Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Brisingr: The Inheritance Cycle, Book 3

The third Inheritance book is another long one. They are now out there working to complete the revolution. Eragon learns more about his life, including the true identity of his dad. We also learn about abilities of dragons. An interesting scene has a dragon battle a tree to try to get a special metal to fashion a sword. Eragon gets his sword, but also loses some friends. He is also getting experienced at defeating evil "shades". We also run into more people that have sworm unbreakable oaths to "bad guys", yet they still have some ways of obeying the "letter" of the oath while being part of the rebellion.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Wish List

A girl doesn't gets involved with a bad crowd and finds herself in limbo with devils arguing over her future. She ends up going with a guy to try to fill of the things from his "wish list". Some involve meeting famous celebrities and kicking a ball on a field. It is fairly short, but at times can be confusing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 3

William Shakespeare and Billy the Kid show up as new Immortals in the third Nicholas Flamel book. The stakes have now gone greater. The dark elders want to unleash demons stored in Alcatraz and take over the world. The twins are still struggling to determine who the good guys and bad guys are. Josh is becoming ever more linked to his sword. They are also gradually being awakened, learning the power of water. John Dee and Machiavelli are chasing them down, but do not manage to catch them.

Eldest: The Inheritance Cycle, Book 2

Eldest is a long fantasy novel. I managed to get into the first book, but this one was harder. Eragon finds out more about his real family. They discover another dragon (his dragon is really happy about that.) He starts to look more like and Elf. They have some battles. There is some conflict between the sides. Is he really on the good side? Is the other side really that evil? Those are some of the key points. There is a lot of fluff in between.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 10

Nihon-Ja is a version of Japan, where the rulers think of themselves as being very much above the common folk. (And the common folk think of the ruling class as being very much above them.) The current emperor wants to enact reforms to help the common people. However, the rulers will have nothing of that.
There is also a narrative of negotiations with other groups. The Rangers Apprentice books have moved on to a full-scale global diplomacy. The cultures have evolved, with the Skandians now realizing there is benefit in peaceful relationships. (However, they are still tough and ready to fend off anyone that tries to wrong them.)
The "girls" play a more significant role in this book. They finally resolve their differences over "the boys". (Of course, it turns out that there was no conflict, but they didn't know that.) They also handle significant moves on their own, including battling a giant tiger in order to help recruit a tough army. These are not waifish castle maids. They are strong battle-tested women. (They they do still have a few "feminine" skills that come in handy.
People always seem to come at just the right time to help save the day. The rangers manage to embed themselves with the Nihon-ja emperor-in-exile and save the day. The emperor does, however, show the peaceful strength. (Even though it is backed up by a ranger sword.) There is plenty of violence, but the "good guys" eventually win. The kids seem to be growing up. (Weddings are in the making!) It feels like the apprentice is soon ready to go out on its own.
The strategy of making a "Fantasy" world that is easily recognizable as a "real" world works nicely in this series. It is easily to engage in the books because you come with a base level of historical understanding. However, since it is not the "real" world, the author is free to change things around and make an "alternate" history of his own.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Ranger's Apprentice, Book 9: Halt's Peril

Halt's Peril centers around (surprise surprise) Halt's Peril. He is nicked by an assassins poisoned crossbow arrow and is in a fight for his survival. Once he is "curried" he must fight not work too hard that he can't recover. Will and Horrace must help to find the healers to help him. They also have their main quest to carry out. Halt was originally injured as they were tracing the assassins as part of a plan hunt down a fraudulent cult leader. This leader had duped may gullible townspeople out of their fortunes in the name of his fictional deity. (This god would protect people from the shyster's own cronies.) He had gone one step further and caused a King (Halt's twin brother) to be murdered. The heroes eventually complete their quest to knock the bad guy out of commission. The book is typical of the Ranger's Apprentice books. The plot is fairly linear, with a few unexpected turns. There are many fictionalized lands which are similar to ancient European lands. This book revisits some places and characters from previous books without adding many new places or faces.

Holes

Holes could almost be considered magical realism, except it doesn't really have much "magic" in it, other than "curses". The characters are believable, yet caricatured. Stanley Yelnats IV is the fourth in the line of the cursed Stanleys. It all comes from a great grandfather who failed to come back to take the pig and the old lady up the hill the final day. This resulted in him not getting the "airhead" daughter as a bridge and set about the curse on his family. They occasionally do have good things happen, but even those are met by tragedy. Stanley had sneakers fall on his head, was accused of stealing them and then sent off to a prison work camp. He makes friends with one of the boys, teaches him to read, and eventually expose some bad characters and lift the curse.
The backstory also relates Stanley to the land of his prison. His ancestor was robbed there. An old schoolteacher was victimized by racist townspeople and became a great bandit. Onions can also save lives.
The style works really well. The plot moves quickly, and the story has just the right amount of quirkiness.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World

The lowly battery is perhaps the most important and most neglected technology of today. Small and efficient batteries underpin most of our modern technology. However, we rarely pay attention to battery guys. In the US, they tend to be mostly immigrants drawn from a few related disciplines, such as physics, chemistry and material science. Powerhouse focuses on a group of them, primarily associated with Argonne Laboratories in the Chicago suburbs and a battery startup Envia. There is the conflict between the corporate and the scientific world. There are pioneers like "Goodenough" who made great advancements, yet never profited. Then there are those at Envia who did make some small advancements, but oversold their world and were exposed as fraudsters. Battery science is a tricky business. Some things look good in the lab, but then have bad properties (like a significant fade of capacity or density over time or a issues scaling.) There is also the case of GM vs. Tesla. GM kept hoping for the great increase in battery technology that would help them sell an electric car. Tesla just decided to go with what was there and make a great car. Tesla's strategy has paid off. It has also helped lead to improvements in battery technology. Build a market and the science will eventually come.

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

A passage from Conundrum was on an SAT practice test. After reading that brief passage, I knew this would be a great book. The book touts some of my preferred arguments about the environment, namely that we need to look at the big picture and not pieces in isolation.
Many "green" actions can have significant negative implications for the environment because they encourage us to continue much larger scale environmentally destructive behaviors. More fuel-efficient cars may eliminate a small amount of tailpipe emissions. This will save some money and make a slight dip in local pollution. However, the money saved will likely be cycled into other purchases that impacted the environment. Furthermore, the new car had to be purchased. The environmental impact of car production is often more significant than the impact of fuel to power it. However, the negative impacts of production are spread across many locations and not as readily noticed. Lower costs also encourage more driving. This encourages more development that is optimized for driving, including spread out areas with large roads and parking lots. More trips now require a car, leading to more pollution.
Similarly, efforts to relieve automobile congestion are often couched in environmental terms. If cars are not stuck in traffic, they wont pollute as much, right? Wrong. Adding new traffic lanes almost always increases demand. While there may be a short term reduction in congestion, in the long term, cars come to fill up the area, resulting in more congestion and much more pollution, along with more car-centric development. Even public transit can be damaging. While public transportation systems in dense urban areas may be helpful, most systems built today are sold as ways to "reduce traffic congestion". These far-flung transit systems often require park and ride lots and encourage more car-centric development in the netherworlds of metropolitan areas. Cars get a short term boost in faster travel times. If we truly wanted to help the environment and reduce traffic, we should also remove car lanes when we build transit system - however that is rarely done.
Residents of Manhattan are some of the greenest in the country. The emissions produced per person are much lower than any other major city in the US. Residents of supposedly "green" Vermont are among the most damaging to the environment. They use more resources, drive more and have a much more negative impact on the environment. They get to "enjoy" the nature that they are simultaneously destroying.
Many so-called sustainable and environmentally friendly practices are not scalable. A local farmers market lets residents access fresh fruits and vegetables. However, there is often a great deal of driving to get there. It cannot scale up to feed an entire population. Eating locally can also result in more negative environmental impact than eating "globally". Even "organic" farming practices can require inputs that are deleterious to the environment. Even our cleaner air and water come at a cost. We are often "exporting" pollution to other places (like China.)
What is one to do? The easiest is to consume less. Money spent does correspond fairly closely to environmental impact. Look at the big picture. Car emissions are something we see locally. However, the emissions from a single car are almost a rounding error in the total impact of automobiles. The production of vehicles and infrastucutre that supports this mobility is where the bulk of the impact is. Ditching the car will do much more for the environment than buying a fuel-cell electric hybrid. However, the significant benefit will not occur until enough of us drop the car and change the way our land is built up. Similarly, many other "small actions" may help us feel good about ourselves, but do very little for the environment. "Green energy" may help a little, but it still has significant costs. Consuming less is really the only solution.

"All the Real Indians Died Off": And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans

What could be a good book gets too bogged down in the contradictions of racial studies propaganda. They assume there is a monolithic "White supremacist" culture that seeks to oppress everyone else. All aspects of this "white" culture oppress the non-white victims. However, they make this argument in the context of "white" academia, and "white" culture. The arguments vacillate between identifying "Indian" concerns and concerns of individual tribes.
The authors even argue that the English developed their colonial oppression methods through the colonization of Ireland. Yet, now the Irish are grouped in the "white" group of oppressors. Huh? Why were they able to assimilate, but the Indians were not? And why can we get away with having "Fighting Irish" mascots, but not "Fighting Sioux". Is this justified because there are a good number of Irish catholics that got to Notre Dame? What about Spartans? Has San Jose or Michigan received permission of the Greeks? Or do they not need to do it because they are all "white"?
There were plenty of wrongs and treaty violation committed against the Indians by the colonizers. However, there were also many wrongs committed against "white" groups also. Trying to focus on us vs. them based on skin color may sell well in racial studies academic circles, but doesn't help in society at large. The irony is that racial studies invokes a very conservative view of the culture in question in a very liberal environment. They expect a majority culture to sacrifice their cultural beliefs and norms so that the minority culture can cling to a very conservative way of life in their culture.
The "indigenous" argument also echos "NIMBY" arguments seen in many communities today. People want a community to remain the same as it was when they moved there. What is not clearly explained is how long the American Indian culture had lasted in its present form before the European colonization. Were some tribes and cultures only recently formed? Had some lived the same way for thousands of years before? Were there some tribes that had annihilated other tribes, only to be decimated by the Europeans. Have some tribal cultures existed longer as minority cultures in a European world than they did originally on their own. These would all be great topics of exploration. Alas, that is not the topic of the book.
The myths here focus more on the "agenda". Some times the arguments are fairly clear. Indian casinos do make great amounts of money for a small number of tribes. However, most tribes barely break even. The government does provide health care for Indians as part of a treaty obligation. However, the funding is quite low.
Other arguments get muddled. The "myth of the drunken Indian" acknowledges that alcohol related crime is high among Indians. However, this is justified as something forced upon Indians by the Europeans. And then arguments are given to say that Indians are not more susceptible to alcohol. There are also discussions about "victimhood" and "wards of the state". The authors try to refute these misconceptions, even as the theme of the book seems to say otherwise.
Pan-Indian identity also gets conflated with tribal identity. Indians rightfully cringe when others attempt to mimic their sacred ceremonies. However, what if another tribe takes it? Tribal identity was said to be fluid in Indian cultures, with those from one tribe being adopted into others. Yet, now there are strict blood limits. And what about adoption into mainstream American culture?
There is a great challenge to keep minority cultures alive. However, the "Racist" approach ends up marginalizing many cultures due to their skin colors. There are many cultures among the "whites" and many among the "Indians". There is a lot we could learn from all of them.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

How Not To Be Wrong is part an exploration of the joys of math, and part a manual on how to avoid getting duped (or duping oneself) with math. There is also a bit of namedropping of famous mathematicians for good measure. Politicians are great at coming up with good sounding, but meaningless numbers. Wisconsin may have claimed that its 5000 net new jobs accounted for 50% of all new jobs for a year. That could be technically correct. However, since some states lost jobs, a state with 12000 net new jobs would claim to account for 120% of net new jobs, showing the craziness of the data. Science is also rife with "statistically significant random results" from insufficiently large or small studies. There is also a "survivors bias", with many failed studies not being published. If 20 people study something, one is likely to randomly discover a significant result. If that person is the only one to publish, we don't realize the significant result was just random. The "5%" p-value acceptance threshold is just an arbitrary value. However, it does result in a serious amount of 'p-hacking' There are a lot more studies that just meet the threshold than would be suspected by a normal distribution. Similarly, people tend to favor numbers ending in 7 as "random numbers". Thus, an excessive preponderance of vote counts ending in 7, may indicate a rigged election.

Zero: The Biography of A Dangerous Idea

In Zero, Math journalist Charles Seife explores the concept of "0" and at the end brings in zero's cousin, infinity. Many ancient cultures did not have the concept of zero. The led to numerical systems like Roman numerals. It also resulted in odd year number. (1BC is followed immediately by 1 AD). Zero helped unlock new abilities in math, and made writing numbers easier. The author also explores Pythagoreans and their problems with irrational numbers (such as the square root of 2 that pops up in the pythagorean therom.) He mentions incidents where division by zero caused great calamities. Zero also opened the door the calculus and the concept of limits that approach zero (or infinity) Towards the end, the author spends a lot of time delving into worm holes and theoretical physics.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

Paul Tough explores the current world of college education and finds flaws all around. The story of the "welder" who gets a high paying job without going to college? Well, there are some high paying jobs around in big cities. But most of welding jobs are not in the "Super high paying" realm. The jobs also require going to school to become a welder. What about the worry that under-qualified low-income minorities are taking all the good college seats away? Colleges would love to have more low-income minorities. However, the primary "under-qualified" admits are of the "rich and white" variety. While admissions scandals brought attention to people paying thousands to get their kids into college via phony sports resumes, hey were just people trying to do it on the cheap. Many colleges have spots waiting for anybody waiting to donate a few million dollars.
He also debunks plenty of College Board propaganda. Standardized tests tend to benefit the wealthy that are willing to pay for expensive test preparation. Even the free SAT-prep offered by the college board is primarily used by those who need it the least.
Is college worth it? That also depends. The most prestigious colleges tend to lead to the best paying jobs. Even among the ivy league schools, there is a hierarchy of "the best" with the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale up top. Employers use the caliber of school as a proxy of the best students. (Thus school admissions officers end up making decisions.) Extra circulars are also analyzed, though this often favors the wealthy. Lacrosse is preferable to football.
Even the minority students at elite schools are a mirage. Many of the ethnic minorities are the children of wealthy executives and immigrants. Poor students are likely to be those that attended elite prep schools on scholarship. Schools also work to manipulate the numbers. Students that just qualify for Pell grants are much more likely to be admitted than students that just miss the cut off.
The anecdotes are also enlightening. A student wanted to go to Penn or maybe Princeton as a backup. She got rejected by both. However, she ended up getting into Stanford - a school with a much lower acceptance rate. A master test prep consultant charges $400 per hour, and spends most of the time chatting with the students. He helps them to de-stress and minimize the importance of the test. He also teaches a few tips and tricks - and produces great results. The super-elite colleges spend a lot more per student on education, however, most of this comes from the endowment. The mid-tier schools need tuition money to survive. They play a complicated quantitative game of admissions. They must get the right mix of students that will generate income, while also having enough high-quality students. They dangle enough scholarship money to entice acceptance (and the tuition money that comes with it.) There was also the study that showed that letting poor students know about colleges led to more attending elite colleges that matched their scores. However, when the college board tried to repeat it, nothing much happened. There are other factors (such as family) that prevent poor students from attending the most elite colleges. However, the poor would benefit the most. The quality of college is strongly correlated with lifetime income. Across all incoming income levels, those that attend more elite schools will earn more. Those that come in wealthy will have some advantage, but those that come in poor will see the biggest increase in income. The logical path is to attend to best school you can get in to. However, high-performing poor are more likely to go to a nearby community college or state school (even if they could get a free ride to an ivy)
The college system could be a great equalizer. Instead, it just helps out the haves. What can we do about it?

Friday, February 21, 2020

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

Medical Apartheid was written with a few purposes in mind. Primarily it presents an anecdotal history of medical experimentation on blacks. During the time of slavery, blacks slaves were viewed as subhuman. They were the properties of their owners and had few rights of their own. They were also believed to have a high tolerance for pain. Doctors would test procedures out on the slaves. They might lose a few in the process. These early stories are truly frightening. As time progresses, the anecdotal nature fails the argument. The author describes studies where blacks were treated poorly. Some of these were due to lack of informed consent. Other cases they thought they were getting therapy, but were actually being experimented upon. The author posits that they were singled out because they were black. In most of the studies mentioned, there were a disproportionate number of black people impacted. However, since this is anecdotal, we don't know if they were just random bad studies that happened to impact blacks, or if there was something worse involved. Alas, thus actually helps the author's final argument that blacks should trust the medical establishment more. She seems to have to dig more and more to find negativity towards blacks as time progresses. (There does not seem to be grave robbing for cadavers going on like it used to.) However, there are still relaxed standards in Africa. How can we test the efficacy of new medicines without a willing audience of guinea pigs? How can we ensure everyone benefits? Who will pay? And the big one - does western medicine even make sense?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ranger's Apprentice, Book 8: Kings of Clonmel

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race

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

Saturday, February 15, 2020

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

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

Friday, February 14, 2020

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

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

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

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Eragon: Inheratince

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

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

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

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Russian Revolution: A New History

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

Friday, January 31, 2020

Maoism: A Global History

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

Monday, January 27, 2020

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

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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns begins with the marriage of a 16 year old fat princess to a King. They meet each other for the first time on their wedding day. He is a "nice" man and a leader of a religiously conservative kingdom. She is the bearer of a "godstone" when gives her some power, but requires her to perform an act of special service. She travels with him to his kingdom, encountering challenges on the way. She gradually gets to know her entourage as well as people in her husbands kingdom. (However, he keeps their marriage secret for some time.) She also learns more about her role and religion and endears herself to her stepson. One night, she is kidnapped and brought out into the wilderness. There she learns more about the conflict in the greater kingdom. She soon becomes a leader of a vigilante group. They uncover perverse alliances and nearly get killed before completing the battle royale with the help of some discovered magic. She needs some help of stones similar to "Bad guy" magic to use with her "good guy" magic to defeat the bad guys and their magicians. It then suddenly ends, all nicely wrapped up, but ready for a sequel. This is a rare book where an overweight girl that loves sweets is an action hero.