Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A. Heinlein

The Man who Sold the Moon (Complete - all 6 Stories)Wow, I'd forgotten just how many of the books I have by Heinlein are actually collections of his short stories. He had a prolific career in the pulps long before he settled down to writing novels, and this is a heck of a lot easier than trying to locate all his old stories in the magazines. These stories all fit within Heinlein's Future History chart, which is printed right after the introduction - some were written as early as 1939.

In Let There Be Light, a pair of entrepeneurial scientists come up with an idea for a light panel which will light up households for a fraction of the energy costs of an incandescent bulb. Then, they reverse-engineer the light panels and come up with the equivalent of solar energy generators, which they want to market, giving the world cheap power. I'm wondering when the first commercially available solar panels were on the market, as it seems RAH was way ahead of the curve on this idea. Maybe in the late 60s, with the Apollo program in full swing.

Anyway, they run into opposition from the owners of the power companies. The conspiracy theory concept of big corporations stifling any development that could ruin their monopoly has been in vogue for quite some time, hasn't it? In this story, Heinlein writes, "...Industry welcomes invention. Why all the big corporations have their research departments with some of the best minds in the country working in them...and any bright young inventor can get a job with them. And then he's a kept man - the inventions belong to the corporation, and only those that fit into the pattern of the powers-that-be ever see light. The rest are shelved."

In the end, however, they come up with a novel solution to their problems, and the evil businessmen are thwarted.

The Roads Must Roll is a story of the vast rolling roads and the road cities. Heinlein predicted a time when the carbon-based fuels became so scarce (peak oil?) that they could only be used by the military in the U.S., and so private automobiles become useless. Goods still need to move around the country, though, so the massive infrastructure of the rolling roads was built - powered by atomic energy. Heinlein explores the consequences of having fallible human beings in charge of the lifeblood of a country. Makes me think of the air traffic controller strike of the eighties.

The Man Who Sold the Moon is the tale of Delos D. Harriman's quest to get mankind to leave planet Earth. Harriman has wanted to travel to the Moon since he was a boy, and when he couldn't go to college, he ended up in sales for a living, eventually becoming a very successful multimillionaire, owning numerous businesses. When he decides to pledge all of his wealth in a new venture, building a rocket that will make the trip to the lunar surface and back, most of his friends and associates think he's crazy, but some play along with him, just to see what will happen - he's never let them down with his crazy ideas before.

What ensues is a huge convoluted political and social game and fundraising effort, plus a crash engineering program. Heinlein tosses out lots of creative scams in this one, like getting the diamond brokers in Amsterdam to buy the rights to mine diamonds on the moon, and getting stamp collectors to pay for first day covers cancelled at a lunar post office, conning the U.N. into giving Harriman and his dummy corporations control over the Moon after they get there. A fun read of an alternate moon shot - didn't work out that way at all. Government, not private business, made the first flights.

In Requiem, we finally get to know, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story...of Harriman - The Man Who Sold the Moon.

This one is worth your time, just for the last two stories alone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

The Menace From EarthThe Menace from Earth is another collection of stories written in the late forties and early fifties by Heinlein. Although he never claimed to be a prophet, RAH was such a good student of the human condition that he really nailed a lot of things before their time.

The Year of the Jackpot is the tale of Potiphar Breen, a statistician (who writes a story about a statistician?) who has noticed some strong correlations among the various cycles of human behavior and some of the natural cycles. I think Heinlein re-uses some of this material when he refers to The Silly Season in later work - it seems familiar. A number of these cycles seem to be coming to a vast peak, and he and a young woman he meets must decide what they should do when things get really strange...Armageddon strange.

Another little bit of recycling of a theme that shows up much later in RAH's famous Stranger in a Strange Land, "...here was a report about the All Souls Community Church of Springfield: the pastor had reinstituted ceremonial nudity. Probably the first time in this thousand years, Breen thought..." The Year of the Jackpot was an entertaining bit, except that he ended the story abruptly, as if he was mad at his characters.

By His Bootstraps is a time travel tale, in which a man doubles back in time over and over again to make sure that his younger self does what is necessary to bring about the final result. I think David Gerrold told a better tale on this theme in The Man Who Folded Himself.

Columbus was a Dope is a cute little short story about Luddites and discouragers, with a truly surprising twist at the end. At first, you'll think it's one of those "two guys walk into a bar..." jokes.

The Menace from Earth is a bit of young adult fiction smack dab in the middle of the book. Holly Jones is a high school student on the Moon, who moonlights (so to speak) as a tour guide for ground hogs. She meets her nemesis in the person of an earthling named Ariel Brentwood, a knockout blonde with wealth to boot. Holly and her partner, Jeff Hardesty, have worked together for several years designing a starship, though their relationship didn't seem to mean anything more serious to Holly until she introduces Jeff and Ariel, and suddenly she's the third wheel.

This story has a really great set of scenes in a volcanic bubble where lunar residents can strap on birdlike wings and fly in the 1/6 gravity of the Moon. Really makes you want to be there. The grand finale takes place when Holly agrees to teach Ariel to fly, and has to save her pupil's life when she panics and goes into a tailspin. All very G rated, of course.

Sky Lift is the story of a mission of mercy between the planets, wherein a pair of rocket jockeys must boost for nineteen days at more than 3 Gs to deliver medicine to an outpost at one of Pluto's moons, or nearly the entire staff will die. Goldfish Bowl is an odd tale about aliens so vastly different from us that our interactions with them resemble those of us with cheap pets, or maybe vermin.

Project Nightmare once again shows Heinlein's interest in the paranormal. A government project has been studying people with ESP, telekinesis, clairvoyance and so forth. They discover that some of the telekinetic talents can influence atomic decay, setting off an atomic bomb before the detonator is pressed. When the Russians (remember when they were our enemies, folks?) plant bombs in 27 U.S. cities and threaten to detonate them if we do not surrender, the telekinetics are recruited to suppress the explosions, and a long nightmarish vigil ensues as they race against time to find the devices. Sounds eerily prescient in light of what we suspect terrorists might attempt today, doesn't it?

The final story, Water is for Washing, paints a vivid picture of what might happen if the Big One ever strikes California. There's an interesting historical bit about the formation of the Salton Sea - I used to vacation there as a boy - that I've got to check out one of these days. Heinlein explores both the worst and the best of people's actions in a crisis in this one.

A mixed bag in this collection, but it all shows Heinlein's varied interests and pet theories.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cosm by Gregory Benford

CosmGregory Benford has written quite a bit of good hard science fiction over the years, and I've collected a number of his books. Cosm is an interesting story about a professor, Alicia, from UCI (Benford is a professor at University of California, Irvine) who is conducting particle physics experiments with uranium at Brookhaven. Something goes wrong, damaging her lab equipment, and an odd reflective sphere is formed in the accelerator after an explosion.

She conceals this anomaly from the staff at Brookhaven and takes the sphere back to UCI to study. It appears to be pretty much impervious to things like diamond drills, but has some reflective and refractive qualities in various wavelengths that give her some ideas about what it might be. She decides to enlist a theoretical physicist from CalTech, Max, to help her figure out what she's come up with, and he comes up with the idea that the sphere is one end of an Einstein-Rosen bridge between our universe and a brand new universe that was formed when the uranium particles collided in the lab.

The sphere turns out to be somewhat dangerous, as they find out when one of her lab assistants is burned to death by a sudden emission of radiation from the Cosm, as they have begun to call it. The universe at the other end of the bridge is evolving far more rapidly than our own, and the sphere provides Max and Alicia with a window of insight into our own universe's past and future.

