Minor Thoughts from me to you

A New Flag for the New South

For the past two days, I've been listening to Dan Carlin's conversation with Sam Harris. This morning, I heard an exchange around the Confederate Flag that caught my attention. First, Dan floated the thought of a redesigned Confederate flag, to show regional pride without showing racism.

I would love to interview these folks, because whenever someone writes me a letter about this, they always say "It's not about the slaves and it's not about the racial situation, it's about the right to seceede, to protect your life, it's a right to do all ...", in other words, take every reason for the civil war besides the slavery aspect and they will say it's about that because nobody's, or very few people I've ever spoken to, say "Yeah, I fly the flag because black people are inferior and blah, blah, blah." I would love to see a notation then to the flag, you know there's a lot of flags from other countries where something will happen and a new regime will take over or something will change and they'll alter the flag slightly, you know we'll always put another star on our flag when a new state came in. Seems to me you could put something like a chain being snapped or something in the center of the flag or something that indicated that this flag isn't in favor of slavery or this is the post-slavery Confederacy or "Welcome back black people to the New South", whatever. Something that just sort of said, "You know the little chain on the flag being freed, yeah, that shows that this flag does not represent something that said that the slavery was the part that we would like to see returned."

A few minutes later, Dan came back to that thought and expanded on it a bit more.

In the emails that I'll get about this people will talk about "It's just a pride in your heritage sort of thing". I think the pity then is that there isn't an alternative symbol that if you wanted to say "I'm a Southerner and I'm proud of it" that you could show that didn't have the same overtones, that didn't appear to some people that you're not just saying "Yes, I'm proud of the South but I'm proud of things the South did before the Civil War". I mean the United States for example has a whole bunch of other flags that we've flown at one time or another, the Gadsen Flag, all those kinds of things, which different people can appropriate to show different aspects or different ideas. Seems to me, if you're into Southern pride—and I don't think there's anything wrong with having pride in your heritage, or your grandfathers, or anything like that. It's a pity that the symbol you could use to show that has all sorts of other overtones that are not just deeply offensive but that make people who are valued members of your community feel, not just like second class citizens, but maybe even a little afraid. Who would want to show that in a way that took other Southerners and, instead of making them feel proud, would make them feel the opposite of proud?

I decided to take that idea and run with. What if I took the Confederate flag and changed the colors? I decided to keep the basic elements, to represent some continuity of Southern culture, but change the colors to signify that this is a New South that doesn't embed the racism and hate of the past.

Original Flag

I think the defining features of the original flag are the bold, red field that dominates the flag and the two blue bars that crisscross the field. That's what I need to change, to make this feel like an updated, more modern, version of the flag.

Original Confederate flag

Redesign 1

For my first attempt, I wanted to deemphasize the red. I moved the blue from the bars to the field and moved the red from the field to the stars and the outline of the bars.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 1

Redesign 2

I didn't like how bright (eye searing?) the red and white bars were. I decided to make the field white and match blue bars with white stars. I deemphasized the red even more, relegating it to the outline of the bars.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 2

Redesign 3

The second attempt was better than the first, but I didn't like the bright expanse of white, now that the entire field was white. I made the field blue again and decided to get rid of the red entirely, replacing it with green. Now the stars are green and the outline of the bars is green.

I'll say that the green is there because it can represent the rebirth of the South into the new South.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 3

Redesign 4

This is nearly identical to the third redesign. In this one, I removed the outline of the bars, to make for a starker contrast against the blue field and a further distancing from the Old South design.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 4

What do you think? Can you imagine seeing one of these flags as a common symbol of the New South, one not associated with racism and hate?

This entry was tagged. Culture Reform

Review: River of Stars [★★★★★]

River of Stars

River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 18 June 2015–29 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This is another novel of Kitai, Guy Gavriel Kay's analog to historical China. This book takes place in a time roughly equivalent to the early 12th century. Kay described his own setting, in the book's "Acknowledgement" section, along with his reason for working in historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction.

River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.

... I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desires for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, or developing the characters of my two Lu brothers, than I would be imposing needs and reflections (and relationships) on their inspirations: Li Qingzhao, the best-known female poet in China’s history, General Yue Fei, or the magnificent Su Shi and his gifted younger brother. Not to mention other figures at the court (including Emperor Huizong himself) in the time leading up to and through the dynasty’s fall.

But what is the river of stars? In Kitai legends, it is that which lies between mortal men and their dreams. It is what must be crossed over, after death, to reach the afterlife. That's an appropriate title because the major theme of the book is what is remembered of a life, after that life is over. River of Stars focuses largely the life of the main character, Ren Daiyan and explores what he did and how he was remembered.

