Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Hugo Award's Struggle for Relevance: an ArmadilloCon 2015 panel

It's not too much overstatement that blood was expected to flow on "The Hugo Award's Struggle for Relevance", a.k.a. the Sad Puppies debacle, panel at the ArmadilloCon. But the discussion was instead polite and even funny at times. Here are the main points of the discussion. (Pretty much everything is paraphrased.)

The panelists were Lou Antonelli, Justin Landon, Michelle Muenzler (moderator), Marguerite Reed, and Jacob Weisman.

The discussion opened with moderator Michelle Muenzler asking who exactly the Hugo Awards represent. A lot of fandom claims they don't represent them.

On one hand, Hugo Awards are the only science-fiction and fantasy genre awards that the general public (at least the portion that reads those genres) has at least heard about. But upon closer look, Justin Landon said, only a very small part of the SF/F-reading population has heard of Hugos, cares about Hugos, or lets Hugo Awards influence what authors they read. At the end of the day, it only represents the Worldcon voters. Marguerite Reed agreed that people who vote on Hugos are a small percentage of SF/F readers. Jacob Weisman too agreed with everyone else that this award represents mainly, or only, the fans who bought memberships to Worldcon.

The Hugo Award's Struggle for Relevance: an ArmadilloCon 2015 panel: left to right: Michelle Muenzler, Jacob Weisman, Lou Antonelli, Marguerite Reed, Justin Landon.
Left to right: Michelle Muenzler, Jacob Weisman, Lou Antonelli, Marguerite Reed, Justin Landon. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

If that's really the case, why are we worried about what the future of Hugo Awards means for the future of the speculative fiction genre?

I could say that there was a brief argument as to whether the fans who bought WorldCon supporting memberships were "true fans". But in reality, none of the panelists were presumptuous enough to divide the fans into "true" and "false", so it was more like a meta-argument, a survey of popular arguments. For example, one could say that the "true fan" would be considered someone who buys Worldcon memberships and votes for Hugos year after year. But the panelists agreed that the definition of a fan can't be as restrictive as that. Marguerite Reed said that she didn't believe that everyone who bought supporting membership was a true fan, and that no doubt some people bought it for questionable reasons, such as to put Sad Puppy nominated authors on the Hugo ballot; but she is willing to welcome all those people into the science fiction community. She hopes that they will like it enough to stay. Jacob Weisman said that, on the contrary, it might bring such a deep divide that people will opt out, as happened to the Nebula Awards a few years ago.

Justin Landon had very harsh words to anyone who likes to divide fans (even the politically-motivated Hugo voters) into true geeks and not true geeks. He, too, has been accused at conventions of being a fake geek. "When we see someone to come into our community, how screwed up it is to say, you're not one of us, get out, just because you're a conservative?" he said.

The Hugo Award's Struggle for Relevance: an ArmadilloCon 2015 panel: left to right: Michelle Muenzler, Jacob Weisman, Lou Antonelli.
Left to right: Michelle Muenzler, Jacob Weisman, Lou Antonelli. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

All this discussion or meta-discussion about true vs. fake fans/geeks seemed a bit pointless to me. The notion of being a science fiction fan or geek is so subjective, it's not like there could ever be a test administered who is and isn't a true fan or geek.

Lou Antonelli, who was nominated for Hugos by the Sad Puppies, said that he regretted how it turned out, and that he didn't want the Hugo ballot to be full of authors nominated purely based on political agenda.

Lou Antonelli. Whenever you have a system with laws, you chug along until someone finds a loophole, and then you rectify it. So maybe this year we will introduce some provisions. I think people should have fewer nominations than there are places on the ballot, to assure that there won't be a slate. It is ridiculous when someone is nominated more than once in the same category. I hope some reforms will come out of it. I got nominations, but I'm not happy with the way it turned out.

Naturally, other panelists asked Lou why he is not happy with the way it turned out (especially since, according to Marguerite Reed, Lou in his blog called current science fiction "dystopian slipstream pornography", or something like that); and more importantly, why he didn't recuse himself from the Hugo ballot, like so many people had. He said that he stood on it as a matter of principle, to not give in to the abuse that people heaped on the nominated authors.

Lou Antonelli. I think Letters from Gardner was good enough for Hugo nomination, good enough to make it on the ballot otherwise. But I said, I didn't need two nominations. And then ... I refused to be bullied and insulted. So I stayed the course. The first short story was withdrawn by the nominee, Annie Bellet, because she couldn't take the heat. When she went down, I decided I wasn't going to let that happen to me.

