Friday, September 28, 2012

The Better Part of Valor by Tanya Huff

 Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is wondering whether implying that General Morris' parents were not married was such a good idea when she is picked especially by him to head up another difficult mission. An alien ship has been discovered by an independent salvage operator, Craig Ryder, and the Space Navy and a detachment of Marines are being sent to escort the civilian scientists of various races investigating the craft. Sound familiar? Kerr has her hands full keeping her Marines in line, and dealing with the civilians' foibles, as well. In addition, she's been assigned a grandstanding political commander for the mission, Captain Taryk, whom she is expected to bring back alive and covered in glory.

The alien ship is full of surprises, and things end up in a situation reminiscent of Captain Kirk's battle with the Gorn in a long ago Star Trek episode. One of The Others' ships arrives shortly after the Navy's, and both "landing parties" are trapped on the vessel, battling each other on their way to the next usable airlock. Whichever force is victorious will be allowed to leave, apparently.

While Kerr doesn't manage to get all of her charges home safely, she does her usual bang-up job, accompanied by explosions and destruction. A fun read, with plenty of witty dialog, but nothing deep or meaningful in this story.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An American Son by Marco Rubio

I'm usually interested in reading what political figures on the national scene have to say about themselves, so I reserved a copy of Rubio's bio, and was looking forward to it coming in at the library. I have to say, I was a little bit disappointed, even before I finished it. I think it was mostly the quality of the writing, which seemed targeted at almost a junior high audience. Rubio never really shows any substance to his deeply held conservative convictions, though he does discuss his Catholic faith a bit. The whole flavor of the book seems like "What I did on my summer vacation", in my opinion.

He covers his family's history, as Cuban exiles, in great detail, and tells the tale of growing up in Miami, then Las Vegas, and returning to Miami to finish high school. College and law school get a bit less airtime, before his foray into politics, beginning with local offices, on to the state senate in Florida, and eventually being elected to the U.S. Senate, consumes the second half of the book.

Some points of interest for me were his descriptions of how the political process shapes what the state and local governments are really able to accomplish. In one case, Rubio and his associates were trying to push through some legislation that would have helped parents of disabled children to get more help with their treatment. The Florida House put together a bill that would have done what they asked for, sent it up to the Senate. The Senate, however, delayed nearly to the end of the legislative session, then killed the bill, sending back one of their own to the House that only covered autistic children's needs. With time running out, Rubio and his allies were forced to accept the Senate bill just to get anything at all done, and disappointed his constituents with children with disabilities other than autism.

Another situation was when Rubio was pushing forward serious tax reform in Florida. Most voters felt that property taxes were too high, and Rubio's proposal would have eliminated them (or maybe a large proportion of them). To make up the state revenues lost, he proposed a VAT tax (or something similar). The legislation later failed, but his political opponents in later races claimed he supported a huge tax increase - because of his proposing the consumption tax - to discredit him. His original idea was a tax reduction, coupled with offsetting the revenue loss in other ways, but the only part that got any notice was the increase.

Anyway, it's good read in some ways for political junkies, but I found it very difficult to plod through..

Monday, September 24, 2012

Valor's Choice by Tanya Huff

 I've always enjoyed Tanya Huff's work, though for about a decade I feel behind in reading her latest novels. Had to do some catchup on the "Blood" series a while back, and now when I noticed that she had three recently published novels in the Valor/Confederation series, I had to go back (like I did with Weber's War God series recently) and grab the first two books off the shelves upstairs and re-read them, so I could feel like I'm aware of the situation and characters once again.

Sometime in the dim past, a group of old starfaring races have joined together to form a Confederation, peacefully assembled to trade and explore. The fly in the ointment, however, is The Others, an undescribed race (or perhaps a confederation of their own) or warlike aliens who have attacked the Confederation's planets, people and interests. To save their bacon, the elder races have recruited some more aggressive beings to fight the war for them, as they either disdain to do so, or are by nature unable to. Haven't we heard this tune before? or after?

The three races that ARE aggressive enough to battle The Others are the humans, first to join the Confederation, the Krai, and the Taykan. At this juncture, however, a fourth race of warriors has been discovered, the lizardlike Silsviss, and Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is assigned as the senior noncom in charge of a Space Marine detail tasked with guarding the diplomatic mission to their home planet, where negotiations will take place to attempt to convince the lizard men to join the Confederation, rather than throwing their forces onto the side of The Others.

