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20 December 2016

REVIEW: "Analog" December 1972 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 4

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

Finally, George R. R. Martin! I haven't written an official review of his collection Sandkings yet, but if you only know GRRM because of A Song of Ice and Fire / "Game of Thrones" you're missing out on weird, grimdark science fiction!

Not that you'd guess it from the cover art on this magazine: there's some serious 70's blond coiffure going on there. (I guess that's its own special kind of horror...)

The Second Kind of Loneliness
George R. R. Martin

The diary entries of a man tasked with opening a wormhole for ships passing beyond the orbit of Pluto, as he awaits his replacement and the end of his tour of duty.

Except, this being George R. R. Martin, there's going to be an emotional gut-punch somewhere. (Anything else will ruin it; just read the damn story.)

I will say, though, that Martin's space stories (especially the ones explicitly set in his "Thousand Worlds" future history, are often bizarre and bizarrely poignant. If the excessive wordiness of the Thrones series bothers you, read some of his sf to convince yourself that Martin can actually spin one hell of a tale. He's also very imaginatively grimdark in the sense that the settings and stories end up being grim and dark without necessarily excessive violence and brutality. This story, for example.

Original Sin
Vernor Vinge

This might be sort of the opposite case to GRRM. Vinge is pretty well acclaimed as a novelist―two novels (A Fire Upon the Deep and Rainbows End) won the Hugo awards for their respective years, and two more (The Peace War and its sequel Marooned in Realtime) were nominated―but while I've read and greatly enjoyed Rainbows End I found this story somewhat lacking.

The setting is that the narrator, one Doctor Hikkonnen, is secretly working on longevity drugs for a race of non-human aliens, the Shimans, and the Earth Police Force wants to stop him. "Earthpol" does have the point that the Shimans are sort of like shark-headed kangaroos who have voracious appetites and die because they give birth to thousands of ravenous spawn at the end of their two-year lifespans―this is the only limiting factor to their civilizational growth in spite of their above-human-baseline intelligence.

On the other hand, maybe humanity deserves a challenge? (I think that's almost exactly the supervillain Vandal Savage's reasoning in Young Justice...)

While the setting is interesting, the social aspect to the story seemed both weird and preachy (the aliens were really only civilized because of the introduction of Christianity and its doctrines of sin and self-abnegation[???]; technological progress has been entirely co-opted by the Japanese to the point where technical terms are only in Japanese[???]). There was a bit of this in Rainbows End (specifically a scene where the University library's science fiction section is dumped into a machine to be shredded and digitized in the interests of a megacorp) but it had a bigger, meatier story wrapped around it. Here it's just odd.

When I Was in Your Mind
Joe Allred

This is sort of a different spin on "psychic surgery." Yeah, it involves psi (ding ding ding!) but Allred implies that natural psi is something sort of like the atomic forces: too weak to do anything at macro scale, but advanced technology can enhance the effect for useful work. And in this case it's more of a neural interface than anything spooky.

So anyway the story is about a famous psi-surgeon who's going to do a demonstration of brain surgery for hopeful med students, but things go wrong. It's a surprisingly straightforward "medical" story (in the sense of "E.R." or "House"... you know, not real) but with the sci-fi twist of having some machine-prosthesis/"Inception" style stuff. Pretty well done overall.

Sf social progress watch: It's THE FUTURE and we have machine-mediated brain-to-brain interfaces, but the med students are all male, and there are still secretaries (implied all female). Meanwhile in the actual future we're closer to gender parity among doctors and their secretaries than we are to full machine-facilitated telepathy and cyber-surgery.

Cemetery World (serialized; part 2 of 3)
Clifford D. Simak

Skipped; not going to read serials if I don't have the part 1.

P.R.D. and the Antareans
Miriam Allen DeFord

Another female sf writer! (There really are more than people think.) Too bad this story is sort of an eye-roller.

Pard
F. Paul Wilson

This is a weird one. The setting is during a new wave of human expansion into the galaxy, after a previous human stellar empire collapsed, so the scattered worlds have diverged somewhat, and the new Federation (hm) has a certain policy against re-introducing worlds to spacefaring civilization (hmmmm).

The actual plot involves the narrator getting infected with an unusual parasite, and also intriguing his way back into a quasi-medieval backwater world to rescue a cyborg spaceship brain.

It's definitely odd. But I found myself sort of enjoying it.


The next magazine on my shelf comes from 1973. So far my liking a story has tracked decently well with whether it was republished elsewhere after the magazine, or at least the ones that weren't republished have been ones I didn't like.

Well, the next magazine only has one story that ended up getting republished, so my expectations are low. We'll see how that plays out!

15 December 2016

REVIEW: "Analog" June 1970 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 3

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

This issue features a serial by Hal Clement, one of the top "hard science fiction" authors, and in his case it actually means something. Clement wanted to write a story on a world with both high and low gravity, and then invented a planet with just such a property: Mesklin.

Star Light (serialized; part 1 of 3)
Hal Clement

This story, part of the same fictional universe as Mesklin, features some of the same characters from the original Mesklin story "Mission of Gravity" as they explore a different planet, Dhrawn, under the guidance of a human science team in orbit. Dhrawn is another sort of contradictory world: huge, but not a gas giant, so the humans don't know whether to call it a planet or a star. Its gravity is also too much for humans to bear, but Mesklinites, adapted to a world of hundreds of gees, take 60g quite easily. The problem is that their technological culture was still in the "muscle-and-sail" stage when humanity first contacted them, so there are some interesting problems of how to keep the planet rovers Mesklinite-accessible.

"Interesting problems" is probably a good summary of the story's strong points. Dhrawn is a puzzle that Clement sets up and the characters have to reveal by experience. The weaker points are probably that the aliens don't seem alien enough. The description is certainly alien: Mesklinites are six-inch super-dense armored caterpillars that breathe hydrogen and are congenitally terrified of heights and overhanging objects (hundred-gee worlds tend to do that!)... but they talk just like humans would. By comparison, Larry Niven does better with Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus in Ringworld, though since they're also the sole representatives of their species he probably got away with less nuance. Iain M. Banks doesn't really try to make his aliens "alien" in the Culture novels, but he does make sure to have them all seem different. In "Star Light," though, Clement doesn't really differentiate the Mesklinites from the humans, and so muddles it.

Overall, I'm about 50/50 on this story.

A Tale of the Ending
Harry Harrison

This was a weird one. Two humans discuss the nature and history of humanity as they step through portal-like "Doors" connecting far-flung worlds, eventually arriving on a long-dead Earth to look at a museum to humanity... only to realize that maybe they aren't really human in the same way, after all.

It was an interesting setup, but as a standalone story it didn't really do anything for me.

Compulsion
James H. Schmitz

A story about psychic alien trees and the women who convince them that they can stop psychically addicting and mutating people into harmless parasitic organisms.

Lots, and I mean lots, of psi stuff, as well as implied ludicrous-speed FTL or something. But the idea is interesting, and I sort of want Schmitz to lean into the fucked-up weirdness even more in the other stories in this series.

This might also be one of a couple times I've run into a story that I sort of knew about previously, from one of Wayne Barlowe's illustration books. The first time was after reading about the alzabo in Barlowe's Encyclopedia of Fantasy Creatures and again in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series; this time it was the weird psychic jelly-slug Old Galactics. So that's fun!

A Matter of Orientation
Bob Buckley

An American AI space probe and a Russian AI space probe fall in love on Venus. Forgettable in the extreme.

Message to an Alien
Keith Laumer

A weird sort of military-sf story. It's about a guy who does the "wrong" thing to do the right thing by a race of aliens for whom actions speak louder than words (and so for whom lenient peace treaties are worse than useless). Of course, in the absence of actual aliens in real life, stories like this seem a bit jingoistic when real-life politics inevitably get read into them.


Another late-period Campbell issue of Analog, and it's... not great. But the next one on my shelf, December 1972, has a great (read: depressing as hell) GRRM story! Hooray!...?

14 December 2016

"Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans..."


I attended my first community meeting today. Or rather, a "homeowners heckle a City representative" meeting, but I suppose that's par for the course. But what was the stated root of all this anger? Homelessness. And drugs. And drug-addicted homeless people coming for your children and valuables.

You see, the City is proposing to lease a privately-owned lot for 1-2 years as a site for up to 50 "tiny houses," which will then be used as "low-barrier" housing for up to 70 homeless people who maybe can't get into a traditional shelter; one such "barrier" is drug use.

In other words the City is shoving down the throats of the homeowners dozens of drug-maddened freaks not two blocks from a school (no, five schools!) where they can abduct, chop up and eat, fuck to death, experiment on, sew together into a second-grade-centipede, feed to their chained beasts, sacrifice to the Old Gods... our children!

--

I may seem hyperbolic and sarcastic. That's because more than a few people in attendance were. Openly. Backed by more who didn't necessarily speak up. I finally understood, viscerally, what "siege mentality" means.

