Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2022-11-25: podlators 5.00

podlators is my collection of POD formatting modules, which generate *roff or text (possibly with escape sequence markup) from the documentation format used by Perl and some other packages.

This is a major release, the biggest since the Pod::Simple rewrite in 2005. The headline news is that after some fairly extensive investigation, this release of Pod::Man finally changes the default output format to Unicode. No more replacement of characters in people's names, or text in non-English languages, with ugly X characters! There is a new encoding option to set the output encoding, and new options groff (which uses the groff extension for Unicode code points and is the default on EBCDIC systmes) and roff (which does the old, broken X substitution).

Since this was a major backward-incompatible change, I also finally removed most of the formatting touch-ups that Pod::Man tried to do for troff output but which would be invisible for the (by far more commonly used) nroff output. These have been an endless source of bugs and are very difficult to maintain, most of them were of marginal utility, and I am dubious many people are using troff to print Perl manual pages these days instead of, say, printing the rendered output from one of the many excellent POD to HTML modules.

There is some remaining somewhat-Perl-specific guesswork applied to the formatting, which is much simpler, but even that can now be turned off with the new guesswork option. This will allow people using POD to generate manual pages for things other than Perl modules to disable the Perl-specific markup logic.

Pod::Text also now supports encoding and gets some major encoding cleanups, including using Encode instead of PerlIO encoding layers for its output.

There are also numerous other fixes and improvements: a new language option to Pod::Man to configure (in an unfortunately groff-specific way) the line-breaking rules for languages like Chinese and Japanese, conversion of zero-width spaces to the *roff \: equivalent, a fix for wrapping L<> inside S<>, and various other bug fixes.

Perhaps the most interesting is a fix to a long-standing problem with the Pod::Man output where bold and italic text would extend too far if used in combination with C<> fixed-width text. This bug has been around forever without being noticed, and then two different people noticed it while I was preparing this release.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the podlators distribution page. These changes should be incorporated into Perl core in due course, although given the substantial changes, that may require a baking period.

2022-11-23: Review: Servant Mage

Review: Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-250-76904-3
Format Kindle
Pages 165

Servant Mage is a (so far at least) standalone fantasy novella.

Fellian is a servant mage, which means that she makes Lamps for the customers of the inn, cleans the privies, and watches her effective owners find ways to put her deeper into indentured servitude. That's the only life permitted by the August Protector to those found to carry the taint of magical talent, caused by (it is said) demons who have bound themselves to their souls. Fellian's effective resistance is limited to giving covert reading lessons. Or was, before she is hired by a handsome man who needs a Lamplighter. A man who has been looking for her specifically, is a magical Adept, and looks suspiciously like a soldier for the despised and overthrown monarchists.

A difficulty with writing a story that reverses cliches is that you have to establish the cliches in order to reverse them, which runs the risk that a lot of the story may feel cliched. I fear some of that happened here.

Magic, in this world, is divided into elemental spheres, each of which has been restricted to limited and practical tasks by the Liberationists. The new regime searches the population for the mage-gifted and forces them into public service for the good of all (or at least that's how they describe it), with as little education as possible. Fellian was taught to light Lamps, but what she has is fire magic, and she's worked out some additional techniques on her own. The Adept is air, and one of the soldiers with him is earth. If you're guessing that two more elements turn up shortly and something important happens if you get all five of them together, you're perhaps sensing a bit of unoriginality in the magic system.

That's not the cliche that's the primary target of this story, though. The current rulers of this country, led by the austere August Protector, are dictatorial anti-monarchists who are happy to force mages into indenture and deny people schooling. Fellian has indeed fallen in with the monarchists, who unsurprisingly are attempting to reverse the revolution. They, unlike the Liberationists, respect mages and are willing to train them, and they would like to recruit Fellian.

I won't spoil the details of where Elliott is going with the plot, but it does eventually go somewhere refreshingly different. The path to get there, though, is familiar from any number of fantasy epics that start with a slave with special powers. Servant Mage is more aware of this than most, and Fellian is sharp-tongued and suspicious rather than innocent and trainable, but there are a lot of familiar character tropes and generic fantasy politics.

This is the second story (along with the Spiritwalker trilogy) of Elliott's I've read that uses the French Revolution as a political model but fails to provide satisfying political depth. This one is a novella and can therefore be forgiven for not having the time to dive into revolutionary politics, but I wish Elliott would do more with this idea. Here, the anti-monarchists are straight-up villains, and while that's partly setup for more nuance than you might be expecting, it still felt like a waste of the setting. I want the book that tackles the hard social problem of reconciling the chaos and hopefulness of political revolution with magical powers that can be dangerous and oppressive without the structure of tradition. It feels like Elliott keeps edging towards that book but hasn't found the right hook to write it.

Instead, we get a solid main character in Fellian, a bunch of supporting characters who mostly register as "okay," some magical set pieces that have all the right elements and yet didn't grab my sense of wonder, and a story that seemed heavily signposted. The conclusion was the best part of the story, but by the time we got there it wasn't as much of a surprise as I wanted it to be. I had this feeling with the Spiritwalker series as well: the pieces making up the story are of good quality, and Elliott's writing is solid, but the narrative magic never quite coheres for me. It's the sort of novella where I finished reading, went "huh," and then was excited to start a new book.

I have no idea if there are plans for more stories in this universe, but Servant Mage felt like a prelude to a longer series. If that series does materialize, there are some signs that it could be more satisfying. At the end of the story, Fellian is finally in a place to do something original and different, and I am mildly curious what she might do. Maybe enough to read the next book, if one turns up.

Mostly, though, I'm waiting for the sequel to Unconquerable Sun. Next April!

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-11-05: Review: Matrix

Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Publisher Riverhead Books
Copyright 2021
ISBN 0-698-40513-7
Format Kindle
Pages 260

Marie is a royal bastardess, a product of rape no less, and entirely out of place in the court in Westminster, where she landed after being kicked off her mother's farm. She had run the farm since her mother's untimely death, but there was no way that her relatives would let her inherit. In court, Marie is too tall, too ugly, and too strange, raised by women who were said to carry the blood of the fairy Mélusine. Eleanor of Aquitaine's solution to her unwanted house guest is a Papal commission. Marie is to become the prioress of an abbey.

I am occasionally unpleasantly reminded of why I don't read very much literary fiction. It's immensely frustrating to read a book in which the author cares about entirely different things than the reader, and where the story beats all land wrong.

This is literary historical fiction set in the 12th century. Marie is Marie de France, author of the lais about courtly love that are famous primarily due to their position as early sources for the legends of King Arthur. The lais are written on-screen very early in this book, but they disappear without any meaningful impact on the story. Matrix is, instead, about Shaftesbury Abbey and what it becomes during Marie's time as prioress and then abbess, following the theory that Marie de France was Mary of Shaftesbury.

What I thought I was getting in this book, from numerous reviews and recommendations, was a story of unexpected competence: how a wild, unwanted child of seventeen lands at a dilapidated and starving abbey, entirely against her will, and then over the next sixty years transforms it into one of the richest abbeys in England. This does happen in this book, but Groff doesn't seem to care about the details of that transformation at all.

Instead, Matrix takes the mimetic fiction approach of detailed and precise description of a few characters, with all of their flaws and complexities, and with all of the narrative's attention turned to how they are feeling and what they are seeing. It is also deeply, fully committed to a Great Man (or in this case a Great Woman) view of history.

Marie is singular. The narrative follows her alone, she makes all the significant decisions, and the development of the abbey is determined by her apparently mystical visions. (In typical mimetic fashion, these are presented as real to her, and the novel takes no position on whether that reality is objective.) She builds spy networks, maneuvers through local and church politics, and runs the abbey like her personal kingdom. The tiny amount of this that is necessarily done by other people is attributed to Marie's ability to judge character. Other people's motives are simply steamrolled over and have no effect.

Maddeningly, essentially all of this happens off-screen, and Groff is completely uninterested in the details of how any of it is accomplished. Marie decides to do something, the narrative skips forward a year, and it has happened. She decides to build something, and then it's built. She decides to collect the rents she's due, the novel gestures vaguely at how she's intimidating, and then everyone is happily paying up. She builds spy networks; who cares how? She maneuvers through crises of local and church politics that are vaguely alluded to, through techniques that are apparently too uninteresting to bother the reader with.