Kay is fascinated by the ways in which the decisions and events that seem almost trivial at the time become something that reverberates throughout time. He's also fascinated by the opposite side of that: the things that could have been momentous, but sink with barely a ripple because of what was happening elsewhere or because of the way in which a life was cut short.

All of that leads, inexorably I think, to a meditation on the way in which we construct narratives to explain the world around us. I think the result musings were frequently poignant.

He died too young in a war in which too many died.

We cannot know, being trapped in time, how events might have been altered if the dead had not died. We cannot know tomorrow, let alone a distant future. A shaman might claim to see ahead in mist but most of them (most of them) cannot truly do this: they go into the spirit world to find answers for today. Why is this person sick? Where will we find water for the herds? What spirit is angry with our tribe?

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought. A tale-spinner by a hearth fire or gathering a crowd in a market square or putting brush to paper in a quiet room, deep into his story, the lives he’s chronicling, will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a river spirit, a ghost, a god.

He will say or write such things as, “The boy killed in the Altai attack on the Jeni encampment was likely to have become a great leader of his people, one who could have changed the north.”

Or, “Lu Mah, the poet’s son, was one whose personal desire would have kept him living quietly, but his sense of duty and his great and growing wisdom would have drawn him to the court. He was lost to Kitai, and that made a difference.”

However boldly someone says this, or writes it, it remains a thought, a wish, desire, longing spun of sorrow. We cannot know.

We can say Mah’s was a death too soon, as with O-Yan of the Jeni, their kaghan’s little brother, slain in the first attack of a grassland rising. And we can think about ripples and currents, and wonder at the strangeness of patterns found—or made. A first death in the north and the death farthest south in the Altai invasion, in the years of the Twelfth Dynasty when the maps were redrawn.

But then, maps are always being redrawn. The Long Wall had once been the forbidding, fiercely guarded border of a great empire. We look back and we look ahead, but we live in the time we are allowed.

A related theme is the way in which we, of the present, look back at the past and try to draw lessons from it. But that too is a construct. Life happens and is often incomprehensible in the happening. It's only much later that someone can see a pattern or a lesson.

He died on that last thought, not the one about fearing a sword. That had come a moment before, while the man who ended his short span of days (Pu’la of the Altai was seventeen years old, his father’s only son) had been levelling a bow.

It was a similar death—on guard at night, an arrow—to that of another young rider two summers before. O-Yan of the Jeni, fourteen years of age, had been killed by an arrow loosed by Pu’la’s own skilled and deadly father on the night the Altai attacked the Jeni camp, beginning their assertion of themselves upon the world.

There might have been a lesson, a meaning, in this, or not. Most likely not, for who was there to learn of it, and what would the teaching be?

I gained two things from this novel. The first is a continuation of my desire to learn more about Chinese history and culture. Kay has convinced me that that history is rich and deep and worth studying. Second, is a humility about looking back at that history. The events of the past are the sum of the hopes, dreams, fears, and actions of the people of the past. Their stories are what's worth focusing on, more than the supposed lessons of the past.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Reading Idea: The Library at Mount Char

$10.99 on Kindle

Here's the hook: apprentice librarians, practically living in a magical library, learning lots and of powerful magic. How would that change you? Here's how author Scott Hawkins describes his novel.

Along those same lines, what if the guy you room with has, through diligent study of his corner of the magic library, become the most dangerous person alive? He’s invulnerable-ish. Maybe he’s not quite at the Superman level, but he’s more than a match for, say, a battalion of infantry with artillery and air support. Your roommate is the absolute pinnacle of the Earthly food chain, and he just drank your last beer. Again.

Maybe when you first moved in together he was nice enough—or not. But over time, the knowledge that he’s completely immune to any sort of discipline has had an impact on his manners. He never vacuums. There are dishes in the sink. The last time he stole your beer you left him a polite note. He broke your arm. Your buddy who resurrects people fixed it—you got her a pint of Haagen-Dazs the last time you bought groceries, so she didn’t even keep you waiting for long–but it still smarted like a sonofagun.

Do you leave another note? Or just suck it up and go to bed?

…What if you decided you wanted out?

How would that even be possible? Even if you did escape after a lifetime in that environment, what would normal people seem like to you?

What would you seem like to them?

…Still, even with their access strictly controlled, these librarians learn some interesting stuff. One guy talks to animals. Another spends weekends commuting to the twenty-third millennium to go clubbing with friends. There’s a woman who keeps a spy army of ghost children, invisible to anyone but her.

