Monday, April 30, 2012

Yendi by Steven Brust

Second in the Vlad Taltos series, Yendi is quite a good mystery, wrapped in a theme a bit like the TV show, How I Met Your Mother. This novel takes place a couple of years before Jhereg - bouncing around in time in this series is something you'll just have to get used to from Brust, unless you buy all of his books and read them in chronological order according to Vlad's life.

Vlad has recently taken over an area for the Jhereg, as a low-level boss, and things heat up rapidly when a rival boss, Laris, decides to encroach on his territory. Vlad forcefully puts a stop to the new, unauthorized enterprise in his area, then meets with Laris to be certain it won't happen again. The meet goes well, on the surface, but Vlad's intuition - and his familiar, Loiosh, know it won't be long before a war begins.

Laris begins systematically attacking Vlad's sources of income, in his illicit businesses, and killing off his enforcers whenever his assassins can catch them alone. Without the quiet help of Vlad's friends, Morrolan, Kiera the Thief, Aliera and Sethra Lavode, he'd be sunk, but a couple of quick loans allow him to stay afloat and pay his people until he is able to counterattack.

When both the Jhereg Council and the Dragaeran Empress take note of the carnage, the Phoenix Guards are called in to keep the peace, and both bosses have to lay low for a while. When the Guards are finally pulled away from the area after peace breaks out, Laris' nearly precognative next attack on Vlad leads him to believe that there may be more here than merely a plot to take over his territory.

We get to find out how Vlad met his wife, Cawti. She and her partner, Norathar, are known as the Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, and they have taken Laris' money to assassinate Vlad. They succeed, and only Aliera and Sethra's revivification skills keep the story from being extremely short. Who can resist falling in love with the woman who tries to kill them?

Eventually, of course, Vlad and his friends solve the mystery, and live happily ever after...almost.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Around the Web

Just thought I'd call your attention to some thoughts on good reads, from From the Caer, today.

The Court of a Thousand Suns by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Young Sten, having covered himself with (covert) glory in the affair of the Wolf Worlds, has been promoted to Captain and given an assignment as commander of the Eternal Emperor's bodyguard on Prime World. When a freedom fighter's meeting with the Emperor's ambassador is disrupted by a bomb, killing both of them and one innocent bystander, Sten is detached from the palace to act as a liason with the police. He and the lovely lieutenant Lisa Haines must unravel the plot, no matter how twisty the path.

The only one of Sten's old colleagues from Mantis section involved with the investigation, at first, is the inimitable Alex Kilgour, and we are once again treated to his shaggy dog stories. Sten and Alex track the small-time bomber who was hired for the job to a prison planet in the Tahn worlds, and impersonate prison guards in order to kidnap him and proceed with his interrogation.

After that link leads them to a renegade Mantis section doctor, they take a trip to a very dangerous mining world to find the next link in the chain, but the mad medic suicides before they can take him away, leaving them only with the mysterious clue, "Zaarah Walid". Eventually the trail leads deep into the heart of the palace itself, and reveals a dangerous secret from a decades old war.

Great fun, as always, in this series.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wireless by Charles Stross

Wireless is a nice little collection of short stories by Charles Stross, good for keeping you entertained with his usual style when your attention span is too short for a novel. The first story in this book, Missile Gap, gives us a future world somewhat reminiscent of Niven's Ringworld or Chalker's Well of Souls universe, where some vast and near omnipotent power has whisked the population of Earth away to a discworld the size of a billion Earths. The story of how mankind continues to behave in the same ways as it always has, with petty rivalries and wars, in the face of this new challenge, is rather depressing.

Rogue Farm is a semi-serious tale about a future when people have gone rural once again, taking advantage of bioengineering and memory downloads to become, in some cases, more than human.

A Colder War is a perturbing tribute to Lovecraftian horror. It explores the question of what would have happened if the Soviets and the U.S. had gotten their hands on the eldritch horrors the old master described, and used them to wage a cold war instead of nuclear weapons.

Maxos is a short-short, with a semi-surprise ending only a Nigerian banker could love.

Down on the Farm is a novella set in the same world as The Atrocity Archives, The Fuller Memorandum, and The Jennifer Morgue. Agent Bob Howard of the Laundry is sent off to The Farm, to investigate complaints stemming from alleged maltreatment of medically retired Laundry agents, and has his hands full countering an intrusion from the Other side.

Unwirer envisions a world where the internet was not meant to be free, after all, and the U.S. government pursues those renegades who dare to attempt to get internet access to the masses with the zeal we now reserve for drug smugglers and terrorists.

Snowball's Chance is another satiric look at the results of global climate change. Two Irishmen are in a bar (I know, right?) when a satanic representative walks in. The story of how they match wits with the devil is most amusing.

Trunk and Disorderly is Stross' attempt to capture the essence of humorous writing, a la P.G. Wodehouse. Decadent aristocrat Ralphie McDonalds gets into deep kimchee at a betrothal party for one of his friends, and only the very competent efforts of his butler, Ms. Feng, can save the day.

