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  I've read several fantasy satires before and some of them were absolutely brilliant. Now, I am not saying that Dark Lord of Derkholm is not good, for it is competently written and complex in both plot and characters. What I am saying is that it is not that funny. Reading the book is like hearing a corporate colleague make fun of what happens at the office, which should be entertaining and humorous, but comes off as sad and frustrating. The trigger for change in the magical land is a conspiracy of women who couldn't bother to consider the emotional consequences of their actions to the people they supposedly love. And the ending was terrible as well, with a slap over the head moral that lacks any subtlety.

  I didn't know Diana Wynne Jones was famous. She wrote Howl's Moving Castle, which I had no idea was a book, on which Ghibli's anime was based, among many other works. Anyway, I had no expectations, but still I stand disappointed. First published in 1998, Dark Lord of Derkholm is quite prescient with its very interesting premise: corporate psychos from Earth (or something similar) manage to find a doorway to a magical land which they immediately proceed to exploit for their own gain. The inhabitants of said magical land need to find a way to protect it.

  The book is a not so subtle satire of our own magically beautiful land that we, through inaction, let it be despoiled by greedy idiots who can't think further than the length of their noses. But that's all that it is. There are a lot of inconsequential characters, a lot of setup and world building that leads nowhere and a final act in which so many new characters and races and lands are added for no good reason. The ending neatly closes all story lines, but in a blunt and narrated way that I felt very dissatisfying.

  Bottom line: interesting premise, competent writing, but a rather bland and inconsistent story.

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  Oh, wow! I vaguely remember Sven Hassel as an author of war novels, written with irony and humor, because this is how I remember people referring to his books. I might have even read some of them, but I was a child and if I did I don't remember and clearly they made the wrong impression on me. Because reading Legion of the Damned, especially now, in times of war in Ukraine threatening to spill over, was an amazing experience. I think this is one of the most anti war books I know about and one of the best I've read. One thing is for sure: Vladimir Putin did not read this book.

  Apparently Sven Hassel himself asked that this book be considered a documentary and in it there is a scene where a few German soldiers, unwillingly fighting for the Nazi regime, swear that whoever survives must write a book to expose to the world the horror and hell they went through. Well, he did write the book and thirteen others after. I don't know if I will have the courage to go through them all.

  The book starts with Hassel being tried for desertion and, because of a woman sacrificing herself to say she seduced him into it, his life is "spared" and he is sent to a concentration camp. He survives the atrocities there only to be "pardoned" and sent to the war, as part of a battalion of convicts. More horror follows, only for him to be captured by the Russian army and send to a prison camp. Again, pain and pointless suffering ensues, but he survives and escapes, only to be sent to fight again in a war he and all of his comrades consider pointless, barbaric and inhumane. He suffers personal loss, he almost goes mad, but he has his friends and together they keep each other alive, mentally and physically. Then he is wounded and has to go through the horror of military hospital, where people are actually competent and kind, but death and suffering is inevitable. And after all of this, the ending might be the most heartbreaking of it all.

  The traditional portrayal of hell is a place where devils take great pleasure torturing sinners in perpetuity. You read this book and you realize how childishly optimistic that vision is. Try to imagine something similar, but where devils are educated, kind and compassionate and punishing sinners is just as much a punishment for them, forced to do it and loathing the pointlessness and brutality of it all. Yet one cannot escape the system Satan implemented, himself too far removed to be witnessing the horror and pain he architected and immune to retribution.

  Sven Hassel is a very good writer, perhaps because he is writing from his heart and it just pours out of him, and the subject is terrible and captivating at the same time. Yet the best part of the book, for me, was the feeling of joy in the little things, the things we take for granted and these damned people enjoyed every single one of them, whenever rarely afforded, to the fullest. Stripped of the complacent veneer of civilization that most humans live under, they lived every moment as if it were the best and last of them all. At no time is there an accusation or bitterness towards another people or group, or attempts to vilify anyone other than the bourgeois and generals that started and perpetuated war, from both sides, to appease unknowable urges that no ordinary person understands or supports.

Bottom line: a very strongly recommended book, one that I think is so apropos of these times, not only because it applies to war in general, but also because (from pure coincidence) the war locations described are places like Donetsk and Kharkiv (which is razed to the ground in the book, as the Germans retreat). The writing is both sweet and personal, educated and educational. It's a heart laid bare and printed into words. A must read.

