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Monday, December 08, 2014

William Gibson - The Peripheral


Since the Bridge Trilogy, the present has been catching up with William Gibson. Burning Chrome and then Neuromancer were a daring extrapolation into the future, while "Pattern Recognition" and its cousins were contemporary thrillers. The further Gibson ventured from his present day, the more interesting I found his books. In his 2014 novel The Peripheral, the bootloader of cyberpunk returns two crucial elements of his early work: a rather distant future, and the -punk bit, as he puts high tech back into the hands of the supposedly low life.


Promoted as a time travel story, the book alternates between the points of view of the two protagonists : Flynne Fisher in the 2030s' rural America and Wilf Netherton in the early 2100s' London.
Flynne, with her sick mother and former US Marine Corps brother, lives mostly off of unsteady jobs and her brother's veteran's benefits. When one day he is held up, she has to take over for him, supposedly beta-testing a VR game. In it however, she witnesses the very real murder of somebody important from Netherton's not-really-postapocalyptic time. Without giving too much away, there is a virtual connection between the two places in time, through which the future reaches out for Flynne to help them identify the killer. Changing the past doesn't change the future, as it creates a new branch of reality. However, other parties from the future want to prevent Flynne and Netherton from finding the murderer, turning a past that isn't theirs anymore into their third-worlded chessboard.

Like his best work, the most compelling part of Gibson's latest book isn't the story or the development the characters go through, but the pieces of modern society extrapolated twenty years forward that are strewn all over the story. Remote-Controlled and autonomous drones, the return of virtual reality, new extremes in body modifications, smartphones as mobile computers and most importantly the acceptance of all this into daily life take center stage. Gibson does very well in returning to lower hierarchies of society with the Fisher family and giving them tech that today would seem super-top-notch, making it part of their daily background noise. 
On the other hand, Netherton's future seems much more sterile and posh, but only because he is employed by one of the few oligarch clans that essentially rule his day and age. However his greatest twist in terms of furnishing scenarios is Gibson's refrain from using a big cataclysmic event, but rather an unfortunate combination of many factors like climate change and antibiotic resistant bacteria. 
A crucial part of scenario is how the future remembers the past, how once unquestionable constants in society are transformed or removed, how conceptions of what is and what isn't going to take off clash with the experiences with the future, and especially how self-evident and natural each period feels for its own exoticisms.

What needs pointing out is that while a few minor characters feel too much like the typical archetype they represent, Gibson does gloriously well in making Flynne a believable character. Her authenticity stems from the fact that you get a very clear idea of the kind of person Gibson conjures up, without giving her too many sharp edges. Other than Case in the beginning of Neuromancer, this might be Gibson's most relatable character yet.

William Gibson has always been difficult to read because of his phrasing. The Peripheral is no exception. The biggest hurdle are the half-finished, slang-like non-sentences he uses mostly from Flynne's perspective. At time the pace picks up, but mostly you have to slow done, both to take in all the details he has sewn into his usually fine fabric of describing the nuances of a scenario, and also to simply digest the meaning behind what you've just read in the last paragraph.

The Peripheral was a good book, not grandiose, but smart and interesting and worth reading if you're willing to trade in plot complexity for details in the world(s) it takes place in. I thought it was the best thing William Gibson has written since Idoru. Today it feels like a very reasonable extrapolation of the present, maybe in ten or twenty years we will consider it with the same bewildered amazement of hit and miss speculation that makes Neuromancer so fascinating now.
To quote the man himself: "I am trying to use science fiction to somewhat understand an unthinkable present."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Walk among them


Most of us agree to do work in exchange for currency. Commonly, a multitude of other people requiring currency as well is involved for varying lengths of time. It is therefore essential to establish a code of behaviour for oneself that regulates the interaction with these strangers. These are some of the conclusions I've come to in that regard.


An important point is to not volunteer information about yourself. Anything directly related to the task at hand should be laid out clearly to establish a functioning workplace, but you should not give away things nobody asked for. Especially your personal life, interesting as you might find it, should be held back. People will quickly summarize what they know about you, shape an uninformed oppinion and mold a vague image. When refusing information would be considered too rude, be brief and to the point. You can even make up small things to your advantage, just be consistent, ensure you're not contradicting yourself. Information is valuable, so check twice if you really want to give it away.

