Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summertime, and the Livin' is...

The cucumbers are finally starting to come on strong, and I'm harvesting about a half dozen each morning. This means every few days it's time to can some dill pickles - it's best to work with the cukes while they are still nice and firm and crispy, so the end product has a chance of having that wonderful crisp, crunchy texture.

You can see the quick pickle recipe I use on my other blog Grandma's Recipe Books. Technically, you can eat these within a day or two, but I like to let them cure for at least a week, in the refrigerator. If the harvest keeps up the pace it's on right now, I may have to buy myself an old garage fridge to keep them in, so they stay as crisp as the Clausen dills you buy at the supermarket. I had a batch a couple of summers ago that were simply amazing - possibly the best kosher dills I ever tasted.

The tomatoes haven't come on fast and furious yet; there's just been an adequate amount to keep us in eatin' ones for lunch, dinner and snacks so far. Hoping to have a bumper crop in August so I can begin canning them. Usually like to put up a few dozen quarts and perhaps a dozen of salsa. Hot sun and a good water supply should do the trick.

Storyteller by Amy Thomson

 My first impression of this book was that it had some similarities, plot-wise, if not in style, to Citizen of the Galaxy and a few other Heinlein works. The main thread begins when Teller, an itinerant senior master storyteller, rescues a young beggar, Samad, from being punished for theft, and, as Heinlein once said, "when you free a slave, you become responsible for making sure they can survive on their own (not a politically correct sentiment at all, is it?)" So, she ends up adopting the boy and they begin their travels around the world of Thalassa, and Samad's education.

Thomson uses this framework to gracefully show us the story of how the Pilot first landed on Thalassa - its creation myth - and guided the settlers who finally arrived by starship later into creating a peaceful colony, in harmony with the harsels, the dominant intelligent sea creatures on the planet. The Pilot had lost her "Jump" abilities when she was shipwrecked, but bonded with the eldest and greatest of the harsels via mindspeech.

As Teller and Samad travel together, she relates, bit by bit, all of the stories that tie the colonists to their traditions, and we are also given all the background information that we need to understand the planet and its cooperative races, without ever feeling like we've just gotten a massive data dump. The book is billed as for young adults, and it maintains a PG rating aside from some mild heterosexual and homosexual scenes, where Samad figures out just who he is, as he grows into a young adult, and becomes a master storyteller himself.

Monday, July 21, 2014

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker

 Over the years, aside from the core collection of science fiction and fantasy, my library has contained a number of oddball comedic series, such as the Flashman novels, by Fraser, the Doonesbury comic strip collections, and the M*A*S*H collection, by Richard Hooker. I found myself in the mood for some light summer fare and decided to re-read them, which I seem to do about once a decade. Hooker wrote three novels by himself, of which this is the first, and then "co-wrote" a number of others with William E. Butterworth. Of course, after the first novel was published in 1968, there was a famous movie based upon it in 1970, and then a long-running TV series which ran for over a decade, so most of the characters and setting are well known to people of a certain age.

The story begins with the arrival of two new doctors, Hawkeye and Duke,  at the M*A*S*H 4077th, and, as one might not guess from the way things went in the TV series, ends with their departure from Korea and return to the States. Hawkeye is from Maine, while Duke is from Georgia, but they both suffer from a bit of contempt for the regular Army and its officers, aside from the CO of the "double natural", Col. Henry Blake, who is probably the only commander in Korea who could put up with the trouble this duo causes, even before the arrival of their partner in crime, Trapper John.

The saving grace of this trio, if they have one, is their utter devotion to saving the lives of the young men who are sent to their surgical unit with horrendous injuries. They also, at heart, seem to be truly decent human beings, as evidenced by their campaign to raise money to send their Korean houseboy, Ho Jon, to the U.S. so he can attend college, and by some pro bono surgeries for non-war wounds. They drink, gamble and womanize in their spare time, which is not greatly appreciated by their arch enemies, Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan.

You can probably still find copies of this novel at the antiquarian booksellers or possibly even your local library, just for a cool read in the dog days of summer. The book is missing most of the political commentary on war itself that we saw in the last few years of the TV series, which is refreshing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cold Copper by Devon Monk

 When Cedar, Mae, Wil, Miss Dupuis and the Madder brothers arrive in Des Moines in the middle of a blizzard, they find themselves bound by an old promise the brothers made to the grandfather of a priest in that town, and must divert from their purpose of hunting down the Holder to deliver a favor owed. I wonder, however, nearly immediately if Monk is repeating a plot gimmick here from the first book, as it  turns out that chasing down the children who went missing "after the star fell from the sky" is part and parcel of their quest to find the pieces of the ancient weapon, which wreak death and destruction wherever they land. Or, could it be that the nature of the Holder causes these sort of events, using weak young children to power its mischief? The jury is still out on that one.

Rose and Captain Hinks remain in Kansas, and their little bit of romantic paradise is rapidly put through the wringer when she catches the man she loves frequenting the local bordello. I suspect that all is not as it appears here, either, since Hinks is actually a U.S. Marshall, and it is likely that he is playing a role in pursuit of the president's investigation, and simply hasn't let her know, having been single far too long. Rose makes the acquaintance of a very charming fellow, Thomas Wicks, who lures her away to, of all places, a library, and may be able to give Hinks a run for his money in Rose's affections.

Oops, I was wrong about the number of books in this series. Near the end, when Cedar recovers another piece of the Holder, and says he has six left to find, the Madder brothers tell him that they have already found another shard.

We get a few more hints about the Madder brothers, and a new insight into orphan Rose's nature, and Monk plays some fun games with the literality of a binding promise, and see Cedar and Wil's curse lifted from them and born by another for a time (I could have said "by a spell for a spell", but that was just a bit too folksy, eh?).

