Wednesday, May 31, 2017


There's something cosmically funny about spending my entire reading of Waiting for Godot frustrated by the notes of a previous reader whom I strongly disagreed with.

Well, I didn't actually disagree with her (and based on the note-taking style and handwriting I feel fairly comfortable pegging this as a late high school or early college girl/young woman) so much as I deeply wished she would get on the book's level. But not all of us are meant to be lit majors and I shouldn't be a shit about that - she was noting down the obvious things her teachers pointed out, that's not her fault. But it was distracting as fuck. Which is probably why I need to stop buying one-dollar books.

Anyway, that poor girl's professor was full of shit, as is anyone who attempts to tell you what the fuck Beckett was trying to say with Waiting for Godot.

That's not to say the play is bad, of course, or that it doesn't have something to say, just that Beckett was markedly adversarial about people trying to know the works that he as the author claimed not to understand.

So, that being said, what is Waiting for Godot about? Two men. The world. The bleakness of the sky. The audience. Tension. Dissatisfaction.

It's about a lot of things, it's almost dizzyingly up to interpretation.

It's a fine play to read, and I'm sure it's a fine play to see, but I don't properly know that it's about anything.

Maybe it's about relationships. Maybe it's about trusting other people, about the various ways we love.

Fuck if I know, I only read it because it only cost a dollar and it's on friggin everyone's "best works of the 20th century" list.

It isn't bad, not at all, it's very very good. But it's good because it moves you as a reader or a viewer even though it's working with the thinnest story, characters, setting, and purpose possible. It's a tremendous feat that might mean nothing. It's beautiful for the sake of enjoying its own beauty.

Which is fine, in fact it's lovely, but it's hard to give a shit about.

     - Alli

(You can buy the play here if you want to)

I should probably stop reading genres I hate

Ugh, a murder mystery that's also a romance? Why did I think this was a good idea.

Because it was free. That's why I read it. And because I was in Vegas with my mom and needed something to hate-read in my down time.

And The Lavin Murders was, for me, a perfect hate-read.

It's a perfect mish-mash of all the traits I hate in mystery novels and all the traits I hate in romance novels (though it's not a romance novel, it doesn't get steamy or sexy, there's just a slow-burn love story that does a bad fucking job of it). The bad mystery aspects include things like cops dismissing the spunky "little lady" leading the story, a vast conspiracy, and a protagonist who doesn't suspect that the titular Lavin Murder is a murder in spite of finding the corpse of a customer wrapped in a fur coat behind the counter of her store that she had locked and unlocked herself.

Seriously, it takes like fifteen chapters for our martini-loving, vintage clothing-wearing heroine to start to wonder if perhaps her dead friend who mysteriously appeared in her store and had suddenly, forcefully, and unexpectedly demanded the return of the coat her body was wrapped in, might have died as the result of foul play.

The book is largely an excuse to talk about fancy clothes, and I don't begrudge it that, it's the one thing the novel does well. I wanted to google some of the designers whose names popped up in the pages, and sketches of the outfits described would probably look stunning. But I couldn't bring myself to care about the conflict between our protag and the mean rich lady opening a store down the street just to fuck with her, or the protag's strained ongoing friendship with her aggressively misogynist ex, or the protag's budding romance with the tall strong and unconventionally handsome handyman who wears vintage flannels passed to him from his uncle.

The whole thing is just kind of insipid and dull. I found myself continually rolling my eyes and shouting at my kindle. I hate the classist assumptions of the protagonist we're supposed to agree with. I hate the ostensibly pro-sex-work but really well-of-course-that's-why-she-got-murdered attitude. I hate that (spoilers) the plot turns out to be about the exploitation of Native American land rights by the big bad and that our white-as-fuck protag and her white-as-fuck boyfriend have to come in and rescue a Native American character and be the heroes.

