Found this image on deviantart, but I like it better than the actual cover.  (here)

What to say?  This book is fantastic.  Margaret Atwood imagines a chilling, contemporary postapocalyptica.  It is funny and disgusting and plausible.  I call it a "dystopia" rather than a "sci-fi world" because it centers on biotech run amok.  The state has broken down and been replaced by compounds, run by the CorpSeCorps and inhabited by the employees of biotech corporations (similar to yet infinitely more sinister than Neal Stephenson's franchises in Snowcrash) and pleeblands, lawless slums for everyone less educated and wealthy.  The book takes place after a plague has wiped out . . . apparently every human but the central character, Jimmy or Snowman.  The events leading up to the plague are told through his recollections.  

What makes the book are the thoughtful and richly imagined descriptions of the pre-plague world, such as this taxonomy of a demented near-future internet: 

(The passage is long, but so good that I was tempted to copy the whole thing out.  Here are selections)
"When they weren't playing games they'd surf the Net -- drop in on old favourites, see what was new.  They'd watch open heart surgery in live time, or else the Noodie News, which was good for a few minutes because the people on it tried to pretend there was nothing unusual going on and studiously avoided looking at one another jujubes.
Or they'd watch animal snuff sites, Felicia's Frog Squash and the like, though these quickly grew repetitious: one stomped frog, one cat being torn apart by hand, was much like another.  Or they'd watch dirtysockpuppets.com, a current-affairs show about world political leaders ...

Or they might watch hedsoff.com, which played live coverage of executions in Asia.  There they could see enemies of the people being toppled with swords someplace that looked like China, while thousands of spectators cheered.  Or they could watch aliboohoo.com, with various supposed thieves having their hands cut off and adulterers and lipstick-wearers being stoned to death by howling crowds, in dusty enclaves that purported to be in fundamentalist countries in the Middle East.  ... Crake said these bloodfests were probably taking place on a back lot somewhere in California, with a bunch of extras rounded up off the streets.  ...
Shortcircuit.com, brainfrizz.com, and deathrowlive.com were the best; they showed electrocutions and lethal injections.  Once they'd made real time coverage legal, the guys being executed started hamming it up for the cameras.  ...
There was an assisted-suicide site too -- nitee-nite.com, it was called -- which hass a this-was-your-life component: family albums, interviews with relatives, brave parties of friends standing by while the deed was taking place to background organ music.  After the sad-eyed doctor has declared that life was extinct, there were taped testimonials from the participants themselves, stating why they'd chosen to depart.  The assisted-suicide statistics shot way up after this show got going.  ... 
Or they would watch At Home With Anna K.  Anna K. was a self-styled installation artist with big boobs who'd wired up her apartment so that every moment of her life was sent out to millions of voyeurs.  "This is Anna K.. thinking always about my happiness and my unhappiness," was what you'd get as you joined her.  Then you might watch her tweezing her eyeborws, waxing her bikini line, washing her underwear.  Sometimes she'd read scenes from old plays out loud, taking all the parts, while sitting on the can with her retro-look bell-bottom jeans around her ankles.  This was how Jimmy first encountered Shakespeare.  ... 
Or they would watch the Quack Geek Show, which had contests featuring the eating of live animals and birds, timed by stopwatches, with prizes of hard-to-come-by foods.  It was amazing what people would do for a couple of lamb chops or a chunk of genuine brie."

Notably absent is social media.  Atwood has decribed an internet consisting entirely of youtube channels.  What about file sharing networks, VR, or terrifying biotech peripherals?  What she envisions couldn't be more different than for example, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.  Both share the themes of failed corporate tech to prevent aging, and lament the loss of the written word, but SSTLS imagines the horrific machine as a social media device worn as a necklace that is constantly calculating and displaying the relative prestige (klout?) of every person in the room.  For Atwood, it's a pig that grows bits of human brain tissue for transplant.

The descriptions of video games are as lavish as those of the internet, but make it (comically) obvious that Margaret Atwood does not play video games.  Extinctathon, which becomes a prominent plot point, is described as "an interactive biofreak masterlore game" . . . but gameplay sounds more like an irc channel on which people play 20 questions and the thing-to-be-guessed is always an extinct animal.  Which is all well and good, I suppose, if an unlikely choice for an illicit game played by teenage future biohackers, and one that seems laughable to anyone who's played GTA 5.

The point, of course, is not to try to criticize the book on the axis that the technology it features is implausible - that comes with the genre.  Science fiction is about fictional technology.  But more to point out that the way we imagine the future is nuanced and informed by exposure - and it can be read like a text itself.  Atwood's axis of interest is biotech, and in her world gene splicing is the engine of the economy.  The book does not really suffer for this.

Major criticism of the book describes it as a "morality play" - or a transparent set of plot devices aimed at delivering a moral lesson (ie. Don't destroy the planet and let all the animals go extinct).  I think this criticism is unwarranted, but as someone who agrees deeply with the moral lesson in question, am also perhaps unqualified for comment.  I find the world is fascinating, and Atwood's writing does service to her imagination.  It is infrequent that I can read science fiction with such readable, yet poetic, prose.

