Monday, December 31, 2012

An Enduring Love by Farah Pahlavi

When I was in my first year of college, my roommate was from Iran. This was the year that the Iranian revolutionaries, under the direction of Khomeini, stormed the U.S. Embasssy and took our diplomats hostage for over 400 days. So, I found Farah Pahlavi's book interesting on a semi-personal level.

By most measures, Iran under the Shah was slowly working its way into the 20th century, leaving behind its tribal origins and building modern infrastructure, schools, and hospitals, and liberalizing its political structure gradually.

"(In 1925) The country was in the hands of tribal chiefs and large landowners, and the only law was the law of the strongest. The main resources had been handed over to foreigners: the British operated our oil; our army, or waht was left of it, took orders from Russian officers in the north and British officers in the south; Belgians ran our customs services, the Swedes our police, and so on...A quarter of a century later, the Iran I knew had schools, universities and hospitals; if the roads wer not all paved yet, they did at least exist; finally, the Trans-Iranian Railway linked the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. There was certainly a lot yet to be built, but for my parents' generation, who could see how much had been achieved, Reza Shah had given his country what Mustafa Kemal Attaturk had given Turkey: a bloodless industrial and cultural revolution."

Farah grew up somewhat privileged in a politically-connected family whose power derived somewhat from their descent from the Prophet Mohammed, though her father passed away when she was quite young. Of her father's illness, she writes:

"I was told Father had gone to Europe for treatment. It was a lie. He had died."

A cultural thing? It seems very strange to me that they would continue the fiction for several years.

When she was invited to attend a communist rally in Paris as a student there, she could not understand why all Iranians did not venerate the Shah, as her family did. It occurs to me that the royalists in Iran and elsewhere were, of course, strongly anti-communist - for their own preservation - and that the roots of the West's support of strong authoritarians in the Middle East most likely dates back to the Cold War, in a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of way. As long as the Assads, Hussein and Pahlavis opposed the Soviet threat, our governments did their best to keep them in power, even if it meant ignoring the need for democratic reforms and the human rights violations taking place there.

The Shah's previous wife had been unable to bear children, so obviously Farah was selected in hopes she'd be more fruitful, and she did, indeed, bear him four children, including a male heir. However, as a well-educated, somewhat modern, woman (she studied in Paris after finishing high school), she was probably responsible for many of the improvements that came to pass for the general population of Iran under his rule, especially in the area of women's rights.

"I inspected, I opened buildings and institutes, but while doing so, I watched, I listened and I learned. At the same time I received a lot of correspondence. These letters were extremely affecting; the often awkwardly expressed accounts of tragic situations enabled me to learn about the problems of the moment. In the farthest provinces people were still suffering great poverty, infant mortality was high, schools were few and far between, children lacked hygiene and were weakened by malnutrition."

To counter these problems, in 1962, the Shah announced his White Revolution, which included six great reforms:
  • Agrarian reform - those with extensive land holdings were required to sell certain portions of their property to the government, which parceled it out to the peasants. Governmental land registrars were also put into effect, replacing the role of the Islamic clergy - which cut off a major source of their income. (This obviously had repercussions later on because of the hostility of the imams. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Shah's father had implemented civil law to replace sharia law, also reducing the authority and income of the clergy.)
  • Privatizing some state enterprises.
  • Nationalization of forests and pasture lands.
  • Reserving twenty percent of the shares in Iranian companies for workers and managers.
  • Giving women the right to vote and become candidates for election.
  • Creating a Literacy Corps, responsible for bringing literacy to remote areas. In the 1960s, the illiteracy rate in Iran was at 70 percent. Over the next twenty years, the problem was vanquished, and early successes with this program were responsible for the establishment of a national Public Health Corps and a Development Corps which taught modern farming methods.
Regarding western attacks on the pace of democratic reforms, the shah,

"...believed that Iran's economic awakening was still to fragile to survive a complete liberalization of society, a Western-style liberalization. 'The country still needs a decade of stability to get to that stage,' he would say, 'but I want my son to reign in a different way from me.' He had hoped to pass on to Reza a state that was ready for democracy."


"The most violent opponents of the monarchy were precisely these young people who had received state scholarships to study in the United States or Europe...within and without the country, the clandestine Communist Party and the extreme left continued recruiting young idealists or fanatics who wanted to overthrow the regime and install a popular dictatorship on the Soviet or Chinese model."

Sound familiar?

When the revolution heated up:

" became clear that 'liberals' and leftists, many of whom had nothing in common with the mullahs, adhered to their movement for access to the wider population. And so religion was shamelessly used as a tool to stir up the people, in particular by the communists, who had the banning of religious practice as one of their aims if they came to power. Each component of this heterogeneous revolutionary coalition...had an opportunistic interest in allying themselves with the others, but it was obvious that if one day they took control of the country, none of them would stop until they had eliminated their former associates - which is exactly what happened."

If, like me, you grew up during the 70s, and never really got the word from our negligent mainstream media about what really went on in the middle east, this book should prove interesting. Couple it with Queen Noor's book, and you'll begin to see some patterns.

2012 Wrap-up

So, this year my reading productivity seems to be a little off. It appears that I will only finish about 160 books. No idea why, exactly, but some of the non-fiction took me longer to finish than usual, and I was doing quite a bit of traveling. When I'm having fun on excursions, it cuts down on my leisure reading.  Consider me as inserting a mini-rant right here about how LinkedIn suddenly and without warning discontinued its Reading List by Amazon application, so my method of tracking how many books I read each year went away.

Not sure that I have a top ten list of my favorites this time around, but a handful of "Oscar" winners might be:

#1 Urban Fantasy Novel - Cold Days, by Jim Butcher
#1 Science Fiction Novel - Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold
#1 Fantasy Novel - Princeps, by L.E. Modessit, Jr.
#1 Non-Fiction - Broke, by Glenn Beck
#1 Thought Provoker - Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Here's hoping for a great year of reading to all of you, and one of finding blessings in the New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Around the Web

Talking about books over at From the Caer.

Sports Illustrated Football: Offense by Bud Wilkinson

Heh. This book is so old there's no picture on Amazon to go with it.
I was talking with my friend and supervisor, Chip, at work the other day and mentioned that I'd always wanted to find a book that outlined basic football strategies. The following day, there were these two books laying on my desk, he said he found them in the break room - a fortuitous coincidence.

This book really has some good information on basic offensive strategies and technicques for the offensive team, including blocking, pass patterns, and the responsibilities of each position. It doesn't have a lot of info on the latest developments by modern teams, but I'm pretty certain that the basics haven't changed, and that teams that teach and practice these basics probably have good success.

Often, when I'm watching a football game, I note that much of what the announcers have to say is the same thing over and over, such as,

"Well, the offensive line really needs to protect the passer today."


"The amazing thing about wide receiver Smith is that he runs a very consistent pattern, so the quarterback can throw the ball before he reaches that spot on the field."

And I think to myself, "I could say things like that. Why aren't I making the big bucks announcing games?"

This book is filled with just those sorts of basic things.

In Blocking Techniques:

"The position of the head is of paramount importance. Most poor blockers fail to bull their neck. Instead of holding their head directly over their shoulders, they tend to tilt it to the outside and look at the ground. They lose sight of the opponent and consequently miss the block."


"As the ball is snapped, the blocker moves directly at his opponent, keeping his eyes squarely on the belt buckle. As he approaches the area of contact, he should be in a low hitting position and have nough momentum to meet and if possible overpower the defender."

There's some good description of proper positioning of the arms on a handoff, which could explain many fumbles, when it's not correctly executed:

"The outside hand should be curled in slightly just inside the hip to block the ball if the quarterbsack extends it too far. The inside elbow should be up, with the forearm parallel to the ground, opening the target for the quarterback...A good ball carrier takes the hand-off from feel, watching only the defensive players in the area he will hit. If he looks for the ball, he'll lose sight of the defense and miss the holes."

There are some more recent editions of this book out there. I'd suggest reading them for any student of the game.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Telempath by Spider Robinson

Telempath is a pretty fair post-apocalyptic novel by Robinson. The premise is that a scientist, angered by the way humans have polluted the environment, releases a plague which gives people a sense of smell exponentially better than that of wolves, and most humans are driven mad by the odors of technology. Cities are rapidly depopulated, and many flee to the wilderness areas; even there they still need nose filters to tone down the extreme aromas. Ok, the usual suspects - Man bad, Nature good.