The final story, Palimpsest, relates the story of a man who joins the Stasis, a super-secret time traveling group which is attempting to save man from extinction over the millenia....or are they?

A mixed bag of nuts here, but worth reading, as Stross usually is.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Snowball by Alice Schroeder

Wow! This is a TOME! Reading The Snowball occupied many of my waking hours for several weeks. Ms. Schroeder has done a great job of thoroughly chronicling the life and times of Warren Buffett, one of the U.S.A.'s leading billionaires - one who has been much in the news of late, and who may be immortalized by the Buffett Rule being proposed by the Obama Administration.

Buffett's formative years were in the era of the Great Depression, and it may be the single most important factor in determining the man he became. Of course, in the nature vs. nurture debate, the other factors were his relentless pursuit of information, reading every bit of information on a subject that obsessed him, and his urge to collect. He has lived around Omaha throughout his life, and never felt any need to move to the centers of financial and political power - people he needed to see tended to come visit him, instead.

Buffett's main claim to fame, of course, is the holding company he founded and controls, Berkshire Hathaway, which has created phenomenal wealth for those who placed their trust in him decades ago. At one of the legendary shareholders meetings, Buffett shared the following bit of wisdom, which we can all take to heart.

"What you're doing when you invest is deferring consumption and laying money out now to get more money back at a later time. And there are really only two questions. One is how much you're going to get back, and the other is when. Now, Aesop was not much of a finance major, because he said something like, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.' But he doesn't say when."

Buffett began his habit of earning and investing money when he was quite young. In 1942, he convinced his sister to go in on an investment with him, and when the price dropped, then recovered mildly - at which point he sold the stock - and then it went on to much bigger gains, he learned some valuable lessons:

"One lesson was not to overly fixate on what he had paid for a stock. The second was not to rush unthinkingly to grab a small profit...And there was a third lesson, which was about investing other people's money. If he made a mistake, it might get somebody upset at him. So he didn't want to have responsibility for anyone else's money unless he was sure he could succeed."

Young Warren, unsurprisingly, was a touch socially inept, and Schroeder relates wryly,
"He bought a ukelele to compete with the uke-playing boyfriend of a girl he was pursuing, but wound up holding only the ukelele instead of the girl."

Buffett figure out one thing at an early age - the effect of compounding on money - and he always used it to his favor. In fact, he was extraordinarily frugal in his personal life for someone his age. When he went off to get his MBA at Columbia 1950,

"...he found the cheapest lodgings available: joining the YMCA for a dime a day and paying a dollar a day for a room at the Y's Sloane House on West 34th Street, down near Penn Station. He was far from broke, enriched by $500 from the Miller scholarship and $2,000 from Howard (his father), a graduation gift and part of a deal not to start smoking. He also had $9,803.70 saed, some of it placed in stocks...But since Warren looked at every dollar as ten dollars someday, he wasn't going to hand over a dollar more than he needed to spend."

Another time when Buffett thought about compounding differently than most everyone else was when he bought a house for his growing family.
"Warren paid $32,500 to Sam Reynolds, a local businessman and promptly named it 'Buffett's Folly.' In his mind $31,500 was a million dollars after compounding for a dozen years or so, because he could invest it at an impressive rate of return. He felt as though he were spending an outrageous million dollars on the house."

If more of us thought like this, it would be great for our pocketbooks, but perhaps not so great for the real estate business.

By the way, "profiling" has been going on for a long time, sometimes quite profitably.

"GEICO sought to make auto insurance cheaper by marketing through the mail without an agent...To make it work, GEICO needed a rule that would allow it to avid the folks who drive thirty miles over the speed limit after downing half a bottle of tequila at three am. Borrowing an idea from a company called USAA that sold only to military offices, GEICO's founders, Leo Goodwin and Cleves Rhea, had decided to sell its insurance only to government employees because, like military officers, they were responsible individuals who were accustomed to following the law."

I'm not sure that last sentence is true any more, but it worked for a while.

One great Buffett quote:

"Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre...It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price...when buying companies or common stocks, we look for a first-class business accompanied by first-class managements."

Buffett loved businesses like insurance companies with "float" - they take in large amounts of cash up front in premiums, and there may be a long delay before they have to pay out benefits. In the meantime, that money can be successfully placed in investments with high rates of return, and allowed to compound. When he and his business partners gained control of such a company, they used the cash to buy other companies, or stock in them. "It was a homeostatic business model - the idea of grafting float onto a holding company so that it could respond internally to the changing environment...(and)...the power of compounding, as float and investments doubled and redoubled over time" that made Berkshire Hathaway owners very wealthy.

Buffett seemed to know instinctively something our politicians never did. In the context of a local minority banker who wanted Buffett to subsidize home loans for poor minorities, "he knew the bank couldn't help anyone by relaxing its lending standards and making uncollectible loans, which would only teach the wrong financial lesson."
We could have avoided the whole housing crash if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the regulators had kept this in mind.

