Blog Archive

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Liquid Crystal Disease

Vektor's debut album Black Future has been one of the greatest albums of the last ten years and with several new songs published and played live, the hype for Terminal Redux, five years after Outer Isolation, has been huge. In their third album, the guys have focussed their SciFi themed lyrics into a space opera concept album about a lost astronaut, alien molecules in stellar nebuli and the overthrow of the galactic Cygnus regime. Terminal Redux is easily their most ambitious album yet, no song is below five minutes and the utterly perfect production is instantly recognizable as Vektor's sharp and precise heavyness. However, the band also experiments with new elements that sometimes work - and sometimes don't.

Charging the Void starts out reminiscent of Cosmic Cortex, a nine minute high-speed technical show of power, that features a very on-point chorus and then turns into the  intense, dense sound they've done before, only to resolve into the first big surprise of the album, a big epic, almost symphonic segment with a female backing choir (not joking). A very similar structure is also featured in its twin track, the 13:37 minute closer Recharging the Void. Personally I think it doesn't work as well as it could have, simply because the choir voices aren't "verbal" enough, meaning it's a lot of ooh-eeh-uuh-eehs and wohoo-hooohs but there are no substantial lyrics for them. It's a daring experiment, but in my book it failed because it clashes with most of the tone. In Charging, they at least manage to integrate it organically into the flow of the song, while Recharging stops being one thing and starts being another.

The following tracks Cygnus Terminal and LCD are more conventional Vektor material, and I mean this in the best possible way. The harsh, precise, powerful connects masterfully with the eerie, threatening parts. David and Eric are the Tipton/Downing of this decade, and their drummer Blake, known for his comparatively small kit, thrashes and whips the songs into shape. The interlude Mountains Above the Sun is a clear instrumental minute for the listener to catch a breath, before Ultimate Artificer, the first pre-released, now established live song and honestly one of the best things they've ever done totally steals the show. This is why I listen to this kind of music. Super catchy riffs, powerful rhythm, ultra technical guitar solos, heavy, eerie bridge, powerful release. 10/10, hats off lads.

Pteropticon, Psychotropia and Pillars of Sand are strong follow-ups. Pteropticon has the biggest internal range, from rockish groove to blastbeats and completely mad guitar-chases, Pillars of Sand brings another fantastic, instantly memorable chorus (TIME!!), but also grim crunching riffing in the front and sublime melodies in the back.
The one tracks that completely goes off the tracks is Collapse, which is a nine minute melodic, dare I say it, power-ballad? David actually does clean vocals on this, and while I applaud his effort to bring more variety to his vocals, it's just terrible. His voice doesn't work well in that range. Vektor can do wonderful instrumental stuff (see the middle of Accelerating Universe) that doesn't seem gruel or threatening, which would have worked here - instead, Collapse is a failed experiment.

In summary, Terminal Redux is super ambitious and adds a lot of fantastic songs to Vektor's portfolio, some of which among the best the they've ever done. However the really experimental elements either only work in the context of storytelling but are clunky as standalone songs, or they don't work at all. Terminal Redux is flawed, not because Vektor are doing old things badly, but because they're doing additional things and those don't necessarily connect. Still, one of the greatest young metal bands of our time.

Forteresse - Metal Noir Quebecois [2006] []
The debut album from this, you guessed it, Canadian black metal group is lyrically all about history and patriotism. Judging by the music, it must have been a rather harsh past. Forteresse do unpolished, raw, haunted, shrieking black metal, the closest comparison I found was Weakling. The term "ambient black metal" is often used to describe their music, but it's not the neo-folk analogue klingklang or the Wolves in the Throne Room tone, but rather denser and tighter. The low-fi noise certainly contributes a lot to that effect. It's far from the blunt brutality of Blasphemy either. Forteresse's first album is a complete success, as their songs have a harsh haunting beauty to them that is driven by the constant tremolo. My biggest criticism is that it's just a bit too samey, but then again I haven't heard their newer stuff yet.

