Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Book review: "Looking for Jake" by China Mieville

It's been a few months since I read China Mieville's story collection "Looking for Jake". I thought I'd write this review without re-reading the stories. That way I'll write only about those aspects of the book that stuck in my mind, without being distracted by details.

Having found China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" fascinating, I must say I was a bit disappointed with his story collection "Looking For Jake". It still has Mieville's great writing, but the story plots left me wanting. Wanting for an original resolution -- or any kind of resolution, for that matter.

However, as I think back to what China Mieville said on some of last year's Readercon panels, I can see why resolutions in his stories are not forthcoming. I suspect that he considers a "satisfactory" ending to be a bourgeois thing. This must follow from the fact that Mieville dislikes the belief that lies at the core of most of the SF/F literature: a belief that a single person can change the world. Such thinking, according to Mieville, attributes much more power to an individual than any one person has in real life. By doing so, it downplays the power of adverse circumstances that many people (especially poor people) face in their lives. Worse, an illusion that a single person can change the world keeps people from organizing and attaining any real capacity to change the world.

(Personally, while I think it's a valid point, I don't think that world-changing individuals in fantasy serve only reactionary purposes. But this post isn't about my views, so I won't go into this.)

At least one of the stories in this book -- "The Go-Between" -- very clearly expresses resistance to the belief in a power of an individual. The protagonist of this story, an ordinary, insignificant person, is made to believe that he is playing a key part in some kind of shadowy, mysterious historical events. Perhaps it's not too much of a spoiler to say that it doesn't quite turn out that way. But the lack of a resolution in this story isn't disappointing; it is the whole point. This is perhaps the only story in the book that delivers what it promises, by way of not delivering.

This story is perhaps the only one I found truly satisfying -- probably because it is an excellent vehicle to convey the views Mieville expressed at the convention. Some of the other stories had much more original ideas, and thereby were more disappointing when those ideas didn't pan out as well as they could have.

But if a writer thinks that people need to organize to address their problems, this may put him or her in a quandary. You can hardly write short stories about organized masses. A short story allows you to have one, at most two, main characters. So, if one believes that showing those characters achieve their goals and solve their problems would be reactionary, then I'm afraid there's nothing left but to let your characters lose. Indeed, most characters in "Looking for Jake" lose or surrender. It wouldn't be bad in itself, since I'm not necessarily a fan of happy endings -- I accept a bad ending if that's the only possible outcome despite a character having put up a good fight. But the worst thing is, most protagonists of these stories don't put up any kind of fight. They are often passive observers of dark things that threaten their world.

That's sad, because many of these stories are based on interesting premises. But the passivity of the characters make the stories disappointing.

China Mieville at Readercon 2006
China Mieville at Readercon 2006, a science fiction convention in Boston

"Different Skies" is the clearest example of what I was talking about -- a story based on an interesting premise that goes nowhere. An old man's life starts to suck. Badly. An urgent need mounts to do something about it. Aaaaand?... Does he do anything? No, he mostly sits there and feels helpless.

"The Tain" is another example. It's built around a fascinating idea, that images of animate objects, such as people or animals, are sentient creatures inhabiting their own universe. It is "parallel" to ours, or coexisting with ours, but whenever someone in our universe looks at a reflective surface, one or more of those creatures in the "reflection universe" is forced to acquire the shape of the person or animal who is looking, and mimic their movements. This greatly deprives them of their freedom. They see it not just as a significant nuisance, but also as an offense, to be forced to imitate the lives of those who they deem unworthy of such imitation -- us. So, one day those creatures, the so-called imagos, break out of the reflection universe and attack the humans.

It's an amazing idea for a story, but it is executed poorly. Half the story focuses on a human protagonist who roams the city ravaged by war. The dread of the war is portrayed in much detail, and it wore me out before I even got to the fantasy part, the chapter about imagos and their philosophy. Then the protagonist sets his mind on confronting the leader of the imagos, but instead of achieving a resolution, the story starts to hover around the nuances of the protagonist's psyche, and kind of... hangs there. This story left me with a feeling I get when my computer freezes. At first its little lights are still blinking, and the hard drive is grinding, as if promising to come back to its senses any moment now, but every passing second brings closer a realisation that the computer has gone catatonic and won't recover short of reboot. Sadly, stories don't have reboot buttons.