Another plot device that seems to repeat here is that the chief antagonist in the novel is another powerful man who is bringing modernity to Des Moines, in the form of universal telegraph lines of "cold copper" which will join them with the entire nation, perhaps the world, and who is willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how evil, to accomplish his goals and to gain power for himself, Mayor Vosbrough. Perhaps there's a moral to the story arc of power corrupting, and technology enabling power to  grow more rapidly than is "natural".

Nearly every chapter in this multi-threaded tale ends with a minor cliffhanger, leaving us with the desire to get back to that part of the story quickly, yet we are returned to the solution of an earlier dilemma from another plot thread. Monk is definitely at or near the top of her game these days. Hope she can maintain it for a good long time.

Around the Web

A book review at Pajamas Media.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan

 I was intrigued by a short review of this book on one of the finance blogs I read regularly, so I picked up a copy at the library. Once more, this is one of those scholarly works where the authors took their research paper and tried to turn it into a full-length book, probably stretching their initial hypotheses to the breaking point in order to make a point...and word count.

One of the things their research uncovered is the focus dividend - the positive outcome of scarcity capturing the mind. One example that comes to mind is finishing up a paper that's been due for months on the last possible night, like most college students do. The whole concept of "making your last shot count" comes vividly to mind in this context. If you have less resources, you will make the ones you have as effective as possible.

Another term they invented for the book is the tunneling tax - the negative effects of focusing single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand. Tunneling often happens in the area of insurance; the poor believe they cannot afford health insurance because their day to day demands are commanding all of their resources and attention, and they are unable to look at the long term effects of going without this essential service. We won't get into the whole political battle over employer and government provided, mandated or subsidized health care at this point, but I will mention that I have known some young people who declined their employers CHEAP health care coverage because they "couldn't afford it", then spent far more money on "necessities" like new hunting rifles and tinted windows on their cars. Tunneling happens in the business world quite often, as well. Think of the companies that made decisions in search of a short term profit, and ruined their business in the long term,.

Scarcity in our personal, emotional or financial lives has a number of effects on our mental bandwidth (the authors borrow a networking term here). The two primary components of bandwidth as defined here are cognitive capacity, the mechanisms that underlie our ability to solve problems, retain information and indulge in logical reasoning, and executive control, the way we go about planning, paying attention to, initiating and inhibiting actions.

In the area of executive control, one interesting thing they talk about is that willpower is often a function of diverting your attention away from the items or actions which you wish to avoid, and focusing your attention on things you wish to embrace. "Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."

An interesting example from nature of the effects of scarcity versus plenty (though God only knows how much mental capacity insects actually have that could be affected by worrying over scarcity) was that bees build intricately constructed honeycombs out of wax, which is manufactured within their bodies after consuming pollen (a pound of wax requires more than ninety thousand little bee journeys to collect nectar from flowers) whose walls are perfect hexagons with a thickness accurate within a two percent tolerance, while wasps use easily acquired mud and build very sloppy ill-constructed nests.

Cause? Effect? I dunno, but it was an interesting factoid.

One of the ways in which the poor are affected by scarcity is that the "tunneling" causes them to think only of the immediate need. One business that takes advantage of this is the payday loan industry.

Did you know that "In 2006 there were more than 23,000 payday lender branches in the United States, which was more than all the McDonalds (12,000) and Starbucks (almost 9,000) locations combined."?
3.5 billion dollars in fees each year!!

Some support for one of the things I've long maintained (and read somewhere before) - working overtime over a long period of time is counterproductive and if you can't get the job done in 40 hours a week or less, on average, you're doing it wrong, may be found in a couple of  articles they reference Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work and Bring Back the 40 Hour Work Week.

Interesting thought,

"Recent research shows that self-control may actually get depleted as we use it. One study, for example, put dieters in a room with some highly tempting snacks (Doritos, Skittles, M&Ms, salted peanuts) and gave them a computer task to perform. For some, the snacks were placed, highly visible, on the table right next to them. For others, the snacks were far away, out of mind. Having completed the computer task, subjects were given access to large containers of ice cream. Those who had been sitting next to the snacks, continuously resisting the urge, finally caved. They ate significantly more ice cream than those who were less tempted by the distant snacks. Researchers have likened willpower to a muscle, which fatigues with use."

Excuses for my binge eating at last! I've exercised my willpower far too long.

In the context of studies about the poor not taking medications they needed to stay healthy, even when the medicines were freely provided to them, they mentioned a startling fact. After decades of medical research, we have medications which can keep diabetics healthy, save HIV victims, cure tuberculosis, and yet diabetics only take their medications 50 to 75 percent of the time, millions have died of AIDS due to failure to take their medications regularly, and in order for tuberculosis treatment to work, doctors have to assign each patient someone who comes every day to watch them take their pill, otherwise they won't do it.

Crazy, huh?

The authors come up with a number of ways in which they recommend we administer various social programs which server the poor which take into account the effects of scarcity. It's an interesting read, but I'm not sure that sheer human cussedness won't foil those efforts just as it has foiled others we've already tried.

As I said in the beginning, they really stretch things to show how scarcity affects everyone in similar ways, but there are just enough outliers and just enough contradictory phenomena out there to make me doubt that things are as simple as they hope.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Hiatus

There is a strong possibility that summer activities may cause me to go "dark" for a while, as the long days and short nights keep me outdoors and traveling, not reading as much.

Have a fantastic Independence Day Weekend!

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Internet access Gasp! at last!

Just so y'all aren't worried about my disappearance, a few photos from my travels.
America is alive and well in her small towns, folks. The Independence Day parade lasted nearly two hours, and everyone for miles around came to wave the flag in Rupert, Idaho. I was comforted by the spirit of our heartland.

