Friday, May 30, 2014

Succubus Dreams by Richele Mead

 Mead set  the scene quickly with multiple plot lines in first dozen pages. There's a new succubus in town, Tawny, whom Georgina must train in the ways of seduction. Improbably, she seems to be clumsy and socially inept, unable to seduce men to get her energy fix. If Georgina cannot train her, Georgina takes the rap for being a bad sensei.

Along with the succubus, Niphon, the imp who recruited her is in town, for no apparent purpose other than to deliver his trainee, and to sow bits of chaos into Seth and Georgina's love life.

Georgina begins to experience strange, sometimes prophetic, and extraordinarily vivid dreams, from which she awakens drained, her mojo stolen.

Carter, Yasmine, Joel and Whitney, who are angels, as well as Vincent, who is human but who has an odd flavored aura, are up to some secret project in Seattle. Of course, they're not going to tell Georgina anything until the fecal matter hits the rotary blades, but we know it will eventually be important.

Side note - So, Georgina has  been around since the days when Greece was in flower, and just now, when she's living in Seattle in the 21st century, she begins to encounter all kinds of strange and different supernatural beings? She seems totally clueless sometimes, and so do all of the powerful angels and demons who are her friends, although they may be perhaps merely secretive, even though they always seem to end up recruiting her as their stalking goat. She has to go to the mortals for help? Willing suspension of disbelief, click my heels together three times...

Georgina also voluntarily takes on an "apprentice" when she begins to help her coworker Doug's sister, Maddie, to become more sociable, to dress more attractively and to behave more assertively. This has some unforeseen (at least to Georgina, I saw it coming miles away) consequences for the overall story arc and our favorite succubus, personally.

There's a standing gag in this one about the angel, Carter, having burned down Georgina's Christmas tree last year (the irony), and one great line that perhaps Seattle-ites will like,

"I think they worked out of Tacoma, which as far as I was concerned might as well be annexed to Hell itself."

We get introduced to Dante Moriarty in this book, when her mortal friend Erik refers her to the black magician, who seems relatively harmless, though irredeemably evil. I think he'll play a stronger role as time goes by.

The usual graphic sex scenes apply.

There's an overall theme to these books, which I noticed in the first, and which Mead tosses out clues for, every so often. I think there's some chance that Georgina can wiggle out of her contract with Hell, or do something that will redeem her in the eyes of Heaven, at long last. With the number of books already written in the series, though, I fear it will take a while.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Geek Moment

I just noticed that as of yesterday I had published 1024 posts - that's 1K for you byte-heads out there.

That's all, folks!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

 I think that The Stepsister Scheme, and the rest of the Princess Novels are supposed to be something like Fractured Fairy Tales, but for adults. I really wanted to love it, as I had already purchased the second  and third books in the series at a library book sale a while back, and didn't want to feel my money was wasted.

This is a story about what happens after "happily ever after". Our heroine is Daniell (Cinderella), who really is living the fairy tale dream of wedded bliss, just past the honeymoon stage, with Prince Armand, but whose happiness is shattered by an assassination attempt by one of her evil stepsisters, who are of course jealous of her good fortune and feel she has stolen "their" prince.

Helping foil the attempt on her life is Talia (Sleeping Beauty), who found her prince to be not so charming, and Snow (Snow White), who is now pursuing a career as a good witch, not a bad witch, in service of Queen Beatrice, who seems to collect the odd fairy tale princesses.  It turns out that Armand has been kidnapped by the stepsisters and dragged off to the Fairy Kingdom, and the three embark on a quest to find him and bring him back.

Aside from some semi-humorous moments, the book didn't really turn out to be as comedic as I'd dreamed, and none of the three ladies really grabbed my attention as strong heroines, or garnered my sympathies. Only dogged determination got me to finish this one, and the sequels will probably remain on my shelves, ignored and dusty.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Real Crash by Peter Schiff

 There's nothing very surprising in the early going in Peter Schiff's new book, though it does serve as a good introductory work for those who aren't familiar with the workings of the Federal Reserve, and the role which the government has played in the most of the financial crises recently, such as the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble and the credit bubble.

Schiff relates the tale of what happened in the Harding administration after WWI, when the economy saw an increase in unemployment and a lack of economic growth - the last time in our history that a politician had the courage to let us suffer the pain of doing the right thing - and Harding "paid off the war bonds, slashing the national debt by one third".  The money used to pay off that debt was removed from the money supply, which put a downward pressure on prices, and an upward pressure on interest rates, which discouraged borrowing and encouraged saving.

"Instead of trying to fix the lagging economy through stimulus, the Fed responded to the economic contraction with monetary contraction."

Within a few years, unemployment had shrunk to 2.4%, and the stock market had exceeded its previous highs.

Quite a contrast to our government's response to the 2008 crash, and quite a contrast in results, as well.

On the creation of the dot-com bubble, Schiff writes,

"Many liberal economists and Fed defenders will argue that the Fed didn't create the stock market and dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. They blame 'greed' and 'manias.' There's a small degree to which they are right: the Fed did not specifically steer capital toward dot-com stocks. The Fed just created the excess capital that needed a home, and market forces and other government policies determined where that money went."

Schiff brings up an interesting distinction regarding the mortgage interest deduction.

