Monday, January 26, 2015

Rats, Bats & Vats by Dave Freer and Eric Flint

 I think that Freer couldn't quite make up his mind what he was trying to write with Rats, Bats & Vats. It tries to be a serious war novel like The Forever War or Old Man's War, but reads like Bill, the Galactic Hero, more of a satirical work, as we tunnel and trudge through the battles against the alien M'agh with Sergeant Chip Connolly and his squad of seriously deranged genetically engineered rats and bats.

Unfortunately, the humor wasn't enough to save it, and the warfare wasn't intense enough to keep my attention. Gave it up about a quarter of the way through.

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

 Someone, somewhere along the line had to have told me something like, "If you like Steampunk, you need to check out George Mann", but I can't for the life of me recall who would have done so. This is one of those books that's just a twist or two away from my usual genre choices; it's steampunk, but also has the flavor of something from Marvel Comics, with a slight accent of film noire sensibilities.

The setting is 1930s New York, complete with bootleg gin, steam-driven automobiles, and biplanes with jetpacks, plus a bunch of nasty gangsters, frails and molls. There's a "superhero" of sorts named The Ghost, and some really evil villains, but somewhere about a third of the way into the book, I simply ceased to care what happened, or to whom.

Life is too short to read books that don't grab ya.

If you're a Marvel or DC fan, maybe this would appeal to you more than it did to me.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Peripheral by William Gibson

 In 1984, Gibson broke new ground with Neuromancer, which set off the whole cyberpunk movement, and introduced the neology, cyberspace. I recall being thrilled with the novel when it first arrived on the scene, and I've faithfully digested every tome he has written, since.

I am afraid, however, that Gibson has boldly gone where I no longer care to follow, with Peripheral. I just could not keep myself interested in its...sadly unengaging...plot. Perhaps it gets better eventually, but my experience with his other recent works suggests to me that it is unlikely to become more gripping the deeper one voyages.

It seemed to be a tale of some rather unfocused folks who mostly play video games for money, but the game they're playing may not really be a game, but rather a roundabout way to use mercenaries to provide security for celebrities, or at least that's the impression I got. Maybe Gibson has some deep, and very subtle, philosophical and sociological observations to make in the book, but I just couldn't keep my eyes open long enough to get the point.

Gibson may have reached that unfortunate point where he has nothing new to say and no new stories to tell. Hey, three decades wasn't a bad run!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

 I know I've read several of the Agent Pendergast series by Preston and Child before, including Still Life with Crows and Relic, but for some reason I never put together the idea that they were a series. As expected, this one was twisty and a bit dark, with a truly quirky and unique protagonist.

I think I need to drop back and read a couple books prior to this one to understand what's really going on, because there are a number of cryptic references to earlier events, but the crux of the matter is that one of Pendergast's recently-discovered twin sons, the "evil" twin, who was a serial killer in New York in an earlier story, turns up murdered on the agent's front porch one day, after a long exile in the jungles of Brazil. The agent is never one to leave a good mystery alone, and so he embarks on his own quest to find out who has killed his son, whom he despises, and why the crime was committed.

In parallel, one of Pendergast's old friends, detective d'Agosta, is involved with his own murder mystery, involving the bludgeoning death in an isolated corner of a museum, of one of the technicians who works in the department which handles old skeletons...skeletons in the closet indeed!

This one get violent, bloody and twisty pretty quickly. I definitely have to drop back and read some of the earlier books so I get some of the major characters' back stories. Preston & Child are always good.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Taken by Benedict Jacka

Damsels in distress, dangerous monsters, sorcerous duels! What's not to like about the third book in the Alex Verus adventures?

Well, the only problem is that about three days after I finished it, I can barely remember what it was about. Maybe that's simply a memory issue on my part, but there's really no Wow! factor here.

There's a big contest about to happen in the wizarding world, where most apprentices and mages test themselves against the competition (hmm, there's no mention of what the prize is for the winner of the contest at any time), and the mage who is hosting the contest, Crystal, tries to convince Alex to provide security for the gathering. He catches her trying to manipulate him by reading his mind - her mage skill is telepathy - and declines to play her game. But when one of the few wizards he slightly trusts, Talisid, asks him to look into the recent disappearances of several apprentices, and the trail leads to the contest grounds, he ends up in the middle of the muddle anyway.

His cover for attending is to coach his apprentice, Luna, in her first competition. He also gets involved with another apprentice, Anne, when he rescues her from a murder attempt by some goons. I think there's some romantic attraction hinted at here (Jacka is being cagey), and we may see more of Anne in future books. Anne and her friend Variam were "adopted" by a rakshasha, Jagadeve, after they broke free of their first master, a dark mage. The supernatural being is playing his own game, pursuing a vendetta with the mages that has gone on for centuries, and Alex manages to get caught up in that intrigue, as well.

