Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hidden Empire

Hidden Empire invokes the spirit of Michael Crichton. A novel disease, with a high mortality has appeared in Africa. The response includes mass genocide of villages - with the only survivor being a boy in a tree that happens to have a camera.

Though it has some of the main characters, there is very little to connect it to the first Empire book. The ending of the book also serves to severe many of those ties. The last bit seems artificially tacked on - serving to kill off all of the "gish" of special ops guys.

Perhaps Card will continue the series from the viewpoint of the "Philosopher King" president - who seems intent on providing world peace, even if there is some collateral damage.

The political views in the book come across as ultra-right wing liberal. Global warming is attacked as nonsense. However, the government has banned gasoline powered vehicle, and significantly enhanced the public transit infrastructure. (The rationale is preserving a scarce resource of gasoline, rather than waste it on things that have an easily viable alternative.) I tend to agree with this one - the focus on global warming is nice when it leads to fewer cars, more transit, and conservation of natural resources. It's not so useful when it leads to things like shooting carbon up to space.

Other than that, the political view is fairly fox-news friendly. The United States is seen as the only possible world cop - whether helping Africa, or preventing an asteroid from destroying earth. Nigerian government is corrupt. The military field guys are smart, while the office guys have something to be desired.

Crystal City: Tales of Alvin Maker VI

Crystal City neetly ties up many of the threads of the Alvin Maker series - then opens a number of new threads. The Alvin Maker series also seems to be closely related with some of Card's other book series.

Like Card's Homecoming saga, this is based loosely on Mormon history. In this case, many key events in Alvin's life are based on those of Joseph Smith. In Crystal City, Alvin leads a group of "outcasts" out of exile to build a "tabernacle" on some swampland on the Mississippi. (This seems a lot like Smith leading Mormons from Missouri to Nauvoo, Illinois and building a temple there.) There is also the constant fear that Alvin will die if he goes to jail in Carthage City. (Smith was killed in Carthage.) It makes me wonder which character will turn out to be the "Brigham Young" character that leads the people to Utah. (Perhaps his lawyer friend? or possibly his adopted brother-in-law?)

However, despite borrowing some key events from Joseph Smith's life, Alvin's life is much more than a fictionalized version of the Mormon prophet's life. The greatest difference is the vastly different America that he inhabits. "Knacks" and special abilities are relatively common. The states and countries are different. Alvin is not founding a religion, but engaging in a similar bold task of "making". He also has significant roles in the establishment of a "red" nation and the abolition of slavery. Alvin's family relationship is significantly different than Smith's.

The family relationships are, however, very similar to those in Card's Ender's Game series. You could just about swap out Alvin with Ender and not notice a difference. Ender's brother Peter and Alvin's brother Calvin also seem to have very similar personalities, while Alvin's wife and Ender's sister Valentine could also be swapped. Even Alvin's pals and Ender's pals seem similar. It's almost as if the author took the same characters and plucked them down in a different setting and watched how they turned out.

Historical figures suffer a somewhat similar fate. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed glowingly as a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur that everybody loves. Jim Bowie is not treated so nicely - portrayed as a mean ruffian. Steve Austin's portrayal is somewhat sympathetic - though he gets his heart ripped out in Mexico before a volcano destroys the whole city.

The open threads at the end leave open a final book in the series. In the afterward to one book, Card mentions that there will only be one more book - and a likely long one. However, Card seems to have lost interest in this series, so it may be a long while.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Heartfire: Tales of Alvin Maker V

The fifth book in the Alvin Maker series has two main arcs. The first centers around Alvin and his gang in "New England" where they attempt to save people accused of witchery. The second covers Alvin's brother Calvin in "Camelot" aka Charleston South Carolina, where King Author sets in exile in the "Crown Colonies") The courtroom

The roles of the historical figures are the most intriguing part of the book. John Calhoun makes a brief appearance as an anti-black southern firebrand. John Adams, however, is a pure thinking jurist who uses his intellectual powers to correct the evils in New England.

The most intriguing pseudo-historical portrayals were of Frenchmen. Audubon was portrayed as an extremely talented French painter who had to kill his animals to paint them. He later joins Alvin's "group" where Alvin's friend, Author Stewart, stops birds for him to paint (so he doesn't have to kill them.)

Balzac, on the other hand, met up with Calvin in France. He is portrayed at once as both a "head in the clouds" dreamer, and a down-to-earth pragmatist. At first, he appears to be a major creep. Even when Calvin is doing evil, Balzac can still be his friend. However, Balzac is simply 'studying' humanity as work for his novels.