"This is a huge mortgage distorts the market in favor of homeownership (more precisely, leveraged homeownership)."

The real estate bubble, he argues, was also brought on primarily by the Fed and other government policies. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed subprime mortgages in numbers never seen before, the Fed made cheap money readily available to lenders, the Community Reinvestment Act pushed banks to lend to poor people who would never have previously qualified for a loan, and the Bush administration, through the American Dream Downpayment Act,  provided grants to first time homebuyers.

The next bubble Schiff sees forming is the "government bubble",  a rapidly growing federal debt caused by out of control spending, reckless borrowing, and the Fed's inflationary policies.

Schiff busts the myth of government "job creation", by showing its many failures in that area, but also showing that the government's attempts to create jobs actually misallocate resources that could create jobs in other areas the government hasn't blessed with its favors.

The money quote:

"The problem isn't that the government bets on the wrong horses. It's that the government should be at the track in the first place."

In fact, government can best create jobs by staying out of the way.

"Jobs come from (a) the incentive to make a profit and (b) capital formation. The harder government makes it for employers to earn profits and the less we save to finance capital formation, the fewer jobs that will be created."

He spends a bit of time talking about "Hiring Taxes", those costs associated with creating a new job for employers, such as the employer match on Medicare and Social Security, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, and other taxes, including new costs imposed by the ACA, aka Obamacare.

Schiff claims that people could take the additional money they would be paid if these hiring taxes were eliminated to "self insure" on some of these things. I have to differ with him there. Most people, unfortunately, will not do the wise or prudent thing, they'll simply spend the excess on consumer goods. We've seen this with the optional retirement plans like 401Ks and IRAs, we've seen it with young healthy folks failing to sign up for employer-provided health insurance, and recently the ACA, and if we went to an optional "social security" system, they'd probably not put anything away for retirement there unless forced to.

Heh. In contrast to the whole "follow your passion" movement these days, Schiff mentions in passing,

"With a few exceptions most people have jobs only because they need a job in order to afford the stuff they really want and need."

And, under the category of "preaching to the choir", he says,

"Entry-level jobs are not supposed to provide enough income to support a family. By the time individuals are old enough to marry and have children they should have acquired the skills necessary to command much higher pay. They acquire those skills working for low wages while still in their teens and prior to marriage. If the (artificially and legislatively high) minimum wage prevents them from getting those jobs, they will never acquire the skills necessary to support a family. In other words, the minimum wage knocks the bottom rung off the job ladder, making it impossible for many ever to climb up."

I like,

"While politicians and the media portray regulations as a way to keep 'big business' in check, the real effect of regulation is often to crush their smaller competitors and to keep others from even entering the fray to begin with."


"So there you see the real threat the FDIC was created to battle: banks were losing business because customer didn't trust them. The real effect of government deposit insurance is not to protect depositors, but to protect banks."

When the Fed inflates our money supply, Schiff says,

"When inflation's effects show up in the form of rising prices, consumers don't typically blame politicians, they blame the merchants. In fact, politicians - the ones who caused the higher prices - are often the first ones to scapegoat merchants or manufacturers when prices start rising."

Schiff also debunks Warren Buffet's mantra that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. It seems Warren is only talking about his personal income tax rate, not the amount that Berkshire Hathaway, of which Buffet is the primary owner, paid on its earnings - $5.6 billion.

He proposes some "macro" solutions in the middle section of the book, including:
  • Return the Fed to its original mandate
  • Tax Reform
  • Return to the Gold Standard
  • Eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid
  • Deregulate the Financial Industry
  • Fix Higher Education
  • Fix Healthcare
  • Shrink Government
I think we've seen over the last few decades that there is little actual political will to allow free market policies and the principles of limited government "fix" these problems. They all sound like great ideas, but I am really doubtful that any of them will ever come to pass, absent a black swan event that forces us in that direction. Schiff's Real Crash may be that event, but the magic eight ball isn't giving out any answers right now.

During all of the years my kids were going to school and participating in band, orchestra and choir, I got to listen to music teachers lecture the parents about how it was a proven fact that learning to play music was good for children's grades in all the other subjects. I had my own theory about that, since I would see the same group of parents - heavily involved with their children's success - at all of the other school events, soccer games, football games, and so forth. The parents encouragement and active participation in making sure their children's lives were enriched and educational was, in my opinion, more important than whether or not they played music.

Schiff says something similar about the mantra that people who attend college will earn a significantly higher income than those who do not.

"In other words, all the factors (being a hard worker, coming from wealth, attending private or good public schools, being smart, having parents who attended college) that make someone more likely to go to college and finish college are also the same factors that, in and of themselves, raise a person's likely income."

Another thing upon which he and I agree, and which I have believed since I first attended college, decades ago:

"As an employer, even if you think college has no value, you might count on colleges to perform a screening function. Getting into college and finishing college indicates some level of competence and ability to follow instructions."

With respect to the huge "public service" push to make sure that all students in the U.S. attend college:

"Who is the real beneficiary from policies and cultural biases that push more and more eighteen-year-olds to go to college? The answer, of course, is the educational establishment itself."

It's all about the benjamins, baby.