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  So both Google and Microsoft are pushing for this PWA concept (Progressive Web Apps) where a normal web site can function like a native app if configured in a certain way. It's in early stages, but it's supported by the major browsers and mobile operating systems. So I played around with the idea and now there is a new option in the menu of the blog: Notify me. What it does is it lets you grant notification permissions for the web page of the blog and then you get a notification whenever I write a new post or update an old one. In order to remove the option you have to reset the notification permissions for the website yourself (there is no way to do it programmatically, yet) 

  At the moment the registrations are saved in memory, so whenever the web site is restarted (like with a new update), you will lose any notification sending until you enter in the web site again. I will work on persisting it on the disk, but that will come later.

  Meanwhile, enjoy! Also, you can install the blog as an application, too, which makes little sense, really :) but it gives you the option of having it in the phone or in Windows in the start menu and pinned to the taskbar and everything.

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Installing Windows 11 is a trip. Not only does it comes with its own idea on how your taskbar and start menu should look and feel without giving you even the options Windows 10 had, but it also brings so much wisdom by telling you what applications you should use most. Like every single Microsoft Office app, plus the Office loader. Meanwhile, the apps you pinned are stuck at the end of the list. You have to scroll to get to them!

Easy to fix, you might think, so you right-click on the apps expecting to get an option to unpin and you do, and you get a loading prompt and then the menu closes and... nothing happens. Like at all. Even loading the app would have been a better result.

It turns out the answer is to press the Shift key and right click the items, only then you get a reasonable menu that gives you the option to unpin. No such luck as being able to enter an edit mode by pressing long, so you have to unpin every single useless thing from there until you get to the few things you actually want to use without, you know, pressing the Start key and then typing what you want.

Ugh! Every generation of designers out there becomes more and more idiotic. In the near future I am sure they will reach the conclusion that the entire digital experience of humanity can be condensed into a tridimensional metaverse infinite scroll and remove any other option.

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  Imagine if the fairy godmother would teach Cinderella the very basics of magic, warned her to not do it, then promptly vanished forever. Then imagine Cinderella was French right around the time of the French Revolution. That's the plot in a nutshell.

  All That Glitters has the hallmarks of greatness: good writing, a very interesting world and a character that grows with the reader. However, I found it really difficult to finish it. I believe the reason was the telegraphing of the protagonist's suffering, making me think of all the horrid things that were going to happen to her, only for her to actually find rather convenient and facile ways of getting out of trouble. 

  And I have to tell you that it was a weird feeling throughout. Made me feel guilty for fearing of all the bad things that were predictably going to happen to the heroine and then resentful of Gita Trelease for letting her off the hook. I mean, this girl and her sister have to deal with the death of their parents, systemic classism, being disconsidered for being women, having a violent addict and gambler of a brother that leeches from them even the money for food and rent, nobles, sorcerers and, of course, the worse of it all, romantic triangles! We can't miss those. And the only solution, a form of magic that feeds on one's sorrow and actual blood and only gives illusions in return.

  Now, of course, this is the first book in a bloody series, luckily a duology, at least for now. There are no standalone books anymore. Therefore the author has all the opportunity to grow as a writer, torture her protagonist to her and the readers' content and determine the most important thing of them all: who is Camille going to marry? Can you imagine being able to turn anything iron into coins for a limited time and not once considering what (or who) else can you turn into what? Maybe that will happen in the next books, but I won't be reading them.

  Bottom line: a definite success of a debut and full of potential and value. However it seems the author and myself are focusing on different things in life and even if we witness the same story, we only want to see the parts the other doesn't. I guess the book appeals more to the feminine side of the reader.

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  Americans want to think of themselves as gods, the better of humanity, the all powerful rulers of the world. And the reason they get to think that is that we want them to be so. We entrust them with the faith of the world just like ordinary Russians believe Putin to be their savior. Yet once that faith is gone, so is their power, because with great power comes ... pardon the sticky platitude... great responsibility.

  The U.S. economy is not resilient because of something they do, but because all the other economies anchor to it. It cannot fail because then the world would fail. Yet, one has to take care of said economy lest it will just become a joke no one believes in. Crises are loses of faith more than actual technical issues with whole economies.