I'm certain my son, a U.S. Marine sergeant, would have some pointed comments about how the Marine units are organized, how they fight and how they interact with one another, but this is fiction, futuristic, and the Corps has integrated alien races into its forces, not merely different flavors of humans, so I just figured to relax and enjoy it. That said, I think it at least captures some of the spirit of our current forces with its "no being left behind" philosophy and refusal to give up in the face of massively superior forces.

Early in the mission, a barroom brawl that erupts between some of the Marines, befriended by one group of Silsviss, and another rival group of Silsviss, seems to bode well for the future integration of the lizard fighters into the Confederation military. After that, things get complicated.

While on a flight to the capital city, the airship carrying the Marines and their diplomatic charges is shot down by unknown enemies, and they are forced to evacuate, move to a secure location, and improvise nearly everything. They come under attack by thousands of near-savage adolescent Silsviss, who are sent away to wilderness preserves to fight for dominance when their hormones take them out of control. Huff weaves a good tale of survival, heroism and battle - and blows up lots of stuff, too.

Fun tale, good military SF.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Broke by Glenn Beck

People either seem to love Glenn Beck, his tv and radio shows, and his writings, or they simply hate him. I find his sense of humor wonderfully sarcastic, and usually enjoy what he has to say in his books, which are perhaps not as dramatic as his shows. I'm definitely a numbers kind of guy, and Beck lays out plenty of numbers in Broke, without it being mind-numbingly overpowering.

For the most part, he remains fairly non-partisan in this book, laying out the historical evidence why NO administration nor congress since shortly after the turn of the eighteenth century has been fiscally responsible. In the early days of the United States, debts incurred by the federal government, primarily in fighting wars, were discharged as quickly as possible, and to be perfectly fair, taxes were often raised to accomplish that goal, but as soon as the debt was paid, the taxes were discontinued, unlike what happens all too often at all levels of government today. Anyone remember when they told us the raise from 3% to 5% sales tax in Idaho was just temporary?

One passage I found interesting:
"...(President) Johnson's God complex led him to choose the bombing targets himself during weekly luncheons - Tuesdays worked best for his schedule - with no military representatives present. Johnson and two civilian aides literally sat and handpicked the targets (for bombing during the Vietnam War)."

Anyone see any parallels today?

Beck spends about two thirds of the book making the case that our government is out of control (especially with regards to spending), and really doesn't distinguish, as more partisan folks might, betweeen entitlement spending and defense spending as to their relative merits or blame for the problem. It seems common sense to me, though I'm not a Nobel prize winning economist by any stretch of the imagination, that a government, like a household or a business, cannot continue to spend more than it takes in, year after year, decade after decade, without paying the piper at some point. The results of our debt problem could be catastrophic for the U.S., and for the world as well.

His prescription for the solution, however logical and necessary it appears to be, will just flat never happen, I'm afraid. The political will doesn't exist and never has to do what must be done to solve the debt crisis, and by the time we are feeling the pain deeply enough in this country to actually vote out the spineless and corrupt politicians we have today and vote in folks who will do what needs to be done, without any consideration for whether they will be re-elected the next term or not, I fear it may be too late.

The biggest part of the solution, Beck says, is threefold:
1) Pass a balanced budget amendment.
2) Pass a term limits amendment.
3) Pass a line item veto amendment.

Do you seriously think any politician in power today has any real interest in doing these things, much less a majority of those politicians? We're hosed.

Read the book if you want to know more, especially about the history of our massive deficit spending.

One thing that struck me, as I was in the early chapters of this book, was triggered by something Beck wrote:

"Americans don't want to be deceived, but we do want hope. We want to know that if we do our part, work hard, play by the rules, live within our means, then things will turn out all right in the end."

I think this is very true. However, there appear to be two dynamically opposed viewpoints in this country today.

The first viewpoint is that if we do all of the things listed above, somehow or other, the government at either a federal, state, or local level, will do something to screw it up. They'll pass a law, regulation, or requirement that trips us up and keeps us from succeeding, or they'll levy a tax, fee or surcharge that destroys our ability to achieve our dreams.

The second viewpoint is that even if we do all of these things, in some manner "The Man" will conspire to keep us down, to show us our place, and to ensure the status quo. Therefore, only the government, in its slow but steady progress, can provide remedy, redress and recompense, and guarantee that we are taken care of, treated fairly, and given a chance.

I think there are certain points where both of these views are true, places where we can compromise, times when we can get closer to real life. I also think that our political class exploits these extremes in their unending grasp for power, and far too many of them profess to believe in one or the other, but their actions in office belie their commitment.