It took a hundred or so of these wild mountain strawberries to fill this cup, but though they are small in size, they are ENORMOUS in flavor! I'd hate to have to survive as a hunter gatherer, but life's simple and natural pleasures can't be beat.

It's difficult to convey the scale of these house-sized boulders in the middle of Selway Falls, the roar of the water, or the crisp pine scent of the mountain air. I wish I'd been able to get a close up photo of the nearby quiet pool where we saw spawning salmon resting from their upstream journey.

This magnificent suspension bridge across Dworshak Reservoir at Dent, Idaho left me wondering which old Idaho pol's cousin owned the construction company. The Army Corps operates a very pleasant campground here, and some of the fisherman were pulling dozens of Kokanee salmon from the waters.

More another day, perhaps.

Stay cool, y'all!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

 I don't know who told me about Cambias, he might have been mentioned on According to Hoyt. For a debut novel, it at least begins well. There are several classic ways to tell an First Encounter story, if the aliens are covered under some form of prime directive where humans are not supposed to interfere with their culture, or perhaps even to let the aliens suspect their existence, and I think I've read m stories following all of the possible plots at one point in time or another.  Cambias decides to tell the tale from the humans point of view to begin the story, shifts to the aliens, who live in a frigid ocean under an ice cap, and after playing with that for a while, changes perspective to a member of an alien race which the humans have known far longer, and who are rabidly insistent on non-interference with indigenous peoples. By the time the third group shows up on the scene, it's already too late and (for those of you who remember the 70s), Ethel has already been mooned.

One of the scientists studying the Sholen is a bit of a glory hog, and when he decides to violate the rules in a big way to get attention, things end tragically for him personally and, eventually, for the rest of the scientists. The crustacean-like Ilmatarans capture him and decide to dissect this new creature to find out what it is. The "more advanced" Sholen get wind of this misadventure and two of their ambassadors descend on the station to investigate and hopefully to avoid further contamination, but the political considerations result in escalating tensions and aggression between the two groups.

One of the things that Cambias does quite well is manage the info dumps in this story. We get a paragraph or two here and there, woven into the natural conversations between characters, and especially in the case of the Ilmatarans, he uses "show me, don't tell me" to give us a sense of their culture, language, and appearance. The ending seemed a little bit rushed, and I couldn't decide whether he was fighting a wordage or time deadline to finish it or whether it was simply that he hadn't thoroughly plotted the conclusion before he arrived where the story led him. There was an unexpected twist in the last sentence which left me wondering if it was a setup for a sequel, or simply something clever he wanted to spring upon us. Time will tell, I suppose.

A thoroughly enjoyable read from a new author. Hope to see more.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray

 I think I finally figured out why I've enjoyed Charles Murray's earlier writings so much - it appears that I'm actually a curmudgeon! Now, my children could have told you that years ago, but Murray's guidelines contain things I think about nearly every day of my professional life, so my status is externally confirmed now.

Aside from tips to the younger generation about avoiding the entitlement mentality, using good manners, and avoiding questionable style choices, Murray communicates clearly about clear communication, and avoiding buzzwords and cliches, such as the ubiquitous "I'll be there for you." He translates that phrase, roughly, as "I hereby make a meaningless pretend commitment." and says a more appropriate answer might be "Who do you want me to kill?" I love it.

Of course, I have my own pet peeves when it comes to CorpSpeak (my new term for crazy things people who work in big corporations say). The first is, "I have (or don't have) visibility to that", which means that they are unaware or unable to access the item in question. Visibility is a noun which is properly used in a sentence such as, "Visibility is excellent today, luckily for our pilot - and the passengers." I'll share more with you when the time is right.

One of the grammatical errors he explains well is using "which" and "that" interchangeably. I'm probably guilty of this one quite often. "That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses." If the clause is not crucial to understanding the sentence, use which.

One of Murray's tips definitely identifies him as a curmudgeon of my generation, when it comes to writing.

"Edit the piece in hard copy before before sending out the final version." People of my generation grew up with, at best, electric typewriters, and we are unable to really visualize structure and perform edits without a hard copy to scribble on. I think that my children's generation, having used digital visual media their entire lives, may not have this problem, so it might not be the best tip for a newbie in the job force, but I completely can relate to it.

On editing, and how often new material will flow from your fingertips in the midst of an edit, quoting co-author Dick Herrnstein,

"I remember once when I noticed a rough transition between paragraphs. By the time I fixed it, I had seven new chapters."

I think this explains a lot about The Wheel of Time.

Perhaps his most important bit of advice for writers is simply, "Don't wait for the muse." When you have to write as part of your job, or you intend to write in  order to put a roof over your head and food on the table, you absolutely must set a time and a place for writing, and do it consistently and persistently every working day. If you wait for the muse to strike, it could be a long time before that happens, and it could also strike at a horribly inconvenient time, with no way to take a message when Calliope calls.

Murray also dispels the myth that you need to achieve great success at a young age, like Facebook's Zuckerberg. The median age at which artists and composers have created their greatest works is forty, while writers' greatest literature has been created at a median age of fifty. I guess there's hope for us middle-aged curmudgeons yet.

He also proposes several strategies to increase your personal resilience, so that you won't be overwhelmed when whirlwinds of change make life...interesting in the Chinese curse sense. One option is joining the military, which has a culture which is completely foreign to the one most people experience while growing up, and another is to "pick a place in a strange part of the world that you'd like to get to know, buy a one way airplane ticket, and go...stay for at least three years."

Something he said that you might want to think deeply upon,

"What I am about to say assumes that the purpose of a human life is not just to pass the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, with as little trouble as possible. Life should consist of something more than leisure and transient pleasures. Can we agree on that?"

I'm not so sure that we do, here in America today. They're giving us bread and circuses, and that which passes for meaningful is generally based on deception and manipulation. Think about it.

