Monday, August 14, 2017

Look, Bitcoin is just a terrible idea

Okay, full disclosure, I did the illustrations and cover design for this book. So perhaps there's something of a conflict of interest here but I'm going to go ahead and talk about it anyway because working on the art for this book is part of why I didn't have much time to read in July (combined with time spent in Las Vegas and general chaos).

Anyway, this book is a FANTASTIC read if you're looking for some simple, clear explanations as to why you shouldn't invest in Bitcoin, should discourage everyone you know from investing in Bitcoin, and want to spend a great deal of time laughing at people who continue to get burned in Bitcoin speculation schemes. David Gerard is a long-time observer of the cryptocurrency scene and an even longer-term participant in worrying techno-mischief, and has a very good sense for when something is or isn't bullshit, and Bitcoin is a long mile of bullshit.

The long and short of it is that the cryptocurrency is a pump-and-dump speculation scam. Gerard also makes it staggeringly, stunningly clear that bitcoin doesn't appear to have any functional, real-world applications outside of ordering hits or buying drugs and even those applications are untenable, considering that the well-known BTC funded hits are a) well-known and b) were actually federal investigators hired by an idiot to kill people who might have threatened his cryptoincome; also people who sell drugs hate using bitcoin because the transactions aren't stable enough.

I'll say that again: the currency is too unstable for online drug dealers to want to deal with it.

You should buy the book and read it. Gerard is wonderfully witty and the book is full of clear information that's easy to understand for non-techs - handy when you're trying to talk the marketing department out of blockchain smart contracts.


     - Alli

Learning to live with death

 For years now people have been telling me that I need to read Terry Pratchett and unfortunately it just kept getting pushed to the back of my mind over and over and over again. It felt like jumping into Stephen King for the first time - there's so much that he's written that I didn't know where to start. When Pratchett died in 2015 someone asked Neil Gaiman on Tumblr what they should read first if they wanted to read Pratchett's work and Gaiman recommended Mort. I bought the book that day and it sat on my shelf for two years while I worked through things higher up on the to-be-read list.

Now, I'll say straight-up that I liked the book, but I don't think I'm going to end up with a Pratchett collection the same way that I have a King or a Gibson or a Stephenson collection - I've got nearly all those other guys' books and have read almost all of their books somewhere between five and seven times at least. I liked Mort, I had a fun time reading it, but I think Pratchett might be an almost-perfect author to use my library card with.

Mort was a rapid read, lasting just a couple of hours. The writing is simple but bitingly funny, the universe is expansive and fascinating, but unfortunately I still don't really feel like I know enough about it to sink deeply into it. The book did make me want to read a lot more Pratchett, I enjoyed the mythology of the world and the tone of the writing enough for that, to be sure. But I feel like I want to do a deep dive into the Pratchett that's out there before I make a commitment to buying dozens and dozens of books.

Anyway. Mort. It's a funny book about Death, Death's Apprentice, Wizards, and how everyone has to follow rules in some way. As a first look at Discworld it's enough to tantalize but not enough to really get to know the place. I was pretty happy with most of what was happening in the novel but it did feel a bit clunky in places, most of which had to do with romances feeling really stilted.

I hope to explore more Pratchett in the future, I hope I enjoy return visits to Discworld, and I agree with Gaiman - Mort is a good book to get your toes wet and see if the Pratchettverse is worth exploring.

     - Alli

You can buy Mort, which was published in 1987, by clicking on this sentence.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Action fun and fast cars

Okay so my sister dragged me out to see Baby Driver because I don't go to the movies as much as I should because, again, I'm really fuckin busy, but I enjoyed the shit out of the movie even though it has some odd problems (women being written sort of badly/strangely, not enough black folks in Atlanta, that sort of thing).

But it was a joy to watch, the car chase scenes are some of the best I've ever seen and I'm super glad I got so many of them. The music was fuckin' fantastic, it was really amazing to see people signing in a film, everything looked cool as hell, and the one dance-walk scene is maybe the best thing I've seen on a screen in like five years.

I'm happy I saw the movie, I love Edgar Wright, I want Edgar Wright to make more movies, I want Kevin Spacey to make more movies, I want Jamie Foxx to get more roles he can have fun with. This was fun to go see even if it was a little popcorny, but I still think there's a deeper thing there about how hard it is to get yourself out of a situation where you've built momentum - no matter how good your motivations are for getting into a rut or how good your motivation is for getting out of a rut sometimes you're just stuck in a rut and it sucks and it feels like everything is falling to pieces around you.

I like that the film studied that kind of inertia so subtly that it took me a month to realize that's what it was doing, because it was so well hidden under a catchy (maybe gimmicky) soundtrack and big bold bright fun visuals.

     - Alli

Whining and dying

Ohhhhhmygod this fucking year.

Okay. So I basically didn't read any books in June, I started reading Our American King but then got distracted and very, very fucking busy and that's kind of where I still am only I've finished reading a couple books but now I'm super behind on blogging about them and I haven't made a video rundown since fuggin APRIL.

Like the good news is I've started a Patreon and an Etsy store and have purchased a domain for my webcomic and have been working on submitting to anthologies and such.

The bad news is that I don't get as much time to read and I don't get as much time to write about what I've been reading so that's where I'm at with this blog.

I mean, it's not going to *stop* me or anything, I've just gotten really good at constantly functioning with some low-grade, background panic going on.

Anyway, David Lozell Martin's Our American King is depressing as fuck and I really have to stop accidentally stumbling into reading dystopias because in other years I love that shit but right now I just cannot hang with a story about a military takeover of the US after some unnamed catastrophe. TOO UPSETTING.

The book was generally fine, there were a couple things that were genuinely compelling and made me want to know more but like I'm just not super in the mood for rape and starvation and might=right at the moment. The latter half of the book has some things that it wants to say about the petit bourgeoisie and resource hoarding but I don't know that it said it all that well, or at least it doesn't seem all that well said when the US seems pretty amped to eat the rich at the moment.

(Like, they're talking about rich people in Arizona walling themselves away from the poor and sneering down at their suffering - I read this the same week that John McCain flew away from his hospital bed to vote to overturn the ACA. MAYBE SAVAGE MURDER OF EVERYONE INVOLVED DOESN'T SEEM THAT BAD TO ME BECAUSE OF MY PREEXISTING CONDITIONS BUT FUCK IDUNNO)

Anyway, if nothing else it's super weird to look at the grim perspective of only 9 years ago and say "welp, it didn't go that way but maybe it went worse."

Because it's hard to read a book about an exhausted population looking to a charasmatic liar to lead them away from democracy from the perspective of someone living in the time of 45.


David Lozell Martin's Our American King was written in 2008 and can be found wherever.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     - Alli

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

I should probably stop reading genres I hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     - Alli

The Lavin Murders by Angela M. Sanders.

Creepy Quickie

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

Let me back up.

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

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

Let me back up further.

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

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

This is, of course, hilarious.

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

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

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

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

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