Unless you’ve got the soul of a Peter Parker, just living in the vicinity of that kind of power would affect your personality.

The hook and description caught my interest. The editorial reviews solidified it.

“A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge…Hawkins has created a fascinating, unusual world in which ordinary people can learn to wield breathtaking power—and he's also written a compelling story about love and revenge that never loses sight of the human emotions at its heart. A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book.”
Kirkus (starred)

“An extravagant, beautifully imagined fantasy about a universe that is both familiar and unfamiliar…Hawkins makes nary a misstep in this award-worthy effort of imagination. You won't be able to put it down.”
Booklist (starred)

"A bizarre yet utterly compelling debut...might remind readers of Robert Jackson Bennett's or Neil Gaiman's horror/fantasies.”
Library Journal (starred)

“A first-rate novel… a sprawling, epic contemporary fantasy about cruelty and the end of the world, compulsively readable, with the deep, resonant magic of a world where reality is up for grabs. Unputdownable.”
Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling author of Little Brother and Makers

"The most genuinely original fantasy I’ve ever read. Hawkins plays with really, really big ideas and does it with superb invention, deeply affecting characters, and a smashing climax I did not see coming."
—Nancy Kress, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Beggars in Spain

“A pyrotechnic debut...The most terrifyingly psychopathic depiction of a family of gods and their abusive father since Genesis.”
Charles Stross, Hugo and Locus Award-winning author of Accelerando and The Apocalypse Codex

Reading Idea: Enter the Janitor

$4.99 on Kindle

Josh Vogt pitches his fantasy novel, over at Scalzi's site.

In Enter the Janitor, the Big Idea was that magic is actually hiding in plain sight. It’s evolved alongside humanity and taken on quite a different role than it used to hold. Rather than a religious function or mystic mumbo-jumbo, magic could be connected to our history of sanitation and hygiene. Think about how many little health rituals we practice every day; at the same time, keeping things clean is often done on auto-pilot, meaning we may miss very obvious clues that something supernatural might be in the works. How many commercials and ads treat cleaning tools and chemicals as literally magical implements? Animated soap bubbles…talking sponges…even the genie-like Mr. Clean.

Magic also could have become more of a corporate affair, staffed with janitors, plumbers, maids, and more who dedicate their lives to the craft, much like ancient wizards and mages and witches would’ve. Rather than saving the world from eldritch towers, they began to do so in plain sight, one clean window and one mopped floor at a time. They swapped out wands and staffs for squeegees and mops and spray bottles.

…The more I thought about this, the more I realized I needed to revel in exploring this ridiculous version of reality. And that’s when both the characters and the world they inhabited came fully to life in my mind. Janitor closets could be mystic portals. Garbage dumps could be repositories of power. Sewers could be…well…still sewers, but with stranger creatures slithering through them.

I think that's a very clever concept. I'm always suspicious of self-published works. (Was there something wrong with it, that a traditional publisher wouldn't grab it?) But this one has an interesting enough concept that I may give it a chance.

How Polluting is Your Car, On a Scale of 1 to Horse Manure?

It's fashionable to decry the horrid pollution of gas guzzling, emission belching, fossil fuel cars. But how do they compare to life in late nineteenth century urban America? (I'll re-use this quote from my last reading idea.)

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

Say what you will about my Toyota Sienna minivan, but no one will ever have to step in, smell, or sweep up any poop from it. Modern life is far cleaner, healthier, and more hygienic thanks to the widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine. It's not the sexiest technology, but I'm very happy to have it.

This entry was tagged. Cars Good News

Reading Idea: The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century

$29 in paperback

Tyler Cowen references an interesting sounding book, in his Equine Markets in Everything post.

Circa the late nineteenth century, in urban America:

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

That is from Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, an excellent book from 2007.  I am sorry it took me so long to discover this work.  It has wonderful sentences such as:

Stables rarely make it into the histories of the built environment, although they constituted a substantial part of that environment.

How can you go wrong with that?  There is a good economics on every page of this book.

Review: Under Heaven [★★★★★]

Under Heaven

Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 10 June 2015 - 15 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This story, set in a fictional country of Kitan, is loosely based on Tang China, the master poets of the dynasty, and the An-Lushan rebellion. I came to the story completely unfamiliar with Chinese history. I was captivated by the story and the beauty of the society that the story depicts.

Shen Tai, the second son of General Shen Gao, has spent the last two years in a solitary pursuit—he's been burying the dead at Kuala Nor. These are the soldiers killed during one of the last battles with the Taguran Empire. He's been burying the dead of both armies, as a way of honoring his late father's memory.

