Friday, January 30, 2015

Eat the Rich by P.J. O'Rourke

 I don't read enough of O'Rourke. Those books of his which I have read, however, I have enjoyed, and Eat the Rich is no letdown, either. O'Rourke takes us on a journalistic journey through the wilds of Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Russia, Tanzania, Cuba, Hong Kong and Shanghai, touring the economic landscape in his understated humorous way.

His conclusion, after all his exploration, seems to be that the worst people to put in charge of an economy...are economists. The best thing a government can do for an economy is just to get the heck out of the way, it appears.

Interesting factoids from around the globe:

Though we all think that the stock market is either all in a bear cycle or all in a bull cycle, with shares changing hands everywhere, "There are 207 billion shares registered on the Ne York Stock Exchange. In an absolute buying and selling frenzy, less than 0.6 percent of those shares changed hands. Investment usually stays invested."

In O'Rourke's dry humor "...the study of economics is divided into two fields, microeconomics and macroeconomics. Micro is the study of individual economic behavior, and macro is the study of how economies behave as a whole. That is, microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things economists are wrong about generally."

An interesting method for teaching economics was related by nineteenth century expert Alfred Marshall,

"(1) User mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of enquiry. (2) Keep to them until you have done. (3) Translate into English (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics."

A treatise on the nature of money,

"Anything that's used to measure value, if it has value itself, is commodity money. Societies that didn't have fifty-dollar bills picked one or two commodities as proto-simoleons. The Aztecs used cocoa beans for money, North Africans used salt (hence salary), medieval Norsemen used butter and dried cod, and heir ATM machines were a mess."

On dining in a Russian restaurant,

"The next night I went to Uncle Gillie's, which had California cuisine in perfection. My chicken had not only been allowed to range free, it had been given aroma therapy and stress counseling."

and Russian business practices,

"Russia does not yet have an effective system of civil law. The only way to enforce a contract is, as it were, with a contract - and plenty of enforcers. What would be litigiousness in New York is a hail of bullets in Moscow. Instead of a society infested with lawyers, they have a society infested with hit men. Which is worse, of course, is a matter of opinion."

The money quote, wherein according to Marx's theory of Surplus Value, anytime you hire someone, you are exploiting him.

"The terrific corruption that now exists in Russia was not caused by the collapse of Marxism-Leninism. It was caused by Marx and Lenin."

Experts occasionally blame lack of education for Tanzania's woes, but Tanzanians,

"were exposed to science, math, and technology by Muslims, beginning in the eighth century. That's 800 years before anyone who could read or recite multiplication tables arrived in North America. True, Arab traders came for the purposes of stealing slaves and pillaging ivory. But the harbingers of civilization rarely arrived anywhere in order to deliver Girl Scout cookies."

On baboons,

"I wondered if this troop was us four million years ago. If so, the baboons are probably plotting revenge upon thepredators. 'Soon as we evolve, we take the natural habitat and pave its ass.'"

On Hong Kong,

"Laissez-faire isn't Tanzanian administrative sloth or Albanian popular anarchy. Quite a bit of government effort is required to create a system in which government leaves people alone."

All joking aside, O'Rourke's sum total of what is required for a person or a nation to prosper is the following six ingredients:

  • Hard work
  • Education
  • Responsibility
  • Property rights
  • Rule of law
  • Democratic government

A good and entertaining read, though a bit dated, being published in 1998, though my impression is that what we've seen in the last decade and a half is pretty much more of the same from these countries and areas where he traveled.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Chosen by Benedict Jacka

 I sincerely believe that Jacka has truly hit his stride with the Alex Verus series with this book. Let us hope he hasn't peaked too soon, instead. I picked up the book around 8 PM, and didn't put it down until 10:30, finished. There's about two pages of relative calm at the beginning of the book, as Alex, Luna, Sonder, Anne and Variam play a game of Settlers of Catan (which Alex pointedly avoids winning with his divination skills) when the action starts with him confronting a spy on the rooftops.

Soon after that, he is attacked by a group of vigilante adepts in the middle of a casino, where he is teaching Luna to use her power to manipulate random chances, and comes extremely close to dying. Only Anne's healing powers pull him back from the brink of death. The band of bravos, called the Nightstalkers, are after Alex because of his role in the abduction and murder of Catherine Traviss at the behest of his former master, Richard. Catherine's brother, Matt, leads the group.

Coincidentally? the Council's enforcers, the Keepers, are interested in talking to Alex about his former master, who is rumored to be returning from wherever he has disappeared to for the last decade. Alex is uncertain about Catherine's true fate, so he decides that the best way to stop the Nightstalkers is to find out if she is still alive somewhere, thereby removing Matt's reason for vengeance.

