Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2020-04-05: Review: Thick

Review: Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publisher The New Press
Copyright 2019
ISBN 1-62097-437-1
Format Kindle
Pages 247

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. I first became aware of her via retweets and recommendations from other people I follow on Twitter, and she is indeed one of the best writers on that site. Thick: And Other Essays is an essay collection focused primarily on how American culture treats black women.

I will be honest here, in part because I think much of the regular audience for my book reviews is similar to me (white, well-off from working in tech, and leftist but privileged) and therefore may identify with my experience. This is the sort of book that I always want to read and then struggle to start because I find it intimidating. It received a huge amount of praise on release, including being named as a finalist for the National Book Award, and that praise focused on its incisiveness, its truth-telling, and its depth and complexity. Complex and incisive books about racism are often hard for me to read; they're painful, depressing, and infuriating, and I have to fight my tendency to come away from them feeling more cynical and despairing. (Despite loving his essays, I'm still procrastinating reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's books.) I want to learn and understand but am not good at doing anything with the information, so this reading can feel like homework.

If that's also your reaction, read this book. I regret having waited as long as I did.

Thick is still, at times, painful, depressing, and infuriating. It's also brilliantly written in a way that makes the knowledge being conveyed easier to absorb. Rather than a relentless onslaught of bearing witness (for which, I should stress, there is an important place), it is a scalpel. Each essay lays open the heart of a subject in a few deft strokes, points out important features that the reader has previously missed, and then steps aside, leaving you alone with your thoughts to come to terms with what you've just learned. I needed this book to be an essay collection, with each thought just long enough to have an impact and not so long that I became numb. It's the type of collection that demands a pause at the end of each essay, a moment of mental readjustment, and perhaps a paging back through the essay again to remember the sharpest points.

The essays often start with seeds of the personal, drawing directly on McMillan Cottom's own life to wrap context around their point. In the first essay, "Thick," she uses advice given her younger self against writing too many first-person essays to talk about the writing form, its critics, and how the backlash against it has become part of systematic discrimination because black women are not allowed to write any other sort of authoritative essay. She then draws a distinction between her own writing and personal essays, not because she thinks less of that genre but because that genre does not work for her as a writer. The essays in Thick do this repeatedly. They appear to head in one direction, then deepen and shift with the added context of precise sociological analysis, defying predictability and reaching a more interesting conclusion than the reader had expected. And, despite those shifts, McMillan Cottom never lost me in a turn. This is a book that is not only comfortable with complexity and nuance, but helps the reader become comfortable with that complexity as well.

The second essay, "In the Name of Beauty," is perhaps my favorite of the book. Its spark was backlash against an essay McMillan Cottom wrote about Miley Cyrus, but the topic of the essay wasn't what sparked the backlash.

What many black women were angry about was how I located myself in what I'd written. I said, blithely as a matter of observable fact, that I am unattractive. Because I am unattractive, the argument went, I have a particular kind of experience of beauty, race, racism, and interacting with what we might call the white gaze. I thought nothing of it at the time I was writing it, which is unusual. I can usually pinpoint what I have said, written, or done that will piss people off and which people will be pissed off. I missed this one entirely.

What follows is one of the best essays on the social construction of beauty I've ever read. It barely pauses at the typical discussion of unrealistic beauty standards as a feminist issue, instead diving directly into beauty as whiteness, distinguishing between beauty standards that change with generations and the more lasting rules that instead police the bounds between white and not white. McMillan Cottom then goes on to explain how beauty is a form of capital, a poor and problematic one but nonetheless one of the few forms of capital women have access to, and therefore why black women have fought to be included in beauty despite all of the problems with judging people by beauty standards. And the essay deepens from there into a trenchant critique of both capitalism and white feminism that is both precise and illuminating.

When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture's assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it. I am glad that doing so unsettles folks, including the many white women who wrote to me with impassioned cases for how beautiful I am. They offered me neoliberal self-help nonsense that borders on the religious. They need me to believe beauty is both achievable and individual, because the alternative makes them vulnerable.

I could go on. Every essay in this book deserves similar attention. I want to quote from all of them. These essays are about racism, feminism, capitalism, and economics, all at the same time. They're about power, and how it functions in society, and what it does to people. There is an essay about Obama that contains the most concise explanation for his appeal to white voters that I've read. There is a fascinating essay about the difference between ethnic black and black-black in U.S. culture. There is so much more.

We do not share much in the U.S. culture of individualism except our delusions about meritocracy. God help my people, but I can talk to hundreds of black folks who have been systematically separated from their money, citizenship, and personhood and hear at least eighty stories about how no one is to blame but themselves. That is not about black people being black but about people being American. That is what we do. If my work is about anything it is about making plain precisely how prestige, money, and power structure our so-called democratic institutions so that most of us will always fail.

I, like many other people in my profession, was always more comfortable with the technical and scientific classes in college. I liked math and equations and rules, dreaded essay courses, and struggled to engage with the mandatory humanities courses. Something that I'm still learning, two decades later, is the extent to which this was because the humanities are harder work than the sciences and I wasn't yet up to the challenge of learning them properly. The problems are messier and more fluid. The context required is broader. It's harder to be clear and precise. And disciplines like sociology deal with our everyday lived experience, which means that we all think we're entitled to an opinion.

Books like this, which can offer me a hand up and a grounding in the intellectual rigor while simultaneously being engaging and easy to read, are a treasure. They help me fill in the gaps in my education and help me recognize and appreciate the depth of thought in disciplines that don't come as naturally to me.

This book was homework, but the good kind, the kind that exposes gaps in my understanding, introduces topics I hadn't considered, and makes the time fly until I come up for air, awed and thinking hard. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-03-31: Review: A Grand and Bold Thing

Review: A Grand and Bold Thing, by Ann Finkbeiner

Publisher Free Press
Copyright August 2010
ISBN 1-4391-9647-8
Format Kindle
Pages 200

With the (somewhat excessively long) subtitle of An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In a New Era of Discovery, this is a history of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's structured as a mostly chronological history of the project with background profiles on key project members, particularly James Gunn.