The solution to the mysterious disappearances is not surprising to old urban fantasy hands, and a bit anticlimactic. The purpose of this book seems to be to move Luna's development as an adept along and to perhaps introduce a new love interest.

On to the next book.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Call to Duty by David Weber and Timothy Zahn

 A Call to Duty takes a chronological leap backwards, to the time before the Star Kingdom of Manticore's wormhole junction was discovered, when it was still at peace with Haven, the Solarian League was far away, and the Andermani Empire mere rumbles of thunder on the horizon. It is more of a young adult novel than most in the Honorverse assortment, and has also taken a step back in the magnitude of the multi-POV Weber style, and a step forward in comprehensibility to one who is not steeped to geeky goodness in the lore of Manticore.

Like many a story of the same type, it follows the journey of Travis Uriah Long, a man on the cusp of adult life, directionless, who decides to join the Royal Manticoran Navy for structure and discipline. As you might imagine, he finds a surfeit of both in the rigors of boot camp and beyond. Long gains the nickname of "Stickler" for his obstinate obedience to rules, regulations and procedures, but his career in the Navy is destined to give him a far broader education in the reality of how things work when the battle plan meets the enemy.

There's still plenty of good political machinations, but we actually get introduced to each of the players in this new series, rather than having to consult a monstrous compendium like The Book of Steel to remember the particulars about them, so it seems far easier for me to follow, much like the first handful or so of the original Honor Harrington novels. One faction of Parliament wants to dismantle the Navy, now that they are at peace, so the money can be spent on education and job creation, of course, while the others are not so sanguine about the continued stability, and want to expand the fleet to meet future threats. The downsizers have the upper hand at the moment, so morale in the fleet is not great as maintenance is deferred, and corners are cut.

Young Long gets up to plenty of adventures here, from rescuing damsels in distress fighting space pirates. Hopefully Zahn and Weber can continue to keep it simple for his old easily confused readers, who simply enjoy a well-spun yarn.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

 I'm afraid this is about the sweetest dish-free celebrity bio I've ever seen. I can accept that Cary Elwes is a genuinely nice guy who thinks the best of everyone, but I simply can't believe that the entire making of The Princess Bride went smoothly and without any conflicts between cast members, directors, crew, and so forth.It boggles the mind.

According to Elwes, Rob Reiner was the soul of goodness and light, Robin Wright was continuously noble, Andre the Giant was indeed a "gentle giant", and Mandy Patinkin was the most worthy competitor in the greatest sword fight ever filmed of all times.

About the only things even remotely untoward which happened were one of the little folks playing an ROUS who got hauled off to the clink for driving under the influence, and the incredible attack of flatulence which should have flattened the castle walls in the scene where Westley is recovering from being "mostly dead".

If you're a serious Princess Bride geek, however, this will be a good read, just to fill in the background and to learn some new trivia.

I had always thought that the names that the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya toss out during the sword fight were just made up, but it turns out that guys like Capo Ferra and Agrippa actually were master sword fighters who wrote treatises on the art of fencing. Very cool. Elwes and Patinkin actually spent nearly every spare moment they had over months of filming just training with a couple of master fencers and stunt men to get ready to film the best three minutes and twenty seconds of swashbuckling ever seen on film.

A fun, quick cotton-candy read.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

 This book contains three sections dealing with the power of habit as it affects individuals, businesses, and societies. If you're seeking to break a bad habit or to create a good habit, Duhigg provides some valuable insights and strategies, based on multiple studies, which may help.

MIT researchers discovered in the 90s that habits are actually built deep inside the brain, close to the brain stem, in our older, primitive structure called the basal ganglia. They discovered that animals with injured basal ganglia had problems learning and remembering tasks. When they began to learn tasks, most of the electrical activity took place widely distributed through their brains, but after they had mastered the tasks, repeated running of the tasks, succeeding by their developed habits of always turning left, or always pressing a lever in a certain location, the electrical activity shrank, and moved to the basal ganglia. "The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep."

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort."

We all have lazy brains, that's funny.

But the good thing about that is that we don't have to think constantly about repetitive behaviors. Have you ever noticed that, while thinking about something else, or carrying on a lively conversation, you drove most of the way to work or church without thinking about it?

All habits are composed of a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward - the cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use (for we all have many of them), the routine is a set of physical, mental, or emotional actions, and the reward is something which helps your brain decide whether this is a habit is worth remembering for the future.