I'm not sure how we get beyond the extremes at the end of the spectrum and find a solution that works to preserve freedom, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness once again, but certainly it can't be through massive financial irresponsibility, can it?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Motorcyles: Money Savers or Money Pits?

I'm often running into posts on the personal finance blogs talking about saving lots of money by commuting on a motorcycle vs. a car - I wrote the post below in 2008 to debunk that premise. It may be out on the internet somewhere, but I can't recall just where, exactly, so I reprint it here for convenience.

So, you think you want to start riding a motorcycle to work, in order to save on gasoline expenses, now that prices are approaching $4.00 a gallon? I hate to disillusion or discourage you, but if you're hoping to save money, it's probably not your best strategy.

At first glance, it appears to make cents. Most motorcycles approach 50 mpg in fuel economy, while many of our daily driver cars are getting around 20 mpg. My insurance company defines a car as for the daily commuter rate if I put 15,000 miles per year or more on the odometer, so for the typical commuter; the math looks something like this:

In the old car:

15,000 miles per year / 20 miles per gallon * $4 per gallon = 3,000 dollars per year in fuel cost.

On the new motorcycle:

15,000 miles per year / 50 miles per gallon * $4 per gallon = 1,200 dollars per year in fuel cost.

This is a savings of $1800 per year! Sounds great, doesn't it? If we invest the difference in an index fund, in 20 years we’ll have…well, you know the drill.

However, the first task in this scenario is to acquire a motorcycle. For the purpose of this post, let's consider three of them.

1. Trade your car, straight across, for a reliable used or new motorcycle.

2. Buy a reliable used motorcycle.

3. Buy a new motorcycle.

Personally, the only one of these I've actually done is buy used, and obviously I must have come to the conclusion that it was the best way, but it's not without its pitfalls. For more on the subject of buying a reliable used motorcycle, you really need to consult the experts, and there are plenty of articles published online or in motorcycle magazines about this particular activity to help you, so I won't duplicate that effort here, as I'm really mostly examining the financial aspects of the situation.

Obviously, from an economic standpoint, scenario #1 is optimal. Give up the clunker, and get a new motorcycle for zero dollars invested. There are, however, some disadvantages to this situation that may not be immediately obvious to someone who hasn't spent a mile in a motorcyclist's moccasins. The problem here is that changing your transportation habits to suit a motorcycle is not exactly convenient. Sure, you get to squeeze into parking spots that that SUV can't deal with, but your cargo capacity is severely limited. Unless you've gotten a model equipped with some capacious saddle bags, it's very difficult to carry your briefcase or laptop along with you, and carrying anything much larger than a box of cereal at the grocery store is problematic, not to mention a trip to Home Depot. Additionally, a motorcycle is not climate controlled. It’s hot in the summer, riding without AC, and cold in the winter, with no heater. It  can be absolutely miserable in rainy weather, and completely impossible in ice or snow. Unless you live in a very temperate region, you’re going to need to keep your old clunker for those bad weather days.

The newspaper classified ads and craigslist posts are filled with motorcycles for sale by people who thought they were going to love commuting and doing errands on a motorcycle - they usually stick it out for about a month, then the bike is parked in the garage until they get tired of dusting it and put it up for sale. This, by the way, brings up scenario #2. One of the best ways to buy a late model used bike is to let someone else “eat” the depreciation on a new bike, and then help them get out from under their payments. This is exactly what I did when I bought my wife's first motorcycle, a Suzuki 650 with 102 miles on it after a year of someone else's riding.

Buying a reliable used bike is the next best option from an economical point of view. The same principals apply that have been amply discussed elsewhere in personal finance blogs regarding buying a used car versus buying a new car. It's simply far better to let someone else pay for that first year's depreciation. In the case of a motorcycle, the mileages involved in buying a bike that's last year's model from someone who bought it new are generally negligible. If you look at commuting mileage figures above, someone who rode a motorcycle daily for a month is only going to put 1,250 miles on it, on average. For modern motorcycles, that's barely even broken in.

There are hundreds of choices out there for a used motorcycle, but on the low end you're going to have to spend around $1,000, and something mid-range is going to run about $3500. If you really want to get into something deluxe, it's going to cost you, and since this post is about saving money, I'm not going to go there. Unfortunately, on the low end of the scale, you're going to be dealing with some older bikes, maybe 15 to 20 years old, and though the time to recoup your initial investment comes down to between six and seven months, your maintenance costs and headaches are definitely going to increase, unless you get very very lucky. As you can see, in the mid-range, your time to recoup goes up to nearly two years, but your maintenance costs remain lower for that period.

