Tying a bow around the Ringworld…

In the last three months or so, I’ve read every book of Larry Niven’s (some in collaboration with Edward M. Lerner) that deals directly with the part of his “Known Space” universe that concerns itself with the Ringworld. So, in order, Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds, Protector, Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, Ringworld’s Children and finally, the newly released Fate of Worlds.

I remember discussing the original Ringworld with Chet a couple of years ago, as he picked it up for the first time. Parts of it have those antiquated gender role assumptions that so often succeed in annoying me, though not quite as ferociously patronizing as, say, Heinlein regularly evinced. But mostly, boy it goes by fast. It (along with Rendezvous with Rama) is among the first Big Dumb Object stories, and there is a blessed lack of a sense of need to attribute meaning to it—it just is.

Protector turns out to be the background for all that follows, and perhaps my favorite of all the books—it’s more like two novelettes packaged together, and they’re both interesting and fast-paced. A reminder, really, of what the new generation of SF writers meant in the 60’s and 70’s.

And it promptly becomes the basis of a multitude of enormous retcons to the Ringworld.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the books—there are many worse ways to spend your time—but from The Ringworld Engineers the action becomes increasingly baroque, and at a certain point, I just didn’t care to work hard enough to follow it. By the last half of The Ringworld Throne, I don’t have the patience to try and fight my way through all the thrusts and counter-thrusts. It doesn’t feel worth my time to try and figure out which protector is allied with whom, etc. I’ve read that book at least four times, and I still feel in the dark. Ringworld’s Children just magnifies the problem in all directions.

The new “* of Worlds” books are at least clearer, but again, I just don’t have any real investment in the characters, even the ones that have shown up in earlier books that I actually liked. And when they start trying to reconcile the already-complicated timelines of the two series’ so that they can sync up for the last book…well, obviously, they got my money. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I felt like I could skim without missing anything of real importance. It all felt kind of empty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. At all. But I think these big end-of-life tie-it-all-together books that some SF writers seem to move toward are always going to feel somewhat hollow. They are, necessarily, more about tying things off than starting things anew. In fact, I think most sequels are like that, except perhaps where the author is willing to leave no bridge un-burned in the service of a new story that needs to be told.

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

Or: I think I have finally figured out why Robert Heinlein makes me so nuts

At the age of 17—the year he died—my most favorite author in the whole world was probably Robert Heinlein. I don’t think anyone else came anywhere close. I had read just about everything he had ever published, and (with the exception of Farnham’s Freehold), I loved it all.

Some of these books had enormous implications for my attitude toward the world—Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers being the most obvious. They marked me indelibly. They helped make me who I am today.

Which is why, for about the last fifteen years or so, I’ve not understood why I couldn’t pick up one of his novels and read it without getting…annoyed, often downright pissed-off, even as I could recognize how this or that passage or scene had had some specific impact on me.

It’s not that I was disappointed to find that they were badly written—to this day, I rarely have problems with Heinlein’s prose, or even his plots; he was good at the craft of writing. Hell, I recently re-read The Sword of Shanarra, a book I had a great deal of affection for at 14, and found that, yeah, it was actually worse than I had expected (not just wan pastiche of Tolkien, but, truly, badly written to boot), and that didn’t piss me off. So it wasn’t that.

I think I finally found the answer the other day.

I was thinking about something—I don’t even remember what about, probably something political—when I said to myself, “Well, of course, that’s just a social construct.” And I started considering where I had been taught to look at things that way, to try and see the way so many things we are told are “the way things are” are really just things that we as a society have chosen to privilege, and should be open to being questioned and, ultimately, changed.

And as I thought about it, I realized that that was something that I almost certainly got from Robert Heinlein. It is, in fact, a huge theme throughout his work—almost all of his characters question social conventions, defy them, reshape them, mock them and generally point out how instrumental they are in keeping people down, and often unhappy.

What I realized annoys me is that, having established that social conventions and mores are things to be regarded with suspicion and contempt, Heinlein then proceeds to tell you how if you did it his way, everyone would be better off.

That’s chutzpah.

