sábado, junho 24, 2017

Intertextual SF: "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu

“Lord Garu, you compare yourself to a weed?” Cogo Yelu frowned.
“Not just any weed, Cogzy. A dandelion is a strong but misunderstood flower.” Remembering his courtship with Jia, Kuni felt his eyes grow warm. “It cannot be defeated: Just when a gardener thinks he has won and eradicated it from his lawn, a rain would bring the yellow florets right back. Yet it’s never arrogant: Its color and fragrance never overwhelm those of another. Immensely practical, its leaves are delicious and medicinal, while its roots loosen hard soils, so that it acts as a pioneer for other more delicate flowers. But best of all, it’s a flower that lives in the soil but dreams of the skies. When its seeds take to the wind, it will go farther and see more than any pampered rose, tulip, or marigold.”
“An exceedingly good comparison,” Cogo said, and drained his cup. “My vision was too limited to not have understood it.”
Mata nodded in agreement and drained his cup as well, suffering silently as the burning liquor numbed his throat.
“Your turn, General Zyndu,” Than prompted.
Mata hesitated. He was not witty or quick on his feet, and he was never good at games like this. But he glanced down and saw the Zyndu coat of arms on his boots, and suddenly he knew what he should say.
He stood up. Though he had been drinking all night, he was steady as an oak. He began to clap his hands steadily to generate a beat, and sang to the tune of an old song of Tunoa:

The ninth day in the ninth month of the year:

By the time I bloom, all others have died.

Cold winds rise in Pan’s streets, wide and austere:

A tempest of gold, an aureal tide.

My glorious fragrance punctures the sky.

Bright-yellow armor surrounds every eye.

With disdainful pride, ten thousand swords spin

To secure the grace of kings, to cleanse sin.

A noble brotherhood, loyal and true.

Who would fear winter when wearing this hue?

“The King of Flowers,” Cogo Yelu said.
Mata nodded.
Kuni had been tapping his finger on the table to follow the beat. He stopped now, reluctantly, as if still savoring the music. “By the time I bloom, all others have died.’ Though lonely and spare, this is a grand and heroic sentiment, befitting the heir of the Marshal of Cocru. The song praises the chrysanthemum without ever mentioning the flower by name. It’s beautiful.”
“The Zyndus have always compared themselves to the chrysanthemum,” Mata said.
Kuni bowed to Mata and drained his cup. The others followed suit.
“But, Kuni,” said Mata, “you have not understood the song completely.”
Kuni looked at him, confused.
“Who says it praises only the chrysanthemum? Does the dandelion not bloom in the same hue, my brother?”
Kuni laughed and clasped arms with Mata. “Brother! Together, who knows how far we will go?”
The eyes of both men glistened in the dim light of the Splendid Urn.
Mata thanked everyone and drank himself. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel alone in a crowd. He belonged—an unfamiliar but welcome sensation. It surprised him that he found it here, in this dark and sleazy bar, drinking cheap wine and eating bad food, among a group of people he would have considered peasants playing at being lords—like Krima and Shigin—just a few weeks ago.”

In “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu.

Goodkind is responsible for the worst thing ever written by a human being; the now legendary evil chicken scene. I still have his books at home. Mea Culpa. That reminds me. I must give them away the next chance I’ve got… the following passage is underlined in my book. To wit:

"Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken's head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway. "Shoo," Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn't enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn't tell if it had the dark spot, but she didn't need to see it. "Dear spirits, help me," she prayed under her breath. The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart, she knew it wasn't. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People's chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest."

In “Soul of the Fire” by Terry Goodkind.

He really wrote this. Seriously. Yep, I'm afraid that's a direct quote. Terry Goodkind literally wrote those words. They spewed forth from his brain and onto the page. I still remember throwing book against the wall. For a long time, I stopped reading Fantasy altogether. Recently I’ve been trying to get back to the genre, but I still shudder at the thought I might find stuff akin to Goodkind’s writing. It was with some trepidation I tackled Liu’s epic fantasy starting with the first volume of his Dandelion Saga. I’m a huge fan of Liu’s short fiction. That’s why I dipped my toes in the fantasy genre once again.

Terry Pratchett's withering response to J K Rowling's assertion that she wasn't writing fantasy is worth mentioning as well. The problem with Rowling is that she's so leaden: the children's response to the discovery of a dragon is not “wow! A dragon!”, but “dragons are against school rules”. Magic as coursework. They are fantasy in that they're as thick as doorstops and chock full of chosen ones and dark lords, but compared to “A Wizard of Earthsea”, they never take flight. Philip Pullman was lucky, marketing-wise, to get what is clearly a “fantasy” series listed as a children's book and thus allowed into the hallowed ground of serious proper books at the front of the bookshop. That reminds me. What Philip Pullman writes is also crap.

I'm not that keen on pure fantasy (all that dragonrider crap), but China Mieville's excellent, when he remembers to give characters a character, M. John Harrison's Viriconium series (some call it anti-fantasy) extraordinary, Mervyn Peake's one of my favourite writers in any genre, and Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' was the most enjoyable thing I read last year (when I also finally read 'War and Peace', which was agony).

Has no-one mentioned comics? I used to like Cerebus the Aardaark, until I realised it wasn't taking the piss out of the fantasy genre's macho right-wing misogyny, it was macho, right-wing and misogynistic.

Yes, there are different ways of reading. Some people are clearly only interested in the surface narrative of a novel. Others read more deeply into a text, seeking its poetics. The person who taught me to read beneath the surface began by saying it would be like learning to drive a car - at first we would wonder how anyone could be on the lookout for so many linguistic possibilities at once, but that it would soon become a natural process - and she was right. I'll admit that it was one of the more important discoveries of my life, but it doesn't bother me that some people find it boring.

Those unwilling to let others be themselves are, I suspect, insecure in their own opinions. Do I really have to pose the rhetorical question, "What would life be like if we all had identical tastes?" I read a lot of SF in my teens, for the ideas, not the poetics, of which I then knew nothing. The potential weakness in the genre (which it shares with all fantasy, including "magic realism") is that without any given constraints a writer can be extremely lazy. Not all fantasy authors are lazy writers, but it takes a greater skill to write creatively when there are no boundaries.

At the bottom of all this is the need some people have to label and categorise everything, without which many of these arts blogs would not exist. It's the labeling and ranking I find boring.

As I said, Goodkind is highly irritating, like Donaldson. Both cannot write. I shudder to remember I read them, knowing time is so precious. There is something wrong with the linked series format. It hooks into the collector dysfunction in us. We cannot pick up book six and understand a thing, apart from the language and the action. We must get them all. It is consumerism. We are not supposed to consume books. We read books because we love them, or because we must, but we should not read books because we must love them. It is slavery of a strange kind. In Imperial Rome, a man could sell himself into slavery. With these books, we pay to be enslaved. That is the source, for me, of the discontent that may ground the question raised by the Fantasy genre nowadays. Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series like the above-mentioned Malloreon saga drove me away from fantasy. I just disliked being played for a fool, really.