Precision is crucial in meetings. Often, goals are agreed on but the course of action is laid out vaguely. I've found it very helpful, when one topic is shifting to another, to make a very brief summary of what had just been discussed and ask questions like "What is the next point of action?", "Who is going to do that?" and "When does this have to be finished?". This makes sure that the decisions made are put into practice. It also makes it easier to close one topic and move on to the next.

Especially when talking to superiors (those are the people that get more currency than you), never explicitly say that something they're responsible for is bad. This will only put you in a bad spot. The best thing to do is to phrase every critique, complaint or accusation as a question. "Why is it that way?", "What is the reason it has been done like this and not like that?", "What was the motivation behind this decision?" are much safer than "That's stupid", "It would be better that way" and "I never would have done that".

Talk to different people in different ways. Figure out a balance between talking like your opposite does and talking like the person they think they should ideally be talking to. One thing I do when explaining complicated concepts to customers or my boss is that I simplify things for them, in their language, so it becomes accessible. Then I sprinkle in tiny bits of complicated lingo that they don't understand to get across how I still know more than them. That way you enable them to make informed decisions and talk to them in a relateable way, but still retain a bit of power as the expert they were looking for.

Make sure you document what information you've given whom when it comes to processes and make sure to communicate when you rely on their response to continue. This allows you to cover yourself if something goes wrong - however, only use it to defend yourself, never to attack a colleague.

If you're stuck and no reasonable amount of effort will get you out, open your mouth and ask for help. It looks terrible if you're spending loads of time on a job and have to reveal that there is no progress. However if you require information that can be obtained by looking it up, look it up instead of asking. Don't bother coworkers and request help just because it's more comfortable for you.

These were some of the things I've learned about working with other people.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Madness Opus

Revocation - Deathless [2014] []
Revocation is one of greatest young metal bands of this decade, but their 2013 album didn't convince me. I have listened to this new record many times now and still can't decide if I like it or not. It's still the same great recipe, the production is brilliant, it seems like their most mature release yet and it's definitely better than the selftitled one, but their first two albums had a little more edge to them. There are less experiments than on Chaos of Forms, but it's not repetitive. Songs like "Scorched Earth Policy" (holy shit) or "A Debt Owed to the Grave" are among their best yet, but others ("Deathless", "Labyrinth of Eyes") feel like filler. This album won't change your mind about the band, but it further establishes Revocation as the go-to name for modern metal that melts technicality and brutality like no other.


Electric Wizard - Time To Die [2014] []
The promo for the new Wizard album dared to conjure up comparisons to the eternal Dopethrone, a return to harsher and grimmer times was promised. In the real world, "Time To Die" is indeed more "metal" than 2010's rockish "Black Masses", but it is far from the crushing heavyness of their best works. A big contributor to this are the blurry vocals that settled in after the Witchcult Today album - compared to that album, this sounds super-fuzzy and vague. It's like smashing somebody in the face with a plushy blanket, it's supposed to be blunt like that, but it would work much better if it were harder. The way it is, "Time To Die" is full of forgettable songs that fail to live up to the great name this band has established for itself. Other bands now sit on the throne Electric Wizard once erected.


Rigor Mortis - Slaves to the Grave [2014] []
Twentythree years ago, Rigor Mortis went on an indefinite hiatus. In 2012, master guitarist Mike Scaccia (also of Ministry fame) died of a heart-attack on stage. Last month, they returned with a crowdfunded record that no label was interested in because no follow-up tour would ever take place. Slaves to the Grave is as close as anything will ever get to the legendary selftitled record. This means no-bullshit, breakneck speed, straight in your stupid face thrash metal, blunt riffage exploding into virtuoso solos. Slaves to the Grave is a testament to Scaccia's prowess, both in writing riffs and technical execution and the band did very well in making an album out of what he left behind. Many once great bands that try a comeback ages later fail to do their own legacy justice. Rigor Mortis on the other hand simply rip your face off.