And the reason for the skyrocketing college costs we've seen (applies to healthcare also):

"This is typical government action. Wreck an industry with subsidies and regulation; blame the ensuing failure on capitalism; then 'solve' the problem with a complete government takeover."


Regarding ridiculous student loan debt:

"'s hypocritical for Congress to push eighteen-year-olds to take on $20,000 or more in debt. Our federal government is always trying to say who shouldn't be borrowing, and which loans are 'predatory,' claiming that lenders are exploiting people who don't know better. Is there any clearer example of someone who doesn't understand debt than a high school senior who has never handled his on finances on a meaningful level?"

Schiff does a great job of identifying many of the root causes of our huge debt problem, and lays out another prediction of how it will all end - badly, of course. He proffers some libertarian-flavored solutions for most of the causes, which will, in my opinion, never get implemented due to lack of political will to do the right or necessary thing. It's far simpler to bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is all right.

Also unfortunately, the "personal" solutions he offers aren't much better, for the lower to mid- middle class. His company, EuroPacific Capital, only serves high income, high net worth individuals, and the types of services they provide for wealth protection and management are unavailable to average hard-working folks. Nothing he prescribes is significantly different than what I've seen before from other Cassandras, and the practical issues remain the same. If it is possible for you to do so, he recommends getting your money out of America and out of the US dollar.

I've got a bit of Kiwi shrapnel* lying around somewhere, I should be ok.

This is a book which most people would benefit from reading, but it's unlikely that the ones who need it the most, will.

*a New Zealand slang term for pocket change

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

 This appears to be the book which introduces New Orleans homicide Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux. A friend recommended Burke's stories, so I thought I'd give him a try.

First, this was an amazingly quick read. I picked it up shortly after the third contestant sang on American Idol, and finished it by bedtime (and I get up with the chickens). Robicheaux is a Viet Nam veteran with more than his fair share of post-war issues, including the inability to sustain a relationship for very long and raging, though suppressed at the beginning of the book, alcoholism. When he discovers the body of a young black woman in the bayou one day, he has no idea that her death tied into far more serious crimes.

While visiting an old informant on death row, Robicheaux gets word that the "greasers" want him dead for poking his nose into their business. (By the way, this novel is very old Southern in style, so if derogatory racial and ethnic slurs and stereotypes bother you, you may want to read something else). This, of course, merely pisses him off, and he really starts poking his nose in where it's not wanted. Between mobsters, Central American drug and gun runners, and rogue federal agents, things get pretty hairy quickly, and the violence dials up to a fever pitch.

My friend had said there were some similarities to Jack Reacher in Robicheaux's character, but I found the connection a bit slim. Other than being a veteran and obstinately unkillable, they are two very separate types. The things they do have in common are the lone wolf mentality, though Robicheaux at least does have some family and colleagues, while Reacher has none (aside from his brother who dies in one of the stories - can't recall which), and the willingness to calmly do violence upon the evil ones in the course of pursuing a case to its bitter end.

A fun and quick read, though perhaps a little darker than my usual preferences. I'm keeping Burke on my possible TBR pile for slow weeks, anyway.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

No Book Left Behind

Just musing about what to take along on my next vacation in the way of reading material. I bought a Nook a couple of years ago, so that I could put a bunch of books on one small device, rather than packing a bunch of heavy tomes when space is at a premium on long voyages. I'm also always a little leery of taking along a library book just in case I lose it or leave it behind. Then, I realized, I've never unintentionally left a book behind anywhere in my entire life. It's like we're attached at the wrist - books and I.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Gorilla

I get regular newsletters from Amazon about sales on science fiction and fantasy ebooks for Kindle. I keep hoping against reason that when I go to Barnes and Noble, I'll find the same discount on their Nook version, but always seem to be disappointed. I realize that Amazon is the 900lb gorilla, and can dictate book sales prices to authors, but you'd think that B&N could do something to stay a bit more competitive. Those of us who bought into the Nook technology are paying the price for our loyalty.

Cauldron of Ghosts by David Weber and Eric Flint

The multi-POV just got even worse...or better, if you like that sort of thing. It just came to me that this book actually serves in a triad of books with A Rising Thunder and Shadow of Freedom as a multi-novel semi-simultaneously multi-POV telling of the tale Weber started, and which madness other worthies like Flint have bought into. Cachat and Zilwicki finally deliver their news back to the PRH and Manticore, and almost immediately take off on another hare-brained adventure to gather more intelligence on Mesa, managing to sucker a few other fools into their scheme, as well, including Thandi Palani, head of Torch's military.

Queen Berry and her friends decide to form the Royal Torch Navy, mostly consisting of commando-like teams whose first assignments are to be attacking the Mesan slave trade wherever they find it, and they are improbably allied with a family of vagabond space traders we encountered in SoF. Eloise Pritchard and Queen Elizabeth of Manticore meet and decide to bury the hatchet and to ally against the Mesan Alignment. The Sollies still haven't a clue and are basically waiting to get their butts handed to them when the inevitable war comes.

After bouncing around like crazy, though, the story finally settles in on the Mesan thread, and we get to enjoy watching Victor and Anton stirring things up in the seccie underworld there. At first it appears that Victor is going to become a crime boss, but he seizes the opportunity to ally with a powerful one, instead, to prepare the underclass for the battle which is to come.