And, of course, here's the thing:

It's not a "done deal." The lot is just on the final short-list of places where the City wants to move forward but there's a lot left to decide.

The lot is private property (same, I might add, as the disgusting low-rate motels that are an Aurora Ave fixture) and will become a permanent low-income housing facility in the next three years or so pretty much regardless of what the neighbors want. Private. Property.

 "Low barrier" refers to any homeless person who would not be admitted into an existing shelter. This includes (1) single men, for whom there are no shelters in North Seattle (it's all women's shelters or rehab); (2) couples or families; (3) people with animal companions ("pet" often doesn't fully describe what the animal means to the person); (4) people with too many belongings; (5) people with drug problems, up to and including a full-blown addiction. These are not mutually exclusive categories, either.

Left undecided are (1) which categories will be prioritized (i.e. women and children first? Clean over using? etc.); (2) how many people will be admitted from the local area versus brought in from other parts of the city; (3) the exact rules about where and if drugs can be used.

Two of the schools are already being built two blocks from Aurora Avenue, which, as everyone at the meeting was fully aware, is a hotbed of drugs and prostitution and other crime. There should obviously be coordination between the Housing Department and School District, but if the School District wasn't already planning for the Aurora Ave status quo (with extra security officers and so on) that fuckup is theirs and a long time coming. It's not at all clear that shelter will worsen the problem.

Moreover, this isn't a fire-and-forget operation. The (private!) organization that will build the permanent housing has experience with "tiny house" encampments and assigns caseworkers to the sites. Too many of the people in attendance had a fatalistic attitude towards the homeless (left unspoken was a demand to just "round them up and get them away from here" which, fuck off) and weren't trying to see compromises or weigh (say it with me now) relative risk.

And there was so, so, so much argument-taken-directly-from-rectal-cavity being made. One guy near me confidently asserted (to the general air around him I guess) that "85% of the people on the street" can't be helped, and when challenged, tried to make a distinction about the "True Homeless" and whatever the fuck. Of course, he asked me if I'd ever talked to all the homeless people, but dude, I didn't make sweeping claims.

The biggest thing, of course, is the assumption that homelessness or drug addiction in themselves are some sort of moral failing. I really don't see how to jump to that conclusion other than by the "grace" of an extreme individualist philosophy or else a petty religion. I doubt most in the crowd were Objectivists but it's a safe bet that many attend churches, and many of those participate in charity outreach. And that's good... but implicit in many religious messages to the needy is a subtext about who deserves and who doesn't deserve help. Who sins and wishes to walk again in the Light, and who is unrepentant in defying the will of the Supreme Being.

But while there's a definite barrier to advancement out of homelessness (and kudos to the City rep who valiantly tried to reiterate this point) the barrier against homelessness is thin and flimsy indeed. I don't know any people who are homeless but I know people who were on the street or had to live out of their car for a while. And I don't get out much.

Moreover, the "moral failings" that seem to define the "unrepentant" homeless person in no way stop at the homelessness line. Plenty of people, unto the richest and privilegedest, commit crime (even petty crime!), exhibit tremendous drug habits, maybe make some money on sex webcams, I dunno. How many of the homeowners considered what sort of deviant behavior gets gotten up to in the homes and apartments in this neighborhood?

And finally, I'd love to unpack people's experiences and impressions of how crime happens around here. How do we know who's committing the crimes? Obviously the prostitutes stick around (I care about busting the pimps though) but is the guy sleeping in his trash-bag-packed van also the guy who's been prowling the vehicles on the street? I believe that break-ins violate one's sense of safety and trust, but it's a bad idea to extrapolate that feeling broadly across time and space and circumstance. Same with one's experience with drug addiction―there was a woman with valid anecdotes about dangerous drug addicts, but apparently for her this generalized to all drug users. And she works with the homeless... but is this an immutable fact of nature or a sort of social adjustment to expectations?

Now, it was interesting that many of the "zomg drug freaks" crowd were also seemingly supportive of a safe-use facility―their main concern seemed to be keeping drugs (literally) off the streets, out of the alleys, off the doorsteps, but they seemed to be willing to tolerate drug use in a safe space as one element of a pathway to recovery. Hopefully such a facility can be built; Aurora needs it.

Hopefully these views can be changed and the moral crusade abated; our humanity requires it.

REVIEW: "Analog" February 1969 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 2

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

With my single Galaxy copy out of the way, we move into Analog territory. Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, originally known as Astounding Stories and one of the other guiding lights of science fiction in its early years, was edited by John W. Campbell from the late 1930s until his death in 1971. Campbell was responsible for cultivating some truly prodigious sf talent and tried holding sf to at least some standards of quality... but he was also, to put it mildly, a crank. In particular to science-fiction concepts, he was a big believer in the theory of ESP or psi phenomena, as well as a fan of L. Ron Hubbard's pre-Scientology theory of the mind, dianetics.

This particular issue is from 1969, which is to say, right when things were getting real weird (again, putting it mildly!) in both science fiction and real life. It was fun to compare the change in style and tropes of 1969 Analog from 1954 Galaxy.

A Womanly Talent
Anne McCaffrey

McCaffrey is, like George R. R. Martin, a writer whom I knew from full novels long before I read any of their short stories. (I hadn't really understood the tight connection science fiction has with the short-story form until well into my sf-reading career.) And, again sort of like Martin, she wrote a lengthy series of novels that play with fantasy tropes and include dragons. The Dragonriders of Pern series was actually one of the first non-YA science fiction series I read as a kid, and I remember really enjoying the way McCaffrey gradually and plausibly shifts the world from a fantastic to a science-fictional setting.

This story, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Pern. It's about psi-enabled people (ding ding ding!) trying to gain legal protection from the U.S. Government, and one woman's heretofore unknown Talent manifesting in connection to the birth of her daughter. There are some interesting ideas presented here; in particular, the presentation of precognition as something like a mental earthquake is pretty cool, and the "X-Men" style politics of superpowers is always fun (in my opinion).

However, some of the other social aspects feel really dated―isn't it telling how speculative stories sometimes get the technology of the future more or less correct but almost always whiff on social changes? Ruth Horvath, the aforementioned woman with an unknown Talent, is an extremely stereotypical Mother. Full stop. Another character, a telepath, even comments that her thoughts are dominated by love and desire to provide for her husband and child. In a longer novel with more and varied characters it might not be so weird, but as one of the small handful of characters in a novella it's sort of eyebrow-raising. Still, I'd put this in the "good" bin.

You'll Love the Past
John R. Pierce

I remembered vaguely liking this story the first time I read it, but on subsequent reading I think I had just been glossing it. Unless Pierce was going for some (very bungled) satire, this story is really kind of racist.

The setup is interesting enough: a guy time-travels a few centuries into the future but it turns out he just stole the machine when its original owner was detained by the police. And the future society is a sort of Eloi-style "utopia" with cult elements. So far so good...

Except that the higher-ups, the "Heians" (which I think I originally thought were extraterrestrials) are pretty clearly described as Asian... and "Heian" spelled 平安 means "peace" in Japanese. At that point a lot of stuff started looking rather ugly: technologically advanced, sexless Asians keeping the mostly-nonwhite survivors of World War III as livestock? Ew. Now, as I said, it could be trying for satire: the main character is an unscrupulous asshole, and he might pull a "Sound of Thunder" and bring about the future by his own arrogance and ignorance... but... I doubt it. There's probably a reason it wasn't reprinted anywhere but this issue of Analog, according to the ISFDB.

Avoid it.

Extortion, Inc.
Mack Reynolds

In the harrowing far future of 2000 A.D., one of the last private investigators is hired by the government on a case of extortions and literal football-sized nukes!

Yeah, this is cheesy retro-future noir. I like that sort of thing. And I like how the main character solves the (not really too obscure) mystery because he's smart AND lazy. It's fun.

Wolfling (serialized; part 2 of 3)
Gordon R. Dickson

Skipped. I'm not reading serials from the middle or end.

A Chair of Comparative Leisure
Robert Scott Wilson

A mildly amusing but forgettable story about university department politics and psi powers (ding ding ding!)... but the concept ("What if a professor was a bad public speaker but also telepathic and could force the audience to daydream about the lecture?") is also all you really need to know. This story also wasn't reprinted anywhere else.


Overall this issue of Analog wasn't as surprising as the older issues of Galaxy, but I know that later issues (once Ben Bova took over as editor in the 1970s and 1980s) improve dramatically.

07 December 2016

REVIEW: "Galaxy" June 1954 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 1

Now is the winter of our discontent. But I don't want to blog about all that (yet). Therefore, and in anticipation of hopefully starting up a literary-review podcast about science fiction, I think it's a good time to read and review my small collection of sf magazines!