This long preamble is just to say I’m glad I tackled Liu’s “The Grace of Kings”. Is it a perfect epic fantasy example? Nope. Is it better than most of the fodder out there? Undoubtedly yes. Does it have problems narrative-wise? Sure. But it’s still one hell of a romp, and I didn’t feel I was wasting my precious time reading dross. What did I bring home after having finished this 1st volume? Intertextual SF.  The Odyssey. It might be because I started on this novel after doing a quick skim of Homer’s duology, but I kept seeing shades of both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in the novel. Sometimes it was in the language. Other times it was the characters: Mata’s Achilles vs. Kuni’s Odysseus, for example. Plus, the fact that they influenced the mortals the same way the gods did in Homer’s work. I know that if this novel might be said to have any antecedents in the classics it’s in these two examples. I can’t help see Homer in it. Of course, I could be over-reading it too, but I tend to do stuff like this all the time.

Minor beef: “I know a mother from Xana who was willing to bear a corvée administrator’s lash to save her son. I know a wife from Cocru who hiked miles through mountains filled with bandits even while she was pregnant and managed to save the man who was sent to save her.” This impassioned speech Kuni Garu gave about women, while standing atop the walls of Zudi, in the middle of a siege seemed forced, out of place and unnecessary. There were plenty of times that character could have lectured his comrades about the role of women in society (including all the times they had visited local bars where women acted as hostesses), but the author chose the middle of a battle, when tensions are high, to have Kuni give that speech. It took me out of the story for a few heartbeats…I shrugged and moved on.

NB: To push my personal agenda a little bit more SF-wise, I''d recommend Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series. Plausible, (well, kind of; Reynolds was an astrophysicist), well-written and hugely entertaining. Beats watching television. The problem with SF was that it is about the impossible, space travel and such. Doubtless, the same criticisms were leveled at Jules Verne with all his crazy talk about 'flying machines'.

quinta-feira, junho 22, 2017

Eye-Opening SF: "Saving the World Through Science Fiction - James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar” by Michael R. Page

“Thus, traditional criticism’s charge that science fiction isn’t, in general, ‘literary’ because science fiction writers don’t focus on or have the artistry to deeply delve into character misses the point that science fiction isn’t about character, it’s about ideas. And therefore, science fiction should be judged by a different set of criteria than mundane mainstream fiction is evaluated.”

In “Saving the World Through Science Fiction - James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar” by Michael R. Page

Don't critics ignore SF because there's far too much of it, and the vast majority of it - like any sector of genre fiction - is a bit safe, geared more to selling to a niche of fans than the mass market? Certainly SF fandom is obsessed with genre distinctions (steampunk, space opera, mundane, whatever) that have absolutely no currency in the mainstream world - just like crime fandom (maybe to a lesser extent) worries about distinctions between golden age, hard-boiled, procedural and so on.
In both cases the really good stuff, the stuff that transcends the formulae and has something worthwhile to say - Atwood, or Houllebecq, or Alan Moore, Ballard, or Gunn - it "does" get noticed, it's just that people don't call it SF anymore. That's not to suggest that some really good books don't get unfairly overlooked because they're trapped in the sci-fi ghetto, but I'd argue that the vast majority of them don't get noticed because they're written and published based on what will sell to a very specialised, conservative audience (which is fine, it's how some people relax and some other people get paid), rather than on ambition or actually having something to say. Similarly, it's not to say that I wouldn't like to see some more fiction that deals with, y'know, "actual" science and scientists - precious little fiction of any stripe does, and there's a hugged untapped wealth of stories and themes out there.

(My 4 volumes of Gunn’s road to SF; the first 2 volumes lent to someone and never returned…I must find out who the prick was…)

So yeah, in most cases critics are probably right to overlook SF because the best stuff tends to rise to prominence, but when they spend some time picking out the best overlooked stuff (which is undoubtedly part of the process of your James E. Gunn's getting noticed), that's all to the good. And that's where Michael Page's book comes in. And what a breath of fresh air it was. SF has a focus on story-telling that is almost entirely absent from wanky stream-of-consciousness "literary" fiction. I've read SF that has fantastic prose, but because you actually know what's going on (most of the time), it isn't literary enough. This is true of all forms of genre storytelling - there are fantastic suspense and romance stories out there as well, in terms of plot, characterisation, research and language.

I do agree with SF sometimes being off-putting with the infodump syndrome, even the supposedly good stuff. I read Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and back in the day, James E. Gunn, for that reason, because there’s an art to it. A bit of background and world-building is good, but wanking on about what you happen to know (or can imagine) in the most minute detail gets very boring. Gunn belongs to this category. It is true that the best SF writers can slip in the relevant information in a completely painless manner - it's a real skill, but sometimes a good old fashioned infodump does wonders to the novel at hand.

Finally, when I get numpties telling off others for using the term "Sci-Fi", it's not surprising that SF fans can get a reputation for being earnest anoraks. Let's see, I've been calling it "sci-fi" since I started reading it - the mid-80s. It's a familiar term to most, and is more precise than saying SF, which can also mean "speculative fiction". I agree that crappy TV sci-fi is about 20 years behind the written form - which is why I call it "crappy TV_sci-fi". The only problem with most SF is that it's crap. Actually, Kingsley Amis (I think) put it well, when someone asked him if it was true that 95% of science fiction was crap, and he said yes, it was true, but then 95% of everything is also crap.

Reading this encompassing analysis of all the stuff Gunn ever wrote was a one hell of an eye-opener. It made me want to re-read some of the novels: “The Listeners”, “The Immortals”, which I remember loving when I still had pimples. I didn't read Gunn for the prose. I read his books for the ideas and the humour. His books are never less than interesting but sometimes the characters are a bit two dimensional as is the dialogue. Who reads Harry Potter for the prose style? You could also argue that Gunn is not only a SF writer. He’s also accessible because there is always a core of humanity and wit at the centre of his books and a search for meaning. Hard SF was not his forte. I cannot think of anyone comparable to Ray Bradbury (Fantasy/Horror) in the SF field as far as prose stylists go but does that matter? I thought Frank Herbert's Dune was a great book and very well written. Solaris was a very interesting book as are some of A.E. Van Vogt's books such as “Voyage of the Space Beagle”. I don't think SF is inferior to other genres as there is good and bad writing everywhere. Gunn belongs to the former. Kudos to Page for bringing out this gem and making me want to re-read Gunn.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, junho 19, 2017

Some Old SF Stuff I Bought on eBay

(some of the books I got in my eBay box)

Some random thoughts...

I do like old science fiction book covers- not just Penguin, but all the more lurid publishers as well. And then there's the feverish world of the pulp magazines etc. For me the classic era is the 1960s and 70s- the move away from quasi-imperialistic and rather conservative fantasies involving spaceships and aliens towards more warped, anarchic visions of disturbing dystopias and chaotic chronicles of inner space. But still - some great art produced in the 80s - with it's characteristically airbrushed look- and more recently as well.

That Harry Harrison book is a superb novel of interspecies conflict in a time of climate change. The 'toothy dolphin' on the front is in fact a reptile rather than a mammal-it's, ahem, a genetically modified plesiosaur used as a marine transport vehicle by highly evolved and human-hating saurians. I'd definitely recommend getting the first book in the trilogy-this is my copy in the same series:

They're illustrated throughout with superb woodcuts, which bring this alternative Pleistocene world to vivid life. The best stuff on the list is fairly far from the magazine SF novels which would have been the likely contenders for a Hugo equivalent at the time -- it'd probably have been a competition between E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Galactic Patrol and Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time. 1938 is just before John W Campbell made Astounding Science Fiction a less pulpy magazine, and some years before the average quality of prose in magazine SF really rises.