Operation Houdini is in full swing, and the Alignment kills multiple birds with many stones when they stage a series of "Audubon Ballroom" attacks on civilian targets, both to stir up a massive distraction and retaliation against the seccies who are implicated in aiding the terrorists, and to cover up the disappearance of the members of the Alignment who have been hiding in plain sight in Mesan society. They're headed for a bolthole somewhere, and it should be entertaining to see the deadly duo of Cachat and Zilwicki ferret them out in a later book.

I really need to find a good plot diagram of this whole saga somewhere. It remains confusing to me, even as I enjoy the quality of the storytelling and plot twists.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Inventions and Other Writings by Nikola Tesla

 My first impressions from Tesla's own writings, published originally by Hugo Gernsback (often regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Science Fiction publishing industry) in The Electrical Experimenter, were that the man was a bit of a grandiose braggart, as well as being completely obsessive-compulsive. Perhaps his saving grace was that his obsession with his projects led him to pursue them so diligently that he often came up with incredible inventions, though it is difficult to understand how a man so brilliant could also be convinced of the truth of some radically improbable, even mystical, ideas.

One of the amazing things about Tesla's mind was that he had developed the ability to completely visualize in his head a working model of whatever piece of machinery he planned to build - a mental CAD, if you will.

As a very young man, fresh out of school, he was hired by the telegraph office of the Hungarian government and put in charge of designing and implementing their telephone exchange.

"I made several improvements in the Central station apparatus and perfected a telephone repeater..."

He was the first to perfect a method of generating alternating current and running electrical machinery with AC, as well as inventing a turbine engine, and radio transmission long before Marconi's feat.

This is a difficult book to read. Although Tesla prided himself on his very organized mind, and way of thinking, his writings do not reflect that, and seem to bounce all over the place, with unfinished thoughts and gaps in logic throughout. Brilliant but erratic. His tendency to believe that he could accomplish anything he could imagine, and he accomplished a great deal, make it difficult to sort out which of his ideas are mere flights of fancy, and actually not possible, versus those he merely never got round to completing. Transmitting electrical power wirelessly around the world?

One of his more intriguing ideas seems to presage the whole idea of mutually assured destruction that dominated the Cold War. He envisioned a fleet of dirigibles which contained a machine designed by him which would call lightning from the sky, wreaking utter destruction on ground targets below. Whichever country obtained it first could enforce peace upon the world.

Still searching for a good Tesla bio.

Friday, May 16, 2014

RMS - Reading Management System

I was thinking a little bit about how I feed the monkey on my back. Last year, I read almost 200 books, and it's been like that for years. I used to actually acquire nearly everything that I read, and add it to my library, but books were cheaper back in those days, and I made extensive use of the used bookstores around town. Today, if I assume that my reading tends to be about half paperback and half hardcover, then at current prices, I'd have to spend about $2,000 on hardcovers and $800 on paperbacks, for over $200 a month to satisfy my cravings.

Luckily, we have a pretty good library system in the area, so the bulk of what I read comes from there.

In the beginning, I'd generally wander down to the library once or twice a week, and just browse the new books on that section of shelves, which might remind me of another author whose works I could find in the older stacks, or hit the card catalog and find a non-fiction book on a topic which intrigued me.

Around the time I started this blog, I created a text file on my computer where I kept track of what reviews were coming up, so I could quickly post them to Twitter, and also a list of books and authors that I wanted to read next, perhaps recommended by another blogger or an author, or a friend. Then I discovered Goodreads, and in the process of listing all of the authors and books which I could recall having read, I came up with a massive to-be-read list there, as well. Every so often, I check that list, and come up with a handful of titles to search for at the library. If I find one, I put it on a hold request, and go to the library to pick it up.

For most of this time, I've used the main library downtown, although there are perhaps a dozen branch libraries scattered through the city and surrounding cities, and sometimes I'd actually drive twenty miles out to a satellite library to pick up something they had on the shelves there, since I really didn't want to wait for the hold and transfer process to run its course. But the library downtown has a horrible parking problem. During normal business hours, it can be nearly impossible to find a parking space in the main lot, and I often would have to find something on a nearby side street, so I grew tired of the hassle.

Happily, the book hold system allows you to have a book sent to one of the branch libraries instead of the main library, and one of those branches just happens to be in a shopping center right on my route home from work. So in the last few months I transitioned all of my new holds to that branch, and I can just make a slight detour on my way home from work when I have books to return or to pick up. It's wonderfully convenient!

The other thing that's available in the library's online hold system is called My Lists. I created a list called "To be Held". When I become aware of a book or an author that I might like to read, I log on to my account and do a search in the system for it. If I find that it's available, I add it to that list. Since the online system also allows only a maximum of five books to be put on hold at once, I have to carefully manage my holds, so I don't fill those slots with too many books that have a long waiting list of other people who have placed holds, otherwise the whole house of cards collapses.

So I'll have one or two holds on that list where I'm a ways down in the queue, and then in the other slots I'll have two or three books that are immediately available, and just require transit from one of the library branches to the branch where I like to pick them up. The reservation system sends me an email when the books show up, and I time things out so I can return a book or three and pick up a book or three to keep my TBR pile on the nightstand fully stocked.