Uada - Devoid of Light [2016] []
Another black metal debut album, this one ten years younger, comes from Uada from the US. Utterly different from Forteresse, Uada has a much clearer, heavier, more modern production and more distrinctive segments and songs. Much more successful that the recent Sinisterra from Mightiest, Uada gets to be melodic and heavy at the same time, sometimes putting in some rather death metal sounding parts, then turning back to the simple, repetative riffing that works so well for Inquisition. Even though it's thoroughly grim, it's rather accessible for a black metal record. Uada also sound very professional in both songwriting and execution and not much like a debut album at all, which some might say is because they're replicating a sound that's been done already, but I have to say they're stealing it really rather well.

Ripper - Experiment of Existence [2016] []
Absolute no-fucking-nonsense, Ripper from Chile play modern death / thrash metal reminiscent of Kreator's Violent Revolution or Terrible Certainty, only fresher and more on point. With super tight songs, thrashing guitar violence that would make Exodus blush, roaring vocals and an unusually distinctive bass, Ripper hammer away, but not in blind abandon as demonstrated by their great instrumental interludes, but focused on competently putting together songs that work. And while it's super old-school in character, it's not just worship of late 80s early 90s metal, but has its own identity and worth. Again the only downside I can find is that the whole album is just a bit too homogeneous, so the songs all blend together after a while. Nevertheless, if you want the meanest, no-bullshit metal you can get, Ripper will tear you a new one.

Om - Advaitic Songs [2012] []
When it comes to Sleep's successors, I could always connect more with the muscled power of High on Fire than the fuzzy rock droning of Om. "Advaitic Songs" has been criticized for lacking the heaviness of their first albums, but - and I know this is fucked up to say - that is what makes this my favourite record of theirs. Because it doesn't zone out in the low rumble alone but packs more layers on top of Al Cisneros' bass, it feels much richer. I can't properly really call it a rock album for most of the time when the rhythms and texture are much closer to...dub? Between the chants from secular music and the Arabic sounding percussions with the tambura, it's more than another stoner record. Sleep goes to Byzantium. I was and never will be one for "world music", but the bits and pieces that Om melt into their sound are beautiful.

Saturday, May 07, 2016


"Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies" is a 2014 non-fiction book by Nick Bostrom from Oxford University and explores the consequences of the creation of artificial general intelligence and it surpassing human intelligence. The book made it into the top twenty bestselling popular science books in the year it was published and was translated into several languages. I have to admit that I only read most of it, but not because it is quite difficult to digest (which it is) or because of it's length.

Mr. Bostrom makes some very good points. 
For example, his suggestion that once machine intelligence has reached human intelligence, it will take only a very short time for it to surpass that threshold, as the difference in human intelligences only makes up a tiny range when held against the scale of all conceivable minds, human and non-human. Bostrom, very agreeably, points out that the motivation and goals of a superintelligent machine can not be calculated using anthropomorphic criteria. Certainly, more hardware resources would greatly empower such an A.I.. One also has to agree that once a genuinely superintelligent entity comes into being, it would necessarily be more resourceful and cunning than any group of people alive.

However the dealbreaker for me was, and this transforms later chapters into vain mindgames rather than practical consideration, his central hypothesis that software-based artificial intelligence would reach general intelligence, possibly even within the century. (General intelligence as opposed to special intelligence or "weak AI" with machine learning, the latter being a set of algorithms working together to fulfill a very specific task, but lacking awareness or intentions, examples being Bots like Archillect). I have yet to be convinced that general intelligence, meaning consciousness, meaning goals and intentions, meaning responsiveness to non-uniform input, can be achieved.

I do not make that statement out of any sentiment about the human spirit and all that hogwash, we're all just software running on wetware, but I do not find it plausible that by writing code in the precise, mathematical and task-specific, confined way it is done, something could arise that would be genuine general intelligence. If a lot of programmers poured a lot of effort into a system designed to give human-seeming answers to a touring test committee, I'm certain that they'd eventually succeed. The product however would be a system designed to do exactly that. It would be a task-specific tool-A.I. as Bostrom calls it. It is intelligent the way a spamfilter is intelligent, learning, but without intentions and processes that expand beyond exactly what is written into the code.