In the end, Witchery laws are abolished and the south has inched closer to war over slavery, but not much has been done to advance the overall series arc.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

High Effeciency my foot

Our old washing machine finally died, so we bought a new high-efficiency front loader. We were set on buying an h-e top-loader. However, we couldn't find one with an internal water heater. Perhaps we should have let the water heater go.

Our electricity bill shot up after buying the washer, probably due to increased dryer times. With the old washer, a load could be finished in about 30 minutes. With the new washer, the "predicted time" is 57-59 minutes. However, actual tends to be much more than that. (I often see it go from 7 minutes remaining back up to 12.) Load size is much larger. However, a standard full load tends to end up much wetter (and take forever.) Maximum efficiency seems to only be obtained by using a smaller load (about the size of the old washer.) However, this creates major time issues.

With the old washer, you could wash two loads in less than the time it takes to wash one in the new one. Hmm... Even if it uses half the electricity to run, since it takes twice the time, it will break out even.

This also creates problems with drying. With the smaller, faster loads, there was plenty of space to hang up all the clothes. Wash a bit, hang up. Maybe throw some damp stuff in the dryer. Wash another. Hang up.

With the new one, there is a lot more clothing at once, exceeding space (and patience) to hang up everything. You could stuff it all in the dryer. However, this will be stuffed, and take forever to dry. Hanging up some, and drying some is perhaps the best solution.

Alvin Journeyman: Tales of Alvin Maker IV

The writing seems to get better with each installment of the Alvin Maker series. This one is played mostly as a courtroom drama. Peggy writes Alvin to tell him he should leave his hometown, or he may lose the choice. He is pig-headed about it, but finally leaves when a girl starts spreading rumors about him. He returns to the town where he was an apprentice blacksmith - only to be arrested on charges that he "stole" his golden plow from his master. He sits in jail, while all sorts of charges are leveled (many by an assistant lawyer - Daniel Webster.) He is eventually acquitted of all charges, and, anticlimactically marries Peggy at the end.

Meanwhile his brother Calvin has also left their hometown and voyaged off to the side of evil, and goes runs in to William Henry Harrison in New York and runs off to Europe to try to learn to be a leader from Napoleon. Calvin seems to be turning totally evil. However, some of his "evil" things end up helping Alvin (such as indirectly introducing Alvin to his British lawyer.) Things seem to be getting set up for Calvin to do something really bad before turning over to the side of good.

This book introduces a few more "historical figures" in slightly non-historical roles. While they add color to the story, they are not critical to the underlying human drama.

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Times

Karen Armstrong adapts the Muslim prophet to modern sensibilities. His peace-loving and pro-woman attributes are built up. His behaviors that appear to us as negatives (wars, polygamy, massacre of enemies) are explained away as being actually improvements over the standard behavior of Arabs of his day.
Muhammad is portrayed as a humble servant who is exiled from Mecca due to his religious beliefs. His return is portrayed as nothing more than a reunion with his clan and the reopening of trade. He still chose to live his life out in Medina.
He is also portrayed as an open-minded leader who does not actively desire to convert other people to his faith - merely to encourage them to do so on their own. He supported Jewish and Christian populations in the area. (His massacre of Jews was portrayed as an isolated attack on a single clan that was abetting the enemy.)
On the role of women, the prophet was shown to be controversial - often giving women more say and a greater role in society than was common for the day. Even the "veil" was explained as something to separate the prophet and his wives from others, not simply a means to separate women from the lusts of men.
The hidden thesis of the book seems to be that the prophet Muhammad was pluralistic social liberal and that current Islamic fundamentalism has strayed significantly from the religion's core values. I have a sneaking suspicion that by picking different facts the opposite story could be told. Now, if only we could find that book written for the western audience.

Space Boy

It must be a sign an author has "come of age" when a half-baked short story can be sold by itself as a "novella". Space Boy is a decent story. However, the writing could use some work. There are a number of obvious typos in the book, and a number of places where the characters seemed to be confused.

The "science fiction idea" in the story is a "worm-hole" that connects earth with a another world. The people in that world look a lot like humans, only they are much more dense (and somewhat smaller). Time on the other world also passes much more slowly than time on earth, and the worm obtains energy from these differences.

The head of this worm just happens to be in a boy's closet. The mom doesn't believe the boy, she's sucked in. Her brother then goes to rescue her. The family also wrecks havoc on the other earth by flooding it and feeling it with manure.

