Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Money Rules by Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky is a very successful writer on the topic of personal finance. I'd heard her name taken in vain not so very long ago on an infotainment segment, where the "expert" proceeded to rant about the horrible advice people like Chatzky, Suze Ormond, Robert Kiyosaki, and Dave Ramsey peddle. For the most part, I've found the advice of Ormond and Ramsey to be fairly sound, though I have taken issue with a few bits and pieces here and there. I got a copy of this Chatzky ebook along with a copy of Willmaker I picked up at Costco, so I thought I'd check her out.

The books was an extremely quick read, just a series of short rules about money, with only a paragraph or two about each rule. Again, for the most part I have no problems with recommending Chatzky's rules to most people, most of the time, but for more complex financial situations, some of them are simply going to be inapplicable, and more professional advice required - probably paid professional advice.

Some bits that caught my attention as I buzzed through:

Rule 12. Save more with every raise.

I've followed this one for a number of years, and passed it on to my children. At least one of them that I know of has been following it, and are well-started on building their retirement nest egg. When I get a raise at work, I take half of that raise and just add it to my automated 401K contribution. I never miss it! My paycheck still goes up, and my retirement plan looks better, too. I highly recommend following this rule. You could also shift a portion of every raise towards other savings goals, like saving for a down payment on a house, a new car, or your kids' college funds. Avoid lifestyle creep - don't spend all of your raise.

Rule 21. Save for something

Chatzky says to put a name to your goals and put aside savings for those things in particular. Here's one, aside from my retirement, and my grandkids' college funds, that I don't do so well. I just put money away "for a rainy day", and when I need money for an emergency, a down payment, a major purchase, or whatever, I have money in my general savings account (usually) to pay for it. I'd really like to do a better job of this, but I just hate having multiple savings accounts at multiple banks.

Rule 29. Use your emergency savings for emergencies.

Chatzky says you should always take money from your emergency fund to pay for emergencies, like the car breaking down, or unexpected medical expenses, and that you should not put it on your credit card. So, this is where I break from people like her and Dave Ramsey. I put everything I possibly can on my credit card and pay it off at the end of the month, taking money from my emergency savings for anything charged on it that was actually an emergency, or unexpected. In the first place, I get a nice cash back bonus every month from my credit card company. There have evidently been studies performed that show that people spend more money when they use a credit card than when they pay cash, but I firmly believe that I'm not one of them. My wife will tell you I'm so tight I squeak. Second, the credit card statement, and the card company's utility that categorizes expenses, are a nice way to actually keep track of what I spent, when I spent it, etc. I have an emergency fund. I use my credit card. I love the cash back! Sue me.

Rule 34. The best cost-cutting tool is a good night's sleep.

Chatzky recommends that you sleep on it before making a purchase decision. If you don't feel the urgent need to buy after a good night's sleep, you didn't need it that badly to begin with. I agree totally. In fact, I have a list of things that I think I need to purchase that I carry around with me. If it's not an urgent immediate need, sometimes things stay on the list for months before I get around to buying them. At that point, I run across the item used, at a deep discount, borrow it from a friend, be given the item as a gift, or I may simply never buy it, removing it from the list at some point, as the need has passed.

Rule 38. Pay bills as they come in.

Having a big pile of unpaid bills is a huge stress inducer. I used to let my bills stack up on the kitchen counter until payday, then sit down and write out all the checks at once. Then, I moved to writing out the check the day the bill arrived, putting it in the envelope, ready to mail, with a post-it note showing the due date, and placing the bill in the mail a week before it was due. Now, for the most part, all of my bill paying is fully automated, with my bank mailing out the checks for me. I check up on things every so often, and have to go online to enter the amounts of variable bills once in a while, but it's a very painless process.

Rule 47. Shop with a list.

If you make a shopping list, and only buy the things you have put on the list when you go shopping, you'll save a lot of money by avoiding those impulse buys. I am a list freak. My shopping list is even arranged in the order the items appear at my favorite grocery store. I have lists for everything, from shopping, to daily tasks, to packing for a camping trip or a trip overseas. They're all in my documents folder, and I can print out the type desired within moments of the need. Yeah, I'm way compulsive about lists.