The plight of the survivors is further complicated by the appearance of the Muskies, plasmoid beings which attack humans for inexplicable (at the start of the book) reasons, and which men, with their improved sense of smell, can now detect at small arms range distances. The people of Fresh Start use pyrotechnic ammunition to explode the Muskies, as they are explosively flammable.

One of the scientist's former colleagues, Jacob Stone, founds a small enclave in upstate New York, Fresh Start, where he and some other refugees bring back a small amount of modern technology, mostly medical or weapons to defend against human and animal predators. The story begins when his son, Isham, is sent into New York City to find and execute the man responsible, Wendell Carlson. What Isham discovers in the city rattles his entire worldview, and he returns to his home a changed man, his vengeance redirected.

There's also an opposition group in the woods, called the Agros, led by a man named Jordan, who are most violently opposed to all technology, and who worship Pan. The main crisis point in the novel is reached when they kidnap Isham, and band together in force to destroy Fresh Start and all vestiges of its industry.

Once again, Robinson returns to a recurring them. If we can all only just get our minds right, and find common ground with ALL of our enemies through telepathy, empathy or telempathy, we can all live in peace with each other and with the Earth. Isham displays hitherto unsuspected abilities in that area, and - wonder of wonders - so does his love interest. Together, their love can conquer all.

Good for a couple hours diversion, anyway.

Around the Web

A book review on Bookworm Room's site.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tis the Season

Merry Christmas to all my readers! Hope you get lots of new books in your stockings.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson

Melancholy Elephants is a collection of Spider's short stories, mostly reprinted from his earlier collection, Antinomy. The title story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of legislating eternal copyrights for creators. The premise is that there are a finite number of stories that can be told, or melodies composed, and that when those are all used up, the human race could suffer from fatal depression. There's several tongue-in-cheek time travel stories, Half an Oaf, Chronic Offender and Father Paradox.

Robinson also includes a in-joke type of story for all you Beatles fans out there, Rubber Soul, about John Lennon being resurrected someday. High Infidelity, a story about one human aspect of brain transplant technology, contains some rather racy scenes. Spider also returns to a theme he finds fascinating in Satan's Children. An Abby Hoffman-like figure creates a drug that is the ultimate truth serum. What happens to the world when it is widely dispersed becomes another singularity event. From that tale,

"Even those of us who pay only lip service to the truth know what it is, deep down in our hearts. And we all believe in it, and know it when we see it. Even the best rationalization can fool only the surface mind that manufactures it; there is something beneath, call it the heart or the conscience, that knows better. It tenses up like a stiff neck muscle when you lie, in proportion to the size of the lie, and if it stiffens enough it can kill you for revenge...Most people seem to me, in my cynical moments, to keep things stabilized at about the discomfort of a dislocated shoulder or a tooth about to abscess. They trade honesty off in small chunks for pleasurem and wonder that their lives hold so little joy."

Robinson occasionally approaches truth in his writing, and this books is a joy to read, for the most part.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


How exciting. WooRank says I have the 22,518,919th most visited website in the World. That makes for a very complicated cheer, "We are number ...."

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle

I really enjoyed Peter Mayle's tales of his life in Provence, which I have reviewed earlier, so when I heard that he had written some mysteries, I felt they might be worth checking out - literally, from the local library. In The Vintage Caper, Mayle introduces us to former bad boy turned sleuth, Sam Levitt, "former corporate lawyer, cultivated crime expert, and wine connoisseur." A thoroughly unlikeable entertainment lawyer in Hollywood has had his most prized acquisitions stolen from his acclaimed wine collection, and Levitt's old flame, Elena, an insurance investigator calls Sam in to take advantage of his expertise and unorthodox methods in solving the heist.

As one might expect, from someone with his experiences in France, Mayle, when the tale eventually ends up in Marseilles, fills this story with wonderful bits of detail about Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, viniculture and haute cuisine. There's really not a lot of suspense, thrilling action, sex or violence here, as Sam methodically cons his way into the home and cellar of a rich and powerful local, locates the missing wine, and recovers the loot for the insurance company. No false leads to speak of, and the only red herrings to be found are at the bottom of a bowl of bouillabaisse.

A fun read for Francophiles, and I'll probably read the sequel, as well, though it's not typical mystery fare.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Reacher rocks again! He just falls into these situations, when he's totally trying to mind his own business. As the story begins, Reacher is standing on the onramp of an Interstate near Omaha, trying to hitch a ride to Virginia to meet up with a woman he only knows from talking to her on the phone. He's sporting a broken nose from his most recent mishaps and adventures, and isn't a likely candidate for most people to pick up in the middle of the night. Finally he's given a ride by three people who claim to be coworkers for an unnamed company, headed home after a long sales trip - two men and a woman.

However, the two men are a pair of murderers being pursued by the local sheriff and the FBI, and the woman is their hostage. The men have threatened to kill her if she tells Reacher anything, but they've picked both him and the women up in order to confuse the law enforcement types on the lookout for two men traveling by themselves. It doesn't take Reacher long to figure out that something is not quite right in this scenario, but before he can do as we expect and rescue the woman from her captors, he is left at a motel in the middle of nowhere after one of the men takes a pistol shot at him and misses, badly.

Reacher eventually hooks up with FBI agent Sorenson, a tough Scandinavian woman with a no-nonsense attitude, who nevertheless falls for Reacher's directness and honesty and agrees not to arrest him while they pursue the fugitives together. The whole situation is not exactly as it seems, and Reacher has stumbled into a massive counterrorism operation being run by a number of TLAs, full of double and triple agents, domestic and foreign terrorists, and just a handful of local yokels caught in the dragnet.

We don't see Reacher's usual emphasis on mano a mano physical combat in this book, but when the action finally comes, it's fast, furious, and bloody. I had a very tough time putting this one down at bedtime.

Oh, by the way, there's a description of Reacher on page 156. It sounds nothing at all like Tom Cruise. What's wrong with film makers these days?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter

You know how there are some taste combinations that go well together? And there are some collaborations that produce synergistic works far better than either author has ever produced alone? Well, this isn't one of those times, I'm afraid. I have, over the years, enjoyed many books by Pratchett, and a good number by Baxter, and so I looked forward to seeing their work together, and was disappointed by what I found.

The premise is that there are literally millions of parallel Earths in existence, and that occasionally odd individuals have either had the natural ability or the ability under great duress to slip from one world to another - in a Fortean manner. When an inventor assembles a simple gadget that can be made from parts to be found at Radio Shack, with a potato for a battery, and distributes the instructions on its construction widely, the world is suddenly graced with thousands, or millions of universe-walking people, or Steppers.

And thus begins the interminable, or shall I say "Long," tale of people's travels in the universes of the Long Earth. I managed to stick it out about halfway through before sheer disinterest in the fates of any of the characters caused me to give up at last.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

 One fringe benefit of reading this book was that I finally found out what genre Santa Olivia and Saints Astray belong to - postmodern fables - it's on the back cover blurb about the author. In Kushiel's Dart and the books about Phedra and Terre d'Ange that follow it, Carey created a masterpiece, an epic, an amazing piece of historical fantasy fiction - a very tough act to follow. In Dark Currents, she leaps into the world of urban fantasy, and I frankly have no idea why, aside from "all the cool kids are doing it". Don't get me wrong, she's still a very skilled writer, even when she's writing soulless drivel. If you haven't read any of her earlier novels, that's great, you'll be able to enjoy this new one without prejudice.

Daisy Johanssen is a demon-spawn, quite literally. Her mother was impregnated by an incubus, and decided to raise her child in the human world, in a small town in the midwest called Pemkowet. Pemkowet has either the fortune or misfortune to be the current site of a sprout of Yggsdrasil, and the seat of power of the goddess Hel of Norse mythology, and Daisy - all grown up, is her liason between the eldritch and the mundane world. Daisy works as a file clerk in the police station, but when there appears to be something odd about the "accidental" drowning of a local college kid, she gets dragged into the investigation, and paired with Officer Cody Fairfax, one of the local werewolves, on whom she's had a secret crush since childhood.

