sexta-feira, abril 24, 2015

Meta-SF: "Wolves" by Simon Ings

Published January, 2014

“The last time we tried to have sex, Mandy wore her hands.”

I am late to the party: “Wolves” was published more than a year ago. I very much enjoy books on a personal level: when I set out to write a positive review like the one you’re about to read, what I’m really doing is trying to express that feeling in objective terms using my own Close Reading lens. In other words, I try to translate fruition into appreciation, not always successful, I know.

What have we got here? Despite all the literary trappings, SF no doubt about it. No cultural and geographical references on the horizon. I’ve seen this attempted and it’s no mean feat.  When successful what do we get? SF of a superior kind, and that so elusive and difficult magical atmosphere.

“Her face, glassed and reconfigured, trembles over a forked mouthful of celeriac salad, and for a second the illusion – that her face might simply slide off the bone – acquires a ghastly realism. It is all I can do not to reach out to hold it in place.”

What makes a text SF? I’ve been writing about this in a lot of my essays. Looking at the quote above taken from Ing’s novel, what can I say about it? Are we reading something from a SFional context, or is the author trying just to use a metaphor for something still absent and elusive? I'll dare state here my own definition of SF: "SF is everything meaning the weird shit, weird in the sense of the world depicted in the text: imparting a feeling of dissociation, oddness, otherworldliness, fatedness, feyness. Any character, object or place that behaves with a sense of Otherness and Estrangement and somewhat inexplicably has the element of SF". Coming back to the abovementioned quoted example, can we identify the element that imparts a SF sense? What happens in our brains when a phrase like “her face might simply slide off the bone” turns up? A woman’s slides off her bone, and the SF reader reads it and goes “OMG! A woman’s turning into a cyborg!” whereas the mainstream reader may happily read such a story but will be upset if the ending is not something on the order of “and her husband woke up and it was all a dream” or “and then the husband put down his joint and everything came into focus and her face was nothing of the sort”. Something along those lines.

Everything in Ing’s narratives is riddled with meta-text. It’s up to us, the reader, to retrieve/construct the semiotic. Most of it will escape the definitions of the words in his fiction, but what remains is a kind of superior SF. The one we should all be thinking about when talking about it. This is SF. The rest is only Incidental SF:

“We shall have folk-singers, and we shall kill them with rocks and cook thin strips of their flesh over fires conjured from their smashed guitars.”

“I lived among tongues. Among women’s unfettered tongues, singing, crying, tasting, and supping. Tongues loosed in the mouth, free to probe and explore the soft mouthy interiors of the self, to sense and express.”

“You sink and you sink and you sink and one day you look in the mirror and there are creases around your eyes that weren’t there last year and you’ve done nothing, absolutely fuck-all that adds up to anything.”

“Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity isn’t a lack at all. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy. It has hold of her now and it is not going to let her go.”

“The thing is, falling in love is about falling in love with a [SFional] world.”

“Technology is, in the end, just another species of pornography.”

This is a very fine (not perfect) example of SF. Don’t go into it expecting just Otherness. Go into it expecting to be doubtful of what happens at the end. Expect nothing whatsoever and you’ll be rewarded. This novel is the kind of SF that I would recommend to someone who likes to state that SF cannot be “literary”. As I’ve stated in several of my late reviews concerning the state of present-day SF, to find a novel that blends my childhood fervour of SF with my adult yearnings (the juxtaposition of SF with “Literary” Fiction) it’s very rewarding. It shows there’s still hope for SF…

NB: As the readers of my reviews have probably noticed I don’t do synopsis. I review to share a purely visceral reaction to stuff I’ve read (and sometimes seen – theatre plays, etc) and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask myself after applying Close Reading techniques to something I’ve just experienced. For book synopses look elsewhere.

NB2: This novel has just been shortlisted for the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award, along with “The Race” by Nina Allan, “Echopraxia” by Peter Watts, and “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North (aka Catherine Webb).  The winner will be announced in May. They won’t have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near the Hugos, but wishful thinking never harmed anyone…

SF = Speculative Fiction

Appreneurship: "Everything You Need to Make a Killer App" by Kerry Butters, John Waldron, Matt Whetton

Published March, 2015

If you start having the following symptoms that means you're coming down with a case of Appreneurship: You can’t stop thinking about it as you fall asleep at night; your mind comes back to it when you know you should be concentrating on your day-job; you get distracted watching Blade Runner on TV.

As soon as the idea to create an app pops up in your mind, there's no letting go until you build it. If you haven't got any idea how to get started, this book is for you:

Planning an App
Business Plan
Working out the costs
Outsourcing Development
Building the App (essential tools to go about the business of creating Apps)
In-App Advertising and monetization
Supporting and Updating the App
Resources available on the Internet (e.g., AppTrace, etc)

It covers all the App markets available (Apple AppStore, Google Play Store, Blackberry, Amazon AppStore, and Windows Store). As everything worth doing in life, it pays off to be prepared...