Hey, it ain't always easy being an addict, but I have a method to my madness.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Succubus on Top by Richelle Mead

 Several plot lines going on here. Georgina is surprised when an old friend, the incubus Bastien, arrives in Seattle to stay for a while. He has ambitions to compromise the leader of a conservative, family values, anti-gay organization (serious stereotyping, coupled with the idea *spoiler* that all such leaders have latent homosexuality issues). Georgina's coworker, Doug's band suddenly begins to experience amazing success - so much success that I immediately suspected someone of making a deal with the Devil, while Georgina, more familiar with the demonic organization, doesn't suspect a thing for quite a while. Georgina and Seth are trying to date while remaining celibate, so that she doesn't steal his life force through physical contact - even kissing is dangerous for them.

So, Georgina gets to spend much of her time trying to help Bastien with his plot, figure out what's gotten into Doug and his buddies, and try to stay out of bed with Seth. As one might expect in this second novel about our mild-mannered bookselling succubus, there are several very steamy sex scenes, so avoid this series if you're squeamish about these things.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Eat, Slay, Love by Jesse Petersen

 This was an extraordinarily quick read. No idea why. Dave and Sarah have decided to head for the Midwest Wall, which it is reputed that the government has built to contain the zombies and keep them from attacking cities in the eastern half of the country, as the disease began in Seattle and moved that direction. There are supposed to be scientists behind the wall, and they hope to deliver their vial of the zombie cure that they liberated from the mad scientist in Flip This Zombie.

On the way, they rescue a former tabloid journalist from being devoured by zombies, and reluctantly add her as a traveling companion. The three of them are captured by a bunch of rednecks in an isolated community and Dave is forced to enter a swimming pool full of about thirty zombies, where we discover for the first time that zombies totally ignore him. This seems to be because he was infected with the zombie virus before Sarah injected him with the cure, so he's gone part-zombie; all of the benefits and none of the downside.

Having lost their vehicle in their escape, and with Dave suffering a gunshot wound inflicted in the resulting chaos when he frees the zombies to attack the rednecks, they hole up in an abandoned hospital for a while, where they encounter an old but still zoned out former rocker who came for rehab and stayed for the zombie apocalypse. He's been pilfering the drug stashes to keep himself fried for several months, and he ends up tagging along with our heroes, too.

When they finally reach the Wall, things are not exactly what they expected, and instead of a rapid conclusion to the series when the cure is duplicated and all are made well, we're in for another installment, it appears.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sometimes, the Dragon Wins

My wife and I finally got around to watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night. It's a wonderful, spectacular movie - if you completely forget that there was ever a masterful children's novel by the same name, and view any lines from Tolkien's book that appear within as mere happy coincidences.

I am sure people far more talented and picky than I have dissected and analyzed the movie, so any faults I mention here should not be taken as a complete list, and could definitely be regarded as spoilers, so if you want to be surprised, stop reading now.

To provide a buffer before the spoilers and a bit of background, I've been semi-boycotting the Peter Jackson version of The Hobbit, a move sparked when I heard that he intended to turn what was a single children's novel into a three part epic,
apparently, in my opinion, for the love of money. When he produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I enthusiastically attended the premier of each movie, and soon began buying the DVDs when they appeared, only to find that he was also minting an extended version of each movie, which appeared only when the sequel hit the theatres...again, for the love of money. I eventually bought a boxed set of the extended cut of the entire trilogy, which my family has enjoyed greatly.

But I vowed not to fall into that financial trap again. In my lonely protest, I have refused to see the movies at the full price theaters when they appeared. I have not purchased a single DVD. I saw the first installment at our local dollar theatre, and rented the second one on Redbox. So, as I was watching the trailer for the DVD last night, my prophecies concerning the mercenary known as Peter Jackson were confirmed - there was an advertisement for the extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey included in the trailer, as well as one for a Lego Hobbit (Lego Bilbo?) video game, and a Hobbit MMORPG Desolation of Smaug expansion pack. It's all about the benjamins for these gold-grubbing dwarves.

And now, to arms!

As I mention above, Tolkien wrote the book for a young audience, and the entire tale as related by Peter Jackson takes on a far darker aspect. Gone is Bilbo's comic baiting of the spiders of Mirkwood, replaced by a fierce battle with creatures of nightmare. Gandalf's clever method of getting the reclusive Beorn to grant hospitality to a troupe of dwarves is forgotten, and Beorn aids them only because he hates dwarves slightly less than he hates goblins.

When Jackson introduced us to Arwen with a much enhanced role in LoTR, I could understand his reasoning that American audiences needed to have a love interest to keep their attention, and to understand what motivated Aragorn to take the throne, but when he introduces a new elf warrior-ess named Thuriel here, I'm stumped. She's the elf commoner whom Legolas (Legolas??) is half in love with. When Thranduil tells her she will never be allowed to marry his son, she overcompensates by falling in love with Kili, the dwarf captive.

Something that occurred to me for the first time in forty or so years...why in the world did the wood elves have so many jail cells? Is this the first thing that occurs to you when you're building a beautiful elven hall in the woods? We have to build a really big dungeon, you never know who might happen by.