Schroeder does tend, every once in a while, to go off on tangents about people with whom Buffett was involved in business deals at various times, which can be distracting, and certainly adds to the time it takes to read this 800 page plus extravaganza. Kaye Graham, Walter Annenberg, and Bill Gates all get extensive coverage here.

On a slightly political note, Buffett hasn't always been concerned about the plight of the middle class working stiff. When he and Charlie Munger managed to turn around the fortunes of the Buffalo Evening News in 1982, "Buffett and Munger went to a meeting of employees at the Statler Hilton downtown. Somebody asked about profit sharing. 'There is nothing that anybody on the third floor' - where the newsroom sat - 'can do that affects profits,' Buffett said...The workers got a paycheck for the time and effort they put in - no more, no less."

Buffett has been talking about his secretary's wages far longer than I'd realized. He mentioned that she paid more of a percentage of her wages out in taxes than he back in 2001. You'd think maybe he could have done something about the way she is compensated by now, wouldn't you?

This was an interesting read, fascinating at times, but it was a long haul.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jhereg by Steven Brust

Jhereg is the first book in the fantasy series about Vlad Taltos, a marvelously snarky yet quite competent assassin. Vlad lives in the city of Adrilankha, capital of the Dragaeran Empire, an Easterner (human) among the many families of the Dragaerans (elves). Easterners have always been despised, even when they're not being systematically exterminated by the Dragaerans, but Vlad's father purchased a baronetcy for himself and his family, which has allowed him some status, at least in the clan of the Jhereg - an organized crime clan that lets mixed races and even the occasional human join.

Jhereg actually jumps in at the middle of Vlad's story, and subsequent volumes in the saga are occasionally flashbacks to earlier snippets, but what little we don't understand at first is either explained sufficiently by Brust or left as a niggling little question to pique our interest in Vlad's further adventures. At this point, Vlad has responsibility for a certain amount of territory with the Jhereg, and acts as a mid level boss, overseeing gambling, prostitution, and other criminal activities - and very seldom has to do assassinations any more.

However, one of the members of the Council of the Jhereg, Mellar, has absconded with $9 million in gold from the treasury, and it is imperative that he be killed and the gold recovered quietly. Vlad is approached by another council member, The Demon, to arrange for "a friend" to take care of the matter. It's really an offer he can't refuse, and the fee is quite generous, so he decides to take on the hit.

To complicate matters, Mellar has fled to the sanctuary of Castle Black, the floating domain of Lord Morrolan, of the Dragon clan, for whom Vlad moonlights as a security consultant (the beginning of their friendship is found in another Brust novel). Morrolan's honor requires that if a guest in his home is harmed, they must be avenged. The last time a Jhereg was assassinated in a Dragon's home, it led to a war between the clans that nearly destroyed both of them.

This is, of course, an undesirable outcome for Vlad and his friends, so he has to find a creative way to get Mellar to leave of his own will, so he can be killed. In the process, Vlad will learn a great deal about himself, a few things about his friends, and we'll get to learn right along with him about the fun fantasy world Brust has created.

Jhereg is a delightful yarn, with a mystery at its core, which will probably get you hooked on the rest of Vlad Taltos' story.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Wolf Worlds by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Our hero from Sten, the inimitable Sten, is the leader of a Mantis team (think future Delta Force) sent to do a mineral survey in the Eryx region of space. They have discovered a sample of a mineral that will serve as a replacement for Imperium-X, the shielding material used in star ships. A "gold rush" of epic proportions is about to ensue, once the word gets out. There's only one slight little problem; the route to the system passes through the Wolf Worlds, which are inhabited by two different groups of militant religious fanatics, known as the Jann (short for Janissaries).

The reward for a job well done is, as usual, another job, so Sten's band of troops is assigned to covertly make sure that peace rules in the Wolf Worlds. They hire on with the less aggressive side as mercenaries, and wreak havoc on their enemies quite effectively, with the help of additional mercenaries and a nearby alien race of traders known as the Bohr, who have inhabited an icy world for millenia.

Unfortunately, after accomplishing their mission, the cluster refuses to stay pacified, and the newly triumphant worshippers of Talemein decide to go on a galaxy-wide crusade, converting all to their religion. Sten and his people are betrayed by his employers, and abandoned on the last ship-building world of the Jann, where they have sabotaged the facilities. You don't want to mess with Sten, though, and when he finds a way to escape, things get even more bloody.

Great fun, wry humor and epic adventure abound in this second book in the series.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein

Time Enough for Love is one of Heinlein's later novels, and he uses it to some extent to wrap up some threads from his Future History. The prime character, Lazarus Long, we encountered previously in Methuselah's Children, when he rallied the troops and led the Howard Families into their exodus from Earth to avoid persecution. He is the oldest human being, born at a time when the Howard breeding experiment hadn't really produced any fruit, but long-lived nonetheless.