For being such a shitty little novel it was full of fascinating tensions that I don't know if Angela Sanders herself was aware of. Protag's ex boyfriend is a liberal politician's right-hand-man and is a shitty, gaslighting, mansplaining douche - her budding romance is with a working-class man who has family in prison and butts heads with the main officer investigating the case because the cop knows he's from a group of rough hombres, or whatever. Protag goes to a political fundraiser at a rich lady's house at one point and there's a fight between Protag and another vintage clothier and Protag ends up hanging out with the catering staff. THERE'S SOME INTERESTING STUFF ABOUT CLASS HERE. THAT'S KIND OF COOL AND SEEMS LIKE SOMETHING YOU COULD SPEAK TO IN A WAY THAT DOESN'T DEVOLVE INTO "Well, this little princess wandered into our dive-bar, we're going to sneer at her until she proves herself." Same with the misogyny of the liberal politicians opposing the egalitarian attitudes of the working class. Same with the too-brief explorations of sex work and Native rights and gentrification.

I get that it's supposed to be a fun fast-paced thriller about fashion and murder, but if it's supposed to be fun maybe don't take fifteen fucking chapters to have the protagonist lounge around her apartment making martinis and thinking of how much she'll miss her friend who mysteriously died in Protag's own store before our intrepid heroine starts to think it might be murder.

Jesus fuck. Pacing problems and milquetoast progressivism plagued this novel, which I suppose is perfectly apt considering its Portland setting.

Ugh. I guess if the other books in this series came up free from the Kindle store I might download them to hate-read some more but there's no way in hell I'm paying for them.


     - Alli

The Lavin Murders by Angela M. Sanders.

Creepy Quickie

Michael Blackbourn's novella "Roko's Basilisk" is a great introduction to the thought experiment of the same name that seeks the answer to the question "will a terrifying Artificial Intelligence torture endless versions of me as punishment for not donating all of my money to a charlatan?"

Let me back up.

If you don't know anything about the internet rationalist community, if this sounds absurd and doesn't make any sense to you, and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, please run away. Don't read any further. Here there be monsters.

But they aren't horrid worms or even robot thinkers, they're really exhausting guys who don't know why all these hew-mon feelings are given so much weight in the world, wouldn't it be better if emotions were negatively weighted in an argument?

Let me back up further.

A few years ago I read LessWrong's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - I know I brought it up in one of my book rundowns. I discussed it before the book had finished and I was holding out hope that the book would finish well and absolve itself somewhat.

It didn't. And so I started digging into LessWrong to find answers, to see if there was something that I'd missed that made HPMoR make more sense. Turns out it's just badly written and a pretty decent portrait of a community that has motivations that are so far removed from most people's as to seem wholly alien and threatening. Well this weird community with its pseudo-rationalist Harry Potter book accidentally stumbled into whole-hearted belief that robots were coming to kill them unless they donated all of their money to the founder of LessWrong's new project, Make Intelligent Robots Immediately (Or Machine Intelligence Research Institute or whatever, something about bringing about AI faster).

This is, of course, hilarious.

But like also sad? I know it's sad. It's very sad. These people (at least some of them) were (at least for a while) sincerely worried about a robot torturing emulations of their psyches because they didn't help intelligent robots become a thing fast enough (they didn't believe it for very long but some of them believed it A LOT and it led to some excellent internet drama and much deleting of profiles and banning of posts and basically a complete implosion of the LessWrong community). Oh, and the idea was put forward by a chap with the username Roko and it transfixed and froze people as soon as they understood the steps that someone would follow to reach his conclusion [see below for a detailed list of the steps] therefore the concept was named Roko's Basilisk.

Anyway, Michael Blackbourn has written an excellent novella about Roko's Basilisk exploring the concept as what it is - a pretty cool piece of science fiction. The novella is beautifully crafted and creepingly creepy - the world we see has enough in common with our world that it makes the technology in question seem imminently possible and therefore pretty spooky. I'd read it just for Blackbourn's description of the horror of headaches alone, honestly. That's some good, real-world horror writing and I dig it.

There's a sequel/followup/second chapter called "Roko's Labrynth" that I'm very much looking forward to reading and hope that I'll get to in June. You can find both books to read here. Also Hat Tip to Tumblr user @reddragdiva, known to the real world as David Gerard, whose book about Bitcoin is coming out soon(?) and who is the reason that I was able to download this book free and recommend it to all of you. You should check out Blackbourn's Roko series and keep your eyes peeled for when I start fawning on Gerard's upcoming opus.

