Book Review: The Boss, by Abigail Barnett. 50 Shades with less abuse, more fun

February 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We all understand the reasons to hate 50 shades of grey, right? It idolizes a relationship that is abusive to a mind-blowing extent, both physically and emotionally, and does so under cover of BDSM. The fact that Christian Grey’s behaviour can be seen as socially acceptable, even romantic, deeply unsettles both the kinkster and the feminist in me.

Many people have said the same, more eloquently, and at greater length. My favourite is by Cliff of Pervocracy, whose on-blog readthrough began with humour, but turned into sheer horror as she realised the depth of abuse in 50 shades.

Abigail Barnett has taken a different tack. Her novel The Boss is, among other things, a riposte to the nightmare that is 50 shades. She has taken the same setup: a young woman starts a kinky relationship with an older man, powerful and unimaginably rich. But in Barnett’s hands this is a sane, consensual relationship. They talk. They negotiate. They deal with the power imbalance in their lives, with their commitments to other people, with their plans for the future. And — anathema to EL James — they actually enjoy each other’s company, joking and chatting and generally having fun. It’s a rare romance — let alone a kinky romance — that you can read without constantly running up against misogynist assumptions. The Boss manages it, though, and it’s a joy to sink into comfort reading without the constant need to mentally rewrite the rapey bits.

Ian Bicking leaves python

February 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the big beasts of Python has left the building. Ian Bicking created pip (an installer), virtualenv (an environment manager) and WebOb (an HTTP library at the core of Pyramid and several other web frameworks). Besides that, he’s been a major community presence. I, like many others, have long looked to his code as an example of solid principles combined with a focus on getting stuff built.

But now he has announced something that has been coming for a while: he has moved away from python, and will be focusing on Javascript from now on.

The announcement is full of the kind of incidental insight you would expect from Ian. Some of it is about personal process — and this is a pattern I can certainly identify with:

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly excited about an idea, like really excited, I have to take a break. I need to calm down. Try to wrap my head around the ideas, because I know if I push forward directly that I’ll just muddle things up and feel disappointed. No, I don’t know that is true: maybe I don’t want to have to confront, in that moment, that the idea is not as cool as I think it is, or as possible as I think it is. But often I do step back into the problem, with ideas that are more mature for having thought more deeply about them.

He also talks about the development of libraries, from avant-garde to mainstream. You start with a groundbreaking idea. Nobody quite understands it, even the creator, so the thing ends up not quite working. It is only when another developer builds a second generation that the idea can bloom and reach wide acceptance. So pip was the second generation for easy_install and eggs, which, and SQLObject laid the ground for SQLAlchemy:

SQLObject explored a lot of metaprogramming concepts that were quite novel in the Python world at that time. At the same time maintaining it felt like a terrible burden. It took me far too long to resolve that, and only once interest had died down (in no small part due to my lack of attention) did I hand it over to Oleg who has been a far more steady hand. This would be a pattern I would unfortunately repeat. But if SQLObject helped the next generation be better that’s good enough for me.

Bicking is now at Mozilla, working with Javascript. He’s building togetherjs, a real-time collaboration library that’s one of the most exciting things happening at Mozilla. I know I’m itching for a chance to try it out, and my faith in the library is doubled by the knowledge that Ian Bicking’s wisdom is going into it.

Book Review: Redshirts (John Scalzi)

February 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Scalzi’s Star Trek spoof is a superficial romp, but a very enjoyable one. The crew of the starship Intrepid have come to realise that something is seriously wrong on their vessel. Crew assigned to expeditions alongside senior officers are liable to die in unexpected ways, while the Captain manages some risky and implausible escape. Officer Kerensky is hideously injured every other week, only to find himself fully recovered a few days later. On-ship technicians rely on a device called “The Box”, miraculously able to almost-solve a problem in the nick of time, but always requiring some obscure detail to be put right by the Intrepid‘s chief scientist. Officers have a tendency to speak rousing monologues while staring into the middle distance, and suffer strange compulsions to indulge in stupid — but dramatic — behaviour.

Rumours and wild theories abound on board, and everybody has some plan to make somebody else serve as the captain’s expendable sidekick. But a few raw recruits have the smarts to go further, and delve into the mystery of what is really happening on the Intrepid.

It’s a pitch-perfect take on the Space Opera. It’s entertaining enough even for a reader like me, who is far from steeped in the genre. The plot is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t stop the journey being great fun, and it’s short enough that you don’t mind.

60 million children left behind

February 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

A fifth of Chinese children — that’s 60 million kids — are living in villages, while their parents are in the city. According to the Washington Post:

the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.

The BBC claims these children are disproportionately victims of sexual abuse:

School children in rural areas are particularly vulnerable if their parents happen to be migrant workers who spend a long time working away from home. They often don’t get to visit regularly and the children are left to be looked after by relatives, such as grandparents.

Release the Bats!

February 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The US once tried to firebomb Japan with bats. The surreal plan was the brainchild of an American dentist, who had enough sway on Eleanor Roosevelt to get his plan trialled by the US.

The bat-bomb would explode mid-air. It would scatter dozens of bats, each individually packed, and tied to a small incendiary charge on a timer. The idea was that the bats would scatter to roost in the wooden rafters of Japanese buildings. After a while the charge would alight itself, and the building would burn down — bat and all.

The concept, which gloried in the name of Project X-Ray, was abandoned after some test bats got loose and burned down an Air Force hangar.

More: Wikipedia, The Atlantic, American Psychological Association

Pakistan and Kautilya

February 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m currently reading Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink, a depressing political survey of the last few years of the country’s history. It’s grim how much of Pakistan government policy is determined by a very crude geopolitical version of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

The Pakistan army’s main concern is India. A strong, independent Afghanistan would be a potential ally for India, allowing Pakistan to be attacked from two sides. So Afghanistan should be kept as a subservient hinterland, unthreatening and potentially even providing space (“strategic depth”) for the Pakistani army. And that weak government should be Pashtun, like the powers-that-be in Pakistan, even if it means preferring the Taliban over the Northern Alliance.

Everything is abstract, geographical, military, with a dash of ethnic favoritism. There’s absolutely no idea that people might be defined by more than tribe and location.

It all reminds me a bit of the Arthashastra, the book in which Kautilya (“India’s Machiavelli”) laid down the rules of statecraft around 300BC. Kautilya looks at international relations geographically; location is what matters:

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.
The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

That pretty much sums up Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Kautily then spins off into one of those overly systematic arrangements so common in Sanskrit texts:

In front of the conqueror and close to his enemy, there happen to be situated kings such as the conqueror’s friend, next to him, the enemy’s friend, and next to the last, the conqueror’s friend’s friend, and next, the enemy’s friend’s friend.

In the rear of the conqueror, there happen to be situated a rearward enemy (párshnigráha), a rearward friend (ákranda), an ally of the rearward enemy (párshnigráhásárá), and an ally of the rearward friend (ákrandására)

By the time he’s finished we have “four primary Circles of States, twelve kings, sixty elements of sovereignty, and seventy-two elements of states”. Phew! But sometimes it seems there is more nuance and insight in Kautilya than among his epigones in the Pakistan Army.