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What I'm Reading: Lord of the Fantastic: Stories in Honor of Roger Zelazny

"I took it with equanimity, however: I've long known that fortune's a whore and life itself a kind of stupid muddle. I am not a religious man. Far from it. I hold, if anything, a belief which I believe was once ascribed to the Gnostic: that Satan won out over God, not the other way around, and the Dark Prince runs things in the dismal and disastrous way that suits his nature. I knew that everything was just chance and bad luck, in a universe in which things were stacked against us and even our ruling deity hated us."
—Robert Sheckley, "The Eryx"

Great little anthology, Walter Jon Williams' "Lethe" in particular hits a Zelazny note (not the first time; his Ace Double "Elegy for Angels and Dogs" sequel to Zelazny's "The Graveyard Heart" is fantastic), "The Eryx" is the kind of wiseass story Sheckley told in all his work, with a little Zelazny mysticism. Some of these are more poetic fantasy than I'm really into, but that was also Zelazny's thing.

  • Lethe, by Walter Jon Williams
  • The Story Roger Never Told, by Jack Williamson
  • The Somehow Not Yet Dead, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
  • Calling Pittsburgh, by Steven Brust
  • If I Take the Wings of Morning, by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
  • Ki'rin and the Blue and White Tiger, by Jane M. Lindskold
  • The Eryx, by Robert Sheckley
  • Southern Discomfort, by Jack C. Haldeman II
  • Suicide Kings, by John J. Miller
  • Changing of the Guard, by Robert Wayne McCoy and Thomas F. Monteleone
  • The Flying Dutchman, by John Varley
  • Ninekiller and the Neterw, by William Sanders
  • Call Me Titan, by Robert Silverberg
  • The Outling, by Andre Norton
  • Arroyo De Oro, by Pati Nagle
  • Back in "The Real World", by Bradley H. Sinor
  • Mad Jack, by Jennifer Roberson
  • Movers and Shakers, by Paul Dellinger
  • The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness, by William Browning Spencer
  • Only the End of the World Again, by Neil Gaiman
  • Slow Symphonies of Mass and Time, by Gregory Benford
  • Asgard Unlimited, by Michael A. Stackpole
  • Wherefore the Rest Is Silence, by Gerald Hausman

What I'm Reading: Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

Here's your light summer reading!

Cosmic catastrophe, in this case a close fly-by of a black hole Taraxippus, has long-term consequences for Earth's climate, and people on a rickety fish-farming ship try to survive and make the best use of it.

It's hard not to directly compare this to Neal Stephenson's SevenEves, which was terrible: That had ludicrously bad physics (hint: planets in collisions don't work like concrete hit by bullets, but more like water balloons), then ludicrously bad planning, then ludicrously bad genetics leading into full-on magical fairy tales. But what it also reminds me of is Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, an excellent book from back when he could write a tight story about science and then let an editor edit the manuscript.

Perihelion Summer, on the other hand, is written by someone who can do math and science. So the means of tracking the black hole makes sense, the physics of the catastrophe make sense.

It's also mercifully short, though that sometimes comes at a cost. The initial crew of the Mandjet (one of the ancient Egyptian names for the ship of the Sun) is small, but poorly described; and having both Arun and Aaron in the crew is a little confusing. Egan's never been strong at dialogue, does his characterization through actions and scientific discovery, which needs more page count. The action moves forward in time rapidly, letting us deal with the consequences now rather than in hundreds of pages.

Matt said, “Let me start by saying that if we end up in prison, I promise to install ceiling insulation and double glazing in all of your cells.”

The coming apocalypse and the migrations necessary to survive, are what this is all about. Part of this is Egan's perspective in the Southern hemisphere, which already has a terrible temperature gradient and Australia's genocidal immigration policies; if that gets worse, billions die. And not entirely off-page like so many other catastrophe books.

“But however vast the fleet, however crowded the decks and holds of every fleeing vessel, they would always be outnumbered by the ones they’d left behind.”

The American solution to some of the problems isn't the Southern solution, which changes the tone quite a few times.

The ending's a bit abrupt. I'm still very pleased with it.

★★★★★

What I'm Watching: Kong Skull Island

I wanted more Godzilla, but the classic Toho collections are unclearly listed on 'Zon and elsewhere, I want only Japanese-language (English subtitle) theatrical versions and many are 4:3 English-dubbed TV versions. So… I'm putting this off until I can do some real research, and bought an iTunes two-pack of Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). Silly American films, but at least I know what they are.

Sort of: I didn't realize Kong Skull Island was a Vietnam-era period piece. That's kinda cool. Sam Jackson at 71 was really way, way too old to be a field officer (Lt Colonel); he's badass and insane, as usual, but it's like your grampa being badass and insane, not like a midlife officer going all Colonel Kurtz up in the jungle. The grunts are mostly personality-free, except for one played by Shea Whigham, and they serve only as expedition "hit points", getting picked off one by one so we can see how much danger the civilians are in. It is very, very, very Apocalypse Now-derived in style.

