What I’ve been reading

Benford and Niven: Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar

It’s always good to see Niven back in the Big Dumb Object game, and a team-up with Benford is a welcome surprise.

This one’s about another Ringworld-like object, only this one goes tooling around the galaxy on a slow cruise. I can’t say a whole lot more without giving away several of the many big reveals in the story, but suffice the say the back-story here is quite different from that of the other BDO books I’ve read.

I found this pair “just one more chapter” engrossing, and I couldn’t wait to find the second after reading the first. There are plot hooks in place for a possible third installment, and I hope it occurs.

Alastair Reynolds: On the Steel Breeze

Rollicking good adventure. The setting is a good example of an updated plausible future taking into account recent advancements in science. The plot centers around the tension many seem to believe is inevitable between the emergent machine sentients and the meatbags that spawned them.

This book has an uncommonly strong heroic-lineage trope, in that the already accomplished protagonists come from a family full of accomplishments that affected the course of human civilization. But I can accept that now and then in the service of good, comfy escapism.

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

This is one of those stories where you’re late for a family reunion and then arrive to discover that someone has assassinated nearly everyone there. The rest is about figuring out who, why, who gave them inside help, and what to do about it. In a science fiction setting six million years hence, with some interesting set dressings.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other Reynolds books I’ve read, but it did feature a great example, in the historical character of Ludmilla Marcellin, of what I would like to do: She created thousands of identical clones of herself and sent them in all directions to explore the galaxy, re-convening on rare occasions to share memories.

Charles Sheffield: Dark as Day

I didn’t realize when I started this that it was the third book in a series. Thankfully that didn’t matter much; from what I can tell a couple of characters were carried over, but this installment mentioned as much of their history as was needed.

The story was interesting enough to keep me involved, but I didn’t find it remarkable. For most of the latter half I was wondering where it was going; there were multiple threads going on that didn’t look to be related in any way, and I was wondering if there was going to be any connection at all. In the end he did tie almost all of them together, but not in the usual big reveal way that shows why things turned out this way. Instead it was, here’s a massive coincidence that all of these people ended up in the right place at the right time to avert a huge disaster. A bit less satisfying, though it could be seen as refreshing in its unconventionality.

There is a slight chance I might read the other books in this series if I stumble over them, but I’m not likely to hunt them down.

Alan Cooper: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Nonfiction about software user experience design – read as part of a UX reading group at work.

At first this book infuriated me; it read like a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about how programmers are evil bastards who delight in tormenting nontechnical users (true, but it’s supposed to be a secret) that had been forcibly toned down by editors. By the end of the book though, I found myself violently agreeing with him about almost everything.

The central messages are:

  1. User-friendly software should not be designed by the programmers implementing it. They are too close to the problems to see them, and they will inevitably and unconsciously use themselves (or “The User”, who is as flexible as Reed Richards) as the person they design for.
  2. Software should not only be designed by UX specialists, but the designers should be the ones accountable for the quality of the software, not programmers. Designers should make the decisions that affect users and mandate changes in the best interest of the users.
  3. Long-term planning is a must. Even the common annual release development cycle is too short to properly do the concept-design-code-debug-market cycle, and trying to overlap design with coding doesn’t work. Focusing on short-term gain results in crufty software. Long-term planning, even at short-term expense, is vital to produce a lasting quality product.

There’s lots more. I highly recommend reading this book if you develop software for which usability is important. Just try not to hulk out and rip it in half during the first few sections. :)

Alastair Reynolds: Terminal World

The cover art and blurb of this one reminded me of Inverted World, a novel I disliked because it (probably intentionally) conveyed a fuzzy and confusing image of the world. Thankfully there wasn’t much more resemblance than that; this one had enough exposition for my taste. It left a lot unrevealed even at the end, but I understood the setting well enough to be able to fill in the blanks.

I didn’t like this as much as Reynolds’ other works, but I think there is room for another novel or two set in this universe – one in in the distant past and one in the near future.

Charles Sheffield: Aftermath

I didn’t like this one very much. Heroic ordinary people struggling for survival after a major natural disaster has been done, as has throwing in a secret cult as the foil. Also I tend to dislike stories featuring cults – I read science fiction to escape, dammit!

There was one tantalizing hint about the cause of the disaster that might convince me to read the sequel, if its cover copy is further encouraging, but I’m not in a hurry to seek it out.

Alastair Reynolds: Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap

Finishing off the Revelation Space series to date. I really, really liked this series and I’ve decided that Reynolds has become one of my favorite authors. Could not put down any of these books, and I’ve taken to reading everything else of his I can find to try to capture more of the flavor – which led me to:

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth and Poseidon’s Wake

Precursor and sequel, respectively, to On the Steel Breeze, mentioned above. I didn’t know these existed when I read the middle book, and I was afraid reading them out of order would spoil the first one, but not at all; it stands independently because there is a large time separation between the first book and the other two, and few characters in common.