It's an amusing little mystery tale, with plenty of supernatural window dressing. The tale is pretty much PG, suitable for teen audiences - any actual sex and graphic violence take place offstage. Unlike most urban fantasy heroines, at least Daisy doesn't need to be persuaded to use her friends to help out as necessary, which is refreshing. Read this one on its own merits, it's in the upper percentiles of the urban fantasy being published already.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Success in the U.S.

My friend and pastor, Dave, was talking some time ago about his experiences with marriage counseling. By and large, he says, most people who come in for counseling are really just looking for a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on, and they're really not interested in fixing the problems in their marriage. He'll listen to their problems and give them good, solid, scripture-based advice on what they need to do next, but probably only about 10% of them actually do what he's told them needs to be done.

I'm noticing the same sort of thing on a number of personal finance blogs I peruse. There are those lurkers in the comments who read all the advice posted, then make a point of posting comments about why it doesn't and could never apply to them, and that they're just victims of a system rigged to keep the poor folks down.

Now, one can only really judge what's possible or impossible, in most cases, from personal experience, or perhaps anecdotal experience of friends, but I'm just stunned at times by this attitude. First, though you wouldn't perhaps think it to look at us now, M and I have been poor. We've started out at minimum wage jobs a number of times in our lives. The key thing is that we never believed that was all there was, and we never stayed there (either at minimum or at that job, depending on circumstances) for very long.

I've observed over the last several years, a number of refugee families affiliated with our church, that have come to this country with basically the shirts on their backs, who have worked their way out of poverty and into solid middle class citizenry. So, you can't tell me it isn't possible to start with nothing in this country, even today, and end up successful, no matter your background. By the way, these folks are seriously BLACK, from Africa, and their English is not the best, if you think that racial prejudice - in Idaho no less - is holding people down.

Goes back to the old adage: Say you can't or say you can; either way you're right.

One of the most "surprising" conlusions of recent surveys in this country: it's easier to become wealthy if you start out with rich parents. No Kidding?

Doesn't mean the poor can't become wealthy, it's just a bit tougher. Was it McArthur who said, "the difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a bit longer"?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Darkship Thieves by Sarah Hoyt

This novel really starts off with a great "hook". The heroine, Athena, is wakened from peaceful slumber in her Daddy's space yacht by the surreptitious treads of kidnappers or organleggers, or... Her general all around sneakiness and orneriness, combined with her lightning fast reflexes and mad combat skills enable her to elude the thugs and jump into an escape pod, in which she careens crazily through the asteroid belt...or some such.

An earlier, more technologically advanced civilization, sometime in the period after the fall of the USA to a central world government, developed a "plant" that grows energy pods, which absorb the solar rays and store them for later. Spacefarers harvest the pods before they grow too ripe and explode, and use them to power space ships and space stations, and all things spacey. When Athena dives into the heart of one of these power plants to hide from the aspiring abductors, she runs into (literally) a craft belonging to one of the Darkship Thieves, folks who were exiled long ago from Earth because of their extensive genetic biomodifications. Any who remained on the planet were lynched and horribly executed. Some of the exiles now live in secret in a hollowed out asteroid, and Athena's new acquaintance, Kit, is one of those folks.

So Kit (with modifications that make him look like a cat - really? Kit the Cat?) and Thena get along like the proverbial cat and dog (though she's really more of a fox), which tells you right away they're going to end up falling in love, right? I mean, how obvious can you get? Kit's world is organized politically and socially along libertarian lines. Unfortunately, aside from bits and dribbles here and there about how their laws, or lack thereof, affect Thena in her interactions with them, Hoyt doesn't really fully develop the background society, it just hovers there like some wafted in bit of scenery in a Broadway musical.

While it doesn't seem glaringly obvious to Thena that she's actually the beneficiary of some illegal and unapproved biological modifications, herself, it's obvious to the reader from nearly the start. She's almost as fast and strong as Kit, has incredible reflexes, and somewhere along the way discovers that she can communicate with him psionically, as well. Much of the middle portion of the book is dedicated to how she finally realizes she's got it bad for Kit, and unraveling some of his deep, dark, embarassing secrets. There's a bone tossed to Heinlein readers in the character of a family doctor who knows the truth, and who seems an awful lot like Jubal Harshaw in the way he acts and speaks his lines.

The style of the book seemed just a little too similar to some old SF, like E.E. "Doc" Smith's stuff, or some of the Burroughs Mars novels, for me to fully enjoy it. A touch contrived. Wondered if this was Hoyt's first novel. I'm torn about whether to spend the money for the second book in the series, or see if her fantasy novels are any better.

I stuck with it just to find out why the goons were trying to abduct her in the first place, but I grumbled a few times during the trip, "Are we there yet?"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is back - in the flesh this time. After his body is preserved by Demonreach and Mab takes care of his physical rehabilitation (wonderful nod to The Princess Bride in how she does it), it's time for a whole new set of challenges. First he must establish his position as the new Winter Knight with the Winter court. He attends a ball in his "honor" accompanied by his lovely nurse, Sarissa, and confronts the lovely yet treacherouse Maeve and her thugs, acquitting himself well - he survives, anyway, which usually counts as a victory for Harry.

Mab gives Harry his first assignment, to kill her daughter, Maeve. He heads back to Chicago to try to figure out the why and how of it. He visits his old friend, Butter's apartment to gain possession of Bob, the spirit in the skull. Parenthetically, here is where I get a little confused, as I was thinking that Bob was a former wizard being punished by being locked in the skull forever, but here, Butcher defines Bob as being merely a spirit of knowledge locked in the skull for centuries.

Harry then has a less-than-tearful reunion with his half-brother, Thomas, down at the boat (where Harry was killed in the first place), and the two of them head to Demonreach so that Harry can consult the spirit of the island, as well. He learns that Demonreach is actually a prison for a vast number of evil beings, constructed by the legendary Merlin long ago, and that he has been chosen as its Warden. The prison is under attack by forces unknown, and if the attack is successful, all of those Chtulhu-spawn or worse will be loosed upon the world, but even if it isn't, the island's defenses may turn Chicago into Krakatoa gone wild.

There is plenty of good action here, as Harry fights with all of the different forces that want to keep him from accomplishing his various missions; kill Maeve, protect Demonreach, save the world. With the help of his minions like Toot and the pixie warriors, his family and friends such as Thomas, Karen, and Molly, and even his dog, Mouse, Harry mostly bulls his way through most obstacles.

But there's also a great exposition in these pages about the greater battles being fought. All of the crazy things that have happened to Harry, the evils he has fought, through the entire series, have been merely symptoms of the larger conflict, which he is finally made aware of when he visits the Mothers of Summer and Winter, and journeys to the outer reaches of Faerie, where the Outsiders have our world under siege. Yeah, Harry's a grownup now, and it's time for him to finally get a real job.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Into the Woods by Kim Harrison

Into the Woods seems to be the official apocrypha for The Hollows series. There is a story  about Rachel that takes place before she becomes a runner, which explains some of the family dynamics that motivated her to succeed, yet gave her the poor self image we see in the early books in the series. Trying to raise her father's ghost to get his approval of her career choice goes slightly awry, and leads to some interesting times.

We have a tale of Jenks striking out on his own in a bit of mutual pixie aid, and a tale of Jenks and Trent in a daring rescue of Trent's daughter from her mother's family. Ivy also appears in a fairly long tale that explains more about her relationship with Kisten, the vampire community at large, and her readiness to take Rachel as her partner.

There are a couple of other tales, as well, that relate to other bits of Harrison's work, but it's mostly all about The Hollows.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mad Money

...and now for something completely different...

Most experts will agree that one should have an emergency fund. What they all argue over, however, is just how big it should be. No matter what they recommend, I think the answer to this is very personal, and totally dependent on an individual's financial situation.

The closest thing to a consensus on this issue seems to be that you should have 3 to 6 months of living expenses in an emergency fund. The assumption in this case is that if you were to lose your job, you could survive without any income for long enough to find another comparable job, and in the job market for the last ten years or so, that could take 3 to 6 months.

If you work in a pizza parlor, then you can probably find another pizza parlor job in a week, so by this reasoning, you really only need to keep a week's salary in your emergency fund. But what about other types of emergencies, like an unexpected medical expense, the transmission going out on your car, or the water heater giving up the ghost? You can see that basing your emergency fund requirements on income replacement as a sole criteria might or might not work well.