Near the end of his two years at Kuala Nor, Shen Tai receives a letter from the Taguran princess, giving him a gift of 250 Sardian horses. These are the most magnificent horses for hundreds of miles, coveted by everyone in Kitan. Men would kill for any of these horses, let alone 250 of them. This gift is both a potential death sentence and an incredible opportunity.

The rest of the story concerns both Shen Tai and the empire of Kitan, how they grew and changed and what effect the horses had on the course of history. This is a story about Kitan, the Tang Dynasty, as much as it is about Shen Tai or anyone else.

Like all of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels that I've read, this one is beautifully written and very moving. There are fantastical elements to the story, but they take a back seat to the characterizations and the evocative language. It's a story that forces you to appreciate human nature and the way that history can change on the smallest of decisions. It was a pleasure to read.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

I Appreciate Justice Thomas →

Tamara Tabo writes at Above the Law.

Liberal critics frequently bash Thomas for haplessly following the lead of fellow conservative Justices such as Antonin Scalia, unable to form reasoned opinions on his own.

Thomas’s many dissents belie the criticism that he marches in lockstep. This Term, he holds the weakest voting relationships of any Justice with his or her fellow Justices. His rate of disagreement with Justice Sonia Sotomayor — currently 57% — is the weakest voting relationship of any two Justices on the Court. Even his agreement rates with Scalia and Roberts amount only to 77% and 66%, respectively — far cries from the 90+% relationships between some other Justices.

…Thomas’s dissents often represent radical departures from the fundamental approach of the rest of the Court. He’s not quibbling over factual judgment calls. He’s often applying an entirely different method of deciding the case. ​> …Clarence Thomas is either unafraid of correcting bad precedent, or he is flagrantly disrespectful of stare decisis, depending upon how one looks at it. His fidelity to text might seem downright obsessive, even to a fellow originalist like Justice Scalia. Thomas has the tunnel vision of a man sure of his method, regardless of what his colleagues see. ​ I've long appreciated Justice Thomas. He doesn't write with the wit and sarcasm of Justice Scalia. But his opinions are always principled and well reasoned.

I love his willingness to go with what's right, regardless of the precedent established by the errors of previous courts. When it comes to upholding the Constitution as written, Justice Thomas has no peers.

Towards A Solution for Medical Price Transparency →

The biggest problem in healthcare is that providers—doctors and hospitals—are allergic to straightforward pricing and refuse to give actual prices before providing services. This idea for a solution isn't perfect but I think it's worth trying.

Perhaps a solution in the healthcare arena would be to institute binding arbitration in cases where providers refuse to agree on prices before providing service. And perhaps the binding arbitration could be based on the fee the patient offered to pay upfront, but declined by the provider in favor of bureaucratic claims processing. For example, if a patient had offered (in good faith) to pay $5,000 for the surgery; but the EOB and claim came in at $50,000, the arbitrator would award one or the other. Common sense tells us that the arbitrator will almost always award the patient’s upfront offer.

Drop-In Chefs Help Seniors Stay In Their Own Homes →

This is a very interesting service, from a local Madison company.

“A healthy diet is good for everyone. But as people get older, cooking nutritious food can become difficult and sometimes physically impossible. A pot of soup can be too heavy to lift. And there’s all that time standing on your feet. It’s one of the reasons that people move into assisted living facilities.

But a company called Chefs for Seniors has an alternative: They send professional cooks into seniors’ homes. In a couple of hours they can whip up meals for the week.”

“According to some estimates, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million seniors living in their own homes who are malnourished. In long-term care facilities, up to 50 percent may suffer from malnutrition. This leads to increased risk for illness, frailty and falls.”

“Part of the business plan is keeping the service affordable. In addition to the cost of the food, the client pays $30 an hour for the chef’s time. That’s usually a couple of hours a week of cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. There’s also a $15 charge for grocery shopping. So clients pay on average $45 to $75 a week.

And while there are lots of personal chefs out there and services that deliver meals for seniors there are few services specifically for older adults that prepare food in their homes.”

This isn't what most people would think of as healthcare, but I'd call it healthcare innovation. Living a healthy life—and eating right— is a big part of staying out of clinics and hospitals. If people spend money on this service, they could very well be saving thousands of dollars in other healthcare expenses.

This strikes me as the kind of service that insurance companies won't want to provide but that patients would be willing to pay for, if they have control over their own healthcare dollars.