The first one up is also the oldest: the June 1954 edition of Galaxy magazine (scans of which are available on the Internet Archive; here's the particular edition). Galaxy was one of the premiere American sf monthlies during the golden age of sf magazines, alongside Astounding (later Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact). The radio program X Minus One drew heavily on Galaxy for its adaptations, and it published stories by many of the great sf authors of the time.

This particular issue was a random pull at an antique mall in Bellingham, if I remember correctly, so going in there was no guarantee that any of the stories would be particularly good. I mean, we're talking the 1950s here: a lot of the sf of the period, if it didn't remain famous up to the modern day (or maybe even then), is clunky or jarring to modern sensibilities.

As it turns out, I got lucky! Here are my brief thoughts on each story, in order of appearance:

Gladiator at Law (serialized; part 1 of 3)
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

I'm familiar with several of Pohl's stories as adapted by X Minus One and its earlier incarnation, Dimension X―in particular, "The Map Makers" and "Tunnel Under the World," both excellent. "Tunnel Under the World" was a particularly good satire on corporate control of personal life in the service of market research; that satirical spirit is similarly present in "Gladiator at Law." Only in this one, it's construction companies and corporate lawyers that rule everything thanks to "bubble-house" technology that makes the suburban sprawl of The Future(TM) a neglected wasteland.

The setup: One down-on-his-luck criminal attorney is approached by a woman and her brother who claim to be heirs to the biggest corporate fortune in the world... but is it true? And can he even begin to take on the megacorp?

This was quite an interesting first act, almost pre-cyberpunk in its setting. Pohl and Kornbluth's style holds up very well, with the occasional use of Fifties' phrases (for example, the particular way people used to use "sure"... you'd have to listen to lots of media from the time to understand, but I swear it's different).

Something for Nothing
Robert Sheckley

I love me some Sheckley: he does great, funny sfnal satire. X Minus One did an incredible and hilarious adaptation of "Early Model" which I absolutely recommend.

This particular story is a clever little parable: a regular Joe finds a "magic" box that gives him whatever he asks for when he presses its shiny red button. (Uh, did the Rick and Morty writers know about this story...? The people who pop in and out of existence when he asks for help reminded me a lot of Mr. Meeseeks... except that they were human.) But what could be the catch?

Overall, solid and a nice half-twist at the end. There are better Sheckley stories, but I thought this was still quite good.

High Man
Jay Clarke

I don't know anything about Jay Clarke; going by the ISFDB he was a very minor writer with two short stories to his name. This one is fairly predictable, but amusing on first read because of the epistolatory format―increasingly snarky letters between an emerging love/scam triangle.

Down Among the Dead Men
William Tenn

I didn't know much about William Tenn before reading this―he had a few stories adapted for Dimension X and X Minus One and I might have listened to one, but it didn't make an impression―but this ended up being a very interesting story and I want to read more from him.

The setup is that humanity is fighting a losing battle against technologically-superior bug aliens in the outer Solar System, and the chief weapon is actually sheer manpower (since the aliens reproduce massively, like insects). So the military starts recycling corpses to clone new soldiers. But how do those "soldier surrogates" feel about the whole situation?

The actual crisis of the story has almost a "Twelve Angry Men" feel to it, except that it's "Four Angry Clones and Their Commanding Officer." This could easily be read as a commentary on the status of non-white soldiers in the U.S. military, and I wouldn't be shocked to learn that that was Tenn's exact point.

See?
Edward G. Robles, Jr.

The setup: Four hobos stop an alien invasion of Earth. The details make for amusing reading. (The method of invasion, and why a hobo is the ideal defender against it, is really a clever use of what isn't an entirely original sf trope.)


Forget Me Nearly
F. L. Wallace

A murder mystery where the murder victim is still alive: but if you're the victim of induced amnesia and mental retrogression, isn't that basically murder? The actual twist reveal of who's who wasn't all that surprising, but the concept was still competently presented. A fun puzzle-box type story.

22 September 2016

REVIEW: "Chaos: Making a New Science" -- Ian Malcom would be proud

Chaos is one of a few book titles that gets bandied about by math nerds as "one of the good ones," or at least that was my impression. It certainly put James Gleick on the literary map as a guy who explains complicated stuff to the "general public" of "interested readers." And it's about chaos theory, which really made an impression in the 1980s and early 1990s: famously, Michael Crichton lets it play a big role in Jurassic Park―each section of the novel is prefaced with a further iteration of the "dragon curve" along with some esoteric saying about chaotic systems by Crichton's fictional chaotician Ian Malcom.

I didn't put "chaotician" in quotes (except there) because, at least according to Gleick, someone actually described himself as such at a conference! That didn't stop me from repeatedly imagining scenes with Jeff Goldblum from the Jurassic Park movie, though. "The... uh, essence of chaos" and so on.

But is Chaos any good? Well, yes. Yes it is. And I think it's an interesting time-capsule example of both the pop-science Zeitgeist of the Eighties, and of pop-science writing. For all that Gleick attempts to colloquialize the technical aspects of nonlinear dynamics (another synonym for "chaos theory"), I don't think you can say that he dumbs anything down, at least not so far that someone with a little knowledge can't realize where he was coming from. Gleick's style is refreshingly comprehensive, too; reflecting on this, I realized that the contemporary science-communication style of today (see: NPR's Radiolab, e.g.) aims more for "aha!" moments, quips, and "really makes you think" anecdotes. It's entertaining, but often shallow, and sometimes flatly wrong for the sake of entertainment or page clicks.

Gleick, by contrast, gave me a strong sense of the many (many) disparate threads that came together to "make a new science." He takes an interesting middle ground between the "Great Man" theory of history-of-ideas, and the "trends and forces" theory: while certain scientists and theoreticians made remarkable leaps of insight to add to the growing edifice of chaos theory, they simply wouldn't have noticed the right details without certain background developments, particularly in classical dynamics and computation.

The book is also a good reminder of how the cyberpunk style of science fiction is equivalent to the Eighties. This was an era when you literally jacked in to computers, 3 MB of hot RAM was worth something, and computer manufacturers had names like "Control Data Corporation" and "Cray" and "Systron-Donner" (how is that not being run by a cyborg dragon a la Shadowrun?) and everyone thought the Japanese kaisha corporations would buy up everything. So that's a lovely bonus.

I recommend this to anyone who wants to see a bunch of scientific fields come together in one narrative. It's also a great example of science communication. Highly, highly recommended.

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21 September 2016

REVIEW: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" -- Journalist v. Silicon Valley, Dawn of Insufferables

This is a complicated review, because Disrupted is sort of a weird book (at least in its class of "much talked-about for about ten minutes and then forgotten" extended think-pieces). On the one hand, it's a memoir of Dan Lyons' forced midlife crisis, getting kicked out of a cushy job at Newsweek, languishing in the Millennial Animal Farm of a Boston tech startup, then landing a writing gig with HBO's Silicon Valley. Okie dokie.

Except that Lyons is kind of a dick.

I mean, I expect that he's pleasant enough as a person; I bet his wife and kids love him and all that; but in the absence of the true institutional psycopathy on display at Hubspot, Lyons is the avatar of every FOX News pundit's gripe about smug East Coast liberal journalism. He was Newsweek's technology editor, so he maybe has cause to feel a bit superior―maybe―but after a while his insinuations that journalists are just better people who are hip and sarcastic and don't have sticks up their asses and don't enable the exact sort of bullshit he's witnessing... well, it all starts sounding a bit arrogant.

Of course, his observations and critique of Hubspot's corporate culture are pretty scathing. Hubspot is a "tech company" in the same way that McDonald's is an agribusiness: while it uses Web technology, it's really a marketing outfit, and―as Lyons discovers―ultimately adheres to the outbound marketing status quo.

Okay, but a lot of businesses are sort of lame once you peel away the marketing hype. The mind-boggling part is that Hubspot has a $1bn market capitalization and successfully raised millions of dollars in venture capital.

Disrupted is more than a simple memoir: it's also an argument that "Silicon Valley" (Lyons uses this term to mean the current tech-startup paradigm in general) perpetuates a toxic attitude towards work, employment, and wealth; that tech companies are valued without any basis in reality; and that many founders, buoyed by obscene amounts of VC money, seem to be high-functioning sociopaths.

On that score I thought the bits about the market dynamics were the most surprising. Did you know that many companies' investment contracts with VCs contain a clause that insulates the investors from 100% of the risk if the company tanks? "But who loses money, then?" You may ask. Well, it's the rank-and-file employees, of course! And many tech companies infamously ask their code monkeys to accept low salaries in exchange for equity, often at a rate of vestment in excess of the median length of employment! Wheeeeee!

As for the culture, well, it's truly Orwellian, Kafkaesque, even Stalinist at points; take your pick. But I really think the single literary analogy that comes closest is Animal Farm―not the Orwell book you were expecting. The irrational exuberance, the redefinition of words, the subtle accumulation of exceptions for a privileged few, it's all there at Hubspot.