Panther books also had some nice SF covers in the 60s and 70s. These days, publishers seem to either go with a generic bit of spaceship art which bears no relation to the contents, or to pretend that it isn't really SF at all - I had to chuckle when I came across the new edition of Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse', which features, inter alia, a trip to the moon in a gigantic vegetable spider. The blurb describes it as a 'landmark novel of the climate in crisis'

Penguins are nearly always great, I've an annoyingly large collection of Classics and Modern Classics and so on, many bought due mainly to beautiful designs (they tend to be good books too!). It'd be great if more SF made the Penguin Classics line now; they've started bringing back a few like Aldiss, The Death of Grass. I guess they no longer have the rights to people like Ballard (but if they do, I'm sure they're rushing out some new editions as we speak), PKD - I'd love to see them in shiny new Modern Classics sleeves. Really like the Gollancz books too - the last range were really nice, textured designs and these are just as striking.

Clarke is a strange writer. I've read almost all of his novels, and each  was a totally different sort of book. "The Sands of Mars" is just a sequence of events, without any real arc to it. "A Fall of Moondust" is a cracking thriller. "Rendezvous with Rama", while very readable, is not really a story. And "2001: A Space Odyssey" is just something else entirely. That's a blast from the past... I used to be a huge fan of Clarke and read anything by him I could find, including the non-fiction. No idea how he 'aged' as a writer but I'm sure I would still admire him for the ideas (that were almost always closer to the world of science than I, as a hard sciences poster boy, could have imagined - like that bloody space elevator: something I thought was a bit over the top... Till I later read it was in theory perfectly doable.)

Why do I love old SF? "Blindsight" by Peter Watts comes to mind. It contains an absolute howler of bad science where the crew of the spacecraft take potassium iodide as a general purpose treatment for radiation exposure. As any fule kno, KI is used for preventing thyroid damage from exposure to radio-iodine, it does sod all if you're exposed to gamma rays.

One thing that really annoys me is when authors take a perfectly good SF setting and later decide to randomly introduce something else they've seen in SF. Often psychic powers. Nothing wrong with with psychic powers as a SF subject (though frankly they're on the implausible end...lmao!) but why tack it on to a plausible story featuring, say, a generation ship? Isn't there enough excitement in the first idea? Obviously you can totally reinvent a whole universe with both psychic powers and generation ships, but it irritates me when a story has just two non-real-world components.

One of my all-time favourite definitions of Vintage/Old SF goes something like this: fiction about science. I grew up reading it. By that definition, any writer of science fiction must do the proper research to make a scientific meme as credible as possible. Since I'm an engineer, I concentrate on those aspects of the science which makes the scenario of human interaction with science as plausible as possible. For example, I allow for light travel, but not faster than light travel. The only exception to this rule is with Star Trek, since the science hums in the background while the human interaction with it is not the primary consideration. The science is deus ex machina to the scene. But I do object to cinema or literature which violates the laws of physics. As for telepathy, I explained in one of my books that it is a factor of genetic evolution, not magic. Incidentally,  in the box from eBay no Bradbury. He predicted a future of Mobile Phones, Flat Screen Wall Mounted TV's, Soap Operas & Reality TV shows dominating many peoples lives & Western Governments fighting permanent wars, in the Nineteen Fifties!

When I was young, I read Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Niven, Pournelle, Heinlein, Moorcock, and many other science fiction authors. But in the end, I found myself delving more deeply into the actual science to find my direction. They influenced my thinking about science, but since technology and science are evolving every day, I question that they "predicted" anything. I prefer to think that readers of science fiction are inspired to develop tech based on what they read, rather than attach the power of prediction to any science fiction. It is the chicken and egg conundrum which makes science so remarkable in itself. The one builds on the other, if you know what I mean.

I am also a huge TH white fan, yes. Remember the scene where the two knights in full armour failed to duel? Obviously something the Monty Python team also remembered...Dorothy Quick's book could be fun. Retro SF erotica: what's not to love? If it's only half as bad (and amusing) as Barbarella it would be worth spending a few pennies on it at Amazon. It is certainly remarkable that anyone caught between the sandwich of the two world wars would think women ruling the planet would be such a disastrously bad idea - but then enough people think so still. (Funny how something can be remarkable and predictable at the same time.) I also had the whole Oz series. Terribly disappointing stuff, I am afraid (but I have to admit I wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the first book, so the series might be more fun for those who were. I was very much a Boy Reader and into Tarzan, John Carter et cetera - till I discovered the Alice books, which came relatively late to me. Being Portuguese meant that English & American books arrived in my greedy little hands in chronologically 'challenged' ways...)

domingo, junho 18, 2017

Oobla Dee Oobla Dah SF: "The Collapsing Empire" by John Scalzi

I recently bought a box of pulp SF from eBay - most dating from the 50s and 60s. Lantern-jawed, pipe-smoking men save the world while their gorgeous female assistants are prone to outbursts of come-hither hero worshiping and swooning - especially when kissed fiercely and unexpectedly by the lantern-jawed men. The latest one was about a worldwide plague where the lantern-jawed hero is a journalist trying to uncover governmental secrecy while trying to decide whether to go to his mistress - young, beautiful, free loving and rich - or whether to return to his ex-wife - a dour and buttoned-up biologist - who has an in on a secret survival bunker. (He's a selfish and cold-hearted bastard, so my bet is on him going with the ex-wife and claiming to have loved only her all along.) “The Collapsing Empire” belongs to this book category.

A few years ago, I tried reading his “Old Man's War”. I still remember thinking: “Gosh! If this the SF that’s been written nowadays I’ll never read another single line of it.” Every character sounded like the last one. That is, like a Syfy channel quickie. That’s why it was with some trepidation that I started the last one from Scalzi.

Most writers have a massively over-inflated sense of self-worth. Most books have no inspirational content whatsoever. Many are drivel. Some people take their inspiration from other things. Reading is a pastime for most. Writers are entertainers no more. A dime a dozen, forgotten if ever noticed. Even those lauded are often just in the right clique of reviewers. Lots of writers seem to think Shakespeare was a professorial type, rather than a jobbing actor. Most of the output of the publishing industry is pulp. Some gems emerge, but I would challenge anyone to name an author who has produced nothing but the highly readable and valuable. Listen to all the recordings of The Beatles. They did change the world in their own way, and some of the songs are wonderful. There is also “Oobla Dee Oobla Dah". “The collapsing Empire” belongs to the “Oobla Dee Oobla Dah” category: not really that good but still quite hummable. ´

I’m not sure why but every time I read one of Scalzi’s novels, James T. Kirk comes to mind, teaching a sexy alien about love: "We have this *thing* on Earth we call love... You don't know about love... Let me teach you..." Now THAT's good SF. Ahem. Ahh Kirk. Hard not to love him, smooth talking intergalactic slut that he was (Was his shirt torn away in that scene? bet it was).