Because this human-like concept of general artificial intelligence created through writing code, with a consciousness and intentions and learning and self-improvement doesn't seem plausible to me, and Bostrom fails to sell it to me, it's like reading a scientific paper on dragons. It's detailed and methodical and professional, but about a subject from the fantasy realm. There is an audience for threehundred pages about the fire-spitting mechanisms of red dragons, but I'm not one of them.

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have both publicly warned about an existential threat to humanity from general artificial intelligence. I would never dare argue with those two, but I cannot fathom that humanity will ever get to the point where a genuine general, non task specific intelligence will be created. There will be lots of systems for sale that pretend to be general intelligence for marketing sakes, but they'll operate within the boundaries that their programming gives them. Before there's a way to create general artificial intelligence capable of surpassing human intelligence, human intelligence will have died of hunger, thirst and radiation poisoning.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Overlooked material

I think the spread of the Mongol Empire from the perspective of Subutai, the siege and fall of Constantinople, Sulla's second civil war and dictatorship over Rome, the struggle between Vlad and Radu over Wallachia under Ottoman occupation, the year of three German Emperors from the perspective of Bismarck, the seven year's war from the perspective of Friedrich II, the last days of the Romanovs, the Duke of Wellington's military career, Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca and his destructive spending, Ptolemy Soter's settling in Egypt and the foundation of the Library of Alexandria, the Battle of Austerlitz, the Chancellery Stresemann, the rise of the Dutch East India Company, the British Wars of the Three Kingdoms or the reign of Irene of Athens over Byzantium would all make great material for a big budget historical film production. Even more so I would like to see the Epic of Gilgamesh on the big screen, which has enough fairytale bullshit to appeal to the MARVEL crowd.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Neo Magazin Fatale

[This post is about German comedian/presenter Jan Böhmermann who is currently all over the news because Turkish president Erdogan is urging the German Government to take legal steps against him. On his show, Böhmermann read out an insulting poem about Erdogan, whose legal council invokes a law that shields foreign heads of state. After receiving threats, Böhmermann is now under police protection and has cancelled his next show. Prior to this, another skit by satirical magazine extra-3 had already caused tensions between the Turkish and German government. Chancellor Merkel has supported Erdogan's claim by publicly calling the text slanderous. Because of the current negotiations between Germany and Turkey about an agreement to keep more Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Turkey and away from Middle Europe, critics are accusing the German government of compromising the freedom of the press for political reasons and letting themselves be blackmailed.] 

Die Pokemon-artige Evolution des Neo Magazin in das Neo Magazin Royale hat dem Format gut getan, und auch wenn Böhmi und seine Redaktion mal ganz großartige Sachen und mal ungeschicktes Gestolper abliefern, so hat die kleine zwangsgebührenfinanzierte Loser-Spartensendung aus dem Randprogramm doch ihren Grimme-Preis verdient. Die Sendung tut dem ZDF Portfolio gut und gibt Hoffnung, dass die Öffentlich-Rechtlichen Sendeanstalten das Publikum unter 30 noch nicht aufgegeben haben. Der Style der Sendung mit dem bei Weitem ästhetischsten Bühenbild Deutschlands - zwischen grobem Unfung, wildem musikalischem Mischmasch und witzefreien Polit-Rants - funktioniert im Prinzip super aber hakelt immer wieder an mangelnder Konzentration, ungekonntem Umgang mit Gästen und gelegentlicher Stütze auf schwachen wiederkehrenden Formaten (z.B. Zini). Viele Gags treffen voll ins Schwarze, aber manche wirken bemüht die Sendezeit zu füllen und das Gedicht über Erdogan fällt leider in letztere Kategorie.

