Friday, July 24, 2020

The Enchantress: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 6

The Enchantress wraps up the Nicholas Flamel series. This book is packed with action and doesn't get too bogged down with the theory. And that is probably good. I had trouble keeping track of why people were doing the things they were doing. The "sides" that people joined also became confused. People that seemed to be bad guys before were now good guys. However, there were plenty of new "bad guys" that came out to fight them. The author continues to pull more and more historical and mythological figures out of his hat to add to the story. They often seem to be living relatively peaceably in modern society despite being immortal. (Though their battles are often the story behind natural disasters.) The twins also learn about their true history and family, which was different from anything I was expecting. The primary narrative consists of a few different story arcs taking place thousand of years apart in different "shadow realms", but all related to the final goal. The ending wraps things up nicely. However, since things float freely between time and place, is there ever really an end? I found this book a satisfying conclusion and a positive step above the previous book.

The Memory of Old Jack

Old Jack had worked as a farmer in Kentucky. His life was coming to an end and he provided many memories. There were a number of events where people being "too true" to their character left them not as happy. A farmer had hired a farm hand to help him. However, he realized that the farm hand would never have the ownership needed. He wanted them to be equals, but they couldn't. This also made his wife distraught. She had hoped he would move on to the genteel class, and leave the working to the hired help. Alas, this was not to be. There were also tales of how there was love at first site as well as alienation and separation (Without divorce.) I sometimes had trouble determining whether there were new characters or just continuation of existing ones. Perhaps this was because the story just did not demand a lot of my attention.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America

Killing Lincoln covers the history of the last few days of the civil war and the assassination of Lincoln. While it mostly sticks with the historical facts, the tone is far from that of a typical historical narrative. The author is a political commentator, and uses aspect of that style in the delivery. Much of the story is given as a countdown of Lincoln's time to live. The events in the life of Lincoln's assassin are covered in greater detail than the life of Lincoln. Various conspiracy theories are brought up. (Though they are generally acknowledged as unproven theories.) The end of the civil war is portrayed as a battle of wills. The Union had the rebels in a bind. However, the rebels somehow kept finding the will to fight. In one battle, the Union infantry failed to rise up for the killing blow. Because of that, they were all killed. In other cases, Union leadership failed to "finish the job", giving the rebels more time to fight. In the end, this let the Confederacy survive for a few more days. However, their cause was doomed.
Booth was an actor and a confederate die-hard. He had been part of plots to kidnap Lincoln. Eventually, he hatched on a plan to kill Lincoln and other leaders in order to cause chaos and give the south a chance to rise up. He carried out his part of the operation. However, his co-conspirators failed. One just got drunk rather than do his killing. Another managed to injure a bunch of people, but did not kill his target. Booth managed to elude capture for a few days, but eventually he was caught and killed. (Though the book mentions many men dying in the swamp search.) The other conspirators were hung. Ironically, Booth's action probably made things much worse for the south. The new president was more of a hardliner towards the south and less willing to follow the peaceful integration that Lincoln desired. Even the "pro-south" newspapers at the time heavily criticized the assassination.

Life for Sale

Hanio Yamada is a single man living an anonymous life as a white color employee. One day, through some fluke circumstances, he decides to commit suicide. However, he fails in the process. Since he is unable to kill himself, yet feels his life has no value, he decides to sell his life. He puts up an ad, and waits for customers. Somewhat surprisingly, they start to come. The first is an old man that wants revenge on his much-younger wife that left him for another man. He wants Hanio to become involved with her so that the new boyfriend will find them in the act and kill them both. Since Hanio sees no value in his life, he goes along with it. However, instead of being killed on the spot, he is discovered and chased out. Later, he hears of the girls' death.
Later clients ask him to take part in potentially deadly experiments. In each case he is perfectly willing to lose his life. However, in all cases, others end up dying, while he continues to live. This seems to show the strength in putting down one's guard. Ironically, by paying no head to the value of one's own life, he can live the life in a much fuller way. This even helps in some diplomatic actions, as two agents from one country have been killed supposedly eating poisoned carrots. He, however, hates carrots, but goes along with it because he is employed. He discovers that regular carrots were what was needed to break the code, and that the poison was just a ruse. This is perhaps the least convincing of the escapades. (However, he does mention that for this case, he actually loathes carrots, and was only willing to eat one because he had sold his life.)
Eventually a secret spy organization is convinced he is an undercover police agent. They threaten to kill him. This is not something that he wants. While it was ok for him to sell his life, he does not feel ok with somebody taking his life from him. They are convinced he must be a master agent. They don't see how somebody could not be part of an organization. He does eventually manage to elude them, but finds things more challenging now that he has placed value on his life.