Wisconsin's Two Chief Justices →

It looks like it'll be an interesting—and awkward—couple of months on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

“Wisconsin Supreme Court justices moved quickly Wednesday to elect a new chief following certification of a constitutional amendment that ended seniority as the sole determinant, even as a federal lawsuit was pending seeking to delay replacing longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Abrahamson objected to the email vote making Justice Patience Roggensack the chief justice, and Abrahamson continues to believe she still holds the position, her attorney Robert Peck said in a letter filed with U.S. District Court late Wednesday.”

This entry was tagged. Wisconsin

Review: Lords and Ladies [★★★★☆]

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 15 March 2015 - 17 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

After Terry Pratchett's death, last week, I felt the need to read more of his novels, in memoriam. When I last read a Discworld novel, I was reading in the "Witches" sub-series. I decided to keep going with that and read Lords and Ladies.

The last novel was a send-up of fairy godmother stories. This was a pastiche of elf (or fairie) stories, primarilyA Midsummer Nights Dream. Pratchett chose to present his elves as amoral monsters who toyed with humanity purely out of a boredom and a desire for entertainment. Their power derived from their ability to make people feel completely overwhelmed by their inferiority to the elves. The overmatched individuals lost all inclination to fight back, feeling that whatever happened to them was just and right.

The surface plot revolved around the wedding of King Verence and Magrat Garlick. Throughout the story, Magrat tries to figure out who she is and what her role in life should be. Granny Weatherwax and Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University, both feel regret for paths that they didn't take through life.

Surprisingly, I thought the story contained a strong streak of conservatism. Part of the idea of conservatism is that past generations knew things that we don't and structured society (or traditions) in response to that knowledge. We may have forgotten the knowledge that they had, but we still have the traditions that they established to embody that knowledge.

In Lords and Ladies, elves are let into the world of men through the actions of young witches who think that their elders (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) are exasperatingly old-fashioned. They flout several traditions, including several that were key in keeping elves away from the Discworld. Because of their rejection of tradition, Lancre almost falls under the sway of the elves again. The current generation has to relearn the lessons that led to the traditions of past generations. By the end of the story, they begin following those traditions again, to keep their own families and children safe.

I enjoyed this story on all of the levels that I saw.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Maskerade [★★★★☆]

Maskerade

Maskerade
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 17 March 2015 - 18 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

The Ghost in the bone-white mask who haunts theAnkh-Morpork Opera House was always considered a benign presence -- some would even say lucky -- until he started killing people. The sudden rash of bizarre backstage deaths now threatens to mar the operatic debut of country girl Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt, she of the ample body and ampler voice.

Perdita's expected to hide in the chorus and sing arias out loud while a more petitely presentable soprano mouths the notes. But at least it's an escape from scheming Nanny Ogg and old Granny Weatherwax back home, who want her to join their witchy ranks.

Or as I'd describe it: "the one where Gytha Ogg and Esme Weatherwax go to Ankh-Morpok and meet the Phantom of the Opera." I quite enjoyed it. Pratchett had some great humor around the inherently nonsensical nature of opera. And, of course, it's great fun to see what happens anytime that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg interact with unsuspecting innocents.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Carpe Jugulum [★★★★☆]

Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 18 March 2015 - 19 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

[This book] involves an exclusive royal snafu that leads to comic mayhem. In a fit of enlightenment democracy and ebullient goodwill, King Verence invites Uberwald's undead, the Magpyrs, into Lancre to celebrate the birth of his daughter. But once ensconced within the castle, these wine-drinking, garlic-eating, sun-loving modern vampires have no intention of leaving. Ever.

Only an uneasy alliance between a nervous young priest and the argumentative local witches can save the country from being taken over by people with a cultivated bloodlust and bad taste in silk waistcoats. For them, there's only one way to fight.

Go for the throat, or as the vampyres themselves say...Carpe Jugulum.

The best part of the book is the fact that Lord Magpyr is aware of every single vampire trope—and is determined to be unaffected by any of them. He intends to be the first of a new breed of vampire: invulnerable to anything. The main hitch in his plan isn't the witches. It's his servant Igor, who thinks that the old ways are the best and that his new master is a disgrace to the memory of the old Lord Magpyr.

This book is a humorous send-up for anyone who's ever enjoyed a Frankenstein movie, a Buffy episode, or Dracula itself.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Time [★★★★☆]

Time

Time
by Stephen Baxter

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 07 March 2015 - 22 March 2015
Goal: Hard Science Fiction

I like hard science fiction, but I don't like it for the stories. Most of the hard SF stories that I've read are a little bit thin in the plot department. Mostly I don't care, because I'm not reading them for the plot or the characters. I'm reading them for the ideas. It's a more enjoyable way to learn about science than actually reading journal articles.