The most important titbit of the book showed up regarding the use Eclipse when developing for the Google Play Store: “Many people say that it’s easy to code for iOS than it is for Android purely because Google’s IDE is [ ] embarrassingly bad. Slow, clunky, counterintuitive when not outright baffling, poorly laid out, needlessly complex, it’s just a mess”. My thoughts exactly. Maybe Android Studio will be a turnaround. I’m not sure. I haven’t used it yet.

As someone who has done some research regarding App Building, I’ve come across a lot of the so-called Sites where it’s advertised that we can put an App out in the market in just a few minutes without having to use any kind of coding skills… a few examples: iBuildApp, Appypie, AppsBuilder, etc. Forget about them if one wants to produce nice-looking Apps. Quoting Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch), don’t expect free tools to do the work for you. Anything that takes away my ability to create custom code is unlikely to be a good thing. I already knew this, but the book’s authors emphasized this fact in very strong terms. In the age of “everything-goes”, it’s always very refreshing when someone advocates the fact that hard word always pays off in the long run. If you’re in the business of wanting to make money as an App Builder, taking shortcuts is not the answer. Moreover when using this free App Builders available on the internet, don’t expect to be able to provide the App with a robust Security layer. For me this fact alone is enough to put me off using these free tools.

The only thing missing in this book is a template for producing a working and salable Business Plan to allow you to pitch the idea to potential investors. If you intend to develop the App on your spare time, this template might be waived. Even then I’d advise you to use some sort of Simple Business Plan, to allow you to jot down what you need and the costs of your Development Process.

segunda-feira, abril 20, 2015

Translating at the Limits of Translatability or My Personal Journey with Celan: “Não Sabemos mesmo O Que Importa”/”Wir wissen ja nicht, was gilt”/”We Don’t Really Know What Matters” by Paul Celan, Gilda Lopes Encarnação (translator)

Published 2014

One day I got to my class and after 10 minutes without other classmates arriving, my teacher Winfried Scheulen and I agreed to talk about anything worth our fancy. Being Poetry one of my long-term interests, I asked him who his favourite poet in the German Language was. I was expecting something along the lines of Rilke, Hölderlin, Hesse, but what came out of his mouth was Paul Celan. My journey of discovery regarding Celan started that day. The next day I went out and started canvassing all the bookstores in Lisbon trying to find something with Celan written on the cover, which I did: two wonderful bilingual collections (German vs Portuguese) by one of our most distinguished Professors of German Studies: João Barrento. It was through these collections (“Sete Rosas Mais Tarde”/”Seven Roses Later” with Yvette Centeno and “A Morte É Uma Flor”/”Death is a Flower”) that Celan became instantiated in me: 

Later on I got to read many more stuff in German concerning Celan, but I’ve always been keen on understanding on what it means to translate, especially when we are talking about someone as untranslatable as Celan, and this two collections were where it all started for me.

Celan is for me synonym with Hermetism. One might say this is not a “problem” with Celan but with all Poetry in general. Celan (like Rilke and Hölderlin did before him), transformed (or were transformed by) the German Language to fit their need to explain their Weltanschauung through poetry.

To talk about Celan is to talk about “Atemwende” -, a title very difficult to translate into Portuguese; there were several attempts: “Mudança de Ar”, “Sopro, Viragem” (Barrento’s choice), “Mudança de Respiração”, “Viragem na Respiração” (Gilda Encarnação’s choice) -, which in the beginning eluded me in its difficulty at translatability. This fixation was so great that I ended up translating the all thing using, at the time, my very awful command of the German Language (and with a lot of help from several dictionaries). Incidentally this work is still up in the attic; in an Horatian mode, it’s still waiting for its maturation to see the light of day… It was only when I made the attempt at producing my own version at translating Celan’s poetry (at that time)  that I truly suffered the impact of the task. This grappling with Celan’s poetry resulted in a very impetuous, and uncontrolled approach which was the only way to deal with something that shook me to my inner core. To deal with it I had to migrate the original to my own mother-tongue. Gilda Encarnação’s version made me come back to it:

Du darfst mich getrost
mit Schnee bewirten:
sooft ich Schulter an Schulter
mit dem Maubeerbaum schritt durch den Sommer,
schrie sein jüngstes
Podes, consolado,
servir-me neve:
sempre que, ombro a ombro
com a amoreira, percorria o Verão,

a sua folha mais recente me
(my version)

Encarnação’s version:

Du darfst mich getrost
mit Schnee bewirten:
sooft ich Schulter an Schulter
mit dem Maubeerbaum schritt durch den Sommer,
schrie sein jüngstes
Podes sem receio
Acolher-me com neve:
Sempre que ombro com ombro
Atravessava o Verão com a amoreira,

Gritava a sua mais tenra

Comparing the two versions, my own attempt does not strike too discordant a note.