I prefer to look at an emergency fund from the standpoint of having a cash cushion. Maybe it's my wargaming experience, but I also like to approach it with a strategy of having multiple layers of defense.

My first layer is a simple cash cushion in my checking account, that I don't write down in the checkbook. It's there basically for three reasons: 1) I might make a mistake in my arithmetic or forget to write something down, and end up with less than a zero balance in my account. If the cushion is there, no worries, no overdraft charges, and I keep on moving right along. 2) My wife might write a check or use the debit card for a purchase without looking at the balance in checking. If this happens, I'm covered, no worries. 3) I might run across a spectacularly good deal on something, and need immediate cash to buy it, I can use up to the amount in the cushion, and take advantage of my good luck.

My second layer is where I break from the experts. It's my Visa card. It has a high credit limit, and in most emergencies people have no problem accepting it for payment. When the fuel pump on my pickup truck died in the middle of the freeway, I used it to pay the tow truck driver and the repair shop. Since I never carry a balance from month to month, I pay no interest on the money I borrow with it. I hope that I never have to use it to cover living expenses for a long period of time, because that wouldn't be smart, but for most things, it's a quick solution to a problem, and I can use the grace period to access my next layer of defense. If you're the sort of person who cannot pay off their credit cards every month, or who carries a large balance, this is not a wise "emergency fund" choice.

My third layer is a "high yield" savings account online. If I need the money for something immediate I can have it transferred to my checking account overnight. It's highly liquid, and earns a typical rate of return for a savings account.

The fourth layer is some "naked" investments in stocks and mutual funds. These aren't tied up in my 401K or IRA, but are available for me to sell off as needed for cash. I can sell them well within the grace period on the credit card, though I might take a paper loss by doing so. If the loss is less than the interest rate hit for carrying the balance would be on the credit card, then it's a good decision.

As I said before, the emergency fund depends entirely on your personal situation, and a highly paid individual in a volatile profession with dependents might want to go with the 3 to 6 month salary option, but at the very least a person ought to have a bit of cash laying around somewhere safe, earning a spot of interest, for those odd emergencies we all experience, so as not to have to make a choice between eating or paying the heat bill.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Crawling Between Heaven and Earth by Sarah Hoyt

On the Baen books website, there has been for quite some time now, an area called the Baen Free Library, where Jim Baen encouraged his stable of authors to post a free electronic version of one or more of their works, so that readers would download them, try it out, and be encouraged to buy more work by that author. I don't know how that all actually worked out for them in the long haul, though early numbers were encouraging, but it doesn't appear since Baen's passing to have been promoted very heavily, and not much new stuff has been appearing. Anyway, after stumbling upon Sarah Hoyt's blog over the Thanksgiving holiday, I checked and found that I had a copy of this book from the Free Library already loaded on my Nook, and decided to "try before I buy".

This book isn't one of Hoyt's novels; it's a collection of short stories with no coherent theme - just a pretty good collage of her writing style and skills.

There's a pretty good fantasy story set in the time of Shakespeare, with the bard and his brother prominently featured, which left me thinking once again to myself that I really should dig into the massive tome of the Compleat Workes gathering dust in my library, as I couldn't tell whether some of the things old Billy had to say were direct quotes from his works, or just good stylistic imitations by Hoyt. She evidently has several novels set in this milieu, which may prove entertaining at a later date.

There's a couple of nominal SF stories about the fate of clones, one of which is wrapped around a mythological core of the story of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. The other one was an even more tawdry tale about prostituting the clones of famous females, like Marilyn Monroe. Given the way her image and others are already being used in CGI commercials I don't find it all that far-fetched...aside from the whole cloning technology thing actually working, of course.

There's an intriguing ghost story, too, and lots of other tales, to introduce you to Hoyt's works. I found most of them a bit depressing, but still good enough to merit my actually buying and downloading one of her novels. The Free Library concept works.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Victims by Jonathan Kellerman

There's really not much about this Alex Delaware novel that makes it all that different from the first twenty six. It is a solid piece of workmanship of the type we have come to expect from Kellerman over the years. No need to introduce us to the characters, we know Milo and Alex and Alex's girlfriend, Robin, and all of the folks down at the precinct well enough to get along and enjoy the mystery.

As per the formula, Alex and Milo split up the work of tracking down and eliminating all the false leads from the latest gruesome murder, when a nasty harridan is gutted in her lonely apartment. No one likes her, not even her sister or her ex-husband, her coworkers all despise her, her shrink found her off putting, and even random strangers she encountered came to loathe her and wish her dead. Plenty of fodder for the red herrings.

Of course, it becomes a bit more complicated when the second body is discovered, murdered and mutilated in the same way. This time it's a man whom everybody loves, no one has an unkind word to whisper to the investigative duo as they flail blindly trying to find either a reason he might have been killed, or some sort of connection with the first victim. Of course, more innocents must die, and the pressure be ratcheted up on Milo and Alex to solve the case, before their first real break comes out of the blue. Once the bloodhounds are pointed in the right direction, things begin to fall into place rapidly, with only a couple of odd plot twists to make it work out in the end.

A good evening's reliable entertainment, but that's all.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mugged by Anne Coulter

 One thing I can say about Coulter's book is that it left me almost feeling as if I'd been mugged, myself. The political maneuverings of race and class warfare in our country over the last few decades are very disheartening.

I suppose that even as an adult, I might have been somewhat naive in granting more trust to the media than they truly deserved. Upon hearing that they had edited the 911 tape during the Trayvon Martin case in order to make it seem more racially inflammatory, I was enlightened a bit, but Coulter mentions here that they had done the same sort of thing with the videotape of the police beating of Rodney King, and it may be more common than any of us realize.

Recent threats of rioting and violence in social media, should President Obama fail his reelection have definitely made me aware that there are plenty of folks out there who are still willing to resort to wanton destruction if they fail to get their way. There also seems to be a tendency by those on the left to ascribe racial motivation to any disagreement with the policies of the current administration. I worry that if we are no longer able to criticize the actions of our government, for fear of being called racists, our first amendment rights will go the way of the dodo.

Coulter weaves just enough of her snarky humor into her account of racial demagoguery, from the time of the civil rights movement to the present, to keep it amusing, but it's depressing to see the folks who make their living by keeping racial tensions stirred up continue unchecked for so long.

An interesting passage:

"Civil rights now include the right not to have Bible verses printed on your paycheck, according to one Pennsylvania court, or not to see construction signs that say 'Men at Work,' according to the Kentucky Commission on Civil Rights, or the 'civil right' not to inform your husband that you're aborting his child."

Goes to show the simply ridiculous things the ACLU gets involved with.

And from scholar John McWhorter on racist "microaggressions":

"Say to someone, 'When I look at you, I don't see color' and you 'deny their ethnic experiences.' You do the same by saying, 'As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority,' as well as with hate speech, such as 'America is a melting pot.' Other 'microaggressions' include college buildings being all named after straight, white rich men."

What the heck?

This is a good book to read to get an idea of where race-baiting, gender-baiting, and gay-baiting have taken us. Just carry it in a brown paper wrapper, lest you be accused of being a "hater" for enjoying Coulter.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Heartless by Gail Carriger

Lady Alexia and Lord Maccon are moving in to Lord Akeldama's neighborhood. Their child is to be adopted by the vampire, which will cause the other vampires to give up their plan to assassinate the child.

They learn from a ghost of a plot to kill the Queen (I wondered at this point whether they meant of England or of the vampires). Alexia spends the rest of the novel waddling about in her state of advanced pregnancy, trying to find clues as to who is plotting the assassination, and how they plan to go about it.

In the midst of this, her sister shows up, claiming she has been thrown out of the house for associating with a women's suffrage organization, but it turns out she has more sneaky things on her mind. Biffy, the new werewolf in Lord Maccon's pack, is having a lot of trouble adjusting to his change, so Alexia tries to come up with some novel approaches to that problem, as well. She ends up recruiting her friend, Ivy, into her spur-of-the-moment spy organization, The Parasol Protectorate, when she needs someone to be her eyes and ears up with her husband's old pack in Scotland.