The importance of reward in this cycle, however odd the reward may seem, is key.

Early marketers of Febreze, a chemical compound which completely neutralized bad odors, were stumped when buyers didn't use and re-purchase the product. They found that after they added a pleasant scent, rather than simply eliminating odors, consumers began to habitually use it, as their brains associated the "reward" of pleasant scent with having a clean and odor-free home. A similar situation occurred with early marketing of toothpaste. After many public campaigns to educate people about the health value of brushing with a cleansing toothpaste, people still weren't brushing, until some genius made toothpaste that left their mouths tasting of mint, and people's brains then associated the "reward" of a minty fresh feeling with having a healthy mouth, and Pepsodent's sales skyrocketed.

I read Tony Dungy's book Quiet Strength a number of years ago, so i was interested in what this book had to say about how he created a winning football team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Champions don't do extraordinary things," Dungy would explain. "They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they've learned."

The key to changing a habit from bad to good is to keep the old cue, deliver the old reward, but change the routine in the middle.

Football players rely on "keys" to determine what action they should take in a given situation. The placement of the opposing player's feet, the positioning of their shoulders, and the spacing between linemen are all keys. If the keys are properly read, and the reaction is correct, it is highly likely that the opponent will be thwarted. The team whose players react the most quickly, instinctively, habitually, in the correct manner, to those keys, will win more often than not. If a player has to think about what he's going to do next, his actions will probably be wrong.

Duhigg tells the story of how a new CEO at Alcoa, Paul O'Neill, turned things around and made the company profitable, increasing the stock price by a factor of five in a few short years. He did it by introducing one key new corporate habit, which became ingrained in the culture. The habit he introduced didn't seem to anyone, at first, related at all to increasing profits; the change he introduced was the intention to make Alcoa the safest company in America. "I intend to go for zero injuries."

The cue - worker injury
The new routine - any time someone was injured the unit president had to report it to the CEO within 24 hours, along with a plan to make sure it never happened again
The reward - only those who embraced the system would get promoted (and those who didn't were fired)

"O'Neill never promised that his focus on worker safety would increase Alcoa's profits. However, as his new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed. If molten metal was injuring workers when it splashed, then the pouring system was redesigned, which led to fewer injuries. It also saved money because Alcoa lost less raw materials in spills. If a machine kept breaking down, it was replaced, which meant there was less chance of a broken gear snagging an employee's arm. It also meant higher quality products because, as Alcoa discovered, equipment malfunctions were a chief cause of subpar aluminum."

Starbucks also achieves success through building good employee habits with its LATTE method.

"We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred."

What a great customer service model!

Where I think Duhigg's model breaks down just a bit is when he gets into applying the principles to social movements.

He writes,

"A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.

It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.

And it endures because a movement's leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership."

He applies this to two very diverse situations, the civil rights movement in the 50s in America, and the growth of Rick Warren's Saddleback ministry.

He mentions an interesting fact,

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama "Every adult, it seemed - particularly every black adult - belonged to some kind of club, church, social group, community center, or neighborhood organization, and often more than one."

Is this still true today? I suspect that much of the breakdown of the social fabric in the inner cities can be tied to the disappearance of community ties and the feeling of responsibility and interdependence of those within the communities.

This is a really good book, though I suggest skipping section three, and going directly to the appendix, where you'll find the methodology for changing a habit:


  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

If you're interesting in changing a habit, you can usually either change the routine, which may be a bad one, or the reward for the routine, which may also be bad. For example the routine may be slumping on the couch in front of the tv, instead of going for a walk or run. The reward may be grabbing that extra latte at Starbucks on the way home from work, when you're trying to stay on budget. In one case you want to change the routine, the other you want to change the reward that results from the routine.

Good stuff. Food for thought.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Indexing by Seanan McGuire

 Had an extremely difficult time getting involved in this book, though I love most everything else I've ever read by McGuire. There was just nothing in the first thirty pages or so that held my interest. I'll wait for the next October Daye novel, or Incryptid.

War Dogs by Greg Bear

 In The Princess Bride there is a line, "Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure." I feel that since the invention of science fiction there have only been three future war novels that were rated the most exciting, the most enduring: Haldeman's The Forever War, Scalzi's Old Man's War, and Card's Ender's Game. Bear's latest, War Dogs, seems to me to be a tribute to the first of those, Forever War, in some sense.

Note: If Haldeman had stopped with The Forever War and never written the sequels, Peace and Free, the world would not be diminished by much - snoozers, in my opinion. Which brings to mind my usual rant about authors who continue to write long after they've said all they really have to say.

