Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

 If you read enough, I suppose, odd coincidences take place. For some reason, all three books I checked out from the library this week turned out to be written by British authors. So we'll just dub this the British Invasion Trifecta, and wrap it up with Charlie Stross' latest Laundry File adventure.

Bob and Mo are in a bit of a rough patch in their marriage, and their dinner together simply turns into an argument instead of a path to making up, so Bob heads in to the office for a while to take his mind off of things. He gets a bit more than marriage troubles when one of his colleagues summons a major dweller from another dimension and nearly destroys the New Annex of The Laundry, and when his side project investigating the probability that vampires actually exist bears more fruit than it should have.

This one has a number of good twists and turns, and the usual Stross humor, with Bob getting a "promotion" at the end of the messy affair, but the ending made me very upset. I'm not sure how I feel about going on with this series at this point.

A couple of amusing lines:

"(Zombies)...don't do unease:they're placid as long as they've got some flesh to embody them and the occasional hunk of brains to munch on (Any old slaughterhouse brains will do: they eat them for the fatty acids. At a pinch, you can substitute a McDonald's milkshake.)"

"We use committees for all the ulterior purposes for which they might have been designed: diffusion of executive responsibility, plausible deniability, misdirection, providing the appearance of activity without the substance, and protecting the guilty."

2014 Recap

The grand total of books read and reviewed for 2014 - 142. That's a bit off of my normal total, but it's been a busy year, filled with travel and other things. Maybe 2015 will be a record-breaker.


#1 Urban Fantasy Novel - Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
#1 Science Fiction by a new author - Andy Weir's The Martian
#2 Science Fiction by a new author - A Darkling Sea by James Cambias
#1 Fantasy Novel - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
#1 Non-Fiction - The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray
#1 Thought Provoker - Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance
#1 Travel Book - Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe

Monday, December 29, 2014

How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce

 I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book. It was billed as Fantasy, but it just barely qualifies, even as Urban Fantasy - more urban than fantasy. Nevertheless, it was a very well-written and entertaining, in a very British and sarcastic manner, at least for a while, after which it became a little dark for my taste, though still eminently readable.

William Heaney works for the government. Not as some sort of secret agent or occult investigator, but merely a middle management functionary who attends endless meetings and serves on multiple committees. He does, however, have a heart for the downtrodden, and manifests his support by donating heavily to a shelter in London called GoPoint, run by a saintly woman named Antonia. Oddly, the source of his large gifts is a mildly illicit scam that he and his friends, Stynx and Jaz, together run on book collectors, selling them counterfeit antique books.

William has been dealing in antique books since his college days, which is when he became inadvertently involved in the results of a ritual that left him able to perceive the "demons" who flock around humans, though few others around him can see them.

"I had no intention of visiting it (GoPoint's library). Firstly, GoPoint was infested with demons for obvious reasons...It was while they were out of the building seeking purpose that the demons became most active in their prowling, relentless search for a new host. Secondly, demons do tend to cluster around the yellowing pages and cracked spines of second-hand books. I've no idea why."

A neat turn of phrase here and there, such as,

"I think that was when I first learned the glorious cost-free feeling of righteousness that comes with defending other people's reputations."

"What was all this gibberish about fun? Fun wasn't really something I went in for. Fun and I had parted company on the high road of life at about the time my hair started to thin and my knee joints lost all compression, quick handshake, no fuss, farewell."


"My heart sank. Well, not quite sank, but took on water, gurgled, listed to one side, tried to recover steam."

William likes to drink his red wine. He's a bit of a connoisseur. I like how Joyce describes his tipple as,

"a beaker of the rubicund relief and rescue" and "red-robed oblivion".

So, the book seems to meander about, sightseeing through London on its way to a semi-sweet conclusion, as Heaney fights with his ex-wife, deals with his non-resident children, tries to keep the latest scam from falling apart, gets involved in a "terrorist" bombing, and fights against "the fraudulent demon of falling in love" when he meets Yasmin, who may have the ability to pull him out of his bureaucratic rut, in the end.

What it is not, is fantasy, even though Charles deLint says it's so. A good enough story, but not quite my (English Breakfast) cup of tea.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Autism Spectrum Disorders by Ana Maria Rodriguez

 Written for USA Today's readership, this book scans at  perhaps a middle school reading level, but that works out well, as I was really only interested in getting a basic picture of the subject of ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, diagnoses of which seem to have grown in leaps and bounds over the last few decades. The book explains that this phenomenon isn't a symptom of greater incidence of the affliction, but rather of an expanded definition and acceptance of a wider suite of symptoms by psychological authorities.

"In fact, the majority of the scientific community agrees that no autism epidemic exists. Expert Dr. Eric Fombonne at McGill University in Canada has worked in several autism prevalence studies. Frombone says that one of the main factors behind the rise in the number of case is that the medical definition of ASD has expanded over the years."

At the most severe end of the spectrum is classical autism, while various shades of Asperger's Syndrome are at the less disabling end.

"People with an autism disorder in any degree of its severity have developed a mind that works differently than most people's minds. In consequence, they do not see the world, learn from the world, and think and act in the world in the same way most people do."

To be diagnosed with ASD,

"an individual must show some mild to severe impairment in all three of the following areas: 1) Communication, 2) socialization, and 3) repetitive behaviors and restricted interests."

Sounds a great deal like the guest list of a typical party in my best friend's basement in the 70s.

There are some peripheral symptoms which also may occur:

"...25 percent of people with ASD also have developmental delays. present in nearly one-third of individuals with ASD. Other conditions associated with ASD include digestive problems, immune problems, and a reduced ability of the liver to eliminate toxins."

Autism was first identified as a psychological disease in the 1940s by Leo Kanner, who worked with children at Johns Hopkins. In 1944, Hans Asperger published a report about what became known as Asperger's syndrome, but it wasn't widely available in the U.S. until it was translated from German in 1981 (coincidentally the start of the "epidemic"). The main difference between Kanner's autistic children and Asperger's children was that Kanner's children "either lacked speech or had an unusual way of using it, such as reversing pronouns or echolalia (repeating back what others have said to them without understanding the meaning)."

Autism affects more boys than girls.

A very rare condition called Savant Syndrome is sometimes associated with autism, as depicted by Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond in Rain Man.

Lots of good information here for people who suspect their children might be affected by ASD on getting diagnoses and treatment. My interest was more one of casual curiosity.

ASD appears to be genetically caused, and linked to differences in the development of the brain in children, especially in the amygdala, which in children with ASD grow faster but have significantly fewer neurons than in normal children. Other areas in the cerebellum may also be affected.

"When people without ASD perform this task (shape recognition) a particular group of neurons on the cortex fires an electrical signal at the same time. Researchers record this brain electrical activity as a gamma band (a pattern of brain waves) in an EEG.

As people practice a task, they get better at it. And when they get better at it, the brain activity changes. The gamma band in their EEG becomes smaller. This shows that fewer specialized neurons have become involved in distinguishing between shapes. The brain becomes more efficient at finishing the task.

In people with ASD...the gamma bands do not get small as the tasks are practiced. Instead, the bands stay the same."

An interesting new term I just picked up here - theory of mind.

"The awareness that other people have beliefs and desires different from our own has been called theory of mind...refers to a cognitive process that allows people to understand someone else's perspective, or point of view."

Many teens with autism lack the theory of mind.

Researchers have proven that autism is primarily genetic, with some environmental factors that contribute. The idea that vaccinations cause autism has been pretty thoroughly debunked, shrill celebrity advocates of the theory notwithstanding.

A good book to read for a layman's perspective on ASD. Quick and easy to follow.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Around the Web

A book review over at The Boogie Man is My Friend.

Cursed by Benedict Jacka

Once again, I'm torn trying to decide if this is a Harry Dresden ripoff, a tribute, or something new and different. Jacka writes well, and is entertaining, however, so I suppose it's best to avoid invidious comparisons and just get on with reading his Alex Verus series.

Perhaps the best plot synopsis can be found in the text of the novel, itself.

"I needed to figure out who was trying to have me killed, and why. I needed to find out more about Belthas (one of the White Council Mages who hires Verus to locate some dark magicians performing a forbidden ritual) and Meredith (a lovely on the outside lass who manages to cloud Verus' mind with her charms) and what their goals were. And I needed to do something about Luna and Martin and the monkey's paw."

That last bit can be traced to the story Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs with which any student of weird fiction should be familiar. The monkey's paw of the tale grants its holder three wishes, which always seem to end badly for the wishee. Luna's boyfriend wannabe, Martin, absconds with a monkey's paw from Alex's shop and uses it to gain some important magic powers, believing that the ordinary rules can't apply to him, since obviously no one as smart as him has ever held the artifact. Hmmm...something familiar there...(whispers) political?

In the end, of course, it does end badly for Martin, even though the paw doesn't really have to twist his wishes, he gets exactly what's coming to him.

There's a great little comic series of pastiches on customers in Alex's magic shop, followed by his speech when he meets Martin.

"I don't sell spells, and I don't sell tricks. I don't carry illusions or marked cards or weighted coins. I cannot sell you an endless purse or help you win the lottery. I can't make that girl you've got your eye on fall in love with you, and I wouldn't do it even if I could. I don't have a psychic hotline to your dead relatives. I don't know if you're going to be successful in your career, and I don't know when you're going to get married. I can't get you into Hogwarts or any other kind of magic school, and if you even mention those sparkly vampires I will do something unpleasant to you."

One of the fun themes in this book is that the "good guys" don't always turn out to be good, and that Alex once again has to ally with the "bad guys" to thwart the latest power-mad mage's schemes.

Putting the next book in the series on my hold list.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Ultimate Guide to Buying and Selling a Business by Ira Nottonson

 A very thorough treatment of the subject of buying and selling a business.

Sometimes, I even learn new terms.

 "Changing your profit and loss statement (P&L) from one used for tax purposes to one used for selling purposes is called reconstituting your P&L."

Note that this is not in any way a fraudulent procedure, but that there are certain legitimate deductions which are placed in a P&L for your tax returns which are not really "losses" from the point of view of the owner of a business, such as depreciation on real property and equipment, or the leasing of a business vehicle, among other things.

A good thing to remember about what the highest priority of a prospective business owner is and should be.

"Business-buying candidates are always looking for the largest income they an generate, which they usually equate with the largest investment they can handle."

On early negotiations, and the process of trying to put together a deal,

"Profit and loss statements, together with balance sheets and cash flow analyses, should not be necessary at this point (first meeting between buyer and seller). If you have a face-to-face conversation with the seller, you will resolve many questions."

This one I found interesting,

"Balloon payments were quite reasonable in real estate, because many people didn't live in the same house for more than five years. They normally sold their houses, which allowed them to pay the entire note before the balloon payment came due. In addition, the housing market is relatively stable and easily financed compared with the small business market."

Really? Ah...this was written in 2005 before the boom and crash of the U.S. real estate market.

Though very thorough, much of the information on franchising, business brokers, and the responsibilities of accounts and lawyers in the business acquisition process were sections I skimmed. The chapter on non compete and nondisclosure contracts was pretty interesting, however. I've signed some NDAs in my time, so it was good to get a professional's opinion on how these things are enforced, and stressed the importance of a good exit interview (of which I have never seen the point before) in setting expectations on that score for departing employees.

There's a good "wrap-up/review" section at the back of the book that reiterates some key concepts, such as the P&L statements, cash flow analyses on accrual and cash basis and other issues to consider when buying or selling a business.

Great resource for budding entrepreneurs.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs

Aren has finally shed her spinsterhood by marrying a much younger man, Daryn, When she sees a vision of disaster in the near future, but because mages are either enslaved by the powerful blood mages, or put to death - and definitely frowned upon by the normal villagers, she makes a bad decision not to warn him. When bandits come and kill him and the rest of her family as they work the fields later that day, she is able to hide in the cellar until they have finished ransacking the house. When the villagers arrive bearing the body of her husband, she decides to "out" herself to deliver a warning about what is coming.

At the same time as the bandit attack, there is also "a disturbance in The Force", where all sorts of magical bindings are dispelled, and huge earthquakes cause mountains to collapse, blocking most of the roads out of the village.

I've seen this plot beginning before, in one variation or another...bereft young woman leaves home and family, or loses home and family, to venture out into the wide world to discover her gifts, from Fawn in Bujold's Sharing Knife series to Paksennarion in Moon's chronicles.

The problem with this story is that it is painfully slow starting, with a mostly pointless scene where the Fallbrook village elders yammer and decide nothing and pages of Aren cowering in the basement dealing with her grief for a week. Eventually she sets of with Kith, a crippled ex-soldier, and Wandel, the harper on an expedition towards the mountain called The Hob, trying find out if there are any survivors from the next village over, Auberg, which was flooded after the earthquake blocked the river flowing through the valley.

Regular fantasy readers can probably figure out that, given the title of the book and the logic of magic realms, there is actually a hob on The Hob, and our intrepid heroine is likely to make a bargain with him. When Fallbrook is on the verge of being overrun by the bandits at last, Aren makes a solo trip to the mountain and brings back the hob who dwells there (the mountain is sentient, by the way) to help the villagers in their struggle. Of course, bargaining with a hob may be a bit like dealing with the devil, so...

The pace continues to be slow, as the villagers and the bandits have minor skirmishes, and the hob, CaerFaun, teaches Aren steadily how to use her magical abilities, which not only are good for visions, but allow her to communicate with the recently released spirits and other magic creatures, and control some of them to an extent. In the long haul, the Hob's Bargain turns out to be a win-win-win situation, for the hob, the villagers, and for Aren herself.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

 After attending a Winter Ball at the court of Queen Arden, Toby is looking forward to a good morning's sleep, but she is shockingly awakened by the arrival of an unwanted guest - Duke Sylvester's brother, Simon Torquill, the villain who transformed her into a fish back at the beginning of this whole saga. Besides his unwelcome presence, he brings unwelcome news, which will shock Toby out of her slumbers and set her on a path towards...vengeance?

There's just no good way to talk about this story without spoilers, so be warned.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Modern Survival manual by Fernando Aguirre

So, I can't tell for sure how much this guy is for real, and how much is B.S. To me, he scans a little bit like those Special Forces wannabees who brag about how dangerous their lives are at parties, but turn out to be accountants IRL. The book also suffers from a lack of good editing, there's a lot of repetition of previous points which are not intentional and for emphasis, and some of the "prep" lists he makes seem severely impractical.

That said, there are a few points Aguirre makes that I thought ran counter to conventional wisdom which were good. For example, he debunks the whole idea of the countryside being more safe when the SHTF than being in a more populated area. It turns out that in an actual economic collapse, groups of bandits prefer isolated targets with no nearby neighbors, where they can rob, torture, rape and murder without worrying about anyone coming around to investigate or help the victims.

He debunks the idea, as well, that a barter economy will take over, and those who hoarded ammo and canned goods will get rich quick, using real world experiences from the Argentinian crisis to illustrate his points. One thing that happened in Argentina was that laws were rapidly passed banning the sale of ammunition by private parties - all sales had to be done by licensed firearms dealers. That could easily happen here, despite all 2A concerns, if the government doesn't let the crisis go to waste. Many weapons were confiscated during Katrina, and it could certainly happen on a larger scale in a national emergency.

He does support keeping a certain amount of precious metals on hand to use as "currency", but stresses highly being careful not to let anyone know you have a stash, and only to change small amounts as necessary. It's probably better to have some scrap 18K gold jewelry to sell in a crisis, as then you can pretend it was Grandma's heirloom ring that you're reluctantly parting with, and not part of a greater cache. It sounds as if silver never became widely used as a holder of value in the Argentinian situation, so you might bear that in mind if you're planning for massive inflation in the U.S. at some point eroding the value of your paper money. Also, paper money will not simply become "toilet paper"; it will still be used, but will not buy what it used to buy as cheaply.

He also promotes the "gray man" concept. In a social situation where people are desperate, and many have turned to crime, it is best to not a) fit any victim profile, such as by being too well-dressed or appearing rich and b)to simply go quietly unnoticed by criminals, or considered a "hard" target. There's some good stuff here on situational awareness, too.

He seems to me to spend far too much time talking about various methods of "active" self defense. Street-fighting tactics and the ability to make anything into a weapon are all very well and good in their place, but as a middle aged man, I'm not likely to take up Thai boxing and become proficient any time soon, or become an MMA champ, so aside from making note of the dozens of ways to kill a man in a knife fight, I pretty much skimmed this whole section.

I really picked up this book on a recommendation from someone whose opinion I respected, hoping to learn more about the financial crisis in Argentina (which sparked Aguirre's interest and need to learn more survival skills) and how to handle potential events like runaway inflation or the devaluation of the dollar. The "financials" section was quite small, and appeared near the end of the book.

It did contain a good section on haggling, which most Americans could stand to read, if they ever intend to buy souvenirs in the second or third world, never mind applying it if the SHTF in our country.

You definitely will have to dig for the "nuggets" here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Around the Web

Andrew Klavan has a book review on PJ Media.

The Witch with No Name by Kim Harrison

 I struggled with this novel a bit. Perhaps it's because the series is ending, but for some reason I came to the point with The Hollows where the thrill was gone, and I didn't care all that much about what happens to Rachel, Ivy, Trent and Jenks. Sorry. So, I picked it up and put it down multiple times while trying to finish reading it, getting through several other books in the meantime.

Cormel's vampire minions finally bring things to a head when they try to kill Ivy. When Rachel confronts him, he agrees that if she will bring the vampires their lost souls, he will free Ivy and relinquish the debt Rachel owes him from some previous misadventure (Harrison doesn't refresh our memories here). Fortuitously, Rachel figures out where the lost souls have gone all this time, just about the time things hit the fan, so she is able to cobble together the right spells and rituals to do the job, with the help of the evil elf leader, Landon.

She captures Felix' soul and returns it to his body, which of course creates a whole new set of problems when Cormel withdraws his protection and a rival vampire faction which opposes the soul-returning faction attacks her home/church, forcing Rachel and Trent to play dead for a while. From that point forward, it's chapter after chapter of leaping from frying pan to fire as Trent and Rachel deal with the return of the demons to mundane reality, Ellasbeth's ongoing manipulations to wrest control of Ray and Lucy from Trent, Cormel's insistence on giving all the vampires their souls, Rachel trying but failing to stay under the radar vis a vis the Godess' mystics, and Ivy and Nina's tumultuous relationship. About the only faction that hasn't gone crazy seems to be the weres.

Everything seems to get wrapped up nicely in the end, and I wonder what Harrison will be up to next, now that the Hollows has reached completion.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

 I like that old time rock n roll, that old time religion, and that old time science fiction. The Martian brings brings back that feeling I used to get when I read "hard" SF by Clarke or Asimov when the world was yet young. Goodreads bills it as a cross between Castaway and Apollo 13, and they're not too far off. My cousin first recommended this to me six months or so ago, and I put it on the virtual TBR pile, then when a colleague of mine also mentioned it, I pulled it to the top of the pile and picked up a copy from the library. It was a welcome break from some of the drivel I've seen lately. Don't get me started.

I've often mentioned that you have about ten pages to get me hooked, and to care about the characters in your story, and I think I was hooked from the first sentence, "I'm pretty much f**ked." I mean, what do you do with a line like that?

When the crew of the Ares 3 manned mission to Mars encounters a ferocious sandstorm which threatens to destroy their habitat, SOP is to abandon the mission and head back to Earth in the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). When one member of the crew, Mark Watney, is impaled by an antenna blown off the habitat and apparently dead, rather than waste time hunting down his body in the sandstorm, Commander Lewis gives the order to lift off. But Mark, as the saying goes, is only "mostly dead."

He recovers to find himself alone and abandoned on Mars, with limited resources but a Robinson Crusoe-like ability to scrounge and repair and make things work with duct tape and canvas. His mishaps, maladies and misadventures are one of the most interesting tales around.

Weir, in his novel debut, does a great job of getting us into Watney's head, but also creates a small host of believable characters who step on stage as needed in later portions of the tale. The crew members, the NASA techs and bureaucrats, and even a few Chinese engineers all come with just the right amount of flesh, blood and background info, and not an ounce to waste.

I stayed up too late the first night, getting halfway through, and too late again the 2nd night, to find out how it all turned out and whether Mark made it home after all.

Hope we see some more from Mr. Weir.

A couple of quotes I loved.

"'Why does Elrond mean secret meeting?' Annie asked.
'Are we going to make a momentous decision?' Bruce Ng asked.
'Exactly,' Venkat said.
'How did you know that?' Annie asked, getting annoyed.
'Elrond,' Bruce said. 'The Council of Elrond, from Lord of the Rings. It's the meeting where they decide to destroy the One Ring.'
'Jesus,' Annie said, 'None of you got laid in high school, did you?'"

"Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped."

You'll have to discover your own favorites. Enjoy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Postcards from Europe by Rick Steves

This doesn't happen often...a trifecta of non fiction, with no SF or Fantasy read and reviewed in the meantime. Maybe next week I'll go all fiction, ok?

I've been a big fan of Rick Steves' travel shows for a long time, and at least one of his guides was extremely useful when we traveled to Portugal a few years ago. This book has been out for about fifteen years, and contains some of his reminiscences and insights on European travel. I've obviously watched too many of his shows, because when I was reading this I could hear him narrating it, in his own inimitable style the entire time.

Steves begins in Holland, and works his way south through Europe to Germany and on to Italy and France, then Switzerland in this tale.

An interesting quote about business in Germany follows.

"Looking exhausted and burnt out, he (hotel owner Kurt) says, 'It's the new cook. He's always sick. A cook costs me four thousand deutsch marks [$2500] a month. He gets one month paid vacation and up to six weeks paid sick time. Doctors say the best way for a German employee to stop being sick is to start his own business.'"

and a new German proverb for you,

"German men say a man without a belly isn't a man. A German saying is, 'Better to have a big belly from drinking than a broken back from working.'"

Venice is definitely one of Steve's favorite places to visit, closely followed by Florence.

On comparative gastronomy:

"Ilaria says, 'For me the French cheese is the Italian cheese with mold. If we have cheese that nobody buys, it gets moldy. After some days, it becomes the perfect French cheese.'
Raising my glass of wine I offer a toast to Italian food. 'To la cucina Italiana.'
Manfredo follows that, saying magnanimously, 'To bacon and eggs.' We all agree that American breakfasts are unbeatable.
'Omelets, hashbrowns,' Roberto reminisces. 'On my last visit to New York, I gain four kilos in three weeks.'
Raising our glasses, we make another toast. 'To American breakfasts.'"

This is not a travel guide, but more of a series of vignettes which tells us a great deal about Rick Steves and his attitudes about travel.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Everything Store by Brad Stone

 I have been playing around on Goodreads, adding as many of the books as I can recall having read to my shelves, aided by the list of books that are actually present in my personal library. Fairly often, I've run across authors whose works I absolutely loved, and was following closely, and realize that I missed the last few (or more) books in a series.

For those of you who are too young to comprehend how something like this could happen, who were born too late to recall how things were, B.A. (Before Amazon), let me tell you how things were, back in the olden days. Unless you lived in a major metropolitan area, most cities had perhaps two or three family-owned small bookstores, that had to be careful how much inventory they brought in, because if it didn't sell, it mostly counted as a loss (I'm not going to get into strip-covers here). If you were lucky, and the book store owner either liked the same authors that you did, or you were tied into fandom well enough to be fully aware of what books your favorite authors were coming out with next, you might get new books via special order, otherwise you ended up pretty much at the mercy of random chance in finding works by authors you liked, unless they were bestsellers - not a common occurrence in Science Fiction and Fantasy in those days.

I recall how, when I moved away from my home town and discovered the amazing phenomenon of used bookstores out in the wide wide world, I went plum crazy, buying tons of books that I never saw back home in the local stores. My book collection grew exponentially during those early years, but it was still pretty random whether I could find a particular author's latest works by anything other than pure serendipity. Amazon changed all of that...forever.

Biographies come a number of flavors. There's the hit piece, where the author tries to dish on all the dirt about the celebrity - think Kitty Kelly, and there's the puff piece, where the author shows us how wonderful their subject is. There are also the dry, historical and scholarly works, like a recent biography of Heinlein I recall, and there are also some that are meant to be amusing and entertaining. I think Stone strikes a good balance here between assassination and puffery, as well as showing that while he admires Jeff Bezos' accomplishments, he still sees a flawed and often controversial human being.

So, at this point, we're all aware of just how massively the 800 lb gorilla called Amazon has influenced the publishing and internet marketing businesses. Bezos' success is not a surprise, though it wasn't always that straightforward, and required some out-of-the box thinking.

"One early challenge (1995) was that the book distributors required retailers to order ten books at a time. Amazon didn't yet have that kind of sales volume, and Bezos later enjoyed telling the story of how he got around it. "We found a loophole," he said. "Their systems were programmed in such a way that you didn't have to recieve ten books, you only had to order ten books. So we found an obscure book about lichens that they had in their system but was out of stock. We began ordering the one book we wanted and nine copies of the lichen book. They would ship out the book we needed and a note that said, 'Sorry, but we're out of the lichen book.'""

I learned a couple of new terms early on,

"He (Bezos) later famously admitted to thinking about how to increase his "women flow," a Wall Street corollary to deal flow, the number of new opportunities a banker can access."

In a 1997 speech to HBS students, Bezos said,

"I think you might be underestimating the degree to which established brick-and-mortar business, or any company that might be used to doing things a certain way, will find it hard to be nimble or to focus attention on a new channel."

Especially with the rapid pace of change we are seeing today, you've got to be flexible to adapt and survive, much less to anticipate the trends and to remain profitable.

Regarding work/life balance for Amazon employees,

"The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority. That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can't excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you."

One of the most difficult times for Amazon was right after the dot-com boom. One thing that many people forget is that the dot-com boom was also accompanied in all of the high tech industries by the "tech boom". Computer and network hardware manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand, nor could any of their suppliers, so huge amounts of manufacturing capacity were brought online, and cutthroat hiring practices abounded, until things fell apart in 2001.

"There were several immediate reasons for the stock market's reversal. The excesses of the dot-com boom had begun to wear on investors. Companies without actual business models were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, rushing to go public, and seeing their stock prices roar into the stratosphere despite unsound financial footing...nudged along by other events over the course of the next two years, like the collapse of Enron and the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

Bezos gained a reputation as a ruthless competitor, and demanding customer.

In negotiations with UPS, Amazon's people threatened to go to Fedex if their demands weren't met, and UPS officials tried to call their bluff.

"In twelve hours, they went from millions of pieces a day to a couple a day. The standoff lasted seventy two hours and went unnoticed by customers and other outsiders...UPS execs caved and gave Amazon discounted rates."

I've noticed recently how, even when you don't select the "rush" type of shipping from Amazon, items still arrive far more quickly than estimated.

In 2003  "click-to-ship time for most items in the company's FCs was as minimal as four hours. The standard from the rest of the e-commerce industry at the time was twelve hours."

Why doesn't Amazon get called out like Wal Mart does over worker issues? In their distribution centers temporary workers only make $10 to $12 per hour, with high pressure to deliver and a point system which penalizes workers for minor infractions.

"The number one thing standing in the way of Amazon unionization is fear. Employees are afraid they'll fire you - even though it's technically not legal. You're the one who has to fight to get your job back if they do."

There are several great chapters on the rise of eBooks towards the end of Stone's book, which explain a number of things I've found puzzling about the industry. I remember the early faltering times, and I've been pleasantly surprised to see where things have gone so far, though costs are still, in my opinion, too high.

A good read. Even if you hate Amazon, I wouldn't bet against Bezos and his team.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Around the Web

Another couple book blurbs at The Boogie Man is My Friend.

A troublesome inheritance : genes, race and human history by Nicholas Wade.

 In some ways, this is a troublesome book to read and review. My evangelical friends may strongly oppose some of the ideas conveyed within it, while my more progressive friends may oppose those same ideas, for diametrically opposed reasons. Evolution and the influence of genetics upon human lives are often found to be inflammatory topics, though I have found them both fascinating and enlightening, and find in those subjects, as well as astrophysics and cosmology, more evidence of a glorious and ingenious Author and Creator, and less of blind probabilities.

I agree with Wade to a certain extent when he says,

"...despite the personal failing of some scientist, science as a knowledge-generating system does tend to correct itself, though often only after considerable delay. It is during these delay periods that great harm can be caused by those who use uncorrected scientific findings to propagate injurious policies. Scientists' attempts to classify human races and to understand the proper scope of eugenics were both hijacked before the two fields could be fully corrected."

although my concern for the politicization of scientific theories may take a slightly different tack.

Interesting to note that many of the ideas that Hitler used to justify his extermination of "lesser" races and "defective" human beings had some quite respectable proponents around the world in the preceding decades.

"The fact that antecedents for the ideas that led to the Holocaust can be found in the American and English eugenics movements of the 1920s and 1930s does not mean that others share responsibility for the crimes of the national Socialist regime. It does mean that ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas. It puts responsibility on scientists to test rigorously the scientific ideas that are placed before the public."

At the root of scientific humanism and current evolutionary theory, of course, is the idea that Man is simply a more highly evolved ape, and not a special divine project, so the study of human evolution needs to start in the "cradle of life."

"A fierce drought gripped Africa from 6.5 to 5 million years ago, and the forests shrank, giving way to open woodland or savannah. This was perhaps the event that forced the (chimplike) population into two groups, one of which led to chimps and the other to humans."

I found the following bit an interesting supposition:

"Follow an institution all the way down, and beneath thick layers of culture, it is built on instinctual human behaviors. The rule of law would not exist if people didn't have innate tendencies to follow norms and punish violators. Soldiers could not be made to follow orders were not army discipline able to invoke innate behaviors of conformity, obedience and willingness to kill for one's own group."

Perhaps...though Calvinist doctrine supposes that people are innately law-breakers, rather than followers, although there is a deep need for belonging to a group within us. Also, creating obedient and effective soldiers is a far more complex task than what Wade imagines, especially for elite forces, who must have their learned behaviors completely broken down and stripped away before they can be molded (some might say brainwashed) into warriors willing to sacrifice their lives for their brothers and for a cause.

"A hunter-gatherer society consists of small, egalitarian bands without leaders or headmen. This was the standard human social structure until 15,000 years ago."

How do we know that? Is there archaeological evidence that proves that all hunter gatherers were leaderless? It's been my experience that in any group of people, leaders and dominance arises. If evolutionary theory is to be believed, the chimps from whom we descend have hierarchies, why would hunter-gatherers suddenly be egalitarian? I just don't buy that hypothesis.

"(after the invention of agriculture) ...people skilled in farming and in operating in larger communities prospered and left more children; those whose only skill was in hunting did less well and placed fewer of their children and genes in the next generation."

Ok, that makes a certain amount of sense. My son-in-law, however, has a theory about Black Friday shopping satisfying a deep seated urge in a nation of farmers and merchants to "hunt" in packs.

Where Wade becomes controversial, I suppose, is when he shows evidence of evolution not being quite the slow, eons long process which we all expect, but first, much more recent, and second, much more rapid, than accepted theory.

"The process of organizing people in larger and larger social structures, with accompanying changes in social behavior, has most probably been molded by evolution, though the underlying genetic changes have yet to be identified. This social evolution has proceeded roughly in parallel in the world's principal populations or races, those of Africans, East Asians and Caucasians."

"In the case of both ants and people, societies evolve over time as natural selection modifies the social behavior of their members. With ants, evolution has had time to generate thousands of different species, each with a society adapted to survival in its particular environment. With people, who have only recently dispersed from their ancestral homeland, evolution has so far generated only races within a single species, but with several major forms of society, each a response to different environments and historical circumstances."

The key idea being that,

"Races develop within species and easily merge back into it. All human races, so far as is known, have the same set of genes. But each gene comes in a set of different flavors or alternative forms, known to geneticists as alleles. One might suppose that races differ in having different alleles of various genes. But, though a handful of such racially defining alleles do exist, the basis of race rests largely on something even slighter, a difference in the relative commonness, or frequency, of alleles..."

I wondered, briefly, about the concept of "race" as it might apply to other types of animals than humans. How would you define a "race" of sparrows, or iguanas, or gazelles. Can we even go there?

"Once the human population had spread out across the globe, it was subject to a variety of strong evolutionary stresses in the form of a radical makeover of human social organization and population movements that swept over the original settlement pattern. These population shifts were caused by climate change, the spread of agriculture and warfare."

So, there's a note of Social Darwinism in all of this, based on the idea that the people who survive and thrive within a particular type of culture or society actually have a different set of dominant...allele distribution? And if they thrive, then they are more likely to reproduce, as are their progeny. While those who don't have the genetic makeup to thrive will fail to reproduce?

In that case, why do eugenicists always have to start by sterilizing or aborting those human groups whom they have determined to be society's failures?

It is, perhaps, revealing that Wade has no axe to grind (nor funding to obtain) as regards Global Warming, so he doesn't censor his historical data. Climate change has been going on for thousands, nay millions, of years, folks. The anthropogenic hypothesis is a recent aberration.

"When our distant ancestors lost their fur, probably because bare skin allowed better sweating and heat control, they developed dark skin to protect a vital chemical known as folic acid from being destroyed by the strong ultraviolet light around the equator. The first modern humans who migrated to the northern latitudes of Europe and Asia were exposed to much less ultraviolet light - too little, in fact, to synthesize enough vitamin D, for which ultraviolet light is required. Natural selection therefore favored the development of pale skin among people living in high northern latitudes."

In researching a gene which may be responsible for some of the differences between Caucasian and Asian populations characteristics, such as thicker hair and smaller breasts:

"The mice also had smaller breasts than usual"

Which summer intern got to say, "I spent the summer measuring mouse breasts."?

"...the two sets of chromosomes that a person has inherited, one from their mother and one from their father, are lined up side by side, and the cell then forces them to exchange large sections of DNA...
The swapped sections, or blocks, may be 500,000 DNA units in length, long enough to carry several genes. So a gene with a beneficial tendency will be inherited along with the whole block of DNA in which is is embedded...Generation by generation, the block of DNA with the favored version of a gene gets to be carried by more and more people. Eventually, the new allele may sweep through the entire population...the favored blocks of DNA eventually get whittled down ...because the cuts that generate them are not always made in the same places...After just 30,000 years or so, according to one calculation, the blocks get too short to be detectable. This means that most genome wide scans for selection are looking at events that occurred just a few thousand years ago, very recently in human history."

So, the concepts above were definitely new to me, and if the calculation mentioned in the paragraph are true, then it would mean that we are still evolving today in response to our environment, which should give some of us hope. Of course, if the primary end result of evolution is merely survival, it might be that the traits selected for might not be ones we'd wish to see, if we were in charge. Think about it.

"People have an intuitive morality, which is the source of instinctive knowledge that certain actions are right or wrong."

Very interesting. C.S. Lewis mentions this in Mere Christianity, as evidence of our Creator's plan.

Explained away by the evolutionist, of course,

"A major function of religion is to provide social cohesion, a matter of particular importance among early societies. If the more cohesive societies regularly prevailed over the less cohesive, as would be likely in any military dispute, an instinct for religious behavior would have been strongly favored by natural selection."

Religious behavior, perhaps...right and wrong so strongly correlated across all human cultures...maybe not so much.

My favorite quote of all really has nothing to do with Wade's theories,

"Turning up punctually for work and enduring eight hours or more of repetitive labor is far from being a natural human behavior."

"...the principal drivers of the civilizing process were the increasing monopoly of force by the state, which reduced the need for interpersonal violence, and the greater levels of interaction with others that were brought about by urbanization and commerce."

Dangerous visions here.

"many researchers...make accusations of racism against anyone who suggests that cognitive capacities might differ between human population groups. All these positions are shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma, not by science."

It can so easily be observed by anyone paying attention, that it seems to me to be insane to deny the facts or call it racist.

"The Utah researchers note first that Askenazi IQ, besides being high, has an unusual structure. Of the components of IQ tests, Askenazim do well on verbal and mathematical questions but score lower than average on visuo-spatial questions. In most people, these two kinds of ability are highly correlated."

I must have some Askenazi Jew blood in me. I've always been good with readin', writin' and 'rithmetic, but I can't fold a piece of paper into a swan to save my life.

All in all, a very very interesting read, without being so deeply technical as to make it impenetrable.