One of the truly amusing repeating bits in this novel is Lord Akeldama's ongoing terms of endearment, primarily used to refer to his friend, Alexia, but we also realize he never seems to call anyone by their actual name. One of my personal favorites was, "my little dipped biscuit". There's some good steampunk elements here when Madame LeFoux goes on a rampage in a mechanical flame-throwing octopus.

In fact, almost none of the novel deals with Alexia's baby directly, except for the very beginning and very end of the book. I suppose we'll get to find out more in the next book in the series.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Once again, as in Stardance, Robinson has returned to the scene of the crime and fleshed out a short story to create a full length novel. To be quite honest with you all, I don't think Robinson really has "the chops" to write a full length novel from scratch - each of his novels ends up being a loosely connected collection of episodic short stories, to some extent. Not that he's not enormously entertaining and talented at those, but the long form is not his strength.

There are two main threads to the story; two protagonists. The first, whom we met in the short story, Mindkiller, is Joe the burglar. Joe is pretty much the ghost in the machine. He has no past, no official existence, and no recollection of who he is or how he ended up in residence in a luxurious hidden bunker with state of the art computer systems, tailor made, it seems, for someone like him to fly under the radar, supporting himself by burgling the wealthy. Joe makes a decision to meddle in some one's life when he rescues Karen, a hooker, from slow suicide by "wireheading". Wireheads are folks who have had a device surgically implanted in their brains which directly stimulates the pleasure center. Such stimulus is highly addictive, and wireheads will go without eating, drinking, sleeping, or even moving as long as the current keeps flowing.

The other protagonist is Norman Kent, a mild-mannered, somewhat hapless professor of literature in Nova Scotia. His wife has left him for a young plumber, his career is stalled out, and we meet him when he is standing on a bridge, ready to kill himself with a plunge to the icy waters below. The incongruous desire to save his hat, when it is blown off his head, results in aborting his suicide, and he returns to his apartment to find his long-lost sister, Madeleine, awaiting him there after her long sojourn in Europe. There's some sorrow buried in Maddie's past, too, which she won't reveal, but she stays with Norman for a while, helping him get his head back together, until she is abducted without a trace while walking home from a party late at night. Norman's search for his sister is fruitless, and he eventually appears to give up hope of finding out what happens to her, and begins to get serious about his teaching career again.

The "link" between the two men appears to be two technologies that are also linked: the ability to directly stimulate the pleasure center of the brain, and the technology to allow memories to be deleted or edited from the brain, which turn out, through the course of both men's investigations, to be owned and controlled by a single entity, whom Robinson calls, later in the book, The Mindkiller. Both men indulge in quixotic quests to surprise and neutralize the villain, and the results provide some twisty plot fun in this novel.

In the end, however, it boils down to Robinson's favorite idea; that if only mankind could get into each other's head in some way - usually telepathically, but in this case by recording one person's memories and imprinting them upon others, war, poverty, hunger and all evil will disappear from the world. A good example would be to imprint the memories of a modern farmer, with everything he knows about proper planting, fertilization and irrigation techniques, into the mind of a peasant farmer in the third world, or if a KKK member could experience exactly what it's like to be a persecuted minority.

Great concept, and obviously the technology is too dangerous to turn over to any particular country or government, lest it be abused, hence the conspiracy to keep the knowledge tightly held until it is fully developed and can be revealed to the entire world, free to all. I still see some logistical problems, but perhaps it could do some good - minor shades of this in real world things like the OLPC project, and efforts to bring "micro" water treatment facilities to third world countries, and with vertical farming, etc.

One thing I found amusing was a paragraph in the last chapter:

"...the man who pulls the President's strings, dear. For decades now, it has been impossible for a man suited to that power to be elected. Stevenson was the last to try. The rest of them accepted the inevitable and worked through electable figureheads. There hasn't been a president since Johnson who wasn't a ventriloquist's dummy. Some of them never knew it. The present incumbent, as a matter of fact, has no idea that his is owned and operated by a mathematician from Butler, Missouri."

There's just so much that's fun in that bit. The rest of the book is pretty fun, too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Magic for a Price by Devon Monk

 So, the wells of magic in Portland are poisoned, the city is surrounded by hostile magic users, and the most powerful set of soul complements is in charge of the world magic authority, and wants to destroy or enslave Allie and her friends. Time to rock n roll, eh?

Allie, Zayvion, Terric and Shamus are barely recovered from the last battle, but it's time for them to step up and take on the coming wave of attackers. A conclave of all the concerned parties; magic users, the police and the Hounds, is called, and Zayvion nominates Allie to take charge. She decides that the first and most important thing to do is to clean the contamination from the magic wells, then to delay or stop the incursion of the Seattle magic users who are on their way, and finally to somehow or other defeat Leander and Isabelle.

Allie consults with her father's spirit, which is still possessing her at times, and he tells here that he believes that by filtering the magic through Stone, the gargoyle/magical construct, and then seeding the wells with the result, they can be cleansed. The wells have been sealed for a while now, and must be opened to cleanse them, as well as re-sealed so that the invading magic users can't tap them to attack with, so Allie decides that she and her three friends, with the addition of Dr. Collins, can get the job done, and they head off for the each of the wells, in succession.

I think this is the final book in this series, as things go more or less according to  Allie's plan, though not without pain and struggle along the way. Allie's dad's spirit is finally removed from her body, and she learns about most of the details of her missing past. Magic is clean once more, evil is destroyed, and most of the good guys survive the battles. And, by the way, the moral of this story, like so many others these days, is that you can't go it alone, you have to trust and love your friends.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

 Mark Owen gives us an interesting and compelling account of the mission which finally killed Osama bin Laden, from the point of view of one o,f the members of SEAL Team Six. The book jumps right into the action, as the author is inbound towards the compound in the helicopter that is forced into a controlled crash landing. Unfortunately, we leap away just before touchdown and Mark begins to tell us, as Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story".

Owen moves on to the story of how he attended DEVGRU special warfare training, after being on the Navy's SEAL teams for about six years. One of the amusing anecdotes relates to how when DEVGRU began, there were really only two teams available, but one of them was called "Six" just in case the Soviets heard of them, so they'd think we had more teams than we actually did. Richard Marcinko was one of the founders back then - I gotta pick up some of his novels one of these days.

Owen relates some great combat stories from his deployments to the Anbar province in Iraq and the Pakistani border area in Afghanistan. There's some great stuff about his weapons of choice for all you gun nuts out there - and I got to learn some new things about our military hardware, including some funky looking NVGs our special forces use. He also gets into the massive amounts of training and rehearsal that happen long before any missions begin, and some of the difficulties faced by our military families.

Eventually, at long last, he returns to wrap up the book with the story of the raid on bin Laden's compound, and essentially a bullet by bullet account of the incursion. Some of it is actually almost funny, as various REMFs attempt to put their stamp on the ROEs. One of the suggestions was that the SEALs should push bin Laden's car out of its garage and park it on the street with a flashing police light on top of it, so that nearby residents would believe that the police had already responded to any disturbance at the compound, and wouldn't call the police, themselves. In the end, our forces with guns and saying in Pashto, "move along, nothing to see here", got the job done just as well.

A quick read, full of excellent action.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Inside the Revolution by Joel C. Rosenberg

I've read a few of Rosenberg's thrillers in the past, but this is the first non-fiction book I've picked up by him. By the way, I did a wiki search and verified that Joel C. and Joel are different authors - the latter wrote some really fun novels based on Dungeons and Dragons back in the late 70s and 80s, called the Guardians of the Flame series. Different fellow, now unfortunately deceased.

Rosenberg seems to enjoy alliteration, as his subtitle reads "How the followers of Jihad, Jefferson and Jesus are battling..." and his major section divisions within the book are the Revolutionaries, the Reformers and the Revivalists. There's also the Resisters, the Reticent and the Rank-and-File.

 Some parts of the book were an interesting trip down memory lane for me, as I was in college, with an Iranian roommate (wonder what became of my friend Muhammed Husseini?), when the Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy and took our folks hostage for 400 days. It seems as if the media only broadcast a small portion of what was going on, and/or I might have merely been oblivious to the big picture back in my school daze.