Justin Landon pointed out that while some nominees indeed withdrew because of the bullying they got from "people we would identify as social justice warriors", other nominated writers withdrew themselves without being bullied.

Lou Antonelli. I would rather make a decision that turned out to be wrong, but not bow down just to be popular.
Justin Landon. I have a lot of empathy for people like Lou, who worked in science fiction for many years, and one year they get a chance to get nominated for a Hugo, and I can't imaging being in their position and having to say "no". I don't want to beat up Lou. I don't envy position you are in.
The Hugo Award's Struggle for Relevance: an ArmadilloCon 2015 panel: left to right: Lou Antonelli, Marguerite Reed, and Justin Landon with a glass house in front of him, ready for people to throw stones.
Left to right: Lou Antonelli, Marguerite Reed, and Justin Landon with a glass house in front of him, ready for people to throw stones. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

If, as everybody on the panel agreed, conventions and organizations can run their awards however they see fit, it begs a question, voiced by Marguerite Reed: Why didn't Sad Puppies have their own award? Justin Landon thinks it is because Sad Puppies are intent on destroying the Hugos. So then the question is, what are we going to do about it? Justin Landon thinks we should still vote. Not voting would be worse for Hugo Awards.

Justin Landon. If you want to vote No Award in some category, go ahead. But if you vote that way in all categories, you are making a statement. But statement-making is what Sad Puppies do. {I think he says, don't do it.} If you don't want to read sad puppies, don't read them. How many people before voting for Hugos, read everything on the ballot? (Nobody in the room raised their hands.) If we vote No Award in every category this year, what will it mean for Hugos next year?

But does it matter if Hugo Awards are destroyed or made irrelevant (which is likely to happen if many people vote for No Award)? Panelists and audience think it does.

Jacob Weisman. Science fiction and fantasy genres are more fragile than realized. More books are published but fewer numbers per title are being sold. Too much acrimony will shrink fandom because of the culture war.

A fan from the audience echoed that concern. "In the past, the science fiction community always healed itself, because there was a sense that it was important to maintain the community. This time, there are many who do not feel the preservation of the community is more important than getting their agenda met. This makes this a far more problematic and "dangerous" time in fandom."

The TL;DR version: the panelists would like you to go and vote for the Hugos no matter what. Find something you like, or at least are not opposed to, in as many categories as you can, and vote, and let the Hugo Awards continue.

Monday, August 03, 2015

ArmadilloCon 2015: What You Should Have Read in 2014-2015

A bunch of authors, editors, critics and booksellers discuss their science fiction, fantasy and horror picks of the year.

Some books got a nod from more than one panelist. This year those were Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven, Ken Liu Grace of Kings, Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora, and Neal Stephenson Seveneves.

Below are each panelist's recommended books, and his or her comments about why they are worth reading.

John DeNardo recommends

Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. If you don't read short fiction, here are 3 reasons why you should read this collection. 1. "The Regular" by Ken Liu. I made a mistake of starting it late at night. it pulls you in, and you can't wait to find out what happens next. The way he does it, alternating viewpoints. The way he reveals these plot twists. 2. Rachel Swirsky "Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)". A pinocchi'esque story about father and inventor whose daughter has cancer, so he transfers her memories into a lookalike automaton. It is heartbreaking, but not for a reason you think. It is very moody and emotional. 3. Nancy Kress "Yesterday's Kin", also sold as a short novel by Tachyon. A story of first contact -- a ship landed in New York, and has been there for several weeks, and nobody is able to make contact, because the ship is surrounded by a force field. A geneticist is called to make contact. She also has family issues. The aliens affect her family and relationships.

Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven. It is is a great character study of people. For our muggle friends, who don't like science fiction, this is a very accessible book -- it is something we could share with our friends mainstream readers. (Also recommended by Justin Landon.)

Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl & Bill Campbell.

Neal Stephenson Seveneves.

John DeNardo. One of the things I like about science fiction is worldbuidling, and Seveneves is stuffed with it. I even thought there was too much worldbuilding. I never thought I would say it about any SF. But you'll learn about orbital mechanics in a way that you'll never think you are learning about orbital mechanics.
Willie Siros. It is Stephenson's best work since Baroque Cycle. It is Moonfall done right. Bad stuff happens, and mankind doesn't step up to the plate well. It's not really apocalyptic, and it ends with a more hopeful ending than you would think halfway through the book. It is amazingly well-written, very tight, more accessible than his other books.