Rule 53. It's not about having it all. It's about having what you value most.

Chatzky believes many people have regrets about how they spent their money, down the road. She says one way to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again is to keep track of your feelings about your purchases, so that when you have a bad experience with a vendor, a brand, or a meal, you won't buy there again. Pretty smart idea. I've been journalling my life for about ten years now, and I can go back and search the archives to find out when and where I purchased things, whether I was happy with them, and what the name of that restaurant where I had the most awesome French Dip of my life was. It's quite handy.

Rule 91. Don't take financial advice from someone just because they're wealthy (or related).

Chatzky doesn't elaborate on this rule at all. I'd love to know her thinking on this one. First, would it make sense to take financial advice from someone who is poor? I don't think so. I always thought that you should get financial advice from people who have achieved the type of financial success that you want to achieve. On a parallel note, I wouldn't take relationship advice from someone who has been divorced multiple times; I'd rather hear from someone who stayed married for fifty-plus years. Second, would it make more sense to take financial advice from a stranger, rather than someone who actually loves or cares about you. I'm not entirely sure this rule holds water. I think I'll have to go look at what she has to say about it online somewhere. Maybe I'll get back to you.

All in all, a quick read, worth the time, and there's definitely some great principles here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.

 A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar taught by a woman who has, for the last thirteen years, been in charge of an organization which coordinates the efforts of over four thousand volunteers who help people who are suffering from poverty, usually of the temporary situational type, but sometimes generational. A couple of books were mentioned in the talk. The first one was When Helping Hurts, which I reviewed earlier, and the other one was Dr. Payne's book. I immediately put them on hold at the local library, and both of them have proven thought-provoking, at the very least.

The book is definitely designed for the benefit of educators, and the latter two thirds focus on effective strategies for teaching the children of generational poverty. Payne defines poverty as "the extent to which an individual does without resources." Contrary to the narrow view most of us have of poverty, she attributes continuing poverty not merely to lack of financial resources, but perhaps more importantly to a lack of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, and the hidden rules which govern behavior and interactions within a class of citizens.

In fact, that was the chart that intrigued me enough to put this book on my list in the first place, the "hidden rules" of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. Without the types of resources mentioned above, and an understanding of the hidden rules, Payne asserts, it is extraordinarily difficult to move upward in financial class.

For example, for the poor, their possessions are people, for the middle class; things, for the wealthy; one-of a kind objects or legacies. For the poor, money is to used and spent, for the middle class; managed, and for the wealthy conserved and invested. When it comes to food, for the poor, the key question is "Did you get enough?", for the middle class, is "Did you like it?" and for the wealthy, "Was it presented well?" With respect to time, for the poor the present is the most important and decisions are made for the moment based on feelings or survival. For the middle class, the future is most important and decisions are made based on future consequences. For the wealthy, traditions and history are most important, and decisions are often made on the basis of tradition and decorum.

Payne also talks quite a bit about the role of language and story for the classes. A 1967 study (Joos) found that every language has five registers: frozen, formal, consultative, casual and intimate. Failure to use the appropriate register in conversation can have consequences. In school, and in employment situations, the register most commonly used is formal register. People who come from generational poverty do not have a background in formal register; the majority of their interactions with others of their class takes place in casual register, so they are at a disadvantage compared to the middle or wealthy class, who use formal register in their everyday interactions frequently. One's everyday interactions are called "primary discourse", while interactions with society at large are called, "secondary discourse". Students have been shown to do much better in school when their primary and secondary discourse methods are the same. (I've vastly simplified a complicated chapter).
Another factor that's missing in generational poverty is robust support systems.

"When a child has homework, who in the support system knows enough math to help the child? Who knows the research process? Who knows the ropes for going to college or getting a new car loan? Who knows how to talk to the insurance agent so the situation can be clarified? Who knows how to negotiate difficult situations with a teacher and come to a resolution? Who understands the court system, the school system? Information and know-how are crucial to success."

Payne evidently is fond of Steven Covey's Seven Habits work, as she quotes him a few times in the book, in the midst of some heavy-duty academic papers.

