Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ranger's Apprentice, Book 8: Kings of Clonmel

In the 8th Ranger's Apprentice book, Will finally sees other apprentices that look up to him as a "real" ranger who has done amazing things. We also discover Holt's long lost royal family. Horrace defeats somebody else in single combat. There is a good amount of violence. The primary story line centers around a religious cult. The charismatic leader of the cult has aspirations on control of Hiberia (seems like Ireland). He controls a band of thugs that raids and destroys villages. Then who shows up and prays to his god to protect some major cities from the same thugs he controls. It is very convincing. However, the rangers see right through it and save the day. I thought we might have Holt permanently take the throne, but that was not to be.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race

So You Want to Talk About Race was written by somebody from Seattle, who sees everything through a racial privilege lens. The book hits all the Seattle terminology and grievances. I just don't care for these arguments. I'd much rather have the efforts spent on combating oppression and car-centric transportation.
In the argument, the world is divided into two groups "straight neurotypical cis etc. white male oppressors" and "everyone else", where everyone else is primarily "people of color". Racism is defined to only be possible when coming from people in power. Thus, only "white people" can be racist, because they have the power. Though, how do you define power? In Chicago, the mayor is a LGBTQ black woman and "people of color" hold the majority of the city council seats. I doubt that this would be used to argue that white people in Chicago can't be racist. Perhaps you could argue that the big companies are still dominated by whites. Perhaps Silicon Valley in Northern California would be a better example. There are many cities run by Asians, with companies also run by Asians with an Asian-majority workforce. There are whites finally exempt from being racist? Or perhaps we need to carry it out to the world. Since European culture dominates the world, only Europeans can be racist. What about places like Malaysia that give preference to Malays over Chinese? It just makes for a confusing argument.
She gives some of the typically arguments that "people of color" are universally oppressed due to their race. She acknowledges that there are many other groups that are discriminated against, but sees race as the most important. She argues that she lives in a white supremacist world where she suffers from endless microagressions and discrimination. However, she fails to acknowledge that she comes from a huge position of privilege that lets her make her arguments and seek for some sort of non-oppression. She groups people as "people of color" and "white people". She had an "Obama" upbringing, raised by a white mother with an absent African father, however, identifies exclusively with "blackness". She does acknowledge that even in her "people of color" community, they excluded other people that were not "elite" like her. From there, she assumes to speak for all non-white people.
The author spends time discussing "intersectionality". The social justice movement wants to make sure that all "intersections" of groups are properly covered. (Of course this is only groups that the movements have acknowledged.) It thus makes for confusion as they attempt to "speak" for many other people (while at the same time excluding others because they are "oppressors." It all just sounds very Seattle.
One thing she seems to get right is that "racism" is a way that people make themselves feel better. If there is somebody lower than them, they will feel better about themselves. Similarly, if there is somebody "higher" than them, they will feel upset - especially if they feel they should be able to aspire to that position. If we erase all concept of race, people will still find a way to separate themselves. The case of European immigrants is an interesting study. There was originally heavy segregation based on different countries of origin. British were at the top. Southern Europeans and slavs were down near the bottom. Post-famine Irish were the dregs. These days, they are all just "white", even though there are various ranges of physical features. The offspring of a Brit and an Italian don't become "Italian". However, any African ancestry trumps all to make somebody "black". Why is this so?
The author throws in a discussion on Asians. They are both a model minority and oppressed. It all comes down to group definition. (Alas, the same is not done for whites, which are just used as a homogeneous foil.)
The cultural appropriation discussion is also rife with conflicts. An African-themed bar is considered bad. (Ok, I'll buy that. I'd much rather have good Ethiopian food than burgers.) Wearing sacred Native American headdress is also bad. (No problem there.) However, artists such as white rappers are viewed negatively because they have "appropriated" an art form that originated in West African chanting. That seems to be stretching things a bit. Should we argue black appropriation of McDonalds? (oh wait, it is fine to appropriate form the "dominate" race.) The author also tries to appropriate the legacy of slavery to her experience. Yet, she did not claim any slave ancestry. Why should she appropriate some culture but others not?
There are issues with race in America. However, separating out the "us vs. them" does not help things. There will always be differentiation. Some groups will be better at different things. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we have a culture that expresses value in a certain types of achievement. People that cannot achieve feel discouraged and look to sidestep the system. This leads to more discouragement and continued problems. Yelling at others for being racist just adds to the fire. The book ends by describing a fight against a police station in Seattle. It just happened to be near an area known for criminal activity. There were also a large number of people of color (including many African immigrants) in the area who were eager to have the station built. However, many residents (primarily in other parts of the city) fought against it due to some of the amenities (like a Yoga room.) Instead, some of the money was spent on public housing. This may show another symptom of the crime. Huge efforts are spent to get crumbs of money that only help a small number of people of color. At the same time, zoning and building codes present so many challenges to building housing, that most new housing built is "luxury". Why not fight to eliminate these regulations so that more housing appropriate for the community can be built? And calling out a "school to prison pipeline" doesn't help education. Instead, we need to rethink the whole structure. There is a tendency brewing now to implement a "lowest common denominator". Seeing a disparity in opportunities for different racial groups, the "special" ones that whites use are dismantled to give everyone an equal opportunity. Why not instead focus on differing educational experiences. Some people have time and resources to complete advanced education. Others need to work as soon as possible. What about co-op vocational opportunities? And what about practical coursework like personal finance, cooking and household skills. The children of professors will have distinct advantages over the children of a poor single-mom who did not finish high school. Often children will have an educational experience similar to their parents. As a society, we would do well by nudging the least educated up a bit, without hurting the top. Some racial groups tend to occupy the bottom. Racism may be part of the problem. However, there are many other factors involved.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World

