Friday, March 30, 2012

Bloodring by Faith Hunter

I actually had a tough time figuring out which genre to place this one in, as it takes place in the future, which would make it Science Fiction, but it's about mythical/mystical creatures, so perhaps it's Fantasy. Since it didn't take place in a big city, I discarded Urban Fantasy. Whatever it is, it's a fresh take on things, and a good read, such as I've come to expect from Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock series.

The Apocalypse has already taken place, and the angels of the Most High came to Earth, bringing their plagues, and the wrath of the Four Horsemen of Revelation. So far, however, no Messiah has appeared to whisk away the faithful, and the Most High himself has not been heard from. The remaining population appears to be scattered, and are firmly under the wings and thumbs of the seraphic host. If anyone gets out of line, seraphs appear to wreak immediate vengeance. The seraphs also seem to be pretty non-denominational and non-judgemental, as far as people's religious practices are concerned, and in North America various sorts of fundamentalism have become deeply entwined with the secular governments, perhaps a bit like the most repressive times in early New England.

A result of one of the plagues was that a race of genetically different beings appeared - the neomages. They're not exactly human, and allegedly don't have souls, but they're able to work with the leftover energies of creation directly, and are allowed to contract with humans occasionally to move mountains or melt ice caps, and perhaps work some subtler magics, too. For some reason, they are brought into "mage-heat", a mating frenzy, whenever a seraph flies by, and if they fail to take the proper precautions they'll pretty well mate with any being in the neighborhood.

Neomages have been confined to special enclaves, where their special powers won't make them the target of jealous and superstitious humans, and where their mating can usually be controlled. If one of them mates with a seraph, another type of being is created - a kylen - which seems to be a type of half-human, half seraph, also able to use creation energies, I think, and very good in things martial. There's also some mules that are born to the wrong type of mating combos.

On the dark side (you thought it was all harps and singing all the time?), there are a group of evil beings - some of whom may be fallen seraphs, and some of whom may have just appeared at the same time, and others of whom have been bred by the evil masters. They tend to hide out underground during the daytime, only venturing forth in darkness to rape, murder, and terrify poor defenseless humans.

Ok, scene set.

Thorn St. Croix is a neomage. She escaped from (or perhaps was secretly sent away from for a purpose) one of the enclaves around the time she reached puberty, and raised by an "uncle" as a human. She must constantly maintain a glamour to conceal her true nature, as a) it is illegal for neomages to live among humans unless they have a (like a foreigner) visa issued by the seraphs, and b) humans fear and despise neomages, and will torture and kill them when captured. Despite all this, Thorn has successfully survived in a small town in the Rockies, as the proprietor of a jewelry manufacturing operation, in which she has several partners, and even was married to a human for a short time, until her husband cheated on her.

Things begin to come a little unraveled when her ex-husband is beaten and kidnapped, and she falls under suspicion. The investigator who arrives, Thaddeus, turns out to be a kylen (he doesn't know he's one, though - his mother cast a geas on a ring he wears constantly that keeps him from fully assuming his half breed form, and he wasn't told about his background). Kylen evidently cause neomages to go into mage-heat, too, so Thorn's interrogation is doubly uncomfortable for her.

There are more surprises in store for Thorn when it turns out that one of her partners, Audric, who is also the lover of another partner, Rupert (both more or less male, and Rupert is her ex-brother-in-law...getting confused yet?), is one of the mules, and a powerful practitioner of martial arts. Thorn always just thought he was a very successful scavenger, digging up "treasures" from the ruined cities of the Apocalypse.

In order to clear her name, and make her adopted daughter, Ciana, happy, Thorn agrees to try to find and rescue her ex, Lucas, from the dark powers that have kidnapped him and hold him prisoner under the earth.

It's a wonderful thing to finally have some adventures take place in a NEW type of post-apocalyptic venue. Lots of plots, counter plots, wicked agendas, and cussed folks make this book a delight.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Perfect Blood by Kim Harrison

This is the tenth book in The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, and it's pretty much the quality we've come to expect and love. Rachel really sells her soul cheaply in the first few pages. She's been unable to get her car registered and obtain a drivers license since she was outed as a demon, and demons have no legal standing in Cincinatti. When Inderlander Security (IS) offers to cut through the red tape for her in return for her investigating a grisly sacrificial murder, she agrees with alacrity. Wow! I mean the DMV can be frustrating, but really?

Rachel and her friends, including bodyguard assigned by her father, Wayde, troop off to the murder scene and manage (as always) to notice things the IS and FIB investigators didn't see. It turns out a group of humans called HAPA (who want to eradicate all the supernatural species) is trying to re-create demon blood in witches, which they can subsequently use to cast their own spells. Their efforts are leaving witch victims horribly disfigured, leading to death, and the need to find a new experimental subject while the blood they extract from the last remains fresh is turning them into serial killers with a five day deadline.

