Friday, April 30, 2010

A Time to Betray, by Reza Kahlili

A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of IranSome time ago, I read a book called Saddam's Bomb Maker, by an Iraqi defector, which detailed that leader's efforts to gain nuclear weapons. This book reminded me very strongly of that. It's the first person story of an Iraqi man who finds himself recruited into the Republican Guards in post-Islamic-revolution Iran, disturbed by the deeds being committed by the regime, who voluntarily contacts the CIA and becomes an informant. His tales of his double life in Iran are quite interesting, but I'm not sure just how big a grain of salt I should take with it.
Reza grew up with two close friends, Naser and Kazem. Reza and Naser were apparently upper middle class, and lived in a nicer section of Tehran, while Naser's family was poor, and he grew up in the slums, eventually falling into radical Islam. Reza went off to study at UCLA, getting a degree in computer science in the mid 70s. After the revolution took place, and Khomeini returned from exile, Kazem was appointed to the Republican Guards, and found a position for his friend, Reza, in the organization. Naser became involved with the opposition party, and eventually was arrested, along with his younger brother and sister. They were all tortured and executed for treason and apostasy. This event and others like it motivate Reza to return to the U.S. on a purported visit to his aunt, and contact first the FBI and through them the CIA.
According to Kahlili, he fed them information for nearly ten years about all of the nefarious activities of the Guard. Strangely, most of the events he described never made an appearance in the news media, and the U.S. government did nothing to capitalize on his information. They continued to misunderstand the motivations of the mullahs in charge in Iran, thinking that they were reasonable people who could be bargained with, when in actuality the mullahs and their puppet "elected government" were committed to bringing first the Middle East and eventually the world under the domination of radical Islam.
There are some good hair-raising adventures in this one, such as when Reza and Kazem are ordered to the front to supervise the deliver of fresh troops, and come under artillery fire, or when the two of them are driving in Tehran and are attacked by mujahedin. Kahlili lays the responsibility for many of the terrorist attacks in the Middle East at the feet of the Revolutionary Guards and Council, from training terrorists, sending assassins after opposition leaders in Europe, supplying explosives and weapons, and even hints that the Lockerbie bombing was retaliation for the U.S.S. Vincennes downing of an Iranian civilian airliner in the Gulf.
An interesting read, but I'm awaiting corroboration from independent sources.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flying High, by William F. Buckley Jr.

Flying High: Remembering Barry GoldwaterFlying High is a memoir of the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign by noted  conservative columnist and pundit, William F. Buckley, Jr. I really had high hopes for this book, but I found it a little opaque.
One bit of interest, on a trip to Antarctica, Goldwater mentions that the continent is the "principal generator of the energy that governs the metabolism of the earth...There is everything there, potentially: the control of the weather; the answer to the fresh-water problem. A vat of energy greater than the known supply of the world's oil. If I had been elected president, you'd have seen it all come to life." Makes you wonder about the road not taken, eh?
There are also a number of good quotes taken from The Conscience of a Conservative. On the question of federal aid to education, Goldwater wrote, "The truth, of course, is that the federal government has no funds except those it extracts from the taxpayers which reside in the various States. The money that the federal government pays to State X for education has been taken from the citizens of State X in federal taxes, and comes back to them, minus the usual Washington brokerage fee." I think that's one of the best descriptions of the fallacy of thinking that the federal government can perform any function cheaper than the private sector, or the local government, that I've ever heard. "Brokerage fee", indeed.
Buckley  likes to demonstrate his superior vocabulary, which I found a bit irritating. One sentence begins, "William Scranton...felt an afflatus on the question of Goldwater..." Huh? Who uses words like that to convey anything but a perceived superiority to the reader? Later on, Buckley writes, "There had been cheers of joy to greet those words. But the diapasonal opposition drowned out the good moments..." Go ahead, look up diapasonal, I'm waiting.
While there are some good anecdotes about times spent with Goldwater, the book really isn't so much about him at all, but more of an exposition that if Goldwater had only listened to WFB and his buddies, rather than trusting his campaign staff, he would have won the presidency.
If you're a true political junkie, go ahead and read this one, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

A Civil CampaignBujold's recent novel in the Miles Vorkosigan saga has just about everything a man could ask for: laugh-out-loud comedy, minor tragedy, high drama and low punning. If you haven't been keeping up with the Vorkosigan adventures, you better get with the program. I recommend this entire series highly. While they're not strictly science fiction in some senses - some are military fiction, spy novels or political intrigue - each and every one will provide hours of entertainment.