As far as scenario #3 is concerned, can we just agree that this is going to be a bad deal, all the way around? The only benefit is a spiffy sparkling new toy for a few weeks, and a full warranty against mechanical defects from the dealer.

The only better thing than these three scenarios is to win a bike in a sweepstakes (except you probably have to pay taxes on it), or be given a bike by a generous relative. Actually, my best deal on a motorcycle, ever, was when a friend of mine was moving to another city to take a job and didn't want to take his motorcycle along. So, he sold it to me for $1, with the provision that, if he ever moved back home, I'd sell it back to him for $1. This worked out well for both of us, as I got a commuter bike cheaply (though as mentioned above an older bike can be a maintenance nightmare) and he got paid for me to store the bike for a year for him. And, yes, I did sell it back to him a couple of years later when he returned, as agreed, for $1.

So, strictly from the standpoint of the initial investment, the payoff only begins from six months to two years later. This is not an uncommon situation for  an investment in energy and dollar saving technology, however, and we're all long term planners, right? Think about buying a new heating and cooling system for your home, or installing insulation, vinyl siding and windows. It's the same principal.

But wait, there's more! We haven't discussed sales tax, which you'll definitely have to pay when you go to transfer the title and register your motorcycle. Add another 6% on average to the startup costs. Oops! We do have to license our motorcycles for the streets, so depending where you live, that could tack on another $25-$100 in initial cost, plus an annual fee. Some states also require an additional "M" endorsement on your driver’s license, so you may be required to take and pass a class and/or a test to get it. There's another $25. Also, at the very least, you're going to be required by law to carry liability insurance coverage on your motorcycle, so there goes another $100-200 each year. If you want collision or comprehensive coverage, it's going to be even more.

And then there are all the special costs associated with motorcycle commuting that you don't need when you're driving a car. First and foremost, let’s look at safety equipment. Some states have helmet laws, but even if they don't you really do want to protect that brain of yours from damage when, not if, you take a tumble. A low end helmet - low end not referring to a safety standpoint, but more of an aesthetics and features standpoint - is around $75-$100, but the top end models get up around $500-$750. There's also a ton of other safety gear to consider, starting with gloves and moving onwards to body armor equipped jackets and riding pants, and protective footwear. If you want to protect all of your body parts, the initial investment could run from around $500 at a minimum, all the way into the thousands of dollars. If this seems a bit steep, consider the cost of the skin grafts resulting from sliding 100 yards down the highway. Even a minor gravel rash on the palms of your hands from a low speed tipover can be painful and inhibit your typing skills, if you use a computer while earning your salary.

I also mentioned cargo capacity a bit earlier. If the bike you buy doesn't come equipped with saddlebags, a top bag or a tank bag, you're probably going to need to invest in some or all of the above, depending on how much stuff you've got to bring to work each day, and how many groceries you want to be able to carry in a single trip. This is another expense. On the low end, saddle bags can be found for around $100 and they just go up from there, depending on make and model of the motorcycle and materials involved in their composition. It's not uncommon to spend $700 on a good set of bags, which often have locking mechanisms to discourage casual theft.

As far as maintenance costs are concerned, they're similar to those for a car, in general. If you're reasonably mechanically inclined, you can do a lot of the routine work yourself and keep costs low, but it may require an investment in some specialty hand tools. One thing that is a bit different, while automobile tires tend to last from 40,000 to 60,000 miles, motorcycle tires are considered to have gotten good mileage at 6,000 to 8,000. They generally cost a bit more than car tires, as well. If you do the math, you can see that you're going to have to replace them around twice a year, if you're getting 15,000 annual miles on them - and in order to see the fuel savings we talked about in the beginning, you've got to - so you can tack on about another $500 per year just to keep rubber between you and the road.

Although I am an avid motorcyclist and as close to a daily commuter as it's possible to be in a rather non-temperate local climate, I'd have to discourage you from buying a motorcycle to save money. Though it was my intent when I bought my first motorcycle to save a ton on fuel (my diesel truck gets 15 mpg), the savings over the long term have been minimal. A motorcycle is a fun toy and a great commuting tool for some people, but I can't recommend it based on sheer economics.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Monster Hunter Legion by Larry Correia

I really have enjoyed this series by Correia. Just rollicking, slam-bang action and adventure, with a wry twist at times. In this installment, Owen Z. Pitt and his friends are off to a convention in Vegas, the first ever meeting of all of the monster hunters worldwide and some of the shadowy government agencies that are tasked with controlling or killing the monsters and keeping the knowledge that monsters exist out of the public eye. What a mess of monster hunters do to the buffet at the Last Dragon casino doesn't bear repeating.