In the end, I was left with the feeling that the earth family were the evil ones. They were inflicting real harm on the other world, while the visitor from that world had not harmed earth. The visitor did seem to want to keep their mother on the planet, but the rationale or reason was never explained. The brief encounter with the guy from the other world is supposed to convince us that he is an evil scientist, however, it only makes the earth family seem worse.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

something wicked this way comes

This book seemed vaguely familiar to me. I wonder if I saw the movie a while back. The plot centers around a couple 13 year boys and a "carnival" that comes to town. When the carnival comes, a lot of "weird" things start to happen in the town. One of the "attractions" of the carnival is a merry-go-round that causes people to get older or younger with each spin.

Bradbury has a rich writing style and has created a well-constructed novel. However, it just wasn't all that interesting to me.

The Fabulous Riverboat: Riverworld Saga, Book 2

This is the second book in a series, so I'm guessing the first book did a good job setting up the "sci-fi" premises. This book, however, is a rather pedestrian "adventure" story that joys in "name dropping."

The setting is a "river world" where all adult human beings appear after their death. They are all resurrected as adults. People can "die" in this world. However, they are simply resurrected a few thousand miles away from where they died. After death, they still retain their mind, and simply continue on living.

The book centers on Mark Twain (Samuel Clemmens) and his quest to build a riverboat and sail it up the grand river. He enlists the help of many historic figures in his quest. However, in the end he is betrayed by King John.

The writing itself is not terribly engaging. The characters, though ostentatiously coming from all time periods, seem to have the the mentality of the late 1960s civil rights movement. Even so they are fairly undeveloped caricatures.

With the rich ideas in this book, it's a shame they were put to such poor use. The "video game"-death and reappearance would have been a great idea to explore. However, while this was mentioned numerous times, it was never explored through the eyes of a character. It also seemed odd that, while claiming all earthlings are on the world, what are the odds that key historical figures would be hanging out together. (Wouldn't we be more likely to see Joe Peasant with John suburbanite?)

iPod annoyances

1) The lame-o accelerometer does not work very well. I find myself performing all sorts of shaking and maneuvering just to get it to face the direction I'm actually looking at displaying. To make matters worse, half the times it seems to crash when its in the wrong display. D'oh!
The displays are also totally different.

2) "Updating library". After syncing it spends a few minutes "updating the library". I can't find anything that says what it is doing, not any way to disable this. What is the point? Even worse, it seems to do this if I connect it to a computer without actually doing any syncing.

3) Apps take forever to sync. They also are a pain to get rid of. I downloaded a bunch of free lonely planet city guides. I decided I did not want them to take up the space any longer. But I'd already started syncing an update. I unchecked them and resynced. Only, they got 'rechecked' at the end of the sync. D'oh! And then it took forever to delete them.

4) Crashes seem to loose the state of the iPod. If I am listening to an audiobook and it crashes, the audiobook position gets totally lost. I have to dig through tracks to try to find the proper position.

Come on Apple. Just get the things you have to work! Its a pain waiting for hours just to be able to get back to listening.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the Land of Difficult People: 24 Timeless Tales Reveal How to Tame Beasts at Work

The audiobook is read by the authors, who, alas, are not professional readers. The deliver comes out flat and monotonous. There are some great folk tales here - many that I haenot heard before. The "business application" of the tales, however, is more distracting than useful.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The American Civil War: A Military History

Keegan presents a compelling "outsider's" history of the civil war. As a British historian, he is sufficiently removed from contemporary American politics to provide an objective analysis of the war. He acknowledges that Lincoln could have been arrested if he gave his anti-slavery speeches today. (His description of blacks as intellectually inferior could be considered a hate crime. This seems ironic in a day when we have a black president that invokes the image of Lincoln in his campaign. However, a son of an African economist and a white Anthropologist who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii is probably not they type of person Lincoln had in mind.)

Alas, the books writing is a major pitfall. There is also a significant dearth of endnotes. He makes many pronouncements of fact, but has no source to back them up.
He also seems to say the same thing over and over in slightly different ways. (I kept wondering if I misplaced my bookmark.) Some sentences seem to wonder on with excessive modifiers, leaving the meaning ambiguous. The content kept me interested in the book, but the writing eventually caused me to give up.

Prentice Alvin: Tales of Alvin Maker III

Prentice Alvin continues the tale of Alvin as he works as a blacksmith apprentice. While the second book in the series dealt with Alvin's relationship with the "red men", this book brings about his relationship with blacks. Alvin can sympathize with the slaves with the manner that his master is taking advantage of him. He is friends with a "half-black" boy that he thinks of as just a talented boy, regardless of the race. However, many people in the city, while against slavery, still see blacks as inferior.

Alvin also advances in the art of "making", creating a "living" golden plow. This plow is also the source of one of the main open threads at the end of the book. Other threads include Alvin's new "sidekick" (the "half-black" boy), as well as his potential love interest. (She had been in disguise as an old spinster teacher in hopes that he could develop a "love" for each other.

