Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Economic Impact of Butler in the final four

Yahoo! has an article about how much money Indy will lose by having Butler. Some sports economists say Indianpolis' gross final four income will reduced by a quarter because hometown Butler is playing. However, in another article it states that Butler only has 660 student tickets.

In other words, very few of those people attending the game are guaranteed to be local.

A look at the other teams:

  • Michigan State - 4.5 hours away
  • West Virginia - 6 hours away
  • Duke - 10 hours away

All are close enough to be a possible road trip, but far enough away to probably require an overnight stay. The students at these schools could easily decide on a spontaneous trip to the final four - even if they don't have tickets. This would add to the additional local revenue.

Also, the fact that Butler is a small school means that their impact will be less than if UCLA made it to the Final four in L.A. Even if every Butler student attended the game, they wouldn't come close to filling half the stadium.

Students, however, tend to be poor and often priced out of the tickets. The well-healed alumni would be the main source of school-specific ticket purchases. From the Butler Post graduate survey, about 45% of graduates had a first job in the Indianapolis metro area. That leaves more than half the alumni in other areas. For these alums, a trip to a local final four may lead to more money spent. They may take in a game, then spend some time taking in the campus and reminiscing on the other sites of town.

A good local population supporting the home team can also benefit the town. An upbeat, happening sports scene could leave a positive vibe on the visitors and encourage more spending and even repeat visits.

Many of the out of town visitors already had tickets long before the teams were announced. They are unlikely to change their plans because a local team came along. A big chunk of local residents would also probably snap up tickets regardless of the teams. Now, you'll just have local Butler fans instead of local Kansas fans buying the tickets.

The Great Fire

I'm not sure why I got this book. Perhaps I was falsely drawn in by the title. The book just never seemed to go anywhere. It is set after World War II. A bunch of characters pop out and do some things. They talk about the present and the past. They end up in a lot of places. (Primarily Asia Pacific - China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, California and England.) Some guy likes some girl, and eventually meets her alone after a bunch of other people leave for a funeral. I guess that was supposed to be the point. Ugh.

Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppets has a much better story than its predecessor (Shadow of the Hegemon), however, it suffers from a weak points.

In this novel, the world Hegemon (Peter) kidnaps the villain Achilles during a prison transfer in China. However, bringing him on board causes most of his closest allies to depart. He thinks this is fine because he thinks he can "control" him, and has plenty of network monitoring software in place. However, it turns out that Achilles is really controlling them psychologically and using the position to his benefit. In the end, however, with some help, they are able to cause Achilles to overreach, leading to his isolation and eventual downfall.

Meanwhile, our hero, Bean, aligns himself with the Arab Caliphate in the planning for their war against the Chinese empire. He also gets married and attempts to have "normal" babies through in vitro fertilization. One is implanted in his wife (Petra). However, others are stolen by those allied with Achilles.

Its not that bad for a storyline. However it is the details that bring the book down. At one point Bean is described as having a child's ability to absorb new languages. However, despite living in Damascus and hanging out with Arabs, he does not seem to understand a lick of Arabic. The initial encounter between Petra and Ali (the Arab Caliph) also comes across as somewhat unbelievable. Then there is the final scene where Bean kills Achilles. Ugghh. The violence and fast pace help to bring down Bean's character (though it does eliminate a character that has become annoying.) Bean and Petra's willingness to trust a doctor they both know is a scoundrel is far fetched. (Especially since the trust is in place in part to overcome a marital disagreement.) There are also a lot of dumb luck that helps our "heroes" get out of quandaries. (For instance, Bean happens to prefer an Indonesian cabbie over a smoking Dutchman)

On the positive side, there is significant growth in the relationship between Peter and his parents. The parents finally come alive, showing their intelligence, and playing a key role in getting Peter out of a mess. Bean and Petra have one of the first "youthful" romances in the series. (Though of course it is very cerebral, and they seem to suddenly end up married.) Overall it works fairly well, and seems to have plenty of threads left open for a sequel.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shadow of the Hegemon

The audiobook recording of Shadow of the Hegemon comes across as a work in progress. Each CD ends with an annoying bit of silence. (Uh, it's fairly obvious when the CD ends.) The book starts with a short random introduction. Achilles is one of the main characters, yet he is inconsistently pronounced with an English or French pronunciation. And finally, there are a number of places where you can here a different voice "correcting" a few words (often involving the word Hegemon.) These seem to be minor editing issues that should have been corrected, for other then this editorial flubs, the performers do a great job in acting out the book.

The book deals with the plight of Achilles to kidnap battle school graduates and take over the world. In the afterward, the author describes this as a game of risk where a power can seemingly rise out of nowhere. That sounds like a great book. However, that is not this book. This seemed to be a rather pedestrian thriller about Achilles attempts to kill Bean, together with Bean's attempts to rescue Petra. Achilles kills everyone who makes him look bad, and Bean got him kicked out of battle school (as well as asking people to kill Achilles on the streets of Rotterdam.) Petra was Bean's friend at battle school and a brilliant mind, as well as a source of bait for Bean.

Achilles, however, is the heal of this book. His character comes across as very one-dimensionally bad. However, things always seem to go right for him, and he manages to get in positions of great power. The book would have been better served if there really were characters at play guiding nations to power. Instead, we have a guy that can broker a peace between India and Pakistan solely to let China take over India. Even for fiction, it is not believable.

