Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Burning Bridge: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 2

War seems imminent in the kingdom. However, there are numerous twists and turns in the process. Morgarath has planted "false plans" to mislead the good guys. However, he has been working on elaborate tunnel and bridge scheme to be able to surround and defeat the good guys. Will discovers this and burns the bridge. However, he is caught along with a girl (who is the King's daughter in disguise.) There is a big battle, with Horace eventually challenging Morgarath to a duel and utilizing some of the training he had in his brief time with Rangers. And then the book ends in a cliffhanger. This is a rollicking fast adventure story.

Ruins of Gorlan

The Ranger's Apprentice series starts with a bunch of "castle wards" being assigned their careers. Will thinks he wants to be in battle school, but he is too scrawny. He tries to sneak into the castle and is caught, only to find out that was expected. He will be an apprentice ranger. He is stuck doing a lot of "dirty work" at first, but enjoys it. Horrace, his friend, is in battle school. He is bullied by other boys, but thinks it is part of the process. The bullying wears on him and makes him cold towards his friends. However, he is one of the best. He and Will eventually make peace and help each other at a Boar hunt. The bullies are finally caught as they attempt to bully Will also, and are exiled. Everyone seems happy in their chosen profession. The Ranger always seems to know what is best. He can seem too smart at times. But, I suppose that is what entertains the audience.

The Game of Lives (The Mortality Doctrine, Book Three)

In the third mortality doctrine book, the good guys become bad guys, then good guys, then who knows what. The bad guy loses control, then saves the good guys, only to be upset and try to thwart their plan. It gets confusing. It is also unclear what the motives are of some of the characters.
The mortality doctrine provides "immortality" by allowing people to live some of their lives in the real world and some in the virtual world. It would seem to have a bunch of holes in it. What would happen if the real world population spiraled beyond carrying capacity? Or what if the "tangent" population got so great that there not enough bodies to inhabit? Or what if some of the "real" people decided to just pull the plug on the virtual world? And what if people just decide they don't like this immortality thing? Lots of things to explore. But, most of the time is just spent with people fighting and getting saved at the last minute. In the end, the real world is saved from the virtual and makes a quick trip back to normalcy. (Really? Wouldn't there be a call to ban the virtual world after all that had happened?) Could artificial intelligence one day decide it did not want to be subservient and take over our world? Alas, this was a thriller, leaving the metaphysical as a backdrop. The action is nonstop, even as the character development is lacking. (The character of Gabby seems especially undeveloped.)

Friday, November 08, 2019

The Rule of Thoughts (The Mortality Doctrine, Book Two)

"Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?"
The opening to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody pops in my head as I read Rule of Thoughts. The three kids love playing in a virtual reality world. However, a artificially intelligent "tangent" has implemented the "mortality doctrine" to allow virtual beings to inhabit the bodies of real people. The "virtual" has spilled over to the "real".
The kids see parents kidnapped and try to hook up with a "VirtNet Agent" to try to stop the destruction in the real world. However, when they thought they were destroying it in the virtual world, they were actually in the real world.
This feels like a rehash of the Maze Runner series. The kids are part of some elaborate game controlled by adults. They are trying to figure it out and "solve" it in order to save the world. However, they have trouble figuring out what is real and what is not. They almost always feel some sort of "unease" when going down a path that seems right at the time, but ends up being bad in the long run. There are also a few deaths on the way.
There is a tingling of romantic tension in the story, with Michael and Sarah seemingly on the verge of a relationship, but never quite expressing their feelings. (Though that does leave the other boy as a third wheel.) There is also the interesting tension of Gabby, the "real" girlfriend of Michael's adopted body. She traces him down and makes a few appearances. It feels like she should be more important than she is.

