I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s Microsoft, after all.

I keep my personal calendar information separate from my corporate calendar. Work stuff is in an Exchange calendar, and personal stuff is in Apple’s iCloud calendar. Since the native Mac calendar can read from both servers, I can easily see my whole calendar there. Ditto on my iPhone and iPad.

However, heretofore, I haven’t bothered trying to show my iCloud calendars in Outlook 2010. It’s been a nagging thing-I-need-to-investigate for a while, but what pushed me over the edge was scheduling snafus brought about by the sudden influx of daytime medical appointments (scheduled, naturally, on my personal calendar) that were invisible to Outlook. See, 90% of the time, the calendar I consult before accepting a business appointment is the sidebar (“To-Do Bar”) calendar in Outlook.

That Outlook can’t see dinner parties is one thing. That it couldn’t see midday physical therapy sessions was becoming a problem. So, today, I went looking for a way to show all my cal data in Outlook, too. Turns out, getting that data in Outlook is pretty simple — you just download iCloud for Windows from Apple, and like magic you can see your contacts and calendars from iCloud in Outlook. Nice.

But because this is Microsoft, and they hate you, there’s a grotesque limitation. Sure, you can SEE your non-Exchange data in the Calendar mode in Outlook, but the To-Do Bar — which is the only calendar I ever use in Outlook — is limited to your DEFAULT calendar, and cannot show data from any other calendar, either from Exchange or another data source.

WAT.

This makes utterly ZERO sense, because even if I kept my personal calendar data in Exchange, it’d be in another calendar, not co-mingled with every business appointment ever. Having NO WAY to show a real and accurate sidebar calendar in Outlook is just baffling. Or, rather, it would be baffling, if it weren’t from MSFT.

So much for at-a-glance functionality. If I’ve gotta switch modes to see my days, I’ll just turn off calendars in Outlook entirely and use the Mac calendar instead, because this is some bullshit. It’s also bullshit that gets WORSE in Outlook 2013, since the To-Do Bar has apparently been significantly dumbed down there. More reason to eschew that particular upgrade.

Your Monday Morning Random Fact

Owing to the appearance of the Cradle of Love video (which is fun for lots of reasons, not the least of which being the prominent placement of both a cassette deck and an ancient Macintosh) in this morning’s drink-from-the-Internet-fire-hose, I’m now in a position to remind you that David Fincher directed a shit-ton of pretty iconic music videos in addition to the “Cradle” clip before he started making movies, from artists like Paula Abdul’s (“Straight Up”, “Cold Hearted”), Madonna (“Express Yourself”, “Vogue”, “Bad Girl” (which featured Christopher Walken)), Don Henley (“End of the Innocence”), Aerosmith (“Jamie’s Got A Gun”), George Michael (“Freedom ’90″), and others.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging

While Lenovo has made some noises about understanding what a giant shitstorm they’re in, their erstwhile partner Superfish has doubled down on the bullshit and continues to insist they did nothing wrong DESPITE universal condemnation from security experts.

I repeat: every single person involved in the decision to inject fraudulent certificates as part of their install should be blackballed from any industry that even touches computers forever.

Did you buy a Lenovo? You may be fucked.

That’s blunt, but it’s really about the size of it. Lenovo included a particularly shitty form of ad-ware called Superfish on some of their laptops that watches what you do online and serves ads targeted based on that data. The trouble with that approach — and I mean that from the perspective of the ad people, not you — is that secure browsing sessions can’t be watched, and for privacy reasons MANY sites are going to https-only. (This is a good thing, unless you’re a creepy ad person.)

Well, Superfish decided to “solve” this “problem” by fundamentally breaking certificate security. The mechanism here is fairly technical, but I break it down for you in lay terms, I think.

  • When you use a secure web site (i.e., https and not http), you’re using a technology called “SSL”.

  • SSL relies on special bits of data called “certificates”.

  • SSL certificates do two things: They encrypt your traffic between your browser and, say, Chase.com; and they verify to you that the site you think is Chase.com really is Chase.com. This second part sounds insignificant, but it’s a HUGE deal because, for technical reasons, it’s terribly feasible to masquerade as a site on the Internet. Or, potentially worse, pretend to be the real site while watching the traffic for interesting bits (e.g., credit card numbers and passwords) while still sending the traffic on to the “real” destination. This approach is called a “man-in-the-middle” attack. (More about this from Ars Technica, if you’re interested.)

  • Certificates are issued by generally-trusted security authorities, though there can be a chain of trust, from A to B to C.

What Superfish did was insert its own certificate as a trusted authority on affected laptops. This is absolutely worse than the Sony rootkit fiasco of a few years ago. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid and awful, and the situation is made worse by both Lenovo’s and Superfish’s utter refusal to recognize how badly they’ve fucked up. Lenovo’s initial response even included a line about how their analysis showed no security vulnerability, which was manifestly untrue and they knew it. It’s since been edited.

Superfish, on the other hand, still says they create no vulnerability. Honest to God, every single person involved with the decision to do this deserves to be drummed out of the software and IT industries at a bare minimum. Absolutely blackball these fuckers.

If you’ve got a Lenovo, you should absolutely remove the Superfish software AND the certificate. Just zapping the software won’t do it alone; you have to kill the cert, too.

If you do not do this and you are affected, it’s the same as not using encryption at all, so every banking session, every shopping session, and everything else you do on your computer is effectively public. I am not exaggerating.

If all this seems technical, you’re in luck: Lifehacker has an “am I infected?” test link up.

It’s a shitty decade that has no Hunter Thompson in it.

And we just finished the first of many. Hunter S. Thompson, 7/18/37 – 2/20/2005.

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I posted this before, the day after he died (this site is old, yo), but it’s worth reading again. For my money, it’s one of his best passages; it generally surprises folks when I tell them what book it’s from:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history,” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what’s actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was. No doubt at all about that . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eye you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

It’s Friday. You need some new music.

You should totally pick up on Zoe Keating.

Keating plays the cello, which is awesome from the getgo, but what she does is way more amazing than just that. She builds a composition in real time using only her cello and her laptop, using loops to create remarkable and amazing landscapes of sound. Her work is beautiful and haunting and absolutely worth your time. I’ve been a fan for years, and then had the fantastic good fortune to see her live on the JoCoCruise back in 2013. Here’s video of that performance, from YouTube:

I’m picking this video (and there are lots; Keating is savvy about internet fair use) for two reasons: one, Mrs Heathen and I were there watching (see here), and two, at that moment Keating was unaware of the terrible, rough road that lay ahead of her.

Soon after the end of the cruise that year, her husband Jeff was diagnosed with cancer. Her tangles with her health insurer made plenty of news, and should terrify everyone, but the real point is that in addition to dealing with her spouse’s life-threatening disease, she also had to force and shame her insurance company into covering his care. Oh, and raise a toddler. There’s that, too.

Keating’s husband had ups and downs in his treatment, but the initial diagnosis was pretty dire and included multiple metastasis sites. That’s a shitty hand to be dealt, and the endgame was probably already set before they even knew what was happening.

That end came yesterday.

It’s because of the peculiar nature of the JoCo cruise that I can tell you that yes, Keating is a terribly nice person, as was Jeff. If what you see and hear in the video above appeals to you, please consider buying some of her music today. They could use the help.

So, about that SNL 40 Afterparty

First, HOLY CHRIST MAN THAT SOUNDS AWESOME.

The best part is set up by this:

“They have a stage set up with just instruments: drums, mics, guitars, bass, keyboard, but no band,” Fallon said. “Just a set up in case anyone wants to get on stage and jam.”

Second, pretty much only Fallon could tell that story and not come off like an asshole. You still get the idea that he cannot believe his immense good fortune. For him, part of it are just a story about his friends (when he references cast members), but in the rest of it he’s just as starstruck as anyone else would be.

(To be fair, Seth Meyers gave a shorter recap, and he’s equally amazed and charming — and points out what Fallon kind of buries, which is Jimmy’s key role in making the jam happen.)

Dept. of Next-Level Crafting

Over at this Reddit thread, you can see a dress a woman made herself, from scratch.

By “from scratch” I do not mean a Simplicity pattern and fabric. I mean she started with a sheep, sheared it, combed the raw wool, then spun it into yarn, then wove the yarn into fabric, and then made the dress.

Oh, and she made the tools she used, too.

Books of 2015, #7: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I actually bought The Shining Girls last year, but for some reason my initial sampling of it didn’t hook me, so I put it aside and forgot about it until the JoCo Cruise this year when something else (which I won’t name) proved too awful to continue. Since I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean, my options were limited to what I had on the Kindle app of my iPad, and so I took another run at The Shining Girls.

I’m glad I did. It’s not great literature by any stretch, but it’s definitely inventive and definitely well crafted. I don’t want to give too much away — it’s very much an Idea book — but the gist is that there exists a sociopath who happens upon a house that allows him to travel through time, and that seems to compel him to seek out and viciously kill certain young women. Working against him in this is the inevitable sole surviving victim, who is (sadly, I must admit) also spunky young newspaper intern whose interactions with her superiors are distressingly predictable (see here and here and here, and I’m not sorry for sending you to TVTropes).

Even so, it’s a fun read, and turned out to be just the thing to read on vacation. Give it a spin.

Books of 2015, #6: The Widening Gyre, by Robert B. Parker

Parker may be dead, but Spenser lives forever. Or, at least, for me he lives until I run out of Spenser novels. This one‘s an early one — the 10th in the series, published thirty-odd years ago. All the right elements are there, though, and even though it’s quite a bit more by-the-numbers than the later novels, it was still a fun afternoon read. How do you NOT love a detective novel named from a Yeats poem?

Special extra bonus points to Mrs Heathen for finding me this first edition in a used book shop a while back!

Books of 2015, #5: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

I should just come right out and say that I’m a David Mitchell fan. Having enforced downtime is great for some things, and one of those is reading serious books; Mitchell qualifies.

The Bone Clocks is a tremendous joy, but if I’m honest I also admit that it’s got its flaws. Possibly chief among them is that the warring factions here — without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the key conflict is between two groups of differently-immortal people who are, of course, on the down low — are each retreads of similar ideas from books I read previously.

The good guys here are very similar to the eponymous group from The Incrementalists, whereas our bad guys are even MORE similar to Doctor Sleep‘s True Knot. I’m not saying Mitchell cribbed either, but the resonance is too huge to ignore, and I found it a little offputting.

That said, the book is still really delightful for at least 2/3 of its volume. Mitchell delights in clockwork-clever asides and references (to his own work as well as popular culture and other writers’ works), and they’re out in force here, but subtly enough that they don’t detract. His plots, too, can be so intricately planned as to make a mystery writer weep, and that, too, is a delight — the final reveals here are really stupendous without being cheap. But he still kinda whiffs the last quarter of the book, in my opinion.

Also troublesome to me is his return to what is by now a pretty well-worn near-future trope: broad economic collapse based on climate change and drastic shifts in geopolitical power. I understand why this idea is compelling to some people — it’s part of our global anxiety about the future — but it’s hard to do without feeling preachy. Mitchell fails that test here, I’m afraid, and so that segment ends up being kind of a slog.

Fortunately, the book has many segments, taking place in many time periods, all generally touching on the same people at different points in their lives, and they work together to tell the story. Mitchell is kind of obsessed with time and long-form plots; if you take Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas together, you get the idea he’s working towards becoming a sort of paranormal Centennial-era James Michener, and I don’t mean that as a slight. Telling an epic story is a great goal, even if this time around Mitchell fails to meet the mark he previously set with Cloud Atlas.

Well, 40 years is a long time.

Last night, NBC ran the October 11, 1975 premiere of Saturday Night Live. I was struck by a few things in particular.

First, the tone and rhythm of the show is very different — pacing is weird and more haphazard, for example, which makes sense since the show as brand new and running at a time when they could generally assume almost no one was watching. It’s also way more of a variety show than the pure sketch show it became. George Carlin has several segments of standup, and the two musical guests — Janis Ian and Billy Preston — each get two songs. Jim Henson’s Muppets have a bit, even.

Second, there’s a LOT more show. The show as broadcast last night seems completely uncut; this may be the first time I’ve seen ALL of the first episode. There seem to be many, many fewer commercial breaks, and they’re shorter when they happen. I knew commercials had become more pervasive in my TV-watching life, but it was gradual. Seeing an example of 1970s TV today, complete with period breaks, is pretty shocking. (I’m willing to stipulate that 11:30 on a Saturday may not have been particularly appealing ad time, so maybe the first SNL has fewer breaks than a prime time show of that era would’ve had, but the difference is still shocking.)

Finally, well, you can’t help but notice how many folks in the first episode have died. Because I’m morbidly curious, I made this list of the dead people I saw, in the order in which they appear:

  • Michael O’Donoghue (1994, 54)
  • John Belushi (died in 1982 at age 33)
  • George Carlin (2008, 71)
  • Billy Preston (2006, 59)
  • Gilda Radner (1989, 42)
  • Andy Kaufman (1984, 35)
  • Jim Henson (1990, 53)

It’s sad to see that, of these, only Carlin lived past the three score and ten we think of as a “normal” life before dying of heart failure. Belushi of course did himself in, but the rest of them passed naturally despite their relative youth.

All of the surviving original cast is north of 60 now. The oldest, Garrett Morris, is 78. Dan Ackroyd and Laraine Newman are the babies at 62.

(Update: Alert reader F.D. notes that my order above was off; O’Donoghue appears in the first sketch, but I didn’t realize that was him.)

FCC to Marriott: Shut up and sit down, you craven weasels

Marriott has been insisting that it was free to disable guest Wifi hotspots “for quality reasons,” which is transparently false: their reason is to force guests and conference-goers to use their overpriced facility wifi services. Charges for these can run to hundreds of dollars a day for some conferences, so there’s no doubt that they’re feeling a bite here — at the rates I sometimes see, it would be cheaper to go to a mall, buy a hotspot device from whatever provider you want, and then never use it again than it would be to pay for conference wifi.

Marriott paid a $600,000 fine about this earlier in the year, but was still agitating for a rule change to allow their tomfoolery. Last month, they backed down, but still insisted it was their right.

The FCC has issued a very clear opinion on the matter:

The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.

[...]

No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.

Boom. Headshot, assholes.

Books of 2015, #4: Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (Expanse #4)

What started as a “ripping good yarn” a few years ago is getting a bit ploddy. It’s hard to say much about this without disclosing spoilers for the first three books, so I’ll be vague, but if you like hard SF and you enjoyed the first couple, this one’s mostly more of the same, though we get WAY less “crazy alien stuff” and way more “pioneer politics.” I’m not sure this is really an improvement.

Anyway, the “good yarn” aspects have been enough to get The Expanse a shot at TV over on SyFy, but I really have no idea how it’ll translate, or how true to books they’ll be. It’s clear now that Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is pursuing this as an open-ended series and not a single long story, and that makes me less interested in hanging on forever. Stories need ends.

Books of 2015, #3: The Martian, by Andy Weir

I guess that, if we’re going to have categories, I have to tag this as SF, but it’s the closest-to-now and absolutely most-plausible SF I think I’ve ever seen, and not in the “20 minutes into the future” sense that you sometimes got with cyberpunk. The Martian is basically set in the present day, with only our space program’s abilities slightly ramped up.

Astronaut Mark Watney is part of a Mars expedition that works more or less like you’d expect: a long trip there followed by a fairly short sojourn on the surface doing experiments and gathering samples. When a sandstorm kicks up and threatens the stability of their lander — i.e., their only way back to orbit and their ride home — they must abort, but poor Mark is injured on the run to the craft. Worse, the flying debris that knocks him out also destroyed his suit’s telemetry equipment, so all his colleagues think he’s dead. Safe on the lander, and thinking him lost, they leave.

And then Mark wakes up, alone and marooned, and with no way to communicate with Earth or his colleagues.

What follows is a terrific yarn equal parts accessible, scientifically valid problem solving and “Robinson Crusoe”, minus the charming natives. Essentially everything Mark does is plausible, which makes the story all the more thrilling and fun. It should therefore come as no surprise that it’s already been optioned; it’ll be adapted by Drew Goddard (who directed The Cabin in the Woods from a Whedon script) and helmed by Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon attached as Watney.

Scott’s output lately has been weak, but the source material here is so strong my hope is he’s able to find his feet again. The emphasis here on real approaches to problem solving prompted me to describe The Martian to a friend as “like Gravity, but good;” on film, that could become literally true.

Highly recommended.

Josh Marshall Explains the House of Saud

You probably heard that Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Abdullah, died yesterday at 90.

What you may not have picked up is how deeply strange the Kingdom’s succession system is, Josh Marshall at TPM breaks it down for you. Abdullah took over from his half brother Fahd, who took over from his half brother Khalid, who took over from his half brother Faisal, who took over from his half brother Saud, who took over when the original King Ibn Saud died in 1953 at the age of 76. Yes, this means the Saudi king’s dad was born a decade after the American Civil War.

“Good god, how many sons did this dude have?” you may ask. I know I did. Turns out? Answer is 45 via 20+ wives, of which 36 lived to adulthood. Interestingly, only one wife (Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi) mothered two kings: Khalid (b. 1913, reigned ’75 to ’82) and the new king Salman (b. 1935). She had five other sons besides, plus four daughters. The Wikipedia article is worth a click.

Salman is no spring chicken at 79. After him comes the last surviving son of Ibn Saud, Muqrin, who’s a decade younger. The apparent plan at that point — which could come sooner rather than later, as Abdullah’s 90 years is as much an outlier there as anywhere — they’ll move on to grandsons.

Say what you will about pure father-to-son succession planning, but at least the path is clear, which presumably preserves some perceived legitimacy in the ruled population. The ever-increasing tribe of Saud doesn’t enjoy that clear-cut path, and the worry is that once they’re out of sons of Saud, they — and the region — may be in for a bumpy ride. Recall it’s been Fahd and Abdullah that have kept Saudi Arabia together and pushed, however incrementally, for greater western engagement and tiny bits of progress for women. The royal family is the enemy of the rabid fundamentalist brands of Islam apparently on sale throughout the region, but they rule a population shot through with those same strains. It’s a delicate balance. The possible absence of even a flawed but legitimate monarch there is probably bad news for moderates in the region and globally, and good news for fundies.

Bug Bounties and Law Enforcement

In the 90s, Dilbert was still relatively novel, and was pretty often VERY on-point, as in this strip from almost 20 years ago:

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As with most of Adams’ work, this one is predicated on the self-evidently ridiculous behavior of management, and the ability of the technical employees to see the failure immediately. Closely tied to this is the feeling we nearly always get from this kind of comedy: that’s pretty funny, but nobody would actually DO that. I mean, it’s stupid.

Well, yeah. About that. Bug bounties absolutely WERE a thing, but they’re positively benign compared to what the FBI has been doing for nearly 15 years. In the era of the War on Terror, it became necessary for Federal law enforcement to show success against terror plots. That terrorism in the US is fantastically rare isn’t an excuse, apparently, for not stopping terror plots.

So what does the FBI do? They go out and write themselves a minivan. A huge percentage of the “plots” they’ve crowed about stopping since 9/11 are plots that were set up by the Feds themselves as pseudo-sting operations. They’d target ineffectual loners and radicals, and then create a situation for them to get carried away and join other “radicals” — typically undercover officers — in an ambitious plot, only to find at the last minute that the plot never existed, but that they were nevertheless guilty of numerous felonies.

But the real winner is the FBI, who gets to trumpet their “success” here and use it to justify more power grabs and more funding. The 20-year-old would-be terrorist may be going to prison behind this, but the REAL losers are all of us, because eventually we’ll have to deal with the metastasizing cancer of overreaching, roll-your-own-crime law enforcement coupled with pols like Boehner using synthetic plots to justify additional government power.

But, hey, my guess is that entrapping basement-dwelling 20-year-olds is a lot easier than catching actual bad guys.

Because Football > Children

In a new settlement with Penn State, the NCAA announced that they have restored the bulk of Joe Paterno’s wins formerly vacated as part of punishment for covering up Sandusky’s child rape hobby. He regains his position, officially, as the winningest coach ever in college football, and I think we can all agree that’s justice exactly what we should expect from an organization as venal and corrupt as the NCAA.

That’s it. Fuck football. it’s a goddamn cancer.

Books of 2015, #2: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

John Hodgman told me to read this.

Well, not directly. But he trumpeted its appeal from his blog, which I read, and so it made it onto my list. Shopping for Christmas presents last month, I slipped a copy into my pile as I’ve recently acquired rather more free time. (Ha, ha.) I read it over the last few days.

It’s solid work. It’s technically Darnielle‘s first novel — he’s mostly famous for being the principal behind the band Mountain Goats — but it turns out his 33 ⅓ book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is rather more than a critical appraisal of the record:

Mr. Darnielle’s publisher is pitching “Wolf in White Van” (the title is a reference to some spooky song lyrics) as a debut novel. But there’s a case to made — I’m willing to make it — that his Black Sabbath book is Mr. Darnielle’s real first novel.

“Master of Reality” is no straightforward critical assessment of Black Sabbath’s album, a sludgy doom-rock classic. It’s fiction that peels thrillingly off into music writing.

The book is written from the point of view of a teenage boy in a mental hospital who explains why Black Sabbath and its lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, meant so much to isolated kids like himself. It’s about how rock music can express not only liberating joy but, conversely and perhaps more importantly, also speak to bottomless misery and pain.

And then, here we are with Wolf, which is also centered on an obsessed, nerdy, isolated teenage protagonist of a certain type. Heavy metal, fantasy literature and games, and social isolation define Sean, at least until they’re joined by the disfiguring accident that cements his isolation and forms the rest of the skeleton on which the book rests.

Wolf in White Van was nominated for the National Book Award, and it should have been. It’s an intense and powerful book, and (I suspect) a personal one for Darnielle. He clearly didn’t suffer the accident that makes Sean a shut-in, but no amount of research could connect a writer so deeply a life like Sean’s — distant or abusive parents, social isolation, and exacerbating the isolation with unconventional interests like fantasy books, heavy metal, and gaming. The Times notes that Darnielle has written before about his abusive stepfather, and no one writes a 33 ⅓ book about a record they don’t love. Darnielle is clearly of a certain tribe (as am I), and his book is an honest story even if it isn’t wholly his. But that’s what fiction is, right?

Recommended.

Books of 2015, #1: A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then, I get drawn into a “classic” of the SF genre, and get roundly disappointed. This is one of those times.

In SF, there are TONS of people who read nothing else, it seems, and a goodly chunk of the SF world seems to value very different things than I do when it comes to literature.

I want decently drawn characters, prose that doesn’t clang, an author who understands that telling is not showing, and a story that moves along without getting bogged down in side issues.

In SF, it seems like all these things are subordinate to the cleverness of the idea or ideas the author includes in the yarn. Now, SF is very different from conventional stories because of this fantastic element, but I’ll go ahead and say out loud that the fantastic element isn’t enough to stand on its own, and authors depend on them at their peril.

Of course, as established above, I appear to be alone in this, because A Fire Upon The Deep is widely heralded as a brilliant book. It won the Hugo in 1993, even. So there’s that.

The story here is really pretty thin, and depends entirely on you being sufficiently entertained by a few plot coupons:

  • The far, far, far future setting, wherein humans are just one race of thousands, including machine intelligences and “post-singularity” races.
  • The whole idea of the “Zones of Thought” in the galaxy, which underpins a series of books starting here. Vinge’s notion is that the galaxy is comprised of concentric zones, and these zones control physical laws at a very basic level. Very close to the galactic core, intelligence is impossible, and travel doubly so. Outside that is the Slow Zone, which is where Earth is, and where the physical laws we know prevail. The next layer is the “Beyond,” where standard SF tropes like faster-than-light travel and communication are possible. And, of course, there’s zones beyond that.
  • That the galaxy can contain many types of intelligences, and that they may be very different from us. This in and of itself isn’t new, but two of Vinge’s examples are genuinely novel: the Skroderiders, and in particular the Tines.

The Tines are neat, I must admit: the race is made up of smallish fairly intelligent doglike quadrupeds, but there within the race individual animals are not considered entities. Instead, small packs — 3 to 8 — combine to become intelligent, named individuals. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach, and to the various sizes of packs. Vinge has given lots of thought to this, which is to his credit, but he did so at the expense of telling an interesting story.

I’ve seen this happen in workshop stories. People fall in love with a plot idea or trope or sequence, and can’t let it go so they beat the horse to death. Vinge does this constantly. The book drags and drags as he explains in painful detail about how a pack race would work, or how a synthetic human feels, or how the Zones affect commerce and history. The issue here isn’t JUST too much backstory (though that’s part of it); the bigger sin is that he just TELLS us these things instead of working their implications into the story organically.

Compare Iain Banks’ Culture stories, for example. Banks has created world no less foreign and amazing than the Zones galaxy, but he’s a deft enough writer that you never feel like you’re getting a braindump from Basil Exposition. I’ve left Banks behind for other reasons, but whatever else turned me off about his books at least the man understood how to construct a good story that also included amazing and fantastic elements.

Fifth Circuit Appears Poised To Rule In Favor Of Marriage Equality

This is pretty amazing, but there’s an absolute OH SNAP moment here that makes it even more delicious:

More than halfway through the morning’s arguments, an exasperated Justin Matheny, the assistant attorney general in Mississippi charged with defending the state’s ban, tried to change his tune during his rebuttal arguments.

When it became clear that the three-judge panel was leaning against upholding the bans, Matheny acknowledged that the “trajectory” for marriage rights for same-sex couples is “undeniable” — but added his new argument: “it’s not there yet.”

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, born in Alabama almost eight decades ago and appointed to the appeals court by President Reagan more than three decades ago, spoke up. And though the older judge was hard to hear at times, he spoke loudly and clearly when he responded to Matheny: “Those words, ‘Will Mississippi change its mind?’ have resonated in these halls before.”

Behind the scenes on the greatest TV show EVER

A sound editor who worked on the Wire did an AMA over at Reddit; Kottke has highlights but this is my favorite:

McNulty (Dom West) came in often and was awesome, as well. His accent showed most often when the character was drunk or angry. Oddly, the name “Stringer Bell” tripped him up a lot. “Stringa” and then a very over-enunciated end to “Bell-eh.” Also, the words “fuck” and “cunt” came out “feck” and “cahnt” and the only way to break him of it was to stand right in front of him (so he could watch the mouth shape) and say the word over and over again. So a Dom West ADR session often went like this:

Me (with Dom staring at my mouth): Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.
Dom: Cahnt. Shit, do it again, please.
Me: Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.
Dom: Cunt. Cunt. OK, let’s record…
(three beeps, the line starts and):
Dom: …cahnt. Feck! Say it again.
Me: Cunt….

Use an iPhone? You should set this up.

The new Health app (iOS 8 only) contains a feature that will allow your phone to share medical data with first responders in the event of an accident. It’s not some high-tech Bluetooth thingy; it’s just as simple as filling in a few fields (emergency contacts, allergies, medical conditions, etc.) and flipping the bit to turn it on.

Once it’s set, the data can be accessed from your phone’s lock screen by pressing Emergency and then Medical ID.

Check it out.

I dunno if I’ll bother with any of the rest of the Health features, but this is a nice addition.

Dept. of Good Things On TV

As a consequence of my injury back before Thanksgiving, Mrs Heathen and I spent a little time between then and Chrismas trying to keep me on the first floor of Heathen World HQ (and plan we’ve subsequently abandoned, because NO). During our evenings there, we were limited in televised entertainment, as we remain (apparently) the last remaining single television home in Christendom.

This limited us to things would could watch for free on NetFlix or Hulu, or on a pay-per-episode basis via iTunes. I don’t remember where I got the tip, but somehow I became aware of a show from the BBC, currently available on NetFlix, called The Fall. It stars Gillian Anderson (who apparently keeps a portrait in her attic) as an investigator in Belfast who in relatively short order finds herself pursuing a serial killer.

(Unlike lots of transatlantic casting, this works, largely because Anderson’s accent is spot on. The reason, apparently, is that she lived in the UK until she was 11, and can code-switch from American to British on the fly. Neat trick.)

Anyway, the first season is there, and you should watch it — and soon, so that you’ll be ready to enjoy season 2 when it arrives on Netflix on January 16.

Wired has a nice piece up about the show which you may enjoy; it’s spoiler-free, mostly (a last-episode plot detail drops late in the piece, but it’s not a major thing).

Books of 2014, #21-26: The Rest

Yeah, well, I’m behind:

  • #21: The Getaway God, by Richard Kadrey: Big fun, and closes out the first major arc for Kadrey’s Sandman Slim character.
  • #22: The Ways of the Dead, by Neely Tucker: Solid thriller debut from a friend of a friend.
  • #23: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: End-of-the-world tale (plague subtype), sorta, but as much about life years after as it is about life during, which makes it more interesting than most such tales. It’s solid work, but I absolutely will ding her for a few clangy bits, most notably her apparent need to remind us, over and over, that gasoline has a short, finite shelf life. It felt like she’d learned this, had it surprise her, and then felt the need to work it into the text as many times as possible. Which is weird, right?
  • #24: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. Basically, I took another run at it because the movie is almost here. I think my takeaway is that Pynchon is for other people. Each sentence has a high chance of being an intricate and clever thing of beauty, but it seems he gets distracted building those things and forgets to complete the story.
  • #25: Personal, by Lee Child. Sue me; I’ve been laid up. At this point, I must confess that I’m completely caught up on Reacher.
  • #26: The Peripheral, by William Gibson. Probably the best and most interesting book I read last year. But it’s Gibson, so this isn’t a surprise. I might get around to writing more about this later, but who can tell?

I finished the Gibson on the 11th, and just finished another book yesterday — but the timing suggests a 27th book for 2014, since I didn’t buy yesterday’s book until the 21st. However, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it was. Clearly, it was memorable.

At least I’m in good company

Bono is apparently more crap at riding a bike than I am:

On the day of my 50th birthday I received an injury because I was over indulging in exercise boxing and cycling, which was itself an overcompensation for overindulging on alcohol coming up to the big birthday. I promised myself I would be more mindful of my limits, but just four years on, it happened again – a massive injury I can’t blame on anyone but myself, mainly because I blanked out on impact and have no memory of how I ended up in New York Presbyterian with my humerus bone sticking through my leather jacket. Very punk rock as injuries go.

[...]

Recovery has been more difficult than I thought… As I write this, it is not clear that I will ever play guitar again. The band have reminded me that neither they nor Western civilization are depending on this.

The whole thing is on an alphabet riff; scroll down for X for the inevitable X-ray of his repaired elbow, which looks even scarier than my repaired femur.

This is more time than anyone our age should have spent on Dr Hook, and yet it’s brilliant

Okkerville River’s Will Sheff is absolutely in love with an obscure German TV concert tape of Dr Hook & the Medicine Show (conveniently also on YouTube; he embeds bits to illustrate his points) and has written a truly remarkable analysis of it that is absolutely worth your time even if you’re only vaguely aware of who this band was. It is in particular compelling in its insight into the musical and interpersonal dynamics going on in a live performance, which I find fascinating.

When you’re done, check the comments. It turns out two members of the band show up there and weigh in, which is awesome (frontman Dennis Loccorriere, and guitarist Rik Elswit).

(Widely linked.)

The Counterpoint to Serial

The title is a takedown in and of itself, so I’ll just use it:

Serial Sucked And Wasted Everyone’s Time

Mrs Heathen and I listened to Koenig’s podcast on our holiday drive — half on the way over, half on the way back — and while I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite as taken with it as most seem to have been, I’m also not as down on it as this writer (Diana Moskovitz) even though she makes absolutely valid points. It meanders. It feels padded, like a Peter Jackson movie. There is no real conclusion, no a-ha, no moment of dramatic Perry Mason-ism wherein the “real” killer is identified and Adnan set free. (Spoiler, I guess.)

There’s value in telling that story, of coures. Real life isn’t neat, and people go to prison on flimsy evidence every day, so that these things are true doesn’t damn the entire enterprise, but it does mean Koenig, et. al., had to do something ELSE with the time to justify it. And I’m not 100% sure they did.

Anyway, if you’re familiar, click through for Moskovitz’s take.

(I am, at this point, willing to stipulate that the holiday-themed parody of Serial mounted by SNL just before Christmas may be sufficient to justify the entire thing, however.)

Oh, wow, it just gets worse for the NYPD

Their very public tantrums are not having the desired effect. Two NYTimes editorials pull ZERO punches:

12/29/14: Police Respect Squandered in Attacks on [Mayor] de Blasio

When [de Blasio] spoke at a police graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden on Monday, some in the crowd booed and heckled him. This followed the mass back-turning by scores of officers when the mayor spoke on Saturday at the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos; the virtual back-turning the day before by an airplane-towed banner (“Our backs have turned to you”), and the original spiteful gesture by officers on the night Mr. de Blasio visited the hospital where Officer Ramos and his partner, Wenjian Liu, lay dead.

Mr. de Blasio isn’t going to say it, but somebody has to: With these acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity, many New York police officers, led by their union, are squandering the department’s credibility, defacing its reputation, shredding its hard-earned respect. They have taken the most grave and solemn of civic moments — a funeral of a fallen colleague — and hijacked it for their own petty look-at-us gesture.

and 12/30/14: When New York City Police Walk Off The Job:

Many members of the New York Police Department are furious at Mayor Bill de Blasio and, by extension, the city that elected him. They have expressed this anger with a solidarity tantrum, repeatedly turning their backs to show their collective contempt. But now they seem to have taken their bitterness to a new and dangerous level — by walking off the job.

The New York Post on Tuesday reported, and city officials confirmed, that officers are essentially abandoning enforcement of low-level offenses. According to data The Post cited for the week starting Dec. 22 — two days after two officers were shot and killed on a Brooklyn street — traffic citations had fallen by 94 percent over the same period last year, summonses for offenses like public drinking and urination were down 94 percent, parking violations were down 92 percent, and drug arrests by the Organized Crime Control Bureau were down 84 percent.

The data cover only a week, and the reasons for the plunge are not entirely clear. But it is so steep and sudden as to suggest a dangerous, deplorable escalation of the police confrontation with the de Blasio administration. Even considering the heightened tensions surrounding the officers’ deaths and pending labor negotiations — the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has no contract, and its leader, Patrick Lynch, has been the most strident in attacking Mr. de Blasio, calling him a bloody accomplice to the officers’ murder — this action is repugnant and inexcusable. It amounts to a public act of extortion by the police.

And why are they doing this?

Let’s review the actions that Mr. de Blasio’s harshest critics say have driven the police to such extremes.

  1. He campaigned on ending the unconstitutional use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics, which victimized hundreds of thousands of innocent young black and Latino men.

  2. He called for creating an inspector general for the department and ending racial profiling.

  3. After Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was killed by a swarm of cops on Staten Island, he convened a meeting with the police commissioner, William Bratton, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, giving Mr. Sharpton greater prominence than police defenders thought he should have had because Mr. Sharpton is a firebrand with an unsavory past.

  4. He said after the Garner killing that he had told his biracial son, Dante, to “take special care” in encounters with the police.

  5. He generally condoned the peaceful protests for police reform — while condemning those who incited or committed violence — and cited a tagline of the movement: “Black lives matter.”

The Times ends with some clear advice for Big Apple cops:

[W]hat New Yorkers expect of the Police Department is simple:

  1. Don’t violate the Constitution.

  2. Don’t kill unarmed people.

To that we can add:

  1. Do your jobs. The police are sworn public servants, and refusing to work violates their oath to serve and protect.

The Ho Ho Horror

Patton Oswalt’s mashup of Rudolph and Apocalypse Now really must be seen to be believed. It’s only about 4.5 minutes long.

Oswalt:

There I was … at MADtv, struggling to explain to a network suit what Apocalypse Now was, and how it could be funny if done through the prism of a Rankin Bass special.*

They eventually shot my idea—a year after I left the show. Well, I really didn’t leave. They didn’t have me back. And with good fucking reason. I was a judgmental, sour asshole of a writer. Quick with a criticism and never with a fix. A comedy and film snob who rolled his eyes half the time and turned in typo-filled scripts. But they shot it. And put my name in the credits. Misspelled. Revenge? They were entitled. The sketch was called “A Pack of Gifts Now,” and it was lovingly animated by a stop-motion genius named Corky Quakenbush. An elf [actually a reindeer—Editor] is sent by toy makers to the North Pole to terminate “the Kringle” and his cultlike operation of toy makers “with extreme prejudice.” And, ironically enough, one of the producers I clashed with, Fax Bahr—who codirected the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of … Apocalypse Now—shepherded the sketch through, with all of my visual jokes and references intact, and plenty of his own, which made the sketch even better. Even got a mention in TV Guide. Thanks, Fax. Sorry I was such a dick. Part of being in your twenties is not knowing an ally when you see one.

Seriously, do not miss this. Hard to believe it was on MadTV.

via MeFi.