  I will argue that the Americans did something right: they followed the money and indirectly attracted the science and the technology to maintain their growth. Now they have the responsibility to keep that growth going. It is not a given. Innovation needs to be nourished, risks be taken, solutions for new problems continuously found. But once you believe your own bullshit, that you're the best of them all, that you can't fail, that you need not do anything because your supremacy is ordained, you will fail and fail miserably.

  And no one actually wants that. Certainly not the Americans with their horrendous privilege, which is national more than anything like race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, which they keep focusing on as a diversion. And no, it's not a conspiracy, it's the direction their thoughts must take in order to deflect from the truth. Americans are weird because they can't be anything but. And certainly nobody else wants that Americans fail. Even "the enemies" like Iran or the vague terrorists, or China... they need the Americans to be where they are. Good or evil, they need to remain gods, otherwise the entire world belief structure would crumble. The U.S. is not the world, they are just the fixed point that Archimedes was talking about.

 It is complacency that will get us. Once we believe things are because they are we stop making efforts. Ironically, the military-industrial complex that we like to malign is the only thing that dispels dreams, acts based on facts and pushes for world domination not because it is inherited or deserved, but because it must be fought for.

 Funny enough, it is the economic markets like the stock market that show what the world will become. Years of growth vanish like dreams if the market sentiment shifts. Growth is slow and long term, falls are short and immediate. The world is now hanging by a thread, on the belief that goodness is real, that Americans will save us all, but they need to act on it. Knee-jerk reactions and "we can't fail because we are right" discourse will not cut it. You guys need to lead, not just rule!

  In summary: monkey humans need an Alpha. In groups of people we have one person, in countries we have a government (or for the stupid ones, a person) and in groups of countries, a country. The Alpha will first rise on their own strength, then on the belief of others on their own strength, then on their ability to influence the beliefs of others. Finally they will lead as gods or die as devils. There are no alternatives.

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  Chess is a game. In order for something to be called a game, it must be fun, it must be tailored to the level of the players and sometimes, especially nowadays, it needs to be exciting to an audience.

  Now, chess engines are fantastic in respecting the rules of chess and mating the king in the quickest possible way, but it's not a game anymore, it's a process. Occasionally people watch what computer engines are doing and notice the beauty in some of the ideas, but that beauty is coincidental, it has no value to the machine and "sparks no joy".

  I've been advocating for a while training chess engines on other values, like beauty or excitement, but those are hard to quantify. So here is a list of values that I thought would be great to train chess engines on:

  1. player rating
    • which is great because it's constrained in time, so if someone is a GM, but completely drunk and haven't been sleeping for a week, the engine would adapt for their play at that time
    • I know that engines have a manual level configuration, but I doubt it was ever correctly modelled as an input. Most of the time, a random move is chosen from the list of best moves, which is not what I am suggesting here at all
  2. value and risk of a move
    • I know this sounds like what engines are doing now, but they are actually minimizing risk, not maximizing value
    • We also have the player rating to take into account now, so the calculation changes with the player! A move that would be negative because another perfect computer chess engine would take advantage of a minute flaw means nothing now, because there is no way an 1800 rated human will see it. And if they do, what a boost in confidence when they win and what pleasure in witnessing the moment!
  3. balance risk with the probability of winning
    • this is the best part. Riskier moves are more fun, but can cause one to lose. Allow a probability of the other player missing a move, based on what we have calculated above. We are actually adding a value of disrespect from the engine. It attempts to win despite the moves it makes, not because of them.

  What I am modelling here is not a computer that plays perfect chess, but a chess streamer. They gambit, they try weird stuff, they do moves that look good because they can think of what the other player is or the audience are going to feel. They are min-maxing entertainment!

  A chess streamer is usually a guy around 2500 showing mercy and teaching when playing against lower rated players and trying entertaining strategies against equal or even better rated ones. They rate the level of a move, which is an essential metric on what strategies they are going to employ and what moves they are going to play. In other words, they are never considering a move without taking context into account.

  Imagine a normal chess engine, using min-max or neural networks to determine how to win the game. Against another computer, the valuation function is extremely important, since it limits the number of possible moves to one or two. Against a human noob, there are a lot of moves that will lead to a win. It is obvious that another metric is necessary to filter them out. That's how humans play!