This story isn't an exception to that generality. There wasn't a lot of plot and the characters weren't very deep. But the science was interesting. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy. There's a company called "Bootstrap" that exists to, well, bootstrap humanity into space, mining the incredible wealth in the asteroids.

Bootstrap uses cheap, disposable rockets and its initial flight is piloted by an intelligent squid. The flight is to an asteroid called Cruithne, which appears to orbit the earth in a very odd pattern. The launch date is sparked due to the Carter catastrophe.

The characters also use something called a Feynman radio, to pick up signals from the future. As things progress, we see a vision of a possible far, far future where humanity's distant descendants mine the stars themselves, and blackholes, for energy. The characters also witness a succession of universes, showing that our universe is but one of an evolutionary tree, with universes evolving from each other. It turns out that blackholes could be the means by which daughter universes are spawned.

All of these science elements are either real or quite plausible and Baxter gives a list of references, at the end of the book. Don't read this for the plot, but do read it for the ideas and the exploration of what could, quite possibly, be.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Yesterday’s Kin [★★★☆☆]

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday’s Kin
by Nancy Kress

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 10 March 2015 - 11 March 2015
Goal: Interesting Hooks

I put this book on my reading ideas list because of the author's description of the story.

I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.

I don't feel like I saw that in this story. The science seemed real enough. (I don't have nearly enough knowledge to speak confidently on the subject.) But I don't feel like I saw any career-impacting mistakes or triumphant corrections.

The main viewpoint character didn't really do any science in the story. It opens after she's already published her groundbreaking paper. Everything else she does, throughout the story, is described as the type of thing that a lab assistant could do. As a result, I didn't see "biological discoveries being made under pressure", either with teamwork or competition.

The overall story also seemed flat, like pieces were missing. Everything was painted in with a brush that was just that much too light. We needed more more detail than we got. The story worked fine as a pitch for a longer novel, but didn't work all that well as it is.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Beyond the Shadows [★★★☆☆]

Beyond the Shadows

Beyond the Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 8 March 2015 - 10 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This book was better than Shadow's Edge, the previous book in the series. The action moved along at a brisk pace and there was plenty of it. Much more action than you normally get in a book of epic fantasy.

The action comes at a cost though. This entire series spent much less time on world building than typical epic fantasy novels do. I think that's a weakness of this action packed approach. Because it's epic fantasy, Brent Weeks created a large world with multiple different nations, complex politics, varied religions, and multiple different magic systems.

Weeks spent comparatively little time actually describing how everything worked. I spent a lot of time confused, wondering what was going on and what the significance of certain characters or actions was. Things were unexplained enough that I spent parts of the story wondering if I'd missed a previous book that set things up or if parts of this story were missing.

The story was also prone to sudden bouts of info dumping. Often, it would come as characters suddenly paused and "realized" what had been going on for the past 10 chapters and thought threw a whole chain of events. Or characters would suddenly start explaining things in-depth in a way that rarely felt natural. These info dumps served to inform the reader, but in a way that magnified the story's flawed structure.

Weeks created characters that I liked and magic systems that were interesting, but I didn't completely enjoy the books that contained the stories. I read Brent Weeks as an experiment. After concluding the experiment, I'm not sure I'll be reading more of his books.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

My View on Unions and the Middle Class

This morning, a friend linked to an article on Salon.com, "The conservative plot to destroy the middle class: Scott Walker, 'right-to-work' and America’s new Gilded Age". I read it and I had some issues with how it portrayed the labor history of the last 100 years. In order to agree with Thom Hartmann's polemic, you have to agree with his assumptions about what happened and his implications about what caused various changes.

Allow me to summarize. Pre-unions, Americans were split into the super poor and the super rich. Then FDR passed the Wagner Act, giving unions the strength to fight for workers. From that time forward, the US middle class sprang into being and grew into a strong backbone of society. The forces of evil fought back and worked to weaken unions. The American middle class began to stagnate and to fall behind. If we don't fight to keep unions strong, the American middle class may disappear forever.

I disagree with Hartmann's history of labor and the middle class. I think unions helped some, but also caught the pre-existing wave of economic growth. The growth before WWII was caused by technological innovation, aided by the Harding and Coolidge efforts to cut government spending and debt.

The tremendous economic growth after WWII came out because the European economies had been literally bombed into oblivion. American factories grew explosively, producing all of the goods that European citizens were demanding. American workers were the beneficiaries of this flood of wealth.

Over time, the European economies recovered and the Europeans rebuilt their manufacturing base. The Japanese began to emerge and fight for their own slice of the global market. As worldwide competition increased, American businesses had to economize and cut costs, including labor costs. This eroded the wage premiums that unions had previously demanded for their members.