Alex voyages into the Elsewhere, a dream realm where he may be able to scan the memories of one of his former fellow dark apprentices, Rachel, now known as Deleo. When he gets there he is guided by the shade of Shireen, another one of Richard's apprentices, and we get a couple of great installments of Alex's back story at last, as well as, by the end of the story, an explanation of Deleo's madness and a glimpse of some of the light vs. dark struggles which are on the way. Alex gains a new "ally", Keeper Caldera, who is the lead investigator into Richard's whereabouts, and his friendships with his young adepts are seriously tested.

Here's hoping Jacka can maintain the quality of storytelling he's established in Chosen.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rats, Bats & Vats by Dave Freer and Eric Flint

 I think that Freer couldn't quite make up his mind what he was trying to write with Rats, Bats & Vats. It tries to be a serious war novel like The Forever War or Old Man's War, but reads like Bill, the Galactic Hero, more of a satirical work, as we tunnel and trudge through the battles against the alien M'agh with Sergeant Chip Connolly and his squad of seriously deranged genetically engineered rats and bats.

Unfortunately, the humor wasn't enough to save it, and the warfare wasn't intense enough to keep my attention. Gave it up about a quarter of the way through.

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

 Someone, somewhere along the line had to have told me something like, "If you like Steampunk, you need to check out George Mann", but I can't for the life of me recall who would have done so. This is one of those books that's just a twist or two away from my usual genre choices; it's steampunk, but also has the flavor of something from Marvel Comics, with a slight accent of film noire sensibilities.

The setting is 1930s New York, complete with bootleg gin, steam-driven automobiles, and biplanes with jetpacks, plus a bunch of nasty gangsters, frails and molls. There's a "superhero" of sorts named The Ghost, and some really evil villains, but somewhere about a third of the way into the book, I simply ceased to care what happened, or to whom.

Life is too short to read books that don't grab ya.

If you're a Marvel or DC fan, maybe this would appeal to you more than it did to me.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Peripheral by William Gibson

 In 1984, Gibson broke new ground with Neuromancer, which set off the whole cyberpunk movement, and introduced the neology, cyberspace. I recall being thrilled with the novel when it first arrived on the scene, and I've faithfully digested every tome he has written, since.

I am afraid, however, that Gibson has boldly gone where I no longer care to follow, with Peripheral. I just could not keep myself interested in its...sadly unengaging...plot. Perhaps it gets better eventually, but my experience with his other recent works suggests to me that it is unlikely to become more gripping the deeper one voyages.

It seemed to be a tale of some rather unfocused folks who mostly play video games for money, but the game they're playing may not really be a game, but rather a roundabout way to use mercenaries to provide security for celebrities, or at least that's the impression I got. Maybe Gibson has some deep, and very subtle, philosophical and sociological observations to make in the book, but I just couldn't keep my eyes open long enough to get the point.

Gibson may have reached that unfortunate point where he has nothing new to say and no new stories to tell. Hey, three decades wasn't a bad run!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

 I know I've read several of the Agent Pendergast series by Preston and Child before, including Still Life with Crows and Relic, but for some reason I never put together the idea that they were a series. As expected, this one was twisty and a bit dark, with a truly quirky and unique protagonist.

I think I need to drop back and read a couple books prior to this one to understand what's really going on, because there are a number of cryptic references to earlier events, but the crux of the matter is that one of Pendergast's recently-discovered twin sons, the "evil" twin, who was a serial killer in New York in an earlier story, turns up murdered on the agent's front porch one day, after a long exile in the jungles of Brazil. The agent is never one to leave a good mystery alone, and so he embarks on his own quest to find out who has killed his son, whom he despises, and why the crime was committed.

In parallel, one of Pendergast's old friends, detective d'Agosta, is involved with his own murder mystery, involving the bludgeoning death in an isolated corner of a museum, of one of the technicians who works in the department which handles old skeletons...skeletons in the closet indeed!

This one gets violent, bloody and twisty pretty quickly. I definitely have to drop back and read some of the earlier books so I get some of the major characters' back stories. Preston & Child are always good.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Taken by Benedict Jacka

Damsels in distress, dangerous monsters, sorcerous duels! What's not to like about the third book in the Alex Verus adventures?

Well, the only problem is that about three days after I finished it, I can barely remember what it was about. Maybe that's simply a memory issue on my part, but there's really no Wow! factor here.