The book has become a bit dated at this point, as it was written in 2009, before the fall of Ghaddafi in Libya and the civil war in Syria began, but his description of those regimes seems fairly accurate, depicting those leaders as being the type who play the Islamists against the West, depending on which they feel is a bigger threat to their regime at any given point. In a 2009 interview with Lt. Gen. William Boykin, Boykin states that he thinks the Iranian regime could have a nuclear bomb in three years - so far that hasn't materialized...that we know of.

Something interesting that Rosenberg says about Islam:

"As you study the Qur'an, you will find that Islam is a works-based religion. Therefore, Radicals - and all religious Muslims who take the Qur'an seriously - constantly have to be thinking about a "51 percetn solution." They must constantly strive to do more good works that bad, lest they be dammed for all eternity. The problem is that the Qur'an does not provide a way for Muslims to assess how they are doing throughout their lives. There are no quarterly report cards."

So, when the Radicals claim that the only "true assurance or secure promise of eternal salvation is to be a martyr - and ideally a suicide bomber" there must be a certain temptation for some Muslims to accept the sure thing.

And yes, the rumor is confirmed in this book. The U.S. did, indeed support the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion.

"In July (1979), President Carter authorized a half million dollars in covert financial aid to the Islamic rebels known as the mujahadeen..."

Of course, aid continued under the Reagan administration until the Soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, but it all started with Carter. LOL.

Just as a reminder of what life was like under the Taliban in Afghanistan, before the Coalition invaded to drive them out and destroy Al Qaeda,

"Children were beaten by their fathers  and psychologically abused. Their schools were shut down. Their toys were taken from them. Movies were forbidden. Television was forbidden. Radio was forbidden, except for a station that continuously taught from the Qur'an. Games were forbidden. Kite flying was forbidden. Concerts were forbidden. Playin music in public was forbidden. New Year's celebrations were forbidden. Christmas decorations were forbidden. Christianity was most certainly forbidden. Museums were closed. Zoos were closed. Dissenters were jailed. Others were murdered. Apostates were executed."

If you're interested in getting a good deep background on what has been happening for the last few decades in the Middle East, this is a great book to read. There are some especially interesting things going on with the underground spread of Christianity that I hadn't heard about at all before this. As a soothsayer, Rosenberg hasn't quite got it down, but he certainly has done his legwork on this one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Blameless by Gail Carriger

 Alexia is in a "delicate condition" in more ways than one. When her husband, Lord Maccon, the werewolf pack leader, finds out that she is pregnant, he blows a gasket. You see, supernaturals, being undead, are not able to sire children, so he believes she must have been unfaithful to him. Never mind that Alexia is simply not that sort of person, it's "impossible", so he throws her out of his house, and she flees back to London. When the society pages catch a whiff of the scandal, her own family gives her the cold shoulder, Queen Victoria (ever the moralist) dismisses her from her council, and the vampires of the city place a bounty on her head. The vampires have had experience in the long past with what is generally considered to be unprecedented, and the child of a preternatural, soulless one like Alexia, and a supernatural, is a dangerous being to them.

Lord Akeldama, being Alexia's friend, leaves her a cryptic warning before exiting town, in pursuit of one of his drones who has been kidnapped by another "rove" vampire. The only people behaving sensibly in the situation seem to be Floote, Alexia's butler (inherited from her father), Lord Maccon's beta Professor Lyall, and the cross-dressing inventor, Madame Lefoux. Floote and Lafoux accompany Alexia as she flees from the vampires of the city, to her father's homeland, Italy.

They have some interesting encounters along the way, with Lefoux's fellow members of the Order of the Octopus, and the Templars, who hope to study Alexia and use her as a weapon in their centuries-long war against the supernaturals. She learns a few new things about her heritage, the nature of the child she is bearing, and about herself, too.

Good entertainment, indeed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had a spot of bother obtaining this book. I first went to the publisher's site, and couldn't seem to find an electronic version, nor was I able to find it at Amazon. Bending with the wind, I headed to a nearby Hastings, and hunted for it on the new releases shelf without success, so I had to ask the manager to look it up - turned out they weren't ordering any copies in. What?? Back to the Baen web site, trying a different path, and found the ebook for sale - so I downloaded it before anything else could delay my gratification. I have been eagerly awaiting this book for soooo long, and Bujold did not disappoint me.

We (sorta) get away from the Vorkosigan saga here, in that the protagonist is actually a Vorpatril, Miles' cousin, Ivan Xav. We've seen this a couple of times before from Bujold, such as when Ellie Quinn or Cordelia told their tales, which wove into the overall history. I hope she's not done with Miles, though seeing him appear in this one as a peripheral character, leaning on his cane, dandling children on his knee, makes me wonder.

Ivan is on assignment with Barrayaran military's Operations department on Komarr, blithely going about his business, when he is visited abruptly by Byerly Vorrutyer, best known as a wastrel disowned heir of a noble house, but known by Ivan and his cousin to actually be an ImpSec agent. By enlists Ivan to keep an eye on (translation - attempt to seduce) a subject of one of his investigations, the lovely shop girl (looks can be deceiving) Tej. When Ivan's pickup attempt doesn't go as smoothly as he hopes - Tej's sister stuns him and ties him to a chair in their flat - he finds himself involved in something far more dangerous than a casual fling.

It seems that Tej and Rish are from Jackson's Whole, the daughters of a Baron and Baronne who have recently been removed from power and forced to flee for their lives. Somehow, the ladies have gotten separated from the rest of the family, and are being pursued by kidnappers hoping to return them to Jacksonian space for the bounty on their heads. Ivan helps them foil the plans of one set of kidnappers, then offers them sanctuary at his own apartment (a bit more upscale than the fugitives').

When the local cops and customs officials put in an appearance later, Ivan (whether out of genius or desperation - he's more like Miles than he likes to admit) offers Tej the protection of the Barrayaran Empire through becoming his wife - temporarily, of course. Heh.

The rest of the story goes some unexpected places, as well as our old familiar haunts. Though Bujold claims she writes all the stories in the Vorkosiverse to be stand-alone, the whole middle section of this book is just one long, huge inside joke for Miles' fans. Sure, there's just enough explanation of all the dramatis personae to keep the newbie from choking, but there are far more "in" references for the illuminati.

You can imagine the scene when Ivan's mother, Lady Alys, gets to meet his new bride, and the amusing competitive intrigue that develops between his step-father, Simon Ilyan, and his new father-in-law, Baron Cordonah. We get to drop in on Miles and Ekaterin, briefly, catch a bit of family gossip about clone-brother Mark, and devour a couple of meals prepared by the marvelous Ma Kosti, including some maple ambrosia for dessert which is definitely an insider's joy.

This one is worth whatever you have to endure to grab a copy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cast in Ruin by Michelle Sagara

Bodies are turning up in the fief of Tiamaris. Now, it's not unusual for bodies to be found in the fiefs, but when seven in a row are of the identical person, that's a cause for concern. Kaylin and Severn are called away from Kaylan's lessons in dragon etiquette to aid in the investigation.

We finally get a fairly long digression by Sanabalis about the history of the founding of the Empire, and the establishment of the rule of law there, as well as a great deal more about dragons, in general, than we've previously seen. I really need to go back and take a glance at some of the earlier books, but it does seem as if Sagara has focused on revealing the aspects of a particular race in each novel. I can recall, for certain, the one that dealt almost entirely with the Tha'alani, and the one that dealt with the Lions, and there was Cast in Courtlight, about the Barrani...maybe some follow up later.

I've read a lot of fantasy books, and it seems to me that the use of magic which Sagara describes here that Kaylin has is unique, in my experience. Most of what she does with it seems to take a long time to develop, has a great deal of visuals attached to it, and manifests through her emotions in a controlled, though sometimes unexpected, way. Most spellcasters in modern fantasy are more the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am types, with a lot of flash for a few words and gestures, you know?

There's certainly a wry twist here, worthy of someone like Tolkien, in that we see the avatar of the Tower of Tiamaris' fief, Tara, going about in grubby gardening clothes much of the time. A bit of Radagast the Brown, perhaps, concerned with the smallest of living things.