Instead, the narrative focuses on two things: her deeply dysfunctional, parasocial relationship with Eleanor, and her tyrannical relationship with the other nuns. I suspect that Groff would strongly disagree with my characterization of both of those narratives, and that's the other half of my problem with this book.

Marie is obsessed with and in love with Eleanor, a completely impossible love to even talk about, and therefore turns to courtly love from afar as a model into which she can fit her feelings. While this is the setup for a tragedy, it's a good idea for a story. But what undermined it for me is that Marie's obsession seems to be largely physical (she constantly dwells on Eleanor's beauty), and Eleanor is absolutely horrible to her in every way: condescending, contemptuous, dismissive, and completely uninterested. This does change a bit over the course of the book, but not enough to justify the crush that Marie maintains for this awful person through her entire life.

And Eleanor is the only person in the book who Marie treats like an equal. Everyone else is a subordinate, a daughter, a charge, a servant, or a worker. The nuns of the abbey prosper under her rule, so Marie has ample reason to justify this to herself, but no one else's opinions or beliefs matter to her in any significant way. The closest anyone can come to friendship is to be reliably obedient, perhaps after some initial objections that Marie overrules. Despite some quite good characterization of the other nuns, none of the other characters get to do anything. There is no delight in teamwork, sense of healthy community, or collaborative problem-solving. It's just all Marie, all the time, imposing her vision on the world both living and non-living through sheer force of will.

This just isn't entertaining, at least for me. The writing might be beautiful, the descriptions detailed and effective, and the research clearly extensive, but I read books primarily for characters, I read characters primarily for their relationships, and these relationships are deeply, horribly unhealthy. They are not, to be clear, unrealistic (although I do think there's way too much chosen one in Marie and way too many problems that disappear off-camera); there are certainly people in the world with dysfunctional obsessive relationships, and there are charismatic people who overwhelm everyone around them. This is just not what I want to read about.

You might think, with all I've said above, that I'm spoiling a lot of the book, but weirdly I don't think I am. Every pattern I mention above is well-established early in the novel. About the only thing that I'm spoiling is the hope that any of it is somehow going to change, a hope that I clung to for rather too long.

This is a great setup for a book, and I wish it were written by a fantasy author instead of a literary author. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on literary fiction here, but I feel like fantasy authors are more likely to write for readers who want to see the growth sequence. If someone is going to change the world, I want to see how they changed the world. The mode of fantasy writing tends to think that what people do (and how they do it) is as interesting or more interesting than what they feel or what they perceive.

If this idea, with the exact same level of (minor) mysticism and historic realism, without added magic, were written by, say, Guy Gavriel Kay or Nicola Griffith, it would be a far different and, in my opinion, a much better book. In fact, Hild is part of this book written by Nicola Griffith, and it is a much better book.

I have seen enough people rave about this book to know that this is a personal reaction that is not going to be shared by everyone, or possibly even most people. My theory is that this is due to the different reading protocols between literary fiction readers and fantasy readers. I put myself in the latter camp; if you prefer literary fiction, you may like this much better (and also I'm not sure you'll find my book reviews useful). I may be wrong, though; maybe there are fantasy readers who would like this. I will say that the sense of place is very strong and the writing has all the expected literary strengths of descriptiveness and rhythm.

But, sadly, this was not at all my thing, and I'm irritated that I wasted time on it.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2022-11-02: Review: Carpe Jugulum

Review: Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #23
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1998
Printing May 2014
ISBN 0-06-228014-7
Format Mass market
Pages 409

Carpe Jugulum is the 23rd Discworld novel and the 6th witches novel. I would not recommend reading it before Maskerade, which introduces Agnes.

There are some spoilers for Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade in the setup here and hence in the plot description below. I don't think they matter that much, but if you're avoiding all spoilers for earlier books, you may want to skip over this one. (You're unlikely to want to read it before those books anyway.)

It is time to name the child of the king of Lancre, and in a gesture of good will and modernization, he has invited his neighbors in Uberwald to attend. Given that those neighbors are vampires, an open invitation was perhaps not the wisest choice.

Meanwhile, Granny Weatherwax's invitation has gone missing. On the plus side, that meant she was home to be summoned to the bedside of a pregnant woman who was kicked by a cow, where she makes the type of hard decision that Granny has been making throughout the series. On the minus side, the apparent snub seems to send her into a spiral of anger at the lack of appreciation.

Points off right from the start for a plot based on a misunderstanding and a subsequent refusal of people to simply talk to each other. It is partly engineered, but still, it's a cheap and irritating plot.

This is an odd book.

The vampires (or vampyres, as the Count wants to use) think of themselves as modern and sophisticated, making a break from the past by attempting to overcome such traditional problems as burning up in the sunlight and fear of religious symbols and garlic. The Count has put his family through rigorous training and desensitization, deciding such traditional vulnerabilities are outdated things of the past. He has, however, kept the belief that vampires are at the top of a natural chain of being, humans are essentially cattle, and vampires naturally should rule and feed on the population. Lancre is an attractive new food source. Vampires also have mind control powers, control the weather, and can put their minds into magpies.

They are, in short, enemies designed for Granny Weatherwax, the witch expert in headology. A shame that Granny is apparently off sulking. Nanny and Agnes may have to handle the vampires on their own, with the help of Magrat.

One of the things that makes this book odd is that it seemed like Pratchett was setting up some character growth, giving Agnes a chance to shine, and giving Nanny Ogg a challenge that she didn't want. This sort of happens, but then nothing much comes of it. Most of the book is the vampires preening about how powerful they are and easily conquering Lancre, while everyone else flails ineffectively. Pratchett does pull together an ending with some nice set pieces, but that ending doesn't deliver on any of the changes or developments it felt like the story was setting up.

We do get a lot of Granny, along with an amusingly earnest priest of Om (lots of references to Small Gods here, while firmly establishing it as long-ago history). Granny is one of my favorite Discworld characters, so I don't mind that, but we've seen Granny solve a lot of problems before. I wanted to see more of Agnes, who is the interesting new character and whose dynamic with her inner voice feels like it has a great deal of unrealized potential.

There is a sharp and condensed version of comparative religion from Granny, which is probably the strongest part of the book and includes one of those Discworld quotes that has been widely repeated out of context:

"And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

This loses a bit in context because this book is literally about treating people as things, and thus the observation feels more obvious when it arrives in this book than when you encounter it on its own, but it's still a great quote.

Sadly, I found a lot of this book annoying. One of those annoyances is a pet peeve that others may or may not share: I have very little patience for dialogue in phonetically-spelled dialect, and there are two substantial cases of that here. One is a servant named Igor who speaks with an affected lisp represented by replacing every ess sound with th, resulting in lots of this:

"No, my Uncle Igor thtill workth for him. Been thtruck by lightning three hundred timeth and thtill putth in a full night'th work."

I like Igor as a character (he's essentially a refugee from The Addams Family, which adds a good counterpoint to the malicious and arrogant evil of the vampires), but my brain stumbles over words like "thtill" every time. It's not that I can't decipher it; it's that the deciphering breaks the flow of reading in a way that I found not at all fun. It bugged me enough that I started skipping his lines if I couldn't work them out right away.

The other example is the Nac Mac Feegles, who are... well, in the book, they're Pictsies and a type of fairy, but they're Scottish Smurfs, right down to only having one female (at least in this book). They're entertainingly homicidal, but they all talk like this:

"Ach, hins tak yar scaggie, yer dank yowl callyake!"

I'm from the US and bad with accents and even worse with accents reproduced in weird spellings, and I'm afraid that I found 95% of everything said by Nac Mac Feegles completely incomprehensible to the point where I gave up even trying to read it. (I'm now rather worried about the Tiffany Aching books and am hoping Pratchett toned the dialect down a lot, because I'm not sure I can deal with more of this.)

But even apart from the dialect, I thought something was off about the plot structure of this book. There's a lot of focus on characters who don't seem to contribute much to the plot resolution. I wanted more of the varied strengths of Lancre coming together, rather than the focus on Granny. And the vampires are absurdly powerful, unflappable, smarmy, and contemptuous of everyone, which makes for threatening villains but also means spending a lot of narrative time with a Discworld version of Jacob Rees-Mogg. I feel like there's enough of that in the news already.