On value judgments (a curmudgeonly relic from a bygone era),

"I want to emphasize that being judgmental is not the same as being intolerant. It is appropriate to be tolerant of behaviors that you wouldn't engage in yourself, and even ones of which you disapprove but which you also judge to fall within the range of choices that people should be entitled to make in a free society. But you can't let your desire to be tolerant get in the way of your obligation to reach moral judgments. You need to think through your assessment of alternative codes of behavior, drawing upon as much accumulated human wisdom as you can about virtue and vice, and about the consequences of different behaviors for human flourishing. You not only need to do it; you must. The failure to do so doesn't define you as nonjudgmental. It defines you as lazy."

And again, on virtue,

"Lacking the cardinal virtues (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance), you can act in those other virtuous ways (being kind, compassionate, merciful, tolerant) haphazardly, and occasionally have the effect you wish, but you cannot consistently have the effect you wish, nor will you be able to bring yourself to behave in those other virtuous ways when the going gets rough. You will still mean well. You will still be nice. You won't be good."

An interesting thought,

"What was true in 1875 had been true throughout human history. Day to day, people didn't have any choice but to show up."

It was not possible to disengage from family, friends, vocation, community, or faith. You needed to be "present to win". After the invention of the phonograph and motion pictures, you could be entertained without showing up for a concert or play. After the introduction of commercial radio, then television, and now electronic media, it is possible to live a life completely alone, and never to directly engage with a living, breathing human.

This is the kind of pocket reference guide to life that ought to be on everyone's nightstand.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tin Swift by Devon Monk

 Monk has written a great second novel in her new Age of Steam series. Some time has actually passed since the end of Cold Iron, and the ragged little band consisting of the Madder brothers, Rose, Cedar, Mae, and Wil, the wolf, have been slowly making their way east from Oregon to Kansas. As we pick up the tale, they are crossing Idaho, past Fort Boise on the way to the Bitteroots. Mae is being driven out of her mind by the geas set upon her by the coven where she grew up to return to them, now that her marriage vow is broken by Jed's death. When they stop in the town of Victory to seek supplies, they find that the entire population has been wiped out, and the bodies multilated.

Cedar senses the presence of one of the fragments of the Holder, as well as the scent of their old "friend" Mr. Shunt, who has made it his mission in what passes for his Strange version of life to harass and kill Cedar and his friends. When they trigger a trap left behind by Shunt, the townsfolk reanimate and attack. In the ensuing battle, the Madder brothers stay behind to battle the zombies, allowing Cedar, Wil, Rose and Mae to make their getaway. Not unscathed, however, as when the trap sprung, Rose was infected with a fragment of the Holder which Shunt left behind, and its evil begins to drain her life force. They must get Mae to the Coven, and get Rose the help she needs.

An odd sort of rescue takes place when Captain Hinks, a glim gatherer with a steam airship at his command, shows up on the scene just in time to rescue the quartet from the zombie horde. Hinks is an undercover U.S. Marshal, working for the president, hunting down corruption in the glim trade. He has an archenemy, General Alabaster, a traitor whom he exposed long ago, and who is now allied with Mr. Shunt and dogging the steps of both Hinks and our adventurers. Cedar and company pick up a few new allies as well, and become acquainted with the league of folks who are also on the trail of the Holder, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.

We catch a glimpse of the nature of glim,
"Glim, more precious than diamonds or gold, used to power ships on air, water, or land. Used to heal the sick, cure the blights, turn the tide in wars, and make anything and everything stronger and longer lasting. Glim was even rumored to extend a man's life well beyond his years."

We begin to see some hints that although Cedar has always regarded the curse laid on Wil and himself as, well, a curse, the Pawnee gods may have had something else in mind. Cedar and Wil are the only ones who can sense and track the Holder, and they may be destined to save the world, so to speak.

"Cedar's ability to sense the Holder gave him an edge on those others looking for it. Whether his sensitivity to the weapon was a product of the Pawnee curse in his bones, or pure bad luck, he didn't know and didn't care."

"Cedar looked taller, inhuman, like a hunter out of legend, or some kind of warrior of old come to put the land right."

And a little bit of poetry from Monk,

"We all deserve happiness, Rose. Our lives should be filled with it whether the days are dark or sunny. Happiness doesn't beg permission. It just walks across our threshold, sets itself down beside us, and waits for us to notice."

Lots of great action, evil ploys, and even a bit of romance as Cedar and Mae finally admit to their feelings, and other little affairs begin. Since the Holder split in seven pieces at the conclusion of Cold Iron, and were scattered across the country, and Cedar is bound by his promise to the Madders to find them, and given that they find one of the fragments in this book, I'm guessing we have six exciting sequels coming our way.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dead Iron by Devon Monk

 This new series by Devon Monk has a steep learning curve. It seems to me radically different in setting and tone than her Allie Beckstrom series. We begin in the American West, somewhere between the Blue and Wallowa Mountains (an area quite familiar to me) in the fictional town of Hallelujah, where a mysterious yet flamboyant man, Shard LeFel, is bringing the railroad to town, and the hopes of its residents are pinned on the prosperity it will bring. To their chagrin, should they ever find out, it is actually being built for the purpose of providing a channel for The Strange, supernatural, possibly psychotic, and predatory creatures to feed on the nightmares and fears of helpless humans. The near caricature of the false religion practiced by the townsfolk - all the trappings of Christianity but none of the heart - contrasts oddly with the slightly more noble and sometimes altruistic behavior of the werewolves, witches, zombies and seers in their midst. I'd say that there are good, evil, and in-between folks in this story, but the good is awfully hard to find, and not where you'd expect it.