There is, as Thorin's gang are escaping in their floating barrels, a truly spectacular battle with the orcs, led by Bolg (a throwaway name of the goblin leader in the novel, but a major player here, much like Radagast, also mentioned only twice in LoTR, but who is now a major player). My comment to my wife was that Legolas must have been slipping in his old age, if this type of fighting was what he was capable of back in the day. Just Wow.,

When I fully realized that Jackson has slipped his gears was when Gandalf the Grey is lured into a trap at Dol Guldur and captured by The Necromancer. Oh, did I mention that said villain has put a price on Thorin's head? Or that he is in command of all of the goblins? He also seems to suffer from the curious quirk of Bond villains in that he has to capture the hero, so as to lecture him, I suppose, instead of rapidly killing him.

Our merry band arrives battered on the shores of Long Lake, where they encounter a bargeman named Bard, played by an actor who reminds me strongly of Inigo Montoya. They bribe him to smuggle them into Lake town, which is a slum truly worthy of Dickens, and ruled by a darkly comic version of Stalin, complete with the ever snooping secret police. After being captured attempting to steal weapons from the armory, Thorin makes a rousing speech on the courthouse steps, and wins the support of the Master of the town and the common people, and they are rapidly equipped for their journey to the Lonely Mountain.

In a strange and mysterious side plot, Kili was wounded with a poisoned orc arrow in their escape from Mirkwood, and is slowly slipping into pain and delirium, in a manner reminiscent of Frodo's wounding by a Morgul knife. Elf maiden Thuriel has pursued him all the way to Lake Town, and she and Legolas show up just in the nick of time to thwart an attack on him and the other two dwarves left behind there (What!?) when Thorin and the rest of the party headed for the mountain. When Legolas goes out to battle with Bolg and his buddies all on his lonesome, Thuriel uses athelas to make a poultice and draw the poison from his wound, and Kili is definitely lovestruck, or elfshot, or perhaps simply raving in madness, who knows?

I know that these Jackson epics tend to be rather long movies, but gone is any sense of time passing, and entire sections of the book have been deleted to speed things up. The dwarves, for example, arrive at the exact spot on the Lonely Mountain where the door is concealed just at sunset on Durin's Day. No waiting around whatsoever, just the whole band except Bilbo giving up in disgust when they don't find the keyhole by the dyingt rays of the sun, and our intrepid hobbit figuring out, or maybe dumbly stumbling across the fact that it's the first beams of the moon that reveals the spot.

Gone are the multiple trips down the passage to bandy riddles with an awakened dragon, the slow hauling back of loot to delight the dwarves. Bilbo wakes Smaug (who is truly magnificent and brilliantly voiced) with his clumsiness on his first trip down, engages in terrified conversation to stall him, finds the Arkenstone, and triggers the dragon's rage in one easy lesson. The dwarves rush to the heart of the mountain to rescue him, and what follows is the most confusing dragon vs. dwarves game of hide and seek you'll ever experience. What the heck was up with that giant golden dwarf king idol, anyway, Pete?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

 So, the first thing that is fun here is the word play Bishop creates with the title of her book, Murder of Crows. Murder is the term for a collection of crows, and in this case "murder of Crows" is the triggering incident in an incipient war between humans and the terra indigene, or Others. Crows are...well, not lycanthropes but shapeshifters who more accurately could be called, perhaps, corvuthropes. See, you learn a new (made up) word every day, eh?

Things are getting serious in multiple ways, as the leader of the Wolves, Simon, finds himself falling in love with Meg, nominally human, but actually more of a subspecies, the blood prophets, or cassandra sangue. This could cause problems for both of them, as interracial/interspecies affairs are not sanctioned in Thaisia (North America), and it is affecting his judgement in matters concerning her. Meg is also experiencing new feelings towards Simon, but neither of them wants to make things more complicated or encounter unrequited emotions, so it's all being bottled up. So healthy.

Meg's former captors are still trying to get her back, and the Humans First and Last fanatics are distributing a pair of drugs which strongly and negatively affect The Others, causing even more friction between the indigene and humans. Many humans have forgotten just how powerful The Others are, and that they exist on this continent only on sufferance, and so they ignorantly support the rabble rousers and grow restive. I'm sure there are some political undertones we could explore in this novel applicable to present real world situations, but I'm going to ignore that for the moment, as the plot is far more twisty and interesting.

The only thing that falls flat for me in this book is the rather contrived nature of how the blood prophets "see" their visions. They can only relate them in images which they have already experienced, so the cassandras in captivity are shown booklets of approved images which they can use, while Meg, who has escaped to "the wild" is beginning to have a far wider range, but her prophecies are still very childish, in my opinion, and just seem a little hokey. I mean, she sees a fish fin and a donkey, and what that means is the name of the man who is hunting for her and other cassandras, Phineas (fin + ass). Can't Bishop come up with something a little better than that?

Humans who associate with The Others are being harassed and threatened, like the girls who work at Howling Good Reads, and police officers like Monty and Captain Burke are going to have to choose sides, so to speak, soon. The Others respond quickly and decisively to eliminate threats from the humans, and cities can be and are destroyed to pay for the sins of a small number of their inhabitants. We begin to see a picture of a wider world here than just that of Lakeside, and Meg's prophecies must expand to include threats to more than just her new friends.