Unfortunately, the story is only interesting for the technical details, really. I never really developed any great empathy with the characters, and their social interactions seemed contrived more in order to flesh out the framework of the cosmological theories that Benford wanted to talk about in this book, than to advance a real plot.

For example, Alicia's best friend, Jill, is described in one of the bar scenes as being very quirky, in a number of ways, but in specific she liked to carry a set of lockpicks with her. Southern California single gal with lockpicks? Later on in the story, when Alicia has to grab the Cosm and run from the authorities, Jill is there with her lockpicks to get them past a locked gate.

Alicia's father is a famous columnist in the story, but his only purpose seems to be to provide her with an introduction to a sharp lawyer when Brookhaven and the feds sue her for misappropriation of the sphere. Max is eventually given a shot at being Alicia's love interest, but his primary role is really just to provide the theoretical context for Alicia's particle physics discovery. There's quite a bit of what I'm sure is fairly accurate detail about university politics and funding, and the ambition of grad students, but most of the human interactions in this book really seem to me to fall flat.

Worth reading for the science in the science fiction, but don't expect a gripping story line.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Age of Deception by Mohamed Elbaradei

The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous TimesWhen I saw this one on the library shelves, I thought it would be a very interesting read. Nailed it. Mohamed Elbaradei was the director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, and his primary mission was to investigate potential violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He was right in the middle of many of the headlines of the last twenty years, in Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, and has a unique viewpoint on the issues.

If the folks who propose to use a combination of sanctions and the threat of military force to discourage non-nuclear powers from developing atomic weapons are called "hardliners" (Baradei's term), then Baradei himself should be termed a "softliner", as he more often than not proposed incentives (I call them bribes) to keep the violators in line. Unfortunately, after reading his book, I'm pretty certain that neither the hardliner or softliner approach has really done much to contain the spread of nuclear technology to dangerous places.

One of the interesting conundrums in the book is that "Whether the end use is a mushroom cloud or a cancer-curing medical isotope, much of the underlying science and technology is the same." I think that we can all agree that all countries in the world, and all of their citizens should be allowed to enjoy the benefits of nuclear medicine and clean nuclear power. However, many of the nuclear "have-nots" in the world also believe, either for strategic reasons or for their national pride, that they are entitled to have nuclear weapons, as well. Many of the countries in the Middle East, for example, feel that it is unfair that the United States and other western powers support Israel's right to possess nuclear weapons, but keep them (Arabs, etc.) from developing their own. It also seems to stick in the craw of many nations that the big three nuclear powers, the U.S., Russia and China, continue to have large arsenals of nuclear weapons, while according to the terms of the NPT, no one else is allowed to have them.

I found it interesting that at the end of the first Gulf War, while U.S. intelligence sources knew of only two possible nuclear sites, the IAEA inspectors discovered a total of 18 sites. The controversy that came later over the lack of WMDs found after we invaded Iraq in 2003 reveals a huge failure of western intelligence operations, that seems to be endemic. Of course, it's easy to be a monday morning quarterback, and Elbaradei does that quite a bit in his criticisms of the U.S. He seems to have despised all of the players in the Bush administration, especially John Bolton.

On a side note, apropos of nothing much, I have a friend who likes to tell Sven and Olli stories when we're sitting around the campfire. On one of Elbaradei's visits to Pyongyang, North Korea, his companions were Sven Thorstensen and Olli Heinonen. There's gotta be a joke in there somewhere, Mike.

Elbaradei often points to times when the western powers failed to live up to the terms of agreements made with pariah nations such as North Korea. For example, part of the deal with NK in 2008 was that the US State Department would, if the Koreans began dismantling their enrichment facilities at Yongbyon, remove them from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states. When they were not removed from the list as soon as they complied, due to political scraps in America, they felt the U.S. had reneged on the agreement, and began re-installing the equipment, then banned IAEA inspectors from the facility. What I see, though, as a recurring theme in this book, that powers who are determined to get an atomic bomb will act on the slightest pretense to continue their actions.

The book goes into extensive detail on the operations of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist responsible for smuggling nuclear secrets and technology from Pakistan to several other countries. Fortunately, in at least one case, the weapons designs he provided were missing some key components. Khan's network was large and diverse, including a German supplier of vacuum pumps, lathe manufacturers in Spain, Swiss producers of centrifuge parts based on a Pakistani ripoff of a Dutch design, a smuggler of spark gaps for nuclear detonators from Israel, British engineers, and Turkish electronics workshops.

The issue of Iran's attempted development of a nuclear weapon takes up nearly the last half of the book. Both internal and external politics have made this situation extraordinarily difficult. Iranian leaders in the past have tied their nuclear capabilities to a sense of national achievement, and discontinuing the program could result in their loss of power. Opposition politicians who were once in  power and who had been involved in serious negotiations with the West and the IAEA to dismantle nuclear enrichment facilities, once it appeared that achieving a successful treaty with the West might give Ahmadinejad more power, flip-flopped and now strongly oppose rapprochement. Again, as with North Korea, the Iranian government seems to find any small excuse to back out of their agreements, and are at this point continuing down their dangerous path.

The IAEA wasn't strictly tasked with looking for non-compliance with the NPT, they also worked on safety and security issues for existing nuclear nations. Elbaradei mentions, "...the IAEA assisted with physical protection upgrades to more than one hundred sites in 30 countries; conducted hundreds of nuclear security workshops and training courses in roughly 120 countries; distributed more than three thousand radiation detection instruments; and secured nearly five thousand radioactive sources in countries across the world."

This was, indeed, an engrossing book, and if you read it you'll know far more than you ever wanted to know about the state of affairs in the nuclear weapons business. It might keep you awake  nights - not merely reading it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon

Kings of the North (The Deed of Paksenarrion)Kings of the North is the second of the books which return us to Moon's world of the Deed of Paksennarion. I certainly hope she decides to let us all hang out there for a while. In Lyonya, King Kieri has entered a rough patch in his relationship with his elven grandmother, The Lady, who won't cooperate with him in the way he'd expected she would to help the elves and men of the kingdom grow closer and work together to defend it against external threats. All of the people around Kieri are urging him to marry and beget an heir, but he's finding it difficult to marry for merely political reasons. The rulers of Pargun and Kostandan have also sent two headstrong princesses for Kieri to "inspect", hoping for an alliance to be formed.

In Tsaia, the new Duke Verrakai, Dorrin, enlists the aid of the Girdish Marshalls to help her cleanse her townhome of evil left behind by its former occupants. Then she must return to her estates with some of her old mercenary cohort and get things in order there. There are still some of the old Verrakien magelords at large, and Dorrin is also charged by King Mikeli to find and neutralize them.

Arcolin wraps up his contract in the South, patrolling for bandits which he suspects are actually a covert army in the pay of Alured the ex-pirate, who intends to rule the world some day. He brings his cohort back to the North, where he is confirmed as the new Count, replacing Kieri. Sergeant Stammel has been left blind by his encounter with one of the body-switching magelords, but Arcolin is loath to discharge his veteran, so he keeps him with the cohort, where he finds tasks that don't require sight to keep him busy. Stammel, however, turns out to be a bit more than anyone bargained for.