The book seems to be sympathetic towards violence, with no objection given to the death of two "slave seekers", one at the bare hands of Alvin. There is also a fight with some 'river rats', as Alvin pummels one that had a role in the previous book. (In this case, Alvin does show sympathy, using his powers to heal his broken legs.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Red Prophet: Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 2

The Red Prophet could almost be described as historical fiction. William Henry Harrison, Tecumsa and Napolean play active rolls in the book. Andrew Jackson makes a cameo appearance, and many other key players in American history are referenced. However, the historical situation is not America of history, but an alternate version.

The "red men" are given a prime role in this book. They are seen as being one with nature, having the ability to summon animals to die for food, as well as performing a variety of other "supernatural" events. The "red men" suffer two great massacres on the battlefield. However, the victory that the "white men" obtain is hollow.

Some of the events in the first book are told as flashbacks, or from different viewpoints in this book. While reading the first book first would help with the understanding, its probably not required.

In this book, Alvin comes to a greater understanding of his role as a "maker" and the battle against the "unmaker". We still don't understand clearly what the unmaker is. However, we see that he does lots of unmaking.

We also see characters develop more fully. Alvin's family show that they have faults just like other people. Meanwhile, Alvin's brother-in-law goes full-circle, nearly destroying Alvin, but later being the one man working hard to prevent an Indian massacre.

William Henry Harrison is one of the true villains in the story. In this "alternate history" he has one man killed to obtain his whiskey barge. He later incites an Indian war to build himself up. He has Alvin's brother tortured and left for bed to further his war. However, in the end he suffers the greatest "cursing" and the virtual end of his political career.

The book uses elements similar to many other Card novels. A young boy is the hero, and he has "super powers" to always do what is right. Other people "go stupid" when they try to do things that will hurt the hero; along with a large amount of scientifically-explained "magic" and "true dreams".

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Seventh Son: The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume I

Seventh Son is clearly the initial book in a series. It sets up some characters and events, and then abruptly ends.

The book covers the birth and young childhood of Alvin Miller. He is born the seventh son of a seventh son - a birth position that gives special powers. And he seems to have those powers - though he is only starting to discover them.

The setting is an "alternate" early 19th century America. Some of the names mentioned (such as Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) are familiar. However, things are slightly different, with a small United States, a New Amsterdam, an 'Apalachia', and numerous other 'differences'. The "alternate America" is one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. However, it is not the central theme (and only seems to play a passive role.)

The more active differences have to do with "hexes" and religion. The characters are primarily Christian. However, they also have a variety of "supernatural powers" that they do not hold to be incongruous with the Christian faith. The local preacher, however, holds them all to be witchcraft. He is portrayed as a somewhat vain man with a strong desire to save souls - but also a desire to be known as a great soul saver. He provides one of the richer "foils" to the main characters in the book.

While this book does set up the basic background of the series, many of the events are repeated in the later books. It would not be much a problem to start with the second book in the series instead.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Host

After authoring a bestselling series, authors often branch out. Due to their prior fame, they often have a great deal of freedom in their efforts - with millions of fans, they have a built in audience. Some authors use these freedom to take on bold literary challenges. Others put a bunch of junk on a page and collect their check. The Host, alas, falls in to the latter.

In the Twilight series, each book seemed longer, and less edited than the previous book. This book beats them all. It screams out for an abridgment. The first half of the book could easily be reduced to a few pages without negatively impacting the novel.

In spite of this verbosity, the characters seem to suddenly make out-of-character decisions solely for the purpose of advancing the plot. (For instance, the narrator suddenly becomes strongly intent on suicide.)

The story is told from the point of view of a sentient "bug" that is living in a human "host". These peace loving bugs have taken over most of earth, aside from a few rebellious humans. However, the body that our narrator takes over does not give in easily. The host still retains her mind. A lot of the book consists of the two minds conversing with each other. (Having a book about a schizophrenic would not be nearly so interesting.) And of course, the two minds both fall for and passionately kiss two different guys. (It's a chick-book after all.) In the end, the parasite gets a new body and her man, and everybody lives happily ever after.

After this bloated book, a Twilight novella will be a great career move for Meyer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Samaritans

Despite the strong title, Bad Samaritans is a well balanced analysis of third-world economic policies. I was initially drawn to the book after seeing the author give a talk at Stanford. He admitted to being outside the mainstream, yet had some good ideas. In spite of a thick accent, he spoke good idiomatic English. Luckily, in the book, the English comes through without the accent.