And I still have another installment of this series on the shelf, awaiting my attention.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The changing of the seasons has slowed down my reading, it seems. My scheduled posts are tapped out; I'll be posting as I finish and review things, in the near term.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Stardance by Spider Robinson

While re-reading Stardance, which I'd call one of the true classics of modern SF, I thought about a couple of other great books in that category: Ender's Game by Card and The Forever War by Haldeman. It came to me that all three of these books have something in common - they're about humanity's first encounter with aliens. In Stardance, we appear to achieve peaceful relations, but in the other two, it ends in war. Could it be because Robinson's aliens are great glowing firefly-like balls, while Card's and Haldeman's are just icky bugs?

Charlie Armstead is a former dancer, turned video man after a burglar's bullet messed up his hip. He is introduced to Shara Drummond, possibly the most talented dancer of her time, by her sister, Norrey, who hopes that Charlie can break the news to her gently that she can never make it as a professional dancer; not because she doesn't have talent, but because she is simply the wrong body type, statuesque and womanly rather than small and cadaverous. Together they embark upon a hopeless quest, to make marketable videos of her innovative dance ideas. Unfortunately, it is not to be, and they give it up as hopeless at last, much as Charlie gives up on his hopeless unrequited passion for Shara, herself.

Some time later, Shara contacts him again, and asks him to come to SpaceFac, an orbital station, to film her as she develops the first zero gee dances. She has become the kept woman of the owner of the facility, Bryce Carrington, the stereotypical heartless businessman every good story needs. When Shara's physiology becomes almost irrevocably adapted to space, Carrington exiles her back to Earth, as he doesn't want the bad publicity that would come from allowing her to die. On the way home, however, Charlie and Shara's ship is drawn into the first encounter with an alien race, luminous balls of plasma. Shara observes that they seem to be dancing, and insists that she alone can learn to communicate with them. She figuratively dances her heart out, and drives the aliens away from Earth, which they intend to invade, evidently, then jets into a decaying orbit and burns up in the atmosphere, like a shooting star.

End part one. I think this was the original novella that Robinson published.

The story, which to my knowledge is the first ever published that seriously considered that dance might be the way to "talk" to our first alien race encountered,  is helped immensely by the collaboration of Spider's wife, Jeanne, who was a professional dancer. Passages like,

"Dancers speak of their 'center,' the place their motion centers around often quite near the physical center of gravity. You strive to 'dance from your center,' and the 'contraction-and-release' idea which underlies so much of Modern dance depends upon the center for its focus of energy. Shara's center seemed to move about the room under its own power, trailing limbs that attached to it by choice rather than necessity."

"And the new dance said, 'This is what it is to be human: to see the essential existential futility of all action, all striving - and to act, to strive. This is what it is to be human: to reach forever beyond your grasp...It said all this with a soaring series of cyclical movements that held all the rolling majesty of grand symphony, as uniquely different from each other as snowflakes, and as similar. And the new dance laughed, as much at tomorrow as at yesterday, and most of all at today."

In the next part of the story, Charlie has inherited the rights to the videotapes of the Stardance, Shara's legacy, and has been written a blank check, basically, to form a zero gee dance company. He approaches Norrey and the two of them finally admit that they love each other, marry, and head for the space station to build a dream together.

One anachronism I noticed in the story, which was written in 1979, was that he mentions that a Beatles reunion took place. John Lennon was murdered after the book was published, so the reunion only takes place in Robinson's alternate future.

There's a metaphor about life from Zelazny's Isle of the Dead that I've used quite often, how life is like Tokyo Bay. Robinson comes up with an interesting metaphor in Stardance:

"Picture us all as being in free fall, all of us that are alive. LIterally falling freely, at one gee, down a tube so unimaginably long that its ultimate bottom cannot be seen. The vast tube is studded with occasional obstacles - and the law of averages says that at some finite future time you will smash into one: you will die. There are literally billions of us in this tube, all falling, all sure to hit some day; we caro off each other all the time, whirling more or less at random in and out of lives and groups of lives. MOst of us construct belief structures which deny either the falling or the obstacles, and place them underneath our feet like skateboards. A good rider can stay on for a lifetime.

Occasionally you reach out and take a stranger's hand, and fall together for a while. It's not so bad, then. Sometimes if you're really desperate with fear, you clutch someone like a drowning man clinging to an anchor, or you strive hopelessly to reach someone in a different trajectory, someone you can't possibly reach, just to be doing something to forget that your death is rushing up toward you."


When the aliens reappear out near Saturn, Charlie's dancers are recruited to go find out what they want this time. Robinson sort of cheats on the long journey to Saturn (which takes a year in story time) by describing one typical day, then skipping over all the other days, saying they were much the same.

A good description of the "there are two kinds of people" meme that Spider uses goes like this:

"That had been the real root of our struggle with the diplomats over the last year. They were committed to the belief that what would be understood best by the aliens was precise adherence to a series of computer-generated movements. We Stardancers unanimously believed that what the aliens had responded to in Shara had been not a series of movements but art."

Yeah, there are those people who get dance - as art, and those who merely see the movements.

Spider was one of the SF authors whom I encountered early in my reading who first introduced me to the concept of the singularity - the concept that at some point mankind would reach a point in their evolution where the entire paradigm would shift, and all of our earlier history would become irrelevant. He once again visits this theme in Stardance, not merely with a telepathic group hug, but with the idea that mankind will be fundamentally changed and inherit the universe. A classic definitely worth keeping on your shelf, folks.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson

Callahan's Secret appears to have been Robinson's attempt, like Doyle's in The Reichenbach Falls (which he mentions) to put the series to bed at last. I was saddened at the time, but when the inevitable financial pressures got to Spider's web... One a personal note, one of the stories has a bunch of Princes Bride references, and I believe that when I first read this book was when I was motivated to hunt high and low for a copy of the book. Of course, by now everyone in the galaxy has seen the movie.

There are only four stories in this collection, though they are lengthier than the stories in earlier collections. The first, The Blacksmith's Tale (a nod to Chaucer?) tells how Jake meets Callahan's daughter, Mary, and falls hopelessly in love with her (a theme that reappears every so often in Robinson's novels), but she gets introduced to Mickey Finn, and it's love at first sight for her, leaving Jake in the cold, so to speak. We finally get the rest of the story on Finn, which leads us to the climactic story at the end of this book. There's a throwaway line in this one about Mary's mother being Lady Sally, madame of the finest whorehouse in the area, which leads to later Robinson stories about Lady Sally's.

Pyotr's Story is actually almost an urban fantasy bit, long before the genre became so overwhelming. Where would a vampire who became an alcoholic long ago hang out? At Callahan's Saloon, of course, and his ability to filter out alcohol from the patrons' bloodstreams has helped alleviate many a hangover.

Involuntary Man's Laughter comes up with a novel solution (in an era when PCs, laptops and smart phones were either nonexistent or very very rare) to befriending a person who suffers from severely socially debilitating diseases, and including him in Callahan's magic.

The Mick of Time is the story of what happens when the alien race whom Finn once served finally shows up to find out what became of their missing spy/slave. What do you do when an irresistible force encounters and immovable object like Mike Callahan. The solution in part lies in all of the patrons of Callahan's achieving a telepathic gestalt (another them that turns up often in Robinson's works). Robinson introduces a suitcase nuke - it seems like this is long before I'd heard of them in other types of literature or media - to save the day, and incidentally destroy the bar.

Oh, no need to shed any tears, you know it's getting resurrected.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell always seems to bring a fresh perspective to society's behavior. In this book, he talks about the causes that lie behind fads, crazes or waves that behave almost like an epidemic in our society, whether it's the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes, teen suicides, or falling crime rates.

He identifies three agents of change that most of these things have in common: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few says that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others." We can see this in the 80/20 rule known to economists, but "when it comes to epidemics, though; this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of the people do the majority of the work."

"The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."

"The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem."

Gladwell talks about a personality type he calls a Connector. These people just seem to know everybody, across all different groups of professions, ethnicities, and geographic areas. One example of Connectors he mentions strikes a chord with me, as I just got done traveling to Philadelphia, and one of the tour guides said much the same thing. Paul Revere was a classic Connector. He knew hundreds of people all around the countryside, and he was well liked and respected by everyone. When he made his "midnight ride" to warn of the British coming, people listened and responded. William Dawes rode in another direction. Dawes was not a Connector, and he didn't know many people well enough to knock on their doors and disturb them. In the end, very few responded to his message.