Godflesh - World Lit Only By Fire [2014] []
Another formally disbanded legend, Godflesh return this year with a promise of past heavyness, and boy do they deliver. Just when you thought Justin Broadrick only does Jesu post-rock shoegaze anymore, he comes back with an industrial metal behemoth that feels like a big heavy machine stomping on your ears. There are few albums that do so well being repetitive, because it's mostly slow or midtempo riffs with blasts in the background and strangled shouts in front, but how the hell else would the downfall of humanity sound. It's not as catchy as the almighty Streetcleaner though. This is the only real negative point I have about the new album , it lacks memorable tracks like "Mighty Trust Crusher" that stick with you for years, instead it blends together into one colossal homogeneous thing. Maximum volume yields maximum results.


Halberd - Remnants Of Crumbling Empires [2014] []
Halberd is a brand-new and yet unsigned band with members from Canada, England and Colombia whose first record "Remnants of Crumbling Empires" was released this year. The most surprising thing is that it's a debut, because it sounds almost too competent for that. There's a lot going on, from long, slow doom death anthems to a galloping version of Celtic Frost riffage. Halberd manage to find a good balance between putting in enough stuff to keep the record interesting and remaining coherent. It's heavy, but not sluggish. It's even somewhat melodic at points, but it still feels as harsh as, for example Dicoletion. I am usually not too fond of doom/death with guttural lyrics, but this is, out of nowhere, one of the few examples that I really enjoyed. Thumbs up, most promising newcomer of the year.



Honorable Mention: Bölzer's new 2014 EP Aura is pretty ok, except for "Entranced by the Wolfshook", which is brilliant all over. Also Summoning.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Failure to Launch


Two recent technical failures presented a huge setback for the privatisation of US low orbit- and thus space travel. 


On Tuesday, an unmanned Cygnus-type freighter from Orbital Sciences was supposed to deliver supplies and technical equipment to the ISS but exploded on the launchpad. This third of eight resupply missions under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA was the first to have significant problems. Nobody was hurt because of the explosion, but of course a lot of work and equipment went up in flames. The next resupply flight to the ISS will be in early December with a Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX, their fifth mission on a so far spotless record, the next regular flight will be a Russian Soyuz rocket to pick up Expedition 41, including German astronaut Alexander Gerst
On Friday, SpaceShipTwo by Virgin Galactic had an explosion in their rocket engine, just like on Tuesday's incident The test flight of the craft intended to bring tourists to low earth orbit was manned with two pilots, one of which died because of the malfunction. SpaceShipTwo, in comparison to the NASA-hired vehicles does not start from the ground with a rocket, but is unhinged from a plane at a certain altitude and then supposed to boost beyond the atmosphere. This was the 55th flight for the craft, one of the main purposes was to test the craft’s redesigned hybrid-fuel rocket. 

Neither incident means significant practical damage to the US space program (which is still the biggest in the world), but of course its image suffered immensely. It needs to be pointed out however that the first one was a federally funded mission, while the latter one came from a completely private enterprise, there is little relation in the purpose and context of the two accidents, other than exploding rocket exhausts. If either incident will have consequences for immediate future mission schedules remains to be seen. 
So far, private companies have only moved cargo. In 2017, NASA is planning to abolish the rented seats on the Russian Soyuz ships and move to private US companies for that as well. Boeing (CST-100, 4.2 billion dollar contract) and SpaceX (Dragon 2, 2.6 billion dollar contract) have been signed up for the job and probably will now be under even more critical observation.

Other space agencies are not an option for NASA - the political tensions with Russia create a new gap that had been closed for many years, and other agencies simply do not have their own manned missions. Recent highlights outside of NASA are India's Mars orbiter that cost less than the movie Gravity and ESA will be landing a robotic probe on a comet in the next few weeks for the first time in human history, which is both very exciting, but doesn't involve human crews.

