Monday, January 29

reading: a wizard of earthsea

I started this once some years back, but I didn’t get very far. Then my sister gave me the first three Earthsea books for Christmas, and on the 22nd of this month Ursula K. Le Guin died. When I heard, I sat at my kitchen table and cried, and then got out my copy of The Dispossessed and thumbed through it for an hour. Eventually I decided to pick up Wizard, and finished it in a handful of sittings.

It’s the kind of thing I wish I’d read at 10 and yet was grateful to find that I still had ahead of me at 36. Its closest parallel in anything I’ve read is probably Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which I mean as high praise.

I’ve loved Le Guin’s work for a long time, but I think I’ve probably read at most a quarter of her published material. I don’t think it all works for me, but there’s a lot more of it I intend to pick up.

Thursday, January 18

reading: master and commander

By Patrick O'Brian. No longer remember how this landed on my shelf, but it’s been there for a while. Quoth Wikipedia:

The novel is set at the turn of the 19th century. It follows the young Jack Aubrey who has just been promoted to the rank of Master and Commander, and Stephen Maturin, a destitute physician and naturalist whom Aubrey appoints as his naval surgeon. They sail in HM Sloop of War Sophie with first lieutenant James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. …

Master and Commander met with mixed early reviews on its first publication. Although UK sales were respectable enough for O'Brian to continue with his series, it was not initially a success in the US. In Britain and Ireland, however, voices of praise gradually became dominant. In 1990, the US publisher W. W. Norton re-issued the book and its sequels; this was an almost immediate success and drew O'Brian a new, large readership. O'Brian’s biographer has placed the novel at the start of what he called the author’s magnum opus, a series that has become perhaps the best-loved roman fleuves of the twentieth century.

This is the first in a giant series of books about dudes doing stuff on wooden ships with lots of sails and rigging, the complexities of which I am never going to grasp even slightly. There is just an unreal amount of technical exposition about sails and sailing stuff. It’d probably be equally correct to say that it’s about the sailing stuff or to say that it’s about Jack and Stephen being friends while everything is all complicatedly mannered, colonial, and riddled with fucked-up relations of power.

It’s a surprisingly funny, subtle book. I don’t know if I’ll attempt the rest of the series, but I enjoyed this one and I think I can see why people love them so much.

Wednesday, January 17

self-hosting, a status check

Following up on self-hosting, cloud disentanglement, windmill tilting, etc., a brief summary of progress:

mail

I’m using FastMail as a provider for my new address(es), for now anyway. (Actually it’s an old address - one I used more than a decade ago and should have retained instead of being lured in by GMail’s gleaming surface.) I could wish for more open code and more encryption in the mix, but they seem well-managed and offer some useful features without obviously breaking the ecosystem in any way I’ve noticed yet.

I’m using OfflineIMAP to keep a rolling local copy of everything still in GMail. I think at some point this will become purely archival and I’ll delete everything stored in GMail and just treat that address as one regular account in whatever client I’m using at the time. Realistically, I can probably never actually kill the account, because even if I make an effort to change the address on every account I have elsewhere, I’ll miss something that will turn out to be vital.

The desktop e-mail client situation is dire, but not impossible. There’s a strong temptation to go back to Mutt. I used it before, I could probably use it again. I could also probably just use Thunderbird, Evolution, or some other mediocre but stable holdover from the era when native GUI desktop client applications were still a thing.

In summary, this is a giant pain in the ass and I hate it, but I’m probably 20% of the way there. I hope to document my setup when it settles down into something coherent.

phone service / mobile os, apps, etc.

I ordered a Gemini PDA, a small device with a physical keyboard which will theoretically boot into a real Debian. This is a gamble, and will likely amount to having thrown away the price of a new phone, but it does potentially represent a step in the right direction. If nothing else, spending the money is another signal to the market that I am still interested in keyboards and would like a device that does what this one is supposed to.

Eventually, perhaps someone will decide that there are enough idiosyncratic fanatics like me to sell us useful goods.

e-books

I canceled my Amazon Prime account today; a futile but mildly satisfying gesture.

So far every book I’ve read in 2018 has been on paper. Which is probably my best solution for as long as they’re still printing paper books.

laptop and desktop hardware

In the wake of Meltdown/Spectre, It turns out this situation is even more unfathomably fucked than I thought it was a couple of months ago. Solutions are in very short supply.

Tuesday, January 16

reading: smilla's sense of snow

Peter Høeg, translated by Tiina Nunnally. Murder mystery / thriller of sorts, set in Copenhagen and the arctic. I forgot to bring reading material for a flight, and when I saw this in the airport bookstore I remembered that I liked the movie. (IMDB says: 1997, Julie Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris. I seem to have watched it in 1999.)

This is a translation from Danish. The author’s Danish; his protagonist is half Danish and half Inuit from Greenland. I wonder what a native Greenlander would think about this story. There’s more than a little of the Magical Native American thing going on with Smilla.

