Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Missing pieces

Funfact: If you ask me to buy you a comic book for Christmas I will read it before I give it to you. I don't make the rules, that's just how these things work, and I am aware that this is kind of a dick move.

I also sort of don't care that it's kind of a dick move because it gets me to read comics that I otherwise wouldn't and that can be tremendously edifying.

I don't know why my sister decided she wanted Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven, but I must say it's a good choice. The Princess Bride - that's probably why she wants it: she's super into the book and the movie and recently read Cary Elwe's memoir so I'm sure that's a contributing factor.

As a comic it's a pretty decent offering. The art is compelling and dream-like, presenting you with images that communicate their subjects well but are always a bit off - whether it's glowing eyes or exaggerated features the characters don't fit into the real world, just the larger-than-life story of Andre the Giant's life. As a story it's a bit simple. The character of Andre narrates the man's life and does so in clear language that is touching and a bit predictable. There's real human tragedy and a great deal of success but I feel like it's lacking something important. There's a depth and emotion missing from the whole thing that I felt throughout.

Robin Rou____'s letter at the beginning of the graphic novel has this quintessence that's missing elsewhere. Her pain is real and her love and distance from her father is well communicated. I can't tell what she's got that the rest of the book doesn't - if it's honesty or bitterness or mourning - but I do feel like something's missing.

I probably never would have read this book on my own, and I'll probably never read it again, but it's a great offering for artists looking for inspiration and a decent choice as a book to read through at the library or comic shop.

     - Alli

Easton, Brandon and Denis Medri. Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven. Lion Forge Comics.
     San Diego: California. 2015

Nonbinary representation before that was a thing


I think all of the years I spent not reading Ursula K. Le Guin can be attributed to the melodrama of the first few pages of The Left Hand of Darkness. Now that I've gotten over myself and just read the damn thing I'm probably going to spend a few years kicking myself for not getting into her work earlier.

Le Guin's writing has made my life better in a significant way even outside of the fact that she writes good books. Her exploration of gender at the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness is aggressively feminist for the time that the novel was written and even today could be seen as shocking with the realizations that a human who views sex and gender as a binary encounters in a nonbinary species.

I'm hella 1000% here for this shit.

Ai's difficulty in his relationships with the Gethenians is a beautiful exploration of the male gaze and how it colors literally everything in the world as Le Guin depicts it. Ai has trouble accepting nonbinary pronouns and presentations, he forces descriptions of behaviors as belonging to one human gender or another, unconsciously assigning positive traits to masculinity and negative traits to femininity. Ursula K. Le Guin went in with guns blazing and stripped the logic away from gendered assumptions and gave not one single fuck about making her work more palatable or less challenging.

And it's amazing - it's also amazing how far we've come since 1969 and how stuck we seem to be in some ways. Right now we have a whole vocabulary for gender fluidity and nonbinary spectra that simply didn't when Le Guin was writing TLHoD; but right now we still have issues of people seeing certain kinds of work or chores or colors or clothing as right for only one gender or another, completely ignoring that there might be something in-between.

Anyway, I loved the shit out of the book and it made me cry. A+, 10/10, would read again.

     - Alli

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books. New York: New York. 2010. (1969).

Stupid mistakes with smart books

Reading a post-apocalyptic novel during the 2016 presidential election was probably not the greatest plan I've ever had. It stalled my reading in a pretty major way because it's hard to use a nightmarish corporatocracy as a means of escapism when you're attempting to escape a nightmarish corporatocracy.

It also might have been useful to know that The Year of the Flood is the second book of a trilogy before I started reading it, but I have a history of making that kind of mistake and try not to let it bother me.

What IS bothering me is that this is only the second novel I've read by Margaret Atwood. That is bad and wrong and something I will have to fix because, GOD DAMN, this woman can write.

The Year of the Flood is about a bunch of misfits who create an eco-based religion surviving the months and years before and after a bioengineered virus destroys most of the human race. It's scary and heady and is told through the eyes of incredibly well-constructed characters who are deeply satisfying in their richness and perspective.

The craft of this novel kept knocking my feet out from under me. Atwood had to sculpt a religion and its scriptures from scratch to match the world around it. I know it sounds easy when both things go together but how well it's done makes it very clear that there was a lot of work and effort put into the creation of the Gardeners and their hymnal and that work pays off. It's all tremendously believable and is far more enticing than a fictional cult should be.

I really, really want to read the other two books in the MaddAddam Trilogy, so I'm going to cut myself off before I start speculating about the world of the novel. I haven't read it yet and I don't want to spoil it for myself.


Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 2009.

Translating media in an okay way

I read The Count of Monte Cristo last year and happened to catch the 2002 film adaptation on TV earlier this month. I'd seen the movie in theaters but I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen it since, though I remember liking it when it came out. Now I'm less sure how I feel about it.

The book is incredibly long - probably too long. It wants to do a lot of things in a really brilliant way but has to settle for doing a couple of things brilliantly and the rest of the things in kind of shitty way. The Carnival section is much too long, there's a tremendous amount of backstory on several characters who don't actually have much of an impact on the novel, and the length of the damn thing eventually makes its protagonist less sympathetic than he would be in a shorter story.