I think we all know some Connectors. They're the folks who listen to your complaints and then say, "I know a guy..." (Jersey accent optional)

There are some people, whom Gladwell calls Mavens. Mavens are extraordinary experts in one or more areas, and just love to share their knowledge with others. They're the folks, for example, who read all of the computer magazines and keep up on what Apple and Microsoft are developing, then they try it out and write reviews, share their information online, or babble to their friends about the latest, greatest widget. If you're really lucky, you'll have a financial planner, CPA or stockbroker who's a Maven in his field.

And then there are the Salesmen (or women). "Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue, they spread it...Salesmen...with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."

One of the key illustrations Gladwell uses in talking about Stickiness is the development of the children's tv show, Sesame Street. Most of what "everyone knew" about how children learn by watching tv turned out to be wrong, and the producers of Sesame Street (and Blue's Clues, which came along later) spent a great deal of time studying children while they watched the show, and adapting the show to be better all the time. It's super successful today, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from its licensing agreements (so don't let anyone tell you defunding Big Bird is going to be a huge tragedy, ok?).

"Kids don't watch tv when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused."

I wonder if this phenomenon might be observed in adult populations at times, as well.

When the show first aired, the animation and muppet segments were kept completely separate from the live action sequences. Children rapidly lost interest in the live shots - adults talking probably sounded to them about like the teachers in the Charlie Brown special. When the muppets were brought into the street scenes, the kids suddenly started paying attention to the dialogue. Developmental psychologists told the producers that children were too easily confused by blending fantasy and reality, but in order to make their message more "sticky" Sesame Street broke the rules, and gained enormous popularity, teaching children around the world. I think it might have made Jim Henson a famous man, as well.

A real world example of the power of Context is drawn from a crime epidemic in New York City in the 1980s. Oddly enough, it wasn't tightening up sentencing guidelines and sending more murderers and rapists to prison that brought about a sudden reduction in those crimes. It was adopting a zero tolerance policy for a whole slew of lesser crimes that turned things around. When the city declared war on grafitti, subway fare-beating, public drunkeness, vandalism and other quality-of-life crimes, the whole environment was changed, and "the criminal - far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world - is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him." Criminals appear to know from the way that society reacts to the most minor of criminal acts whether their more heinous ones are going to be taken seriously.

Have you ever heard (or voiced) the complaint "You act differently when you're around your friends than when you're around your family." or "You're a whole different person at the office Christmas party."?

It seems that some studies have been done that show, according to Gladwell, that:

"Character...isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment."

A really odd and scary thing about context (and I've seen some of this before with teen suicide "waves") is that not only are more suicides attempted after highly publicized suicides, but in a study done by sociologist David Phillips in L.A., "on the day after a highly publicized suicide, the number of fatalities from traffic accidents was, on average, 5.9 percent higher than expected. Two days after a suicide story, traffic deaths rose 4.1 percent. Three days after, they rose 3.1 percent and four days after, they rose 8.1 percent." So, the contagion of suicides is even higher than most of us know.

Gladwell's book is chock-full of interesting things to ponder. You might even find some innovative ways to make your ideas contagious.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Changeless by Gail Carriger

Lord and Lady Maccon have taken to married life like ducks to water, were one of the ducks a werewolf and the other a soul sucker. Unfortunately, a crisis is always at hand, and Lord Maccon is called away to deal with one which is having the dangerous effect of neutralizing supernaturals, in the same fashion as Alexia, but over a much larger area of London. To the werewolves and vampires this is mostly inconvenient, but results in permanent exorcism of the supernaturals of the ghostly persuasion, and Lord Maccon suddenly loses several of his spies because of it.

When his former pack, who now serve as the cadre one of the Queen's regiments in the Middle East, return from duty and then decamp for Scotland, Maccon is drawn after them, leaving Alexia behind. This doesn't stop her for long. She discovers that the anti-magic effect seems to be attached somehow to the Scottish pack, and ends up on a dirigible headed north, with the mysterious Madame LeFoux, her twitterpated friend Ivy, her sister and her maid Angelique in tow.

Alexia, in her stubborn way, blusters about the castle, discovering the source of the phenomenon and surviving attacks by mysterious entities. I found the ending, however, extraordinarily frustrating, which may be Carriger's intent, as its effect is like a horrible cliff hanger, and now I must soon read Blameless to find out what comes next.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Scalzi seems to have gotten away from his "hard" science fiction days of the Old Man's War saga, and into some lighter fare these days. It seems like a riff on early SF TV, like Star Trek, poking fun at the genre. The characters are mostly forgettable, but the idea - that people in an alternate universe are either generated by or affected by a science fiction show of the early twenty-first century - contains some fun ideas and food for thought.

The crew aboard the Universal Union ship, Intrepid, seems to encounter more than their normal share of deadly encounters with alien life forms, rogue robots, plagues and explosions. The captain, first officer, and the bridge crew are mostly immune to the tragedies around them, but the newly arrived crew mostly just end up messily dead. When a group of the latest recruits finally figures out what's going on, they have to travel back in time (via the effects surrounding a black hole) and convince the writers of the television show to stop what they're doing.

For old Star Trek fans, some of the "rules" that govern events aboard Intrepid will seem familiar.

"...the Intrepid's inertial dampeners don't work as well in crisis situations... the ship could do hairpin turns and loop-de-loops any other time and you'd never notice. But whenever there's a dramatic event, there goes your footing."

"Decks six through twelve will almost always sustain damages during an attack. It's because these are the decks the show has sets for. They can cut away from the bridge for shots of explosions and crew being flung backward."

"Every battle is designed for maximum drama. This is what happens when the Narrative takes over. Things quit making sense. The laws of physics take a coffee break. People stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically."

"A fact you didn't know before just pops into your head. You make a decision or take an action you wouldn't otherwise make. It's like an irresistable impulse because it's an irresistable impulse - your will isn't your own, you're just a pawn for a writer to move around."

"...having one get through (torpedos) will be more dramatic."

"Something will explode on the bridge. That's where the camera spends nearly all its time. There has to be damage here, whether it makes sense or not."

"Every once in a while Abernathy or one of the other officers will say something dramatic, or rhetorical, or leading, and then he and everyone else will be quiet for a few seconds. That's a lead out to a commercial break."

Not terribly memorable, but amusing and mildly sarcastic. Scalzi can write, but I wish he'd go back to his strengths.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey

 I summarily panned the first book in this series - didn't realize Carey was going to write a sequel - I thought it was just something from her early work she'd capitalized on her newfound fame to publish. This one seemed a bit better, though it seems she has a problem deciding whether she's writing for a young adult or a true adult audience.

In Saints Astray we pick up the tale of Loup, a genetically modified organism (basically human, with enhancements to strength, speed, etc.) who used to live in an Outpost or military compound where she and other residents were permanently exiled. She won her freedom in a boxing match against another GMO who was a member of the military, but was thrown in jail after her victory, tortured for a while, but helped to escape by her erstwhile opponent. She and her lover, Pilar, escaped through a tunnel at the end of Santa Olivia, and are now stateless persons.

There's a hint of Pygmalion in this tale, when the head of Global Security, Magnus Lindberg, offers Loup a job working for his company. He feels that some celebrities and other wealthy folks will enjoy the novelty of having the one and only free GMO playing bodyguard for them, and expects to make a tidy profit selling her services. Loup insists that Pilar be hired, as well, for her bartending and administrative skills, and the two end up going to Scottland for six weeks to be trained by former special forces types in the nitty gritty of the protection business.

They are given several opportunities to earn their pay after they are trained, and swiftly turn out to be a fantastic team, or addition to normal human security teams.

The threat of being exposed as a GMO, who have been determined to have no human rights (in the USA, anyway, not sure of their exact status elsewhere in the world), and imprisoned again, or worse, is still hanging over Loup's head. In their final assignment, they develop strong friendships with the members of a pop band called Kate, and when Loup shares her story with them, the band decides that it's time they got involved with the GMO cause, politically a la Bono.

The tale moves pretty quickly, and has some good action scenes, some mildly risque sex scenes, and some extraordinarily maudlin sentimental whining by young and often star-crossed lovers Loup and Pilar. I still think Carey's best work was with the Terre d'Ange novels, and I'm not thrilled with anything else she's done.