The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America

Tom Coburn begins Debt Bomb with a nightmare scenario where foreign organizations disavow American Debt, causing a massive devaluation of the dollar and a huge crisis. He then goes into details of why debt is bad and why congress keeps raising debt. His identifies "careerism" as one of the biggest problems. Politicians are more concerned with winning the election and staying in office. Politicians on both sides love earmarks and are in favor of producing pork for their home district. They are also keen to use slight of hand, passing bills authorizing programs without funding them. They can then say they did not add funding, but still brag about the new program. (The implication is that it would be funded.)
His argument is heavily towards the conservative side. The invisible hand of the economy is the best way of building up the economy. Government is viewed as inefficient. (However, he is in favor of some things like highways - even though private markets have managed those also.)
He is very passionate about his argument and is willing to sacrifice sacred cows to get there. I do buy into his concern with "careerism" in D.C. The press does love to cover the elections, but the actual governing does not tend to provide as much drama. We would do better if we had a congress that was focused on solving problems rather than distributing pork in order to get re-elected.
He also sees "purity pledges" and approval by third party organizations as problematic. Many special interest groups go to Washington with noble intentions. However, they gradually achieve a seat at the table and then fight to keep it. And soon they become part of the problem.
He proposes we work on reducing wasteful spending. In his book, similar programs in multiple departments are waste. Earmarked projects are also usually waste. Programs that have expanded beyond their initial purpose are also problematic. However, the big elephant in the room is entitlement spending. He would like to add free market aspects to entitlements as well as means testing. (Alas, this seems to go against his argument that people have "skin in the game".)
He has some persuasive arguments. However, the concern about the debt has been somewhat ameliorated by the persistently low interest rates. In real terms, interest rates are nearly zero now and trending downward. Some countries, such as Japan, have negative nominal interest rates. With rates so low, there is little incentive to reign in debt.
Furthermore, while arguing against having the government "pick the winners", he encourages us to maintain the current system of winners that the government has picked. He advocates continued fossil fuel use. In other words, continue the huge government subsidies to the highway and car transportation system. The country once had a highly competitive private railroad system. However, the government bulldozed communities and built "free" highways, giving road transportation a huge advantage over private railroads. Just because the government entered this arena does not mean it should remain.
Means testing is also a sticky topic. He criticized the stimulus plan for giving special funding for states that didn't keep their house in order, while not favoring those that did. However, he would also like social security and medicare to be means tested. This would do on an individual level what was not done on the state level. A better approach would be to make the health care system fully available to all. Perhaps a simple approach would be to have a public system that provides basic care for everyone, while leaving the private market for enhanced coverage. Some of his other ideas for health care reform were much better. The system we currently have of employer provided health care just needs to be thrown off a cliff.
Coburn is a die-hard conservative who is not fond of Republicans spending on pork when they get in power. Alas, he is also roped in to the rest of the Republican ideology. It would be great if we could have liberals who were concerned about keeping our finances in check.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

A Mutiny in Time: Infinity Ring, Book 1

Three kids must try to fight "Bad guys" to fix broken history. They live in an alternate world where Columbus was overthrown by a mutiny and a two brothers discovered America. There are also many other parts that are just a little bit different from our current world. One of the kids helps complete work on a ring that allows them to travel in time. They go back and try to fix problems in history. There are both "good guys" that help them as well as "bad guys" that are trying to take their advantage. It is a fun story with an interesting take on alternative history.

The Eye of Minds: Mortality Doctrine, Book One

In a near future world, a "Vritual world" is extremely popular. People enter "coffins" that stimulate there nerves and provide a full immersive experience. As part of it, they have a special "core" that prevents them from receiving lasting harm from the virtual experience. People play the games, while advanced users hack the system to get special abilities. Alas, there is something gone awry in the system that is resulting in people being harmed in the real world. Kaine seems to be "powerful gamer" that is leading to problems in the system. Not only is he creating issues in the virtual world, he is leading to deaths and potential destruction of the actual world. Three kids were tasked with undergoing a quest to find Kaine. They needed to complete many "video game" activities to eventually find Kaine and discover the "mortality doctrine" that enables Artificial Intelligent "tangents" to take over the body of a real human. The book ends up with an unexpected twist that sets it up for a sequel.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