There's a fun bit of tension in the early part of the novel when the reader, of course, can see that the shapeshifter, Cedar Hunt, who is hunting for a missing child, and the witch, Mae Lindson, who beseeches him to help her find the man who killed her husband Jeb (who like James Bond simply refuses to die quietly (and the villain likes to brag about his plans, too)), actually are aiming for the same target, and we wonder how long it will take before they figure it out.

Cedar is wracked with guilt for having murdered his own brother when he first experiences the change, and by some strange coincidence comes into possession of his dead brother's pocket watch in the early stages of the tale. The Madder Brothers, whom we immediately dislike and file away into the "big stupid bad guy" category, turn out to be a bit more of a complex surprise that we bargained for.

The foundling shop girl, Rose Small, seems like a bit part when we first encounter her when Cedar goes into town for some supplies, but her role in the coming conflict is huge, and she may just be the one character in the story who has her head on straight. She has the uncanny ability to see the truth through illusion, as well as the talents of a "deviser" and ambitions far larger than her surname would imply.

LeFel has a more personal motive in kidnapping the boy, capturing a wolf, and sacrificing a witch; to return to the world from which his brother exiled him three centuries ago, and to obtain vengeance for his exile. If he does not return soon, the mortal world will kill him, who was born immortal. He has a sidekick, Mr. Shunt, who is a Strange of a very strange kind, and whose merciless evil makes him the perfect minion, aside from the minor problem that all of his tasks seem to fail in the end.

A great start, and I hope an indication of a long and prosperous series. I this whole Steampunk genre is still finding its way, as each time I've found something under that label, it's been a new adventure. Heaven help us if the themes ever grow old and stale.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Things that Matter by Charles Krauthammer

 I had imagined that this book was going to be an autobiography, but it was not. It is actually a collection of Krauthammer's columns, written over the decades, on subjects as diverse as the utility of a pithy "F" word and its two and three word combinations, "the deuce is the preferred usage when time is short and concision is of the essence" to reminiscences about historical figures as diverse as Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill.

His writing is very much like his speech, carefully considered, in measured breaths, perhaps governed by his difficulty breathing after being paralyzed in his youth.

He covers the "central axiom of partisan politics - Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil." with phrases like this one, "Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything."

On the marathoning craze of triathlons, decathlons and grueling "mudders", he writes, "Now that everyon can afford status symbols like designer jeans, conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous exertion. Sheer exhilarating length becomes a value in itself."

On Bush Derangement Syndrome, "Now, I cannot testify to Howard Dean's sanity before this campaign, but five terms as governor by a man with no visible tics and no history of involuntary confinement is pretty good evidence of a normal mental status. When he avers, however, that 'the most interesting' theory as to why the president is 'suppressing' the Sept. 11 report is that Bush knew about Sept. 11 in advance, it's time to check on Thorazine supplies."

We may be seeing some of that flowing the other way now from partisans who believe the current president to be Satan incarnate.

On Sensitivity Training:
"This project for the inculcation of proper human feelings through behavioral technique is either sinister or idiotic. It is sinister when it works, as in Communist China, where they have learned how to break one's character through the extremes of coercion, deprivation and torture. These means are not yet available to American educators and family therapists. Which explains their low success rate."

One hears of the mob storming the Bastille during the French Revolution. Did you realize that it only held seven prisoners - the Marquis de Sade had already been set free a week earlier.

Krauthammer echoes something I've long thought, "I'm not one of those who see gay marriage or polygamy as a threat to, or assault on, traditional marriage. The assault came from within. Marriage needed no help in managing its own long, slow suicide, thank you."

Congratulations to those homosexuals who are now free to marry...and fight...and divorce...and ruin their children's lives. Bon voyage!

Though many of his essays on Iraq and the wars we fought there were written some time ago, he seems prescient in his cautionary tales here, foretelling the total disaster we are seeing right now as the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal after the Obama administration failed to negotiate a SOFA was filled with Al Qaeda affilliated jihadists wreaking havoc.

On our brief stint as the sole global power:

"American preeminence is based on the fact that it is the only country with the military, diplomatic, political and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses to involve itself."

Unfortunately, we have lost our way in determining our national interests and seem to have no coherent or cohesive foreign policy left, not surprising when the likes of Hillary and John Kerry are in charge of State.

And, he says,

"Americans have a healthy aversion to foreign policy. It stems from a sense of thrift. Who needs it? We're protected by two great oceans. We have this continent practically to ourselves. And we share it with just two neighbors, both friendly, one so friendly that its people seem intent on moving in with us."

That's the funniest thing I've heard about our illegal immigration crisis yet.

Educational, and fully worth the time invested in the reading.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon

 So, Elizabeth Moon finally brings the Paladin's Legacy series to a close with this book. She borrows a few tricks from David Weber, in maintaining the suspense through telling the story in multiple POVs, but keeps it simple enough for mere mortals to follow.

All of the threads containing our old friends are brought to successful conclusions, and she leaves just enough questions unanswered and notes suspended to make one hope for a return to the saga at some time.

******Spoilers below********

The demon-possessed tyrant, Immer, is on the move, having stolen part of the ancient Regalia, he is driven to possess it all, believing it will let him rule the world. The dark elves, or Iynisin, are on the move, also trying to gain possession of the crown locked in the Treasury. After a nearly successful attempt leaves Camwyn badly wounded, the king sends for Dorrin to take it away from his land to Aare, where it seems to wish to go, anyway.

Kieri and Arian are raising their twins, and his sense of the taig and connection to the Old magic of the humans is growing rapidly. He and Paksennarion work together to cast a spell backwards in time to put the mage lords to sleep in the cavern where they appear in the early books in the series, and then when the dragon instructs him that he is about to destroy that place, Kieri uses the Old magic to bring them forward in time, hoping for their aid in his struggles with evil.