Though the main story flops, the novel does have its good points, primarily in the area of character development. The Wiggin family (especially the parents) play a bit role in the story, yet there relationship dynamics come more alive here than they do in Ender's Game. (While this is fairly irrelevant to this book, it does help the series as a hole.) Petra and Bean both get an emotional edge to their analytical minds, and are well set up for a romance in later novels.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

First Meetings in the Enderverse

First Meetings contains four novellas related to the "Ender" saga. The first two are stories about Ender's parents, the third is the original "Ender's Game", while the finale describes Ender a few centuries after Ender's Game.

I liked the Ender's Game novella much better than the original Ender's game. This is somewhat surprising, since the short story leaves out all my favorite parts of the novel. However, the short version is fast paced, and doesn't have the excessive violence of the novel.

Ender's home and family life and his relationship with the "buggers" are completely absent in the short version. Thus, without reading the long version, it would be difficult to place the 4 stories here together.

The first two stories about Ender's parents do flow together nicely. In the first one, we meet Ender's father as a precocious five year old. In the next one, "Teacher's Pest", his father and mother meet as a anti-establishment geniuses at college. This contains some interesting ideas on population control. In the story, limiting family size is seen as a way of encouraging instability in governments, even though it is outwardly proclaimed as a way to preserve resources. Ender's parents also realize their meeting may be a part of a government plan - but they don't care.

The final story deals with Ender and his sister Valentine as Ender becomes a "Speaker for the Dead" and meets Jane. This story alludes to many of the events in the full Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.

The pacing of the short novellas seems just right. Card seems to be perfectly in his element here, getting his point across without getting bogged down with detail. While these stories could stand alone, they really require knowledge of the other novels in Ender's Game series to be fully appreciated.


Dante lived back in the 13th and 14th centuries. There are not many sources still remaining from back then. However, his Divine Comedy was semi-autobiographical, and provides one of the best sources for his life. R.W.B. Lewis's Dante biography attempts to paint a picture of the Florence where Dante grew up (though he was later banished.) However, the paucity of details leads to a rather dry, academic narrative. The last third is a cursory discussion of the Divine Comedy, with attempts to explain why Dante felt the way about certain people. Maybe after reading the Divine Comedy itself, it would be easier to understand.

Balancing the budget on the heads of children

This tax year, California has deducted the income tax exemption to 1/3rd of its original value. The state has also significantly cut spending on education, and taken away money that was supposed to go to schools.

I guess they figure that children can't vote, so they most be a great target for tax increases and revenue cuts.

Still, you have to wonder where all the money goes. With some of the highest sales tax and income tax rates in the nation, why does California have so many budget problems?

Well, part of it must have to do with the tendency to spend everything that comes in when times are good, then attempt to balance the budget by borrowing when times are "not so good". These loans do eventually come due. D'oh!

Similarly, labor relations are not the state's forte. When times are good, they are willing to give great benefits to workers. When times are bad, well, its difficult to take those away. (Though they have had a little success with furloughs, there still is the huge pension liability.)

Excess regulation also hurts things. Propositions lead to all sorts of craziness. And court cases don't help. California has some of the most expensive property values around, yet some of the lowest property taxes. And those taxes are often sucked up by the state instead of sent to the schools and cities. Schools can't raise property taxes, so they are stuck asking for parcel taxes and doing sneaky tricks with bond money. The parceling out of money from other sources leads to the ""not my money" problem, and thus crazy spending.

Schools in general bring out other questions. Why are schools suffering so much? The population has increased significantly, while the school-age population has declined (with the public school population being smaller still.)

In a lot of the Bay Area, the schools are long since paid for. Even with a 30 year bond, the debt from the school building would be long gone. Maintenance may be higher for older buildings, but we are in a temperate zone where utility costs, even in buildings with poor insulation, would not be too terribly high. As a bonus, the districts often lease out some of their schools to other private schools. Thus, they get an additional source of revenue from the schools. (If they are not making a profit from this leasing, then that is another big problem...)

Schools have also outsourced transportation. Parents generally drive their kids to school. Very few school buses exist, and walking and biking are rare.

Incidental school costs are also footed by parents. Supplies, field trips, parties, and even library books are paid for by parents or PTA organizations.

Taxes? Well, supposedly all properties will increase 2% per year, with greater bumps for property changing hands. An increasing revenue should easily cover a relative stable population. Occasionally new housing developments will pop up, adding new students. However, these should also add a nice bump to revenue. (This assumes that property tax revenue actually makes it to the schools, a thought which borders on wishful thinking.)

So, it comes down to the classroom. Computers and technology. On one hand, computers are deemed to be a vital educational tool. On the other hand, schools assume that students have computers at home in order to carry out assignments. If they can do the work at home, why do they need them at school? The cost of obtaining the computers, as well as networking, housing and maintaining them is not trivial. And that doesn't include time wasted on them. Typing is a useful skill. However, significant time and effort is needed to develop good typing skills. Unfortunately, computer time is often spent playing "educational games", which tends to be a great way to waste time.