When a perceived offense to the Pargunese princess sends its king on a mission of vengeance towards Kieri and his kingdom, things start to get twisty. Kieri has a brief window of opportunity to convince the princess' father that there was no insult, and to stop the invading army. The Parguns have a supernatural ally that has given them weapons of fire which could set the whole of Lyonya on fire, and it will take some supernatural intervention to stop it.

As this is all swirling around, Kieri finds his true love in an unexpected place, and his grandmother's disapproval of his choice may deprive him of his alliance with the elves when things are at their darkest. Paksennarion has followed the paladin's call and is completely missing from this part of the story.

The only thing wrong with this book was that it was over far too soon. Paksennarion fans will flat out love it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

The Green Hills of EarthThis book is a collection of science fiction short stories written by Heinlein in the late forties and early fifties, and is perhaps a bit dated, but still fun. It fits loosely into the framework of his Future History, and has a few references to events in some of the other FH stories. One thing that's been interesting as I've gone back through a lot of the old RAH stories is how Heinlein changes his descriptions of Martians and Venusians, as well as a few other aliens, depending on the needs of the story. Venusians might be dragon-like, or otter-like, and Martians may be tentacled, or spindly; no hobgoblins of consistency here.

One of the things that keeps Heinlein fresh, even when the science behind the stories may have grown stale, is that his stories are usually about the human beings and their relationship with the technology, or the environment, rather than just about ray guns and spaceships. In Delilah and the Space Rigger, Heinlein explores the effect of sending a female worker into the middle of an all-male space station construction project. The same situation could have arisen on the Hoover Dam project, it just would have been a little easier to send the gal home.

Space Jockey explores the old theme of how relationships are affected when the husband must be away for long periods of time from his beloved. Coulda been a long-haul trucker, a traveling salesman, or a wet navy captain. It goes to show you that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Long Watch explores the question of what to do, as a military man, when those who are duly constituted to give you orders issue orders that you know are morally wrong. Are you willing to pledge your life, your fortune and your sacred honor in defense of the undefended? You'll either be a hero or a villain at the end.

Gentlemen, Be Seated shows an inventive solution to a Lunar tunnel blowout. The Black Pits of Luna is about a family touring on the moon who lose their youngest in the equivalent of a national park. If you've ever been around when folks don't keep their kids harnessed properly - I remember one time when we were at the edge of a 500 foot cliff, and these people's kids were just horsing around right by the edge - you'll relate to the tour guides' reactions.

It's Great to Be Back is a story about a couple of moon dwellers who miss life back home so badly that they decide to return to Earth, only to find that you can never really go back. "_We Also Walk Dogs" anticipates the U.S. service economy and massive outsourcing that came long after Heinlein passed. In the charming Ordeal in Space, a saved kitten saves a spaceman's career.

The Green Hills of Earth, the title piece of this collection, introduces us to "Noisy" Rhysling, Blind Singer of the Spaceways. His doggerel pops up in quite a few of Heinlein's later stories. Rhysling worked in the engine rooms of space vessels until an accident took his sight, then lived a hobo's life, "riding the rails" of the Solar System and singing for his supper.

In Logic of Empire, a cocky young lawyer is shanghaied into the labor force on Venus. He is rapidly disabused of the notion that slavery has long been outgrown by humanity. A great quote, that I must have internalized long ago:

"I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects - the 'devil theory.'"
"Huh?"
"You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."

Ain't it the truth? This collection is great, classic Heinlein.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Gideon's Sword
Preston and Child generally write some pretty good fiction together. Gideon's Sword is the story of Gideon Crew, whose father was gunned down by federal agents when he was 12, and he doesn't learn until he is an adult and his mother is dying, that his father was one of the good guys, killed by a general named Tucker who feared he would disclose a secret that would take down Tucker and his friends. Gideon spent time as an art thief as a young man, and uses his technical expertise on security systems, plus a good dose of social engineering, throughout the story.

It turns out that Gideon's quest to destroy Tucker for killing his father doesn't take very long, in terms of the novel, and then he is recruited by a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security to do some work for them. He's halfway blackmailed into doing the work, as the contractor seems to know all about Gideon's past, and then discouraged from turning the job down to follow his own long term plans when they tell him that he only has a short time to live, with an inoperable aneurysm in his brain that could explode any time.

His mission is to intercept a Chinese defector, Mark Wu, at the airport in New York and to obtain certain information Wu is suspected to be bringing into the country about a "super weapon" the Chinese have been developing. I began to wonder at this point why in the world a secretive contractor for DHS would want to use an untried untested new hire to do the job, and continued to wonder it all the way to the denouement, when the head of the company discloses that all of their computer simulations showed that any other option would result in failure, while using Crew - an unpredictable rogue - had a strong probability of success.

This story has a very twisty plot, with a lot of creative details, but there were just too many unbelievable bits for me. Crew's social engineering skills always seemed up to the task at hand, and I had a hard time believing that so many people would believe his lies, especially when he used them on naturally suspicious people like police and TSA agents. It was a quick read, but I didn't feel it was Preston & Child's best work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

An Artificial Night (October Daye, Book 3)This is the third book in the October Daye series, and moves things along nicely. McGuire never really burdened her readers with a ton of descriptive information and back story on all of the characters in the first book, but just jumped into the action with just enough explanation to, well, explain. As we've gotten deeper into the series, we continue to get glimpses of the people, places and history that occupy Ms. Daye's world. It may seem a bit stingy, but it works.

Someone has begun kidnapping children, beginning with two of October's friend, Stacy's youngest. We know from the earlier books that Toby has issues with having an estranged daughter, after spending fourteen years in a koi pond, but the opening scene at a screaming, hollering kiddie birthday party gives us the information that Toby likes kids, and seems to relate well to them. When Andy and Jessica disappear, Toby is called to investigate, and finds out it's not just a mundane abduction, but that there are magical forces in play.

As she digs further, her Cat Lord friend, Tybalt, divulges that children are missing from his court, too, and requests her help recovering them. When she gets to Sylvester's court, looking for information, she finds that children have been taken there, as well. She consults Lily, the naiad, which leads her to Luna, the kitsune and wife of Sylvester, and eventually back to her acquaintance, the Luidaeg, who shows her a path she can follow to the realm of Blind Michael, leader of The Hunt. He has taken the children to replace casualties among his riders and steeds, and will transform them in horrible ways if Toby doesn't do something about it.

Blind Michael is one of the First Born, however, and there are few left in faerie with comparable power, so it looks like certain death to face him. This seems to be further confirmed when May Daye (again with the month names), arrives on the scene in the middle of this muddle. May is Toby's Fetch, the agent sent to escort her to the land of Death. May is also basically Toby's doppleganger, which works out well when Toby finds ways to use her that aren't strictly traditional.

One of the things that this volume does quite well, I think, is develop Toby's understanding of herself and the people around her. She's gone for quite some time as the typical loner heroine, and has a hard time accepting help, or the idea that she's actually loved. McGuire shows her and us in An Artificial Night that she really does have a family, just not of the traditional sort, who are willing to put their own lives on the line to help her when it counts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
I'd have thought Michael Lewis was just a financial writer, as I ran across a reference to this book along with his book about the Wall Street junk bond scandals of the Eighties, Liar's Poker, but it turns out he does write other things, most notably the book adaptation of The Blind Side - a great tearjerker feel-good movie if ever there was one. He still has the chops to write about the seamy side of Wall Street though, and this provides a pretty good picture of what really led up to the huge financial collapse of 2008, from the point of view of some folks who actually saw the disaster coming, and placed their bets accordingly.