Former thief and assassin, Arvid, grows rapidly in his knowledge of Gird's Laws and ends up promoted far beyond his expectations. The mage hunters have been targeting families and children, and all of the Girdsmen who follow the Marshall-General are trying to stop them. The Marshall-General was wounded in the previous book by a poisoned Iynisin dagger and is not healing well, so Paksennarion must find a Kuoknomen who is willing to travel far from his grove to heal her.

Arcolin leads the mercenaries in the South in the fight against Immer's forces, trying to retake town's lost in the last fighting season.

So, I suppose it's allowed, in a book about magic and gods who speak to mortals, to use a deus ex machina twist at the end to wrap things up, but it just feels a little like cheating to me when Immer is strangled by the magic necklace he's been wearing for months, Dorrin is transformed into a goddess of sorts herself, and the mage hunters are defeated by Gird's power manifesting itself and striking them all down with bolts of lightning.

Bummed that it's over once more, mildly disappointed in the way it all turned out. Still and all, a good read and a marvelous series returning to the world of Sheepfarmer's Daughter.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

 Sequel to Curse of Chalion, this story picks up about three years after those events. The Provincara of Valenda has died, and her daughter, the dowager royina, Ista, finally decides she must throw off the chains that have bound her to that place and go on a pilgrimage. She gathers "by chance" an interesting crew to accompany her - the brothers Foix and Ferda of the Daughter's Order, the Learned dy Cabon, a priest of The Bastard, a young woman courier named Liss, and a miscellaneous troupe of men at arms acccompanying Foix and Ferda. Her path is indeterminate at first, and they wander from holy site to shrine casually, but when they encounter a Jokonan force on a scouting expedition gone astray in one of the northern provinces where war with the Roknari is about to break out, things get hairy in a hurry.

Ista sends Liss off to warn the countryside and summon help, instructs Foix, who was recently "infested" by a demon, and dy Cabon, who will be tortured by the Jokonans for his faith, to hide in a culvert until the force has passed, and flees like a wounded mother bird to lure the force away from her young companions. She is capture by the Jokonans and will be held for ransom, a tasty prize due to her close connection with the ruling couple of Chalion. She is rescued after a short time by Arhys dy Lutez, a bastard son of the same dy Lutez who was her husband Ias' best friend, and who died in a misconceived ritual to rid the kingdom of the curse in the previous book's title.

Arhys rules a small but strong keep called Porifors, which contains an interesting mystery in and of itself, and which turns out to be the key to stopping a Roknari plot to invade Chalion. Ista finds that the gods have plans for her which do not include her settling down and acting the part of an aging spinster, and finds that the work they hold for her has rewards beyond her expectations.

Great stuff, and the only bad thing is that it appears to be the final book in this cycle, aside from the vaguely related The Hallowed Hunt.

I leave you with a marvelous Bujold quote:

"I am too old to start over."

"You have more years ahead of you than Pejar, half your age, whom we buried outside these walls these two days past. Stand before his grave and use your gift of breath to complain of your limited time. If you dare."

Friday, June 20, 2014

Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins

 I'm afraid that life is far too short to waste time with books that don't grab your attention and hold it. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes me too long to realize that's the case, and I dither around on finishing something until I finally wake up and grab something better.

Wanted Women is the story of two women raised in the Islamic faith, who ended up with diametrically opposed ideas about the role of women in Islam and the role of Islam in the world - Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. One of them ended as a crusader for women's rights in a moderate version of Islam, while the other seems to have joined the ranks of jihadis promoting violence worldwide in support of creating a global Caliphate.

I'm certain that Deborah Scroggins spent a great deal of time doing extensive and exhaustive research into the lives of both women, as well as the history of their motivations and motives, but I simply could no longer justify spending time reading her work. If you're deeply interested in such things (and I have read Hirsi Ali's writings, so I thought I might be), you'll probably enjoy this.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Shiver of Light by Laurel K. Hamilton

 We rejoin Merry and her band of merry faerie men at the birth of her - Surprise! - triplets. As she catalogs the possible fathers of her babes in post-partum musings, we get the obligatory over the top descriptions of her hunky paramours, who slowly morph, as the novel develops into sexy, hunky perfect daddies. Hamilton does an interesting thing when she twists (in a good way) the fascination all of us seem to have with babies, especially newborns, into something a bit more magical - the ability of daughter Briulen (sp?) to actually project a glamour that fascinates all around her. I had an idea, at this point, that perhaps this glamour would in some way be helpful or responsible, by the time the novel concludes, for neutralizing the evil antagonists, Merry's Aunt Andais and Uncle Taranis. Time will tell whether I'm correct.

And therein lies one of the main plot devices in the book - how Merry and her loyalists will deal with the hostility of the Queen and King of the fae and those of their courts who fear her mortality infecting them. Merry's alliance with the goblin king, Kurag, is also about to run out, and her post-partum condition leaves her in no shape to wield her usual sexual powers to persuade, coerce, and enspell him, or the ambitious brothers, Ash and Holly, who are stirring up trouble of their own in that kingdom. There's also a sub-plot dealing with Maeve's difficulties with her young son, who seems to bond more easily with Merry, her men, and her babies than with his birth mother.

Another subplot is the story of how Bryluen, Merry's newborn daughter, is able to cast a glamour upon anyone who gazes at her face. This makes it difficult to use human nannies to care for her, as they are more easily ensorcelled, and even her fae babysitters can be caught by her spell. It is unusual for one so young to manifest a glamour this powerful, and Merry worries about it quite a bit. It's a fun twist on the baby fever that attacks those of us who have borne our own children, or have fallen deeply in love with our grandchildren - easy to lose yourself in the quietness of their breathing or the smell of their hair.

There are pages and pages "lost" to more of Hamilton's glowing descriptions of Merry's harem of men. We've really seen it all before, but I have never checked to be certain she hasn't just recycled previous descriptions from the other eight books - might be a project for my imaginary intern.