As the story begins, we find Lazarus in a hospital on Secondus, the seat of government for the Howard Families, undergoing rejuvenation therapy. After a long and adventurous handful of centuries of living, he has grown tired of the whole game, and decided to let himself die naturally of old age, but Ira Weatheral, Chairman Pro Tem of the Families, has had him tracked down and rescued from himself, in a belief that the universe needs the wisdom tucked away in Lazarus' brain. The families have grown stagnant, and Ira intends to con Long into leading another exodus, to break civilization out of its rut.

Lazarus works a Scheherazade-in-reverse deal with Ira, agreeing to proceed to full rejuvenation only if he demonstrates, by hanging around whenever Lazarus requires him, to listen to his tales of wisdom...and woe. So Ira, and/or his deputies and the workers in the clinic, and we gentle readers get to hear Heinlein once more use his favorite bit of gadgetry for preaching - the cranky old curmudgeon who's been everywhere, seen everything, and just doesn't give a damn.

There are several key stories in this book, bound together by the main narrative of Lazarus' healing. The first one is The Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail, which draws fairly heavily on Heinlein's experiences at the Naval Academy. David Lamb was born and raised on a farm, and decided very quickly that manual labor was not to his taste. Thinking, however, wasn't really like work at all, and he manages to get himself an appointment to a military academy, where he figures he can study all the time, and not do a lick of physical work.

The tricky way he games the system at the academy makes for fun reading. He manages to avoid being forced to play football, which seems too much like work, by rapidly becoming indispensible on the fencing team, and avoids much of the corporal punishment meted out to cadets by a nearly perfect memory and some subtle psychology. After graduation, he becomes a pilot, but not of fighter jets, which could be shot down over enemy territory or the deep blue sea, but of quiet and slow transport aircraft, which don't often get shot down, and even better, allow him to sleep in his own bed with his own wife at night. After his military career ends, he figures out a way to become a farmer again, without the hard work of growing any crops, by taking advantage of government subsidies. Lots to like here.

In The Tale of the Twins Who Weren't, Lazarus, as Captain Aaron Sheffield, gets far more than he bargained for when he buys a pair of slaves and tries to free them. Once again, we revisit the anti-slavery theme he explored in Citizen of the Galaxy. The problem, Sheffield finds, is that when you take responsibility for setting someone free, they may not have the skills to survive as free men, so you also bear the responsibility to teach them how to live as such.

He also explores some related ideas in The Tale of the Adopted Daughter. Sheffield has delivered a shipload of colonists to a backwater planet, and decides to hang around for a while, making sure the colonists have the best shot at surviving. He operates a General Store, where he keeps the value of the "currency" stable by holding prices steady, even if it means personally taking a loss. Some interesting thoughts about economics in this section.

When a fire kills a young couple and leaves their infant daughter behind, he works out an arrangement with a local schoolteacher to care for the girl, while he helps foot the bill. About the time the girl, Dora, becomes a woman, Sheffield has heard the wild goose calling, and is about to leave the planet. Dora convinces him to stay (in the most convincing way a woman can) and he ends up following the call to wander by heading out with her to the most remote, unsettled part of the planet, to homestead there. Some great stuff about survival and civilization in here, similar to Farnham's Freehold.

In the central tale these others punctuate, Lazarus and the people he comes to know and make part of his extended family spend many hours dissecting philosophical and sociological questions, which is entertaining in and of itself. The final tale weaves a bit of time travel into the equation, when Lazarus travels back to visit his own past, when he was a child growing up in Kansas City.

This book is a classic in Heinlein's writings, and in my opinion represents the peak of his writing skills - things began to go downhill far too soon after this.

Friday, April 13, 2012

WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer

Wonder continues Sawyer's saga of Caitlin Decter, who once was blind, but now she sees, and Webmind, the spontaneously generated consciousness (and conscience, perhaps) of the Internet. The U.S. government's first attempt to destroy Webmind failed in the last novel, but Colonel Peyton Hume is still on the case. He's been told to stand down by the President, but he's still pursuing what seems to be a personal vendetta against Webmind, and is running around the DC area hiring black ops hackers to trap and destroy the rogue packets that are responsible for Webmind's existence.

Sawyer shows us a few possibilities inherent in the idea of a consciousness living in the worldwide web. Webmind is able to rapidly gather and synthesise data from multiple sources around the world, and comes up with some very promising cures for cancer, which he then bestows on the human race. Also, based on the success with substituting tech for the optic nerve in Caitlin's case, he devises a gadget to replace spinal cord function in paraplegics - which he presciently uses to gain an ally behind China's Great Firewall - it comes in handy later on in the story.

Both Caitlin's cure and the spinal cord fix, however, appear to be not much more than Sawyer's use of the shaggy dog gimmick. Caitlin's salvation, as you recall, was based on an iPod, and they called it an EyePod. The spinal cord device - the BackBerry. GROAN!