Andy Weir The Martian. It's all about problem-solving. John DeNardo could especially relate to it because he's an engineer by day, and engineering is all about solving problems. In "The Martian" you don't feel like you're getting a science lesson. And it is very positive, at least for someone who is stuck alone on Mars. The most the character would say is "I'm not feeling up to it today", so you know what he is going through, but it's not in your face.

Justin Landon recommends

Joe Abercrombie Half a King, Half the World and Half a War (forthcoming). Justin Landon is a sworn fanboi of Joe Abercrombie. 'Nuff said.

Bradley P. Beaulieu Twelve Kings in Sharakhai -- Middle Eastern-flavored world; protagonist is 18-year-old woman who is a gladiator and a smuggler.

Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It was self-published before it was published traditionally. It's like Firefly, but better. Cleverer, more charming, more real. It is social science fiction about a family living on a spaceship, and how they deal with relationships and xenophobia.

(Forthcoming) Kate Elliott Black Wolves, coming out this fall. It is phenomenal. The protagonist is 70-year-old beaten up woman, well past her prime, and has to figure out a way to protect her father's legacy, king's legacy, her grandson's legacy. Show me another fantasy that shows a capable old woman!

Robin Hobb Fool's Assassin

Rebecca Levene Smiler's Fair. Rebecca Levene used to be a Dr Who writer. It is Night Circus if G. R. R. Martin wrote it.

Sara Lotz The Three. The story is a thriller that may or may not be supernatural -- it is up to you. Four airplanes crash around the world simultaneously. Everybody dies. But on 3 of them, a young child survives. On the fourth there is apparently no such child, but there are rumors that a child might have survived. And so the rumors start that those children are the 4 horsemen of apocalypse. The book is written as a memoir of a woman reporter.

Alex Marshall A Crown for Cold Silver. Epic fantasy but without all the stuff that we hate about epic fantasy: progressive, not sexist, without all the baggage. Very aware of the tropes in the genre, and tries to do something unique.

Michelle Muenzler recommends

Darin Bradley Chimpanzee. In an economic downturn, a professor is in danger of having his education repossessed. So he tries to give it out for free, teaching people in public parks, so he could give it away before it's taken from him. But it's not legal, so he gets caught in a revolution.

Kameron Hurley The Mirror Empire -- great worldbuilding.

John Hornor Jacobs The Incorruptibles is set on an Earth a few dimensions way over there. It has one of the most frightening descriptions of Elves. They take the place of native Americans in this weird version of a western. Is it a terrifying and wonderful story. (Justin Landon added: "And it is not available for purchase in the US, except here in the dealers' room.")

Nicole Kornher-Stace Archivist Wasp is about a girl whose job is to kill ghosts, to make them stop bugging people. But instead she decides to help one of them. She gets pulled into a weird underground world, and learns the real reasons of apocalypse.

Mary Rickert Memory Garden is about old women who may or may not be witches.

Kazuki Sakuraba Red Girls -- three generations of a family, three very engrossing narratives. It spans the time from 1970s to the 2000s.

Willie Siros recommends

Ben Aaronovitch The Hanging Tree

Paolo Bacigalupi Water Knife. Published as a trilogy, but it is not. It has a discussion of the future water wars that are coming to the US as the drought continues. An asssassin arranges for water to go from one place to another, regardless of what the people who think it's their water, think. Texas is such a wasteland that refugees who are trying to get in to Colorado and Oregon, are dismissed as Perry's ramblers.

Author Michelle Muenzler gave out cookies to everyone as a way to combat the midday crash. Next to her, fan guest John DeNardo looks on.
Author Michelle Muenzler gave out cookies to everyone as a way to combat the midday crash. Next to her, fan guest John DeNardo looks on. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2015 (37) are in my photo gallery.

James S. A. Corey Nemesis Games

(Forthcoming) Julie Czerneda This Gulf of Time and Stars. In this book, Czerneda returns to her main species universe, which was the setting of the books she wrote many years ago.

William Gibson The Peripheral. Willie said that after thinking that Gibson's best work was in the past, he was very pleasantly surprised by The Peripheral.

Peter F. Hamilton The Abyss Beyond Dreams

Robin Hobb Fool's Quest

Stina Leicht Cold Iron

Jack McDevitt Coming Home and Thunderbird (forthcoming)

(Forthcoming) David Mitchell Slade House - a much looked-forward-to novel from the author of Cloud Atlas

Michael Moorcock The Whispering Swarm

Alastair Reynolds Poseidon's Wake is part of Alistair Reynolds series that began with Blue Remembered Earth. It is set in near future and examines how society deals with space travel in various ways. A family is raising elephants to intelligence, and by the end of the third novel it seems like elephants will have surprises for us. It is somewhere between popcorn fiction and serious fiction (the same applies to James S. A. Corey Nemesis Games too).

Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora. It asks: if man in 2000 years only managed to keep things made of stone, that could last 2000 years, how are we going to keep a generation ship going? It is really well done and fabulous. Justin Landon adds: "Aurora is tols form a perspective of a developmentally-challenged person, and Kim Stanley Robinson does a very good job of putting us in this person's head."

Several forthcoming books:

John Scalzi The End of All Things

Charles Stross The Annihilation Score

Michael Swanwick Chasing the Phoenix

Robert Charles Wilson The Affinities

Gene Wolfe A Borrowed Man

Skyler White recommends

Max Barry Lexicon has system of magic that's based on language. If you're a word person, or a magic person, it is so delicious.

Elizabeth Bear Karen Memory. Steampunk-inflected western with a very interesting protagonist. It's set in a bordello. It is Elizabeth Bear's strongest novel yet. It is as conceptually interesting as her other stuff, and also has interesting relationships between people.

Karen Joy Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

(To tell the truth, the panelists were not completely clear if they were talking about this book -- which came out more than a year ago, so technically it does not qualify for this year's What You Should Have Read -- or about We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. No one could remember the exact title and author of the book they were thinking of. Then a brief argument broke out whether in Karen Joy Fowler's book there was mention of aliens arriving to Earth's orbit: some of us in the audience who have read it swore up and down that there were no aliens, but one of the panelists claimed that there were maybe a total of 5 lines in the book mentioning the aliens. This made it further confusing which panelists had which book in mind. -- E.)

Max Gladstone Three Parts Dead -- magic is legal-based. There is nothing boring about legal contracts.

Ann Leckie Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy (forthcoming)

Ken Liu Grace of Kings. Incredibly bold, incredibly global, has amazing ability to introduce you to a huge cast of characters, and they are each unique. According to several panelists -- Skyler White, Justin Landon, and Willie Siros -- it has an incredibly unique storytelling structure, a non-traditional, non-western narrative. If you read traditional Chinese novels, it fits into that structure. And if you haven't, it feels completely unique.

Christopher Priest The Adjacent. There is some kind of hop between times, that we don't really understand, but it has powerful applications. It's not hard SF, it is a character study of people who are wrapped up in this event. It is the impending feeling, that things will be terrible, but you don't know why.

Jeff VanderMeer Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy also has creeping dread. It is set in a postapocalyptic future of the American South. This book explores not just conceivable ways in which everything can go terribly wrong, but also impact on survivors, and the ruthlessness of the quarantine. Willingness to sacrifice a few for the good of the many.

Jo Walton The Just City. Jo Walton writes dialogue for Socrates. Just City is a utopian city created by the goddess Athene. They buy enslaved 10-year-olds, who will be become the citizens of that city.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Discussion of software apprenticeships at All Girl Hack Night

At the March meeting of All Girl Hack Night, a startup founder Diana Griffin and two women developers -- Tricia and Autumn -- talked about software development apprenticeships they did at Diana's startup, GirlsGuild.

A startup's decision to take apprentices

GirlsGuild is a startup that matches women makers (they didn't want to call them "masters", as that might sound too intimidating) with apprentices who want to learn a skill or a craft: leatherworking, chocolate making, graphic design, or many more. So it is only natural that its founders wondered how the notion of apprenticeship would extend to software development. In the software world it is also known as eating your own dog food. Having only recently learned programming, GirlsGuild founders Diana and Cheyenne built GirlsGuild web app themselves, with the help of more experienced Ruby on Rails developers. So they also wanted to give back and teach other women what they knew of programming.

Thus they announced apprenticeship positions. They view them as different from internship. They expected that apprentices were completely new to programming, and that they might not know much at all.

In Tricia's case, it turned out to be true. She went into apprenticeship to gain experience she couldn't gain otherwise.

Reasons to become an apprentice

A beginner developer who wants to get a job in the industry must demonstrate some kind of credentials or programming ability to potential employers; if you don't have computer science education, that can be tricky. It is a chicken-and-egg problem, getting experience without already having experience. That's where unpaid work, such as an internship, can give a foot in the door to a beginner programmer.

And that's why when Tricia heard about an apprenticeship opportunity with GirlsGuild, she applied. It helped that she knew Autumn, who was already working there as an apprentice. Up until that point, she had taken some Java courses at the Austin Community College, but had no programming experience in the industry. Without it, or a degree in computer science, she didn't see how she could ever get a job as a software developer.