The Talking to Strangers audiobook was produced more like a podcast, with a number of actual clips and re-enactments of relevant events. Malcolm Gladwell how people often do a really bad job of judging people we do not know. One problem is that we have certain facial clues that we think identify feelings and motivation. These features are displayed predominantly by characters in US sitcoms. However, they are not common to all societies or people. Often people can appear "guilty" simply because of their natural mannerisms. The disconnect between what is observed and actual character and feelings ends up causing all sorts of issues.
In one study, subjects participating in a study were given the opportunity to cheat. Later, the study recorded the subjects being questioned about whether or not they cheated. People judging these evaluation could easily identify liars who behaved like "liars" should (blushing, fidgety, etc.) However, they were regularly misled by those that gave confusing clues. A fidgety truth teller or a confident liar were more often than not misjudged.
People that think they can read character often fall victims to these assumptions. Judges that set bail want to meet and talk with the defendant to judge whether they can be set free. However, a blind AI that only looks at the rap sheet produced much more effective results.
Sex, violence, alcohol and protests all play a role in some of the difficult to judge situations. I wonder how often are criminal justice system is making things worse. An example was given of a psychologist who helps people uncover the deep sexual abuse that they may be repressing. Is this really unearthing something or just causing past feelings to be altered? The book also talks about people that were on friendly terms with people that were later accused of child sexual abuse. They later switch sides to fight against the abuser. Did the case turn something that did not impact them into something that they now find damaging? Or perhaps they are just showing solidarity or now see a chance to earn money. Do these cases really benefit victims? Or do they just create more victims. The witch hunts that come out afterwards create more issues. Churches are being bankrupted because of past priest activities. School presidents are being sued because they did not take "appropriate actions" against alleged perpetrators. However, the evidence that they had to consider were often circumstantial at best.

By default people assume others are telling the truth. If not, society will be painfully difficult to manage. However, this allows the non-truth tellers to continue on. How do we appropriately find the bad apples while not grinding society to a halt. The Amanda Knox case provided the counter to the Sandusky case. She just looked guilty. She served time in jail. When she was finally acquitted, there were Italian protests of a miscarriage of justice. In her case, the behavior seemed to indicate guilt despite innocence. With Sandusky, there was apparent innocence despite guilt. How can we make good decisions. (And are these decisions even right? Sandusky still maintains his innocence even after conviction.)

The Brock Turner case introduces alcohol to the story and makes it even messier. Two people at a party are blackout drunk engaging in sexual activity. One of them passes out as the other continues. Had that been all, they would have probably woken up later and wondered what exactly happened and wished they had not had so much to drink. However, two people stumbled across them. Brock ran away. Now he is branded for life as a sex criminal. The judge in the case last his position because he wasn't deemed by the public as hard enough. But is the case really cut and dry. If both parties are too drunk to remember, how could a rape even take place? Neither party could legally give consent. The laws concerning drinking and sexuality create a big mess. Sexual activity is legal if there is consent. However, people don't agree on what consent is. Further more, when drunk people's ability to make judgements and remember events is impaired. Somebody may have granted what appeared to be consent in the moment, but not remembered doing so. The only witnesses are often two people with incomplete, human memories trying to piece things together. They are heavily coached by attorneys to say the right thing. They may believe they are telling the truth. But, that does not mean they are. This is a problem with our entire legal system. Sex crimes can be even worse because whether or not it is a crime depends almost entirely on the victim's intent. The punishment is also extreme, with sex criminals often being required to register as a sex offender for life.