The Caldera: The Brotherband Chronicles, Book 7

Caldera starts with some of the crew members competing in the contest for the best warrior. The two identical twins end up "stuck" as neither can best the other. Stig is in the lead and almost a sure thing to win. However, his father mysteriously returns during the night. He asks the brotherband to help him rescue a young emperor who has been kidnapped. They end up sneaking out in the middle of the night to set on the adventure. They face some battles at sea and barely escape a volcano in the process of performing rescue. They realize the courtly life is not for them, and they return back home after rescuing the boy emperor. Stig's dad stays back in the empire to continue working as the boy's guard. While I was hoping for a peaceful reunion with Stig and his father, that never really happened. Stig even used some threats of blackmail to ensure that the reward money was properly shared. There were also open questions about the "Empress". Did she really want the boy back? Or was she just making nice before she would do something nefarious?
The book also had a short story from the Royal Ranger series. Maddie protected some farmers from a giant cat. She did that by healing the cat from its injury to encourage it to return back into the woods and not bother the easy prey.

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Schwa Was Here

The Schwa was here is a "mostly" realistic story of a kid that is never noticed. However, there are a few "magical" bits that go just enough beyond the natural world. "Schwa" got his last name form a relative who died right as he was saying "Schwartz" to the immigration agent. He is often not noticed by most people. (Though some do have greater ability to notice him.) One boy befriends him. They do a number of experiments to test the strength of "not noticing". They find he can do well at basketball because nobody thinks to guard him. He can do all sorts of other "hidden" tricks. However, they try to sneak in to a grumpy old man and steal a dog dish. This is the undoing, as he gets caught. He and his friends are forced to do service of walking a dog. They also are asked to help the man's blind grand daughter. There is some youthful crushes and hurt fields. We find about the curious case of Schwa being abandoned by his mother in a grocery store cart. Schwa also blows the family fortune on a failed attempt to be noticed. Eventually, he disappears to try to find his mom. There is also a surprising way to get an Italian restaurant chef and a family that struggles with cooking skills.
The "extreme" unrealistic elements in the book are obviously over the top, and often played for the humor. The story is just grounded enough to make the characters easily relatable, yet weird enough to keep it interesting.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain

Spain has had quite the history of corruption and incompetence. This book generally covers the last century until today. World War II is covered, but it is gone over quickly. Franco's Spain was more of a "little brother to a little brother". They wanted to be aligned with Germany to gather the spoils, but really didn't provide strategic value. The right wing government had little understanding of economics and thought they could get a Spanish miracle by printing money. Alas, that didn't work. However there was plenty of corruption around. (There was also the curious case of the regime accusing those that were opposed to their initial coup as being "enemies of the state."
Spain just seemed to have a mess of a leadership. Franco's regime was in principle a conservative response to the rising communist/socialist powers. However, it seemed that ideology was second fiddle to personal aggrandizement. Franco and his cronies accumulated great riches. Spain would boom and bust.
Even post Franco, the leadership had interesting ways of doing things. King Juan Carlos was popular. But his reputation fell in part due to a "friendship" with a lady. The country was able to prosper with huge construction booms. However, these would be very cyclical, leaving periods of massive unemployment. There was also plenty of corruption in rezoning of properties to allow for the big construction booms.
There is also the matter of Catalan and Basque country. There are regular cries for independence and plebiscite votes, and even violence. However, the regions still remain part of Spain. The leftists, especially in the cities, regularly rise up in the name of workers. Some people do end up with nice government jobs, but the workers often do not end up significantly better off.
The book paints a picture of a continual mess of corruption and incompetence that has not really changed in the past century. Luckily, the Germans and Brits love the land and somehow find a way of helping to keep the Spanish governmental mess from collapsing.

Phule’s Errand: Phule's Company Series, Book 6

In the final Phule's Company book, many of the characters and themes developed all come together. Phule's butler's girlfriend ends up getting stationed with the company and they run off on a short vacation. This causes all sorts of consternation, not the least of which is a "shut down" switch in Phule if there are issues with the computer. They try to trace the butler and go off on a mission to find him. However, right after they leave, the general announces a visit. They get the robot Phule to involve him with golf. However, he gets hit in the head and becomes a strict drill sergeant. The real Phule eventually spoils a rival's casino operation and is rescued through the help of some family members on "old earth" Italy. There are plenty of other humorous bits on the way. Eventually, everything ends up back to normal.