At first she worried that GirlsGuild won't accept her, but she was determined to come back again and again, and become impossible to get rid of.

Left to right: Tricia, Diana Griffin, and Autumn
Left to right: Tricia, Diana Griffin (cofounder of GirlsGuild), and Autumn at the All Girl Hack Night discussion of software apprenticeships. More pictures from All Girl Hack Night events are in my photo gallery.

Autumn admitted that she worried about that too, even though she is an experienced software engineer, and her reasons for going through an apprenticeship were different. She was working in a well-established organization with a large team of developers; as typical for a large institution, it had complex processes and procedures in place for everything, such as testing, doing code reviews, and deploying to production. Autumn, however, wanted to experience working in a startup, where processes are minimal, red tape almost nonexistent, developers have very close interaction with business owners, and large influence in the product.

Neither of them needed to worry about not being admitted to an apprenticeship, because GirlsGuild was happy for every helping hand they could get.

Structure of an apprenticeship

GirlsGuild founders Cheyenne and Diana got together with Tricia and Autumn for 3-4 hours a week. At first they walked them through the code, examining various use cases, a la "When a user clicks this button, here is what code gets executed in the background". They gave Tricia and Autumn full freedom of bugs and issues to work on. They were happy to have anyone to work on them, even beginners. (I didn't ask if they were ever concerned that a beginner would inadvertently make the product worse, e.g. by fixing a bug's symptoms rather than the underlying cause, and making it more difficult to fix the cause afterwards.)

Meetings with Diana and Cheyenne was just a small part of the time both apprentices invested in their work. The meetings took only 3-4 hours a week, but Tricia and Autumn spent much more time than that studying the code on their own. To every meeting they came prepared to implement what they learned. And after a while they didn't need constant hand-holding from Diana. They would work independently and only come to her if they got stuck.

Making it easier for a startup to foster apprentices

It helped that ever since its beginning, GirlsGuild kept a detailed list of code issues in Github. It also helped that they didn't have any other deadlines to meet except self-imposed ones; there weren't any investors breathing down their neck to implement features faster. GirlsGuild, as I understood, is funded entirely by the owners, both of who have full-time jobs outside of GirlsGuild. This gives them a lot of freedom to implement features at their own pace.

Another thing that helped was that their users were so forgiving. There weren't too many users to begin with, and they didn't tend to get upset by errors. Plus, error messages were quite funny, said Tricia, so that went a long way to give the users enjoyable experience even when the application didn't work right. They had a simple, direct process of fixing user-reported bugs: the user would call them, and they would get on fixing the bug right away.

Comparing apprenticeships to other ways of gaining programming experience

The audience wanted to know how apprenticeships compared with other ways to learn programming. Was it a better or worse way than, say, taking self-paced courses at Codecademy? College courses? What about intense development bootcamps, such as MakerSquare?

According to Tricia, who had previously taken some programming courses at Austin Community College, an apprenticeship teaches you very different skills than an academic course. Most programming classes, in her view, might teach you concepts of programming, but not how to write an application from scratch. What's more, they won't teach you other crucial aspects of being a software engineer, such as how to collaborate with other engineers, or use tools (e.g. Github) effectively. So, for a taste of real-life software engineering, apprenticeships are invaluable.

It so happened that towards the end of her apprenticeship, Tricia entered the full-time Makersquare development bootcamp, and Autumn took Makersquare part time courses in the middle of her apprenticeship. So they could not really compare the experience they gained from it to the experience gained from the apprenticeship, but they both thought they would have been much more valuable to GirlsGuild if they had come to it after Makersquare. Diana assured that they were very useful anyway, and that if they had come to GirlsGuild after MakerSquare, they would have been leading the apprenticeships!

Tricia says most prospective employers valued her apprenticeship almost as much as an experience at a paid job, because it showed that she could take a project, persevere, and complete it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book review: Helene Wecker, "The Golem And The Jinni"

This was one enjoyable urban fantasy book. It was different from other novels I've read in this genre, though admittedly I haven't read that many, because I got disappointed with the genre soon. There is no Mary Sue heroine here that every werewolf falls in love with; this one has truly interesting, unique characters, rather than the usual assortment of werevolves and vampires.

The title character, a golem, was made by a European Jewish wizard for a man who wanted a custom-made wife; the man took her on a trip to the US, but died along the way. She disembarked in New York not knowing a single soul there, but was befriended by a kind, old rabbi, who quickly guessed who she is. Luckily he is the only human she ever encounters who can see that she is made of clay. Outwardly she is indistinguishable from a human woman.