It’s also got one of those plots that strains suspension of disbelief just past the breaking point half a dozen times, and it has probably a hundred more pages than it needs. All that said, it was an engrossing read.

thursday, january 4

speculative execution

walking across the highway, the wire
silhouettes of the deactived holiday lights
sketched beneath the streetlamps
the cars don't stop at the crosswalks this time
you get lucky once in a while but you wouldn't
want to push it too hard

it was a long weird day in computerland, all
echoing with the sense that the machinery we've
built a civilization on is rotten somewhere near
the core, close to the foundations

the machinery electrical and economic all at once
the logic of silicon and software;
the logic of expansion, enclosure, and control;
the systems and the systems they're made of

it'll pass - it'll recede into the daily cycle
in a year it will be hard to remember the specifics
of today's failure; the next one may be worse,
and anyway the last dozen mistakes and betrayals in this
endless series have collapsed into one another so quickly
that they defy narrative

but there's something cumulative here.
something is clearer now, to some of us.

Monday, January 1

reading in 2017

Trying to remember: What did I actually read in the last year?

I know for sure that in February I read The War Against the Assholes, by Sam Munson, and Pansy, by Andrea Gibson, because I wrote about it here.

In April I started and failed to get anywhere with The Icon Thief, by Alec Nevala-Lee, whose blog writing on topics like golden age SF, filmmaking, and the craft of writing is consistently excellent (and sort of bogglingly prolific). The Icon Thief didn’t really grab me, but I should buy more of Nevala-Lee’s books anyway because he’s one of the best things in my feedreader most weeks. (And I’m really looking forward to his upcoming Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.)

In May I bought a Kindle copy of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, by Zeynep Tufekci. I think I managed about 20%, not so much because it’s bad (it’s not, and Tufekci is a writer and thinker worth listening to) as because I spent so much time this year thinking about networks and network dysfunction that the whole topic had already become paralyzing and spiral-of-despair-inducing by the time I started the book.

Also in May I started gradually re-reading chunks of the Bible (mostly the New Testament and mostly in the NRSV).

I remember buying Dark Canyon, a middling Louis L'Amour novel about bankrobbers making good, at a truckstop on the way to a festival in June.

Some time after that, I found a copy of Split Image by Robert B. Parker at the laundromat and read it in a sitting or two. It’s a Jesse Stone novel, so it’s outside of the Spenser narrative (though I seem to remember it’s clearly set in the Spenser-verse). Thinking about it now, I feel like I might as well go back and read the rest of Parker’s other series. None of it’s up to the standard of the early Spenser material, and some of it is frankly pretty terrible, but whatever. There’s no shame in the comforts of familiar pulpy genre series intake.

I think I got John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at a yard sale in the summer, but it’s a clean enough trade paperback (the Penguin one with Gary Oldman’s face from the 2011ish movie on the cover) that I might have bought it new at a bookstore. I liked it more than I expected, and want to read more Le Carré. Something about the sort of weirdly restrained, jargon-laden procedural dryness of it was really appealing.

Ann Leckie’s Provenance, a book adjacent to (but not a direct sequel to) her Ancillary trilogy came out in September and I read it on a Kindle. I liked many of the same things about it that I liked about the earlier novels, though the scale felt smaller and less consequential.

Somewhere in the fall I got Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, and made it something like a hundred pages in before losing the will to continue. The language was well-handled, and there were striking images, but the poetically vivid genocide and so forth weren’t something I really needed. Maybe it’s just that I’ve already read too much Cormac McCarthy and don’t really need any more of a certain mode of western.

I’ve had an old library copy of Nebraska Moments, by Donald R. Hickey, for years now, and finally started skimming through it. It’s a collection of historical sketches on topics like the Great Blizzard of 1888, the founding of Omaha, William Jennings Bryan, and so forth. Kind of dry, but it’s got a good level of detail for the kind of thing that it is, and the writing is clear. It’s good for the 10 or 15 minutes before sleep when I want something that feels educational without being so interesting that it keeps me awake.

I started a Ted Chiang collection in November.

In December I bought a paperback edition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock at a thrift store. So far I haven’t made it much further than the introduction, and I begin to suspect I probably won’t. It feels like the kind of thing that works best as intellectual background radiation for a book like The Shockwave Rider.

All year I’ve been getting issues of High Country News, and sometimes I even read them. (It’s a good publication, doing good journalism. I just re-upped my subscription.)

What else? There must have been some programming books and random excursions into poetry or reference material. I know I’m forgetting a few things. But the above list is basically it, except for the internet.

Because really what I read in 2017, in most of the last several years, was the internet. Not even, in any real sense that registers, individual documents hosted on the network, or the work of authors I can clearly identify. Just the endless scroll.

The internet: A tide of incoherent technical documentation, error logs, seething sociopolitical rage, ideological agitation and condemnation (somewhere between authentic and engineered/rehearsed, on some spectrum it is no longer possible for me to easily parse), clickbait, reaction, comment vitriol, disinformation, machine-generated pseudojournalism, notification spam, marketing, infographical non-info, hot-take product, autoplaying video, and generalized memetic spew.

This is the year I lost hope for the web, probably for the network as a whole. It’s also the year I tried hardest to look away, found it most necessary for my own mental health to avoid what the internet has become, watched my friends and family experience the same. And with all that, it’s also the year the internet most thoroughly consumed my relationship to words.

It feels like that’s an index to something.