After a huge buildup, the final confrontation between the indigenes and the renegade Controller takes a dozen pages or so. Bishop may have wrapped this one up a little hastily, even though I'm sure there are more novels coming in this series. Soon, I hope.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

I'm thinking that I need to create a new label on this blog, called (tongue firmly in cheek) The PollyAnnas. Every so often I run across a book written by a group of optimists with a vision of the future so bright and cheerful that it blows out all of the cobwebs deposited by today's mainstream media. Unfortunately, they're few and far between. In fact, in the last three years, I've reviewed only two other PollyAnnas - Diamandis and Joffe.

This book starts out quite well, fulfilling my expectations in talking about the rapid pace of technological progress, how Moore's Law and the compounding effect of worldwide networking have given us so many everyday devices that once were the stuff only of science fiction, such as a driverless automobile, Star Trek-like communicators which we all carry around with us, amazing new social networks, and so forth. It begins to fizzle a bit in the middle of the book when the authors begin to talk about the social and economic effects of the new technology, as it rewards those people who are able to increase their productivity and skills by using computers and networks and apps, while it leaves others falling behind and losing their jobs to our new robot overlords (not quite literally...yet). The latter third of the book contains their prescriptions for individuals and government to follow going forward to alleviate the problems and to take advantage of the opportunities, which seems somewhat biased towards their somewhat Progressive take on things, so I just took it with a grain of salt and enjoyed a few of their wilder thoughts along the way.

In their discussion of how computers are terrible at pattern recognition, but good at following rules, known as algorithms, I found the following side note amusing:

"In the years leading up to the Great Recession that began in 2007, companies were giving mortgages to people with lower and lower credit scores, income, and wealth, and higher and higher debt levels. In other words, they either rewrote or ignored their previous mortgage approval algorithms. It wasn't that the old algorithms stopped working; it was that they stopped being used."

What a great description of the "algorithm" which precipitated the artificial bubble in housing prices and all of its unexpected consequences.

In an interesting illustration of how far we've come very rapidly:

"ASCI Red... was the worlds fastest 1996. It cost $55 million to develop and its one hundred cabinets occupied nearly 1,600 square feet of floor space...Designed for calculation-intensive tasks like simulating nuclear tests, ASCI Red was the first computer to score above one teraflop...To reach this speed it used eight hundred kilowatts per hour...By 1997, it had reached 1.8 teraflops.

Nine years later another computer hit 1.8 teraflops. But instead of simulating nuclear explosions, it was devoted to drawing them in all their realistic, real-time, three-dimensional glory. It did this not for physicists, but for video game players. This computer was the Sony Playstation 3."

Ain't it great!

I discovered a new term, "network effect" - a situation where the value of a resource for each of its users with each additional user.

The authors talk about Waze, an application that works far better than most GPS mapping and direction-providing applications, which takes into account the information both automatically and manually fed into it by its users and their cell phones, providing the most efficient method of navigating from one point to another, based on traffic patterns, speeds traveled in real time, and so forth. It doesn't merely take you down the freeway to your destination, but will make use of side streets if traffic is less dense there on your morning commute, for example.

Other apps which obviously benefit from the network effect are social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, which get more useful to all users as more users become connected.

Another new development which may be promising involves the Jeopardy playing computer, Watson. It is being reprogrammed with medical data which scientist hope will help doctors make better, quicker diagnoses. In one AI-related project, a computer was programmed to scan for cell patterns in cancer biopsies that might predict survivability rates. The program discovered three new patterns that pathologists had not previously used, which were good predictors.

The authors have an interesting theory:

"In the past couple of decades, we've seen changes in taax policy, greater overseas competition, ongoing government waste, and Wall Street shenanigans. But when we look at the data and research, we conclude that none of these are the primary driver of (income and wealth) inequality, Instead, the main driver is exponential, digital, and combinatorial change in the technology that undergirds our economic system. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that similar tends are apparent in most advanced countries. For instance, in Sweden, Finland, and Germany, income inequality has actually grown more quickly over the past twenty to thirty years than in the United States."

"...technologies like big data and analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions made by more abstract and data-driven reasoning, and in turn have increased the value of people with the right engineering, creative, or design skills. The net effect has ben to decrease demand for less skilled labor while increasing the demand for skilled labor."

Another concept I wasn't familiar with was the idea of "winner-take-all" markets, which seem to be gradually taking hold of the world of business. With the removal of geographic barriers to marketing made possible by the worldwide web, it is possible for people to rapidly find the best product, app, or service, and to base their spending decision on the absolute best choice, rather than the merely relatively good choice. Competitors who don't have the best choice are rapidly eliminated from the market.

One of the keys to getting ahead in the future mentioned in the book by Brynjolfsson and McAfeee is going to be the ability to play well with robots. Those who are able to augment their skills by taking advantage of technology will do well, while those who do not will wither.

They mention an interesting avant-garde clothing manufacturer called Zara who determine which clothes they will create, and what to ship to individual stores by consulting their store managers about what will sell well in that location over the next few days.

"Managers figure this out not by consulting algorithms but instead by walking around the store, observing what shoppers (particularly the cool ones) are wearing..."

Which raises the question, "How do you know who's cool?" It's high school all over again, apparently.