In A Civil Campaign, Miles has returned from his latest mission to Komarr as an Imperial Auditor with a major crush on a young Vor widow, Ekatarin Vorsoisson. His clone brother, Mark has returned home to Barrayar from his Betan studies for a while, with love affair problems of his own and a new business partner. And, in the immediate environs of Barrayar, Emperor Greg's wedding is rapidly approaching and the Council of Counts is filled with cutthroat political games.

In matters of war, Miles has known few masters, but in matters of love, he proves to be a little out of his depth. His best-laid plans to court the widow Vorsoisson go curiously awry, and there's a climactic dinner party scene which could have been written by James Thurber on one of his better days.

In some ways, this novel is like a big family reunion. All of the characters we've come to know and love are present. Aral and Cordelia, Simon Illyan, Ivan and Lady Alys, Emperor Greg, Kou and Drou, Mark and the Koudelka sisters, Armsman Pym (think of Jeeves with a pulse cannon)... and the list goes on.

I must confess, I broke one of my cardinal rules and bought this one in hardback, and it was definitely worth the price. Enjoy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Komarr, by Lois McMasters Bujold

Komarr (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)Having been confirmed by Emperor Gregor, and sworn in as Imperial Auditor in front of the Council of Counts, Miles goes offplanet to observe another auditor, Vorthys (an esteeemed engineering professor) in investigating the cause of a collision which has caused damage to the soletta array on Komarr. This array is essential to the cause of terraforming the planet, which appears to be Mars-like, from the descriptions. Komorrans have been living under domes on the planet for a century or so, and hope to be able to move to the surface without wearing breath masks sometime in the next millenium.

Auditors Vorthys and Vorkosigan set up shop in the home of Vorthys' niece, Ekaterin, and her husband Tien Vorsoisson. Tien is an administrator in one of the districts of the terraforming project. We get to learn quite a bit about the state of the project when we tag along with the auditors on a dog and pony show arranged by Tien and the people working with him, and later we get to go on a shopping expedition with Miles and Ekaterin and learn a bit more about life in Komarr.

As it turns out, Tien has been involved in a bit of shady business with the Komarran "resistance", accepting bribes out of funds embezzled from the terraforming project. Ekaterin discovers his part in this, and it's the last straw for her in an unhappy marriage. When she tells Tien she's leaving him, he panics and tries to get Miles to declare him an Imperial Witness (immune from prosecution) if he'll reveal the Komarran's plot. Miles and Tien pay a surprise visit at one of the terraforming stations, get surprised themselves, and Tien dies accidentally and stupidly. At this point, the plot threads begin to come together, and the damage to the soletta array appears to be a part of something larger and much more deadly.

What's perhaps more important, however, is that Miles falls hopelessly in love with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, even before her husband is dead, we get to watch him navigate the maze between his Vorish sense of propriety and his usual disregard for anything remotely resembling rules and utter lack of social inhibitions.

There's a great "in" joke here when Ekaterin offers to take Miles shopping, and he quips "That's not something one offers a son of my mother lightly" (paraphrase). There's also a marvelous moment near the end of the book when Miles absolutely knows he must have this woman as his wife, and she quizzes him about his ex-girlfriends. She drags it out of him that one of them has become an admiral of a mercenary fleet, another the head of a cryogenic clinic, another has become one of Cetaganda's Empresses, and she begins to realize that Miles is one of those rare people who encourage others to dream big and accomplish even bigger.