  Short story shorter: use opponent rating to broaden the list of winning candidate moves, then filter them with a second metric that maximizes entertainment value.

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  You've seen this before, either as a book or as a TV series or something similar: the hidden world of magic, the gatekeepers tasked to keep the veil on the eyes of the common folk, the particular technique that they use (in spite of many others in existence), the ethnic flavor of the inspiration, even the formulaic definitions of good and evil. As it stands, Ink & Sigil is a rather bland book, with very little original content and the little that is being inspired by other cultures than the one of the author.

  You see, it all happens in Scotland, where everybody speaks with a strong Scottish accent, even the goth lesbian battle seer girl who is Indian. And there is a magical world of the fae, separated from ours by ... legal bindings, enforced by only five people in the whole world who work for no particular reason, with little resources and themselves bound by inexplicable moral qualms. Every fae described is a horrid caricature, an average of the most common clichés. Every fight is fought exclusively with the particular magical trinkets specific to the gatekeepers and nothing else.

  So forgive me when I am not impressed by Ink & Sigil, another uninspired fantasy millionology which translates to a classic detective story with a little bit of magic and locale sprinkled for taste. It's as authentic as a Margarita in a Ruby Tuesday or a single malt whisky made in Texas.

  As for Kevin Hearne, I didn't know who he was, but I could feel he was not Scottish in any way or form. Not because I am an expert in the culture of Scotland, mind you, but because it was obvious. It was funny how American the world view was, even when bad mouthing Americans, people who leer when they see an attractive girl or, God forbid, are racist. The author tried to be subtle and not stink up his writing with politics, but he couldn't help being a raging progressive from time to time.

  Bottom line: it was partly fun, but it was a chore finishing the book while knowing exactly what was going to happen and trudging through the flood of clichés that made up this story. I would not recommend it.

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  Sorcery of Thorns starts with an interesting idea that made me curious and involved: a library like a prison of Necronomicon-like books, bound in flesh, partly alive, trying to manipulate people in various ways, fighting amongst each other, destroying minds and bodies of unguarded people and able to transform into murderous demonic beasts when damaged.

  Then, almost immediately, Margaret Rogerson turns away from that premise and proceeds to write a very young adult fantasy romance where a Mary Sue orphan girl who has lived all her life in one of these libraries leaves it and falls in love with a young very eligible sorcerer while battling an old sorcerer in authority and patriarchy in general. Gad!

  The writing is not bad, but nothing spectacular either. It's the way the author fails to put her character in even the slightest challenge that makes this book average at most. Whenever something bad happens, or rather about to happen, she immediately finds a new ability or a new friend to save her. Her "best friend" is there just to be used in various occasions and then forgot for the rest of the book. Men dismiss her opinions, not because she is a shut-in orphan and poor and uneducated and doesn't know anything, but because she is a woman. Only then to do 360s and completely believe and support her when the actual need arises.

  And that ending! There is one thing that feels like a consequence, like it all wasn't some sort of bed game to spice up Elisabeth's romance, then it goes poof!

  In conclusion I can't recommend this book. It's not bad, but certainly not good. Somehow I got duped again by the legions of horny girls using fantasy to scratch their itch and then rating books in droves. The only good thing I can say about the book is that it's standalone and not part of some misbegotten series.

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  Using my system of randomizing the choice of books, I started reading Dread Nation. The very first page there is a dedication to all people of color. So I immediately deflated, as there are some people who think writing with a political agenda doesn't require any actual knowledge of bookcraft. Then there was the author's name, Justina Ireland, suggesting anything else than the Black female writer she is. And then it was a period piece, set right after the American Civil War. And then... it was also about zombies! So I prepared for a bad woke book written by a woman who looks to the past to justify her antiracist outrage. Yeah, I know, I'm a monster. But then I kind of liked the book!

  That doesn't mean I wasn't partly right. The story is told from the first person perspective of a character who is a Mary Sue. She is a Black girl, birthed by a White woman, but also partly raised as a slave, but also knowing how to read and being well read, but also speaking in Black English, but only randomly or when it suits her, she is smart, perfectly trained to fight zombies and also trained in etiquette, but also a rebel and a tomboy, but also cute enough to attract the attention of a beautiful and fiery Black boy, oppressed her entire life, but also capable of taking control of any situation, small of build and being hurt repeatedly, but then shrugging off damage like an action hero, which she also is, and so on. Then there are the male White characters, which are all bad, except maybe some which I am pretty sure will turn out to be bad too in the end. White women are vile, but some of them, if they are not rich, are OK. Black boys are naive and needing guidance, even if they have their hearts in the right place.

