Echo and Bounce

Reading update 2014Q1

For this reading update, the only thing that really matters is I have finally read Paradise Lost. Everything else, no matter how pleasant, substantial, informative, or entertaining is mere vapour in comparison.

I’ve tried reading Paradise Lost a couple of times before now, and each time have got bogged down in the God bits, which simply have less action than the angsty metal Satan bits. For whatever reason, this time I managed not only to slog through, but to actually enjoy almost all of the poem.

I really can’t do justice to the majesty of the language. The best I can do is say that it’s probably the most intense, spectacular imagery I’ve ever come across.

  • The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
  • The Bloodline Feud, Charles Stross
  • The Trader’s War, Charles Stross
  • The Revolution Trade, Charles Stross
  • The Commodore, Patrick O’Brian
  • Wild Cards: Jokers Wild, ed. George R. R. Martin
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton
  • Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey
  • Caliban’s War, James S. A. Corey
  • Abaddon’s Gate, James S. A. Corey
  • Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. Walton Simons

(James S. A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I’ve mentioned Daniel Abraham before.)

Comics

I think I went a little overboard buying comics this quarter, mostly ones that have been highly recommended for years and years, so they’re all pretty good. However, the real standouts are Saga and Hawkeye.

Saga is the tale of a Romeo-and-Juliet couple who have just had a baby, and are now running away from their parents, their governments, their ex-lovers, and trying to figure what to do next. He has horns, she has wings. They’re in space. One of the people chasing them has a TV for a head. This is a terrible summary.

Hawkeye looks at what the crappiest Avenger does when he’s not avenging. Buy it for the palette alone.

Biggest disappointments were Wanted (since I last read it, I’ve become less tolerant of ultra-violence), and The Authority (not as witty as Transmetropolitan).

Honorable mention for Hellblazer for some really well done horror. Similar in tone to the first couple of volumes of Sandman, but works better.

  • Neil Gaiman’s Eternals, Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.
  • Runaways, Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa
  • The Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
  • Saga, volume 3, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  • Hawkeye: Little Hits, Fraction, Aja, Lieber, Hamm, Francavilla
  • Fables: Animal Farm, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leiahola
  • Fables: Storybook Love, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leiahola
  • Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, Steve Leiahola, Craig Russell
  • Hellblazer: Original Sins, Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake
  • The Authority, volume 1, Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary
  • Wanted, Mark Millar, J. G. Jones, Paul Mounts
  • Action Comics: Bulletproof, Grant Morrison, Rags Morales

A bumpy start to the year

At the very least, technologically speaking.

After a very pleasant holiday in Australia over Christmas, I had only a couple of weeks back in London before gallivanting across the Atlantic to pay calls on colleagues in our New York and Kirkland offices. The week and a half in the land of the free was fun, but was far too long to be away from home.

When I got back, my beautiful little laptop died, and with it a couple of months worth of personal work.

Thus, a large chunk of my spare time over the last few months has been spent buying a new laptop (a shiny 13” Macbook Pro), getting it set up, doing what I can to restore the most urgent & important bits of lost work (mostly our budgeting bits and pieces), and finally, actually, properly, setting up working backups.

Awkward and tedious.

Because this blog has a gratuitously complex set up that requires a great deal of configuration on my end, it is only today that I’ve been able to actually post.

I have to say, I’ve missed the old thing. Am glad to be back & posting.

Reading update 2013Q4

I read an awful lot in the last three months of 2013, helped along by a long holiday in Australia punctuated with lots of flights. Here’s a little bit about what I read.

A full list is at the bottom.

Reflections

In the world of fiction, I finally got around to reading A Deepness in the Sky, which is something of a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. It’s much harder sci-fi than I normally read, but a very enjoyable adventure nevertheless.

Likewise science fiction is The Circle. You won’t find it on sci-fi shelves though because Dave Eggers is a serious author with an establish literary reputation, and thus the book will sell much better when placed on the literature shelf. The Circle predicts a future panopticon where privacy has vanished. It makes a few good points, but they are almost all made in impassioned speeches by characters lampshaded as preachy. One or two scenes of genuine poignancy don’t make up for the rest of the book being dull.

Republic of Thieves is a welcome return to form for Lynch. Red Seas wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t as well-paced as the first book. Republic goes a long way to redeeming the most annoying trait of the series’ protagonist Locke Lamora.

Best Served Cold is pretty much exactly like the only other Joe Abercrombie book I’ve read. Like Heroes, it invites you to feel vicariously superior by indulging in the violent, “realistic” nihilism of hard-bitten soldiers of fortune.

The tall man in striped robes kicked his feet on the dismembered limb of a teddy bear. He looks down and grimaces.

“War is shit, B1”, he grizzled.

“Yeah, but we’re all just shit in the end, B2”, said B1. It was true enough, but B2 wasn’t going to say so. Not to her.

Likewise, The Land Across is a new Gene Wolfe and is everything you’d expect from that. Although the distinction is a bit arbitrary, it’s probably more magical realism than SF. I don’t know what it’s really about, but on the surface it’s about a young man trapped in a made up Eastern European country.

Neptune’s Brood is Charlie Stross’s meditation on David Graeber’s wonderful book, Debt. Except it also has Disney mermaids and skeleton armies, because Charlie Stross. Thanks to Michael Hudson-Doyle for the recommendation.

The Mill on the Floss is the most recent fiction book I’ve finished and without doubt the best I’ve read in the quarter. It’s also the most depressing. Not because bad things happen to good people (although they most definitely do), but because it’s such an effective skewer of middle-class life and aspirations that I’m now left in a meditative stupour wondering what on earth I should do with my life.

In the world of non-fiction, In the Shadow of the Sword is a short and thought-provoking history about the Middle East before and during the rise of Islam. How to Solve It is a moderately interesting book on mathematical problem solving that would really be improved with a good solid round of editing.

I just finished The Black Swan, even though many people I respect have been recommending it for some time now. I’d like to chew on it a bit more, but my initial reaction is that Taleb is needlessly arrogant, given to name-calling and false dichotomies, and that despite these things, it’s a very, very interesting book.

The books themselves

Fiction

  • A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
  • The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch
  • The Circle, Dave Eggers
  • Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens
  • The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
  • The Land Across, Gene Wolfe
  • Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Comics

  • Wolverine: Old Man Logan, Millar, McNiven
  • Action Comics: Superman and the Men of Steel, Morrison, Moralis, Kilbert
  • Fables: Legends in Exile,
  • All Star Superman
  • Action Comics: Bulletproof
  • Hawkeye: My Life as Weapon

Technical

  • Learn You a Haskell for Great Good!, Miran Lipovaca
  • Real World Haskell, Bryan O’Sullivan

Other non-fiction

  • Personal Kanban, Tonianne DeMaria Barry and Jim Benson
  • Survival Cooking, Simon Mulholland
  • Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson
  • The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland
  • How to Solve It, G. Pólya

Stats

It’s “not a metric”, but in 2013, I read 68 books, 10 of which were comics.

Here’s the breakdown by quarter:

  • Q1: 13
  • Q2: 22 (4 comics)
  • Q3: 11
  • Q4: 22 (6 comics)

Alphabet Reflections

Yesterday’s post was a strictly factual wrapping up of the Alphabet Supremacy.

Today is the day for opinion. In particular, what my favourites were, and what I hope to be doing next year. (Hint: not the Alphabet Supremacy). If you’re interested in more details about the process, I still hold with everything I said in my mid-year reflections on the Supremacy.

Favourites

Out of all my posts, my favourites are:

“Bargain” is probably my favourite.

Out of Bice’s, I quite like:

Negotiation being my dead-set favourite. Honorable mentions to Competition (because that’s basically how Trivial Pursuit works in my family), and Door.

Future

I started the Alphabet Supremacy with the nebulous aim of “writing more”. In that regard, it succeeded admirably, as I’ve certainly written more this year than I have since high school.

Will I be doing it next year? Absolutely not. Will I be doing any published writing next year? Maybe.

In retrospect, when I said “I want to write more”, there were two things I really wanted. One was to see whether I could write entertaining fiction, and the other was to force some rigour on my rants and opinions by extruding them into words that come one after another, unaccompanied by convincing hand gestures.

Fiction

This year, I’ve been able to try writing some fiction. It’s been fun to write, and people have said enough kind things about it that I’m not going to abandon the enterprise completely.

Next year, I’d like to muck about with writing some longer form fiction, as it’d be great to have the room to have more than one character or scene. I imagine I’ll discover all sorts of new problems when dealing with the increased scale, and that sounds like a fun challenge.

This fiction would be written pretty much for the pleasure of writing it. I have almost no interest in becoming a professional writer: the money’s terrible and I’m not sure I enjoy the work enough. I might try to convince someone else to publish something, but mostly as learning exercise.

Non-fiction

I’d also like to write some more essay-like things. The real challenge with them as part of the Supremacy has been that I’ve not had the time to do proper research, or to adjust my ideas when I learn new facts, or even figure out exactly what it is that I want to say, still less to shape that thinking into something tolerable and entertaining.

A lot of these are going to be technical. Over the course of the year, my ThoughtStreams unpublished section has been steadily growing as I bang out quick notes for things I want to write about or understand better. I’m looking forward to being able to develop these into full-fledged posts.

Goodbye

Bice captured one of the defining things about the Alphabet Supremacy when he said, “because I need to write a post I don’t agonise over quality but because I know people know I need to write a post I don’t care about quality”. That’s been great this year, but next year, I want to be able to care more about quality while still managing to actually publish. Do not expect a post a week in future.

Before I say goodbye to the Alphabet Supremacy for ever, I want to say thank you to the readers, to Bice, and to Joliette. I am grateful for both your patience and for your encouragement.

The Alphabet Ultimatum

After a almost a year of almost weekly posts, the Alphabet Supremacy is done. At last.

Here are all the posts:

DateBicejml
06/01/2013AmbitionAmbition
13/01/2013AnecdoteAnecdote
20/01/2013BargainBargain
27/01/2013BespokeBespoke
03/02/2013CrisisCrisis
10/02/2013CompetitionCompetition
17/02/2013DoorDoor
24/02/2013DataData
03/03/2013ExerciseExercise
10/03/2013ExitExit
17/03/2013FantasyFantasy
24/03/2013FootballFootball
31/03/2013Guard
07/04/2013GenreGenre
14/04/2013HairHair
21/04/2013HistoryHistory
28/04/2013IslandIsland
05/05/2013IndifferenceIndifference
12/05/2013JubileeJubilee
19/05/2013JustJust
26/05/2013Key
02/06/2013KeepsakeKeepsake
09/06/2013 Logic
16/06/2013LazinessLaziness
23/06/2013MusicMusic
30/06/2013MiddleMiddle
07/07/2013NegotiationNegotiation
14/07/2013Narration
21/07/2013OfficeOffice
28/07/2013OccasionOccasion
04/08/2013 Protect
11/08/2013PastaPasta
18/08/2013QuickQuick
25/08/2013Quixotic
01/09/2013RealReal
08/09/2013RatRat
15/09/2013 Serve
22/09/2013 Shelter
29/09/2013ThumbThumb
06/10/2013TypeType
13/10/2013UnderratedUnderrated
20/10/2013UbiquitousUbiquitous
27/10/2013Vocabulary
03/11/2013VehicleVehicle
10/11/2013WinterWinter
17/11/2013WasteWaste
24/11/2013YogaYoga
01/12/2013YesterdayYesterday
08/12/2013ZombieZombie
15/12/2013ZenithZenith

I missed five posts and Bice missed four. According to the original terms of the deal, I’m down by £170 and Bice is down £45, which leaves me owing Bice £125. Happily, he has graciously decided to accept a slap-up lunch at Hobart restaurant instead.

I hope to follow up in a little while with some reflections and highlights. Until then, let me express my thanks to Bice for his good sportsmanship and for the great fun I’ve had over the course of the Supremacy.

Zenith

Look up. If you could see past the ceiling and the clouds, above the blue sky and the light pollution, beyond the orbit of the moon and into the highest heavens, you would see the zenith, the point of the celestial sphere directly above you.

Of course it doesn’t exist, not really. Whatever shape this universe is, it’s not a sphere centered on the Earth, and if you choose to talk of points on its boundaries, you risk a philosophical and cosmological confusion that you would not wish on your enemies. Were you to erect a Foucalt pendulum where you are now, and follow its fixed and absolute axis as far up as it is possible, well after “up” ceases to have any meaning, you would end up … well, who knows? My astronomy is weak, and I couldn’t tell you whether you’d end up in Andromeda or Arcadia or Australia. For all I know, you might even end up where you started.

We went to see Murrray Perahia perform with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields the other day. At one point he conducted them through a Haydn symphony. I have to confess my mind wandered a bit from the music as I watched him command the orchestra grand gestures of his hands. I caught the fancy that he was playing them rather than conducting them, and that instead of individual performers exercising their own talent and artistry, they were instead parts of one large, mechanical instrument.

We can’t build such things, of course, but it’s conceivable one day that we could. Robots that play the violins and cellos and clarinets with more precision and finesse than any human could. Robots that exactly play the score and never deviate from it. Robots that play perfectly.

Of course, no one would want to listen to such a monstrosity, and such a strange and narrow perfection is as nonsensical as the medieval’s “zenith”. Perfection cannot be a single, static on the vault of the heavens. It must be something living and active, a moving, changing, interconnected nexus. Despite how much one strives or what path one takes, it cannot be reached as though it were the summit of some holy mountain, as though the pinnacle were that obvious. It remains elusive and unapproachable and ill-defined, like the zenith of the true universe.

And yet, it can’t hurt to look up every now and then.


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy, a collaboration with Bice Dibley. There is no word for next week.

Zenith


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy, a collaboration with Bice Dibley. There is no word for next week.

Zombie

Bice and I have talked about this before. Neither of us have any affinity for the zombie aesthetic that seems to have infected all of pop culture over these last few years. So rather than rant about just how dull these monsters are, I want to talk about when I feel like one, particularly focusing on the part of the metaphor where the creature is a shambling, mindless semblance of a person, devoid of all that gave them their humanity.

There’s a really interesting riff on this in A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. A human society in the book has developed a form of slavery called Focus, which works by compelling a human being to be obsessed with a particular technical endeavour, such as gardening, translation, or programming. The slave cares so much about their area of focus that they do not want to take breaks or bathe or talk to family – their focus is all. It’s almost an anti-zombie.

It’s not exactly a potent myth for the present day. I mean sure, I guess some employers would like their employees to be ridiculously obsessed with their work, but certainly no one I’ve ever worked for. The zombie disease that threatens me isn’t Focus (what I wouldn’t give for more time in flow state), but instead its opposite, which I’m going to call Engagement.

Sitting at my computer connected to the Internet, I feel under siege by a dozen forces all of which want to rob me of my mind in order to convince me to click on more things. IRC, Twitter, email, Facebook, G+ – they all want me to stop what I’m doing and look at them, and they are all very good about doing it. In the worst case, I feel like a human being implementing a terrible event loop, constantly cycling between all of these different sources of input, reacting to them in the shortest time I can to make them go away. A whole day can pass this way, fussing, responding, commenting, not enjoying a single moment but being compelled to carry on nevertheless.

When it’s done, I don’t feel happy, or accomplished, or even more human. I feel as if I’ve been gamed, my mind hijacked in the service of some Social Engagment Manager somewhere who gets a bonus if enough people click on things.

Much of it is valid: bills must be paid, invitations must be accepted or declined, the time it takes to reach my next appointment must be known in advance for me to get there. But so much is, if you’ll pardon me, meaningless bullshit. This piece of software must be updated, someone has followed you, like this petition in order to be seen to care about social change.

People even joke about it, saying that the zombie apocalypse has already happened, with everyone glued to their phone and ignoring the majestic panaroma of life all around them. I call shenanigans on that one – it depends so much on what you’re doing with the phone. Before I ever had a phone or even a computer I’d walk around with my nose stuck in a book. Middlemarch is as much a part of the majestic panaroma as the number 36 to New Cross Gate. Connecting with another human through literature is one of the most pleasant and life-enriching things you can do. And actually conversing with people can be genuinely joyful – even over the Internet!

I wish we makers of technology would take a stand against Engagement, against “the round eternal” of alerts and notifications and unread counts, that we’d stop hacking people’s heads doing our best to turn them into mindless click zombies, and instead just get out of the way, and let us get on with making cool things and talking to each other.


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy, a collaboration with Bice Dibley. He chooses next week’s word.

Yesterday

When I started writing this post, yesterday was the day when the post was due. By mutual agreement with Bice, we’ve postponed the due date to today, which on that day was yesterday’s tomorrow.

On the actual day I was supposed to write the post, yesterday would have been the last Saturday of November, which was the day that Joliette & I celebrated Thanksgiving.

We invited a bunch of people around, including Bice who flew from Hobart specifically for the event, and did our best to celebrate Thanksgiving in this bizarre and unenlightened country that refuses to give us two days off to do so.

Since we can’t be around family, we like to invite a bunch of friends over, especially if they’re American and not able to make it home. We put on a massive turkey, make some corn casserole and invite friends to bring things like sweet potato casserole with marshmellows (actually a thing) or delicious brocolli casserole or a bottle of wine or what have you and have a massive dinner. Note that for maximum accuracy, whenever you see ‘we’ followed by something that sounds like work, you should read that as ‘Joliette’.

It’s really nice. Lots of warm, nourishing, tasty comfort food, and as many turkey sandwiches as you could possibly want for the next week.

As a thing, before we eat, we have to go around the room and say what we were thankful for in the year. For me, I’m especially thankful for being able to make a home here in London.

More & more American culture is making its way over here, but I don’t know why Thanksgiving is not taking off as rapidly as Halloween. Less opportunity to sell stuff, perhaps? Having an autumnal harvest feast seems like a wonderful, obvious idea that all northern countries ought to do. (Sorry Australia, you’ll have to stick with chocolate rabbits.) Specifically making time to be thankful seems like an even better idea.

For a start, it’s really easy to forget how much of what we are and what we’ve achieved is only possible through the kindness and hard work of others. Those from Britain, Australia or America can’t exactly take credit for being born in wealthy countries.

It’s also a good time to wonder if there is anyone to whom we can be thankful. “To thank” is a transitive verb, and although it’s all well and good to swell with feeling of graititude, if you have something to be thankful for, then you have someone to be thankful to. Thanksgiving is great time to find out who that is and thank them.

Also, pumpkin pie.


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy, a collaboration with Bice Dibley. Next week’s (i.e. today’s) word is “zombie”.

Yoga

I’ve gone to maybe three or four yoga classes in my life. When I went, I didn’t really know what to expect, except that my kickboxing instructor said that it would probably help me keep an upright posture during some of our kicks (I have a bit of a tendency to crunch my spine).

Back then, the class met in a studio in a gym in central London. The instructor wasn’t one of the regular instructors from our school, but a dedicated yoga teacher named Robin. To say she moved with a cat-like grace would be to do her a disservice. She moved with a very human-like grace, as you would imagine a human would move if it were as comfortable in its skin as a cat.

My preconception of yoga – considered purely as a physical discipline, we can get to the other stuff later – was that it was mostly about stretching. That turns out to be not quite true. There certainly is a lot of stretching, but what surprised me was how much strength it required. I’m not a particularly strong bloke and by about five minutes in my shoulders were starting to give way in some of the plank positions. During some of the balancing things (I’m afraid all the technical terms have evaporated from my mind), I’d be wobbling there, having to occasionally touch the floor with my oher leg to keep myself from toppling over. To add to this, the insistence that I should focus on my breathing seemed to add an unnecessary burden.

Nevertheless, I persevered through the class, getting to the end where the teacher would dim the lights & we’d all sit down and “be” for a minute or two, and I found that I enjoyed it very much. It helped that they were mercifully free of spiritual claims or instructions which would have forced me to leave. It was only the awkward time (Saturday mornings) that made it difficult for me to keep going.

It made me think, what if I did this sort of thing every day? What if at school they had made us do this or something like this for half an hour every morning until we left high school? Imagine how much easier it would be to move and get around, to sit on the floor even (something I haven’t been able to do comfortably since I was about ten), or kick someone in the head (a valuable and important life skill). I think I would have enjoyed it more than athletics or team sports, probably. Maybe making it compulsory would have made me hate it in the same way that English classes often make kids hate great books.

Also, kick-boxing is great, but I’d wager that practicing yoga, or something similar that builds that kind of control, flexibility, and strength would be much more beneficial for maximizing the number of years I have in which getting out of a chair isn’t a big deal.

But, for the moment, rack it up with learning French, Latin, training in jujitsu, or weight-lifting, or learning to draw, sing or play the piano as one of the many things I haven’t figured out how to make time for yet.


This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy, a collaboration with Bice Dibley. He chooses next week’s word.