Those who follow my blog will know that I recently started a new job at Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope). Our goal is to take a complete survey of the night sky several times a week for ten years. That project is the direct successor of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and its project team includes many people who formerly worked on Sloan. This book (and another one, Giant Telescopes) was recommended to me as a way to come up to speed on the history of this branch of astronomy.

Before reading this book, I hadn't understood how deeply the ready availability of the Sloan sky survey data had changed astronomy. Prior to the availability of that survey data, astronomers would develop theories and then try to book telescope time to make observations to test those theories. That telescope time was precious and in high demand, so was not readily available, and was vulnerable to poor weather conditions (like overcast skies) once the allocated time finally arrived.

The Sloan project changed all of that. Its output was a comprehensive sky survey available digitally whenever and wherever an astronomer needed it. One could develop a theory and then search the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for relevant data and, for at least some types of theories, test that theory against the data without needing precious telescope time or new observations. It was a transformational change in astronomy, made possible by the radical decision, early in the project, to release all of the data instead of keeping it private to a specific research project.

The shape of that change is one takeaway from this book. The other is how many problems the project ran into trying to achieve that goal. About a third of the way into this book, I started wondering if the project was cursed. So many things went wrong, from institutional politics through equipment failures to software bugs and manufacturing problems with the telescope mirror. That makes it all the more impressive how much impact the project eventually had. It's also remarkable just how many bad things can happen to a telescope mirror without making the telescope unusable.

Finkbeiner provides the most relevant astronomical background as she tells the story so that the unfamiliar reader can get an idea of what questions the Sloan survey originally set out to answer (particularly about quasars), but this is more of a project history than a popular astronomy book. There's enough astronomy here for context, but not enough to satisfy curiosity. If you're like me, expect to have your curiosity piqued, possibly resulting in buying popular surveys of current astronomy research. (At least one review is coming soon.)

Obviously this book is of special interest to me because of my new field of work, my background at a research university, and because it features some of my co-workers. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to someone without that background and personal connection. But if you've ever been adjacent to or curious about how large-scale science projects are done, this is a fascinating story. Both the failures and problems and the way they were eventually solved is different than how the more common stories of successful or failed companies are told. (It helps, at least for me, that the shared goal was to do science, rather than to make money for a corporation whose fortunes are loosely connected to those of the people doing the work.)

Recommended if this topic sounds at all interesting.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-03-30: pam-krb5 4.9

This is a security release fixing a one-byte buffer overflow when relaying prompts from the underlying Kerberos library. All users of my pam-krb5 module should upgrade as soon as possible. See the security advisory for more information.

There are also a couple more minor security improvements in this release: The module now rejects passwords as long or longer than PAM_MAX_RESP_SIZE (normally 512 octets) since they can be a denial of service attack via the Kerberos string-to-key function, and uses explicit_bzero where available to clear passwords before releasing memory.

Also in this release, use_pkinit is now supported with MIT Kerberos, the Kerberos prompter function returns more accurate error messages, I fixed an edge-case memory leak in pam_chauthtok, and the module/basic test will run properly with a system krb5.conf file that doesn't specify a realm.

You can get the latest release from the pam-krb5 distribution page. I've also uploaded the new version to Debian unstable and patched security releases with only the security fix to Debian stable and oldstable.

2020-03-23: Review: Lost in Math

Review: Lost in Math, by Sabine Hossenfelder

Publisher Basic
Copyright June 2018
ISBN 0-465-09426-0
Format Kindle
Pages 248

Listening to experts argue can be one of the better ways to learn about a new field. It does require some basic orientation and grounding or can be confusing or, worse, wildly misleading, so some advance research or Internet searches are warranted. But it provides some interesting advantages over reading multiple popular introductions to a field.

First, experts arguing with each other are more precise about their points of agreement and disagreement because they're trying to persuade someone who is well-informed. The points of agreement are often more informative than the points of disagreement, since they can provide a feel for what is uncontroversial among experts in the field.

Second, internal arguments tend to be less starry-eyed. One of the purposes of popularizations of a field is to get the reader excited about it, and that can be fun to read. But to generate that excitement, the author has a tendency to smooth over disagreements and play up exciting but unproven ideas. Expert disagreements pull the cover off of the uncertainty and highlight the boundaries of what we know and how we know it.

Lost in Math (subtitled How Beauty Leads Physics Astray) is not quite an argument between experts. That's hard to find in book form; most of the arguments in the scientific world happen in academic papers, and I rarely have the energy or attention span to read those. But it comes close. Hossenfelder is questioning the foundations of modern particle physics for the general public, but also for her fellow scientists.

High-energy particle physics is facing a tricky challenge. We have a solid theory (the standard model) which explains nearly everything that we have currently observed. The remaining gaps are primarily at very large scales (dark matter and dark energy) or near phenomena that are extremely difficult to study (black holes). For everything else, the standard model predicts our subatomic world to an exceptionally high degree of accuracy. But physicists don't like the theory. The details of why are much of the topic of this book, but the short version is that the theory does not seem either elegant or beautiful. It relies on a large number of measured constants that seem to have no underlying explanation, which is contrary to a core aesthetic principle that physicists use to judge new theories.

Accompanying this problem is another: New experiments in particle physics that may be able to confirm or disprove alternate theories that go beyond the standard model are exceptionally expensive. All of the easy experiments have been done. Building equipment that can probe beyond the standard model is incredibly expensive, and thus only a few of those experiments have been done. This leads to two issues: Particle physics has an overgrowth of theories (such as string theory) that are largely untethered from experiments and are not being tested and validated or disproved, and spending on new experiments is guided primarily by a sense of scientific aesthetics that may simply be incorrect.

Enter Lost in Math. Hossenfelder's book picks up a thread of skepticism about string theory (and, in Hossenfelder's case, supersymmetry as well) that I previously read in Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics. But while Smolin's critique was primarily within the standard aesthetic and epistemological framework of particle physics, Hossenfelder is questioning that framework directly.