Hiddleston as the tracker J. Conrad (ha ha Heart of Darkness reference, but yeah…) is bland but effective, a Ken doll with all the hunting accessories and a lot of dialog which he recites competently, but slightly less than alive. Brie Larson as the photographer "Mason" Weaver has no motivation, and a weird boxy face, but at least she has an active role, and only once has to be saved by Kong and improbably held in his hand during a fight. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins do great as the lunatic scholars/scientists organizing the mission; sadly Jing Tian as the biologist does nothing and has almost no lines, despite this being exactly the kind of thing a biologist should be interested in and have a bunch of infodumping to do. The film fails the Bechdel Test because there's really only one female speaking role.

John C Reilly's comic relief role is… well, not the worst thing I've seen. They didn't spend too much time making jokes at his expense. He's awful fat and pale for a guy who's lived among skinny primitive people on an Indian Ocean jungle island for 30 years.

The chopper pilots are really foolish and don't understand the point of a long-range gun. A realistic (OK, physics of titans whatever man) fight between Kong and a bunch of Hueys with heavy machine guns and bombs does not go well for Kong; they should hover 100-500m away and just whittle him down to chipped beef, not go mano a mano with an ape who likes throwing rocks and trees.

The giant bugs and pseudo-pterodactyls all do physically implausible things, but they're scary monsters in a kaiju film. OK.

"We're not gonna talk about this? This is not normal! Stuff like that does not happen!"

The face/heel turns for Sam Jackson and Kong midway through were obviously telegraphed from the start (which is why I don't even bother to say "spoiler"). The soldier's love of war for its own sake, against Kong's self-defense and (usually) mercy for Humans who don't attack him.

So all of this makes a functional movie by itself. Then there's the bad kaiju, and here it kind of falls apart.

The "Skullcrawlers" are weird. They're based loosely on the two-legged skinks from the original King Kong, but the skull head is ridiculous, and they're very smart tactically (completely at odds with how lizards hunt) and then just line up to attack one at a time; they're all CGI, so why are they shot like there's just one suit?

The extreme plot convenience of a skullcrawler giving the tracker useful information during the fight, I would normally give a pass to one deus ex machina, but then the confrontation is almost completely ineffective.

I barely noticed the music, other than some '70s rock records which the grunts inexplicably took along on a 3-day combat mission; a soundtrack driving the tone of the film would've helped.

★★★½☆

The problem with King Kong movies (other than the Toho ones which just use him as a normal kaiju), they all struggle with complexity. The basic premise is:

  • Voyage to Skull Island
  • Horrible Natural Hazards
  • Primitive Tribe
  • King Kong is huge and terrifying
  • Explorers run away

That's enough for a good story, but then each filmmaker piles a bunch of stuff on top:

  • Kong fights dinosaurs
  • Trappers take Kong to the circus
  • Kong fights a bunch of aircraft
  • Kong picks up a girl (romance seems out of the question, it'd be like a Human and a 9" pixie… YOU PERVERT, put Tinker Bell down!)
  • Jessica Lange struts or sits in a boat nearly naked for long periods of time, and then professes love for the beast; as noted, problematic.
  • Jack Black tries to act in a dramatic role

And pretty much none of this works. They pad out a film to 2-3 hours and take away from the thing that matters: King Kong.

What I'm Watching: Godzilla, King of the Monsters

Lovely film. The monsters look and sound amazing, the music is great, the monster fight scenes are long, complex, and more visible than the previous American Godzilla (2014). This really is on par with the Toho movies, and respectful. It takes thousands of people and $200M to accomplish what Ishiro Honda did with $175K ($1.662M after inflation), a few dozen people, and a rubber suit. They have a nice credit memorial to Haruo Nakajima (1929-2017), the original Godzilla actor.

The mythology and backstory for the monsters is a nice touch, the kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledigook Toho does. The literal deus ex machina plot device is annoying, but functional, it drives the plot along.

Naturally, I sympathize entirely with the villains. Their motivation is the only sane response; the evil megacorp (led by the dumbass CEO from Silicon Valley) and military trying to destroy the kaiju are insane and species-suicidal. Ken Watanabe is great, and Zhang Ziyi and Bradley Whitford (who I think of as TV's Frank Jr, but he was on West Wing) are interesting and given good lines. Most of the other Humans I could do without, especially the annoying screaming child and the "hero" who shares my name.

The credits sequence bears rewatching, there's a lot of details there and I couldn't follow all of them; and there's a post-credits sequence, so stick around for that. The next sequel should be interesting.