I learned quite a bit more about CDOs, tranches, and credit default swaps that I hadn't understood before. For a long time, bond investors were reluctant to invest in home mortgage loans. The problem with home loans, from an investment standpoint, had always been that people would refinance their homes whenever interest rates dropped. When the loans are paid off, the bonds are, in effect, "called", and the investor gets back his principal, which he now has to re-invest in the middle of a lower interest rate environment than before. In order to lure investors into bonds, the big investment banks, starting with Salomon Brothers, created giant pools of home loans divided into tranches, which behaved like the floors of a building.

The loans most likely to be paid off when interest rates dropped were put in the lowest floors of these structures, and people who invested in these lower tranches got a higher interest rate on their bonds to begin with, which would make up for the trouble and cost of re-investing when the loans got paid off. As the likelihood of a payoff decreased for the multiple tranches, lower interest rates were paid on the bonds. When these types of investments first appeared, investors were more worried about getting paid back too quickly, but not so much about losing their entire investment because the loans went bad.

As a result of the loosening of lending standards, and the political pressure brought to bear by the Community Reinvestment Act, banks and consumer finance businesses began to make more risky loans than had been the case in the past. One of the quotes from the book says it quite well, and may as well have been the motto of several recent administrations. "How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans." What was called the subprime lending industry got started in the early 1990s, and really hit its stride around the turn of the century, as everyone jumped on the bandwagon.

I can recall during that time many of my coworkers who had gotten laid off going into business for themselves as mortgage brokers, real estate agents, or even financial planners. The market was booming, the bubble inflating, and the pigs were feeding at the trough all up and down the subprime pipeline. Ordinary people were using their houses as collateral to borrow far more than they could afford to pay back, and many of them were buying into the stock market bubble that was created by a ton of ready cash.

One of the really fascinating things about this book was that it shows numerous examples of the people who were in charge at the investment banks, and those who packaged and sold these CDOs, really had no idea how bad the underlying loans were, and how little it would take to collapse the house of cards. They all seemed to think, since it hadn't happened in 70 years, that housing prices could never decline. The folks who saw more clearly, and created their own hedge funds to bet against the subprime packed CDOs, understood that prices couldn't go up forever - the typical 3 to 1 ratio of median housing prices to median income had rapidly gone to 4 to 1 nationwide, and was as high as 10 to 1 in many metropolitan areas - and after some analysis, they discovered that it wouldn't take a price decrease, just for prices to level off would cause nearly all of these loans to begin defaulting.

I really had no idea just how crazy the lending practices had gotten, and one of the options I read about here just floored me. It was called a 100 percent floating rate negative-amortizing mortgage.  The borrower could choose not to make even the interest payment for a set period of time, and the interest would just be added to the principal of the loan, growing larger and larger until they either decided to pay or to default on the loan.

Something I've thought on occasion about the job of senior management was expressed quite eloquently by one of the hedge fund managers who had worked for Deutsche Bank. "Sentior management's job is to pay people. If they f**k a hundred guys out of a hundred grand each, that's ten million more for them. They have four categories: happy, satisfied, dissatisfied, disgusted. If they hit happy, they've screwed up: They never want you happy. On the other hand, they don't want you so disgusted you quit. The sweet spot is somewhere between dissatisfied and disgusted."

After reading this, I began to see the logic in which investment banks failed when things crashed, or had their stock prices decline horribly, mostly based on how many of these bonds backed by shaky loans they kept "in-house". Credit default swaps were invented as a kind of insurance on these investments. If you bought a CDS on a particular tranche (part of the big bond bundle), you paid a premium every year to keep it in force, and if the bonds went bad, you were paid the entire value of the bond. Since the premiums on a billion dollar bond might only be two million dollars a year (chuckles - only?), when these things began to default, it was a big payoff on the bet for the hedge fund guys who saw what was coming. Some of the investment banks also owned this "insurance" on the CDOs, and a large number of those policies were backed by...you guessed it...AIG. Who got 80 billion in TARP money?

After reading this, I still firmly believe that there's plenty of blame to go around. The number of "innocent" consumers who were possibly duped into taking out unpayable loans pales in comparison to all of the greed and incompetence displayed at all levels of this debacle, from the loan originators to the investment banks, to the ratings agencies, to the insurance companies who went along with the deals...It boggles the mind.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Blogger Hop June 17 to 20

It's time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question:
"How many books are currently in your To-Be-Read (TBR) Pile?"

If we're talking about the official TBR pile, on the shelf by my bed, then the number fluctuates a lot, but right now it looks like twenty-two.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum ThiefA fellow book blogger described this book as "mind-blowing". I'm afraid I'm far too jaded to have my mind blown at this juncture, but I found it to be a good debut novel from a new author. Rajaniemi's writing reminds me a bit of Walter Jon Williams' early stuff, with a dash of Iain Banks and a sprinkle of Sterling.

The story takes place in near-Mars orbit. A man who was once a renowned thief, Jean le Flambeur, is confined to the Dilemma Prison, where prisoners are forced to play variations of the Prisoner's Dilemma game until their socialization is back in alignment, at which point they can be release. Jean has been here a long long time.

However, Mieli, an agent of a mysterious organization called the Sobornost, and her spaceship, Perhonen, break Jean out of the prison, and hire/blackmail him into helping them to steal something they need. They travel to a city on Mars called The Oubliette, where Time literally equals money, and people are able to control their memories and how they are shared with others. Jean discovers that he used to live in the Oubliette, and left behind portions of his memories with various people and locked up in a number of places, and in order to complete his task, he must find and integrate them all.

As you might assume, in a story where people's memories are easily uploaded and downloaded from powerful computers, and where their essences can be transferred between bodies, human or otherwise, things get confusing rapidly, and they don't get  any less complicated by the introduction of many rival factions in the midst of a power struggle to control the Oubliette. The Oubliette is a walking city, constantly on the move, and being pursued and attacked by the phoboi, some sort of nanocreatures who constantly mutate into more deadly forms.

This is a very creative story, and quite twisty, as well. When the underlying assumptions of the story begin to make you question which segments were real, and which merely dreams, visions, or misplaced memories, it may blow your mind. It merely annoys me. I'll have to see how Rajaniemi does with his next book, though.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Elegy Beach by Steven R. Boyett

Elegy BeachIf you've been wondering for the last thirty years whatever happened to Pete and Ariel, from Boyett's novel of The Change, then this is your opportunity to find out, in a story set thirty years later in that world. The novel takes place for the most part near Del Mar, California, from the viewpoint of Pete's son, Fred. Yes, Pete named his son after his sword; something Freudian there, perhaps.

Fred is apprenticed to the resident spell caster in town, nicknamed Pay Pay, and is chafing a bit at the pace that he's being taught. He and his friend, Yan, have begun experimenting with spell casting, working from some "libbed" grimoires. There's a type of spell called a stasis spell, that turns objects into shimmering silver statues, basically, and which is impervious to all forces. No one has ever figured out how to remove a stasis spell, but it's theorized that time doesn't pass inside of the spell, so there would probably be all kinds of nifty uses for a counterspell, especially in a world without refrigeration.

One of the things that Boyett gets into a bit more in this novel is the idea that some of the old laws of physics still seem to work, while others don't, though the characters never exactly figure out why one thing is allowed and not another. Simple pumps still work, while gears will not (I think Boyett violates this in one scene where they jump into a car on a grade and use it to coast downhill faster than their enemies can run - the steering still works - aren't there gears in a steering box?). Not quite sure why crossbows still work, if they have to be cranked to cock. Some minor inconsistencies here and there, but it doesn't really distract from the story.

