ewx: (Default)
2017-01-18 11:37 pm
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I lik the bred

Lately I’ve been enjoyed some very daft poems about cows (and ancillary characters) by Ann Leckie and her fans. I mentioned this to Matthew although I think a few other people might like them too, so here we are.

Big list of URLs )
ewx: (Default)
2017-01-15 10:22 pm
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Modern Mamluks

From Deep State To Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution And Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, ISBN 978-1-84904-546-9

This book analyses the background to, and aftermath, of the Arab Spring: the military despotisms in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, with a lesser amount of material on Tunisia and Libya.

The question the book asks, essentially, is how the contests between military oligarchies, street protesters, political Islam and violent ‘jihadi’ movements ended with the first of the above remaining in charge, the middle two components crushed, and the latter successful and destructive. Filiu’s answer is essentially that the jihadists were indirectly, and in some cases directly, supported by the governments they supposedly oppose, both as a warning of chaos and as “my enemy’s enemy”.

The most blatant example is Bashar al-Assad, initially providing support for Iraqi enemies of the USA (including the local precursors of IS) and subsequently emptying its jails of jihadists in order to support its own propaganda once popular protests erupted in Syria.

The author also touches on Tunisia and Libya. In both cases the dictator fell, but the outcomes were very different. The reasons can be found both in the pre-revolutionary structure of the two countries and in the subsequent political processes.

The military oligarchies are characterised as ‘modern Mamluks’, alluding to historical military rulers. In their modern form, the author finds them excellent manipulators of both world powers and their regional neighbours, successfully extracting support in the form of money, weapons and oil; and vigorous defenders of their own privileges; but poor rulers of their countries.

This is a pretty depressing book. The only remotely successful entities in places like Syria are those that are prepared to burn the country to the ground to keep or take control, and when compared with the similar situation in Algeria in the 1990s, neither the ferocity of the conflict nor the negligible Western response seem particularly surprising.

ewx: (Default)
2016-12-31 07:57 pm

Livejournal and Dreamwidth

I have now migrated to Dreamwidth. Future postings will happen here. There might be crossposting, I've not decided yet.
ewx: (penguin)
2016-10-18 12:10 am
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Monstress

Monstress vol. 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.

I encountered the first issue of this as a Humble Bundle sampler (http://ewx.livejournal.com/626752.html) and liked it, and bought it cheap on Comixology during a sale. From a high level, the setting isn’t the most original: the world is largely divided (with a literal wall) between humans and magical halfbreeds (Arcanics). However it’s a good implementation of the cliché and the plot and characters in any any case transcend it.

The previous hot phase of the conflict between the humans and Arcanics was terminated by some kind of major and very destructive magical event, with even the known details to some extent covered up. Maika, superficially human but in fact rather more complicated than that, knows her mother had something to do with it, and wants answers from her former colleagues. As the book opens she is tactically exploiting helplessness, but she soon turns out to be exceptionally dangerous, a repeating theme being others discovering this a bit too late. This could easily have been mishandled but by in practice it stays interesting throughout; her strength, or a least her willingness to use it, does have its limits.

Maika’s principle antagonists are a powerful religious order which when not exploiting enslaved Arcanics seems to be thoroughly overrun by its own members’ private agendas, a characteristic which extends (albeit mostly in less brutal form) to many of the other protagonists, adding a realistic gloss of human nature to a fantastical world.

The volume ends with a satisfying resolution, but with open questions and loose ends lined up for further issues. I look forward to them.
ewx: (penguin)
2016-09-22 07:14 pm
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Holiday Reading

House of Cards, Michael Dobbs, 978-1-4711-2852-3.

An unscrupulous 1980s Conservative chief whip plots and schemes within a re-elected but weakened government. This is not really great literature: most of the characters are stereotypes rather than in any way rounded portrayals, and the writing felt a little pedestrian. Nevertheless it was fun to read and I can see why it was adapted for television multiple times.

A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin, ISBN 978-1-84668-740-2.