Just another great book in the plot and character development for Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)In anticipation of Bujold's new novel in the Vorkosigan saga, I've been re-reading some of the old ones in my library. Memory is the novel in the series that marks a real turning point in Miles' life. He's been working for ImpSec's Galactic Affairs office undercover as the wily and unpredictable Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries for a number of years, quite successfully, and now a new assignment goes horribly wrong. While rescuing a Barrayaran courier from kidnappers, Miles suffers a seizure caused by some lasting effects of his cryo-revival the previous year, and while he's seizing, his plasma arc locks on and severs the legs of the courier (fortunately, the medical people can put Humpty back together again).
This will not look well in his report to Simon Illyan, chief of ImpSec, and Miles makes the crucial error of deciding to falsify the report, making it seem as if it was a weapons malfunction that caused the mishap. He knows that if Simon knew that he was having seizures, he'd pull him off of duty with the Dendarii and put him on a desk job. As one would expect, Simon discovers the deception, and Miles is forced to resign from ImpSec for "medical reasons", rather than face a court martial for his deceptions. So much of Miles' self-image is caught up in his success in ImpSec and in playing Admiral Naismith that he is absolutely lost, rudderless, and near suicidal at this point.
Fortunately for him, there are other plots afoot. Simon Illyan has had an eiditic memory chip in his brain for most of his life - and all of his ImpSec career - that has made him a formidable weapon in the Emperor's arsenal. Someone finds a way to destroy the memory chip, and nearly destroy Simon in the process. Despite their recent contretemps, Miles feels a great deal of affection for Simon, and a duty to him as well, as a loyal satellite of the Vorkosigan clan, a sort of adopted uncle, and tries to visit him in the secure hospital where he's being held, slowly going insane due to the misfiring and deterioration of the memory chip. Frustrated when he can't get in to see Ivan, Miles plays his trump card by visiting his foster brother Gregor, Emperor of Barrayar, and wangling an Imperial Auditor's position, to investigate the attack on Simon.
This story has a great mystery as its heart, with Miles deftly unraveling the strings, and some fantastic growing moments, as he finally puts away "childish things" and reconciles himself to his Barrayaran destiny.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bugles and a Tiger, by John Masters

Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas (Cassell Military Paperbacks)I've always been somewhat fascinated by the Gurkhas, reputedly the toughest warriors around for the last hundred years or so, so I was glad to gain a bit more Gurkha-lore by reading Masters' tale of his service with the Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles in the 1930s. Masters went on to a career as a novelist, and it's evident by his turns of phrase that he had both a narrative and descriptive gift.
Masters led his men against the Waziri tribes in that part of India that today has become Pakistan, which rings a familiar tone with what's happening with U.S. forces today. I'd like to quote, verbatem, a passage from the book that also sounds uncannily familiar for our soldiers, where Masters gives first the military wisdom, and then follows with the civil government's opinion on the battles they were fighting.
"Get there fustest with the mostest men.
Do not get there at all until we have referred the matter to the Governor-General-in-Council, which will take months.
Shoot first, shoot fastest, shoot last, and shoot to kill.
Do not shoot unless you have been shot at, and then try not to hurt anyone, there's a good chap!
Mystify, mislead and surprise the enemny, then never leave him a moment to gather himself again, but fall on him like a thunderclap and pursue him to his utter destruction, regardless of fatigue, casualties, or cost.
Announce your intention to the enemy, in order that he may have time to remove his women and children to a place of safety - and to counter your plan. At all events stop what you are doing as soon as he pretends to have had enough, so that he may gather again somewhere else.
Casualties, damage, losses, cost, are only some of the many factors to be considered when making a battle plan. If any factor is given undue weight, the plan is likely to fail.
Pardon us, but you plan does not interest us. We are happy to say that that is your business. However, casualties cause questions in the House, damage brings complaints in the Assembly, losses get into the newspapers, and cost we cannot stand...Remember all that, and get the war over quickly."

Some things never change.

This isn't a terribly exciting read, though Masters does describe on battle he fought in with great detail, but it does contain a lot of background on the British Army's time in India, some Indian customs and festivals, the Gurkha culture, and some perspective on the tribal warfare that's still going on in the remote mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Just something a little out of the ordinary for me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress

Beggars in SpainNancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain was a pretty darned good novel. The story of a persecuted minority with special abilities (normal or paranormal) has been a tried and true recipe in the genre for years now, including such works as Van Vogt’s Slan, Vinge’s Psion, and even Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Kress has done a superb job of upholding the grand tradition, and added a few personal touches of her own to make Beggars a compelling page turner.

The premise is that bioengineering has made it possible to create a race of humans who no longer need sleep. The side effects are extremely high intelligence, joyful disposition, and retarded aging. We follow the fortunes of the first batch of these children, focusing on Leisha Camden, one of the Sleepless and her twin sister, Alice, whose genes are left unmodified, unplanned by anyone but the author.