Again (rather oddly) Rachel is the only person around who knows how to make charms that will track down these lunatics, so she begins producing them for IS to use. Rachel's magic is on lockdown, basically - she's wearing a bracelet that keeps her from tapping the ley lines, and if she takes it off too abruptly, the overload of magical energies will kill her, and even if she goes through the properly patient procedure to remove it, it will result in Algliarept (Al) finding out she's still alive and coming to steal her away to the everafter once again.

So, somewhat predictably (it's amazing how much you can figure out about the likelihood of a bit of plot succeeding by looking at the page count) when Rachel accompanies the IS and FIB on their next raid to capture the HAPA crooks, things go horribly wrong, and without her most potent magic to defend herself, she ends up being taken captive, her own blood used to fuel the spells of the evil cohorts. She and a fellow prisoner, Winona, who amazingly survives her transformation into horned demonic form, finally manage to break out of their cell and are rescued by Trent, the elf, just in the nick of time, from Eloy, the ruthless HAPA leader.

The story continues with various plots and counterplots, with a big surprising ending, when a whole new agency arrives to save the day, obviously a new element to be explored more thoroughly in coming installments. Trent and Rachel's relationship grows and changes, becoming both more comfortable and more irritating to them both, I think. A good couple hours entertainment for your literary dollar.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Rand Paul

I read Ron Paul's book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, quite a while back (when I was on break from writing reviews) and enjoyed much of what he had to say. When I ran across a reference to his son, Rand's book, I decided I ought to check it out. Rand is now considered to be one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement in America, and he represents a growing sentiment in our country that things have gotten off-track and out of hand in our government.

"Voters in our survey said that they believe that the current leadership in both parties has failed to achieve policies that address their most pressing concerns - creating jobs and fixing the economy. Furthermore, respondents were clear that they want a pro-growth agenda, fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction, a free market, and a change from politics as usual."

Contrasting the main stream media's portrayal of the Tea Partiers:

"...when discussing the subject of welfare, liberals are always quick to defend welfare programs despite the many recipients who take advantage of the system. When discussing Islam, respectable journalists are always careful to note that terrorists and radicals do not define that religion. But the Tea Party is regularly held to an entirely different standard, where if a few people show up - out of a crowd of thousands - with signs comparing the president to a fascist or communist dictator it becomes enough to disparage and dismiss the entire movement."

On the subject of who's really governing in Washington:

(regarding the bank bailout bill) "My father, a Congressman, told me that he had banking lobbyists calling him and asking him about certain sections of the bill, and he said 'What bill?' He didn't have a copy yet. They replied, 'We do, would you like to see it?' You know government is out of control when lobbyists have the bills before members of Congress."

He has quite a bit to say about the most recent Republican administration's profligate spending. As one might expect from his father's rhetoric, and his history, Paul is adamant that we must decrease federal spending in all areas, including the heavily Republican-defended Defense budget. He quotes former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett:

"The point is that George W. Bush has never demonstrated any interest in shrinking the size of government. And on many occasions, he has increased government significantly...big government a contradiction in terms."

I think many of us in America today have the gut reaction that if we are required to make our household budgets balance to avoid ruin, we must demand that our government also balance its budget, and quit spending needlessly and frivolously, no matter how good its intentions, lest our country also fall into ruin.

On the ever more present security state:
"We should also ask, despite all their groping and intrusive tactics, has the TSA ever caught a single terrorist or intercepted a single bomber? With our vast security apparatus why were there no red flags over Fort Hood terrorist Nidal Malik Hasan or intelligence sharing concerning the Christmas Day underwear bomber? Why, a decade after 9/11, has government not come up with a better method of recognizing frequent fliers and cutting down on unnecessary inconvenience, something a privatized system would likely have already accomplished. Why has the federal government not better addressed our porous borders an illegal immigration problem with eh same level of focus it now devotes to policing American citizens who choose to travel? much are we spending to be treated in this manner, and when, exactly, will our lives return to normal"

Amen! I've long been saying that the Israelis already have a method that works incredibly well to keep terrorists off El Al airlines. Why in the world don't we just borrow their methods and technology? I go on the same rant about high speed rail and pebble-bed nuclear reactors, as well - our American arrogance evidently demands that if it wasn't made in America, it's no good. Don't get me started.

However, the point of the preceding quote is that we're spending millions, perhaps billions,  to allegedly defend our country from terrorists, and all we're really doing is building a work force and bureaucracy that grows ever more restrictive of our freedoms. Everyone seems to trust that the feds will act in our best interests when their own party is in power and enacts ever more stringent measures, but when they are out of power, suddenly we're concerned with civil liberties. Let's keep all of these people's hands and eyes out of our wallets and bedrooms.