This is a very accessible novel for young adults, with sixteen year old Caitlin as its main human protagonist. Sawyer does his public service announcement best when Caitlin is making the decision whether to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, the geeky but lovable Matt. He has Caitlin's mom show her how to put a condom on, over a banana, and then Caitlin and Matt are very careful about using a condom when they do have sex.

There's some interesting philosophizing when Webmind addresses the UN General Assembly:

"Humanity's origin was in a zero-sum world, one in which if you had something, someone else therefore did not have it: be it food, land, energy or any other desired thing; if you possessed it, another person didn't.
But my crucible was a universe of endless bounty: the realm of data. If I have a document, you and a million others can simultaneously have it, too."

Therefore, it is only natural that Webmind is benign towards humans. In all probability, however, should an intelligence develop spontaneously on the internet, I'd give it even odds, malicious or benevolent, maybe even just lawful neutral.

The book is definitely filled with one-world, United Nations propaganda. Take it for what it's worth, it certainly didn't move the plot along any faster.

Sawyer also has Caitlin's mom propose that "morality improves as time goes by." The idea seems to be that the more experience we have as human beings with non-zero-sum game type of situations, the more we learn as a species to cooperate, tolerate, communicate...

I'm not convinced that's actually the case. Certainly, in some aspects Western Civilization in particular has made some improvements, societally, but a quick look around at the brutality and misery still rampant in our world and you begin to doubt the strength of her hypothesis. Can't help it, I'm a Calvinist at heart.

One thing Caitlin's math teach says late in the book stuck in my craw, as well.

"When I was your age, the first cheap pocket calculators apeared, and my teachers were all arguing about whether we should be allowed to use them in class...They just didn't see that the world had been irretrievably altered - that there'd never again be a time when memorizing multiplication tables would be important. The game had changed."

I grew up as that revolution was occuring. I can still perform calculations in my head faster than my children can type it into their calculators. I also saw, when I was in engineering school, fellow students trusting the results they saw on their programmable calculators, even when the results made no sense, because they'd entered incorrect data. There will always be a use for basic mathematical skills. Those who lack the types of skills that a high school graduate used to acquire are forever doomed to fail at some of life's basic tests.

An amusing read, and a better ending to the tale than its middle was.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land is probably the most famous of all of Heinlein's works, known even to people who don't really read science fiction. It was picked up by the 70s rebellion culture of free love and anti-establishment sentiments and thus came into common usage. This book has been reviewed to death, so I'm just going to lay out some of my impressions, after many readings over the decades.

Of course, the entire idea of the story came from the germ of Heinlein wondering to himself, "What if there once was a Martian named Smith?". The novel marks a bit of a turning point in his career, where he really began to focus on writing to and for adults about very contentious issues, like religion, sex, crime and punishment, social responsibility, and what it really means to be human.

In synopsis, a mixed-gender expedition lands on Mars, and all hands are reported lost. When the next expedition arrives, they find one survivor, Michael Valentine Smith, who is the son of the captain and the ship's doctor's wife, and who has - in the time lapse between expeditions - been raised by Martians, who have an ancient culture far different from our own. He is returned to Earth, and spends hundreds of pages learning how to be human. Once he figures it out, he spends the last hundred pages of the book trying to teach humans to escape the shame and misery of the human condition, using ways of thinking he learned on Mars.

Heinlein really fully realizes in Stranger an gimmick he used quite heavily in later novels, introducing an "elder" figure - in this case Jubal Harshaw, retired lawyer and active author - who can deliver the lectures that Heinlein needs spoken, on whatever topic Heinlein feels we need to understand.

On free love...Heinlein had had an open marriage for years, at this point (never mind that his first wife went nuts) and uses Jubal's preaching and Mike's boyish innocence about Earth people's reproductive habits to expound on all of the reasons why everyone has an unlimited supply of love to go around, and shouldn't feel any sense of shame about their bodies or their desires or with how many or what types of partners they want to share the physical act. Ace reporter Ben Caxton bears some of the brunt of Jubal's criticism for allowing the green monster of jealousy and the ugly sin of hypocrisy to keep him from enjoying to the utmost the sexual freedom that Mike and his groupies (did I mention he starts a church?) freely practice.

I think we've managed to reap the results of the sexual revolution today, with its broken families, abandoned children, the genocide we call abortion on demand, and its degrading of social mores down to the most basic animal levels. It all looks great on paper, if you're a self-enlightened God on Earth, as Mike and his friends become.

Speaking of Mike's god-like powers, this is another theme that Heinlein was fascinated with for years, and occasionally tossed into the mix. ESP, telekinesis, precognition, and all of the mystical tricks of the mind are explained away in this novel when it turns out that we're all capable of miracles, if only we learn the proper way of using our entire brains - Mike learned it from the Martians.