As the Sleepless reach maturity, it becomes obvious to all that they will quickly outstrip any but the most extraordinary Sleepers in any field of human endeavor, and the persecution/prosecution begins. The Sleepless children are shunned socially, barred from athletic competitions, feared and abused by their natural parents, and finally become the targets of racial violence. Some of the Sleepless have predicted for some time that this would come to pass, and have created a segregated colony called Sanctuary, where the majority retreat after their visionary leader, Tony Indivino, is gang raped and murdered while in prison awaiting trial for "kidnapping" a Sleepless child from physically abusive parents.

The new leader of the Sanctuary Sleepless, Jennifer Sharifi, has a much more radical vision of a new culture composed entirely of the Sleepless, and eventually moves Sanctuary to a space station in orbit. The subsequent degeneration of Earth’s and America’s culture into the Donkeys, who perform all of the production and governing, the Livers, who live on an extravagant welfare plan, enjoying a bread and circus hedonism, and the Sleepless, who have isolated themselves from humanity as much as possible.

I’m not sure whether Kress is an accomplished or merely amateur Lincoln scholar, but she’s blended a number of quotes from the text of his speeches into the novel, using them both as chapter headings and letting characters quote them directly to further their political ambitions. She’s also introduced the interesting philosophy of Yaggaiism, sort of a contract theory of economics and interpersonal relationships, into her future United States, as a dominant factor in justifying both the actions of our protagonist and her enemies.

Kress explores some issues that are of vast importance to contemporary Americans within the context of this novel, including: The sometimes unhealthy coping method adopted by persecuted minorities of an overwhelming belief in their own racial or cultural superiority and how it can lead to fascist excesses. The battle between the classes, and the political demagoguery which exploits it to gain power. The question of just what the beneficiaries of a prosperous, industrialized nation should be obligated to give back, via voluntary charity, or government redistribution of the wealth through taxation, to those either within their own culture, or elsewhere in the world, who are less fortunate economically.

I really enjoyed this book, and stayed up way past my bedtime in order to finish it. The only flaw, from where I sit, is that she (perhaps deliberately) left things hanging slightly unresolved, and has written a sequel, Beggars and Choosers, which I must now invest in and probably be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Changes, by Jim Butcher