There's a big contest about to happen in the wizarding world, where most apprentices and mages test themselves against the competition (hmm, there's no mention of what the prize is for the winner of the contest at any time), and the mage who is hosting the contest, Crystal, tries to convince Alex to provide security for the gathering. He catches her trying to manipulate him by reading his mind - her mage skill is telepathy - and declines to play her game. But when one of the few wizards he slightly trusts, Talisid, asks him to look into the recent disappearances of several apprentices, and the trail leads to the contest grounds, he ends up in the middle of the muddle anyway.

His cover for attending is to coach his apprentice, Luna, in her first competition. He also gets involved with another apprentice, Anne, when he rescues her from a murder attempt by some goons. I think there's some romantic attraction hinted at here (Jacka is being cagey), and we may see more of Anne in future books. Anne and her friend Variam were "adopted" by a rakshasha, Jagadeve, after they broke free of their first master, a dark mage. The supernatural being is playing his own game, pursuing a vendetta with the mages that has gone on for centuries, and Alex manages to get caught up in that intrigue, as well.

The solution to the mysterious disappearances is not surprising to old urban fantasy hands, and a bit anticlimactic. The purpose of this book seems to be to move Luna's development as an adept along and to perhaps introduce a new love interest.

On to the next book.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Call to Duty by David Weber and Timothy Zahn

 A Call to Duty takes a chronological leap backwards, to the time before the Star Kingdom of Manticore's wormhole junction was discovered, when it was still at peace with Haven, the Solarian League was far away, and the Andermani Empire mere rumbles of thunder on the horizon. It is more of a young adult novel than most in the Honorverse assortment, and has also taken a step back in the magnitude of the multi-POV Weber style, and a step forward in comprehensibility to one who is not steeped to geeky goodness in the lore of Manticore.

Like many a story of the same type, it follows the journey of Travis Uriah Long, a man on the cusp of adult life, directionless, who decides to join the Royal Manticoran Navy for structure and discipline. As you might imagine, he finds a surfeit of both in the rigors of boot camp and beyond. Long gains the nickname of "Stickler" for his obstinate obedience to rules, regulations and procedures, but his career in the Navy is destined to give him a far broader education in the reality of how things work when the battle plan meets the enemy.

There's still plenty of good political machinations, but we actually get introduced to each of the players in this new series, rather than having to consult a monstrous compendium like The Book of Steel to remember the particulars about them, so it seems far easier for me to follow, much like the first handful or so of the original Honor Harrington novels. One faction of Parliament wants to dismantle the Navy, now that they are at peace, so the money can be spent on education and job creation, of course, while the others are not so sanguine about the continued stability, and want to expand the fleet to meet future threats. The downsizers have the upper hand at the moment, so morale in the fleet is not great as maintenance is deferred, and corners are cut.

Young Long gets up to plenty of adventures here, from rescuing damsels in distress fighting space pirates. Hopefully Zahn and Weber can continue to keep it simple for his old easily confused readers, who simply enjoy a well-spun yarn.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

 I'm afraid this is about the sweetest dish-free celebrity bio I've ever seen. I can accept that Cary Elwes is a genuinely nice guy who thinks the best of everyone, but I simply can't believe that the entire making of The Princess Bride went smoothly and without any conflicts between cast members, directors, crew, and so forth.It boggles the mind.

According to Elwes, Rob Reiner was the soul of goodness and light, Robin Wright was continuously noble, Andre the Giant was indeed a "gentle giant", and Mandy Patinkin was the most worthy competitor in the greatest sword fight ever filmed of all times.

About the only things even remotely untoward which happened were one of the little folks playing an ROUS who got hauled off to the clink for driving under the influence, and the incredible attack of flatulence which should have flattened the castle walls in the scene where Westley is recovering from being "mostly dead".

If you're a serious Princess Bride geek, however, this will be a good read, just to fill in the background and to learn some new trivia.

I had always thought that the names that the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya toss out during the sword fight were just made up, but it turns out that guys like Capo Ferra and Agrippa actually were master sword fighters who wrote treatises on the art of fencing. Very cool. Elwes and Patinkin actually spent nearly every spare moment they had over months of filming just training with a couple of master fencers and stunt men to get ready to film the best three minutes and twenty seconds of swashbuckling ever seen on film.

A fun, quick cotton-candy read.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

 This book contains three sections dealing with the power of habit as it affects individuals, businesses, and societies. If you're seeking to break a bad habit or to create a good habit, Duhigg provides some valuable insights and strategies, based on multiple studies, which may help.

