The robots are coming

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Neuropolis – Robert Newman (yes, that one)

Void Star – Zachary Mason


There are a lot of things out there telling us how robots are going to take all of our jobs, and how this is a good thing or a bad thing (good thing = frees humans from the yoke of drudge work; pls give us universal basic income kthx vs. bad thing = the robots will decide we’re entirely expendable and/or liquify our corpses to power their circuitry).

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Rockafeller Skank x No Country For Old Men

OK, so I went on a bit of a Fatboy Slim dive this morning, after doing a little bit of research for this (it’s important to do your research, kids).

Which of course meant watching the video for Right Here, Right Now. Which is obviously awesome.

[Tangent: I have no idea if the “I’m #1” dude was hired for the video and then got onto the album cover or if he was just photographed and someone had to go out and find him for the video.


I think I did know once.]

Anyway, the RHRN video had a link to the Rockafeller Skank video, which I also watched. I remember being so excited the first time I heard this on the radio. Nearly as excited as the guy on the album. Anyway, the video is a lot more dream-like than I remembered. Scenes segue into each other without much narrative logic. Because that’s what you want from a dance music video, isn’t it, narrative logic? But there was one bit that suddenly jumped out at me. The guys with afros have skanked up to this door at a motel; they knock and it’s answered by a dude in a cowboy suit. They all lean back, then the cowboy tosses a coin, which they watch fall to the floor. When it lands, they all start breakdancing.

It’s such an obvious reference to No Country For Old Men. Chigurh will sometimes toss a coin to decide whether or not to kill someone he encounters. (There’s no breakdancing, from what I remember.) And it seems to have been completely missed by the internet. Possibly this is because the book is from 2005, and the video is from 1998. So perhaps what I’m saying is that Cormac McCarthy got his inspiration for Chigurh from Fatboy Slim videos?

A Dodo at Oxford – Atkins & Johnson (eds)

Is (eds) the right way to show that Messrs Atkins and Johnson are the editors of this curious little book? Perhaps.

So, a small, slightly damaged codex found in an Oxford Oxfam shop containing the first volume of the diaries of an unnamed resident of Oxford in the 17th century who came into possession of a dodo off of some dutchman. Possibly the last ever living dodo. And he decided to do some experiments on it, in the spirit of the times, to determine dodo’s personality and physical prowess. And then it comes into the hands of our editors, who first try to find who donated it (the diary) to the Oxfam shop. And then decide that it should be shared with the world, with various marginalia to cast some light on parts of the diary that might have otherwise been too recondite.

As wheezes go, this is up with the best of them. However, the “editors” seem a little bit too keen to make sure that everyone knows quite how clever they’ve been in inventing this book within a book. I didn’t mind the innumerable odds and ends “found” inside the book (a receipt for a dog’s train ticket, a stamp from Mauritius, cigarette card, anti-smoking bookmark, etc.) or the digression on pylons, or the editors’ handwritten notes on the editors’ notes (“wrong era, looks American”) that much. But what I did find annoying was the “dreams” of Mr Flay, which just seemed to be a big old flag waved to say “THIS ISN’T REAL. WE MADE IT ALL UP FOR LARKS.”

It’s not like it’s another Hitler diary. Or even Flashman. No one would really mind being fooled by this, and there’s enough really interesting stuff about printing and typography and dodos and Oxford and all sorts to make it worth reading anyway, but why shoot the pretence that it might possibly be real in the head quite so vigorously?

Breakfast of Champions – Vonnegut

Incidentally, I recently watched Rush, the film about James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. James Hunt, of course, being famous for saying “Sex is the breakfast of champions”. That’s not the case in this book, where the reference is to a certain brand of cereal which used it as a marketing slogan. I am not aware of their views on the phrase being associated with either playboy Formula 1 drivers or books about insanity and the destruction caused by the human race.

Being a Kurt Vonnegut book (I have seen it described as the most Kurt Vonnegut of books) it’s somewhat non-linear, with lots of scenes that don’t make much sense, and characters that do very unusual things for no apparent reason and also has a lot of illustrations. It absolutely hurtles along; I finished it in a day. And despite the surreality of it all, it has moments of stunning clarity, spearing modern humanity for the mad mess it is.

Hild – Nicola Griffith

Hild is, or became, St Hilda of Whitby. She starts the book as a tiny, recently orphaned child in a scary world. I enjoyed this a lot, although I wish I had paid more attention to the map at the front. I spent a lot of time frustrated that my 7th century British geography wasn’t any better. This may be partly because my north-east geography is pretty vague anyway. You’ve got your Newcastle, then Durham, and the other bits, right? I also struggled with exactly which group of people were which, and how they related to each other, personally and geographically (see above). Who were the Yffings?