Then there are teachers. When they want more money, they are highly skilled professionals that bring unique talents to the classroom. When layoff time comes, they are replaceable cogs to be removed based on union seniority. The state and nation over-regulate the teaching profession, turning schools in to education "factories". The teachers union responds by unionizing the teachers as they would factory workers. School administration does some of both, spending countless hours dealing with state regulations and union "rules". What happened to simple teaching?

The current regulatory environment has also encouraged the very inequality among schools that it sought to avoid. Poorly performing schools are more likely to lay off teachers and pay less. Better schools can pay more and hit up parents for more money when needed. The better schools have better test scores. The bad ones have bad scores. The same teacher or principal will look good at one and bad at another. So which one would you like to work at?

Nathaniel's Nutmeg

In Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Giles Milton tells the story of the Spice trade from the British perspective. The British are almost always portrayed as noble, while the competing Dutch tend to be nice alone, but cruel and inhumane when they deal with the English. (The other players, such as Spanish and Portuguese have only token roles in this story.

Nathaniel Courthope is the "main character" in this book. However, he would only garner a "supporting actor" credit (if that). Much of the story deals with the eccentric explorer and the joint-stock companies that helped establish the lucrative trade in spices. Nutmeg was seen to have great medicinal properties, and thus in high demand. Since it was only grown in a few isolated islands in modern day Indonesia, the high transport costs and limited price helped to push the price sky high. The East Indies companies thus spent considerable effort to help gain control of the production as well as shorten the trade routes. (The book gives extensive coverage to various voyages of exploration - including many voyages through ice and the arctic, such as Hudson's quest for the Northwest Passage.)

Nathaniel comes in when he makes a bold effort to prevent the Dutch from capturing the small island of Run. He maintains a presence there for a few years until he is finally defeated. However, the British are loathe to give up the claim to the island. Later as a way to seek "revenge", they take Manhattan from the Dutch. At later negotiations, the two sides finally agree to a truce, deciding that Manhattan is a fair trade for Run.

Today, however, Run is not nearly as valuable. The Dutch had tried to lessen its value to the British by removing the Nutmeg trees. However, they always grew back. The British, however, removed some trees with soil and successfully planted them elsewhere, thus reducing the importance of the remote islands.

Indirectly, this book provides a plausible explanation for the 'post-colonial' fate of Dutch and British colonies. The British tended to integrate themselves with the life of the "natives", while the Dutch simply had trading posts that ruled over the people. Thus, many former British colonies still have a degree of "Britishness" (such as the uber-capitalism in Hong Kong, or the Enlgish language in India), while Dutch colonies are fairly devoid of Dutchness (Indonesia).

The spice trade represented one of the first real battles between large "multinational" corporations. This book does a great job of bringing alive this competition in what could be one of the earliest "business school case studies".

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Proof is set in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago campus. It deals with the death of a genius mathematician, who spend a good chunk of his life in near insanity. (Why is it that mathematicians portrayed in the arts all tend to be crazy? I wonder if the feeling is mutual, with all only crazy artists making their way to mathematical proofs?)

During the last part of his life, he was cared for by his daughter, who sacrificed her college education to care for him. (Well, she was going to Northwestern, so it must not have been much of a sacrifice.) This daughter is the primary protagonist of the story. She seems to have a lot of her late father's mathematical talent, as well as his tendency towards insanity. She is struggling to create her own identity, battling a "normal" sister that she has trouble relating to.

I like this primarily for its setting in "Hyde Park". The story is interesting, though it has a little too much profanity for my taste.


Kerplunk! was the first Green Day album I purchased. It had some great songs (like "Who Wrote Holden Caufield?"), but it seemed to be inferior to their earlier work. I saw them twice touring for the album. The second time, I happened to be wearing a Green Day shirt and ran in to a guy trying to drum up support for a free show in Bryan, Texas. I didn't have a good way to get there, so he ended up hooking me up with a ride. I was traveling with the opening band and we had to go pick up Green Day. So, the only people I really knew at the concert were the performers. But they were just little bands then. Green Day, however, sounded like they were about to strike it big. There new songs, however, seemed to be going downhill, away from the "bubble-gum" punk to "Southpark" punk. They also seemed to be having trouble with their record label. (Thus the limited selection of merchandise for sale. However, they did have the shirt my friend requested - though she was annoyed I did not get it autographed. The thought just never crossed my mind.)

This blog entry, however, is about a totally different Kerplunk!, just about as far removed from Green Day as Idaho is from Berkeley.

This Kerplunk! is a book by Patrick F. McManus, an outdoor "humorist". The book contains a number of short humorous anecdotes related to outdoor life. After reading it, I had an itching to go deer hunting. I've never been deer hunting. However, the author does a wonderful job of making the stories applicable to everyone. While, they all address things particular to 'outdoorsmen', the underlying human foibles are applicable to many other situations.

Men don't like to ask for direction, because they have given directions, and no how useful those directions are. These things are especially problematic when it involves driving a few "looks" away just to get to another farmer that might know where to locate the ranch you are looking for.

And hooking up trailers to a car? Well, I've never done it, but I was laughing along with the story, and could easily relate to similar situations.

There are also plenty of other tales of fly-fishing, hunting, and dogs.