Me, Me, Me continues on with many of the same points of the author's previous book. The goal is to empower children to make good decisions that help them and society in the long run. To enable this, the parent needs to start be spending time with the child ("mind body and soul time"). Then there must be clear boundaries, together with plenty of opportunity for children to make good decisions for themselves.
She spends time analyzing "privilege". People are concerned about having benefits that were not due to their own work. She even thinks she got privilege from her degree - even though she spent great effort to obtain it. This is again, a modern liberal view. The "disadvantages" focus on certain "key" areas, but ignore other things. Why should we even try for equality? The diversity of genetics make people differently equipped for different tasks. (Short people are inherently disadvantaged as basketball stars.) Upbringing also is an important benefit. Historically, wealth and position were passed down through generations. Even without that, the upbringing lets people have more experience and training in certain areas. Denying this can limit the possible growth of society.
For money, the book advocates a "no strings attached" allowance is a way to encourage kids to manage money. The book advocates encouragement rather than praise and encourages empathy. It also encourages empathy with kids. They need to have intrinsic motivation to do what is right. They also benefit greatly by having the opportunity to fail while they are young rather than when they get older.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 2

The Magician continues on the pseudo-historical adventures of the alchemist. Most of the characters are "real" ones from history. John Dee and Niccolo Machiavelli are the bad guys. Joan of Arc is a new good person here. There are also demons and supernatural events. The bad cause have caused many of the calamitous events (such as the San Francisco earthquake and volcanoes.) Monster sightings and supernatural events are actually "real". The conspiracy theorists have it right. People just use science to cover things up.
In this book, the adventures are primarily in Paris. The twins and their companions are chased. The twins get separated. The boy feels drawn to the "bad guy" through his talk. HE eventually chooses to get awoken by Mars, much to the chagrin of others. Luckily, they come to help out of the problems. There is real conflict over who is good and bad. Each side tells parts of story, but leaves the opening for the other side to communicate their part. Oh, and there is also plenty of action and mayhem which gets conveniently explained away.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It Is Revolutionizing Our World