Also, while I will avoid saying too much about the plot, I get very suspicious when older forms of oppression are presented as good alternatives to modernizing, rationalist spins on exploitation. I see what Pratchett was trying to do, and there is an interesting point here about everyone having personal relationships and knowing their roles (a long-standing theme of the Lancre Discworld stories). But I think the reason why there is some nostalgia for older autocracy is that we only hear about it from stories, and the process of storytelling often creates emotional distance and a patina of adventure and happy outcomes. Maybe you can make an argument that classic British imperialism is superior to smug neoliberalism, but both of them are quite bad and I don't want either of them.

On a similar note, Nanny Ogg's tyranny over her entire extended clan continues to be played for laughs, but it's rather unappealing and seems more abusive the more one thinks about it. I realize the witches are not intended to be wholly good or uncomplicated moral figures, but I want to like Nanny, and Pratchett seems to be writing her as likable, even though she has an astonishing lack of respect for all the people she's related to. One might even say that she treats them like things.

There are some great bits in this book, and I suspect there are many people who liked it more than I did. I wouldn't be surprised if it was someone's favorite Discworld novel. But there were enough bits that didn't work for me that I thought it averaged out to a middle-of-the-road entry.

Followed by The Fifth Elephant in publication order. This is the last regular witches novel, but some of the thematic thread is picked up by The Wee Free Men, the first Tiffany Aching novel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-10-31: Review: What Makes This Book So Great

Review: What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

Publisher Tor
Copyright January 2014
ISBN 0-7653-3193-4
Format Hardcover
Pages 447

Jo Walton, in addition to being an excellent science fiction and fantasy writer, is a prodigious reader and frequent participant in on-line SFF book discussion going back to the Usenet days. This book is a collection of short essays previously published on Tor.com between July 2008 and February 2011. The unifying theme is that Walton regularly re-reads her favorite books, and each essay (apart from some general essays on related topics) is about why this specific book is one that she re-reads, and (as the title says) what makes it so great.

Searching for the title of one of the essays turns it up on Tor.com still, so this is one of those collections that you don't have to buy since you can read its contents on-line for free. That said, it looks like these essays were from before Tor.com started classifying posts into series, so it's going to be challenging to track them down in the huge number of other articles Walton has written for the site. (That said, you can't go far wrong by reading any of her essays at random.)

I read these essays as they were originally published, so this was also a re-read for me, but it had been a while. I'm happy to report that they were just as much fun the second time.

In the introduction and in the final essay of this collection, Walton draws a distinction between what she's doing, criticism, and reviewing. As someone else who writes about books (in a far more amateur fashion), I liked this distinction.

The way I'd characterize it is that criticism is primarily about the work: taking it apart to see what makes it tick, looking for symbolism and hidden meanings, and comparing and contrasting other works that are tackling similar themes. I've often finished a work of criticism and still had no idea if the author enjoyed reading the work being criticized or not, since that isn't the point.

Reviewing is assistance to consumers and focuses more on the reader: would you enjoy this book? Is it enjoyable to read? Does it say something new? What genre and style is it in, so that you can match that to your tastes?

Talking about books is neither of those things, although it's a bit closer to reviewing. But the emphasis is on one's personal enjoyment instead of attempting to review a product for others. When I talk about books with friends, I talk primarily about what bits I liked, what bits I didn't like, where the emotional beats were for me, and what interesting things the book did that surprised me or caught my attention. One can find a review in there, and sometimes even criticism, but the focus and the formality is different. (And, to be honest, my reviews are more on the "talking about the book" side than fully proper reviews.)

These essays are indeed talking about books. They're all re-reads; in some cases the first re-read, but more frequently the latest of many re-reads. There are lots of spoilers, which makes for bad reviews (the target audience of a review hasn't read the book yet) but good fodder for conversations about books. (The spoilers are mostly marked, but if you're particularly averse to spoilers, you'll need to read carefully.) Most of the essays are about a single book, but there are a few on more general topics, such as Walton's bafflement that anyone would skim a novel.

Since these are re-reads, and the essays collected here are more than a decade old, the focus is on older books. Some of them are famous: Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, early Le Guin, Samuel Delaney's SF novels, Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Some of them are more obscure. C.J. Cherryh, for example, is a writer who never seems to get much on-line attention, but who is one of Walton's favorites.

Most of the essays stand alone or come in small clusters about a writer, often sprinkled through the book instead of clumped together. (The book publishes the essays in the same order they originally appeared on Tor.com.) The two largest groups of essays are re-readings of every book in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos universe (including Brokedown Palace and the Paarfi books) up to Jhegaala, and every book in Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series up to Diplomatic Immunity. This is fitting: those are two of the great series of science fiction, but don't seem to be written about nearly as much as I would expect.

There are over 130 essays in a 447 page book, so there's a lot of material here and none of them outlive their welcome. Walton has a comfortable, approachable style that bubbles with delight and appreciation for books. I think it's impossible to read this collection without wanting to read more, and without adding several more books to the ever-teetering to-read pile.

This is perhaps not the best source of reading recommendations if you dislike spoilers, although it can be used for that if you read carefully. But if you love listening to conversations about the genre and talking about how books bounce off each other, and particularly if you have read most of these books already or don't mind spoilers, this collection is a delight. If you're the type of SFF reader who likes reading the reviews in Locus or is already reading Tor.com, highly recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-10-29: California general election

As usual with these every-two-year posts, probably of direct interest only to California residents. Maybe the more obscure things we're voting on will be a minor curiosity to people elsewhere.

Apologies to Planet Debian readers for the explicitly political post because I'm too lazy to change my blog software to do more fine-grained post classification. For what it's worth, most of the discussion here will be about the more fiddly and nuanced things we vote on, not on the major hot-button proposition.

As in 2020, I'm only going to cover the ballot propositions, as all of the state-wide and most of the district races are both obvious to me and boring to talk about. The hyperlocal races are more interesting this year, but the number of people who would care and who are also reading this blog is essentially nonexistent, so I won't bother writing them up.

This year, everything except Proposition 1 is an initiative (not put on the ballot by the legislature), which means I default to voting against them because they're usually poorly-written.

Proposition 1: YES. Adds reproductive rights to the California state constitution. I'm fairly sure everyone reading this has already made up their mind on this topic and certainly nothing will ever change my mind, so I'll leave it at that.

Proposition 26: YES. This mushes two different things together in an unhelpful way: allowing sports betting at some racetracks, and allowing a wider variety of gambling on tribal lands.

I have no strong opinion about the former (I'll get into that more with the next proposition). For the latter, my starting point is that Native American tribes are and should be treated like independent governments with their own laws (which is what we promised them by treaty and then have systematically and maliciously betrayed ever since). I am not a citizen of any of the tribes and therefore fundamentally I should not get a say on this. I'm not a big fan of gambling or of the companies they're likely to hire to run casinos, but it should be their land and their decision.

Proposition 27: NO. This, on the other hand, is about on-line sports betting outside of tribal lands, and looks to be a lot more about corruption and corporate greed.

I am fairly dubious that outlawing gambling in general is that good of an idea. I think the harms are overstated given the existence of even wilder forms of gambling (crypto and financial derivatives) that are perfectly legal, and I'm always suspicious of attempting to solve social problems with police and prohibition systems. If there were a ballot proposition to simply legalize gambling in California, I'd have to think hard about that.

But this is not that. This requires companies that want to offer on-line gambling to pay substantial up-front costs (which will restrict this to only huge gambling companies). In return, they are allowed entry into what is essentially a state-constructed partial monopoly. As usual, there's a typical vice tax deal attached where those companies are taxed to fund some program (in this case, homeless services and mental health treatment), but these sorts of taxes tend to be regressive in effect. We could just tax richer people like me to pay for those services instead. I'm also dubious that the money for homelessness will be used to build housing, which is what we need to do to address the problem.

Proposition 28: YES. Sets aside money for art and music funding in public and charter schools. This is a reluctant yes because this sort of law should not be done via proposition; it should be done through a normal legislative process that balances all of the priorities for school funding. But despite the broken process by which this was put forward, it seems like a reasonable law and no one is opposing it, so okay, fine.

Proposition 29: NO. The attempt to force all dialysis clinics to have licensed doctors on site is back again.

Everything about the way dialysis health care is provided in California makes me angry. We should have a state health care system similar to the NHS. We should open dialysis clinics based on the number of people requiring dialysis in that area. Every one of them should be unionized. We absolutely should not allow for-profit companies to have primary responsibility for basic life-saving medical care like dialysis.