Fred and Yan eventually come up with a way to create a stasis spell with a flaw in it that will allow it to be removed at a later time. They take some of these pre-packaged spells to a local flea market to drum up business. The great thing about these spells is that anyone can use them, if they have the unlocking words. Yan's experiments finally get out of hand when he takes revenge on Pay Pay after he figures out the password to some of his and Fred's new toys, and Yan burns down his shop in retaliation. Fred confronts him and tells him he must leave town before Fred has to tell his father and the rest of the town who is responsible for the fire.

Yan leaves, but continues to work with magic, finally discovering a way that he thinks he can reverse The Change. No one, least of all the magical creatures, thinks this is a good idea. Around this time, Ariel shows up, and the big reveal, which we readers probably already have figured out is that Fred's dad is Pete from the earlier book. Yan has killed Ariel's companion, another unicorn, and stolen his horn. Unicorn horns are objects of great power, and it's part of the spell he is building that will destroy the world as we know it now.

And so the quest begins, not so much different from the quest in Ariel. Pete, Fred, Ariel and Yan's father decide they have to stop the rogue magician before he can complete his evil plot. They set out on a long journey to the villain's lair, with plenty of magic and mayhem along the way.

Nice to finally wrap the story up, after all these years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Deathworld by Harry Harrison

DeathworldI was visiting my daughter and her husband last weekend, and had brought my Nook along. While browsing for some light reading, I found a copy of Deathworld, which I'd enjoyed many years ago, and figured I'd give it another read. Harry Harrison has written some pretty fun adventures over the years, such as the early Bill, the Galactic Hero antics, and the Stainless Steel Rat series. There were only three books written in the Deathworld series, and this one started them off.

Jason din Alt is a gambler, whose dirty little secret is that he has a bit of psi ability, which lets him see the outcome of the dice and sometimes even gain a little telekinetic control over them. He's relaxing in a bar on Cassylia (seems like that's the beginning scene in a number of early SF novels) when he is approached by Kerk Pyrrus, the ambassador of the planet, Pyrrus, with the opportunity of a lifetime for a gambler. Kerk will stake him to 3 million credits, which Jason must parlay into 2 billion, and anything he wins above that amount he can keep.

Kerk and his friends need the money to buy armaments for their battle against the flora and fauna of Pyrrus, which is incredibly inimical to the humans living there. The planet is extremely rich in heavy metals, and for various reasons, the colonists will not leave, despite the long odds against them.

Jason takes on the challenge, wins the money the Pyrrans need and, bored with life on the civilized planets, tells Kerk that he wants to return with him to Pyrrus, to see what it is like there. He has a shipboard romance with another colonist, Meta, while en route, but she drops him like a hot potato as soon as they arrive on the planet. The planet is so dangerous that even residents who have been away for a short length of time must take a refresher course to keep them alive vs. the constantly evolving plants and animals. Jason is put through a survival course that six year old children attend, and is provisionally allowed to go out on the surface with a bodyguard, a crippled eight year old boy.

Jason is puzzled as to why the entire planet seems to be constantly at war with humans, and does a little investigating on his own, discovering in an old mouldering ship's log that when the original settlers landed, things were not nearly as dangerous, but eventually the settlers were fighting for their lives on all fronts. He also finds out that there is another group of colonists, whom the miners hold in contempt, the Grubbers. When he cadges a ride with one of the people who trade with the grubbers for food that they seem to be able to grow, unlike the city dwellers, he finds out that they are not really barbarians, but that they have learned to live in peace with the wildlife, and only have a hardscrabble existence because the city Pyrrans won't allow them to have vital technology - medicine, for example.

Din Alt decides that he is the only one who can save the Pyrrans from their madness, and cons both the grubbers and the miners into going along with his plans. Of course, not all of his plans survive contact with the enemy, but eventually a solution of sorts is obtained.

A quick, interesting read. I'll have to dig out Deathworld 2 and 3 one of these days and see if they're also as good as I remember.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Have Space Suit - Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Have Spacesuit, Will TravelOnce again, Heinlein is writing for young adults. The story starts in small-town Centerville, where young Clifford Russell is attending high school. A lunar base has been established recently, and Cliff is just dying to get to the moon. His primary hope is to go to college and get the right kind of degree to allow him to get hired to work on the Moon, but that might be difficult, as the school he attends has adopted "modern' methods of teaching that really don't prepare a young man for hard science classes at a top notch university.

"Center is a swell school...It's run along the latest, most scientific lines, approved by psychologists...and paying excellent salaries for a staff highly trained in modern pedagogy. Study projects emphasize practical human problems to orient the child in democratic social living, to fit him for the vital meaningful tests of adult life in our complex modern culture...and to achieve these noble purposes we are spending more per student than is any other state save California and New York."

I wonder if Heinlein was onto something fishy in educational theory as early as 1958?

So, Cliff's father gets him started on a home study college prep of his own design, and he begins to work hard at more practical things than they're teaching him in school. Cliff soon discovers another way he might get to the Moon when a national soap company holds a slogan contest, with the grand prize being an all-expense paid trip to the Moon. Cliff turns into a soap selling madman at his after school job down at the drug store, and cadges the soap labels upon which each entry must be submitted from his customers. After sending in hundreds of entries, the contest day arrives and Cliff finds out that he has won...a space suit.

The space suit is a used one, at that. Cliff doesn't remain discouraged for very long, and he begins to use some of his new technical skills to refurbish it, making it fully functional again, on a pretty low budget. He takes a lot of ribbing from the kids around school and the town clown, but finds his project fascinating, and the soap company has offerred to buy the suit back at the end of the summer for $500, which will go a long way towards college tuition.

One night, while Cliff is out taking one last simulated space walk in the fields near his house, he hears a distress call on his suit radio, and when he replies, it kicks off the crazy adventure that takes this story to the Moon and beyond. He is shanghaied by some space aliens, who are being pursued by the equivalent of space police, who have also kidnapped a girl who was visiting the Moon, nicknamed PeeWee. Things just get wilder and wilder as the story rolls along. The story was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I imagine Heinlein just had to keep coming up with bigger and better cliff hangers each issue. Peppered throughout with handy science factoids (somewhat dated), it aimed to educate as well as entertain.

Not really his best work, in my opinion, but an amusing tale of early RAH.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That LastsMy wife and I were talking with a group of friends recently about marriage issues, and the subject of the five love languages came up. I'd heard about it somewhere, but never really gave it much thought. The next morning I googled it, came up with the author of the book, so I could go to the library and reserve a copy, and then my wife and I both took the quiz available on the web site. Turns out we're speaking the same love languages after 28 years of marriage, so there wasn't a whole lot of new ground to cover in the book, but I read it anyway.

Chapman explains that we are all either by nature or nurture conditioned to speak one of five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, or Physical Touch. If we don't get enough of the ones that we crave, or our spouses are speaking a different language, then our "love tanks" get empty, causing problems within the relationship. In the early going, I realized that even though we may primarily be affected by one or two of these, it isn't a bad idea to use all of them, at times. Even if your spouse doesn't crave Words of Affirmation, paying them a compliment every so often is still a good thing. It's just that they're more in tune with their primary language, and you should mostly focus on that, if you want the most bang for the buck.

