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Books! (Death and History Edition)

Maigret's Little Joke (Georges Simenon, 2016/#41): A reread. Maigret relaxes and has fun, and so did this reader.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Georges Simenon, 2016/#42): A reread.

The Shadow in the Courtyard (Georges Simenon, 2016/#43): A reread.

Retrogame Archeology (John Aycock, 2016/#44): A low-level look at some of the programming tricks in old (as in, mostly 1980's, and some earlier than that) computer games. Intellectually fascinating on its own, it also naturally triggered a certain amount of nostalgia; not just about specific games and programming environments, but also the mindset involved in playing or woking in them. Feelings can be associated to skills as strongly as to anything else, I guess.

Eminence (Jean-Vincent Blanchard, 2016/#45): A readable biography of Richelieu; not disparaging, but rather realistic about his skills as politician and statesman. Spends a lot of time describing Richelieu's efforts and difficulties managing his relationship with Louis XIII, which was clearly a more-than-full-time job on itself and, in a political system like France's, a prerequisite for doing anything else; it's fascinating how the still not quite centralized politics of the place and time are shown in the frequent *military* challenges from nobles (including relatives) to the monarchy, something that definitely feels pre-modern. If nothing else, Richelieu wasn't just a passionate patron of theater (seriously, he spent a lot of money and time on incredibly luxurious theater halls and plays), but also quite good at staging psychologically impressive political drama, not that people around him were particularly stoic either. I mean, the concept and practice of the "royal favorite" is fascinating from a comparative point of view, particularly the custom of giving them power in addition to money and palaces; human, perhaps, in the context of a culture where government was something you did instead of an entity you were part of (and would've probably applied to female mistresses as well if not for the axiomatic misogyny), but awfully problematic from a practical point of view.


Might as Well be Dead (Rex Stout, 2016/#46): A shortish, pleasant Nero Wolfe story (despite an unexpected death).

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On the constancy of human nature

Today I heard for the first time Figaro's aria from The Barber of Seville with translated subtitles. Mutatis mutandis, it could've been released yesterday! (on Tidal, probably) He's literally boasting about how cool his life is, how he's the greatest guy in town, how everybody choruses his name, and about all the "perks" that come with his job (interestingly enough, both young women and young gentlemen).

About 85% of the reason why I love this song is Bugs Bunny, but now that I've read the lyrics, I like it even more.

ETA: Even if you already knew the lyrics, do watch the video. The guy playing Figaro nails the attitude.

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Maybe another day

Began reading Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, but gave up about half a chapter into it. I like the idea of looking at healthy psychological mechanisms being as important as looking as pathologies, and I'm of course always interested in human self-improvement, but Maslow's concept of a well-defined class of superior human beings being all-around superior, and his tacit certainty that there's only one way of being healthy, and that he can instinctively pick the "better humans" out, are rather troubling. His affirmation that psychologically healthy beings are always quick, certain, and correct in their moral judgments, and his casual inclusion of homosexuality among the "obviously" unhealthy behaviors, were just two among the rapidly accumulating warning signs.

I don't want to go Godwin, but the temptation is certainly there. So I dumped that book and instead read a biography of Richelieu.

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My reaction to Rebirth #1 is my icon

Probably the worst part of being a Flash is that you're drafted into the early stages of every damn single end-of-everything multiversal conflict, and they keep happening more and more frequently.

We're rushing towards some sort of singularity where we'll just have #1 issues of everything every week: Pages 1-7 say it's a new universe and make an impressionistic description of it, pages 8-10 have the titular hero defeat a foe but with an unsettling hint of something cosmic going on, in pages 11-18 a cosmic entity we've never heard of before will gather the hero and about forty-five others to fight some sort of multiversal threat that's an overpowered variation of the one three weeks ago, in page 19 everybody sacrifices themselves, page 20 is all white with a box saying something about death, page 21 shows a new world and something about life or hope or rebirth or whatever.

Under no circumstance will you get to page 12 without encountering the word "crisis."

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This is almost impossibly beautiful

The German government has been working on a Thesaurus Linguae Latinae so insanely comprehensive that it considers every usage of every word up to at least the third century.
They began on 1894, and published the volume for 'P' on 2010 (although they skipped over 'N' and will have to go back to it eventually, and there's some doubt about whether they'll be able to meet their 2050 deadline; at least they won't have to dedicate time to IT upgrades, as the entire project still runs on index cards and slips of paper).

Just thinking about it makes me happier.

Books! (Slyly Borgesian Edition)

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Robert Bartlett, 2016/#35): Quite a fascinating book. It's easy to imagine the Middle Ages as an static period of time in European history, even when you do your best to keep in mind that it wasn't, quite, but Bartlett shows it at positively bristling with activity: towns are founded (for profit reasons, using standarized legal patterns, as if they were Starbucks), territories settled, frontiers expanded, all looking for land and workers to grow and tax. Yes, scientifically they are almost stalled (and in some social senses they regress; the book shows how racism in its modern form is a mid-to-late Middle Ages development), but it was a period of very active, polyfacetic, enthusiastic development that exported an entire military-economic-social package of techniques and culture from the North of France to pretty much the rest of modern Europe (I hadn't realized, or thought about, the similitudes; there are castles in France and England and Spain, and I had sort of assumed some kind of convergent evolution, when it fact it was very much not). I enjoyed it very much.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Thomas Ligotti), 2016/#36): Ligotti considers consciousness as uncanny, the fountain of horror, and the intrinsic value of existence at least indefensible and more appropriately a monstrous self-delusion. Perhaps not a book one should read while depressed, although it might actually be salutary; it's hard to tell, and an experiment would amount to misconduct in cultural competence.