It's too bad that a story with so much potential did not deliver. But then, as I've noticed myself, turning ideas with potential into great science fiction is much, much harder than it seems.

Another example of what I'm talking about is "The Ball Room". It is a fine story about ghosts and haunting, and is given an especially realistic feel by the fact that it is set in a certain very familiar furniture megastore. The store is never named, but various details make it easy to identify.

This store likes to project a super-wholesome image, so isn't it deliciously ironic that this image in the story gets tarnished by the death of a child (which is never spoken of, just implied. The above-mentioned ghost belongs to a child.) This corporation also proudly advertises the fact that it mass-produces its goods in enormous quantities, so I wouldn't be surprised if Mieville saw it as a symbol of global capitalism. Taking an jab at this megastore would then be akin to poking a needle at the voodoo doll of capitalism. I don't know, maybe that was the whole point of this story. Because otherwise it's a rather passive story. For a while, tension builds up nicely, and then... we are suddenly told that it's been resolved. We are not told how it happened, except that there was little bit of witchcraft involved. That's it. The protagonist isn't sure how it happened, because again he was just a passive observer of things -- he did not even attempt to solve the problem. It was rather disappointing. I was hoping for something clever to happen in the end, but... no.

"Jack" is hardly a story at all, in the sense that it doesn't have much of a plot. It's a set of anecdotes about a certain minor character, Jack Half-A-Prayer, from Perdido Street Station. If you were very fond of or intrigued by this one-hit-wonder from PSS (he appears in just one scene, but he saves the day... kind of like a little deus-ex-machina), you may love learning some of his background. Since I wasn't, I could hardly care less.

And now, let's speak of the stories I more or less liked, or at least thought their strong points outweigh their weak points. (By the way, this review covers only about half of the works in the collection -- the rest did not stick in my mind long enough to form an opinion about them.

The premise of the story "Details" is a distant relative of "The Tain". However, revealing it would in itself be a spoiler, because once you know the premise, you can pretty much predict how it ends -- in the most obvious way. But the idea in itself is pretty cool. Even though it lacks plot twists or "aha!" moments, this story is worth reading.

"Familiar" harkens back to "Perdido Street Station". Not because it's based in Bas-Lag universe -- it's not; not because it has the same characters -- it does not; but because it depicts clever, fascinating grossness, with which "Perdido Street Station" is brimming. A certain plot line from "Perdido Street Station" is re-explored in this story, but with twice as much detail, horror, and grossness. Unfortunately, like almost all the works in this collection, it ends unresolved. An odd little creature is accidentally let loose in the world, and bootstraps itself into an ingenious, twisted, and very alien menace. You really get the chills as you read about the process of its transformation and realize its potential. However, very little, if anything, is done by anybody to confront it.

"Report of Certain Events in London" is built around one of the most unusual fantasy ideas I've ever seen. The idea is very whimsical, offbeat... and a little chilling. It's pretty cool. But I can't reveal the idea, because you have to work through the story in order to "get" what's going on. And Mieville doesn't make it easy: the story is written in a form of a series of letters, mysterious half-legible little notes, old newspaper clippings, scraps of paper torn from old faded notebooks, and such. This heap of disjoint material adds up to something interesting and completely incredulous. When you finally piece it together, you go "hmmm... I haven't seen this done before".