Eben weil dieser Beitrag (dessen Text man mit Google-Suche findet) so schwach war, weil der Angriff nicht auf AKPs/Erdogans dispotische Macht-Konsolidierung, Zerstörung der Trennung von Kirche und Staat, Unterdrückung der Presse, Fahrlässigkeit gegenüber dem IS, ekelhafte Äußerungen oder Verfolgung von Minderheiten abzielte, sondern einfach infantiles Ad-Hominem "lol Ziegen ficken lol kleiner Pimmel lol er ist schwul lol" war, hat Frau Merkel objektiv damit Recht, dass der Text als persönlicher Angriff gewertet werden kann. Man erkennt in den Anmerkungen um das Vorlesen des Textes herum noch ansatzweise, wie Böhmermann versucht das ganze in Kontext zu setzen, explizit als Schmähkritik einzukapseln und zu abstrahieren, vielleicht sogar weil er merkt wie billig der Zettel vor ihm ist - aber das was ihm nun den Staatsanwalt an den Hals jagt ist die Versäumnis seiner Redaktion einen besseren Beitrag zu machen.

Dass der Beitrag der Sendung aus dem Randprogramm nun auf internationaler Bühme umkämpft wird ist lächerlich. Dass Erdogan nicht erwarten darf seine Presse-Unterdrückung nach Deutschland auszuweiten zu können steht außer Frage. Dass es Satire erlaubt sein muss ausländische Staatsoberhäupter auf's Korn zu nehmen ist selbstverständlich. Dass Frau Merkel dem Vorwurf Erdogans in der Öffentlichkeit zustimmt um den Flüchtlings-Deal nicht zu gefährden weil es dabei um ihre eigene Akzeptanz in der Wählerschaft geht ist schwer von der Hand zu weisen.
Die Staatsanwaltschaft prüfen zu lassen ob es sich beim Vorlesen des Gedichtes um eine Straftat handelt ist rechtens. Herr Erdogan darf dies veranlassen. Eine tatsächliche strafrechtliche Verfolgung Böhmermanns ist aber der Sachlage nicht angemessen und grade wegen des Hintergrundes von Erdogans Presse-Geißelung und des Flüchtlings-Deals ist es nicht zu rechtfertigen, einen Satiriker zu bestrafen weil er Satire macht.
Ich gönne dem blassen dünnen Jungen und seiner Redaktion jeden Erfolg, aber insbesondere gönne ich Ihnen treffendere Gags und hoffe, dass A) der Despot vom Bosporus seinen Willen nicht kriegt und B) der Böhmi nicht vom Dönerspieß erdolcht aus der Weser gesiebt wird. 

Der moralische Sieg Deutschland nicht von dieser wertefremden Regierung abhängig zu machen wiegt für mich schwerer als 10% weniger Heimatvertriebene aufnehmen zu müssen, aber die Analysten der CDU werden dagegen halten, dass dies nicht in der Mehrheit der Bevölkerung so wahrgenommen wird und stattdessen den rechtsextremen Parteien wie der AfD in die Hände spielt. Da sei die Wahrnehmung dann "Merkel vergibt die Chance die Flüchtlingsflut einzudämmen um diesen Joko für Abiturienten zu schützen?" und wieder sprüht in Sachsen-Anhalt jemand "fremd im eigenen Land" an die Plattenbauten und macht sein Kreuz ganz rechts. Es ist für Frau Merkel leichter sich die Kritik der Presse anzuhören als ein anderes Regierungsoberhaupt vor den Kopf zu stoßen und durch noch ungebremsteren Flüchtlingszufluss Zustimmung von Wählern und konservativen Partei-Mitgliedern zu verlieren.

Das ist aber nicht der richtige Weg. Das ist der einfachere Weg. Frau Merkel hat stets den Weg des geringsten Widerstandes, der wenigsten Kollisionen, der weichsten Übergänge verfolgt und als sie ausnahmsweise mal falsch abgebogen ist und sich gegen eine Grenzpolitik wie in Österreich oder Polen entschieden hat hat es kein Jahr gedauert, da musste sie ihren Kurs korrigieren weil es ihr nicht gelungen war, Wähler und Parteigenossen davon zu überzeugen Dinge zu tun, die nicht einfach sind. Frau Merkel hat stets die "gemeinsame Lösung" herbeizitiert weil sie es nicht vermag, ihre Lösung durchzusetzen. 
Im Fall Böhmermann ist die gemeinsamste Lösung, so schätze ich die Kalkulation der Bundeskanzlerin ein, dem Druck von Erdogan nachzugeben um den Deal zu retten. Das besänftigt Erdogan, die Kritiker ihrer Flüchtlingspolitik und den Protestwähler zugleich. Die reflexiv mit Böhmermann konsolidierten Stimmen haben im Vergleich weniger langfristiges Gewicht in Kosten und Wahlen. So, so glaube ich, tickt die Kanzlerin. Mit wem war Mutti im Bett? Mit möglichst vielen, weil das ihr Anspruch als Führung einer Volkspartei ist, wie sie in Interviews sagt.