Why should nature be beautiful? Why should constants be small? What if the universe does have a large number of free constants? And is the dislike of an extremely reliable theory on aesthetic grounds a good basis for guiding which experiments we fund?

Do you recall the temple of science, in which the foundations of physics are the bottommost level, and we try to break through to deeper understanding? As I've come to the end of my travels, I worry that the cracks we're seeing in the floor aren't really cracks at all but merely intricate patterns. We're digging in the wrong places.

Lost in Math will teach you a bit less about physics than Smolin's book, although there is some of that here. Smolin's book was about two-thirds physics and one-third sociology of science. Lost in Math is about two-thirds sociology and one-third physics. But that sociology is engrossing. It's obvious in retrospect, but I hadn't thought before about the practical effects of running out of unexplained data on a theoretical field, or about the transition from more data than we can explain to having to spend billions of dollars to acquire new data. And Hossenfelder takes direct aim at the human tendency to find aesthetically appealing patterns and unified explanations, and scores some palpable hits.

I went into physics because I don't understand human behavior. I went into physics because math tells it how it is. I liked the cleanliness, the unambiguous machinery, the command math has over nature. Two decades later, what prevents me from understanding physics is that I still don't understand human behavior.

"We cannot give exact mathematical rules that define if a theory is attractive or not," says Gian Francesco Giudice. "However, it is surprising how the beauty and elegance of a theory are universally recognized by people from different cultures. When I tell you, 'Look, I have a new paper and my theory is beautiful,' I don't have to tell you the details of my theory; you will get why I'm excited. Right?"

I don't get it. That's why I am talking to him. Why should the laws of nature care what I find beautiful? Such a connection between me and the universe seems very mystical, very romantic, very not me.

But then Gian doesn't think that nature cares what I find beautiful, but what he finds beautiful.

The structure of this book is half tour of how physics judges which theories are worthy of investigation and half personal quest to decide whether physics has lost contact with reality. Hossenfelder approaches this second thread with multiple interviews of famous scientists in the field. She probes at their bases for preferring one theory over another, at how objective those preferences can or should be, and what it means for physics if they're wrong (as increasingly appears to be the case for supersymmetry). In so doing, she humanizes theory development in a way that I found fascinating.

The drawback to reading about ongoing arguments is the lack of a conclusion. Lost in Math, unsurprisingly, does not provide an epiphany about the future direction of high-energy particle physics. Its conclusion, to the extent that it has one, is a plea to find a way to put particle physics back on firmer experimental footing and to avoid cognitive biases in theory development. Given the cost of experiments and the nature of humans, this is challenging. But I enjoyed reading this questioning, contrarian take, and I think it's valuable for understanding the limits, biases, and distortions at the edge of new theory development.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-02-24: Review: Digital Minimalism

Review: Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Publisher Porfolio/Penguin
Copyright 2019
ISBN 0-525-53654-X
Format Kindle
Pages 256

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown with a long-standing side interest in personal productivity and career development. I first ran across his work with Deep Work, the thesis of which is that the most valuable resource for knowledge workers is concentration and the ability to think deeply about a topic, but our work environments and tools are structured to undermine that concentration. I found, and still find, Deep Work persuasive, even if that hasn't fully translated into following its recommendations.

This book is only glancingly about concentration, however. Newport has gotten interested in what he calls "digital minimalism," joining the chorus of people who say that smart phones and social media are bad for your brain. If you're already starting to roll your eyes, you're not alone. I think Newport has a few interesting things to say and successfully avoids most of the moral panic that infests news media coverage of this topic, but I'd rather read more in the vein of Deep Work.

Newport's basic thesis is sound: Social networks, and to a lesser extent smart phones and mobile apps in general, are designed to make money for their authors by monetizing your attention. The companies behind them aren't opposed to making your life better if that helps hold your attention, but it's not their primary goal, nor is it clear if they know how to improve your life in any meaningful way. They do know, extremely well, how to exploit human psychology to keep you returning to their product.

How they do this is a topic of much speculation and analysis. Newport primarily blames three things: the ubiquitous availability of mobile devices, the addictive power of intermittent positive reinforcement, and exploitation of the human desire for social approval.

The second of those is, I think, the least obvious and the one with the most interesting psychological research. Behavioral experiments in psychology (specifically, Michael Zeiler's 1971 experiment with pigeons) seem to indicate that unpredictable rewards can be more addictive than predictable rewards. Zeiler compared pigeons who were rewarded for every button press with pigeons who were sometimes rewarded and sometimes weren't at random, and found that the second group pressed the button twice as much. Newport argues that social media interactions such as the like button, or even just searching posts for something interesting or unexpected, produce exactly this sort of unpredictable, random positive reinforcement, and are thus more addictive than reliable and predictable rewards would be.

The other points are more obvious, and expand on themes Newport discussed in his previous books. Mobile devices plus social media provide convenient and immediate access to lightweight social interactions. We can stay lightly in touch with far more people than we could interact with in person, and easily access the small mental and social rewards of curiosity, life news, and content-free moments of connection. As you might expect from Newport's focus on concentration and deep thinking, he considers this ubiquitous, shallow distraction to be dangerous. It requires little sustained effort, offers few meaningful rewards, and is developed and marketed by companies with an incentive to make it mildly addictive. Newport believes these sorts of trivial interactions crowd out deep and meaningful ones and can make us feel perpetually distracted and harried.

So far, so good; this is a defensible take on social media. But it's also not very groundbreaking, and is only a small part of this book. Most of Digital Minimalism is about what Newport proposes we do about it: Cut back significantly (at first, completely) on social media and replace it with other activities Newport finds more worthy.

To give him credit, he doesn't fall for the moralizing simplification that either screens or social media are inherently bad. His thesis is that social media is one of a number of tools we can choose to use, and that we should make that choice thoughtfully, base it on the value that tool can bring compared to other ways we could spend the same time, and restrict any tool we do choose to only the purposes for which it has value. He therefore doesn't propose dropping social media entirely; rather, he recommends deciding what purpose it serves for you and then using it only for that purpose, which can often be done in a half-hour on the weekend from a desktop computer rather than in numerous interrupted intervals throughout the day on a phone.