Some problems are solved, and a new tragedy or two introduced, fresh allies gained, and old enemies neutralized, but the forward momentum seems molasses slow to me. It grows more and more difficult to justify the expense of the new volumes in this series, I'm afraid.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Skin Game by Jim Butcher

 Harry is forced to leave Demonreach island when Mab arrives and tells him that the parasite infesting his brain will break free, killing him first, then killing all of the people whom he loves afterwards, in just a few days. But...and it's a big one...if he performs one little task for her, she will be happy to effect its removal without all the nasty side effects. Oh, you just soooo know it's not gonna be a fun chore for poor Harry!

As events unfold, Harry discovers that he must repay a debt Mab owes to Nicodemus, one of the Denarians (those who hold the coins containing fallen angels' spirits), by helping him to rob the treasure house of Hades, greek god of the underworld.

As you might suspect from seeing how things tend to go a bit haywire around Harry, nothing really goes according to plan - even when an evil mastermind is the plotter. When Harry and a warlock named Ascher go to pick up a thief (no, not Bilbo) to help with the robbery of the century, the Fomor show up at the party to disrupt things, and Harry manages to take a bullet through the leg when the thugs attack with machine guns - James Bond he ain't.

Later on, when they are trying to get a tissue or blood sample from a human whom the shifter on the team, Goodman Grey, is going to impersonate, Nicodemus wife, Tessa, another Denarian, and her four ghoul companions try to get to the man first, so Harry has to take them on, too. He ends up with a compound fracture of the radius for his troubles, but manages to accomplish the objective - with a bit of collateral damage, unfortunately.

So Nicodemus gathered his associates slowly, and I kept waiting for them to amass the requisite nine members for the quest. Is it allowed to be a quest if it's evil? or if you intend to steal the powerful magical artifact for yourself instead of destroying it? Can we have a ruling from the committee, please?

Aside from all of the intrigue, double-dealing, and action sequences in the book, there are a few key things that occur in the long view. Harry finally gets the chance to get to know Maggie, his and Susan's daughter, and to bond with her. He and Karen openly acknowledge that there's something more meaningful than just friendship between them. Good old Butters steps up to the plate and joins the fight against evil openly. While it seems that Harry will never really get over being tortured by the possibility that he will turn into a monster, given his position as Winter Knight, his friend and former Knight of the Cross, Michael, does manage to talk a little bit of sense into him. Harry also finds an unexpected ally or two in high places...or maybe low places, and acquires some weapons that may help in the fight against the Outsiders.

As much as I hate waiting, this one was worth the time Butcher spent getting it right.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Around the Web

Some Quickie book reviews from The Caer.

And a very quick book endorsement from The Miller.

Code Red by John Mauldin

 The authors lay out a very thorough history of how the central banks and governments, both in the United States and a number of other countries, such as Japan, the UK, and the Eurozone, have steadily and perhaps recklessly overspent, overborrowed, and overinflated the currency of our respective nations. There's nothing really new to me in all of this, it's pretty standard fare from "gold bugs", most of whom are trying to sell precious metals. For someone who hasn't seen this information before, it serves as a thorough education in finance and history at a level which most people will not get from the public schools.

I even learned a new (to me) term - rentier capitalist - one who no longer works for a living, but makes their living by "clipping coupons", collecting dividends, spending interest on accumulated capital.

The point of all this rhetoric, of course, is to tell a cautionary tale, which can be summarized thusly:

"Since there can actually be no such thing as a government raising revenue at no cost, simple logic tells us that someone has to pay. It is impossible to know in advance who will pay for a central bank's 'free lunch,' only that someone, somewhere will eventually pay."

So enjoy all your free lunches, folks. At some point, the bill will come due, and whatever working stiffs are left in this country (and others) will end up paying the tab. If you think The Rich are going to pay, you haven't been paying attention. The Rich will never pay this bill, they own the bankers and the lawmakers. You need to get over that bit of foolishness and figure out how to make sure paying the bill doesn't break you and your family.

There's a sentence in this book that explains a lot of the semi-recent headlines.

"After the introduction of the euro, capital flowed freely; and countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece imported lots of foreign goods, borrowed heavily, and built up very large unsustainable external debts in a currency they could not print or devalue."

One of the "traditional" methods that governments have for paying down their borrowing is to inflate their currency, so as to use less valuable (in terms of goods and services which one can purchase with them) dollars, e.g. When you take away this ability by assigning the "value" of a currency to a central authority, as happened in the Eurozone, governments which behave irresponsibly with their money cannot take advantage of this tactic. And the unrest begins.

What was rather novel about this book was that Mauldin doesn't appear to be selling precious metals, like most inflationary Cassandras. In fact, he doesn't really push buying gold, merely mentions it as part of a balanced portfolio.

I found interesting Harry Browne's Permanent Portfolio, proposed in 1981, which apparently has had a pretty steady, though not spectacular, return over several decades.

  • 25 percent in U.S. equities, which tend to do well when economic times are good.
  • 25 percent in gold and precious metals to protect yourself against inflation.
  • 25 percent in Treasury bonds, which normally do well when the economy is slowing, and in a recession.
  • 25 percent in cash, which adds stability to the portfolio

Worth considering.

Mauldin makes a claim, based on statistics, I'm sure, that,

"With interest rates so low and inflation eroding their income as the cost of living rises, older people cannot afford to retire and are often beating out younger jobseekers in the job market because they have more experience and are willing to work as hard as the young people."