There's been a bit of kerfluffle in the news recently about lottery millionaires keeping their food stamps. Paul mentions an even stupider bit of government oversight:

"Months after the 9/11 attacks, some of the dead nineteen hijackers were even reissued their student visas."

Quote of the book:

"No political party has a monopoly on hypocrisy; it seems to be a bipartisan trait."

He seems to have had a fairly ordinary upbringing as the son of a successful doctor, and our sole avowed libertarian congressman from Texas, becoming an optometrist, marrying and raising very presentable children. His book tends to wander on and off topic a bit, and he doesn't do that skillful of a job of weaving his personal narrative into his political philosophy, but overall it's pretty good.

Friday, March 23, 2012

King Rat by China Mieville

After reading Embassytown by Mieville, I decided to reach back to the early canon, so I checked this one out from the library. Mieville turns a genre staple on its head here. The theme of the child abandoned by its magical nobly born parents, usually elven, who goes on a quest to regain their rightful heritage is quite common. What's not so common is to find out, as the protagonist, Saul, does in this case, that your father is King of the Rats, lord of the sewers of London. How delightful.

Unfortunately, that's really the only delightful thing about the story, as it is rather dreary and depressing throughout.

Mieville does a good job, though, of reviving and revising the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Piper, Pete (Peter Piper picked a peck....?), encountered and defeated the King of the Rats and his minions a century or so ago, as well as terrorizing, Anansi, Lord of the Spiders, and LopLop, king of the birds. Now he's back in the streets of London, trying to humiliate them all once more. He's enlisted the unwitting aid of one of Saul's friends, Natasha, who is a composer of a new advanced Jungle music, and will use her to fulfill his evil plot.

One great descriptive passage:
"His life was in thrall to another hex, a power which had crept into his police cell and claimed him, a dirty, raw magic, a spell that stank of piss. This was urban voodoo, fueld by the sacrifices of road deaths, of cats and people dying on the tarmac, an I Ching of spilled and stolen groceries, a Cabbala of road signs."

Descriptive and creative as expected from Mieville, this is a pretty vicious tale.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On the Web

Interesting review of Unveiling the Retirement Myth by Jim C. Otar on My Dollar Plan's blog.

Mortality Bridge by Steven R. Boyett

I was so excited when I saw a new book out by Boyett. Years and years of silence, then two new novels within a year! I loved Ariel, and was happy to read the end of the saga in Elegy Beach, but this latest just wasn't my cup of tea, as they say.

The book blurb on the slipcover says "...remixes Orpheus, Dante, Faust, the Crossroads legend, and more..." It did, indeed. The story is about a rock guitarist named Niko, who makes a deal with the devil, selling his soul for stardom, and being cured of his substance addiction problems (not sure whether that was a side effect or actual clause in the contract). But the fine print allows the devil to take anyone in Niko's family's sould as well. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time, as he'd already lost his only brother in a car wreck, and his parents were long gone.

So, when the woman he loves, Jemma, dies of lingering cancer, her soul is whisked away and Niko attempts to bargain at first, but when that is unsuccessful, he journeys into the underworld to win her back from that land of pain and suffering.

There were some interesting touches, like crossing over into Hell in a black taxi cab, and witty dialog with demons, on occasion, but for the most part it's a horribly depressing and brutal tale of depravity and graphic torture of the souls in Hell. I got about halfway through before I stopped caring what happens to Niko. If you like dark, brooding, black humor, this might be a good read.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Aftershock: Protect yourself and profit in the next global meltdown by David Wiedemer Phd et al ( 2011 )

Now for an unprecedented event on the Steel Bookshelf; I have a guest blogger today, my old friend John Mannschreck, whose opinion I highly respect. Without further ado, here's his review:

The author, David Weidemer holds a PhD in economics from the U of Wisconsin. He published a book, "America's Bubble Economy" in 2006 that was prescient in his prediction of both the housing and stock market crash of 2007-9.
In this follow up book, " Aftershock ", he describes six economic "bubbles" inflated chiefly by poor govt policy. Four of these, real estate, private debt, stocks and consumer spending already burst in 07- 09. The two final (and most egregious), the dollar and U.S. debt bubbles, are still inflating.

He logically explains the causes and consequences of rupturing each bubble . Recommendations are provided to protect your money and profit from the forthcoming calamity. (He's obviously making royalties from the book sale and he does have a website where I m sure other products are peddled, but I don t sense any extraordinary commercial bias.) The book itself is 352 pages, but only about one third is true "core" information. There is a fair amount of repetition, some self congratulation ( for his previous correct predictions ) and some rehashing of various classic economic theories.