I'm wondering if there's any way for an author to foreshadow a main character's unsuspected pregnancy without making it blindingly obvious. On page 7, Correia writes, " lovely wife Julie had said she was tired...had been feeling a little under the weather during the trip." Boom! She's pregnant, though Owen doesn't suspect it and finds out much later in the tale. Maybe I just have "pregdar".

You'd think a monster hunter convention would defy convention, but as Owen observes, "Regardless of what business you're in, these sorts of things were always the same. Introduce yourself. Applause. Introduce everybody else. Applause. Tell a lame joke. Applause. Thank everyone and their dog...I mean, come on, the people in this room kill supernatural beings for a living...How could you possibly make that tedious? Yet somehow, they did."

One of the things that makes Correia's writing so fun is when he comes up with sarcastic bits, or unexpected twists on genre conventions. I especially liked the super-sekret government agency called Special Task Force Unicorn (STFU). Midway through the book, Owen is summoned to meet with the mysterious owner of the casino, whom I'm thinking is something like Robin from Magnum, P.I. or Charlie of Angel's fame. But it turns out to be a dragon, and when Owen walks into his lair he is talking to his stockbroker on a bluetooth headset. Dragon with a hands-free phone? Great stuff.

So, as all of these things go, Owen and the other monster hunters at the convention get caught up in trying to defeat a vast, existential threat to the human race once more. The monster can pull nightmares out of people's heads and make them corporeal, and any monster hunter who has been around for long has plenty of nightmares to mine. It turns out that this monster was created by the U.S. Government during WWII, as a misbegotten result of a Manhattan Project style research facility that is now buried in the Nevada desert. The ending is a little lame, and the whole purpose of the book seems to be to unite all the feuding companies hunting monsters into a force that can deal with the big battle when the Old Ones return.

It's fun, nearly non-stop action, and will definitely entertain and amuse you.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rogue by Michael Z. Williamson

Rogue is the sixth book in the Freehold series, and continues the tradition of action and adventure established early by Williamson. We return to the story of Kenneth Chinran, from The Weapon. Chinran has been psychologically damaged by his experiences in the war against Earth, and has disappeared from everyone's radar with his and Deni's daughter, Chelsea. He has been working as a male escort occasionally and running his own machine shop for a variety of clients, until he is discovered by Naumann again after he thwarts a robbery attempt at a local pizza joint in a manner that is an unmistakeable trail to someone with his skills.

Naumann recruits him, reluctantly, to track down and eliminate a former member of the team he took to Earth, who is now accepting independent assassination contracts. The political fallout that would ensue if it was discovered that an ex-military specialist from Freehold had gone freelance would be a bad thing. Chinran and his sexy sidekick, Silver, that Naumann assigns to help him, travel to the planet Caledonia, where they are in time to disrupt Randall's assassination of a prominent economist, but fail to stop the second attempt or capture the rogue agent.

They head off to Mtali in hot pursuit, and are unable to fulfill the mission there, then to Nova Rossia where Randall keeps one step ahead of them making mob hits, then to Earth, scene of Chinran's original crimes. Eventually the trail leads back to Freehold, and a final confrontation. Lots of blood, bodies and inventive assassination methods in this one, and perhaps some peace for Chinran's tormented soul at the end, leaving Williamson to move on to the focus on his Ripple Creek characters.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Courting Disaster by Marc Thiessen

Marc Thiessen, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, uses his unprecedented access to sensitive intelligence information and exhaustive interviews with former intelligence personnel to draw a picture for us of the true story of how "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used to ferret out information about planned terrorist attacks, and made us safer in the long haul. He was working in the administration when the controversy over some of these techniques, especially waterboarding, erupted into the public consciousness in 2006.

Of course, some people will say that this book is some sort of partisan argument, justifying the unjustifiable actions of the Bush administration in their effort to combat the terrorist threat represented by Al Quaeda. Which brings us to the curious question faced by any serious student of current events and/or history - what sources can you really trust. I encountered a similar situation recently when I saw that a new study was published by Stanford University researchers last week proving that organically grown vegetables and produce are no more nutritious or safe for consumption than those grown by modern "factory farming" methods. Friends whose opinions I generally respect expressed outrage that this study was somehow biased, and that its results were flawed. They have their trusted sources, while I have mine (as well as opinions of my own on the subject).