Personally, while I wish I would see manned space travel in my lifetime, and by space I don't mean low Earth orbit, I have my doubts. I would really like to be alive when the first human sets foot on Mars and I would love surface photos and probes of Titan and Europa, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. While these setbacks revolve around more tangible goals, they are certainly a benchmark that needs to be passed before grander enterprises in space exploration are undertaken.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Apathy


I can only assume that unbeknownst to all, I am sleepwalking and during that time doing something extraordinarily exhausting. There is no other explanation for being this tired. I've never really watched Parks and Rec, but had to pick up the quote "Oh, I’m fine. It’s just that life is pointless and nothing matters and I’m always tired. Also, I can’t sleep, I’m overeating and none of my old hobbies interest me.", as it sums up the whole thing pretty well. I appreciate every hour where I am not obliged to work, and if nobody makes me do something, I just don't. It's not like I live in filth or anything, there's just no drive. Some people are very active in their spare time, enjoying sports or yardwork, socializing or travelling. It all seems so unrewarding and pointless to me. Often I've been advised to go on holiday, visit a foreign country, but I honestly wouldn't know what to do once there. Sloth doesn't quite describe it, apathy seems more accurate. Objectively I am doing fairly ok in life, yet it feels like a drag.

Watching a movie or listening to music or reading books, while all vicarious and with varying payoff, are a few things worthwhile that don't require an enormous effort. To be honest, most of my spare time is spent in front of the computer, designed to make everything easily accessible. Maybe it's sensory overload, once you're used to all this stupid, screaming entertainment being thrown at us and laid out at our fingertips. I'm afraid that's all I have to say right now. I've already prepared some great title pictures for future posts, but all I can come up with for each image doesn't seem worth writing down. The above picture by the way, Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel doesn't imply apathy, I just felt the weary expression would fit.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Warframe


Hawken is a fantastic game and an awful lot of fun, but at some point you've played all maps over and over again, all your main mechs (Bruiser ftw) are fully equipped with elite parts and the only tangible reward is better equipment for your fourth mech that you don't really use in the first place. To get a break from that I checked out another free-to-play title that is very popular on Steam.

Warframe is a third person shooter / hack'n'slash / action RPG game in a distant-future setting. There is a bit of a plot about the revival of the noble ancient Tenno warrior race who pick up the fight against the evil Grineer clone-empire that controls the solar system, the Corpus conglomerate and the Infested, alien mutant monsters. However this has little practical influence on the game other than packing the enemies in different bundles.
Warframe has a very unique design when it comes to your own faction, the titular Warframes (your character's humanoid exoskeleton suit) and your equipment. The other factions and most of the levels however look exactly like you'd expect them. The missions/levels consist of randomly combined segments, which sounds like a source of endless variety, but there are only so many segments and most of them are brown-grey corridors of stone and metal with few highlights. Throughout the game you unlock the planets, moons and dwarf-planets of the solar system, but you can't tell the difference (except for the Earth-levels).

Warframe's gameplay reminds me an awful lot of Hellgate:London. You rush through hordes of enemies, mow down anything that moves and vacuum up shiny objects that drop to the ground. Looting and leveling is what it's all about. You improve your equipment using mods, which improve stats or add effects, which can each be upgraded as well. Your Warframe is essentially like a class in a classical RPG, with tanks, healers, damage dealers and so forth. Every Warframe has a melee weapon (e.g. swords), a primary weapon (e.g. rifles) and a secondary weapon (e.g. pistols), you can also get an dog-like creature or a drone to follow you into combat. More importantly however, other players join you on your missions and with the right combination can make a very effective team.

Warframe is free-to-play, but as usual this means a huge paywall. Real money translated to ingame platinum gets you all items, but at absurdly expensive exchange rates. You can get most non-decorative things through prolonged grinding, which brings me to the biggest issue I have with this game: grinding, grinding, grinding. If you're into rushing through the same indistinguishable corridors a dozen times to gather resources to get a gun that has five percent more damage output, you're going to love Warframe, because that's 90% of the game, the rest consists of combining mods and upgrading your equipment to the brim. There are several mission types, but those only add having to kill one especially hard enemy as well as the usual hordes or defending a spot for some time.

In summary, Warframe has a solid premise, but more than anything it feels shallow. The grinding, looting and upgrading isn't as rewarding as it should be to keep new players motivated. It could have done way better given the scenario and design approach, but like this it's forgettable.