Each bubble ( in a nutshell ) : The real estate bubble collapsed because, from 2001-2006, housing prices went up 80 % , but income increased only 2% and there was very little population growth. There was no solid economic underpinning for the increase. It was purely due to poor credit policy and wild speculation.
Private debt increased because of easy credit with lax lending standards leading to a " no risk" mentality from lenders and borrowers alike. Credit card, home equity loans, commercial real estate all boomed during this period and then burst when credit contracted.

The stock market increased in value 1200 % from 1980 - 2000 , but the growth in corporate earnings and GDP only grew 300 % during this same time, so there was no strong economic underpinning for this increase. It crashed in 2000 , partially recovered and crashed again in 2008. Since reflating in Mar 2009, stocks are up primarily due to massive money printing, rather than significant improvements in employment and private spending.

Consumer spending was fueled by easy credit including home equity loans ( the ultimate ATM ), consumer loans and credit cards. It crashed when credit dried up.
The dollar bubble, yet to burst, is being fueled by increased demand for dollar denominated assets without any true gains in productivity. This is particularly true for foreign investment. However, there has been a massive increase in M3 money supply over the past ten years (300 % over the last three years alone ! ) It is now becoming inflationary and will become much worse. The author predicts inflation increases of 10 % or more in 1 - 5 years. When that happens, the dollar will crater and the massive U.S. assets owned by foreigners including stocks, real estate, treasuries etc will also plummet. The massive and growing U.S. trade deficit will accelerate the dollar decline.
Govt debt is described as the biggest, baddest bubble of all. It is now nearing $ 15 trillion and we can t possibly pay it off. Historically, we have only paid interest on this debt, never principle. If interest rates rise above 10 % , as predicted, we won t even be able to service the debt. It will even exceed Medicare outlays. A technical default on this astronomical debt would be disastrous for our economy. An ENORMOUS increase in economic demand or productivity might save us, but an increase of this magnitude has never occurred and is highly implausible. This debt implosion is only a matter of time and the Chinese and Japanese willingness to buy our assets. We are completely beholden to them.

What to watch: He suggests monitoring foreign purchases of US treasuries. China holds over $3 trillion in US debt, but is slowing purchases of new treasuries. Any significant decrease is major potential trouble. Inflation increases which will lead to interest rate increases. A continued rise in the trade deficit which will deflate the dollar. Rise in gold prices which are proportional to loss in dollar confidence. Black Swan events such as pandemics, wars or major terrorist events.

What to do: He is not a salesman, so he isn't peddling any specific product, but merely recommends asset categories to place your money. To no surprise, his favorite is gold, despite it's incredible run up in recent years. Gold, unlike stocks, bonds and real estate, will increase with inflation and interest rate increases. The global gold market is a tiny fraction of large markets, so even a small shift from stocks, bonds and real estate to gold should send it much higher. Gold is the only hard acceptable currency alternative globally accepted. He does say that Gold is also in a bubble, however it won t burst for 5-10 years, well after all other assets have cratered in price, so there will be plenty of time to reallocate. He recommends buying physical gold online as opposed to gold ETFs . ( less prone to manipulative mischief) .

Other actions include: buy silver ( Not as desirable as gold, according to him, but it has also not experienced golds' meteoric run up, so it's better valued.), investment grade diamonds and sapphires, dollar bear funds that short the US dollar ( Ex . UDN ), and ETF s that short US Treasuries anticipating interest rate increases ( TBT,TBTF,RRPIX, RYJUX etc) .

He also recommends buying put stock options to put "floors" under the price of any stock you own, selling stocks in capital goods and consumer discretionary sectors, selling real estate NOW ( markedly increased 30 year mortgage rates will crater the housing market...again) Wait for the phenomenal bargains in 2- 5 years to repurchase these asset classes.

I know this as alarming for you as it was for me. The author freely admits, that he doesn't know when this catastrophe will occur. His best guess is 1-5 years from now. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say 2013. The federal govt has tremendous motivation to "keep this party going" in an election year and will do nothing about responsible spending cuts or decreasing foreign borrowing. This inaction, of course, will inflate the govt debt and dollar bubbles even further and make the day of reckoning that much worse. I fear for our beloved country. We are in uncharted waters and normal business cycles of expansion and contraction can no longer guide us.

BTW, there are other highly intellectual economists and pundits that have also been very prescient in their predictions that COMPLETELY agree with this author. Most of them are billionaires , so they do have some credibility. These include Peter Schiff , Jimmy Rogers and Bill Gross.

Monday, March 19, 2012

By a Thread by Jennifer Estep

Here's another adventure with the infamous assassin, The Spider, aka Gin Blanco. Gin really needs a vacation. After killing Mab Monroe, word has gotten out about her secret identity, and she has had to work twice as hard at The Pork Pit, grilling barbecue and killing all the thugs who want to enhance their reputation by taking down The Spider. Fletcher finally convinces her to take some time off, so she and her baby sister, detective Bria Coolidge, head south to the coast for some fun in the sun; Owen and Fletcher will join them later.