As a person rapidly approaching the "older" worker status, my experience and that of my cohort seems to be that many companies are actually letting older workers go, and replacing them with younger workers, strictly for financial considerations - younger workers will work more cheaply, while older workers have commanded higher salaries. There may be some countercurrents to this in the entry level Wally World jobs, but older workers are being given "early retirement" in droves, and many of them are having serious difficulty finding new jobs comparable to the ones they are leaving. Take it all with a grain of salt.

A good book, with some good strategies for managing your family's nest egg over the coming decades, I believe, but nothing truly revelationary here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

11-22-63 by Stephen King

Back in the day, I read a number of Stephen King's early horror novels, like Salem's Lot, Christine, The Shining, The Long Walk, Carrie, etc. By the time he wrote The Stand I had pretty much given up on horror, and when I tried to read the Gunslinger novels, I was unmoved. For some reason, when I saw that King was writing something new connected to the JFK assassination, I thought it might be interesting, so I put a hold on it at the library. It came in, however, while I was out of town on vacation, and they wouldn't hold it long enough for me to get back to town and pick it up, so it dropped off my radar again for a while. While preparing for my Memorial Day vacation, I saw a "books on tape" CD version of it at the library, and decided to pick it up to listen to on hour ten hour drive to the coast.

The story was interesting, though I knew very quickly that it had to contain some element of time travel, and from some foreshadowing that King did, guessed a great deal of the plot before it happened. It was holding my interest fairly well, except for a couple of things which had nothing to do with Mr. King's skills or the plot, namely the whole format of the thing. First, I read pretty quickly, and a book like this would probably take me three hours, give or take, to devour. We listened to it for at least ten hours in the car, and I suspect we are not even halfway through it. I suppose it is being read at normal read-aloud speed, but it darned near put me to sleep listening to it - not a good idea while driving long distances.

Second, I hated that the reader (who was probably some famous TV personality, if I followed such pop cultural things (update: Actor Craig Wasson from One Life to Live and Body Double) tried to use different voices for each and every character. I'm so used to getting my own idea of what each character sounds like in my head that it was distracting, and even worse when, at times, his characters voices began to slip, and blend. Ick. Just let me hear them in my head, ok?

So, I'm thinking that if I'm going to try the book on tape thing for another trip I'll need to buy something educational that actually requires a bit of thinking and digesting along the way, so I won't mind the slow pace and there will be no need to hear badly done voices.

I'm probably going to have to put the novel on hold at the library so I can finish it and let you know how I liked it. I can jump right in where the CD left off on our car ride (had to keep turning it off when it made me drowsy), and quickly get resolution. King was just beginning to introduce a bit of that dark horrific feeling that he cribbed from earlier writers like Ray Bradbury, filed off the serial numbers, and custom painted to drive like a bat out of hell...or Christine.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright

 I'm always looking for new authors, so when I read some positive things about John C. Wright's work, I thought I'd give him a try. I was able to "try" but not quite to "do".

 This is the oddest thing I've read in a long time. There are five children in an orphanage somewhere in the English countryside: Amelia, Quentin, Colin, Victor, and Vanity. The orphanage may or may not be what it seems, and the children may or
may not be the offspring of old gods and goddesses. Each one of them has individual powers, like bending reality to their will or altering gravity. They are all very bright, and beginning to chafe at their invisible bonds and the rules imposed by the headmaster and staff, who may actually be their evil jailors.

Things really get stirred up when The Protector and the Trustees show up for a meeting with the folks running the school. Amelia, through whose eyes we see most of this story, manages to eavesdrop on the meeting, and we can definitely see that the "children" are merely playing chits, albeit valuable ones, in a greater game that the gods are playing, and that all of the factions have their own agendas. Wright still hasn't come out and said that they are actually gods, until almost immediately afterwards, when the children, after drugging one of their wardens into unconsciousness, gather in the school kitchen and discuss who each of the gods was, blowing their aliases all to heck.

I suppose, as this is billed as YA fiction, that Wright didn't trust the readers to make the necessary connections. I guess kids these days don't grow up with a copy of Bullfinch ready to hand. At that point, the premature reveal and the immature behavior of the captive "children" caused me to give up on the story. I just didn't like them well enough to care how it all ended.

Ah well, back to the quest for a good new author. Wright writes well, and creatively, but his narrative sense just couldn't hold my attention.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Corsican Caper by Peter Mayle

 This is another charming little adventure by Peter Mayle, taking place in Marseilles. Sam and Elena are on holiday for a bit, enjoying the home and company of their good friend, Francis Reboul, Le Pharo. When a ruthless billionaire Russian businessman, Vronsky, decides he absolutely must own Le Pharo, he will stop at nothing to get it, including murder, and it is up to our friends from L.A. to thwart his plots, with a little help from Reboul's other friends, like Philippe and Mimi, and the Corsican brothers Figatelli.

As always, there is plenty of French fare for the bon vivants, with descriptions of meals like "a croissant of such exquisite lightness that it threatened to float off the plate."


"Dinner tonight is a simple affair, but alternative arrangements can be made for anyone who is allergic to foie gras, rack of Sisteron lamb scented with rosemary, fresh goat cheeses, and tarte Tatin."

When Sam and Elena go off shopping for homes in Provence, Reboul has some words of wisdom for them.
"Charm is the great excuse for dark, rooms, tiny window, low ceilings, suspect plumbing, rats in the cellar, bats in the bedroom, and anything else that might be seen as a disadvantage. If the property is really on its last legs and falling to pieces, it has un charme fou - a crazy charm."

This passage sounds all too familiar these days.

"Judging by what I saw, face-to-face conversation is finished...All I saw, everywhere, were groups of people who were together but not talking to each other, nor even looking at each other. They were all staring at their cell phones."

If you're feeling a bit overworked, think of poor Reboul.

"'And now, I must go to the cellar and choose the wines.' He paused, and gave a long, theatrical sigh. 'My work is never done.'"

Mine, however, is.