But this proposition does not solve any of those problems, and what it claims to do is false. It claims that by setting credential requirements on who has to be on-site at a dialysis clinic, the clinics will become safer. This is simply not true, for all of the reasons discussed in Still Not Safe. This is not how safety works.

The safest person to do dialysis is someone with extensive experience in performing dialysis, who has seen all the problems and has an intuition for what to watch out for. That has less to do with credentials than with good training specifically in dialysis, apprenticeship, and practice, not to mention reasonable hours and good pay so that the workers are not stressed. Do I think the private dialysis clinics are likely doing a good job with this? Hah. (Do I think dialysis clinics run by large medical non-profits would do a good job with this? Also hah.) But this would enshrine into law a fundamentally incorrect solution to the problem that makes dialysis more expensive without addressing any of the other problems with the system.

It's the same tactic that was used on abortion clinics, with the same bogus argument that having people with specific credentials on-site would make them safer. It was false then and it's still false now. I would agree with better regulation of dialysis clinics, but this specific regulation is entirely wrong-headed.

Also, while this isn't an overriding factor, I get annoyed when the same proposition shows up again without substantial changes. For matters of fundamental rights, okay, sure. But for technical regulation fixes like this one, the proponents should consider taking no for an answer and trying a different approach. Like going to the legislature, which is where this kind of regulation should be designed anyway.

Proposition 30: YES. Raises taxes on the personal income of extremely rich Californians (over $2 million in income in one year) to fund various climate change mitigation programs. This is another reluctant yes vote, because once again this shouldn't be done by initiative and should be written properly by the legislature. I also don't like restricting tax revenue to particular programs, which reduce budget flexibilty to no real purpose. It's not important to me that these revenues go to these specific programs, although the programs seem like good ones to fund.

But the reality remains that wealthy Silicon Valley executives are undertaxed and the only way we can ever manage to raise taxes is through voting for things like this, so fine.

Proposition 31: NO. The Calfornia legislature banned the sale of flavored vape products. If NO beats YES on this proposition, that ban will be overturned.

Drug prohibition has never, ever worked, and yet we keep trying it over and over again in the hope that this time we'll get a different outcome. As usual, the pitch in favor of this is all about the children, specifically the claim that flavored tobacco products are only about increasing their appeal to kids because... kids like candy? Or something? I am extremely dubious of this argument; it's obvious to me from walking around city streets that adults prefer the flavored products as well and sale to kids is already prohibited and unchanged by this proposition.

I don't like vaping. I wish people would stop, at least around me, because the scent is obnoxious and the flavored stuff is even more obnoxious, even apart from whatever health problems it causes. But I'm never going to vote for drug prohibition because drug prohibition doesn't work. It just creates a black market and organized crime and makes society overall worse. Yes, the tobacco companies are some of the worst corporations on the planet, and I hope they get sued into oblivion (and ideally prosecuted) for all the lying they do, but I'm still not going to vote for prohibition. Even the best kind of prohibition that only outlaws sale and not possession.

Also, secondarily but still significant, bans like this just frustrate a bunch of people and burn good will and political capital, which we should be trying to preserve to tackle far more important problems. The politics of outlawing people's pleasures for their own good are not great. We have a lot of serious problems to deal with; maybe let's not pick fights we don't have to.

2022-10-28: Review: The Last Continent

Review: The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #22
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1998
Printing May 2014
ISBN 0-06-228019-8
Format Mass market
Pages 392

This is the 22nd Discworld novel and follows Interesting Times in internal continuity. Like some of the other Rincewind novels, it stands alone well enough that you could arguably start reading here, but I have no idea why you'd want to.

When we last saw Rincewind, he was being magically yanked out of the Agatean Empire. The intent was to swap him with a cannon and land him back in Ankh-Morpork, but an unfortunate expansion of the spell to three targets instead of two meant that a kangaroo had a very bad day. Ever since then, Rincewind has been trying to survive the highly inhospitable land of FourEcks (XXXX), so called because no one in Ankh-Morpork knows where it is.

The faculty at the Unseen University didn't care enough about Rincewind to bother finding him until the Librarian fell sick. He's feverish and miserable, but worse, he's lost control of his morphic function, which means that he's randomly turning into other things and is unable to take care of the books. When those books are magical, this is dangerous. One possible solution is to stabilize the Librarian's form with a spell, but to do that they need his real name. The only person who might know it is the former assistant librarian: Rincewind.

I am increasingly convinced that one of the difficulties in getting people hooked on Discworld is that the series starts with two Rincewind books, and the Rincewind books just aren't very good.

The fundamental problem is that Rincewind isn't a character, he's a gag. Discworld starts out as mostly gags, but then the characterization elsewhere gets deeper, the character interactions become more complex, and Pratchett adds more and more philosophy. That, not the humor, is what I think makes these books worth reading. But none of this applies to Rincewind. By this point, he's been the protagonist of six novels, and still the only thing I know about him is that he runs away from everything. Other than that, he's just sort of... there.

In the better Rincewind novels, some of the gap is filled by Twoflower, the Luggage, Cohen the barbarian, the Librarian (who sadly is out of commission for most of this book), or the Unseen University faculty. But they're all supporting characters. Most of them are also built around a single (if better) gag. As a result, the Rincewind books tend more towards joke collections than the rest of Discworld. There isn't a philosophical or characterization through line to hold them together.

The Last Continent is, as you might have guessed, a parody of Australia. And by that I mean it's a mash-up of Crocodile Dundee, Mad Max, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and every dad joke about Australia that you've heard. Pratchett loves movie references and I do not love movie references, so there's always part of his books that doesn't click for me, but this one was just Too Much. Yes, everything in Australia is poisonous. Yes, Australians talk funny. Oh look, there's another twist on a Crocodile Dundee quote. Yes, yes, that's a knife. Gah. The Rincewind sections were either confusing (there's some sort of drug-trip kangaroo god because reasons) or cliched and boring. Sometimes both.

The second plot, following the Unseen University faculty in their inept attempts to locate Rincewind, is better. Their bickering is still a bit one-trick and works better in the background of stronger characters (such as Death and Susan), but Pratchett does make their oblivious overconfidence entertaining. It's enough to sustain half of the book, but not enough to make up for the annoyances of the Rincewind plot.

To his credit, I think Pratchett was really trying to say something interesting in this novel about Discworld metaphysics. There are bits in the Australian plot that clearly are references to Aboriginal beliefs, which I didn't entirely follow but which I'm glad were in there. The Unseen University faculty showing up in the middle of a creation myth and completely misunderstanding it was a good scene. But the overall story annoyed me and failed to hold my interest.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the Priscilla scenes, since I've never seen the movie and have only a vague understanding of its role in trans history. I'm not sure his twists on the story quite worked, but I'm glad that Pratchett is exploring gender; that wasn't as common when these books were written.

Overall, though, this was forgettable and often annoying. There are a few great lines and a few memorable bits in any Pratchett book, including this one, but the Rincewind books just aren't... good. Not like the rest of the series, at least. I will be very happy to get back to the witches in the next book.

Followed in publication order by Carpe Jugulum, and later thematically by The Last Hero.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2022-10-25: Review: The Golden Enclaves

Review: The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

Series The Scholomance #3
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright 2022
ISBN 0-593-15836-9
Format Kindle
Pages 408

The Golden Enclaves is the third and concluding book of the Scholomance trilogy and picks up literally the instant after the end of The Last Graduate. The three books form a coherent and complete story that under absolutely no circumstances should be read out of order.

This is an impossible review to write because everything is a spoiler. You're only going to read this book if you've read and liked the first two, and in that case you do not want to know a single detail about this book before you read it. The timing of revelations was absolutely perfect; I repeatedly figured out what was going on at exactly the same time that El did, which rarely happens in a book. (And from talking to friends I am not the only one.)

If you're still deciding whether to read the series, or are deciding how to prioritize the third book, here are the things you need to know:

  1. Novik nails the ending. Absolutely knocks it out of the park.
  2. Everything is explained, and the explanation was wholly satisfying.
  3. There is more Liesel, and she's even better in the third book.
  4. El's relationship with her mother still works perfectly.
  5. Holy shit.

You can now stop reading this review here and go read, assured that this is the best work of Novik's career to date and has become my favorite fantasy series of all time, something I do not say lightly.

For those who want some elaboration, I'll gush some more about this book, but the above is all you need to know.