The jinni, on the other hand, escaped from an ancient flask, accidentally opened by a metalworker in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York. He was trapped in a human form by a sorcerer many centuries ago in a Bedouin desert. While the Golem, who is made of Earth, is an excellent baker, the Jinni, who embodies the fire element, is talented at metalworking. They make their lives in the new country, their paths eventually cross, and they find an unlikely (or maybe likely?) friend in one another, as the only other supernatural creature each has ever met. They are the only ones who can understand what it's like to live in a human shape with all its restrictions, and to have to pass for a human every day. This involves not letting anyone catch on that you don't eat, sleep, breathe, or have a heartbeat.

As much as they try to blend into the society, they naturally create messes in their wake, simply because they are not human beings, and some things they do have unexpected consequences to humans. The Golem cares about it much more than Jinni does, who, at least at first, doesn't give a thought to the broken human lives he leaves in his wake (mostly women, for the handsome Jinni is like catnip for them). The Golem is the opposite: since she was created to serve, she can't help but sense the humans' needs, and feels irresistible urge to help them. The Golem's concern for others rubs off on the Jinni, who, after spending time with her, starts viewing his carefree actions in a different light.

But both of them are bound to the powerful forces who made them what they were, and the past comes looking for them. When that happens, ancient wizardry starts to play out in 19th century New York. To avoid spoilers, some tensions get resolved, and some don't, but it seems that the stage gets set for a sequel.

This book alternates between exotic/mystical and cozily mundane settings: the Golem works at a bakery, and the book has a good number of delightful scenes involving challah, strudel, fresh-baked bread, and so on. They are interspersed with scenes of Middle-Eastern and cabalistic magic. The threads of present and past are woven together beautifully, and suspense arises on two levels -- past and present; while the reader suspects that they must be related, you can't easily predict how it will all come together.

Secondary and tertiary characters truly come to life. Each of them is distinct. The characters that seem at first spoiled or airheaded, turn out to have depth. Sometimes the book teeters too far into the realm of "characters who didn't believe in the existence of paranormal suddenly become believers", but there is only a little of that. The scenes set in the ancient Bedouin desert centuries or millennia ago don't seem as strong as the scenes set in the 19th century New York; I'm not sure why, but maybe because they rely too much on clicheed Middle-Eastern setting, whereas the New York setting is detailed and authentic? Then again, this book is based on Middle-Eastern fairytale tropes, so that would be hard to avoid.

In any case, the result is quite original.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book review: Karen Joy Fowler "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"

This was one of the most enjoyable books I read recently. This is definitely character-driven fiction, and not just primary, but secondary and tertiary characters too were developed with unparalleled depth and nuance.

The plot revolves around a young woman named Rosemary, who is trying to figure out what happened to her "sister", a chimpanzee named Fern. In their early childhood Rosemary and Fern (who were born just months apart) were raised as siblings; Rosemary's parents treated the chimpanzee as their own child, encouraging her to do everything Rosemary did. Then, when Rosemary was five years old, Fern suddenly disappeared from the household, and Rosemary never fully recovered from the loss of her sister.

On one hand, it wasn't hard to figure out the mystery of what happened to Fern; it was clear that Rosemary's parents gave Fern away because they just couldn't keep a chimpanzee at home anymore as Fern grew bigger and stronger. Historically, cases of raising a chimp as a human never ended well, because humans were never able to control the chimp's aggressive tendencies; this novel leaves no illusions that this attempt could have been anything else but doomed, and the adult Rosemary understand it very well.

However, there is a twist at the end that makes it particularly ironic -- but by the time it is delivered, we readers are quite skeptical whether we should believe it. That's what makes this book so captivating. As Rosemary tries to piece her past into a coherent narrative, it becomes increasingly clear that none of the characters' versions of events can ever be trusted. Rosemary herself doesn't trust her memory, believing that many of her vividly remembered childhood episodes never could have happened. But we also find out that throughout Rosemary's childhood her parents and older brother Lowell manipulated her, feeding her various lies, fictions, and non-answers to avoid accept responsibility for their actions. So later in the book, when Lowell delivers a key "revelation" to the now-adult Rosemary, there is no reason to think that he isn't manipulating her even then.