Changes (Dresden Files, Book 12)I've been looking forward to the latest in the Dresden Files series for quite a while, and it doesn't disappoint. Butcher doesn't mess around setting the scene; on the first page his ex-girlfriend Susan shows up to tell him that the Red Court vampires have kidnapped their daughter. Since Harry had no idea that he and Susan had a child, you can imagine what a shock this is. Before it's quite worn off, Susan and her sidekick, Martin, of the anti-vampire Fellowship, and Harry are off to burglarize the offices of the local branch of the Red Court, seeking information. The bad guys blow up the entire building to keep them from succeeding, and we're off and running with the action.
Harry attempts to enlist the help of the White Council, but they're unwilling to get involved in confronting the vampires, as the vamps have recently sent an envoy to propose a peace treaty. Supporting Harry in his quest might disrupt that fragile process. Of course, Harry has other allies, such as his apprentice, Molly, policewoman Karen Murphy, Soldier of the Cross Sanya, Father Forthill, and a few connections in the land of Faerie, so he begins to gather them to help rescue his child.
He's pursued by assassins from the Red Court, and faces nightmarish creatures summoned out of Mayan legend as he tries to find out where the vampires have taken his daughter. What starts out appearing to be simple revenge against Harry for killing one of their nobles rapidly begins to take on more global application. Harry is forced to make some choices he's long avoided, and bargain with beings far too powerful to cheat, in order to succeed.
Well-plotted, lots of action, a good ride throughout. My only gripe is that Butcher leaves us with a cliff-hanger ending, and I'm not sure what he intends to do with Harry next.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rare Earth, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the UniverseRare Earth is one of those books that just takes time to work your way through. The authors have managed to tone down the technical terms so that most reasonably literate people can still enjoy it and understand the concepts.
After the Copernican Revolution, most astronomers discounted the notion that Earth was all that exceptional within our universe. Sagan and others in the twentieth century postulated that there are many planets orbiting many solar systems which can support life, and that we should expect a high number of them to contain intelligent life. Ward and Brownlee began to look at some of the facts, and set forth the Rare Earth Theory, which says that the number of habitable planets is probably much smaller than previously thought.
They believe that life, in its more primitive forms, may indeed be widespread throughout the solar system, galaxy and universe, but that the conditions conducive to the evolution of metazoans, or complex life, are quite rare. One of the forms of primitive life that I'd heard mentioned before but not known much about are the extremophiles, microorganisms which live in places like the volcanic steam vents on the ocean floor, and others which can live within the rocks of the Earth, itself; they've been discovered down to depths of 3.5 km. Exremophiles adapted to different environments could live on other planets within our solar system, or anywhere else, for that matter.
As far as more complex life is concerned, it doesn't survive well at temperature extremes, or in places where liquid water and nutrients are not available. Planets must orbit within something called the Habitable Zone, which, for a sun like ours, is between .95 and 1.15 AUs. Our sun is gradually getting brighter, and eventually the Earth will grow too warm to support life, but we'll probaby be long gone by then, so not to worry.
I'd heard in my science classes that the Earth once had a tropical environment, where the dinosaurs thrived, but I hadn't previously been aware that there have been at least two times when there was global glaciation, which would have killed off many life forms. They call these time periods Snowball Earth.
In animal taxonomy, there is a division called phylum, representing "body form". According to the fossil record, virtually all of the phyla which exist today originated no later than the end of the Cambrian period. No new phyla have appeared in the fossil record since that time, and the number has actually declined from approximately 100 to the 40 recognized today. The sudden appearance of all of these phyla is called the Cambrian Explosion, and its cause is a great mystery to evolutionary biologists.
In addition the the mass extinctions caused by Snowball Earth events, the planet has also been struck by large comets or asteroids more than once. It is one of these events that is thought to have caused the dinosaurs to pass from the scene at the end of the Mezozoic era.
There's a lot of time spent in the book discussing plate tectonics, and their role in regulating climate. There seems to be a feedback loop involved in the level of atmospheric CO2, one of the greenhouse gases (actually water vapor is another, and it's about ten thousand times more plentiful, interestingly). "The most important element in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide is the weathering of minerals known as silicates, such as feldspare and mica". As a planet warms, the rate of weathering increases, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which cools the planet. As the planet cools, the amount of CO2 available for weathering decreases, slowing the process, and the CO2 levels rise again, causing warming to occur. The Earth's temperature oscillates between warmer and cooler as a result.  Plate tectonics takes the weathering products from the sea floor through subduction, and these compounds are heated underground, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere again through volcanic activity.
The Moon and Jupiter also play roles in making Earth habitable, evidently. The size and orbit of the Moon keep Earth's axial tilt steady, so that our overall climate is more moderate than it would be if we had either more tilt or more wobbling. Jupiter, a huge gas giant, is believed in the past to have capture many comets and asteroids that would have otherwise made there way into the inner solar system, so that Earth has not been impacted more frequently by them, so we've had very few mass extinctions compared to what planets without the shield of a gas giant would experience.
This is an extremely interesting book about our planet and its place in the Universe. I really can't do it justice in a short review such as this.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Last Centurion, by John Ringo

The Last CenturionThis book reminds me so much of Heinlein when he was in his prime. Ringo manages to weave some cutting social and political commentary into a great story. This tale doesn't fit into any of Ringo's ongoing sagas, it's a stand-alone, much like Princess of Wands from a few years back.
The action takes place in 2018. The American people have elected a left-leaning female president, Ms. Warrick, in the midst of a war against radical Islam in Iran. The hero of the tale, Bandit Six (we never do learn his real name, just his military code designation), is an Army captain, raised on a large family farm in the Midwest, who gets tasked with a rather "challenging" assignment.
Although the climatologists and the media have been screaming about "global warming" for decades, an astronomer and climate scientist discovers that the Sun is about to go through a period of rapid cooling which will bring temperatures down significantly worldwide over the next decade. To bump this up to the level of a perfect storm, there's an outbreak of the H1N5 bird flu virus in China that turns into a global pandemic in a very short time.
The military is needed at home to help distribute medical supplies and keep order where possible, and so the U.S. immediately begins to pull back most of its troops from all around the world. Though this is a logistical nightmare, it's nothing compared to the effort it would take to bring back all of the vehicles, weapons, ammunition and supplies we've stocked in the conflict zones, so they're all gathered up into huge storage depots and left behind, with a detachment to guard them from the natives. Enter Bandit Six.
He and his men, aided by a detachment of Nepalese, or Nepos, that the British had to leave behind when they pulled out, do their best to defend their mountain of munitions against the various armed factions who keep trying to come take it away, but eventually a force is brought against them that is overwhelming, and they have to blow up the depot and flee the area.
The only place that the Air Force can get a plane into to extract them is an airfield in Turkey, so they have to fight their way across Iraq, link up with Kurdish forces there, and fight their way through Turkey to join up with the faction with whom the State Department  has chosen to work. Ringo has always written some great and reasonably believable military action stories, and this one doesn't disappoint.
Throughout the narration, Bandit Six delivers a soliloquy, a monologue if you will, on so many subjects it's difficult to keep track of them all. He talks about effective industrial farming and ranching techniques and how they compare to organic farming practices. He lectures on solar climate cycles, epidemiology and disaster response, the reality of life under a Caliphate, ancient history of the entire Asia Minor area, societal trust and pioneer barn-raising practices... All of this demonstrates that Ringo is either extremely well-read, or a superb BS'er - maybe a bit of both. As might be expected from a military protagonist's perspective, the slant is pretty conservative, politically speaking.
It's got it all; Sex and War and Rock and Roll. If you're a Ringo fan, or even if you're not, grab a copy!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Silver Borne, by Patricia Briggs