I think this is sensible, but maybe that's because I'm already (mostly) doing what Newport suggests. I never created a Facebook account (thankfully, my family doesn't use it). My one social media time sink is reading Twitter, but knowing my tendency to get into arguments on-line, I have an iron-clad rule to treat Twitter as strictly read-only and never post, thus avoiding at least the social approval aspects. I learned my lesson on Usenet that on-line arguments can expand to fill all available time, and it's worth thinking very hard about what I'm trying to accomplish. There's usually something else I could be doing that would either be more fun or more productive (and often both).

I was therefore less interested in Newport's advice and more interested in how he chose to provide it and in what he recommends people substitute for social media. This is a mixed bag.

Those who follow his blog will know that Newport is relentlessly apolitical in public. That's a more severe problem for Digital Minimalism than it is for Deep Work because a critique of social media begs to be a critique of marketing-driven capitalism and the economic and social systems that support building commercial empires on top of advertising. Newport predictably refuses to follow that thread. He makes specific, limited, and targeted criticisms of social media companies that go only as far as observing that they commodify our attention, but absolutely refuses to look at why attention is a commodity or what that implies about our economic system. I was unsurprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Newport also freely mixes in his personal biases and is rather too credulous when reading studies or authors who agree with him. Frequent references to Thoreau and Walden as examples of minimalism sound a bit odd once you know that Thoreau's mother occasionally cooked for him and did his laundry. Minimalism based on other people's (gendered) labor is perhaps not the note Newport was trying to strike. In another version of the same problem, he's enamored of the modern minimalist movement and FIRE bloggers (Financial Independence, Retire Early), and while I'm generally sympathetic to people who opt out of the endless advertising-driven quest to acquire more things, presenting these folks as successes of minimalism rather than a choice made available via inherited wealth or access to high-paying contract work is dubious. I suppose I'll take my allies against capitalism where I can find them, but I'd rather they be a bit more politically aware.

Also on the bias front, Newport is oddly obsessed with in-person conversations and physical hobbies. He's dismissive of on-line relationships and friendships, throws out some dubious arguments about the lack of depth and emotional nuance in text-based communications, and claims that nothing done on a computer, even programming, fully counts as craft. This may well be true of him personally, but speaking as an introvert who has had multiple deep, decades-long friendships conducted entirely via letters and on-line chat, he is wrong to universalize his own preferences. Writing is different than in-person interactions with the full range of verbal and physical cues, and I wouldn't recommend eliminating the latter entirely, but there are forms of written interaction that are not shallow social media. And I will vigorously defend the thoughtful maintenance of a free software project as craft and high-quality leisure equal to woodworking.

This is not a bad book, exactly. It has an even narrower target audience than Newport's other books, namely well-off people who use social media, but those people exist and buy books. (Newport probably thinks that the book might be helpful to people who are less well off. I think he's wrong; the book is full of unmarked assumptions about availability of the life choices that come with money.) It says some sensible things about the motives of social media companies, although it doesn't take that analysis nearly far enough. And it contains some reasonable suggestions about how to significantly reduce one's personal use of social media if you need that sort of thing (and if your biases are mostly compatible with the author's).

That said, I thought Newport was saying something interesting and somewhat more novel in Deep Work. Digital Minimalism is in line with numerous other articles about clawing bits of your life back from social media — more moderate than most, more detailed, and a bit more applied, but nothing you can't find elsewhere. Hopefully Newport has gotten it out of his system and will go back to writing about practicing concentration and improving workplace communication methods.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-02-23: Book haul

I have been reading rather more than my stream of reviews might indicate, although it's been almost all non-fiction. (Since I've just started a job in astronomy, I decided I should learn something about astronomy. Also, there has been some great non-fiction published recently.)

Ilona Andrews — Sweep with Me (sff)
Conor Dougherty — Golden Gates (non-fiction)
Ann K. Finkbeiner — A Grand and Bold Thing (non-fiction)
Susan Fowler — Whistleblower (non-fiction)
Evalyn Gates — Einstein's Telescope (non-fiction)
T. Kingfisher — Paladin's Grace (sff)
A.K. Larkwood — The Unspoken Name (sff)
Murphy Lawless — Raven Heart (sff)
W. Patrick McCray — Giant Telescopes (non-fiction)
Terry Pratchett — Men at Arms (sff)
Terry Pratchett — Soul Music (sff)
Terry Pratchett — Interesting Times (sff)
Terry Pratchett — Maskerade (sff)
Terry Pratchett — Feet of Clay (sff)
Ethan Siegel — Beyond the Galaxy (non-fiction)
Tor.com (ed.) — Some of the Best from Tor.Com 2019 (sff anthology)

I have also done my one-book experiment of reading Terry Pratchett on the Kindle and it was a miserable experience due to the footnotes, so I'm back to buying Pratchett in mass market paperback.

2020-02-23: Review: Sweep with Me

Review: Sweep with Me, by Ilona Andrews

Series Innkeeper Chronicles #5
Publisher NYLA
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-64197-136-3
Format Kindle
Pages 146

Sweep with Me is the fifth book in the Innkeeper Chronicles series. It's a novella rather than a full novel, a bit of a Christmas bonus story. Don't read this before One Fell Sweep; it will significantly spoil that book. I don't believe it spoils Sweep of the Blade, but it may in some way that I don't remember.

Dina and Sean are due to appear before the Assembly for evaluation of their actions as Innkeepers, a nerve-wracking event that could have unknown consequences for their inn. The good news is that this appointment is going to be postponed. The bad news is that the postponement is to allow them to handle a special guest. A Drífan is coming to stay in the Gertrude Hunt.

One of the drawbacks of this story is that it's never clear about what a Drífan is, only that they are extremely magical, the inns dislike them, and they're incredibly dangerous. Unfortunately for Dina, the Drífan is coming for Treaty Stay, which means she cannot turn them down. Treaty Stay is the anniversary of the Treaty of Earth, which established the inns and declared Earth's neutrality. During Treaty Stay, no guest can be turned away from an inn. And a Drífan was one of the signatories of the treaty.