Bria grew up and first became a detective in the small resort town of Blue Marsh, on the Georgia-South Carolina border, and her best friend, Callie Reyes, who owns a restaurant there, is engaged to be married. Gin and Bria have a quiet first day in town, shopping and playing tourist (which doesn't come naturally to Gin), but when they visit Callie's restaurant, things begin to...go south in a hurry?

An evil real estate developer, who is also a very old vampire, wants Callie's property to build an all-inclusive resort, and he won't take "No" for an answer. He sends a pair of bruisers to intimidate her, but the two clowns are no match for Gin. She leaves them unconscious but still alive, and offers to keep the vampire, Dekes, from bothering her sister's friend any more. Callie turns her down, as she thinks she can handle things herself, with the help of her fiancee, a local cop who turns out to be...wait for it..Donovan...Gin's ex-lover.

But when the two enforcers show up in the middle of the night with a couple of their buddies at the hotel to rape and murder Gin and Bria, The Spider decides to take care of things on her own, whether she's been invited or not. Owen and Fletcher show up the next day, and the fearsome foursome from Ashland get to work on a plan. It's a pitiful plan, getting themselves invited to a press conference Dekes is holding to announce his new project, and we've seen the same scenario before in the Elemental Assassin story. If you take a look at the page number when Gin goes after Dekes, you know it really can't be over this fast, so there must be some facts not in evidence.

Gin gets her butt kicked badly by Dekes, once again having to use her frost elemental magic to escape his clutches. Nearly dead, she stumbles back to the rental house she shares with Bria, Owen and Finnegan. Amazingly, the dynamic dwarf sisters have arrived in the nick o' time, so someone is there to heal Gin from her misadventure.

You might have gathered from the preceding bit of snark that I'm a little disillusioned by this story. There was nothing really new, exciting, bold, or innovative in this story; we've seen it all before from Gin Blanco and Company. The only thing that moves the plot arc forward is that she's finally able to reconcile her emotions about Donovan, she and Bria come to a better understanding,  and she faces the reality that she may be destined to become a crusader for the downtrodden, and not an amoral assassin, after all.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Blogger appears to be having some problems with the List widgets right now. My list of Authors is not displaying properly. Hoping they get things fixed soon, so I can update the list and get it to display again. Sorry for any inconvenience.

...update...Blogger is ponderously unhelpful, and no constructive advice has come from the user forum, so I'm changing the format of my Labels gadget, bear with me as it's under remodeling.

Echoes of Betrayal by Elizabeth Moon

The worst thing about this book is that, like many pleasures, it's over far too quickly. Moon is just so readable, and her characters so loveable, that you can get into it for hundreds of pages, and lose hours of time without noticing it.

Echoes takes up where Kings of the North left off, with King Kieri cleaning up the mess after the Pargunese invasion of Lyonya. Kieri and Arian announce their betrothal at the Midwinter festival, and waste no time conceiving an heir to the throne. The bones of his ancestors, though, whisper dire warnings of treachery and betrayal, and the mood of his grandmother, The Lady, seems quite mercurial, easily changed by circumstances.

Arvid Semminson, the Thieve's Guild enforcer whose life was changed when he help Paksennarion to escape the tortures of the priests of Lyart, begins the novel as a captive of the Master of the guild in Valdaire, but with the intervention of Gird and the help of his gnome companion, Dattur, manages to get free. He returns to the city masquerading as a minor merchant, seeking a slow revenge, but somehow gets involved with Kieri's old cohorts, helping to protect the secret ways of the gnomes, gets a small bit of fame for helping to defend the inn where he's lodged against an attack by the guild, and eventually succumbs to Gird's hold on his life. The final bit of dialogue between Arvid and the Marshal almost sounds like a christian apologetic, which I found intriguing.

Dorrin, Duke Verrakai, rides to the border to help defend against the Pargunese, leaving her squires to gather more troops behind her, and to join her later. Unfortunately, two of the three encounter renegade Verrakai along the way, and one, Darian, ends up physically crippled, while the other, Beclan Mahierran, ends up confined by his own family and King Mikeli, under suspicion of being possessed by their evil. Darian is partially healed by the Kuakgan, but his kin distrust the "green" magic that saved him, while Beclan discovers the taint of magery in his own blood, and ends up exiled by the king and his family for it.

Things are mostly quiet with Arcolin, who has taken over Kieri's mercenaries. The blinded Sargent Stammel makes a bargain with the dragon, and gets a mission in life in return, and a group of exiled gnomes are given a home in the hills near Valdaire.

Nothing new on the southern front, but rumors are brewing that an invasion from that angle is coming soon. Alured may have gained possession of one of the powerful relics of the Verrakai house, and will certainly use its powers in his grab for more power. It's good to know that Moon has left lots of room to write in this new series.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

This book is very "bouncy". Gonzales is all over the map, literally and figuratively, talking about the subject of what makes the difference between living and dying in a disastrous situation. It just seems as if he had too much information from his references to cram it all in, and ended up with a very choppy narrative.