A far-left Labour politician becomes Prime Minister, and the establishment and the Americans set out to undermine him. In some ways timely as Harry Perkins partially reflects Jeremy Corbyn: however, importantly, he is considerably smarter and has the backing of his parliamentary party (and, at least initially, the country). As above the writing is not of the most dazzling style, and the characters are if anything even more 2-dimensional, but also as above, it got the job done.

Also, really, a more serious political work, focusing not on the process of climbing the greasy pole (and stamping hard on those below) but instead on the structure of UK politics (at least as it stood at the time). Amusingly, the book mentions US interception activities in Europe, three decades before Snowden and half a decade before Campbell.

ewx: (penguin)
2016-09-20 10:32 pm
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Stanage Edge

We went climbing on Stanage Edge, a lengthy escarpment in the Peak District.

Climbing. We mostly stuck to Mod and Diff routes. For the first few days we managed a lead and a second each; much of the rest of the time was consumed with false starts and getting lost trying to find the next route we wanted to do. We had nice weather and beautiful scenery though. For the last couple of days our productivity roughly doubled, partly a result of more effective navigation but probably also “getting into the swing” of it. On Sunday Matthew and Sally joined us which made for a good end to an already excellent week.

160917-0364.jpg

N looks down.

Other Activities. Friday was the only day that was seriously wet during the day and we went to Chatsworth House, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire even today. In local terms it’s kind of like Wimpole but on a rather grander scale. Its continued noble occupation has resulted in the accumulation of contemporary art as well as the usual stately home standbys, although excepting the photography I didn’t rate much of it. It’s also substantially covered in scaffolding and sheeting at the moment due to extensive renovation works; apart from the occasional drilling sounds (which based on conversation maybe annoyed the staff more than they did us) this didn’t really impact on our visit, though if you want a clear view of the whole exterior then maybe you should postpone your visit until this is finished.

160916-0363.jpg

I kind of want Mallory Ortberg to caption this.

We also made it to Sheffield Hallam Parkrun, where I chipped a few seconds off my PB. I’m not sure how comparable it is with Cambridge, though. Doing a 5km run in the morning coincided with the uptick in our climbing productivity, which N didn’t consider a coincidence.

Accommodation. We stayed at the North Lees campsite, which is a pleasant 10m walk from the road below Stanage Edge (more to the rock, depending which bit you aim for and how lost you get). Slightly spartan but it did the job. It was mostly fairly empty, only really getting crowded at the weekend. Generally the first thing we heard on waking was sheep.

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The purple sleeping bag is N’s, surprising nobody.

The nearest village is Hathersage, which was a pleasant enough walk in the light though a bit dicey coming back in the dark. We tried two of the three pubs for dinner, returning to the Scotsman’s Pack for a second visit and eating once at the nevertheless perfectly acceptable Plough Inn and one of the two local curry places, Maazi.

Driving. I haven’t owned a car for more than a decade and until very recently hadn’t driven one for around half as long. For this trip we hired a car and mostly got on well, though I thoroughly disliked the single-track lanes around the campsite.

160912-0275.jpg

Vroom!

Cars have changed in the (mumble) years since the previous car I drove left the factory. Six forward gears is an obvious enough evolutionary step and I was vaguely aware of start-stop but I’d not expected the electronic handbrake, nor had I expected the car to tell me when to shift gear - something it was generally right about on the motorways, but I thought less reliable when getting round those narrow lanes.

Photos. There are lots more photos on flickr. I made some videos while climbing although I think they’ll be of more interest for analyzing gear placement than general interest.

ewx: (penguin)
2016-08-26 06:26 pm
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Clip 'n Climb

We went to http://clipnclimbcambridge.co.uk/. As a quick look at the website will make clear this isn't a traditional climbing wall - instead of the usual rock-like holds there is a broad variety of (mostly plastic) constructions. The gallery on the website gives some idea and a lot of the routes in the video turn up in Cambridge.

It’s aimed at a general audience of children and adults, not just experienced climbers - there’s no need for climbing shoes, and harnesses are provided. (If you have one, don’t bother bringing it, they won’t let you use it.)