Overall, I realize that my criticism reflects nothing but my taste. "Looking for Jake" has garnered quite a few good reviews on, so there must be many readers who don't mind passive characters or lack of problem solving in their science fiction or fantasy. (I, on the other hand, do mind -- as if it wasn't obvious from my review. To me, problem-solving is an essential ingredient of good science fiction.) Some people find the ideas alone to be satisfying -- and there are certainly some original ideas in the book. Some people are fascinated by China Mieville's prose, which indeed is very good. However, the review I personally agree the most with is the one by Fantasygod with subject line "No stories". (I don't think there is a way to link to a single review on Amazon, but here is a link to all customer reviews. He said pretty much what I wanted to say, only much more succinctly.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

From an email address trap to social software

Since my company takes President's day off, I spent a couple of hours on Monday at 360 Primo. It's a good place to write: not only it is a very cool coffeeshop, it has flaky WiFi as a bonus. :-) Flaky WiFi, while annoying, is just what you need while writing. It keeps you from temptation of surfing the web. Fewer distractions.

But a mind, determined to find distraction, will find it. And so, unable to access the internet, I started to explore the only thing I could connect to: Less Networks site. Less Networks is the WiFi provider for 360 Primo and a number of other wireless hotspots around Austin (and elsewhere, apparently). For some reason, while every other page on the internet was loading very slowly, Less Networks site was speedy and responsive.

Lame excuses: why would you need an account to access a wireless network?

Less Networks WiFi differs from other WiFi spots in Austin in that you need to sign in to use their network. Meaning, you need to create an account, and for that you need to give out your email address. When I first came across one of their hotspots at (some other) Austin coffeeshop a couple of years ago, I thought, great! Yet another company found a novel excuse for harvesting email addresses! There was an article in the local newspaper about Less Networks, where they said this feature was for user convenience: it will allow Less Networks users to access all of Less Networks hotspots with the same username. I could not believe what a lame excuse it was: after all, everybody knows that you don't need an account to access a wireless network! Your computer can connect to any wireless network (that does not use encryption) without you having to give out any of your personal information! :-) Did this company think WiFi users were complete idiots?

Then a couple years later I read another article about Less Networks, where this misfeature was spun as a security feature. Supposedly, if users are required to log in, that will prevent them from doing evil things on the internet, because Less Networks will know who they are. I found this explanation to be insincere as well. Your account is tied to nothing but your email address, and that's not a solid piece of identity, given how easy it is to get a disposable email address.

But on Monday I explored their site further to see what all "benefits" I might get from my account at Less Networks, and I was surprised to discover that they have branched out into social software. (Or maybe they've been there all along, and I just didn't know it. :-)) It turns out you can see the profiles of other Less Networks users in the same coffeeshop (but only if you choose to make your own profile visible, so no one can see you against your will). And not only you can customize your profile with your picture, you can also indicate your relationship status. Available options are "seeking men", "seeking women", and "not looking".

A marriage of wireless networks and dating software

Seeing that, I thought: dammit, I had a similar idea in 2002!.. even as I realized I was probably one of thousands of people who had the same idea. :-) Marrying wireless network software with dating software sounds like a match made in heaven. :-) Indeed, many people who hang out in cofeeshops with their laptops for hours on end are single. And many of them may see a cute or interesting person in the coffeeshop, but rarely approach them, as that would feel rather awkward (try to chat up a stranger in a quiet place like a coffeeshop, and you'll feel as exposed as an actor on stage). Wouldn't it be better to silently send an instant message to that cute person, to gauge their interest? This idea had occurred to me back in 2002; I thought it would be cool if WiFi-enabled coffeeshops ran software that would enable people in the coffeeshop to connect. But of course, I'm one of the 99% of the population that dreams up all sorts of ideas but would never even think of putting them into practice (there's no market for something like that... who would ever want such a thing?.. people can barely do x on their computers, you can't expect them to do y... if there was money to be made of off something so simple, someone would have done it already). Not to mention that my personal circumstances back in 2002 were very inconducive to entrepreneurship. And wireless networks in Austin were still nascent -- you were lucky if you could get a good signal at a WiFi coffeeshop. Anything more was a pipe dream. And then soon my single days ended, so I lost interest in the subject. :-)

And now I see Less Networks is going somewhere with this idea. Though I don't think they provide a way for users to instant-message other users, which is a feature I would think as most useful for people trying to connect with others in the same coffeeshop. But I shall not bemoan their running away with "my" idea, because I'm pretty sure 10000 other people in the US had the same idea at the time, and no one lifted a finger to do something about it. As the saying goes, many hear the call but few are chosen. :-)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The God or the Machine: A World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

(Yes, World Fantasy Convention 2006 was 3 months ago, but so what? The words spoken there were timeless!)