. . .

This post took me a month to write.  I'm almost done the trilogy by now, IRL.

Probably the other two books, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam, will not get their own posts.  Suffice to say I am enjoying them almost but not quite as much as I enjoyed Oryx and Crake.


Random Access Memory (Exactly what it sounds like):

I went out for lunch a few weeks ago with my Grandma and she asked me how I was doing in high school Physics.  She was surprised to hear that I've been finding it very difficult.  I haven't done this kind of thing (solving quadratics?  Trigonometry?) for 10 years, and there's a lot to catch up on.  She reminded me that, in grade 10 I won the high school science award, meaning that of grade 10s in my school I got the highest mark in science.  She said, "At the assembly, you didn't go up to get the award because kids were chanting, 'nerd, nerd, nerd'."  I'd forgotten all about it.

It is always disorienting when someone inadvertently stirs up your past like this.  I remember very well how I registered for and then quickly dropped the Grade 11 sciences.  I was sick of being a nerd, and I wanted boys to like me.  I tell this part of the story pretty often and remember it easily, a quick party joke, a flash-in-the-pan example of how humour grows out of pain (humour: a weird twisted limb, a third arm).  But more painful yet, a wound unhealed by humour, is the memory that suddenly resurfaces.

Because the hidden punchline of "I was sick of being a nerd, and I wanted boys to like me" is the question: Why.  Why was your young self so sure they were a nerd, and that no boys liked them, and the key to solving these problems was dropping science, and by extension seeming stupider?  Oh Right. There's no mystery here.  There's no diaphanous culture to try to find and point your finger at.  Nothing so ephemeral as feminism.  You knew this because a room full of people told it to you literally and hid no words.

I'm writing this now because it's the closest thing I can think of to going back in time and telling my young self to hell with those yelling bastards, that they're be less than shit to me someday.

10 years later, much is different and much the same.  If you can't heal yourself with running away, and you can't heal yourself by telling jokes about the things you ran from, maybe you can heal yourself by going back.

Hello high school science.


Here are some things I'm responsible for bringing into the world lately. 

And a new book to post, with some comments.  (I really like the idea of this gradually becoming a book review blog).

I have mixed feelings about Cory Doctorow as a writer.

I enjoyed Little Brother immensely, and stopped reading Makers halfway through in disgust.  (Am I really hard on books?  Yes, I am really hard on books.)

I concluded that he is good at writing for children and young adults and bad at writing for adults - which is a fine way to be.  Certainly, the young adult market is more lucrative.  To elaborate: if a book for young teens seems didactic, with juvenile characters, it's much as expected.  A very similar type of story about 40-year-olds, ostensibly aimed at other 40-year-olds, is much less understandable.

Comments on Information Doesn't Want To Be Free:

Spoiler alert: It's "Information doesn't want to be free, people do," in case you're a hacker manifesto diehard offended by the title's apparent sacrilege.  Since both Little Brother and Makers read at times like mouthpieces for Doctorow's futurism - it's unsurprising that he's at his best when he drops the baggage and just tells you what he thinks, in straight-forward non-fiction.

This book is tremendously well-researched.  It frequently elucidates obscure bits of copyright law and internet history in layperson language, using examples that make clear the implications of some proposed anti-piracy bills and current DRM.  That said and full disclaimer, it's easy to like something you've agreed with for years.  And since I downloaded my first .mp3 at maybe 12 or 13, I have never looked back.

Personal archaeology suggests that this was the first song I ever downloaded:


This is what I do at work (aka play games with 10 yr old boys).  I swear it is educational for us all.  


Pleased to report that in January, I'll be going back to high school.  I'll be doing grade 12 physics, chemistry, and maybe biology.  This is undertaken with the intention of applying to big-girl university and studying something like computer science or software engineering.  Stay tuned for blog updates, in which my life becomes more and more like a romcom starring Drew Barrymore.

Otherwise, I'm currently reading The Left Hand of Darkness, and happy to be reviewing a book I'm enjoying.  At some point, I should start *finishing* books before I post about them.  Alas.

The book is a science fiction novel written in the late 60's.  The set up of the universe is a classic one in sci fi (and indeed a trope I used in my never-before-mentioned-on-this-blog high school sci fi novel): An early human civilization scattered throughout the universe and lost touch with its colonies, accounting for the proliferation of many humanoid species.  The main character is an Envoy from the main arm of civilization making contact with a virgin alien planet, trying to welcome them into trade with the rest of the galaxy.  Fun quirk: this branch of the human genepool is hermaphroditic, turning the whole book into a thought-game about what a world without gender would be like.  It allows for thrilling and quietly hilarious sentences like, "My landlady, a voluble man, arranged my journey into the East."  (Le Guin uses "man" and "he" as universal pronouns throughout the book, a practice which has certainly gone of fashion now).  