The main thrust of the book is that the current world economic powers are acting as "Bad Samaritans", encouraging developing countries to adopt "harmful" neo-liberal policies that actually retard development. He supports his thesis primarily through historical analysis. As a Korean, he devotes many pages to the Korean transformation, documenting the poor condition of post-World War II Korea, and the way it went about its rapid economic transformation. Korea's transformation "toolkit" included such anti-neo-liberal policies as foreign exchange controls, tariffs, and subsidies. However, all of these worked to rapidly transform Korea's economy.

He also points out that many of the countries that are now very adamant about free trade and intellectual property rights were countries that got their start through intellectual "piracy" and restrictive trade (including US, Western Europe, Japan)

While objecting to many policies of the World Bank, WTO and IMG, he is not an ideologue, and provides a fairly balanced picture of different economic policies. In some cases, he turns arguments on their head, pointing out that there is a problem with public ownership of companies. However, this problem "agent" problem is also present in large corporations. Democracy is shown to be uncorrelated to economic development. Even corruption is shown to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship to development. (Corrupt bribes that go to a Swiss bank account are bad, while other bribes serve as "auctions" and may even enhance economic development by bypassing red tape.)

The goals of the large developed countries make sense from the point of view of those countries. After all, they want open markets to sell their goods, while also having low cost areas of production and resource extraction. In the short run the neo-liberal policies provide the best benefit for the big countries. They also provide an apparent benefit for the developing countries. Open borders mean free access to McDonalds and Nike. An American visiting a free-trading country will feel right at home, and will be more likely to send tourist dollars there. Americans are also more likely to get cheap goods from there. The developing country will probably earn more than they would under a protectionist regime.

However, the developing country would also be more likely to find themselves in continuous serfdom to the developed countries. If all the developing countries shot up to first world levels, the developed countries would see a significant decrease in their standard of living. Increased demand for scarce natural resources would drive up prices. Without low-cost production centers, the cost of goods (and some services) would significantly increase. Without an intellectual superiority, there would be little left to export. It is thus in the best interest of the rich countries to keep the poor countries relatively poor. The poor countries should still grow, just not at rates that would cause them to surpass the rich world.

One poignant example given in the book is the comparison of children to countries. A six year old would economically add more value by going to work, rather than being a "leach" off his parents and going to school. However, over the long run, by going to school, the child can learn more and make a greater lifetime contribution to society. A high school graduate could get a job. However, sacrificing 4 years of earnings for a college degree may be the better long term option. Similarly, countries may be better off growing parts of their economy in a more "sheltered" style until they are ready to be sprung on the world. Companies like Samsung and Nokia both benefited from this "infant" support, making the world the better for it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Earthborn: Homecoming V

Earthborn The first four books in the homecoming series follow the same group of characters as they leave the planet Harmony to return to earth. The final book jumps 500 years in the future to cover their descendants.

The series as a whole is a nice attempt, but does have plenty of room for improvement. The whole planet Harmony seems is an interesting case. The founders used the "oversoul" to attempt to breed a "good" human race by depriving them of what was seen as "bad" technology. However, the people just found other ways of exercising depravity.

In this book, people are unsure of the veracity of the original "voyagers" to earth. Their interactions with other sentient earth species (diggers and angels) now appear like racial interactions on earth. Diggers are seen as brutes and often serve as servants. Angels are smarter, but still "different". The book uses the species (as well as gender relations) to support a gender and racial "equality of opportunity", while still acknowledging differences.

The ending nicely closes up the series, while still leaving open the possibility of additional adventures. The people discover the record of "Coriantumr" - describing a group of people that returned to earth, but managed to wipe themselves out. These people never even met the diggers and angels. Thus, the new people in this book have a different quest. They have not yet achieved "Harmony", so there are still plenty of opportunities for additional books.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Earthfall: Homecoming IV

Earthfall stands alone much better than the first three books in the homecoming series. It still moves along at a rather slow pace, but it does leave behind some of the tedium of the elaborate city life that Card has constructed in the other books in the series. In this book, they go on a space ship to earth and encounter the two sentient life forms on earth.

As with the other novels in the series, Card injects plot elements from some "adventures" in the Book of Mormon to an elaborate sci-fi narrative. It almost works. However, there are often little incompatibilities with the plot points and the universe he has created that cause problems. (If the "starmaster" can see everyone's thoughts, why couldn't he have seen the thoughts warning him of potential danger from his brother? And why the sudden interest in recording things on plates of gold?)

The flora and fauna of earth 40 million years in the future also could provide plenty of avenues for exploration. The encounters with the two sentient forms (diggers and angels) seems almost too brief.