Ich möchte nicht ausschließen, dass das Ergebnis dieser Farce sein wird, dass Böhmermann ohne (nennenswerte) Strafe davon kommt. Das wird aber nicht der Verdienst von Mutti sein, denn das würde Schmerzen bedeuten und die macht sie sich grundsätzlich nicht selbst, auch wenn es echt mal an der Zeit wäre.

Und nur als Randbemerkung: Es ist doch auffällig wie die einzigen Sendungen die sich trauen politische Formate zu machen, zu informieren und sich kritisch zu äußern in öffentlich-rechtlichen Sendern laufen. Wer das Deutsche Privatfernsehen guckt verdient nichts besseres. Und wenn meine Zwangsgebühren nicht nur dazu dienen Florian Silbereisen zu bezahlen, sondern auch die Damen und Herren die das tun, was in der Türkei mit lebenslanger Haft bestraft wird, so ist es mir das wert.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Expanse (novels)

I recently made a very favourable post about the SyFy TV show The Expanse, which I greatly enjoyed. So much indeed that I wasn't willing to wait for the next season in 2017, but instead went ahead and read the book series it is based on. In the last month I have burned through Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games as well as the novellas/short stories Drive, The Butcher of Anderson Station, Gods of Risk, The Churn and The Vital Abyss. The next book, Babylon's Ashes, is scheduled for November of this year.

While the TV show takes a few liberties with the details and timing that I have to admit make sense, there were no huge deviations. The story takes place in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system, and the traditional two-sided power balance between Earth and Mars is destabilized by the Asteroid Belt's struggle for autonomy. The protagonists get caught up in the revelation a secret project that involves a piece of technology bound to significantly threaten humanity's security and promise access to the stars. And while the frontier is expanding, the powers that be struggle to maintain their position. 

The Expanse is pretty damn great and here is why. 
First, the scenario is distant enough to allow for amazing dimensions, but not distant enough to allow for hyper-advanced technology that makes everything trivial. Space is still huge, traveling takes time, long-distance communication has latency and when you accelerate too fast the pressure can knock you out. Hull integrity and air recycling are constant issues. Living on Mars means underground domes. Growing up in low g ruins your bone density and means you have to take steroids and exercise or you'll be a cripple. With the more fantastic aspects coming into the story, it gives a grounded basis. 
Second, humanity in The Expanse is not remotely capable of living in a Star Trek utopia of peace and wealth. People are still poor, fight each other based on heritage and wealth still governs society. Governments use brute force to ensure their claims while veiling every public statement in diplomatic non-speech. There are still shitty jobs people do to barely get by. 
Third, you like the main characters. Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex, Miller and Avasarala, Bobby and even Fred Johnson are characters you become invested in and sympathize with. The point-of-view characters that only stay for one book (Prax, Basia, Elvi) work well to contrast with the heroics of the Rocinante crew and show a more civilian perspective to the events unfolding around them and reflect how the main characters appear to an outsider. It reminds the reader that what the protagonists are doing is exceptional.
Fourth, it uses the classical adventure story formulas. Likeable but lowly Hero is called to great task, finds friends and foes, travels to foreign places, overcomes obstacles. His personality changes, he notices how that happened and reflects on it, upholds moral values, fights the bad guys, solves problems that have far-reaching consequences, acts on a large stage, returns more or less triumphant. Add to that how even the interactions between secondary characters are worth reading and contribute to fleshing out their personalities, and it's the swashbuckling adventures on that have always worked well. 