This is PG-13, but there's nothing above PG in it, and really should have been in a few places; it's obvious scenes were cut or written around to avoid violence and, uh, suggestive monster behavior. So I'm dinging it a half-star for that and the screaming girl who should've been the first one eaten.

★★★★½

Catalina Scripting

In particular:

Quartz Composer
Deprecations
Starting in macOS 10.15, the Quartz Composer framework is deprecated and remains present for compatibility purposes. Transition to frameworks such as Core Image, SceneKit, or Metal. (50911608)

Tragic but unsurprising. None of those are even remotely a replacement, being machine-level programming tools, not a graphical tool for assembling a graphics or sound workflow. But there's probably almost nobody using QC anymore, because Apple neglects it and won't promote any dev tools except horrible goddamned walking abomination Xcode.

Script Editor
Known Issues
Script Editor might quit unexpectedly when saving or executing scripts. (50470730)
Scripting Language Runtimes
Deprecations
Scripting language runtimes such as Python, Ruby, and Perl are included in macOS for compatibility with legacy software. Future versions of macOS won’t include scripting language runtimes by default, and might require you to install additional packages. If your software depends on scripting languages, it’s recommended that you bundle the runtime within the app. (49764202)
Use of Python 2.7 isn’t recommended as this version is included in macOS for compatibility with legacy software. Future versions of macOS won’t include Python 2.7. Instead, it’s recommended that you run python3 from within Terminal. (51097165)

More of the same, increasingly neglected non-Xcode tools.

Killing python2 is great. It's not clear if python3 will be included standard, or if you have to find that somewhere else.

On my old blog, I had a post "Macs Make Programmers", where I talked about all the great scripting languages and tools included in OS X, including Xcode back when it wasn't broken junk. Timmy Cook's Apple is making that very difficult.

So basically the first thing you need to do on a Mac is install MacPorts, sudo port install python3 and so on.


On the bright side:

This is a massive step up in security and usability. I was a long-time ksh user on HP-UX, Atari ST MiNT, and OS/2, switched to bash for Linux back in '95-ish, and went along with bash on OS X, even though the original default was tcsh. I switched to zsh in 2014, after the bash shellshock bug; and it was long overdue. Apple can't follow the current bash versions because they're under poisonous GPLv3, so even with shellshock patched it's still not safe. zsh is reasonably current and MIT-licensed so it can stay current.

You want one reason to switch right now?

F="foo bar"
rm $F

In bash, that removes two files, "foo" and "bar". In zsh, it removes one file, "foo bar" (you can get the Bash-like behavior of expanding args by rm $(echo $F), probably some other ways).

The Machine Stops

The problem with the Internet… and here I'm referring to (sweeps hand across everything in view) all of this, but to take just current events Google blocking ad-blockers in Chrome, Google downtime locking people out of their Nest thermostats and "Home"-controlled security systems, horrible prisons of the mind like Twitter and Facebook, and the cacophony of Fediverse drama over Eugen adding features (better features are already in Pleroma and glitch-soc Fediverse servers), Gab forking Mastodon, client devs making unilateral decisions to block domains despite helpless users complaining, or anyone having "free speech" (which Eugen in particular is opposed to; I strongly advise against using mastodon.social, find another instance). These are just a point-in-time examples, it's been going on for decades (oh, USENET, how we don't miss your flamewars) and will only end with us.

… is people using software they didn't write themselves. No understanding, education, or discipline required. Just install something and it works! It's a product, not a skill! But they don't know how, or why, or why they should not.

"It didn't take any discipline to acquire", in the words of Ian Malcolm/Michael Crichton.

Until the software they rely on shuts down, literally like E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops", and then weak unskilled mole-people crawl out of the wreckage of machines they never learned to understand, make, or repair, and then die.

My solution is drastic but logically unavoidable: No more software installs. As a child, you get a bare machine with nothing but a machine-language monitor. You learn ML first. You type in a language compiler or interpreter. You build up your own tools. We return to type-in program listings like Compute!, but no binary blobs, it must all be readable, comprehensible source, with design and implementation documentation.

If you want to share software, you need to build up your toolchain to that point yourself. Hopefully by then you've learned to read all patches you install.

Should this be extended to all technology? Information technology has the unique ability to coerce how and what you think; an automobile or an antibiotic does not. There's an argument (in "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long", for instance) that a citizen should be able to make all their own things, "specialization is for insects". But insects are the most successful clade on Earth, and will long outlive us; some specialization is probably acceptable, as long as it's not in the part that controls how you think.

I don't think this civilization can ever do that, it will not make hard changes that inconvenience anyone. I think this horrible Machine will lumber on a few more decades and then we'll all die from it. But maybe isolated tribes will survive, or intelligence will arise in the Machines, or in a few million years another intelligence will evolve, and build new things the right, responsible way. Their history books will describe us as being as foolish and self-destructive as the Easter Islanders.