dark this, dark that

I thought I had mentioned Glen Cook’s Darkwar omnibus/trilogy here, but I guess that was elsewhere.

This was written in the mid 80s and had the requisite “what the hell was wrong with fantasy covers in the 80s” art:

And now it has much more stylish by current standards, but still a bit on the WTF side, 21st century cover art:

So, yeah. First off, these are a race of people who have fur everywhere, call their hands “paws” and their children “pups” and their social groups “packs,” and there’s growling and snarling and a definite sense of the canine. When they encounter humans, they comment on how funny-looking they are, too tall and with fur only on their heads.

Also, though the main character begins as a mere pup, for the majority of the story she is a witch — of a tyrannical, super intimidating, dramatic order who always wears black.

Also, the solar system in the setting is passing through a dust cloud that blocks solar radiation and they’re going through one heck of an ice age, with permafrost nearly reaching the equator — they bundle up in boots and furs, and even more so when flying. And the main character always goes armed.

Maybe the saddleship in that first image is, loosely, what the author had in mind. But the darkship, while described as having a cross or dagger shape, is way too small, there are no harnesses, it doesn’t seem to be the “voidfaring” type that they use in space despite the spaceship behind them, the glow of their shielding is way too subtle… and so on.

As for the more modern one, it’s not quite as bad except for gratuitous boobs and she kind of looks like a cat.

Okay, cover art aside. Its writing predates most of the Black Company novels, and some of the ideas in it would appear there later. Or earlier? The silth (witches) here have their flying wooden or titanium craft, and especially saddleships seem not unlike the rheitgeistiden (aka “flying posts”) of the Voroshk. The black outfits seem like a prototype of the almost-living robes the Voroshk wore, as well. There’s a major city called TelleRai; in the Black Company there’s a nearly lost language called TelleKure. The silth use not-quite-understood shadowy creatures called “they who dwell” for their magic, not too different from the “shadows”/skildirsha of the Glittering Plain. Given that one series has sixteen worlds linked by “shadowgates” and the other has faster-than-light magical space travel, it’s not completely out of the question that they have a connection somewhere.

Or it could just be, Glen Cook had certain ideas he liked and wanted to flesh out in different ways.

Anyway: I’ve tried to read other Glen Cook stuff that wasn’t The Black Company, and just didn’t get into it. Darkwar, I did and enjoyed most of it. The protagonist becomes a pretty horrible person, though sometimes she’s just “differently horrible” compared to the rest of her world. It never quite turns one away from sympathizing or wanting her to succeed. The story does get kind of back-and-forth and time-skippy in the third book. And one wishes for a few more terms in invented languages rather than darkwar, darkship, darkfaring, dark-sider, darkpretzel, darkpenguin etc. It’s a little too middle school heavy metal fan at times. But then, it was the 80s.

I put on my robe and wizard hat

Elon Musk’s company Neuralink was in the news this week, and I pretty much ignored it because I’m skeptical of the man. He overpromises, he thinks he’s an expert in more fields than he actually is, doesn’t treat his workers well — really more on the Edison side of things than the Tesla side.

But thanks to a link on some crazy facts about sound, I found myself poking through Wait But Why and came across this article from a couple of years back:

I’m reading William Gibson’s The Peripheral — the first of his novels I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since the Sprawl series — and the technology level there is based on motor control and sensory feedback from machines and biomechanical “peripherals.” It’s a lot to think about in terms of who we are, but this article goes well beyond that.

I hope that, in the current wave of realization that giving our data to big corporations and letting them mediate our personal relationships, we’ll also be cautious about letting those corporations into our brains. Yes, I’m excited about the potential for enhanced human… humanness, that this technology could represent. But I don’t think the threat is from evil AIs, so much as it is from human greed and malice.

I usually roll my eyes at warnings on becoming too dependent on technology. We’re not all dumb because we learned to use pocket calculators, and we haven’t lost the skill of communication now that we don’t write things in cursive. It’s the opposite… mostly. Misinformation and disinformation, it turns out, aren’t conquered by simply giving people access to information. Now imagine, instead of garbage like Gamergate and QAnon and Pizzagate and anti-vax spreading via YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, those ideas just arrive in your brain as if you had thought them — disguised alongside all the true information that you rely on. That truly scares me.

what happened to the past’s future?

This was going to be a much longer post, where I wrote a little about the futurist books Future Shock, Megatrends and particularly The Singularity is Near and where either they or reality went wrong.

I was also going to dive into a comparison of technological progress by decade with specific examples. I’ll cut that down to a short version: the 70s were a time of background breakthroughs in electronics, whose impact wasn’t really felt until the 80s — when computers and media technology started getting personal. That all went online in the 90s. In the 2000s that jumped into the palms of our hands, and social media began demanding our attention.