The author himself seems to have one foot in the outdoors, with another foot firmly in the city. The book, while focusing on the outdoors, is likely to appeal to both crowds.

Peter Pan

I found Peter Pan much darker than the Disney creation. The story centers around Wendy. She is knowledgeable about the steps that people go through in their lives. However, she still has enough imagination left to join Peter Pan in a journey out to Neverland. Peter Pan lives a life with constant death and mayhem.

I found myself a little lost with the story. How did it earn such a big place in popular culture and spawn multiple movies?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ender's Shadow

Ender's Shadow tells the same story as Card's earlier Ender's Game, only much better. I liked Shadow a lot, while I didn't care much for the earlier book. Perhaps part of it has to do with Card developing greater writing skills or having more time to think about his universe.

However, I think the characters are much more believable here. In Ender's Game, we are suppose to believe that Ender is a god-like five year old that seems to do everything right and save the world. His character always seems just a little too perfect to be a regular kid.

In Ender's Shadow, Bean is not a regular kid. He is the result of a science experiment gone awry that resulted in a child with superior intelligence (but a limited lifespan). It is much easier to identify with the super-intelligent escapades of a child that has been "enhanced". Furthermore, some of his activities (such as the choosing of Ender's "Dragon Team") help to better justify Ender's success.

The novel has its violence, but does not dwell on it, and the story is very well paced. It also does a nice job setting up some of the other books in the main Ender series (especially Ender in Exile.)

Spymasters Guide to Learning a Foreign Language

Graham Fuller's Spymasters Guide to Learning a Foreign Language provides general hints for learning a foreign language. The content dates back to the cold war. In spite of being on CD, it refers to itself as tape, and discusses the USSR as a present entity. The quality of the recording also has a tinny, transferred sound (but is still listenable.)

The content? Well, it contains basic common-sense ideas for learning foreign languages, such as learning differences in grammar and finding cognates. A lot of the focus is on learning European languages. (There seem to be long lists of french words as examples.) While other languages are mentioned, they are not discussed extensively. If I were just embarking on a study of a European language, then some of the ideas would have been useful, though not much more than you'd see in the opening pages of any textbook. For languages like Chinese, there are even fewer useful bits. Overall, it is fairly standard language-learning content. Nothing to write home about.

Friday, March 19, 2010

1838 Mormon War in Missouri

Stephen C. LeSueur. The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. University of Missouri Press. 1987.

This book attempts to present a balanced analysis of a conflict that has been heavily influenced by one-sided partisanship. To the Missourians at the time, all evil originated from the Mormons. At times multiple Mormons were "sentenced" to the death penalty, while no non-Mormons were even tried in courts. (This in spite of non-Mormons having killed many more people.) The Mormons, on the other hand, viewed themselves as peace-loving victims of mob violence. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between.

At the core, the problem seemed to be people taking sides, unable to respect the other sides point of view. Many non-Mormons would claim to not be upset with the Mormon religion and to respect many individual Mormons. However, they distrusted Mormons as a group. The Mormons saw the non-Mormons as thugs intent on driving them out of their land.

In a way, both sides were right and both sides were wrong.

The Mormons started an internal "police" group, the Danites to help police their own membership as well as protect others. The non-Mormons created vigilante groups and called on the army to help their cause.

It only took a few small sparks to get things out of hand. A drunken brawl on election day, where Mormons were attacked set the Mormons off. The Danite group then encouraged the destruction and looting of the town. This led to the army getting called in and finally the "Crooked River" battle. The battle was only a minor skirmish, with one non-Mormon and a few Mormons being killed. However, the non-Mormons were freaked out, and there were reports of many non-Mormons being killed. This led to a great overreaction, an extermination order from the Governor, a massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill, and the eventual eviction of all Mormons.

The battle is a story of how the "media" can assert a powerful influence on outcomes. Seemingly small events were magnified out of proportion, leading to more violence and bloodshed. Even the 'peacemakers' found themselves forced to one side. To victors also went the spoils. Massive looting (sometimes under the guise of the law) took place. Could the sides have resolved the conflict peaceably? The author of the book thinks the conflict would have happened regardless. However, if the sides had been able to communicate better with each other, there may have been a chance. (After all, everyone looked so much alike that face painting or handkerchiefs were sometimes used to tell the sides apart.) Good leadership from the Governor could have probably help avert the crisis. However, it was not forthcoming.

Could this be similar to some of the conflicts we see today, such as the war on terrorism or illegal aliens. Immigrants are often attacked because they are seen as "different". Long term residents want the land to themselves. When immigrants are Muslim or Arab, terrorism is used as an excuse. I guess 170 years has not been enough for the country to really learn how to live with people that are different.