George Gilder believes that most economists miss the point. Economics is all about the unknown. Entrepreneurs are the most important part of the economic system. They take risk. The success or failure is unknown. If we prevent them from having the chance of big gains, we prevent the societal benefits that they will provide. (Ironically, the vast riches often come when the companies move to a static turf-defense stage.) Qualcomm seemed to violate the laws of physics with CDMA. It was less efficient for voice communication. But much better for transmitting data.
Gilder is a strong supply slide economist that enjoys remembering the glory years of the Reagan era. His has very right wing views, yet he dishes out criticism (and compliments) to those on both sides of the aisle. Information Theory provides a basis for economic thought. We already know what we know. It is what we don't know that will provide value. Government regulation usually fails because it attempts to but rules in place based on what we know. This ends up stifling some of the entrepreneurial growth. It also leads to significant energy spent "working around the rules." Huge numbers of people are employed to pay taxes (and uncover legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes.) When taxes are high, income will often "disappear"
When he gets to specifics, Gilder can sometimes run into trouble. He is strongly in favor of fossil fuels. He believes that "clean energy" policy is a waste and distracts us from optimizing fossil fuel use. This is partially correct. A lot of the "renewable" mandates are more expensive and can have negative environmental costs. However, there is already a body of regulation and subsidies to favor fossil fuel use. We should acknowledge this and spend efforts to remove the encouragement to use the "old system", in order to allow the new to flourish. Electric cars provide an interesting case. Subsidies and regulations had been put in place to encourage electric car development. Alas, there was very little uptake. Then Tesla comes along and creates the must-have electric car. The entrepreneur took advantage of some of the subsidies, but actually succeeded where the big companies had failed.
Things that are undervalued will be abused. He correctly points out cases like health care, where free coverage almost always ends up more costly as people turn hypochondriac and get unneeded healthcare. However, he fails to see that problem in other areas like energy and the environment. If we are free to shift pollution in a way that may hurt us or somebody in the future, it makes economic sense. We even have perverse cases such where people suffer from diseases of abundance and depression, only to spend resources on treating it. They are not better off. However, they have contributed to the economy. (He argues about other "manipulations of GDP", but misses out on these "negative" consumptions.)
At the core, Gilder argues that we need a predictable system that allows the unpredictable to thrive. We can't force the innovation to occur. Instead, we must ensure that the innovators get their proper rewards. This sounds great. However, it doesn't provide for the transition from "entrepreneurial risk taker" to "giant rent seeker". People are upset with the wealthy that have obscene amounts of money. However, they also take advantage of the innovations of these entrepreneurs. (I'm reminded of a Seattle city councilor constantly attacked Amazon - yet her office ordered supplies from Amazon.) How do we ensure that the innovation is encouraged without upsetting amounts of wealth. Does it make any sense for copyrights to last for decades after the death of a creator? This benefits the rent seekers rather than the creators. We also need to acknowledge that there are plenty of people that can't (or won't) make the plunge to innovate and would need some form of societal care. Who takes care of this?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Eragon: Inheratince

Eragon is the rare fantasy book that is easily digestible. Eragon is a an orphan who has been raised by a friendly "uncle". He discovers a small stone that he tries to use to buy meat. The butcher wont take it. That is for the good as it ends up being a dragon egg. He bonds with the dragon, and eventually leaves town with a storyteller who has dragon experience. Dragon riders had been nearly extinct as the evil king had subsumed their power. There is also magic, some large beasts, half-human magical creates and other typical fantasy creations. However, they are easy to tell apart. Eventually, Eragon discovers his magic and helps the good guys win a battle. In the middle of the book, he swaps travel partners. Things also get a bit confusing at the end. However, the book remains engaging, and is long, but not too long.

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (The Lamar Series in Western History)

Lakota America narrates the history of the Lokata people from early 15th century until today, with a strong emphasis on the century from the birth of the US in 1776 until the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. The terminology can get confusing, in part because people were confused in how they identified each other. They were part of the Sioux, but they were also their own. They reinvented themselves to thrive in remote lands as buffalo hunters. They were a fairly strong nation, and may have had their own country if not for the hunger of white America to settle the lands and build the railroads. They defended their rights both with word and dead. Custer's Last Stand was both their crowning achievement and the end of the line. After their grand victory, the government could now use them as the "evil" to fight against. They ended up confined to a reservation like other native groups. Could the colonist have peacefully coexisted with the native groups? Or was the land grab just too appealing. Perhaps things would have been different if disease and guns didn't have such a strong impact. (Ironically, disease actually helped the Lakota as they would often have greater immunity than other tribes.) What allowed the tribes we have today to survive as long as they did?