She also mentions something a couple of times that I found interesting. The role of discipline in households afflicted by generational poverty is completely at odds with that of the middle class. In generational poverty, "punishment is not about change, it is about penance and forgiveness. Individuals in poverty usually have a strong belief in fate and destiny. Therefore, to expect changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference is, in most cases, a false hope." From my perspective, middle class discipline is all about changing behavior, teaching action and reaction, cause and consequence. If you do A, B happens. If you don't like B, don't do A. (Or, don't get caught)

In her conclusion, Payne says,

"Yet another notion among the middle class and educated is that if the poor had a choice, they would live differently. The financial resources would certainly help make a difference. Even with the financial resources, however, no every individual who received those finances would choose to live differently. There is a freedom of verbal expression, an appreciation of individual personality, a heightened and intense emotional experience, and a sensual, kinesthetic approach to life usually not found in the middle class or among the educated. These patterns are so intertwined in the daily life of the poor that to have those cut off would be to lose a limb. Many choose not to live a different life. And for some, alcoholism, laziness, lack of motivation, drug addiction, etc., in effect make the choices for the individual."

Strong stuff.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lady Crymsyn by P.N. Elrod

 Jack has, with Gordy's help, managed to launder the money he appropriated a couple of books back, from Frank Paco's embezzlement from the mob, and is finally realizing his dream of opening up his own night club, where Bobbi can headline until she gets noticed enough to head to Hollywood and be a movie star. As the story begins, he is just days away from opening up Lady Crymsyn, which will be a very high class joint - without the usual mob-run and protected casino, only the legal vices allowed.

A snag develops when the workers remodeling the basement of the building find a corpse, walled up to die alone - a woman in a bright red gown. Ever the white knight, Jack decides it's his responsibility to find out who she was and who was responsible for her murder, and to bring them to justice, if possible. All of this in his spare time while trying to hire staff, oversee construction, and get his club open on time.

The early trail leads to the usual suspects, the gangsters and their molls - or frails - who had something to do with the building under previous ownership. The old owner of the club was killed in a grenade attack, and the perpetrators were never caught, either, so perhaps Fleming can kill two birds with one stone here. This one has some fantastic twists towards the end, and takes us along on an unexpected narrative journey.

The only problem I have with the series at this point is that I would think that Jack would have figured out by now not to turn his back on henchmen carrying weapons, especially wooden ones that can actually knock him down and out for a significant time period. His squeamishness about not beating up or killing thugs is a huge handicap - he needs to just get over it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Dark Sleep by P.N. Elrod

When it looks as if Jack's long time girlfriend, Bobbi, may get an opportunity to impress some folks with Hollywood connections, he has mixed feelings. He loves her and wants her to succeed, but can hardly bear the thought of losing her to tinseltown. When one of them, a radio show host named Archy Grant gives her an opportunity to appear on his show, but there are some sexual strings attached, his feelings are not in doubt at all. Bobbi can be trusted not to fall for such enticements, and will probably be the one who plays rather than getting played, but Jack must resist the temptation to do something drastic about Archy's attentions.

Jack and Charles Escott are involved at the same time with attempting to recover some writings (they think they are love letters) that a wealthy socialite wants her former low brow lover to return, before they become an embarassment and derail her wedding to a foreign prince charming. The twist this subplot takes at the end is simply marvelous.

The main plot also takes an odd twist or two, as we finally get to learn about some of Escott's personal demons. I am starting to get a little irritated about how Jack never seems to keep an eye out for people sneaking up on him with a club, cosh, or cane. For someone who is able to hear the changes in the heartbeat of a blackjack dealer and get an advantage on the house odds, he is curiously unable to notice the heartbeat of someone who is pumped full of adrenaline and about to whack him on the head.

Another decent read from Elrod.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ever After by Kim Harrison

I think I read somewhere that Harrison is going to be wrapping up this series pretty soon. The overall tenor of this book would tend to support that, as some of the major conflicts work their way towards resolution, and she seems to cease introducing as many new twists in this one - though there's an issue with a certain master vampire that's probably going to have to be dealt with in an upcoming episode, if it hasn't already been done in the "apocrypha."