While, for my wife and I, spending quality time together, often while traveling, or having substantial conversations (no grunting allowed), is probably the most important, we both dabble in other dialects, and enjoy giving and receiving the occasional thoughtful gift, doing nice things for each other, or expressing appreciation for one another. One has to wonder what kind of relationship could be attained by speaking all of the love languages fluently.

The book contains anecdotes from Chapman's counseling practice, giving concrete examples of couples whose lives were changed by learning to speak their partners' languages, and I'm sure we can all take something away from their stories. It's a quick read, but might take some time and patience to put these principles into practice.

Friday, June 10, 2011

This Time Together by Carol Burnett

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection
I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show, with Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway, and anytime I can catch a rerun or highlight shtick somewhere, I'm on it. This book reminds me a lot of the style of her show, mostly funny, lighthearted and sometimes even silly. Carol mentions at the end of her book that her story could never have happened if she were starting out today, the networks are far to risk-averse to ever place their bets on an inexperienced female leading a variety show - in fact, there will probably never be another variety show like the "good old days" ever again.

Most of the stories in the book are about her guests and friends, most of whom appeared on the show at one time or another. She used to start every season with a guest appearance by Jim Nabors, a good personal friend whom she and her family often visited in Hawaii. Carey Grant was so impressed by the comedy of the Korman/Conway duo that he invited them out with his wife and himself to the racetrack on several occasions, until they became so exhausted trying to think up new material to spring on him that they finally began avoiding him.

Burnett became good friends with Lucille Ball, who taught her a lot about being a woman in charge of her own show. She and Julie Andrews were great pals, and shared a love for practical jokes, one of which backfired when it got played on Lady Bird Johnson instead of its intended victim. She spent a lot of time with Beverly Sills, who had been through some horrible personal tragedies when her son was born severely disabled and her daughter born deaf, but who "chose to be cheerful", a quality that I'm sure stood Burnett in good stead later on when her daughter, Carrie, died.

There are a few poignant or sad moments in this biography, but more often than not, it's a heck of a lot of fun - just like her show. This was probably one of the easiest bios to read I've ever seen. Give it a shot. If you're a child of the seventies, it'll bring back a ton of good memories for you, too.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star
Another great story to read by Heinlein. I go way back with this one, having read it in the early 70s for the first time. The unlikely hero of this story is The Great Lorenzo, aka Lawrence Smith, a slightly disreputable out of work actor, of minimal ethics. I think I mentioned that The Golden Globe, by John Varley, has a similar story line to this much earlier work. Lorenzo is approached in a bar on earth by a spaceman named Dak Broadbent, with a truly singular job offer, but before he can get any details, Broadbent asks him to meet at a hotel room nearby, with better privacy.

When he arrives, he is informed that he is needed to impersonate someone. His ego being somewhat larger than life-size, he refuses to consider it at first, until his pride is stung by Dak's companion, Jock's contempt for his acting talents, and he agrees to the work without asking further questions. Shortly after that, they are rather rudely interrupted by several Martians who kill Jock before Dak can respond, but when he does, he rapidly deals with the Martians. Dak and Lorenzo dispose of the bodies, then make a madcap dash off planet, steps ahead of the law and the villains who are out to stop them.

When they are finally in orbit, Lorenzo finds out he is to impersonate the Right Honorable John Joseph Bonforte. Bonforte is one of the premier statesman in the solar system, and sinister forces have kidnapped him on the eve of his adoption into the nest of the most important clan of native Martians. Certain factions among both humans and Martians oppose this, and will do anything in their power to prevent it. Bonforte's political party is determined to unite both races in the Empire and give equal rights to all.

Lorenzo fights it harder than a salmon on the hook, but eventually is convinced by Bonforte's lovely young secretary, Penny, that he must do it for the good of the solar system (tho it's mostly because he has a bit of a thing for her already). They and their co-conspirators go ahead with the act, and the show is on the road all the way to the end.

I suppose that this novel is a little bit about what we call today "fake it till you make it". Lorenzo is a thoroughly contemptible man at the beginning of the novel, but the longer he spends in the role of a quite noble and inspiring leader, the more he begins to think like one, and eventually to become one himself. The only virtue he has at the beginning is the idea that "the show must go on", but as time goes by he acquires a few more.

There's also some interesting thoughts about colonialism, which Heinlein saw in his travels in the Navy, and how our attitudes on Earth might affect our attitudes as we expand into the solar system someday, and eventually to the stars. It's also fun to note how Heinlein's characterization of Martians evolves through his novels. In the last one, they were unable to survive unaided in Earth conditions, and were the feeble remnants of an ancient civilization, but we see Rringrill (the one who murdered Jock) and his friends able to wander around Earth without any prosthetics, and the civilization on Mars is pretty robust.

What else can I say, it's good solid Heinlein.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Storyteller by Donald Sturrock

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
This is the authorized biography of Roald Dahl, famed author of many popular children's books, such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and Matilda. You know, I was a big fan of these when I was a kid, and I had no idea that he'd penned any stories for adults, which he had done for the first half of his career, aside from noting his credits on the screenplay for the Bond flick, You Only Live Twice.

Speaking of Bond, Dahl hung around a bit with Ian Fleming, as he spent some time as a spy working for Intrepid during and after World War II. He served in the RAF, and crash landed a plane in Iraq at one point, sustaining injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. He was eventually invalided out of piloting, but continued to serve his country until after the war was over and he began to write.

Dahl's family was from Norway, and never really lost their roots after moving to England, and as a child he spent many summers visiting relatives back in the old country. The entire family seemed a little strange to their uptight British neighbors. Dahl spent quite a few years in the U.S., serving as an attache at the Embassy, which didn't make him any more "normal" as far as the English were concerned.

During his time there, he ran around with the cream of society, and was often romantically involved with wealthy heiresses. Dahl's father had done well in business, and when he died he left each of his children and his wife pretty sizeable trust funds, which made it easy for Roald to play the playboy. He was close to Roosevelt's vice president, Wallace, for a number of years, and the connections he made in Washington definitely helped him avoid being a true struggling young artist for any great length of time.

It was interesting to me when I was reading about the writing of the screenplay from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that there was a huge outcry from the NAACP about the Oompa Loompas being pygmies brought by Willy Wonka out of deepest darkest Africa. When the movie finally came out, the Oompa Loompas were no longer black, and later versions of the book removed the offensive material. I must have read a copy when it first came out, as I recall them being black pygmies - who had subsisted in the jungle on nasty caterpillars, I believe.

The mandatory book quote, from a list Dahl wrote called Things I Hate:
"Bookshelves with an unread look."
At one point, while Dahl and his family were away for a long period of time, a friend had offered to remodel and redecorate their home, and when they returned he was furious to find "faux" books on shelves.

Dahl's family seemed overly struck by tragedy at times. Of course, his father died young, then his son was hit by a bus while being taken for a walk by the nanny in his stroller, suffering massive head injuries that affected him for life. His oldest daughter died of a rare form of encephalitis caused by measles. His first wife, Patricia Neal (the actress) had a brain aneurysm and spent three weeks in a coma and many years recovering. One of his stepdaughters died of a brain tumor. It all made him a little schizophrenic, I think. By all accounts his mood swings were rapid and often verbally violent, coming out of the clear blue sky of a pleasant family evening with friends.

Whatever his personal failings, he was an immensely gifted writer, and I think I'm going to have to hunt down some of his adult fiction one of these days just for giggles.