I listened to the Audible version, which Lyons narrates himself. I liked his extra emotion and disdain when describing the more incredible aspects of Hubspot's workplace, from the Eloi-and-Morlocks split between the Marketing and Sales floors, to the Idiocracy-worthy exchange he has with his twentysomething coworkers about the literal wall of candy dispensers in the break room.

Lyons' narration also smoothed over some of the less-polished aspects of his writing, like his tendency to write each chapter as if we hadn't read any of the previous chapters, including his various repeated dystopic references. Maybe it's his background as a journalist. Or maybe it was just a rushed editing job.

Overall I'd say this is a good book to get from the library if you don't feel like you hate "Silicon Valley" culture enough. For free digital versions of the same sort of critique, see (e.g.) Michael O. Church's personal blog, and the "Our Incredible Journey" Tumblr.

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10 September 2016

Third parties; or, what to do if you don't want to vote for Hillary


I've been almost entirely silent about Presidential politics during the 2016 primary season. I've also never been more grateful for leaving Facebook at in June of last year. The ridiculous rhetoric from people I respect just boggled my mind. And I learned I actually know someone who (at least at the time, and apparently not as a joke) wanted to vote for Donald fucking Trump. Now that we're moving into the general election, though, the choices have coalesced. And I have to speak up.

I don't particularly feel like re-litigating the would-have-could-have-should-have counterfactuals of the primaries. I was sick of the Bernie v. Hillary nonsense (in my view the vast majority was utter nonsense) around the end of March. And any counterfactuals about the course of the Republican party (movement conservatism in general) need to start... oh, probably around the Goldwater candidacy before they become serious. So let's take as given that the 2016 Presidential nominees are Hillary Clinton and---fuck everything---Donald Trump.

Now, I'm not a party person. I didn't participate in the primaries because I didn't feel like registering one way or the other (plus, caucuses sounded like actual hell to me). But I do think that parties matter, because lots of people do care about political parties. In this post I'm advocating for what I want the electoral map to look like after election night in November. With any luck it will be a giant, magnesium-bright signal to various tendencies and movements within the American electorate. And above all, it will be the death knell of the giant organized grift machine that currently calls itself the "conservative movement."

I should add that I'm being pessimistic.

Let's take as given that the winner of the 2016 Presidential election will be a nominee from one of the two major parties: that is, either Clinton or Trump will win.

Trump is unacceptable. Full stop.

The right-wing is going into metastasis, overtaken by violent populist bigotry. Yes, it's full-throated racism and sexism, but not in the old patriarchal style of "we're superior, they naturally occupy a lower social stratum (that we will enforce by law)", but in the style of skinheads and hooligans who like beating the Other to a pulp just for the hell of it, just to see who can take the most scalps.

Hence, I expect that Hillary Clinton will take the majority of votes, both popular and electoral.

But I'm being pessimistic; as much as I would like an unequivocal fuck-you lack of votes going to Donald Trump, he'll most likely get at least 20-25% of the vote, and very possibly more. That's because the low-twenties is "Sasquatch territory"---that is, no matter how insane the proposition, about 20-25% of Americans will probably go with it. For example, believing that Sasquatch exists.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton probably can't get more than 60% of the vote, because of the way votes are tallied and because she has a problem with favorability during elections.

I want to see Trump get the minimal number of votes from the maximal number of people, and such an electoral rout of anyone supporting him down-ticket that the GOP-Trumpenstein monster is unequivocally shattered. That tendency, more than any other, has damaged this country on a level that borders on treasonous. At the very least it's a betrayal of some of the best values upheld as "American."

So, 20% for Trump and 51%-60% for Clinton. Where should the rest of the votes go?

This is where I try to convince the Trumpists and the "Not Her, Us" people to vote for Gary Johnson.

Gary Johnson is running, together with Bill Weld, on the Libertarian ticket. Now the Libertarian Party are, to put it mildly, mixed nuts. I know quite a few nice and sane libertarians, and then there's the crowd that booed Johnson at the LP nominating convention because he supports driver licensing and opposes letting five-year-olds do heroin (something explicitly endorsed by one of the other candidates). Sasquatch territory, as I said.

That doesn't particularly matter.


What matters is:

1) Johnson/Weld have 50-state ballot access.

2) Gary Johnson is not Donald Trump, and is a cordial man interested in discussing the issues---again, regardless of whether he has bad opinions as to which policies would best address said issues.

I've seen some hand-wringing and soul-searching about what third-party votes even mean in America. I don't think a third-party vote is worthless: it can be much more meaningful than a vote never cast. But we have to start with the current reality about third parties.

Third parties will not win a majority of votes in this election.

That said, a third party vote can be a meaningful signal. Imagine if everyone who doesn't vote for Trump or Clinton voted for Johnson, and only Johnson (not Stein, not any of the other roundoff-error candidates). Suppose it was a 60-20-20 split between Clinton, Trump and Johnson. That would force the main parties to think very hard about their priorities, about their alignment with the electorate.



Compare to all the disaffected voters "voting their conscience," or not voting at all. Then it could be more like 53-50-5-1-0.2-... Clinton-Trump-Johnson-Stein-Whoeverthefuck, with maybe 50% voter turnout. What sort of signal does that send? The pundit class are idiots in this regard: they want a horserace and they love the Magical Balance Fairy. 53-50 (ignore everyone else) looks like "business as usual" and emboldens the alt-right.

Whereas 60-20-20 is thermonuclear annihilation.

And that's what I want. Treat the Johnson/Weld ticket as a generalized "THIRD PARTY" or "NONE OF THE ABOVE." Vote Hillary if you want; I will. If you don't, vote Johnson. Don't abstain. Don't vote for Jill Stein, Deez Nutz, Vermin Supreme, Harambe or any other joke candidate. This is really about signaling, and we need to send a massive, deafening signal that alt-right hooliganry can fuck right off.

Most of my readership (I think) lives in Washington State, a very safe Democratic enclave, but also a progressive incubator. This makes the third-party-vote plan even safer; at the same time, make sure to research and vote for state and local candidates to make real impacts in your life and the lives of your neighbors. Ballots are mail-in. The post office will pay for the stamp.

Come November, I want everyone I know to have voted. And I don't want to know anyone who voted for Trump.

24 June 2016

FICTION: "All Gods Are Bastards" Irreverence, pt. 1 -- 24 June 2016


I.

Roz was already in the office. Of course; he'd barely sleep if there was still a case to solve.

Bastard.

I shuffled in and left the door to clatter shut behind me. He didn't look up before stating, simply: "You're a wreck."

Bastard.

I half-mumbled, half-rasped something at him. To my pounding ears it sounded vaguely like "fuckyouneedashower."

"Water shut off today. Pipe rusted through or something. Apparently the basement's flooded."

"fuckthatimgoingbed"

"You have a client."

I stopped. Blinked. The greasy fog in my field of vision swirled and resolved into my partner, Roz, and a woman.

I glared blearily at Roz. He shrugged with the minutest of movement, but his face remained infuriatingly nonchalant, eyes casually running over some of his case files in one hand, a mug of coffee steaming in the other. He was sitting on the desk.

On the desk. When we had a client.

We had a client!

My gaze lurched toward her, while my mind struggled to keep up in between imagining the darkest of punishments for Roz.

"Gurgh." My greeting came out as a turbulent cough. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuc―

I became vaguely aware of the woman's face. Her eyes. Wide. Abundantly blue. Terrified. She was barely registering my obscenely disheveled act.

But that could change. Fuck, but my head hurt, and my stomach. I doubted her distress would hold out if I belched bile and yesterday's dinner all over the floorboards, and our firm could not afford to lose clients. There was, of course, only one solution.

Of course, a nagging, self-loathing voice in the back of my mind chided, it's not like we weren't about to do this very thing regardless of who was in the office this morning. We were looking forward to it...

I dropped to my knees and sat back on my heels, letting my arms rest palms up on my knees. My eyes were already closed. Try as I might to avoid it, to forget it, the action had become automatic.

I focused my thoughts on a single passage, a mantra. Everything else, all other sensation, was nullified. I'm told that I sometimes speak it, so low that it borders on inaudibility, but of course I can never hear it at the time.

Worshipful we praise You
Mother
Joyous we sing to You
Pure and whole we sanctify our bodies
All for You
Mother
Cleansed and shining
Your light undarkened
Our flesh unmarked, uncorrupted
Mother

Our Lady of the Universal Solvent
Mother of the Sterilizing Catalyst―"

SHE seized me, and suddenly "I" was no more.

Contact with the Divine is not a good experience―although, to be fair, it fails to be experiential for most of it. The simple fact is that the gods are not human, never were human (despite the baffling number of apotheosis myths), and can barely be said to possess intelligence as we understand it. Oh, they know things, that much is never in doubt―one might more precisely say that they are, in essence, the knowing-of-things. But how can you emotionally relate to living concepts?