There are some positive virtues that Jubal/Heinlein espouses, as well. Heinlein was always deeply patriotic, and in a future world that has now fallen under the rule of the United Nations, you still get the feeling that the U.S. of A is the best, most free place to live, and Harshaw demands that the President of the United States be given honor above all other nations by seating him at the head table with Mike when he is acting as the Martian ambassador. Jubal also delivers a great lecture about how to appreciate really good art, especially sculpture, with some of Rodin's pieces explained.

Heinlein's libertarian streak takes an interesting turn here. As the story begins to spool up, Jubal Harshaw is living in a seclusion - he's made enough money to build his "castle" and he doesn't have to put up with any nonsense from anyone. He obeys the laws he needs to obey (renders unto Caesar only what he must) and ignores the rest. He is a "man of good will", who cannot be bought, cannot be coerced, cannot be enslaved. Then the Man from Mars comes along and stirs up a storm in Jubal's household, wakening the old man from his slumbers, forcing him to take notice of a world that has for the most part, passed him by. I wonder if some other part of Heinlein's psyche was closely involved with that feeling; he lived in a small house in L.A. around this time, and was making a decent living from his writing, had no great cares nor obligations.

As the novel unfolds, Mike himself displays the ultimate in libertarian thought. He is a man who is totally in control of himself and his surroundings, he can't be physically attacked unless he allows it - his telepathy warns him of ill intentions, his telekinesis can block attacks, and if you really get on his nerves, he can disappear you into the fourth dimension. He can teleport away from any jail, survive naked in any environment, and make all the money in the stock market he needs - precognition, you know. His sense of morality and ethics comes from within, and it is rock-solid and perfectly good (maybe not from a judeo-christian perspective, but close enough). He needs no government, yet harms no one.

There's much more of interest I could talk about, but I'll leave something for you to discover on your own.

Personally, I think that Heinlein was very nearly at his peak at this point. The writing is interesting, engrossing, entertaining. There are only a few really good novels left in him at this point, before things started going downhill. It's grown a bit dated, now, but is still a fun read and a truly classic bit of SF.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Seraphs by Faith Hunter

After the major battle with the Darkness under the mountain in Bloodring, and getting permission to remain out of the enclaves by the seraphs, Thorn faces a crisis in obtaining the approval of the townsfolk when a council meeting is called. She shows up with her champions, and ends up with the support of at least part of the town, disproving some of the false allegations about her.

Unfortunately, shortly after that, the town is attacked by a whole flock of succubi, who entice the townsfolk into public indecency, and all of the succubi look just like Thorn! The Darkness used some of her blood, taken when she was captive, to breed them. This threatens to throw her precarious position in town into doubt.

This aventure of the neomage includes one rather torrid and ill-advised sexual encounter between Thorn and her ex-husband, Lucas. But Lucas hasn't changed his philandering ways at all, though he professes to love her, and after some serious soul searching (tough for her since she doesn't have one), she throws him out of her house and bed once more.

Tension builds as Thorn slowly realizes she's going to have to return to the underground lair of the Darkness and fight to free a seraph, a cherub and one of the Fallen that are being held captive there, being used to breed more spawn that will soon invade the town.

Our heroine's powers are growing, and her realization that she must rely on her friends and allies to help her is growing, though reluctantly.

Friday, April 6, 2012

God, No! by Penn Jillette

I was led to this book by a quote from it on one of the blogs I frequent, and thought it might be interesting. Ummm...interesting...may be the most appropriate word to describe it. WARNING! This book is filled with profanity, obscenity, debauchery, and all sorts of things that many of you may find offensive. If you are easily offended, do NOT read this book - and maybe you shouldn't even read this post.

Jillette is an atheist, militant and emphatic. He was actually raised in a very faithful family, but around the time he was a young adult, he began to question his faith, and when the pastor couldn't answer his questions about matters biblical, the pastor recommended that he not hang out with the church youth group any more.

His family eventually also broke with the church, over a dispute within the church about removing a female pastor who was suspected of being a lesbian. Hmmm...his church was so biblical that they didn't pay any attention to the scriptures that state that a woman should not be placed in a position of leading a congregation, but finally the sticking point was her sexual orientation? Something is wrong with this picture.

He says, "Reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism...I'm sure there are lots of religious people who've read the Bible from start to finish and kept their faith, but in my self-selected sample, all the people I know who have done that are atheists."

Indeed. It's been my experience, in my associations with many Christians over several decades, that reading the Bible consistently and persistently leads to a greater understanding of its message and a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God. I'm almost certain, from my own self-selected sample, that those non-believers who claim to have read the Bible cover to cover were exaggerating, at best.

Jillette is an entertainer, through and through, and often writes very witty passages and fun, self-mocking anecdotes. He talks about attending, at one point, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey clown college, where he didn't do as well as he hoped.

"I came into the college as a great juggler, and I left as a great juggler, but I never got to be even a passable clown. That's right, I failed as a f**king clown. (asterisks mine - jon)"

On the subject of tattoos, Jillette has a suspicion I've long entertained:

"I figure the Asian logogram that the trendy guy thinks means 'truth' probably means 'round-eyed sodomite,' but what do I know?"