There are so many things that I loved about this series, but the most impressive to me is how each book broadens the scope of the story while maintaining full continuity with the characters and plot. Novik moves from individuals to small groups to, in this book, systems and social forces without dropping a beat and without ever losing the characters. She could have written a series only about El and her friends and it still would have been amazing, but each book takes a risky leap into a broader perspective and she pulls it off every time.

This is also one of the most enjoyable first-person perspectives that I have ever read. (I think only Code Name Verity competes, and that's my favorite novel of all time.) Whether you like this series at all will depend on whether you like El, because you spend the entire series inside her head. I loved every moment of it. Novik not infrequently pauses the action to give the reader a page or four of El's internal monologue, and I not only didn't mind, I thought those were the best parts of the book. El is such a deep character: stubborn, thoughtful, sarcastic, impulsive, but also ethical and self-aware in a grudging sort of way that I found utterly compelling to read.

And her friends! The friendship dynamics are so great. We sadly don't see as much of Liu in this book (for very good reasons, but I would gladly read an unnecessary sequel novella that existed just to give Liu more time with her friends), but everyone else is here, and in exchange we get much more of Liesel. There should be an Oscar for best supporting character in a novel just so that Liesel can win it. Why are there not more impatient, no-nonsense project managers in fiction?

There are a couple of moments between El and Liesel that are among my favorite character interactions in fiction.

This is also a series in which the author understands what the characters did in the previous books and the bonds that experience would form, and lets that influence how they interact with the rest of the world. I won't be more specific to avoid spoilers, but the characters worked so hard and were on edge for so long, and I felt like Novik understood the types of relationships that would create in a far deeper and more complex way than most novels. There are several moments in The Golden Enclaves where I paused in reading to admire how perfect the character reactions were, and how striking the contrast was with people who hadn't been through what they went through.

The series as a whole is chosen-one fantasy, and if you'd told me that before I read it, I would have grimaced. But this is more evidence (which I should have learned from the romance genre) that tropes, even ones that have been written many times, do not wear out, no matter what critics will try to tell you. There's always room for a great author to pick up the whole idea, turn it sideways, and say "try looking at it from this angle." This is boarding schools, chosen one, and coming of age, with the snarky first-person voice of urban fantasy, and it respects all of those story shapes, is aware of earlier work, and turns them all into something original, often funny, startlingly insightful, and thoroughly engrossing.

I am aware that anything I like this much is probably accidentally aimed at my favorite ideas as a reader and my reaction may be partly idiosyncratic. I am not at all objective, and I'm sure not everyone will like it as much as I did. But wow did I ever like this book and this series. Just the best thing I've read in a very, very long time.

Highly, highly recommended. (Start at the beginning!)

Rating: 10 out of 10

2022-10-24: Review: A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel

Review: A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel, by Richard Roberts

Publisher Mystique Press
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-63789-763-4
Format Kindle
Pages 353

Rachel had snuck out of the house to sit on the hill, to write and draw in rare peace and quiet, when a bus fell out of the sky like a meteor and plowed into the ground in front of her. This is quickly followed by a baffling encounter with a seven-foot-tall man with a blunderbuss, two misunderstandings and a storytelling lie, and a hurried invitation to get into the bus and escape before they're both infected by math. That's how Rachel discovers that she's able to make on-the-fly repairs to bicycle-powered spaceships, and how she ends up at the Lighthouse of Ceres.

The title comes from Rachel's initial hesitation to give her name, which propagates through the book to everyone she meets as certainty that Rachel isn't really her name. I enjoyed this running gag way more than I expected to.

I don't read enough young adult and middle-grade books to be entirely clear on the boundaries, but this felt very middle-grade. It has a headlong plot, larger-than-life characters, excitingly imaginative scenery (such as a giant space lighthouse dwarfing the asteroid that it's attached to), a focus on friendship, and no romance. This is, to be clear, not a complaint. But it's a different feel than my normal fare, and there were a few places where I was going one direction and the book went another.

The conceit of this book is that Earth is unique in the solar system in being stifled by the horrific weight of math, which infects anyone who visits and makes the routine wonders of other planets impossible. Other planets have their own styles and mythos (Saturn is full of pirates, the inhabitants of Venus are space bunnies with names like Passionfruit Nectar Ecstasy), but throughout the rest of the solar system, belief, style, and story logic reign supreme. That means Rachel's wild imagination and reflexive reliance on tall tales makes her surprisingly powerful.

The first wild story she tells, to the man who crashed on earth, shapes most of the story. She had written in her sketchbook that it was the property of the Witch Queen of Eloquent Verbosity and Grandiose Ornamentation, and when challenged on it, says that she stole it to cure her partner. Much to her surprise, everyone outside of Earth takes this completely seriously. Also much to her surprise, her habit of sketching spaceships and imaginative devices makes her a natural spaceship mechanic, a skill in high demand.

Some of the story is set on Ceres, a refuge for misfits with hearts of gold. That's where Rachel meets Wrench, a kobold who is by far my favorite character of the book and the one relationship that I thought had profound emotional depth. Rachel's other adventures are set off by the pirate girl Violet (she's literally purple), who is the sort of plot-provoking character that I think only works in middle-grade fiction.

By normal standards, Violet's total lack of respect for other people's boundaries or consent would make her more of a villain. Here, while it often annoys Rachel, it's clear that both Rachel and the book take Violet's steamroller personality in good fun, more like the gentle coercion between neighborhood friends trying to pull each other into games. I still got rather tired of Violet, though, which caused me a few problems around the middle of the book.

There's a bit of found family here (some of it quite touching), a lot of adventures, a lot of delightful spaceship repair, and even some more serious plot involving the actual Witch Queen of Charon. There is a bit of a plot arc to give some structure to the adventures, but this is not the book to read if you're looking for complex plotting or depth. I thought the story fell apart a bit at the tail end, with a conflict that felt like it was supposed to be metaphorical and then never resolved for me into something concrete. I was expecting Rachel to eventually have to do more introspection and more direct wrestling with her identity, but the resolution felt a bit superficial and unsatisfying.

Reading this as an adult, I found it odd but fun. I wanted more from the ending, and I was surprised that Roberts does not do more to explain to the reader why Rachel does not regret leaving Earth and her family behind. It feels like something Rachel will have to confront eventually, but this is not the book for it. Instead we get some great friendships (some of which I agreed with wholeheartedly, and some of which I found annoying) and an imaginative, chaotic universe that Rachel takes to like a fish to water. The parts of the story focused on her surprising competence (and her delight in her own competence) were my favorites.

The book this most reminds me of is Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. It is, to be clear, nowhere near as good as The Phantom Tollbooth, which is a very high bar, and it's not as focused on puns. But it has the same sense of internal logic and the same tendency to put far more weight on belief and stories than our world does, and to embrace the resulting chaos.

I'm not sure this will be anyone's favorite book (although I'm also not the target age), but I enjoyed reading it. It was a great change of pace after Nona the Ninth. Recommended if you're in the mood for some space fantasy that doesn't take itself seriously.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-10-23: Review: Nona the Ninth

Review: Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Series The Locked Tomb #3
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-250-85412-1
Format Kindle
Pages 480

Nona the Ninth is the third book of the Locked Tomb series and entirely pointless to read if you have not read the series to date. It completely spoils the previous books, assuming you would be able to figure out who these people were and why you should care about them. This is only for readers who are already invested.

This series was originally supposed to be a trilogy, and this book was supposed to be Alecto the Ninth. Muir says in the acknowledgments, and has said at more length elsewhere, that Nona changed all of her plans and demanded her own book. Hence this book, postponing the end of the series and lengthening it to four books.

After reading it, I understand why Muir decided to write a whole book about Nona. She's an interesting character in ways that wouldn't have come out if she was a small part of the concluding book. Unfortunately, it's also obvious that this book wasn't part of the plan. It's not entirely correct to say that Nona the Ninth is devoid of series plot, but the plot advances very little, and mostly at the end.

Instead, we get Nona, who is physically a teenager who acts like someone several years younger, most of the time. She lives with her family (who I won't name to avoid spoilers for Harrow the Ninth), helps at a local school (although her level of understanding is about that of the students), and is a member of a kid's gang. She also has dreams every night about a woman with a painted face, dreams her family are very interested in.