Given some of the guests and problems that Dina has had, I'm a little dubious of this rule from a world-building perspective. It sounds like the kind of absolute rule that's tempting to invent during the first draft of a world background, but that falls apart when one starts thinking about how it might be abused. There's a reason why very few principles of law are absolute. But perhaps we only got the simplified version of the rules of Treaty Stay, and the actual rules have more nuance. In any event, it serves its role as story setup.

Sweep with Me is a bit of a throwback to the early books of the series. The challenge is to handle guests without endangering the inn or letting other people know what's going on. The primary plot involves the Drífan and an asshole businessman who is quite easy to hate. The secondary plots involve a colloquium of bickering, homicidal chickens, a carnivorous hunter who wants to learn how Dina and Sean resolved a war, and the attempts by Dina's chef to reproduce a fast-food hamburger for the Drífan.

I enjoyed the last subplot the best, even if it was a bit predictable. Orro's obsession with (and mistaken impressions about) an Earth cooking show are the sort of alien cultural conflict that makes this series fun, and Dina's willingness to take time away from various crises to find a way to restore his faith in his cooking is the type of action that gives this series its heart. Caldenia, Dina's resident murderous empress, also gets some enjoyable characterization. I'm not sure what I thought a manipulative alien dictator would amuse herself with on Earth, but I liked this answer.

The main plot was a bit less satisfying. I'm happy to read as many stories about Dina managing alien guests as Andrews wants to write, but I like them best when I learn a lot about a new alien culture. The Drífan feel more like a concept than a culture, and the story turns out to revolve around human rivalries far more than alien cultures. It's the world-building that sucks me into these sorts of series; my preference is to learn something grand about the rest of the universe that builds on the ideas already established in the series and deepens them, but that doesn't happen.

The edges of a decent portal fantasy are hiding underneath this plot, but it all happened in the past and we don't get any of the details. I liked the Drífan liege a great deal, but her background felt disappointingly generic and I don't think I learned anything more about the universe.

If you like the other Innkeeper Chronicles books, you'll probably like this, but it's a minor side story, not a continuation of the series arc. Don't expect too much from it, but it's a pleasant diversion to bide the time until the next full novel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-02-22: Review: Exit Strategy

Review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

Series Murderbot Diaries #4
Publisher Tor.com
Copyright October 2018
ISBN 1-250-18546-7
Format Kindle
Pages 172

Exit Strategy is the fourth of the original four Murderbot novellas. As you might expect, this is not the place to begin. Both All Systems Red (the first of the series) and Rogue Protocol (the previous book) are vital to understanding this story.

Be warned that All Systems Red sets up the plot for the rest of the series, and thus any reviews of subsequent books (this one included) run the risk of spoiling parts of that story. If you haven't read it already, I recommend reading it before this review. It's inexpensive and very good!

When I got back to HaveRotten Station, a bunch of humans tried to kill me. Considering how much I'd been thinking about killing a bunch of humans, it was only fair.

Murderbot is now in possession of damning evidence against GrayCris. GrayCris knows that, and is very interested in catching Murderbot. That problem is relatively easy to handle. The harder problem is that GrayCris has gone on the offensive against Murderbot's former client, accusing her of corporate espionage and maneuvering her into their territory. Dr. Mensah is now effectively a hostage, held deep in enemy territory. If she's killed, the newly-gathered evidence will be cold comfort.

Exit Strategy, as befitting the last chapter of Murderbot's initial story arc, returns to and resolves the plot of the first novella. Murderbot reunites with its initial clients, takes on GrayCris directly (or at least their minions), and has to break out of yet another station. It also has to talk to other people about what relationship it wants to have with them, and with the rest of the world, since it's fast running out of emergencies and special situations where that question is pointless.

Murderbot doesn't want to have those conversations very badly because they result in a lot of emotions.

I was having an emotion, and I hate that. I'd rather have nice safe emotions about shows on the entertainment media; having them about things real-life humans said and did just led to stupid decisions like coming to TransRollinHyfa.

There is, of course, a lot of the normal series action: Murderbot grumbling about other people's clear incompetence, coming up with tactical plans on the fly, getting its clients out of tricky situations, and having some very satisfying fights. But the best part of this story is the reunion with Dr. Mensah. Here, Wells does something subtle and important that I've frequently encountered in life but less commonly in stories. Murderbot has played out various iterations of these conversations in its head, trying to decide what it would say. But those imagined conversations were with its fixed and unchanging memory of Dr. Mensah. Meanwhile, the person underlying those memories has been doing her own thinking and reconsideration, and is far more capable of having an insightful conversation than Murderbot expects. The result is satisfying thoughtfulness and one of the first times in the series where Murderbot doesn't have to handle the entire situation by itself.

This is one of those conclusions that's fully as satisfying as I was hoping it would be without losing any of the complexity. The tactics and fighting are more of the same (meaning that they're entertaining and full of snark), but Dr. Mensah's interactions with Murderbot now that she's had the time span of two intervening books to think about how to treat it are some of the best parts of the series. The conclusion doesn't answer all of the questions raised by the series (which is a good thing, since I want more), but it's a solid end to the plot arc.

The sequel, a full-length Murderbot novel (hopefully the first of many) titled Network Effect, is due out in May of 2020.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-02-21: Review: All About Emily

Review: All About Emily, by Connie Willis

Publisher Subterranean
Copyright 2011
ISBN 1-59606-488-9
Format Kindle
Pages 96

Claire Havilland is a Broadway star, three-time Tony winner, and the first-person narrator of this story. She is also, at least in her opinion, much too old to star in the revival of Chicago, given that the role would require wearing a leotard and fishnet stockings. But that long-standing argument with her manager was just the warm-up request this time. The actual request was to meet with a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and robotics engineer who will be the Grand Marshal of the Macy's Day Parade. Or, more importantly, to meet with the roboticist's niece, Emily, who has a charmingly encyclopedic knowledge of theater and of Claire Havilland's career in particular.