Thiessen has some very thorough appendices at the back of the book from declassified documents, proving some of his assertions - heavily redacted, of course. I think that sometimes government censors get a little carried away with the black marker on these things - just justifying their possession of the power to remove things, granted them by the government. It reminds me a bit of the Iran Contra hearings, when Ollie North zinged congressional interrogators who were demanding his reason for shredding documents, "I didn't just go out to the office supply and buy a shredder, the government provided it for me; I was expected to shred those documents, it was my job." (paraphrased from memory)

So, you can take Thiessen with a grain of salt, or not at all, I suppose. In fact, most of those who disagree with his conclusions will probably never read his book in the first place.

Some of his claims about information from EIT:
  • Led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, sent to America to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles
  • Led to the capture of a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists who planned to hijack a jet and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles
  • Led to the capture of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who planned to hijack airplanes in Europe and crash them at Heathrow Airport and buildings in downtown London
  • Led to the capture of a pair of terrorists who were planning to blow up the U.S. consulate and Western residences in Karachi, Pakistan
  • Led to the disruption of a plot to blow up the U.S. Marine Camp in Djibouti
  • Helped break up an Al Qaeda cell developing anthrax for terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Interestingly to me, as I remember some of these discussions:

"His (Abd al-Hahdi) capture - on his way to Iraq on bin Laden's orders - was a rebuke to those who tried to arugue that al Qaeda in Iraq was completely independent of al Qaeda's central leadership."

"Abd al-Hahdi...was a former member of Saddam Hussein's military, who had joined al Qaeda in the 1990s and risen to become a senior bin Laden advisor...served as one of al Qaeda's top paramilitary commanders in Afghanistan...served as a member of al Qaeda's ruling Shura council."

People who believed that Iraq was a distraction from the War on Terror may have been seriously mistaken.

As to the claim that EIT didn't work, that "torture" never extracts useful information, as those being interrogated will tell the interrogator whatever they think they want to hear:

"(CIA Inspector General Mike) Hayden says, 'Most of the people who oppose the techniques want to be able to say, 'I don't want my nation doing this,' which is a purely honorable positions, and 'they didn't work anyway.' That back half of the sentence isn't true."

The enhanced interrogation techniques are thoroughly described in this book, and my gut feeling is that the only one that marginally rises to the level of torture is waterboarding. However, that process was done in CIA facilities under strict medical supervision so as not to cause any lasting harm, and was stopped far short of actually inflicting permanent physical harm. None of the other techniques, such as "walling" and sleep deprivation, and others are any more severe than fraternity hazing rituals, which are performed under far less controlled circumstances by sadistic amateurs, in my opinion.

There's a good section on the controversy surrounding trying detainees in the War on Terror in civilian courts, and one thing to note is that if these detainees were tried in public, al Qaeda leadership would immediately know that they had been captured, and adjust their plans, procedures and security precautions accordingly.

"One high-ranking CIA official I spoke with told me this is exactly what happened with one of the last high value detainees held in the CIA program. According to this official, the al Qaeda leadership 'literally did not know for three months that he was gone. And so therefore, they plan operations because they thought they were still secure, not know that at that very moment [this terrrorist] was spilling his guts on what those operations were, which did allow us to stop plots or follow plots because the bad guys back home didn't know he was caught.'"

According to Thiessen as well "the reality is that enhanced interrogation techniques were used 'rarely.' Of the tens of thousands of individuals captured in the war on terror, only about thirty terrorists were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques of any kind, and just three were subjected to waterboarding."

Of course, I saw a news article appear yesterday saying that "more detainees were waterboarded than our government has revealed" source Human Rights Watch. Again, what sources should we trust? Human Rights Watch does some good work, but their agenda and funding are politically driven. Some interesting facts are also detailed in this book about the lawyers doing pro bono work defending detainees - these law firms top partners have filled the ranks of some of the most senior positions in the Obama administration's Department of Justice, including Eric Holder's law firm. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it?

I found it a very interesting read. You might, too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Around the Web

A book review at On a Wing and a Whim.

Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire

This is the sixth novel in the October Daye series. Toby is still grieving over the loss of her lover, Connor, and her changeling daughter's decision to remain in the human world, where Toby can never see her again. This, of course, has blinded her to something that's been obvious to us for a while, Cat King Tybalt's own undeclared love for her. Once again, I'm seeing the same theme here as in so many of the "strong heroine" urban fantasy novels being penned today - if only she would trust her friends more, and not be so self-destructive, everything would be all better. Oh, and quit resisting the overtures of the strong, dark, mysterious leading man, as well.

Also, again, Toby is presented with the case of a missing or kidnapped child. McGuire actually discusses her repeated involvement in these things, but doesn't necessarily justify it well, other than to say that Toby is driven to solve these things, and people know she's good at it. I think that a case could be made for Toby's own experience in being raised in an Oliver Twist-like fashion by a Fagan-ish figure, Devin, having predisposed her towards helping out troubled children and orphans. Her background there does come in handy on occasion, as when she is imprisoned in a dark tower in Annwn later on and needs to know how to pick locks to free herself and her companions from the villains of the piece.

One of Sylvester's retainers, Etienne, whom Toby doesn't really care for, fathered a changeling child with a human woman about sixteen years ago, and never knew the child existed until now, when the mother, Brigid, called accusing him of kidnapping the girl, Chelsea. Chelsea has inherited the power of opening teleportation portals from her Sidhe father, but has not inherited the control that would naturally come if she were a full blood. She is opening gates into dangerous places in Faerie that were sealed by Oberon long ago, and the fabric of reality is beginning to come unraveled, which could result in disaster for the Summerlands and all of its dwellers. Toby needs to find her in a hurry, before said dire results occur.

So Toby and her loyal squire, Quentin, the Cat King, and an assorted host of allies flail about a bit until they discover that Countess Riordan has gained some control over Chelsea, and is using her portal-opening abilities for her own ends. In the middle of discovering this, a coup attempt in the Cat King's court comes very close to succeeding - with slasher flick type of results when the main conspirator turns out to be amazingly hard to kill (cats have nine lives, you know). One thing that doesn't play all that well for me in this book is how Toby repeatedly comes within a hair's breadth of dying, only to be whisked away by her friends to Sylvester's healer, Jin, who rants and raves like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy each time about how it was all she could do to save Toby. Just a little overly dramatic, Toby bleeding to death from internal injuries...curtain falls...blackout! Then we wake up and everything is OK.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Around the Web

A book review on Borepatch's blog.

War Maid's Choice by David Weber

In this most recent book in the War God series by Weber, recently released, we see all of the traits that the author has become known for, especially in the Honor Harrington novels, but with some common threads with his Safehold series, as well. Weber makes a full shift to multi-threading of the plot lines, with Tomanak's Champion, Bahzell, not exactly taking a back seat, but getting nowhere near as much airtime as in earlier books. Interestingly, seven years have passed since the events in Windrider's Oath, and seven years have passed in our world, as well, since the last book was published.

The war maid in the title is Leanna, daughter of Baron Tellian, and one thread of the story begins with her returning home for her twenty-first birthday. She has slowly come to grips with the way that many of her old friends, fellow nobles, and her father's servants have treated her since she "disgraced" her family by becoming a war maid, and possibly the thing that has saved her from bitterness has been knowing that she has always had the unconditional love of her mother and father. One of her reasons for returning is to tell her mother about her desire to make her own love known to a very unconventional (for her culture) person, and let the chips fall where they may. Leanna also surprises us in some other ways; being chosen by a courser as a windrider and having her love affair blessed by a visit from gods Tomanak and Lillinara.

The evil wizard, Varnaythus, plays more than a cameo role in this story, as his incessant travels and plotting are highly detailed here. By the time we get to the climactic last 100 pages or so of the book, we begin to wonder how ever can our heroes escape his tightly woven web of treachery. And, indeed, some of our beloved characters pay a price at the end, though one of them puts in a strange Obi Wan Kenobi appearance after being killed by one of three devils summoned to this plane by one of the dark gods, Krashnark.

Varnaythus' plot to kill Baron Tellian and blame him for the simultaneous assassination of King Markhos, having sent a group of mercenaries to do the job, with a false trail laid leading to the Purple Lords, but Baron Cassan is scheduled to arrive just in time to kill all the witnesses and put his own spin on things, is enough to make your head spin. But Leanna, the War Maids, loyal Lord Trisu (who is a bit of a jerk in earlier novels, but demonstrates that personality traits don't necessarily override loyalty and competence), and the Quaysar Temple Guard manage to squish the pests in the end.

