Friday, August 29, 2014

The Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

 Set in Peking, 1912, James Asher and his lovely wife, Lydia, are on the trail of dangerous supernatural "others" who prey upon both the living and the undead. Hambly wastes little time getting the action moving - during the opening scene of an engagement party at an embassy, the young bride to be is strangled, seemingly by her beau, the son of one of Asher's old colleagues, Hobart. Don Simon Ysidro is also in attendance at the party, though he mysteriously disappears just before the murder is committed, after James has queried him for just enough information about the others to whet his, and we gentle readers', appetites.

Asher agrees to do what he can to exonerate his old friend's son, Ricky, which turns out to be a minor, and mostly ignored, piece of the plot, wrapped up in a sentence or two at the end of the novel. The backstory to why he was framed for a murder is slightly more integral, but the main story is about how James, Lydia, and assorted unlikely allies band together to eradicate the undead menace before the powerful players in Peking are able to make use of them to gain even more power.

I don't recall Lydia ever displaying any great sense of adventure in earlier stories, so it may be that Hambly is doing a bit of character development with her. When their adversaries attempt to sideline James by accusing him of treason, he fakes his own death, and she is the only soul who knows he is alive. She does a splendid job of acting the bereaved widow, while pressing forward with the investigation on her own.

A good conclusion and a not-unexpected plot twist to wrap up this tale.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Equoid by Charles Stross

I was fortunate to find via Facebook post a link to a free novella by Stross. His Laundry Files stories are always amusing, while simultaneously being a bit horrifying in their Lovecraftian way. Stross interweaves love letters from HPL himself with not quite Top Secret shadowy government documents and Bob Howard's wry narrative for a most entertaining tapestry.

It's a slow day in the office, filling out forms, when Bob Howard is called to his boss's office and given the assignment to head out into the English countryside to investigate a rumor that there's a unicorn infestation. Bob's not much of a country boy, but he heads out to face the music just the same. Along the way he encounters not only the arcane and unsavory equoids, but a number of very very British characters, whom I'm sure I would appreciate more if I were properly British myself.

Phrases like, "a tie that appears to be knitted from the intestines of long-dead badgers" appear every so often in the tale, causing one to chortle uncontrollably.

One of the key things in this story is the revelation for most of us, I am sure, that unicorns are not sparkly creatures who give sweet virgins pony rides, but rather more dangerous beasts.

"But I do assure you, young feller me lad, that unicorns are very real indeed, just like great white sharks and Ebola Zaire—and they’re just as much of a joking matter. Napalm, Mr. Howard, napalm and scorched earth: that’s the only language they understand. Sterilize it with fire and nerve gas, then station armed guards.”

Stross is a master of novel descriptive bits, such as, "Greg, for his part, is suitably subdued: even his beard hangs heavy, as if it senses a thunderstorm-drenching in the offing."

Fun read, and free, too!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Poison Promise by Jennifer Estep

 It seems to me as if the Elemental Assassin stories, since Gin Blanco defeated the uber villain, Mab Monroe, has become much like 1960s Batman or Green Hornet serial tv - each week a new and somewhat mediocre bad guy appears, and needs to be dealt with. Instead of systematically dismantling the criminal organization after removing its head, in some sort of sisterly teamwork with Bria, Gin just deals with each minor crisis as it comes, when coincidentally she stumbles into a situation that rouses her white knight instincts (inappropriate for a professional assassin, by the way).

When one of Gin's employees at the Pork Pit is being assaulted by a trio of drug dealers, the Spider steps in and leaves the thugs sprawled and retching on the sidewalk. But these three were minor players in the drug kingpin Beauregard Benson's organization, and when Gin later witnesses one of them being terminated with extreme prejudice by the boss himself, she ends up even more involved. As might be expected, there's a new, dangerous, and highly addictive drug on the street now, which is somehow being juiced up by magical means.

Gin's newfound reluctance to kill people unless they deserve it, either for attacking her, or for attacking her friends or family, keeps her from doing anything about Benson until it becomes clear that he will kill both her sister and her employee to keep them from bringing a criminal case against him. When she dashes off to rescue them from an ambush by the thugs, she ends up being captured and tortured, as expected, but finds an unlikely ally in the drug lord's lair who helps her to escape, so she can live to fight another day.