The books I bought on eBay were cringe-making, but also quite diverting and entertaining. Could I ask for more Scalzi-wise? Yes, I could. But I won’t. This is Scalzi at his absolute best. He can’t write any better than this.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, junho 12, 2017

Micro-Fiction, Text 009: "The Fever of Storms and Floods" by Myselfie

She had heard dogs barking in the dead of night. She had seen the sky shiver as it waited for the stars to fade one by one. She had felt the cold descend on her body in the bright rays of the sun. For thirty-five years she had wanted to tell of the cool misty advent of spring, of the golden land’s infinite variety, the sweet happiness of childhood, the trembling ecstasy of first love, the rickshaw rides with plastic sheets over the legs to keep dry in the incessant rain of the monsoons, but the odor! The damned odor! - the odor of the brown-red stain on the white flowers growing on the grass, of crushed marigold petals, of the ivory white blossoms of the mango tree, of the myriad delicate filaments protruding from the crown that the guava still carries as if it did not want to give up on its beginnings, of the damp moss covered walls, the glob of rice and lentil and the river and the fishy stink of rotting hyacinth, all indistinguishable from what was gentle and what was not – the odor always took over her soul and made her not want to remember.
How was she to put it? How was she to shake off the fever of storms and floods? How was she to stop the sweat drenched awakening from uneasy sleep, and calm the beating heart each night that she dreamt that she was back in the red brick house (were her dreams in color!); and the red brick house turned into the derelict red ruin on the banks of a river; the pale beams streaming from the moon in the mist of the night shedding light on the women huddled in the dark with men with flashlights stalking the corridors, and the red line streaking down virginal thighs to the cold stone floor and the stars weeping and the day waiting to dawn.
And it is in the field flooded with dew where it all began that fourth-day-of- February, and now her melancholic heart could take it no more. The cool misty morning had come, like the yellow marigold swathed February-of- the- martyrs, as usual in a season when the mauve and pink sweat peas curl around the bamboo strip lattices and fill the air with thoughts of love and longing, and the nip in the air enhances the heady aroma of the delicate white sheuli flowers with bright orange stems. In the mist of the spring mornings girls collect the blossoms of the sheuli, that bloom in the night, and fall off the shrub and lie on the dew drenched grass in a sheet of white foam with orange crests. If the girls squeeze a bunch in their fists their palms turn a pale version of the stain from the henna leaves, curiously the same as the color of the odor, if odors have color, that assailed her that February morning in this now the golden land.
In February it does not rain so much, nor do the strong cyclones whip up frenzied winds, as they had in the advent of winter the year before the coming on the map of the earth of this now the golden land which, had caused the floods and despair and isolation. But without winter there would be no spring, and no yellow saris with red borders for girls to wear at the memorial of the first martyrs to the mother tongue, and there would be no women sitting in the field of green grass and white flowers and the soft mist and the aching feet, and no boy wearing a grey sari with a thin black and silver border. The stupid boy should have worn a yellow sari with a red border for these are the colors of spring. Perhaps, the grey and black and silver had given him away. And the woman with the swollen belly who lay writhing and moaning by the winding pathway on the dew drenched grass was also not wearing yellow. That woman was wearing pink with small blue flowers and the mist had not covered the patch of red spreading near her crotch the day after the morning among the dew drenched white flowers on the green grass.

Two decades before the odor was seared in her memory of smells and the red flowers among the white forever becoming her record of boundaries redrawn and the lives of people changed, she had come into the world by slipping out from her mother’s womb, (was it possible to have slipped out of some other womb?) This she did in the dead of night in a remote, isolated town in the country whose birth pangs she was a part of, the afterbirth really, and she too had been born in a flood of blood as all babies do. The cleavage too had taken place in the flow of blood, and now this golden land was being born in its nine-month flow of blood after the march of the fire lit skies; and the girl, whose name meant beautiful had told her,
“I am cursed with the odor of congealed blood.”
“How did this come to be?”
“I lay under the bodies of dead women for one day and one night!”
“How could this have happened?”

While the leaders of the two wings were talking in your city of who should be prime minister, the women and children in the colony by the river in my city were rounded up and put in a room, and one day three men came in and the ear splitting rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns.

domingo, junho 11, 2017

Popcorn Shakespeare: "The Hollow Crown I - Richard II" by Rupert Goold, Starring Ben Whishaw

Well, was last night's "Richard II" well worth watching? 

The director conveyed the story, the plot, as clearly as any director is ever likely to. And the location shooting was superb, both indoor and outdoor, truly aiding the action and showing off this island's ancient history to the global market. However, although "Richard II" is entirely written in carefully-designed and charming verse, one only heard snatches of it, and then only from the actors David Suchet (expected from such an experienced and accomplished actor) and, surprisingly, from young Ben Whishaw. If other actors in this production thought they were delivering the verse, they failed to convey it. Rory Kinnear (Bolingbroke) seemed to have learnt his lines entirely unaware that they were not written in the form of prose. And how my heart sank when occasionally Shakespeare clearly intended for us to hear two adjacent lines rhyme but the actor intentionally avoided it, minimising it, as if honouring Shakespeare's intention would create a detraction or distraction! So, I hope that in some years' time we will be treated to a similarly magnificently-shot production in which Shakespeare's splendid verse is not so lazily, or perhaps arrogantly, ignored. I was disappointed. Great cast, good acting but too much of the director with all the 'let's shoot scenery and iconic images' and not enough of the play. 

No one has yet remarked on how heavily it was cut, and that the cutting took out the political basis of the conflict between Bolingbroke/Gaunt and Richard. It must be there to explain the reason for the argument between Bolingbroke and Mowbray and the murder of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester - Richard's uncle and Gaunt and York's brother - and that Richard is complicit in this. (Which sets up Bolingbroke's final lines over Richard's corpse.) So, we lost the Duchess of Gloucester, and more importantly Harry Percy's pledge of allegiance to the future Henry IV which sets up their relationship in Henry IV Part 1. Wouldn't matter if this production stood alone and wasn't the first of the cycle. Which also leads to the question, why have Aumerle/Rutland replace Exton as Richard's killer? He is York's heir so will become the Duke of York who dies embraced by the Duke of Suffolk at Agincourt - described in Henry V - and presenting a comment on what develops in the Henry VIs. If there are some performances seen as weak it's because they've lost lines to allow shots of Richard on an ass. I think there are a few directors who need to be constantly reminded of Hamlet's advice to the players about considering the 'necessary question of the play'. Fortunately, as is frequently said about theatre productions, the text is still there for everyone to read and others to perform.

I thought Richard II was poor, with lines delivered badly, and too much post-modern trickiness (the iconography of Christ riding into Jerusalem transmogrifying into Saint Sebastian for instance). And why, and I write here as a grouchy old fart whose hearing is less acute than once it was, does the BBC feel compelled always to overlay speech with music? If a character is dark and threatening the actor should be able to communicate this; we don't need some appropriate melody to drive home the message.

When actors combine respect of verse, that is respect of rhythm, line-endings, and rhyme, with a deep understanding and expression of meaning, and with all of the other 100s of things that actors have to do while playing a part, then the effect is magnificent. THAT is what Shakespeare demands. THAT is what Shakespeare gives us. THAT is the GENIUS of Shakespeare.

And then the last few scenes, as I mentioned above, when I was horrified to see Aumerle cast as Richard's murderer. This does not happen in the play. Richard is murdered by Exton; Aumerle has nothing to do with his death. Why the change? Why does this happen so many times on television? I'd love to see them stick to the plot as written for once. Cutting is one thing, but mixing the motives and actions of characters is another. It mixes up the motivations of the characters and makes Aumerle an entirely different person to the one Shakespeare intended to portray. I can only imagine that the director thought, 'Oh, it'll be more dramatic if Richard's done in by the man he thought was his loyal friend', but I must say I think it's pretty arrogant, and spoiled for me. I do think this sort of thing needs to be flagged up. We don't want the BBC to take the route that ITV has with Agatha Christie, where the adaptations now have almost nothing in common with the original but the title.

Bottom-line: Avoid. Only for Shakespeare dilettantes and completists.

NB: All the pictures taken by me from the film.

quinta-feira, junho 08, 2017

Complex Patterning: "Alfred Bester" by Jad Smith

“These stories not only show Bester’s writable approach in the making but also reveal that his aesthetic had its roots in bricolage, or the practice of drawing on heterogeneous sources and writing styles to create unexpected narrative tensions and unities. Bricolage works by a logic of excess and encompasses more local strategies such as extra-coding, pastiche, intertextuality, and allusion. By definition, it re-orders reading protocols, requiring the reader to switch codes and synthetize incongruities.”

In “Alfred Bester” by Jad Smith

Alfred Bester was the first postmodernist SF writer. I won’t dwell on it again. If you’re interested, you can find additional information here.

I haven't been an adolescent for quite some time, but I still remember sitting in stone stairs in the side yard of my mother’s rural home in Alfaiates. I had just seen Star Wars and so my eyes were devouring a twilight sky waiting for the stars and planets to appear. This was my gateway to the imagination. In my unsophisticated mind, once so consumed by simple mysteries written by adults about girls not much older than myself, something unfurled. I began to see a world so much bigger than my own, and not just the universe laid open before me. SF made me think beyond myself, perhaps for the first time, and I became alive with ideas, possibilities. In this world, I could spiral deep into my own psyche or travel out to infinity. It was a spark of light in the night and I followed it.
I used to read a lot of it when I was younger. But now I find it deeply embarrassing to stand in a FNAC bookshop (for instance) surrounded by silly, trite fantasy, endless Star Wars novelisations and comic books. Sure, there's some great SF out there dealing with the human condition the same any good fiction is, but it's drowned under a sea of pre-pubescent dross. It's devoid of ideas. In fact, the last time I tried to pick up a novel by Ian McEwan, it was full of ridiculously named characters and convoluted plots. Therefore, I for one can't be bothered with it.

So much 'normal' fiction is literary masturbation (the 'oh so bloody fantastic' “The Road” being a classic example). I guess critics don't like stuff they must read and understand? :-) Plus, SF offers a wide spectrum to pick from, from the 'brain dump' stuff to lighter fast-paced space opera (Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain Banks, etc.) to the downright weird and beautiful, e.g. China Mieville (although his work is more dystopian fantasy than SF).

Consider as well Vonnegut's “Slaughterhouse 5”, Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness”, Atwood's “Handmaids Tale”, Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” or any of Iain Banks output. There are simply no finer writers in the English language and just look at the questions they raise about perception, sexuality, morality or entrapment. Consider Nivens or Heinlein musing on different societies. Sparser prose and less "literary" but no worse than Hemingway. Critics are by nature critical and veer between seeking shock value and taking comfort in the style of the classics, and SF rarely fits those bills. I for one will continue to read SF along with other modern works.

This leads us to Bester. Jad Smith shows us he had a very pronounced tendency to pepper his stories with verbal motifs that repeated with slight variations, which always reminded me of old Irish fairy tales. As Jad states:

“His fiction of the fifties is re-readable not merely because of its inventiveness but also because of this complex patterning, which over-determines the reader’s experience, even the second or third time around. Bester produced this sense of excess through bricolage and pastiche that mixed up and hybridized reading protocols, and through various types of extra-coding – allusion, nonstandard orthography, language confusion, synesthesia, and mixed-viewpoint narration, to name just a few of his narrative strategies – but the reader-centered, writable patterns he created mattered more than any of these ‘pyrotechnics’ alone, as his later career demonstrates.”

Jad’s analysis of Bester’s two major novel-length works (“The Demolished Man” and “The Stars my Destination”) is one of the best I’ve ever read. Too bad Bester was then offered a lucrative job writing journalism for Holiday magazine, and he took it because he saw SF as just another job (and a badly paying one at that). He didn't return to SF until Holiday magazine folded, 25 years later, but that was way too late. The inner fire had extinguished and what he did produce later was just crap…

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quarta-feira, junho 07, 2017

Octaviasdottir: “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

“Did you ever read Waiting for Godot?
“Did you ever read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?”
“Did you ever read Kiss of the Spider Woman?”
“Did you ever read---“
“Jeff, stop it. I’ve never read anything.”
“Some coders read.”
“Yeah that’s right. I’ve read The R Cookbook. Also, Everything you Always Wanted to Know about R. Also, R for Dummies.”
“I don’t like R.”

In “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

After having read the latest Stanley Robinson, a scene in Kurosawa's 'One Wonderful Sunday' from 1947 popped up in my mind, where at the very beginning two young lovers plead with the cinema audience to support young lovers everywhere and clap and cheer as they imagine themselves performing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
The background to the scene is that the too poverty stricken young lovers spend a rare day off wandering the ruins of post war Tokyo trying to have some fun and imagine some sort of future. They try to see a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but are tricked out of the tickets by scalpers. So, they go instead to the empty auditorium. The young man threatens to fall into despair but his girlfriend instead turns to the audience and pleads for 'all young lovers' to give them their support by clapping.
Kurosawa was disappointed that the scene was greeted with mute puzzlement by Japanese audiences (although the film was a success). However, on its rare showings in Europe, this scene got an enthusiastic response, especially in Paris.
Do you think modern SF readers will notice what Robinson did we this novel? Robinson is not exactly a Neal Stephenson, but comes close in his mastery of the dying art of the info dump and breaking the 4th wall. The latter is a theatre term that dates to the 19th century. It’s the imaginary wall between the audience and the stage. Breaking the 4th wall is when the characters deliberately address the audience, like the way Robinson did here with the chapters titled “Citizen”, wherein the omniscient narrator talked directly to the reader. Did he succeed?  Regardless of its sometimes-non-mastery, I tend to get immersed all the same because essentially when I'm reading these novels of ideas-SF, I'm reading about some unexamined aspect of myself. And everyone's interested in discovering something about themselves. That’s why I usually enjoy both Stephenson and Robinson, even when they’re not successful. I think that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; I’d imagine that it's very difficult to do well unless it's connected to some sort of mental state in the characters. Stephenson does this beautifully. I also belong to the sect which believes the info dump, when done right, is what makes SF unique.

SF = Speculative Fiction

domingo, junho 04, 2017

2017 Champions League Final: Real Madrid vs. Juventus (4-1; Ronaldo scored 2 and made a huge difference in the game)

Just going to come out and say it, I am an unashamed, unadulterated admirer of Cristiano Ronaldo. As a football fan I remember his debut season well at Manchester United. The step overs, the pouting, the diving, the pouting was all commented on ad nauseam but what I remember most was a young man willing to get stuck in and work his socks off for the team. One game in particular stood out for me. United vs. Everton boxing day 2003. It was billed as some sort of clash between the two überwonder kids of the Premier League at the time. The honest, hardworking, running knuckle that was Rooney versus the precious, waspish, fancy foreigner. It was clear where some people wanted this narrative to go. But my recollection is Ronaldo bossed it. Rooney resorted to thuggery in the second half to try and stop Ronaldo as did other Everton players but it did not stop Ronaldo. Get up and go at them again, harder. Ronaldo was fantastic. The work that man has put in to get to where he is is phenomenal. That's something to be admired. I know United fans like to paint the picture of Ronaldo arriving at United as vital to his development as a global football mega star but I don't believe that is so. I honestly think wherever he went at age 17 he would have worked just as hard to ensure that he got to where he is today. Playing for Real Madrid, winning the league and European Cup, scoring bag fulls of goals (600 goals in 855 games), breaking records and challenging himself to go further and be better than everyone else. Now, with Zidane's example, who's to say he won't one day challenge himself to be a league and Champion's League winning coach? Many players have had natural abilities like Ronaldo, not many have had the single minded drive to use them and improve them to reach the very, very top of their profession as Ronaldo has. Well done. that man!

As a Portuguese fan, there was a scene in Euro 2016 during the QF with Poland, where the Portuguese players were discussing who should take penalties. Ronaldo went after one of his teammates (João Moutinho) and basically told him: "Come on, do it. If you miss, you miss. Fuck it! But at least try!" It was interesting, because you don't usually see that sort of internal stuff. And it showed a different side to CR7 and what he brings to the table as a teammate. He's driven and working all the time and he wants to do all the things and he wants to win all the time and gets angry at mistakes (at his own as well). But he also played out of position in the Portugal squad and though our defensive set-up must have been super frustrating for him, he did as he was told. He also accepted the adjustments Zidane made this year to his role at Real Madrid. He's not quite the caricature he's portrayed as in the media.

Also, how smart did Zidane handle all of this? He didn't try to bully CR7 into accepting a reduced playing schedule right away. He waited for the right moment to introduce the idea. That he's Zidane probably helped. There's a cute video of Ronaldo trying and failing to out-dribble Zidane in training. There's also the story of how Zidane and Ronaldo were doing free kicks together and Zidane won. Zidane just seems canny about leveraging his own standing and skills, without being obnoxious about it. Ronaldo is one of the greatest, surely, but the remarkable thing is how he has changed along the way, being arguably four players in one.

At 20, he was one of the world's best wingers, all step-overs and "elásticos" and out to humiliate his opponent.
At 25, he was the best of the new style of inside-forwards/inverted wingers (arguably originating with Thierry Henry), coming in onto his stronger foot and scoring.
At 28, he had turned more and more into a Batistuta-style complete forward, able to score from every angle and doing so with spectacular regularity.
And now, at 32, he has morphed into Pippo Inzaghi on steroids (as a metaphor, obviously), conserving his strength, participating little in general play but scoring the decisive goals.

As with Roger Federer, my advice to all fans is keep enjoying watching him. You are watching the greatest most complete player ever. Yes, Maradona had more "sublime" skill and Messi probably does too BUT he is a complete and utter freak that can score from anywhere and anytime. And he has the brains to adapt his game to game to suit his not so young body. Insanely good; no wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was loathe to let him go. He knew what he had.

quinta-feira, junho 01, 2017

Frog in a Pot of Cold Water Over the Fire: "The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred" by Greg Egan

After reading the latest Egan’s work, I got thinking about the Caribbean Islands. I understand that the Caribbean Islands were discovered by successive explorers from Europe. I understand that Slaves from Africa were taken to these Islands as were White Indentured Workers, a polite name for White Slaves, by the people that had purchased Estates on these Islands. In this process the Indigenous peoples of these Islands the Carib Indians were to all intents and purposes wiped out, so for people of African descent to claim that they have a right to present day Islands is a nonsense. Drawing a parallel with the two factions in Egan’s work, I do not deny it benefited some people, but don't kid ourselves that it boosted the living standards of the ordinary people. This myth was invented back in the 50's or 60's by some Caribbean professor to give those of African descent a sense of grievance against those that imported their ancestors, mind you he stopped short of saying that it was their fellow Africans that enslaved them in the first place. I suspect the feeling of distrust is true of all Countries, it’s well known and it’s called Xenophobia. That’s what a stake in Egan’s piece using the trappings of SF. I’m not familiar with the immigration's issues regarding Australia (Greg Egan’s home country), but I’m sure they must not be very different than the ones facing the Caribbean back in the day. The Sivadier minority on Vesta in Egan’s work is just a metaphor for other minorities trying to access better living conditions. I don't go a day without a negative news story about Muslim people in the news. It is constant. There is a definite issue of race at the moment, though I do agree that is not all of it. People seem to prefer EU to non-EU, and an American non-EU to a Pakistani non-EU person. Though it’s true that the hostility has widened now and it seems to be going towards other countries even in Portugal. Questioning whether the volume and strategy of immigration is the right one, is very, very different from saying go home. I think the saddest part of the last 60 years in Europe is the flux that most families live in. Everyone is moving around, unless you are too poor or move or rich enough to stay put. No-one has roots, and if they did they’d be unrecognisable now compared to, say, 30 years ago. I think the oldest trick in the book is claiming that people are 'scapegoating' immigrants when really the concept of immigration to the European country as understood now, only really began post war and has always been unpopular. People don't really care whether immigrants are Polish or Bangladeshi, black or white, are coming to work or live on benefits, in all honesty it's never been that popular an idea. People didn't want their neighborhoods transformed, they didn't want to have their noses rubbed in diversity, they didn't want the white population of a major European city to become a minority and they didn't want middle class entertainers and journalists who have joined the white flight exodus to excoriate them, almost simply for being white. Everyone who has been a student of European history knows that’s not the way to go. Nazi race ideology, master race and all that. They classed Poles and other Slavs as “untermenschen”, close to animals.

Obviously there is precious little to be done about it now, because the elite were never prepared to act on the public concern that was expressed and for a long time people hoped things wouldn't get worse much like the frog in a pot of cold water over the fire.

What Egan did was to put this theme into an exceptional science fictional milieu and make it work. It’s not your usual Egan mind you. His other books have been some of my favourites ever, but his short stories are the hardest science fiction around. Nobody else has explored ideas of quantum mechanics intersecting with biology and humanity like he does. I think in this story what we have is Egan going just for the Humanities and also making it work.

Greg Egan remains one of the few writers doing exceptional SF in this day and age.

segunda-feira, maio 29, 2017

Professor of Something: "Learn Better" by Ulrich Boser

“The act of writing is a good example of metacognition because when we think about composing sentences and paragraphs, we’re often asking ourselves crucial metacognitive questions: Who will be reading this? Will they understand me? What things do I need to explain? This is why writing is often such an effective way to organize one’s thoughts. It forces us to evaluate our arguments and think about ideas. […] some describe writing as a form of “applied metacognition”.

In “Learn Better” by Ulrich Boser

When I was a kid, we played football (the European version; I hate the word soccer) all day and must have been well over 10K hours. None of us got near even semi pro football. My son could do sprint training for 4 hours every night but he's not going to be Usain Bolt. There are thousands of musicians who have put in the practice but they're all on the 9 to 5 as well like myself (well, I’m more on the 08:30 to no-end-in-sight schedule, but that’s just me being my usual obnoxious self…). Are we supposed to believe a la Gladwell that if we put in 10K hours we’ll become experts at something? I don’t believe this number, and neither does Boser. I think it’s just a number which Gladwell thought would look good in one of his books (I forget which).

What about thinking about learning? Is there something there?

I don't think there are universal rules for "learning better", as not only it depends on the individual, it also depends on the subject you'd like to learn. If you want to learn a language for example (which I did back in the day), what works (for me), is seeing a set of rules, a grammar table, the exceptions, etc., and then practice, practice, practice (read, write, speak and be corrected). But that's just me and that's because of my extremely intuitive nature of my personality (lol); I'm basically just too impatient to memorise each individual word and I like to just "get on with it", and add it to my vocabulary in its context straight away. I find it made me better at learning languages than other people who prefer to be more prepared. I’ve used this approach over and over again.

However, when it comes to improving an already learnt skill, this kind of extreme impatience and inability to narrow down and make selections and stubbornly insisting to everything in its entire context can be a “massive” handicap. Other people have beautiful sketchbooks with pretty images and traces of meticulous practice, while mines have very little in them because I prefer working on my idea straight away. I just get bored practicing on the same thing and I see it as a waste of time. I seem to have been getting away with it and I haven't produced too many failures because of that, but I haven't become particularly successful either, and due to not having learnt to be patient and to narrow down my interests, it can make my work (and my entire career - lol again) a bit too wide-ranging and all over the place, which is not necessarily a good thing, because there is a presumption that a person who's an expert of many things is an expert of none. It's a total trap lol. :(

On the other hand, because of this I'm able to see things in their wider contexts and that did get good results at exams too. I still remember my CPE exam at the British Council. We were given a list of topics we might be asked to speak about. What all the students usually did was to write down what was necessary to talk about for each individual subject and then learn your things to say from those notes. Everybody did it, my whole class did it like that, my sister did it like that, it's how you do it apparently, we were even given guidance on how to bullet point when doing this. But what's the point of all this extra work, I thought, when I need to learn everything anyway and they're all written down in my notes already anyway? So I just learnt everything in its own huge mass, and when I arrived in the morning of the exam, some people mentioned topics I didn't even remember seeing on "the list". I still got a distinction though, because I was able to explain everything. I never even used a highlighter…I just spoke my heart out! You might be thinking: “what a bunch of bullshit!” Not really. I’ve always been like this. When a lot of my fellow students where busy taking notes I was paying close attention to what was being explained in class. I even had a teacher in college who “doubted” this method…The class was Mechanics 101. He kept asking me over and over again: “Mr. Antão does not take notes in class?” to what I’d reply: “I don’t need them. I always pay close attention to what my esteemed professor says in class.” It goes without saying that he thought I was making fun of him, which I was in a way. When the time for Exam taking came, can you guessed what he did? He sat by me during the duration of the frigging exam!!! I couldn’t care less. I just did what I usually did back then. I aced the exam. “19” was my grade (in a scale from 0 to 20). Until this day I’m not even sure he always believed in my method. This long preamble just to say that most of what Boser advocates is not really new to me. But it was damn refreshing reading about it through someone else’s eyes.

So, it works I guess when it comes to just straight-on knowledge, or something ingenious, creative or inventive that requires experiments if the outcome is a one-off piece or skill or gaining practical knowledge of how to do something, but less so for learning routines with repetitive outcomes where an improving quality of outcomes is expected, needless to say I have always sucked at learning stuff by rote and regurgitating it afterwards.

10,000 hours? That makes me expert in only one thing - sleeping...I also went to the University of Life. I've already clocked up more than ten thousand hours. That means I must be a Professor of Something....

domingo, maio 28, 2017

Micro-Fiction, Text 008: "The Moon" by Myselfie (Dedicated to My Father)

The moon must have risen high in the sky, because the fog around them had turned into a silvery and impenetrable cocoon that seemingly had started self to shine. The humidity that was reflected down on his face and his forearms was cooling and let him slowly emerge from a state of deep exhaustion, like a submarine emerges from the pitch-black of deep sea into the twilight above it.
His first, blurred thought slowly drove over to Casabian, who still walked right behind him. The thick, glowing fog swallowed almost every noise but he knew she was there. He thought about whether he might have heard her footsteps and her breathing, without perceiving it consciously or whether he had developed an extra sense that made him feel Casabian's aura. The extreme terror that they had been through, might perhaps quite have been able to produce such a sense. The chance had made her to the only thing left to him and what would remain to him in view of his future prospects. Although he had no occasion for a glimpse into a future that lay farther than a few hours before him. But no matter how the situation would develop, if it should develop for him at all, then Casabian would be the only confided in his life.
He ordered his legs to go no further. Apparently his legs followed his command reluctantly two further steps and let him stop abruptly. Casabian also seemed to emerge from her reverie before she came to stand next to him. Her slender body was almost swallowed by the luminous mist and was no more than a thin, black silhouette. Wordlessly, she looked up at him and her eyes shone with silvery luster in the diffuse light of the moon.
As their eyes met, he felt the icy grip that had his heart squeezed in the course of the last few days to a cold, steely lumps, slowly loosen. The panicked fear of being tracked down and killed by their hunters, gave way to a feeling that seeped slowly into his body, like the alcohol of a heavy wine. If he was going to die in this strange place, then he would be close to the one person who meant everything to him. And that person would join him. Otherwise, he had nothing to lose.
With a slight breeze the fog seemed to set in motion and became thinner. Suddenly it teared up and opened a view of the desert-like environment that lay around them, such as under a silver shroud. He knew that he would fight until the last drop of his blood and to the last twitch of his muscles - for Casabian and for the justice that they deserved?

Dedicated to my father.

sábado, maio 27, 2017

WannaCry Ransomware

Question? As Linux is open source, is there not the chance that hackers can find vulnerabilities more easily?
Answer: No. Since it is open source, defects are easily found by competent engineers and patched quickly, as you'd know had you any competence yourself.

We are frequently told that proper architecture and solutions are too expensive and that they need to be more "pragmatic" (i.e. cheaper) in their approach and everything will be fine. The reality is that it doesn't work. The direction comes from the top; project and program managers are under pressure to reduce costs as their number one priority. Ministers take the line from those who tell them about cost reduction, not from experts who are "just being perfectionist" and "scaremongering".