Now, on to the issues I had with Encarnação’s translation (just a few examples):

1 - "laß es wandern” = “deixa-o errar“ (page 61). “wandern” in its strictest sense means “to go for a walk” (andar, caminhar in Portuguese); upon reading Encarnação’s translation of this verse I was to lead to believe that we were talking about “making mistakes” (“errar” in Portuguese). There’s nothing in the verse that might put us on that particular instantiation of the original;

2 - “Wär ich wie du” = “Fora eu como tu” (“Were I like you”) (page 65). It’s erroneous to say the least.  I’d have used “Se eu fosse como tu” (“If I were you”);

3 - “Bei Wortschein” = “ao luar do verbo” (page 131). I’d have translated this as “à Luz da Palavra” using a very common theological expression, be it Portuguese or, for that matter, English (“at the word’s light”);

4 – “Von Ungeträumtem geätzt, wirft das schlaflos durchwanderte Brotland den Lebensberg auf.= “Pelo insonhado corroída, a terra do pão insonemente percorrida atira o monte da vida ao ar” (page 141). Celan “wants” to express the inability to put into words some sort of violent experience that might be beyond what may be dreamed. To rightly interpret (and translate) this verse one would have to understand the keyword “Lebensberg” (a “gathering of experience” and not “a pile of life”/”um monte de vida” in Encarnação’s version). Using this as a clue I’d have translated “Von Ungeträumtem geätzt” as “corrompido pelo não-sonhado“/“corroded by the undreamed”). This way it sounds like I’m now reading Portuguese and not some kind of Ersatz-Portugiese;

5 - “Ausgeschlüfte Chitin sonnen.  Die Panzerlurche nehmen die blauen Gebetmäntel um, die sand-hörige Möwe heisst es gut, das lauernde Brandkraut geht in sich” = Sóis de quitina brotados do ovo. Os batráqueos blindados põem os paramentos azuis pelos ombros, a gaivota submissa à areia aplaude-o, a vigilante erva-fogo entra em si” (page 231). I’d have used the expression “recém-chocado”/”newly-hatched”. “Brotado do ovo” sounds weird in Portuguese.
My take on this particular stanza:

“Sóis de quitina recém-chocados. Os anfíbios blindados envolvem-se em paramentos azuis, a gaivota dependente da areia responde na afirmativa, a furtiva folha-fogo rumina.”
(“Chitin suns newly-hatched. Armoured amphibians wrap themselves up in blue liturgical vestments, the sun-dependent gull calls out in the affirmative, the furtive fire-leaf stops and thinks”). 

A common expression in German “in sich gekehrt” should have been the clue for this part of the poem…

I could have given a few more examples, but you get the gist. When translating Celan one shouldn’t go for the rhyme. Celan is not a rhyme type of poet. Celan inhabits another space-time continuum…Celan’s poetry needs a translator-poet which I’m not. I think In Portuguese only Vasco Graça Moura who translated Rilke, Gottfried Benn, Walter Benjamin, H. M. Enzensberger, etc. would have been able to render Celan’s German into Portuguese. Alas, he’s no longer among us to enlighten us as to the “details” of Celan’s poetry. We still have Barrento’s renderings into Portuguese, so all is not lost…

Bottom-line: 3 stars for Gilda Lopes Encarnação’s translation, and 4 stars for the afterword “À luz da U-topia”/”In the light of U-topia”/Im Licht der U-topie”, which gives us 3.5 stars. Not bad for an attempt on Celan’s poetry.

sábado, abril 18, 2015

Buying a Pig in a Poke: "Now You're a Publisher" by INscribe Digital

Now You're a Publisher: A Guide to Self-Publishing (INscribe Digital INsights Book 1) - INscribe Digital

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC - Uncorrected Manuscript Proof) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

Published 2014

It's merely an advertisement.

There is nothing wrong with using a book as a marketing tool, but that should be obvious from the get-go, i.e., when I first read the description, I assumed this was a “How to Publish Your Book” title and not a book supporting a marketing campaign from a publishing house. The book blurb doesn't make it clear that this is really a sampler, promotional booklet for INscribe.

At 30 pages I’m not even sure what kind of help it could provide even for potential INScribe clients. Maybe it only makes sense if one hires their services?

Two stars for the mention of NetGalley, which I’ve been for about a year now, but even that felt short of my expectations, i.e., there’s no suggestion on how to use the book portal. For that, less one star…

Original post:

Reynolds in Character-Driven Mode: "Slow Bullets" by Alastair Reynolds

Slow Bullets - Alastair Reynolds

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC - Uncorrected Manuscript Proof) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

(The book is due to be published on June, 2015; review written on 18/04/2015).