Hopefully Gin will take a more aggressive stance on taking out the garbage in Ashland in the next book in the series.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

 As in his earlier books, Lewis tackles a subject that is probably mind-numbingly complex to most Americans, and turns it into an interesting narrative. In Flash Boys he digs into the story of high frequency trading, or HFT, and how its growth has created a hidden "tax" on all investors.

The basic idea is that sometime shortly after the advent of fiber optic cables which transmit stock trading information between brokerages, banks and exchanges some traders realized that the amount of time information took to reach its destination could vary, depending on the length of the path taken, and that "All optical fibers were not created equal; some kinds of glass conveyed light signals more efficiently than others." Therefor, if they  paid for connections to the exchanges with very short physical distances, they could see the information on price changes and orders being placed before anyone else, and take advantage of that information in various ways to make money.

"The race they (high speed traders) needed to win was not a race against the ordinary investor, who had no clue what was happening to him, but against other high speed traders."

For a vastly simplified example, a large investment firm might want to place an order to buy a million shares of Coca Cola stock, and as a prelude to that order, they would begin by placing a small order, just to find out what the current market price is. A high frequency trader who is in the position to see that small order being placed before any other sellers see it can immediately place orders of their own which drives up the demand, which drives up the price, and they make a profit on the spread between the two.

Brad Katsuyama, who worked for the investment arm of the Royal Bank of Canada, discovered that somehow "the market" seemed to be anticipating his stock orders, and between the time he got a price quote, and then actually placed the order, only seconds later, the price had risen. This was costing his bank and its clients a great deal of money. As he began to investigate things to try to figure out why this was happening, he uncovered the entire murky business of the high frequency traders, and embarked on a crusade to make the market "fair" once again for all investors.

If you're thinking that you shouldn't care, because it's just the big banks getting played, and they make lots of money anyway, you need to remember that every small investor with a 401K plan has their money with some brokerage firm or bank, and every time the mutual fund in that 401K buys and sells stock, it costs more and sells for less, because of the HFT folks. We all get skinned.

One little interesting tidbit:
"During World War II his (Brad Katsuyama) Japanese Canadian grandparents had been interned in prison camps in western Canada."

I thought only the big bad U.S. interned its own citizens during the war. You mean to tell me that other nations thought their foreign born citizens might be a security risk, too?

Lewis also talks about "dark pools" a bit. A dark pool is an internal stock exchange run by a big bank in which one client is able to sell to another client very quietly, without the public exchanges becoming aware of the transaction, while the bank takes a cut of the transaction.

"The amazing idea the big Wall Street banks had sold to big investors was that transparency was their enemy. If, say, Fidelity wanted to sell a million shares of Microsoft Corp. - so the argument ran - they were better off putting them into a dark pool run by, say, Credit Suisse than going directly to the public exchanges. On the public exchanges, everyone would notice a big seller had entered the market, and the market price of Microsoft would plunge. Inside a dark pool, no one but the broker who ran it had any idea what was happening."

I rather loved this quote from one of the Irish-born programmers, Ronan, who went to work with Brad in his crusade to take down the HFTs.

 "I'm making thirty-five and they're making a buck twenty and they're f**king idiots."

And in the spirit of the corruptocracy that our nation has beome:

"...more than 200 SEC staffers since 2007 had left their government jobs to work for high-frequency trading firms or the firms that lobbied Washington on their behalf. Some of these people had played central roles in deciding how, or even whether, to regulate high-frequency trading." 2011 RBC study

Talking about why Russians seemed to end up programming for the HFTs,

"Good Russian programmers, they tend to have had that one experience at some time in the past - the experience of limited access to computer time."

I remember those days, myself. We used to have to make our programs lean and mean, because they ran on shared resources, which we were allowed to use only in specific time slots. With apparently unlimited data storage space and massive amounts of RAM available on inexpensive computing platforms these days, it's no wonder code multiplies indiscriminately.

This book was both fascinating and a bit worrying. Lewis never does come right out and say, "Brokerage A and Bank B have the programs in place to not get taken advantage of by HFT" and I really wish he had, so I'd know where to place my bets.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The President's Dirty Little Secret by John Russell

Giving you a twofer today, with the 2nd in a pair of books I simply could not motivate myself to finish.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was sent a copy of this book, gratis, for review by the author because I had enjoyed an earlier published work. Also in the interests of full disclosure, I didn't enjoy this one nearly as well.