Ships of Earth: Homecoming III

The Ships of Earth is the best of the first three Homecoming books (though that is not saying much.) The pace is still slow, but things seem to come together much better here. Here, a party of exiles from the city go on a mission to help the Oversoul help the earth. Their adventures in the wilderness include a few murder attempts, a couple marriages, many children, and even a gay man marrying a woman and fathering a child. Most of the book follows their initial voyages to a "special place", where eight years quickly pass.

The characters all spend a lot of time thinking, and not a whole lot of time doing. Their philosophy often seems to echo Card's philosophy in other books, which seems to be a forceful (Bush Jr.) style attack of enemies, coupled with compassion and "build people up" style of leadership.

At the end, they finally find the space ship as well as a super-suit that gives the wearer the ability to quickly heal, see other peoples thoughts, and communicate with the "oversoul" as one. The ability to see other people's thoughts would have been a great vehicle for exploration. Unfortunately, it was just brushed aside, and only brought out in the bits where it was useful.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Call of Earth: Homecoming II

Call of Earth The Call of Earth is a "middle book" in Card's Homecoming saga. While the story does somewhat stand alone, a lot of it only makes sense after having read the first book. This book is primarily set in the city where the "heros" go to find their wives. The city is historically ruled and controlled by women - thus women are even more likely to be treated as sex objects by the men.

The pace of the book is very slow, though it does seem to get better as it goes along. It does have a Shakespearian ending with everybody getting married (and then an epilogue where the destruction of the city is mentioned.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Common Sense

No, this isn't about the book from the Fox News guy. This is the nearly 250 year old original. However, it is surprising how many of the arguments are quite similar to arguments given today (though with twists.)

Paine spends a good chunk of the time attacking the British form of government. He has no use for a hereditary monarch (and quotes ample scripture to oppose it.) The institutions of parliament are also criticized. If parliament is supposed to be smarter than the King, why can the King overrule parliament?

In lobbying for independence, Paine points out the small size of the US as an asset. If the US got much bigger, it may be too difficult to actually unite in rebellion. Governing would also be much more of a challenge. He also cites the complacency of the British. They are already getting rich off trading, and don't need to worry about local matters as much.

Hmmm. This seems like it could be a good argument against the current state of the United States government. He argues for smaller scale, and regular elections so that the representatives are in touch with the needs of their constituents. (I'm guessing he didn't assume that would mean continuous campaigning and living in D.C.)

His view of religion and politics is also much different than the modern view. He uses biblical "stories" throughout to backup his points. However, he also proclaims great support for religious plurality within the country. (Freedom to use religion in politics without forcing certain religious believes on others.)

He also seemed to be an early Keynesian (predating Keynes himself by a couple centuries.) He was in favor of creating a national debt for the betterment of the colonies. (His immediate use for the money was for military, so perhaps "Reagan" would be the closer roll model.)

What would he advocate today? Perhaps he would be a leftist advocating improvement of social issues at home. Or maybe a rightist advocating a build up of the military. Or maybe some guy out in Montana advocating his own little country.


The author likes candy. He really likes candy. He grew up in Palo Alto. (I recognize the streets, but the stores are long gone.) His tastes are somewhat different than mine. (Coconut is one of my favorite candy items - he is revulsed by it.) However, that does not seem to matter.
Most of the book is spent chronicling visits to small independent candy factories. (The big ones wouldn't let him in.) He explores the source of a number of regional hits, such as Valomilk, Twin Bing, Idaho Spud, Big Hunk, Goo Goo Clusters.

He can't help but feel conflicted in his obsession with candy. After all, it is an indulgence that relies on third world labor to get the raw ingredients. However, he admits to being a freak and just enjoying the candy. And one of the underlying themes is the "creative candy artisan" vs. the corporate behemoth. What good liberal couldn't go for that.

If only the book came with a package of all the regional candies described.