Fiction is fashioned from the stuff of people's lives, and yet the characters in SF are seldom full-fledged people. Most of time they become stand-ins for a creed, an attitude, or a way of life. This is the crux of the matter when it comes to good SF. It lies at the forefront on why SF has so often been dismissed as sub-literary. Why is that so? Traditional fiction is mainly concerned with character. It reveals character by putting emphasis in its development, its critical moments of awareness, its recognition of self. It reveals character through its duality on life and processes. Mundane fiction's purpose on the other hand is for us to marvel at the complexity of human nature. What about the characters in SF? Is it necessary for a SF story to have rounded characters? I'm not sure. Rounded, full-fledged characters might well detract from the story being told. In mainstream fiction a rounded character is its raison d'etre. In a SF story, the situation is far from our ordinary experience.

Verisimilitude is not what's at stake here but rather, as in the theatre, the suspension of disbelief. SF must provide reasons for the suspension of disbelief (unlike Fantasy), because the fantastic must be rationalized. At a very basic level, I don't read SF to become better acquainted with real people; the Estrangement, and the Otherness are what draws me into SF (I've written at length about the capacity of SF to make us "believe" in strange worlds – vide my review of Jo Walton's book). And this leads us to Reynolds fictionalized worlds.

This is the first time I'm reviewing one of his works.

"Slow Bullets" seems to me a departure from his usual tackle on SF. Less Stapledonian in scope and landscape, but trying to be more character-driven. Due to the form chosen (novella), this approach was not entirely successful. In today's SF market we are used to be spoon fed with hundreds of pages of narrative, character development, prose and a sense of aggrandizement. With this story, Reynolds chose a middle ground between the economy of the short story and the enjoyment of rounding out characters and plot over huge chunks of text. Without room to explore possible ramifications, and the other characters (e.g., Prad) it suffers from the need to rush through events without properly explaining them. When I say "explaining", I'm really talking about the need to "show-not-tell" more story.

We can feel the story wanting to burst from the constraints imposed on it by the novella-form. The bigger the better? Not necessarily. But is this particular instantiation, I think the Story would have been better served by using the longer form. Despite all these shortcomings, this is probably Reynold's best work to date.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

Original post:

quinta-feira, abril 16, 2015

They Do Things Differently There: "All the Old Knives" by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives - Olen Steinhauer

Published March 10th 2015.

(A taste of my Le Carré and Deighton personal libraries)

“One part of my history is gone. That gaggle of friends has disappeared. This collection of embarrassing memories can no longer be discovered by someone going through my stuff. [ ] It was always about the future. What’s that they say about the past?” That it’s another country?”

As a reader I would say, of course, people are essentially the same, doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the past, the present of the future. But is that really true? I think they did things differently, they just weren't different. Hartley's point in his novel “The Go-Between” was that the response to an affair between a wealthy woman and working man was different, but the feelings were the same, which is why they had the affair in the first place. Along the way, in the honoured spy fiction tradition this quote came to have a quintessential meaning.

When I was very young, 14, 15, I used to troll the old bookshops in my city, Lisbon, looking for something to read in English, not an easy task at the time. It was in one of those excursions I discovered this huge trove of old Reader's Digest condensed editions in one of those bookshops (I forget the name, but it was located in Chiado, one of the most colourful boroughs in Lisbon). By the look and smell of them, they had been there a long time, and I took them home hungrily, opening them up to smell that deep scent only untouched old books have, the smell of knowledge, wisdom, and of course, adventure. I still have a few of them in my bookshelf, carefully preserved. What did I get? Absolute pearls: Le Carré, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Graham Green, John Buchan, etc. I got hooked on Spy Fiction at the age of 15 years old. What can Spy Fiction give me that no other form of Literature can? There’s the romance of the times when ideas and ideologies used to mean something, when people fought for things they believed in, tricking each other and themselves in the process.

 “I talk in riddles because that’s what I deal with every day”, states Henry Pelham somewhere in the novel. Quite right. They do things differently because the onion is huge. That’s one of the main reasons why I kept thinking about “Beim häuten der Zwiebel” by Günther Grass while reading Steinhauser’s novel); we need to peel the onions to get to the bottom of things, or at least attempt to rediscover and interrogate our earlier selves. Grass, being the ultimate master on reflections on recollection and memory (e.g. “Die Blechtrommel”), expressed these feelings beautifully: “Die Erinnerung liebt das Versteckspiel der Kinder. Sie verkriecht sich. Zum Schönreden neigt sie und aschmückt gerne, oft ohne Not. Sie wiederspricht dem Gedächtnis, das sich pedantisch gibt und zänkisch rechthaben will.” (My own rough translation: Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way).

In the end, Steinhauer’s novel (what a wonderful name for a writer of Spy Fiction), succeeds in what it wants to do because of the fact that it is an incredibly human story. Memory, intelligence, deception, love, hate, belief, faith - all these are powerful human feelings & emotions. Steinhauer was able to write something that makes us confront our own emotions with a nakedness that would be almost brutal if not so beautifully done.

Le Carré is still the master, but this novel proves there’s hope for the modern Spy Fiction milieu. In today’s landscape, Charles Cumming and Steinhauer are the front-runners.