On the other hand, he says, " says, 'f**k you' to god. Tattoos and big fake tits are a way to say to yourself and the world that the way you ended up, even the way you think you were created, is not as important as your free will."

While I grew up in an era when body art wasn't nearly as common as today, and had some social stigma attached, I think that tattoos are about the same as wearing stylish clothing, or adding bling to your ride, just a way of personal expression, that most often has nothing to do with religious feelings, negative or positive.

He mentions the author Mary Roach, whose book, Packing for Mars, about astronauts was fascinating, in the context of his going on a flight to experience free fall.

Penn writes an interesting passage about the political Left and Right.

"The liberals I know will say that medical marijuana is a foot in the door, the first step to legalizing marijuana for everyone. And when the right wing accuses them of wanting that same exact thing, they ridicule the right wingers and say 'What about the people suffering horribly from cancer who need to toke?' My liberal friends think the literal reading of the Bible is nonsense and we should celebrate the other religions and cultures, and when the right says 'They're trying to take the Christ out of Christmas,' liberals go bug-f**king-nutty. Just about everyone who writes and produces comedy on TV is a f**king lefty and is pushing the agenda of gay rights and liberal causes, and my liberal friends - even though they're against the f**king corporations running TV - are thrilled with those writers, but when the f**king psycho right wing says the TV writers are doing just what they're doing, my liberal friends scoff. I think that's why my lefty friends are so comfortable calling the Tea Party people racist, even though the Tea Party doesn't say they themselves are racist. My left friends just assume that everyone lies about their real agenda."

No comment necessary.

And, the quote that lured me to this book in the first place:

"It's amazing to me how many people think that voiting to have the government take away moeny by force through taxes to give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering poeple is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness."

I might not agree with Penn on much, but he's nailed this one - he's a small L libertarian.

Had a minor flashback when Penn mentions what a rip off Kreskin's magic kit was.

One amusing quote is from the 40s mentalist, Denninger.

"To those who believe, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, no explanation is possible."

Faith and Atheism, in a nutshell.

This book is vastly entertaining, and very funny, in places. Tread carefully, though, if you' can disgusted  or offended by matters of faith, sexuality, morality, or politics.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

It seems as if I've been reading Crichton's books as long as I've been around, sometimes. I was wondering to myself just how old he is, and whether he's still alive or not, as I began this book, and was saddened to see that he died in 2008, while in the middle of writing Micro, and the book was finished by Preston.

In Hawaii, a private investigator and the men who hired him are mysteriously murdered in a locked room, apparently stabbed to death, after he breaks into a facility owned by Nanigen, a research company investigating pharmaceutical prospects of biological compounds, using a new sort of nanotechnology. The police are stumped, and there's nothing tying the men's deaths back to Nanigen, so the investigation goes nowhere.

Meanwhile, a group of grad students doing research at Cambridge is approached by the brother, Eric, of one of the students, Peter Jansen, with a proposal to fly to Hawaii all expenses paid for a recruitment pitch by Nanigen's CEO, Vin Drake. The night before they depart, Peter receives a cryptic text message from his brother telling him not to come, and when he arrives in Hawaii he finds that his brother is missing, presumed dead, after a boating accident.

After the police show him a video taken by picnickers in the area of his brother's leap into the sea, Peter becomes suspicious of Nanigen's CFO, Alyson Bender and Drake, and resolves to confront them about their involvement in Eric's death. Things go horribly awry when he does, though, and he and his friends are all subjected to a process which shrinks them to about a half-inch in size, and then stranded in the Hawaiian rain forest, trying to make their way back to the Nanigen facility so that they can be un-shrunk.

Was it Asimov that wrote Fantastic Voyage? This is not quite as extreme - they're not inside the human body, but the concept is pretty much the same.

The students have to make their way across very hostile territory, where all of the insects and arachnids are at least their size, and where even the smaller creatures, such as nematodes, mites, and worms, can be very unsettling. The entire time they're trying to get back to Nanigen, Drake and his minions are trying to kill them, so they won't reveal the company's dark secrets.

Judging by the bibliography at the end of the book, it was extremely well researched, as far as its attention to details of biology and the behavior of all of the creatures the students encounter. The shrinking machine and some of the nanotech on display require us to willingly suspend our disbelief to get into the swing of the story, but some of the nanotech may not be too far away. I'm definitely going to have to put some of these books on my TBR list.

Nothing wrong with the addition of Preston as co-writer, he did a superb job of finishing in the usual Crichton style. I am going to miss him, though.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias

So, the funny thing about this book is that, despite the title, it exists in at least four or five editions, the first of which was written in 1978, and of which I own(ed) a copy. I remember reading it in the mid-80s, and thought it was great. The personal finance ideas that I was able to take away from it worked well - I think he was the first person who ever mentioned no-load mutual funds in anything I was reading. Of course, I could never find a financial planner that would sell me any, they always wanted to earn their commissions selling me front loaded, poorly performing funds.