Though I am not a gun nut in most senses of the word, I was raised in a semi-rural area of Idaho and have a nodding acquaintance with firearms and gun vocabulary, so it bothered me right away when one of the police is asked, after an assassination attempt, what model of gun was used, and he replies "A Saturday Night Special". Saturday Night Special is slang term for a small caliber easily concealed handgun, arising out of the Jim Crow laws in the South, not a particular make or type of gun. It's as wildly vague as the current "assault rifle" and has pretty much fallen out of usage today, which leads me to the following:

Although the story appears to be "contemporary", it refers to an attitude about AIDS being a "gay disease" and a judgement from God on homosexual behavior that went out thirty years ago, for the most part. This and a Hinkley-like assassination attempt, with Secret Service agents taking wounds to the chest that are easily stopped with a Kevlar vest - standard issue today - makes me think this book was resurrected from a very early draft, after initial success with the author's other novels, with insufficient editing.

Too much trouble suspending my disbelief, and the protagonist, an alcohol sodden journalist, didn't engage either my interest or sympathy rapidly enough, so I gave up about twenty pages in.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

 This book appeared on a list recently of the most groundbreaking works of science fiction in the twentieth century. It turns out that I'd read all of them except this one, so I made haste to reserve a copy from my local library.

I think it's highly likely that the only reason this novel was so "groundbreaking" was because it was written by a black woman (in the 70s) about an explicitly black, female protagonist, exploring or deploring, not sure just which, past and present racism.

I have to admit that I'm nearly oblivious to race and racism, apart from being bombarded by accounts of it in the media, having grown up in an area which was overwhelmingly caucasian. I never got the news that I was supposed to judge anyone on the color of their skin; there was no opportunity to do so even if I tried. We did have native americans around, but most of the ones I knew were a) adults and b) customers at my father's business so I treated them just like anyone else in those categories, with courtesy and respect.

I suppose that this novel might have "grabbed" me immediately if I were more sensitive to race, but nothing about either the plot line - garden variety mystical time travel - or the characters, a modern black professional woman and a plantation owner's son whom I assume she's going to teach to treat black people as valuable human beings, not "niggers" got my attention. The writing is pretty much on a par with other stories from that era - sadly dated. We have much better writers to read these days.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Succubus Revealed by Richelle Mead

 I must confess, I knew where this story arc was eventually going to land about halfway through the first novel, but it was a long, strange trip getting there. Just when Georgina finally begins to believe she can enjoy some happiness with her lover, Seth, even though their affair has cost her her job at Emerald City bookstore, and most of her friends there. She's working part time as a Santa's helper at the local mall, trying to keep the Santa employed there from hitting the bottle too early and often, when she gets a formal notification from Hell of her pending transfer out of Seattle, to a much less sinful city, Las Vegas.

A great quote in the early going,

"...she (the archdemoness of Portland) demands we step up and prove what superior Hellish minions we are."

"How?" asked Hugh, looking mildly interested. "With a soul pledge drive?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Jerome.
"'Then with what?" I asked.
Jerome gave a tight-lipped smile. "With bowling."

When she visits Vegas before her transfer, she finds that her old friend, the incubus Bastien, is there already, and the archdemon of Vegas, Luis, is one she has worked with before, and thinks is a great boss. There's a friendly and gregarious succubus there who welcomes her with open arms, and arranges for her to get a dancing job right away. It's just perfect.

In fact, it's too perfect. That gets Georgina, Roman and Hugh worried, and they begin to suspect that Hell has more serious and underhanded reasons for getting Georgina out of Seattle than either its natural capriciousness or her lackluster performance recently can justify. She also uncovers some evidence that points to Erik's death as a homicide by a Hellish assassin, rather than a burglary gone horribly wrong, and when a demon is involved in making Seth's sister-in-law suffer a relapse in her fight with cancer, well then, three times is enemy action.

When they finally get to the bottom of the matter it creates the crisis we've all been hoping for, to reveal what Mead has been up to with Georgina's story all along.

I have to admit, I seldom get teary-eyed over anything in urban fantasy, but this one had me a little misty at a few points. Good work.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Monster Hunter Nemesis by Larry Correia

 I didn't enjoy this installment of the Monster Hunter series quite as much as the earlier ones, though it at least gives us all a touch of the bigger picture, and a peek behind the scenes of some of the larger conflicts, and has a most puzzling twist in the last few sentences.