Another thing that really makes this a Weber-esque novel are the theme which we've seen before in Honor Harrington stories, is exploring the human  telepathic bonding with other sentient species; tree cats vs. coursers. Also, we see the same sort of Connecticut Yankee development that he writes about in the Safehold stories, except that the source of technology there is the android Merlyn Athawres, and in this story it is the dwarves who are inventing newer, faster, weapons with better alloy technology and building canals and light rail to move goods more quickly - Oh!, and a funicular, as well. Also, it's LONG - 596 pages, a typical Weber trait these days.

The conclusion of this book leaves us with a strong alliance between dwarves, Sothoii and hradani, the forces of the dark gods seriously weakened for a time, and rising enemies from those in surrounding lands who see their own prosperity threatened  by this new union between hereditory enemies. It will be interesting to see what develops next.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How Rich People Think by Steve Siebold

I'll definitely have to find a copy of this book and review it one of these days, but I just saw an article that was extracted from the book, and one of the points in it really struck me.

15. Average people would rather be entertained than educated. Rich people would rather be educated than entertained.
While the rich don't put much stock in furthering wealth through formal education, they appreciate the power of learning long after college is over, Siebold says.

"Walk into a wealthy person's home and one of the first things you'll see is an extensive library of books they've used to educate themselves on how to become more successful," he writes.

"The middle class reads novels, tabloids and entertainment magazines."

Talk about a smack upside the head! I read about 80% novels, and about 20% nonfiction. Fortunately, my high reading volume means that I read perhaps 30-40 works of nonfiction each year, so I'm probably ahead of the game in comparison to the general populace, but I should probably do better. In the interests of reading the entire novel before I write a review, I probably finish far too many of them that are merely average works - a few hours distraction. If I gave up on them sooner, I could probably add more books to my list that would "learn" me something.

I definitely need to up my game - settle for less total books read, but higher quality, I think.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Apologies for the irregular postings this week, but I've been on vacation at the beach. Life should resume normalcy mid-week.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wind Rider's Oath by David Weber

Weber, I believe, really began to hit his stride as an author at about the same time as Windrider's Oath was published. His Honor Harrington novels were showing a deep complexity, with a well-imagined social and political back story, and antagonists within the plot line who had their own deep motivations, aside from being foils for Honor and her friends. We begin to see the same depth and richness appear in the War God series in this iteration, as well, though there were certainly indications of a broader story arc and deeper plot all along.

Bahzell, Brandark and Kaeretha are right in the middle of things up on the Wind Plain, as Bahzell has become an unofficial ambassador between the hradani and the windriders, or Sothoii, in Baron Tellian's court. The Sothoii who have objections to making peace with the hradani after centuries are, for the most part, quite loudly and openly making their opinions heard, but there are also those who are engaging in guerrilla warfare against those who want peace, and darker conspiracies are underfoot, and there are subtle intimations that the dark gods are involved in stirring up trouble in the kingdom, too.

Weber displays in this novel another one of the traits that he's known for - splitting the action into multiple plot lines, centered on different protagonists. Bahzell and Brandark head away from the capital city of the Sothoii to a Lord Edinghas holdings, where there has been an attack on a herd of Coursers, supernaturally augmented horses who are the companions to those humans who have been chosen by the gods to be wind riders. Kaeritha heads to Kalatha, where a dispute between the local lord, Trisu, and the War Maids may be getting out of hand, and Leeanna, daughter of Baron Tellian, flees the prospect of a politically arranged marriage to ask for asylum in Kalatha and to join the War Maids. We also see another plot line developing, centered on the priests and priestesses of the dark gods, who have their own plans for the Wind Plain, mostly revolving around destabilization and destruction of our heroes' friends' lives and domains.

An interesting philosophical/theological point from the book:

"We need to be able to stand on our own two feet, and if we started to rely on Him for explicit instructions on everything we're supposed to be doing, how long would it be before we couldn't accomplish anything without those instructions? He expects us to be bright enough to figure out our duty without his constant prompting."
A good way for the follower of any god to live their life, I think.

A fun passage about how we often assume things about others' motivations:

"Cunning and intelligent the nobleman might be, but what he'd just said showed an alarming ability to project his own deviousness and inherent dishonesty onto others, whether it was merited or not...but automatically assuming that those same qualities were what motivated an opponent, especially a powerful opponent like Wencit of Rum, was dangerous. Success required that enemies not be underestimated or discounted."

And one of the wisest things any character of Weber's has ever said:

"Any man who has his wits about him ought to be smart enough to know a wife with brains at least as good as his own is a treasure."