  In short, the book is very inconsistent in its characterization and this girl can do *everything*, except maybe feel when people are sneaking up to her to cock guns when the story requires her to get caught and brutalized. But the world building is good. The author researched books about the forced Native American "educational" centers, another bright spot in the U.S. history - land of the free if you survive, are not enslaved and are White - and created this world where the dead had risen right in the middle of the Civil War, abruptly terminating it, yet not solving any of the social issues that had been in dispute during it.

  And yes, it does feel a little "inspired" from the likes of Lovecraft Country, only instead of cosmic horror you get the run of the mill zombie outbreak as the background for a story about racism. The writing is typical Young Adult, focused on what the character feels, intends and believes, with action and interaction with other people just there to further the story in a blatantly obvious way. But it was also fun. Unfortunately, it is yet another "first book in a trilogy" and you would have to read the two other books to get any closure. I liked the book, but not that much to continue reading the rest.

  So yeah, I've decided to try out stock trading. I wanted to see how it works, how it feels and if it's a valid avenue for investment versus something like placing money in a bank. Long story short: it is! I fact, I would say placing money in banks feels stupid now. Will this make me a billionaire in Euros? No. But let me detail.

  Usually, when people get some extra money they think: should I leave them in my expenses account or should I move a sum to a savings account? The difference being the amount of interest and some rules against retrieving money from the savings account. One account is for fast operations, the other is for the rainy days, one you think of in days, the other in months. Well, imagine you have to save money in order to someday retire. That's one you would think of in decades. Well, in that case, stocks are what you need. 

Here is a chart of QQQ, a aggregate stock on the top performing stock, for the last 22 years. Its value rose consistently and grew 536%. That's 8.7% a year on average. In comparison, the average inflation rate in the same period is something like a third. Tell me, which bank will give you this interest?

But take a closer look. You see that big spike at the end? That's November 2021, when the U.S. market reached its apex, due to various reasons. Since then it plummeted, so the value now is the same as in June 2021. If you would have read a blog post like this and invested all your money in QQQ stock in November, you would have found a special set of skills, found me and killed me now. Or look on the left of the chart, to the spike there. In March 2000 the value increased to 118, only to then go down for a period of 16 years, only to grow 250% in the next 6 years!

So in the end, it goes to your trust in the world as a whole. Will it grow, stagnate or disintegrate? If you are optimistic in the long run or at least think that the next 20 years will go the same, then this is for you.

Of course, it was an interesting moment to start learning and experiment with stock trading in 2022. The boom that the trillions of US dollars injected by Biden in the economy because of Covid (so yeah, you read that right, the economy went up during the pandemic) ended, also the distraction caused by Covid which turned from an excitingly unexpected threat to life to an endemic virus that coexists with all the others we got used to. Now we have to look back at how to get those trillions paid, how much good Brexit does to the economy, how the European Union economy recovers and, to add insult to injury, another psychopathic world leader threatening World War III. Can you even think of making money on the stock market now?

The answer is again, yes! Did I make more money? No. But I didn't lose that much either and I believe that loss will disappear. I won't go into the details, but enough to say that while the stocks that took the market to that November high dropped, but other stocks that are considered safe, like the dividend stocks of huge companies, went up. And there is another hook: if the market goes down and you trust it to increase (on average) every year, that means the lower the stocks the higher they will rise in the future!

But, you will ask yourself, what am I missing? I everybody could do that, why don't they? Where is the high risk that everybody warns me about when talking about the stock market?

Well, first there are the short to medium term risks like the 2008 economic crisis or a measly World War. However, can you show me without looking at the years where is that crisis on the chart above? As I said, this is a "sure thing" only on large periods of time and while the global order remains largely unchanged. Also, money itself is a form of national stock. That's why you get inflation, where the buying power of the same sum of the same currency is vastly different from year to year. It's not a matter of money vs stock, but of stock vs stock, of managing risk.