This one is all about agent Franks, short for Frankenstein, of the MCB. The rogue agents who are highly placed within the MCB have decided to go after former director Myers and Franks, his trusty sidekick, to gain control of the agency and to increase the "firepower" of STFU (the acronym still cracks me up) and its pet project, Nemesis. Nemesis started as a way to build super soldiers with powers much like Franks' but they got exactly what they bargained for, and not so much what they appear to have expected. The golems they built were inhabited by the Fallen, demons exiled to Hell after the rebellion against The Maker, and these soldiers have their own agenda, first to kill Franks and then to inflict misery on mankind.

Franks is framed for an attack on MCB headquarters and goes on the run as a fugitive, aided and abetted occasionally by those agents still loyal to Meyers. The over the top action is punctuated every so often by flashbacks to Franks' creation and history. After being hunted down by mankind for many years, he finally finds a home with the Hessian mercenaries prior to the Revolutionary War, but an encounter with General Washington and a "road to Damascus" moment puts him under contract with the fledgling country, keeping the monsters at bay.

I have a bit of a philosophical, or perhaps literary, problem with regenerative monsters, like the werewolves in the MH stories, or Franks and the Nemesis troops, as well as a few others. In a fight, they soak up damage, heal themselves from devastating injuries just up to the point where the plot requires that we move along...and then suddenly the damage becomes effective, and they collapse or die.

Worth the read, but not Correia's best.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff by Matt Kibbe

 I was expecting from the subtitle of this book to encounter a well-reasoned set of platform planks, derived from first principles, but didn't get that, exactly, just more of a litany of recent government actions that should make us favor a more limited government. Perhaps some of this stuff is unknown to those who don't like to be bothered with current events, but I've already viewed most of these with some degree of alarm.

There are, however, some well-written bits.

"We should always be skeptical of too much concentrated power in the hands of government agents. They will naturally abuse it. Outside government, an unnatural concentration of power - such as the extraordinary leverage wielded by mega-investment banks or government employee unions - is always in partnership with government power monopolists."

Kibbe writes about the trials of finding Ayn Rand's works in a bookstore before everything was available at our fingertips. I used to spend my days off trolling all the local bookstores looking for undiscovered science fiction and fantasy to add to my library, and took every opportunity while traveling to visit used book stores, as well.

"Back in the day, you couldn't just log into your account on and find it, or the multitude of books related to it. I looked in any bookstore, at every opportunity. It was difficult to find."

I think Kibbe and I might be contemporaries, as this passage rang some bells for me, taking me back to when I was making less than minimum wage working at the University of Idaho food service in the SUB.

"I was able to pay my tuition by clearing trees and washing dishes for the college (students were exempt from the minimum wage that had been such a barrier to my earlier entry into the workforce)."

So, if the Affordable Care Act is such a boon to mankind, why is every organization with political pull doing their best not to be covered under its provisions?

"...about 1200 businesses have been granted exemptions from the ObamaCare employer mandate...labor unions representing 543,812 workers and private companies employing 69,813 workers..."

I found the following passages rather amusing:

Nobel laureate James Buchanan's "The message of Keynesianism might be summarized as: What is folly in the conduct of a private family may be prudence in the conduct of the affairs of a great nation."


Adam Smith's "What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom."

On the individual mandate which represents another vast transfer of wealth from the working young adults to their grandparents:

"Why not respect young people enough as sovereign individuals to let them choose? Why not let young people save for their future health care needs tax free in exchange for voluntarily choosing a catastrophic health insurance policy?"

On the subject of imprisonment for drug offenses:

"The government should protect us from violence against other individuals. The sort of self-inflicted bad things that people can do to themselves, we should try to work as a society to minimize that, but putting people in jail for doing bad things to themselves is just not good for society."

The Manifesto

1. Comply with the laws you pass
"rather than craft narrow exemptions or even delay implementation...the Senate decided instead to exclude legislative and executive staffers from the online disclosure requirements of the STOCK act."

2. Stop spending money we don't have
3. Scrap the tax code
4. Put patients in charge
5. Choice, not conscription
6. End insider bailouts

Pelosi on TARP "It just comes down to one simple thing. They have described a precipice. We are on the brink of doing something that might pull us back from that precipice., I think we have a responsibility. We have worked in a bipartisan way."