Blue Remembered Earth was not as strong as the other two, but still worth the read. I preferred the latter two though, because they’re set further from home in both time and space, and are largely post-Mechanism. The Mechanism is a super-invasive surveillance state described in the first book and part of the second, where crime and violence have been almost totally eliminated but at the cost of privacy. Not worth it in my opinion.

 

Discovering Electro Swing

In the last few years I’ve been slowly discovering the musical genres of electro swing/jazz/blues, and finding I really like them. I appear to be discovering artists somewhat out of order, but I’ll present some favorite selections in the order I discovered them.

Layo & Bushwacka – Deep South. I had this one on my playlist for a long time before I encountered anything else that might have led me to discover there might be a whole category buried here. Moby’s work didn’t clue me in either, even when combined with Recoil’s Electro Blues for Bukka White:

Mocean Worker – Move. I love the harmonica solo that starts around 3:22 and listened to it over and over. It was around this time I started to spot an emerging pattern and looked for more, starting with more Mocean Worker.

Shake Ya Boogie:

Shooby Do Yah: Extends the Mocean Worker visual trademark to the hypothetical third dimension.

Hoot and Hollah: I love the weird animation style in this one.

That’s where it rested for a while, as I had some trouble finding more that I liked. Eventually someone I’m connected to on Facebook randomly posted a Caravan Palace link. I explored all of their offerings and especially like these two: Clash and Rock it For Me.

But here’s what prompted this post. Today via the song-of-the-day mailing list at work, I was introduced to Parov Stelar via this track, Chambermaid Swing. Love it, and can’t put it down right now.

This is why I say I’m doing this somewhat out of order – apparently Stelar is one of the pioneers of the electro-rehash genres, but I hadn’t heard of him until today.

Some other Stelar tracks I like:

Libella Swing

Catgroove

Booty Swing

The Mojo Radio Gang

 

To end on a bizarre note, here’s a new Caravan Palace video I just discovered while writing this. I like the music and the animation style, but the story totally does not go in any direction I expected. You may not like:

What I’ve Been Reading

The Heritage Universe quintilogy by Charles Sheffield

A very fun adventure series set against the common background trope of a mysterious vanished alien civilization having left amazing and incomprehensible toys behind for the younger civilizations to puzzle over. The arc follows a gang of human and alien characters with a healthy mix of motivations as they get caught up in events that lead to some answers about the long-vanished Builders.

The first two books in this series don’t stand well on their own, but they work well in the context of the overall arc. At first I didn’t like that Summertide didn’t really reveal anything about the Builders, and then I didn’t like that Divergence revealed too much too quickly, but later books damped those oscillations retroactively.

I like the creative variety in alien forms and civilizations presented here; they seem to fit well. I also like the quietly implied moral present in the reason for the Builders leaving their artifacts lying around: Cooperation is better than conquest.

One thing I didn’t like was the complete silence about the fate of the Zardalu in the latter part of the series. Here’s this ruthless, menacing race whose subjects hated them so much they attempted genocide against them, and everyone has been happy thinking the Zardalu have been dead for thousands of years. Now they’re making a comeback but were discovered while in a position of weakness, and… nothing.  Some time was bought by convincing the Zardalu that they’re in danger of being stepped on by other races grown more powerful in the interim, but they have to eventually figure out that’s not the case.  No governments have taken any initiative to contain, protect or negotiate with the Zardalu, and their ambassador became little more than a thug and plot device to help the plot in the fifth book.  This better be addressed in future books.

The setting of this series is one of the most MOO-like I’ve encountered. It could also potentially make for several good movies or a TV series.

 

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

As mentioned in previous posts I’ve been on a quest to read all of Lovecraft’s stories. One story I was having a hard time finding was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which based on the implications of other stories sounded like it might be one of the most epic. It was, but it was also disappointing in a few ways – the silliness with the cats being first and foremost.  It was a good story, but I enjoyed At the Mountains of Madness more.

I was delighted to find a handful of other stories in this volume that I had not previously read.

 

Free Will by Sam Harris

A short, easy read about the experimental evidence that suggests free will is an illusion, and what it implies for our justice system and for our thoughts about choice and self-determination.  I found it a fun and easy read and it extended my awareness of the matter a little by exploring some implications I hadn’t thought of.

 

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while but it became more opportune when I discovered the audiobook version was on YouTube.

This is a book I’ve been thinking for a long time needs to exist, and I’m glad someone else went to the trouble of writing it so I don’t have to. And that he then read it to me in his nice accent. See the wikipedia article at the title link above for detailed information on the content, but suffice to say he enumerates most of the major things about religion that bother me, and adds more I wasn’t aware of.

Can we abolish this supernatural nonsense now, please?

 

Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan

A well-written and interesting hard SF story about a galaxy-threatening accident and the scramble to mitigate it. Less tiresome and more engrossing than some of Egan’s more exposition-heavy, visualization-taxing efforts.

I found it odd that the titular construct played only a tiny role in the story.

The best part of this story, in my opinion, was the interesting model of future human sexuality presented. This is a future where humans are heavily bioengineered and have gotten over their gender-induced hangups. Children do not have genitalia nor do lone adults unless they want to for some odd reason. When two or more people start to develop romantic attachments with each other, their hormonal systems negotiate via pheromones and initiate the growth of appropriate combinations of sex organs based on the emotional dynamics of the relationship. Under this system non-consensual sex is very difficult and sex hormones are less likely to poison rationality.

 

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Quite enjoyed this. It’s a story of survival, discovery and human politics over deep time. But more than anything else it ends as a setup for one or possibly two sequels that I hope will prove as engrossing if they’re ever written.

I require a character in the sequel to use the phrase, “Let’s caul ass!”

 

Hold Still by Sally Mann

A few years ago, on impulse, I started a collection of books by and about controversial photographers with some half-baked idea of making a study of what gets fussbudgets wound up. So far I only have a couple of autobiographies in the collection, and this is the most recently written of them. I decided to read one to see how one of these photographers reacted to the fuss over her work.

If you don’t know, Sally Mann has several series of photographs that have drawn some flak, but the biggest noise came from nude photos of her own children. She was accused of everything from poor taste to abuse of trust to child pornography.

She seems to have been more naive than photographers would be today (partly thanks to her example), and was taken by surprise by the reaction. She even went to the point of taking her kids and all of her photos of them to an interview with an FBI investigator, and was assured that none of her work was illegal but that she should expect some trouble with stalkers. Sadly, that did come to pass but not as badly as you might fear.

But that story was only a tiny part of the content of this book. This is the story of her life, interweaving the distant history of her family back to her great-grandparents, her unbelievably film-like growing up in the Southern USA – as in “Suthan” – the complex racial situation there that she was oblivious to until adulthood and now has complex feelings about, and her relationships with horses, dogs, men, her children, the land, photography and other artists. It’s all a lot more fascinating than you might expect, and for me it was a window into a very alien lifestyle.

 

ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

This is a fast and easy read; it’s a collection of one-page theses that each attempt to justify a one-sentence quip about how to run a workplace. It came up in the book club at work, which is why I read it.

While I actually agree with a lot of what they say, this book irritates me because it’s written in a very cocksure style. Reading between the lines – and sometimes not between them – the authors are saying, “We ignored conventional wisdom in the following ways and created a small business that happened to be famously successful at the time we decided to publish this book, so therefore we are qualified to assert that this is the Right Way To Do Things.” Even if they’re right, nobody likes braggarts. Actually, especially if they’re right.

There are a few items in this book that I strongly disagree with, though sometimes it’s the presentation that I disagree with. As an example, in the section titled “Build a Rockstar Environment / Skip the Rock Stars” they assert that instead of trying to recruit star talent, employers should try to create a work environment that naturally boosts everyone’s productivity. I think these two things are orthogonal and they’re presenting them in a false dichotomy. It is simultaneously true that the work environment affects everyone’s productivity and that some people are inherently more productive than others. You should do both – create a good environment AND try to hire good people.

 

Remix Rundown: INXS’s “I Need You Tonight”

Occasionally I like to search out new remixes, covers and mashups of classic tunes. I almost always find something better than the original, especially with tracks that were both good and well known to begin with.

This week it has been I Need You Tonight by INXS (pronounced “inkses”, of course :). Here’s the original for reference – or rather, the best approximation of the original I could find on YouTube easily.

Man, the video compositing dates it more than anything else…

The original track stands out for having a unique and instantly recognizable sound, even to this day. It is contaminated with vocals, but they are quite well integrated with the rhythm and melody and are a net plus.

Here are some of the mixes I’ve enjoyed most, in roughly increasing order of awesomeness. I take no responsibility for the sometimes NSFW video content – in some cases I wasn’t able to find a better version.

There’s always a Liebrand mix, isn’t there? Throwing this in not so much because I like it but because it’s a curiosity – an example of the early ’90s sample salad mixing style.

This unnamed mix is more like a standard late-90s anthem template overlaid with some INXS samples, but it works if you like the beat and chord progressions of that sort of music, which I do to some extent.

The Genesis Breaks mix is a fairly clubby mix that basically just replaces the bassline and speeds up the beat. It works though.

The Fractal System mix pretty straightforward but I do like the bouncy beat.

This mashup with a Sebastien Tellier track plus something else makes for a nice change of atmosphere.

Kazy’s cover has a slower pace and darker feel.

Now here’s where I think the mixes start to improve on the sound of the original.

The Rhythm Scholar mix is a bit faster-paced and clubby, but I’ve come to like it out of familiarity – I’ve heard this version a lot. I especially like the modified vocal background sample that comes in occasionally starting around 2:05.

This Wehbba mix is a fairly direct mix adding a new beat, bassline and a few distorted samples. A little on the beaty side but I like the use of stuttered accent samples here and there.

Another Wehbba mix with more of an electro-funk feel to it.

The Manhattan Deep Dub mix is a less direct remix than most, being closer to a selection of choice samples included in a new track, but it does make a decent semi-mellow coding background track.

A mashup (I think) with Shaka Ponk results in a nice rock & roll adaptation. Strong sounds in this one.

I really like the replacement guitar sounds in this Roman, Button and Cosmic JD mix.

The Streetlab mix – not sure what to call this, but it works. I especially like the kick drum beat in this one.

A cover by Cassettes Won’t Listen – probably my favorite of the versions I’ve heard that are definitely covers rather than remixes.

The Devant vs. Filo & Peri mix was my favorite last time I made the rounds on this track. It’s still great. Somehow the bassline that starts around 1:45 feels good, especially when it comes back at 4:30 for the reprise.

The Natema mix is definitely my favorite from the lot. It’s got several nice ambience changes scattered through, and some simple but nice sampling and synth work. I had this one on loop for a whole day and kept going back to it for the rest of the week.

There are lots more mixes of this track out there, but I think I found the majority of the ones posted to YouTube, and these were (in my opinion) the best of the lot.

Convergent thoughts about mortality at different scales

A thing I ponder frequently is the ultimate fate of the universe and the life within it. The universe is full of beauty and elegance, but those things are useless without minds to appreciate them. Therefore sentience should be maximized in duration and variety.

But we are unsure whether it’s possible for sentience to exist forever. We still don’t know for sure how the universe will develop over long time scales. Most of the current theories imply that the universe has a finite useful lifetime after which sentience is no longer possible; for example, even if the universe itself continues forever, it is likely the case that protons decay and that no new matter is created, and therefore the matter inside the universe will not exist forever. No matter, no minds.

Therefore it behooves all sentience to study this problem and try to find some means of indefinite survival.

A new thought occurred to me today: Suppose it were eventually proven that sentience cannot exist forever? Suppose this universe will eventually reach zero utility, suppose it’s impossible to move to another universe, and even suppose we can’t even leave a permanent record behind.

Well, then sentience itself would collectively face the same decision that young individuals have (mostly unconsciously) faced until recent generations: Live with this depressing and uncomfortable truth, or develop some sort of systematic insanity to make it more palatable?

When I was young, I learned that death exists and that despite best attempts, nobody has yet managed to avoid it. Thus far, living has been 100% fatal – what a rip-off! Perhaps this problem might be solved in the future, but at the time that was a far-out science fiction idea and there was no hope of it happening in my expected lifetime.

Many people of my generation and previous generations found this a pretty bitter pill. Some dealt with it via various forms of insanity: Denial by ignoring the problem entirely; the softly suicidal acceptance of death’s inevitability; the misanthropic (or even murderous if it inspires activism) belief that death is a good thing and should be preserved as is, or the baseless assumption of various kinds of immortality that don’t require bodies.

After ignoring it for a while, I chose to throw in with the group that faces the existence of death without accepting it. The Something Must Be Done crowd.

Fortunately, younger generations are less bound to make this choice. We have now realized that “death by old age” is not actually a thing; it’s just a term of convenience that means someone was killed by some combination of diseases that were incurable at the time and often too complex to bother sorting out precisely after the fact.

We’ve also realized that we are made of software-controlled microscopic protein factories, that these cells and their DNA programs are bloated and inefficient due to their evolutionary origin, and that we should therefore be able to both improve them and improve their aggregate products (us). We’re currently reverse-engineering the software that makes us and learning to improve it and write our own new versions. I am certain that, barring interference, this will lead to radical life extension and eventually a solution to the problem of finite expected lifespans (in the absence of accident, murder or suicide, of course). I have no idea when though; some generations, including mine, may be disappointed.

 

So here’s where the interesting parallel exists: At the individual level we’ve had to wrestle with the difficult problem of mortality in the face of the certainty of its existence so far, but now science is starting to give us some hope of a reprieve.  At the level of sentience itself we, as the only example thereof we’re currently aware of, don’t know if mortality is certain and will have to do the science to find out. It’s not a perfect dovetail since at the small scale we’re moving from an assumed certainty to uncertainty and possibly to the opposite certainty, whereas at the large scale we know we’re uncertain and are trying to establish either certainty.

But if it does turn out to that finiteness of mind is certain then we’ll have to make that same choice between insanities collectively. I wonder what that will look like; I suspect it will result in large sections of the civilized universe living wastefully and dangerously.

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