Cruel miracles

Cruel Miracles
Cruel Miracles is a collection of science fiction short stories that explore religious themes as well as disgust. The cover seemed quite misleading, but sci-fi books are notorious for bad covers. In addition to the stories, the book contains a forward describing the themes as well as an afterward giving some background for each of the stories.
  • Mortal Gods -
    Aliens that admire humans because they have the ability to die.
    This quickly got to its point.
  • Kingsmeat - A "shepherd" that helps to "save" a planet from a human-eating king by cutting off body parts to be served up to the king. The people return the favor by preserving his life - without any "unneeded" body parts.
    This was disgusting. It does show the desire of people to seek "revenge" for "wrongdoings", even if it made them better off. In a "trial", the people all saw that the shepherd and bravely helped to defend their lives. However, they also knew that he was the one that would come and whack off their body parts. They were not able to let go of the bad feelings, leaving the Shepherd in a most debilitated state. The Shepherd, meanwhile, comes across as noble, willingly putting up with the "suffering" the people have given him.
  • Eye for Eye - A cult of inbreds that can kill other people with cancer and one boy that was so powerful, they had him raised by an orphanage. This was long and well written, however, it seemed to end prematurely. It could be great fodder for a novel.
  • Saving Grace -
    A boy that admires "healers" to the extent that he paralyzes himself so that he can be healed. Unfortunately, the healer is a fraud. However, the boy ends up being a healer himself, able to heal others (but not himself.) In the end, the first person he healed comes to his home, declares her life has been miserable since being healed, and asks to help out at the boy's house.
  • St. Amy's Tale - A group of people that remove every last trace of "civilization" before going to live in a "primitive" society. The husband of the crew leader, however, had hid some documents of the civilization and attempted to have them preserved. The leader destroys these remnants, but the husband chooses to be destroyed with them, rather then be saved. The wife is later executed for attempted to provide food to neighboring groups. Would a society try to totally annihilate its culture? Could they really do it? And on a smaller scale, when a loved-one does not do the "right thing" you expect them to do, and is thus hurt by your reactions, how do you atone for it?
    I liked the style this story used, providing parallel tracks of the actual "past" and remembrances of the past.
  • Holy - A man's quest to fulfill a quest to deposit a dead man's excrement at the top of a mountain while dodging bullets of a tribal war. I lost interest in this one.
The forward and afterword were every bit as good as the stories - maybe even better. The stories themselves were not that bad, though there were bits of violence and vulgarity that were off-putting. Eye for Eye and St. Amy's Tale both have a lot of open ends that could set them up well for longer treatments - though they would require some additional work.


I tend to avoid long novels. It seems excessive length is most often a sign of poor editing rather than excess content. The Harry Potter series is a great case in point. The middle books were both the longest and the most tedious.
Thus, it was with some apprehension that I chose to tackle Dune.
When thinking of Dune, the first thing that comes to mind is Sting running around the sand with a bunch of worms. (This in spite of having never seen the movie.)
The book itself did not immediately give me warm fuzzies. It created a grand world, with different classes of people and beings.
Another Lord of the Rings? Ughh. I'm sure with enough time that somebody could appreciate the whole Middle Earth thing. But, there has to be some desire to actually spend that time. And I'm a little reluctant to slog through that a pile of books before deciding. "Uh. Yep. I really don't like it."
Luckily, Dune turned out to be pretty good. I still got lost in some of the details of the planetary conditions and family relationships. Luckily, it did not seem to matter.
The novel is set on a desert planet that happens to have a rich supply of an addictive "spice". Water is in such short supply that it has assumed a high value and is eagerly conserved. Out in the desert live giant sandworms as well as "native" people who have a culture adapted to the conditions (as well as an "addiction" to spice.)
In to this setting, we place our hero, Paul. He is of noble birth and trained in special mental skills, fighting and (by his mother) "witchery". His grandfather attempts to have him and his mother killed. They escape, fall in with the "natives" and eventually lead the natives to capture the "city" and become ruler of the land.
Among his gifts, Paul also has the ability to see in to the future. His visions of the future, however, appear in varying degrees of clarity, and are subject to change based on events. (Thus, they become more akin to "prophesy".) He even manages to "see the present" at the end of the novel and act as would benefit his people in the situation.
The novel does a pretty good job of wrapping "most" things up at the end, providing some finality, while still providing many possible avenues of exploration in sequels. It was popular enough, and thus there are plenty of sequels.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Johnstown Flood

McCullough's The Johnstown Flood is written as a disaster novel. After giving a brief background of the history of the city and dam, it quickly moves to the actual dam breach and flood. The narrative relies heavily on the adventurous narratives of the survivors. Some people survived by riding a roof like a surf board, while others just happened to be in a location that the flood avoided.

The last third of the book covers the aftermath of the flood, along with the eventual lives of some of the participants.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is given some of the blame for the flood. This millionaire's club had taken position of the dam and lake. They had made "improvements" to the dam, but without expert engineering experience. They also had fish gates shut to preserve fish (but also contribute to flooding.) Everyone in the city, however, assumed that experts were managing it, and there was nothing to worry about. The final trigger for the flood, however, was the torrential rainpoor that occurred easily breached the dam to create the huge flood.

I would have liked to see further analysis of the causes. The author seems to merely tack it on to what is otherwise a human-interest adventure story.

The pitiful state of Caltrain funding

A google news search for caltrain reveals the problem with transit funding in the U.S.