This book reveals, in an understated way (because Rosemary is never bitter or angry towards her family) how even highly functional, seemingly caring parents can be subtly cruel towards their children. They raised Fern among humans, knowing that she won't be able to live with them indefinitely, yet making it very hard for her to adapt to a life among chimpanzees. It was just as bad that Rosemary's father, a psychologist, treated not just Fern but Rosemary too as an experiment. While she and Fern were together, they were both studied by graduate students in her father's lab. Everything Rosemary said was interesting to them, but only because she was part of the human-chimp speech acquisition experiment. With Fern was gone, nothing Rosemary said interested them anymore, and her endless chatter became a nuisance.

What I liked best about this book was endless observations about the nature and unreliability of memory, about theory of mind, about animal rights, and the way those meditations were wrapped into suspenseful plot arc.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Build Something Awesome… but what?

"Build Something Awesome with OpenStack and the Open Cloud" hackathon could have lived up to its name, if only someone knew what kindof awesome things one could build with OpenStack. Or could explain it to developers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Maddy (left), our unofficial team lead and Python expert, and Anna
Maddy (left), our unofficial team lead and Python expert, and Anna. More pictures from the 2013 OpenStack Hackathon are in my photo gallery.

The September 14th, 2013 OpenStack hackathon was the first hackathon I ever attended. It was organized and sponsored by Rackspace, creator of the OpenStack project. I didn't know much about it, so I assumed that it was just yet another API that lets you build applications. The hackathon event page did not hint at what kinds of applications you could build with it. So I was surprised when it turned out that for the kind of application my team wanted to build, OpenStack kind of… got in the way.

The hackathon started with a 2-hour presentation by Rackspace’s developer advocate. He guided us through a tutorial on how to create a DevStack server on Rackspace. DevStack, by the way, he said, is not the same as OpenStack, but the distinction was lost on me. This was by far not the most subtle point that was lost on me.

Left to right: Paige, Jess, Maddy (our unofficial team lead and Python expert), and Christine
Left to right: Paige, Jess, Maddy (our unofficial team lead and Python expert), and Christine. More pictures from the 2013 OpenStack Hackathon are in my photo gallery.

After the presentation our team of five, all female developers, rolled up our sleeves to start building the application proposed by one of our members. I investigated the server created during the walkthrough, looking for the directory where Apache keeps HTML files and web scripts. That's where I thought I would place a web application (at the beginning, just a Python script) that we were writing. I saw there was an index.html in the /var/www directory, but its contents were not the one that were displayed when you pointed your browser to this server's root URL. So I went to the presenter and asked why that was. He said, better don't try to use Apache on that devstack server; it's configured in a special way, and if you want to run an ordinary Apache web server, you'd be fighting it all the way. You should create a basic Linux server on Rackspace, not a Devstack server, and install Apache on it. I tried asking him what could we do with this Devstack server, if not write web applications. He said it was mostly for learning. Learning OpenStack. Well, that still didn't answer my question what I could do with OpenStack, but oh well, maybe I should have found out beforehand? It's not like it was any secret that this hackathon was for building things with OpenStack: it was in the name of the hackathon. But I wasn't the only person who went there with assumptions that I could build web applications with it.

Other lessons from this hackathon were more interesting, and came from my attempt to find out what can be accomplished during a hackathon. More about it in the next blog post.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ted Chiang speech on lifelogging

Lifelogging is an emerging trend of recording every, or nearly every moment of your life. A simple example of lifelogging would be wearing a video recorder that records continuous video and audio of everything you see and do. Ted Chiang used this example to speculate about how lifelogging would change our society. He made carefully balanced points both for external-recording-as-memory, and against. In the end, I think, he is for it. Here are the highlights of his speech.

Even as we might think that a video of our life would never be used as a memory substitute but only as aid, it won't be so. We have been outsourcing our memory for millennia in every way we could. Ancient Greek philosophers complained that writing has corrupted people by weakening their memories; no one could recite thousands and thousands of lines of Iliad or Odyssey anymore. Since then, outsourcing of memory has only picked up pace. We don't remember phone numbers, because we rely on having them stored in our phones; we are less inclined to commit facts to memory, because we can always Google them. So if we have a continuous video of our life, we will come to rely on it instead of our internal memory; it will become, in fact, our memory.

But our memory is not a documentary; it is a web of narratives that get edited every time we remember something. Recalling past events adds layer after layer to our memories, and also distorts them. Most of our memories contain a version of events that pleases us, or lets us see our lives as having a narrative arch. Maybe it lets us to hold on to a thought that our life is getting better in one way or another -- for example, that our love for our spouse grows deeper over time; and that can be useful, because without this illusion we might not have the strength to go on. For example, in a certain study the female participants said they shared as many interests and spent as much time with their husbands as 10 years ago; but the researchers, who had asked the same question of these same women 10 years ago, noted that it wasn't true: the number of shared interests and the amount of closeness had declined.