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Russian Revolution: A New History

The Russian Revolution was full of contradictions. There were also many "lucky events" that occurred to lead things one way or the other. The author sees the experience as an overall negative for the people. The revolution broke out during World War II. St Petersburg was a cosmopolitan city at the time. However, there was a sharp divide between rich and poor. People were also unhappy with the Czar and the influence of the healer Rasputin. He had a bad reputation and people really wanted him out of there. They finally plotted to kill him. Then they decided the czar must go also. This lead to the February revolution. There was plenty of happenstance and a great deal of incompetence the provisional government. They let the communists infiltrate and thus enabled the communist revolution. The communists came into power and realized they needed money. However, the bank workers went on strike. They thus had to break the strike to try to secure money. They also needed food. So they demanded it from the peasants, killing them if they didn't provide sufficiently. It all makes from a great start for a "peasant workers party". The communists were also against the death penalty and exile - until they needed both to enforce their way. They were strongly anti-war, but then needed further war to cement their power. They advocated nations' right of self-determination. However, that didn't apply when the nations like Ukraine didn't want to be part of the communist confederation. Later, the communists realized there was a great source of wealth in the churches. They thus strongly advocated official state atheism and taking of all the stored wealth from the churches. (Of course this didn't go to the people, but to the central communist organization.) Even communism was sometimes de-emphasized in favor of capitalism when needed. The communists also got some lucky breaks when western bowers decided to stop supporting the opposing groups and gave recognition to the Bolsheviks. (Only to later regret the move.)
Russia has bounced from Czars to Communists to modern day president and oligarchs. It seems that regardless of what the system is, there is a small group in power and a large group on the lower rung. The Russian communist government was primarily concerned with staying in power. The leaders tended to be another "elite" class. Marxism was the window dressing to help them stay in power.
The author ends with a warning to those today who advocate Marxism. The many countries that have tried it have found they drifted far from the utopian principles and often ended up with a dictatorship. (Ironically the modern European welfare state is probably looking much more like Marxism than the Russian experiment.)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Maoism: A Global History

Maosim is a history of the bread of socialism espoused by Mao Zedong. It is not a biography of Mao. Instead, it focuses on the rise to power of his brand of communism and implementation of similar principals in other countries. Maoism differed significantly from the Russian communism. (And both were quite different from what Marx envisioned.) Maoism supported violence. It was also very peasant-centric. It was ideologically inconsistent. What was preached was not necessarily what was practiced. It is somewhat politically pragmatic, willing to change to continue to stay in power. The cult of personality was also important. After Mao's death, the cult of Mao gradually faded in China, only to be gradually revived. Maoist China is arguably the most successful implementation of communism in the world. However, it has been very adapted to Chinese conditions, adopting many capitalistic components.
The discussion of Maoism in other areas of the world is enlightening. Overreactions to Maoism led to heavy American involvement in Vietnam. Maoist China has strategically given aid to other countries to help meet its means. Some countries (such as Cambodia) have adopted ideology. Others, like those in Africa would often just go through the motions. In the west, Maoism appeals to those outside the mainstream. The violence appeals to many developing countries.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1

Nicholas Flamel was actually a real person and a an alchemist. His legend of the philosophers stone and immortality have grown over the years and were even mentioned in Harry Potter. The novel knits together real historical figures, mythology and pure fiction. It also takes place in a number of "real" places in California. It could almost be considered "historical fiction" except for the fact it takes place today. (Well a decade or so ago. It does date itself with people still using iPods and searching on AltaVista. Would people really search in Altavista at the same time they use Google Earth?)
A pair of twins think they are working innocent jobs at a bookstore and coffeeshop in San Francisco. However, they soon realize that there is much more going on. They see giant magical battles and discover that they have some magic themselves (And are prophesied by Abraham the mage.) The "bad guy" attempts to play one against another. He also manages to destroy one of the elders with special powers. However, the battle has just begun. This was clearly intended as the first of a series.