This book is a TOME, over 500 pages, plus notes and references. The author did a very thorough job, but I really could have done without about 25% of the book, which consisted of him telling us how Dahl's relationship with his mother was obviously responsible for this part of a story, or the death of his daughter being influential on another, or how he must have used his RAF experience to populate some of the wilder adventures in his books, etc. Just give us the facts and we're capable of drawing our own conclusions as we read Dahl's work thank you very much!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein

Between Planets
Between Planets, written in 1951, is one of Heinlein's young adult novels. One of the really wonderful thing about his books for young adults is that he never talked down to them, and he always assumed that those who were reading his books would be interested in science, engineering, and space, and peppers his writing with all sorts of fun facts, some of which later proved not to be true, but it's fairly easy to ignore those picky bits and just enjoy the story.

This is the story of Don Harvey, a young man who was born on a space ship to one parent who was from Venus Colony and the other from Earth. Both of his parents are doing research on Mars as the story begins, while Don is away at a boarding school in New Mexico, almost a dude ranch. When it becomes evident that a rebellion is about to start, with the colonists asserting their independence from the mother planet, his parents send word for him to leave school and join them on Mars.

Before he boards ship, his parents have asked him to stop by an old friend, Dr. Jefferson, of the family's house for a visit. Unknown to Don, his parents are part of a "rebel" underground, and the friend gives him a package to deliver to them that contains urgent information. The package appears to be merely a toy ring, which Don puts on his finger and forgets, more or less, thinking that if there was a secret message, it was written on the packaging paper, which the secret police confiscate after arresting Don and Dr. Jefferson. Jefferson dies while being questioned, and the police end up letting Don go, without discovering anything special about the ring.

He tries to go to Mars, but when the rebellion breaks out, he is instead forced to travel to Venus. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of a VIP Venusian dragon, Sir Isaac Newton (the dragons give themselves Earth names of historical figures they admire), and is of some service to the dragon when his voder (voice synthesizer) is damaged during blastoff. Don is, however, "between planets", having no fixed citizenship, and when he arrives on Venus, he is forced to work as a dishwasher in a little Chinese restaurant to survive until he can contact his parents (those Chinese start businesses going everywhere, eh?).

Eventually he volunteers for the Venusian military, after Earth forces invade the planet to subdue the rebels, and spends some time in guerrilla warfare in the swamps. His dragon friend, Sir Isaac, finds out where he is and sends for him, and he is finally able to deliver the ring to the underground, who will use the information there to help defeat Earth.

One good quote, "...the one thing we have in common is a belief in the dignity and natural worth of free intelligence. In many different ways we have fought - and fought unsuccessfully, I should add - against the historical imperative of the last two centuries, the withering away of individual freedom under larger and even more pervasive organizations, both governmental and quasi-governmental."
I'm sensing a recurring event here. Heinlein spends a lot of time through the first 90% of this book really developing the story, then in the last twenty pages or so, wraps things up in a hurry with a bit of miraculous technology. Maybe he had more to say, but was limited by publishing constraints of the time. It's still vintage RAH and worth a read, even for today's jaded young adults.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Leadership and Crisis by Bobby Jindal

Leadership and Crisis
This was an interesting read from Bobby Jindal, Governor of Lousiana, and whose name has been batted around occasionally as a presidential hopeful at some point in the future. I wondered as I read it if this was something in the nature of an advance manifesto for such a campaign, but I suppose only time will tell.

Jindal was born to Indian immigrants in the United States, and grew up in Louisiana, eventually attending college at Brown, followed by Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar (like a recent Democratic President who shall remain unnamed). Some of his runs for office in his early days were doomed from the start, but he eventually became a U.S. congressman and was elected Governor of Louisiana at age 36.

Jindal tears into the federal response to the recent BP oil spill, from the White House's concern with political appearances being more important than getting resources mobilized to help people and fight the spill, to the endless battles with bureaucracy. Every time the people of Lousisiana tried to get things done, the EPA or the Coast Guard or OSHA or the labor unions got in the way. He's not very kind to BP's leadership, either. The only federal forces that get his full respect are the Louisiana National Guard units that logged countless hours aiding cleanup efforts.

After spending two terms as a congressman in Washington DC, Jindal hasn't got a lot of respect for the representatives we've elected to "serve" us there, either. He believes in making Congress a part-time job, enacting term limits, and strong restrictions on lobbying by former members, relatives and friends of members. The only time that Congress does the economy any good, he says, is when it's out of session.

Jindal represented Lousiana when Katrina hit, and he doesn't show any more respect for the federal bureaucracies operating under a Republican administration than he does for the current one. It's just more of the same, rules and regulations on steroids and inconceivable delays in approval of common-sense measures because approval is so centralized, rather than decisions being made at the local level by people on the ground in a crisis. One of the things that was crazy was that there were plenty of people with private boats who were willing to participate in rescue efforts, but the Coast Guard insisted that every boat launched be given a safety inspection and make sure that it was properly licensed before going in the water. Are you kidding me? In fact, private businesses probably provided the most help during the catastrophe, with donations of everything from food and water to fleets of vehicles. The other group that helped without a fight were religious organizations of all kinds, housing and feeding refugees, and performing other vital services. The government response, unfortunately, sucked.

Jindal seems to have a comprehensive plan for immigration reform, fighting corruption, stimulating the economy, and providing true improvements and cost savings in healthcare. I found it thought-provoking and interesting.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Blogger Hop - June 3 to 6

Time for the weekly Book Blogger Hop hosted by Crazy for Books.
Book Blogger Hop

This week's question:

“Share your favorite post from the last month and tell us why it’s close to your heart!”

I don't know that I have a favorite post, as such. The one that I might describe as close to my heart was the one about Ariel, by Steven R. Boyett. Re-reading the book after all these years took me back to a much simpler time in my life, I think. Then, it was nice to learn what happened to Pete and Ariel after almost thirty years of waiting and wondering when I read Boyett's sequel, Elegy Beach, which will be posted June 16th.

Beyond this Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

Beyond This Horizon
This novel was first written in 1942, though my copy is considerably more recent, published sometime in the 70s, not the cover seen here. It's a story about a near utopia, when centralized economic planning and careful genetic engineering have produced a time of peace and plenty in the region that the U.S. has become. And yet, some are still dissatisified.

The protagonist of this tale is Hamilton Felix, somewhat of a dilettante who designs games of amusement for people to play, rather like the electronic slot machines of Vegas. He doesn't work any harder than he feels like, and spends much of his time attending decadent soirees and dining in elegant restaurants. He's come to wonder what the whole point of it all is, and the humanist viewpoint of this future offers few answers.

Like some other Heinlein stories, "real" citizens go about their business with personal sidearms strapped to their hips, and can call for a duel to be fought with them if they feel their honor has been impugned. The quote  "an armed society is a polite society" appears here, and I wonder if RAH originated it, or if he merely filed off the serial numbers and used it for his own. Those who choose not to go armed, including "control naturals", genetically unmodified humans, wear a brassard to distinguish their status, and must give precedence to armed citizens in all social situations.

The planned economic system he envisions sounds a bit interesting, though it may just be a fantasy Heinlein makes sound good by skillful word play. Some folks chose to survive on the basic living allowance, which still affords them good housing, food, clothing and medical care, as well as recreation. Others may choose to be productive by working for private industry or the government, or even own their own businesses, but the government, which is pretty laissez-faire in most things, keeps things on a steady course by minute adjustments to the money supply and infusions of government spending in areas it deems useful or at times even frivolous, so as to use up "extra" money.