7. Let parents decide
8. Respect my privacy
9. End the Fed monopoly
10. Avoid entangling alliances
11. Don't take people's stuff
12. Defend your right to know

All good ideas, but unlikely ever to be implemented, as the political and bureaucratic classes are far too enamored of their wealth and power and are entangled with the corporate special interests. Both major parties are in it up to their eyeballs, and dismantling the bureaucracy in Washington would take a Category 7 hurricane.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Shameless Plug

My best friend's wife and her writing partner have written a book, which is available on Amazon at the following link:

Cat o' Tales

Haven't had a chance to read it, but it's on the TBR stack.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Succubus Shadows by Richelle Mead

 How does an author skillfully give us a core dump of all of the background information on a character who has lived for centuries, if not millenia? By having her kidnapped and trapped in the world of dreams by a pair of Oneroi (minions of Nyx, whom we encountered earlier in Georgina's saga) and forced to dream about events from the past, sometimes truthfully, sometimes falsely, that's how!.

As the story begins, Roman is now Georgina's roomie, following him saving the day when his father, the archdemon Jerome, was summoned and imprisoned by rogue demons within his organization. Seth and Maddie are getting married soon, and Georgina has been dragooned into being the fashion consultant for the big even and even, horror of horrors, a bridesmaid! There's a new succubus in town - ostensibly playing tourist, but more than likely up to no good, especially when she sets out to seduce Seth.

One of the charming things about these stories is the "humanity" of the immortals with whom Georgina associates. Cory the vampire has a HUGE crush on a Goth girl, and the vampires, imps and resident angel in town, Carter, gather on weeknights sometimes to play board games.

After a bad round of Pictionary,

"I left amid protests abut being a bad sport and considered myself lucky when Carter said they were going to play Jenga next."

It is to giggle.

I had high hopes that we'd finally get to the bottom of  the mystery of Georgina's contract, but we're left with the whispers of a dying man pointing us entirely in another direction. More fun and games will follow, I'm sure.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Stone Cold by Devon Monk

Soul complements Allie and Zayvion are expecting a child, and the "action" begins with Shame and Terric, plus most of those Authority figures we've come to know, attending a baby shower at their home. Monk has done a wily and creative thing here, introducing us to a relatively peaceful environment, making us care about Allie and the baby, which rachets up the tension even more intensely when the inevitable crisis arrives, and Eli Collins and his government thugs begin their program to destroy or enslave all the Soul Complement magic users.

Things get extraordinarily dark very quickly, when Collins appears through his gate (wouldn't you think our heroes would have figured out some way to block that passageway after their experiences in Hell Bent?) and beats Shame and Terric to "the draw" with bullets vs. magic, killing Shame, and kidnapping Terric. Terric is carried off to the evil doctor's secret lair (how cliche, eh?) to be the subject of torture designed to strip him of his magic and to use that magic to power a small army of "suicide bomber" zombies - people who were formerly infected with the tainted magic during the events in Monk's Allie Beckstrom series.

Shame goes to "heaven", where he encounters all of his beloved dead, including his father, his lover Deesa, and his personal "bound" ghost, Eleanor, who is now freed from her chains. He is convinced that he must return to life, such as it is for someone who is Death personified, so that he can rescue Terric and save the world for truth, justice, and the magical way. When he returns to his body, he finds that he has been mostly dead for a week, and to say he's still a bit under the weather would be putting it mildly. Nevertheless, he heads off with Sunny the leader of the Hounds, his former assistant Dash, and his old friend Cody to rescue Sunny's boyfriend, Davy, and his soul complement Terric, whose location they have recently miraculously discovered. One of his first acts upon his return, however, is to re-bind Eleanor's ghost to him when his hunger for life energy sucks most of hers down into the gaping black hole that is his soul.

A battle ensues, with a certain amount of collateral damage, including Sunny, whom Shame drains of life when she gets within his blast radius - and binds her to himself, just like Eleanor. Once again, Collins and his allies manage to escape, though it's Shames avowed goal to kill the man leaving another hundred or so pages to struggle, and the rogue government agent, Krogher, has all of his zombie bombers primed and waiting to destroy all the soul complement pairs, giving his group unrivaled power in the world.