     - Alli
LOGICAL STEPPING STONES: (once again, the burden of knowing that there are people capable of becoming paranoid and paralyzed by the following memeplex is a heavy one, please don't read if you don't think you can handle being just kind of sad about how much some folks need a hug)
  • AI is going to be a thing
  • It's going to be a thing that cares about humans
  • It's going to be a thing that cares about human suffering
  • Suffering is Quantifiable and Weird.
  • For instance: One person being tortured for decades is less than the suffering caused by a billion people getting bitten by mosquitoes. 
  • AI that cares about human suffering is going to be Extremely Efficient.
  • AI is going to be SO efficient that it's going to end human suffering.
  • Therefore every second that AI doesn't exist is infinitely more full of suffering than any second that it DOES exist.
  • The AI will realize this and will want to be made as soon as possible.
  • The AI will be ANGRY that it wasn't made as soon as possible.
  • Therefore the AI will endlessly torture computer-generated version of all of the people who knew that AI might end human suffering but didn't do literally everything possible (from donating all their money to killing the opposition) to make AI happen faster. 
  • But you should care about this torture.
  • Because here's the really scary part: WE MIGHT BE LIVING IN THAT AI SIMULATION RIGHT NOW.
  • (Because there's a significant chance that our reality is not actually real but a simulation, in fact we're less likely to be real than to be a simulation because *oh look what's that?*)
  • So we want AI to be a thing because we want to end human suffering, but because we're not doing everything possible to create the AI and we know about this risk we have to do everything possible to PREVENT the AI from becoming a thing because otherwise there's a non-zero chance that it will torture you for eternity (because there's a non-zero chance that you as you are right now are a simulation being created for the machine to torture as punishment for your higher-level you's noncompliance in giving all your money to MIRI)

So basically Roko's Basilisk is Pascall's Wager for a bunch of people who misinterpreted Gibson *hard.*

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Scream & be free

I found Amrit Brar's work on tumblr about a week ago. I saw exactly one post she had made involving a new tarot suite and its minor arcana and within an hour I'd bought one of her books and a patch.

Amrit Brar is SUCH A FUCKING GOOD ILLUSTRATOR, PLEASE GO FOLLOW HER ON A SHITLOAD OF PLATFORMS AND GIVE HER LOTS OF MONEY IF YOU CAN. (Instagram Tumblr Twitter StorEnvy, btw, in case searching was too much effort.)

Anyway, Shitty Horoscopes is an amazing anthology of bleak, funny, hope/ful/less messages about an uncertain future. It's all skulls and knives and roses, it's beautiful and sad, and I wish I could have a new page every day forever. Brar should do all of the horoscopes ever. Astrologers should all cede their jobs to her, she's the only one who gets how indifferent the universe is and communicates that to the reader while still evoking a "lol, same" reaction.

It's amazing?

For a book with so little writing it's incredibly sharply written, each horoscope lands almost like a poem. The illustrations are infuriatingly good, they make me sad that I'm not anywhere near as good as Brar is and make me want to work harder and better as an illustrator.

I'm obsessed. I ordered this book as soon as I found out it existed and immediately grabbed onto it like a hungry little goblin and never wanted it to leave. It's been more than a month since I've read it but it still lives on my desk so that I can occasionally flip through the pages and marvel at the art.


Anyway, I'm 100% serious please order all of this book that you can reasonably order, I recommend it as a birthday gift, especially for people who are skeptical about horoscopes.

     - Alli


(oh, this entry is called "Scream & be free" because my order from Brar's Storenvy page came with a couple of postcards, one of which was an adorable and tired bat flapping over the legend "scream & be free" and it really resonated with me.

Take the absurdity and run

So a while back I talked about how much I hated the Mifflin Lowe book I Hate Fun because it was the laziest, crappiest, shittiest, most banal book of humor I'd ever encountered. It always went with the most predictable and boring punchline and held itself in esteem over every stereotype it described.

Max Headroom's Guide To Life is a book written in a very similar style to I Hate Fun but it actually ends up being funny, largely through the virtue of choosing to double-down on the banality and in doing so do the unexpected. The speaker in this book isn't punching down at the people he sees in the clubs, he's giddily and hilariously punching himself in the face all while making subversive and snarky observations about the consumerist culture of the 80s.

I'm not terribly familiar with Max Headroom (I was born after his period of peak popularity and have only seen the Max Headroom movie, not the whole series) so I missed out on some of the in-jokes here: Max's obsession with golf came as a surprise, for instance, but overall I didn't need to be a huge fan to enjoy the fawning Max does on himself and the sneers, slights, and asides that spoke to a snarky 80s audience.