MIT researchers discovered in the 90s that habits are actually built deep inside the brain, close to the brain stem, in our older, primitive structure called the basal ganglia. They discovered that animals with injured basal ganglia had problems learning and remembering tasks. When they began to learn tasks, most of the electrical activity took place widely distributed through their brains, but after they had mastered the tasks, repeated running of the tasks, succeeding by their developed habits of always turning left, or always pressing a lever in a certain location, the electrical activity shrank, and moved to the basal ganglia. "The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep."

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort."

We all have lazy brains, that's funny.

But the good thing about that is that we don't have to think constantly about repetitive behaviors. Have you ever noticed that, while thinking about something else, or carrying on a lively conversation, you drove most of the way to work or church without thinking about it?

All habits are composed of a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward - the cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use (for we all have many of them), the routine is a set of physical, mental, or emotional actions, and the reward is something which helps your brain decide whether this is a habit is worth remembering for the future.

The importance of reward in this cycle, however odd the reward may seem, is key.

Early marketers of Febreze, a chemical compound which completely neutralized bad odors, were stumped when buyers didn't use and re-purchase the product. They found that after they added a pleasant scent, rather than simply eliminating odors, consumers began to habitually use it, as their brains associated the "reward" of pleasant scent with having a clean and odor-free home. A similar situation occurred with early marketing of toothpaste. After many public campaigns to educate people about the health value of brushing with a cleansing toothpaste, people still weren't brushing, until some genius made toothpaste that left their mouths tasting of mint, and people's brains then associated the "reward" of a minty fresh feeling with having a healthy mouth, and Pepsodent's sales skyrocketed.

I read Tony Dungy's book Quiet Strength a number of years ago, so i was interested in what this book had to say about how he created a winning football team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Champions don't do extraordinary things," Dungy would explain. "They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they've learned."

The key to changing a habit from bad to good is to keep the old cue, deliver the old reward, but change the routine in the middle.

Football players rely on "keys" to determine what action they should take in a given situation. The placement of the opposing player's feet, the positioning of their shoulders, and the spacing between linemen are all keys. If the keys are properly read, and the reaction is correct, it is highly likely that the opponent will be thwarted. The team whose players react the most quickly, instinctively, habitually, in the correct manner, to those keys, will win more often than not. If a player has to think about what he's going to do next, his actions will probably be wrong.

Duhigg tells the story of how a new CEO at Alcoa, Paul O'Neill, turned things around and made the company profitable, increasing the stock price by a factor of five in a few short years. He did it by introducing one key new corporate habit, which became ingrained in the culture. The habit he introduced didn't seem to anyone, at first, related at all to increasing profits; the change he introduced was the intention to make Alcoa the safest company in America. "I intend to go for zero injuries."

The cue - worker injury
The new routine - any time someone was injured the unit president had to report it to the CEO within 24 hours, along with a plan to make sure it never happened again
The reward - only those who embraced the system would get promoted (and those who didn't were fired)

"O'Neill never promised that his focus on worker safety would increase Alcoa's profits. However, as his new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed. If molten metal was injuring workers when it splashed, then the pouring system was redesigned, which led to fewer injuries. It also saved money because Alcoa lost less raw materials in spills. If a machine kept breaking down, it was replaced, which meant there was less chance of a broken gear snagging an employee's arm. It also meant higher quality products because, as Alcoa discovered, equipment malfunctions were a chief cause of subpar aluminum."

Starbucks also achieves success through building good employee habits with its LATTE method.

"We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred."

What a great customer service model!

Where I think Duhigg's model breaks down just a bit is when he gets into applying the principles to social movements.

He writes,

"A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.

It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.

And it endures because a movement's leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership."

He applies this to two very diverse situations, the civil rights movement in the 50s in America, and the growth of Rick Warren's Saddleback ministry.

He mentions an interesting fact,

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama "Every adult, it seemed - particularly every black adult - belonged to some kind of club, church, social group, community center, or neighborhood organization, and often more than one."

Is this still true today? I suspect that much of the breakdown of the social fabric in the inner cities can be tied to the disappearance of community ties and the feeling of responsibility and interdependence of those within the communities.

This is a really good book, though I suggest skipping section three, and going directly to the appendix, where you'll find the methodology for changing a habit:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

If you're interesting in changing a habit, you can usually either change the routine, which may be a bad one, or the reward for the routine, which may also be bad. For example the routine may be slumping on the couch in front of the tv, instead of going for a walk or run. The reward may be grabbing that extra latte at Starbucks on the way home from work, when you're trying to stay on budget. In one case you want to change the routine, the other you want to change the reward that results from the routine.

Good stuff. Food for thought.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Indexing by Seanan McGuire

 Had an extremely difficult time getting involved in this book, though I love most everything else I've ever read by McGuire. There was just nothing in the first thirty pages or so that held my interest. I'll wait for the next October Daye novel, or Incryptid.