WARNING: This post contains some bad words later on. Stop reading immediately f that offends you.

Bear is one of those authors who's been around a while, and I've read a fair amount of his work, but it all happened before I started blogging, so not many of them are reviewed here. Read Blood Music some time if you get a chance, or the even more tightly written novella by the same name from which it was expanded.

This book plays around with a couple of interesting tropes, one typical SF and another that appears in mainstream stories quite often. The first one has been around since at least The Day the Earth Stood Still; the appearance of technologically advanced and apparently benevolent aliens on Earth, who make demands on all Earthlings "for their own good." The second has been around possibly since the invention of warfare; the tale of ordinary soldiers, "grunts", fighting in a war they don't particularly care about, waged for reasons they cannot comprehend. Bear calls his "benevolent" aliens The Gurus.

The trio of prior works mentioned above use the second trope, and modifies the first to a "hostile alien encounter" trope, so Bear's twist is mildly innovative - I've seen it before from other authors, but memory fades when it comes to naming names.

In fact, there's a really cute (in my opinion) backhanded reference to The Forever War in War Dogs. If you haven't read the book, you need to know that Haldeman's space marines address all of their senior officers with the greeting, "Fuck You, Sir!" to get the joke.

"The Gurus made it clear, however magnanimous they might seem, that they found offensive any and all sexual profanity. Words that showed disrespect to the sacred biological functions of reproduction."

So, Bear's Skyrines (Sky Marines) can't even say the word, "fuck",  much less use it to salute their officers. Irony on a number of levels.

Bear's hero in this tale, "a white boy from Moscow, Idaho", is Master Sergeant Michael Venn. He and his squad mates have been shipped to Mars "The Red" to fight against the Gurus enemies, The Antags. The drop has gone horribly wrong, and the survivors stagger from one mess to the next for a great deal of the book. The story is told through flashbacks by Venn after he returns to Earth after the mission, and Bear adds in even more old and familiar SF tropes as the pages flash by, diluting the flavor bit by bit.

After finishing this book, I have to wonder if Bear is just attempting to set the stage for a series of novels - there were just far too many elements stirred together in a gallimaufry of SF motifs, and the whole plot just meanders to a stopping point which resolves nothing. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Personal by Lee Child

 The first half dozen pages of this novel, I'm thinking, "Hasn't Child already written this story - One Shot?" Turned into the weak plot of a movie starring Tom Cruise as Reacher? And the rights have been sold to make nine Reacher movies? Dear God, please let them find someone believeable to play Reacher - and soon!

But I digress.

A very skilled sniper appears to be "auditioning" for a job, which probably involves taking shots at one or more of the world leaders scheduled to appear soon at the G8 summit in London. The French, Russian, British and U.S. intelligence services have narrowed the suspects down to a half-handful of ex-military snipers from the U.S., U.S.S.R., and U.K., who are unaccounted for. The American is a former Army shooter who Reacher put away in jail sixteen years ago - for a fifteen year sentence.

When a general whom Reacher owes a favor contacts him and asks him to track down the sniper and stop him, it's an offer he can't really refuse - especially when he finds the rural hideout where the sniper has been shooting at targets of Reacher's head for months on end. This story, of course, just wouldn't fly without the addition of a female sidekick for our hero, and he gets a "rookie" from the State Department as his "minder", though it's not certain who's minding whom over the long haul.

The action moves swiftly to France, then London, and there are the usual  plot twists and awesome fight scenes as Reacher plows over the competition, and chases down his target. The final twist was not unexpected, especially if you take the title to heart.

Another fun and quick read from Child

Monday, January 5, 2015

All Quiet on the Blog Front

Once again, I feel I like should apologize for the lack of new posts since the last day of 2014. I had a wonderful time with family over the holidays, though, so I can't really get my heart into that guilty feeling.

I hope you all had as blessed of a holiday season as did I.

New post in the morning.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

 If you read enough, I suppose, odd coincidences take place. For some reason, all three books I checked out from the library this week turned out to be written by British authors. So we'll just dub this the British Invasion Trifecta, and wrap it up with Charlie Stross' latest Laundry File adventure.

Bob and Mo are in a bit of a rough patch in their marriage, and their dinner together simply turns into an argument instead of a path to making up, so Bob heads in to the office for a while to take his mind off of things. He gets a bit more than marriage troubles when one of his colleagues summons a major dweller from another dimension and nearly destroys the New Annex of The Laundry, and when his side project investigating the probability that vampires actually exist bears more fruit than it should have.

This one has a number of good twists and turns, and the usual Stross humor, with Bob getting a "promotion" at the end of the messy affair, but the ending made me very upset. I'm not sure how I feel about going on with this series at this point.