Hamilton Felix, it turns out, is actually the culmination, or "star line" of a breeding program (this theme turns up again later, in a different set of clothing in Methuselah's Children). The genetics board would love for him to procreate with a carefully selected female of their choice, but his ennui and lack of belief in the purpose of life make him reluctant to cooperate. That is, at least, until he actually meets the woman, and they fall helplessly, hopelessly, and madly in love.

There's always a fly in the ointment, and this time it's a group that calls themselves The Survivors Club. They attempt to recruit Hamilton into their conspiracy to replace the powers that be with better ones - themselves. As usual, when it comes to failed political systems, the rascals who want to try it all again are certain that it would work this time, if only they were the ones in charge. Hamilton decides to be a double-agent, instead, reporting their plots back to his friends in the government, and the rebellion sputters and dies in an anticlimactic battle.

The rest of the book just sort of meanders to a flat tire ending. It would appear that (and Heinlein paraphrases this much later in the words of Lazarus Long) the only real purpose in life is to find a woman with whom you can make perfect babies and love so long as you live. There are a ton of fun ideas thrown out for discussion and introspection in this book, including quite a bit about parapsychology, which I think Heinlein always rather believed was a true phenomenon, without any hard evidence. A stronger ending might have made this one a classic, but it's definitely a good read.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ariel by Steven R. Boyett

Ariel
Harlan Ellison wrote a short story/novelette a long time ago called A Boy and His Dog. From what I understand, the movie adaptation was horribly mangled, but the general idea of both was that in a post-apocalyptic world, the boy and his dog roamed the world, trying to survive. In the end, he had to make a choice between the love of a girl, and the life of Buck, the dog. Ellison left the ending deliberately vague, and you had to go back and read it a couple of times to really figure out what had happened, but the tag line was, approximately "sure I know what love is. A boy loves his dog."

Anyway, Ariel, by Boyett, is eerily reminiscent of that Ellison story. It takes place in a post-technical world after The Change, when the physical laws that allow gunpowder to explode, airplanes to fly, and electricity to power the world have failed, and magic and its creatures have returned. The copy I own was published in 1984 (the image in this post is a 2009 reprint), and aside from one other novel I possess, Boyett disappeared from the scene, only to reappear with a new novel of the world of Ariel called Elegy Beach. Of course, I bought a copy and went back after almost thirty years to re-read Ariel in preparation for the new story.

When the world as he knows it ceases to exist, Pete Garey survives on his own for a while, using his camping skills and things he learns from abandoned libraries to get by. One day, while bathing in a lake, he spots a unicorn with a broken leg near the shore, and swims over to investigate. As he is a virgin, the unicorn allows him to touch her, he plays Androcles and the lion, splinting the leg, and they travel together from that day forward. Several years later, a group of people, having heard that the horn of a unicorn is a very powerful and valuable item, try to take Ariel away from Pete. Pete acquires a couple of stray allies in this battle, one of the Star Trek red shirt variety, the other called Mordecai Lee, who is as close to a samurai warrior as one will find in this day and age. They dispatch the first group of attackers readily, but when the minion of the Necromancer who controls New York City shows up on his griffon to make his play for the unicorn and horn, things start to get really serious.

After the griffon rider is barely sent packing, Mordecai decides he needs to head to New York with his canine companion to try to do something about the menace there, and tells Pete and Ariel to run and hide. They decide instead to follow him surreptitiously, reasoning that they may be able to help him, and if he fails on his own, the Necromancer and his forces will track them down eventually. As they travel, they accumulate a couple more refugees, a young boy with a broadsword who has been sent on a manhood-proving quest by his father to slay a dragon, George (The Dragon and the George, anyone?) and a young woman named Shaugnessy who becomes entranced by Ariel and follows them on her own until they finally give in and let her accompany them.

The novel has a bittersweet ending, after a good bit of travel adventure and action - one of the best bits is when a force attacking the Necromancer, who has made his headquarters at the top of the Empire State Building, hang glides from the top of the World Trade Center (wonder if the 2009 version changes this to some other nearby building?). It's not as wonderful now as I thought it was when I first read it, it's pretty much a young adult novel, and I was a lot younger then. I am, however, ready to "hit the Beach".

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter International
I've run across Larry Correia's name a couple of times in the gun blogs I visit, and thought, when I saw his paperback on the shelves, that I should give his series a try. Monster Hunter International is the tale of Owen Z. Pitt, an apparently mild-mannered accountant whose boss turns into a werewolf in the office late one night, and Owen suddenly displays some teeth, himself, battling the monster with his concealed .357, bare hands, and eventually tossing him out a fourteenth-floor window. While he is recuperating in the hospital from the injuries he received in the battle, he is visited by some governmental agents, who think they may have to kill him, as he could turn furry, himself, and a more congenial yet shadowy figure, Earl Harbinger (is that the Trump of Doom I hear?), who gives him a business card and tells Owen to look him up when he gets out.

Owen ignores all of that while he's home getting back on his feet, with his mother and father in attendance, but after they leave, Harbinger visits him once more, with the lovely Julie Shackleford in tow. Though it's kept secret from the general public as much as possible, there are far more monsters in the world than just werewolves, and the pair belong to a business organization called Monster Hunters International which takes contract work to eradicate the pests before too many innocents are killed. Owen is smitten by Julie immediately, and his infatuation plays the most prominent role in his recruitment for this shadowy group.

As we learn over time, Owen was raised by a father who had been a Green Beret in that shadow war in Cambodia, and has been a gun nut his entire life, as well as studying martial arts. He supported himself in college for a while as a bouncer in a bar, and by cage fighting, but when he lost control and nearly killed a man, he opted to get his degree in accounting, and live a quiet, uneventful life. When he joins MHI, though, those dreams go up in flame.

He travels to the MHI training compound in Alabama, and does well in the military style training there. Other recruits come from all walks of life, including the military, but have one thing in common - they have met the monsters and survived, somehow. Before their training is really complete, a new threat appears on the horizon. A mysterious monster called The Cursed One, accompanied by seven master vampires, arrives on the East Coast via a pirated cargo ship. Owen dreams very vividly of their arrival one night, and when the hunters take on the job of reclaiming the cargo ship from whatever evil minions have commandeered it, he realizes when he sees the name of the ship stenciled on the side that his dream was a true one.

The rest of the novel details the arduous and dangerous quest of MHI to stop the Cursed One and his evil companions in their own quest to bring an ancient artifact to a place of power at the right time. If they succeed, it will loose hordes of Lovecraftian monsters on an unsuspecting Earth, and ring in a reign of terror which is unimaginable. As readers, we become aware that Owen is more an integral part of this plot than even he may suspect, as he continues to dream of the evil ones, and is guided by a spirit who once fought against the monsters, when one of the vampire masters was part of the Third Reich.

Lots of action keeps this moving along well, and it's a pretty good tale. Some fun things include a colony of elves living in a rundown trailer park called The Enchanted Forest, and a separate colony of orcs and wargs who like to rock out to Heavy Metal. The only problem I had with the plot and resolution is that it seemed that Owen's importance, as a key figure in stopping the plot, was too sudden as an intro to the series, and with the only resolution being "save the world", how do you gradually develop character and a plot for the rest of the books? Will every one be this earth-shatteringly important?

A fun book, and I'll most likely keep reading, when I run across the sequel.