Scratch Pad: AI, Liminal, Reading

From the past week (or so)

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media, which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week. These days that mostly means

▰ This hold music is like if an AI had been asked to make the worst possible album of Miles Davis’ Warner Bros. years and to leave out the trumpet parts.

▰ Let’s get liminal, liminal — I wanna get liminal — let’s get into liminal

▰ RIP, David Crosby. Hard to describe how much the Byrds influenced my early listening: the harmonies, the song structures, the tuning.

▰ If you have some (fiction) book recommendations, please send ’em my way. Thanks. Start of the year. I have a long list, and it’s pretty full up of sci-fi and thrillers/mysteries and classics, but I’d sure appreciate suggestions for recent-ish literary novels that don’t have as their topic (1) writers/writing and/or (2) the love lives of middle-class professionals. Bonus points if you can avoid using the words “devastating” and “stunning.”

▰ Third novel I finished reading this year: Take No Names by Daniel Nieh. I read it because I’d seen him mentioned alongside Fonda Lee, whose Jade trilogy I super dug, and it got a solid mention in the New York Times. It’s the second book in a series (same main character, and numerous secondary ones), but I had no difficulty jumping in because the narrative makes regular mentions of what happened in the previous one. It’s about a Chinese-American on the run after his dad is killed in the first book (he’s a suspect, even though he didn’t do it). He ends up in Mexico, initially trying to sells some goods, but then engaging in a crazy black ops situation that is quite out of scale with what preceded it. I found the trilingual aspects — English, Chinese, Spanish — rewarding, especially the Chinese material (nuances of translation, nifty bits of cryptography). The fight scenes were quite detailed without losing their sense of momentum (as is the case with Fonda Lee’s work), and overall there’s some pretty darn good writing, both descriptive and dialogue (especially in the case of a secondary character who becomes prominent pretty early on). I’ll probably go back and read the first book, Beijing Payback, at some point. Mostly I’m looking forward to what’s next.

▰ Sudden flashback: it’s the year 2000, and I wake to so much email in my inbox that by the time I am done deleting all the spam a whole new hoard of spam has arrived, and then a third round of spam deletion is necessary before I can actually begin to get to my non-spam email. The rest of the day it’s like swatting flies continuously.

▰ Belated notes on second novel I finished reading this year: Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire, recommended by a new acquaintance because it involves Bach. It tells the story of a secret Bach composition that contains anti-Semitic language. The music is discovered when a WWII vet dies, leaving it to his niece, the central character in the novel. We also meet a few Bach scholars, and descendants of Bach himself, and their social and professional circles, including Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, as the story jumps back and forth in time. The Bach piece turns out to be a hot potato (a sort of anti-MacGuffin), passed down through history by people who don’t know what to do with it — they don’t want to destroy it, since it’s by Bach, and they don’t want to circulate it, since the text is unambiguously odious. The writing reminds me of big-picture science fiction, right down to awkward depictions of courtship in the romantic subplot, and the emphasis on people sitting around having lengthy philosophical conversations. It’s almost like “hard” scifi, with occasional musicological and theological deep dives (Michael Marissen, the author’s husband, is a Swarthmore professor of music and author of Bach & God, which explores anti-Semitic matters in Bach’s works) substituting for nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

▰ Belated notes on first novel I finished reading this year: The Mother Code by Carole Stivers, a PhD in biochemistry who brings her scientific background — emphasis apparently on medical diagnostics — to her chosen futuristic scenario, one in which a global plague set off by the military wipes out most of humanity, and all that seems to remain are some kids rapidly bioengineered to survive in our newly poisoned ecosystem, and the robots designed to “mother” them. It was sorta fun that the plot eventually spends about half its time a few blocks from where I live in San Francisco.

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