A couple of amusing lines:

"(Zombies)...don't do unease:they're placid as long as they've got some flesh to embody them and the occasional hunk of brains to munch on (Any old slaughterhouse brains will do: they eat them for the fatty acids. At a pinch, you can substitute a McDonald's milkshake.)"

"We use committees for all the ulterior purposes for which they might have been designed: diffusion of executive responsibility, plausible deniability, misdirection, providing the appearance of activity without the substance, and protecting the guilty."

2014 Recap

The grand total of books read and reviewed for 2014 - 142. That's a bit off of my normal total, but it's been a busy year, filled with travel and other things. Maybe 2015 will be a record-breaker.

Awards

#1 Urban Fantasy Novel - Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
#1 Science Fiction by a new author - Andy Weir's The Martian
#2 Science Fiction by a new author - A Darkling Sea by James Cambias
#1 Fantasy Novel - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
#1 Non-Fiction - The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray
#1 Thought Provoker - Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance
#1 Travel Book - Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe

Monday, December 29, 2014

How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce

 I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book. It was billed as Fantasy, but it just barely qualifies, even as Urban Fantasy - more urban than fantasy. Nevertheless, it was a very well-written and entertaining, in a very British and sarcastic manner, at least for a while, after which it became a little dark for my taste, though still eminently readable.

William Heaney works for the government. Not as some sort of secret agent or occult investigator, but merely a middle management functionary who attends endless meetings and serves on multiple committees. He does, however, have a heart for the downtrodden, and manifests his support by donating heavily to a shelter in London called GoPoint, run by a saintly woman named Antonia. Oddly, the source of his large gifts is a mildly illicit scam that he and his friends, Stynx and Jaz, together run on book collectors, selling them counterfeit antique books.

William has been dealing in antique books since his college days, which is when he became inadvertently involved in the results of a ritual that left him able to perceive the "demons" who flock around humans, though few others around him can see them.

"I had no intention of visiting it (GoPoint's library). Firstly, GoPoint was infested with demons for obvious reasons...It was while they were out of the building seeking purpose that the demons became most active in their prowling, relentless search for a new host. Secondly, demons do tend to cluster around the yellowing pages and cracked spines of second-hand books. I've no idea why."

A neat turn of phrase here and there, such as,

"I think that was when I first learned the glorious cost-free feeling of righteousness that comes with defending other people's reputations."

"What was all this gibberish about fun? Fun wasn't really something I went in for. Fun and I had parted company on the high road of life at about the time my hair started to thin and my knee joints lost all compression, quick handshake, no fuss, farewell."

and,

"My heart sank. Well, not quite sank, but took on water, gurgled, listed to one side, tried to recover steam."

William likes to drink his red wine. He's a bit of a connoisseur. I like how Joyce describes his tipple as,

"a beaker of the rubicund relief and rescue" and "red-robed oblivion".

So, the book seems to meander about, sightseeing through London on its way to a semi-sweet conclusion, as Heaney fights with his ex-wife, deals with his non-resident children, tries to keep the latest scam from falling apart, gets involved in a "terrorist" bombing, and fights against "the fraudulent demon of falling in love" when he meets Yasmin, who may have the ability to pull him out of his bureaucratic rut, in the end.

What it is not, is fantasy, even though Charles deLint says it's so. A good enough story, but not quite my (English Breakfast) cup of tea.



Friday, December 26, 2014

Autism Spectrum Disorders by Ana Maria Rodriguez

 Written for USA Today's readership, this book scans at  perhaps a middle school reading level, but that works out well, as I was really only interested in getting a basic picture of the subject of ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, diagnoses of which seem to have grown in leaps and bounds over the last few decades. The book explains that this phenomenon isn't a symptom of greater incidence of the affliction, but rather of an expanded definition and acceptance of a wider suite of symptoms by psychological authorities.

"In fact, the majority of the scientific community agrees that no autism epidemic exists. Expert Dr. Eric Fombonne at McGill University in Canada has worked in several autism prevalence studies. Frombone says that one of the main factors behind the rise in the number of case is that the medical definition of ASD has expanded over the years."

At the most severe end of the spectrum is classical autism, while various shades of Asperger's Syndrome are at the less disabling end.

"People with an autism disorder in any degree of its severity have developed a mind that works differently than most people's minds. In consequence, they do not see the world, learn from the world, and think and act in the world in the same way most people do."

To be diagnosed with ASD,

"an individual must show some mild to severe impairment in all three of the following areas: 1) Communication, 2) socialization, and 3) repetitive behaviors and restricted interests."