I found it amusing that Rachel seems to have undergone a personal evolution with respect to some of her enemies at the beginning of the series, e.g., Trent Kalamak and Algliarept "Al" the demon. She began the series believing Trent to be an evil drug dealer, but eventually came to view him as an ally at first, then a friend, and now we begin to see the possibility of romantic attraction there. In most series, we'd  move from the stage where two characters spark conflict immediately and by the end of the novel, they're madly in love, but Harrison has brought us a bit more slowly and laboriously to the point. When Rachel summons Al in the early going, it is clear that he is a very dangerous demon, lusting for control of her soul (and body?), but Rachel has gradually come to know him and the other demons better, and understand their history, and now the two are definitely allies, if not friends. Of course, finding out that she is actually genetically a demon, too, might have made some difference in her attitude.

The plot? Oh, yeah. Quen wants Rachel to help him to keep Trent safe when Quen is unable to perform his duties. Rachel declines. On a trip to Trent's estate shortly after that, they are all surprised when the demon Ku'sox attacks Quen and Ceri in order to kidnap Luci, Trent's daughter, Ku'sox is already responsible for the abduction of a number of other babies with the same syndrome which Rachel has alone survived.

Ku'sox has big plans to make all the other demons subservient to him, and messes up all the ley lines that lead to the Ever After. Rachel is blamed for it, and unless she can fix the ley lines, rescue the babies, and vanquish Ku'sox, she's in big trouble.

Fun stuff, though there is some sadness as Harrison kills off a couple of major players.

Friday, February 15, 2013

When Helping Hurts by Steven Corbett

This is one of those books that suffers, as some christian apologetics do, from the author coming up with a theory based on a limited amount of scripture, and then trying to make all ministry done by the church, a parachurch, or christians fall under the principles derived from his theory. Corbett decides that we all suffer from some combination of spiritual poverty (Poverty of spiritual intimacy), relational poverty (Poverty  of community), stewardship poverty (Poverty of Stewardship), or self-image poverty (Poverty of being), and our failure to properly acknowledge and deal with our poverty hinders us in our dealings with others with their own "sickness", which can result in material poverty, i.e., being poor, but all of these conditions can apply to even christians with plenty of material wealth. Rick Warren did a better job of gathering all church activities into groups in The Purpose Driven Church, but though Corbett does have some interesting insights into how we all do charitable work, his analysis is fundamentally flawed, in my opinion.

He does have some interesting insights, gained over his years of serving in poverty-focused ministries. The book is structured like a training guide, perhaps originally published as a workbook for a class taught by the Chalmers Center, where he works.

An interesting thought on the nature of the universe, and original sin:

"...the all-encompassing effects of the fall, it is important to remember that neither humans nor the systems they create are as bad as they could possibly be. Christ continues to 'hold all things together' and to 'sustain all things by his powerful word.' Hence, while the good creation - including both individuals and the systems they create - is deeply distorted, it retains some of its inherent goodness."

That's an interesting perspective that seems to riff on the idea that "all good gifts come from the Father". I'm not certain, from a Calvinist perspective, which holds to the idea that anything we do which is not led by the Spirit through rebirth in Christ is "as filthy rags," how valid that might be, but it's certainly something to consider - that all the good things in the world are the result of Christ's efforts. Hmmm.

One interesting concept Corbett expounds upon is that when working with the poor, one has to determine whether "the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development." When the need is immediate, such as after a fire or flood, situational poverty can be effectively aided, urgently and temporarily, through rapid relief. Once the situation stabilizes, rehabilitation by helping victims to work towards recovery, by donating labor or materials, or acting in an advisory capacity. What appears to be best, in Corbett's view is the act of development, moving "all the people involved, both the 'helpers' and the 'helped' closer to being in a right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

I'm not sure exactly, how one comes to be in a right relation with the entire creation, but it sounds a bit like environmental gobbledegook to me. Sorry.