Panelists: Ted Chiang, Louise Marley, Michael A. Stackpole, W. J. Williams, Janine Ellen Young (moderator)

What it was supposed to be about (synopsis from the program book): When do "scientific" worldview elements move a concept out of fantasy? Systematic magic, planetary bodies, rudimentary experimentation, the cusp of alchemy into chemistry...

What it was really about

First, the panelists admitted they didn't really understand the topic of the panel as stated in the program book. They didn't get much mileage out of "scientific worldview elements moving a concept out of fantasy". After addressing the distinction between technology and magic, and Ted Chiang stating why he believes Clarke's famous adage is incorrect, the panelists quickly became mired in the age-old debate of what is science fiction, and what is fantasy. Oh no, not again, you say! Well, this discussion wasn't quite like beating a dead horse. I heard some interesting insights.

Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams and Janine Ellen Young at The God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams and Janine Ellen Young at The God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006

A lot of western fantasy writers prefer magic to be systematic, i.e. to have laws, rules, constraints. An arbitrary magic, where everything is possible or impossible, depending on whether it is convenient for the author, they don't find very interesting. But does systematizing magic move it closer to science? Not necessarily.

Traditionally it's thought that it's the presence or absence of scientific / technological elements -- the so-called furniture -- that causes most people to view a certain story as science fiction or fantasy. But actually, the worldview expressed in a story may be more relevant. (Though apparently there are no universal criteria how to determine the genre a particular story belongs to, because some people in the audience disagreed over which genre certain books belonged to.)

The full article can be found on my website.

Friday, February 09, 2007

"Email this story": a spammer-exploitable feature?

Yesterday I disabled the "Mail story to a friend" feature on my SFragments site. Why? I think it's parasitic, because it may be exploited by spammers. Since I posted my musings on the spam-exploitability of this feature on my other blog, I got responses from some people that confirmed my suspicions.

Why my website logs were making me suspicious

My SFragments website (where I write about science fiction conventions I've been to and authors I've met) runs Geeklog content management system (though to call it a content management system may be too pompous; it's more like a group blogging system). Every article, or a blog entry if you will, has a "Mail story to a friend" button. By clicking this button, a user is taken to a page where he or she has to enter his own and recipient's email addresses and an optional "personalized" message, then click a button "Send message", which would email this article to the recipient.

Every time a user clicks on something in my website, the HTTP request sent by the user's browser is logged in my website's logs. So when a user goes to "Mail story to a friend" page, it will show up in the logs. And for a few days last week the logs have been showing me that there had been quite a few attempts to email some of my articles -- over 10 attempts per article, ~ 50 attempts a day. No way is my web site so popular that people would be emailing my articles by the dozen. Any time I see high numbers of anything in my logs, my first thought is, spammers. More so because I've already had a problem in the past with my website being flooded with comment spam, of which I wrote in this post. I disabled comments, but I think spammers are ingenious enough to exploit other ways of abuse.

Here is what I suspect spammers were doing

What I suspect they were doing is running a program that accesses the "Mail story to a friend" page, fills in the sender and recipient addresses, fills in the personalized message field with spam content, and clicks the "Send message" button. It all can be done by a script, with no human effort. That way they may be tricking my Geeklog system into sending out spam. Two advantages of this method are that (1) the spammers are not risking that their ISP will shut them down, because the mail is not originating at their ISP; and (2) since the spam message is attached to my article, it has a chance of fooling the spam filters, because the bulk of the text -- my article -- would not appear as spam to spam filters. I've heard that one of the ways to trick Bayesian filters is to mix in spam with huge chunks of "legitimate" text.