Sounds a great deal like the guest list of a typical party in my best friend's basement in the 70s.

There are some peripheral symptoms which also may occur:

"...25 percent of people with ASD also have developmental delays. Epilepsy...is present in nearly one-third of individuals with ASD. Other conditions associated with ASD include digestive problems, immune problems, and a reduced ability of the liver to eliminate toxins."

Autism was first identified as a psychological disease in the 1940s by Leo Kanner, who worked with children at Johns Hopkins. In 1944, Hans Asperger published a report about what became known as Asperger's syndrome, but it wasn't widely available in the U.S. until it was translated from German in 1981 (coincidentally the start of the "epidemic"). The main difference between Kanner's autistic children and Asperger's children was that Kanner's children "either lacked speech or had an unusual way of using it, such as reversing pronouns or echolalia (repeating back what others have said to them without understanding the meaning)."

Autism affects more boys than girls.

A very rare condition called Savant Syndrome is sometimes associated with autism, as depicted by Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond in Rain Man.

Lots of good information here for people who suspect their children might be affected by ASD on getting diagnoses and treatment. My interest was more one of casual curiosity.

ASD appears to be genetically caused, and linked to differences in the development of the brain in children, especially in the amygdala, which in children with ASD grow faster but have significantly fewer neurons than in normal children. Other areas in the cerebellum may also be affected.

"When people without ASD perform this task (shape recognition) a particular group of neurons on the cortex fires an electrical signal at the same time. Researchers record this brain electrical activity as a gamma band (a pattern of brain waves) in an EEG.

As people practice a task, they get better at it. And when they get better at it, the brain activity changes. The gamma band in their EEG becomes smaller. This shows that fewer specialized neurons have become involved in distinguishing between shapes. The brain becomes more efficient at finishing the task.

In people with ASD...the gamma bands do not get small as the tasks are practiced. Instead, the bands stay the same."

An interesting new term I just picked up here - theory of mind.

"The awareness that other people have beliefs and desires different from our own has been called theory of mind...refers to a cognitive process that allows people to understand someone else's perspective, or point of view."

Many teens with autism lack the theory of mind.

Researchers have proven that autism is primarily genetic, with some environmental factors that contribute. The idea that vaccinations cause autism has been pretty thoroughly debunked, shrill celebrity advocates of the theory notwithstanding.

A good book to read for a layman's perspective on ASD. Quick and easy to follow.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Around the Web

A book review over at The Boogie Man is My Friend.

Cursed by Benedict Jacka


Once again, I'm torn trying to decide if this is a Harry Dresden ripoff, a tribute, or something new and different. Jacka writes well, and is entertaining, however, so I suppose it's best to avoid invidious comparisons and just get on with reading his Alex Verus series.

Perhaps the best plot synopsis can be found in the text of the novel, itself.

"I needed to figure out who was trying to have me killed, and why. I needed to find out more about Belthas (one of the White Council Mages who hires Verus to locate some dark magicians performing a forbidden ritual) and Meredith (a lovely on the outside lass who manages to cloud Verus' mind with her charms) and what their goals were. And I needed to do something about Luna and Martin and the monkey's paw."

That last bit can be traced to the story Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs with which any student of weird fiction should be familiar. The monkey's paw of the tale grants its holder three wishes, which always seem to end badly for the wishee. Luna's boyfriend wannabe, Martin, absconds with a monkey's paw from Alex's shop and uses it to gain some important magic powers, believing that the ordinary rules can't apply to him, since obviously no one as smart as him has ever held the artifact. Hmmm...something familiar there...(whispers) political?

In the end, of course, it does end badly for Martin, even though the paw doesn't really have to twist his wishes, he gets exactly what's coming to him.

There's a great little comic series of pastiches on customers in Alex's magic shop, followed by his speech when he meets Martin.

"I don't sell spells, and I don't sell tricks. I don't carry illusions or marked cards or weighted coins. I cannot sell you an endless purse or help you win the lottery. I can't make that girl you've got your eye on fall in love with you, and I wouldn't do it even if I could. I don't have a psychic hotline to your dead relatives. I don't know if you're going to be successful in your career, and I don't know when you're going to get married. I can't get you into Hogwarts or any other kind of magic school, and if you even mention those sparkly vampires I will do something unpleasant to you."

One of the fun themes in this book is that the "good guys" don't always turn out to be good, and that Alex once again has to ally with the "bad guys" to thwart the latest power-mad mage's schemes.

Putting the next book in the series on my hold list.


Monday, December 22, 2014

The Ultimate Guide to Buying and Selling a Business by Ira Nottonson

 A very thorough treatment of the subject of buying and selling a business.