War Dogs by Greg Bear

 In The Princess Bride there is a line, "Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure." I feel that since the invention of science fiction there have only been three future war novels that were rated the most exciting, the most enduring: Haldeman's The Forever War, Scalzi's Old Man's War, and Card's Ender's Game. Bear's latest, War Dogs, seems to me to be a tribute to the first of those, Forever War, in some sense.

Note: If Haldeman had stopped with The Forever War and never written the sequels, Peace and Free, the world would not be diminished by much - snoozers, in my opinion. Which brings to mind my usual rant about authors who continue to write long after they've said all they really have to say.

WARNING: This post contains some bad words later on. Stop reading immediately f that offends you.

Bear is one of those authors who's been around a while, and I've read a fair amount of his work, but it all happened before I started blogging, so not many of them are reviewed here. Read Blood Music some time if you get a chance, or the even more tightly written novella by the same name from which it was expanded.

This book plays around with a couple of interesting tropes, one typical SF and another that appears in mainstream stories quite often. The first one has been around since at least The Day the Earth Stood Still; the appearance of technologically advanced and apparently benevolent aliens on Earth, who make demands on all Earthlings "for their own good." The second has been around possibly since the invention of warfare; the tale of ordinary soldiers, "grunts", fighting in a war they don't particularly care about, waged for reasons they cannot comprehend. Bear calls his "benevolent" aliens The Gurus.

The trio of prior works mentioned above use the second trope, and modifies the first to a "hostile alien encounter" trope, so Bear's twist is mildly innovative - I've seen it before from other authors, but memory fades when it comes to naming names.

In fact, there's a really cute (in my opinion) backhanded reference to The Forever War in War Dogs. If you haven't read the book, you need to know that Haldeman's space marines address all of their senior officers with the greeting, "Fuck You, Sir!" to get the joke.

"The Gurus made it clear, however magnanimous they might seem, that they found offensive any and all sexual profanity. Words that showed disrespect to the sacred biological functions of reproduction."

So, Bear's Skyrines (Sky Marines) can't even say the word, "fuck",  much less use it to salute their officers. Irony on a number of levels.

Bear's hero in this tale, "a white boy from Moscow, Idaho", is Master Sergeant Michael Venn. He and his squad mates have been shipped to Mars "The Red" to fight against the Gurus enemies, The Antags. The drop has gone horribly wrong, and the survivors stagger from one mess to the next for a great deal of the book. The story is told through flashbacks by Venn after he returns to Earth after the mission, and Bear adds in even more old and familiar SF tropes as the pages flash by, diluting the flavor bit by bit.

After finishing this book, I have to wonder if Bear is just attempting to set the stage for a series of novels - there were just far too many elements stirred together in a gallimaufry of SF motifs, and the whole plot just meanders to a stopping point which resolves nothing. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Personal by Lee Child

 The first half dozen pages of this novel, I'm thinking, "Hasn't Child already written this story - One Shot?" Turned into the weak plot of a movie starring Tom Cruise as Reacher? And the rights have been sold to make nine Reacher movies? Dear God, please let them find someone believeable to play Reacher - and soon!

But I digress.

A very skilled sniper appears to be "auditioning" for a job, which probably involves taking shots at one or more of the world leaders scheduled to appear soon at the G8 summit in London. The French, Russian, British and U.S. intelligence services have narrowed the suspects down to a half-handful of ex-military snipers from the U.S., U.S.S.R., and U.K., who are unaccounted for. The American is a former Army shooter who Reacher put away in jail sixteen years ago - for a fifteen year sentence.

When a general whom Reacher owes a favor contacts him and asks him to track down the sniper and stop him, it's an offer he can't really refuse - especially when he finds the rural hideout where the sniper has been shooting at targets of Reacher's head for months on end. This story, of course, just wouldn't fly without the addition of a female sidekick for our hero, and he gets a "rookie" from the State Department as his "minder", though it's not certain who's minding whom over the long haul.

The action moves swiftly to France, then London, and there are the usual  plot twists and awesome fight scenes as Reacher plows over the competition, and chases down his target. The final twist was not unexpected, especially if you take the title to heart.

Another fun and quick read from Child

Monday, January 5, 2015

All Quiet on the Blog Front

Once again, I feel I like should apologize for the lack of new posts since the last day of 2014. I had a wonderful time with family over the holidays, though, so I can't really get my heart into that guilty feeling.

I hope you all had as blessed of a holiday season as did I.

New post in the morning.