Actually, Corbett defines this a bit, and it's not quite that bad - evidently many cultures in what he calls "The Majority World" believe that unpredictable spirits control creation, and humans really have no way to affect their own destinies, rather fatalistic. If people are taught that God gave humans the right and responsibility to dominate creation, they are positively influenced to change their circumstances.

Corbett really hammers on short term missions, which have gained an astounding amount of participation today, especially in evangelical circles. He believes that they often do more harm than good, leaving indigenous pastors and staff reeling when the missions teams have departed, trying to live up to the standards set in the whirlwind of activity. Also, when the missions are project-based, like building a new home or church or feeding station, the first-worlders are far too focused on getting the job done as rapidly as possible, given a) their limited time and b)western culture's preoccupation with schedules and efficiency, rather than allowing the locals to set goals, manage the project, and take responsibility for their own development. Possibly valid points all, but I really hate to think that we would in any way discourage folks, especially young people, from going on a short term mission to introduce them to missions work in the first place, and to shake up their comfortable world view a bit, so they understand what life is like outside of the U.S.

Corbett does provide a number of concrete techniques and examples of how to properly assess and address needs in different situations, such as Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), Participatory Learning and Action (PLA), and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). He also spends quite a bit of space talking about various microfinancing endeavors in the Majority World, which is quite interesting.

One final concept I found interesting is what he had to say about different perspectives of time. In Western Culture, we have a "monochronic" view, which sees time as a "limited and valuable resource." We're very focused on schedules, see wasting time as a sin, and procrastination a vice. In other cultures, there is a "polychronic" view, which sees time as an unlimited resource. The "manana" culture of Latin America comes immediately to mind. Also, hunting season in Idaho. Time "takes a backseat to forming and deepening relationships." He claims that people in polychronic cultures have deeper and more meaningful relationships than most Westerners. Not sure that's automatically true, but it's certainly a pitfall to avoid for many of us, who struggle with prioritizing work time, vacation time, and family time.

This is a good book to read for anyone who's looking for some new perspectives on helping the poor, wherever they may happen to be in the world.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Chill in the Blood by P.N. Elrod

So, Jack has survived the showdown with the gangster boss, Kyler, and now he gets to deal with the three-way free-for-all between Frank Paco's daughter, Angela, the hotshot mobster sent down from New York to settle things, Sean Sullivan, and Gordy, Jack's friend and ally who might be gunning for a bigger piece of the action himself. To further complicate matters, Escott introduces Fleming to a group of FBI agents (think Untouchables-style) who want to clean up the gangs in Chicago, no matter what the cost. Stir in a few crooked cops and you've got a recipe for utter chaos!

Around this point in the series, it becomes fairly clear that Jack's vampire abilities could make most of the conflicts in these books far too easy to resolve, if he's not limited in some way. So, Elrod has him a bit forgetful about making sure he's topped off with blood at all times, making him slow to recover and unable to think clearly when he's a quart low. She also pits him against adversaries who are so strong-willed that they're hard to hypnotize, and he discovers that drunks are also immune to his powers, and she sets up situations where he's unable to arrange a solo encounter with the people he needs to influence the most, so he has to settle for very quick "shots" of imposing his will on them. Perhaps this will develop his character's use of his powers into something more resembling a scalpel than a sledgehammer eventually. He also struggles with his basic "goodness", despite being undead, and is unwilling to just murder the gangsters that are standing in his way, no matter how despicable they are.

So, it seems that we'll see some more personal growth out of Jack. Elrod also begins to flesh out some of the bit players in this drama, like Shoe Coldfied, the black gangster who is another friend and ally of Escott and Fleming's, and we get a sense that there's a big backstory for Escott, too.

Another fun adventure in gangland Chicago.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Blood on the Water by P.N. Elrod

The action continues non-stop from Fire in the Blood. Jack briefly regroups, making sure that Bobbi is safely tucked away, so that the gangster, Kyler, can't use her as leverage against him. A meeting with Kyler to swap the purloined necklace for safety turns into a betrayal when Kyler sets Jack up to take the fall with the police, but Fleming's vampire skills get him out of the situation again.