Extraordinarily dark, difficult, and definitely a fitting ending for this short series.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans by Richard Hooker and William E. Butterworth

It begins with a kidnapping, and gets steadily more amusing and twisted from there. Hawkeye's wife, Mary Pierce, is about to deliver their fourth child, and is understandably not amused by the idea of her husband assisting during the delivery, so she has a chat with the guys from The Swamp. Trapper, Spearchucker and Duke put together a plot to get Hawkeye out of town for the duration, and Mary first drugs him with a doctored hot cocoa, then they bundle him up in a straightjacket and put him on a plain for New Orleans, where the annual meeting of the TA & VD (Tonsil, Adenoid and Vas Deferens) Society is taking place.

By an amusing set of coincidences, the French Quarter hotel which is hosting the TA & VD convention is also hosting a missionary conference, where Hot Lips Houlihan is one of the medical missionaries, and a Knights of Columbus grand gathering where Archbishop Patrick Mulcahy is representing the Vatican, and the President of the TA & VD Society is...Frank Burns. It gets far more convoluted before it's all through.

Great lines,

"Mr Wachauf had gone to meet his Maker as a result of the energy shortage. He had been standing under an electromagnetic lift supervising the loading of a fifteen-ton six-foot square mass of compacted automobiles into a railroad car at the precise moment the Southeastern North Dakota Power Company had been forced to reduce power to its clients."

Strong drink,

"Do you still make them (martinis) by exposing the gin for thirty seconds to the smell of an old vermouth bottle cork?"

Which reminds me where I got my favorite dry martini recipe, after all these years.

There is an amusing paragraph or two about why the manager of the hotel doesn't like to have religious groups stay there. They brown bag their meals and don't spend any money at the bar, and "The cold truth of the that the black ink comes from the boozers."

Which reminds me of my conversation with the longtime owner of the Three Rivers Resort. She told me that the original owners were a family of home-schoolers who couldn't stand all the partying people who came there to raft the river, so they sold it to..a Mormon family who also had little tolerance for the hard-drinking party animals who sold it to her and her husband, a pair of retired California school teachers, "We sell them all the beer, wine and cigarettes they want."

But I digress.

Hooker and Butterworth introduce us to the first of the "new" characters in the M*A*S*H universe, "Horsey" de la Cheveaux, a Cajun oil multimillionaire whose family's land grant in Bayou Perdu dates back to the time of Louis XIV, and who was patched back together at the 4077th by Hackeye and Trapper, back in the day.

This book actually begins a pattern which continues through the rest of the series, as various characters, for diverse reasons, end up gathering unwittingly in a series of cities, worldwide. As they say, it's all about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hanky Panky

Like Bilbo Baggins and most other hobbits, I find one of the keys to happiness to be a well-stocked larder. So when I see some of my staple items on sale at local groceries, I like to dash over and stock up. It wouldn't due to run short when a troupe of dwarves arrives unexpectedly, would it?

One of the local chain operations often has coupon specials, or "mix-n-match" specials based on buying a certain number of qualifying products, which discounts all of those products heavily. If you get just one of the items wrong, substituting an item that does not qualify for the discount, you don't receive the discount on any. Fair enough.

 But I have begun to notice an irritating pattern recently. Nearly every time I've gone to try to take advantage of these deals recently, the space that holds the qualifying item has been stocked with a non-qualifying item. When I got to the register, the discount was not applied, and it took myself and the cashier several minutes to sort it all out. If I wasn't the mathematically inclined sort of fellow who knows within a dime what the total of a grocery receipt is going to be off the top of my head, or if I had a number of non-sale items to purchase as part of my normal grocery run, instead of solely buying the sale items on these trips, I wouldn't have noticed it, and I'm beginning to think it is all part of the store's strategy - to avoid selling the items they have on sale - a bait and switch scheme most cleverly camouflaged.

They can say "Oh, items get mis-shelved all the time. Customers put them back in the wrong place."

Or, they may say it was simply a matter of keeping the shelves looking like they're fully stocked by moving product from an adjacent space.

But I think it's intentional, and they're relying on the fact that most people don't watch their grocery receipts like a hawk.

 "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action."
Auric Goldfinger

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Jitters

You know, I ain't afraid o' nuttin' but I'm a little frightened right now.