Sometimes, I even learn new terms.

 "Changing your profit and loss statement (P&L) from one used for tax purposes to one used for selling purposes is called reconstituting your P&L."

Note that this is not in any way a fraudulent procedure, but that there are certain legitimate deductions which are placed in a P&L for your tax returns which are not really "losses" from the point of view of the owner of a business, such as depreciation on real property and equipment, or the leasing of a business vehicle, among other things.

A good thing to remember about what the highest priority of a prospective business owner is and should be.

"Business-buying candidates are always looking for the largest income they an generate, which they usually equate with the largest investment they can handle."

On early negotiations, and the process of trying to put together a deal,

"Profit and loss statements, together with balance sheets and cash flow analyses, should not be necessary at this point (first meeting between buyer and seller). If you have a face-to-face conversation with the seller, you will resolve many questions."

This one I found interesting,

"Balloon payments were quite reasonable in real estate, because many people didn't live in the same house for more than five years. They normally sold their houses, which allowed them to pay the entire note before the balloon payment came due. In addition, the housing market is relatively stable and easily financed compared with the small business market."

Really? Ah...this was written in 2005 before the boom and crash of the U.S. real estate market.

Though very thorough, much of the information on franchising, business brokers, and the responsibilities of accounts and lawyers in the business acquisition process were sections I skimmed. The chapter on non compete and nondisclosure contracts was pretty interesting, however. I've signed some NDAs in my time, so it was good to get a professional's opinion on how these things are enforced, and stressed the importance of a good exit interview (of which I have never seen the point before) in setting expectations on that score for departing employees.

There's a good "wrap-up/review" section at the back of the book that reiterates some key concepts, such as the P&L statements, cash flow analyses on accrual and cash basis and other issues to consider when buying or selling a business.

Great resource for budding entrepreneurs.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs

Aren has finally shed her spinsterhood by marrying a much younger man, Daryn, When she sees a vision of disaster in the near future, but because mages are either enslaved by the powerful blood mages, or put to death - and definitely frowned upon by the normal villagers, she makes a bad decision not to warn him. When bandits come and kill him and the rest of her family as they work the fields later that day, she is able to hide in the cellar until they have finished ransacking the house. When the villagers arrive bearing the body of her husband, she decides to "out" herself to deliver a warning about what is coming.

At the same time as the bandit attack, there is also "a disturbance in The Force", where all sorts of magical bindings are dispelled, and huge earthquakes cause mountains to collapse, blocking most of the roads out of the village.

I've seen this plot beginning before, in one variation or another...bereft young woman leaves home and family, or loses home and family, to venture out into the wide world to discover her gifts, from Fawn in Bujold's Sharing Knife series to Paksennarion in Moon's chronicles.

The problem with this story is that it is painfully slow starting, with a mostly pointless scene where the Fallbrook village elders yammer and decide nothing and pages of Aren cowering in the basement dealing with her grief for a week. Eventually she sets of with Kith, a crippled ex-soldier, and Wandel, the harper on an expedition towards the mountain called The Hob, trying find out if there are any survivors from the next village over, Auberg, which was flooded after the earthquake blocked the river flowing through the valley.

Regular fantasy readers can probably figure out that, given the title of the book and the logic of magic realms, there is actually a hob on The Hob, and our intrepid heroine is likely to make a bargain with him. When Fallbrook is on the verge of being overrun by the bandits at last, Aren makes a solo trip to the mountain and brings back the hob who dwells there (the mountain is sentient, by the way) to help the villagers in their struggle. Of course, bargaining with a hob may be a bit like dealing with the devil, so...

The pace continues to be slow, as the villagers and the bandits have minor skirmishes, and the hob, CaerFaun, teaches Aren steadily how to use her magical abilities, which not only are good for visions, but allow her to communicate with the recently released spirits and other magic creatures, and control some of them to an extent. In the long haul, the Hob's Bargain turns out to be a win-win-win situation, for the hob, the villagers, and for Aren herself.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

 After attending a Winter Ball at the court of Queen Arden, Toby is looking forward to a good morning's sleep, but she is shockingly awakened by the arrival of an unwanted guest - Duke Sylvester's brother, Simon Torquill, the villain who transformed her into a fish back at the beginning of this whole saga. Besides his unwelcome presence, he brings unwelcome news, which will shock Toby out of her slumbers and set her on a path towards...vengeance?