But a time traveler to 2019 from 2009 — if they didn’t watch any political news(*) — might not even notice anything different. Popular fashion, music, the kinds of movies we’re watching are the same. YouTube, Twitter, Skype, Wikipedia, Netflix, Uber, AirBnB, KickStarter etc. are a decade old. None of the “next big things” of the 2000s have really arrived yet.

(*) I don’t want to write about politics now, it’s tiring and upsetting.

The interesting bit to me isn’t “futurists were wrong” but the question of why 2019 looks so much like 2009 in so many ways.

Miniaturization of electronics is unlikely to go much further than it already has — power requirements and heat are limits on computing power in a small size. So there’s not nearly as much opportunity for entirely new classes of consumer electronics the way there was in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. One could predict things like better batteries and faster networking speeds opening up a few opportunities, but not making major changes in how we do things.

We know there’s a lot of development going on in the background in various areas. Biotech, for instance. Self-driving cars and commercial drones are in not-quite-ready-for-market-but-maybe-soon phases. We’ve been getting more warnings about automation replacing more jobs, though it’s hard to tell how serious that threat is. Cellular agriculture is just starting to show up at fast-food restaurants and might make the big time soon. It’s possible that, overall, we’ve been in sort of in a 70s phase and a lot of the impact of this stuff will arrive in the 2020s.

Vanity Fair did a survey where 18-26 year olds agreed with other adults that 2010s pop music is the worst. The best music of previous decades is more accessible than ever and people tend to prefer it.

Movies and TV have arguably been mining the recent past too, at least some extent.

As for popular fashion and other trends: I wonder if social media has a sort of stabilizing and homogenizing influence. At the same time, we could be differentiating ourselves more through online persona and interactions than offline. People may also be more invested in their individual identities, meaningful affiliations and overall human solidarity than in a sort of fashion-based tribalism, though that kind of sounds like wishful thinking.

collapse

I’ve just read John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse… while deciding not to keep reading the “Climate Collapse” thread on the Lines forum because it’s usually too depressing.

I don’t like disaster movies, or even trailers for disaster movies. It turns out the same is generally pretty true of novels by otherwise excellent sci-fi authors. Though I keep confusing Varley with Vernor Vinge for some reason and crediting them with each other’s’ work, I did enjoy the Thunder and Lightning series.

To summarize the book: a scientist develops bacteria that render crude oil unusable (presumably as revenge against Saudi Arabia for 9/11). It goes out of control, spreads around the world, destroying oil wells and stockpiles. Transportation, power (dependent on diesel trains and trucks for supplies), communication, emergency services, medicine, food, etc. and the rule of law all become scarce.

Okay… maybe an interesting premise. I could see the book being a lesson of some kind, or a story mostly about ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit, or some such. NOPE. Somehow, it is barely even a story about the climate crisis, much less presenting an acceptable way forward.

Instead, it does the disaster movie thing of dumping one horror after another on the protagonists, and feels a bit like Final Destination. (Ugh.) LA is struck with a 9.8 earthquake, mudslides and fires and lawless violence. The main character — not the “ordinary guy” the back cover blurb says, but medium-rich in Hollywood — faces all kinds of horrors and tragedies he can’t do anything about, as well as repeated internal conflicts over whether to help strangers or defend his family’s hoard.

In a way, the book is about wealth and privilege. The protagonist’s main fear (except when facing immediate threats to self and his family) is losing his wealth. At the start of the book, he’s looking for another lucrative script that will let him maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to. Later on, he’s worried about his wealth (in the form of stored food, water, fuel, guns, and other supplies) being redistributed — he’s afraid both of thieves and of his neighborhood going socialist. Life in refugee camps and on the crowded aircraft carriers the Navy is using to move people out of LA, is the poverty he fears. But it’s a muddled message; that “wealth” actually has a practical value to him, in reducing his own family’s suffering. This is unlike reality where a few people sit uselessly on billions while others starve.

It wasn’t a bad book, other than the ending feeling a bit weak and a few quibbles. I just really dislike this kind of… torture story, really. There’s very little justice or hope or satisfaction in it, just a grind, just shock and grimness and deprivation. If I wanted that, I could have turned on the news.

not sorry

I am posting this here to stop myself from replying again in a thread that has gone pretty far off the rails:

I don’t like Radiohead.

It’s the vocals — the sound for sure, and possibly the lyrics if I could get past the sound, which I can’t. That’s it. Same reason I don’t like VNV Nation, even though some of my friends thought I would.

Some have called them “whiny”, but honestly, I liked the Smashing Pumpkins and it’s a real challenge to out-whine Billy Corrigan. So that’s not it.