The plot gets quite a bit more complicated when Jack encounters a whole new faction of goons while on his way to deal with Kyler once and for all. It turns out that Frank Paco's daughter, Angela, has been running what's left of his organization in Frank's name "until her father gets better", and she has Fleming kidnapped to find out what he has to do with Kyler. Jack escapes her clutches, only to return later to rescue Escott, the next kidnap victim. Jack continues to struggle, in this novel, with his moral dilemma regarding losing control while hypnotizing others and feeding on them nearly to their destruction.

Treachery, double-dealing and distrust seem to be the order of the, night, in this novel, as all the players except Jack and his buddies switch sides, lie, cheat and steal from one another. Again, the narrative just ends abruptly, only to be continued in the next book. Elrod had a story to tell, and couldn't be bothered to slow down for a transitional scene when her alloted pages ran out. Just happy she didn't like to leave things on a cliff hanger.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Interventions by Kofi Annan

Something odd struck me, as I was reading this autobiography. It seems that many who write their stories have these deep insights into who their parents were, and what motivated them, what sort of inner conflicts they faced, and so forth. It occurred to me that I really have no idea who my parents were in that sense. I can relate their basic history about where they grew up, in what era, and so forth, but inner conflicts...emotions? We never spoke of such things. Probably never will.

I found this a difficult book to push on through and finish. It seemed that Annan went into deep details at times that weren't all that interesting to me, while glossing over things quickly that I'd have been interested in hearing more about, and he also assumed a little too much historical knowledge on the part of his readers regarding some of the conflicts on which he focused. I lived through all the years he was Secretary General of the UN, but I was busy raising a family most of the time, and our mediocre media here in the US has not done a great job of covering world events - Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan and Beyonce's lip synching are far more important.

I found it interesting that though he condemns Israel quite harshly in the chapters actually dealing with the Palestinian question, he has something different to relate in an earlier chapter about the civil war in Lebanon.

"I concluded that 'whatever other agendas they may serve, Hizbollah's actions, which it portrays as defending Palestinian and Lebanese interest, in fact do neither. On the contrary, they hold an entire nation hostage.'"

He's also quite frank about the source of many of Africa's problems, even though he looks to the West to provide (as always) more funding.

"In a telling, if tragic - sign of Africa's many false starts on the path to development, it is widely recognized that the two principal obstacles to African development are energy and infrastructure. To recall how clearly this was understood forty years ago is to realize the price all Africans have paid for bad governance ever since."

and regarding the Africa Report,

"It emphasized the failures of the international community, too, including the UN's failure, in helping the peoples of Africa, the failure of all to help them ensure peace and create the conditions for sustainable development. But it stated these failures as orbiting features of a core problem: internal African politics and African leadership."


"The problems of Africa, however, have always stemmed from a lack of institutions: a lack of the institutional resources necessary to deal with the complex political, social, and economic problems faced on the continent. But irresponsible, unaccountable personalized systems of rule are the enemy of these. Cultivating the authority of a single individual over an entire and diverse population means that any institution that empowers the population's various constituencies has to be blocked or crushed. It means institutions that uphold a system for the peaceful transfer of power between political parties and between leaders have to be eroded or eradicated. Civil society institutions, organizations, and activists independent of the state, and so beyond the control of the Big Man, can never be allowed to flourish. Free enterprise, underpinned by free societies and systems of regulation and law independent of the day-to-day whims of the leader - an essential feature for private sector driven development - cannot be allowed."

The applications implicit in that last passage seem a bit scary to me, given the hero-worship some on the left have for the Obama presidency.

Annan was, it appears, responsible for the changing mission and vision of the UN in the modern era. As he says,

"Before 1988, only a dozen peacekeeping missions were launched in all of the UN's forty-three years. But in the brief period between 1988 and 1992, the Council created another ten."

The ideas below are, perhaps, what alarms some folks in this country - we seem to be quite jealous of our sovereignty, having won it a couple of centuries ago through blood and sacrifice. He whines a bit about how the U.S. would never agree to submit itself to the authority of the International Criminal Court. Given the composition of the General Assembly and most of the commissions established by the UN, I can't see that it would be a good thing, myself, as far too many of the rogue states would like nothing better than to drag our leaders and soldiers into trials there.