In the court of public opinion can even be worse. The chat rooms love to "speak up for the little guy". Anybody committing an offense against children most be 100% evil. Anybody that employed them or even said something slightly positive about them must also be punished. Thus, the judge in the Brock Turner case lost his job because he agreed with a lenient sentence. The President of Penn State was convicted of child endangerment. (He was able to have it overturned on a technicality - the law he was convicted under did not exist when he was deemed to have committed a crime.) This seems an awfully lot like a witch hunt. And it probably does not do much good for actual victims. Adults that were abused as children may not have been impacted at all by the actions. The accusations may actually create harm where none previously existed. For those that were harmed, they may be required to dredge up something that they have recovered from, or they may continue to be suffering. They could hope to relish in seeing the perpetrator suffer. For most people, that would be it. However, if the abuser happens to be part of a large organization, then the victim may receive a huge amount. The organizations are often ones that devote resources to youth. Because of a few bad apples these organizations are paying huge amounts to a few victims and their lawyers rather than helping youth. To protect themselves they must go overboard implementing strict policies to remove any prospective abusers. This may end up negatively impacting the children. (Abuse may continue outside the purview of organization. Or children may look for other, even worse sources of fulfillment.) The real winners here are primarily lawyers and politicians. They can claim to be doing something to protect children. The lawyers get the bonus of a big chunk of money.
At the same time, we have a movement in the opposite direction focused on police violence, especially against minorities. "Black Lives Matter" is primarily concerned with police being too harsh against black people. The cases that gain attention (and lead to protests) are often seemingly excessive responses to minor infractions. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the case of Sandra Brown who committed suicide in a jail cell after the escalation from a traffic stop due to a failure to signal a lane change. As with the rape case, there was blame on both sides. The cop probably should not have pulled her over in the first place. (She was moving to get out of his way!) He also should not have escalated the situation. However, she could have complied with orders and not had the situation escalate. She could also have made bail. She also committed suicide. While there are a few highly publicized cases of police brutality against innocent people, most cases start with a crime. Somebody commits an offense and then receives an excessive police response. This seems similar to the "throw the book at the sex offender" attitude, only the protestors are on the other side.
Amanda Knox served time in Italy for the murder of her roommate. When she was finally acquitted, people, convinced she did it, protested. When the judge in the Brock Turner case gave him a sentence less than people hoped for, the protestors led a recall campaign to remove him from the bench. When Michael Brown was shot in Missouri, people protested against police violence. The Jerry Sandusky situation was even more surreal with many heads rolling. Students and politicians Tennessee refused an offer to Greg Schiano because somebody provided third hand information that Schiano new something about Sandusky. The merits of a case do not matter so much as the court of public opinion. There is a need to defend the "weak" even if it means needlessly destroying others.
How do we prevent the bad apples, while still living a productive life? Kansas City did have a good experience. They focussed police patrols in high crime areas. The officers would pull cars over for the most minor crimes and then search for any more series violations. This worked because it was focused on the most high crime areas. Actions are often location dependent. Prostitutes like to work their street. Criminals work their turf. Even Golden Gate Bridge jumpers are likely to not commit suicide if they can't jump from the bridge. Alas, this "agressive" policing strategy does not help when carried out on a large scale. Most people committing minor infractions on a random road are innocent of other crimes. A generalized targetting may feel "just", but it is more likely to be a waste of time. How can we find Bernie Madoff's and their ponzi schemes without making financial transactions too onerous to complete? Trust but verify is a good catchword, but is still a challenge when dealing with strangers.

Friday, October 25, 2019

If I Have to Tell You One More Time...: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling

Amy McCready sells a "Positive Parenting Solutions"service that helps implement many of the policies described in the book. The solutions are based on Alderian psychology. Children are seaking out attention and needs. They see the ways that parents interact and want to participate also. In the past, families had a more hierarchical structure. Dad was the ultimate boss. Mom was fully in charge while Dad was at work. Mom obeyed Dad. Kids obeyed Mom. Today, however, parents are equal. They debate in front of children. Children see this and expect to be participants also.
This book provides a number of tools to help parents raise their children with discipline rather than punishment. Many of the "punishments" make things worse.
The first tool is "Mind Body and Soul" time. Have time dedicated to interacting with the child on their own. From there, use a calm voice and encourage rather than praise. Empower children by training and giving them choices. Decide what you will do and control the environment. Use "When - then" to explain consequences and routines. Let natural consequences play out rather than "saving children". Develop logical consequences for cases where the natural may take too long or be unsafe to carry out. Either or can be used for an option.
Many misbehavior are a result of mistaken goals. They may want undue attention, power, or revenge. Or they may be so far down that they have assumed inadequacy. Dealing with these goals may require conterintuitive actions. Ignore special special requests (after informing children they will be ignored.) Let consequences play out. Invite cooperation rather than bossing. Withdraw from conflict. When a fight does need to be broken up, seek to understand feelings rather than assign blame. Finally, tie all of this together with weekly family meetings where the kids play a role.
It all seems like a good strategy that requires significant discipline to implement. At first, there will likely be some pushback form the kids, but it seems like it will pay off.

Space Opera

In Space Opera, the survival of the human species depends on the performance of one dried-up band in an intergalactic music competition. The novel rambles on with the back story of the many different types of sentient beings in the world as well as mishaps in previous music competition. The earth musicians finally come on stage and lose their voice. Then through some miraculous experience they manage to sign and save the earth. In the process, many popular music artists are name dropped. Parts of the book are quite funny, though the book itself is rather forgettable.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Eye For Eye

In Eye for Eye, Mick Winger learns that he has special powers. He can cause people that anger to die from cancer. This results in him eventually harming many of the people that loved him when growing up in an orphanage. He eventually discovers his family. They have been inbread to carry on their powers. However, he has much greater power than any of the others. He eventually breaks free. It is an interesting exploration of a "super power" that takes time to impact others.