I decided not to look too much of it up until after I finished, and some of what I’ve found has been quite interesting.

What none of the above changes is that the land and way of life for Hild and Edwin and Cian and all the others is immediate and alive in this book, even if the who’s doing what to who doesn’t always make perfect sense (or, more accurately, if you’re not paying attention properly). Hild climbing a tree to watch the flight of the birds. Cian desperate to show off his fighting prowess. Edwin nervously watching his gesiths for signs of disloyalty. And everyone trying to make sure they make it through to next summer, and preferably better off than last time. It’s a stunning piece of work.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years – David Graeber

Eye-popping stuff here. So, and the author nails his colours to the mast fairly early on, but this is a critical look at some of the theories that underpin the current financial system, based on the notion that everyone must pay their debts as a matter of honour, except for the US, who don’t actually have any intention of paying back their public debt (also various other governments).

Graeber is an anthropologist, and fills the first half of the book with examples of how trade and debts work away from the developed world, and examples of how it worked in history and pre-history. The surprising thing, for me at least, was that “barter” as a system never really happened before money was invented (although it was used when currencies collapsed from time to time). This is counter to just about every explanation of how trade used to work (blame Adam Smith for this), and kind of broke my mind. But it makes sense. Why would you trade chairs for pigs? How could you decide what a reasonable rate of exchange would be? So you just share stuff around the community. If you’re going to see everyone you might trade with every day for your entire life, you can’t really cheat for long.

Money tends to be invented to pay soldiers, who need portable payment, and don’t necessarily spend their time in friendly society. And then you make your taxes payable in the same coin, and it becomes the default way of trading between people. When the metal dries up – sometimes melted down into religious artefacts, sometimes stored as bullion, depending on the mores in favour in that place at that time – virtual money tends to become the norm.

This process swings through cycles, with materialism and hard cash being associated with periods of violence, and virtual money tending to be less so, although virtual money periods tend to build up resentment due to debtors being exploited by creditors, to the point where violent revolution becomes almost inevitable, unless the ruling class issues a debt-cancelling jubilee.

There’s also a lot about slavery, both physical chains and whips slavery and virtual debt-peonage/wage slavery, starting as the point where value is established – a human life is the ultimate price from which everything else is derived. Apparently. I’m not sure I fully understood this. There’s also a lot about the morality of debt, and religious pronouncements on the subject of interest-bearing loans.

All of which leads to the conclusion that capitalism cannot stand, and the debts should be cancelled, and the tables reset. We’re in a relatively new period of virtual money, since Nixon cancelled the gold standard, and it’s hard to see how it will develop, but violent revolution would be a decent guess.

I couldn’t help comparing this treatment of the origin of public debt with the way it’s dealt with in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – the celebration of the new world order of rational scientific thinking spills over into admiration for a system that allows governments to make more war – at least that’s how I remember it. I will need to read that again (any excuse). Also interesting to compare it with another far-reaching history of humanity – Why The West Rules – For Now with its energy/literacy/war-making scoring explanation for the cycles of history in China and the West -which puts a more positive spin on “progress” but also allows that we might be about to tip over into apocalyptic terror.

Off to Be the Wizard – Scott Meyer

So you may have guessed from the title, or from the amount of time it’s taken since I last blogged a book, but this is not  900-page literary work of fiction translated from the Japanese. It is, in fact, the first novel by webcomic author Scott Meyer, who does Basic Instructions.

There are varieties of webcomics. Some are mostly boobs, or crude jokes (OK, lots of them are). Some are arty and mysterious. Some re-use the same images every day. Some are “minimalist” in their artwork. Basic Instructions sits at the same image/minimalist end of that spectrum, in that a lot of the images are re-used, and, with all due respect, you wouldn’t mistake any of them for Rembrandts. The thing about doing comics this way is that it means if you want people to read, the words have to be pretty good. Basic Instructions schtick is a couple of parts geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and the occasional spoonful of comedy violence.

So you’ll probably have guessed that Off to Be the Wizard contains boobs, crude jokes and mysterious arty stuff. No, no, I’m just fooling. It contains some geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and a spoonful or two of comedy violence. Just in medieval England. Kind of. Look, it makes sense – kind of – when you read it. It borrows a bit (well, quite a lot) from The Matrix, but replaces all of the pseudo-metaphysical nonsense with a Tom Holt/Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams style sense of humour. I’m operating a machine-gun catapult in my glass house here, given this, but it could probably have done with a proper edit – some of the pacing felt a bit off, somehow (you can tell I’m not a proper editor from that), but overall it was a good fun read.