Original post:

sexta-feira, abril 10, 2015

Neurofiction: “Hannu Rajanimi – Collected Fiction” by Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction - Hannu Rajaniemi

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC - Uncorrected Manuscript Proof) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.
(The book is due to be published on May 12, 2015; review written 10/04/2015)

Contents (in bold typeface):

Deus Ex Homine

The Server and the Dragon: “These days, the nerd rapture is like the flu: you can catch it. The godplague is a volition-bonding, recursively self-improving and self-replicating program.” Narrative taking place in the span of millennia and feeling like a dream-quest. My favourite story.

Tyche and the Ants

The Haunting of Apollo A7LB: “The moon suit came back to Hazel the same night Pete was buried at sea.”

His Master's Voice: “Before the concert, we steal the master’s head.”

Elegy for a Young Elk: “No point in being a poet: they had already written all the poems in the world, up there, in the sky. They probably had poetry gardens. Or places where you could become words. But that was not the point. [ ] Bright words from dark matter, that’s what poetry was about. When it worked.”

The Jugaad Cathedral: “They did something right when they made her, up there. [ ] She lives in many worlds at once, thinks in qubits. And this is the world where she wants to be. With me.”

Fisher of Men: “The summerhouse was his, his alone. He hadn’t built it, of course, but the vision was his. He had built a 3D version of it out in Second Life.”

Invisible Planets: “In the lives of darkships, as in the journeys of any ambassador, there always comes a time that is filled with doubt. As the dark matter neutralinos annihilate each other in its hungry Chown drive heart and push it ever closer to the speed of light, the darkship wonders if it truly carries a cargo worthy of the Network and the Controller.” À la Italo Calvino, Rajaniemi follows the concept of a dialogue between two entities, but in his story the characters are spaceship with embedded AI. Their dialogue is centered around inhabitants of various planets, leading to a reflection on society. This is another fine example of providing backstory without infodumping (there’s a passing mention of a much known and central theorem in the field of Quantum Physics, though it isn’t called by its own name in the story; can you name it? Hint: it has to do with Teleportation…).

Topsight: “The night before Kuovi was supposed to fly home, the four of them went to bring back Bibi’s soul.”

Ghost Dogs

The Viper Blanket

The Oldest Game

Shibuya no Love: “They were eating takaoyaki by the statue of Hachiko the dog when Norie told her to buy a quantum lovegety. [  ] A what? , she managed to ask. [ ] You don’t have them in Finland? How do you meet boys there? Oh, I forgot, you have the sauna!”

Paris, in Love

Satan's Typist: “Tap tap tap tap tap, said the typewriter.”

Skywalker of Earth: “Twelve hours before the rain of ships. I am four years old and
wearing my best dress. The last man on the moon is on TV. He moves in slow, deliberate bounds and leaps next to a long-legged spidery craft wrapped in tin foil.”

Snow White Is Dead, where Rajaniemi explores the concept of Neurofiction in fiction in general and in SF in particular: “[ ] we just wanted to look at what happens in a reader’s brain when they read SF. For example, it turns out that the experience of insight has a very distinct brain wave signal, and I was curious to see if we could deliberately evoke it in a reader.” (Appropriate Scala source code in here for us to play with).

Another wonderful excerpt from the “Snow White is Dead”: “I am everything you could ever want. I am everything that you can’t buy, you who sit there in your white coat, with your slicked-back hair and Biarritz tan and expensive watch and a faint smell of pine in your aftershave. I am life. I am innocence. I am fragile. I am sweet. I am the thing you made, from chemicals and electric dreams.”

Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories, where Rajaniemi explores the concept and praxis of Microfiction: “Writing microfiction is the ultimate challenge to a writer’s craft. It requires cutting away everything unnecessary, leaving only a sharp, singular image that the reader can grow into a story on their own.” A wonderful example of this so-called microfiction extracted from this segment: “Parallel world: It’s a Wonderful. Life never gets made. Christmas becomes the suicide season. It rains wingless angels.”For me this epitomizes what Rajaniemi’s fiction is all about. He aims at pruning his writing of everything superfluous, giving the reader (almost) total freedom to make up his or her own story.

I've read some of Rajaniemi's short fiction (he's popped up in Gardner Dozois' yearly collection on a couple of occasions in the past few years), but reading him in one go is something entirely different.

Rajaniemi’s fiction supports my firm belief that SF is at its best when it uncompromisingly tosses the reader into unfamiliar vocabulary and settings, then slowly giving out clues to understand it. At times, the barrage of intense vocabulary begins to sound like Celan’s poetry (vide several of examples above).