I've always thought of Kurt Vonnegut as an author I liked. I recall starting to read many of his novels. However, I don't remember finishing many. Reading Slaughterhouse-five reminded me why. I love his style. He bounces all around time in a lively stream-of-conscious fashion. However, I've never been drawn in by the content of his stories.
Though it is often billed as an 'anti-war' or a 'science fiction' novel, Slaughterhouse-five comes across more as a personal story of Billy Pilgrim coming to terms with his life. The story has its ups and downs, but the style is what really keeps it going.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cherry Orchard

Cherry Orchard describes a wealthy Russian family who's lifestyle is gradually fading away as Russian society is changing. Perhaps in Russian it would have been more entertaining. The English translation didn't do much for me.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Memory of the Earth

Conflict is beginning to arise in a distant planet millions of years in the future. Up until now, a computer program (the "oversoul") has kept everyone in line. The society is both advanced and primitive. Computers and holographic displays are ubiquitous. However, people tend to work as primitive traders, voyaging to the desert on foot or horseback. The computer 'network' allows new works to be communicated from library to library. However, transportation and communication are no faster than a horse could travel. And wheels are only used for kids toys and gears. And just to make sure that nobody decides to 'advance' the culture, the "oversoul" blocks out thoughts of using carts with horses, or any other advancement. However, the oversoul is beginning to lose its strength, and some previously verboten thoughts are now being allowed.

This is the premise in which Orson Scott Card sets The Memory of the Earth. The first part of the book sets up this world (which also includes distinct male and female religions as well as a 'renewable contract' form of mating.) Then the adventure begins. The "adventure" part of the story will be familiar to anybody who has read the first few chapters of the Book of Mormon. Card uses the same basic plot, while using his own richer characters and setting. The story works quite well, however, Card's obsession with "junior high" locker-room vulgarity detracts from the powerful storytelling. Reusing a known story makes the events predictable. However, the reactions of the characters keeps it interesting.

The Measure of All Things

In the The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder presents the history of the metric system, with a focus on the Frenchmen that measured out the earth to determine the length of the meter. They did run in to a significant number of obstacles attempting a detailed survey in the midst of the French Revolution - especially since churches were principle landmarks - and things most likely to be destroyed by the revolutionaries. In the end, they didn't get the measurement exactly right. But, we've still kept their meter.

I was most fascinated by the tales of how the French tried to 'metricize' everything, even creating a new calendar (that alas only made it a few years before they gave up on it.) The French also initially rejected the meter system, but eventually it caught on there (and most everywhere else.)

The book has its interesting tidbits, but the core story of measuring the earth does become a little tedious. Perhaps that is to be expected when describing a laborious endeavor that did shed some light on precision, accuracy and the shape of the earth; but failed in its main goal of providing an exact 'meter'.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia explores the odd place of music in human neurological development. Oliver Sacks is a neurologist with a keen interest in music. He has may personal tales of the special roles that music plays in patients' lives, as well as many other stories from others. Most of the book is filled with anecdotes, with brief bits describing some of the science and research behind the human relationship with music.

The anecdotes include people struck by lightning who suddenly develop a keen desire for music, as well as others who suddenly lose the ability to appreciate music. Perfect pitch is described as both a blessing and a curse (switch the key and the song sounds totally wrong.) Music "ability" and music "appreciation" are different, with one not necessarily implying the other.

The special place of music therapy is also discussed. Some people with acute dementia may seem to have lost the ability to remember things from even a few minutes ago. Yet, they still have the ability to sing and appreciate songs.

This book is filled with many more interesting anecdotes. It allows for a nice quick read without getting bogged down in too much detail.


Orson Scott Card's Empire is not a science fiction book. It is set in what seems to be a faraway land - an America ruled by a right-wing president with a right wing congress. It attempts to attack the demagoguery present on both sides of the blue state/red state divide. However, it comes across as much more sympathetic to the Fox News/Red State crowd.

The book did have its moments. However, it is fairly violent, and seems to just skip ahead for a bit right after one of the main characters die. In spite of this, it takes a while to get back up to speed.

My favorite part on the audiobook was the author's commentary at the end. In a few minutes he does a much better job of elucidating the point that he fumbled through in the many pages of the novel. He is concerned about the political parties villainizing each other, without leaving room for compromise and middle ground. (Just take a look at Congress or the California state legislature for a good example.) The strong, non-compromising views could be a good way to launch a civil war. The right has the army, the left has the media. The division may divide individual families like in the Balkans. It would be a difficult struggle to hold on to principles even when ones own side seems to demand something else.

Unfortunately, in the book, these things get lost among the Hollywood action. The "bad guys" are led by a rich egomaniac who takes over New York with walking robots and hovercraft. It makes for great action, but a "progressive restoration" movement that kills anyone in uniform just seems to be too much of a caricature of the left to be believable. And on the right, the president only narrowly decides against declaring martial law because of an Army guy on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor. Com'on. The theme just gets buried in all the bloody action. Card has written much better books than this.

Monday, March 15, 2010

This is how they gauge public opinion?

A few days ago, I completed a survey about some proposition the California legislature was looking at placing on the ballet. The idea seemed to be good - require the legislature to actually create a budget and not go willy-nilly with spending when money rolls in. However, the legislature is already supposed to be doing this, so the proposition seemed pretty pointless (especially since there are already so many propositions hand-tying the legislature.)

The questions seemed to be trying to steer opinion in a certain direction. Many questions were simply a dichotomy between "pass budget" and "create jobs". Uggh, I think there are other root problems facing California - like a runaway initiative process and legislature with firebrands from the left and the right.

I seemed to be going in their direction for most of the leading questions, but then said I would vote against the proposition. So the survey went on and on and on.