"the opportunity that the crisis in Kosovo provided: to draw a new line in international affairs, to set a new standard in how we held states responsible for the treatment and protection of the people within their own borders. We had to make clear that the rights of sovereign states to noninterference in their internal affairs could not override the rights of individuals to freedom from gross and systemic abuses of their human rights."

I found his take on the situations in places like Somalia and the Sudan enlightening.

"...civil wars have a security impact far beyond their source. They suck in their neighbors, send thousands of refugees spilling into other countries, create havens for armed groups and terrorists, and they cause the spread of criminal networks and cross-border lawlessness, including piracy."

One interesting thing regarding Iraq's intransigence when it came to allowing the UN weapons inspectors to fully verify that all of the WMD's had been destroyed,

"Tariq Aziz...once asked a senior member of the UN's inspection team...'You know why we can never allow you to certify that we've rid ourselves of our weapons of destruction, don't you?' The UN official replied incredulously that this was the entire purpose of the inspections, and that once free of the stigma, Iraq could come in from the cold. Aziz replied, 'The Persians and the Jews.' For Saddam, in other words, sustaining the fear that he possessed WMD was all about deterring Iran and Israel, two countries that he considered mortal enemies."

Holy guacamole, Batman! It's all about face in the Arab world.

All you international affairs freaks might enjoy this one, and I felt it was good to hear Annan's perspective on things.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Around the Web

A good article about the joys of reading big, fat books by Steven Chapman over on Townhall.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fire in the Blood by P.N. Elrod

Jack and Charles have gained some small fame for their skill in tricky investigations, so it's no surprise when they are hired by a wealthy man, Sebastian Pierce, to try to find out what has become of an heirloom  ruby and diamond bracelet stolen by one of his daughter, Marian's fast crowd of friends. Marian is a little faster than her daddy expects, and Jack finds this out on the first night of their hunt when she makes a daring play for him, just before her very jealous boyfriend walks in on them. With his vampire strength, Jack has no problem dealing with a jealous lover, especially paired with his nosferatu persuasive skills.

One little passage that readers who are not of a certain age will not understand:
"I hit the period and debated whether to turn it into an exclamation point...I backspaced, tapped the apostrophe key, and rolled out the sheet, adding it to the stack of deathless prose next to my portable."
You had to have been there to get it.

But the thief, McAlister, turns out to be more than just a thief. He and his accomplice have set up a basic blackmail racket - he seduces women of means, while his partner takes pictures, which are then used to extort money from the women. When he leads Jack and Charles on a hot chase through town, then turns up messily dead, the trail rapidly leads away from the usual suspects of family and close friends, deeper into Chicago's underworld - the mundane sort.

Escott and Fleming have some messy misadventures as they confront a seemingly endless host of gangsters who either want the pictures or the stolen bracelet, which is worth about $15,000 (in the 1930s). I think this novel led Elrod down some alleys, herself, and ended up spanning two volumes, rather than fitting into the usual page count - the story in the next volume continues moments after this one ends. Things get darker before the dawn, here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Art in the Blood by P.N. Elrod

When his girlfriend, Bobbi, invites Jack to a party at the home of a popular artist, he never imagines it will descend into anything more sinister than sarcasm and artsy chatter. Unfortunately, Jack isn't able to mind his own business when he overhears the beginning of a beating, triggered when one of the artists, Evan is caught cheating at dice by some local hoods. When he faces down Evan's assailants, he gets drawn farther into the affairs (some literal) of artists more than he had hoped.

When Evan's sister, Sandra, is killed shortly after that, Jack's suspicions immediately turn to some sort of revenge attempt either by the angry gamblers, or a debt collection gone horribly wrong, as it turns out Evan owes money to a few gangsters, as well. Things get even more complicated when Jack finds out that the first wife of the sister's boyfriend, Alex Adrian, committed suicide - or was it murder?

The deeper Fleming and his friend, Escott, delve into the situation, the more of a tangled web they discover. Not the most exciting one of these chronicles so far, but it explores Jack and Charles' crime-solving skills a bit, and sets up some situations for later on.