This sounds weirdly normal for this series, but Nona and her family live in a war-torn city full of fighting, refugees, and Blood of Eden operatives. The previous books of the series took place in the rarefied spaces of the Houses. Here we see a bit of the rest of the universe, although it's not obvious at first what we're looking at and who these people are. Absolutely no concession is made to the reader's fading memory, so expect to need either a re-read, help from friends with better memories, or quality time with a wiki. And, well, good luck with the latter if you've not already read this book, since the Locked Tomb Wiki has now been updated with spoilers for Nona.

The other challenge, besides memory for the plot, is that this book is told from a tight third-person focus on Nona, and Nona is not a very reliable narrator. She doesn't lie, exactly, but she mostly doesn't understand what's going on, often doesn't care, and tends not to focus on what the reader is the most interested in. Nona is entirely uninterested in developing the series plot. Her focus is on her child friends (who are moderately interesting but not helpful if you're trying to figure out the rest of the story) and the other rhythms of a strange life that's normal to her.

For me at least, that meant the first half of this book involved a lot of "what the heck is going on and why do I care about any of this?" I liked Harrow the Ninth a lot, despite how odd and ambiguous it was, but I was ready for revelations and plot coherence and was not thrilled by additional complexity, odd allusions, and half-revealed details. I didn't mind the layers of complexity added on by Harrow, but for me Nona was a bit too much and I started getting frustrated rather than intrigued.

We do, at last, get most of the history of this universe, including the specific details of how John became God Emperor and how the Houses were founded. That happens in odd interludes with a forced and somewhat artificial writing style, but it's more straightforward and comprehensible than I feared at first.

The pace of the story picks up considerably towards the end of the book, finally providing the plot momentum that I was hoping for. Unfortunately, it also gets more cryptic at the end of the book in ways that I didn't enjoy. The epilogue, which is vital to understanding the climax of the novel, took me three readings before I think I understood what happened. If you preferred the clarity of Gideon the Ninth, be warned that Nona is more like Harrow and Muir seems to be making the plot more cryptic as she goes. I am hoping this trend reverses in Alecto the Ninth.

This book made me grumpy. Nona is okay as a character, but the characters in this series that I really like mostly do not appear or appear in heavily damaged and depressing forms. Muir does bring back a couple of my favorite characters, but then does something to them that's a major spoiler but that I think was intended to be a wonderful moment for them and instead left me completely cold and unhappy. There are still some great moments of humor, but overall it felt more strained.

That said, I still had tons of fun discussing this book and its implications with friends who were reading it at the same time. I think that is the best way to read this series. Muir is being intentionally confusing and is inserting a blizzard of references. Some of them are pop culture jokes, but some of them are deep plot clues, and I'm not up to deciphering them all by myself. Working through them with other people is much more fun. (It also gives me an opportunity to feel smug about guessing correctly what was happening at the end of Harrow the Ninth, when I'm almost never the person who makes correct guesses about that sort of thing.)

I think your opinion of this one will depend on how much you like Nona as a character, how much patience you have for the postponement of plot resolution, and how much tolerance you have for even more cryptic references. I'm still invested in this series until the end, but this was not my favorite installment. I suspect it (and the rest of the series) would benefit immensely from re-reading, but life is short and my reading backlog is long. What Muir is doing is interesting and has a lot of depth, but she's asking quite a lot of the reader.

Content warning: Nona has an eating disorder, which occupied rather more of my mental space while reading this book than I was comfortable with.

Followed by Alecto the Ninth, which does not have a publication date scheduled as of this writing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-10-08: Tie::ShadowHash 2.01

Tie::ShadowHash is a small Perl module that allows one to stack an in-memory modifiable hash on top of a read-only hash obtained from anywhere you can get a hash in Perl (including a tied hash), functioning much like an overlay file system with the same benefits.

This release just (hopefully) fixes a few test suite failures, and is probably not worth announcing except that it bugs me to not announce each software release.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or the Tie::ShadowHash distribution page.

2022-10-03: Review: The Dragon Never Sleeps

Review: The Dragon Never Sleeps, by Glen Cook

Publisher Night Shade Books
Copyright 1988
Printing 2008
ISBN 1-59780-099-6
Format MOBI
Pages 449

Canon Space is run, in a way, by the noble mercantile houses, who spread their cities, colonies, and mines through the mysterious Web that allows faster-than-light interstellar travel. The true rulers of Canon Space, though, are the Guardships: enormous, undefeatable starships run by crews who have become effectively immortal by repeated uploading and reincarnation. Or, in the case of the Deified, without reincarnation, observing, ordering, advising, and meddling from an entirely virtual existence. The Guardships have enforced the status quo for four thousand years.

House Tregesser thinks they have the means to break the stranglehold of the Guardships. They have contact with Outsiders from beyond Canon Space who can provide advanced technology. They have their own cloning technology, which they use to create backup copies of their elites. And they have Lupo Provik, a quietly brilliant schemer who has devoted his life to destroying Guardships.

This book was so bad. A more sensible person than I would have given up after the first hundred pages, but I was too stubborn. The stubbornness did not pay off.

Sometimes I pick up an older SFF novel and I'm reminded of how much the quality bar in the field has been raised over the past twenty years. It's not entirely fair to treat The Dragon Never Sleeps as typical of 1980s science fiction: Cook is far better known for his Black Company military fantasy series, this is one of his minor novels, and it's only been intermittently in print. But I'm dubious this would have been published at all today.

First, the writing is awful. It's choppy, cliched, awkward, and has no rhythm or sense of beauty. Here's a nearly random paragraph near the beginning of the book as a sample:

He hurled thunders and lightnings with renewed fury. The whole damned universe was out to frustrate him. XII Fulminata! What the hell? Was some malign force ranged against him?

That was his most secret fear. That somehow someone or something was using him the way he used so many others.

(Yes, this is one of the main characters throwing a temper tantrum with a special effects machine.)

In a book of 450 pages, there are 151 chapters, and most chapters switch viewpoint characters. Most of them also end with a question or some vaguely foreboding sentence to try to build tension, and while I'm willing to admit that sometimes works when used sparingly, every three pages is not sparingly.

This book is also weirdly empty of description for its size. We get a few set pieces, a few battles, and a sentence or two of physical description of most characters when they're first introduced, but it's astonishing how little of a mental image I had of this universe after reading the whole book. Cook probably describes a Guardship at some point in this book, but if he does, it completely failed to stick in my memory. There are aliens that everyone recognizes as aliens, so presumably they look different than humans, but for most of them I have no idea how. Very belatedly we're told one important species (which never gets a name) has a distinctive smell. That's about it.

Instead, nearly the whole book is dialogue and scheming. It's clear that Cook is intending to write a story of schemes and counter-schemes and jousting between brilliant characters. This can work if the dialogue is sufficiently sharp and snappy to carry the story. It is not.

"What mischief have you been up to, Kez Maefele?"

"Staying alive in a hostile universe."

"You've had more than your share of luck."

"Perhaps luck had nothing to do with it, WarAvocat. Till now."

"Luck has run out. The Ku Question has run its course. The symbol is about to receive its final blow."

There are hundreds of pages of this sort of thing.

The setting is at least intriguing, if not stunningly original. There are immortal warships oppressing human space, mysterious Outsiders, great house politics, and an essentially immortal alien warrior who ends up carrying most of the story. That's material for a good space opera if the reader slowly learns the shape of the universe, its history, and its landmarks and political factions. Or the author can decline to explain any of that. I suppose that's also a choice.

Here are some things that you may have been curious about after reading my summary, and which I'm still curious about after having finished the book: What laws do the Guardships impose and what's the philosophy behind those laws? How does the economic system work? Who built the Guardships originally, and how? How do the humans outside of Canon Space live? Who are the Ku? Why did they start fighting the humans? How many other aliens are there? What do they think of this? How does the Canon government work? How have the Guardships remained technologically superior for four thousand years?

Even where the reader gets a partial explanation, such as what Web is and how it was built, it's an unimportant aside that's largely devoid of a sense of wonder. The one piece of world-building that this book is interested in is the individual Guardships and the different ways in which they've handled millennia of self-contained patrol, and even there we only get to see a few of them.

There is a plot with appropriately epic scope, but even that is undermined by the odd pacing. Five, ten, or fifty years sometimes goes by in a sentence. A war starts, with apparently enormous implications for Canon Space, and then we learn that it continues for years without warranting narrative comment. This is done without transitions and without signposts for the reader; it's just another sentence in the narration, mixed in with the rhetorical questions and clumsy foreshadowing.