A few days later, I got another call from a surveyor. He started the questions, and the first few sounded familiar. I asked him if it was about that proposition. He skirted the answer with generalities. There were more questions. It was obvious it was the same one. I told him I had taken it before and what my answers would be. He said he had to read everything verbatim.

He also thought there may have been a server crash causing them to have to do it again. I didn't have time or desire to repeat the process, so I left him there.

I wonder what the impacts of this "server crash" are? Will they lose good information? Will repeats make up totally different answers? (This could be something interesting to compare.) Are are they just clumsy and managed to lose all that data, leading them to bill the legislature double for the extra surveys? (Or do they just eat the costs?)

Technology and politics. A match made for each other.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ender in Exile

Over time, Orson Scott Card has become a much better writer. Ender in Exile elaborates on events that were described briefly at the end of Ender's Game. However, the storytelling and quality of writing are far better here.
Card's Ender series somewhat parallels the life of Ender himself. It started crude and violent, but then managed to twist itself in to a good caring story.
Ender has a few flaws in this book. However, it still portrays Ender as a little bit "too" good. He always seems to see exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. Other people's interference sometimes gets in the way, but it is often expected. How could a teenager (even a specially trained genius teenager) be this perfect? How could he not let his hormones get the best of him?
This novel also brings out further discussion of the concept of "age-prolongation". Ender's Battle-school leader had attempted to prolong his life and career by going in to 'stasis' for 10 months out the year. (However, it backfired in that he lost his position by being absent for so long.) People also make rounds at relativistic speed to prolong their lives. It seems that the ability to "live" for longer periods of time is well known, yet still seemingly not significantly acknowledged by the general public.
The "Gold Bugs" that are discovered on the Shakespeare planet also present some interest possibilities. Why not just "build" animals for all tasks that need to be done. Could people simply engineer more animals to do the work they need to be done. (Hmmm... We do have cows that mow and fertilize our lawns as well as providing milk. And when they are ready to die, they provide meat and leather... Maybe we already have come up with this.)

Carry on Jeeves!

P.G Wodehouse's Carry on Jeeves is more a collection of short stories than a novel. All the stories deal with the plights of a rich English bachelor and his seemingly all-knowing servant. Each could easily be read on its own, disjointed from the others. None of the stories are bad, and a have a dry sense of humor. However, I found it difficult to relate or become involved with the characters, and thus lost interest. Perhaps it would be a good "bathroom" book.

Bicycle Diaries

What do you make of a book title Bicycle Diaries written by an artist best known for lead for leading the Talking Heads? David Byrne has a created a "diary" that really isn't a diary; A "bicycle advocacy" book that really isn't a bicycle advocacy book - and even a "social criticism" book.

And in the end, it is a pretty good book.

Byrne is not a "cyclist" but a person that likes to get around on a bike. He finds it as a great vehicle for exploring world cities, not an excuse to dress up in spandex and race. As such his "advocacy" tends much more to the practical side. Cities should make themselves friendly for "normal" people to do "normal" things on bikes. However, he is not going to wait for that to happen. He has been willing to bring his bike around the world and use it to get around. He ha acknowledged the degrees that different cities around the world either encourage, accept or disregard cycling.

He is also an artist that travels extensively. His stories are those of an artist and his encounters with the city. The "diary" portion reflects his interest in art galleries, music and the associated people (both contemporary and historical.) He documents the artistic "vibe" of cities around the world that he visits.

Finally as a social critic, he finds a way to open-mindedly analyze and criticize many different aspects of modern society. (He even managed to bring in the plight of Zimbabwe farmers in to the mix.) He comes across as the type of person that could find the positive side of just about any negative argument (and the negative of any positive.) About the only absolutes he seems to have are that cities suffer from car-dependence and the US suffers from Bush's wars.

The book is organized in to chapters covering major cities. They all tend to be built around a visit to the city and a bike ride through some part of the city. From there each chapter goes in its own direction. Sometimes he observes musical tastes (Argentines don't know much about Latin music, while Philipinos are really in to Karaoke). Other times he analyzes the way a city was built, what art really is, or different types of nightlife.

The book finally winds down to biking and cities. The suburban experiment was a flop. Urban areas do need to be reclaimed from the car. Some of his suggestions would probably make bike advocacy groups cringe, while others would strike fear in to the hearts of politicians. However, his goals are practical and viable. He mentions diversity of development and the presence of children on the streets as a sign of healthy cities. If only we could find more of those places these days.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

War of Gifts

"War of Gifts" is billed as a short novel in the Orson Scott Card's Sci-Fi Ender series. While Ender does play a role, sci-fi is fairly non-existent. Instead it is a simple human story of the longing for cultural and religious symbols. Ender himself is fairly cardboard, seeming to know exactly what to say and when to say it. The main thrust is the development of the character of Morgan Zeck, who grew up getting bit by his dad, a firebrand preacher. Morgan is on a quest to "purify" the battle school, and does so by an attack on Dutch Christmas traditions. The other Christians respond by giving gifts, and the Muslims respond by praying. The adults quickly bring a halt to all this, leaving Morgan even more isolated than he was before. At the end he confides in Ender and seems to have a more stable worldview. (The story abruptly ends here, so we are not sure exactly how it turns out.)