I'll warn that the upcoming discussion of the background of this story is a spoiler for the introductory twist, but you've probably guessed that spoiler anyway.

I feel bad when someone highly recommends something to me, but it doesn't click with me. That's the case with this novella. My mother loved the character dynamics, which, I'll grant, are charming and tug on the heartstrings, particularly if you enjoy watching two people geek at each other about theater. I got stuck on the world-building and then got frustrated with the near-total lack of engagement with the core problem presented by the story.

The social fear around robotics in All About Emily is the old industrialization fear given new form: new, better robots will be able to do jobs better than humans, and thus threaten human livelihoods. (As is depressingly common in stories like this, the assumptions of capitalism are taken for granted and left entirely unquestioned.) Willis's take on this idea is based on All About Eve, the 1950 film in which an ambitious young fan maneuvers her way into becoming the understudy of an aging Broadway star and then tries to replace her. What if even Broadway actresses could be replaced by robots?

As it turns out, the robot in question has a different Broadway role in mind. To give Willis full credit, it's one that plays adroitly with some stereotypes about robots.

Emily and Claire have good chemistry. Their effusive discussions and Emily's delighted commitment to research are fun to read. But the plot rests on two old SF ideas: the social impact of humans being replaced by machines, and the question of whether simulated emotions in robots should be treated as real (a slightly different question than whether they are real). Willis raises both issues and then does nothing with either of them. The result is an ending that hits the expected emotional notes of an equivalent story that raises no social questions, but which gives the SF reader nothing to work with.

Will robots replace humans? Based on this story, the answer seems to be yes. Should they be allowed to? To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that that decision seems to be made on the basis of factors that won't scale, and on experiences that a cynic like me thinks could be easily manipulated.

Should simulated emotions be treated as real? Willis doesn't seem to realize that's a question. Certainly, Claire never seems to give it a moment's thought.

I think All About Emily could have easily been published in the 1960s. It feels like it belongs to another era in which emotional manipulation by computers is either impossible or, at worst, a happy accident. In today's far more cynical time, when we're increasingly aware that large corporations are deeply invested in manipulating our emotions and quite good at building elaborate computer models for how to do so, it struck me as hollow and tone-deaf. The story is very sweet if you can enjoy it on the same level that the characters engage with it, but is not of much help in grappling with the consequences for abuse.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-01-19: DocKnot 3.03

DocKnot is the software that I use to generate package documentation and web pages, and increasingly to generate release tarballs.

The main change in this release is to use IO::Uncompress::Gunzip and IO::Compress::Xz to generate a missing xz tarball when needed, instead of forking external programs (which causes all sorts of portability issues). Thanks to Slaven Rezić for the testing and report.

This release adds two new badges to README.md files: a version badge for CPAN packages pushed to GitHub, and a Debian version badge for packages with a corresponding Debian package.

This release also makes the tarball checking done as part of the release process (to ensure all files are properly included in the release) a bit more flexible by adding a distribution/ignore metadata setting containing a list of regular expressions matching files to ignore for checking purposes.

Finally, this release fixes a bug that leaked $@ modifications to the caller of App::DocKnot::Config.

You can get the latest version from the DocKnot distribution page.

2020-01-17: Term::ANSIColor 5.01

This is the module included in Perl core that provides support for ANSI color escape sequences.

This release adds support for the NO_COLOR environment variable (thanks, Andrea Telatin) and fixes an error in the example of uncolor() in the documentation (thanks, Joe Smith). It also documents that color aliases are expanded during alias definition, so while you can define an alias in terms of another alias, they don't remain linked during future changes.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the Term::ANSIColor distribution page.

2020-01-16: Review: Lent

Review: Lent, by Jo Walton

Publisher Tor
Copyright May 2019
ISBN 1-4668-6572-5
Format Kindle
Pages 381

It is April 3rd, 1492. Brother Girolamo is a Dominican and the First Brother of San Marco in Florence. He can see and banish demons, as we find out in the first chapter when he cleanses the convent of Santa Lucia. The demons appear to be drawn by a green stone hidden in a hollowed-out copy of Pliny, a donation to the convent library from the King of Hungary. That green stone will be central to the story, but neither we nor Girolamo find out why for some time. The only hint is that the dying Lorenzo de' Medici implies that it is the stone of Titurel.

Brother Girolamo is also a prophet. He has the ability to see the future, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in symbolic terms. Sometimes the events can be changed, and sometimes they have the weight of certainty. He believes the New Cyrus will come over the Alps, leading to the sack and fall of Rome, and hopes to save Florence from the same fate by transforming it into the City of God.

If your knowledge of Italian Renaissance history is good, you may have already guessed the relevant history. The introduction of additional characters named Marsilio and Count Pico provide an additional clue before Walton mentions Brother Girolamo's last name: Savonarola.

If, like me, you haven't studied Italian history but still think this sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because Savonarola and his brief religious rule of Florence is a topic of Chapter VI of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Brother Girolamo in Walton's portrayal is not the reactionary religious fanatic he is more often shown as, but if you know this part of history, you'll find many events of the first part of the book familiar.

The rest of this book... that's where writing this review becomes difficult.

About 40% of the way through Lent, and well into spoiler territory, this becomes a very different book. Exactly how isn't something I can explain without ruining a substantial portion of the plot. That also makes it difficult to talk about what Walton is doing in this novel, and to some extent even to describe its genre. I'll try, but the result will be unsatisfyingly vague.

Lent is set in an alternate historical universe in which both theology and magic work roughly the way that 15th century Christianity thought that they worked. Demons are real, although most people can't see them. Prophecy is real in a sense, although that's a bit more complicated. When Savonarola says that Florence is besieged by demons, he means that demons are literally arrayed against the walls of the city and attempting to make their ways inside. Walton applies the concreteness of science with its discoverable rules and careful analysis to prophecy, spiritual warfare, and other aspects of theology that would be spoilers.