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

White Fragility is a book about race written by a liberal white woman primarily to other liberal whites. The author is in the busy of "diversity training." She encounters many "well meaning" white groups that have difficulty talking about racism. (This reminds me of the strange case in the city of Seattle where there were separate diversity classes for those identifying as white and non-white.) She does acknowledge in passing that the definition of "white" and "non-white" have been subject to change (with an example of an Italian). However, the focus is on those that are identified as "white" today.
The key takeaway is that "racism" has become demonized so badly that we have lost the real ability to make improvements. Almost nobody would go out lynching somebody merely because of their skin color. However, nearly everyone still has some internal racism. "Bad neighborhood" is often code word for "black neighborhood.". Similarly, quality of schools is often directly related to upper-income, white population. Many companies have limited minority representation. However, there exist many programs of affirmative action and equal employment. Alas, these lead to many people to complain about "reverse discrimination".
Discussions about racism often become dominated by white people. The author especially decries the "white woman's tears". The crying of a white lady has lead to lynchings of black men in the past. When somebody cries in response to a perceived racial injustice, this often leads to the focus being more on her than the injustice. In the book, the author gave a number of examples of how, even in "diversity committees", the conversation got turned to the needs of the emotional person rather than the racial issue that was being addressed. Today some of the biggest sources of racism come from the "well meaning". They try to "improve" the lives of those of a different race without fully understanding them.
Much of the advice given falls can be described as "getting along well with others." Don't use caricatures or overall generations of other people's needs. Understand where people are coming from and the differences. Acknowledge that you have ways to improve and be willing to accept criticism. The criticism part is probably the most difficult due to the hyper-sensitivity to "racism". Ironically, the diversity training industry has probably done more to foment this as everyone is afraid of being "racist". Yet, to really fight racism, we need people to admit they have some racism and be ready to make it go away. I don't think the giant "mea culpas" on social media are generally helpful, nor are the blanket "I am not racist" statements. It must be subtle acknowledgement of shortcomings and willingness to improve.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began

The Year 1000 was the opening of a worldwide globalization network. Norse from Europe had traveled to the Americas. Chinese had traveled throughout southeast Asia. The Polynesians had started their trips out to the south Pacific. Muslim traders traveled throughout Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. In the year 1000, 250 million people in the world were first connected.
Due to the abundance of written records, there are some of the connections that we know the most about (such as the Chinese and Arabs.) For others, there are greater challenge. Icelandic sagas tell us about Norse voyages to North America. There is strong evidence of Norse presence in some sites. However, there are also things that could indicate Norse interaction with the Mayans down in the Yucatan. There is, however, significant evidence of trade networks connecting various parts of the Americas.
In Europe, we have history connecting the the various parts of Europe. There were connections between the Norse and the Slavs. (Alas, some of this was in the form of slavery, leading to the term "slave" form Slav.) The Muslims also had trade networks throughout the area. Different regions would chose to convert to religions based on their political preference, then bringing the rest of the people behind them. This lead to the domination of Christianity and Islam in Europe, though Buddhism was a popular choice in Asia. This was also a time of great construction of religious monuments.
China has easily the kingpin of economic activity. They had a surplus of human capital, and thus were not as heavily involved with the slave trade. They also had advanced manufacturing technology and were able to mass produce good that others wanted. There are even cases of "poor quality" Chinese imitations of Arab goods. The book's initial description of a Chinese trading port of 1000 years ago sounds like it good be something today. Chinese sailed throughout southeast Asia and even made it down to Africa. However, there was a fear of entering the "drain" past the Philippines. Thus, there is little evidence of them making it to America. However, the Polynesians did set out from Asia to colonize the sea.
The book is a fascinating survey of some of the key networks and practices of globalization. There are bits and pieces of depth. However, it necessarily casts a very wide net to provide a worldwide overview. There are stories of "free trade zones" and protectionism. There are instances of riots against the foreign traders. There were also various alliances that were formed (often via religion.) Slavery was commonly practiced at the time, with a bustling slave trade. Parts of the world were living in dense urban areas, while other parts maintained subsistence agriculture or hunter-gatherer cultures. At this time, there was still a relative balance in power throughout the world. Things would change 500 years later when the Europeans would dominate trade.

Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the Twenty-First Century

Wealth and Poverty is a book that would not be popular with modern racial activists (like Black Life Matters.) The author praises capitalists as the most important people in creating value and prosperity. They are not driven by greed, but are powered by information. They take risks and know to maximize value of their capital. Even if they have capital taken from them, they are likely to create new capital (while the taken capital will have limited value.)
Gilder believes that broken families and welfare policy are the primary policies that keep the poor down. He thinks some level of subsistence aid and benefits are valuable. (He sees this is a step above China where those that don't work don't eat.) However, the current scheme discourages people from working. It is actually quite demeaning because it assumes that taking away benefits when people start working will not discourage work. The welfare structure discourages nuclear family. However, the nuclear family is one of the key "innovations" that has allowed great economic growth. In addition to family, faith is an important component in getting out of poverty. Welfare makes it less likely that the families will move out of poverty. It also emasculates the working man, and makes it more likely that families will struggle from broken homes. Welfare recipients are also encouraged to work "under the table" so that they do not lose their benefits. Government has been quick to integrate new immigrants into the welfare culture, rather than let them innovate and grow.
On the other end, large corporations are also problematic. They are often efficient at producing some well established good. However, they are bureaucratic and slow to innovate. They are more likely to seek out benefits. Big businesses are eager to seek regulations that will make it more difficult for others to compete. Big corporations are also apt at demanding bailouts when the markets turn against them. Chrysler is an interesting case in point. They received a huge government bailout in part to "keep them American". Alas, today, they are no under their second foreign owner.
A key point of the analysis is that the same "facts" can tell very different stories depending on how they are analyzed. There are always more variables that can be added to analysis to tell different stories. Some "tricks" include using dynamic vs static data. ("The lowest 20% of earners has seen no earnings increase" is often looking at the static group. However, if we look at the participants, we may find that Jeff Bezos was once in the lowest quartile and now is a multi-billionare. Meanwhile, a high school student has now taken his place in the "lowest 20%") Accounting can also change the analysis. Our "progressive" tax structure becomes extremely regressive when transfer payments are included. A marginal dollar of earning can cause the loss of medicaid and welfare benefits. Working an "above the board" job could result in a loss of income. For health benefits it could be much worse. Medicaid covers medical expenses without cost. However, a purchased health plan will often have deductibles and copays, making the costs higher.
His argument as a whole is very sound. However, there are a few areas where he misses the mark. For transportation, he objects to government takeover of railroads. However, he misses the fact that this was necessitated by the government subsidization of other means of transit (such as highways, parking and airports.) The public sector spent heavily to favor cars, both in direct construction costs (roads) and in regulations (parking requirements). In many cases the railroads subsidies were an extension of this in a hope to retain existing infrastructure after roads and parking reached capacity. Another issues is with the environment. This is a tricky one. Government regulation has often proved problematic in this area. There are huge amounts of regulation that attempt to protect the environment. However, they are excessively complex and prone to abuse. Environmental Impact requirements can be used as an excuse to stop valid economic activity. Meanwhile, environmentally destructive activity can continue to hum along. This is a challenging area. There needs to be a way to internalize the shared environmental costs, yet we also need to allow for innovative activity.
Some of the fixes Gilder proposes would make a lot of sense, but may be difficult to implement. It is interesting that he has given examples of left-wing governments (in Canada and New Zealand) that have implemented more supply side policies. Right wing governments often get bogged down in talk of "balanced budgets". In the US, the Republicans and Democrats are both beholden to their special interests and favored parts of the bureaucracy. The suggestion to eliminate means-testing in welfare benefits could be very expensive, but very beneficial to the economy. Today there is a perverse incentive to reduce income in order to receive benefits. Similarly, the tax system encourages various shelters to avoid taxation. It would be better if the government would just back off. Alas, there are huge bureaucracies created around these programs that encourage their propagation.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn

The Age of Entanglement talks about entanglement and quantum physics. More accurately, it presents the conversations of the physicists as they talked about it. This is barely a step above a primary source. I would prefer a little more narrative in the structure. There are ties to Einstein, the atomic bomb and the red scare. Some people create complex proofs, while others find more simple ones. There is also a relationship between the philosophy and science. Qunatum phsyics creates a number of philosophical dilemmas that require efforts from scientists and philosophers. There are also a difference in the work by theorists and sentimentalists. They are all on the forefront of physics. Alas, this book will give you a lot of history of the process of learning, but not a quick summary of the science that was learned.

No Phule like an Old Phule: Phule's Company, Book 5

In the latest episode of the Phule "sitcom", papa Phule visits Junior's casino. Alas, he is off serving a mission on another planet. This doesn't stop dad from trying to prove that casinos are a bad investment by playing the slots. They decide to hook up a "major jackpot" to entice him. Alas, things manage to go wrong. Back on the Zenobian planet, Phule's company is visited by trophy hunters and an environmental group. The group includes a genetically modified dog that can talk in a beyond-human register. (A new rabbit-like recruit has no problem talking to him.) Eventually, everything falls apart, then comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood

Early on in The Ark Before Noah, the author describes a conversation with a colleague who thinks he has enough for a paper, but not for a book. Alas, the book feels like a paper surrounded by a bunch of other topics. The opening discuses the general field of cuneiform archeology. There were some early great discoveries. There were also some key multilingual stones that helped with translation. The tablets that were found include a number of different writings, from bureaucratic loggings to literature.
Then there is a discussion of the flood story. There are different stories from different cultures. It changes from story to story. In one, the world was destroyed because people were too loud. The Gilgemesh version is the most popular pre-biblical one. However, there were other ones. The Bible and Koran both mention a flood. There have been some attempts to discover the "flood" in Mesopotamia. However, it was a region that was subject to regular flooding, so it is hard to tell if the "floods" that were found were related to "the flood".
Ancient history is fascinating field that is still open to many new discoveries and interpretations.