When reading Rajaniemi we’re in another “country”.  His fictiopn is everything but traditional, e.g., genre-clichéd. What we’ve got here are complexly stories where even minor details are significant (in a Rajaniemi story one can expect lots of details). Don’t expect infodumps à lá Neal Stephenson, i.e., Rajaniemi rarely breaks stride to explain his science or world (or words come to that). That is actually one of his great strengths. Rajaniemi might introduce a concept such as “quantum lovegety” (a quantum Tinder App with much more explicit undertones) but allow the rationale to disentangle through the actions and dialogue of the characters. Rajaniemi may use a term like “quantum lovegety” over and over again but not explain it clearly until much later in the story (and sometimes never).

It is a pretty good way to build a story that adds another strata of mystery to something already mysterious, and thus preventing infodumping so common to SF. Some people will hate as a matter of course. Why? Probably because they get confused (as I am sometimes). SF and Rajaniemi’s fiction in particular impart a sense of glamour, otherness, and estrangement. Don’t expect a Rajaniemi story to include a glossary of terms.

Technically I’m always on the look-out for writers able to (ably) write in a language other than their own. Rajaniemi is one of those writers.  His English is literate, and insightful. Drawing a parallel with myself, I’m bilingual, but I’m unable to write fiction (and Reviews, for that matter) in Portuguese. I consider myself to be an outgoing guy English-language-wise. Portuguese-wise I’m more introverted…

Due to the fact that it’s a potpourri collection of fiction, some unevenness in the quality of some of the stories is to be expected. Nevertheless the best stories are up there with the best. This collection did not push all of my buttons, but rather pushed all the right ones.
When reading Rajaniemi you’re on your own. Have a nice voyage.

NB: My own attempt at writing microfiction (go easy on me…):
Jagged pieces of light stream throughout the computer store front window, creeping under the doorways. They had to dodge the impact. Of light that sparks up when there’s too much avoidance. It caroms off the shelves, past the sidewalk, and landing right on a purple tiled floor. It disappears at last. Darkly with a mind that is now made up. It oozes into the color like the purple of poppy ripping. Congruous. Pieced together until it fits perfectly.
(Based on the ideas and prose by Hannu Rajaniemi. I'm sure he'd agree that it makes you think about what comes next in the story).

SF = Speculative Fiction
Original post:

quarta-feira, abril 08, 2015

Humpty Dumpty: "The Code Book - The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography" by Simon Singh

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography - Simon Singh
Published 1999.

“[ ] One-way functions are sometimes called Humpty Dumpty functions. Modular arithmetic, sometimes called clock arithmetic in schools, is an area of mathematics that is rich in one-way functions. In modular arithmetic, mathematicians consider a finite group of numbers arranged in a loop [ ].”

The two greatest hazards of the internet are pornography and security. I have no idea how this is so, or how these myths have become so dominant in our collective consciousness. In fact is that quality pornography is available from the bookshops (so I’ve been told…), and the internet is fundamentally more secure than the world it’s replacing. There’s only one catch: one should not be stupid!

Many Internet services are in it just for the money, i.e., they sell data they collect about us customers and users. This applies both to information I post intentionally and also to the hidden parts of my information footprint. Even paid apps and services often collect data about me; it’s not a question of paying more money; even if you pay more there’s no guarantee that service in question isn’t also profiting indirectly by selling my data. Most of the time what happens is even worse: the data is sold to other 3rd-party services that aggregate data from many primary sources, making it even more valuable. My information may be innocuous or just annoying, for example, which online ads I usually see, but in the worst-case scenario, digital information can be used against me. Data from cell phones, email accounts, computer hard drives, and other sources can be used by others (sigh). The history of Cryptography has always been a struggle between the code makers, and the code breakers, with sometimes one and sometimes the other having the ascendancy. In today’s society, I think the code breakers are getting the upper hand…

This shows the importance of data/information privacy in today’s information society.
Singh’s book had a dual objective as far as I can discern: (1) to document the evolution of Cryptography, (2) to show that this study area is as relevant for today as ever (many of us working in IT firmly believe that the Encryption Standard Stack – DES was weakened in order to allow government agencies to access 3rd party information).

Singh’s puts forth some very relevant questions about Information Security. The crux of the matter now is not so much about the battle between Code Breaking vs Code Making, but it’s now more about the need for heightened security and the protection of individual freedoms.

Where would we be without PKI? eCommerce as we know it today would be unthinkable. Every time we want to buy a book using online services the "padlock" symbol appears on our browser, meaning we’re about to conduct an encrypted transaction. This is PKI in action. It works by having a public key, and my own private key. They belong to one another mathematically, but by being mathematically linked doesn’t mean that’s possible to get one from the other (at least we don’t know how it can be done...).

Singh’s book has a very different flavour to the usual science books on the subject. It’s much more mathematically-oriented than I was expecting, but that’s a good thing due its nature. Without the so-called math the book wouldn’t have been as good and insightful. Had Singh had incurred in the fatal sin of dumbing down the book’s tone, I’d have thrown it across the room.