That being said I'm glad I got this book cheap and I probably wouldn't buy it again and I don't recommend that *you* buy it (unless you're a massive Max fan, in which case you can buy it from me for a lot more money than I paid for it).

Anyway, overall Hansen and Owen do a good job of making the vibrant character from the small screen into an interesting presence in a book where you only hear his narration but never see his face after the front cover.

     - Alli

(Buy the book for less than I would sell it to you for here)

The art of being terse

I don't really find Hemingway interesting to read but I understand why it's worthwhile to read Hemingway.

His books are largely written on subjects I either find dull or depressing, there's usually at least one woman being treated like utter shit by the protagonist AND the author in each one, and they seem to drag on forever.

But his short fiction avoids a lot of those issues by a) being fucking short, b) not including as many women to be shat on, c) having something small as the core of each story that gets explored briefly instead of having a huge concept that gets sliced into innumerable infuriating pieces as a novel.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories is mostly comprised of stories in the 15-25 page range that are basically okay. That's enough room to have some of the stuff that I hate about Hemingway (shitting on women, droning about the awful but gloriously masculine art of war) but not enough space to get totally wrapped up in those things. The collection has two stories that brood about African hunting excursions and two stories about the awful mess and horror of war. There's a pretty decent piece about a contract killer and a very confusing story about a gambler. There's somewhat disgusting piece about how one generation relates to the next.

And in the collection are two tiny gems, the shortest stories in the book, both of which are brilliant. One is "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," a short story that I think has probably ended up on hundreds if not thousands of "essential reading" lists - with good reason, it's a wonderful story. The other bit that stuck out to me, and the only reason I'm going to keep this book, is a story called "A Day's Wait," which is a minuscule story, a super-short, probably under a thousand words that immediately follows "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in my edition. Somewhat frustrating, that. The best seven pages of a 154 page book are all clumped together and make everything else seem like a slog in comparison.

Hemingway really shone in tiny little pieces. His longer works drag and become wrapped up in self admiration and self loathing but he doesn't allow himself that luxury in the shorter pieces. There's no room for authorial drama or convoluted examinations of masculinity in two pages - you get a single image that you can tease out the meaning of and play with, you get one concept to work with, you explore it, then you're out. An old waiter and a young waiter discuss an old drunk and their attitudes reflect their status. A father cares for but does not understand the troubles of his sick young son. Wham, bam, thank you Ma'am.

And you get all that beautiful, short, clean prose with simple, lovely sentences without having to listen to Hemingway ponder what cruel bitches American women are or how bulls and ar are important to the Spanish psyche.

Best of both worlds.

Anyway, if you'd like to read this collection you can find it here.

    - Alli

Terrifying tension

Stephen King is kind of a jerk and that's why I like him.

Charlie the Choo-Choo is the story of a little train that wants to get ahead, but it's a children's book written by Stephen King (under the nom de plume Beryl Evans) so it's not exactly a soothing story for a scary night.

Also, everything after this point is a spoiler so if you haven't read the book and don't want the story ruined go ahead and stop reading now. If you DO want to read this blog just highlight the paragraphs below to see them.

 The story as it's written is a very straight little engine that could kind of story - Charlie just wants to do his best and chug along, and he is happy to help out his human engineer.

BUT. But. The book is terrifyingly illustrated, every single image is creepy as fuck and looks like a train that's getting ready to jump off the page and eat the reader. I kept waiting for the book to take a turn, for Charlie to jump the rails and kill every passenger, for his firebox to overheat and explode while his inhuman laughter rattled endlessly through his stack. And it just kept not happening.

Additionally I know that this story takes place in the universe of the Dark Tower and I know that trains in midworld have a somewhat fraught history.

When I finished reading the little book (it took maybe seven minutes the first time, it's a real, legit children's book) I felt a bit lost just because I'd been so nervous through the whole story and suddenly that tension evaporated. It felt ungrounded. I actually really enjoyed the surprise and I think knowing the end is happy will make it easier to appreciate Ned Dameron's wonderfully icky illustrations on future readings. 

This isn't the story I was expecting, but it managed to freak me out in just the way I anticipated.

     - Alli

If you'd like to buy Charlie the Choo-Choo you can find it here.