Again with the risk! Where is it? Personally I think there is a huge psychological risk. Because you have a lot more options, you get more opportunities to fuck it all up. For example a guy sold his house and bought Tesla stock for all the money. He even tweeted to Elon Musk to encourage him to increase the value of the stock from $900 to $1000. The highest value for Tesla was 1222, but now it's 838. The guy could have increased his personal wealth 20% in just 20 days if he bought in October 2021. He didn't.

There is a huge pressure to perform when you gamble (and that's the correct word) with your money. You may take a few hundred Euros like me and play around, then the pressure is not that high, but if you put most of your savings into this, you always get to second guess yourself. Did I buy the correct thing? Oh, it's growing! Oh, it's going down! Oh, no, I am losing money, should I sell early or wait until it gets back up?

Sometimes you trust a company so much that it makes no sense to invest in something else. So you just buy the one stock. And then it goes bankrupt! Or the stock falls so much and forever that you have lost all of your savings. Having a diverse portfolio decreases your risk, but also your revenue.

There is a saying among traders that goes something like this: 95% of people trading are losing money and the rest of 5% bought some stock and then forgot about it for a few years. This says something about the safest way to proceed, but also tells you something about where the money from trading is coming from: those 95%.

So I am not an expert in any conceivable way, but I am going to try things out. There is a lot to learn, but when you push everything aside, there are two basic strategies: timing the market and investing long term.

Timing the market is to "buy the dip" when the stocks are low and sell them when they spike. The good news is that it makes you filthy rich, the bad news is that you can't time the market. And I am not joking. This is basically playing Roulette. If you consistently place your bets on the right number, you become filthy rich (or are thrown out of the casino), but that's theoretically impossible. And while a casino game is probabilistic, the market is actually fighting against you, adapting to strategies and making them obsolete in days (if not in minutes, considering you are competing with AI algorithms run by companies betting billions).

Investing long is what I described above. You take your savings (which come after you've bought your house, saved some in the bank and you have a comfortable sum left to live on) and you buy either diverse stocks from the top 500 or ETF (Exchange traded fund) which does this for you, for a small percentage. Invesco QQQ from above is an ETF, for example. And you do it with your monthly savings, every month. And you leave it alone. And you count your money (or lack thereof) when you retire.

That being said, there is a lot to learn about trading. The statistical indicators, what they mean, the math, the taxes, the way to investigate companies, how to structure your portfolio, the information sources, the gotchas, the various people and tricks that want to manipulate you and/or the market so that they make the money.

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  Decency makes us abstain from doing something that we could do, we might be inclined to do, but we shouldn't do. It's living according to some general principles that are intimately connected to our own identity. And when someone else is indecent, we try to steer them towards the "right path", for our own sake as well as theirs. This is what I was raised to think. Today, though, decency is more and more proclaimed for actively opposing things that are declared indecent and nothing else. It's the glee that gives it away, that twisted joy of destroying somebody else after having being given permission to do so. You see it in old photos, where decent town folk were happily and communally lynching some poor soul. After half a century the world is finally becoming a global village, but not because of the free sharing of information, as the creators of the Internet naively believed, but because of social media and 24 hour news cycles. And we are behaving like villagers in tiny isolated bigoted villages.

  South Park is a comedy animated show that has a similar premise: a small U.S. town as a mirror for the world at large. And while 25 years ago that was a funny idea, now it feels weirdly prescient. The latest episode of the show depicts the vilifying of some local residents of Russian descent because of the Ukraine conflict as a symptom of nostalgia towards the Cold War era. Then too, people were feeling mighty good about themselves as they were fighting the Ruskies, the Commies, the Hippies, or anything that was threatening democracy and the American way of life.

  This is not an American affliction as it is human nature. Witch hunts, lynching, playing games with the heads of your enemies, sacrificing virgins, they all have the same thing in common: that feeling that you have social permission to hurt others and that if they are bad, that makes you good. But acting good is what makes you good, not merely destroying evil. When Stalin was fighting Hitler no one said what a nice decent guy Stalin was. Yet now this mob mentality has been exported, globalized, strengthened by the sheer number of people that now participate. It's not easy to mention decency when thousands of people may turn on you for defending their sworn enemy. This "either with us or against us" feeling is also old and symmetrically evil, because usually all sides harbor it towards the others.

  I have started this post two times before deleting everything and starting again. At first I was continuing the story of the playground war, South Park style, where the town people refuse service to the family of the bully, start giving the victim crotch protectors and helmets at first, then baseball bats and pocket knives, slowly delimiting themselves from that family and ostracizing it as "other", even while the two kids continue to go to school and the bullying continues. But it was the glee that gave it away. I was feeling smart pointing out the mistakes of others. Then I tried again, explaining how Putin is wrong, but that's not the fault of the entire Russian people, most of them already living in poverty and now suffering even more while the rich are merely inconvenienced. I also shed doubt on the principledness of vilifying Russia when we seem to do no such thing to Israel, for example. And then I felt fear! What if this is construed to be antisemitic or pro Putin? What if I want to get hired one day and corporate will use the post as proof that I am a terrible human being? Because some nations can be vilified, some must be, but other should never ever be. And I may be a terrible human being, as well.

  Isn't stifling free expression for the sake of democracy just as silly as invading a country for the sake of peace?

  Regardless of how I feel about it, I am inside the game already. I am not innocent, but corrupted by these ways of positioning and feeling and doing things. I am tempted to gleefully attack or to fearfully stay quiet even when I disagree. So take it with a grain of salt as I am making this plea for decency. The old kind, where acting badly against bad people is still bad and acting good and principled is necessary for the good of all.

  Only you can give yourself permission to do something, by the way.

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  Senlin Ascends reminded me of many things: the intellectual protagonist, lost in a world that feels part dream like in Zamyatin's We, a metaphorical world that reflects our own social order like in Snowpiercer, the cruel tourist traps hiding horror like in Song of Kali. But the book is anything but derivative. Josiah Bancroft writes this in his own voice, slowly building both the world and the characters.

  Have to admit that I've found it difficult to keep reading the book. The naïve character that never seems to catch a break and keeps getting abused by an uncaring world makes it hard to enjoy. The book is very well written, but starts by destroying your faith in humanity. This also does make the last quarter of the book a little jarring, as the winds suddenly blow in a slightly different direction. It is possible that Bancroft found it as hard to torture his protagonist as I found it to bear reading about it. Yet, he seems to have kept at it, as this is just the first book of a series of four books (and a series of shorts).

  The book is a steampunkish novel set in a fictional tower of Babel where a teacher and his new bride go on a honeymoon, only to be swept into the tumultuous world contained by the tower. Each level of the tower is separate in culture and resources: the higher the level, the harder to get to and the richer the society. But that doesn't mean better, in any way.

  That's the plot in a nutshell, but the beauty is in the details. I can't say the book is perfect, but I am going to give it my highest rating because it is certainly a good book and refreshingly original.

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  It all reminded me of a playground brawl between kids. Here is the big brawny kid, beating the smaller one. Other small kids shout in support of the victim, but neither does anything. Teachers preach sternly about principles that kids should obey, how bullying is just wrong and one shouldn't do it, parents at home advise kids to stand up for their rights and take a stand. The school psychologists preach that violence at home leads to violence in children and we are all victims. And the result? Small kids keep getting bullied.

  The small kid has options. He can fight - hopelessly, he can run - not for long, he can take a big stick from a friend and bloody the bully's nose - and be mauled for it. But more often they cower in fear, stunned, frozen, hoping things are not happening. And if they are, they won't be so bad. And if they are bad, they would eventually stop. His eyes dart from one person to another in the group of onlookers. "Please! Please, help me!" they silently beg. But some people are frozen, too, some are indifferent, some are expressing disapproval, but then moving on. Most of them pretend it doesn't happen.

  And the kid is thinking, stuck in his inadequate body: This will stop, because it doesn't make sense. And he thinks of all the ways of why his abuse does make sense. Perhaps they miscalculated somehow. Things have to make sense!

  Worse of all, some people would just assume that the bullied child deserves it. He must have done something! There must be a reason for why a kid would attack another. They might even consider various options. Does the bully have an abusive father or other family problems? Is it poverty? Is it education? Perhaps the smaller kid disrespected the larger one on account of religion, race or sexual orientation. Surely, a small kid in school would ONLY behave rationally! And the kid, too, gets to think that perhaps he does deserve it.

  That's us, surrounding ourselves in rationalizations, morals, laws and principles. Trying to contain reality in nice neat boxes and then deny there is anything outside those boxes.

  That's me, too. I watch and I am thinking. Maybe it is military exercises. How funny it would be for Russians to just stop and go home. OK, the mad discourse on TV is troubling, but maybe it's just a bargaining chip in a discussion I am not privy to. They invaded Ukraine, but maybe they stop at the border of the rebel regions. They attack the whole Ukraine, but surely they're gonna stop at its borders. They claim Transnistria is Russia, too, but maybe they won't attack Moldova. Maybe they will stop at the border of Moldova. Maybe they won't enter Romania! Maybe the economic sanctions and stern wording of the Western teachers is going to calm the kid down. Maybe no one will use nukes!! Perhaps they will not shoot each other's satellites from orbit, stranding everybody on this shit planet! Maybe China will stay out of it?

  Maybe Russia has a reason to do all of this, because of the US slowly suffocating that country, economically, militarily and culturally, using their EU henchmen!!! Yes! It all makes sense! It is domestic violence, if only Russia would go to therapy, everything would be all right. I mean, they HAVE TO act rationally, right? They're a country! A whole country big as a continent. And surely the West will understand they are people, too, and show them compassion and help them get past it. Aren't we all human? Can't Biden call Putin as tell him "Dude, chill! I apologize. Let me give you a hug. You are appreciated and I love you!". Isn't this just a joke? 

  I blame us. Whenever a new personality cult pops up we secretly (or less so) hope this is the one. That person who is really strong and not just posturing, intelligent not just conniving, competent not just overconfident, caring and not just obsessing, principled and not just frustrated. We crave for a god to follow and obey and who would make us feel safe. And we tried different things, too. Let's replace a person with multiple ones: senates, parliaments, committees, counsels, parties, syndicates, omertas, majority rule, Twitter likes. It never works. Every time, the power people wield gets to them and somehow... makes them less.

  As I stood there, watching Vladimir Putin explain like a stern grandfather who is also a complete psycho how their brothers across their border are not really a country, nor a people and he has absolute rights over them, I despaired. "Not again!", I thought. I am not much into history, but it felt familiar somehow. Are we getting one of these every century? The strongman going nuts with an entire country following him because... what else is there? For decades people have asked what has made people follow Hitler. The answer seems to be that they thought about it and then went "Meh!".

  And then I watched the valiant exponents of democracy: the EU, the UK, the US. All posturing, talking about principles and international law, begging Putin to stop, making stern discourses on how Putin doesn't have the right to do what he does. What are these people doing? I've worked for them, I know how ineffectual they are, I know that every word in their mouth is unrelated to the truth. They are not lies, per se, just complete fabrications and fantasies. Now, of all times, one should snap out of it, right? Nope. Not happening. They convince themselves that people can't think any other way than them. Surely Putin will stop when his country will slide into economic crisis, because we are all bureaucratic machines that care about profit only. Surely Putin will stop because Biden tells him to. Surely the EU's committees will find a way to word a stern letter that would convince Putin to think about humanity!

  We're screwed.

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  I have a problem with LGBT books, because they are read by mostly LGBT people who then feel obliged to praise the story and how they identified with the characters. Have the writer be a woman and you will be hard pressed to find the few reviews written by people who just randomly stumbled upon the book or maybe lazily read some very positive reviews and decided to read it, like I did. And when you get burned like that, the more you stop trying to read these books, amplifying the effect.

  Unfortunately, Karen Memory is one of those books. Funny enough, I've previously read a short story collection by Elizabeth Bear and I've forgotten all about it, but then I reread my review and... it's kind of the same. She writes well, but I can't relate to the stories or the characters and mostly because she uses fantasy settings to sell basic bland ideas that are not related to fantasy or sci-fi. A bit of a bait and switch.

  Karen Memery (with an e) is a teenage middle-end lesbian prostitute who knows horses, fighting, shooting and is also a seamstress. In a Western-like steampunk universe which sounds suspiciously similar to episodes from Warrior (great TV show BTW), she is the protagonist, but there is very little steampunk and no sex. Instead it's all about diverse people caring about each other's feelings while the bad men are coming for them.

  20% of the book in, I've decided to abandon it, but I did make the effort to hunt down the reviews that were focusing on the story and not on the diversity or how cool steampunk westerns are. People finishing the book didn't think much of it either, especially since she seems to go all Mr. Nobody towards the end. She's a teenage girl!

  Anyway, no.