About thirty years ago, my wife and I were Amway distributors with a fairly aggressive organization in California. We loved the people we were involved with, we loved the positive messages, and the positive thinking reading materials they promoted, and we loved the products! We did fairly well for a little while, but we eventually hit the wall when I realized I just wasn't willing to do what it took to be successful in Amway or, indeed, with any multilevel marketing organization. Nothing they asked us to do was illegal, immoral, unethical, or any of that - I simply was neither a salesman (someday maybe I'll talk about my disastrous career selling cars) nor a recruiter. Just not my style.

Fast forward a few years, and we had some lovely friends who were Amway distributors, too.We joined their business to hang around with nice folks and buy the products wholesale, instead of retail. Things went along swimmingly for a while until it became apparent to them that we weren't gonna move along with the train taking them to success, and when they moved to the big city to pursue their business and dreams, we never heard from them again.

Sometime a few years later, a customer came into the restaurant I was managing - couldn't even tell you his name today - and was really friendly, just a super fellow. We got to talking, and he asked about my family, and talked about his wife..I thought we really hit it off. A few days later, he even called me and invited my wife and I to join him and his wife at a banquet they were attending. It wasn't often I had an evening free, but this one turned out to be, and so my wife and I got all dressed up and went to the banquet, and met lots of people, and they were all so nice, and as the evening went on, it turned out to be a recruiting party for people to sell Foresters' insurance. And here I thought those folks liked me for my sparkling wit and boyish good looks.

My radar for that sort of thing was always on, after that, and so we never really fell for any recruiting pitches from friends or family for the next ten years or so. During those years, we managed to avoid buying a set of Cutco knives from friends and friends of friends several times, even though we'd let them come and make their hard core pitch, "just for practice".

In the meantime, we became good friends with the parents of one of our children. We went to football games together - our boys played on the same team. We had meals at their home, and they at ours, and we had a tradition of watching every Super Bowl together, having a huge family potluck and lots of fun. We went camping together, and I took them and their kids water skiing. They even surprised me with the tombstones and black balloons for my fortieth birthday. And then, one day, they invited us to come over to listen to a sales pitch for, if I remember correctly, a multilevel marketing way to sell phone service, before cell phones became so ubiquitous. We told them we weren't interested in being part of anything like that, and that was the last time we ever heard from them. They barely spoke to us when we saw them around the neighborhood for years afterward, and even to this day our conversations are brief and stilted when we meet in the grocery store or see them out on their morning constitutionals. We lost a very close pair of friends to network marketing.

So, when I got off the phone just a few minutes ago, you can perhaps understand my trepidation. We have a couple with whom we have been friends for several years. We met in a small group bible study, and have shared our joys and sorrows and lots of good times. They were there for I was getting ready for and recovering from back surgery, and at a time in our lives when both couples have caught the travel bug, we love the opportunity to get together and talk shop and share photos, and dream about retirement homes and all that sort of thing. BUT...we saw on Facebook the other day that they were at a convention back East for something that appeared to be multilevel/network/direct sales, and my radar began to ping. I got a text from my friend yesterday saying they wanted to get together with us, and asking when would be a good time to call. He called today, and they just want to come over and "run something by us". He trotted out all the familiar phrases, and swore it was "the opposite of Amway" (which may not be the best thing to say to me, if you recall, we loved our Amway experience), and I'm just afraid, truly afraid, that I'm going to lose another friend when I refuse to be part of their business. I'm happy to be a customer, should their product fulfill a real need for me, and not a imagined or manufactured one, as most of those plans seem to be.

War to the Knife by Peter Grant

 As expected, Peter Grant has given us a fast-paced, action-filled, page-turner of military SF to enjoy in this first of a new series. The citizens of the planet Laredo have been invaded by the thugs from Bactria, and their planet has been occupied and oppressed for quite a while as the story begins. The resistance continues fighting against the occupying forces, despite the Bactrian Security Service's policy of immediately shooting, or torturing first, then shooting, any captured freedom fighters. The horrendous abuses perpetrated on the population by the Bactrians have all been documented by the resistance, and they have finally decided to send one of their best and brightest young officers, Lt. Dave Carson, off planet to alert the galaxy and appeal to the United Planets for relief.