Using Savonarola as the sympathetic main character is a bold choice. The historical figure is normally portrayed as the sort of villain everyone, including Machiavelli, loves to hate. Walton's version of the character is still arguably a religious fanatic, but the layers behind why he is so deeply religious and what he is attempting to accomplish are deep and complex. He has a single-minded belief in a few core principles, and he's acting on the basis of prophecy that he believes completely (for more reasons than either he or the reader knows at first). But outside of those areas of uncompromising certainty, he's thoughtful and curious, befriends other thoughtful and curious people, supports philosophy, and has a deep sense of fairness and honesty. When he talks about reform of the church in Lent, he's both sincere and believable. (This would not survive a bonfire of the vanities that was a literal book burning, but Walton argues forcefully in an afterward that this popular belief contradicts accounts from primary sources.)

Lent starts as an engrossing piece of historical fiction, pulling me into the fictional thoughts of a figure I would not have expected to like nearly as much as I did. I was not at all bored by the relatively straightforward retelling of Italian history and would have happily read more of it. The shifting of gears partway through adds additional intriguing depth, and it's fun to play what-if with medieval theology and explore the implications of all of it being literally true.

The ending, unfortunately, I thought was less successful, mostly due to pacing. Story progress slows in a way that has an important effect on Savonarola, but starts to feel a touch tedious. Then, Walton makes a bit too fast of a pivot between despair and success and didn't give me quite enough emotional foundation for the resolution. She also dropped me off the end of the book more abruptly than I wanted. I'm not sure how she could have possibly continued beyond the ending, to be fair, but still, I wanted to know what would happen in the next chapter (and the theology would have been delightfully subversive). But this is also the sort of book that's exceedingly hard to end.

I would call Lent more intriguing than fully successful, but I enjoyed reading it despite not having much inherent interest in Florence, Renaissance theology, or this part of Italian history. If any of those topics attracts you more than it does me, I suspect you will find this book worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-01-13: New year's haul

Accumulated book purchases for the past couple of months. A rather eclectic mix of stuff.

Becky Albertalli — Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (young adult)
Ted Chiang — Exhalation (sff collection)
Tressie McMillan Cottom — Thick (nonfiction)
Julie E. Czerneda — This Gulf of Time and Stars (sff)
Katharine Duckett — Miranda in Milan (sff)
Sarah Gailey — Magic for Liars (sff)
Carol Ives Gilman — Halfway Human (sff)
Rachel Hartman — Seraphina (sff)
Isuna Hasekura — Spice and Wolf, Volume 1 (sff)
Elizabeth Lim — Spin the Dawn (sff)
Sam J. Miller — Blackfish City (sff)
Tamsyn Muir — Gideon the Ninth (sff)
Sylvain Neuvel — The Test (sff)
K.J. Parker — Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (sff)
Caroline Criado Perez — Invisible Women (nonfiction)
Delia Sherman — The Porcelain Dove (sff)
Connie Willis — All About Emily (sff)

Several sales on books that I wanted to read for various reasons, several recommendations, one book in an ongoing series, and one earlier book in a series that I want to read.

We'll see if, in 2020, I can come closer to reading all the books that I buy in roughly the same year in which I buy them.

2020-01-11: Review: Guardians of the West

Review: Guardians of the West, by David Eddings

Series The Malloreon #1
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright April 1987
Printing October 1991
ISBN 0-345-35266-1
Format Mass market
Pages 438

Technically speaking, many things in this review are mild spoilers for the outcome of The Belgariad, the previous series set in this world. I'm not going to try to avoid that because I think most fantasy readers will assume, and be unsurprised by, various obvious properties of the ending of that type of epic fantasy.

The world has been saved, Garion is learning to be king (and navigate his domestic life, but more on that in a moment), and Errand goes home with Belgarath and Polgara to live the idyllic country life of the child he never was. That lasts a surprisingly long way into the book, with only occasional foreshadowing, before the voice in Garion's head chimes in again, new cryptic prophecies are discovered, and the world is once again in peril.

I can hear some of you already wondering what I'm doing. Yes, after re-reading The Belgariad, I'm re-reading The Malloreon. Yes, this means I'm arguably reading the same series four times. I was going through the process of quitting my job and wrapping up projects and was stressed out of my mind and wanted something utterly predictable and unchallenging that I could just read and enjoy without thinking about. A re-read of Eddings felt perfect for that, and it was.

The Malloreon is somewhat notorious in the world of epic fantasy because the plot... well, I won't say it's the same plot as The Belgariad, although some would, but it has eerie similarities. The overarching plot of The Belgariad is the battle between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark, resolved at the end of Enchanters' End Game. The kickoff of the plot of The Malloreon near the middle of this book is essentially "whoops, there was another prophecy and you have to do this all again." The similarities don't stop there: There's a list of named figures who have to go on the plot journey that's only slightly different from the first series, a mysterious dark figure steals something important to kick off the plot, and of course there is the same "free peoples of the west" versus "dictatorial hordes of the east" basic political structure. (If you're not interested in more of that in your fantasy, I don't blame you a bit and Eddings is not the author to reach for.)

That said, I've always had a soft spot for this series. We've gotten past the introduction of characters and gotten to know an entertaining variety of caricatures, Eddings writes moderately amusing banter, and the characters can be fun if you treat them like talking animals built around specific character traits. Guardians of the West moves faster and is less frustrating than Pawn of Prophecy by far. It also has a great opening section where Errand, rather than Garion, is the viewpoint character.

Errand is possibly my favorite character in this series because he takes the plot about as seriously as I do. He's fearless and calm in the face of whatever is happening, which his adult guardians attribute to his lack of understanding of danger, but which I attribute to him being the only character in the book who realizes that the plot is absurd and pre-ordained and there's no reason to get so worked up about it. He also has a casual, off-hand way of revealing that he has untapped plot-destroying magical powers, which for some reason I find hilarious. I wish the whole book were told from Errand's point of view.