As American businesses were facing competition from abroad, American workers faced increased competition at home. During the 70's and 80's, more and more American women entered the workforce. This increase in the labor supply had its own impact, helping to hold down wages and benefits.

The American family also began to change, with more single parent households and more single (working) women. This increased the number of households in the country and decreased the average number of wage earners per household. This, in turn, caused the measured statistics of "income per household" to decline. The net change was that, even as the economy continued to grow, the statistical picture looked as though the middle class was stagnating.

That's my story and, given enough time, I can conjure up links to various charts and graphs that explain why I believe this story.

Right now, I'd rather point out why I don't like Hartmann's story. I'll list out the points of disagreement and give a thumbnail capsule of why I disagree with each point.

From the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to today, the economic agenda of conservatives has been easily summarized in two words: “cheap labor.”

That's an opinion and it's Hartmann's opinion. As a libertarian who supports right-to-work, I'd summarize my agenda as "freedom". I believe it leads to cheaper labor for some, more expensive labor for others.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Republican efforts to make as many states as possible “right-to-work” states—more accurately described as right-to-work-for-less states.

Sure. Let's go ahead and redefine terms to create an emotional preconception against the thing that you're arguing against. It's a fine demagogic technique, but let's not pretend that it's entirely honest. This also ignores the fact that working for less can be a good thing. If a business is struggling, would you rather work for less or be laid off because your union refused to agree to a wage cut? If you're an inexperienced worker, would you rather work for less while you gain experience or be frozen out of a job entirely, because you're not worth the high starting wage that the union negotiated?

Only two entities have the power necessary to stand up for working people against the massive control of oligarch employers: government and unions.

There are three assertions in this sentence. I don't agree with any of them.

  1. Employers are oligarchs who exert massive control over working conditions and compensation.
  2. Governments are capable of protecting all employees.
  3. Unions are capable of protecting all employees.

I'd say the first is only true if you can easily list off all of the employers in your area. If you can and the list is small, those employers may have oligarchic control. If you can't, if there are too many employers to count, it's likely that none of them have oligarchic control over employment in your area.

Governments are often captured by special interests and used by those special interests to give themselves special privileges. An especially egregious example was when white southerners, of all economic statuses, used Jim Crow laws to mandate discrimination against minorities. In that time and place, the government most emphatically did not have the power to stand up for working people of color.

Unions are the very definition of a special interest. They exist to protect the employees in specific businesses and industries. They do this by fighting for special conditions; whether in wages, working conditions, or benefits; that are not available to all employees everywhere. They make life better for employees in the union at the expense of employees outside of the union. (If they weren't able to do this, there wouldn't be a reason to freely join the union.)

Instituting right-to-work-for-less laws is a not-so-subtle plot to starve and destroy one of the only two institutions that can stand up and demand a decent living wage for American workers.

Biased assertion of motive. As a backer of right to work laws, that's absolutely not my motive, nor is it the motive of the other backers that I know.

Right-to-work-for-less laws ensure the cheap labor conservatives have sought for generations.

This is an assertion of debatable fact, without evidence.

Unions have been a bulwark of the middle class ever since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s 1935 Wagner Act, which guaranteed workers’ rights to unionize, America had been mostly either very rich or very poor.

... Following the Wagner Act’s implementation, and Roosevelt’s raising of the top marginal income tax rate on multi-millionaires to 90 percent, the first true American middle-class came into being.

This is an assertion of debatable fact, without evidence. Additionally, Hartmann commits the post-hoc fallacy, in asserting that the Wagner Act gave rise to the middle class.

[The Taft-Hartley bill] was an early domestic version of the “free trade” disaster we’re seeing now with NAFTA, GATT/WTO, CAFTA and coming soon, the TPP—a race to the cheap labor bottom that started to take root in the American south right after passage of Taft-Hartley.

As I discussed above, the downward pressure on wages is a result of the fact that America lost its manufacturing monopoly as the rest of the world's economies grew out of the post WWII era. The increased competition in producing goods and services strongly limits the prices that any one manufacturer can demand, in turn limiting the salaries that they can pay. It's not a matter of employer greed but a result of consumer demand for more affordable goods and services.

From then until the end of the Jimmy Carter presidency, unionization, and thus, average worker wages in the United States, only gradually declined.

This is a repeat of the assertion that unions were responsible for keeping average worker wages high. If I wanted to engage in my own post-hoc fallacies, I could say that this proves that Taft-Hartley didn't actually have that much of an impact on the middle class.