That being said, there were a number of points I found quite interesting. Statistically speaking, only 10 to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. As remaining calm seems to be a common factor in the tales of those who survive disasters, in any group of four or five people, only one is going to make it out alive. From this book and some of my other readings, it's possible to increase the odds of remaining calm in various situations by repeated training in emergency scenarios, so it would probably behoove each of us to take some classes.

A cautionary phrase: "Since, young, brain-dead, male motorcycle riders supply many of the hearts transplanted in the United States..." Please, guys, wear your helmets!

Gonzales talks about how, in endeavors like mountain climbing, or hiking to a wilderness destination, our failure to adapt quickly when something disrupts our plan can be fatal.

"...we all make powerful models of the future. The world we imagine seems as real as the ones we've the thrall of that vision we go forth and take action. If things don't go according to the plan, revising such a  robust model may be difficult. In an environment that has high objective hazards, the longer it takes to dislodge the imagined world in favor of the real one, the greater the risk."

Many climbers, hikers, river rafters end up in deep trouble when Nature fails to cooperate with their plan. Unanticipated bad weather seems to be a big factor, both in failing to plan for the possibility and bringing along the right type of gear to survive rain or cold, or in not changing our minds about reaching the anticipated destination and returning safely when things get dicey.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the idea that accidents are actually a normal part of any given system, and that it's just a matter of time and probability as to when they happen, especially in complex systems. We have this need to engineer away, safety procedure away, or legislate away, any possible hazard, mistakenly believing that it's an attainable goal. In fact, sometimes the safety precautions make things worse, as they merely increase the complexity of the system.

"Shit happens, and if we just want to restrict ourselves to things where shit can't happen...we're not going to do anything very interesting."

There's a theory called "risk homeostasis" which says that people are willing to accept a given amount of risk, which is different for each person, but which each person tries to keep at a constant level.

"If you perceive conditions as less risky, you'll take more risk. If conditions seem more risky, you'll take less risk...When antilock brakes were introduced, authorities expected the accident rate to go down, but it went up. People perceived that driving was safer with antilock brakes, so they drove more aggressively." (emphasis mine)

There's quite a few interesting things in this book, but you'll have to sift through a bit of chaff at times. At the end of the book, he provides a checklist of things to do in a survival situation.
1. Perceive, believe
2. Stay calm
3. Think/analyze/plan
4. Take correct decisive action
5. Celebrate your successes
6. Count your blessings
7. Play
8. See the beauty
9. Believe that you will succeed
10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying; put away the pain)
11. Do whatever is necessary
12. Never give up

Sounds like good principles to live by all the time, to me.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Affair by Lee Child

This was such a prototypically "Jack Reacher" book in so many ways. First, it turns out to be the prequel of sorts to the first Reacher book published, The Killing Floor. It takes place in 1997, when Reacher is still an MP, before he leaves the Army.

He is sent to a small town in Mississippi, Carter Crossing, which is barely hanging on to existence due to the presence of a military base nearby which is used to train special forces troops. Someone, possibly from the base, has murdered a beautiful young woman in the town, and Reacher is sent go undercover (as much as a brute like him can) outside the fence to find out what the local sheriff knows.

He finds that the sheriff in town is not exactly what he expected - she's a former Marine Corps MP, named Deveraux. She's a little out of her depth in a murder investigation, but Reacher soon brings her up to speed, while trying to maintain the confidentiality he's been sworn to by his CO, Garber. The murder could turn out to be a political hot potato, as the commander on base is the son of Congressman Riley. Reacher soon learns that this is not the first murder with a similar MO, either, the killings started about nine months before his arrival in town.

The book contains the required faceoff between Reacher and some local thugs. As always, he puts them down quickly and efficiently, without doing too much permanent damage. There's a great conversation after the thugs gather four more of their friend to attack Jack in a dark alley. After Jack takes them all on and puts most of them in the hospital, he's talking to Chief Deveraux:

"'I gave them the chance to come back in numbers. And what did they do? They added two more guys. That's all. They showed up with a total of six. What is that about? It's deliberate disrespect.'
Deveraux said, 'I think most people would consider six against one to be fairly respectful.'
'But I warned them. I told them they'd need more. I was trying to be fair. But they wouldn't listen. It was like talking to the Pentagon.'"

I love Reacher.