London Under (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#37): A collection of sometime interesting data, rather than a comprehensive whole. I don't find him as poetic as he thinks he is, but YMMV.

The Mother Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#38): A good Nero Wolfe story.

A Most Dangerous Book (Christopher B. Krebs, 2016/#39): A book on Tacitus' Germania, mostly from the point of view of its effects on later politics and society; it's a good thread to trace the disturbingly long and consistent intellectual and cultural development that was one of the factors leading to Nazi Germany.

Unruly Places (Alastair Bonnett, 2016/#40): A collection of notes on, unsurprisingly, weird places (renamed cities, precisely located islands that turned out not to exist, etc). I didn't enjoy the writing style or the author's musings, but the book doesn't lack interesting tidbits of information.

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Well, that was enjoyable

I like slice-of-life superhero comics, so the fact that Mockingbird #1 begins with her weekly checkup at one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secret-but-very-civilian-looking health clinics was reason enough to read it.

It has a very "Hawkguy" feel, although of course Bobbi's life is a bit less of a mess, within the very relative parameters that apply to people who work or have worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. It's also a tiny bit horror story, and well done at that. Recommended so far.

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Good times

I'm spending some time rereading old issues of Byte magazine, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It's triggering a lot of memories, which isn't unreasonable given how much of my time and attention was dedicated to computers. And it's not just the articles (when Windows 95 was still codenamed Chicago, and Win32 address space separation was a big thing), but also the ads. Ads for database systems, my god, all hyperbole, exclamation points, puns, comparison tables, enthusiasm about obscure things. I can distinctly remember knowing, at some point in my life, the pros and cons of different commercial C++ compilers, how SCSI worked, and the details of linking .OBJ files. Ads for PKzip as a product you paid for. The magic of fractal image compression formats.

Now, of course, the industry is infinitely larger and more influential, not just a hobby or a new business tool but rather the atmosphere in which society seems to move, but back then it was, I have to say, it was dorky, people still weren't convinced about it so there was no need to make it fit the "real world," the only billionaire was Bill Gates, who was Evil, you could look at Word and think "oh my god", and you would care about microprocessor architecture just for the sheer fannishness of it.

Just now I read, in a 1994 issue, a short article on this newfangled thing called Linux. Linux, then, was this weirdly free variant of UNIX; nowadays UNIX is mostly the prehistory of Linux. I remember reading that article, being enchanted by the UI screenshot and the idea of a UNIX I could get my hands on, and looking for somewhere in Corrientes where I could somehow get it (this was back when BBS' were still a thing, and "the Internet" was one of a handful of alternatives, most of them commercial). It turned out that the same small place where you could get pirated copies of games as stacks of 5'25 floppies would also sell you Slackware as a stack of 5'25 floppies.

I could say the same about pretty much any period in my life (and isn't that a wonderful thing to be able to say?) but it felt so good to have so much to learn and play with, new things every month in a Cambrian dazzle of useless, endlessly fascinating arcana. Computers were the best toy ever, and they still are.

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Books! (History and Crime Edition)

The Creator (Clifford D. Simak, 2016/#29): Interesting, somewhat uneven, very old-style collection of SF stories.

The Causal Angel (Hannu Rajaniemi, 2016/#30): Not as good as The Quantum Thief, perhaps better than The Fractal Prince. Best read as a continuous history, and perhaps better than it looks, if that makes sense

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Barry Cunliffe, 2016/#31): Any book covering "the internal connectivity of Eurasia between the origin of agriculture and the XIVth century" is, of necessity, going to be a radical oversimplification. That said, and with a long string of caveats as to the number of guesses and debatable specific points, this is an incredible high-level view of Eurasian history in that period, as long as you focus on interactions between societies (which is the point of the book) rather than the details of their internal life. Not that the latter is completely ignored, quite the contrary, but the priority are clearly non-local interactions and their effects.

Plots of Opportunity (Albert D. Pionke, 2016/#32): A nice study on the role in Victorian England of the topos of the secret society in journalistic and literary texts; it's certainly an interesting thread to follow, and, aside from a certain lack of pithiness, an enjoyable read.

A Burglar's Guide to the City (Geoff Manaugh, 2016/#33): I can't call it disappointing — it was a very enjoyable and educational read — but it has that peculiar texture specific to a book in which a single fascinating insight is repeated multiple times, not illuminating but rather reflecting a number of examples and stories. The first chapter is the best, if nothing else because the example is the most interesting (YMMV).

Lending to the Borrower from Hell (Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth, 2016/#34): If Philip II defaulted so frequently (and infamously), how come he kept being able to borrow money from people he couldn't execute if they refused? Based on data sets that must have been extremely painful to extract from the original XVIth century contracts (and I complain about poorly formatted CSV files!), the authors show that (a) Spanish fiscal policy was actually very responsible, (b) the financial engineering involved in the loans made for very sophisticated and effective risk-sharing and insurance, and (c) therefore, both the Genoese's constant loaning to Philip II and Philip II's constant borrowing from the Genoese, made perfect financial sense. That's the opposite of what I believed earlier today, but their analysis is convincing. Fascinating.

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