I think the problem was that as I became an adult, as I started to move into the real world, I ran up against the realization that his vision of what would make everyone better off comes off as somewhere between quaintly backward—right up until his last novel, he has a sort of Madonna/whore complex that comes off as alternately protective and patronizing toward women—and Ayn Rand levels of ignorant of actual humanity. Even when I agree with him, the way he presents these notions makes me cringe, because they’re presented in such a paternalistic way, in circumstances that are so absent from real life.

In effect, as I internalized what I think was his greatest lesson—and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for that lesson, it has stood me in good stead all my life—I was being set up to not actually be able to enjoy his writing.

I can’t decide if it’s a shame, or it’s a natural progression, the realization that eventually people do run out of things to teach you, or that you have to sort through the lessons yourself to understand what really matters.

This is why the Hulk rocked in the Avengers, and has sucked in every other movie

Between Ang Lee directing one, and Edward Norton starring in the other, you’d have thought one of the Hulk movies would have been great. Or at least really good. But they both fell somewhere between boring and tedious—even while being well acted and well directed.

Because, I would suggest, they didn’t understand the character’s value. I have a vague memory of a review—I thought it was Roger Ebert, but a quick check suggests not—that suggested that watching a guy who feels like he can’t get mad get chased around was going to be fundamentally boring.

In fact, I think this deleted scene from the Avengers may do a better to explain why the Hulk as a character has the potential to matter.

The initial “Sage or Butterfly” exchange is funny, but the substance is at the very end:

“I know where I can do the most good, but it’s where I can do the most harm.”

“Well, that’s no different than anybody else.”

To do good requires changing things as they are—but anytime we are a force for change, there is the possibility that we won’t be successful, that the changes won’t take the form we wanted, or have the outcome we desired. That, in the end, we will end up being a destructive force. The Hulk is merely this truth writ large—which is why I think the other movies failed: the alternatives Banner was always being presented with were to do nothing, or be destructive, never to effect change for good. They were only ever showing half the coin.

Happy Birthday, Debian!

Debian GNU/Linux turns 19 today.

I estimate that I did my first install some time in late 1995, perhaps early 1996. I haven’t really used anything else as my day-in-day-out OS since. I’ve never had a Mac of any stripe, and haven’t used Windows with any frequency other than for World of Warcraft since ’99.

I can pin my first contribution to Debian with far more accuracy: September 3, 1996. That’s the date on the first Debian changelog entry in the libwww-perl package, which was, I believe, the first package I ever made. It still exists in Debian and Ubuntu (and other derivatives) and if you have it installed, you can look at /usr/share/doc/libwww-perl/changelog.Debian.gz, and right down there at the very end, you’ll find my grubby little fingerprints.

Sadly, things quickly went downhill—I am, to some extent, to blame for the fucked-up naming convention (with its poorly-sorting use of a -perl suffix) of every Perl library package in Debian, and probably by extension, the similar poor choices in the -java and -cil groups. Even the PHP guys were smarter.

As I remember it, having packaged libwww-perl (which is the actual name of the package as it exists on CPAN, so I just used that as the package name), I discovered that for some things—FTP support, I believe—it required the libnet package, which provides a lot of Net::* modules. But when I announced that I was going to package it someone (I want to finger Rob Browning, but cannot in be certain, and I don’t know if the Debian archives go back that far, and can’t be bothered to check, really) said they were about to package the libnet C library, which would conflict, so maybe I could call it libnet-perl, like libwww-perl, which I did. And then the next thing I packaged I ended up calling lib<whatever>-perl for no good reason, and it all went to hell.


Almost 16 years later, we have ~ 3000 Perl packages in the repository, all with that damned -perl suffix. So, um, sorry.

My other big accomplishment of any note, I think, was to finally get the 64-bit Alpha port to a self-sustaining state. This started with a bootstrap that someone had done from a set of RedHat binaries before, and gradually pulling along various bits of the system until we had a self-hosting system.

Along the way, I was responsible for another unfortunate bit of “engineering”—@libc6.1@. Again, I don’t think I was totally alone in putting this forth (David, David…um, I forget his last name, and the libc6 changelog.Debian doesn’t go back that far), but it probably would have been better to bite the bullet and avoid all the gymnastics it required.