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

As we edit our memories, we are also eliminating those memories that are inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. Ted Chiang gave two examples of famous science fiction writers who had been on the giving or receiving end of it. One of them had misremembered the year of his father's death by 2 years, until fact checkers found an old obituary for his father in the newspapers, and pointed out the inconsistency. The writer provided a hypothesis for that: since his father died just a few months before he started college, and the freshman year of college was a very exciting time for him, his memory simply refused to put those two events in one year. The emotional "tone" of those events was much too dissimilar for them to have happened just months apart.

The other writer in Ted Chiang's example found out, as an adult, that his mother didn't remember beating him with a rope as a child. She denied ever doing that. Again, the way this could be explained is that back in the early 20th century (the time of this writer's childhood) it was acceptable to beat children, but a few decades later it was far less so. So his mother, thinking of herself as a good mother, unconsciously edited out of her memory the episodes of beating her child.

But if we edit out our memories in which we have hurt others, then we are not doing justice to those people; we are denying them their experiences. Similarly, the ruling elite of a nation might be denying the acknowledgement of suffering to the groups in the nation that they had oppressed. The notion of justice -- both interpersonal and on world scale -- requires that we remember our wrongdoings. This was Ted Chiang's conclusion, and this is why he thinks, after all, that lifelogging would be a step in the right direction.

Questions and discussion with the audience

Audience member 1. Forgetting can be very helpful in getting over a trauma; especially forgetting violent events. If we can't forget anything, if our video is there, we might be tempted to go back to those traumatic moments and never make progress in healing.

Ted Chiang responded that these days researchers are working on medicines that help us selectively forget, allowing one to heal from PTSD. (This doesn't quite address the question that selective forgetting won't do you much good if you'll be tempted to go back and revisit the record of violent events. -- E.)

Audience member 2. A certain amount of forgetting goes a very long way in maintaining good relationships with your relatives. When you meet and talk with them only a few times a year, it helps if you had forgotten things they did that made you very angry, or hurt you.

Ted Chiang responded that it would be even better if that person remembered how they wronged you, and be motivated not to do it again.

Audience member 3. What if having a video of all moments of our life would prompt us to live our life as if we are creating a story? When I was in college I deliberately went and did things, had experiences, to have something to write home about. Friday afternoon would come and I would think, oh, I haven't done "anything" this week yet (out of the ordinary) -- I should go be interesting for a couple of hours now!

Ted Chiang responded that this wouldn't be the same as how people these curate their Facebook profiles, posting only those activities that form an image they like. If we don't have to worry about anyone seeing our video, we won't be motivated to appear a good person on the tape.

That last statement hinged on a pretty big assumption, which Ted Chiang stated upfront at the beginning of his talk: that privacy and security issues had been solved, and we don't have to worry about our life record being viewed by the eyes it wasn't intended for. I think Ted Chiang made this assumption only to keep the scope of discussion manageable, not because he thought it would be easy. Still, it was near impossible to discuss lifelogging-as-memory without getting tangled in the issues of privacy, as is evident from the audience's questions.

Audience member 4. What happens when a hacker hacks into the record of your memories? Surely it will happen, because any and every technology that has ever existed has been hacked into.

Ted Chiang. Even if hackers modify your own memories, that wouldn't be the end of the world for you, because any kind of public event would be recorded by at least some other people. So you could compare your memories with theirs, and restore the truth. (This doesn't address the cases when the event is private and nobody else has a record of it; or what if a hacker makes your most private moments public? Or what if you don't even know your memories were tampered with, and thus have no reason to compare them with others' memories? -- E.)

Audience member 5. If everything you do is recorded in the continuous video of your life, then any movie you've seen will also be in it. So who will own that part of the video -- you or the movie studio? If you want to rewatch a movie, would you need to pay to get access to your own memories? If you don't pay, is it piracy?

Ted Chiang pointed out that movie studios are already dealing with similar issues even today, because you can download a movie from the torrents as soon as it comes out on the screen. This won't be that different.

Other audience members asked more questions without good answers. For example, 5th amendment. Police can confiscate your computer records, video records, or any kind of records if they are needed in an investigation of a crime; but if the recording is literally considered to be your memory, they might not have a right to confiscate it, as that would be the same as forcing you to speak. How would the laws, or constitution need to be rewritten in such a case?