We enjoyed it though going on an extremely hot day wasn’t the best of plans; the only concession to cooling possible was some fans in the corners. I managed most of the routes although a few defeated me in their harder versions (most of them have two or three difficulty levels). In some cases the biggest difficulty was sweat making plastic holds slippery - I had to use slightly awkward grips to stay held on reliably.

The staff insist on doing all the clipping in and out (understandably given the inexperienced intended audience). All the routes have auto belays; among other things this means that usual rest between climbs while belaying someone else didn’t exist l-)

I thought it was quite expensive for what we got; specifically, for an hour climbing we actually slightly paid more than our regular trips which includes a train journey. Still, we had a lot of fun.
ewx: (poll)
2016-06-13 10:47 pm
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Impending doom

With a real likelihood of UK exit from the EU, it makes sense to move the bulk of any savings you may have outside the British economy, since there's a serious risk that they will soon become worth substantially less and stay that way. Where are you moving yours?

[Poll #2047249]
ewx: (penguin)
2016-05-08 11:53 am
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Issue #1 of Various

Some sampler issues that came via Humble Bundle a while back and I’ve only just got around to.

Black Magic #1. A witch who is also a policewoman. First episode works in isolation but is clearly intended as the start of a longer story. I liked this and could be tempted by more.

Citizen Jack #1. Brutish snowplow salesman makes a deal with a demon to run for president. Didn’t grab me at all.

Huck #1. Small-town superman-alike just wants to do a good deed every day. What happens when the media find out? Find out next issue! Difficult to assess as it’s basically all setup in this issue.

I Hate Fairyland #1. Small girl magically transported to fairyland wants to get home and (eventually) responds to persistent setbacks with anarchic cartoon violence. Amusing idea but I didn’t get a sense there was any more to it than that.

Injection #1. See here.

Limbo #1. Noirish amnesiac detective (reminds me of Dead Letters, which I enjoyed) with magic. The issue concludes at the point he thinks he's got a job all wrapped up, and there's a genre convention about that... Has potential.

Monstress #1. A physically and emotionally damaged witch tricks her way into the stronghold of her enemy in search of answers, but has to leave satisfied with nothing better than revenge. I liked this.

Paper Girls #1. Four ?1980s paper delivery girls in (I think) encounter some kind of alien intrusion, although not a hugely competent one so far. Curious to find out what’s going on.

Plutona #1. Spends the entire issue character-building the group of kids who encounter the eponymous superheroine towards the end of the issue. Difficult to asses for the same reason as Huck, but the setup is more character-building and less situation, which I think is promising.

Pretty Deadly #6. Nice artwork and creative panel layout. But the story seems to be mostly setup and I wonder how much I’m missing from being dropped in at a 6th issue. An odd choice of sampler?

Ringside #1. Lots of good character stuff around an ex-wrestler and others ... followed by what looks suspiciously like the setup for a revenge fantasy. Undecided.

Saints #1. Saints run around a dingy bit of the USA and find each other. Angels plot. Reminds me a bit of Lyda Morehouse. The authors clearly share my amusement at medieval depictions of Saint Sebastian.

The Goddamned #1. A blond naked white dude called Cain (yes, that one) kills a bunch of savages in order to recover his stolen clothes and stuff, then spends a few pages moaning about how horrible everything is. I didn’t really like it.

Tokyo Ghost #1. A pair of police-ish types track down a villain who might be at home in a crossover between Ghost in the Shell and Batman: The Killing Joke. Sanguinary but fun.

ewx: (penguin)
2016-05-07 04:33 pm
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Two religiously themed books

A History Of Christianity, Diarmid MacCulloch, 978-0-141-02189-8

Set aside some time to read this; at comfortably over a thousand pages, you’re unlikely polish it off in a weekend.

MacCulloch nominally starts his history in 1000BCE, though devotes just a few dozen pages to the Greek/Roman and Jewish background. The following 2000 years get considerably more detailed attention, across a broad geographic range. Western Europe, Russian, the Greeks, the Miaphysites and Dyophysites of the Middle East, China, Africa (especially but not only Ethiopia) and the Americas are all covered (and I’ve probably missed more than a few from this list).