The Kill Order (Maze Runner, Book 4; Origin)

Kill order follows the apocalyptic disaster blueprint. The story follow the lives of a band of survivors from the "sun-flare" apocalypse as they are now dealing with the new virus outbreak. The "current time" of the novel has them being shot with a virus by a group of commandos out of a flying object. The story of the sun flare is told via dream flashbacks of one of the characters. They were underground when the initial flare hit. Most everyone above ground was fried. Being underground saved them. However, a few hours later the tsunamis hit and flooded everything. They got above ground just in time, and made it to a high rise where they camped out until things improved. They were eventually able to escape after commandeering a boat from a bad guy (who shot one of them in cold blood.) In the present, they were leaving in an Appalachian encampment. A government group had come in to shoot people with viruses to control the population. The virus was supposed to kill people quickly. However, it mutated, leaving people crazy. Our main party set out to find the source of the virus. In the process, they run into a cult of people that believe the sun flares and viruses are part of a punishment from above for their misdeeds.
The fills in background details for the maze runner series. It does leave a lot of holes in the "disaster" scenario. However, there are just enough details to keep it interesting. Most of the characters eventually succumb to the disease. However, they manage to get the immune girl out to the scientists. It also displays some futuristic technology including vaporizing guns and teleportation machines.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Mila 2.0

A girl moves to a small town in Minnesota. She has vague memories living in Philadelphia with her father. However, he died in a fire and she moved out to rural Minnesota with her mother. She had been trying to slowly adapt to small town life when she meets a boy from San Diego. Her friend is hot for the boy and gets upset with her. Eventually, she sends her to the bed of a pickup while she "drag races" with the boy. She is flown from the car and is barely injured, other than a severed arm that reveals machinery. She then discovers that she was actually an android (Mila 2.0) created by the military and her mother was one of the scientists that helped create her.
Mila and her "mom" try to escape to Canada and then to Germany. They almost make it. However, I dog in the Toronto airport sniffs her and they are soon caught and sent back to the military engineering facility near DC. There we encounter the general in charge of the project. He is an over-the-top crazy stereotypical war nut. We also meet Mila 3.0. She is the "improved" version that does not have so much emotional programming. They have some battles. The humanness both helps and hurts 2.0. she is able to do crazy unexpected things to beat 3.0. However, she is also subject to human qualms, limiting her ability to fight. She becomes somewhat attached to a young engineer who is working there. (We learn that the engineer and the general have some connection.) The general wants to reprogram her, but the engineer helps get them out.
Could we really engineer human emotions? If so, would it be good or bad? Perhaps quantum computing will lead us down this path. We will get a little bit of "uncertainty" in the certain decisions, thus improving outcomes. Could people really fall in love with an android?

Monday, October 21, 2019

For Magnus Chase: The Hotel Valhalla Guide to the Norse Worlds

As a companion to the Magnus Chase series, Rick Riordan created this tongue and cheek introduction to Norse Mythology. The various deities and key events are described in a humorous fashion as part of a hotel guide. It is a short work that probably serves best as a companion reference to the series rather than a work to read on its own.

The Fever Code: Maze Runner, Book Five; Prequel

Fever Code, the final book in the Maze Runner series, takes place immediately before the first book. We see the story of Thomas as he is taken in by Wicked from a young age. He is isolated and forced to change his name from Steven. He gradually learns of other kids, but still gets special privileges. He, along with a select few others get to help design the mazes. As part of it, he is able to view what happens. He is shocked to see that the monsters inflict real harm and that boys kill each other. That is not the only blood he has on his hands. The new chancellor tasks him and other immune kids with giving lethal injections to Wicked staff members that have contracted the virus. We learn that this new chancellor was treacherous, and had in fact spread the virus, and was later spreading false emails from others to explain it. Thomas thought he was going into the maze with his memories intact, but had them wiped at the last minute. He is regularly double-crossed.
Wicked is portrayed as a stereotypical government agency that exists so that it can exist. It's predecessor had initially launched the virus to help control the human population after sun flares wrecked havoc on the environment. After the virus spun out of control, they were tasked with finding a cure. They would adopt any means to justify the ends, including ripping children from homes and killing their parents. They employed gruesome means of controlling the children in their justification.
This book continues on the theme of "beware unintended consequences". Is it worth it to throw away human civility in the quest for a miracle? It seems easy to justify. If the miracle does materialize, everyone would be saved. If it doesn't, then everyone would be dead. Though the mortgage of morality in quest of the miracle may be the very thing that keeps society from the peace it needs.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Death Cure (Maze Runner, Book Three)

Each book in the Maze Runner series ends with the kids "escaping" the fake world to get into the real world. Then the next book picks up with a new level of "fakeness". In this third book, we think they are really in the real world. Is this actually the real world? Or is this another level of fakeness? We learn more about the "flare". Most of our characters are immune to it. They are studied to help find a cure. Their immunity lets them do things others can't. However, they are also heavily discriminated against by other people in the world. They hook up with another group that somewhat seems to be their allies, but has different goals. They are in Denver, which seems to be a fairly modern city. There are officers around that try to get rid of all the sick people so as not to contaminate the healthy. The sick are sent to a special "community" where they can live the rest of their life in happiness. However, with people going mad and having little to live for, it had devolved into squalor. These "cranks" decide they will break out and take over the city. Meanwhile, those with immunity had been rounded up and sent into to the "wicked" maze. Our heroes rescue them just in time and then go through a teleportation-like thing to a pastoral field where they can live happily ever after as the saviors of the human race. (However, in the process, many people die.) Our hero, Thomas, shoots and kills one of his friends who has the flare. He later kills a Wicked leader with his bare hands. He is no longer innocent of death. It could be argued that these both were near death anyway, but he still killed them. There is plenty of other violence and narrow escapes from catastrophe. (Things do seem to be just a little too close to be believable.)
Wicked had been tasked with finding a cure for what was apparently a biological weapon. People put their hope in this cure, and assumed that any ends would justify the means. People were lax on containing the outbreak because they though a cure was imminent. Alas, even with great effort, they were not able to find the cure. One leader with foresight had also set out a "plan b" that would put a bunch of immune people in a remote area. They would build up their own society and continue the human race after the rest of the world had fallen apart.
This "plan b" seems to be a wishful-thinking cop out. Could an area really be so remote that nobody else would discover it? Would society really disintegrate so fast that everybody would be cannibalized? There is potential for a couple more series exploring the "immune" society and the "collapse" of primary society. Would some of those immune be able to survive in the primary society? Would the isolated immunes turn on themselves? Could a society whose leaders killed in cold blood really continue peaceably? Is this saying something about some of our current problems, like climate change? IS it best just to find those that can deal with it, and let other parts of the world flood away? And we still have many open questions about why there is such a need to control the minds of people, and why they felt it good not to get memories back. And why was so much violence necessary? Many questions are left unanswered at the "end" of the series. IT seems obvious that additional books are needed.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Midnight Star: Young Elites, Book 3

The third young elites book moves into the realm of fantasy quest. Our main protagonist becomes an evil queen. She is half insane and rules by fear. She is driven to find her younger sister, while at the same time wanting her to suffer. The elites also gradually see their powers turn on them in weird ways. The team together to go to the world to save the world from the melding of immortal and mortal realms. In the process, they give up their powers. Some also die, but the evil queen is able to atone for herself by giving her daughter as sacrifice. It seems the fairly typical fantasy journey. There is a lot of world building that could still be done. However, the author is primarily focused on getting all the romance in place. Is it really that easy to guess the gender of the author by the predominance of romance?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Rose Society

Rose Society is a "Darth Vader"-like fall of a powerful hero. Adelina Amouteru had been cast out of the Young Elites due in part to the way she assisted in the leader's downfall. She worked to create her own group of outcast elites and mercenaries to fight back. She has voices that whisper in her head to seek power. These voices can sometimes overpower her natural, calm sister. She uses her power of illusion to help her accomplish tasks. She, along with her sister (who can "disable" elite powers) team up with Magiano who has the power to mimic the powers of other elites. They kill the night King and take some of his mercenaries, including Sergio (who controls storms) back to her homeland to prevent a foreign overthrow. After killing people, Adelina has uncontrolled hallucinations of past events and violence that cause her to lash out and lust after more power. They discover that the former Elites leader was to be brought back from the dead and bound to one of the Elites. She jumps in to have in bound to her. She eventually causes a great deal of destruction and assumes the shown. At first, I sympathized with a somewhat flawed heroine. However, as the novel progressed, the good became overpowered by the evil. This was a Darth Vader that we had followed as a Jedi hero, and never realized had swung to the dark side. There is still some good, but the "voices" overpower to make it bad. This "fall of a hero" provides something different in what is otherwise, an excessive load of formulaic romance and violence. (The girl must have a few competing love interests. There must be various levels of homosexual love interests. The "good guys" must assist the "bad guys" in killing each other, but rarely do it themselves. The "important" characters must remain alive and accidentally lead.) It is dark and gruesome, but better than the first book in the series.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Young Elites

Young Elites is essentially the "Legend" series set in a fantastical medieval Venice. A disease had swept through the empire. All adults were killed. However, some children survived. They became the malfectos that were shunned by society. However, some of these survivors gained super powers and banned together as the young elites. Against that background, we follow the story of Adelina Amouteru. She is a burden on her father. When a business man offers to buy her as a mistress, her father agrees. She will have none of that, and runs away. Her father chases her, but then her powers come out and her father dies. She then finds the elites, including the crown prince. She falls in love, gits caught in political issues and just wonders what is going on. In the end, we get a glimpse of another matriarchal kingdom where the ruler has the power to bring people back from the dead. The premise is somewhat intriguing. What if something that caused people to be outcast also gave others special abilities? (I guess in some sense, plagues do that in granting immunity.) The backdrop is similar to Italy, but different enough to allow free exploration. Alas, the novel just feels too much like the legend books.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Lost Stories (Book 11)

The Lost Stories is the "last" book in the Ranger's Apprentice series. However, it covers a wide time period from before the main books to in between some of the tales. There are a number of different "episodes" in the story. We get to see the origin of Halt before he became a ranger. We also have a recurring theme of preparing for a wedding speech. There are funny stories, like the lady who manages to beat down thieves with kitchen utensils, as well as more conventional adventures. The stories also help explain some interesting aspects of the series. In one, Will goes to kill and ends up needing to retire his horse. We learn that rangers go through new horses, but keep the names. I've only read the prequel books, and the stories were well accessible.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Champion (A Legend Novel, Book 3)

The conclusion to the Legend series is somewhat of a downer. It is filled with romance, action and suspense with various turns. Alas, the conclusion is somewhat unfulfilling. After all the build up, it seems to just be a cop out. We do find out more about the world at large. Each of the new states has a its own quirky existence. Antarctica is the most technologically advanced state we meet. Everyone has a chip embedded to see the "score" and "level" of people. Every good thing increases points. However, who defines what is good? Each of the post apocalyptic states has their own benefits and downfalls. None seem great by our standards.
We also learn that the previous elector primo was a real person who has had skills to help lead the country - even if he did gradually turn it into a police state. People liked their country, even if they didn't like some parts of it. And then the novel ends with memory loss and a peace agreement. It would almost be better if it left off the epilogue. Meanwhile, there are many interesting subplots that were barely covered. What was up with Commander Jameson? Why did Thomas escape prison only to defend his country? Do people really like their country that much, even when given knowledge of the oppression? And how would these different post-apocalyptic societies evolve?

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

Today we often look back in disgust at the period of African slavery in the US. However, at the time, the situation was much more complex. Servitude was common. Many immigrants came as indentured servants. People were also often apprenticed to masters to learn a trade. Slavery was proscribed as a more compassionate punishment than death. The slave trade seemed like a logical outcrop of situation. However, somewhere in the process, a racial aspect was applied. (It wasn't clear whether Africans were deemed as inferior because they were slaves, or whether they were slaves because they were deemed inferior.) The African slaves were unfamiliar with the land and less likely to be flight risks. At first they were used primarily on tobacco farms in the upper south, but later the focus was on cotton in the deep south. The south ended up growing to have some of the greatest concentrated wealth in the country - all built on slave labor.
The north did not depend directly on slavery. However, they did benefit from the slave production. They had adopted a holier-than-though attitude. They hated slavery, yet they did not have a whole lot of respect for blacks. There was one story where they went through great lengths to get the freedom of a slave girl that was brought into a northern state. However, nobody wanted her and she ended up in an orphanage. The new territories also did not want slaves, but did not want free black residents either. This seems somewhat similar to our situation with immigrants today.
The fugitive slave law was seen as a compromise that may have delayed the civil war. However, it also helped increase tensions. The conflict was intense. Today it is easy for us to look at the god and the bad and the inevitable fall of slavery. However, at the time the outcome was not clear. Automation was still some time away from wiping out the need for slavery.
This book is a very balanced look at the complexities of the slave issue. There were no clear answers that would have neatly resolved the situation. The narratives adopted by both sides of the slave debate were filled with contradictions and holes.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Prodigy (A Legend Novel, Book 2)

In Prodigy, the author does a great job of alternating the narrative between June and Day. We get to understand each of their internal thoughts without bogging down the plot. This novel picks up where the previous left off. They are on the run after escaping Day's execution. They are trying to hook up with the underground "Patriot" movement. The patriot leader seems to be a little too embedded with the military, but they are left without any choice. The mission he has for them is to assassinate the leader of the Republic. However, they realize that the leader is actually one of their best hopes and eventually opt to save him. They later learn that the patriots leader has his own motives. The protagonists escape to the colonies before making a thrilling return to save the day.
In the process, we learn the history of this world. There were some great floods. People were fleeing to higher ground, thus leading to a great humanitarian and infrastructure crisis. The west was overwhelmed and eventually separated with the first elector taking power. The country devolved to an isolated military state (similar to North Korea) At first glance, the eastern colonies look like a great place. However, they have their own issues. The corporations have seized control and dominate all aspects of life. Those that can't pay can't receive services. Selling the republic out to the colonies will just replace one set of issues with another set. The "fall" of society in this book feels more real than other post-apocalyptic novels.
There is also the relationship angle. Day and June are clearly into each other. But there are also others that are interested in them. They are young. Relationships are complicated.

Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide

In Why Cities Lose, Jonathan Rodden takes a very academic look at the urban/rural political divide across English speaking countries. While most European countries have proportional representation, Canada, the US, the UK and Australia have winner-take-all district elections. The winner-take-all system encourages a few parties to assemble a basket of policies to appeal to sufficient voters. The arrangement today is typically that one party represents the rural and exurban areas, while another represents the urban areas. The book is full of charts and graphs showing how far one must go from the central city to flip from the "urban" to "rural" party. With traditional industrial cities, it happens not too far out. With "knowledge economy" cities like San Francisco or Seattle, one has to travel much further out. The "left" party is typically strongest in the dense urban manufacturing core. This often rose out of the socialist parties uniting labor unions. The democratic party was able to co-opt the socialists and become the urban party in the US. Today, however, most manufacturing is done in sprawling exurban plants, with most of the workers voting Republican. (Though in the past the parties did not have the strong rural/urban association.)
Democrats tend to have a concentration disadvantage. Pennsylvania is presented as a case study. Despite Democrats often taking statewide offices, Republicans have dominated the legislature. This is due to the concentration of democratic voters in cities. In the suburban and rural areas, the Republicans have an advantage, but not so pronounced. The constitution requires districts to follow communities as much as possible. This results in some urban districts that are overwhelmingly democratic, while rural districts have a smaller Republican advantage. The result is that a large number of democratic votes are "thrown away". Even with unbiased computer-generated maps, Republicans still get an advantage. (However, the Republican legislature has taken it a step further and added gerrymandering to the picture.) In the south, the Republicans have used voting-rights legislation as justification for creating black "super-majority" districts in rural areas. This has allowed Republicans to dominate in a more balanced state.
The Democratic party also struggles on one side to appeal to urban progressives that want to push the party to the left, and more pragmatic centrists who want to win. When the party is doing well, the left-flank tends to push the party to the left, alienating the centrists, and causing the party to lose. Then the party must become more disciplined and move to the center to gain greater wide-spread acceptance.
There is a great deal more data in book. It does start to get overwhelming. The thesis is simple. Parties of cities are disadvantaged by their concentration in winner-take-all districts. The existing parties are served well by the current system and have little incentive for change that would allow upstarts.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Little, Big: or, The Fairies' Parliament

Little, Big is a long fantasy novel. I don't do good with long fantasy. Why did I read it? It did come highly recommended. The story centers on people that live in Edgewood. They are a little bit "odd". At first this just seems the tale of some different people. However, gradually more fantastical elements pop up. There are bits about fairies. Somebody also makes a seemingly normal journey to the city. He is a fish out of water that eventually adapts to city life. It seems normal at first, but then also becomes fantastical. He ends up writing for a popular soap opera after the world fades. There is a war with Charlemagne as president. The odd people can help to make the world back to a better place. I think the problem I have with the fantasy is that the "real" people interactions don't feel real enough. When the fantastical is added, it makes it even more out of the realm of normal. If I didn't care before, I care even less now. And why do all fantasy works seem to involve an imminent end of the world that only a few people can help prevent? This novel does actually take place mostly in our world, so that is a plus. Though the soap opera as real life does seem a little trite.