Sadly, two-thirds of it returns to Garion. That part isn't bad, exactly, but it features more of his incredibly awkward and stereotyped relationship with Ce'Nedra, some painful and obvious stupidity around their attempt to have a child, and possibly the stupidest childbirth scene I've ever seen. (Eddings is aiming for humorous in a way that didn't work for me at all.) That's followed by a small war (against conservative religious fanatics; Eddings's interactions with cultural politics are odd and complicated) that wasn't that interesting.

That said, the dry voice in Garion's head was one of my favorite characters in the first series and that's even more true here when he starts speaking again. I like some of what Eddings is doing with prophecy and how it interacts with the plot. I'm also endlessly amused when the plot is pushed forward by various forces telling the main characters what to do next. Normally this is a sign of lazy writing and poor plotting, but Eddings is so delightfully straightforward about it that it becomes oddly metafictional and, at least for me, kind of fun. And more of Errand is always enjoyable.

I can't recommend this series (or Eddings in general). I like it for idiosyncratic reasons and can't defend it as great writing. There are a lot of race-based characterization, sexism, and unconsidered geographic stereotypes (when you lay the world map over a map of Europe, the racism is, uh, kind of blatant, even though Eddings makes relatively even-handed fun of everyone), and while you could say the same for Tolkien, Eddings is not remotely at Tolkien levels of writing in compensation. But Guardians of the West did exactly what I wanted from it when I picked it up, and now part of me wants to finish my re-read, so you may be hearing about the rest of the series.

Followed by King of the Murgos.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-01-10: Review: True Porn Clerk Stories

Review: True Porn Clerk Stories, by Ali Davis

Publisher Amazon.com
Copyright August 2009
ASIN B002MKOQUG
Format Kindle
Pages 160

The other day I realized, as a cold claw of pure fear squeezed my frantic heart, that I have been working as a video clerk for ten months.

This is a job that I took on a temporary basis for just a month or two until freelancing picked back up and I got my finances in order.

Ten months.

It has been a test of patience, humility, and character.

It has been a lesson in dealing with all humankind, including their personal bodily fluids.

It has been $6.50 an hour.

If you're wondering whether you'd heard of this before and you were on the Internet in the early 2000s, you probably have. This self-published book is a collection of blog posts from back when blogs were a new thing and went viral before Twitter existed. It used to be available on-line, but I don't believe it is any more. I ran across a mention of it about a year ago and felt like reading it again, and also belatedly tossing the author a tiny bit of money.

I'm happy to report that, unlike a lot of nostalgia trips, this one holds up. Davis's stories are still funny and the meanness fairy has not visited and made everything awful. (The same, alas, cannot be said for Acts of Gord, which is of a similar vintage but hasn't aged well.)

It's been long enough since Davis wrote her journal that I feel like I have to explain the background. Back in the days when the Internet was slow and not many people had access to it, people went to a local store to rent movies on video tapes (which had to be rewound after watching, something that customers were irritatingly bad at doing). Most of those only carried normal movies (Blockbuster was the ubiquitous chain store, now almost all closed), but a few ventured into the far more lucrative, but more challenging, business of renting porn. Some of those were dedicated adult stores; others, like the one that Davis worked at, carried a mix of regular movies and, in a separate part of the store, porn. Prior to the days of ubiquitous fast Internet, getting access to video porn required going into one of those stores and handing lurid video tape covers and money to a human being who would give you your rented videos. That was a video clerk.

There is now a genre of web sites devoted to stories about working in retail and the bizarre, creepy, abusive, or just strange things that customers do (Not Always Right is probably the best known). Davis's journal predated all of that, but is in the same genre. I find most of those sites briefly interesting and then get bored with them, but I had no trouble reading this (short) book cover to cover even though I'd read the entries on the Internet years ago.

One reason for that is that Davis is a good story-teller. She was (and I believe still is) an improv comedian, and it shows. Many of the entries are stories about specific customers, who Davis gives memorable code names (Mr. Gentle, Mr. Cheekbones, Mr. Creaky) and describes quickly and efficiently. She has a good sense of timing and keeps the tone at "people are amazingly strange and yet somehow fascinating" rather than slipping too far into the angry ranting that, while justified, makes a lot of stories of retail work draining to read.

That said, I think a deeper reason why this collection works is that a porn store does odd things to the normal balance of power between a retail employee and their customers. Most retail stories are from stores deeply embedded in the "customer is always right" mentality, where the employee is essentially powerless and has to take everything the customer dishes out with a smile. The stories told by retail employees are a sort of revenge, re-asserting the employee's humanity by making fun of the customer. But renting porn is not like a typical retail transaction.

A video clerk learns things about a customer that perhaps no one else in their life knows, shifting some of the vulnerability back to the customer. The store Davis worked at was one of the most comprehensive in the area, and in a relatively rare business, so the store management knew they were going to get business anyway and were not obsessed with keeping every customer happy. They had regular trouble with customers (the 5% of retail customers who get weird in a porn store often get weird in disgusting and illegal ways) and therefore empowered the store clerks to be more aggressive about getting rid of unwanted business. That meant the power balance between the video clerks and the customers, while still not exactly equal, was more complicated and balanced in ways that make for better (and less monotonously depressing) stories.

There are, of course, stories of very creepy customers here, as well as frank thoughts on porn and people's consumption habits from a self-described first-amendment feminist who tries to take the over-the-top degrading subject matter of most porn with equanimity but sometimes fails. But those are mixed with stories of nicer customers, which gain something that's hard to describe from the odd intimacy of knowing little about them except part of their sex life. There are also some more-typical stories of retail work that benefit from the incongruity between their normality and the strangeness of the product and customers. Davis's account of opening the store by playing Aqua mix tapes is glorious. (Someone else who likes Aqua for much the same reason that I do!)

Content warning for public masturbation, sex-creep customers, and lots of descriptions of the sorts of degrading (and sexist and racist) sex acts portrayed on porn video boxes, of course. But if that doesn't drive you away, these are still-charming and still-fascinating slice-of-life stories about retail work in a highly unusual business that thrived for one brief moment in time and effectively no longer exists. Recommended, particularly if you want the nostalgia factor of re-reading something you vaguely remember from twenty years ago.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2020-04-06 from thread modified 2008-08-13