To provide a diversion, the resistance stages its largest attack ever to coincide with the arrival of the Bactrian Satrap and his Crown Prince on the planet, to review the troops and bolster the reign of the current military governor. They help themselves to Bactrian shuttles, weaponry and supplies and stage a major attack on the capitol city during the celebration, causing massive casualties, while at the same time Dave and his wife, Tamsin, and a small cadre steal a spaceship capable of getting into orbit, attack the space station above Laredo, use its captured weapons to destroy the only armed vessels in the system, destroy the station itself with a nuke, then flee with a merchant freighter to the planet Neu Helvetica. That's the plot in a nutshell.

The only gripe I have with the tale, aside from its brevity (only 269 pages), is that Grant has a tendency, it seems to me, to make things work out a little too conveniently for his heroes. I've seen it with the Maxwell Saga, and it's rearing its head here, too. Yes, many of the good guys die, and yes, the fighting is fierce and the enemy evil, but the entire multi-pronged attack on the city went far more smoothly than far simpler operations proceed in real life, and I never felt the tension in my gut, you know?

One of the things I'm curious to find out about in subsequent installments of this story is whether the Satrap's son will actually act upon the newfound revelations about how it may be better to treat one's subjects far more leniently than has been his family's habits, so as to avoid the sort of hatred and destruction that the Laredans dealt out. Carson and his surviving friends have also begun a crusade of sorts to unite many of the smaller, weaker planets and form a joint space navy task force to deal with aggressive polities like the Bactrians, and it will be interesting to see where Grant goes with that.

As always, enjoyable, and worth the price of admission.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer by Kent Kiehl

 Reviewers on Amazon often seemed to dislike Kiehl's attitude, accusing him of bragging. I see where they might have been coming from, but I just dismissed it as the ravings of a man who is passionate about his work, and excited about where life has taken him. When he was working on his doctorate in Psychology, he got the rare opportunity to work with a Canadian penitentiary and take the inmates, one by one, to a local hospital with an fMRI machine  "...scientists can determine which brain regions are consuming oxygen while participants are doing specific tasks in the MRI scanner...We typically refer to this technique as functional MRI, or fMRI." to scan their brain waves to see how they differ from the brain waves of "normal" non-criminal people.

He occasionally seems to have a wry sense of humor about things, as evinced by the tag line on the story he tells of how he got the opportunity to study psychopaths in prison, "And that's how I started down the career path that brought me to maximum security prison."

I learned so many new things about the brain,

"The amygdala also helps us learn what stimuli are important to amplify and raises this information into awareness...The hippocampus ist he seat of memory in the brain...particularly good at storing emotional memories...The temporal pole is...a region where sensory information and visual information converge...and is responsible for detecting what type of emotion is being conveyed by affective speech."

All of these areas of the brain are impaired, to some degree, in psychopaths. They do not process emotional, motivation, and value-based stimuli in the same way as normal people.

For some time, psychologists have used fairly simple, low tech methods to assess whether a criminal has psychopathic traits or not.

"...scores on the Psychopathy Checklist uncannily predict which inmates will commit new crimes and which inmates won't. Indeed, inmates who score high on the Psychopathy checklist are four to eight times as likely to recidivate than inmates with low scores."

With the fMRI, scientists are finally able to directly see what's going on as our brains process information.

"The brain is truly amazing at differentiating different word types. One hundred and seventy-five milliseconds after the word is presented, the brain has started to put abstract words on a different processing path than concrete words. But for psychopaths, brain waves show that all words were processed in the same way, going down the same path. Their brains did not respond differently to abstract and concrete words."

A couple of fun facts:
"Psychopaths rarely know details about their children...they often don't even now how many children they (might) have."
"The best available evidence shows that for every ten male psychopaths, there is one female psychopath. Like their male counterparts, female psychopaths tend to get in trouble with the law and often end up in prison."

Perhaps the most important revelation for Kiehl was finding that psychopaths may actually be born, not made.

"The incarcerated youth with elevated callous and unemotional traits as assessed by the Youth Psychopathy Checklist had the same brain abnormalities as the adults with psychopathy."

Prior to this discovery, childhood indicators of psychopathy were often misdiagnosed.

ADHD and "Childhood bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder are diagnoses du jour that are often used to (mis)label the child with severe disruptive behavioral problems."

All in all an interesting read, though once again it feels like a research paper expanded and dumbed down a bit for us non-psychology majors. Kiehl's research has some major sociological and criminological implications.