Silver Borne (Mercy Thompson, Book 5)In Silver Borne, Briggs continues the saga of Mercy Thompson, were coyote. One of her friends, Phineas, a part-fae owner of an antiquarian bookstore, has gone missing. Bounty hunters show up at her garage, with a warrant for the arrest of her mate, Alpha of the local werewolf clan, Adam. Someone is messing with the pack bond between herself and Adam, making her do things she wouldn't ordinarily. Also, her werewolf roommate, Samuel, son of the Marrok, has decided he's tired of life and attempts to commit suicide.
It's a mixed blessing that Mercy has so many friends, as on the one hand she feels responsible for all of them, and they can be used as hostages to her good behavior, but on the other hand there are plenty of folks to help out when the going gets tough.
One of the more powerful fae turns out to be behind the kidnapping, and Mercy must first deal with her minions and then the evil fairy herself in order to extract Phin from her clutches. The fae is after an old artifact that belonged to the bookseller, that he loaned to Mercy, and it's not entirely certain whether Mercy will escape the fae herself, much less free Phin.
She and Adam will also have to deal with unrest within the werewolf pack, as some factions want more power and others are offended that Adam has taken a coyote as his mate. As icing on the cake, how do you stop a suicidal werewolf?
My only regret about this book is that I finished it way too quickly. If you've been following Mercy's exploits, don't wait for the paperback, folks.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Discovering Hidden Treasures, by Dan Thompson