As I remember it (this was, err, ’97? So I may have some details wrong), RedHat had pushed their first Alpha release using a libc with a SONAME of 6, based on a pre-release glibc-2…and then the 64-bit ABI was changed when glibc-2 was released. Our versioning tools for shared libraries were much more primitive at the time, and we wanted to keep compatibility with RedHat, since that’s where a lot of the heavy duty engineering was going, so we had to follow them in changing the library SONAME to 6.1. This entailed a lot of churn at the time, most of which I’ve blocked out. I did a lot of mechanical patches on a lot of packages.

I did spent a lot of time doing fixes for 64-bit-isms in various packages, and I can remember the flush of pride I had when Alan Cox mentioned that he’d gotten a bunch of 64-bit fixes as well as the conversion of the @mh@ mail client to use an ELF shared library from the Debian package, because that was my work.

My time as an active Debian contributor was not always a smooth one—I wasn’t always as attentive about keeping things up to date or doing triage on bugs as I could have been. I think I finally formally recognized that I wasn’t able to keep up around 2002, which was probably a couple of years later than everyone else had realized it.

Ironically, I probably maintain more packages now, for our internal company purposes at Ironic Design, than I ever did as a developer; the tools have made the maintenance at least of the sorts of packages I do (libraries and simple applications) incredibly easy.

I maintain ~ 20 production Debian servers, with a handful of dev servers and a couple of home systems, including the laptop I’m writing this on, with basically no problems on a day to day basis. It has its warts, but I have boxes that have been continuously upgraded over a span of half a dozen years with no appreciable problems. I am able to be productive and use the environment happily. I remember the rough spots at the beginning (the move from a.out to ELF, for instance), but what Debian provides now always surprises and delights me.

So kudos to those Debian maintainers, former and current, who have contributed to such a great software system.

Buffalo Stance

So twice in as many days I’ve found myself channel surfing to the video for Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”—a song I hadn’t heard in at least a decade:

Incidentally, did you know she underwrote Massive Attack‘s first album? I didn’t.

Anyway, that reminds me of one of my few regrets from college—the time I didn’t go see Michael Hedges. This would have been in 1990, right after the release of Taproot—my favorite of all his albums.

There were plenty of good reasons not to see the show, like 1) I didn’t really have the money for it, 2) I didn’t hear about it until the day of the show, and couldn’t get tickets 3) it was more than an hour away in Birmingham.

The stupid reason that I actually ended up not going was because I was too cheap to pay for parking so I could go see if there were any tickets or scalpers. Yes, I drove all the way to Birmingham, circled around within a few blocks from the arena, couldn’t find a space free space, gave up and drove back to Tuscaloosa.

When Mike Nix got back the evening, he told me that, in addition to a number of other covers he was well known for doing, Michael had performed “Buffalo Stance”.

Well, 20+ years later, I’ve heard his rendition:

It’s a little heavy on the piezo quack, but otherwise pretty wonderful. For good measure, I leave you with him doing The Who’s “Eminence Front”:

It’s good, though I don’t think it’s quite as good as the real thing:

This guy makes beautiful guitars

I have to say, I also agree with his tagline redefining custom—some of his guitars are pretty damned strange, though still beautiful.

But what I really like is that he’s done a series of videos on youtube taking an absolutely beautiful guitar from start to finish. It is fascinating.

Tosin Abasi

Mostly, I’m having one of those, “How have I not heard of this guy?” moments.

Anyway, I was, no kidding, looking through some Guitar Center catalog I got in the mail, and saw an Ibanez 8-string guitar being endorsed by this guy whose name rang absolutely no bells at all. And I kind of wrote him off, because it seemed like senseless “more is better”-ness.

And then he, and his band, Animals as Leaders started showing up in my YouTube feed.

So, what the Hell, I watched one. And then another, and then a third. And for the last week I’ve been doing occasional bits of spelunking around.