For me one of the major points of the book, at the end of the day, was to know a little bit more about Marian Rejewski’s, the first mathematician to decrypt the Enigma Code. He was able to deduce the wiring of the 3 rotor Enigma while Turing, later on, invented the bombe, a much more advanced machine that would resist some of the changes in procedure (e.g., not sending the message settings twice in the beginning of message and cyphered with day settings). I’d always thought Rejewski had worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, but Singh’s book disavowed me of that notion. I still haven’t seen “The Imitation Game”, i.e., I don’t know how Rejewski is portrayed in the movie. Without Rejewski it is doubtful Turing would have been able to develop his version of his Enigma Cracking approach in the same terms.

Even though it's sadly a bit out of date, all in all this book represents a major addition to my Computer Science Reading Library.

NB: Just For the 3 pages of appendix J, it’s worth the read. I’d never seen the RSA encryption/decryption algorithm explained this way, i.e., by using a very down-to-earth approach. Everyone can follow the explanation. Only high-school math needed.

Just for the fun of it, I’ve implemented two of the algorithms referenced (for the Android OS):

App repository.
Original post:

domingo, abril 05, 2015

Day-job: "IT's Hidden Face - Everything you always wanted to know about Information Technology. A look behind the scenes by" Claude Roeltgen

IT's hidden face: Everything you always wanted to know about Information Technology. A look behind the scenes - Claude Roeltgen, Jean-Claude Juncker, Andreas Resch, Mike O'Dell
Published 2006 (German Edition: “Eine Million oder ein Jahr: Hinter den Kulissen der IT - ein Insider berichtet”)

Published 2009 (English version; the one I’ve read and commented on)

“Plug it in, switch it on, and then it has to work!”

With this ominous statement Jean-Claude Juncker opens his foreword. This quote give us the proper perspective of our run-of-the-mill PC user. If they only knew what happens behind the scenes…

Roeltgen tackled the usual IT conundrum: how can we state the so-called IT “problem” without being facile? He was able to do it in a very thorough manner, stating the case for the most urgent and important problems we are still facing today.

I’ve been working on IT since leaving college 22 years ago. My professional career has been in several IT areas: teaching, programming, networking, digital commutation systems, System Administration, ITIL, SOX, Cobit, Auditing, Project Management, Service Management, etc. I’ve experienced first-hand everything Roeltgen talks about in his book. I quite agree with him that from an Application Development point-of-view the so-called interfaces between applications are our worst nightmare…Our lives IT-wise would be much simpler if the software producers were to agree on a common platform to communicate between applications. SOA may be the answer to prayers, but the Nirvana isn’t here yet. In German computer interfaces have a very interesting name: “Schnittstellen”, which roughly means “cut surfaces”. It reminds me of a sticking-plaster… It’s strange that a word to describe something so fundamental in IT has such a colourful name. It reveals that we are barely able to satisfy the user’s wish for more flexibility and compatibility.

What this books addresses is the proverbial question that everyone who has ever worked in IT had to ask one time or another: “Why is it possible to buy easily even the most complex and sophisticated products on the market, but one has to then to initiate with the IT in every case multi-million, year long, and most of all, risky projects? To make it short: “Why is everything so complicated in IT?”

Roeltgen tries to push the missing dialogue between users and the IT Crowd. He compares the purchase of a new computer system or the installation of new software with the exposure of species in an unknown system landscape, i.e., problems arise from the incompatibility of different systems. This applies most of all to enterprise strategies, the processing of data and its security, the system administration, the management and the control. IT is a field where programmers, users, Service Managers, and Project Managers get their wires crossed. Roeltgen take on the theme is not new. What is new is the way he goes about it. He analyzes, and gives improvement suggestions. Thank God he does not blame the user for the ubiquitous problems when we use computers. Instead he rightly lays all the blame upon the market.

The perception that IT resembles a jungle is quite apt. Whoever has already tried (and sometimes) failed to integrate new components or to remove them understands that what Roeltgen reports here is the absolute truth.

I didn’t find here solutions to my professional tasks. What I got from the book was a journey and an ironic view on systems and their dependencies.

Whether you work in IT or not, this book explains in a fun and very entertaining form what it means to work in IT. In brief and easy-to-read chapters everyone can get an understanding for the diverse areas in IT, like disaster recovery planning, IT security, IT compliance, projects, etc.

Every PC user should read it, in order to understand that there’s a deep chasm between them and IT experts. The PC users don’t have the faintest idea on how IT really works, and how the experts work. Why is IT so expensive? Why it does take so long to bring a new IT project to an end? These questions are on everybody’s mind who has to deal with IT on a daily basis, but who knows IT only from the outside.

Being this a translation from the German edition, I found the English very stilted. An example:

What in fact are you doing the whole day long?”

I’d say “What in fact are you doing all day long?”, but maybe it’s just me.

Not only it's obviously suffering from translation issues, but also editing-wise it has a few typos and incoherencies.

NB: Maybe I’ll have to dig up the German version, read it, and see if it still holds water…
Original post:

sexta-feira, abril 03, 2015

Writing from the Gray Zone: "Academic Exercises" by K. J. Parker

Academic Exercises - K.J. Parker
Published 2014.

