What I'm Reading: MagicNet

MagicNet, by John DeChancie (1993): What if there's magic in the modern world, but it needs a computer "network" to make it real?

Everything below is SPOILER, because I want to talk about ideas not explained until the end.

Skye King (he references the TV show, but not the Kris Kristofferson song ) hears his friend Grant get murdered during a phone call, and then receives a box of 3.5" floppies (the fancy kind) containing programs OUIJA and RAGNAROK. OUIJA allows him to type and soon speak directly to Grant's "ghost". RAGNAROK is a tool for revenge against Merlin; no, not that Merlin, just some guy named Lloyd Merlin Jones.

This is where things get weird and/or stupid. Witches and wizards are all over, using computers but no longer really needing modems to reach the "Magic Net". They can project hallucinations and in some cases "demons" all over, but maybe can't do anything real? It's suggested that non-magical people wouldn't perceive anything, and maybe non-magical explanations would be "true" in base reality.

Nobody in this says "Internet", despite being written 5+ years after most universities got Internet access and just before AOL & the September That Never Ended. From 1989-1993 I was spending most of my time on USENET and playing CircleMUD or LambdaMOO, which were essentially the magical world already. Once, a witch describes the magical reality as "cyberspace", but this is just buzzword-speak, not a meaningful comparison.

Far, far too much of the book is first-person narration of mundane activities like cooking, or a plane flight, as if the author had never done that before or wanted to pad out the page count. Characters are introduced and forgotten almost every chapter.

This is almost like one of Rudy Rucker's Transrealism books, but nowhere near as weird, trippy, or fast-paced, and it makes far less sense. But they even name-drop and visit a famous SF writer.

The final section finally does go full drug-trip and has a semi-coherent explanation of how the magical reality is created, and if you paid attention to mythology (in particular Zoroastrian) you'll recognize all the spirits/demons names.

Certainly this is a poorly-written book, and the premise has been handled better by better writers; in particular Vernor Vinge's "True Names" handles the computer/fantasy interface, and Victor Koman's "The Jehovah Contract" covers the myth/reality/sexy witches interface. But it's an interesting work despite the mediocrity.

★★½☆☆

What I'm Watching: Burn Before Reading

Burn Before Reading: Oddly a Cohen Bros movie I've never seen. And no great loss. Stupid people do stupid things, with no motivation, no interest, and no consequences as their crimes are covered up by bored CIA functionaries. I had genuinely maybe two laughs in the entire film, and neither are "comical" moments. ★★☆☆☆ if that.

Why was this film made? Were the Cohens contractually obliged to deliver something and so they mad-libbed or cut-up to make a script, and then somehow filmed it, without anyone noticing it wasn't really anything?

I need something not as terrible & dark to watch, and I have no idea where to start. Something uplifting or at least where the body count is under 50%, and on Netflix or 'Zon Prime.

Kimmy Schmidt was briefly funny in S1, but no.

Icon Composer

In their ongoing efforts to break Mac development tools, Apple disabled and destroyed the rather nice Icon Composer.app because there's nobody left in-house who could figure out how to generate @2x images (protip: you use double size and rename it!), and now you have to use command-line iconutil with a set of magic filenames and no help.

So I wrote a little shell util, icontool.zsh:

#!/bin/zsh
if [[ $# -ne 2 ]]; then
    echo "Usage: icontool INIMAGE.png OUTFILE.icns"
    exit 1
fi
WORKDIR=$TMP/icontool.iconset
rm -rf "$WORKDIR"
mkdir "$WORKDIR"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 1024 1024 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_512x512@2x.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 512 512 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_512x512.png"
cp "$WORKDIR/icon_512x512.png" "$WORKDIR/icon_256x256@2x.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 256 256 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_256x256.png"
cp "$WORKDIR/icon_256x256.png" "$WORKDIR/icon_128x128@2x.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 128 128 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_128x128.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 64 64 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_32x32@2x.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 32 32 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_32x32.png"
cp "$WORKDIR/icon_32x32.png" "$WORKDIR/icon_16x16@2x.png"
sips "$1" --resampleHeightWidth 16 16 --out "$WORKDIR/icon_16x16.png"
iconutil --convert icns "$WORKDIR" --output "$2"

Preferably feed it a 1024x1024 input image, it'll resize all the others; the small sizes might be blurry but it's good enough for most uses, and you can edit the contents of WORKDIR and run the iconutil line again if you need to.

Minecraft Aquatic Update

I've been playing with the many betas and pre-releases, and Mojang's software quality is… job NaN as usual. Each version would break something that worked before, add new completely unrelated bugs, as if (and in fact we know this to be the case) they don't have any tests, they don't even have a "feature", they just hack on the source at random whim until they feel like dumping it, and people report bugs and sometimes those get fixed.

Anyway, this "official release" is somewhat stable, but today's new bug is: My chicken farm dies out. I use water flows from the corners of a 5x5 pit to put all the chickens and their egg drops into a hopper in the center, but in this version baby chickens drown in even a thin stream of water, probably due to Mojang "fixing" zombies not sinking & becoming aqua zombies.

What I'm Watching: The Cloverfield Paradox

Cloverfield Paradox: I was bored and drunk and saw this while queue-cleaning. So buckle up, this is gonna be a rough ride. This makes the Lost in Space movie look like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Earth is "out of power", whatever that means: They still have gasoline, if in long traffic lines, and electricity and computers and lights everywhere, but somehow they're starving because no power. The Sun hasn't gone out, but they don't know about solar, wind, or hydro power? They can't bring nuclear reactors online?

But now there's a MAGIC particle accelerator IN SPACE, which starts up with the sound of a '57 Chevy turning over, visualized by purple neon tubes on a spinny disk, and it'll fix everything if it ever works. Which is not what particle accelerators are for at all.

So, multi-racial, multi-national crew, many from countries that have no manned space program, speaking their own languages instead of Russian-English pidgin real astronauts use. Station's gigantic, with artificial gravity and weird spinning bits attached to a spinning core—whee like a carnival ride!—heavy bulkheads, but no seatbelts on any chair, and they have a fucking foosball table. It's completely outside our ability to build in the next few decades, and yet Earth tech looks like the present. The writer clearly has no goddamned idea what our tin-can & duct-tape space programs are like, never spent 10 minutes watching NASA TV.

Spoiler times, as if anyone cares.

The MAGIC particle accelerator is some kind of FTL star drive (so double MAGIC), and they're so fucking stupid they say "did we destroy Earth? Kill billions of people?" Do you see the Sun, Moon, planets, familiar constellations, and a debris cloud? NO, you fucking moron? Then you didn't blow up the Earth! No "astronaut" would think that for a second in this situation! Take angles to distant pulsars and figure out where you actually are. Goddamn I want to shove a sextant up the writer's ass. Later: The writer thinks a constellation will be "upside down" if you're 2 AU away; does he think the stars are a geocentric shell and the station's now on the other side of it?

Oh no the gyroscope is missing, possibly because the moron writer thinks it'd vanish if you move FTL or something. The woman in the wall is not that weird by comparison.

Remember when I complained that Lost in Space 3D printer wouldn't make a gun until the Robot overrode it? You shouldn't make a gun on a space station. But that's OK, guy's full of worms. MAGIC severed arm like Thing Addams or the Night Gallery "Return of the Sorcerer".

Nothing here makes any sense. The bullshit excuse of a "paradox" from particles being in two "dimensions" (parallel universes is the au currant term for the last century, dumbass writer) wouldn't allow MAGIC to fucking happen. Someone being in the wrong place and phasing over, maybe, lot of conservation of mass/energy violation there. "Spooky MAGIC shit" is not a symptom of parallel universes.

Cut to Earth and half-assed tie-in to Groverfield. Asshole husband doctor drives while texting on his phone. He serves no purpose in the film and could be replaced with a framed photo. Giant monsters are also not present on any parallel universe Earth, because they'd require MAGIC to stand up.

Reality: Water in space is interesting stuff. In low-G, it makes a bubble because surface tension is higher than internal pressure. Space is "cold" but because there's nothing to conduct heat, just like a vacuum thermos, nothing loses heat rapidly. This fucking movie: Water exposed to vacuum instantly freezes into jagged ice spears and cryogenic ice cubes! Where did all the heat go? What's splitting the surface tension? FUCK.

Reality: Space station supply ships are minimally-fueled, barely able to be lifted to orbit and maneuver to dock, then return mostly by gravity. This fucking movie: "Pods" can fly across the Solar System in short enough time a passenger wouldn't die. Inconceivable with any drive that wouldn't also solve the "power crisis".

Reality: Debris blasted from a station would move steadily away in a parallel orbit. This fucking movie: Debris orbits around a pole like a stripper. "We can activate the thing remotely!" "No, I must heroically die and get out of this fucking movie!"

Jensen's awful sprightly and Terminator-like for someone who just had major surgery and blood loss a few hours ago. Continuity, right? Who fucking needs it.

Sending the plans for the MAGIC device to the second parallel is an extra stupid idea, since it'll fuck up reality every time it's used. Having it on the first parallel is bad enough, but at least it can't destroy or merge with the other station again. With two of them working, each parallel would fuck up the other. So stupid.

"Tell them not to come back (to a theatre showing a JJ Abrams film)! Tell them not to come back! AM I SHOUTING LOUD ENOUGH FOR AN OSCAR?!"

☆☆☆☆☆ and everyone is now dumber

TBL Has Some Regrets

"We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places … [increasing centralization of the Web] ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human."
"While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people—and can be fixed by people."
"You don’t have to have any coding skills. You just have to have a heart to decide enough is enough. Get out your Magic Marker and your signboard and your broomstick. And go out on the streets."
Tim Berners-Lee, Vanity Fair

On the contrary, Tim, the World Wide Web is very human, and these are not "bugs" or "emergent": It's not a perfect crystalline utopia inhabited by rule-following robots reading RDF tags, but instead it's like an organically grown city, with a mix of lovely things and nice people, and also back alleys and skyscraper offices full of predators. There's surveillance systems everywhere because the predators wanted surveillance, paid engineers well to make them, and it's much harder to stop Internet surveillance than spray-painting a closed-circuit camera.

The Internet didn't create spies, tyrants, or marketing scumbags; the Stasi managed to spy on everyone, and they barely used the few shitty Soviet computers they had. Madison Avenue invented scumbag marketing long before they had "data" supporting their psychological manipulations. Of course now the same kind of villains at the NSA, KGB (FSV & SVR these days, same thing), and Facebook are going to use modern computer networks to spy and manipulate. A poster-board sign isn't going to convince them to stop.

"Oh gosh I just realized I've spent my life deceiving people, and that's wrong!", said absolutely no spy ever. (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is fiction)

Getting more people connected is somewhat positive and empowering for the "last billion"; although you, presumably fellow first-world libertarian/liberal/con-but-not-an-asshole-servative reader, may well not like the political and religious programming the last billion have…

But even if everyone has a computer & unfettered Internet access, it's not going to make everyone freer, they're just more entries in Facebook's databases. The only cheap mobile phones are Android, which is run by and for the benefit of Google's surveillance systems. You can release any kind of utopian decentralized system, and people will say "I want Facebook and Youtube… and what are ads?" and many will end up in it by social pressure and marketing.

Some of us do what we can to exist outside of those networks, but don't get too idealistic about it, or you end up crazy or yet another dead martyr.