One wonders why the gods are so "interested" to sentient physical life. It's the wrong word, of course, but to talk of the gods is to insist on metaphor. Then, one makes contact, and the system of world becomes terrifyingly clear.

The gods eat ego and shit power. Your consciousness is put to work cohering their own, and (pursuant to your prayer) they may use those brief moments of executive function to help you out. Key word, "may." That's why it's a leap of faith.

SHE, "Our Mother of the Sterilizing Catalyst" and so on, less poetically called the Homeostatrix, is one of "ours," a deity with a portfolio directly touching on the peculiarities of humanity. Somehow part of HER essence contains a description of human "baseline" blood chemistry, and HER tendency is to convert any pollutant directly into what I've heard is a rather hypnotic play of light in the visible spectrum, emitted from the pores, with brief bursts in the low ultraviolet. No one has quite figured out where the extra mass-energy goes, but such is to question the ways of the divine. Whatever the means, it all comes down to the simple fact that HER presence, for the low price of a few minutes' oblivion, makes for a superlative hangover cure.

When I regained integrity, my pores still sparkled with the last photons of what used to be alcohol, and my head spun with a sense of purpose and wonderment at the vast glory of the univ―I shook it off and stood up.

"So it's true." The woman's voice quavered, but just barely. Her eyes were as wide as ever.

"Apologies for my poor behavior, miss. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm..."

"Valiant-heart-steadfast-before-the-gaze-of-the-universal-One. I've heard of you."

I blinked. Very, very few people knew the given to me at my... birth. "You've... heard of me? That's―" but I quickly regained my composure. "But call me Val. I know my liturgy well enough, obviously, so I don't need any verses repeated."

She blinked back, and didn't laugh. "Val then." Her voice had lost its quaver. "I need your help."

I blinked again. And again. "I... I'm sorry, but I don't handle the investigations. You should direct your inquiry to my partner Rostilev there―" I nodded towards my infuriatingly calm partner, still reading notes as if we didn't exist, but the woman shook her head.

"I know that. I don't need an investigation. I've heard what you can do. What you do. What you are."

Oh hell. Oh fucking hell. "I don't know what you've heard, lady, but I'm not―there's no such thing as―"

"Beloved of the gods."

Incarnated, I almost said. Thankfully I held my tongue long enough to switch that word―never a good one to just blurt out―for a much more blurt-worthy "What?"

"I can see that. I know. Because I am too, in my own way."

This was a new one. The gods are many things to humankind, and humankind are many things to the gods, but never 'beloved.' Maybe it was because my little ritual actually worked, so apparently spontaneously, and did what I wanted? Maybe I could believe that, but...

"What do you mean, 'beloved'?"

She pushed herself off from my desk and walked toward me, her eyes growing liquid, about to tear up.

"I need you to bring my husband back."

I took half a step back. This conversation was entirely too strange. Something about gods and love, but now a simple missing persons case? "Your husband? Madam, I still believe that falls under Rostilev's purview..."

"My husband is a god."

I vaguely registered silence to my left as Roz stopped rifling through his papers, the nonchalance vanished.

To this, I had no answer.

23 June 2016

REVIEW: "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" -- Man versus nature

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shackleton's doomed voyage―an attempt to cross the Antarctic continent―pretty much can't be described in any other way than "incredible." The preface to the book tells us two remarkable facts: first, that what Shackleton and his expedition were attempting to do would not actually be accomplished until the 1950s, with the full gauntlet of modern machines and electric heat; and second, that no human being died or even suffered grievous physical injury over the course of the entire ordeal.

Then we dive in to the narrative itself, and as soon as the Endurance becomes ironically trapped and crushed by ice floes, it's just one damn thing after another. Even having been assured by the preface that everyone survives, you swear up and down, even shout aloud, "No! Someone's going to die! Nobody can survive that!" Reading what the expeditionary force endured: dragging hundreds of pounds of gear and lifeboats over actively shifting ice, dodging leopard-seal attacks, crossing the objectively worst span of ocean for storms in lifeboats not built for the high seas, an overland journey to a whaling station that modern mountaineers have refused to attempt for fear of death...

And nobody dies. I think a couple of the crew get frostbite.

Lansing pulls together a lot of primary source material, because all the crewmen kept diaries (of course they did!) and didn't ever throw them away. The Audible version really makes the story pop, as narrator Simon Prebble gives each crewman a voice. Of course, feeling a sense of connection with the characters only increases one's anxiety that surely one will perish eventually.

Oh, and when they do return to England, World War I is still on, and a good proportion of the crew go on to enlist in the armed forces for King and country. Because why not? "Back when men were men," and all that.

I'd recommend this book to anyone. It's that engrossing.

View all my Goodreads reviews.

07 June 2016

Summer camp for "adults," pt. 3 -- Late stage camp-italism

This post is third in the Summer camp for "adults" series: See part 1 and part 2.

How long can I go in critiquing another, more transparently corporate-retreat-aspiring "summer camp for grown-ups" before giving up and yelling "fuck off"? Read and see!

I.

At the end of last summer I wrote two posts about Camp RAHH, "Seattle's summer camp for adults." And my feeling by the end of it was less rage than bleakness and despair, except for the one hopeful fact that they were paying money to their host camp, Camp Kirby, and that Kirby is a lovely place that deserves all the money it can get.

Now I've come to learn about the broader trend of adult summer camps, and I'm angry again.

I think I have a Facebook sponsored ad to thank for this, but first, here's a TIME article from 2013:
Like cartoons and cupcakes, summer camp is becoming one of those things adults just won’t leave to the kids anymore.

“Glamping” — that is, staying in a tent, yurt or treehouse but with butlers, electricity and luxury hotel-style amenities — was discovered by Justin Bieber and Elle magazine last year, and this year, camp fever seems to have trickled down to the masses. An “American Idol” alum is even hosting a new reality show called “Summer Camp.”

There are camps for dog lovers and drummers, for surfers, and for senior citizens. The Wall Street Journal says there are some 800 summer camps for adults, and the number is growing by about 10% a year. So go write your name on the inside of your undies and grab some granola bars: Your camp is waiting.
As soon as my eyes scanned the word "glamping" I had to fight the urge to yell "Fuck off!" at my laptop screen.

I mean, god damn it, but "retreats" were already a known commodity among the middle and upper classes. Why bother calling them "summer camps"? And for "grown-ups" no less?

Among those mentioned in TIME's list is Camp Grounded, whose original advertisement I saw on Facebook and on whose website I found the TIME link in the first place. How are they billing this...

Unplug & Get Away

Pure, Unadulterated Camp for Grown-Ups


Just Like the Summer Camp You Remember from Your Childhood
Trade in your computer, cell phone, email, digital cameras, clocks, schedules, work-jargon, networking events and conferences for four days of pure, unadulterated off-the-grid camp fun. Together, we’ll create a community where status updates, job titles, bitcoins and “busyness” models are worth little… and individuality, self-expression, community, friendship, and memories are what matter most.
Ffffffuuuu... no. I can't say it, not yet.

I said this before about Camp RAHH: What exactly is this giving people that can't be gotten on their own initiative? Well, I'll be charitable; maybe these camps are in places, and serving people, who maybe don't have the opportunity to enjoy natural parks or forests...?

It's not summer camp without tee-pees! ~u.w.u~
Well, this isn't a good sign. California, N. Carolina, New York, and Texas, all places that are pretty well known for having nice backcountries, and whose residents go outside a lot. But maybe they're at a lower cost? No tech might mean less expensive (oh who am I kidding)...


NY: 595 ticket + 27.85 fee
TX, NC: 645 ticket + 29.35 fee
CA: 695 ticket + 30.85 fee

Notably, the California rate is double what it was in 2013, judging from news articles.

I've got a bad feeling about this, but where are these camps, really...? How do they relate to urban centers...
Only 150 miles from the Bay Area...
Just 60 miles from NYC...
Just 40 miles from Asheville, you’ll find yourself in a setting rarely found in real life.
Just over an hour from downtown Austin...
Yep, tech nerds, hipsters, and "creatives" (hurrrk) abound! (Granted, New York City is New York City, but c'mon.) The North Carolina one is especially egregious, since Asheville itself is just two hours away from Charlotte, the largest city in the state!

Then there's the white-people-playing-Indians aspect. Sweat lodges and tipis! But don't forget speaking to the spirit of the fire with your fellow "primitives"!

But why stop at Native Americans? Throw in some milquetoast Eastern mysticism!

I sense a theme here. (The hell does tea ceremony have to do with camping in the wilderness?) And that theme is: stuff that's already thick on the ground in hipster/tech/"creative" enclaves. There's nothing surprising here, nothing that isn't advertised in every arts and music magazine, or random lamp-post flier, or every farmer's market, or every skill-sharing school.