“A man will betray his honour, his country and his friend, but the bond between two people who share a common devotion to hardcore porn is unbreakable.”
(From the story “Purple and Black”)

This anthology shows that a true storyteller succeeds no matter what the length of the story is. Each of the works of fiction is a Lehrstunde of the art of the narrative.
What have we got here? Just some of the most fantastic pieces of fiction written in 2014 (at the moment I’m flogging myself. Without any rocks to hit myself in the head with, I plan to run headlong into the nearest wall... for not having read this collection in 2014):

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong”
“A Rich, Full Week”
“Amor Vincit Omnia”
“On Sieges”
“Let Maps to Others”
“A Room with a View”
“Cutting Edge Technology”
“Purple & Black”
“Rich Men’s Skins”
“The Sun and I”
“One Little Room an Everywhere”
“Blue & Gold”

K. J. Parker, as I stated previously (cf. review here), is one of my top authors.
Why? Read on.

I will never fence, build a forge from scratch or be involved in a massive siege, but learning about these things through such well-written fiction is a fascinating experience.

Why aren’t Parker’s books boring when they are so full of details? We believe in Parker’s world because of those details. Without them we’d have nothing (compare Parker’s work with Robert Jordan’s; the latter is also full of nitty-gritty details, but the books are so damn boring. Why? Because we don’t believe). That’s always the problem with half-baked-made-up worlds: internal believability does not work. We need to believe even when the details are clearly over the top. If the story uses a siege to a city I must believe in the mechanics of the all thing.

Another wonderful thing that draws me into Parker’s Weltanschauung is her ability to write SF that doesn't read like fantasy but reads more like “historical” fiction. There wasn't much fantasy elements in these stories besides the fact that the author created the world and there was very little action in it. Even the so-called “magic elements” don’t really feel like magic (from the story “A Room with a View”):

“There’s no such thing, they tell you on your first day in school, as magic. Instead, there’s natural philosophy, science; logical, probable facts and predictable, repeatable reactions and effects. What the ignorant and uninformed call magic is simply the area of natural philosophy where we’ve recorded and codified a certain number of causes and effects, abut as yet can’t wholly explain how or why they work.”

On top of that Parker uses other techniques that are atypical fantasy-wise, but are much more common in historical fiction and some of which may in fact be more common in mundane fiction. I’m not sure whether Parker’s style is more historical-fiction and literary-fiction-oriented or not. I’m also not altogether sure whether her readers come from the mainstream side of things or come from “the other/dark side”. What I do know is that when I’m reading Parker it doesn’t feel like I’m reading genre fiction:

“He said that of all the evils in the world, of which there were rather too many for his liking, the greatest evil of all was love; it’s sheer spitefulness to allow mortals to love, because everybody dies, but the love they cause to be in others doesn’t die with them. Therefore love is the cause of the greatest sorrow, therefore love is the greatest evil.
(From the story “Purple and Black”)

Maybe all she wants is to convince us there’s more to it than meets the eye, reading-wise (from the story “Illuminated”):

“After all; a book is practically an act of violence. At least, it’s an attempt, wrong word, it’s a bid, weak word, a book is you the writer trying to impose, bad word, superimpose yourself (your vision of things, your experience, your narrative, your word view) onto someone else, the reader.[] Great books change you. Am I just a blank sheet for some dead man to write on?”

Maybe that’s the definition of a great book, i.e., to be able to change you, as Parker’s work does. And Parker’s work really do change me. I know it’s a tall order, but that’s how I feel when I finish reading one of her works.

This collection is dark and gritty, just the way I like it.  Even characters that start off likable transform themselves into unlikability, but that sometimes makes an over-simplification of some of Parker’s characters. Here lies the fact that some of Parker's work isn’t always absolutely perfect and I can always find a few flaws, but, nonetheless, they are just so much more interesting and so much more simply different than almost anything else that is out there.

Now we arrive at Parker's incomparable wit. Parker is probably the only author capable at combining wry humor and plot, cutting observations and character. Parker is also downright funny. Often hilariously so, but without toning down her stories for brief chuckles, and her sorties into the most caustic sarcasm reinforce rather than dampen her work’s mood.

Does not help that most of the things I write about here belong to the clunking essays category. I am sure they will be fun great clonking essays when I can get to them. But sometimes a book like this comes along, and the Hochgefühl for writing book reviews resurfaces. I’m glad it did. It's not that I'm not writing; I am writing; this last week was literally the most productive writing week I've ever had. It's that none of that goes here reviewing-wise...
Original post:

quinta-feira, abril 02, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira, 1908-2015

                                       Manoel de Oliveira, 1908-2015
Manoel de Oliveira, 1908-2015

"After the dust, Immortal"

Padre António Vieira
(one of Oliveira's literary references)
Original post: