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.