I’m not going to pretend that everything he does interest me—a lot of it would have appealed to me more 20 years ago, when I was more interested in stuff that carries a lot of aggression. But he’s wickedly articulate:

And some of the things he does solo I do find sometimes startling and beautiful (the first bit he runs through in this clinic is wonderful, the rest of it interesting but not entirely compelling to me):

And finally, he can also operate well out of his usual milieu very comfortably:

He has an album that he describes as more jazz-oriented that I’m thinking of—in the hopes that it will have more of what appeals to me and less of the noisy-double-bass-at-180bpm of Animals as Leaders that leaves me cold.

New X-Men

I sold off my copies of Grant Morrison’s run of New X-Men from 2001-2004 in a big purge a couple of years ago, thinking to get the Omnibus to replace them…only to find out that it was out of print. I dragged my feet on picking up new copies in trade in the intervening time, until I found out several months ago that they were going to re-print the Omnibus—which I had understood never to happen, so yay procrastination.

So I picked it up last Tuesday and spent a week getting through it. Re-reading it was interesting.

I was impressed with Morrison’s ability to set himself up at the very beginning with things that weren’t going to reach fruition for a while. For instance, there’s a moment in the second issue where Cassandra Nova injects herself with nano-Sentinels that I had never before noticed as the moment setting up the nano-Sentinel sickness that becomes of importance…well, all through the series. From the early sickness that afflicts all the X-Men that ultimately leads to Beast’s downfall at the end of the series.

In fact, it is this very deftness that leads to the one great disappointment, which is, of course, the big reveal of Xorn as Magneto. A lot of people say they see evidence from the moment that the character is introduced that Morrison planned it that way, but if that’s the case, it’s too subtle for me, because I find it all but impossible to make it fit as seamlessly and clearly (in retrospect) as so many other thing in the series.

Besides that, I find it most interesting to view this through the lens of Morrison & Quitely’s Absolute Superman.

New X-Men reads like a dry run, in some ways, for that book—the sense that the value of the events is to shine a light on the characters, to let their most vital essence show through, the willingness to acknowledge what has come before without being bound by it.

The moments at the end for Jean Grey—when Logan kills her in an effort to try and spare her a painful death, and the surrender in her final statement to Scott Summers, “I’m always dying on you.”—carry a lot of emotional weight while still acknowledging the fundamental unseriousness of death in comic-books, and set the scene for an emotional component that Morrison succeeds in sustaining throughout Absolute Superman.

I’m not going to suggest everyone go out and spend the $71 that Amazon charges (in contrast to Absolute Superman, which I would suggest everyone read), especially since this ends up being a true doorstop of a book—it’s a little unwieldy. But if you have any affection for these characters—if you grew up with them in their heyday of the late 70’s and early 80’s, you should really consider reading this, even if you just borrow it.

The Disappearing Spoon

There are, broadly, two categories of science books; those that focus on one thing, with only enough digression to perhaps explain background or competing theories (I’m thinking of The Elegant Universe, for instance), and those that have a theme that try to tie together many disparate bits of scientific knowledge or history.

Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon is definitely in the latter camp. Though it certainly takes the periodic table as its jumping-off point, it’s really a broad overview of the formalization of chemistry and physics as their own, separate disciplines in the 19th and 20th centuries, seen through the lens of our relationship to the not-as-fundamental-as-we-think (or, for that matter, most of the scientists being discussed thought) components of our universe.

Some of the endnotes are pretty interesting—the scientist who nearly didn’t get his Nobel Prize because he nearly died from a Staph. Aurea infection that degraded into necrotizing fascitis, for instance. And, truthfully, it’s easily read in small bites, which fits with the time I have available to devote to reading right now.

If you’re into this sort of collection-of-anecdotes sort of book, go for it; it’s an excellent example of that sort of book.

These are the most ridiculous and disturbing commercials I’ve ever seen…

In fact, I assumed that they were a joke, they were so weird and creepy. I assumed that the web site would be a big put-on.

But as far as I can tell, it’s not. It’s a real ice cream place.

Now normally, this would not be enough for me to blog this. But I know people in Philadelphia. I am more or less demanding that you go check this place out and let me know if it’s as much of a nuthouse as the commercials suggest. Please. I have to know.