family buildings. No, what I’m really talking about is the insane waste of space. Yards are getting tighter nowadays, but still – think of the land area taken up four single-family homes! If that was consolidated into a three-floor multi-family building you could easily get five times as many people into that space. The resulting sprawl is unconscionable. How many thousands of additional miles of roads, sewer, and other infrastructure are required to support that? How much land has to be converted from wild human-capacity-supporting environment to lawns and pavement? This is how we get rat-holes like Los Angeles.

And that isn’t even the worst cost of sprawl. The worst cost is the uncounted millions of man-hours lost every year to commuting, one of the most hellish experiences people subject themselves to daily. Which also comes with an additional cost in billions of gallons of gas burned annually, and the pile-on costs of that, but I consider those less awful than the loss of hours of life on such a massive scale.

All of which is to say, after 16 years away, I’ve bought a house in the suburbs. :/ (Fortunately only about 2-3 minutes further away from work, but still…) It is an experiment, as the on-going life-satisfaction of my SO will be severely hampered if we don’t at least try this. For her, I’m willing to try this out for three years. Let’s see if it’s not as bad as I remember it, or if she doesn’t actually need it as much as she’s thinking. Check back with us in three years’ time. :)