To narrow the philosophical subjects contained within this book to gender alone would be (unapologetic pun) to neuter it.  The world on which it takes place, Gethen, is one where war has never existed, maybe because it lacks the aggressiveness of gendered sexuality and maybe because it's deep in an ice age and Gethenians spend too much time fighting for survival to fight one another.  There are two main nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn.  Karhide is a sort of feudal state that has developed advanced technology.  Orgoreyn is a non-dystopic communism, a many-branched bureaucracy controls everything and provides jobs for all citizens.  But: "Better to be naked than to lack papers, in Orgoreyn."  Some passages set in this part of the world could be taken from Koestler's Darkness at Noon.  The plot is driven by swirling changes in both cultures, brought about by the arrival of the Envoy, that threaten to bring about the invention of war.  Ultimately, it is a story of friendship between aliens, not despite, but because of their differences.  

Underneath all this is recurring speculation on the nature of truth and knowledge, framed in opposition being-in-the-moment and sensuous lived experience.  Notably, religious Karhiders have developed a limited ability to see the future, but place little stock in it. As in this bit of dialogue:

- "What is sure, predictable, inevitable--the one thing you know concerning your future, and mine?"

- "That we shall die."

- "Yes.  There's really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

(As life, so the book).  I expect I will be reading more by this author, especially because my reading lacks female sci fi writers.  Also worth linking, this (excerpted) essay by Le Guin on being a man.  


Codevember round up!

So as November winds to a close - err, has been over for a week, here's a brief list of what I did.  Or, more accurately, a confession to what I didn't do.

- Made a big keyboard controlled processing sketch and did projections for a bunch of bands.  It's on my github called "combination" and to be honest the code is a bit of a mess.  I would like to refactor it but haven't started.

- Made my first 3D processing sketch, which I'd like to expand into a similar projections app.  It's fun.  The thing I like about processing is I can just open it up and be done a self-contained sketch fairly quickly.  It can be difficult to pick up a larger programming project if you only have an hour or two- it's like each time you spend a few days away you have to rebuild the mental map of your code, and reorient to the problem-space.

- Started rewriting the way You Are A Rock handles part of speech using nltk.  The first version is basically hard coded, and at the time I didn't know how to do it any other way.  I'd also like to be able to explore natural language processing tools on my own writing.

- Been reading the nltk book.  I'm currently in chapter 5, and my biggest notable so far is that it makes much heavier use of list comprehensions that I've been in the habit of, and has made me realize they're much more powerful that I thought.

- Made some frontend changes to Tool Library version of the LasaurApp.  I basically just made a pop up menu for Tool Library-specific maintenance, and recent cut speeds.  I'd like to add a form that lets users add entries to the cut speed table . . . someday.

- Began a web project that isn't on my github, and probably won't ever be.  This is not a lie to make up for my lack of commits later in the month, I swear! It's real!

What I didn't do:

- Make a commit every day.  This is because I didn't program something significant every day, and resisted the urge to make superficial commits.  In hindsight, a commit is not a good metric.  A month of fixing minor syntax errors is not much of an accomplishment.  Also the whole working on code that's not open source thing ...

- Finish the MIT intro to programming course.  This I'm a bit sad about, but I'm still working my way through it fairly slowly.  Better to grok it thoroughly than quickly, I guess?  Currently in the section on optimization algorithms, lecture 14.


Random-access Memory

(exactly what it sounds like)

This song popped into my head last night.  I haven't listened to or thought about it in years.  I don't think it's cool anymore, but it's been a long time since being cool was important to me. Of that, this blog post can be the evidence. 

I first heard it in, I think, 2003 or 2004.  I was in grade 10.  I was sitting in Communications tech class, at a table alone except for a boy I had a crush on, who I was also simultaneously terrified of.  He was listening to a discman - back then, the cool and normal way to listen to music was on CDs.  I used to feel like spinning silver disks were life rafts.  For this reason I carried an 1/8" inch audio splitter in my bag.  I thought maybe I could float out of some imagined storm and into intimacy.

In this class we made a short film on VHS tape, and I made intricate ball point pen drawings of computers (I still have them, and think they are a testament to how precise and patient you can be when you're lonely).  I think I only handed in two assignments for this class (the film, these drawings), and was passed by virtue of these drawings alone.  I overheard my teacher, who's name in my memory sounds like Mr. Neelan but may not be, at a parent teacher interview describing me to another student, "Sarah's not like other girls."  I thought it was a compliment at the time, and now I know that it wasn't.  I also know that I am. 

Anyway, rewind.  We are sitting in the classroom.  The lights are flourescent and there is something we're supposed to be working on but we're not.  I don't remember warning him - I just remember unplugging his headphones, and adding mine.  This song was playing.  I didn't ask him for the name of the band, instead I remembered the lyrics and googled them.  I still do this often when I like a song, and every time feel clever. 

Less than a year later, this song was playing over and over on a four song playlist as I lay quietly waiting to die.  Or course, that is another story - maybe more silly and certainly more melodramatic than this one.