There's just no good way to talk about this story without spoilers, so be warned.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Modern Survival manual by Fernando Aguirre

So, I can't tell for sure how much this guy is for real, and how much is B.S. To me, he scans a little bit like those Special Forces wannabees who brag about how dangerous their lives are at parties, but turn out to be accountants IRL. The book also suffers from a lack of good editing, there's a lot of repetition of previous points which are not intentional and for emphasis, and some of the "prep" lists he makes seem severely impractical.

That said, there are a few points Aguirre makes that I thought ran counter to conventional wisdom which were good. For example, he debunks the whole idea of the countryside being more safe when the SHTF than being in a more populated area. It turns out that in an actual economic collapse, groups of bandits prefer isolated targets with no nearby neighbors, where they can rob, torture, rape and murder without worrying about anyone coming around to investigate or help the victims.

He debunks the idea, as well, that a barter economy will take over, and those who hoarded ammo and canned goods will get rich quick, using real world experiences from the Argentinian crisis to illustrate his points. One thing that happened in Argentina was that laws were rapidly passed banning the sale of ammunition by private parties - all sales had to be done by licensed firearms dealers. That could easily happen here, despite all 2A concerns, if the government doesn't let the crisis go to waste. Many weapons were confiscated during Katrina, and it could certainly happen on a larger scale in a national emergency.

He does support keeping a certain amount of precious metals on hand to use as "currency", but stresses highly being careful not to let anyone know you have a stash, and only to change small amounts as necessary. It's probably better to have some scrap 18K gold jewelry to sell in a crisis, as then you can pretend it was Grandma's heirloom ring that you're reluctantly parting with, and not part of a greater cache. It sounds as if silver never became widely used as a holder of value in the Argentinian situation, so you might bear that in mind if you're planning for massive inflation in the U.S. at some point eroding the value of your paper money. Also, paper money will not simply become "toilet paper"; it will still be used, but will not buy what it used to buy as cheaply.

He also promotes the "gray man" concept. In a social situation where people are desperate, and many have turned to crime, it is best to not a) fit any victim profile, such as by being too well-dressed or appearing rich and b)to simply go quietly unnoticed by criminals, or considered a "hard" target. There's some good stuff here on situational awareness, too.

He seems to me to spend far too much time talking about various methods of "active" self defense. Street-fighting tactics and the ability to make anything into a weapon are all very well and good in their place, but as a middle aged man, I'm not likely to take up Thai boxing and become proficient any time soon, or become an MMA champ, so aside from making note of the dozens of ways to kill a man in a knife fight, I pretty much skimmed this whole section.

I really picked up this book on a recommendation from someone whose opinion I respected, hoping to learn more about the financial crisis in Argentina (which sparked Aguirre's interest and need to learn more survival skills) and how to handle potential events like runaway inflation or the devaluation of the dollar. The "financials" section was quite small, and appeared near the end of the book.

It did contain a good section on haggling, which most Americans could stand to read, if they ever intend to buy souvenirs in the second or third world, never mind applying it if the SHTF in our country.

You definitely will have to dig for the "nuggets" here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Around the Web

Andrew Klavan has a book review on PJ Media.

The Witch with No Name by Kim Harrison

 I struggled with this novel a bit. Perhaps it's because the series is ending, but for some reason I came to the point with The Hollows where the thrill was gone, and I didn't care all that much about what happens to Rachel, Ivy, Trent and Jenks. Sorry. So, I picked it up and put it down multiple times while trying to finish reading it, getting through several other books in the meantime.

Cormel's vampire minions finally bring things to a head when they try to kill Ivy. When Rachel confronts him, he agrees that if she will bring the vampires their lost souls, he will free Ivy and relinquish the debt Rachel owes him from some previous misadventure (Harrison doesn't refresh our memories here). Fortuitously, Rachel figures out where the lost souls have gone all this time, just about the time things hit the fan, so she is able to cobble together the right spells and rituals to do the job, with the help of the evil elf leader, Landon.

She captures Felix' soul and returns it to his body, which of course creates a whole new set of problems when Cormel withdraws his protection and a rival vampire faction which opposes the soul-returning faction attacks her home/church, forcing Rachel and Trent to play dead for a while. From that point forward, it's chapter after chapter of leaping from frying pan to fire as Trent and Rachel deal with the return of the demons to mundane reality, Ellasbeth's ongoing manipulations to wrest control of Ray and Lucy from Trent, Cormel's insistence on giving all the vampires their souls, Rachel trying but failing to stay under the radar vis a vis the Godess' mystics, and Ivy and Nina's tumultuous relationship. About the only faction that hasn't gone crazy seems to be the weres.

Everything seems to get wrapped up nicely in the end, and I wonder what Harrison will be up to next, now that the Hollows has reached completion.