When Ronald Reagan came into office, a quarter of the American workforce was unionized, meaning half of Americans could raise a middle-class family on a single salary.

There's an important unstated fact here: roughly one-half of the potential American workforce was sitting on the sidelines, as unemployed (mostly married) women. I would argue that this limited supply of labor had something to do with the level of wages and that changes in the workforce had something to do with average household income falling.

But then Reagan declared war on the middle class, starting with the air traffic controller’s union (PATCO) during his first year in office.

Uhhhm... PATCO was illegally striking. It's hard to argue that opposing an illegal strike was an assault on the middle class. Hartmann gives no evidence of Reagan's war on the middle class except for this one supposed example.

While gutting the American middle-class, conservatives also launched a well-funded propaganda campaign, using right-wing “think tanks” and talk radio to convince workers that their growing economic woes were the fault of minorities (“affirmative action”) and the poor (“welfare queens”).

These talking points coming to you courtesy of left-wing "think tanks" and Hollywood personalities. No, I don't actually think that left wing think tanks are made up of morons. But it would be offensive if I did. And it's equally offensive for Hartmann to imply that think tanks he doesn't agree with are nothing but fakes staffed by enemies of the middle class.

At the same time, they began stacking federal benches with conservative judges, and passing thousands of federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and regulations that further weakened the powers of organized labor and their ability to unionize.

Such as? I'm not impressed by assertions without any evidence whatsoever.

The result has been an explosion in CEO and executive pay, a rush of wealth to the conservative elite (the top 10 percent of Americans now own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth), and preferential capital gains taxes continue to consolidate wealth for those who “earn their living” by sitting around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive.

I have three complaints in one sentence. First, post-hoc fallacy of nebulous "federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and regulations" that were responsible for changes in CEO and executive pay. Second, an unsubstantiated assertion that most of America's wealthy are conservative (without Googling can you name wealthy conservatives other than the Koch brothers?). Third, an implicit assumption that capital gains taxes are a good thing and that low capital gains taxes contribute to income inequality.

“fair share” union fees—money paid by workers who decline membership in their union, but receive massive benefits (in increased pay, benefits and job security) from their union that is required by law to represent them, even though they are not members and don’t pay full dues.

“Fair share” fees help curtail the problem of these “free riders.” And the Supreme Court upheld them in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Ed.

Again, this is an assertion of opinion, not a fact. I would define "fair share" union fees (if Hartmann gives me the scare quotes, I'll use 'em) as the reward that the union gets for forcing you into a job contract that you may not agree with, negotiated by people that you may neither agree with nor like. It may be my share, but I don't agree that it's fair in all circumstances.

There are other points I could quibble with. But those are the things that bothered me the most.

This entry was tagged. Unions Income

Review: Shadow’s Edge [★★★☆☆]

Shadow's Edge

Shadow’s Edge
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 3 March 2015 - 7 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I really enjoyed The Way of Shadows, the first book in this series. I thought it was exciting, fast paced, and a real page turner. I did not feel the same way about this book.

I wish I'd been taking notes as I read this book. There were several instances where the dialog was downright pedestrian or things were awkwardly phrased. The pacing felt odd in places. There was a lot less action and a lot more moping around and traveling from place to place. This definitely was not a page turner.

I'm hoping this was just a sophomore slump or a middle book muddle. I'll be disappointed if The Way of Shadows was the highpoint of this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: The Way of Shadows [★★★★☆]

The Way of Shadows

The Way of Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 28 February 2015 – 2 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I put this book on my reading list for 2015 because Brandon Sanderson described Weeks' writing as "epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller". After reading this novel, I can confirm that Sanderson wasn't exaggerating. This book is an absolute page turner, even as Weeks paints a world worthy of epic fantasy.

And it's a gritty, dark, painful world. Pain, viciousness, and brutality are everywhere. Don't spend too much time hoping for things to come up roses for our heroes—no one will make it to the end of the story uninjured. Azoth is a 10-year old member of a criminal street guild, barely able to survive. He wants to become a "wetboy" (an assassin with magical Talent) because he's tired of being afraid and powerless; he wants the security that kind of power can give him. His desired mentor and teacher is Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in Cenaria.

This is the story of how Azoth becomes Kylar Stern, the wetboy that he always wanted to be. He has to make painful decisions about whether or not to have friends and how to protect the people that he cares about, in spite of trying not to care.

This isn't a great story. But it's a good story that's written very well. I read it to see if Weeks was an author that I wanted to follow closely. Given that I read a 659 page novel in 3 days, I think I've got my answer. I'm already looking forward to the next novel in the Night Angel series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review