I would like to tell you that at least the book has a satisfying ending that resolves the plot conflict that it finally reveals to the reader, but I had a hard time understanding why the ending even mattered. The plot was so difficult to follow that I'm sure I missed something, but it's not difficult to follow in the fun way that would make me want to re-read it. It's difficult to follow because Cook doesn't seem able to explain the plot in his head to the reader in any coherent form. I think the status quo was slightly disrupted? Maybe? Also, I no longer care.

Oh, and there's a gene-engineered sex slave in this book, who various male characters are very protective and possessive of, who never develops much of a personality, and who has no noticeable impact on the plot despite being a major character. Yay.

This was one of the worst books I've read in a long time. In retrospect, it was an awful place to start with Glen Cook. Hopefully his better-known works are also better-written, but I can't say I feel that inspired to find out.

Rating: 2 out of 10

2022-10-02: Review: Jingo

Review: Jingo, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #21
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1997
Printing May 2014
ISBN 0-06-228020-1
Format Mass market
Pages 455

This is the 21st Discworld novel and relies on the previous Watch novels for characterization and cast development. I would not start here.

In the middle of the Circle Sea, the body of water between Ankh-Morpork and the desert empire of Klatch, a territorial squabble between one fishing family from Ankh-Morpork and one from Klatch is interrupted by a weathercock rising dramatically from the sea. When the weathercock is shortly followed by the city to which it is attached and the island on which that city is resting, it's justification for more than a fishing squabble. It's a good reason for a war over new territory.

The start of hostilities is an assassination attempt on a prince of Klatch. Vimes and the Watch start investigating, but politics outraces police work. Wars are a matter for the nobility and their armies, not for normal civilian leadership. Lord Vetinari resigns, leaving the city under the command of Lord Rust, who is eager for a glorious military victory against their long-term rivals. The Klatchians seem equally eager to oblige.

One of the useful properties of a long series is that you build up a cast of characters you can throw at a plot, and if you can assume the reader has read enough of the previous books, you don't have to spend a lot of time on establishing characterization and can get straight to the story. Pratchett uses that here. You could read this cold, I suppose, because most of the Watch are obvious enough types that the bits of characterization they get are enough, but it works best with the nuance and layers of the previous books. Of course Colon is the most susceptible to the jingoism that prompts the book's title, and of course Angua's abilities make her the best detective. The familiar characters let Pratchett dive right in to the political machinations.

Everyone plays to type here: Vetinari is deftly maneuvering everyone into place to make the situation work out the way he wants, Vimes is stubborn and ethical and needs Vetinari to push him in the right direction, and Carrot is sensible and effortlessly charismatic. Colon and Nobby are, as usual, comic relief of a sort, spending much of the book with Vetinari while not understanding what he's up to. But Nobby gets an interesting bit of characterization in the form of an extended turn as a spy that starts as cross-dressing and becomes an understated sort of gender exploration hidden behind humor that's less mocking than one might expect. Pratchett has been slowly playing more with gender in this series, and while it's simple and a bit deemphasized, I like it.

I think the best part of this book, thematically, is the contrast between Carrot's and Vimes's reactions to the war. Carrot is a paragon of a certain type of ethics in Watch novels, but a war is one of the things that plays to his weaknesses. Carrot follows rules, and wars have rules of a type. You can potentially draw Carrot into them. But Vimes, despite being someone who enforces rules professionally, is deeply suspicious of them, which makes him harder to fool. Pratchett uses one of the Klatchian characters to hold a mirror up to Vimes in ways that are minor spoilers, but that I quite liked.

The argument of jingoism, made by both Lord Rust and by the Klatchian prince, is that wars are something special, outside the normal rules of justice. Vimes absolutely refuses this position. As someone from the US, his reaction to Lord Rust's attempted militarization of the Watch was one of the best moments of the book.

Not a muscle moved on Rust's face. There was a clink as Vimes's badge was set neatly on the table.

"I don't have to take this," Vimes said calmly.

"Oh, so you'd rather be a civilian, would you?"

"A watchman is a civilian, you inbred streak of pus!"

Vimes is also willing to think of a war as a possible crime, which may not be as effective as Vetinari's tricky scheming but which is very emotionally satisfying.

As with most Pratchett books, the moral underpinnings of the story aren't that elaborate: people are people despite cultural differences, wars are bad, and people are too ready to believe the worst of their neighbors. The story arc is not going to provide great insights into human character that the reader did not already have. But watching Vimes stubbornly attempt to do the right thing regardless of the rule book is wholly satisfying, and watching Vetinari at work is equally, if differently, enjoyable.

Not the best Discworld novel, but one of the better ones.

Followed by The Last Continent in publication order, and by The Fifth Elephant thematically.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-09-17: Effective altruism and the control trap

William MacAskill has been on a book tour for What We Owe to the Future, which has put effective altruism back in the news. That plus the decision by GiveWell to remove GiveDirectly from their top charity list got me thinking about charity again. I think effective altruism, by embracing long-termism, is falling into an ethical trap, and I'm going to start heavily discounting their recommendations for donations.

Background

Some background first for people who have no idea what I'm talking about.

Effective altruism is the idea that we should hold charities accountable for effectiveness. It's not sufficient to have an appealing mission. A charity should demonstrate that the money they spend accomplishes the goals they claimed it would. There is a lot of debate around defining "effective," but as a basic principle, this is sound. Mainstream charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator measure overhead and (arguable) waste, but they don't ask whether the on-the-ground work of the charity has a positive effect proportional to the resources it's expending. This is a good question to ask.

GiveWell is a charity research organization that directs money for donors based on effective altruism principles. It's one of the central organizations in effective altruism.

GiveDirectly is a charity that directly transfers money from donors to poor people. It doesn't attempt to build infrastructure, buy specific things, or fund programs. It identifies poor people and gives them cash with no strings attached.

Long-termism is part of the debate over what "effectiveness" means. It says we should value impact on future generations more highly than we tend to do. (In other words, we should have a much smaller future discount rate.) A sloppy but intuitive expression of long-termism is that (hopefully) there will be far more humans living in the future than are living today, and therefore a "greatest good for the greatest number" moral philosophy argues that we should invest significant resources into making the long-term future brighter. This has obvious appeal to those of us who are concerned about the long-term impacts of climate change, for example.

There is a lot of overlap between the communities of effective altruism, long-termism, and "rationalism." One way this becomes apparent is that all three communities have a tendency to obsess over the risks of sentient AI taking over the world. I'm going to come back to that.

Psychology of control

GiveWell, early on, discovered that GiveDirectly was measurably more effective than most charities. Giving money directly to poor people without telling them how to spend it produced more benefits for those people and their surrounding society than nearly all international aid charities.

GiveDirectly then became the baseline for GiveWell's evaluations, and GiveWell started looking for ways to be more effective than that. There is some logic to thinking more effectiveness is possible. Some problems are poorly addressed by markets and too large for individual spending. Health care infrastructure is an obvious example.

That said, there's also a psychological reason to look for other charities. Part of the appeal of charity is picking a cause that supports your values (whether that be raw effectiveness or something else). Your opinions and expertise are valued alongside your money. In some cases, this may be objectively true. But in all cases, it's more flattering to the ego than giving poor people cash.

At that point, the argument was over how to address immediate and objectively measurable human problems. The innovation of effective altruism is to tie charitable giving to a research feedback cycle. You measure the world, see if it is improving, and adjust your funding accordingly. Impact is measured by its effects on actual people. Effective altruism was somewhat suspicious of talking directly to individuals and preferred "objective" statistical measures, but the point was to remain in contact with physical reality.

Enter long-termism: what if you could get more value for your money by addressing problems that would affect vast numbers of future people, instead of the smaller number of people who happen to be alive today?

Rather than looking at the merits of that argument, look at its psychology. Real people are messy. They do things you don't approve of. They have opinions that don't fit your models. They're hard to "objectively" measure. But people who haven't been born yet are much tidier. They're comfortably theoretical; instead of having to go to a strange place with unfamiliar food and languages to talk to people who aren't like you, you can think hard about future trends in the comfort of your home. You control how your theoretical future people are defined, so the results of your analysis will align with your philosophical and ideological beliefs.

Problems affecting future humans are still extrapolations of problems visible today in the world, though. They're constrained by observations of real human societies, despite the layer of projection and extrapolation. We can do better: what if the most serious problem facing humanity is the possible future development of rogue AI?