One of the great things about this character is that he just does what he knows to be the right thing, without respect for what his orders are, whether it's strictly legal or not, or whether anyone agrees with him. He's like an unstoppable force of nature. Reacher readers are going to go absolutely nuts over this one.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Revenant by Phaedra Weldon

Whew! This one is just all over the place! Someone is killing revenants, aka The Firstborn, aka vampires. The Firstborn were created by the first Phantasm to be his loving children, but something went wrong, and they've been hiding out for centuries (millenia, perhaps) by occupying the bodies of humans, needing to drink human blood every so often to maintain their unnatural state. The person responsible has discovered a partial spell that is intended to destroy them completely, but the missing piece leaves their essence/soul trapped within the decaying bodies, and one of the eldest revenants recruits Zoe to dispatch the soul of one of her ghouls (sorta like a human servant in other vampire lore).

Seems like every other chapter, we learn that one or the other of the characters in the books is not exactly who they seem to be, with some being possessed by revenants or other abysmal entities, and others just turning out to have hidden all-to-human agendas at cross purposes with Zoe and her allies. In the middle of Zoe's problems, her old boyfriend, Daniel, escapes from the psychiatric hospital, and she has to keep an eye out for him - he may still want to murder her.

We do find out a lot about the history of the Firstborn and the Phantasms Mark I and II, and delve a little deeper into the workings of the Society. Ultimately, though, this book is confusing and unnecessarily complicated.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Empress of Eternity by L. E. Modesitt

Empress of Eternity is, perhaps, one of Modesitt's least inspired novels. I began to wonder about fifty pages in whether I was going to be able to finish it or not. The novel was a bit like Ringworld, by Niven, in that it involved scientists investigating a massive artifact created by an ancient civilization, a continent-spanning canal constructed of a material resistant to all forms of energy.

The action moves in short bursts, following the efforts of three teams, separated by thousands of years. Each small team belongs to a different type of society, all of them dealing with the challenge of climate change, from encroaching ice ages to expanding deserts. I think Modesitt had fun imagining different iterations of human political structure, but it left the reader a bit confused, all things considered. The finish was merely a deus ex machina ploy, and truly unsatisfying to me.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Free to Choose by Milton & Rose Friedman

Off and on, for most of my life, I've been involved in business of one sort or another, and always held on to some beliefs of "this is how things work, economically speaking". After reading Friedman's book, I think I must know how christians living behind the Iron Curtain must have felt when they first got their hands on a bible, after so many years. Friedman explains concisely and exactly so many of the things I've held to be true all these years.

Among other things, Friedman explains that information is conveyed in a free market economy by prices, and that anything which unnaturally interferes with those prices, such as government wage and price controls, disrupts the flow of information and warps the market, often in unforseen ways. I've often wondered why, when we have had a federal Department of Energy for most of my adult life, our energy policy has been so ineffective in reducing our dependency on foreign (read Middle Eastern) oil, and in keeping fuel prices affordable. When one looks at the types of actions taken by that agency, in light of their effects on the free market, it begins to make more sense.

Most of us have heard on the news about something called a "favorable balance of trade." It usually means that the United States is exporting more goods than it is importing, and that's supposed to be good for the country. Friedman explains, however, that such a perception is nearly backwards from reality.

"Our gain from foreign trade is what we import...The citizens of a nation benefit from getting as large a volume of imports as posible in return for its exports, or equivalently, from exporting as little as possible to pay for its imports."

"It is simply not true that high-wage American workers are, as a group, threatened by 'unfair' competition from low-wage foreign workers...That is simply market competition in practice, the major source of the high standard of life of the American worker."

Interestingly, given the reputed high productivity of Japanese firms these past few decades, Friedman notes:

"An early (in 1867) foreign resident in Japan wrote: 'Wealthy we do not think it will ever become. The advantages conferred by Nature, with exception of the climate, and the love of indolence and pleasure of the people themselves forbid it. The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little are not likely to achieve much.'"

What other cultures are we underestimating in the same way today?

I particularly liked Gammon's Law - The more bureaucratic an organization, the greater the extent to which useless work tends to displace useful work.

He also (and this book was written 30 years ago) talks about the essentially fruitless policies of spending pursued by our government.

"...the Department of Health, Education and Welfare has been spending more and more of our money each year on health. The main effect has simply been to raise the costs of medical and health services without any corresponding improvement in the quality of medical care. Spending on education has been skyrocketing, yet by common consent the quality of education has been declining...Billions of dollars are being spent each year on welfare, yet at a time when the average standard of life of the American citizen is higher than it has ever been in history, the welfare rolls are growing."

Nothing has changed, aside from the fact that the dollar figures spent have ballooned out of control.

Our country was founded on the principle, among others, that all men are created with equal rights, and all should have an equal opportunity to pursue their dreams - equality of opportunity. More and more today, though, we see our government trying to ensure equality of "outcome" rather than simply assuring equal opportunity.

"Equality before God - personal equality - is important precisely because people are not identical. Their different values, their different tastes, their different capacities will lead them to want to lead very different lives. Personal equality requires respect for their right to do so, not the imposition on them of someone else's values or judgement."