It is of course thoroughly entwined with other elements of history: Constantine, Charlemagne and colonialism all make an appearance. Some appreciation of (particularly, western-oriented) history over the last couple of thousand years will surely help the reader but the wider context is not neglected. Equally, you will find a lot of philosophy and science in here, covering both religious background to new thinking and subsequent engagement with it.

The writing is excellent, informal without being lightweight, and making occasional but good use of sarcasm; the result is a pleasure to read. Particularly well done is the 16th chapter, which despite the dry-sounding title ‘Perspectives on the True Church’ in fact engrossingly lays the intellectual and political groundwork for the Reformation.

I’ve previously reviewed The Popes by John Julius Norwich. Where that was the narrowest of vertical slices through history, this book may be as broad a slice as is possible while still representing a single coherent theme. Recommended both for readers interested in Christianity in particular, but also world history in general.

(A curious detail that I’d not previously been much aware of is the growing strength of Dyophysite Christians among the Persian elite in the first half of the 7th century. Given the previous Roman experience, it’s interesting to wonder how that would have played out had the Sassanian empire survived any longer.)

God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis, 978-0-393-06472-8

A history of Islamic Spain and its context and impact. The first quarter of the book quickly covers Roman and Persian background material leading (in the west) to Visigothic Spain and (in the east) to the rise of Islam, before putting the two together with the Islamic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century. The rest covers the history of ‘Al-Andalus’ and its interactions with its geographical and ideological neighbours. (Sadly for my particular interests the author simply states one of the theories for the etymology of the name without alluding to the difficulties in this areas.)

At the political level those interactions generally produced much heat and little light, although the Byzantine gift of De Materia Medica to ’Abd al-Rahman III is a notable exception - essentially a bribe to maintain opposition to the Abbassids, but in practice a substantial injection of knowledge into the western Caliphate and (eventually) Catholic Europe. And it underlines the case the author really wants to make: for an extended period Islamic Spain was the major intellectual and cultural centre of western Europe, for instance putting Alcuin’s efforts in the Carolingian empire into the shade, and moreover that it had an outsized impact on the rest of western Europe.

The case is not badly, though I thought that the balance between the political and intellectual history could be shifted further towards the latter with little real loss. Maimonides, for instance, has to share a chapter with the comparably significant Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the two of them don’t even get the whole of it. Still, this is a minor flaw. An enjoyable book about an interesting episode in history.

ewx: (penguin)
2016-04-22 10:06 am
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West Highland Way (2)

Two more from [livejournal.com profile] naath:

clicky )
ewx: (penguin)
2016-04-18 09:34 pm
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West Highland Way

[livejournal.com profile] naath is taking a long walk in Scotland. She's sent some photos:

PICTures )
ewx: (penguin)
2016-02-23 02:35 pm
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Colorful Security Question

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red/black_concept describes a notation sometimes used when discussing confidentiality:

  • red denotes signals carrying secret plaintext;
  • black denotes signals carrying ciphertext.

Is there any generally agreed coloring for the analogous integrity question? i.e.:

  • a color which denotes signals where integrity matters (or maybe this is "all of them" and we don't need a specific choice of color); and
  • a color which indicates a signal with cryptographic integrity protection of some kind.

Non-color visual notations also welcome for several reasons:

  1. things still get printed in monochrome;
  2. color vision is not uniform among humans;
  3. using too many color notations at once leads to angry fruit salad rather than clear diagrams.

ewx: (penguin)
2016-02-14 11:04 pm
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Happy Saints Cyril and Methodius' Day

Since it’s the feast of day Saints Cyril and Methodius, it occurred to me to wonder who else has a script named after them. [livejournal.com profile] pseudomonas chipped in and we came up with the following:

  • Tironian notes, a shorthand system attributed to a Roman scribe called Marcus Tullius Tiro from the 1st century BCE. This seems to be an alphabetic system with an aggressively compositional character leading a large number of distinct signs. It was used in medieval Europe.
  • The Manichaean alphabet (technically an abjad), a descendant of the Aramaic script used in the Persian empire (the original one that caused classical Greece so much trouble) and supposedly the creation of the prophet Mani. Mani was the founder of Manichaeism, an early competitor to Christianity that failed to attach itself to any imperial power and seems to have subsequently been persecuted out of existence.
  • Cyrillic, a C9th descendant of the Greek alphabet attributed to the brothers Cyril and Methodius, a traditional attribution apparently supported by explicit reference in a papal bull that unfortunately I can’t find a copy of (much less translation into something I understand). It remains widely used for Slavic languages.
  • Braille was invented by Louise Braille in the C19th as an improvement on the unusably difficult Night writing, originally invented for the purposes of silent communication among soldiers. I often see this in public places and of course the use case has not gone away.
  • Pitman shorthand, invented by Isaac Pitman in the C19th as a phonetically system for writing quickly. Gregg shorthand and Duployan shorthand also date from the same era and there seem to be a number of other shorthands with people’s names attached, and I lost interest chasing down variations on this particular theme. I’m not sure how widely used these systems are any more.

Things that didn’t quite make it:

  • Ogham, an early medieval Irish script attested from the C4th but probably somewhat older. Mythologically attributed to the god Ogma. I rejected this because I wanted people with scripts named after them, not scripts with a probably fictitious attribution to someone who didn’t actually exist.
  • The Gupta script, used for writing in Sanskrit in the Gupta Empire in India (roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire). The script is only indirectly named for an individual - in fact is is named for the empire, which is in turn named after the Gupta dynasty. I rejected Georgian scripts for the same reason.

[livejournal.com profile] pseudomonas is mentioning more on IRC but it’s getting late…

ewx: (penguin)
2016-01-25 10:40 pm
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Latest Humble Books Bundle

Humble Comics Bundle 'Creators Own Worlds'. About a day left so I’ll post pint-sized reviews now rather than waiting any longer.

Bitch Planet Vol. 1. The setting is a world where patriarchy is more overtly the basis of society; the president is called “Father” and women are imprisoned for the most trivial breaches of strict gender roles. The plot is largely set in a prison, where it can focus on systematic oppression and attempts to live within a corrupt, brutal and tightly circumscribed environment. But the planet of the title refers to the fact that apparently space travel is easy enough to ship these convicts to a prison located on some other planet - yet puzzingly this doesn’t seem to have made any other difference to society (at least as far as we see it). Some good characters.

Descender Vol. 1. Haven’t read this yet.

Free Issues Courtesy of Image Comics. Haven’t read this yet.

Image Comics Humble Bundle Preview Book 2016. Haven’t read this yet.

Injection Vol. 1. Magico-technological thriller. (Magicological?) The computer stuff mostly didn’t make me roll my eyes, which sounds like a low bar but in practice isn’t. I found the presentation a bit flat but the story was interesting enough to make up for it.

Invincible Compendium (Issues #1-47). Haven’t read this yet.

Jupiter's Circle Vol. 1. 1950s-ish superheroes with 1950s-ish flaws (gay, has affairs, alcoholic, etc). Watchmen did it better.

Just The Tips. Satirical sex and dating advice from the people responsible for Sex Criminals. Funny.

Kaptara Vol. 1. A small group of humans get stranded on an alien world. Very reminiscent of the Flash Gordon film. Humour with occasional darkness. Not bad but not great.

Low Vol. 1. End-of-time submariners attempt to navigate sea monsters and human monsters to save the world, which seems to have less clothes and less immortals than you might otherwise expect. The artwork sometimes emphasizes prettiness over clarity but I coped.

No Mercy. A group of students are in a bus crash somewhere remote. Relentlessly depressing.

Nowhere Men Vol. 1. A small group of superstar scientists degrade over the years from successful and positive collaboration to struggle and the creation of monsters. Lots of flashback. I found it hard to follow.

ODY-C Vol. 1. The Odyssey in space with female characters. More artwork emphasizing prettiness over clarity. Lots of narration, which would normally be a bad sign in a comic, but it gets away with it.

Outcast Vol. 1. Haven’t read this yet.

Phonogram Vol. 1. Magic and 1990s indie bands. Would particularly suit a reader who didn’t need most of the four-page glossary at the end (none of it about magic) but I enjoyed it nevertheless

Phonogram Vol. 2. Haven’t read this yet.

Rat Queens Special: Braga #1. An orc wants something more than orcish conflict. *shrug*

Saga Vol. 4. By volume 4 you should probably know whether you like this or not. I do.

Saga Vol. 5. Haven’t read this yet.

Self-Obsessed. Bounced off this almost immediately.

Stray Bullets #1-41. Unsympathetic people doing horrible things ... I nearly put it down, but I persevered and got to some more engaging characters. There’s nearly 1,200 pages here so don’t expect to get through it in a single sitting.

Sunstone Vol 1. Two women enter into a BDSM-based romance. Nicely drawn.

Trees Vol. 1. Mysterious alien trees plant themselves on earth, causing chaos and destruction. Most of the story is about the various characters development rather than the trees; some of them are sympathetic and interesting but others unexcitingly horrible. If anything I was more interested in the idea of volume 2 about three quarters of the way through than by the end.

Virgil. Revenge fantasy involving a gay Jamaican police officer.

Wayward Vol. 1. Tokyo urban fantasy. A teenage girl moves to Japan and finds she has magic powers and meets similarly equipped peers. Together they struggle against creatures from Japanese folklore. Nice artwork, good characters. Huge appendices containing background on all the things they run into.

Wolf Vol. 1. Los Angeles urban fantasy. European folkloric monsters this time. Not bad but not as good as Wayward.

Wytches Vol. 1. Black magic in rural America. I found the artwork a bit chaotic but the story was enjoyable.
ewx: (parrot)
2016-01-17 10:47 pm
Entry tags:

Purple!

[livejournal.com profile] naath has purple hair now!

151216-184636.jpg

(In fact since before Christmas, I'm just behind on posting photos.)
ewx: (photos)
2016-01-17 10:46 pm
Entry tags:

Daftness

You see a lot of this design around Cambridge, I think invariably at floor level. Also Herons, though I've not been recording those.

On Tenison Road

+2 )
ewx: (photos)
2016-01-17 10:41 pm
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Centre for Computing History

We visited the Centre for Computing History in October. Although a bit haphazard in places there's a lot to look at and much of it was familiar.

[livejournal.com profile] naath playing Atic Atac. You run around a castle collecting keys (to get through doors) and the fragments of a quest object. I spent a lot of time playing this; I remember one of my brother and I finishing it though I can no longer remember which of us did so!

151017-151105.jpg

+2 )
ewx: (penguin)
2016-01-11 09:22 pm
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Alas

I reached for 1. Outside first, because of course I would. A concept album and I love the concept; aurally while I like the music, it’s the lyrics that I’m really here for. Some of my favourites:

(i) “Oh, Ramona - if there was only something between us
If there was only something between us
Other than our clothes


Something I have thought about a number of people over the years.

(ii) “Something is going to be horrid” ... BOOM CRASH HALLO SPACEBOY

A fantastic audio cut, at a key point in the story - if it was a film this would be the last time we saw Baby Grace Blue alive (nonlinearity permitting).

(iii) “Watching the young advancing all electric

A lovely image, and always makes me think of the explosion of personal electronics in the years since. Laptops, iPods, smartphones, Fitbits, and it’s not over yet.

(iv) “I started with no enemies of my own
[...]
I’ve been dreaming of sleep ... and ape. men. with. metal. parts.


Ramona gets the best lines, consistent with her role, and the delivery of the latter in particular is fantastic. The implication that someone might have to - or want to - borrow someone else’s enemies, until they could organise some of their own, is a marvellous one.

Rolling Stone wrote, admittedly among some more sensible things:

It’s too bad that Bowie and Eno don’t allow themselves the luxury of a straightforward pop song until the very end. You have to wade through 19 tracks of conceptual mischief to get to the simple melodic development and swelling chorus of “Strangers When We Meet.”

Fucking philistines. The conceptual mischief is the whole point. For a review from someone who actually got it, see the second review here (by Iai).