There's a few other things in here. Security Architecture and Data Protection strategies need good threat and risk modelling and the application of year by year transformation. Overwhelmingly the 80/20 rule applies and that 20% (essential, difficult, error prone) gets descoped. We are only just getting to the point our expertise can handle the challenges at scale. This is because the last 20 years have seen the birth of the Internet and all its attendant tech... but even if we have reached the end of the beginning (and I would argue we haven't quite hit that, the IoT is just birthing all around us) things will not stand still, and our new-found powers won't keep up. Add to that the impotency of people relying on one and only one operating system without the ability to embrace other much safer and locked down systems and you know why IT literacy is thriving. And this start in schools where the “OS with windows” is basically creating a generation of young people not knowing that knowing how Excel works is not IT knowledge. Nevertheless, I rather resent the implication that this is a generational problem. The fact is the tech-savvy and the tech-incompetent are well-represented in every group. Being able to use instagram or attach a photo to an email doesn't mean that the person doing it necessarily has the first clue about how any of this stuff works, or indeed how to avoid security problems. It is certainly true that few politicians seem to understand how any of this works. Unfortunately, neither do their interlocutors in the media who seem quite capable of pinning down a slippery spokesman like the Portuguese one I saw on the TV this last week whose surname rhymes with “turbulent”, blaming the previous governments and companies for this latest security breach. Things are not so clear-cut.

If I’d built a car which was so badly designed it not only crashed all the time but anyone could steal it, you could call it a ShittyOS. Human nature being what it is, what can be easily stolen will be. And rather than redesign it you just added reinforcements, patches, bits and pieces and lock after lock after lock (equally flawed) onto the bits and pieces you might expect that no one would buy it and that victims of its failures would run to the courts. But inexplicably this glutinous tangle of threads, patches and flat tires still has a market and the idea that the maker is responsible doesn’t seem to occur to the owners of ShittyOS products.  Rather than focusing on the very simple point that the current administrations are culpable for both ending a support contract with some software houses I won’t name here, and failing to provide the resources to enable all older machines to be upgraded from older OS.

I think this problem is endemic in the public and private sectors. How many businesses were affected by the Dyn outage last year, the AWS S3 outage some time ago? The list goes on.

To protect and ensure services run smoothly, costs money, and also requires a proactive stance rather than a reactive one. Board members often see little value (wrongly) in upping their IT spend, and some IT professionals have apathy towards the confrontation it takes to push forward with initiatives. Commoditisation of the IT sector has also contributed in some way, with many providers on the 'race to zero' and therefore devaluing such services and conversations.

We rely on our IT, and services can crumble if there's a problem. Budgets need to reflect this fact better. I don't see this as a generational issue, an education one maybe, a reactive Vs proactive mentality. definitely.

By the way, do you know who the real beneficiary of the global ransomware attack will be? No, not the hackers. It will be none other than the software houses. I can almost hear the champagne bottles pop, because the attack will force companies and governments that still use WinXP, Windows Vista, Win7, Win8 (or Windows Server 2003) to switch to Win10 (or Windows Server 2012+). Incidentally, it appears it was Win7 and not WinXp which was the bad guy in this picture.

People think IT is a onetime spend, and it will work for its lifetime independent of investment. This is just not the case. IT is an ongoing expense, and should be one of the first things allocated in the budget. As much as you espouse the free OS's, users just aren't ready to learn them, and a lot of applications do not support them. It surprises the hell out of me they let the contract with some software houses to end though, without renewing or updating the machines. That is just stupid, and simply suggesting that "switch to Linux" is a flawless solution is pure hubris, both because of compatibility (have the diagnostic tools been written for non-Windows operating systems? It's not like you can just copy the .exe over and expect it to work) and for the fact that it's not 100% secure like so many people seem to fallaciously claim (remember Heartbleed?). Regardless of this, I'd always recommend Unix or Unix base systems because they were engineered for security from the start - for heavy duty use - but glossy marketing hype ensures we still use effectively the same old ropey ShittyOS that have been around for generations. Unix BSD kernel systems were indeed built for much more resilient counter virus infection, scalable robust operation.

Unix is used to manage the NY stock exchange, the ATM Banking systems and so on. All. Mission. Critical. Systems.

Any computer at work or home based on a UNIX kernel is hard to crack. And even harder to spread.
If you can’t go the Unix/Linux way, Win 10 made some major advances in the field of security. So much so that it would make my system more vulnerable if I were to install a third party anti-virus product than if I were to only use the included Windows Defender. Even Google engineers now recommend only using Windows Defender.

What’s the bottom-line? It's not 'tech experts' that are necessarily needed. What is required are senior IT managers that understand the issues and listen to the technical experts.

I vividly recall a period in my career when part of my brief was to oversee the implementation of management information systems. The constant battle was against a short-term accountancy mentality (and I knew even then that we had too many of them and too few practical technicians) which laboured under the delusion that computerised systems offered immediate savings for a modest one-off expenditure. Which they don't - any decent system will take time to implement, and will probably require a short-term rise in costs (apart from the capital expenditure) in order to glean any long-term savings.

And then there is the phenomenon of data growth that systems often generate, whereby what was an impossibility becomes possible, and expands the role of a particular activity. The syndrome illustrates poor IT management understanding - at a wider level - of the role of investment.

What about this specific wnacry issue? No, Microsoft doesn't have a duty of care here. If they had suddenly stopped providing security patches with no warning, then they would be at fault. But that's not the case. Windows XP has been unsupported (so-called 'End of Life', or EOL) since 2014, a date that had been widely known about since 2007. Win 7 since 2009. The reason for this is that security patches don't write themselves, and there logically must be a cutoff point where the software needs to be written off and upgraded (kind of like how, the fourth or fifth time your car fails its MOT, the repair costs eventually become higher than the value of the car and it's far more worthwhile to get a new one instead of patching up the old one).

Windows XP has been around for almost sixteen years now. Windows 7 for almost 8 years. This is ancient when it comes to software. It's long been time to upgrade, and the risks of not doing so were well known by those who decided not to. The emails that were opened should never have got that far. It's that simple. Of course, end-users cannot be trusted to act sensibly. Not open suspect emails. Not click on links in them. Ignore screen messages asking, "Are you sure?". Heck, one of mine even clicked the button when the whole page was in a foreign language and she didn't have a clue, literally, to what she was agreeing to. They trust the system providers to protect the system.

This isn't only a matter of "government and company cuts"; it's IT management failure. There should be a sudden blossoming of job adverts for IT staff and managers. Time for the dead wood to be identified and thinned out.

Once the email containing the worm got inside a network, it would not need any email attachment to spread further. The worm had been quietly spreading from machine to machine for weeks. The worm's encryption package triggered world-wide on May 12th, but it has been spreading silently for much longer. It seeks out machines that were not patched with the Microsoft solution in the last two months. Any Windows machine (10, 8, 7, or XP) not patched since March was vulnerable EVEN if its user never opened any attachments. Once an un-patched machine capable of being addressed by an infected machine on the same network or wide area network was switched on, if there was even one infected machine elsewhere in that network, t would become infected and would begin searching out vulnerable machines itself.

Imagine people take lots of LSD and keep jumping off balconies, breaking their legs, backs and /or killing themselves. You could say: “we need lower balconies” or you could get rid of LSD. Anyone with a degree in Computer Science will tell you that whatever IT system you have put in place, it will be hacked - many reasons for this, one of the simplest is that the dudes who develop the security systems are the same ones who hack it, since they know how to. Any senior people in industrial IT will tell you this. Modernity and its defenders will happily say that we need to lower the balconies, whilst our LSD-stoned friends now wander into the road and are killed by oncoming traffic. IT is the problem so we need more IT to counter it?

No, not really.