Alexis de Tocqueville said that "There is... a manly and lawful passion for equality which incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there also exists in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom."

Tax the Rich, anyone? It's so horribly unfair that anyone should have "more than enough."

Friedman talks about how Great Britain, since just after WWII, set their domestic policy to try to achieve greater equality of outcome. Many laws have been passed to take from the rich and give to the poor, like Robin Hood of yore. Top tax rates reached 98% on property income and 83% on earned income, with high inheritance taxes as well (does this sound familiar?). State-provided benefits were greatly expanded.

"There has been a vast redistribution of wealth, but the end result is not an equitable distribution. Instead, new classes of privileged have been created to replace or supplement the old: the bureaucrats, secure in their jobs, protected against inflation both when they work and when they retire; the trade unions that profess to represent the most downtrodden workers but in fact consist of the highest paid laborers in the land - the aristocrats of the labor movement; and the new millionaires - people who have been cleverest at finding ways around the laws...who have found ways to avoid paying taxes on their income and to get their wealth overseas beyond the grasp of the tax collectors."

Do we think that following the same policies here will result in a different outcome? What's that definition of insanity again?

Friedman talks a bit about the history of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was founded on the rhetoric of the reformers who wanted to prohibit unfair practices by the railroads in the 1870s. One shouldn't be surprised to find out that the commission was originally staffed by "experts" on the railroads, drawn from the ranks of railroad executives, and all it really managed to do was to stifle competition and guarantee uniform profits for the railroads, themselves. Later on, the ICC gained jurisdiction over the trucking industry that replaced the railroads, and has managed ever since to keep competition to a minimum there, as well, all ostensibly for the benefit of consumers, who can't be trusted to look out for themselves, of course.

He even (thirty years ago) talks about "alternate" fuels being subsidized by the Department of Energy.

"The threat of price control and regulation is the only important obstacle to the develop ent of alternative fuels by private enterprise...we the people shall pay for the energy we consume. And we shall pay far less in total, and have far more energy if we pay directly and are left free to choose for ourselves how to use energy than if we pay indirectly through taxes and inflation and are told by government bureaucrats how to use energy."

Another good thing to remember:

"...mistakes and accidents occur-government regulation doesn't prevent them. The difference is that a private firm that makes a serious blunder may go out of business. A government agency is likely to get a bigger budget."

Friedman talks about the true functions of unions and professional licensing organizations - to protect the established members of the profession and to limit the ranks of highly skilled workers, keeping wages artificially high - rather than benefitting the lowly laborer.  The Davis-Bacon Act, a federal law that, in effect, requires all businesses contracting for the government to hire only union laborers, practically ensures that all government projects will be completed overbudget and late - using YOUR tax dollars!

This book is jam-packed with great information. I think I'm going to have to pick up some more books by Friedman, to really soak this stuff up.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

This book came highly recommended by Orson Scott Card, a wonderful author whose opinion I respect greatly. Taylor gets away completely from the typical urban fantasy, filled with vampires, werewolves, elves and magicians, and creates something rooted in Judeo-Christian and Islamic mythos, instead.

Karou is an orphan, raised by a small group of creatures called Chimaera, led by a mysterious father figure (to her) named Brimstone. Brimstone sends Karou on errands to collect teeth, human or animal, which he uses for some mysterious purpose which we don't get to understand until late in the story. The Chimaera have for centuries been at war with the Seraphim, angelic beings who, as we learn gradually, are not nearly so angelic as biblical tradition holds.

Karou makes her way to locations all over the world to meet with Brimstone's agents via a series of portals, which instantly transport her wherever she desires. When a group of Seraphim suddenly appear on the scene and destroy all the portals Karou is cut off from her adopted family, and tries to find another way to be reunited with them, and to understand the mystery of her past.

In an encounter with one of the Seraphim, Akiva, he is smitten by her beauty, and makes the slow decision to betray his own people for his infatuation with her. Karou is also attracted by his obvious beauty, and appears to be falling in love with the angel, as well.

The first third of this novel is delightful, as Taylor explores all of Karou's odd quirks that make her an endearing and unique character, and we come to know, as much as we can, the small group of Chimaera she calls her family. The last third of the book is also very inventive, and uses flashbacks from Akiva's past to explore the world of the Seraphim and their centuries long war with the Chimaera. Taylor unveils an entirely new mythology, complete with some amusing new tales of the origin of the races, and some interesting perspective on the true cost of wishes and magic. Unfortunately, and probably predictably for a young adult novel, the middle third of the book is devoted to the juvenile and angelic soul torments of possibly unrequited love, while very little seems to move the plot forward.

There appears to be a sequel in the works for this one, and it may be interesting to find out whether our young lovers are able to bridge the gap and end the war once and for all.