Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2022-01-19: DocKnot 7.01

Continuing to flush out bugs in the recent changes to my static web site generator.

I had missed some Unicode implications for how output from external programs was handled, and also missed Unicode decoding of the output from Pod::Thread, since Pod::Simple always encodes its output even if that output is to a scalar. I also missed an implication for how symlinks were handled in Path::Iterator::Rule, causing docknot spin to fail to copy files into the output tree that were symlinks in the input tree. Both of those bugs are fixed in this release.

I also fixed a minor output issue from the \size command, which was using SI units when it meant IEC units.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the DocKnot distribution page.

2022-01-17: DocKnot 7.00

The recent 6.01 release of my static web site generator was kind of a buggy mess, which uncovered a bunch of holes in my test suite and immediately turned up problems when I tried to use it to rebuild my actual web site. Most of the problems were Unicode-related; this release hopefully sorts out Unicode properly and handles it consistently.

Other bugs fixed include processing of old-style pointers in a spin input tree, several rather obvious bugs in the new docknot release command, and a few long-standing issues with docknot dist that should make its results more consistent and reliable.

I also got on a roll and finished the Path::Tiny transition in DocKnot, so now (nearly) all paths are internally represented as Path::Tiny objects. This meant changing some APIs, hence the version bump to 7.00.

For anyone who still does a lot of Perl, I highly recommend the Path::Tiny module. If you also write Python, you will be reminded (in a good way) of Python's pathlib module, which I now use whenever possible.

You can get the latest version of DocKnot from CPAN or from its distribution page.

2022-01-15: Review: The Brightest Fell

Review: The Brightest Fell, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #11
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2017
ISBN 0-698-18352-5
Format Kindle
Pages 353

This is the eleventh book in the October Daye urban fantasy series, not counting various novellas and side stories. You really cannot start here, particularly given how many ties this book has to the rest of the series.

I would like to claim there's some sort of plan or strategy in how I read long series, but there are just a lot of books to read and then I get distracted and three years have gone by. The advantage of those pauses, at least for writing reviews, is that I return to the series with fresh eyes and more points of comparison. My first thought this time around was "oh, these books aren't that well written, are they," followed shortly thereafter by staying up past midnight reading just one more chapter.

Plot summaries are essentially impossible this deep into a series, when even the names of the involved characters can be a bit of a spoiler. What I can say is that we finally get the long-awaited confrontation between Toby and her mother, although it comes in an unexpected (and unsatisfying) form. This fills in a few of the gaps in Toby's childhood, although there's not much there we didn't already know. It fills in considerably more details about the rest of Toby's family, most notably her pure-blood sister.

The writing is indeed not great. This series is showing some of the signs I've seen in other authors (Mercedes Lackey, for instance) who wrote too many books per year to do each of them justice. I have complained before about McGuire's tendency to reuse the same basic plot structure, and this instance seemed particularly egregious. The book opens with Toby enjoying herself and her found family, feeling like they can finally relax. Then something horrible happens to people she cares about, forcing her to go solve the problem. This in theory requires her to work out some sort of puzzle, but in practice is fairly linear and obvious because, although I love Toby as a character, she can't puzzle her way out of a wet sack. Everything is (mostly) fixed in the end, but there's a high cost to pay, and everyone ends the book with more trauma.

The best books of this series are the ones where McGuire manages to break with this formula. This is not one of them. The plot is literally on magical rails, since The Brightest Fell skips even pretending that Toby is an actual detective (although it establishes that she's apparently still working as one in the human world, a detail that I find baffling) and gives her a plot compass that tells her where to go. I don't really mind this since I read this series for emotional catharsis rather than Toby's ingenuity, but alas that's mostly missing here as well. There is a resolution of sorts, but it's the partial and conditional kind that doesn't include awful people getting their just deserts.

This is also not a good series entry for world-building. McGuire has apparently been dropping hints for this plot back at least as far as Ashes of Honor. I like that sort of long-term texture to series like this, but the unfortunate impact on this book is a lot of revisiting of previous settings and very little in the way of new world-building. The bit with the pixies was very good; I wanted more of that, not the trip to an Ashes of Honor setting to pick up a loose end, or yet another significant scene in Borderland Books.

As an aside, I wish authors would not put real people into their books as characters, even when it's with permission as I'm sure it was here. It's understandable to write a prominent local business into a story as part of the local color (although even then I would rather it not be a significant setting in the story), but having the actual owner and staff show up, even in brief cameos, feels creepy and weird to me. It also comes with some serious risks because real people are not characters under the author's control. (All the content warnings for that link, which is a news story from three years after this book was published.)

So, with all those complaints, why did I stay up late reading just one more chapter? Part of the answer is that McGuire writes very grabby books, at least for me. Toby is a full-speed-ahead character who is constantly making things happen, and although the writing in this book had more than the usual amount of throat-clearing and rehashing of the same internal monologue, the plot still moved along at a reasonable clip. Another part of the answer is that I am all-in on these characters: I like them, I want them to be happy, and I want to know what's going to happen next. It helps that McGuire has slowly added characters over the course of a long series and given most of them a chance to shine. It helps even more that I like all of them as people, and I like the style of banter that McGuire writes. Also, significant screen time for the Luidaeg is never a bad thing.

I think this was the weakest entry in the series in a while. It wrapped up some loose ends that I wasn't that interested in wrapping up, introduced a new conflict that it doesn't resolve, spent a bunch of time with a highly unpleasant character I didn't enjoy reading about, didn't break much new world-building ground, and needed way more faerie court politics. But some of the banter was excellent, the pixies and the Luidaeg were great, and I still care a lot about these characters. I am definitely still reading.

Followed by Nights and Silences.

Continuing a pattern from Once Broken Faith, the ebook version of The Brightest Fell includes a bonus novella. (I'm not sure if it's also present in the print version.)

"Of Things Unknown": As is usual for the short fiction in this series, this is a side story from the perspective of someone other than Toby. In this case, that's April O'Leary, first introduced all the way back in A Local Habitation, and the novella focuses on loose ends from that novel. Loose ends are apparently the theme of this book.

This was... fine. I like April, I enjoyed reading a story from her perspective, and I'm always curious to see how Toby looks from the outside. I thought the plot was strained and the resolution a bit too easy and painless, and I was not entirely convinced by April's internal thought processes. It felt like McGuire left some potential for greater plot complications on the table here, and I found it hard to shake the impression that this story was patching an error that McGuire felt she'd made in the much earlier novel. But it was nice to have an unambiguously happy ending after the more conditional ending of the main story. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-01-15: DocKnot 6.01

This release of my static site generator and software release manager finishes incorporating the last piece of my old release script that I was still using: copying a new software release into a software distribution archive tree, updating symlinks, updating the version database used to generate my web pages, and archiving the old version.

I also added a new docknot update-spin command that updates an input tree for the spin static site generator, fixing any deprecations or changes in the input format. Currently, all this does is convert the old-style *.rpod pointer files to new-style *.spin pointers.

This release also has a few other minor bug fixes, including for an embarrassing bug that required docknot spin be run from a package source tree because it tried to load per-package metadata (even though it doesn't use that data).

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the DocKnot distribution page.

2022-01-10: Review: Hench

Review: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

Publisher William Morrow
Copyright September 2020
ISBN 0-06-297859-4
Format Kindle
Pages 403

Anna Tromedlov is a hench, which means she does boring things for terrible people for money. Supervillains need a lot of labor to keep their bases and criminal organizations running, and they get that labor the same way everyone else does: through temporary agencies. Anna does spreadsheets, preferably from home on her couch.

On-site work was terrifying and she tried to avoid it, but the lure of a long-term contract was too strong. The Electric Eel, despite being a creepy sleazeball, seemed to be a manageable problem. He needed some support at a press conference, which turns out to be code for being a diversity token in front of the camera, but all she should have to do is stand there.

That's how Anna ends up holding the mind control device to the head of the mayor's kid when the superheroes attack, followed shortly by being thrown across the room by Supercollider.

Left with a complex fracture of her leg that will take months to heal, a layoff notice and a fruit basket from Electric Eel's company, and a vaguely menacing hospital conversation with the police (including Supercollider in a transparent disguise) in which it's made clear to her that she is mistaken about Supercollider's hand-print on her thigh, Anna starts wondering just how much damage superheroes have done. The answer, when analyzed using the framework for natural disasters, is astonishingly high. Anna's resulting obsession with adding up the numbers leads to her starting a blog, the Injury Report, with a growing cult following. That, in turn, leads to a new job and a sponsor: the mysterious supervillain Leviathan.

To review this book properly, I need to talk about Watchmen.

One of the things that makes superheroes interesting culturally is the straightforwardness of their foundational appeal. The archetypal superhero story is an id story: an almost pure power fantasy aimed at teenage boys. Like other pulp mass media, they reflect the prevailing cultural myths of the era in which they're told. World War II superheroes are mostly all-American boy scouts who punch Nazis. 1960s superheroes are a more complex mix of outsider misfits with a moral code and sarcastic but earnestly ethical do-gooders. The superhero genre is vast, with numerous reinterpretations, deconstructions, and alternate perspectives, but its ur-story is a good versus evil struggle of individual action, in which exceptional people use their powers for good to defeat nefarious villains.

Watchmen was not the first internal critique of the genre, but it was the one that everyone read in the 1980s and 1990s. It takes direct aim at that moral binary. The superheroes in Watchmen are not paragons of virtue (some of them are truly horrible people), and they have just as much messy entanglement with the world as the rest of us. It was superheroes re-imagined for the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, for the end of the Cold War when we were realizing how many lies about morality we had been told. But it still put superheroes and their struggles with morality at the center of the story.

Hench is a superhero story for the modern neoliberal world of reality TV and power inequality in the way that Watchmen was a superhero story for the Iran-Contra era and the end of the Cold War.

Whether our heroes have feet of clay is no longer a question. Today, a better question is whether the official heroes, the ones that are celebrated as triumphs of individual achievement, are anything but clay. Hench doesn't bother asking whether superheroes have fallen short of their ideal; that answer is obvious. What Hench asks instead is a question familiar to those living in a world full of televangelists, climate denialism, manipulative advertising, and Facebook: are superheroes anything more than a self-perpetuating scam? Has the good superheroes supposedly do ever outweighed the collateral damage? Do they care in the slightest about the people they're supposedly protecting? Or is the whole system of superheroes and supervillains a performance for an audience, one that chews up bystanders and spits them out mangled while delivering simplistic and unquestioned official morality?

This sounds like a deeply cynical premise, but Hench is not a cynical book. It is cynical about superheroes, which is not the same thing. The brilliance of Walschots's approach is that Anna has a foot in both worlds. She works for a supervillain and, over the course of the book, gains access to real power within the world of superheroic battles. But she's also an ordinary person with ordinary problems: not enough money, rocky friendships, deep anger at the injustices of the world and the way people like her are discarded, and now a disability and PTSD. Walschots perfectly balances the tension between those worlds and maintains that tension straight to the end of the book. From the supervillain world, Anna draws support, resources, and a mission, but all of the hope, true morality, and heart of this book comes from the ordinary side.

If you had the infrastructure of a supervillain at your disposal, what would you do with it?

Anna's answer is to treat superheroes as a destructive force like climate change, and to do whatever she can to drive them out of the business and thus reduce their impact on the world. The tool she uses for that is psychological warfare: make them so miserable that they'll snap and do something too catastrophic to be covered up. And the raw material for that psychological warfare is data.

That's the foot in the supervillain world. In descriptions of this book, her skills with data are often called her superpower. That's not exactly wrong, but the reason why she gains power and respect is only partly because of her data skills. Anna lives by the morality of the ordinary people world: you look out for your friends, you treat your co-workers with respect as long as they're not assholes, and you try to make life a bit better for the people around you. When Leviathan gives her the opportunity to put together a team, she finds people with skills she admires, funnels work to people who are good at it, and worries about the team dynamics. She treats the other ordinary employees of a supervillain as people, with lives and personalities and emotions and worth. She wins their respect.

Then she uses their combined skills to destroy superhero lives.

I was fascinated by the moral complexity in this book. Anna and her team do villainous things by the morality of the superheroic world (and, honestly, by the morality of most readers), including some things that result in people's deaths. By the end of the book, one could argue that Anna has been driven by revenge into becoming an unusual sort of supervillain. And yet, she treats the people around her so much better than either the heroes or the villains do. Anna is fiercely moral in all the ordinary person ways, and that leads directly to her becoming a villain in the superhero frame. Hench doesn't resolve that conflict; it just leaves it on the page for the reader to ponder.

The best part about this book is that it's absurdly grabby, unpredictable, and full of narrative momentum. Walschots's pacing kept me up past midnight a couple of times and derailed other weekend plans so that I could keep reading. I had no idea where the plot was going even at the 80% mark. The ending is ambiguous and a bit uncomfortable, just like the morality throughout the book, but I liked it the more I thought about it.

One caveat, unfortunately: Hench has some very graphic descriptions of violence and medical procedures, and there's an extended torture sequence with some incredibly gruesome body horror that I thought went on far too long and was unnecessary to the plot. If you're a bit squeamish like I am, there are some places where you'll want to skim, including one sequence that's annoyingly intermixed with important story developments.

Otherwise, though, this is a truly excellent book. It has a memorable protagonist with a great first-person voice, an epic character arc of empowerment and revenge, a timely take on the superhero genre that uses it for sharp critique of neoliberal governance and reality TV morality, a fascinatingly ambiguous and unsettled moral stance, a gripping and unpredictable plot, and some thoroughly enjoyable competence porn. I had put off reading it because I was worried that it would be too cynical or dark, but apart from the unnecessary torture scene, it's not at all. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2022-01-08: Review: Redemptor

Review: Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko

Series Raybearer #2
Publisher Amulet Books
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-68335-720-5
Format Kindle
Pages 328

Redemptor is the second half of a duology that started with Raybearer. You could read the first book without the second, but reading the second without the first will not make much sense. I'm going to be a bit elliptical in my plot description since there's a lot of potential for spoilers for the first book.

Tarisai has reached a point of stability and power, but she's also committed herself to a goal, one that will right a great historical and ongoing injustice. She's also now in a position to both notice and potentially correct numerous other injustices in the structure of her society, and plans to start by defending those closest to her. But in the midst of her opening gambit to save someone she believes is unjustly imprisoned, the first murderous undead child appears, attacking both Tarisai's fragile sense of security and her self-esteem and self-worth. Before long, she's drowning in feelings of inadequacy and isolation, and her grand plans for reordering the world have turned into an anxiety loop of self-flagellating burnout.

I so much wanted to like this book. Argh.

I think I see what Ifueko was aiming for, and it's a worthy topic for a novel. In Raybearer, Tarisai got the sort of life that she previously could only imagine, but she's also the sort of person who shoulders massive obligations. Imposter syndrome, anxiety, overwork, and burnout are realistic risks, and are also important topics to write about. There are some nicely subtle touches buried in this story, such as the desire of her chosen family to have her present and happy without entirely understanding why she isn't, and without seeing the urgency that she sees in the world's injustice. The balancing act of being effective without overwhelming oneself is nearly impossible, and Tarisai has very little preparation or knowledgeable support.

But this story is told with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and in a way that felt forced rather than arising naturally from the characters. If the point of emphasis had been a disagreement with her closest circle over when and how much the world should be changed, I think this would be a better book. In the places where this drives the plot, it is a better book. But Ifueko instead externalizes anxiety and depression in the form of obviously manipulative demonic undead children who (mostly) only Tarisai can see, and it's just way too much. Her reactions are manipulated and sometimes externally imposed in a way that turns what should have been a character vs. self plot into a character vs. character plot in which the protagonist is very obviously making bad decisions and the antagonist is an uninteresting cliche.

The largest problem I had with this book is that I found it thuddingly obvious, in part because the plot felt like it was on narrowly constrained rails to ensure it hit all of the required stops. When the characters didn't want the plot to go somewhere, they're sidelined, written out of the story, or otherwise forcibly overridden. Tarisai has to feel isolated, so all the people who, according to the events of the previous book and the established world-building rules, would not let her be isolated are pushed out of her life. When this breaks the rules of magic in this world, those rules are off-handedly altered. Characters that could have had their own growth arcs after Raybearer become static and less interesting, since there's no room for them in the plot. Instead, we get all new characters, which gives Redemptor a bit of a cast size problem.

Underneath this, there is an occasional flash of great writing. Ifueko chooses to introduce a dozen mostly-new characters to an already large cast and I was still able to mostly keep them straight, which shows real authorial skill. She is very good with short bursts of characterization to make new characters feel fresh and interesting. Even the most irritating of the new characters (Crocodile, whose surprise twist I thought was obvious and predictable) is an interesting archetype to explore in a book about activism and activist burnout. I can see some pieces of a better book here. But I desperately wanted something to surprise me, for Tarisai or one of the other characters to take the plot in some totally unexpected direction the way that Raybearer did. It never happened.

That leads directly to another complaint: I liked Raybearer in part because of the freshness of a different mythological system and a different storytelling tradition than what we typically get in fantasy novels. I was hoping for more of the same in Redemptor, which meant I was disappointed when I got a mix of Christianity and Greek mythology.

As advertised by Raybearer, the central mythological crisis of Redemptor concerns the Underworld. This doesn't happen until about 80% into the book (which is also a bit of a problem; the ending felt rushed given how central it was to the plot), so I can't talk about it in detail without spoiling it. But what I think I can say is that unfortunately the religious connotations of the title are not an accident. Rather than something novel that builds on the excellent idea of the emi-ehran spirit animal, there is a lot of Christ symbolism mixed with an underworld that could have come from an Orpheus retelling. There's nothing inherently wrong with this (although the Christian bits landed poorly for me), but it wasn't what I was hoping for from the mythology of this world.

I rarely talk much about the authors in fiction reviews. I prefer to let books stand on their own without trying too hard to divine the author's original intentions. But here, I think it's worth acknowledging Ifueko's afterword in which she says that writing Redemptor in the middle of a pandemic, major depression, and the George Floyd protests was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. I've seen authors write similar things in afterwords when the effect on the book was minimal or invisible, but I don't think that was the case here. Redemptor is furious, anxious, depressed, and at points despairing, and while it's okay for novels to be all of those things when it's under the author's control, here they felt like emotions that were imposed on the story from outside.

Raybearer was an adventure story about found family and ethics that happened to involve a lot of politics. Redemptor is a story about political activism and governance, but written in a universe whose bones are set up for an adventure story. The mismatch bothered me throughout; not only did these not feel like the right characters to tell this story with, but the politics were too simple, too morally clear-cut, and too amenable to easy solutions for a good political fantasy. Raybearer focused its political attention on colonialism. That's a deep enough topic by itself to support a duology (or more), but Redemptor adds in property rights, land reform, economic and social disparity, unfair magical systems, and a grab bag of other issues, and it overwhelms the plot. There isn't space and time to support solutions with sufficient complexity to satisfyingly address the problems. Ifueko falls back on benevolent dictator solutions, and I understand why, but that's not the path to a satisfying resolution in an overtly political fantasy.

This is the sort of sequel that leaves me wondering if I can recommend reading the first book and not the second, and that makes me sad. Redemptor is not without its occasional flashes of brilliance, but I did not have fun reading this book and I can't recommend the experience. That said, I think this is a book problem, not an author problem; I will happily read Ifueko's next novel, and I suspect it will be much better.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2022-01-02: Review: Crashed

Review: Crashed, by Adam Tooze

Publisher Penguin Books
Copyright 2018
Printing 2019
ISBN 0-525-55880-2
Format Kindle
Pages 615

The histories of the 2008 financial crisis that I have read focus almost exclusively on the United States. They also stop after the bank rescue and TARP or, if they press on into the aftermath, focus on the resulting damage to the US economy and the widespread pain of falling housing prices and foreclosure. Crashed does neither, instead arguing that 2008 was a crisis of European banks as much as American banks. It extends its history to cover the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, treating it as a continuation of the same crisis in a different guise. In the process, Tooze makes a compelling argument that one can draw a clear, if wandering, line from the moral revulsion at the propping up of the international banking system to Brexit and Trump.

Qualifications first, since they are important for this type of comprehensive and, in places, surprising and counterintuitive history. Adam Tooze is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University and the director of its European Institute. His previous books have won multiple awards, and Crashed won the Lionel Gelber Prize for non-fiction on foreign policy. That it won a prize in that topic, rather than history or economics, is a hint at Tooze's chosen lens.

The first half of the book is the lead-up and response to the crisis provoked by the collapse in value of securitized US mortgages and leading to the failure of Lehman Brothers, the failure in all but name of AIG, and a massive bank rescue. The financial instruments at the center of the crisis are complex and difficult to understand, and Tooze provides only brief explanation. This therefore may not be the best first book on the crisis; for that, I would still recommend Bethany McClean and Joe Nocera's All the Devils Are Here, although it's hard to beat Michael Lewis's storytelling in The Big Short. Tooze is not interested in dwelling on a blow-by-blow account of the crisis and initial response, and some of his account feels perfunctory. He is instead interested in describing its entangled global sweep.

The new detail I took from the first half of Crashed is the depth of involvement of the European banks in what is often portrayed as a US crisis. Tooze goes into more specifics than other accounts on the eurodollar market, run primarily through the City of London, and the vast dollar-denominated liabilities of European banks. When the crisis struck, the breakdown of liquidity markets left those banks with no source of dollar funding to repay dollar-denominated short-term loans. The scale of dollar borrowing by European banks was vast, dwarfing the currency reserves or trade surpluses of their home countries. An estimate from the Bank of International Settlements put the total dollar funding needs for European banks at more than $2 trillion.

The institution that saved the European banks was the United States Federal Reserve. This was an act of economic self-protection, not largesse; in the absence of dollar liquidity, the fire sale of dollar assets by European banks in a desperate attempt to cover their loans would have exacerbated the market crash. But it's remarkable in its extent, and in how deeply this contradicts the later public political position that 2008 was an American recession caused by American banks. 52% of the mortgage-backed securities purchased by the Federal Reserve in its quantitative easing policies (popularly known as QE1, QE2, and QE3) were sold by foreign banks. Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse unloaded more securities on the Fed than any American bank by a significant margin. And when that wasn't enough, the Fed went farther and extended swap lines to major national banks, providing them dollar liquidity that they could then pass along to their local institutions.

In essence, in Tooze's telling, the US Federal Reserve became the reserve bank for the entire world, preventing a currency crisis by providing dollars to financial systems both foreign and domestic, and it did so with a remarkable lack of scrutiny. Its swap lines avoided public review until 2010, when Bloomberg won a court fight to extract the records. That allowed the European banks that benefited to hide the extent of their exposure.

In Europe, the bullish CEOs of Deutsche Bank and Barclays claimed exceptional status because they avoided taking aid from their national governments. What the Fed data reveal is the hollowness of those boasts. The banks might have avoided state-sponsored recapitalization, but every major bank in the entire world was taking liquidity assistance on a grand scale from its local central bank, and either directly or indirectly by way of the swap lines from the Fed.

The emergency steps taken by Timothy Geithner in the Treasury Department were nearly as dramatic as those of the Federal Reserve. Without regard for borders, and pushing the boundary of their legal authority, they intervened massively in the world (not just the US) economy to save the banking and international finance system. And it worked.

One of the benefits of a good history is to turn stories about heroes and villains into more nuanced information about motives and philosophies. I came away from Sheila Bair's account of the crisis furious at Geithner's protection of banks from any meaningful consequences for their greed. Tooze's account, and analysis, agrees with Bair in many respects, but Bair was continuing a personal fight and Tooze has more space to put Geithner into context. That context tells an interesting story about the shape of political economics in the 21st century.

Tooze identifies Geithner as an institutionalist. His goal was to keep the system running, and he was acutely aware of what would happen if it failed. He therefore focused on the pragmatic and the practical: the financial system was about to collapse, he did whatever was necessary to keep it working, and that effort was successful. Fairness, fault, and morals were treated as irrelevant.

This becomes more obvious when contrasted with the eurozone crisis, which started with a Greek debt crisis in the wake of the recession triggered by the 2008 crisis. Greece is tiny by the standards of the European economy, so at first glance there is no obvious reason why its debt crisis should have perturbed the financial system. Under normal circumstances, its lenders should have been able to absorb such relatively modest losses. But the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis was not normal circumstances, particularly in Europe. The United States had moved aggressively to recapitalize its banks using the threat of compensation caps and government review of their decisions. The European Union had not; European countries had done very little, and their banks were still in a fragile state.

Worse, the European Central Bank had sent signals that the market interpreted as guaranteeing the safety of all European sovereign debt equally, even though this was explicitly ruled out by the Lisbon Treaty. If Greece defaulted on its debt, not only would that be another shock to already-precarious banks, it would indicate to the market that all European debt was not equal and other countries may also be allowed to default. As the shape of the Greek crisis became clearer, the cost of borrowing for all of the economically weaker European countries began rising towards unsustainable levels.

In contrast to the approach taken by the United States government, though, Europe took a moralistic approach to the crisis. Jean-Claude Trichet, then president of the European Central Bank, held the absolute position that defaulting on or renegotiating the Greek debt was unthinkable and would not be permitted, even though there was no realistic possibility that Greece would be able to repay. He also took a conservative hard line on the role of the ECB, arguing that it could not assist in this crisis. (Tooze is absolutely scathing towards Trichet, who comes off in this account as rigidly inflexible, volatile, and completely irrational.)

Germany's position, represented by Angela Merkel, was far more realistic: Greece's debt should be renegotiated and the creditors would have to accept losses. This is, in Tooze's account, clearly correct, and indeed is what eventually happened. But the problem with Merkel's position was the potential fallout. The German government was still in denial about the health of its own banks, and political opinion, particularly in Merkel's coalition, was strongly opposed to making German taxpayers responsible for other people's debts. Stopping the progression of a Greek default to a loss of confidence in other European countries would require backstopping European sovereign debt, and Merkel was not willing to support this.

Tooze is similarly scathing towards Merkel, but I'm not sure it's warranted by his own account. She seemed, even in his account, boxed in by domestic politics and the tight constraints of the European political structure. Regardless, even after Trichet's term ended and he was replaced by the far more pragmatic Mario Draghi, Germany and Merkel continued to block effective action to relieve Greece's debt burden. As a result, the crisis lurched from inadequate stopgap to inadequate stopgap, forcing crippling austerity, deep depressions, and continued market instability while pretending unsustainable debt would magically become payable through sufficient tax increases and spending cuts. US officials such as Geithner, who put morals and arguably legality aside to do whatever was needed to save the system, were aghast.

One takeaway from this is that expansionary austerity is the single worst macroeconomic idea that anyone has ever had.

In the summer of 2012 [the IMF's] staff revisited the forecasts they had made in the spring of 2010 as the eurozone crisis began and discovered that they had systematically underestimated the negative impact of budget cuts. Whereas they had started the crisis believing that the multiplier was on average around 0.5, they now concluded that from 2010 forward it had been in excess of 1. This meant that cutting government spending by 1 euro, as the austerity programs demanded, would reduce economic activity by more than 1 euro. So the share of the state in economic activity actually increased rather than decreased, as the programs presupposed. It was a staggering admission. Bad economics and faulty empirical assumptions had led the IMF to advocate a policy that destroyed the economic prospects for a generation of young people in Southern Europe.

Another takeaway, though, is central to Tooze's point in the final section of the book: the institutionalists in the United States won the war on financial collapse via massive state interventions to support banks and the financial system, a model that Europe grudgingly had to follow when attempting to reject it caused vast suffering while still failing to stabilize the financial system. But both did so via actions that were profoundly and obviously unfair, and only questionably legal. Bankers suffered few consequences for their greed and systematic mismanagement, taking home their normal round of bonuses while millions of people lost their homes and unemployment rates for young men in some European countries exceeded 50%. In Europe, the troika's political pressure against Greece and Italy was profoundly anti-democratic.

The financial elite achieved their goal of saving the financial system. It could have failed, that failure would have been catastrophic, and their actions are defensible on pragmatic grounds. But they completely abandoned the moral high ground in the process.

The political forces opposed to centrist neoliberalism attempted to step into that moral gap. On the Left, that came in the form of mass protest movements, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and parties such as Syriza in Greece. The Left, broadly, took the moral side of debtors, holding that the primary pain of the crisis should instead be born by the wealthy creditors who were more able to absorb it. The Right by contrast, in the form of the Tea Party movement inside the Republican Party in the United States and the nationalist parties in Europe, broadly blamed debtors for taking on excessive debt and focused their opposition on use of taxpayer dollars to bail out investment banks and other institutions of the rich. Tooze correctly points out that the Right's embrace of racist nationalism and incoherent demagoguery obscures the fact that their criticism of the elite center has real merit and is partly shared by the Left.

As Tooze sketches out, the elite centrist consensus held in most of Europe, beating back challenges from both the Left and the Right, although it faltered in the UK, Poland, and Hungary. In the United States, the Democratic Party similarly solidified around neoliberalism and saw off its challenges from the Left. The Republican Party, however, essentially abandoned the centrist position, embracing the Right. That left the Democratic Party as the sole remaining neoliberal institutionalist party, supplemented by a handful of embattled Republican centrists.

Wall Street and its money swung to the Democratic Party, but it was deeply unpopular on both the Left and the Right and this shift may have hurt them more than helped. The Democrats, by not abandoning the center, bore the brunt of the residual anger over the bank bailout and subsequent deep recession. Tooze sees in that part of the explanation for Trump's electoral victory over Hilary Clinton.

This review is already much too long, and I haven't even mentioned Tooze's clear explanation of the centrality of treasury bonds to world finances, or his discussions of Russian and Ukraine, China, or Brexit, all of which I thought were excellent. This is not only an comprehensive history of both of the crises and international politics of the time period. It is also a thought-provoking look at how drastic of interventions are required to keep the supposed free market working, who is left to suffer after those interventions, and the political consequences of the choice to prioritize the stability of a deeply inequitable and unsafe financial system.

At least in the United States, there is now a major political party that is likely to oppose even mundane international financial institutions, let alone another major intervention. The neoliberal center is profoundly weakened. But nothing has been done to untangle the international financial system, and little has been done to reduce its risk. The world will go into the next financial challenge still suffering from a legitimacy crisis. Given the miserly, condescending, and dismissive treatment of the suffering general populace after moving heaven and earth to save the banking system, that legitimacy crisis is arguably justified, but an uncontrolled crash of the financial system is not likely to be any kinder to the average citizen than it is to the investment bankers.

Crashed is not the best-written book at a sentence-by-sentence level. Tooze's prose is choppy and a bit awkward, and his paragraphs occasionally wander away from a clear point. But the content is excellent and thought-provoking, filling in large sections of the crisis picture that I had not previously been aware of and making a persuasive argument for its continuing effects on current politics. Recommended if you're not tired of reading about financial crises.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-01-01: 2021 Book Reading in Review

In 2021, I finished and reviewed 43 books, yet another (tiny) increase over 2020 and once again the best year for reading since 2012 (which was the last time I averaged 5 books a month). The year got off to a good reading start and closed strong, but once again had sags in the spring and summer when I got behind on reviews and fell out of the habit of reading daily. This year, at least, the end-of-year catch-up was less dramatic; all but two of the books I reviewed in December were finished in December.

The best books I read this year were Naomi Novik's magic boarding school fantasies A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, which I rated a 9 and a 10 respectively. Memorable characters, some great world-building, truly exceptional characterization of a mother/daughter relationship, adroit avoidance of genre pitfalls, and two of my favorite fictional tropes: for me, this series has it all. The third and concluding book of that series is my most anticipated book of 2022.

My large reviewing project of this year was a complete re-read of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, starting with my 1000th published review. As you can see, I have a lot of opinions about those books; they were a huge part of my childhood, and I'd been talking about writing those reviews for years. They were the longest reviews I've published and, unusually for me, full-spoiler reviews, and they took up a lot of my reviewing energy for the year. Of the seven books in the series, I was pleased to see that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician's Nephew held up and are still very much worth reading. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in particular, is an exceptional sense-of-wonder fantasy novel with a story structure that remains rare.

The best non-fiction book I read in 2021 is a prosaic choice that's only of specialist interest, but JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is precisely the type of programming language manual that I look for when learning a new language. It taught me what I was hoping to learn when I picked it up.

Honorable mentions are a crowded field this year; I read a lot of books that were good but not great. Worth calling out are Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to the excellent A Memory Called Empire), if for nothing else than Three Seagrass; Micaiah Johnson's impressive debut The Space Between Worlds; and Becky Chambers's last Wayfarer novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. On the non-fiction side, Allie Brosh's Solutions and Other Problems is a much harder and sadder book than the exceptional Hyperbole and a Half, but it was still very much worth reading.

This was another year spent reading mostly recently-published books, without much backfill of either award winners or my existing library. In 2022, I hope to balance keeping up with new books of interest with returning to series I left unfinished, award lists I left only partly explored, and books I snapped up in earlier years and then never got around to.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2021-12-30: Review: The Space Between Worlds

Review: The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

Publisher Del Rey
Copyright 2020
ISBN 0-593-13506-7
Format Kindle
Pages 327

Cara is valuable because, in most places, she's dead.

In the world of Earth Zero, as the employees of the Eldridge Institute call it, a scientific genius named Adam Bosch developed the ability to travel between parallel worlds. This ability is not limitless, however. One restriction is that the parallel world has to be very close; large divergences of history render them unreachable. The other restriction is that anyone who attempts to travel to a world in which the local version of themselves is still alive is rejected: physically mangled in ways that result in a very short remaining lifespan.

Earth Zero has not found a way to send information between worlds without sending people there physically to collect it. Those people are traversers, and their value lies in how many of their parallel selves have died. Each death in one of the 380 worlds Earth Zero can reach means another world that person can traverse to. They are the transportation system for a network of information-gathering nodes, whose collected contents are mined for stock tips, political cautions, and other information of value. Cara is dead on 372 worlds, and thus provides valuable savings on employee salaries.

These related worlds are not so much post-apocalyptic as a continuation of current wealth disparity trends, although it's also clear that the climate has gotten worse. The Eldridge Institute, which controls traversing, is based in Wiley City, a walled, climate-controlled arcology of skyscrapers with a dome that filters out the dangerous sun. Its citizens are rich, with the best social support that money can buy. They are not interested in immigrants, unless they are extremely valuable.

Cara is not from Wiley City. She is from Ashtown, the encampment in the desert outside of Wiley City's walls. That's part of the explanation for her death rate; in Ashtown, there are only a few ways to survive, particularly if one is not from the stiflingly religious Rurals, and most of them are dependent on being in the good graces of the local warlord and his Mad-Max-style enforcers. Being a traverser gets Cara out of Ashtown and into Wiley City, but not as a citizen, although that's dangled vaguely as a possible future prize. She's simply an employee, on a work permit, who enjoys the comforts of Wiley City for exactly as long as she's useful. Meanwhile, she juggles the demands of her job, her attraction to her watcher Dell, and her family in Ashtown. She is profoundly, aggressively cynical.

Cara is also not precisely who people think she is.

The Space Between Worlds pulls off a beautifully elegant combination of two science fiction subgenres: parallel universes and time travel. Both have been part of science fiction for decades, but normally parallel universes are substantially different from each other. Major historical events go differently, Nazis win World War II, Spock has a goatee, etc. Minor deviations are more often the subject of time travel stories, as travelers attempt to tweak the past and influence the future. Johnson instead provides the minor variations and small divergences of time travel stories in a parallel world framework, with no actual time travel involved or possible. The resulting story shows the same ripple effect of small differences, but the future remains unwritten and unconstrained, which avoids the stiflingly closed feeling of most time travel plots.

Against that backdrop is set a story of corporate and personal intrigue, but one with a far deeper understanding of class and place than almost all of science fiction. Cara is not from Ashtown in the normal sense of science fiction novels written by comfortably middle-class white authors about protagonists from the wrong side of the tracks, who show their merit and then never look back. Cara is from Ashtown in a way that means she misses the taste of its dirt and understands its people and feels seen there. Wiley City knows very well that she's from Ashtown, and doesn't let her forget it.

This type of ambiguous relationship with place and wealth, and deep connection to where one comes from, is so rare in science fiction, and it's beautifully written here. Cara wants to be in Wiley City over the alternative; the potential loss of her job is a real threat. But at the same time she is not at home there, because she is not visible there. Everything is slightly off, she has no one she can really talk to, and her reactions don't quite fit. No one understands her the way that her family in Ashtown does. And yet, by living in Wiley City, she is becoming less at home in Ashtown as well. She is becoming an outsider.

It takes about 70 pages for the story in The Space Between Worlds to really get started. Those first 70 pages is very important background information that the rest of the story builds on, but they weren't that engrossing. Once the story kicks into gear, though, it's a tense, complicated story that I had a hard time predicting and an even harder time putting down. It's not perfect (more on that in a moment), but Johnson weaves together Cara's sense of place, her family connections, her sense of self, and her internal moral compass to create a memorable protagonist in a page-turning plot with a satisfying payoff. She uses our ability to look in on several versions of each character to give them additional satisfying heft and depth. Esther, Cara's highly religious sister, is the most delightful character in this book, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who usually doesn't like highly religious characters.

I do have some world-building quibbles, and came up with more when I mulled over the book after finishing it, so you may need to strengthen your suspension of disbelief. The passive information gathering via traversing made a lot of sense; the bulk import of raw materials via the industrial hatch makes less sense given the constraints of the world. (Who is loading those materials into the other side? Or are they somehow traversing them directly out of the ground? Wouldn't someone notice?) The plot also partly hinges on a bit of lost technology that is extremely difficult to square with the rest of the setting, and felt like a transparent justification for introducing Mad Max elements into the setting.

The quibble I noticed the most may be unavoidable given the setting: alternate worlds with slightly different versions of the same characters creates a potential explosion in cast size, which Johnson deals with by focusing on the cross-world variations of a small number of characters. I like all of those characters, but it does give the story a bit of an incestuous feel. The politics of every world revolve around the same ten people, and no one else seems to matter (or usually even has a name). That said, a small cast is a better problem to have than a confusing cast. Johnson does a great job helping the reader keep all the characters and relationships straight across their alternate world variations. I didn't realize until after I finished the book how difficult that probably was, which is the sign of a job well done.

I do also have to complain about how completely dense Cara is when it comes to Dell, but I won't say any more than that to avoid spoilers. There are some things I figured out way before Cara did, though, and that made her behavior rather frustrating.

This is an extremely impressive first novel that does some lovely things with genre and even more impressive things with social class and mobility. It's a little rough in places, you have to bear with the first 70 pages, and the ending, while a fitting conclusion to the emotional arc, seemed wildly unbelievable to me given the events of the plot. But it's very much worth reading despite those flaws. Johnson respects her characters and their culture and their world, and it shows.

This was one of the best science fiction novels I read in 2021.

(Content warning for physical and emotional partner abuse.)

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-12-28: Review: A Spindle Splintered

Review: A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow

Series Fractured Fables #1
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-250-76536-6
Format Kindle
Pages 121

Zinnia Gray lives in rural Ohio and is obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, even though the fairy tale objectively sucks. That has a lot to do with having Generalized Roseville Malady, an always-fatal progressive amyloidosis caused by teratogenic industrial waste. No one with GRM has ever lived to turn twenty-two. A Spindle Splintered opens on Zinnia's twenty-first birthday.

For her birthday, her best (and only) friend Charm (Charmaine Baldwin) throws her a party at the tower. There aren't a lot of towers in Ohio; this one is a guard tower at an abandoned state penitentiary occasionally used by the local teenagers, which is not quite the image one would get from fairy tales. But Charm fills it with roses, guests wearing cheap fairy wings, beer, and even an honest-to-god spinning wheel. At the end of the night, Zinnia decides to prick her finger on the spindle on a whim. Much to both of their surprise, that's enough to trigger some form of magic in Zinnia's otherwise entirely mundane world. She doesn't fall asleep for a thousand years, but she does get dumped into an actual fairy-tale tower near an actual princess, just in time to prevent her from pricking her finger.

This is, as advertised on the tin, a fractured fairy tale, but it's one that barely introduces the Sleeping Beauty story before driving it entirely off the rails. It's also a fractured fairy tale in which the protagonist knows exactly what sort of story she's in, given that she graduated early from high school and has a college degree in folk studies. (Dying girl rule #1: move fast.) And it's one in which the fairy tale universe still has cell reception, if not chargers, which means you can text your best friend sarcastic commentary on your multiversal travels. Also, cell phone pictures of the impossibly beautiful princess.

I should mention up-front that I have not watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, I know, I'm sure it's wonderful, I just don't watch things, basically ever), which is a quite explicit inspiration for this story. I'm therefore not sure how obvious the story would be to people familiar with that movie. Even with my familiarity with the general genre of fractured fairy tales, nothing plot-wise here was all that surprising. What carries this story is the characters and the emotional core, particularly Zinnia's complex and sardonic feelings about dying and the note-perfect friendship between Zinnia and Charm.

"You know it wasn't originally a spinning wheel in the story?" I offer, because alcohol transforms me into a chatty Wikipedia page.

A Spindle Splintered is told from Zinnia's first-person perspective, and Zinnia is great. My favorite thing about Harrow's writing is the fierce and complex emotions of her characters. The overall tone is lighter than The Once and Future Witches or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but Harrow doesn't shy away from showing the reader Zinnia's internal thought process about her illness (and her eye-rolling bemusement at some of the earlier emotional stages she went through).

Dying girl rule #3 is no romance, because my entire life is one long trolley problem and I don't want to put any more bodies on the tracks. (I've spent enough time in therapy to know that this isn't "a healthy attitude towards attachment," but I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.)

There's a content warning for parents here, since Harrow spends some time on the reaction of Zinnia's parents and the complicated dance between hope, despair, smothering, and freedom that she and they had to go through. There were no easy answers and all balances were fragile, but Zinnia always finds her feet. For me, Harrow's character writing is like emotional martial arts: rolling with punches, taking falls, clear-eyed about the setbacks, but always finding a new point of stability to punch back at the world. Zinnia adds just enough teenage irreverence and impatience to blunt the hardest emotional hits. I really enjoy reading it.

The one caution I will make about that part of the story is that the focus is on Zinnia's projected lifespan and not on her illness specifically. Harrow uses it as setup to dig into how she and her parents would react to that knowledge (and I thought those parts were done well), but it's told from the perspective of "what would you do if you knew your date of death," not from the perspective of someone living with a disability. It is to some extent disability as plot device, and like the fairy tale that it's based on, it's deeply invested in the "find a cure" approach to the problem. I'm not disabled and am not the person to ask about how well a story handles disability, but I suspect this one may leave something to be desired.

I thought the opening of this story is great. Zinnia is a great first-person protagonist and the opening few chapters are overflowing with snark and acerbic commentary. Dumping Zinnia into another world but having text messaging still work is genius, and I kind of wish Harrow had made that even more central to the book. The rest of the story was good but not as good, and the ending was somewhat predictable and a bit of a deus ex machina. But the characters carried it throughout, and I will happily read more of this. Recommended, with the caveat about disability and the content warning for parents.

Followed by A Mirror Mended, which I have already pre-ordered.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-12-27: Review: Out of Office

Review: Out of Office, by Charlie Warzel & Anne Helen Petersen

Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright 2021
ISBN 0-593-32010-7
Format Kindle
Pages 260

Out of Office opens with the provocative assertion that you were not working from home during the pandemic, even if you were among the 42% of Americans who were able to work remotely.

You were, quite literally, doing your job from home.

But you weren't working from home. You were laboring in confinement and under duress. Others have described it as living at work. You were frantically tapping out an email while trying to make lunch and supervise distance learning. You were stuck alone in a cramped apartment for weeks, unable to see friends or family, exhausted, and managing a level of stress you didn't know was possible. Work became life, and life became work. You weren't thriving. You were surviving.

The stated goal of this book is to reclaim the concept of working from home, not only from the pandemic, but also from the boundary-destroying metastasis of work into non-work life. It does work towards that goal, but the description of what would be required for working from home to live up to its promise becomes a sweeping critique of the organization and conception of work, leaving it nearly as applicable to those who continue working from an office. Turns out that the main problem with working from home is the work part, not the "from home" part.

This was a fascinating book to read in conjunction with A World Without Email. Warzel and Petersen do the the structural and political analysis that I sometimes wish Newport would do more of, but as a result offer less concrete advice. Both, however, have similar diagnoses of the core problems of the sort of modern office work that could be done from home: it's poorly organized, poorly managed, and desperately inefficient. Rather than attempting to fix those problems, which is difficult, structural, and requires thought and institutional cooperation, we're compensating by working more. This both doesn't work and isn't sustainable.

Newport has a background in productivity books and a love of systems and protocols, so his focus in A World Without Email is on building better systems of communication and organization of work. Warzel and Petersen come from a background of reporting and cultural critique, so they put more focus on power imbalances and power-serving myths about the American dream. Where Newport sees an easy-to-deploy ad hoc work style that isn't fit for purpose, Warzel and Petersen are more willing to point out intentional exploitation of workers in the guise of flexibility. But they arrive at some similar conclusions. The way office work is organized is not leading to more productivity. Tools like Slack encourage the public performance of apparent productivity at the cost of the attention and focus required to do meaningful work. And the process is making us miserable.

Out of Office is, in part, a discussion of what would be required to do better work with less stress, but it also shares a goal with Newport and some (but not most) corners of productivity writing: spend less time and energy on work. The goal of Out of Office is not to get more work done. It's to work more efficiently and sustainably and thus work less. To reclaim the promise of flexibility so that it benefits the employee and not the employer. To recognize, in the authors' words, that the office can be a bully, locking people in to commute schedules and unnatural work patterns, although it also provides valuable moments of spontaneous human connection. Out of Office tries to envision a style of work that includes the office sometimes, home sometimes, time during the day to attend to personal chores or simply to take a mental break from an unnatural eight hours (or more) of continuous focus, universal design, real worker-centric flexibility, and an end to the constant productivity ratchet where faster work simply means more work for the same pay.

That's a lot of topics for a short book, and structurally this is a grab bag. Some sections will land and some won't. Loom's video messages sound like a nightmare to me, and I rolled my eyes heavily at the VR boosterism, reluctant as it may be. The section on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) was a valiant effort that at least gestures towards the dismal track record of most such efforts, but still left me unconvinced that anyone knows how to improve diversity in an existing organization without far more brute-force approaches than anyone with power is usually willing to consider. But there's enough here, and the authors move through topics quickly enough, that a section that isn't working for you will soon be over.

And some of the sections that do work are great. For example, the whole discussion of management.

Many of these companies view middle management as bloat, waste, what David Graeber would call a "bullshit job." But that's because bad management is a waste; you're paying someone more money to essentially annoy everyone around them. And the more people experience that sort of bad management, and think of it as "just the way it is," the less they're going to value management in general.

I admit to a lot of confirmation bias here, since I've been ranting about this for years, but management must be the most wide-spread professional job for which we ignore both training and capability and assume that anyone who can do any type of useful work can also manage people doing that work. It's simply not true, it creates workplaces full of horrible management, and that in turn creates a deep and unhelpful cynicism about all management.

There is still a tendency on the left to frame this problem in terms of class struggle, on the reasonable grounds that for decades under "scientific management" of manufacturing that's what it was. Managers were there to overwork workers and extract more profits for the owners, and labor unions were there to fight back against managers. But while some of this does happen in the sort of office work this book is focused on, I think Warzel and Petersen correctly point to a different cause.

"The reason she was underpaid on the team was not because her boss was cackling in the corner. It was because nobody told the boss it was their responsibility to look at the fucking spreadsheet."

We don't train managers, we have no clear expectations for what managers should do, we don't meaningfully measure their performance, we accept a high-overhead and high-chaos workstyle based on ad hoc one-to-one communication that de-emphasizes management, and many managers have never seen good management and therefore have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. The management problem for many office workers is less malicious management than incompetent management, or simply no effective management at all apart from an occasional reorg and a complicated and mind-numbing annual review form.

The last section of this book (apart from concluding letters to bosses and workers) is on community, and more specifically on extracting time and energy from work (via the roadmap in previous chapters) and instead investing it in the people around you. Much ink has been spilled about the collapse of American civic life, about how we went from a nation of joiners to a nation of isolated individual workers with weak and failing community institutions. Warzel and Petersen correctly lay some blame for this at the foot of work, and see the reorganization of work and an increase in work from home (and thus a decrease in commutes) as an opportunity to reverse that trend.

David Brooks recently filled in for Ezra Klein on his podcast and talked with University of Chicago professor Leon Kass, which I listened to shortly after reading this book. In one segment, they talked about marriage and complained about the decline in marriage rates. They were looking for causes in people's moral upbringing, in their life priorities, in the lack of aspiration for permanence in kids these days, and in any other personal or moral failing that would allow them to be smugly judgmental. It was a truly remarkable thing to witness. Neither man at any point in the conversation mentioned either money or time.

Back in the world most Americans live in, real wages have been stagnant for decades, student loan debt is skyrocketing as people desperately try to keep up with the ever-shifting requirements for a halfway-decent job, and work has expanded to fill all hours of the day, even for people who don't have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Employers have fully embraced a "flexible" workforce via layoffs, micro-optimizing work scheduling, eliminating benefits, relying on contract and gig labor, and embracing exceptional levels of employee turnover. The American worker has far less of money, time, and stability, three important foundations for marriage and family as well as participation in most other civic institutions. People like Brooks and Kass stubbornly cling to their feelings of moral superiority instead of seeing a resource crisis. Work has stolen the resources that people previously put into those other areas of their life. And it's not even using those resources effectively.

That's, in a way, a restatement of the topic of this book. Our current way of organizing work is not sustainable, healthy, or wise. Working from home may be part of a strategy for changing it. The pandemic has already heavily disrupted work, and some of those changes, including increased working from home, seem likely to stick. That provides a narrow opportunity to renegotiate our arrangement with work and try to make those changes stick.

I largely agree with the analysis, but I'm pessimistic. I think the authors are as well. We're very bad at social change, and there will be immense pressure for everything to go "back to normal." Those in the best bargaining position to renegotiate work for themselves are not in the habit of sharing that renegotiation with anyone else. But I'm somewhat heartened by how much public discussion there currently is about a more fundamental renegotiation of the rules of office work. I'm also reminded of a deceptively profound aphorism from economist Herbert Stein: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

This book is a bit uneven and is more of a collection of related thoughts than a cohesive argument, but if you are hungry for more worker-centric analyses of the dynamics of office work (inside or outside the office), I think it's worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-12-26: Pod::Thread 3.01

This Perl module converts POD to thread, the markup language processed by DocKnot. It does the heavy lifting to process POD documents for conversion to HTML for my web site.

This is a minor bug fix release that cleans up a few issues found while working on DocKnot: avoid Perl warnings when trying to generate a navigation bar when there are no headings, always output \heading even when there's no title, and treat an undef title the same as no title. There are also some minor documentation fixes.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or the Pod::Thread distribution page.

2021-12-25: DocKnot 6.00

DocKnot is my static site generator and software release management toolkit. It's what generates all of what you're reading.

DocKnot has always supported pointing to external files from inside its input tree and converting those files to HTML. This is how I include HTML conversions of POD documentation, CVS logs, text files, and other things in my web pages. This release starts the migration from an ad hoc text format for these pointers to YAML, which will permit a much richer configuration and a consistent format and extension for those external pointers.

As the first supported format, DocKnot now supports Markdown conversion (using pandoc). POD conversion is also now supported via both the new pointer file syntax and the old one, but the latter is deprecated and will be removed in a later release.

This release also includes some internal reorganization, a fix for RSS output on systems where the locale isn't set to English, and support for cutting releases from a main branch instead of a master branch.

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

2021-12-25: rra-c-util 10.1

This is my collection of utility functions, Autoconf macros, test programs, and other support infrastructure for my other packages. Changes in this release:

I go a few years between battles with perltidy, then dive in again, try to see if anything has gotten better, make a few tweaks, and leave vaguely frustrated. I've been so spoiled by Python's black that, despite knowing how much harder Perl is to parse, I keep hoping for the same thing.

If anyone knows how to get perltidy to format long method calls the way black does, namely:

$spin = App::DocKnot::Spin->new(
    { delete => 1, 'style-url' => '/~eagle/styles/' }
);

and not (as perltidy insists) either:

$spin
  = App::DocKnot::Spin->new({ delete => 1, 'style-url' => '/~eagle/styles/' });

or:

$spin = App::DocKnot::Spin->new(
  { delete => 1, 'style-url' => '/~eagle/styles/' });

or some other weirdness, I'd love to hear it.

Also this time around I discovered that changing the indent for continuation lines also changes the outdent for labels, because those are totally the same thing. A very perltidy sort of problem.

Disabling vertical alignment (which makes code formatting very unstable and fiddly because perltidy is AMAZINGLY aggressive about what it tries to vertically align) means that perltidy instead aggressively breaks all of your vertical alignment. I just want => to line up, but not the arguments to any random function call or the equal signs for every random assignment. Is this too much to ask? (To be fair, black doesn't do this either, but for some reason it feels more important to line up fat commas in Perl than hash constructors in Python.)

I should probably go file bugs against perltidy, and I admit I have not done that and thus there's no reason to expect anyone to know about my wishes. What I want seems different enough from how the program works that I'm not sure that would be appreciated, but I'm probably wrong.

Anyway, you can get the latest version of rra-c-util from its distribution page.

2021-12-24: Review: Shattered Pillars

Review: Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

Series Eternal Sky #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright March 2013
ISBN 0-7653-2755-4
Format Hardcover
Pages 333

Shattered Pillars is the second book in the Eternal Sky series, which begins with Range of Ghosts. You should read them in order, and ideally close together, since they (along with the next book) form a single continuous story.

I made the horrible mistake of reading the first book of an Elizabeth Bear series and then letting four years go by before reading the second one. Bear's trademark style is to underexplain things to the point that it can be hard to follow the plot when you remember it, let alone after more than sufficient time to forget even the general shape of the plot. I therefore spent most of this book (and a bit of Internet searching) trying to dig up pieces of my memory and reconstruct the story. Learn from my error and read the trilogy as one novel if you're going to read it.

Please, authors and publishers, put a short plot synopsis at the start of series books. No, your hints about what happened previously that you weave into the first two chapters are not as good as a one-page plot synopsis. No, I don't want to have to re-read the first book; do you have any idea how many books I own but haven't read? No, the Internet doesn't provide plot synopses for every book. Give me a couple of paragraphs and help me enjoy your fiction! Argh.

Possible spoiler warnings for the first book are in order because I don't remember the first book well enough to remember what plot details might be a spoiler.

As Shattered Pillars opens, Temur, Samarkar, and their companions have reached the western city of Asitaneh, seeking help from Temur's grandfather to rescue Edene from the Nameless. This will require breaching the Nameless fortress of Ala-Din. That, in turn, will entangle Temur and Samarkar in the politics of the western caliphate, where al-Sepehr of the Nameless is also meddling. Far to the east, from where Samarkar came, a deadly plague breaks out in the city of Tsarepheth, one that follows an eerily reliable progression and is even more sinister than it may first appear. Al-Sepehr's plans to sow chaos and war using ancient evil magic and bend the results to his favor continue apace. But one of the chess pieces he thought he controlled has partly escaped his grasp.

Behind all of this lurks the powers of Erem and its scorching, blinding, multi-sunned sky. Al-Sepehr believes he understands those powers well enough to use them. He may be wrong.

This is entirely the middle book of a trilogy, in that essentially nothing is resolved here. All the pieces in motion at the start of this book are still in motion at the end of this book. We learn a lot more about the characters, get some tantalizing and obscure glances at Erem, and end the book with a firmer idea of the potential sides and powers in play, but there is barely any plot resolution and no proper intermediate climax. This is a book to read as part of a series, not on its own.

That said, I enjoyed this book considerably more than I would have expected given how little is resolved. Bear's writing is vivid and engrossing and made me feel like I was present in this world even when nothing apparently significant was happening. And, as usual, her world-building is excellent if you like puzzles, stray hints, and complicated, multi-faceted mythology. This is a world in which the sky literally changes depending on which magical or mythological system reigns supreme in a given area, which in the Erem sections give it a science fiction flavor. If someone told me Bear could merge Silk Road historical fantasy with some of the feel of planetary romance (but far more sophisticated writing), I would have been dubious, but it works.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that all of the characters feel like adults. They make complex, nuanced decisions in pursuit of their goals, thoughtfully adjust to events, rarely make obviously stupid decisions, and generally act like the intelligent and experienced people that they are. This is refreshing in epic fantasy, where the plot tends to steamroll the characters and where often there's a young chosen one at the center of the plot whose courage and raw power overcomes repeated emotional stupidity. Shattered Pillars is careful, precise, and understated where epic fantasy is often brash, reckless, and over-explained. That plus the subtle and deep world-building makes this world feel older and more complex than most series of this sort.

There's also a magical horse, who is delightfully uninterested in revealing anything about where it came from or why it's magical, and who was probably my favorite character of the book. Hrahima, the giant tiger-woman, is a close second. I was intrigued to learn more about her complicated relationship with her entirely separate mythology, and hope there's more about that the third book.

The villain is still hissable, but a bit less blatantly so on camera. It helps that the scenes from the villains' perspective primarily focus on his more interesting servants. One of the problems with this book, and I think one of the reasons why it feels so transitional and intermediate, is that there are a lot of viewpoint characters and a lot of scene-switching. We're kept up-to-date with four separate threads of events, generally with more than one viewpoint character in each of those threads, and at times (particularly with the wizards of Tsarepheth) I had trouble keeping all the supporting characters straight. Hopefully the third book will quickly merge plot lines and bring some of this complexity together.

I wish I'd read this more closely to Range of Ghosts. Either that or a plot synopsis would have helped me enjoy it more. But this is solid epic fantasy by one of SFF's better writers, and now I'm invested in the series again. Some unfortunate logistics are currently between me and the third book, but it won't be four years before I finish the series.

Followed by Steles of the Sky.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2022-01-20 from thread modified 2008-08-13