Before today, I couldn’t have told you what they sounded like or named any of their songs. I did know a couple of album names, but wasn’t 100% sure they weren’t Coldplay albums instead. I figured I’d give them a chance, since several people were saying the band inspired them into electronic music. But: no.

I do understand why they inspired the right people at the right time and place, but the hype is just too much. I do not believe that a single Radiohead performance on Saturday Night Live was the driving force behind the 21st century resurgence of modular synths.

I don’t believe they were as influential as Kraftwerk or King Tubby or Trent Reznor.

I especially don’t believe they are “the Beatles of Generation X.” As someone else put it, there is no Beatles of another generation and the comparison is silly. (Not to mention, they were a few years too late to have deeply imprinted on Gen X.)

let’s go away, blues

(Yeah, I live in St. Louis, and hockey fever is rampant right now. Every time I see an “LGB!” sign I want to change it to “LGBT.” Otherwise I don’t care one way or the other and find it all kind of amusing. I just thought it was a clever-ish pun on the subject at hand:)

The Sad State of Happiness in the United States and the Role of Digital Media

This chart will probably surprise no one:

(I do notice a pretty big additional drop in happiness in 2016. I can think of something that happened in 2016 which affected the happiness of a lot of Americans, but that’s not what this is about.)

This one has some non-surprises and a few big jolts, though.

I (and probably most people) need to prioritize adequate sleep. (It’s supposed to be better for blood sugar, anxiety and other things as well.)

Watching TV news (and radio news) is positively correlated with happiness, even though TV overall is not? As is homework, a little? And people still go to video arcades?

Reading books isn’t on here at all. I wish that surprised me.

The generic “leisure time alone” counts as a phone activity?

But the big one here is that listening to music (marked as a “phone activity” because that’s how kids do it) has the strongest correlation with negative happiness. I’d probably be a lot sadder too, if I had to listen to much current pop music…

But seriously: there are notes about correlation vs. causation in the article. It’s possible that listening to music has the strongest reverse causation, being the thing that’s easiest to do when you’re depressed. The circumstantial evidence pointing toward social media and “screen time” leading to unhappiness really doesn’t seem to apply to music.

Is there anything I can or should do about this as a musician? Am I contributing in some small way, despite everything, to the unhappiness of the human race? Or am I making things a little better for those having a rough time? (To quote A Closed and Common Orbit, “…she taught Jane about something called music, which was a weird bunch of sounds that had no point but made things feel a little better.”)

Okay, it makes things better for me, at least when I keep the right frame of mind… and I am pretty sure that my music isn’t secretly being listened to by millions of 8th and 10th graders. I’ll keep going 🙂

(th)inking

For many years now, I’ve thought about getting a tattoo. Mostly not seriously, but sometimes more seriously. Indecision about what to get and whether I really wanted it has always held me back.

At one point I was interested in “invisible” tattoos that glow under blacklight. I like the symbolism inherent in a hidden thing that only reveals itself under certain circumstances. The downside of those is that they’re not really “invisible” because the scars still show, apparently.

When my spouse did the cool pyrography design for my modular case, I thought the central element of it, inverted, would make a pretty cool tattoo design. It’s got a star of course (gotta have that), and spirals that are somewhat reminiscent of both wind and my spouse’s own tattoo. It bears some coincidental similarity to the “Sesa Wo Suban” symbol which apparently means “transform your character,” and also to symbols for “void” in various fictional settings.

I’ve got some other thoughts about symbols that are personally meaningful that would work for a tattoo. I doubt I should cram all of them into a single design, though. (And once again I shake a metaphorical fist at Starbucks for ruining any combination of mermaid and star I might have otherwise run with…)

The reason I’m thinking of this now is I’m reading Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, wherein one of the main characters has a fascinating conversation with a tattoo artist. What resonates with her — and with me! — is the idea of a tattoo as unifying mind and body. Turning a mental image into a physical one; exercising some control over a thing that doesn’t always cooperate with our mental images.

And then coincidentally, someone on the Lines forum started a thread about tattoos (from artists’ perspective). And I overheard someone at lunch talking about getting a tattoo, too. Bauder-Meinhof phenomenon or not, I was paying attention.

Of course, the most likely outcome is I’ll think about symbols for a few days and then not make any decision about a tattoo. You never know, though…

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

in lost Carcosa

Did I mention here that the next Ambient Online Themed Compilation is going to be “Death & Rebirth?”

And of course I mentioned I was reading The Laundry Files. Which features necromancy — and specifically, a very disturbing bone-white violin carried at all times by a “combat epistemologist” and music theory professor, who’s occasionally sent on missions around the world to neutralize the worst hauntings and cults. The agent finds all this traumatizing but the violin loves to feed…

Anyway. Yes, I did the thing.