The Expanse is after all a fun Sci-Fi adventure story that is aware of subjects like poverty and political power games and the arbitrary reasons we hate each other, but uses them as a backdrop rather than as a subject. It sometimes has a cyberpunk-feel to it (more so in the TV show) that does well in grounding the huge space opera aspects. The small-ship-with-a-tight-crew thing that worked well in Firefly works at least as good here. It has enough banter and humor to make it accessible, and sometimes the action scenes are just a bit too Hollywood (the Agatha King scene for example), but it never becomes insulting. There are a few ups and downs in it, but in the I always yearned for more.

Therefore, I completely recommend The Expanse to anybody with even a slight tendency towards Science Fiction. The authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham said they'd laid out the overarching story for nine books, so there's still four books to come and I'm positive I will gulp those down as well.

Just an addition when it comes to the TV show: Considering that the series has taken one season to do about the first half of Leviathan Wakes plus The Butcher of Anderson station, there's more source material than I'm afraid they'll ever get to work on based on previous SyFy policies, but I'd be happy to learn I'm wrong. Reading ahead there were some future casting choices I dreaded (Bobbie Draper), but then I remembered Avasarala and knew it was going to be fine, even though the old lady isn't nearly as vulgar in the show as in the novels.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Altars of Fatness

First of all the title pun is stolen from Dave Davidson's (Revocation) former food blog. In the last years, "acceptance" has been the opening slogan of every self-diagnosed underprivileged group that is yelling itself into relevance. Acceptance meaning shelter from criticism. One such slogan has been fat acceptance. Overweight and obese people, I'd assume 90%+ women, demanding to be treated equally to slim people, calling on anti-fat bias.

My personal angle on this is that I've been heavier that I ought to be for many many years. Not sickly obese, but any doctor would start with "well obviously...". I know overweight very well. And the truth is that it's due to a lack of character on my part. The overwhelming majority of fat people in the world, including myself are fat because they lack the will, the commitment and the willingness to put in time and effort to lose weight. The share of people who are overweight because of genetic defects or physical sickness, I would assert, is small, and so is the number of those who have rationally weighed (no pun intended) the pros and cons and came out with a negative benefit-cost analysis.
In most cases it's about lies and laziness and the unwillingness to dispense with the fatty and sugary food. Working out is painful and doesn't bring immediate rewards, while stuffing your face with burgers and cake is trivial and instantly rewarding. Letting it get out of hand is just as easy. To stay on the couch, inhale a bag of chips and gulp down a bottle of soda instead of lifting weights or jogging is hedonistic and weak.

And that is ok.

You can make those life choices and of course remain a valued member of society and all that. What is not okay is not taking responsibility for it. When you're a tub of goo landwhale hamplanet of a person, it's your own fault and there's nobody to blame but yourself. You want to drink soda instead of water and you want to eat chocolate cornflakes instead of oatmeal. Understanding this about your character is a very positive thing. It means you found the reason and can get a grip on it. 

Once a person has worked out that understanding, either they decide to do something about it or they consciously don't. If they do, it's a smart, healthy, adult choice. If they don't, that's still their choice to make, but they should wear their flabs with educated shame. People aren't sufficiently ashamed of themselves and obesity is just one example. The flaw in many young people's attitude is they claim the right to be attractive. Everybody has to feel good about themselves, otherwise it's oppression and discrimination. Every deviation has to be about pride somehow. I'm not proud of my bodyweight and I really shouldn't be because by every metric it's terrible. It's not something that could be interpreted positively or negatively based on personal opinion, weighing way more than what is healthy is objectively awful.

To clarify, I refer to overweight that has a negative effect on the health of a person. It's not about wearing a larger size pair of pants, but about being short of breath. Not about the double chin but about bad knees. Not about running a marathon, but about walking up the stairs. Who cares about the weight of a person when it has mere cosmetic effects. Let them live their lives. But when a person becomes a heap of flesh, they ought to wear it with the shame of failed responsibility. Shame about something you've done, not something you feel.

I'm calling it positive motivational shame. Carl G. Jung said "Shame is a soul eating emotion" (The Red Book), but isn't the point that shame makes you so uncomfortable, it motivates you to make its reasons go away until the thing you were ashamed about is gone and replaced by serenity? Bullying yourself into doing something positive seems valid to me as long as the reason to be ashamed is equally valid.