It's all the same thing as one can find (if one is so motivated) in a hip urban setting, just now in a woodsy environment (with camp counselors!). Hooray? Again, there are already retreats for this sort of thing, as my friend Jon found out, to his chagrin.

I guess the idea here is that you can try several different things out? But isn't that also true of the regular in-town stuff? Oh, nevermind, I've already speculated on this in the Camp RAHH posts. It's (probably) all about highly-mediated-experiences and all-inclusivity.

II.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the press for Camp Grounded was bemused, at least in its first year. It was also, well, pretty obvious: the Atlantic article notes that the session was attended by correspondents for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR. Ding ding ding!

The New York Times article not only drops the analogy to Wes Anderson's movies that I was totally going to make with a bit more disdain, but it includes this oh-so-flattering anecdote about the campers vis-a-vis the food:
Meals were vegan and gluten-free variations on summer camp staples: The first night we ate chickpea “sloppy Joes” and kale salad; another night, gluten-free “mac ’n’ cheese” made from rice pasta and soy with collard greens.
Oh, but that's not all. The official blurb about food is, well, eye-rollingly obvious:


Ding ding ding! No, that's not the dinner bell, that's the "rich urban liberal memes to justify price premiums" bell. Kombucha on tap? What's next, actual food woo?

Fffffuuuuu... no. Not yet. Back to the Times:
To hear some of the campers tell it, giving up meat was harder than giving up technology, and by the second day, talk of hamburgers, bacon and fried chicken was constant. For some, the craving for meat got so bad that a group of campers sneaked into the kitchen one night and devoured slabs of bacon and packets of hot dogs that had been stored in the freezer for the kitchen staff. Another night, two campers who had volunteered to tear kale for hours in the kitchen were rewarded with bacon, which they passed around like contraband candy at a weight-loss camp.
Jesus Christ, people, it's a fucking long weekend! But I guess Camp Grounded is delivering on its promise of letting campers behave like children...

Unaccustomed to such a legume- and leafy-green-rich diet, many campers privately complained about feeling bloated or snickered about the dubious wisdom of feeding 300 people so many lentils and asking them to share a few latrine-style toilets.
Ah yes, lentil sharts. Just like Boy Scout camp!

Oh, and there was naysaying press too. The Atlantic article shared some of my current views. The Atlantic Wire article put it succinctly in a headline: "Digital Detox Camp Is So Easy To Hate." Contrasted with the unshakable feeling that, say, the Mashable writer was genuinely surprised by face-to-face, unplugged conversation, I can't help but agree.

One attendee, not a professional journalist, blogged about the experience, including "The one event that completely ruined camp for me":
Sunday was the camp-wide activity – Colour Wars, and this one activity completely ruined Camp Grounded for me. We were all divided into teams based on our favourite colour – mine was blue. I was looking forward to Colour Wars – my childhood camp was always divided into two tribes, and throughout the month you earned points for your tribe by doing individual activities, earning badges, and participating in camp-wide programs. At Camp Grounded there were about 10 different colours and after breakfast that morning we all met our groups and were tasked with coming up with cheers, chants, posters, slogans etc. This might have been fun, however the sheer volume of items they asked us to create seemingly took hours to finish. When all the teams reconvened on the parade ground we all had to present the judges with their various cheers and slogans, and we were to be judged on them. This again could have been fun, except the judging was a farce with the judges assigning points in a random manner that reflected only the level to which a team would, to put it bluntly, kiss ass for what seemed like hours as each team repeatedly went up to do their cheers, and fawn over the judges.

Eventually it was time for lunch and we all sat in our teams, and at least where I was sitting, the talk turned to how Camp Grounded was nothing like what had been expected by the campers. There was a general feeling of discontent with some comparing it to being in high-school – the popular kids were the councillors and the chosen few of the campers who knew them previously, and the rest of us were the wallflowers who were being asked to obey their every whim.

About halfway through lunch the judges decreed that as of that moment we were no longer able to feed ourselves, and had to find someone to pair with and feed each other. I, along with some of the campers around me, refused to participate, and continued to eat as before. If a plausible explanation had been given for the request, or if there had been a reasoning behind it, I would have more than likely participated, but the dictate simply to force us to do something for the councillors amusement was despicable.
Highlights mine. Later in the post, we learn:
Camp Grounded was advertised as drug and alcohol free. It wasn’t. This alone wouldn’t normally bother me – drugs aren’t my thing, but I’m aware there are some people who enjoy them. What bothers me is that it was advertised as one thing, but no effort was made to ensure it stayed that way. This reinforced the ‘high-school’ feel of camp in that there seemed to be two sets of rules – one for the ‘popular’ kids, and one for the wallflowers and that wasn’t the experience I was looking for.
This is my completely unsurprised face. The Bay Area (and really, by extension, Silicon Valley) has acquired a Greek-row reputation for a reason, after all. And the extreme "do this, now do this" attitude (even in the official promotional materials) walks a very thin line between "authentic experience" and "hazing."

III.

And now, the face-heel turn. What's this button?



Team building, eh? That sounds nice... but why do I get a bad feeling...


Oh. Oh no. Oh nononononononono...


Stop. Don't go there. Pleas don't. Pl―


FFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK OOOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

IV.

This is all a goddamned lie. How can you go on about authenticity and "being a kid again" when every element of this experience could be found in a decently sized liberal-arts-college town? How can you go on about "unplugging" from work and digital addiction when you flirt so coyly with "analog" versions of those same things, knowing full goddamn well (or do you?) that it's called a "bulletin board" and not "analog analogies" (fffuuuucckk offfffff) of some Web 2.0 service, as the Forbes article helpfully offers:
The camp’s main courtyard is littered with analog analogies of today’s most addictive tech habits. Campers have physical “inboxes” — cubbies where they can receive letters, painted pet rocks, or even “spam,” as one camper hand-wrote letters from a Nigerian prince. They can ask questions or leave notes on large scrolls of paper — a human-powered Google search and Facebook wall. And the canteen has a board with post-it notes stuck on it with tips about the food — a replacement for Yelp.
INBOXES WERE ORIGINALLY PHYSICAL, FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK

And make no mistake, the trajectory back into corporate life is clear. Both Digital Detox (Camp Grounded's parent company, tagline "Disconnect to Reconnect"―fffuuuccccckkkk offfff) and Camp Grounded itself have prominent "for teams" sections, with Digital Detox explicitly "corporate + teams," and their mustachioed (fffffuuuuucccckkkk offffff) founder proudly told the eager techie press that Camp Grounded would expand to offer "day camps" in the Bay Area proper. I can only assume that was the precursor to "Daycare"―how transparently infantilizing can one get?

I mean, if literally wearing diapers is your thing, you do you; but can we not advertise it as something allegedly for the general public?

Oh wait, they also have a version just for Jews! Ffffffuuuuuucccccckkk offfffff

20 May 2016

FICTION: "All Gods Are Bastards" Prologue -- 20 May 2016

Something I thought up the other day. Heading in a weird noirish direction with pulp-fantasy trappings. Any feedback is, of course, appreciated.
---

This world was not made for us.

Well, not specifically for us. I'm sure there was a line item or two in the Grand Design, earmarked for "humankind," some tiny fraction of the cosmic budget allotted on our behalf.

Sure, we've done alright for ourselves in those intervening millennia. But every day―every fucking day―we're reminded that there are more philosophies in heaven than ever dreamed of us.

Because the gods are real. Some of them are even ours. But most aren't. And all of them don't seem to give two divine shits about us.

"Shit." Definitely one drink too many. No other explanation for my black anti-theistic mood. Well, last call was I-don't-know-how-many minutes ago anyway. Three fingers waggled to the bartender and I sent him back to the cashbox with exact change, as usual.

"See you later, Val," he called over his shoulder. "Same time tomorrow?" Bastard had long ago stopped adding "night," since we both knew that'd be a lie. Sometimes I'm the only reason he bothers to get up in the morning.

I mumbled what I hoped was a subtle blend of go-fuck-yourself and sure-thing-buddy.

I avoided tripping over the door-frame, landed somewhat gracefully on the slightly uneven pavement, and headed up the lane, towards... somewhere west of here, maybe even home.

The streets and buildings were all smeared across my field of vision for a while. This city, especially in the early morning or late evening, develops a certain hateful self-similarity in these districts. In my more paranoid moments (and that would include this one) I wonder if it's not some Higher Power at work, and make an effort not to look to the east.

But what the hell. For posterity's sake, I might as well not dance around it:

This city is old. Lots of cities claim to be old, of course. And maybe some of those claims sit better than others, but this city doesn't need to claim anything. It just is old. It's something near to the physical embodiment of the word "ancient." I think in some languages they turned its name into an adjective meaning "old," and in doing so every geriatric elder suddenly became, in a metaphorical sense, a newborn. I think that linguistic shake-up may have caused a few societal collapses.