Today's review is a bit off from my normal reading fare. A local financial planner has written a book, available at The Banking Concept, and a mutual friend made it available for me to read and review. Mr. Thompson has written a book that is, for the most part, easy for the financial layman to understand, with a lot of good basic and more advanced financial concepts.
Thompson begins with an anecdote about being on a bicycle careening down a hill - a situation I encountered all too frequently as a boy, just ask my cousin about Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - and draws the parallels with our recent experience with the U.S. economy.
The recent stimulus package instituted by the government, according to Thompson, cannot be paid for at current levels of tax revenue, and will most certainly increase taxation for us and for our children in the near future. The government's passage of the massive health care reform bill will also likely increase costs for all Americans, whether they are still able to use private sector insurance, or are forced to move to a yet to be revealed government option. These new government regulations will stifle competition; increased competition creates lower costs in a free market system. At some point, taxes must rise to cover increased spending and public debt service. I take no issues with any of these assumptions, in fact, he may be preaching to the choir here.
Depending on what dates you look at, there is between $6.7 and $14.9 trillion in tax-deferred retirement accounts like 401k and IRA plans in the U.S. Thompson reminds us that taxes deferred are not taxes eliminated, and that when we begin to withdraw money on these plans, we will pay the taxes. The premise used to sell these plans to the American public has been that we would all be in a lower tax bracket in retirement than in our earning years. Do you believe that the government, faced with rising costs and deficits, avoid the temptation to tack on extra "excise tax" to pay for our entitlement programs? And, come to think of it, do you really want to make less money to spend when you retire, so that you're in a lower tax bracket? I'm just sayin'.
He has a great analogy about competitive water skiing and our financial lives. There is a point when a competition skier rounds a buoy, and begins to ski towards the next one. The skier's actions at this point are called the PULL. If the PULL is properly executed, making the turn around the second buoy becomes much easier. If we spend the right amount of preparation, effort and energy during our earning and wealth accumulation years, or the PULL, we will better weather unforeseen financial events in our lives, and likely enjoy a higher standard of living in retirement. Incidentally, as an avid, if not competitive, skier, I was glad to finally find out what terms like "36 at 15 off" meant.
Thompson recaps the stock market crash of 1987's Black Monday, which I remember primarily because I was wishing I had some cash to buy Micron at $3 a share right then (it went to $33). This was followed by a lingering recession in the 90s, and when things seemed to have turned around during the Internet or Tech boom, we were all stunned when the bubble collapsed in 2001. I can tell you from personal experience all about how to lose 76% of your investment in an internet stock mutual fund, if you're curious. In each one of these crises, we were told to "sit tight and ride it out". Has anything changed now that we've seen another huge market meltdown in 2008, and watched real estate prices plummet as a result of the sub-prime lending debacle?
He gets into some basic concepts of investing, like compound interest, real rates of return, and so forth, to lay the groundwork for proposals he puts forth in the latter half of the book. One of the things I don't believe I'd seen before, though it sounds vaguely Buffet-esque, was the three criteria for successful investing. First, you should understand what you're investing in. Second, you should have some control over the investment's outcome. Third, you must have a predetermined holding period, an exit strategy, if you will. According to these three criteria, the best choice Thompson sees is owning your own business.
The latter half of the book gets into his strategies for legally transferring wealth from a business while avoiding taxation permanently. He explains the concept of a private banking system, which allows a business owner to finance capital improvements and assets out of their own "bank", reaping the profits that would ordinarily go to a commercial lender, and avoiding the negative effects of asset depreciation. He gets into a fair amount of detail in his strategies for setting up this system, but I'll let you read the book to find out those details. He does include a handy worksheet at the end of the book for addressing your personal finance planning goals, which reminded me of a few things I need to take care of before I get too much older.
The only problem that I had with the book, as a whole, was trying to figure out how I, as a W2 wage earner, rather than a business owner, could benefit from Thompson's Private Banking concepts. Over all, this was a thought-provoking and educational read, about 90 pages long. If he has other financial planning ideas he's likely to share in another book some day, I'll definitely want to read it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, Book 1)I started getting lost on some of the details of this series as I was reading #7 and #8, so I decided to go back to the beginning and catch back up.
The alternate history behind this series is that in the late twentieth century, a rogue biological agent got loose from the labs, infecting tomatos, which wiped out a great portion of the human race. During this time period,  called The Turn, the witches, weres, vampires and other supernaturals who had been a very small and hidden part of the population all along were not affected by the plague, and they emerged from hiding to make sure key industries and services continued. When the plague was over, a somewhat uneasy peace developed, as humans decided to forego hunting and killing the Inderlanders - the supernatural races - as they used to do, Pre-Turn, whether out of gratitude or mere pragmatism is left to your imagination.
Rachel Morgan is a witch, employed by Inderlander Security, or IS,  as a runner. Her mission is to hunt down supernaturals who are using their abilities to harm or take advantage of either humans or other Inderlanders. Her runs have been going amiss lately, and she finally decides it's time to leave IS. When she gives her notice, IS issues a death warrant on her - IS is a bit like the Mafia in that few leave their contracts and survive. Joining her departure from IS is another runner, Ivy, who is also a living vampire - a vampire created by being born to another vampire, rather than by blood exchange conversion - and Jenks, a pixie.
They join forces to form their own private investigations business, and they all move into an abandoned church, which they use as both living quarters and offices. The rest of the story deals with how Rachel avoids the hit squads of the IS, scores a big bust on a distributor of illegal engineered biologicals, and ends up owing a demon a favor. We get introduced to some of the key characters in the rest of the series, like Trent Kalamack, the elf politician, Glenn Edden, the FIB agent, and Nick Sparagmos, the wizard and thief. Rachel's tendency to set out on missions impulsively, without any contingency planning, gets her into all sorts of dicey situations, which are really the backbone of this series.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking Forward

I purchased a copy of Silver Crossed, by Patricia Briggs, and The Last Centurion, by John Ringo.
I checked out from the library Bugles and a Tiger, by John Masters, The 4-Hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferris, and Rare Earth, by Peter Ward.
You should be seeing reviews of these books before long.