Here's a problem that no one can observe or measure because it's never happened. It is purely theoretical, and thus under the control of the smart philosopher or rich western donor. We don't know if a rogue AI is possible, what it would be like, how one might arise, or what we could do about it, but we can convince ourselves that all those things can be calculated with some probability bar through the power of pure logic. Now we have escaped the uncomfortable psychological tension of effective altruism and returned to the familiar world in which the rich donor can define both the problem and the solution. Effectiveness is once again what we say it is.

William MacAskill, one of the originators of effective altruism, now constantly talks about the threat of rogue AI. In a way, it's quite sad.

Where to give money?

The mindset of long-termism is bad for the human brain. It whispers to you that you're smarter than other people, that you know what's really important, and that you should retain control of more resources because you'll spend them more wisely than others. It's the opposite of intellectual humility. A government funding agency should take some risks on theoretical solutions to real problems, and maybe a few on theoretical solutions to theoretical problems (although an order of magnitude less). I don't think this is a useful way for an individual donor to think.

So, if I think effective altruism is abandoning the one good idea it had and turning back into psychological support for the egos of philosophers and rich donors, where does this leave my charitable donations?

To their credit, GiveWell so far seems uninterested in shifting from concrete to theoretical problems. However, they believe they can do better by picking projects than giving people money, and they're committing to that by dropping GiveDirectly (while still praising them). They may be right. But I'm increasingly suspicious of the level of control donors want to retain. It's too easy to trick oneself into thinking you know better than the people directly affected.

I have two goals when I donate money. One is to make the world a better, kinder place. The other is to redistribute wealth. I have more of something than I need, and it should go to someone who does need it. The net effect should be to make the world fairer and more equal.

The first goal argues for effective altruism principles: where can I give money to have the most impact on making the world better? The second goal argues for giving across an inequality gradient. I should find the people who are struggling the most and transfer as many resources to them as I can. This is Peter Singer's classic argument for giving money to the global poor.

I think one can sometimes do better than transferring money, but doing so requires a deep understanding of the infrastructure and economies of scale that are being used as leverage. The more distant one is from a society, the more dubious I think one should be of one's ability to evaluate that, and the more wary one should be of retaining any control over how resources are used.

Therefore, I'm pulling my recurring donation to GiveWell. Half of it is going to go to GiveDirectly, because I think it is an effective way of redistributing wealth while giving up control. The other half is going to my local foodbank, because they have a straightforward analysis of how they can take advantage of economy of scale, and because I have more tools available (such as local news) to understand what problem they're solving and if they're doing so effectively.

I don't know that those are the best choices. There are a lot of good ones. But I do feel strongly that the best charity comes from embracing the idea that I do not have special wisdom, other people know more about what they need than I do, and deploying my ego and logic from the comfort of my home is not helpful. Find someone who needs something you have an excess of. Give it to them. Treat them as equals. Don't retain control. You won't go far wrong.

2022-09-10: Review: Hogfather

Review: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #20
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1996
Printing February 2014
ISBN 0-06-227628-X
Format Mass market
Pages 402

Hogfather is the 20th Discworld novel and not a very good place to start. I recommend at least reading Soul Music first for a proper introduction to Susan, and you may want to start with Mort.

When we last saw Susan, she was a student at the Quirm College for Young Ladies. Now she's a governess for two adorable youngsters, a job that includes telling them stories and dealing quite capably with monsters in the cellar. (She uses a poker.) It also includes answering questions like whether the Hogfather really exists or whether the presents just come from your parents.

"Look at it this way, then," she said, and took a deep mental breath. "Wherever people are obtuse and absurd... and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach... and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering... yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.

Meanwhile, the Auditors, last seen meddling with Death in Reaper Man, approach the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork to hire the assassination of the Hogfather. This rather unusual assignment falls to Mister Teatime, an orphan who was taken in by the guild at an early age and trained to be an assassin. Teatime is a little unnerving, mostly because he enjoys being an assassin. Rather a lot.

Hogfather has two major things to recommend it: it's a Death novel, and it features Susan, who is one of my favorite Discworld characters. It also has two major strikes against it, at least for me.

The first is relatively minor but, for me, the most irritating. A bit of the way into the story, Pratchett introduces the Oh God of Hangovers — fair, that's a good pun — and then decides that's a good excuse for nausea and vomiting jokes. A lot of nausea and vomiting jokes.

Look. I know a lot of people don't mind this. But I beg authors (and, even more so, filmmakers and cartoonists) to consider whether a joke that some of your audience might like is worth making other parts of your audience feel physically ill while trying to enjoy your work. It's not at all a pleasant experience, and while I handle it better in written form, it still knocks me out of the story and makes me want to skip over scenes with the obnoxious character who won't shut up about it. Thankfully this does stop by the end of the book, but there are several segments in the middle that were rather unpleasant.

The second is that Pratchett tries to convince the reader of the mythical importance of the Santa Claus myth (for which Hogfather is an obvious stand-in, if with a Discworld twist), an effort for which I am a highly unsympathetic audience. I'm with Susan above, with an extra helping of deep dislike for telling children who trust you something that's literally untrue. Pratchett does try: he has Death make a memorable and frequently-quoted point near the end of the book (transcribed below) that I don't entirely agree with but still respect. But still, the book is very invested in convincing Susan that people believing mythology is critically important to humanity, and I have so many problems with the literalness of "believing" and the use of trusting children for this purpose by adults who know better.

There are few topics that bring out my grumpiness more than Santa Claus.

Grumbling aside, though, I did enjoy this book anyway. Susan is always a delight, and I could read about her adventures as a governess for as long as Pratchett wanted to write them. Death is filling in for the Hogfather for most of the book, which is hilarious because he's far too good at it, in his painfully earnest and literal way, to be entirely safe. I was less fond of Albert's supporting role (who I am increasingly coming to dislike as a character), but the entire scene of Death as a mall Santa is brilliant. And Teatime is an effective, creepy villain, something that the Discworld series doesn't always deliver. The powers arrayed on Discworld are so strong that it can be hard to design a villain who effectively challenges them, but Teatime has a sociopathic Professor Moriarty energy with added creepiness that fills that role in this book satisfyingly.

As is typical for Pratchett (at least for me), the plot was serviceable but not the highlight. Pratchett plays in some interesting ways with a child's view of the world, the Unseen University bumbles around as a side plot, and it comes together at the end in a way that makes sense, but the journey is the fun of the story. The conclusion felt a bit gratuitous, there mostly to wrap up the story than something that followed naturally from the previous plot. But it does feature one of the most quoted bits in Discworld:

"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

"They're not the same at all!"

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET — Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Here's the thing, though: Susan is right. They're not the same sort of thing at all, and Pratchett doesn't present an argument that they are. Death's response is great, but it's also a non sequitur: it is true and correct but has nothing to do with Susan's argument. Justice is not a lie in the sense that Santa Claus is a lie: justice is something that humans can create, just like humans can create gift-giving or a tradition of imaginative story-telling. But this is not at all the same thing as encouraging children to believe in the literal existence of a fat man in red who comes down chimneys to deliver gifts by magic.

And Death isn't even correct in Discworld! If one pays careful attention to the story, the consequences he thinks would follow from the Auditors' attempt on the Hogfather not only don't happen, the exact opposite happens. This is the point of the Unseen University subplot, and it's also what happened in Reaper Man. The Auditors may be trying to kill mythology, but what the books show is that the real danger comes from the backlash. The force they're meddling with is far more powerful and persistent than they are.

Death appears to be, by the stated events of the story, completely incorrect in his analysis of Discworld's metaphysics. Maybe Pratchett knows this? He did write a story that contradicts Death's analysis if one reads it carefully. But if so, this is not obvious from the text, or from Susan's reaction to Death's speech, which makes the metaphysics weirdly unsatisfying.

So, overall, a mixed bag. Most of the book is very fun, but the metaphysics heavily rest on a pet peeve of mine, and I really could have done without the loving descriptions of the effects of hangovers. This is one of the more famous Discworld novels for the above quote, and on its own this is deserved (it's a great quote), but I think the logic is muddled and the story itself contradicts the implications. A rather odd reading experience.

Followed by Jingo in publication order, and Thief of Time thematically.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2022-11-27 from thread modified 2008-08-13