In the worst case, there is a $30 annual operating deficit that could lead to a slashing of half of the train service. Meanwhile, there is $1.2 billion floating around to make improvements to the tracks. If one of us were faced with a similar situation, we could through the $1.2 billion in the bank. If we can get at least 2.5% return, there would be enough to cover the operating deficit.

Instead, in our wonderful world, there is an iron wall separating operating and capital expenses. Thus we get a lot of new transit infrastructure that is rarely used, while transit that is used rots away. For transit to be successful, there must be a long term commitment. Transit friendly housing, shopping and offices depend on reliable transit. A train station is more likely to attract development than a bus stop in part due to the commitment. However, if the trains don't run, even a train station doesn't do much good.

Recently, millions of dollars were spent on extending BART to SFO, including a giant viaduct from Millbrae to SFO that rarely sees trains. VTA would like to spend another $6 billion for a dozen miles of BART track. In a rationale world, they would simply send some of that money to maintain operations of existing bus and train lines. But instead, we'll just let the existing transit go broke, siphoning off ridership and driving more people (against their will) to their cars.

Shadow of the Giant

As a teenager, it seems that the whole world revolves around your personal relationships. What if it really did? What if teenagers did control the world? What if the smartest kids in the world were all identified ("nature") and then given specialized training ("nurture"). And after that, they all go on to save the world before hitting puberty.

What would their life be like as teenagers? They know they are smarter than their elders. In war, they even have more experience than their elders. But, they still lack some of the experience with personal relationships. They can find themselves manipulated by others that seem to be working in their best interest.

But what about a chance to just have fun?

In Shadow of the Giant, Card continues the Ender's Shadow series with a story of great world wars. Nearly all major leadership positions are held directly (or indirectly) by teenage graduates of "Battle School". They all seem to be "perfect" in their military thinking (unless they let things get to their head.)

In the end, the eruption of war is the impetus needed to create a global overseer ("The Free People of Earth") that creates world peace. (Though, perhaps having colony ships being sent out could serve as an even more important factor in enabling them.)

The most significant fault in this book is the "perfection" of the Battle School grads. They all know they are the best, and their plans just don't fail. On the other hand, they are idiots. Petra gives birth to a child, and finds two of her kidnapped in-vitro infants. She is extremely attached to them. However, when they find more of their children and their husband leaves, she stays away from her infants for a year. How can somebody be that vindictive?

Bean's departure sets out a scenario for a potential sequel. He goes on a long near-light speed voyage in an attempt to prolong his life. He has a genetic defect which causes him to be extremely intelligent and keep growing, but also die around age 20. Thus he traveled with their children that had the defect in an attempt that there would be a cure in the 'relativistic time' that he was gone.

On a side plot, the evil scientist that "created" Bean was also attempted to create a virus that would inflict everyone with Bean's "symptom". That could create the ultra-teenage world. Everyone would be super intelligent, but would die at the end of their teenage years. Society might actually gain intelligence, while limiting population. Hmm... A world of kids and teenagers. I guess that would make the 19 year olds the "geezers" in the society.

Land That Time Forgot

Edgar Rice Burroughs is a master of escapist adventure stories. The Land That Time Forgot lives up to his standard. The story is the relation of a story found in a bottle in Greenland.

The story from the bottle describes the adventures of s submarine builder from California. The ship he was sailing on was sunk by a German U-boat. The narrator and a girl are only survivors. (Thanks to lifeboat that flies out of the water and just that right time.) They get rescued by British ship. However, the same sub then sinks their boat. However they manage to capture the sub before they are sunk. The captain of the sub just happens to be the ex-fiance of the girl.

In spite of hoisting the union Jack, no friendly boats want to get near. So they set sail for elsewhere. Meanwhile, one of the Brits is a German spy who throws out communication and navigation equipment and attempts to kill the narrator and poison the water.

All this makes for a great adventure (and a good chunk of novel). However it is not until well in to the novel where the "title" becomes apparent. Eventually they find an uncharted and seemingly inaccessible landmass. Luckily there appears to be a subterranean stream and they happen to have a sub.
In the land they encounter dinosaurs, saber tooth tigers, neanderthals, and various other humanoids and ancient animals. The various groups of people appear to 'evolve' by moving from one tribe to another ( though the author seems to have given up before pursuing this extensively). The different groups seem to show some views of 1910s views of race and evolution.
The actual experience in the land is somewhat rushed and is almost a letdown from the ship voyages. (Though there are two more books in this series, so it may be well worth it.)
In the end, the Germans sneak away in the sub, many graves of the Brits are found, and the hero marries the girl right before sending his story off in a bottle.
The novel depends heavily on chance encounters. This makes it fairly unbelievable, but does not distract from the adventure of the story.