When I saw this book was out again, in a 2010 edition, I thought it would be wonderful to read it, then re-read my old copy, and do a point by point comparison of the books, noting which strategies he had recommended earlier had worked and/or were still working. Alas! I was unable to find the old dusty tome in the stacks of boxes in my attic, but, Boy! if it ever turns up...

Tobias manages to cover just about every topic imaginable in the areas of personal finance and investment, and makes them all so clear and accessible. If you know nothing about money, this would be a good book to start with.

There's none of the get-rich-quick philosophy here - in fact, he makes fun of a lot of those types of "plans". He starts with the basics of budgeting and frugality - mentioning that, at least for most of us, it's easier to save a dollar than to earn an extra one, especially when taxes are taken into account. One of his favorite ways of beating inflation is to buy things that you are going to consume regularly by the case, at a cheaper price. I've tried to do that for years, only being limited by the size of my pantry.

I don't often find new, useful tax strategies at my age and given my fairly stable income and deductions, but he talked about one that got me to thinking a bit. If you're on the edge of being able to itemize your deductions vs. taking the standard deduction, he recommends that you try staggering your deductions on alternate tax years. For example, if you do a lot of charitable giving, but not quite enough to get you above the standard deduction, you can put all the money you intend to donate in one year into a savings account, then write a check to your favorite charity right after the 1st of the following year. During that year, you would contribute on a regular basis, and at the end of the year you would have twice as many charitable contributions to deduct as you had before in a single year, putting you over the threshold of the standard deduction. The charity ends up with the same amount in their coffers to work with, and you get a better tax deduction every other year.

This wouldn't work for me right now, but if I ever get the mortgage paid off, and lose that big interest deduction, it would definitely be worth considering.

In a bit of a triple whammy, he talks about using audible books as educational tools, shows how to get them to download for free, and how to listen to them as motivation while you're exercising. Mind, wallet, and body! Unfortunately for me, I hate listening to audible books. I'm so accustomed to hearing books in my head in my own voice, at my own pace (like Alvin and the Chipmunks fast), that it drives me crazy to listen to books on tape - they put me to sleep; a bad thing when you're driving across Nevada.

Tobias talks about going to the race track one time with his buddy, who was explaining to him how to handicap the races, place bets, and all of the minutiae. When he saw a horse that paid off at 30 to 1, he excitedly showed it to his friend, who gave him the standard speech about why those were sucker bets. He bet on the horse despite the odds, and it won the race! However, Tobias writes...

"The point of all this - and I think you know it instinctively but I'll spell it out anyway - is that if I had bet the full $100 on Willow, Willow would surely have lost. There is no way in the world that she would have won."

Ever looked back on a great investment you made and wish you'd bet the house on it? Remember Tobias and Willow.

One cardinal rule that he mentions about buying (anything really, but in stated in the section about the stock market) is one that all successful investors know by heart, but few are able to consistently follow, is "buy low and sell high". It's especially pertinent in times when prices are dropping like a rock, as in the most recent meltdown. People tend to bail out of the market at precisely the wrong time, when prices are low. It's nearly impossible to time the market, so as to always buy in the troughs and sell at the peaks, so the only thing that can save you is having a long term strategy and a plan in place for profit-taking.

Just a note, Tobias talks about Bill Gross, an expert bond trader, who has consistently predicted that the Dow is about to crash - for decades. Eventually, in every case, his prediction came true...but it always seems to come back. There are a number of contrarian investors, like Gross, and Peter Schiff, who make their reputations this way. It's not entirely a given, though, that following their advice will make you rich, it will merely make you right about once each decade.

As a systematic and periodic (think dollar cost averaging) investor, Tobias says:

"In truth, your fondest wish should be for a long and devastating bear market to begin right after you start your periodic investments. If you are a systematic investor, you should welcome declines with open arms and a checkbook. At the end of the day, when the market recovers, you'll be sitting pretty."

If you're properly diversified in the right type of equity funds, and your investment time horizon is long enough, you should never panic, just keep executing your plan over the long haul and ignore the noise of the media and all the pundits.

Tobias says, "Invest-don't speculate...Buy value and hold it. Don't switch in and out. Don't try to outsmart the market." Your profits can be eaten up rapidly by the double bite of sales charges and taxation.

I also found some justification for the choice I made about dividend reinvestment. I use a DRIP plan, where all of my dividends are reinvested immediately in the same stock. I pay no commissions on these purchases, and it continually compounds my returns. Tobias says, "for small investors it's (taking dividends in stock) actually quite a good deal - it makes more sense for substantial investors (not me) to take the cash and then decide on the optimum place to put it."

Written with a wry bit of humor and a comprehensive knowledge of finanical success, this one is a "must-read" for pretty much anyone. I highly recommend the book. I loved this edition just as much as the first.