I wasn't sure, and still am not sure if that's what was really happening, because the volume of emailing -- ~ 50 messages a day -- was been a bit too low for what you would expect from a spammer. AFAIK, spammers send out ~ 5 MILLION messages a day. At the same time, the volume I'm seeing was a bit too high for "legitimate" users. So I said in my other blog.

Then a blogger Zerolove left this comment:

Could be using multiple Geeklogs!

I use Razor2 and DCC (Distributed CheckSum) to find spam that passes bayesian filtering. If I see that your post was to x number of other users I would block it. So by using multiple Geeklogs it would be coming from multiple IP's there for not only passing Bayes but also passing Razor and DCC. So if they use 100 websites x50 emails each it would add up!

That's an even better reason to disable the "Mail story to a friend" feature, and I did so. (To be fair, the flurry of emailed stories in the logs was a one-time occurrence -- I watched the logs for about a week before disabling this feature, and I didn't notice it again.) But I decided to be on the safe side.

In any case, I can't think of a more useless feature a content management system may have. Does anyone ever use them? I mean, not on my site, but in general? When people want to forward me something interesting, they just copy and paste the link in the email message. I never got stories forwarded to me by way of "Mail this story" feature. So I conclude it is one of those things that perfectly illustrate the law of unintended (and in this case, ironic) consequences: a thing that's only marginally useful to its intended users is widely open to abuse.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Internet phone companies: good for managing your wireless router, if nothing else

A week after we moved into our new house, the internet service at the house disappeared. The wireless router still worked. The signal was strong as ever. But none of the machines could get on the internet.

At first it looked like a screw-up on Roadrunner's part, which was easily fixed

Plugging a laptop directly into the cable modem (we have Roadrunner) verified that the the wireless access point wasn't the point of failure. Steve's laptop, plugged in directly into the cable modem (bypassing the wireless access point), was unable to get an IP address. So the problem was lack of service from Roadrunner. Steve's call to Roadrunner's tech support revealed that Roadrunner messed up switching our account from the old apartment to the new house. Interestingly, this happened a week after the move. At the beginning, they turned on the service at the house on the day of the move, and it worked with no problems. Then a week later they decided to finally cut the service off at the old apartment, and accidentally disabled both. Well, anyway: a short phone call later Roadrunner got it fixed. Their tech support had Steve plug his laptop into the cable modem again, and verified that the laptop was getting an IP address and was able to access the internet. So Roadrunner considered its end of the problem solved.

But the story didn't end here

But the story didn't end there. As we found out a few minutes after Steve hung up with Roadrunner, for all intents and purposes we still didn't have internet access. Despite the cable modem now working, the wireless router wasn't getting an IP address. Various rebootings and resettings didn't help. And we could not call Roadrunner back and ask for more help. Here's why. As I understand it, the type of service we signed up for with Roadrunner has a funny loophole. The contract does not allow more than one computer to use Roadrunner. If we wanted to use multiple computers, we would have to sign up for a more expensive type of service. And if you have a wireless access point at home, it's obvious that you are connecting multiple computers to it. Though in theory, even if you had only one computer, you might still want to have WiFi, so that you could to carry the computer around the house. So I guess Roadrunner can't automatically claim you are violating the contract if you have a wireless router... but still. So there is what I would describe as an uneasy truce between one-computer subscribers and Roadrunner. Roadrunner ignores it if a one-computer subscriber has a wireless router, but they tell you they won't help you administrate your router. That's your responsibility.

Who to call, then, if your router still doesn't work after Roadrunner fixed the problem? (And, I repeat, the wireless part was working well: it was emitting a signal. It's just that it wasn't getting an IP address from Roadrunner. So it definitely had something to do with what RR did on their end -- it would have been too much coincidence if the router just started malfunctioning at the same time.) I suppose we could have called Linksys (the manufacturer of the router). But Steve had a better idea...