The 2002 adaptation solves a lot of these problems by dropping all but a few characters and cutting the story down to a manageable size (and almost completely ditches Carnival, which is a SIGNIFICANT improvement). But it also loses a lot of what is interesting about the novel from a historical fiction perspective, to the point that the shifting political sands that define the book become a single-scene plot point at the beginning of the movie and basically never get mentioned again. It's a tradeoff that I think makes sense from a cinematic perspective but that does make the whole less compelling - perhaps a miniseries or a TV show would be a better way to make The Count of Monte Cristo come alive on a screen than a feature-length film was.

There are a couple of changes that I think were really well done, especially in respect to the choices and agency of Mercedes. I'm never ever going to bitch that we get a soppy happy ending if that soppy happy ending replaces a master-slave/owner-lover/whatever gross relationship. The ending of the book is pretty fucked up and I think the movie did a really decent job of keeping the fucked-up revenge fantasy without completely alienating the audience from Edmond's character by having him sail off into the sunset with a brainwashed slave-girl.

The movie is a fine way to spend a couple of hours, the book is a fine way to spend a couple of weeks. One is not a brilliant reflection of the other, but it's a totally decent translation to a totally different medium.

The wayback machine

Computers are fuckin' wild, friends. The changes in computing from thirty years ago to now are mind-boggling. It makes the 60-year jump from flight to lunar landing seem glacially slow.

The Cuckoo's Egg is a book that makes you first marvel at how different computing was when the book was written and then gasp at the vast gulf between the attitudes of then and now. In 1989 Stoll was the kind of optimist that it seemed was needed to promote the growth and understanding of networked systems, but in 2016 he looks like a hopeless idealist. We're on an internet that is, essentially, Stoll's version of computer hell. There's no transparency, everything is password protected and a lot of communication is encrypted - whole security systems are set up to verify the authenticity of requests from jump to jump and server to server. Stoll operated in a world where anyone with a phone line could enter almost any server because very few servers had any means of preventing them from doing so.

I (kind of) work in IT and I (actually) spend a lot of time dealing with, discussing, and researching information security (InfoSec - which is a polite way of saying "hacking" and hack prevention). As a result of my time spent on IT and InfoSec Stoll's ancient systems are fascinating in how they are constructed on a basis of trust that has *never* existed in my adult lifetime. But it's also really interesting that, in spite of how untrusting we've become, we're still dealing with a lot of the same problems Stoll describe. People are still bad at changing default passwords, applying patches, and managing individual accounts. We're still infinitely socially engineerable and it's usually pretty easy to guess most people's account names and passwords based on the information available on their public facebook pages (or at least it's easy to re-set their accounts so that you can change their passwords).

But one thing that did suffer tremendously in the wake of the attacks described in The Cuckoo's Egg has been the slow, aching death of open-source software. It's not 100% gone and probably never will be - everyone has experienced open-source in the form of Wikipedia - but open-source operating systems make up a much smaller part of the landscape than they did in 1989.

The EMACS word processing program was an oft-unpatched open-source program that had a vulnerability and left a backdoor into systems it was installed on. Using an accidental opening like this to access a system is called an exploit and exploits are what has led to the languishing of open-source products. If anyone can add to the code of a program than anyone can drop in a backdoor or a virus; large software companies don't typically do this intentionally and attempt to prevent it from accidentally happening because they have a reputation to worry about. We can actually see this playing out in the world right now with attitudes toward Adobe Flash and debates about OSX and Windows; Flash is being phased out because it's too open to attack, OSX has gotten major criticism for concealing SSH vulnerabilities, and Microsoft is facing a lot of suspicion because it sometimes seems like Windows 10 was specifically made to be difficult to protect. When an exploitable vulnerability from a major publisher becomes known they rush to fill the hole to keep their customer base. When a vulnerability becomes clear in open source software users often question if the cure is going to be worse than the disease.

Most people who use open-source operating systems and programs these days are somewhat more savvy than people who are comfortable using a computer straight out of the box - I think this is because there's a sense of inevitability. Open-source users know that their configuration is a fleeting thing that's going to be lost to upgrades and reinstalls in three months to keep up with technology and security from known vulnerabilities. It's more overhead than casual users are comfortable worrying about.

But back to Stoll - his story is the reason that this is true. The Cuckoo's Egg tells the story of the first really well documented (and publicly known) ongoing hack. Now we hear about this kind of thing every other month, but Stoll had front-row seats to watch the way that humans were going to define the way that other humans interacted with networks. And it turns out that humans were going to have to be more isolated and circumspect than the idealistic Stoll had hoped.

The book is a good read from a historical perspective, and it's a genuinely interesting story, but it won't tell you a hell of a lot about the way technology works today. It brings up some good questions that we have yet to supply good answers for (most notably: how do you handle discovering an exploit - do you reveal it and risk copycats or keep it secret and hope more malicious actors don't stumble on it) and he makes a strong case for education and transparency.

There are some pretty awkward moments, though, as a result of when it was written. At one point Stoll, a Berkeley liberal in the late 80s, mimics a Chinese accent in a way that is painful to read. There's a mild undercurrent of benevolent sexism. It's not comfortable, but it does explain a lot about how and why internet culture came to be what it is (mainly that it basically got started by English-speaking white dudes who had no idea they were excluding women or people of color, and would have been offended if you suggested that they were doing so - surprise! everything is very much the same).

I liked The Cuckoo's Egg, I'll be hanging onto it and probably re-reading it a few times in the future. It's a great case study, if nothing else, and is written in an engaging and understandable way.

     - Alli

Stoll, Clifford. The Cuckoo's Egg. Doubleday Publishing. New York: New York. 1989.