This book has a smidgen of additional background on some of the characters in the Ender series, however, it is mostly forgettable.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Children of the Mind

Orson Scott Card's Children of the Mind is the direct sequel (and second part) of Xenocide. It starts of pretty much right where the previous novel left off. The story seems to be brings the series in to an even more philosophical and moralistic vein. However, it is still full of good sci fi adventure and comedy. We have adventures with boisterous Somoans, spontaneous teleporting, corporate Japanese influencers, and souls popping out of bodies.

However, the human relationships are what really drives the book. The "science" allows exploration of avenues that would be impossible to truly know otherwise. What if you could only do what your subconscious truly desired? Would the love shown be enough to truly do what the conscious brain says it would do? Is it justified being cruel to somebody for their own benefit? What does it mean to love someone?

With the heavy character development and the worry about the death/rebirth of computer/human Jane, the potential annihilation of the planet by a startship fleet is given short shift. It seems to be tagged on to the end to bring some closure and feels somewhat artificial in its resolution. (However it does provide for a Dr. STrangelove-esque bit of slapstick.)

Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a wonderful satire that is much more rich than the Lilliputian kids book I recalled. Written from the perspective of Gulliver, the book recounts meetings with 4 groups of "people": small people, big people, flying people and 'wild' people that are subservient to intelligent horses.
The entertaining tales of his visits to the various groups, however, are secondary to the sly commentary on 18th century British (and European) life. By comparing other societies with the English, Swift is able to bring out additional subtleties that would be much more challenging than saying them outright. He also spends significant time discussing child-raising and societal mores - with an obvious view of what he thinks superior.
Gulliver presents a naive optimism throughout the stories. He is willing to go with the flow to properly live with the many different groups. However, he is not exempt from failing to grow from others' shortcomings. In particular, with the Laputians, he observes the society that is obsessed with advanced math and erudition, yet can't see past this learning to apply the practical knowledge. His next trip to the Houyhnhnms leaves him with a great distaste for "Yahoos". On return to society, he applies the "Yahoo" label to all humans, including his own family. He attempts to live a life apart from humans by adhering to the higher social plane of the horses; he does not realize that by doing so, he is failing to apply his great store of knowledge and committing a fault similar to those of Laputa.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Winners and losers in NCAA conference expansion

The Big-10 is exploring adding an additional team. The Pac-10 is looking at expanding. The Mountain West would like a BCS bid. Who will be the winners and losers?

Most Likely Winner: Utah. In almost all scenarios they would end up ahead. If the Big-10 poaches a Big-East school, that will improve the position of the Mountain West vs. Big East. A team like Pitt would be almost impossible to replace. If the Mountain West added Boise State it would make them shoulders above the Big East and just about guarantee an automatic bid (perhaps even replacing the Big East's bid.)
If the Pac-10 expanded, Utah is one of the most likely candidates, geographically, economically and culturally. The only Pac-10 expansion scenario that wouldn't include Utah would be an unlikely Texas bid - which could leave Utah in prime position to take a spot in the Big-12.
The worst-case scenario for Utah would be for Notre Dame to join the Big 10. This would free up a "basketball only" spot in the Big East, and let the Big East grab another basketball/football team. While replacing Pitt with East Carolina would hurt the conference, adding East Carolina would help the conference in football.

Most Likely Loser: Big-12. The Big-12 could very well be on life-support if the expansion scenarios play out. The top candidates for expansion are schools on the periphery of the Big-12: Missouri and Colorado. If either of these leave, they take a whole state with them, with little opportunity to get it back without stretching way beyond the current 'footprint'. There is pretty much no other big program in Missouri. In Colorado, the conference could attempt to hold its position by seeking Colorado State or Air Force. However, they have much less sway on the Denver TVs than Colorado. And if the Mountain West gets an automatic bid, they would have little incentive to switch conferences.

TCU, Houston, Rice and SMU would be good candidates to join the conference, bringing it closer to the old Southwest Conference. They all have shown signs of life, playing competitive football in at least one of the last two seasons. TCU is the powerhouse of them, and could probably compete for the Big-12 championship right off the bat.

The big problem is that they don't add any new markets to the conference. With Texas and Texas A&M, the Dallas and Houston markets are well covered. While TCU adds the Ft. Worth market to the Mountain West, they add pretty much nothing to the Big-12. A move to the conference would be a media loss for both.

Assuming Colorado and Utah go to the Pac-10, BYU would probably be the best possible replacement. They travel well and have a significant following, without being two far out of the conference footprint. They would also fit nicely in the northern division.

If Missouri and Colorado leave, things get dicier. Perhaps the conference says goodbye to markets and goes for TCU and another Texas team (or even all 4 to expand to a 14 team conference) Or perhaps the conference becomes west oriented with Air Force and BYU. At least that gives them a presence in those markets.

The timing matters: If the Big-10 said today that Pitt really is going to join the conference, the Big East would have to start moving quickly. With the eight non-football teams, the conference really can't easily expand to a 12 team football conference. Perhaps they "combine" with the Mountain West to create an east-west championship game for a BCS bid. This could forestall a Utah/BYU jump. Or maybe the Big-12 jumps the gun and invites TCU in as an insurance policy. Or maybe there is a total left-field move with unexpected teams jumping conferences.