Next step: call Vonage

...let's call Vonage. For you see, we subscribe to an internet phone service from Vonage.

Actually, we don't use it. There's no logic in that. Steve got Vonage because it provides very cheap long distance phone calls. The problem is, neither of us makes long distance phone calls very often. It's not like we have no one to call: Steve's and my families live correspondingly halfway across the US and halfway across the world. And the result? Steve talks with his mom on his cell phone; whereas I, since my emigration 12 years ago, have talked with my family on the phone exactly twice. :-) Not because I am an ungrateful daughter and sibling (though I might be :-)) but because spoken word is soooo not my medium. I am a written word person. I like a medium where I can edit myself and present the other party with complete thoughts, instead of half-finished phrases. I like a medium that does not require me to rack my brain trying to come up with filling for "uncomfortable" pauses. So, long distance phone service to me is like a proverbial bicycle for a fish. :-) And there is a significant downside of having a phone service that uses your internet connection: when the internet is down, your phone is down. OTOH, a conventional land line would stay up when the internet is down. So if one needs a land line of any kind (which I don't -- a cell phone is enough for me), a conventional land line makes a lot more sense than an IP phone. So frankly, I don't know why Steve wants to keep Vonage service.

If you are paranoid about privacy, Vonage may not be for you

There is just one little detail about Vonage service that may raise the hackles of anyone who is paranoid about privacy; I on the other hand, believing my files may only hold interest as a fast remedy for insomnia, don't mind surrendering a little privacy for convenience. :-) When you subscribe to Vonage, Vonage "locks" your wireless router so that its tech support could administrate it. By "locking" the router I mean that Vonage has the password to the administrator's account. They still let you administrate it yourself (at least partially) by creating a different account for you. Regardless, you don't have a complete control over your router.

I'm not clear on details of this. Steve said that he bought our wireless router already pre-locked for Vonage! I don't know if all Linksys routers sold in the US are that way (doesn't seem likely to me) or if this one was one of a batch of pre-locked routers sold as part of a deal between Linksys and Vonage, where you could get a Vonage subscription cheap by buying a Linksys router.

How did Vonage tech support fix our router problem?

But when you are racking your brain over what's wrong with your router, it's handy to be able to call Vonage and say "your phone service isn't working" (omitting that we really just want to get on the internet, not to use their IP phone) and get them to fix it. And fix it they did -- they had to. The problem turned out to be interesting. To me, at least. Not technically, but politically.

The answer, suggested by Vonage tech support, was to change the MAC address of our wireless router to be the same as that of Steve's laptop. (I didn't know MAC addresses were changeable, but apparently they are.) Why? Because when Steve made his previous phone call to Roadrunner and had them fix the problem on their side, Roadrunner made it so that only Steve's laptop would be able to connect to their service. Remember, Steve had his laptop plugged into the cable modem during the phone call for the purposes of testing. Roadrunner recognizes his laptop by its MAC address.

So, in order to make the wireless router to connect to Roadrunner, the router now had to be given the same MAC address as Steve's laptop. Once Steve did that, it started to work.

Because they knew a secret Roadrunner kept from us

Of course, Roadrunner didn't tell Steve that they will limit our service to this particular MAC address. Steve had no way of knowing that. If not for Vonage, we would not have found out. And I don't know how Vonage's tech support knows those things: maybe from experience? Maybe they have to deal every day with customers whose service stopped working after they moved to a new house?

So the whole situation looks pretty weird to me. Roadrunner messes with your settings and they won't tell you what they changed. And you can't call them to find out, because hey -- they've done their job, and any problems you may have afterwards are your router problems, not Roadrunner's. Even though RR effectively disabled your router by keeping a key piece of information from you.

I don't know, maybe I misunderstood something, maybe there's more to this story. Steve wasn't most forthcoming with the details. He was in a grumbly mood after those two phone calls, and I don't blame him. Running a tech support gauntlet does that to you. So I didn't press him for details.