This city is old, but the Thing is older. It has other names, of course. Some more clinically descriptive, others more nakedly reverential. Still more hushed and fearful.

That's me being cryptic again. Sorry. Professional habit.

Older than the city are the mountains to the east. Oldest of all is the central peak, ten kilometers tall.  Long after the mountains rose, long before the city spread, some divinity chopped that central peak in half and used the western face like clay, molding a ten-kilometer-tall statue of... something. Humankind tells itself that the statue is of a man.

I try not to actively deceive myself.

The Thing can look like a man, if you squint, and the sun hits it just right, and maybe if you're a bit drunk. But, like most Things in this world, it was not meant for us. The power that carved it... lingers. You can tell by the way the detail jumps out at you, standing on the ramparts of the wall that divides the Upper District from the veldt, at least a hundred kilometers from the western foothills of the mountains. It pulls the vision. It's like staring into the sun, except your vision becomes better, not worse, as you stare―and the sun never felt like it was grabbing my eyeballs and trying to pull them closer.

There was a sect, once, that worshiped the Thing. Stupid bastards. They all headed east on a pilgrimage in a fit of fervor. People back in the city heard a shriek on the wind, barely clinging to a semblance of the human, followed by the eyeless corpses the pilgrims smacking wetly into buildings, towers, streets, straight down as if dropped from a distant star.

I don't know why anyone decided to stay in this fucking place. I don't know why anyone would choose to actually come here from somewhere else.

Well, I can think of a few reasons. They're still stupid.

The clay one-story boxes of the Upper Districts gave way slowly, grudgingly, as the funicular crawled down the precipitous slope. I squinted, forced down a hiccup, and looked down at the Lower Districts, jumbled, almost beautifully chaotic. The history of the Upper Districts was dead, fossilized. It's only because whoever built those dwellings―the proportions are a dead giveaway that they weren't human, or at least weren't in their right minds―were engineering geniuses that anyone now lives up there: any box that crumbles is simply abandoned. It also helps that the rent is low, courtesy of the ineffable, irrational gaze of the Thing across a hundred kilometers of veldt. Perfect for scum, and the slightly-better-than-scum who hunt them for bounty. Most days I'm the latter.

Meanwhile, the Lower Districts are where history actually happened. Where history still happens, at least in this sorry corner of the world. At this point the funicular cleared the last of the lateral growth of trees that demarcate the slope's midpoint, and I caught a full-tilt view of the city proper. Two years living here and mostly hating it, but damn if that view can't still take my breath away.

The domes, balustrades and minarets of the Colonial District, not the first beachhead for humankind but certainly the most regal, were lurid in the tacky neon glow of the Vice District. Voluptuous and garish in equal measure, Vice nestled obscenely against the Theater and Waterfront Districts, for more than obvious historical reasons. Such was the early history of the city as it is most recently remembered by humankind. Then the sweep of the grand canal neatly quarantines the open degeneracy of this section, while the lights of the Financial District (a more closeted kind of degeneracy) glitter cold blue-green on its waters. Then the ridiculous affectation of the Chancellery; the Quay, a great sweep of residential districts south along the bay...

My eyes flicked, in spite of what I wanted to believe was a great effort of will, to the last place I wanted them to look.

The District of the Gods.

A pompous misnomer if there ever was one: how arrogant, to think that mere humankind could confine gods to a single district! Yet so easy to believe, once enough people congregate there and anoint kings and ministers and presidents there, throng in worship there, make pilgrimage and sacrifice there, offer prayer and song and burnt offerings and pageants and high ceremony in the name of their gods.

Eventually, with time and the slow coagulation of will, the gods will come.

I could even see a few icons hovering over their houses of worship, neon figments all done up in tubing and electrified gas in the imagined likeness of someone's favorite divinity. That's a ballsy move. It takes a lot of effort to become a true sectarian in this world, and not even focused attention attracts the gods' interest half as quickly as focused inattention.

The gods tend to look poorly on those who actively turn away.

After what seemed like hours to my besotted brain, the funicular creaked to a stop at its Vice District station. "Shit," I mumbled to myself. Picked the wrong train again; now it would be an extra half-hour of walking back to my lodging, with grifters and hookers to dodge on top of the bargain. Cursing the maze of the Upper District, I headed southwest.

Several blocks and a dozen slurred refusals of "service" later, I was startled almost to total sobriety as I became aware of a rising pressure in my torso and head. Spots of color bloomed in my vision. Four distinct tones shrilled in my ears.

No. Not now.

I collapsed to my knees, barely managing to support myself by grabbing the ceramic lip of a curbside plant pot.

A dizzying rush of thoughts. No; just one thought. Which one of Those-In-Heaven did I manage to piss off?

Then, I knew. I knew and remembered. And cold horror leaked into the remaining free spaces of my chest and abdomen.

And then I threw up into the potted bush. With each heave, the unbearable feeling subsided tremendously. Relieved, I promptly passed out.

An infuriatingly cheery bird-song, and a stab of early sunlight, woke me some time later. Over the hours of my oblivion, I had somehow managed to earn a small amount of money from passers-by mistaking me for a beggar.

"Hm, small miracles," I said, rasping-croaking. My tongue was thick in my mouth, felt like a slab of debris. I gathered up the notes and coins, pointedly ignoring the predatory disinterest of a shell-game grifter across the street, and resumed my journey home.

02 May 2016

REVIEW: "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets" -- In the end, I don't quite buy it

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael Sandel is one of my favorite public philosophers. Not because I always agree with him―and at many places in this book, I didn't―but because he usually makes his point plainly and with a minimum of emotive bluster. Plus he's quite a good orator, so that's a bonus for his lectures and audiobooks.

After finishing Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?, a more generic overview of the main philosophical strands in Western ethical thought, I was eager to start on this other book for a popular audience. Plus the subtitle is tantalizing.

Sandel's quasi-contention in What Money Can't Buy is that setting up market structures over a previously non-market sector of public life somehow "degrades," morally, that sector. I say "quasi" because for most of the book he never comes outright to say that this is his assertion, just that it's an idea to be considered. Of course this is, more or less, a rhetorical pretense: but Sandel's writing (and narration, in the Audible version) is genial enough that one mostly forgets it.

Mostly.

Sandel illustrates the encroaching "market society" through a series of anecdotes and examples, from jump-the-queue markets to organ-donor markets, financial incentives to data-driven baseball. His intro class on moral philosophy at Harvard is wildly popular and it's easy to see why, as all these examples are tantalizing and almost immediately invoke some sort of moral sentiment.

That said, some of Sandel's arguments against marketization seem almost as bizarre as the marketization itself. For example, he says that waiting in a queue (as opposed to paying extra to jump the queue) is not only democratic, but perhaps somehow virtuous? Except that queues suck. Better to have proper queuing algorithms to minimize waiting times for everyone―something that Disney Parks do now, unless I'm mistaken. Plus, he seems just as serious when talking about amusement-park queues as about queues to sit in on Congressional hearings, which I find hard to take seriously.

Perhaps the most bizarre, and objectionable, argument comes when Sandel talks about a program to offer birth control options and a financial payment to drug-addicted women. If in any case "birth control" means "sterilization," that's certainly morally questionable. But if we're talking about IUDs, then Sandel's suggestion that such a financial inducement degrades a woman's "capacity for childbearing," then I'm sorry, but it just smells like essentialist bullshit. It's not like the women necessarily want to have children (and the women in the anecdote are sometimes almost chronically pregnant), and the woman who runs this program has intimate knowledge of what babies born to drug-addicted mothers go through, having adopted and raised several herself. I think reducing the number of drug-addicted children born into the world is better than preserving the "childbearing essence" of drug-addicted women, especially if it's temporary and voluntary.

Finally, it's not at all clear to what extent Sandel's anecdotes are representative of an overall trend. One certainly does get the sense that market-like values are on the rise among certain leaders and thinkers in society (the "gig economy," anyone?) but this book was written four years ago and as far as I'm aware most of the anecdotes are still obscure. That said, modern society is fragmented enough that it's probably just a case of my inability to be everywhere at once.

Overall, I'd say this is a worthwhile book to read, perhaps to check out from the library. Sandel certainly gives food for thought. It might be even more interesting when paired with a libertarian answer to it: Markets Without Limits, by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, as I intend to do.

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29 April 2016

REVIEW: "The Compleat Enchanter" -- More like "meh"nchanter

The Compleat Enchanter The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on the recommendation of Lester del Rey in his The World of Science Fiction, 1926 - 1976: The History of a Subculture (reviewed here), and having greatly enjoyed de Camp's short story "A Gun For Dinosaur" (as performed on the X Minus One radio show in the late 1950s). Unfortunately, in marked contrast with that story, I don't think The Compleat Enchanter holds up that well in 2016.

The premise is amusing enough: a research psychiatrist (because it's the 1950s, and psychiatry is hot shit) discovers that one can translate oneself to parallel worlds by reciting alternative logical formulae, such as the laws describing how magic works―"like affects like," and so on. The Compleat Enchanter follows Harold Shea as he bounces between worlds from Earth's mythical and literary history, interacting with the characters therein: first as he accidentally winds up in the world of Norse mythology on the eve of Ragnarok, second in the world of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and third in the world of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

And that's about the right decreasing order of quality. Shea's adventure in Asgard is actually pretty fun, mostly because of the incongruity between a brash 1950s guy and the heroic characters of Norse myth, and Shea's discovery of how magic works. The key humorous element of the stories is that magic works, but not very reliably: if you scrounge up the right materials and chant some doggerel poetry, supernatural effects happen, but maybe at 1/10th or 100 times the desired effect.

I suspect there are other elements that are intended to be humorous, but let's just say that the stories are pretty relentlessly 1950s. Shea (and, in the third story, the seemingly pointless character of Polacek) speak in a (to my 2016 ears) ridiculous style, giving the whole thing an almost too-pulpy feeling. This might have been the point, but the high-contrast was probably funnier back in the day when pulp style hasn't been mocked (with and without irony) for the past half-century.

The other thing is that Shea (and Polacek more so) never seem to get that the worlds they travel to are consequential, even as those worlds continuously demonstrate that they are. This comes to a head in the third book (again with Polacek), where the characters from Earth are held hostage in the castle of a Muslim sorcerer: no matter the situation, Shea and Polacek blunder around saying "What's the big idea?" and casually challenging people to fights (or just threatening them with knuckle sandwiches). Again, maybe that's supposed to be funny, and maybe it was funny back in the Fifties, but to me it's just dumb.

For all that, I liked the book well enough; there were some pretty cool moments and enough amusing scenes (especially when magic is involved) to keep my interest. But I think the premise has been done better by later authors, in both humorous and straight contexts. Overall I would recommend this mostly for its historical value.

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REVIEW: "The World of Science Fiction, 1926-76" -- Life in the gutter


This was a very pleasant surprise used-bookstore buy. Written in the late Seventies, and so just after the premiere of "Star Wars" (but before the sea-change in pop culture that Star Wars inspired could take full effect), Lester del Rey gives a mostly-objective historical account of science fiction, which he divides into four "ages" spanning (then) fifty years. Though some of the material can be quite dry, del Rey's writing style is congenial and makes for an entertaining and enlightening read overall.

Del Rey sets down the genesis of science fiction as a true category to be 1926, when Hugo Gernsback (the namesake of the Hugo Awards) published a pulp magazine specifically for what he then called "scientifiction." From there we have the era of John W. Campbell, who almost single-handedly elevated sf to a higher standard, the bust of the Fifties, and the rise of the "New Wave" and fracturing of the category into various disparate sensibilities. Throughout, del Rey highlights authors and stories that he considers particularly meritorious or significant to the development of sf; while his tastes are strongly stated, he's mostly careful about noting when a story appeals to him personally or is significant to the category as a whole. There's a consolidated list of recommended reading in the appendices, with helpful notation marking whether a work is notable primarily for historical value.

As the growth of sf for most of its first fifty years was almost entirely in magazines, del Rey goes through a lot of timeline-esque publication listings. That may have more merit to scholars of science fiction than to the casual reader; however, it's often notable just how many acknowledged masters of the field were discovered by a single magazine editor, or how many seminal stories were published in the same year.

Del Rey also gives a running history of science fiction fandom, which is especially interesting when compared to the pop-culture domination of science fiction tropes in modern fandoms today. Many of the conflicts that launched a thousand think-pieces have historical analogues from back when hardcore science fiction fans numbered in the mere hundreds! But of particular interest is the knowledge that sf has always been a category of several interests, not always in agreement—for example, it grew out of pulp adventure stories and tinkerer science-enthusiast fiction, which until 1926 were quite separate entities, and cared differently about the relative importance of scientific plausibility and strong plotting to a story.

Del Rey's editorial distance declines quite a bit as the history becomes more contemporary; his remarks on the so-called "New Wave" of sf were hilarious to me, if a bit strident. Still, I think his comments there, and then his recommendations towards a proper critical theory of science fiction, are instructive even for modern readers; certainly there's no lack of controversy over genre norms in modern science fiction and fantasy.

Overall this is a fine history of sf literature. Del Rey makes a good case for the seminal works in the field, and his recommendations should make for a nice introduction to the "deep norms" of sf as a literary category. I'm not sure how much I believe the conjecture that "you can't write science fiction unless you've read lots of its background material," but it certainly wouldn't hurt!

28 April 2016

REVIEW: "The Stress of Her Regard" -- Sing, O Muse, and bite me on the neck

The Stress of Her Regard The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by Tim Powers (the first being The Anubis Gates) and it certainly won't be the last. I'm somewhat of a sucker for secret-history fiction and both those books fall squarely in that genre, but Powers' bigger strength is the way he portrays the supernatural as something recognizable but also ineffably weird. In The Anubis Gates you had a body-swapping werewolf-spirit-thing and wizards who sacrificed contact with the earth in exchange for contact with otherworldly powers. In The Stress of Her Regard, you have a race of creatures who are basically all the seductive nasties of Western mythology, rolled into one. Plus more than a bit of Lovecraftian horror.

It's not really a spoiler to say reveal the book's central conceit: that human history, and in particular the lives of poets and artists, has been shaped by contact with a second intelligent race living on Earth. As it turns out, the frail and tragic lives of most of the Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, and Keats in particular) were that way precisely because they were the lovers/prey of these beings.

Call them vampires, lamiae, gorgons, nephilim: they're all those things from mythology, rolled into one. Powers' explanation for why they're all the same race is interesting and more than a bit weird, and it's nice that the explanation comes from characters who clearly are just trying to piece it all together: enough happens that even those details, while seemingly true, never seem true enough. Powers is a bit more on the "this is all knowable" side of things than, say, Lovecraft was, but you never feel like the characters, at least, reach a point of knowing the enemy fully.

Speaking of Lovecraft, there were several scenes in TSoHR that could have been ripped from the pages of a particularly epic Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign, and I say that in the most positive way. (No spoilers, but remember this during the scene in the Alps, and both adventures in Venice.)

I listened to the Audible recording of the book, narrated by Simon Vance. I really really like Vance as a narrator, and he does a fine job here. That said, I think he's better at reading straight fantasy rather than horror, as TSoHR tends to become.

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REVIEW: "Night Watch" -- A Glasnost nocturne

Night Watch Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Supernatural beings called Others walk among us, aligned with either the forces of Light or the forces of Darkness. To police each other, there exist the Watches: the Day Watch, who monitor the Light on behalf of the Darkness, and the Night Watch, who monitor the Darkness on behalf of the Light. But these stories are set in end-of-the-Cold-War Moscow, so everyone's sort of a bastard.

I first encountered the Night Watch through the movie adaptation by Timur Bekmambetov, who also directed its sequel, Day Watch; Wanted; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I've seen all of these movies, somehow). The two Watches were reasonably fun dark-urban-fantasy movies, notable for their action scenes, decent FX, and pretty cool "active" subtitles that were integrated into the scene rather than just white letters at the bottom. I had heard good things about the original book series, so I picked up the Audible version.

Most of the book works pretty well on its own terms, but I can't help wondering how much of what I disliked is just an artifact of translation, or of audiobook narration. Don't get me wrong, Paul Michael does a great job for the vast majority of the lines, and does all the character's voices in (varied!) Slavic accents. Some of the characters come off sounding a bit too drawling or "sleepy" for my taste, though, which makes their philosophical conversations (especially in the later two stories in the book) sound rather odd.

The translation has a few quirks, too. For example, men below a certain age are all, invariably, "young guys." Michael also reads this, invariably, with the emphasis on the second word, so it's "young GUYS" all the time. For some reason I couldn't get over it; but I suspect it's less of an issue in text form.

The biggest letdown is the party scene at the cabin in the third story (really, most of the third story is weird), where our protagonist, Anton, mopes around for the whole thing and has pretty bullshit reasons for doing so. The main arc (centered on what exactly the Light tries to do to make a better world) is interesting, and suggests that maybe it's a case of Lawful Stupid rather than Lawful Good, but I don't think it works well enough to be dragged out into a full story.

The first and second stories work better, with the first being, I think, the best. It's probably no wonder the movie is based on it, while the sequel is based on heavily adapted versions of the other two stories. It's a good mystery with a satisfying series of twists, and a nice introduction to the world, with some commentary (both subtle and unsubtle) thrown in for good measure.

Overall I'd highly recommend the first story ("Destiny") in Night Watch, and the others mostly for completion's sake (especially the third story).

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