Side note, in case you're occasional confused by the difference between tera, peta, and exabytes, here's a link to an exabyte definition on Wikipedia that helps a lot.

I found mildly amusing that researchers Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini summarized more than twenty years of research in their book How College Affects Students by telling us, "...our most fundamental recommendation to students and their parents: study hard, using technology and all other available resources to 'fill up your toolkit' and acquire skills and abilities that will be needed in the second machine age."

Ya think? How many tax dollars were spent on that grant, Captain Obvious?

In the midst of their policy recommendations to solve the problem of technical illiteracy among the unskilled (which, not surprisingly contains the first prescription "pay teachers more"), I found this one puzzling.

"We do not think the right policy would be to try to halt the march of technology, or to somehow disable the mix of exponential, digital, combinatorial innovation taking place at present."

Who in the world is saying that we should? Maybe a few Luddites in the hinterlands, but the rest of us, like Ken Jennings, are welcoming our new robot overlords.

One idea which they present is one I've seen in science fiction for a long time - the idea of a universal basic living stipend for all citizens. What I hadn't realized is that it was actually seriously considered and proposed during the Nixon administration, with the Family Assistance Plan.

" also faced a large and diverse group of opponents. Caseworkers and other administrators of existing welfare programs feared that their jobs would be eliminated under the new regime; some labor leaders thought it would erode support for minimum wage legislation; and many working Americans didn't like the idea of their tax dollars going to people who could work but chose not to."

La plus ca change, eh?

They list some ideas from a brainstorming session on better shaping the future. I particularly like #5.

"Start a 'made by humans' labeling movement, similar to those now in place for organic foods, or award credits for companies that employ humans, similar to the carbon offsets that can be purchased. If some consumers wanted to increase the demand for human workers, such labels or credits would let them do so."

Perhaps if we started a rumor that foods grown by robots caused birth defects or sexual impotence...

Best chuckle I had all day.

An interesting, occasionally thought-provoking read. I only wish it had spent more time on reporting about all the great things happening in high tech, and not so much politically pontificating.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Kitty in the Underworld by Carrie Vaughn

I'm not sure what Vaughn was going for here, aside from a touch of Stockholm Syndrome. It seemed like a placemarker novel while she figures out where the story line is going and how the Long Game is going to be resolved.

Kitty's friends find out that Roman aka Dux Bellorum has lured one of the old European vampires into a trap and killed him, while hunting for a magical artifact called The Hand of Hercules. The supernatural community in Colorado decides to take a wait and see attitude, and so do we, if we read this story.

Ben has to travel to the hinterlands on business for a few nights, and while he is away, Kitty goes out to investigate a pair of weres who have invaded her pack's territory. It turns out to be a trap, as well, and she ends up captive to a group consisting of a very old vampire, Kumarbis, a were-lion, Sakhmet, a werewolf, Enkidu, and a sorceress, Zora. Kumarbis turns out to be the vampire who "turned" Roman two millennia ago, and he believes he is the only being who can stop Dux Bellorum. They believe that Kitty is the incarnation of the Regina Luporum, and coerce her into participating in a ritual designed to open a way to Roman's hiding place and to kill him.

The book is basically a couple hundred pages of Kitty captive in an old silver mine, cold, hungry, lonely, and sometimes angry. Plentiful pity party time. Though at one point she has a chance to escape, she decides she must give the conspirators a chance to succeed, or forever wonder what might have been, and if Dux Bellorum could have been stopped "if only".

The only thing Kitty and company seem to gain at the end of this fiasco is a book of spells that Zora places in Kitty's care when the battle with Roman goes TU. Probably needs to be read for completeness, but proceed at your own risk with low expectations.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Friday, May 2, 2014

Half Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire

Alexander Preston, aka Price, is Verity Price's brother, who is working at the reptile cage in a zoo in Ohio. He is on assignment for his family, researching the changes in cryptid populations due to climate change and species' dying off. It's tough to be a "secret agent" and have a steady girlfriend, but Alex manages to slip away one day to be with his sweetie for lunch - then a corpse turns up! Worse yet, it's obvious to his trained eyes that some sort of petrefactor (like a basilisk or gorgon) has killed their coworker.

McGuire does a fantastic balancing act of foreshadowing a surprising twist that is a major milestone for this story line. His girlfriend, visiting big cat researcher from Australia, Shelby, has a big secret, and astute readers will catch very subtle clues along the way to the big reveal, while those clues are not so obvious that we wonder why Alex doesn't immediately pick up on them. Other authors are not nearly as subtle with this technique, so it's refreshing to see it done well. I just had a twinge or two here and there that said, "There's something...odd...about that girl."

So, as the casualties mount, and both Alex and Shelby come under attack, it becomes a mystery which must be solved - to save our heroes, and to save the cryptids in the area from being revealed to humans and the Covenant of St. George. I have to say, the identity of the killer totally blindsided me. That doesn't happen a lot in mysteries after you've read a handful of hundreds.

So, there are three Price siblings, Verity, Alex and Antimony. I suspect we'll see another from Alex's POV, then a couple from Antimony, before we either return to Verity or do something completely different. Much better to tell the tale this way, from my own POV, than to go massively multiplayer.