The End of Overeating

David A Kessler: The End of Overeating
The first half of this book is mouth-wateringly good. He vividly describes "highly-palatable" foods, and all that goes in to making them irresistible. Foods are reduced to a proper combination of salt, sugar and fat, blended with the proper flavors to entice us to want more. I found myself craving all sorts of food as I read this account.

If anybody is reading this book as a "diet book", it would probably be best to s kip to the end. Otherwise, you'll probably find yourself simply wanting to eat more and more.

The second part of the book details his theory of "conditioned overeat". People become conditioned to notice food cues and eat, even when they they don't have the needs. Food is used as a "reward" for the brain.

Then the book goes on to describe methods for setting plans to reduce the "addiction" to food. This part seems fairly sound, and offers methods for coping with the stimuli that the food industry sets up for us. After all, their goal is for everyone to get as much of the highly-palatable, high margin food as possible.

While the first half of the book describing the food industry and desirability is vividly written, the remainder of the book becomes more dryly scientific. I'd prefer that the author eliminates the 'self-help' section, and simply focus on the food industry and his theory.
Some of his "fixes" at the end would be problematic. He would like to see calorie counts posted on all menus. This may be trivial for chains with fixed portion sizes. However for the "mom and pop" chains this will be a significant expense that will add very little to the dining experience. The irony of calorie labeling today is that the food that is most adequately labeled (such as processed snack foods) tends to be the most fattening, while whole fruits and vegetables tend to go unlabeled. It's hard to see how labeling would make much of a difference.


Orson Scott Card: Xenocide
Xenocide picks up right where Speaker for the Dead left off. The story telling is improved, and the content goes heavily in to science, religion and personal relationships.

Its interesting that this world, 3000 years after the first book is still substantially recognizable to people that were around thousand of years before. Catholicism still seems the same. Government has been similar for the past few thousand years. Even technology has not been significantly changed. Now imagine if we went back just a 1000 years. We would hardly recognize it. Go back 2000 years, and two of the largest religions do not even exist. How could these last for so many thousand years?

Though perhaps the stability of instantaneous communications along with the relative difficulty of long distance travel can serve to stabilize. The "life extended" power of near light-speed travel is known to everyone. However, nobody thinks that Ender would really be the same person from 3000 years previous. I wonder what would happen to ship captains and traders? They would travel a lot, and could easily come home to see their great great grandchildren. Were these so rare that they were not readily considered?

Though perhaps they can serve as a stability factor. A ship of people coming from another planet would have their time period in mind. They could help mix the past and the present together. The Beatles could go on a "worlds tour". However, while they might do home in 60s, they wouldn't get abroad until the 2010s. This could help reinvigorate the future and tie it more closely to the past.

The instantaneous worldwide communications could have a similar stabilizing impact. This could help keep a stability across all worlds. Since travel is difficult and time consuming, there would be a strong incentive to keep plugged in to the world and thus cultural evolution would be slowed.

These travel themes are in both this and the previous books. This book, however, goes in more detail to the binding of people, things and world. Different views of the creation and evolution of life are explored along with cultural tricks to encourage subservience. Ethics of species annihilation (xenocide) are explored. Is it ok to wwipe out an intelligent virus?

The end of the novel fairly nicely wraps most points up. It would almost seem to be a nice self-contained work if it weren't for a few key strands that were left open. These strands provide some of the greatest "weirdness" of the book, and also set it up for its second part. (The next book in the series, which was created by "chopping" what was a 300,000 word novel in to two.

Stirring It Up and London Fire

Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World by Gary Hirshberg
Stonyfield yogurt tries to be environmentally friendly. The story of the company would make for a nice business school case study. However, its not enough for a book. So, the author did some web surfing and called on a few friends to fill in details about other companies. (He even has a positive section on Wal-Mart, that he acknowledges came straight from the website.)

This book is 'pop-environmentalism' at its best. It will probably be fairly popular with "green" crowd. After all, it reads like a "who's who" of green companies. However, if your not in to the whole green thing, then you're probably not going to pick up the book anyway.

Which, is somewhat of a shame. Many of the most reasonable "green" things mentioned make basic sense for any business. Paying suppliers a sustainable rate over the long term may cost a little bit more. However, it helps keep the suppliers in business and keeps quality high - which can help cut costs and increase revenue. Reducing and eliminating waste is not as noticable as recycling - however, it provides the greatest monetary benefit.

At times the book even casts blows at "fake greenery" - things that have a green reputation, that really aren't that great. However, the blows tend to be rather soft. The hard blows are saved for the government farm program.

Overall, there is not a whole lot here that could not be obtained from browsing a few websites. The book is fairly well put together, and a quick read. The history of Stonyfield and their "marketing" takes up only about a quarter of the book, with the rest about other companies. While most of the Stonyfield content is at the front, some of the story is told throughout the book, making you read it all to get the full story. Maybe the b-school case study would be better after all.

Neil Hanson: The Great Fire of London
My favorite part was the description of how fires worked and spread. The story of the actual fire started pretty much with the day of the fire and ended with a Frenchman being hanged for it. The brief sections before barely give us a before and after picture. The actual fire story is based heavily on original journals and at time starts to feel like reading a jorunal.